String Quartet

(in four movements)


Despite the irreproachable weather, Timothy spent Labor Day indoors, the windows of his apartment open to the quiet tree-lined street. He devoted the better part of the sunny day to cleaning out closets, thoroughly happy; autumn thoughts, autumnal images entered with the breeze, like clean sawdust blown in from a barn raising in a green field. An evening of ephemera followed: a few other, minor household chores, a late dinner; until for the first time all year the summer-night sounds of crickets in the darkness coexisted with the slight chill of the early-September night air, their conflation marking the overlap of seasons, and, within himself, the overlap of seasonal moods.

In the next morning’s steamy bathroom, he stepped from his shower to sift, as he often did, random thoughts near the fogged mirror that withheld his reflection. He had learned to steer away from the uselessly negative ones, the recent grim headline or exasperating political statement, to summon instead the subjects that might nourish his spirit, such as—in this case, on this morning—the radiance he had experienced as he sat up late into the preceding night, as his eyes drank in page after page of visuals by a favorite artist whose fanciful figures—gaunt, portly, muscular, grotesquely deformed, voluptuous; of past, of future, of other worlds—traipsed, trudged, and scurried through misadventures staged against extravagantly rendered desert, jungle, or dystopian-urban landscapes of fine lines, free yet precise, bathed in lush color. He had imbibed it all with joy, like a man who had once nearly lost his sight but now savors every shade, and revels in the discovery of an unusual and formerly unnoticed variation. Last night, and again now, he felt deeply grateful to the colorist whose choice of blues were, one after the next, a different set of blues, and whose violet sunset captured a different violet than he’d ever seen celebrated before; this palette further invigorated the mischievously imagined, audaciously foreign (yet slyly familiar) systems of reality with which the artist regaled his reader, panel by panel.

He wrapped himself in a large blue towel, as street sounds (shuffling feet) and a cool draft slipped in via the cracked-open window. Somewhere across town, or so he imagined, a schoolboy on his way to the first day of school, a boy much like his own long-ago schoolboy self, hurries to the bus, preoccupied with the mental enumeration of fantasy figures whose images, on cards, he collects; the boy stumbles but effortlessly regains his balance, his stride nearly unbroken, the winged samurai spaceman in his imagined card-shuffle unfazed. Now the veil of steam lessened, and the bathroom mirror smiled in its reciprocal way, a reward for the double-imagined warm thought (imaginary boy, boy’s imaginary heroes), even though a hazy patina still obscured all but the smile and a hint of dark hair a few inches above it.


Timothy slowly worked a comb through his tangle of wet hair, patient with its knots, and consciously chose to feel lucky. This hadn’t always been so easy; his youth had been relatively carefree, but the translucent window of its idealism had later smudged, its gleam had faded without his noticing until (suddenly, it seemed) he had found himself suspended between youth and middle age in a plodding life, a long hallway of uninspired years: a small rented apartment in a drab residential neighborhood, a cinderblock building on a nearby highway—dull work alongside bland bureaucrats—charmless settings, a dusty-gray backdrop for an unremarkable existence. Raw sunless winters barely moved at all, their tread listless and nearly indiscernible. On clammy nights of drizzle and disinterest he had often sat with a stack of dog-eared paperbacks borrowed from the public library, to drift from boredom into intermittent engagement. Even then, though, he had an inner radar, an instinct, by which to locate the phrase, sentence, or idea in which dwelled a kernel of wisdom or an exhortation that, if properly applied, might enhance his experience of life—“might”: such a magic word, magic or tragic depending on the context, but at its best its implications could transform otherwise stale days, or at least partially redeem them, if he followed a trail of free-associative imagining. At any rate, reverie had become the best thing in his repertoire, the so-called real world having failed to deliver on any particularly impressive promises (a brief early romance had disintegrated in the benign way of the mutually inexperienced; a later would-be romance never quite became romantic; and his intermittent non-amorous ambitions had largely fizzled due to lack of focus). So he had dreamily mixed tidbits of inspiration and impractical fantasies, with no particular goal. 

Over time, strange and strangely helpful things had begun to happen: he had dreams of endless sky and sea, salt air, purity; energy and light pulsed through, and from, his body. Orbs of silver-white radiance the size of softballs hovered before him, children of the luminous sea-and-skyscape, ready to play, to be played with, and he engaged with them, his hands nearing them, holding and moving them without actually touching: a game of energy, of light in air. He would wake renewed, as if prepared—as if deliberately prepared (by what or whom, he did not know) for some purpose as yet unrevealed.

He studied, self-directed; he read literature, so-called “great books” and obscure books too, but only those that passed a simple test: they must help him to experience the artfully flying thought, ideas that sail and slice through space with as finely directed an effort as that of a young gymnast whose performance fuses discipline and vitality into perfect form. He had discovered he could walk, unquestioned, into the local university’s immense library, stride to the long study tables in its cathedral-like reading room, their dark wooden surfaces dotted with a few glowing screens, the electronic tablets of twenty-first-century students, and seat himself at one end of the last table in the back, an anachronistic man with pen in hand and an old-fashioned spiral-bound notebook in which to compose and coordinate his thoughts.

And it had worked, for the most part, to restore a curlicue of youth to his life—and after all, he was by many measures still young, a man in his late thirties who looked thirty at most, with dark hair and cheeks so rosy that he resembled a teenage boy caught in a permanent blush; others found this attractive, disarming; women sometimes glanced at his hands—no ring. One librarian even told him he looked “a little like Nathaniel Hawthorne in his prime,” a comment he found ludicrous but met with a polite smile. He met it again, now, with a larger and more satiric smile, but one not without a trace of self-satisfaction, reflected in the gradually less steamed mirror.


Springtime emerged abruptly: as if he had stepped out of the shower through an instantaneously evaporating septet of months, snow turning to steam before it could fall, others’ smiles began to pop out of the tree-lined landscape, joggers and walkers and flâneurs (or the closest thing to flâneurs his rather tepid township could produce) all began to bob and saunter, to proceed, like an endearingly imprecise, slightly insane pageant, into the refreshed and refreshing light and air, the sunshine of a newly benevolent Nature. The past few marginal months, now forgotten, had led to this illusory erasure of themselves; spring breezes swept the few traces gently away as more windows opened, and opened wider, and mirrors gleamed brighter with reflected sunbursts, and every treetop wrapped itself in a large blue sky. Figures, no matter how fanciful, scurried about, unabashed, in far less clothing than previously; a glance revealed them as comic or, occasionally, ideal, or, in a fair number of cases, ideally comic. Birds announced inscrutable kindnesses in a private language, as a color scheme rearranged itself, students poured out of libraries, bibliophiles carried books to the sea, little boys laid out their image-filled cards on sidewalk pavements and front stoops as an old-fashioned alternative to hurling and dodging orbs of pseudo-violent energy on computer screens, and even the frail and the aged strode more purposefully, took deep breaths of salt air, and claimed their share of the burgeoning vitality around them. It was spring, and he had been promoted, just at the moment the world had begun to enact this pirouette around him: it all felt like a deliberate gift. Or, more precisely, a sequel to a gift. In these past few years of intermittent unexpected blessings, perhaps the most consequential serendipity had been his chance meeting, at one of the rare social gatherings he had attended (a cocktail reception to benefit a local chamber music society’s annual festival, for which he had developed a certain affection), with a gray-mustached designer of toys, an entrepreneur who had founded an idiosyncratic but highly successful toy-design workshop, and who took an almost paternal liking to him while discussing Haydn’s “Joke” and “Rider” and the nature of minuets. The toyman’s gray-brown eyes, though sheltered behind wire-rimmed glasses, had a subtle spark, one that quickly recognized a lively-minded comrade, a potential employee of real merit; and in the space of four conversations in three days the energy behind those eyes had lifted him out of his longstanding workaday rut and into a fresh, polychromatic endeavor alongside a suite of fellow employees whose personalities and temperaments reflected the air and light and rare nourishment of original thinking under a wise mentor, work genuinely enjoyed. And now, the sequel to this good fortune had arrived: a sizable promotion, timed to the season flowering around him—timed, exactly, to the cherry blossoms.


When spring breezes cross into the steamy days of summer they become more highly cherished, like water in a desert; and now, as if it were an object suddenly produced by a magician, summer had arrived. Timothy dashed to his clothes closet, wrapped himself in a thin, royal blue shirt, rushed to his gleaming car, navigated the streets as speedily as he safely could, parked his softly humming vehicle on a leafy green side street adjacent to his overly manicured destination, and strode hastily over sidewalk and lawn to the sunny patio of a friend, to join the late-afternoon party for which he was so late, its unfamiliar (but slyly universal) systems of social interaction already in motion. The valued breeze, alas, did not meet him there: the still air, burdensome, held the partygoers nearly immobile in its humid clench. Almost as if in compensation, the conversation revolved rapidly: a co-worker discussed color palettes, a stranger intruded with a disquisition regarding the wings of certain birds, as this veered toward bloviation a young woman stumbled against a table but did not fall, the distraction became a segue to the next topic: a pleasant young athlete, unbothered by the heat, began to ask about the local library, as the stifling, motionless air made Timothy crave a cold, breezy walk along roaring surf, to replace this purgatorial suburban backyard. Then it all halted again; and, as if suspended beyond any possible rescue of time or spontaneity, the minutes dripped by, or worse, seemed to fail to drip, like beads of sweat that hang in place, refuse to fall, but cannot be wiped away, an itch unscratchable, like the impatiently observed minute hand of a clock that may never tick. But then—a cold beer, a breeze, and suddenly a new acquaintance, female, pleasant, never before seen, an intelligent smile, inquisitive eyes, an open manner. Attractive. This is what is supposed to happen at parties and never does. As abruptly as the sudden dispersal of guests (that jumping-ship moment that happens unpredictably but spreads in an instant: now, everyone’s leaving, make a break for it, somewhere air conditioning awaits), a fleeting exchange of interests and interest, of email addresses and phone numbers, a faint promise of a possible future. Then: stillness. Debris of leftover chips, dips, half-crumbled cookies, a half-eaten taco, partially-imbibed beverages; an empty patio. Slow nod of leave-taking to the distracted host-friend. Back in his car, another sudden acceleration: down the street; and an acceleration of thoughts, rush of feelings, as if on wings, a sense of the fortuitous.


Copyright 2011 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Folio Club (issue number four). Available in the e-book String Quartet: Four Stories.

Image by Onsmith.

No comments:

Post a Comment