This Music, Beginning



Palo Alto, Winter 1962 


The turn indicator's clicking came between Fred and "Some Enchanted Evening" playing from the car radio. He wished the traffic would move so the indicator would stop of itself. Something in particular began to bother him about the clicking; he became surprised and began to find that it made some sort of pattern with the music. It seemed to him a nervous idea and insulting to Rogers and Hammerstein. There was nothing kooky about Rogers and Hammerstein. Fred wouldn't want to insult them.

When the traffic broke, he turned in a relieved silence onto a road between rows of tall eucalyptus trees. The road took him from campus to town. The tree tops bent and sprung in a strong wind and gray clouds crossed the sky. Although the car, his roommate's, was closed, he could imagine the sound of trees soughing. An underpass divided the campus from the town. Enclosed in the tunnel, Fred could hear the sound of the engine. The drizzly streets of the town were clogged with Christmas shoppers. The congestion angered him. The traffic, mixed cars and jaywalkers, jostled and impinged on him; the brakes and horns penetrated the tonneau. He thought of some offensive odor that might arise if he were poking in an old cabin in Sierra pine country, thinking it still with the restfulness of long isolation, and were suddenly to open a cupboard to survey rows of burst and rotten tins dripping black, stinking, semi-self-digested food over another, and to turn from it to look at the dry boards drifted with the needles and the trees scintillating with bright-smelling oils outside, but with the smell of the cans telling him: people built this for their particular purposes.

The main street traffic lights succeeded one another out of phase. "For safety" said the mayor's traffic safety committee. "For the merchants," Fred’s experiences as a small town store owner's son answered. People's particular purposes. What the fuck did it matter if the merchants of Palo Alto or of Marysville either, his brother among them, made money? What the fuck did it matter if the citizens killed themselves in their cars like gasoline-filled sow bugs? It was their own lives. The near light okayed him, the one at the end of the block yellowed. Go and stop. Fine mist fell, so fine that the wipers of the old Chevvy turned it to streaks of mud.

His ground floor digs were part of an irregular building put together out of apartments as if they were irregular blocks. A covered passage led to an open courtyard. Fred passed through this neck. On one side was a Venetian blind shop, on the other a coffeehouse. All kinds of people visited the coffeehouse, but all day long there were creeps from the music department sitting there gassing about things that in every word gave away their failure to get on, their lack of character. He was always civil to them because a girl he went with a lot came from them. He'd found her there; he had drawn her out slowly.

The keeper of Venetian blinds owned the building. Fred had never been in his shop, yet he respected and cared for the owner. Blinds were not used much in Palo Alto in that period; the man sat there quietly and collected the rent on time.

Fred’s roommate, Bob deWolf, had come down from Marysville to school with him. They were both pre-med. They had dissected tadpoles together as children. Now they saw little of one another because Bob always studied at the library and Fred always studied at home.

The apartment was arranged to consider their habits. They did not share the rooms. The bedroom was all Fred’s and was also his study. The front room was Bob's bedroom where he could come in later and leave early by the door.

Fred entered with a little shock at the squeak of the door, although it was the three-hundredth time and there was no one who listened to his comings and goings. He went into his room, cast his books on the bed. The blinds were still drawn from morning. He turned on a desk lamp, went to a small tape recorder standing on his desk, turned on a tape of a recent ball game, then flopped on the bed himself. The lamp highlighted the rough plaster ceiling; it was like the lunar landscape. Fred often passed time looking at the plaster, as if he were very poor, picking out regions that differed in character, this hill country, that a mare, this third with a river and a valley where a capital might flourish. He almost reached a life of kingdoms like the Brontës’, yet, he told himself in the dialogue of his own mind, it was almost descriptive science, like anatomy, refining, objectively the differences to be observed between things, like an alphabet without language.

The sound of rain pecking more heavily on the roof separated him from the familiar, harmonious flow of the football game. The rain somehow blended with the texture of the plaster.

He lifted himself up, cold and tired, and went into the bathroom where he started water running into the tub. The rush from the tap and the muted metal sound it made against the tub bottom obscured the rain. He walked back to the kitchen and put on water for coffee. Back in his room, he measured between his fingers the thickness of glossy pages he had to learn that night. It was thick. It made him restless but also proud that he was someone whom others could rely upon to absorb that scheme. He could hear that the tub was nearly full. He carried a change of clothes into the bathroom, closed the door, undressed, and stacked both changes of clothing on the toilet seat. Covert and dirty. The rush of bubbles and little currents around his feet from the incoming tap trickle that kept him warm, pleased him. When he closed the valves to avoid overflow, he could hear the rain again, heavier now and with another under-sound, which he could not place for a moment. He was pleased with himself when he realized it was the sound of the first boiling forming on the bottom of the tea kettle. He did not tend it, but lay in the water enjoying the ripples he made with hands and fingers, and the curious motion of a partly empty shampoo bottle, just balanced with its bladder of air, so it remained in the current neither rising not falling on its own, utterly free. The ball game relaxed him. He did not follow the plays, but the drain on his attention comforted him. When the kettle shrilled he arose, started the coffee and returned to the bath.

When he felt it would lack character to lie piddling in the water any longer, he dried himself, dressed in a white shirt without tie, and blue cotton slacks exactly like he wore at school, and went to make dinner. The kitchen was mostly Fred’s too; Bob ate at their phrat. For dinner every evening he ate canned stew or spaghetti or chili and one frozen yellow and one frozen green vegetable with a glass of milk for vitamins. He took it on a tray, sat on his bed and opened the anatomy book. He was learning the muscles of the face, the proverbial smile muscles. The football game continued. He remembered the Western team had won. He wished he could somehow keep himself from remembering, to retain the suspense.

The smile muscles lacked character. He could remember the calf muscles for what they did; the triceps surae anchored in that crucial and risky anchor, the Achilles tendon concealing the flexors and meeting, knoll to knoll, the plantar facia. He had even been able, lying awake at night staring at the blackness where the ceiling was, to learn to be conscious of those great muscles as objects, finally to tense them one by one. Fred told no one about his anatomical control. He got the idea when brothers in track, a pole vaulter and a shot putter, came to him to learn the muscles. They listened with an entranced interest in their own musculature, which embodied their mystic self-hypnosis in the moment of competition. It was like a dream of building motion out of heavy stones that are the self.