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July 15, 2024

Time Traveler 07

By Sand Pilarski

With near-ritual carefulness, I locked the door behind me that evening. I set the briefcase on the floor by my desk and put the vase with the delphinium in the center of my little kitchen table, doing both as though I were worried about waking someone up. There were only about twenty student papers to look over from today's vocabulary quiz, just a simple little task, so I hurried through them, pleased that most of them got the definitions right. (Some professors would call these 'baby games' but I think that if you get the baby building blocks right, you stand a better chance of understanding the big concepts. That's how people learn, however snooty some professors want to be.)

Water the plants, cook some food, change into soft, easy clothing for the evening, all in silence. I poured a glass of wine and picked up the little card that had accompanied the bouquet. Now that I was all alone, with my back covered, and no one could watch my expressions, I was ready to have a look at this phenomenon and think about -- him.

I studied the card and the words for most of the evening, my fascination with it broken intermittently by looking at the flowers, whose color reminded him of my eyes. Was that a come-on line or what? He'd referred to me after the symphony as "a lovely lady." He'd picked me out of a crowd and tried to make my acquaintance, even today, even after I'd buzzed him off at his introduction.

New in town, he was already making himself part of the community, had a credible, responsible job all lined up, but played the violin on the down town streets -- what was up with that?

So someone wanted to get to know me, why was it a big deal? I accepted and went out on dates when the mood struck me. Why was I in knots about this? I couldn't recall feeling this silly and fey about Moersgard, and that had been, from our introduction, a far heavier relationship.

My mental sidestepping came to a stop. Time to face the scary issue here: Valentine Teshenko was younger than I. Did he know I was about ten years older than he was, and would he care? Would he say, "Your eyes are so blue, but they're so wrinkled at the edges!" and then take off, only spotted from a distance from time to time? Ten years? Ten years is nothing; Moersgard was at least twenty years older than I, and the age difference bothered us not at all. And if Mr. Teshenko did dust me off his sleeve after we met, who would care? I didn't mind Moersgard backing out of our fling for a younger woman.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse! All this man had done was pay a compliment, make an apology, and indicate he would not hide if he saw me on the street. Apparently I needed a cold shower and to stop thinking about those big dark eyes and the fillip of curls on his forehead.

As these were exam weeks for my classes, I didn't have much time for anything but work and more work. By and large, I don't do multiple choice testing, even though it means the essays are going to take a lot more time to evaluate and grade. What's it going to do, cut into my golf game? Keep me from joining the faculty social club? The time spent poring over student papers simply made it impossible for me to go and listen to street musicians for about two weeks. Then a Friday came, and I just closed up my office at noon, and took a bus for down town.

Tentatively I sidled along the storefronts, listening for the sound of a violin. I didn't want to appear eager to see him, an irrational fear of having been forgotten already knocking around in my head. "Hi, here I am!" I'd say, and he would ask, "Who are you?" The possibility existed that he wasn't even there. How long could it be before he got bored and found something else to do? Or had fifty coeds hanging all over him?

Then I could hear the sweet strains of music, and saw rather a crowd of people around a violinist. There must have been thirty people listening. I moved among the mostly taller people and insinuated myself around another to see if it was Valentine. He himself stood there, dressed in a faded black turtleneck (it was still chilly though the fog was high) and black jeans, his face in dour concentration, only looking at the audience now and again in a distant way. Then his gaze glanced over me, and he smiled a little as he played, and then shut his eyes, still smiling, and played and played like an angel. After the last lingering blissful note, he opened his eyes and looked at me, and grinned. The little crowd applauded him, he bowed, and then people started dropping money into a can on top of his violin case. A beggar after all?

He drank from a plastic bottle of water, and seeing that he was done playing, the audience dispersed. "That's it?" I asked him. "One song and you're done?"

"Madam," he replied with mock hauteur, "One song is free. The rest you have to pay for."

"What a shame I left my wallet at home," I lied.

"I could extend you credit," he offered, eyes wide and playfully innocent. "If you open an account today, I can give you five percent off all purchases through the end of the month."

"Never mind," I said. "I think there was a trombone player on the next block." He picked up his violin case. "Mr. Teshenko --"

"You remembered my name!" he cried around a radiant smile.

"No, I have it written on the back of a receipt in my pocket so that I wouldn't forget. I just wanted to tell you that I'm glad I got to hear you play."

"Come have lunch with me while I have my break, and then listen to some more."

"Is that your lunch money?" I asked, looking at the cup with bills stuffed in it.

"First I was a stalker and now I'm a beggar," he said, frowning with his eyebrows. "Doc, I'm a music teacher, completely legit. I want people to listen to my music, but unless there's a begging cup out there, they walk right on by. So I put out the can, and people stop to enjoy my playing. What they put in the can goes to St. Stephen's homeless shelter on First Street. Are you this suspicious of everybody?"

"Yes." How could I deny what was true? "I'm sorry if I insulted you."

"I'm starving," he said with a sigh. "I'm headed to Polo's for some pizza. Would you care to join me?"

I could tell by the way he spoke that he wouldn't ask again. Come on, Augusta, I told my hesitant self. It's just lunch, and why not have lunch with a good-looking young man? I nodded and we began to walk.

"I've been playing down town since the first week I moved here from Concord," he told me over slices of pizza. "Port Laughton has a great little shopping and restaurant district here, with a lot of kids walking around and hanging out. They don't know who I am yet, but by next spring, some of them are going to know that Mr. Teshenko not only directs the band groups, and teaches the music appreciation classes, he also plays the violin just because he loves his instrument, and isn't ashamed of it, either. I won't be able to play down there during the school year, except maybe on nice weekends, but for now I feel good doing it and I get three good hours practice a day, getting ready for symphony season."

"Three hours?"

"You got there just at the end of my first set. I'll go back and play another hour and a half or so when we're done. How about you? What do you teach in the Anthropology Department?"

"Whatever the head of the department tells me to teach. But my specialties are in comparative religions: mythology and legend, ritual and ceremonial practices, eschatologies. What I want to teach -- since we seem to be trading mission statements here -- I want to teach students to think about what they're practicing and believing, not just parrot behavior and thought. I want them to be able to trace through the complexities that make up the world's religions and touch a deeper level of understanding of people through them. There's just so much about what we do as human beings that we just take for granted, from --" I picked up the fork from the left side of my salad "-- place settings at tables to how we interact when we stand in line at the movie theater to the deity to whom we pray; the patterns and perspectives are as universal as air and at the same time, as personal as fingerprints, and the number of ways those things interact makes for religious stories packed into history like cells in a honey comb." I stopped, realizing I'd begun talking with my hands as I tend to do in class. "Sorry. I'm a zealot."

"Where have you been all my life?"

"On another planet," I replied, not wishing to tell him too much about myself.

I did go back with him, feeling oddly like I was tagging along like a kid with an indulgent adult, and I listened to him play for a while, leaving when another goodly bunch of tourists and shoppers collected to appreciate his work. Perhaps I was a little disappointed that he didn't ask to see me again; even though while we ate pizza I had been formulating a polite refusal should he ask me out for dinner that evening. Better to bow out than wait until the awkward end and hear him say something like, "Wow, look at the time! See ya around the campus."

Mark Fatzer was the head of the Anthropology Department, the stupid little toad, and thought somehow that deified him and made unnecessary the minor details of human social behavior, such as courtesy, or compassion. He'd made a name for himself right out of school (only the gods know how), applied for and received a grant to study skulls and leg bones from Olduvai (he probably stole one to use as a back scratcher), and wrote a book about it, which he still required his students to purchase, even though, as one of them told me, they were assigned to read chapters of it but the content was never discussed in class. (I borrowed one of the books, and read it, ending up only with many questions about who the fuck edited it, and who the fuck was willing to publish such incoherent shit.)

He was fond of barking out the last names of faculty who were not of the same rank as he, as if the hierarchy at the university were some medieval structure which included squires and peons. Insisting on being referred to as "Dr. Fatzer" rather than "Mark," he nonetheless refused to use any honorific when referring to mere professors. To the best of my knowledge, the only women he wasn't rude to were his wife and his secretary -- those being positions for which a woman was suited. Only the real world and the University Board of Directors kept him from blatant sexual discrimination and abuse of female students, for whom he had no respect. Had he been able to fulfill his personal preferences, the faculty and student body would have been exclusively male and have addressed him as "Lord Fatzer."

I would have never survived in Fatzer's department except for Moersgard's tutelage and prestige, his reputation helping me gain a strong position and his coaching getting me past Fatzer's rudeness and my own temper. "I don't know if the little tick is blowing the president on the side or screwing his wife, but he's secure as department head and carries a good bit of weight," Moersgard had warned me. "Smoke a joint before you deal with him if you have to, but be humble around him and don't let him get you into a fight."

Having married minor money, and enjoying throwing his weight around, Fatzer was also fond of throwing big catered barbecues a couple times during summers. Politics and gamesmanship kept his guests coming back; that and the irresistible urge to see whom he would insult next and how. I was looking forward to this Sunday's Fatzerfest as a distraction. Otherwise I thought I might end up prowling the streets looking for violinists like a star-struck groupie.

The barbecue was nicely populated with faculty and spouses and companions. The food was blase, the music was loud rather than good, the drinks were as tastelessly common as Fatzer's table manners. Looking around, I calculated that if I spent approximately eight minutes saying hello how do you do with each person there, by the time I had made the rounds I could leave without offense. I began with Fatzer himself, who barely acknowledged my gentle praise of his garden and the fete beyond having grunted "Renoir. What, couldn't get anyone to come with you?" and then, dismissed from His Lordship's handshake, began to speak to others in the vicinity to eavesdrop, Fatzer being known to be exceptionally impolitic while greeting. So far his low point was to refuse to shake the offered hand of KC Carson's lesbian companion. Bet KC doesn't get invited to the next one, I thought, and she should be lucky she's working for Psych and not for his department.

Margaret Wills he greeted convivially, and handed her off to his wife for more enthusiastic chatting. All they needed was his mother to be there and he'd have a complete set of all the women in the world who liked him.

Aha, there came Moersgard and his Barbie doll. What the hell was the girl's name? Laurel! That was it. Wasn't it? "Moersgard!" Fatzer boomed, "Good to see you! Dragged your granddaughter along, did you? Ha ha ha!" he slapped Moersgard on the shoulder, gave a nod and a little pump to Laurel's hand, and turned his back on her to buttonhole Moersgard about some project. And Moersgard was caught between his politics and his pretty lady, because she looked like she was mad enough to murder, and her mentor and lover was just calmly ignoring the slam.

Someone nearby said, "The old fool. Doesn't he know how ridiculous he looks, chasing after a girl that young? She can't be out of her twenties."

Another voice quipped, "Maybe she thinks he can use his influence and make her the homecoming queen." A small chorus of evil cackles followed. I began to move away, sorry that Moersgard was making himself look injudicious. Really, what on earth would he find to talk about with a girl in her twenties?

I walked past the band and greeted KC Carson. "This is Susanna," she said of her willowy friend, "she just moved here from Utah."

I shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you. I wondered why KC had been behaving herself." Susanna blushed and looked at KC shyly.

"Have I ever told you I hate that fuckin' Fatzer?" KC said in a voice low enough not to carry.

"Only every time you have to look at him. You ought to have business cards printed up with 'I hate that fuckin' Fatzer' printed in quotes below your name. Then you wouldn't wear out your voice so often."

"You know, it could become a very popular style of card. Everybody would want some. Hey, we're cutting out of this shitfest and heading down to the wharf to dance at Bobby Lee's. Why don't you come along?"

"No! I have to work with the bastard, so I'll stick this out. Besides, the last time you talked me into Bobby Lee's I was hung over and sore from dancing for a week."

"Ah, you loved it!" said KC. "We'll call you later and beg you to come down for just one drink, okay? See ya."

"Nice to have met you, Susanna." And that took a few more minutes off the clock. Time for the next eight-minute chat.

The crash of the surf was muted with the unusual east wind blowing the rhythmic sound out to sea. To make up for the loss, the same wind had kept the nightly fog far out on the water, making for an incredibly beautiful sunset, gold carpeting beneath the sinking sun, which changed from an orange circle to a red one to a dusty magenta before it disappeared from sight, and then stars stepped forward to glow a sparkling ivory in the deep blue sky. I sat on the patio with my feet propped on the wall and watched.

I had heard the phone ring around eight-thirty and ignored it.

I'd turned on the radio to ameliorate the silence in the house, but the noise it made seemed discordant and all the voices seemed to be powered by insanity, so I turned it off again.

I clicked on the computer to check e-mail, but after looking at the messages, could not find any desire to communicate replies.

I put the kitchen light on over the counter, but the brightness was harsh after the sunset and stars. I shut the lights off again, too. I went back outside and sat in the darkness.

My parents used to rent a cabin out along a creek that led to a mountain reservoir. I think we did that so that Dad could fish for trout, but I remember mostly just playing indoors because my mother was afraid of coming across a poisonous snake. Dad somehow was able to see them before he was close to them, but my mother's experience with snakes prior to marrying him and moving to the country was limited to how they looked with their skins spread on expensive shoes. Mom won; I stayed out of the woods and the creek. The most frightening thing I ever experienced at the cabin was the profoundly different night.

En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... we were late getting out of our house in town to go to the cabin for a week. Starting the drive in the cloudy twilight before sundown, we watched the night draw on as we climbed the first ridge, and rain began to spatter the windshield of the car. On the horizon, dim flashes flickered as a thunderstorm approached. The winding mountain road was lit by the headlights of the car on high beam, sometimes startling foraging deer whose eyes glowed greenish blue like the eyes of movie zombies. Branches waved up and down like mad arms, and the flashes of lightning grew more frequent.

By the time we got to the cabin, the storm was full upon us. "Flashlight!" Dad shouted. "We didn't put one in!" my mother wailed, nearly in tears with fright. Rain was pelting down on the windshield so hard we couldn't see out. "Stay here and I'll run and open the cabin," my father said, but Mom was more terrified at the thought of being left behind in the car. We all ran. The rain was almost painful on my skin in its intensity, and I could see nothing as we stepped out of the car until the lightning burst and illuminated the woods around us in an eerie black and blue-white strobe. We scurried on the driveway in the flickers, me experiencing bursts of fear and disorientation at both the actinic flash of the lightning and at the utter darkness following. My mother and I both fell getting up on the cabin porch, scrambling on the slimy wet rustic wood. We pushed open the door and Dad thumbed the light switch to turn on the light in the little kitchen area. "I'll go get us some dry things as soon as there's a break in the rain," he said to us as we clung together dripping.

Then there was a horrible brightness and a heart-stopping explosion of thunder, and the kitchen light began to spark and a halo of cold purplish light played around it. The light went out. The weapon of electricity was gone. With the storm hard upon us, and no flashlight or candles to help us see even after the storm moved on, there was no way to restore the power to the cabin before morning. We huddled on the musty couch across from the table together, seeing each other in chiascuro and profiles only, until we swam in a primordial darkness seeking sleep.

The Tenetehara say that long ago, the sun was continually up above the trees, and no one could sleep well (and some would say they could not have sex privately) because it was never dark. So Mokwani, who could run fast, went deep into the forest to steal the Night from the old, old woman who kept the treasure sealed in jars. Mokwani stole a jar and ran, and smashed the pottery jar against a rock to hide him from the old woman. He felt his way back to his village, but by the time he got there the darkness had soaked into the earth. His village sent him back the next day, telling him to steal a larger jar, and so he did. But this time when he broke the jar, owls and bats flew out with the darkness and frightened him, and he ran, but the darkness overtook him and its magic turned him into a whippoorwill, a bird who sings only at night, from twilight to sunrise. Once again the darkness sank into the earth, but after hours of sunlight, Mokwani began to sing, and the darkness rose up, the people slept, and lovers mated with no one to stare at them. Poor cursed Mokwani must still sleep in the daylight, for he is the one who will sing the darkness from the ground each night.

I saw a picture taken of the night sky from a mountain top in Chile recently. In the picture were plainly seen the stars of the Milky Way pouring across the sky like sugar crystals backlit on a black velvet cloth; but I was most surprised and fascinated by the visibility of the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, galaxies smeared in the heavens among a myriad of stars. I have never seen them with my own eyes.

There was a little street light above the corner on which my parents and I lived; on hot summer nights I was allowed to play on the sidewalk in front of the house under the street lamp. Going beyond the circle cast by the light was for-bidden, for dangers could lurk in the dark. When the old tin-top light was replaced by a bright mercury vapor lamp, the circle expanded, but still, do not go out in the dark! I was grounded for three weeks when I was fifteen for sneaking out to the back yard to see what the sky looked like at night. At seventeen, I went away to the mountains to an older kids' summer camp, and we played football in the athletic field under the glorious light of a full moon, and slept out in the dark, and the moon and the stars illuminated the world just enough to make my heart ache for such rare beauty.

My parents' generation feared the night, and put lights everywhere to chase it away. My generation, with lights everywhere, stopped sleeping and making love in the private darkness, and so needed more light still for all their working and plotting and playing, until the sky is so polluted with reflected light that one can actually count the stars that remain visible.

The jungles and forests where the whippoorwill sang are shrinking. I do remember hearing a whippoorwill from the cabin by the mountain stream, but by the time I was thirteen, there were no calls to be heard anywhere near when the sun went down. Count the number of people you know who have heard the song of that night bird. Few? None? Mokwani no longer sings, and the darkness is sinking back into the earth.

I watched the stars begin to disappear again as the wind shifted and the fog sifted back inland. I would call the fog white, but the color was a dirty orange courtesy of the sodium vapor lamps that make the night glow and allegedly cut down on crime. I wanted someone to whom I could tell the tale of Mokwani, and realized that for the first time in many, many years, I was lonely.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-29
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