a short story by Joan Horrigan
([email]joanhorrigan [at] msn [dot] com[/email])

“Describe the music, Claire” Todd requested simply, as if that were simple to do.

We had just finished dinner at my place and were relaxing in easy chairs in the study, me in my old jeans and faded shirt and Todd neatly dressed in casual attire, when I told him about the new CD I had made for him. Todd was interested in hearing which piece on it I liked best, preferring to focus on a specific song and relish its details, ignoring that I had recorded many songs for him and the fact that I had learned to use my new CD burner.

I was really challenged by that request, but Todd was worth the effort, being a grand old man who had held much authority in the university just a decade before. Todd is my best friend in the world, my mentor and my confidante, for almost thirty-two years now. He is the one of whom I had always made requests. I requested much of Todd by asking those simple questions, like the one now posed to me to describe the music. It was his request but also a question to me–[i]could I do it?[/i] I wonder now if Todd ever felt my questions were a challenge those many years ago–questions, such as, [i]How can I be sure about what is true? How can you know there is a God? What is eternity? What is the point to it all? What am I supposed to do, to learn about the world?[/i] and, of course, that old favorite, [i]What is the meaning of life?[/i] You know, all those simple questions.

Todd never once was put off by my questions and always took them seriously, so I had to do the same for him now, since his hearing is fading and his body is becoming more and more frail. Todd is 87, about my height now, even though he towered over me thirty years ago when I was a student in his class at Cal-State hanging on every word. He would look through those thick glasses below that remarkable high forehead crowned by dark wavy hair and down his pointed nose at me and the other rapt students sitting before him in the classroom as he explained the world and the world of philosophy. His classes were the most popular on campus and always too short, as I would just be forming another question when the bell rang.

Todd, scholarly sedate and tall then, dressed always in that white shirt, blue tie and dark blue suit, seemed to know every esoteric thing about the meaning of life, and I was on a quest to find that out at the time I met him. I was the moth to his flame, but got thoroughly warmed, not burned, as he is a sensitive cultured gentleman of the first degree, not the kind you see on TV or in the movies. He is a warm, real and knowledgeable man with a dedication to teaching and learning, not full of the charm of some guru who would seduce ignorant students. He taught by example and a questing after truth that was clarified by his humble yet astute mentality, shown by finding and asking the [i]critical question[/i]–that question, which if properly phrased might lead nearer the truth.

Now here he was asking a critical question of me, but of a different sort. This time he is asking for my help as he has grown old and weak, and I feel I will fail him for I know nothing about music. I just love to listen to music, to be the audience, not the performer as he is. Todd plays the piano and organ beautifully and gave recitals up until year before last. He is a Bach aficionado, and I learned all I know about Bach from him. [i]Describe the music, Claire[/i] repeated in my head as he sat patiently waiting. So I will not deny him now.

I got up from the easy chair, walked over and placed the CD in the player, picking up the remote. He wanted me to describe the song I liked best so I played the music through once, a six-minute piece, and began my unprepared explanation of the song I had recorded.

“The name of the song is [i]Good Luck, Jack,[/i] I began. “I do not know if it has lyrics or not in some other version; I just love the melancholy flavor of it, played by the Ned Nash orchestra from an old album of western songs, would you believe?” I exclaimed, knowing Todd was a lover of classical music, but this song was a classic to me in its purity of emotional expression, so I continued as he nodded acceptingly.

“I believe it could just as easily be titled, [i]So Long, Jack,[/i] or more accurately, [i]Goodbye, Jack,[/i]” I explained, “because it sounds so plaintive and sad, like saying a final goodbye to a lover whom you know you will never see again.

“Play it again, and then [i]describe the music,[/i]” he pushed in teacherly fashion. He never asked me to describe the music after he played a Bach piece, nor I him. I always just gushed something complimentary when he was done. Then he would explain how Bach did variations on a theme and [i]sometimes[/i] played part of it a second time to show what he meant. That was when we were alone in his home across town where he had a spacious music room set up for recitals and the storage of all his years of sheet music with the full sized organ and a grand piano sitting beneath a large tapered crystal chandelier. Here in my study, all I had were the two blue over-stuffed chairs we were sitting in and plain furniture, an ancient wooden desk, file cabinets, over-full book cases and my little CD player, but I did have good speakers. So I clicked the repeat button on the remote, staying in my chair yet sitting upward a little more for concentration, and started it again.

After the sweet six minutes, I began again. “The music of this western song starts slow, low and softly and opens with a church-like intro tune, an organ playing in the first round of the melody that swells with cellos and violas building to its completion and with the next opening of the melody now played with violins replacing the organ. Then the melody repeats again in a slightly higher tone but adds very lush violas, cellos and lowest bass notes. Clarinets join the next round with the violins adding texture with a single twang of guitar occasionally and even one clear bell chimes in the distance. The higher the strings sing, the lower the cellos moan. Then the whole orchestra incorporates the full extension of highs with lows to an almost piercing poignant wail with heartbreaking violins at its climax as a soft very low bass string is plucked intermittently, sounding like a solitary soft drum beat in the distance, heard off and on irregularly throughout the piece, not as a constant beat, but with extended time to emphasize the utter slowness of the song as if to drag out the sad goodbye of the tune until the very last moment. The plucking bass begins to sound like rain landing as droplets. No, it sounds more like tears now that I hear it again. The final note lasts longer than any I’ve heard, and still it lingers like it is hanging in the large blue western sky above the plains,” I described, feeling my lack of ability to be technically specific and inadequacy to turn sound into descriptive words.

He waved me to continue, saying nothing.

“This lovely melody is of a parting with such sweet sorrow, made sweet by the music itself, but filled only with sorrow and a deep foreboding and profound longing. The forlorn melody sounds like internal crying feels in its melodic emotional swelling like dark night ocean waves overlapping each other,” I attempted to explain more pedantically to Todd.

“Now I see the title is ironic,” I continued, really getting into my explanation of the music. “The title should not be changed because that also increases its poignancy as if this parting need not be but is occurring nevertheless. It is a beautiful rendition of some girl’s breaking heart, probably standing and watching her cowboy ride off into the sunset while struggling to keep a straight face as tears stream down it. Standing in her faded cotton dress beyond the porch of her little wood frame house out on the open range under that graying western sky, she sees her cowboy waving his final goodbye instead of kissing her goodbye. She does not say [i]goodbye[/i] nor what she really wants to say, [i]don’t go.[/i] She says [i]Good Luck, Jack,[/i] hiding her true feelings that the lush music unmasks,” I concluded to Todd.

“Play it again,” he said, and I did.

He sat with closed eyes listening with me, both of us silent now, to the third playing of the haunting piece that mesmerized us both as we sat comfortably yet alert to the sound of strings mourning throughout the layers of the melody while the intermittent bass dropped slow tears.

Then the silence set in when the music ended.

Todd stirred in the big overstuffed blue chair, looking thinner than I had ever seen him. Always neatly dressed, his pale yellow shirt and tan pants seemed way too big for him. His face was calm and his rounded head showed through the thin gray hair. That familiar face with those thick glasses now was crowded with wrinkles, but his eyes beneath the lined lids were still the same.

“I know the song played out the feelings of the cowboy also,” mused Todd simply, “because he is not supposed to cry, but that beautiful piece allows him to,” and I then I realized he was touched as much as I by the mournful tune.

Silence again.

“Someday, Claire,” he stated slowly and softly, “that will be our song.”

His words struck me far more than any I had heard before from him. After all the years of our conversations on every topic we could explore, after all those years of listening to his Bach tunes, I heard that western music play again in my head and, like the girl in the song, kept a straight face feeling the tears coming. We both knew what he meant, but what could I say? It was just a simple question, a question for myself. This was the one that had no answer.

Listed at Duotrope
Listed with Poets & Writers
CLMP Member
List with Art Deadline
Follow us on MagCloud