A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen in Oregon
[Somewhere in the Nevada desert, right around the time described herein]
Just out of college, I lived in a rented room on the second floor of a home in a little town in the mountains of a Western state 2700 miles from the one in which I grew up.
A nice elderly lady owned the place. She didn’t ask me anything when I came to inquire about it, and she wasn’t put off by my long hair or the fact that my car had spray-painted graffiti and arcane sketches in fluorescent orange, green, and yellow across its length and width. I imagined she had seen a few like me in her time, out here in the West, and knew we were a mostly harmless subspecies. We might fail to keep jobs and drive too fast, but despite what we sometimes said we weren’t really going to burn down your culture, as that was too much work, and we were mostly just interested in finding a good bass player.
The stairway up to my room was narrow, carpeted. Dirty in the unavoidable way that carpeted stairs are, worn-in grime from the bottoms of shoes that could have come all the way from the other side of the country, as my shoes and I had. We had come there, those thousands of miles, out I-70, across the plains, up and through the Rockies, and down across the desert, in a car for which I had paid $100 cash, an old Chevy with 150,000 miles on it and a transmission with no reverse and a bashed-in, duct-taped rear windshield and a rusted hole in the driver-side floorboard through which you could see the road below you as it went by.
The house stank of cigarettes, as there were other boarders who smoked, though I never saw them. My room was the second one on the left. The room just after mine was the bathroom, and there were two more rooms on the opposite side, four in total. Tiny, cramped, a bed and a little nightstand and an old, worn chair, and flowered wallpaper that purveyed an unintended mournfulness. I had no television or radio, and I desired neither. I slept atop the covers and bedsheets and used a coat as a blanket. The elderly lady asked me from time to time about washing the bedding, but I told her it was fine.
In this room, I sat for hours, days, weeks, months, an entire winter, hiding from the person I had been just a short while before.
I would leave only to go to work at the bookstore where I impatiently manned the cash register and aristocratically, imperiously judged everyone who purchased a Danielle Steele or Louis L’Amour novel, which was nearly everyone who entered the store. Tried to push Tolstoy and Flaubert from the used books bin to no avail. The Bookworm, the place was called, and in my youthful and wholly misplaced confidence in my own intellectual elevation I never tired of mocking the lack of fit between this name and the clientele. Owned by an odd, affable guy named George who had retired from some other line of work with substantial money, got into used books because he liked the Rabbit books of John Updike, endlessly recommended them to me. I never read them and mildly resented him for presuming to tell the future great writer I planned to be what great literature was.
From work, I’d drive to the open market and steal vegetables and fruit, eat them surreptitiously right there standing before the racks, quickly and discreetly. Then back to the room to read, write in my journal, listen to music, grapple with the what and the why of a life that was hurtling menacingly but seductively toward me.
The cigarette smoke wafted in from the room next door. The guy who lived there had a daily coughing fit in the morning, lasting perhaps 15 minutes, furious, violent hacking. Then, when it ended, the cigarette smoke came. Once he’d cleared his throat, it was time to foul it back up.
Did he know death was stalking him, as Don Juan says in the Castaneda book that all rebels read or say they’ve read and that I was lazily perusing at the time? (I never finished it). It was stalking me too, though my youth mostly kept me from fully reckoning with that. The young will never die. Never. Until they do.
I did get this point sufficiently to sit bleary-eyed, in the middle of the night, listening to works by a composer who had been made known to me by a painter friend, who had made enough of a career as an artist to merit the title “painter,” but not enough that any of his work can be found online. I thought it was remarkable, a marvelous incandescent symbolism. He sent me some postcard prints of a few works once, and I have misplaced them in my piles and piles of memories. I hope one day, miraculously, to fall upon them again. I am sure such a discovery would bring me delirious joy.
He was a man close to 70, from Chicago, some kind of Eastern European ancestry, jovial, worldly, wise. He completely changed my mind about some things, though I knew him only a few months. Later, when I moved away, he wrote me a handful of letters, colorful details of artistic life in the language and the script of a real character. I didn’t respond to him nearly often enough. He died and I did not know he was gone until much later. This is how we drift away from one another and then it is too late. I wish I could hear his voice again, but it cannot be.
My friend, this painter spoke to me, saying “You will adore this, listen, listen!” with twinkling eyes, and he was right, as happens with wise older men. It was an American composer of the 20th century, still alive at the time, the first American composer I’d heard that I liked, in my youthful disdain for everything cultural to do with my own country. This composer, the fates had decreed, was born near the very place I inhabited when I discovered his work.
In the wee hours in that cigarette-fouled house, in the little room that contained all my meager belongings, I prayerfully explored several cassettes of this music, dubbed and gifted by my friend. There was an exotic-sounding string quartet set, developmentally melancholy, studied sadness, slow and funereal, ranging from reflection on medieval song to four part Baroque counterpoint, and there was a bit from a symphony, an interlude, after a grandiose opening few movements of vast proportions, a delicate, weeping melody on strings, a little more than two minutes that I repeated reverentially, endlessly until I was too tired to go on, until I collapsed and the melody lurked in my sleeping mind in the way I told myself—because Baudelaire or Poe had written it—a dead lover must.
That melody so lachrymose, so otherworldly, that it filled my eyes with tears and my soul with love for all things on hearing the first strains, poured into my soul an ocean of compassion for all the beings that ever dwelt on this stone orbiting the distant star, all those who lived and died and then disappeared unceremoniously into the ether. Compassion too for myself, who was hurtling toward that same horizon but at the time, since I saw that end as something yet to arrive, postponed, distant, at the time sufficiently composed to experience that self-feeling as contentment.
My life then was becoming something I did not recognize, something fully beyond all my efforts to exert any control over it. I had once had a plan, but it had changed, and I did not know anything more than that. College was done, and it was not clear what would come next except trepidation. My family were all far away, in miles and in spirit. I had abandoned most of my friends and just recently broken with the only one who lived within a day’s drive, telling him to forget he knew me. I knew not why I had done all of this. It was as though I watched someone else acting in my body. Looking on at some force at work I could not fathom. I was fearful of what was still to come for me, yet expectant.
Weeping for myself and for all of us, I sat on that bed, listening, thankful without knowing it that the woman for whom the piece was named had lived so the composer would have the inspiration to produce this little piece of magic that spoke so eloquently and movingly to me of the impossibility of escape from myself.
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