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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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THE EXORCISM
1—The Couple in the Next Room

The first people I want to forgive are the couple—or at least the woman of the pair—in the room next to mine in the quaint old hotel where I always stayed when I came up to attend to my daughter at college. This time was not really a visit, since Ceely—that's my daughter—was going to have to leave school, and after a long day's drive to fetch her about all we had time for on the evening I arrived was dinner at a pretentious and overpriced Italian restaurant that always gave me hope when I spent time in this college town and always dashed my hope to the floor.

Ceely went back to her dorm for one last night, and I went to the hotel. It had not been a good day, but then it had not been a good year. For starters, Ceely's mother, Billie Benjamin, whom I also forgive, my first wife, and one of the country's best female jazz pianists, after a sudden illness as they say—in her case, a hot-shot of heroin administered by a much-younger musician boyfriend—had died. Ceely had been nearly inconsolable ever since. And my present wife, of whom I had always said since I met her would be my last, had not taken well to the funk I'd fallen into at the news. Though I forgive her for this.

“It's not like, you know, I hadn't put all those years behind me,” I said to her during the middle of a terrific argument
about whether or not I would go to the funeral (well, cremation ceremony, actually). “You were never jealous when Billie was alive, but you are now that she's dead?”

“I lied,” she said. “I've always been jealous.”

“Because you think I've secretly been in love with her?”

“You don't live all those years with somebody and then just toss the feelings down the drain,” she said. “But that's not why I'm jealous.”

“Oh, not this, not now,” I said, really in distress.

I always seem to marry talented women, and my second wife, Charmaine Rosenthal (I always seem to marry talented
Jewish
women), whom I also forgive, is no exception. Her problem is that she is talented in so many ways that she never could settle on those one or two things that she could focus all her energy on. She had been a successful CPA when we first met, over my tax return, and soon after we married she decided she wanted to give up that practice in order to raise poodles, which she did for a few years (and from which time we still have our little Bela Barbark, a white poodle with all of the charm of a newborn and the brains of a monkey, whom I decidedly forgive for all of the soft little turds she leaves behind on the dining room floor). From the dog stuff, she went on to start a mail-order business in medicinal herbs (which is how I eventually came to meet you, Erna), and tiring of that she opened a small boutique in Georgetown, bankrolled by a couple of her richest female friends—I forgive them all—who loved her taste in clothes (and each of whom owned a poodle bred by Charmaine at the kennel on the edge of our former property in Oakton, just south of the Potomac).

But for all of her gifts—and it did seem as though she had a magic touch in whatever business she found herself in—Charmaine still was not happy.

“I haven't found myself,” was the familiar refrain I'd often hear around the dinner table, with the little tag at the end, “the way you have.”

The thing is, and I have said this to her a thousand times, I was one of the lucky ones, or so I thought, who was never lost.

My late father, whom I also forgive, owned a wholesale electrical supply business, and from that I developed my hobby of listening to music, and at college, our little gem of a state university right here in the northeast, I studied acoustical engineering, and then started building, and then—quite a different thing—designing, sound systems for a living. (Billie and I met because of that, when I was testing the sound board at a concert she was playing at our local arena—Jersey Jazz! Listen to the Stars!—and we clicked from the beginning.) I had met a lot of musicians, because of my work, and I'd even slept with one or two (well, maybe just one, a thin blonde violinist for a visiting orchestra, with an outsized talent for oral sex—she should have played a wind instrument, and I forgive her for taking up a stringed instrument instead—whom, for a number of reasons, I've never forgotten). But with Billie, there was more than just a click, there was a bang, a crash, a thunderclap!

“Man,” she said to me in the middle of the night after her concert, “I may be just a kid but I've gigged around a lot and I've got to tell you that I've never felt this great before!”

Billie, so cool a stylist that a small industry of critics has flourished trying to get to the icy heart of her work, and in bed, at least with me back then, she was a buttercup, a reed in the wind, a lost little girl.

How to explain her origins! Her father was a philosophy professor at the New School of Social Research in New York City
and her mother a well-known criminal defense lawyer. Billie went to the Dalton School and grew up in the whiter-than-white section of Park Avenue (except for the Jews like her own family). Maybe it was the criminal part of her mother's work that spoke to her, because as soon as she could hum a tune she was singing, and as soon as she was singing she was scat-singing, and as soon as she was scat-singing she was transforming an expensive education in classical piano into a darting, fly-by-night, hit and fade away jazz style that took everyone by surprise. Professor Hans Epstein, and Joanna Epstein, Esq., I forgive them both. (Though they have been so formal in their communications with me since Billie's death that I almost shouldn't.)

So, Erna, here we are at the ceremony, Ceely all busted up, and Charmaine pissed off, and though I understood completely Billie's final wishes for the cremation (which consisted of some Bud Powell and then some Monk and then some Bill Evans playing over the badly maintained loudspeaker while her body was rolled into the flames) it didn't give any of us much room for what is so fashionably these days called “closure.”

Ceely went back to school, I returned to a project that included constructing the sound system for a major new West Coast concert hall, and Charmaine, who had never closed her doors, kept on selling to the fashion-deprived of northwest Washington.

Things simmered down. Or seemed to.

Until about a month later when I was standing at the window of my Seattle hotel room enjoying the silence after a day of sound, sound, and more sound, staring mindlessly at the monumental slopes of Mount Ranier as they caught the slanting rays of the departing sun, and someone knocked at my door.

Well, not just someone. It was the blonde violinist.

“What are you doing here?” I said, just that brusquely. Not a hello. Not a how surprised I am to see you, and pleased, after all these years.

Just—“What are you doing here?”

My brusqueness didn't faze her at all.

“I'm the concertmaster and I asked about the sound.”

Well, she made sounds, I made sounds, and given what I know about the acoustics of these modern high-rise hotels, I worried that we might be doing some damage to the sleep of others. I didn't think much about the damage I was doing to myself.

A week later, I arrived home, my work completed, and my bags full of remorse. There was a note on the dining room table saying that the dean of Ceely's college had called—yes, I forgive her—and asked to speak to me at once.

“She didn't say why?” I was a bit agitated when Charmaine got home and I asked about her conversation with the dean.

“I told her I was the wicked step-mother,” Charmaine said, “and that she could tell me everything. She chose not to.”

“Because you inspired such confidence,” I said.

“Have you called Ceely?”

“I've tried a bunch of times. I'll try again.” So I went to my desk and punched out her number.

And got “Blues in F,” Billie's famous tune. With Joshua Redman on saxophone, and I can't remember the names of the drummer or bass player. Ever since she bought an answering machine, Ceely changed the music just about every day from one of her mother's recordings to another. I'd heard this one enough today to be able to name all the chord changes, the whole progression.

The tune. Then, “Hey, this is Ceely, leave a message…” Pause. Then the tone.

“Me again,” I said. “Phone home.”

It wasn't a good night. I lay in the dark, the weight of the slender violinist full on my chest, and Charmaine becoming more and more pissed by the minute.

“She's done something awful, I know, I just know. The way the dean spoke to me, even the way she breathed…”

“Maybe,” I said (with hindsight, rather prophetically), “she just has a distinctive voice. Sound is my business, right? I'll let you know when I speak to her.”

I run my own business, I can take time off whenever I like, though in practice this means I put in much more time than if I worked for someone else. But this next morning I got up early, went to the gym, and did an hour on the treadmill while listening to the middle part of a long crappy novel about American Plains Indians by some dreamy-minded former anthropologist. At this hour of the day I worked out with a bunch of hard-charging Washington lawyers, (one of whom I saw there regularly, and since he was the husband of one of Charmaine's pals, someone who spoke to me in the locker room, usually remarking about whatever it was his wife had recently purchased at Charmaine's shop). This time it was a designer shirt that showed her nipples through the fragile material.

“Do I want my wife walking around showing her nipples?” he said as he jammed himself into his suit trousers and prepared to get ready to argue some intellectual property case that had to do with a logo for a bakery chain (as he told me in between comments about his wife's nipples). “She's a little too old for that,” he said, and then he paused, and added, with a candidness quite uncommon for Washington, “She nursed four
of our kids with those nipples, and now she wants to show them off all over town…?”

I felt responsible somehow for his distress, but I forgive him for making me feel that way.

He left the locker room looking as though he could step right onto the stage of
Inherit the Wind
and debate William Jennings Bryan while I went into the shower, trying to remember his wife, and her nipples. I struck out. Charmaine's I remembered, having seen them only the night before when she got undressed for bed, roseate half-dollars. Billie's I remembered, having been going over and over in my mind since her death (a not uncommon thing, right?) everything I knew about her—they stood out on her small chest about the size of an infant's thumbs. Ceely I hadn't seen naked since she was an infant, and I invoked the Incest Taboo so I wouldn't have to wonder about her. But I was almost immediately distracted, anyway, as I was leaving the gym and passing me in the doorway, on her way to her own early morning workout—and I don't know her but I forgive her—was a compact little woman in designer sweatpants and halter top with nipples so taut and distended they pressed against the inside of the material of her sports bra and halter with the intensity of tiny wild beasts yearning to be free.

Well, forgive me for that, but I'm not a poet, just a sound engineer trying to make sense out of things.

At least that's what I said to myself on the way home.

Where Charmaine was getting ready to leave for the store, and basically ignoring me. It was almost the hour when I could call the dean and so I poured myself a cup of coffee and picked up the newspaper and when another half hour had passed, picked up the telephone and made the call.

The dean—already forgiven—in an as yet unremarkable Middle-Atlantic voice told me Ceely had gotten drunk and broken into the college concert hall and set the baby grand piano on fire.

It was still fairly early in the morning, but I suddenly felt much too fatigued to explain this act to her, and so mumbled something about driving up at once so that we could have a conference. The dean said that she would be happy to speak to me, but that Ceely had already been given an indefinite suspension.

Just as I was hanging up the telephone, Charmaine was going out the door. And so I didn't have a chance to tell her that I was leaving. I tried Ceely's number again. More “Blues in F.” I left a message that I was driving up to see her and then went upstairs and packed a small bag, grabbed some books and tapes and CDs, and left the house. Within a few minutes I was moving slowly along in rush hour traffic on the Beltway, in the first stage of my journey north, angry at all these other drivers—but forgiving them now—because they impeded me in my trip the way they did.

Fortunately, I had brought those tapes along. A month or so before, I had finished listening to the latest Tom Clancy novel and had just bought the newest Stephen King, for listening to on my headphones while running the treadmill. Why this junk (which I forgive both Clancy and King for writing)? I've never really thought about it until now, but maybe it's because I listen to so much good music while doing my job that I need to kind of clear my head when I'm trying to relax. If exercising is relaxing. I don't know.

I had stopped in at our local bookstore café one morning the week before to grab a coffee on the way back from the gym and wandered around looking at the shelves where I usually found the junk I listened to. There was some good stuff
there that I already owned, some mysteries by Tony Hillerman and Sara Paretsky, an abridgement of
Huckleberry Finn
read by Paul Newman (I forgive him for reading an abridgement), and some stories of his own read by Barry Lopez (no one I need to forgive) with background music by the cellist Paul Winter (him either). That's where I found it.

A new translation of the
Bhagavad Gita
(not that I had ever listened to, let alone read, the old one), by a guy (whom I don't need to forgive, either) named Mitchell. Why I bought this I can't really say. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Maybe it was the weird title. In our family we'd hardly ever gone to church, and I'd never read much of our own Bible, so in an objective way it seemed pretty stupid that I had my hand on this CD of the Hindu holy scripture. But a lot was happening even then before I knew it, and I was just following along.

BOOK: The Fires
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