The faith in dreams, like the beliefs of small and ancient religions, is often lost with the simple passage of time. Mere time. Simply forgotten. A figment of midnight delusion at midday. Too vague to grasp. We all remember the faith we once had in our fathers, or mothers, for instance. Or the absence of such an absolute trust, perhaps. But what of those other beliefs, and their failure or strength, that were so instrumental to our being and to what we would become?
There were many such smaller religions in my past–a thousand convictions which I once held dear–all of them long since lost. There was the sure knowledge that summer would come and school would end. That Bill, the bus driver would always be there on the colder days, or wait a moment longer. That Mel, the Good Humor man would let me the extra nickel needed for the orange-cream popsicle. That the profound chill and still-hollow of a winter night would soon enough be transformed into the lush dark of mosquitoes and crickets and tree frogs. But all of those simpler faiths were set aside when my first full time job showed little interest in the seasons and getting to work in time depended on the IRT.
It is only by circumstance that a few of those convictions, remembered now, were caught in such a neat web of events that they might easily be recalled afterward–or, the better metaphor, that they left a bright scar on the darker skin surrounding. Years later, you finger it gently at first notice, as if it might break open at this touch. You pause to remember.
Let me tell you about this one.
I was in school then, at a small experimental college, and living on my own in a one-room apartment, working nights, and trying to finish my first real novel. That singular effort at writing, sorely in need of deliberate concentration, was further fractured by a continual stream of short stories I wrote each day as a sort of exercise, in an attempt to pretend I was actually a student at college and had real homework and not just screwing around and avoiding the draft. In fact, I did not have homework. Classes were unstructured, loosely conducted, and undemanding. The rigor of any traditional college education had been overtaken with a sort of new scholasticism–each student finding their own way to knowledge. The irony of the ignorant determining their course of study was lost in a youthful haze of wishing things to be true.
For my own part, I was hoping to be a writer.
The yellow brick office building where I lived on Elliot Street in Brattleboro, Vermont, had been converted to apartments long before I moved into my single room. I’ve lived in many multi-room apartments since which were smaller. There was no kitchen but a hot plate, and a miniature refrigerator that would not make ice. The only sink was the large one in the bathroom. The bathroom was as big as a New York bedroom. I had rigged a line from ceiling pipes to hang my clothes there because there was no closet. The added advantage to this was that anything hung properly would lose its wrinkles after a few mornings. I had no iron but I took a hot shower every morning.
The ceilings in all the rooms on that second floor were about twelve feet high. The double hung windows were tall enough for me to stand in the frame, which I did on occasion. I’m 6’2″. At least I was then. And still thin, like the windows. There were two of them at the far end of the room. Corner rooms had two more windows on the second side. The bathroom was by the door, inserted in the corner space at some later time using the same oak moldings that were common throughout the building, but varnished in a lighter hue. The walls were painted a pale green. A single light hung from the center of the ceiling on a blackened brass chain. This light was encased in a shapely milk glass globe that had some vague female quality I could never quite define, even then.
I seldom used that light, preferring lamps instead, but often stared up at the ghost of it from my bed in the dark of night.
The mattress I used was second hand. It smelled faintly of disinfectant and almost certainly contained straw as well as springs and cotton batting. At least the black and white stripes of the heavy cloth covering appeared clean. You could hear the straw and the springs when you rolled. It cost me ten dollars. I carried it down Elliot Street from an autumn yard sale, and up the stairs on my back. I was still capable of such things then.
My apartment on the second floor was reached by a front stairwell that separated two shops on the street level and fed upward into a large central vestibule. This interior space was balconied all around, rising still farther upward beyond the third floor and fourth floors to what had been an enormous skylight that I imagine was once quite splendid but was now boarded and tarred from the roof side. From inside, when light escaped from an opened door, it would catch the glass that was still there from beneath and offer a strange mirrored portrait of yourself staring back.
The walls of the vestibule were decorated with brass fixtures holding little dim light bulbs, likely a superfluous decoration in olden times but now necessary for navigation, and was still lined with the old inner office windows made useless when they were blocked off by the wall boarding used in the bathrooms installed on the other side. The glass of these windows was painted over in brown, as if to match the moldings, but looked just like windows painted brown, nonetheless. Once, when these were still offices, the doors would have opened to a cheerier and brighter interior space illuminated from above by that skylight. I imagined palm fronds arching from large decorative pots there, safe from Vermont winters. Nice to think such a place once was needed in an by-gone Brattleboro. My guess was that the economic decline of the town had caused the need for alterations at a time when there was still hope that one day the building might be turned back to its original use. This was someone else’s faith now long since forgotten.
All the apartments were pretty much identical in size. There were six apartments on my floor, three to a side. The stairwell to the upper two floors restarted at the rear of the vestibule, its oak banister and railings doubling back and forth to each balcony. The third and fourth floors had an additional apartment at the front, above the entry.
I knew a few of my upstairs neighbors well enough to greet them in passing. They were mostly old, as I would say then, perhaps in their thirties or forties. They seemed to think they had little in common with a twenty year-old, and the opinion was shared. Across the vestibule from me on the second floor was an elderly woman whose voice I never heard. She never returned a greeting. Her small black eyes, never met mine. The smell of tomato soup always escaped her door. Next to her was a Mr. Stubbs. A lean man, hair cut short, with drastically sloping shoulders that, impossibly, held up the straps to his bib overalls. I knew him not only because he was the janitor for this building, but he also worked at the Hotel Latchis where I was a night clerk. He worked days at the hotel, and we seldom saw each other except in passing. He loaned me a light bulb once. Gave it to me, I suppose. I don’t remember a repayment.
Next to Mr. Stubbs was a man named Horace who has remained in my mind since that time as the personification of nineteenth century newspaperman, Horace Greeley. I’ve seen from Greely’s picture that they actually did look a bit alike. Horace was overweight, balding at the center of his scalp, was well jowled, wore brown and red suspenders, and worked at a used-car lot about four blocks away on Route 5. He always said hello. He was always concerned with the weather. In summer he would sweat his shirt through in great dark stains.
My apartment was at the center across from them. Next to me toward the front of the building was a thin young woman, almost waifish, with long brown hair that she typically wore loose and fell below her waist, or gathered to the back of her head with gum colored rubber bands. Sometimes she bundled her hair in such a way that it pulled tightly back from her eyes, giving her a slightly exotic appearance. She had enormous brown eyes, beautiful but unexpressive. They struck me as somehow shut, even when they were open, like the cartoon character Orphan Annie. She was given to wearing jeans and a flannel shirt nine months out of the year, a calico shirt and cargo shorts in summer, and she occupied some portion of my thoughts almost daily for some time then. Her name was Adele. She was twenty-three.
I had stopped to speak with Adele several times, but managed to find out almost nothing about her. Once, at the Royal Diner, I found her sitting in a booth alone and asked if I could sit with her. She had said “Yes,” not with a lack of enthusiasm so much as the vocal equivalent of a blank stare. That meeting had resulted in my finding out that she had a job, somewhere, in a law office, and that she filed papers, and did not like eating meat. She was eating a plate of french-fries and tomato slices at the time.
Oddly, when I asked her if she had ever been to New York, she said, “I am not allowed to go there.” I assumed this was some parental restriction and I avoided pushing at it further. I asked her if she had seen the new Kubrick film. Film was the medium of the time and the greater shadow cast on the word pictures I wanted to create. But she did not go to the movies either. We had no mutual interests, it seemed, other than jeans and flannel shirts, but I kept trying to discover some common ground.
At the other side of my one room apartment, to the back, was Douglas. Douglas was perhaps an inch taller than myself, but a hundred pounds heavier. He cut his thinning blond hair short to the scalp (immediately reminding me of children with head lice and the out-patients at the Brattleboro Retreat) so that it matched almost exactly to the stubble of his beard. I think he did the cutting himself. His teeth were badly yellowed, and perhaps this was the inhibition that kept him from smiling. Though I know he seldom bathed, he never actually stank, but seemed to maintain a steady degree of body odor just less than overwhelming. He wore the same creaseless brown pants held up by a thin leather belt and a soiled white shirt each day. The shirt always appeared to be soiled in about the same way, never more or less. He spoke in monotones and never finished his sentences unless they were part of a larger essay of information, though he seldom permitted himself such freedom of expression.
‘Going.’ he might say, rather than, ‘I have to be going, now.’ Or ‘Morning,’ instead of ‘Good morning.’
He was alternately shy or unfriendly. One could never be sure which. I understood, at one point in our acquaintance that he was nearing a thirtieth birthday, but I was never informed of the exact day.
Douglas is the cause of this remembrance of past beliefs, I think.
Douglas was from Cleveland, Ohio. He had been the assistant organist at an Episcopal church there. Soon after we first met–the day he moved in–he showed me a picture of the organ he had once played. I doubted this story at first because the admission was made so blandly and the photograph of the grand machine had been cut away at the side where the organist sat, as is to hide the actual musician. Later on I saw another copy of the same photograph in a program of Christmas services. It was in fact Douglas who sat there, in a black suit, back stiff, with cuffs showing–but only vaguely the man I knew. A thinner man. A prouder man.
I was given just enough information to believe he had taken a leave of absence from his previous employment. It seemed he was in search of another pipe-organ. And this was the reason Douglas had finally come to Brattleboro, Vermont.
From some time in the middle of the Nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, there was a very famous organ factory in Brattleboro. It had been closed for at least half a dozen years when Douglas made his pilgrimage in search of a particular type of instrument. I cannot tell you the specifics of that either. I still know nothing about organs. I can only say that his search had succeeded in locating, nearby, the disassembled parts of exactly what he wanted.
I had helped Douglas carry his few worldly goods up the stairs on the day he arrived, simply because I was home at the time. I worked nights. And about a week later I was asked to help him again. He had borrowed a truck from someone and needed to get a task done quickly. Working the stick shift clumsily, angry gears grinding over and again in protest, he had me quickly believing he had never driven a truck before in his life as we made our way through several stops in town and then out narrow country roads to a barn near Guilford. I did not find out until much later that he had no driver’s license. Had never had one.
In the loft of a roadside barn we were shown a great pile of wood, not neatly stacked but dumped. I assumed this was just scrap at first until Douglas went down on his knees and began fondling the parts like treasure. There were dowels and pegs and braces, knobs and rods, and supports, odd bits of fashioned metal, and whatever. Larger pieces had been laid beneath and were uncovered deliberately one at a time until the farmer began clearing his throat with impatience. The gilded pipes stood up against one wall amidst cobwebs and the dangling remains of flies and moths. It seemed, from the talk–what little conversation that passed between the farmer and Douglas–that someone else had gathered this agglomeration here for their own purpose, but had now abandoned it and the farmer had better use for the space. All of this belonged to Douglas, for little more than the trouble of hauling it away.
We had picked up an odd assortment of cardboard boxes at the back of the Food Fair supermarket and I tossed these up to the loft and we filled them with the jumble. Douglas repeatedly cautioned me to be careful. I grew as impatient as the farmer.
On the way back, Douglas said something more.
He said, “I knew it would be here…”
There was little inflection in his voice, but his manner told me something else. I asked, “The organ? You mean you came here all the way from Cleveland and rented an apartment without even knowing if there was an organ here that you could buy?”
He said, “I knew it was…I dreamed it.”
“Did you dream it was in that barn?”
He looked at me with a quizzical stare that had me worried about oncoming cars.
“The woman at the post office…”
“She told you it was there? Why did she tell you?”
“When I paid for my post office box, she asked what I did. I told her I was an organist. I told her I was looking for a pipe organ.”
That was the extent of the explanation. But he did make it clear to me that he had to be sure all the parts were present before he shipped them back to Cleveland. This much I understood a little better. I had an aunt once who did intricate wooden puzzles for hours on the dining room table as she chatted away to anyone within earshot, including myself. Her great disappointment was having bought another wooden puzzle at a rummage sale and discovering a piece was missing. But then, I never understood the pleasure of it, even if all the pieces were there. And I could not imagine the silence that Douglas would endure in his project, alone in his room.
Just a few hours after setting out we were back at the building on Elliot Street, the truck badly parked and blocking traffic. Douglas gingerly carried the larger pieces, one at a time, as I rushed box loads up the stairs so that I would be able to finish my own work and then eat before I went off to a late class.
My personal acquaintance with organs was with instruments about the size of an upright piano as the squatted in various basement family-rooms where I played with friends as a child. Those had become blocks of unused furniture, often piled with discarded toys and old magazines, their electric plugs loose from the wall. I could not at first grasp how one of those instruments could possibly break down to the quantity of parts we had carried in. At least not until I entered Douglas’ room with the last load and looked about.
A single mattress, partly covered with unmade sheets and now a bed for the shorter of the gilded pipes and whatever spiders were harbored with, filled one corner near the windows. There was a book on the floor by the mattress, which appeared to be a bible, and with it a cereal bowl and spoon. A single chair had been so draped with various clothes that it had lost its shape. A card table was folded against one wall. There was nothing else that could be called furniture amidst the newly installed corrugated boxes, gatherings of unpainted inner workings and the leaning sections of dark mahogany.
On the same wall above the collapsed card table was taped an unfolded advertisement from the Estey Organ Company. It was then, without verbal explanation, that the scale of the instrument we had now piled around us–given average proportions to the man who stood beside the ornate monster in the tinted picture–might be comprehended. I was yet unable to imagine that this organ would be reconstructed in the room where we stood.
“It’s too big,” I said.
Douglas said, “It’s not.” Nothing more.
Somehow I had come to the additional understanding that Douglas had a modest sum of monthly allowance from the Church where he had worked. I later learned that this was a personal loan from the pastor there. Yet another act of faith. Most of what else I knew had to be gained by direct questioning. I tended then to be more blunt, relying on my obvious age as an excuse for rudeness.
That same Aunt who used to do the wooden puzzles, while talking continuously about whatever passing thought she had, was very careful never to speak about her personal life.
Perhaps wondering why she spent so much time visiting her relatives, I had once inquired why she wasn’t married.
She said, “I was, at one time.”
I asked, “Did he die?”
She said, “He should have.”
It shut me up. For that moment.
Douglas never had such an answer. When I pursued my questioning, his tactic was quite the opposite. He would suddenly talk until he could see I had drowned in the words and then quit–even mid-sentence. It might take several days to deconstruct what he had said sufficiently to understand some other aspect of his life.
Once, finally noticing the gold band on his hand, I said, “Are you married?”
He did not answer and I let the silence beg for me.
I could only see his feet. The gaps in the leather soles of his black wingtip shoes revealed brown socks. The rest of his body was deep beneath the wooden chassis of the organ. The squeak of wood against wood as he tightened something suddenly stopped. The sound of cars on Elliot Street drifted up the alley and through the open window.
Finally his voice rose with resonance deepened by the chambered wood surrounding him, “I was married…I am married…She went to California.”
That was it.
But to less personal questions, such as, “Will this organ be too big to fit in the chapel of your church,” mistakenly imagining a chapel as a smaller room for private prayer, I might learn the history and dimensions of the largest organ ever built in Brattleboro and once shipped to the Capitol Theatre on Broadway in New York, where they needed to remove an entire wall to get it into place and the tallest of the pipes required an addition to the roof. No such problem would trouble the church where Douglas worked. An organ of sufficient size as to fill the choir of his church had never been built. The vault of the chapel was more than sufficient. But I did learn then that this instrument he was reconstructing would be used in the chapel primarily for practice only. And it was Douglas himself who most wanted the practice.
My other immediate neighbor, Adele, had taken an interest in the rush of activity when we moved the pieces in. She stood at her door and watched and even asked to help, but Douglas had been unable or unwilling to speak. I did not want to presume anything, having seen Douglas’s reactions to my own intrusions, so I just thanked her and went on with the job.
After moving the odd sized boxes emblazoned with the brand names of various canned goods, ketchup and pickles and such, until, as if by plan, every part of the floor space was filled excepting a narrow foot-wide path, I did not see Douglas again for at least two weeks. Fall classes had already begun for me at school and the days were fairly filled.
One evening I was frying a few slices of Spam on the hot plate and getting ready to eat my dinner when there came a knocking.
This was a Poe-like experience.
I opened my door to the vague light of the vestibule, but no one was there. I returned to the frying pan. Another knock. Very deliberate. I went to the door again, quicker this time. There was still no one there. I returned to my task, on edge now. Then another knock. I stood still and listened for the movement of feet away from the door. Nothing. Another knock. I realized then that the sound was coming from my wall. I went out to Douglas’ door and knocked back. I heard a sound of complaint. Something like an “Awwah!”
I tried the knob.
Douglas had removed the outer covering of the light that hung from his ceiling and inserted the kind of electric plug that screwed in. From this a line drooped downward through the semi-dark to the upper frame of the organ. Light seeped from the interior through a thousand cracks–the puzzle illuminated from within. A long dowel of some sort protruded from one opening at the side and crossed the space he had left between the organ frame and the wall, allowing a narrow passage inward from the door. This dowel had been used to knock on the wall. I almost tripped over it as I entered.
Smartly, I asked, “Where are you?”
He answered, “Here,” as if it should be obvious. “Please hand me the glass of water on the table.”
Looking for a sufficient opening I asked, “Can’t you get out?”
“Yes. I can. But would you please hand me the glass of water on the table.”
In the shadows of the room, I could barely see the table, much less the glass.
I found it. I looked for some gap to the interior before asking, “How?”
“On the floor, at the center, where the pedals will be.”
Raw wooden blocks had been placed beneath the corners raising the whole affair perhaps six inches from the floor.
A hand appeared, the fingers flexing impatiently.
“But how will you get out?”
“The same way.”
I objected, “It’s too narrow.”
His hand flexed again, more dramatically. “It’s not. It takes a while, but I can do it. Please give me the water.”
I did that and studied the space beneath more carefully. His answer did not seem likely. I could hear him moving within.
I laughed, suddenly taken with some assumed absurdity.
When I caught enough breath I said, “You have become an organ within the organ.”
He was quiet for at least half a minute before suddenly returning a burst of laughter like an explosion through the cracks with the light. An eye danced behind an empty hole where a stop control knob would one day be. He laughed long after I had quit. Slobbering. Weeping. Then laughing again. Several times my own laughter was reignited and I began to laugh with him for a bit longer. Finally I quit until his own sounds had descended to a sort of whimper.
Then he said. “I think I’ll need another glass of water. This one has spilled.”
The empty glass was slipped out through the opening below. I filled it in the bathroom sink, noting then the need for some cleaning in that area before returning and sliding the glass back to the waiting hand.
Being in that frame of mind I asked, “What will you do if you have to pee?”
He grunted into his glass and then, without hesitation, said, “I have a pot here to pee in . . . That’s about all I’ve got.” With the answer he started to laugh again, but briefly.
The allusion stopped me from much more inquiry. I said, “Do you need anything else?”
He heaved a sigh.
Finally he said, “Nothing, I can think of.”
He had spoken the truth about the opening. I met him on the street the next day as he walked back from the Food Fair. By then I had been troubled by a second thought.
I had not seen his mattress in the darkness of his apartment floor. The front portion of the organ had grown outward in mahogany strata into the space where it had once been.
I asked, “Where are you sleeping now?”
“Where I was. It’s a large space. More there now than what’s left outside.”
I worked at the hotel between 11 pm and 7 am. My habit was to ride my bike up or down the river road on most mornings to awaken my brain in a sort of unguided exploration of the territory, ending up back at the school for classes by nine. I only had classes four days a week and these were usually over by three. By four o’clock I was home again and asleep. But Douglas could be heard moving about in his space at almost any hour. He seemed to have no schedule at all. Because he worked quietly for the most part, and his knocks on the wall were few, my sleep was seldom disturbed.
Whenever he became particularly quiet for an extended number of days though, I would become concerned about him and knock on his door. I could not shake the idea of him imprisoned inside the beast he had constructed.
My acquaintance with Douglas had somehow raised the interest of Adele and, after almost a year of previously ignoring me, she knocked at my door for the very first time soon after Douglas began his project.
She asked if I had any tea. I told her I drank coffee. She asked to borrow some of that. And then she asked if she could borrow my percolator. Next she asked if I would like to have some coffee with her. Always quick, I identified the obvious. It was nearly four o’clock. I was getting ready for my six hours of sleep. But I said yes. This being one of my few opportunities to talk with her about more than the weather. I invited her in and made the coffee myself.
My own furniture was primarily a single large industrial wooden spool, of the kind used for telephone wire, about two feet high and three feet across, which I had laid on its side. This was salvaged from the back lot at the electric company and served as a table. My mattress filled the floor beneath the windows. I also had a couple of folding wooden auditorium chairs and a rather motley assortment of old dresser drawers scavenged from discarded dressers found at the town dump. The drawers were balanced on their sides against one wall with some architectural obedience to size. I had complimented these with an embankment of scrap-wood planks spaced apart with old bricks. All of it but the bed were stacked with books. Even, to a large extent, the spool.
I partially cleared an opening on this by restacking several of the piles a bit higher.
“Why do you have so many books?”
She asked this before she even sat down. I suppose the question was obligatory.
I tried some of my ready wit, “I read a lot.”
She seemed to be silenced by my answer, perhaps thinking I was rude rather than witty, while I filled the pot from the sink and measured the coffee into the strainer.
Finally she asked, “You go to the college on the hill?”
This was a fact that I thought I had mentioned to her before, at least in passing, so I just said, “Yes.” I was uncertain how to develop on that, and thinking of her work at the law office, I asked, “What exactly do you do?”
She answered, “I’m not sure.” Her voice was flat, as if she were revealing something of no importance.
This is a disconcerting answer, given what she had already told me. Surely, everyone knows what they do. I made a better calculation. I asked, “What would you like to do?”
She said, “I don’t know.” Her voice revealed no disappointment with this fact. No worry. It was simply the way it was.
I suppose I was tired. Under normal circumstances I might have immediately launched into some helpful suggestions. As it was, I felt uneasy. Maybe it was the tone of her voice.
I changed direction, “Where are you from?”
“Connecticut.” Again, said without interest.
“Is that where you went to school?”
Her face did not change expression. ‘Benumbed’ was the word that came to mind. She said, “They put me here at the Retreat when I was in high school. I never finished.”
The Brattleboro Retreat was a sanitarium and asylum. Needing extra funds, I had worked there myself for a week when I first came to town–cleaning floors. Mostly vomit and bodily fluids and fecal matter. I quit that because I couldn’t take it. It was overwhelming. But in addition to my experience of the place, there were half a dozen or more outpatients who stayed semi-permanently at the Latchis Hotel, some of whom I knew fairly well now–especially the ones who could not sleep and wandered down to the lobby in the middle of the night. I think now that my chats with them were the better part of the education I was getting at the time.
Smartly, I asked, “Why did they do that? Why did you have to go there?”
Perhaps it was in my head that the Retreat had been used as a rehabilitation center during the Second World War and for some time afterward, as well as a tuberculosis treatment hospital.
She said, “I tried to kill myself.” There was no change in her voice.
That was a good answer. The kind that puts things in a particular perspective. I think I nodded. My desire to ask more questions was gone.
I said, “I’m sorry.”
She said, “It’s better now. I don’t have to be there anymore. I just have to go once a day and speak to my counselor.”
“You can’t go back to Connecticut?”
“No. My parents are divorced. There is no place for me there anymore.”
She had spoken to me fairly straightforwardly until then. She had looked at me with her Orphan Annie eyes as she made each statement. Now she looked away and let her eyes wander.
She said, “Do you know Douglas?”
I said, “Yes.” and then, “No…A little.”
“What is he doing?”
“He’s building an organ.”
“Like a church organ?”
“It makes him happy, I suppose.”
My last answer required at least two or three minutes of reflection on her part. I had been listening to a record before she knocked and I turned it over and checked on the coffee.
She finally said, “He doesn’t look happy.”
“No.” I said, ”He doesn’t. But I think building the organ makes him happier.”
I poured the coffee as she turned to look at the books on the closest shelf. The sun had dropped enough to illuminate the room from the alley window. Her eyes carefully followed each title and then the author’s name on the spine.
Finally she said, “Reading books must make you happy.”
This was the cause of some later reflection on my part, but at the time I said, “Happy and sad. Confused a lot. But it’s what I like to do. Being confused comes naturally.” She didn’t smile at that, so I went on. “Is there anything you like to do?”
Her thin shoulders did not move. Her hands were folded in her lap.
“Swim. I used to swim. I can’t now.”
I asked, “Why? There’s a pool at the high school. They let the public use it on Wednesday nights.”
She nodded once at this as if she already knew. Then she added, “I can only do what they let me. I’m a ward now. One time I tried to swim to Eaton’s Neck. I used to watch the lighthouse there at night. Like a star that fell. One night I tried to swim there. That’s why they put me in the Retreat.”
Eaton’s Neck Light is on Long Island, all the way across the Sound from Connecticut.
I took a guess, “Are you from Darien?”
She didn’t answer. She asked, “Can Douglas play the organ?”
I said, “I think so. He’s probably good at it. I’ve seen a picture of him playing.”
She considered this rather carefully before saying, “There is an organ at the Congregational Church.”
I pursued this, “Do you go there?”
She shook her head, adamantly. The sudden movement seemed almost shocking. Here hair was loose and flared in the sunlight from the window.
She said, “No!” and then, ”Sometimes I go to listen to the organ. I heard it one day from the street, and went in. I go on Saturday when Mrs. Johnson practices. She practices from nine to twelve every Saturday morning.”
I had poured coffee in the only two cups I owned. It was fortunate I had two. I had put out the sugar, which I kept in an old coffee can, and the last of my milk. When she picked up her cup, she drank it black, seemingly unfazed by the heat. I was without another question again.
She suddenly said, “Where is his wife?”
I knew she was speaking about Douglas, having noticed the gold band on his left hand. I told her what I thought I knew. “I think they are separated.”
She nodded at this. I wondered if the two of them had spoken in the vestibule at some time. I wondered what it was that had sparked her interest in Douglas and why she clearly had no interest in me. She drank the rest of her cup in two or three swallows and stood.
“I better go. Thank you.” And she was gone.
A week or so later I passed Horace in the vestibule. He assured me that the weather was superb and would continue that way for at least another day. We walked down the stairs to the street and he looked up at the blue sky with pride, as if he were the cause.
Then he asked about Douglas. “He looks a little sickly. Is he sick? Has he got something? My sister had tuberculosis. She looked a lot like that.”
I said, “I don’t think so. He just hardly ever gets out.”
He nodded in a broader swing of head and body.
“Maybe Adele will get him out.”
Horace smiled, clearly happy to be sharing a confidence.
“She talks to him in his room. She always leaves the door open so you can hear every word.”
I had not heard this myself and figured it must be happening when I was out on my bike or at school. I wondered what it was they talked about, but I could not ask Horace. I agreed, “Maybe Adele will get him out.”
“She seems very interested in what he doing…” Horace paused and frowned, hooking a finger in one suspender strap. And then asked, “What is he doing?”
I said, “I think she like organs.” I was not trying to be witty.
This piece of information appeared to surprise him “Organs?”
“Pipe-organs. Douglas is building a pipe organ.”
“In his room. He’s an organist and he came to Brattleboro to find a particular Estey organ. He found it.”
Horace looked bewildered. He wandered away toward his used car dealership with shorter strides.
I quickly imagined a romance between Adele and Douglas, and just as quickly dismissed it as an impossibility. Romance was still, to me, a matter of passions. Cyrano and Roxanne. Catherine and Heathcliff. Romeo and Juliet. Even from within his organ, Douglas betrayed little emotion. Given my tendency toward extrapolation and fabrication, I was certain that poor Adele had been brutalized by electroshock therapy or lobotomy or something of the kind. These were treatments I had heard they used at the Brattleboro Retreat. Her benumbed responses and lack of interest in anything I said had conjured all sorts of excuses in my head, other than a simple disinterest in me.
I saw Douglas a few times in the following month, on the street on the way to the Food Fair. That was one part of our schedule that occasionally overlapped. I asked him how he was doing.
The first time he said, “Good!” As he usually did, but this time with inflection.
I asked him if he needed help with anything. He didn’t pause when he said, “Adele is helping, sometimes.”
What I else I notice was that Douglas appeared to be looking healthier. He had lost weight. His skin was not so pasty. His shirt was possibly cleaner.
Another day, in a bright moment and looking for a topic I suppose, I asked, “What if it doesn’t work?”
He seemed totally mystified by the question. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “You won’t be able to test it. Not in your room there. Not without the pipes attached and all. What if you finish putting it all together, and have all the pieces accounted for and then take it apart again and ship it to Cleveland and put it all together a second time and put the pipes on and pedals and the bellows or whatever they are and sit down and start to play it and it doesn’t work. What will you do?”
He appeared amazed by the idea.
“I have faith that it will work.”
Douglas continued to lose weight. On another day I commented about that.
“It’s the carrots.” He said matter-of-factly, raising his purchase up as evidence. The tops of the carrots sprouted from the brown paper bag. “I needed to lose the weight. I was fat. And the space was getting smaller. I am not eating bread anymore. I eat carrots. Celery. Pickles. I have not lost. I have gained. I’m stronger.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“I don’t drink beer.”
I said, “You could call that ‘the healthy organ diet’ and sell a million copies.”
He must have laughed for three minutes.
Seeing his door open on another occasion. I knocked and went in, thinking Adele might be there and I’d see them together. That’s always an easy way to tell if a romance has started. Only the dark angles of the organ loomed in the evening glow from the windows. No other light was on.
I said, “Are you there?”
He answered quickly, “Here!”
I said, “Just wondering if everything was okay.”
He said “Okay.”
I had that sense there was someone else there as well, but I did not ask.
Just before Thanksgiving, one afternoon, the odd knock on the wall came once again. I went directly to his door and went inside.
The organ spoke to me. “What do you think?”
I answered, “About what?” I suspected what, but I would not give in to the quite obvious sight of it.
His voice rose. “About this!”
I shrugged at the broad face of the instrument as if it were alive. Multi-levels of ivory keys had appeared in a cascade across the front some weeks before, but now an array of white-capped knobs filled the enfolding wings at either side. Behind, the decoratively worked wood panels arose above my head as large as a coffin. Below the bottom-most row of grinning keys, the maw opened to rows of smaller pedals. It was late afternoon and sunlight had reached the alley to fill the soiled windows with a haze of light that made the polished wood of the organ glow.
Observantly, I said, “It’s big.”
He said, “It’s done!”
I surveyed the detail of routed and flouted mahogany. I ran a single finger across the keys. It was, in fact, beautiful. I had no standard of what an organ should look like, but this was beautiful, in and of itself.
I said that. “It’s beautiful.”
He said, “It is!”
I said, “That’s great!”
This time he simply slipped from a narrow gap at the wall, just behind the organ.
His discolored teeth broke widely from shaved cheeks. It occurred to me that, though I had heard him laugh several times, I had never seen him smile.
I said, “You should celebrate. I have some beer.”
“I don’t drink beer.”
“God made beer to drink.”
“Men make beer. God makes pipe organs.”
This might have been the last thing I heard him say.
I went home to New York for the Holiday. I was gone for two days. When I got back, Douglas’ door was closed and he didn’t answer my knock. For the next week or so, I heard very little from the wall to his room. I did hear something from the other side–from Adele’s room. Nothing loud. A laugh once, which I was sure belonged to Douglas, but this was none of my business. Weeks passed.
If he was working on taking the organ apart, he was doing it during the day, when I was gone. I heard none of the squeaks and knocks which had been common during the nights before.
Christmas came. This was a longer holiday, and I would be gone for a week. I knocked on his door to say something before I left, but there was no answer. A bit more boldly, I knocked on Adele’s door, but there was no answer there either.
The day after New Year’s I was back. I knocked on Douglas’ door almost immediately then because I heard a sound from there.
Mr. Stubbs opened the door, broom in hand.
“I was looking for Douglas.”
I went in, brushing by Mr. Stubbs, to witness the wide-open space where the organ had been.
I said, “He did it!”
Mr. Stubbs said, “He sure did. What a mess! I don’t think he cleaned the place the whole time. Filthy.”
I had to ask, “Is Adele still here?”
He shrugged at that, “Sure she is. Where is she going to go?”
I had the chance to speak with her one morning a few days afterwards, on my way out. She actually smiled slightly when she saw me.
I asked, “Did Douglas get everything shipped alright? I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to help him pack it all up.”
Her shoulders moved with her answer, in a subtle amplification. Her voice seemed inflected, if only slightly. The light from one dim bulb in the vestibule was caught and magnified at the corner of her eye.
“It was fine. I helped. A moving company came and took all the boxes and other things.”
But he was gone, and she was here. I couldn’t ask about that. It was still none of my business.
I seldom saw her that winter. I had taken on another class and the novel that was my primary project was getting close to an end in a first draft.
One morning in the late spring, I noticed Adele’s door was open. Sunlight reflected from windows of the building across the alley into the room and blinded me as I looked in. Mr. Stubbs stood at the center of the floor, his usual broom in hand.
Smartly, I said, “She’s moved?”
He shook his head and looked down at the floor.
“No . . . No. They found her shirt and pants down by the River, just below the railroad tracks. They think she’s drowned. They haven’t found her body yet.”
I was stunned.
The thought that Douglas had left and broken what small heart had survived within her would not leave me. I wrote a story about it, but couldn’t get it right. There was tragedy there that I was incapable of understanding.
What human beings did to each other without intention was so often worse than any meanness.
But then an odd thing happened.
I got a letter from Douglas. Not quite a letter, but a note in an envelope without a return address. Hardly even a note, really. It was typically abbreviated in the way Douglas could be. It said only, ‘Don’t worry. Have faith.’
This was something that my greater belief in irony at the time would not let me understand until some time later.
Adele too had left a note with her clothes. She had said, ‘I can go now.’
I have since come to the belief that she did not swim into the river. I believe instead that she went in another direction, and left her clothes there beside the river to misdirect those who had presumed to control her life. This is the better faith, and survives with me yet, through time.