As I think back on it now, I’m sure I did the right thing. Who was I to deny him his chosen exit?
The terrible thing about life, Michael used to say, is that it’s occasionally rewarding. I believe he first uttered this gloomy credo one evening in 1981 as we stood on the shore of the reservoir, trying to identify bird songs. Cardinals and chickadees were easy, but every other species remained elusive. Michael mimicked some of their calls on his harmonica, an instrument he always carried in his pocket.
“How deep do you think it is?” Michael asked me that night. I wasn’t sure how to take his question, so I simply swallowed, keeping my own counsel.
As you might have guessed, we were quite young at the time. Callow one might even say. Young women existed only as we imagined them, and so our world effectively began and ended with music and literature. I was smitten with the Beatles and Dickens. Michael’s tastes ran more to Irish folk songs and Goethe.
The reservoir we contemplated that evening had been created a decade previously as the result of a gift by an alumnus of our little college. Though man-made, the body of water looked entirely natural and was popular with undergraduates and other wildlife. One sometimes saw herons there, for instance, and I remember comparing their tenuous legs with various dream girls I conjured in my bed at night.
The object of Michael’s affection was scarcely more obtainable. Siobhan O’Sullivan was an Irish folk singer whose obscurity in America had less to do with the quality of her voice–a gentle contralto–than the fact that she sang only in Gaelic. For a few weeks one summer break Michael had earnestly set about learning the language, but he was the first to admit that his desire outpaced his capacity. And anyway I believe he enjoyed
the mystery of her music as much as anything else. He rarely bothered with a translation, preferring instead to summon up his own meanings for her songs based on their emotional tenor.
O’Sullivan’s recordings were very difficult to obtain, but Michael’s passion and resourcefulness had enabled him to amass an extensive collection of her LPs. Most of the album covers featured dramatic painted landscapes–often craggy Irish trees sagging under the weight of English oppression–but her first recording, released in 1970, portrayed the singer’s face in black and white, and it was this photo which had helped to fire my friend’s devotion.
Her curly hair was fair and cut short, almost like a boy’s. Her nose was small and narrow, almost sharp. It was her eyes, though, that dominated her appearance. In the photo you couldn’t tell their color, but we both imagined they must be blue. I was a bit smitten, too, you see, especially since this debut recording included her own translation into Gaelic of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son.”
Though none of her songs featured the instrument, Michael had worked out harmonica accompaniments to many of the tracks, including his favorite, the incomprehensibly titled and impossibly beautiful “Ar Éirinn ni Neosfainn Cé Hi.” We just called it “Ar” for short. Michael had unearthed a translation, and told me that in English its title might be rendered as something like “For Ireland, I’d Not Tell Her Name.” Birds featured in the song, as did waves, and, rather inevitably, the narrator longs for the light of his beloved’s smile. One account Michael found speculated that the lover in the story is a priest, doomed to celibacy, longing for a woman he knows he can never love as man was meant to love woman.
Disciples of Judah’s second son, Michael and I were unfamiliar with love except as it was expressed in the arts. My friend, for example, was fond of speculating what Goethe meant when he expressed that love does not dominate, it cultivates. Michael took it to mean that together, and through their affection, lovers were able to create something new that neither might be capable of experiencing individually. “Or something like that,” he added. Michael’s world was built on such vagaries. He believed that few possessed the talent needed to truly master a skill. The rest of us must be content with our dilettantism and plod along as best we could.
His ability to play the harmonica was but one example. The rudiments of the instrument, he told me, were simple enough to learn, but to truly master it would take years of practice, a sacrifice he was not willing to make. On the diatonic model he favored, it was not possible to produce certain notes without learning a difficult technique called overblowing. Fortunately, there were plenty of tunes, including “Ar,” that did not require this knowledge.
Our senior year had been trying for both of us. Returning from a year abroad in the UK, the small Wisconsin town that housed our college struck me as newly limited and–I was trying out the word–provincial. After seeing Dickens’s London and Strawberry Field in Liverpool, the gentle beauty of sights like the reservoir had begun to pale.
If I suffered from a vague lack or want of something, though, Michael had succumbed to ennui that bordered on despair. Nothing and no one, except for Siobhan, seemed satisfactory or worth his while. His natural ability and a sense of duty to his parents enabled him to earn B’s, but the prospect of graduation was daunting. “I don’t know how to do anything,” he was fond of saying. The fact that this realization stood in bold contradiction to his espoused belief in genial inaptitude apparently made no difference to him.
The simplest manual tasks were quite beyond him. He couldn’t swim, hunted and pecked at the keyboard, had never learned to drive, and couldn’t even change flat tires on his bicycle. Graduate programs struck him as disturbingly esoteric and were, he felt, sure to confirm his view that academe was a recipe for tedium, pursued only by those who were unwilling to confront real life.
I thought it sounded perfect for him.
That year he had decided to reread Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, the embodiment of romanticism that had encouraged a wave of suicides across Europe in the eighteenth century. Taking one’s own life, Michael believed, was not the selfish act many regarded it as, but rather a legitimate choice that one had every right to make. What is the point, he once asked me, of living on aimlessly, merely repeating the tedium of daily life, once an apotheosis has been achieved? Far from being the act of a coward, he continued, suicide was the bravest choice a human could make. Why continue to swim on against the waves once some joyous flood had returned us to the shore? “Or something like that,” he added, with a little smile that momentarily reassured me. In the face of such determined logic, I held my tongue, pondered eternal silence, and reminded myself that all things must pass.
With early April came news that seemed to confirm Michael’s belief that existence sometimes has its rewards. Siobhan O’Sullivan would give a concert at the Conservatory in mid-May, just before Commencement. Our Joyce scholar, Dr. Schaeffer, had convinced Dean Bloom that O’Sullivan’s brand of folk music would contribute “diversity” and prove a stimulating complement to the usual fare of string quartets and chamber orchestras the head of the conservatory favored.
Michael was beside himself. He dusted off his Gaelic grammar books, began an exercise regimen, and invested in a new set of harmonicas that included every major key. Finally, he determined that he would secure a girlfriend who would accompany him to the concert. When he told me his plan, my mien must have betrayed doubt, for he instantly reminded me that Goethe admired those who yearned for the impossible.
And, impossibly, my friend managed to secure a young lady’s consent to go to dinner with him. Mistaking me for someone who might provide useful experience or knowledge, Michael pumped me for advice. Where should they go? In what direction should he steer the conversation? What should he wear? All I managed to tell him was to scratch out the mustard stain on the favorite pair of jeans I knew he would wear. After all, I knew nothing about the girl, not even her name, for he refused to tell me.
For the next several weeks I saw little of Michael. At first I was pleased for him and thought his success might indicate that, I, too was far from a hopeless case. Emboldened, I composed a brief letter that introduced myself and my aims. I contemplated slipping it under the door of the current object of my affection, a fellow senior. I had been observing her for some weeks now, imagining where we might walk, what I might do to secure her regard. Each time I folded the paper, slipped it in my pocket and headed for the door, however, I found sound reasons to delay.
I hugged myself at night, hoarded secret inclinations, and began to take long walks around the reservoir. I think that deep within me I knew how ill-prepared I was for adult life. Michael’s company and our jocular rejection of the norms of college life had kept me buoyant, but now that he had actually embarked on a relationship, I realized how much work lay ahead of me if I wanted to avoid a solitary existence. What did I lack that Michael did not? The question puzzled me, but instead of seeking answers I took familiar refuge in fiction and satisfied my desires à la Portnoy.
The night of the Siobhan O’Sullivan concert I found myself sitting alone in the third row of the subordinate recital hall Dean Bloom had granted for what he deemed Schaeffer’s folly. Sure enough, ten minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, scarcely more than a dozen undergraduates and faculty filled the seats. I was beginning to wonder if Michael’s new experience with flesh and blood had banished his obsession with Siobhan, when in he walked, alone. In one hand he carried his harmonica case. In the other, a canvas bag that threatened to weigh him down. He took a seat next to me but said nothing.
The silence between us was unaccustomed and uncomfortable. I found myself wondering if Michael’s brief excursion into the realm of the living had rendered him newly unfit for my company. His expression of defeat barely changed as Siobhan O’Sullivan took the stage to scattered, polite applause. Though I realized the pettiness of my thought, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the years had not been particularly kind to her. Or perhaps it was merely that the picture of her we had both lingered over had been the result of clever photographic magic. In the flesh, she appeared plain, and already looked tired. Without saying a word of introduction, she began to strum a few chords aimlessly.
As soon as she opened her mouth to sing, however, her face lit up, and I believe Michael and I both recognized that dreams were still worth dreaming, even if, or perhaps precisely because they were merely that. The Irish words she sang were meaningless to us, yet their tone and the story they implied returned us safely to a world of faith. Her voice rose and fell in perfect tune to her guitar, and to say that I was transported does not do justice to the term.
I suddenly found myself thinking of Michael’s friend. Had she declined to come? Was the music not to her taste? Or had she broken up with Michael? I tried to summon a face I might one day love, some similarly detained girl waiting to join life as we all one day surely must. Nothing appeared in my mind’s eye, however, except the barren trees from the singer’s album covers, stripped of leaves and enduring in the face of a tormenting wind.
Lovely song followed lovely song, but still Michael betrayed no emotion and said nothing to me. The performer’s fifth number was “Ar.” As the first familiar chords sounded, Michael opened his harmonica case and took a moment to identify the properly-keyed instrument. He then rose from his seat and walked to the edge of the stage, canvas bag in one hand, harmonica in the other. Raising the instrument to his lips, he began to play. Siobhan O’Sullivan’s head turned toward him, and for a moment I detected anger in her face. Her eyes seemed to will him into silence, and her nose looked newly pointed.
Yet Michael persisted. His first few notes had been tentative, but now he was finding his feet, increasing his tone and asserting his right to join the act. The singer’s face gradually betokened acceptance, and when she turned to face my friend, I knew he had gained her trust. His harmonica
matched her phrasing seamlessly, and aptly reflected the anguish of the piece. As the second verse ended, Siobhan O’Sullivan inclined her head towards Michael, inviting him to take a solo. Taken off guard, he flatted the first note but then began to improvise away from the melody line, playing outside himself and even, I think, including a few overblows.
As the solo ended, and the Irish woman embarked on the final verse of the song, a few members of the audience contributed spontaneous applause. Instead of acknowledging his triumph, however, Michael left the stage, gathered the canvas bag and headed for the exit. At first I thought he might be preparing some additional surprise and allowed myself a smile. My friend had realized some kind of vision, conjured an active triumph so unexpected and total that it beggared the imagination.
After a few moments passed without Michael’s return, however, I began to grow fearful. I knew his tendencies and wondered at the potentially destructive power of life’s zeniths. I left the hall and instinctively headed for the reservoir. As I quickened my pace, I listened for owls and other harbingers of doom, but heard only the distant sounds of thumping stereo woofers and an occasional peel of laughter.
When I found him, he was in up to his neck, still standing, and I knew the weight he carried. I wondered if I should shout something to him but found myself incapable of action. I was waiting for him to take the next step, strangely certain that this was what he would have expected of me and that he would approve of my decision. In that moment I capitulated to his right to do as he chose.
A few frogs were croaking. Their voices were so different from Siobhan O’Sullivan’s, but, I decided, no less powerful in their own way. She was on stage, singing songs both beautiful and incomprehensible, as I listened to notes more ancient still. Or something like that. The frogs croaked, I swallowed hard, and watched as Michael took his next step.
Paul O. Jenkins lives in New Hampshire and increasingly in the past. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Avalon Literary Review, BarBar, and Straylight.
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