The following is an excerpt from Robert Block’s novel Ardensville.
Harold Vinnoir. He came from Minnesota. He is a Minnesot, not a Native American, just someone from Minnesota. Rural Minnesota, very rural.
He was a slight child who never seemed to really fit into whatever clothes he put on. This unmendable glitch always served to accentuate the unique way he moved. While his arms hung loosely, his hands would sort of wag like the streamers from the handlebars of your first new bike. This signature gait would be most visible on the long solitary walks Harold would take on the dusty roads that stretched to the horizons and served as divisions between fields of corn, wheat, sunflower, hay, or maybe cow pasture.
But whatever uninhabited sort of expanse it was, Harold walked those pathways mostly by himself, and as he walked and hummed, the meadowlarks on the utility wires above him would fly up, calling into the
wind, and then assume the same position on the same utility wires, a half a chorus down the road. Breezes would blow and the crop would shimmy and dip as the hot wind directed and then the sun would go down in a great hymn of red and gold and then the magical spirit fireflies and the music of brother cricket would commence.
Folks figured out that Harold had music in him. He could sing in church and had the patience to teach the songs to the other kids. Shirley Bannister, the spinster choir lady, always with flowers on her
dress and minty breath, once asked him, “My Harold, where do you find the patience to do anything with these children, let alone teaching them hymns?”
“Meadowlarks Miss Bannister. You betcha, meadowlarks.”
In the small county school, Harold could learn to play the instruments other folks had forgotten the names of. There was this music closet way back in the band room and it was full of weird horns and things with strings that someone in the town was in the habit of collecting and storing, for now, in the forgotten closet. Come the little band concerts in town, into which Harold was quickly and happily drafted, folks would remark, “What the hell is that kid playin now?”
Harold did well in school. He was an absorbent hard-working student. He played with his sisters when they were all of an age to play but was marginalized when their more mature agendas required other kinds of stimulation. Though he loved butterflies, he himself was no butterfly. He was not beautiful or very social. But, he was very, very likeable. He had his music and books and golden sunsets and the attention he received in church and school, but he feared this existence was somehow temporary, like a good pair of shoes that might be outgrown or worn through.
As the smart kids were supposed to, Harold went to college, resolved that his college career would function to build a mighty fortress for the moments in splendor and glory which he cherished so very much. Folks would say things like “aim high”, so Harold aimed high. After a successful undergraduate career at a large state university, divinity school seemed a perfect fit for Harold and Harvard saw his potential.
True, once there, he was no longer the strongest player in the room, but he gained a great deal from the company he found.
He was now surrounded by powerful, insatiable intellects and a lively city full of distractions and invitations, of which Harold partook. He saw class divisions in Boston and Cambridge the likes of which he had barely even read about back home. Sometimes there was a color line, not an issue in rural Minnesota in the 40’s & 50’s. Urban poverty smelled bad, nothing like a field of alfalfa, and Harold came to feel a kind of guilty displeasure for having had such a blissful and untroubled childhood.
He was constantly in the company of very attractive women who seemed to love his company (and he their’s), though never with any notion of romance. If a female student showed some possibly tender interest in Harold, he would see it coming and fly to the next telephone pole.
Harold came to realize in these years that his emerging sexual appetites were whetted by the men he met, not the women, and Cambridge provided an ample supply of men who felt the same way.
This development was not expressed in any of the letters home. Visits back to rural Minnesota just got weird. His sisters loved him and kinda knew… but their high school sweet heart husbands were their bread and butter so they were happy and somewhat relieved when vacations ended without crisis and Harold returned to Boston.
And he had become worldly. He didn’t really fit in their town anymore but, “the Lord works in strange ways and Harold works for the Lord, ha,ha,ha.”
Harold graduated from Harvard with honors, a Methodist minister now and ready for a career in the Army of the Lord, with a love for mankind and a kind of man love, empty pockets, and the fire lit in the bellies of so many Americans by the words of John F. Kennedy. But the big kahunas in the American Methodist church didn’t send their new ministers off to some wretched, impoverished dessert village in Africa. The Peace Corps did that, and anyway, there were wretched impoverished villages in Arizona
and New Mexico and South Dakota and most of the other Western states. So with high spirits, strong spirits and the spirit of the Lord in him Harold went forth upon the prairie to kindle religion in a house where dignity and spirit did once abide.
Didn’t work, no sir. Harold couldn’t pitch the product when the truth about the rubes was they were not rubes at all, just tired run over victims that the Lord would help no more then they could help themselves which was not at all. At all.
Harold could love them but his love put no food on their tables nor whiskey in their bottles, and hope and joy began to writhe like a run over snake with just enough life to feel pain but no more.
Then there was an incident involving a young man on the reservation. The facts about what happens in these matters of the heart may evaporate but there remains a stain, indelible and scarlet. Was he banished from a hell of another’s creation or did he repent? Oh, bother. Harold was not marching any more in the army of the Lord. No sir, you betcha!
So where does a fallen angel go to rise again? New Yalk! When Harold told the tale of his time in the wilderness to the blind and lame at Columbia, they found the means to see him through a PhD in philosophy and another in New Yorkology. Harold did not just live in New York, he bathed in it; he slept with it and dreamed it and he rose and twirled with it and moved through it like a passion breeze through the heart. As luck would have it, all of Harold’s talents, patience and intensity along with his degrees qualified him to make and excellent bureaucrat, and so he again set forth to do right, as he saw it, in the offices of the New York State Welfare to Work Administration. A most civil servant.
And here is where we met Harold, in NYC, working for the state, trying to help someone, playing in community orchestras, fortifying a few hobbled church choruses, amassing a huge little library and a large circle of friends who had known instantly upon meeting him that Harold had a light that glowed bright and real over the unnavigable expanses of our wine dark sea. This was who Celia knew, her best friend Harold. Celia saw his light.
It was evening. Light and breeze did not and could not enter the bar. This was not the sunny open vista of the Boathouse where people went to be seen. Mr Singer’s was the sort of place folks went to be invisible. Light and air did not intrude here and neither did fashion or struggle or ambition.
Seeing Philly Singer out of his bar in daylight, a sight rarely on tap, was just all wrong. With his big head, big hands, shoulders, waist and a gait that seem to test the integrity of the pavement beneath him, he appeared as misplaced in his own neighborhood as a Viking might, sitting at a bench on Broadway.
Behind his bar he seemed to float. His weight and size were just lost like the duos and trios who became faceless and voiceless in the dark corners and recesses of the establishment. Philly knew them all by name and when he reached over the bar and applied his 10 second neck and back massage with a mighty hand and asked ’How’s the folks’, well you just felt blessed. If he just shook your hand he’d most likely crush it.
In this micro environment of antique amenity was a blessing of immeasurable delight. A tuned and functioning piano being played by Harold Vinnoir was the light and breeze that helped sanctify Mr Singer’s. Playing was to Harold as speech was to anyone else. He did not start or end songs. He changed subjects as if in a meandering conversation. His vocabulary of music was beyond dictionary. It was library.
No one ever tired of Harold’s playing. He played for his tab and that was just fine with Philly and fine with Harold. On occasion an older couple from the neighborhood would come to have Manhattans. Harold would play a gentle lilting Anniversary Waltz for them. They become weightless and glowing, dancing but barely moving, held close by the song from Harold’s mighty hand. At these occasions Philly might turn to tidy the bills in the till.
With her chair tilted back against the wall, like a gunslinger and one foot on Harold’s piano bench Celia drained a pint, pursed her lips and stared her pregnant contemplative stare.
“It’s not just that she’s so damn cold Harold, it’s like, she won’t ever show herself, not completely, not at one time. Like a damn iceberg.”
Harold listened intently. This he could do while playing without being distracted. He wondered might Celia’s bitter monologue escalate to mood shattering anger.
Celia and Harold were the best of friends.
“You just know, you know there’s all sorts of stuff right there under the surface but she’s only going to tell you what she thinks you need to know, damn iceberg bitch. All my life, all my life in her damn mazes. So exhausting and she lives for being in the driver’s seat while you tiptoe through the bullshit. My Dad would just sit down and go to sleep. He had no tolerance for her smoke and mirrors. Icey bitch.”
Harold waltzed into a tune from Pinocchio.
“Tell me again how or why the puppet mistress can hold so tightly the strings on po’ lil’ you. You know Celia, You are a bit long in the tooth to be crying mommy foul”.
‘M is for the million things you gave me’.
“Harold” Celia growled.
“Just a thought. Pardon, please, continue.”
Celia returned her chair to the four legs on the floor arrangement, searched the bottom of her mug for one more sip, for naught, crossed her legs, cleared her throat, inhaled and spoke.
“My Dad died so suddenly. A chopper crash on the job. He wasn’t irresponsible about a will, he just was not that old when it happened and, healthy like a guy half his age. My mother took control of everything. Inheritance, pensions, insurance, everything! Cold blooded bitch. It’s a long leash but she never lets it go and she never misses an opportunity to remind me. Now she’s playing nice which is just a tactic. She’s going for the big one. She’s bringing out the big guns and I’m being made to dance. I hate this shit Harold. I know I’ve allowed this to get to this point but… damn I hate this shit”
Celia exhaled exhaustion. Her situation was not defensible and her capitulation to her mother seemed imminent.
Harold shifted into a nearly disguised medley from the Wizard of Oz
The idea that she would be a shill for reality T.V. was poison for Celia. Though surely a subsidized existence, Celia’s life was one of pure artistic devotion, a creative life. Now she was being forced to abandon that life as a punishment for having loved it too dearly.
Celia scanned around the bar. She tried to see the faces of the couples safe in their dark corners but could not. Who could not hide here? Who does hide here? Am I hiding here. Is that Jimmy Hoffa in the Hawaiian shirt? Salinger at the bar? Ann Margaret twisting Philly’s ear.
“Say…you were playing… Ophelia”. Harold began, ‘”Even though you knew her lines and his, you would be listening to Hamlet with all your might and intellect. You’d hear every word, inside and out. Everything said and everything not. You’re formidable training has taught you to come to your roles empty. You do not apply your character to a pre-existent portrait of yourself, as if you were putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. You, you Celia, bring blank canvas to the role. That’s part of the reason you’re so good, on stage. You can’t hear what your mother isn’t saying because you are so afraid of getting beat. Shutting up isn’t enough. You’ll have to stop listening defensively when your mother speaks to you. And anyways, silence scares the bejeezus out of a talker, you betcha”
Celia re-crossed her legs the other way. And she crossed her arms and pursed her lips. Her chin fell to her chest and bobbed back up.
“You’re right, you’re right. You’re always right. I just can’t turn it off like that, not with her. It’s like losing in chess. You know it’s coming but you can’t see from where and let me tell you, I know it’s coming”
Celia checked again in case any beer had re-appeared in her mug.
“You can’t negotiate if you can’t hear the deal. Relax sweetheart. Hear the unheard, the unspoken. Coming to my service in the morning? Mmmmmusic for the restless soul”
Celia could not remember how he got there but Harold arrived at ’Sleepers Awake’ once off the yellow brick road.
“What are you playing?”
“Bach. Ole’Bach just Bach”
“They sure let you play a lot of Ole’ Bach at your church. You got something on the congregation over there do ya?”
Harold glissed up the keyboard and brought his musical thought to an abrupt punctuated conclusion.
“I can listen and negotiate and get over. Try it”
Celia saw her friend clearly in the dim light. His light was not dim and it warmed her through with warmth, goodness and wisdom. She raised her empty vessel in true respect and honor.
“Last call, do it?”
Harold drained his drink, and returned Celia’s gesture.
“Sure you bet. And young lady my lady, what will be your final selection of the evening upon returning with our refreshments?”
“Hows bout…My Heart Belongs to Daddy ?”
Harold rolled his eyes “Jeez Celia, maybe you wanna give that one a rest maybe ya think huh?”
Celia pouted considering his reproach.
“Alrightalrightalright yeah, the drinking song from Traviata.”
“Brava my dear” and the piano exploded as Harold’s able hands seemed to play every key at once. Celia went to the bar with the empty glasses which were filled without asking as Philly was singing in duet with Celia. Hoffa, Salinger, Ann Margaret and what sounded like the Lost Battalion all sang. The place sang. The wonderful place was singing.
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