This piece of non-fiction comes from our special issue of THERMOS featuring Hunter Deely’s poetry. You can check back every couple days in the coming month for more of his poetry. For an introduction, see here.
Lost in the Loop (An Elegy)
Clive lives in an old Spanish style house in an old Spanish style neighborhood in San Antonio. When he walks out the back door from his kitchen, down a concrete path to his studio, banana plants and orchids and tropical plants brush his face. There is always a vase of fresh flowers on top the piano. When he rubs the horsehair bow across the rosin block, sweet dust fumes in the light and makes him sneeze. Clive is alone.
It’s strange how the first long note of a violin sounds just like a trumpet, like breath was pouring from the strings. The tape player clicks on ambient music for the background, and for a few minutes all the sad faces and neurotic tics and the subconscious operations of the day disappear, and Clive is alone.
When he finishes playing, he listens to the recording and erases it before it finishes. He sets the violin back in its case, staring into the wooden eyes of the bearded face carved into the head of the violin, hundreds of years old and worth more than his house. He covers it with its velvet blanket, places the bow on its hooks, closes the case, zips it up slowly, breathes in the rustle of the blanket on the strings, the metal teeth clicking together, the affront against silence, and then as the last teeth close the faint ringing starts up, and he stands mesmerized by it, like the dying of a chime which never really stops, just bleeds into the vibration of the air and the bodies and stones around it, the Earth always humming and gyrating to its own harmony as if all the heartbeats in the universe were shivering in Clive’s cochlea in those brief moments when the world tries its hardest to hold and finds itself too full of life.
When I was nine years old I started taking lessons from Clive Amor. At the time, I was obsessed by Celtic fiddle music and I wanted nothing more than to play it. That year, just before the turn of the millennium, my father took me to a Chieftans concert, the first time I had ever really seen live music aside from country and western bands at rodeo dancehalls. The music was fast, a whole choir of old men and young women with long hair plucked strange and beautiful instruments and the soft drone at the back, as if the bagpiper were standing behind me (the band had no bagpiper). The music was plaintive, a girl danced a jig, the bodhrans rumbled and the room clapped in unison.
In the symphony hall, his vision tunnels. Small plucks on strings rise and drop, heels click on clean wood, bodily adjustments in the seats, chatter and chuckles, sniffs of mucus back into the throat, throats clearing, all rising together in a chorus of offset insect wings. Clive can do nothing but stare at the notes on his sheets of music, which begin to wiggle the longer he goes forgetting to blink, or breathe, subconscious operations which require a great deal of effort when his brain becomes addled with the din. Someone says hello, and he smiles. He swallows his spit and tries to listen to the tone he knows must lie somewhere within the noise.
He hears a note from a cello. The bow changes direction so quick and smooth there is no discernible break in the note, though he knows that a perforation exists somewhere, that his brain must register it on some deeper level. The conductor takes the stand. The rustle stops and for a second the ringing is there. And then the first notes explode from twenty violins, the drums beat, Clive moves his arms and fingers without thought, almost mechanical, yet feeling less like a machine that at any other point in his existence. Seventy-six people with seventy-six different and more or less unrelated lives leave themselves and merge in a hidden osmosis, they mimic the processes churning in yellow blobs on the seafloor and in fungus grow- ing on dead trees and of the blood and the cells in their own bodies, and they play to an invisible audience, an audience always invisible even when they’re there.
When I was finally able to play a song it was overwhelming. The notes wavered, balanced on an invisible tightrope, and all the images over- flowed from my fingers, thin green rivers, sod and woodsmoke, washerwomen singing to the trees. Then I hit a wrong note and I found myself back in my living room in the suburbs of San Antonio, and went to the CD player to listen to the song the way I imagined it in my head. It was from an album called Lost in the Loop.
In the studio, I watch my black school shoes sinking into the ornate rug, the designs reflecting distorted on the polished leather. I have not practiced my piece, and when Clive asks me to play, with that voice, almost a whisper, each word enunciated with the precision and understated vibrato of a note on his fiddle, the sounds coiling at the end of his tongue like the designs on the rug, I stumble, play wrong notes, I wince through the song while he smiles and his wet lunar eyes stay fixed and shimmering. He plays a few notes, and moves my fingers to a wider grip, I stumble more and he chuckles and helps me through again, and we dance away the hour.
He stands in the doorway while I walk to the car, and he and my mother chat when she goes to hand him his check, while I skip the CD to my favorite track, “The Old Maid of Galway,” and watch Inca doves explode from the asphalt when a car drives past, return and erupt again in sync with the waves of the song. The wet heat in the car is so heavy it’s hard to breathe; a film of oil seeps from my skin, my lower back is wet against the seat.
Clive is upstairs in his house, watching rain fall. His neck is sore. He loops a short riff from the keyboard and starts to play over it, slowly. He can’t make his arm move. He opens his eyes. The rain on the window spreads over his field of vision, he turns knobs on the keyboard and the distant notes bleed together in a pulse as moth wings pulse, the smell of mothballs up into his forehead and the rain fills the room with clouds, two bells sound, the violin falls to the floor, the clouds are spreading, the clouds are spreading and all the air leaves the room.
My mother comes to me weeping and says Mr. Amor is in a coma from meningitis and he was the nicest man she ever knew, why do these things always happen to good people, why?
I listen to Lost in the Loop in my room and wonder what they are yelling about in the other room and why do these things always happen to good people and not my dad when he’s woozy and why do I bother listening to music that kills the people who make it and where am I anyway is there someone looking in the windows at night are the trains in the distance really there or do I hear them to keep away the sound of nothing? My house is on top of a hill and the city is spread out below me, the city lights from far away like a sea of eyes that passes into the stars, that stares and stares.
Years later, I would realize that the Loop was the loop of the song, the loop of life. But at the time I assumed it referred to Loop 1604, the highway that circles San Antonio, which we passed under when we drove out to the Hill Country to swim in the river and listen to the music of the frogs. The country was full of fireflies and low hills and cypress trees, and the fiddle music was always most at home out there, as it is in all hill countries. I hunted fossils and collected bugs and the air always smelled clean and thick, thick sometimes like the rotting carcass of a deer.
“Are you better now Mr. Amor?”
“I certainly hope so. I have to take antibiotics and call them if I feel strange but I feel wonderful.”
“I went into a coma from spinal meningitis, when your spinal cord gets swollen. I was asleep for two weeks.”
“Did it hurt?’’
“It was the best feeling I’ve ever felt.” He looks out the window.
“I was floating in a bed of clouds and time didn’t pass anymore, I was just staring at the sky and the sun filled the whole sky, and I heard the most beautiful music, it was a violin and choir of voices but really they made the same sound, and I wasn’t sure who or what or where I was but I could see the notes of the music. When I recorded it I wrote it down and I recorded this CD yesterday. It doesn’t sound like what I heard but it’s as best as I can remember it. It was so beautiful. So what songs have you been working on?”
I trace the coils of the violin strings around their pegs with my fingers. I haven’t played in years. The Clash is blaring over the stereo, my guitars are strewn about the room. What a catastrophe. Why won’t she return my calls? I wish I was sleeping. My throat is sore from the last time I saw my parents and told them I didn’t love them.
On the bed is a small postcard which says in cursive letters “Celebrating the Life of Clive Amor 1958-2004.” I have not spoken to him in five years, since I quit taking lessons to learn the guitar instead. Was it meningitis? The song ends. The ringing starts up. I close my eyes and see the pat- terns of the rug on my small black shoes coiling behind my eyes, I wonder if I’m really here, if someone is watching me and if so what would they think of me if someone is watching me my whole life, not God (I don’t believe in God) but someone is watching, someone must be watching. What happened to Mr. Amor? If I hadn’t seen the card on a table in my English classroom he would have disappeared silently; now the fiddle music is screaming through the pulse of the air conditioner, the cars on the road outside, the sound of my fingerprints against the texture of the spun strings, and the ringing is making a tune, “The Old Maid of Galway,” one riff that rises
up like the hill behind my house in the country on the North side of Loop 1604, repeating itself over and over, over and over, like a woman crying whose tears melt her house of sod, the loop is closing in, there is no air in the room, my neck is stiff, it’s sunny outside but I swear it’s raining. All I can see is the sun through the window. Clive is looking at the sun, hearing music he can’t copy onto tape, music that only exists when there are no senses but only the music of his innards and bones and brain pumping slower and slower, the loop of blood slowing like the emptying riverbed where the fiddle music settles, and I throw the card in the trashcan, and I wish I could play the music I am hearing.