The future teases us when we desire its secrets. When we are eager to accept whatever gifts it may bring, it crawls toward us, sometimes making generations of humanity wait on the arrivals platform to see who, or what, emerges. For some of us, the future rushes in when we pray for a delay of its inevitable arrival, freighted, we fear, with truths destined to crush our hearts. It approaches, and we feel it, and watch it form and become the present. And then, just when we think we have it in hand, ready to do our bidding, or having done its worst, fissures form, it cracks apart, and fades into the mists of an imperfectly remembered past.
Moving forward, we follow the arrow of time in a constant grasping of trapeze bars fashioned out of our choices, one after the other. The trick is to keep up the pace, to achieve just the right momentum to arrive at the next bar as it swings toward you. Lose that momentum, and you lose the rhythm; the next bar comes then goes without you, your pendulum’s arc diminishing with each missed opportunity…slowing down until you hang motionless…and the cords of time, unable to support your dangling weight, begin to fray and fail. Maybe a trapeze from the future comes your way as a gift from someone who cares.
You reach out and feel the breeze of it; you can see the grain of the wood; you can smell its chalk-dusted grip…but it is beyond your fingertips and you watch helplessly as it falls away, shuttling back toward a future that might have been yours. You only get a few more of those, but it doesn’t matter; you’re not catching any more rides.
You stare in wonder at those who glide effortlessly past you, their trapezes totally in sync with the next one and the next one and the next one, until they are so far ahead you lose sight of their progress beneath the vast expanse of the human tent. That’s when you know it’s time to come down from the bar…time to take to the sawdust of the tent floor and make your way on foot. All of that will happen to some of us…perhaps most of us…but when we are very young, when the world is open in every direction, we cannot imagine the pains that crouch in restless anticipation of our journeys to come.
I remember lying in my bed. Summer, 1954. I was five. The Virginia night drifted through my room and carried with it the low-pitched thrum of newly emergent cicadas. Sounds from the backyard garden party mingled with quiet conversations from the floor below where my parents were having drinks with a few friends. Little stick-on stars and planets and comets glowed pale green on the ceiling of my room, their phosphorescence competing with the shimmering flashes of light reflecting from the pool beneath my window. The evening was fading to blue-black. I was listening, sleepy-eared, to the muted laughs from the patio and the clinks of ice in tumblers as martinis were refreshed when my father came to the bedroom door, the click-flash of a Zippo lighter announcing his arrival.
He’d brought his guitar.
“Nope, not too much.”
“Want me to close the window?”
“Uh unh. I like it open.”
“How about I just sit here with you for a bit?”
“That’d be nice. Will you play a song?”
“A couple, if you’d like.”
My dad placed a small, square glass ashtray on nightstand and sat on the edge of my bed, his weight drawing me off-center. He slipped the guitar strap over his neck and shoulder, carefully avoiding the cigarette dangling on the right side of his lower lip. He spent a moment or two twisting the ivory-white tuning keys. As he gently turned each key, I could sense the tension increasing or relaxing along the length of each glistening metal fiber. String by string, my father coaxed the guitar into tune.
From my angle in the bed, I studied my father’s left profile, limned by the hall light. In his world, he was young man, just 33, and on the rise in rank and position. In my world, he was just Pop, or Dad. Tall, lean, black hair, brown eyes, Roman nose, gifted with a warm smile and a genuine laugh. And never without a cigarette.
I watched wisps of exhaled smoke curl toward the ceiling as the sweet smell of heated tobacco drifted down across the bed. My father fondled the cigarette with his thumb and index finger, took one last deep inhalation, and placed the Camel in an indentation in a corner of the ashtray.
“Okay, let’s see if we can make a noise with this.”
He pulled the guitar close and leaned his head forward, eyeing the instrument’s neck, surveying the proper sites for his fingers to press the strings to the frets. Satisfied with his starting position, he softly pulled one chord and then another and another from the taut metal strands. In sequence, he played a C, an A-minor, then an F, and finally a G. The universal progression.
“Learn these, old buddy; maybe toss in a D and an E minor, and you’ll be the life of any party for at least a dozen good songs.”
Once he’d settled in with the guitar, my father began humming old songs, then whispersinging the tunes of his own youth and retelling the warrior ballads from the war he’d fought. His fingers shaped little ditties about frogs on lily pads, and it ain’t gonna rain no more, no more. No more.
He sang one song I didn’t understand at all. For years, I only recalled the last three words of each verse, “…the foggy dew.” It was the most melodic of my dad’s repertoire, hills and valleys of notes, climbing and descending with the chord changes, but he did not give it full voice. Instead, he sang it so softly that most of what I remember was the quiet sadness of the music.
It is a song about the Irish rebellion, the Easter Rising of 1916. Tired of being treated like second class citizens in an oft-maligned country, Irish rebels attempted to push back against British troops and lost badly. The song tells of the attack of the small band of determined fighters, and of their defeat under the big British guns in the foggy dew. It wasn’t until many years later, when I began studying my family’s genealogy, that I uncovered deep Northern Irish roots tracing back to the 16th century. Turns out, the songs are in my blood.
Of course, I knew nothing of such things while I listened to my father in the gloaming of my room. And the chords, A minor, G, E minor, A minor, D minor, fit themselves in neat slots in my brain and locked themselves in. They stayed there, teasing me from behind the closed door of imperfect memory, a door I would unlock only after my father’s death.
Sometimes only chords came. He softly swept through a major seventh scale. Strummed slowly, the notes were on the sad side of mellow, and rose and fell like boats at a restless anchorage. The major sevenths feel incomplete and unresolved to me; they have no beginnings or ends. They enter the heart like the cool precursor winds of fall that sweep unexpectedly into the middle of a summer day and depart just as suddenly. When those chilling breezes have gone, summer doesn’t feel the same; an end is coming.
Although the five-year-old me did not understand any of this — I heard only the soft strokes of my father’s thumb across the strings — the sounds from that evening would become the melancholy tones of my youth.
He ran through his simple repertoire, then stood up and propped the guitar on the side of the bed, its keys near my pillow. I reached out to touch the tips of the strings, wound tightly about their key stems, and the sharp, clipped metal ends scritched across my fingertips.
My father pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, turned the pack on its side and tapped out one unfiltered cigarette. He lit the new cigarette from the smoldering stub of the old one, walked out of the bedroom to the hall bathroom and flushed the dying butt in the toilet. I listened to the gurgle of the water swirling away as my father came back.
The dull ember of the Camel suddenly blossomed bright rich red, and I heard my father exhale with a soft puff. Stepping back a few feet from the bedside, my father tapped off a flake of ash and began to write in mid-air with a scarlet cursor. He spelled my name in script, suspending a fiery rope of undulating cursive in the middle of the night-filled room.
I was entranced with his simple art of great arcs and inflowing and expanding spirals, dozens of flowers and polygons, and every letter of the alphabet. One image barely dimmed before a new one hovered in its place. Persistence of vision, the trick of the eye to “remember” an image, kept my room filled with vibrant red-orange streaks and dashes and dots.
As tobacco fire images swirled around me, I began to fade, fighting the night, losing to sleep. My eyelids slowly descended like the curtain on a final scene — the stage lights dimming, the show at its end. From somewhere the covers were pulled about my shoulders and a soft goodnight was whispered from the hall. Outside my window a night bird murmured and the patio door was pulled shut. The stars across my ceiling retreated into the night.