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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Petite Suite Inutile

by Robert Wexelblatt

 

 

1. Chaconne Sans Pointe en Si-Mineur pour Cor d’Harmonie et Equerre

 

                Trees, grass, bushes, rocks—all appeared arranged by a gifted gardener determined that everything should look entirely natural.  The first time Baum drove up to see the property on a Sunday early in May his good luck almost frightened him.  The grounds were like those in a seventeenth-century pastoral fantasy, extensive, pleasingly proportioned, varied, and picturesquely wooded, with a spring, a stream, a meadow, smooth green hills.  It was springtime, but such a spot would look handsome in any season.  Baum wished he had Abigail with him.  They could have hiked and picnicked and he would have asked her to marry him.

 

                The commission overwhelmed Baum.  He was terribly young, had neither reputation nor, as yet, any experience.  It was the sort of opportunity he dreamed might come his way, if he were diligent and lucky, in twenty or thirty years.  There had been a phone call from a private secretary, a letter of intent with a few particulars, then a contract.  Between the phone call and the letter Professor Beaufort had written to dispel the mystery.  Mr. Saint-Cloud, an acquaintance, had been in communication with him.  He wanted a young architect, recently graduated but talented, by preference under thirty.  Might the good professor perhaps recommend someone?

 

                What Mr. Saint-Cloud seemed to want was a manor house, a country seat for the family, akin to those Tudor and Georgian piles mentioned in old English novels—only updated, contemporary.  Above all, it must be beautiful, a landmark.  During their conversation, Mr. Saint-Cloud had been emphatic on this high aesthetic requirement, cautioned Professor Beaufort, adding that "Mr. Saint-Cloud is a man of very particular taste.  But he told me he was going to leave everything to his architect. The rich can be eccentric."  That money would not be stinted was obvious from the staggering figure on the contract.  For weeks after that document arrived Baum danced in a dream that promised not to end.  He and Abby wouldn’t have to wait, or scrimp.  As Professor Beaufort predicted, Baum was given a free hand.  He could realize all his best ideas and make a name for himself.

 

                On that first May visit he had chosen the place to build; it was obvious:  a broad plateau wooded with primeval oak and spruce.  Oak Hill, Saint-Cloud could call it, or Saint-Cloud Rise, or—if he were a Francophile—Sapinettes Nuageux.

 

                When Abigail told her parents from whom Baum had received a commission, their stubborn guardedness evaporated and wedding preparations were set in motion. On the honeymoon Baum began sketching out plans—late at night, when he believed his new wife was asleep.  He didn’t realize that he spoke of little else.  Abby found it amusing; in fact, she approved of Baum’s enthusiasm.  She wanted him to succeed.  They decided to come home a few days early and he drove her up river for her first look at the site.

 

                "Saint-Cloud owns all this?" she said.

 

                "Pretty much from horizon to horizon."

 

                Baum studied famous modern houses, noted their flaws and anything he could improve on or steal.  He saw where his colleagues had made their compromises and determined to make none himself.  The money was there. Saint-Cloud had given him enough to live on for three years, and well, too.

 

                Baum was like a sprinter running a marathon.  Nothing would happen for days, a whole terrible week would drag by, and then suddenly ideas would cascade from his brain and Abby would scarcely lay eyes on him.  Little inspirations would visit him over dinner, in the shower, even in the middle of love-making.

 

                Abigail got pregnant.  Her parents couldn’t have been more pleased.

 

                Work on the site began a month before the baby was due.  Many of the big trees had to be taken down and removed, the basement dug, foundation laid, materials delivered and stored. Mr. Saint-Cloud returned Baum’s final drawings, painstakingly colored in, with a single word written on his creamy stationery, one that might as well have been a reminder as a verdict:  "Beautiful."

 

                The baby came.  A boy.  They named him Brian.  Brian Baum.  Three syllables, with alliteration.  Baum found a small bungalow five miles from the site to stay during the week.  Abigail was understanding.

 

                The contractors behaved about as Baum expected.  There were delays, but nothing too long or unforeseen, and the quality of their work was really excellent.  The men seemed to understand that what they were building was a special place; they took pride in their masonry and plastering and the state-of-the-art electrical arrangements.  As for Ms. Landor, the landscaper, she felt as privileged as Baum to have such a canvas on which to work—and such a budget.

 

                Beautiful the house was, more than beautiful.  There were airy rooms and cozy ones, an imposing curved central staircase under an atrium, imaginative lighting, trees for shade, ideal views from every triple-glazed window, a wide, inviting porch.

 

                Baum brought Abigail and Brian up to see it.

 

                "I’m so proud of you," Abby whispered and squeezed his bicep.

 

                Not once had Saint-Cloud visited the site, nor did any of his family or staff.  His personal secretary informed Baum early on that his employer was giving him complete control of the project and was content to wait until the house was finished before viewing it.  "Our mutual employer is a busy man, Mr. Baum, with business interests and properties all over the world."  The photographs documenting progress that Baum sent dutifully and proudly at regular intervals elicited no response.

 

                The day after the final dab of interior paint was applied, Baum telephoned Saint-Cloud’s office and informed the secretary.  He then waited, could hardly eat, became distracted when playing with Brian, missed half of what was said to him.  Abby did her best to reassure and entertain him, by turns.

 

                At last a creamy envelope arrived.  Baum felt the same as he did when getting the results of his comprehensive examination, both confident and apprehensive.  He took the envelope to his study, closed the door, and opened it with care.  The single sheet of stationery had only two words on it:  "Start over."

 

                After a terrible night he called the private secretary to ask for clarification.  The secretary let him say all he wanted then asked if he had anything to add.  He then replied that Mr. Saint-Cloud could hardly have been clearer.   "Tear it down and begin again, Mr. Baum."

 

                "Begin again?  You mean from scratch?"

 

                "Yes.  Mr. Saint-Cloud appreciates your work, I’m sure, but he wants a new design.  Another check will be sent to you, assuming, that is, you will agree to continue the work."

 

                Baum felt demolished, as his masterpiece would be.  He hid in the bathroom and wept.  Abigail comforted him as she did their child, speaking softly and patting his back.

 

                Baum agreed to begin again.  The check was even larger than the first one.  He and Abby picked out a fifty-year-old colonial in a suburb, nothing elaborate.

 

                It was difficult to conceive new ideas but eventually they began to come.  He would try something more radical this time, with cantilevers, a Zen rock garden, an open floor plan on the first floor, five huge bedrooms upstairs, a complete home theater and a Victorian billiard room with walnut wainscoting.

 

                The demolition was heart-breaking.  The contractors came to watch and shook their heads.

 

                It took three years to build the new mansion.

 

                "Start over," read the letter.

 

                Baum wanted to quit.  But level-headed Abigail pointed out that their expenses were not small.  Brian was in private school.  Property taxes had increased.  Moreover, he was not getting any younger, was not a partner in any firm with steady work; he had no buildings at all to his name, only some photographs and drawings of two magnificent but ex-houses of a kind nobody but a billionaire could afford.

 

                "Perhaps they were too good, dear," she said softly, "too beautiful to be lived in."

 

                Baum’s next effort, less grand and more homey, was likewise rejected, also the two after that.  Each time he began again, no longer surprised by what he found inside the creamy envelopes.

 

                Abigail had an affair but decided to stay with Baum, who gratefully forgave her.  Brian gave up lacrosse for reading, rebelled, went off to college.

 

                In his mid-fifties, Baum had a heart attack.  He received a letter from Mr. Saint-Cloud addressed to him in care of the hospital, the longest he had ever received.  "If you are up to it, start over."

 

 

2. Duo Concertante pour Violoncelles en Mi-mineur, Faible, Futile, et Funèbre

               

                "Diplomacy is chiefly gossip, haven’t you found?  I once joked with the Minister that instead of bald men in striped suits, it ought to be conducted by village women, women of a certain age, that is."

 

                "You know that’s sexist.  And ageist."

 

                "No doubt.  It must be charming to live in a country which can worry about such refinements of political etiquette."

 

                "Instead of torture and murder?"

 

                "Where is your political etiquette, Claude?  Enhanced interrogation and extra-judicial executions, if you please."

 

                The Belgian smiled, albeit reluctantly.

 

                "You’ve been a good friend, Claude.  I almost feel I can trust you."

 

                "That’s saying a good deal, coming from you."

 

                "In our world, yes it is."

 

                "And so, you want to . . . gossip?"

 

                "I do, I do.  But only if you give me your word as a diplomat, a Belgian, a Catholic, and, above all, as a lover of Vermeer, that what I say will be so far off the record that the record can’t even be glimpsed with Leica Duovid binoculars."

 

                The afternoon was unusually close.  Through the open windows, beneath the crowns of the linden trees, traffic bustled through the tidy Scandinavian capital.  Even though the crisis was over, uniformed police were still posted prominently and prudently in front of the embassy.  The Ambassador, wearing an old tweed jacket and slacks, sat sipping sweet tea with his Belgian colleague, a desert custom he affected to preserve. The Belgian had thoughtfully brought along a box of the Ambassador’s favorite chocolates.  Both men were old hands, in their sixties.  They respected and liked one another, such human affinities being inevitable if unprofessional.  Alone and off duty, their countries seemed to count for less, even further away than usual.

 

                "We are alone?"

 

                "We are.  I’ve had the recording machines switched off."

 

                "My government would like to know whatever you have to say.  Remember, Brussels is the new Rome, the capital of Europe."

 

                The Ambassador chuckled.  "Rather as Karachi is the Paris of Asia, I’d say.  Have you ever been to Karachi?"

 

                "For my sins."

 

                "How Catholic an expression that is!  Your sins.  We diplomats, I’ve always thought, commit only faux pas."

 

                "It’s just as you say.  Those are our sins."

 

                "You haven’t lost your bon esprit, Claude.  So, shall I tell you the story, then?"

 

                The Belgian sipped his tea.  "You will, if you want to.  I will certainly listen with interest."

 

                "Very well.   Then I shall tell you what really happened in my country during the last month.  Or rather one version of what happened.  The unofficial version."

 

                "Unofficial signifying true?"

 

                The Ambassador nodded in appreciation of this sally.  "If you like."

 

                "Why tell me?"

 

                "Oh, for the sheer pleasure of doing so.  Gossip, like joking, is an oral art.  Also to relieve myself.  And because, as I said, I nearly trust you, Claude."

 

                The Belgian cautiously crossed his legs.  "Not because you want the story to get out?"

 

                The Ambassador made a serious face.  "No, Claude.  No, I do not."

 

                His guest weighed the sincerity of this remark, of the two no’s.

 

                "Then proceed."

 

                The Ambassador fingered the lapel of his archaic three-button Harris tweed.  "From my happy years in Cambridge.  Wears forever, you know.  The young king—an Oxford man.  Never held it against me.  Quite the contrary.  It made a bond, Harris tweed, damp sheets, bad tea.  Bright, you know, as everyone said," here he tapped the side of his considerable nose, "and far keener on change than most were aware."

 

                "We had our hopes."

 

                "You had your hopes, did you?  Of course.  But such obstacles!  First, his father, who could be an ogre, but was nothing compared to the Prime Minister, not to mention the Army, the imams, and, over and under all, the rich."

 

                "But when his father died . . ?"

 

                "Not a moment’s vacuum. There were the others, especially the P. M.  Did you know the old king was scared to death of the P. M.?  People were naïve to suppose a new monarch would overturn everything, that he’d be permitted to take even the first baby step in that direction.  A figurehead, Claude, doesn’t lead; he is driven.  Oh, he made efforts, very considerable ones, I’d say, but was balked at every turn.  His so-called advisors were not of his choice, the P. M.’s men, every one.  Sympathetic youngsters with Western degrees and loose tongues wound up in prison or, more usually, in cities like this one."

 

                "Then came the Blogger."

 

                "Yes, the Blogger, the mysterious Blogger. They seek him here, they seek him there; those Frenchies seek him everywhere.  Is he in heaven? Or is he in hell?  That damned elusive Pimpernel!  Not Frenchies, naturally, but the P. M.’s unofficial thugs.  Found him too—oh, dozens of times."  The Ambassador laughs, coughs, resumes.  "The Blogger rouses the young people.  The Blogger’s blogs are blocked but he blogs his way right through the baffles.  It is a farce."

 

                "As I understand it, he spoke for the people more than he led them."

 

                The Ambassador throws up a hand.  "Who knows?  Chickens and eggs. The people called for whatever the Blogger called for.  Clean out the rubbish.  A new government. Abolish the secret police.  More rights.  Scribble a new constitution.  Make the monarchy constitutional, forsooth."

 

                "Intoxicating stuff."

 

                "One-hundred proof poured down the collective gullet of a nation of teetotalers."

 

                "The young king became their champion?  Isn’t that how the press played it?"

 

                "The international press, yes.  Not ours, of course.  As if he weren’t bound hand and foot."

 

                "Was he?"


                The Ambassador looked askance at the Belgian.  "You know something?"

 

                "Oh, nothing, I assure you."

 

                "You know the identity of the Blogger, perhaps?"

 

                The Belgian shrugged.  "Does anyone?  They seek him here, they seek him there.  Could be any one of a hundred different computer nerds.  Could be all of them."

 

                "So he could.  Five score starry-eyed liberals squatting in basements."

 

                "I take it from your tone this is not the case."

 

                "The assassination."

 

                "Yes?"

 

                "You believe it was that crowd that rushed the young king that did for him?"

 

                "That was the official story.  That is to say, your government’s.  It was the excuse for the police cracking down, the reason the Army shot so mercilessly, and why the loyal royalist majority approved."

 

                "You’re right about the official story and about the mob recoiling in horror and, alas, about the shooting.  No hiding that."

 

                "So . . . not that crowd we all saw on television, then?"

 

                "Oh, there was a crowd all right.  But among them were the P. M.’s men.  A salted crowd.  You might even say they were the leaders—in the purest sense, the demagogues.  You’ve guessed?"

 

                "It wasn’t difficult."

 

                "No, I suppose not.  The Blogger was the young king, who was also the martyr, who was also the agent of reform, who was also transmuted by the P. M.’s alchemy into the occasion of repression."  The Ambassador looked away.  "A first at Oxford.  He read economics, poor lad."

 

                The Belgian remained silent for a decent interval.  "It ought to be told, you know."

 

                "You think so?  Well, not by me, my friend, and not, on the thrice blessed soul of Jan Van der Meer—may his soul be enjoying Paradise—by you either."

 

 

3. Vocalise Contrecarrant pour Voix de Première Année en Mi-bémol, à la Sisyphe

 

                From the three excellent and imaginative topics suggested for our initial paper in this required freshman writing seminar I have chosen the one inviting us to write about "a memorable high school experience."  Write what you know:  that is the rule, I believe.  Also, it is an intriguing idea to have us look at our recent past just when we are eager to be free of, or growing sentimental about, it.

 

                The experience I wish to describe began in October of my senior year, eleven months ago.

 

                I was in Mr. Riordan’s afternoon calculus class when the alarm bells began clanging.  Mr. Riordan calmly told us to leave in an orderly fashion, first row first and so on.  So we all headed for the exits.  The whole school filed into the parking lot, but we were perplexed.  Nobody had seen flames or smelled smoke.  Nevertheless, fire trucks and police cars pulled in from every direction, sirens going like mad.  The firemen and most of the police rushed inside the school; the rest spread their arms like scarecrows to herd us on to the running track and the football field, further from the school building.

 

                I confess the interruption was welcome.  It was a bright autumn day and it felt good to be outside.  A lot of students pulled out their phones and in no time frantic mothers started arriving in their SUVs, which annoyed the police.  We milled around, horsed around too.  To us, it was a holiday, like when you wake up to a snowstorm.  By the time the firemen and police left the school it was three o’clock and we were dismissed.

 

                The following day the principal, Ms. McIntyre, announced that there had been a bomb threat; but by then everybody knew that.  It had been all over the evening news.  Still, it took two days before a reporter for News 7 ferreted out the ostensible reason for the threat.  "Let the aldermen see what it’s like with no school at all," the caller had allegedly said.  This was taken to be a reference to a recent vote to cut school funding.  Members of the teachers’ union were suspected.

 

                A week later, in the morning this time, the same thing happened.  This time I was in Ms. Antonelli’s English class, where we were discussing Antigone, an ancient play by Sophocles.  That day was rainy and chilly and it was not so much fun to be out on the football field.  We were soaked and freezing.  Moreover, we missed lunch and a lot of us just went home.  At first, everybody naturally assumed the bomb threat had to do with the school budget again.  However, according to News 7, the caller, who was described as having "disguised his voice," said he wanted to protest the Advanced Placement math courses.  "What good’s a class only eight students can pass?"  So this time suspicion fell on the thirty-six students who had dropped AP Math.

 

                The next threat came on a Friday in early December by which time it was downright cold and so, when the alarm went off, we were reluctant to leave the building.  The teachers had trouble getting us out, so the firemen and police took over.  They were big men in a bad mood.  Most of us decided to declare an early weekend.  According to Late News 7, this time the threat was political:  "This is to get the attention of the government.  Cancel the F-22 program, or else."

 

                When we arrived at school on Monday morning, we found a bed sheet hanging from two second-story windows on which somebody had painted "BLOW UP OR SHUT UP."  We cheered.  The sign was quickly torn down by the janitors.  Later in the day a letter from Ms. McIntyre was handed out with instructions to read it and see that our parents did as well.  It asked us for information on the miscreant (confidential, no names required), laid out the costs so far incurred in dollars (for police and firemen) and in lost time (a week or even two would be added to the end of the school year if these disruptions persisted), and cited the ordinance that made vacating a threatened building mandatory.  The principal also wanted us to know that the FBI and Homeland Security had been contacted and were now participating in the investigation.

 

                The last week of classes before the Christmas break brought another bomb threat.  This time we were at least allowed to get our coats before being driven out in to the freezing air and first snowflakes of the year.  The message this time caused real consternation.  It appeared to be a protest against what the French existentialists, such as J. P. Sartre and A. Camus, called "l’absurdité de la vie."  The bomber’s message was that it was unacceptable that "human beings are born to become conscious only to realize that they will die."

 

                The bomb threats resumed with classes in January.  Ms. McIntyre asked for faculty volunteers to serve on a bomb squad that would search the building in case of bomb threats.  Apparently, the police and firemen had refused to come again.  As the bomb squad would stay inside the heated building, every single teacher volunteered.  Meanwhile, we exasperated students tried to find out who was responsible.  We figured it must be somebody who was having a hard time, one of the alienated, bullied, failing, or despised and several plausible candidates were beaten up in an effort to extract a confession.

 

                "End bullying now" was the bomber’s next message.

 

                By February, the threats had become part of the school routine.  We left the building, the faculty had coffee, and it was all over in ten minutes.

 

                No one ever confessed and nothing resembling a bomb was ever found.

 

                On a personal note, I would like to add that I am very happy to be a college student and eagerly anticipating all that I will learn in your class.