Every month or so, Marilyn and I look forward to getting together with our friends Arlene and Stan, and Rachel and Charlie. A few days before each of the community concert series, Marilyn gets in touch with Arlene and Rachel to make arrangements. Either we meet for dinner before, or we go to the diner afterwards. Whichever couple gets to the auditorium first saves four other seats in the middle section near the front.
Tonight, the Hillside High School auditorium was packed. The Island Philharmonic Society and the concert chorus from the state university were there to perform Mozart’s Requiem after an opening set of Christmas carols, Chanukah songs and spirituals.
During Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Charlie abruptly stood up and started to thrash about. He shouted, “No!… No!” and then “I can’t take it!” He slapped his hands over his ears and started mewling, at first a low whine which increased steadily into an agonizing wail. The music came to a cacophonic halt as the house lights came up.
Charlie slid back, panting and trembling, into his seat. A few moments passed. There was stunned silence; all eyes were turned towards Charlie. Rachel stood over him and patted Charlie’s arm and then stroked the back of his head. “It’s okay, Charlie,” she whispered to him. “It’ll be okay.”
I could make out only snippets of their words as people in the audience started to buzz with worry and concern, and then with annoyance. In a low but insistent voice, Rachel was asking, then demanding of him, “What happened, Charlie? … For chrissakes ... you can tell me.”
“Nothing. It was nothing. Let it go, Rach. Okay?” I figured he wanted her to stop, to stop asking, to leave him alone, to sit down and to stop being the center of attention.
Melvin Green, the president of the Arts Council, stood up and turned toward us. Rachel waved him off. But when he approached anyway, she said, “It’s okay, Mel. Everything’s okay.”
Melvin stepped up onto the stage and grabbed the microphone. He switched it on, tapped it and, in his usual unflappable way, said, “Excuse me folks … excuse me ...” The din died down. “I don’t know what just happened, but, uh ...” – he motioned toward the back – “let’s get those house lights turned down so we could go on with the show.” The conductor tapped his baton, raised it up in the air, and had the orchestra and chorus begin Swing Low again.
The adage about “music soothing …” seemed to work for Charlie. But I kept watching him out of the corner of my eye.
During the intermission Charlie and I stood near the table where Friends of the Arts Council sold CDs and Requiem librettos while our wives were gabbing and laughing with some of the neighborhood women. Stan was shamelessly playing up to people – always the insurance salesman, always ingratiating, I thought. Melvin was busy making the rounds, cajoling possible donors and joking with his many admirers. We always marveled at how well he could play a room.
He sauntered over to us, made some small talk, then turned to Charlie and asked, “Hey, Charlie ... what the hell happened in there?” Melvin was never one to mince words.
“I really can’t talk about it, Mel.” There was a pained look on his face. “Maybe some other time, okay?
Melvin, nodding, took that as his cue to move on.
“Charlie?” I started to ask. “I would really like to know. C’mon ... what happened?”
“I guess I could tell you, but I didn’t want that son of a bitch spreading it around.”
“Hey, take it easy ...”
He shrugged, said, “Sorry,” then continued. “It happens a lot. I get this numbing, overpowering fear of death. A white hot and freezing fear of nothingness. Both at the same time. Can you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yeah. I have a pretty good idea.” I actually had an excellent idea.
“Sometimes it’s when I’m dozing off. Sometimes when I’m reading a story or a newspaper. Or like early yesterday morning, just as I was waking up. Something triggers it and I start to shudder and then ... well, you saw what happens. I can’t get out of my mind the goddamn all-encompassing fear that one day – sooner and sooner everyday, Rich! – I won’t be here anymore.” I sadly shook my head. “There’ll be nothing left of me. No consciousness. No thoughts. No nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero.”
I was uncomfortable about this level of intimacy, although I had asked for it. I felt relieved when the lobby lights blinked several times, and the people still milling around started to head inside for the Requiem.
“Let’s talk more about this. Okay, Charlie?”
He nodded, said, “You’re a good friend, Rich,” shook my hand, and we walked backed into the auditorium.
Rev 6 / October 12, 2010
October, 2010 Copyright © 2010, Lloyd B. Abrams