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Hard Without Music

From Portions of a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays (City Lights).

Larry was stopped by his landlady in the hall as he came in from the street.

“Somebody’s up in your room. They saw your ad about the phonograph and records. I thought it’d be all right to let ’em up there. I talked with ’em quite awhile, and besides…”

“It’s all right.” He walked past.

She caught his elbow. “Larry.”

“What?” He turned.

“They’re nuns.”

He didn’t answer.

“Are you all right, Larry?”

“I’m all right.”

“Are you sure, Larry? They’re Sisters. It wouldn’t be bad if they weren’t Sisters.”

He went on up the stairs, then into the bathroom. He closed the door and looked into the mirror. He drank a glass of water, then lit a cigarette. He drew on it quickly in heavy inhales. The smoke rose in the bathroom and the cigarette developed a thin, hard red ash. He took a last draw, walked over to the toilet and dropped it in. Then he walked back to the mirror and looked again…

The door to his room was open and he went in. One nun was sitting in the straight-backed chair and the other was walking toward the phonograph with a record in her hands.

The other one in the chair saw him first.

“Oh, they’re lovely, lovely.”

The nun with the record in her hands put it down next to the phonograph and stood facing him.

“Listen,” he said, “go ahead and play it. Play all you want.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’re all lovely,” said the one in the chair.

“Sister Celia knows them all,” said the one standing.

The one in the chair smiled. Her teeth were very white. “You have such good taste. Almost all of Beethoven, and Brahms, and Bach and…”

“Yes,” said Larry. “Yes, thank you.” He turned to the other nun. “Won’t you sit down?” he asked. But she didn’t move.

The sweat was coming out on his forehead, the palms of his hands, the hollow of his throat. He wiped his hands on his knees. Why was it he had a feeling that he was going to do something dreadful? How black they were dressed; and the white: such a contrast. And the faces. “My favorite,” he said, “is Beethoven’s Ninth.” It wasn’t. He didn’t have any favorites.

“I’d like to use these to teach in the classes,” said Sister Celia, the one in the chair. “It’s so hard…without music.”

“Yes,” said Larry. “For all of us.” His voice had sounded dramatic. He felt as if he didn’t belong in the room. It was hot summer. His eyes filmed, his throat felt dry. A thin string of breeze passed for a moment across his brow. He thought of hospitals, of disinfectant.

“It’s a shame to sell them. I mean…for you,” said Sister Celia. She was evidently the buyer, he thought; the other was just along.

Larry waited a moment and then he answered, “I have to move. To another city. They’d break, you know.”

“I’m sure these would be lovely for my class, for the older girls.”

“Older girls,” said Larry. Then his eyes opened and he stared straight at Sister Celia, at her smooth face and pale nun’s eyes. “That’s wise,” he said. “Extremely wise.” His voice had become harsh and metallic. The sweat formed on his legs and the wool of his trousers pointed into the skin. His hands moved about his knees. He looked down, then back up at Sister Celia. The other nun seemed to hang suspended, way off. Then he began.

“Modern elementary education, for reasons unknown, at least to myself, finds it plausible to introduce Beethoven into the souls of eight-year-olds. Somebody once asked the question, ‘Are composers human?’ Well, I don’t know, but I do know that the sounds that came out of my teacher’s phonograph in the third grade were not, to me, human sounds, sounds in any way relative to real life and real living, the sea or the baseball diamond. And the teacher steeped with her ethereally ponderous and magnificent, her rimless glasses, her white wig and Fifth Symphony, were no more a real part of life than the rest of it… Mozart, Chopin, Handel… The others learned the meaning of the little black dots with tails, and without tails, that climbed up and down the chalk-marked ladders on the blackboard. But I—through fear and revulsion—turtle fashion, withdrew my mind into the dark shell. And today, when I slip my program notes from my record albums…it is still dark…”

He laughed. He felt suddenly old and worldly. He waited for the nuns to speak but they didn’t speak.

“Good music crept up on me. I don’t know how. But suddenly, there it was, and I was a young man in San Francisco spending whatever money I could get feeding symphonies to the hungry insides of my landlady’s wooden, man-high victrola. I think those were the best days of them all, being very young and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge from my window. Almost every day I discovered a new symphony…I selected my albums pretty much by chance, being too nervous and uncomfortable to understand them in the glass partitions of the somehow clinical music shops… There are moments, I have found, when a piece, after previous listenings that were sterile and dry… I have found that a moment comes when the piece at last unfolds itself fully to the mind…”

“Yes, how true,” said Sister Celia.

“You are listening haphazardly, carelessly. And then, through the lazy sheen you have effected, almost upon the sheen, climbing upon it, through it, centering lithely upon the unguarded brain…in comes the melody, curling, singing, dancing… All the full potency of the variations, the counter notes, gliding cool and utterly unbelievable in the mind. In the kindness it is…like the buzzing of countless little steel bees whirling in ever-heightened beauty and knowing… A sudden movement of the body, an effort to follow, will often kill it, and after awhile you learn this. You learn not to kill music. But I guess that’s what I’m doing now, isn’t it?”

The nuns didn’t answer. The one standing moved a little.

“Isn’t it?” Larry repeated.

“How much do you want? How much is it?” asked Sister Celia.

He looked out of the window. Now he felt disgusted. It was the time for jazz and oranges, shaking buttocks. He had waited too long. Outside he saw a woman hanging up a bedsheet. “The ad,” he said quietly, steadily, “asked forty dollars.”

There was a circle of silence. The woman was finished with her bedsheet. Somebody stumbled up the rooming house stairs.

“However,” he looked at Sister Celia and smiled, “I ask thirty-five…”

They left in a taxi after he carried the things down and put them in the back seat between them. They felt very bad about taking the taxi, but said it was the only way. He agreed. They felt bad about the thirty-five dollars too, but they didn’t say anything…

Larry met the landlady as he came back up the steps. “It’s a good thing,” she said.


“For the school, the girls.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I feel fine about it.”

He went up the stairs and back into his room. He sat on the edge of his bed and pulled out his wallet. He ran his fingers along the edges of the bills. Then he took them out and spread them on the bed. The bills were neither old nor new; just middle-aged. There were three tens and a five.
It seemed very little.



Charles Bukowski

A prolific author, Charles Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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