Twice in my life I have grappled with the ambition of creating an opera. I just do not have the yeoman time in a performing company, or the music theory classes, to pull it off. But the stuff I hear in my head finds its way out through the piano occasionally.
One of them is a redaction of the Fourth Branch of the Welsh national epic The Mabinogion. The other is a life of my high-school English teacher.
Martha Alexander D. was about the same age I am now when I met her. I look back and wonder about generational changes, or growing up in the Depression, or cigarettes and bourbon: her face was already lined and she had her graying hair expertly color-rinsed, but you still knew somehow it was gray under there. She had the nodal, purring Tallulah voice that a pack a day gives people, and astonishingly shapely legs that were once the topic of anonymous harassing calls from a student at two in the morning.
She was that vanishing American archetype, the classically educated, bourbon-soaked Southern aristocrat — William Faulkner in a skirt suit from Talbots or Britches of Georgetown. She lived in a bungalow in the neighboring city of Falls Church, which seemed to be populated by retired, boozy women lawyers and similar professionals, prone to knocking at the back door to borrow a cup of Virginia Gentleman. There was a black cat, and later a ginger-white tom who turned out to be a Turkish Van — I helped her rescue him from neglectful owners who hadn’t even had him neutered.
I took her literature class my last year of high school, wrote to her all through college, and came back to visit her on the holidays. I was hardly unique in that — she inspired loyalty in her old students. We all appreciated being treated like adults, probably — I think now — because she couldn’t be bothered to adopt a custodial mode.
She was solidly ahead of her time on most things, and was once heard thundering at the high school principal after a colleague was sacked over being caught at a gay pickup venue: “If we fire everyone on this faculty who’s homosexual, there might be you and me left!!!!”
I only realized in retrospect that she was, as time went on, sinking not just into the bourbon bottle but into some dream of her past, recreated periodically as she saw fit. By the time I was a year or two out of college I had heard several versions of some episodes of her life, though the particulars remained fairly constant. She was the oldest of three daughters — “The commonest family constellation in the world, my dear, and the most mythic one, like Cinderella’s.” Her mother had been twitted over and over on her dark hair and complexion: “Where did you get that little gypsy girl?” Her grandmother had a generous estate, and in the garden there were white peacocks and ordinary peacocks. And then the 1929 crash came and her father had to take paying work, at the University, and there she hobnobbed with members of the literature faculty, one of whom took her to black speakeasies to hear the jazz musicians and deflowered her on a country lane — first reciting John Donne under the stars, then bluntly ordering her to take her clothes off. It sounded like date rape to me. But I have a damnable weakness for Donne, myself.
She married and later divorced an Irish divil who wrote speeches for the US State Department and regularly furgled celebrity women, preferably black. They had one son after she lost a pregnancy that would have been a daughter, almost dying herself in the process. If she got far enough into the bourbon she would recall the “white peace” that settled on her when she almost bled out during the miscarriage. “I am not afraid of dying,” she would say, with a slight edge of bathos. “Any time will be suitable. I am ready.”
Her bungalow was filled with curiosities — a ceramic dragon made by a student, a bird sculpted of the largest single piece of red amber ever recorded, a plaster statue of the Buddha whose topknot had been mercilessly chewed by the cats, an amethyst heart big enough to fill your palm and weight down your hand. She collected mermaid artifacts of all descriptions; the only photograph I have of her involves one. She kept jugs of horrendous Gallo wine in the pantry. I still make her recipe of spinach noodles tossed with sour cream and red caviare — not often, but I make it.
One night, loaded to the gills, she pulled down a book and read aloud Conrad Aiken‘s entire Letter from Li Po, the encomium of a drunken poet by a drunken poet. It was like Von Neumann’s Catastrophe of the Infinite Regress.
Li Po, brought drunk to court, took up his brush,
but washed his face among the lilies first,
then wrote the song of Lady Flying Swallow:
which Hsuang Sung, the emperor, forthwith played,
moving quick fingers on a flute of jade.
Who will forget that afternoon?
The night I told her I was worried, that the five o’clock drink had become the eleven a.m. eye-opener and where was it going from there?, she told me she would send me home in a cab — I usually poached a ride from a friend who worked a late shift — and we never spoke again.
The opening bars of the prelude I wrote shift chords through five keys. There’s a dainty waltz for the plantation reminiscences, and a hammering F-minor setting of Donne’s Lecture Upon The Shadow.
Love is growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after Noone, is Night.
She died the year after I married, of some cancer or other, as recorded in the death notices of the Washington Post. Tough old bird. Her liver must have been made out of old Army boots.
I hope that she wasn’t kidding us all, and that she wasn’t afraid.