The House of Music

by Dale E. Lehman

The neighborhood was yours or mine or Uncle Joe’s. A relic farmhouse slept in the midst of old Victorians and middle-aged ticky-tacky. Oaks and maples shaded the streets. Giant evergreens awaited Christmas and their annual transformation into magical towers of light. The sidewalks buckled, the squirrels romped, the pigeons cooed. They people—they were just people.

But there was one oddity. Over the years, that farmhouse I mentioned had had a score of mismatched additions grafted onto it. By the time I knew it, it had become a cacophony of styles and materials, the target of countless architect jokes. You didn’t have to be a student of architecture yourself to wonder about the deranged mind that had set red brick, half-timbering, and grey stone end-to-end, or what warped aesthetic would flank a Victorian façade with Doric columns and Doric columns with Frank Lloyd Wright. This room was Cape Code, that entire wing was southern plantation. A flat roof capped one addition, pitched crowned another, Alpine yet another. Most unlikely of all was the pagoda hanging off the east end of the house like a lost tourist.

So shocking was this conglomerate that several prominent townsfolk had pronounced the place an eyesore and demanded its demolition. But the farmhouse remained, and every eight or ten years the owner got it into his head to add on another mismatched room or two. God alone knew why.

Ah, yes, the owner. He was another of God’s secrets. Nobody ever saw him. Cloistered in his rambling home-he never as much as peeked through the curtains—he burned the lights twenty-four hours a day, and come nightfall, shadows of people moved across the thin draperies. Many people. Tall and short. Fat and thin. Men, women, and children, eating, dancing, laughing. And that was strange, too, because you never saw them come or go.

But what really drew attention was the music.

The music in that house never ceased. If you stood beside the gateless fence, which was another oddity, you could hear it faintly, mingled with the wind in the trees. Each day we gathered there to listen, a crowd of unlikely audiophiles of every age and persuasion brought together by some undefinable longing. But although now and again someone would catch the melody, most ears were not so keen. The music played and played, teased us, challenged us, sometimes classical, sometimes folk, sometimes jazz or rock or jungle drums. Now it was vocal, now instrumental. It tickled the edges of our perception as we strained to identify it.

There was a bearded old man who claimed he could hear the music perfectly. Day after day, he would prop his frail body against the fence and recite an eclectic procession of titles: The Magic Flute, The Four Seasons, Hey, Jude, The Moonlight Sonata, A Night in Tunisia, and on and on for hours. He stayed all day, apparently having nothing else to do with his time, naming the music for anyone how happened by. The earliest morning arrivals found the old man already there, while the last to leave under the charcoal night left him along with an insect chorus and the music that had enchanted him. Some thought him mad, but if only you had heard those distant chords, you would not think him so strange. Having heard, you would stop to listen. Having stopped, you would find it impossible to move on.

So the House of Music always had an audience, and the old man, because he could somehow hear what the rest of us could only vaguely sense, also had an audience. We relied on him to identify the tunes, then argued amongst ourselves whether or not he was right. As the time, I thought the old man craved the attention, but no I’m not so sure. His radiant smile, his gentle, compelling voice, may simply have been born of his love of the music and his joy in sharing it. Our disbelief never disturbed him.

He just smiled and named the music.

#

The trouble came about because of a reporter. Carol Quick was her name. A red-haired beauty in a gray blazer and a cynic’s smile, she claimed to have come to write about the house, yet she never once passed beyond the fence. Instead, she spent her entire time talking with the gathering. She first approached Sylvia Parsons, who taught history at the high school, and received a careful account of the lights, the shadows, the mysterious owner.

“Have you ever stayed through the night?” Carol asked. “Can you be sure the lights never go out? Can you be sure the owner never leaves?”

“Who can be sure of anything?” Sylvia replied. “It’s what people say.”

“You’ve never kept watch around the clock? Neither you nor anyone you know?”

“I’ve never heard of anyone staying all night, but that doesn’t mean nobody ever has.”

“Then the partygoers in there could well arrive or leave in the middle of the night when no one is watching.”

Sylvia frowned at the farmhouse and said, “Maybe, but I don’t think so,” and many of us murmured agreement.

From soon-to-retire bank executive Sam Koerner, Carol received an account of construction work at the farmhouse. “I’ve seen it happen five times. Craziest thing you can imagine.” He stroked his grey beard and nodded. “I can’t say where the workmen come from. Not from around here, at least.”

“Have you ever talked to them? Who drew up the plans? Who paid the bill?”

“I tried, just once. Got an earful of nonsense in reply. I sometimes think even the builders didn’t know.”

“Somebody had to know. Builders don’t knock together haphazard walls wherever they feel like it.”

“Oh, they had plans and all. They just couldn’t seem to understand them too well. There was confusion, even working at cross-purposes. But in the end it all came together.”

Carol brushed back a lock of hair that the wind had tossed in her face. “They sound like amateurs. Perhaps they didn’t get it right. That would explain why the house is so, so—“

Sam reddened. “There’s nothing wrong with that house! It’s exactly the way it’s meant to be!”

“You’ve got to be kidding! It’s a mess! Tell me, if you saw the builders, what was the name of the construction company?”

“Are you calling me a liar? I’m a respected citizen of this town! Nobody calls me a liar!” As he raged, he jabbed the air with his index finger.

Carol rolled her eyes and sought out another interview.

The music was the topic for Alice and Alex Hampton, ten-year-old twins whose golden hair caught the sun and tossed it back in a halo that surrounded them both.

“Oh yes, there’s always music,” Alice said.

“Always,” Alex agreed. “Can’t you hear it?”

Carol turned her head, put a hand to her ear, called for silence. “No, I can’t. Can you?”

“Of course!” the twins said as one. They laughed and disappeared into the crowd.

Carol tossed her hair back and listened again. “Nothing. It must be the kids’ imagination.”

A wave of I-told-you-sos rippled through the crowd, then Sylvia’s classroom-conditioned voice rose above the din, her lecture on the selectivity of perception fighting for attention with Sam’s angry insistence that he knew what he heard. Teenagers bickered among themselves (“You only believe it because your parents do!” “I did so hear something, it was just very quiet!” “Nobody believes that anymore!” “Everybody knows its true!”). Thirty-year-old Dr. Blaukamp tried to explain the scientific rules of evidence to Melanie Frazier, a young, up-and-coming poet who didn’t care to listen. She slapped the doctor’s gesturing hands aside and slipped away. The doctor tried his luck on someone else.

The assemblage grew quiet when the old man, smiling to himself, said, “Do listen! They’re playing Shostakovich.” He marked the beat with his foot.

Carol listened. “I don’t hear a note.”

“Move closer,” the old man suggested.

She gave him a patronizing smirk.

“Turn up your hearing aid.”

“I don’t wear one. Move closer. Open the door. Go in. You’ll hear much better when you come out. If you come out. Some prefer to stay.”

“You’re a lunatic,” she said.

Her newspaper story said the same.

For a week after that article was published, hell reigned in our little town. You wouldn’t think such a trivial thing could inflame passions so. Letters to the editor blasted Carol’s arrogance, praised her honesty and courage, castigated her for stirring up trouble, lauded her for stirring up trouble. Some said the paper shouldn’t have printed the story. Some said readers should ignore the story, while others insisted we couldn’t afford to ignore it. Arguments spilled over the edges of the paper and into bars, coffee shops, and streets. Even the ribbon-cutting at the new shopping mall became a forum for the altercation when Mayor Chandler, as he snipped the red, white, and blue cords from the main entrance, said, “I now declare the Fair Oaks Mall open, and I welcome its merchants to the growing list of fine restaurants and shops which, along with our renowned House of Music, form the backbone of our local economy.”

A round of cheers battled for supremacy against scattered catcalls, boos, and insults.

“That house should be demolished!” Dr. Blaukamp yelled from his honored place in the midst of the dignitaries.

Mayor Chandler turned hostile eyes on him.

“Burned to the ground!” a young woman yelled.

A chant arose among a contingent of high schoolers: “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!”

The Mayor assumed a John Wayne stance, thumbs hooked in his pockets. “You’re a bunch of anarchists! That house is good for this town, and I’ve no qualms about defending it. Who among you doesn’t benefit from the tourist revenues?”

“Superstitious fools!” the doctor called over the increasing noise. Individual words drowned in the crowd’s howl of sentiment. Mayor Chandler’s lips moved but he was as voiceless as an actor in a silent film. Fists shook in his direction. He responded in kind.

The noise might have increased to infinity had not Sam Koerner roared, “Shut the hell up!” loud enough to cleave the moon.

The shock silenced most everyone.

“I’ve lived here longer than that mayor and that doctor combined.” His finger stabbed at the other two. “That house isn’t a fraud and it isn’t a tourist attraction. There’s something about it, something mystical, and—“

The cacophony resumed like the sea crashing down on Pharaoh’s armies. “I’m not finished!” Sam roared, but this time no one heeded him. Another chant arose among the high schoolers, only now it was, “Get the mayor! Get the mayor!” and a nervous police force moved in to break up the crowd.

#

As a result of that near-riot the story when national, and within two days an army of “experts” invaded. You could tell from their haughty manner, how they ignored the locals, how they hovered about the television cameras, that they had come for a moment in the spotlight rather than to learn anything. Professionals all—architects, musicologists, sociologists, and of course, reporters—they bent their skills to divining the secrets of the house and, mostly, argued among themselves.

The architects argued about the house, especially about which part of the house was the original. They leaned over the fence, pointed to the walls and windows and gables and downspouts, and bickered.

“There,” said one man, “the west corner. See how the stone has been worked? That most certainly is the oldest construction.”

“I disagree,” another said, indicating the east side of the building. The crowd followed his pointing finger to a wooden wall. “That manner of construction is very, very old. I haven’t ever seen its like.”

One of the women shook her head in disgust. “Both of those are clearly additions. Look at the way the exterior walls are joined. But over there, where the second floor peeks up behind that pueblo-style room, now that is obviously a portion of the original structure. It’s typical Midwestern farm house.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” the first man laughed. “There’s nothing typical about this place. That’s almost certainly an afterthought designed to confuse.”

Meanwhile, the musicologists listened for the music. “Yes, there is indeed a sound,” a blonde woman whispered, and the gathering about her grew quiet so as to hear her. “It’s Beethoven, I believe. Very faintly, thought. Very faintly.”

“I don’t hear Beethoven,” a male colleague said, “I do hear—I think—why, it’s Grieg!”

“Don’t be absurd.”

Another woman, frowning, said, “You’re both wrong. That’s Ewan MacColl’s voice. Those are English folk songs.”

“Oh, hell, Gina, how do you get a human voice from that?” the blonde grumbled.

“Well, it is!”

“It’s human, all right,” an obese fellow chimed in. “And English music, too. But it happens to be Sergeant Pepper. I don’t see how all of you could be so wrong!”

“It’s Louis Armstrong,” the old man said quietly through his smile.

The musicologists ignored him.

Nearby, the sociologists engaged in their own debate. Said one, a short man whose hyperactive fingers drummed on the fence, “Those people inside are clearly cult members, fanatics duped by the apparent largess of their leader.”

“I’d guess they just like parties,” a colleague replied.

“So much that they never leave? That’s stupid.”

“Possibly they’re psychotic,” a shapely brunette said. “Perpetual partying inside a strange house may be their way of shutting out reality.”

“Or,” suggested another women, “It may be their way of dealing with it.”

“They’re not dealing with anything, Paula! They’re cloistered!”’

And so on for three days, until the architects found something to agree upon and announced it to the multitudes: “This house,” said the bent, balding man who had been hastily elected to release the verdict, “Was designed by a person or persons with no sense of artistry, little knowledge of engineering, and no regard for the surroundings. It’s a wonder it hasn’t collapsed. We can, however, provide guidelines for improving its safety and appearance.”

The crowd roared its disapproval as each architect dissembled on his or her proposal. One wanted to demolish most of the additions and rebuild them in true farm house style. Another suggested disconnecting the more outlandish sections and turning them into outbuildings. Still another favored restyling the façades. A chorus of boos, increasing in volume, met each suggestion, accompanied by scattered calls for total demolition of the house.

As the embattled architects searched for an escape route, the blonde musicologist jumped onto the lowest fence rail and called, “All right, hold it down! We have something important to say!”

The catcalls subsided.

“We’ve studied this extensively,” she said, “and it appears we’ve all been fooling ourselves. Everyone hears something different, if anything at all, and that just can’t be. We’ve concluded that there is no music. It’s the wind rustling leaves, rattling windows, flapping loose shingles, noises we interpret as the music we most want to hear. It’s an aural illusion.”

The catcalls resumed, more vile than before, but now mixed with the cheers of those who had always denied hearing so much as a note. The blonde’s face flushed, and she quickly dismounted. Now both architects and musicologists sought escape.

The sociologists tried to come to their rescue, but had little to offer. Still drumming on the fence, the short man said, “We agree that there are many people in the house, but sadly it’s not possible to say much about them. We simply have on data.”

Another riot was brewing. People argued, screamed insults, even pushed each other around. You would have thought the mysterious owner of the House of Music might have intervened, but all the while he remained invisible. Didn’t it bother him how this horde of fools tore up the lawn about his fence? Didn’t he care that the fence had been damaged, that many of its posts now leaned at precarious angles? Perhaps he didn’t. The lights still burned, the people within ate and danced and laughed, and, for those who could hear it over the tumult, the music played on.

But the old man had grown weary. Though he continued to name tunes, the sparkle have left his eyes and the laugh fled his voice. As the sun prepared to set on the bickering townsfolk, he looked dreadful. His weather-worn clothing hung off him as though he had shrunk. Even the sturdy fence rail seemed to sag under his weight.

And that was when the last two “experts” arrived. The first, an lanky, slouching man who wore wire rim glasses and carried a battered briefcase, introduced himself as a physicist, and his partner, a dark-bearded fellow with intense hazel eyes, called himself a magician. Their business, they said, was to debunk nonsense, and they had some to put a stop to this foolishness. So serious, so intense where they that when the physicist called for attention, everyone watched and held their breath. Everyone except the old man. He gazed into the red of the western sky as though unaware of the proceedings.

The physicist opened his briefcase and unpacked some smallish equipment. He plugged cables into holes, flipped switches, loaded paper into a printer. That done, he held up a tiny microphone. Moments later, paper streamed from a buzzing printer. When it stopped, the physicist tore the paper off, gave it a cursory glance, and held it up for all to see. The dark lines undulating down its length held no meaning for us.

“As you can see,” he said, his tone betraying that he knew we could not, “the only sounds here are the normal background noises of people, cars, and the environment. No music registers. None. It’s your imagination.”

The old man silently watched the darkening horizon.

During his colleague’s performance, the magician had leaned on the fence and gazed thoughtfully at the house. Now the physicist nodded to him, and he turned about and said, “Nobody’s home.”

The reporters scribbled and asked him to elaborate. His hand swept back to indicate the house. “It’s a fake, constructed of cheap materials. The interior is empty space. No rooms, no tile, no carpet, no staircase, nothing. It’s a Hollywood mockup. The shadows are projected by moving lights playing on cardboard cutouts. You never see anyone go in or out because no one is here. The owner lives elsewhere, gives occasional orders to add on a room, pays the electric bill. He probably runs a business in town that makes a fortune off of you gaping tourists. You can bet he gets something from it. The whole thing’s a fraud.”

Pandemonium! Applauding and calling, “Bravo!” Dr. Blaukamp led a contingent of delighted skeptics who whooped and yelled at the top of their lungs. Sam Koerner raised his furious voice to challenge all the hecklers at once. The Hampton twins sang to the music that had been drowned out by the yelling as they danced precariously around and between the arguing townsfolk. Skeptics hurled insults at believers, who returned some choice epithets of their own. The more prudent, mostly mothers with young children, removed themselves from the scene.

Forever the peacemaker, Sylvia Parsons made herself heard over the din: “There’s plenty of room for a variety of opinions! You’re acting like children!”

She would have known. But her words went unheeded, and the scene degenerated completely when Melanie Frazier, tired of Dr. Blaukamp’s loud and increasingly vile insults, pushed her way up to him and kicked his shin. The doctor swore and toppled into the crowd, igniting a free-for-all. Sam leapt into the fracas with an exuberant battle cry and astonished quite a few people by besting anyone who dared try to subdue him.

It was a glorious mess until, bruised, battered, and exhausted, people slunk away whenever the opportunity arose. Those who had avoided being sucked into the brawl packed up their disagreements and went elsewhere to argue. The “experts,” unnerved but unscathed, set off in search of the perfect restaurant. Suddenly with was just the physicist, the magician, the old man, and myself.

The physicist and the magician rewarded each other with an arrogant handshake, but I remained unconvinced. In spite of their machines and theories, the House of Music had been so much a part of our town that I couldn’t imagine it a hoax. And, damn it, the music was real! Maybe some things can’t be measured. Maybe this music was like that. At least, I know what I heard.

When he realized that the old man and I were still there, the magician said, “Didn’t you hear me? Go home! Find something useful to do with yourselves.”

The old man turned a tired smile on him but when he spoke, his words were given to me: “Yes, time for me to go home. We shall talk another day. Perhaps soon.”

He placed his hand on the fence, and I was shocked to discover that there was, after all, a gate. Why had none of us ever noticed it? It was as obvious as the sun. The old man opened it, passed through, closed it behind him, and sauntered up the path to the house. At the door he glanced over his shoulder. His eyes had regained their sparkle. Although tonight was the first he had ever spoken to me, I felt I was losing an old friend. I wanted to ask him to stay or to allow me to accompany him, but the magician and the physicist were still there, glaring at him, glaring at me. Their disdain paralyzed me.

The old man passed through the door.

After he left, the music grew faint, and for months the melodies eluded me.

#

The town calmed down once the invaders left. The house survived being branded a fake. The lights still shone, the people within, real or not, still ate and danced and laughed. But townsfolk no longer congregated at the fence, the old man did not return, and the music diminished a bit more each day, though some said they could still hear it if they listened very hard. Like the cosmic background radiation, it forever faded yet never vanished.

Winter came and went. And then, as the robins returned and new buds swelled on every tree limb, builders arrived and began to piece together a room on the south side of the house. A few spectators returned to the fence, lured by the renewed activity. There were moments of curious confusion, as though the builders were less than clear on their instructions. Two or three times a bit of work had to be undone and remade, and an occasional argument broke out, bringing work to a halt. One of the builders, a lean youth who wore his long, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, periodically stopped and gazed off at nothing until scolded by the foreman. It was just as Sam Koerner remembered.

In a few weeks the job neared completion. The new addition was patterned on a Greek temple and matched its surroundings no better than the older ones, which sparked a revival of the architect jokes. Yet it held some fascination for people, for the crowd at the fence grew larger and more diverse each day, and people again expounded theories and listened for the music that, very faintly how, could still be sensed by some. Finally, as the finishing touches were put on, the young builder put down his tools and ambled over to the fence. “Where the hell you going now?” the foreman called. “You got a job to do! Get back here!”

The young builder cocked his head and smiled, oblivious to the boss.

The other workers’ voices joined the foreman’s but to no avail. Finally the boss had had enough. He stomped up to the insubordinate youth and seized him by the collar. “You got five seconds to get back there!”

“Quiet,” the young man said gently. “Listen.”

The foreman threw him against the fence. “You’re fired!” He stomped back to the house, muttering curses to himself.

But the young man seemed not to hear, seemed not to notice the jeers hurled at him by his coworkers. His attention consumed by some other sound, he inclined his head, motioned for silence, and without warning jumped the fence to stand among us.

“Listen!” he said. “Do you hear that? Copeland, Appalachian Spring!”

And I did, and it was, and although he was young and had an unfamiliar face, his eyes sparkled just as the old man’s had, and his clear voice rang with the old man’s laughter, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going into that house to learn its secrets.

Why, just this morning I heard Parsifal.

 

© August 2016 By Dale E. Lehman.  All rights reserved.  You may share links to this web page, but otherwise copying and redistribution of page content by any method for any purpose without written consent of the author is prohibited.

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