Mar 10, 2009

Professor Thompson's cello

He played the cello in pantomime. Eyes closed, he ran his hand through his white-white hair and then marked the beat, pointing there and there and there. Leaning forward for emphasis, he grabbed the imaginary instrument up high on the neck, a strong chord, and he came down sweeping with the bow. He scraped and swept, changed chords and swept, leaning into the invisible cello and shaking with the music, shaking from his knees to his jowls and shaking his hair down into his eyes, shaking and quivering with the emotion of the music in his mind. He imagined it running up and down the strings, each of the four like filaments for the sound, the sound like light to light the world. He imagined the music coming through the f-notes, shivering up the neck and out across the hard wood with the perfect polish, the instrument humming with what only he heard, vibrating with what he thought was the magic of meaningfulness.

That's how Thompson started every class of freshman composition at the community college.

It was a weird performance, this pantomime. When he finished he would say "cello." Just "cello." "Cello," with the hard "ch" like Chekov not Chandrasekhar. "Cello" like "yellow," like "jello," and like it explained something. He said it like he was explaing the word he was acting out at a party for his friends, friends who presumably knew what "chamber music" meant and went to parties where middle aged men acted out odd words. But the word could have been "enraptured." It captured something, Thompson thought, and maybe, actually, captured everything. This pantomime, it was what Thompson meant when he tried to talk about teaching and writing and a life of art and giving these students something of a sense of what he meant when he said life was meaningful.

Everyone just thought he was odd. Maybe harmless. Maybe eccentric in a nice way. But you know, still strange, still stretching for something silly, searching for something that didn't exist, some special power that could be performed or, anyway, found in a moment of magic in a class. If they didn't understand it, didn't get the cello, then Thompson would turn to Annie Dilliard and birds, flying in circles in the sky, or Seamus Heaney digging, his shovel metaphoric for a pen. And if he still didn't see rapture in the faces, didn't see the break in the series of sleep-sloppy faces of bored boys and girls, then Thompson would turn to Dylan Thomas, seamlessly suddenly into recitation, standing up and shouting: Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight! And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way! Do not! Go gentle! Into that good night!

But then at the end, as Christmas came and the semester squandered out, as he stuttered around the sentence he'd been trying to say since that first act, that first day, Thompson returned to the cello. He played it, his invisible instrument, the instrument he couldn't play because of his ear, and he leaned into it. He leaned into this, his imaginary music sacrament, eyes closed to the emotion as he prayed for the coming of art, the moment of clarity and the partaking of the power to make meaning. He closed his eyes, quaked in his seat beneath the dull yellow lights, and played.