Conjunctions:28 Secular Psalms

Yip.

     Yip.

     Yip.


     This is a tape of Harold Linder. Brilliant young Harold. I want Harold to be the star of my show. Listen:

     Yip.

     Yip.

     His brilliance lies in his uninhibited love of his own voice. It doesn’t matter to him what he says. To speak aloud is everything. No, not quite everything. To speak aloud in front of an audience is everything. This is my discovery.

     Yip. Yadderyipip. Yadderyipiphipippityhiphop.

     Yip.

     Yip.

     Charlie looks forward to a tempting meal. Oh, Charlie. Yip. Oh, Charlie. Yip. Hap. Haphop. Do you like soup, Charlie? Yip. Soup, Charlie? Yip.

     Yip.

     Yip.

     I found him in Bellevue, where I’d gone to see Mr. Jack Dawes, the leading man in my last production. Jack had been hospitalized after he was found wandering along Madison Avenue in puris naturalibus. In other words, in a state of desquamation. Uncased, as it were, and obviously enjoying the attention. I’d received an anonymous phone call alerting me to the fact that another member of my company had come unhinged. As I expected, the reporters were waiting outside the hospital when I arrived, armed with cameras, pens and their ubiquitous notepads. They are always ready to publicize a celebrity’s embarrassment. They have built their careers upon such exposure, and those of us in the limelight must accept it as a sort of tax upon our fame. Which is not to say that one must lose all dignity at such moments. As I stepped from the taxicab I raised my hand as though preparing to make a speech, then I walked regally, full of purpose, toward the entrance and into the lobby.

     After signing the necessary papers to commit Jack Dawes for forty-eight hours, I took a stroll along the corridors of the locked ward. That’s where I met young Harold, who was leaning against a wall and yipping.

     Yip.

     Yip.

     Yadderyipyip.

     The clarity of the sound, even amidst the hubbub of insanity, impressed me, and I stopped to listen. At the time I believed he was unaware of me watching him, but now I understand how important it is for Harold to have an audience. No one can be a spectator to his performance without Harold’s tacit permission.

     Yadderyip. Yadderyip. Oh, Charlie. Poor Charlie. Do you want something to eat, Charlie?

     Yip.

     Yip.

     Yip.

     This boy is not mad, I told the doctors. They disagreed and named his disorder, one of those tangled Latin names that always seems to celebrate exaggeration: hyperbolicisticitis disease, or something like that. I asked to take Harold along home with me, but the doctors said I would need his mother’s permission. So I called her, Mrs. Linder, and asked if I might borrow her son. She refused, of course. Then I told her who I was, hoping to use my name as leverage, but as it turned out she was one of the few people in the city, perhaps the only one, who had never heard of me.

     “Mrs. Linder, I want Harold in my play,” I explained. That interested her.

     “What would he do?” she asked.

     “I want him in my show,” I said.

     “But what would he do?”

     “I don’t know. Whatever he wants to do. Whatever comes naturally to him.”

     She said she’d think about it and call me back. A few minutes later the pay phone rang, and it was Mrs. Linder, who during the interim must have called some acquaintance of hers, who warned her against me. “No,” she said. “Under no circumstances will I permit you to put my son on stage.” I tried to convince her to lend me Harold for a two-week trial period, but she refused. I assured her I was no circus impresario. I was a famous theater director, a modern artist, and I could make her son famous. Rich, too. Still she said no.

     Charlie looks forward to a tempting meal. Soup, Charlie. Oh, soup, Charlie. Oh, steak, Charlie. Oh, corn, Charlie. Oh, butter-yip, yip. Butteryoyip, oh butteryoh, ow, ohwa, ohwa, ohwa.

     I’m certain that a production with Harold at its center would be a wild success. It’s the seduction of shame again. The potential for embarrassment is great when lines haven’t been memorized and rehearsed. Imagine the twelve-year-old boy standing in the circle of a spotlight on a bare stage—no painted background, none of my extravagant props or music, only Harold and his voice. The show’s suspense would be predicated upon his composure. Should he lose it, the spectacle would become the kind of event that takes its place in theater history: “I was there the night that boy ...” whatever. The possibilities for failure are limitless.

     Suspense is essential to all performance, from symphonic music to vaudeville. Without the element of suspense, Harold seems to most people no more than an insane creature capable only of babbling on and on. But put the boy on stage, and mere babbling would turn into artful improvisation. It is not just for my own sake that I want to make Harold a star—I am concerned about the boy and want to save him from a lifetime wasted inside institutions. Besides, Harold enjoys having an audience—I could tell as much right there in the hospital while I watched him. He pretended not to notice me, but I knew he was grateful for the attention.

     Yip.

     Yadderyipyip. Oh, Charlie. Do you want something to eat, Charlie?

     The first time I applauded him I detected the barest ripple of a startle, a slight tremor in his arms, a twitch of his jaw. I stopped clapping and waited for the boy to continue, but he stared past me at the peeling white wall. Imagine a silence so powerful that you can feel it wrapped around your body—and just beyond, the clamor of other patients. If I’d had any doubt about the boy’s remarkable ability I lost it during that nearly endless silence. And then, the burst of sound:

     Yip.

     Yadderyipyip. Yadderyipyip.

     The fact that Harold cannot carry a tune makes him even more unique. Mrs. Linder and the doctors look upon the boy as a malfunctioning machine and keep trying to tinker with the gears and cogs of his mind. But I know that the boy is perfect. In the corridor at Bellevue I recognized in his voice the precise expression of my own artistic ambition. It felt as though he were calling to me out of my past, a voice rising with the night mist from the estuary bordering our estate.

     Yip. Yadderyipyip.

     A strange seabird calling a warning, splitting the silence into two halves, the voice of the bird separating past from present and defining the space of my solitude.

     Poor Charlie. Do you want soup, Charlie? Soup, Charlie? Steak, Charlie?

     How tempting it is to twist my life into a dramatic tale of suffering in order to explain my dark art. But I might as well come out with it and admit that I’ve had more than my fair share of privileges. As a boy I was treated, along with my older brother, to all the pomp and rigorous training befitting the sons of a man who had made millions in the insurance business. I grew up in a stone mansion on one hundred and sixty rolling acres overlooking Long Island Sound. My brother and I had nannies and tutors and chauffeurs protecting us from the world. We attended a small Jesuit day school. Through those early years my happiness was as solid and encompassing as the house, and I believed that the same was true for my brother, though I couldn’t be sure. He was an athletic boy, handsome in a puckish way, an apt enough student but a dull companion to my young mind. He and I were strangers to each other not because of any perceptible dislike but simply because we had such different interests. When we weren’t studying, he’d go for a swim or gallop his pony Turl along the beach; I preferred to occupy myself indoors.

     Our home had a library with panelled oak, a splendid living room with a period Adams mantel, three kitchens and two dining rooms, one of which we used only on holidays. A circular staircase led up from the reception hall to the second floor. The master bedroom was painted a light peach with ivory trim, and the master bath had black and coralline tile and Tang red fixtures. My own bedroom had buff walls and a bay window with a red leather built-in seat. I liked to sit there for hours, reading and watching the color of the Sound change from silver to a satiny black as the afternoon wore on.

     I have no disclosures to make about unloving parents or sadistic priests who whipped knowledge into their stubborn pupils. My teachers, all of them tending toward the rotund, were more inclined to whip cream into peaks for their cranberry cobblers than to whip the tender buttocks of young boys. And my parents were like children themselves, dazed by their ingenuity, for their wealth seemed to them something they’d accumulated while out on a Sunday stroll—a pocketful of pebbles and seashells and feathers and gold. And though my father outlived both his eldest son and his wife, even in the last months of his life he could be seen shaking his head in disbelief at his fortune as he walked around the grounds of his estate, his Stetson Sennit at a tilt to shade his eyes against the sun. Life had stunned him from the start—and for this, more than for the privileges, I am grateful.

     I inherited from both my parents a sense of wonder and so have devoted myself to sharing that wonder with others. How dull we become if we’re not careful. Nothing kills interest like routine, day in and day out spent measuring percentages or hauling trash or teaching young girls how to type, and then at night an hour of the Wayne King Orchestra or maybe a boxing match broadcast live from the Bronx Coliseum. The tedium of competition. No, I am not a sportsman. Neither do I take any pleasure in the dance orchestras that lull their listeners to sleep. I prefer long periods of silence punctuated by unexpected sound:

     Yip!

     Yip!

     My dear Harold, so strange and wonderful. With the boy as my star, I would be able to shake my audience out of the slumber of routine once and for all. People know that they shouldn’t come to my theater if they want to be reassured that all is right with the world—they can go to the picture shows for that. My shows are never reassuring. They are as jolting as the modern world, as full of surprises. Harold would be my consummate theatrical surprise.

     Poor Charlie. Are you hungry, Charlie? Do you want something to eat, Charlie? Strawberry short-Charlie-cake, Charlie, strawberry shortcake, Charlie, if you please, oh please oh please.

     Yip.

     Such is the force of a vital personality unimpeded by social consciousness.

     Yip.

     An individual, alone but not lonely.

     Yip.

     If I had half his ego I would be satisfied. The critics complain that my art is marred by my vanity, that I lack discretion, that I’ll put anything and anyone into my productions because I’m too vain to subject myself to aesthetic discipline. My last show, “Garden City,” which featured the crazy has-been mime, Jack Dawes, along with two dozen amateur clowns, a marionette troupe and fifty retired chorus-line girls, was nicknamed “Garbage Dump.” This wounded me—proof that I’m not vain enough, not compared to young Harold, who exists only as a performer, never stepping outside the role to consider the value of his art. How I envy the boy. He wants an audience, but he cares nothing about the impression he makes—just like a bird that calls out for no other reason than to be heard.

     Oh, Charlie. Charlie looks forward to a tempting meal. Wait, Charlie, I’ve got something for you, Charlie, soup, Charlie, steak, Charlie, strawberry oh ...

     His voice is so completely expressive that any word, any sound is revealing. He could count from one to one thousand, and the audience would be mesmerized. Yes, I like to imagine this: Harold counting aloud, one, two, three, four and so on. It would take three hours, and after Harold finished counting he would remain silent for as long as ten minutes. He would just stand there in the spotlight, his body pressing against the empty space behind him, and then, at last, he would utter a single yip.

     Yip.

     If you’ve ever blown a gentle breath into the face of a dog and heard the animal gasp, then you’ll know how the audience would react when Harold yipped that final yip. Spot off, and my treasure would be hidden once again in darkness.

     Brilliant, yes? I’m sure any skeptic would be quickly converted and would forget the hows and whys and wherewithals of Harold’s speech, for all that matters is the boy’s acrobatic voice and his admirable self-sufficiency.

     Yadderyip. Yap yap yap.

     I knew what I was hearing in the corridor in Bellevue: it was the sound of a solitary creature calling out to the world and expecting no answer, like that strange seabird I heard one night when I was a child. Alone in my buff-colored room with its red-leather upholstered window seat—

     Yip.

     Yip.

     Poor Charlie. Yip. Do you want soup, Charlie? Yip. Soup, Charlie?

     Strange sounds—you’ll hear them in the dead of night, on any night, if you listen carefully.

     Yip.

     Just as I heard the seabird on that summer night when I was ten years old. Not gull, not tern or cormorant. An albatross? No. A great auk? No. A loon or grebe or piping plover? No, no, no. It was a sound I’d never heard before, and when I looked out my window to find the bird I saw nothing but the shrugging forms of boulders and the iron-colored water. I slept, finally, and awoke the next day to the news of my brother’s accidental death by drowning.

     Yip.

     For years I’d thought of that bird I never saw as a messenger announcing the passing of my older brother. Eventually I came to think of it as a coincidence—a strange sound in the middle of the night coinciding with my brother’s death.

     Yip.

     Yadderyip. Yadderyip.

     Listen. Listen closely to the silence. There’s always something new to hear.

     The silence bearing the meaning of the sound.

     Yip.

     Water sloshing against the pylons of our dock. A body sweeping up and back, up and back, curling around the wood like a hand, then letting go. Clenching, then letting go. I never saw this; I never saw my brother’s lifeless body at all. My parents did everything they could to protect me, short of keeping my brother’s death a secret.

     The vague details surrounding my brother’s drowning led me to think of death not as the exquisite sleep described by my parents but as a terrible mystery, and so I made my theater terrible and mysterious, for art must show us what we fear most. In the corridor in Bellevue, young Harold had me remembering the night my brother died, and in the silence that followed our exchange I found myself wondering whether the sound I’d heard in my buff-colored room had really been a bird’s cry at all.

     Yip.

     It might not have been a bird. It might have been a boy yipping as he leapt from the end of the dock into the water. Leapt, not fell—such a sound does not arise from an accident.

     Yip.

     A bird’s voice, or a boy’s? This much I know: Harold deserves to be heard by others.

     Charlie looks forward to a tempting meal. Soup, Charlie. Yip. Steak, Charlie. Yip. Corn, Charlie. Strawberry short-Charlie-cake-Charlie. Poor Charlie.

     My marvelous boy.

     Do you want something to eat, Charlie? Charlie, are you there? Charlie? Charlie?

     Harold has left the hospital and gone to live with his mother. I call her daily, I plead and reason and praise. Yesterday I went to meet her in person. They live in a tidy six-room brick tudor out in Queens, just the two of them for the time being, until Mrs. Linder can place her son in an adequate “facility,” as she says. She is a thin woman, fiftyish, a widow, I presume, with hair bleached an unnatural yellow, and she was obviously none too pleased by my visit, though she did invite me in and offer me a cup of tea. I saw no sign of Harold, no evidence that the boy lived there at all. The house was as oppressively still as a museum after hours, with every piece of furniture looking as though it had been glued to the lime green carpet and the air devoid of any fragrance other than the light tannic scent of tea.

     Mrs. Linder was out in the kitchen preparing the tea when I became aware of Harold’s presence in the house—the very walls seemed to wait tensely for something to happen, for me to leave, I supposed at first, and then I realized that the tension had nothing to do with me. The house was waiting for Harold to continue yipping. I had arrived during one of his lengthy intervals, and the stillness was of the boy’s making, defined by his voice and as integral to his performance as any sound he might utter.

     His mother clearly does not understand him. She refers to Harold as her “poor little imbecile” and scolds me for wanting to exploit him. She did, however, give me this tape of Harold, apparently in hopes that it would satisfy me and I would leave them alone. But Harold does not want to be left alone—I knew as much while I sat in Mrs. Linder’s house listening to the silence, and I knew it again when I was leaving and glanced up from the front walk at the curtained windows on the second floor.

     I called Mrs. Linder this morning, and I will visit her again tomorrow. Sooner or later she will have to give in, and I will finally be able to offer my public a theatrical experience unlike anything they’ve ever known. Imagine: the lights go down, the audience settles into an expectant hush, spot on, and after a long, clenched silence my magnificent little seabird comes back to life:

     Yip.

     Yip.

     Yip.

Joanna Scott is a MacArthur fellow and the author of De Potter’s Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Manikin (Picador).