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Fantasy on the Theme B-A-C-H


Fantasy on the Theme B-A-C-H is set in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1969–70. The narrator is Thomas Braxton, an organist.
Organ console
Excerpt from Chapter One, “Lento doloroso”

I headed downtown in my car. Soon I left behind the shaded boulevards and carved hedges, the sweeping lawns and two-car driveways. Here there were no tangible signs of autumn, no softening of the sun’s glare, no golden leaves, yet the air seemed laden with a timeless autumn of malaise. Block after block of dirty-brick rowhouses connected hard onto the surface of sidewalk and street. On the stoops, old people sat. Some talked. At the corners young boys stared outward from hard dark faces. Against the side of a burned-out building someone had painted, in large white letters, AVENGE MALCOLM X; someone else had drawn a line through "Malcolm X" and written KING. I hurried down St. Paul Street, matching the speed of my Volkswagen to the tempo of the traffic lights.

Whenever I entered this section of the city an inexplicable sensation came over me. Home, it felt like. More than the grassy suburb, this brick and concrete ghetto felt like my home. But I had grown up in the country; I’d never lived in a neighborhood like this, and just driving through it made me shudder as if I were confronting the formless ghost of a night terror.

Soon the landscape changed again. A few office highrises poked up above old department stores and smaller shops. On some blocks the buildings were boarded up, and here and there were open spaces interrupted by one or two lonely structures looking like war monuments. The graffiti changed, too, to peace signs and anti-war slogans. The window of a storefront near the Bromo Seltzer Tower displayed a large picture of Ho Chi Minh, who had died a few months earlier.

I cut through the downtown district on Lombard Street and, reaching Broadway, turned toward the harbor. Two blocks down, I parked in bright sunlight and glanced in the mirror. The ends of my hair were creeping over my collar. Outside, I locked the car doors, wincing at the thought that the interior would soon be as hot as a boiler room.
In a shaded narrow urine stench of alleyway, snoring sounds came from a heap of old clothes lying amid paper bags with bottlenecks protruding from them. Two men sat in the doorway of the Light of the World Mission, their faces lined like walnut shells, their eyes without color or form. I shivered and walked on.

Further along, I noticed a young black woman striding in my direction. She glanced at me and hesitated; she opened her mouth, as if to say something, then checked her watch and passed me in a wave of perfume that brought back childhood memories of wild honeysuckle. The woman was handsomely dressed, and I couldn’t help but turn to watch her. She continued down to the end of the block and disappeared into a side street.
I spotted Barney’s then, up at the corner on the other side of Broadway. I jaywalked across the street and stepped onto the curb in front of a pawn shop, its glass façade protected by a heavy iron grating. A man turned from the grating and moved toward me. He wore soiled khakis and a pea jacket that on this day must have been too warm. A hat with a wide brim threw his face into shadow. The man stooped slightly and cast his gaze downward.

I stopped and dug into my pocket for change. But the man said nothing, nor did he reach out his hand. A sudden fear gripped me: he might be dangerous. I shrank back toward the curb and glanced left and right, preparing to call for help if need be. No one else was in sight.
An odd sound, like the muffled grunt of an animal, issued from beneath the wide-brimmed hat—a laugh? a sob?—and the man shuffled away from me. Without looking back, he plodded on, crossed Broadway and passed my car. He turned down the side street where the young black woman had gone. My knees wobbled as I made my way into Barney’s, where I found Archie Graham drinking beer and chatting with the waitress.

© 1997 by David Warren Paul. All rights reserved.

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