When Patrick Domostroy turned the ignition key of his car, no sound came from the engine and no lights showed on the dashboard. He tried again and again, and still nothing happened: the battery was dead.
Knowing that in his neighborhood it would take at least an hour to get a mechanic to show up and not wanting to lose the time, he unbolted the battery from its brackets and put it in an old canvas bag he kept in the trunk of the car. Then he carefully lugged the bag the full length of the parking lot, and when he reached the street, he hailed a taxi.
In a few minutes he was at the National Know How, the largest automobile service station in the South Bronx. A big sign reading “Wouldn’t You Rather Know How?” loomed above the main entrance.
Canvas bag in hand, Domostroy went to the manager, a big-bellied guy in a blue work shirt, with JIM stitched on his white coveralls.
“Will you charge a battery for me?” asked Domostroy.
“Sure,” said Jim. “Just bring her in.”
“Here,” Domostroy said, setting down the bag on the floor.
Jim looked at the bag, then at Domostroy over his glasses. “The car,” he said, pronouncing each word deliberately; “bring the car in.”
“I can’t,” said Domostroy. “It wouldn’t go with a dead battery.”
“Couldn’t you jump-start it?” Jim asked.
“A jump-start is not enough: It needs a full charge. I just took the battery out, grabbed a taxi and here it is!” He prodded the bag open with the tip of his shoe.
Jim lifted his eyes wearily and asked, “Where is the car?”
“In the Old Glory’s parking lot,” Domostroy replied.
“You brought this’–Jim pointed at the battery–”in a cab?”
“Sure. It was too heavy to carry all the way here on foot,” said Domostroy.
Jim’s expression changed. Taking his glasses off, he kicked the bag shut. He called to another mechanic. “Pete, will you come here for a minute!”
Pete, a slim young man, looked up, saw Jim and Domostroy, and put down his wrench. “Coming,” he said.
Turning to Pete, Jim pointed at the canvas bag. “Guess what’s in that?” he said brightly, with the air of a host on a TV game show.
Pete’s eyes circled from the bag to the visitor, back to the bag, then back to Jim. “I, don’t know,” he said with a shrug.
“Just guess,” said Jim, clapping him on the back.
Pete’s eyes measured Domostroy, then the bag. ‘dirty laundry,” he said.
“Wrong,” Jim answered triumphantly.
“A bowling ball?”
“Wrong again! Try once more,” Jim prodded.
Pete took his time. “A dead dog,” he ventured.
“Dead–right! Dog–wrong,” Jim announced, kicking the bag open. “It’s a dead battery! And this guy,” he said, pointing at Domostroy, “brought it here.” After pausing for effect, he added, “In a cab!”
“But where’s his car?” asked Pete.
“Couldn’t come with its battery dead,” Domostroy broke in, ‘so the battery had to come without it.”
“In a cab?” asked Pete.
“In a cab. To save time.”
Shaking his head, Pete wandered away.
Jim started to write out a work order. “I’ve been twenty years at National Know How,” he said, bending over the form. “Plenty of people tow in cars with dead batteries. But you’re the first to haul in a dead battery without a car.” He paused. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a musician,” said Domostroy.
“You have an accent,” said Jim. “Where are you from?”
“South Bronx,” said Domostroy.
“I mean–before that. Where does that accent come from?”
“The New Atlantis,” said Domostroy. “But accents don’t show up in music.”
Jim laughed. “What kind of music?”
“Serious,” said Domostroy. ‘dead serious.”
“If it’s as dead as this battery,” said Jim, “you should have brought your music here to charge it too.” He kept on laughing as he glanced at the work order. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of New Atlantis,” he said. “Where is it?”
“The Land of Sounds,” said Domostroy. “Francis Bacon wrote a book about it.”
While the battery was being charged, Domostroy opened his mail, which he had thrown into the bag with the battery. He pocketed the bills and the usual creditcard statements; then he glanced through the junk mail. A letter from the National Vasectomy Club asked in large print, “Had a Vasectomy?” and then suggested, “Now Encourage Others! If you’re one of the thousands of men who have had a vasectomy, join the National Vasectomy Club and inspire others to follow your lead in bringing population growth under control.” For only a few dollars, the club offered to send him a sterling silver lapel pin or tie tack, a membership card, and a bumper sticker.
Domostroy stopped to think. If he should ever undergo a vasectomy–although he could imagine nothing less likely–what right would he have to proselytize? Furthermore, if in search of external identity–again, a concept quite foreign to him–he should decide to define himself as an American Vasectomite, where would he feel confident wearing the National Vasectomy Club lapel pin or the tie tack? To cocktails? To dinner with a date? To church? And what about the membership card? Why and where would he need it? To whom could he show it? He imagined being stopped by the highway patrol for speeding and saw himself producing, in addition to his driver’s license, his National Vasectomy card: “It’s like this, Officer: I’ve got to get to all those guys who aren’t keeping population growth down, and there s not much time left!”
In another letter, an illustrated flier advertised Candypants–the hundred-percent edible underwear. “Comes in butterscotch, cherry, banana, orange and lime flavors. One size fits all.” Domostroy tried to imagine eating-such panties off Andrea. Why, he asked himself, if he were aroused by her, would he want to waste his time eating her panties? Wasn’t eating underwear in itself time-consuming? And what would Andrea be doing while he filled up on her banana, cherry, or butterscotch panties? Watching him chew? Asking him how they tasted? For a moment he imagined a court case involving poisoning by Candypants, and their manufacturer, faced with a wide range of questions: Were edible panties more life-threatening than, say, candy? Did they improve family relations? Speed up courting? Did they increase or diminish a healthy sexual appetite? Should students engaging in campus panty raids be prohibited from ripping off more panties than they could chew? And finally, what was the responsibility of the manufacturer as tastemaker in such a business?
When the battery was ready, he hailed a taxi for the trip back to the Old Glory, once the South Bronx’s largest ballroom and banquet center. It was empty now. The rise in crime and gang warfare in the neighborhood had driven out most of the Old Glory’s mostly Jewish clientele–who once flocked to it for their wedding parties and bar mitzvahs. Its owner, an aging slumlord, had finally closed the place, put it on the market, and retired to Florida.
A decade ago, when Domostroy was at the height of his success, he had given several benefit concerts at the Old Glory to aid the displaced children of the South Bronx, and for the last two years the slumlord, remembering those benefits, had allowed him to live in the dressing room off the ballroom.
Hoping that any potential buyer would want to reopen the Old Glory just as it had been in its golden days, the slumlord had left in it all the original furniture and fixtures. The vast kitchen stood ready to feed twelve hundred diners, and on a low stage next to the dance floor loomed an ancient grand piano backed by an impressive array of other musical instruments, all badly used and in need of repair, ranging from a harp and a cello to electric guitars, accordions, and–a mark of modern technology–an electronic music console that could simulate the sound of several instruments.
There was still no buyer in sight. Until one came along, Domostroy had taken it upon himself, in return for the owner’s beneficence, to be guard and custodian of the Old Glory and everything the great shell contained.
Now he asked the driver to stop the taxi next to his car, which stood alone in the vast space of the parking lot, and as he got out of the cab in the twilight, he saw the ballroom as if it were a huge starship that was grounded on a temporary landing pad. He had had similar feelings before. His room was the ship’s command post, and when inside he was the ship’s sole passenger, about to start on his latest voyage of discovery. At night, the sounds of a faraway street-gang gun battle or the howling siren of a police car or an ambulance or a fire engine were like signs of life calling out to him, and as he listened, he felt that he existed alongside that life as well as within it.
Domostroy installed the battery and started the engine. He enjoyed the car’s quiet motor, the bulky leather seats, the power and speed that resulted from the slightest pressure on the gas pedal. He had always liked to drive, and of all the cars he had ever owned, he felt the greatest fondness for this one. It was an old and venerable vehicle, the largest convertible Detroit had produced at the peak of showing-off its industrial power. When Domostroy had bought the car in a showroom some fifteen years earlier, he recognized in it a symbol of his own mobility and affluence. In his concert performing days he often had the car shipped to him wherever he was–California, the Caribbean, even Switzerland–as if it were a small package, but now the convertible was the only remaining object from his opulent past–and one of his last links to it. But wherever he worked he took his car–his sole impressive possession. Patrick Domostroy’s old sedan was to him what a private customized superjet–a space-age flying saloon–was to a rock star.
His musical talent was the other link. No longer composing, with no income to speak of from the sales of his past records, Domostroy had been making his living for the last decade by hiring himself out to play any of a number of instruments–piano, accordion, harpsichord, even the electronic synthesizer so popular with the rock and pop musicians half his age–in small out-of-the way nightclubs. He worked either as a combo stringer or as an accompanist for other performers–singers, dancers, jugglers, or magicians. If he was pressed for cash, he even did stints at private parties, dances, and bingo parlors.
For the last year, he’d been working at Kreutzer’s. The crowd there never varied much. There were couples in their late fifties, locals mostly, but some came from as far away as Queens, Brooklyn, even New Jersey, lured by the newspaper ads listing free parking, live music, two drinks for the price of one, a salad bar, and as much homemade garlic bread as you could eat, all included in the price of the dinner. There were also middle-aged out-of-town salesmen, on the prowl, alone or with flashily dressed pickups from the nearby singles bar; young neighborhood couples who came mainly for the dancing; a birthday or anniversary party of eight, twelve, or sixteen people–usually families; and at the bar, several solitary men of various ages, watching the TV set, listening to the jukebox, playing an occasional pinball machine or electronic game, and casting furtive glances at the three or four ladies of the night who, in exchange for extending their favors to the manager and sharing part of their income with the bouncer, were allowed to sit at the bar and solicit, as long as they looked good and didn’t get out of line.
Before this crowd gathered each night, Domostroy ate his dinner at one of the corner tables, usually alone, sometimes with one of the headwaiters or the manager; then he went into the men’s room and changed into his tux, always checking himself carefully in the mirror. He was glad the job called for him to accompany singers and other musicians, never to play alone, because it made the break with his past–as a solo performer–clean and complete, and thus his own tradition was not abused.
Since he no longer composed, he could devote his life to his own existence rather than the existence of his music. And because he could predict with relative ease what his life would be like in periods ahead–something he could not do with his music–his life had become fairly simple and devoid of anguish. He maintained it in somewhat the way he maintained his car–a minor repair here, a little polish there–and he was pleased when it rolled along smoothly.
Had he lived among the Victorians or during Prohibition, or had he remained in totalitarian Eastern Europe where he spent his youth, he would undoubtedly have found the imposition of moral rules of any kind to be arbitrary and overly restrictive. And he was sure that the world of tomorrow, full of computerized technology and standardized behavior, depleted of natural and human resources, would neither challenge nor interest him in the least.
Freed as he was from the deceptive security of accumulated wealth and the chimera of success–his freedom a useful by-product of his composer’s block–he rejoiced at being able to live his life as he pleased, at the time and in the place he was living it, and at being able to follow his own ethical code of moral responsibility, competing against nobody, harming no one, not even himself–a code in which free choice was always the indisputable axiom.
But he was lonely. He had no mends. Most of the people who had been his friends when he was on top assumed that success and failure ran parallel and were therefore not supposed to cross paths, and because he had once felt the same way himself, he could hardly burden them now with an explanation of his failure, making them feel guilty of their own success or uncertain of their own talents and place in society. In their eyes, he knew full well, his current way of life–particularly his way of making a living–represented not just failure, but failure with something of the contemptible, ridiculous and grotesque about it. He could never persuade them of the truth: that even though, by chance, he had reached the bottom, he was, by choice, comfortable sitting on it.
Often, long after everyone at Kreutzer’s had gone home, he would get into his car and drive over the Third Avenue bridge to Manhattan. At dawn, the long avenues opened before him like lines of music stripped of notes. He would park in a deserted street where no sound broke the silence and sit and imagine that one day the well of his music, now as empty and soundless as the avenues of the huge city, would fill up again. Until then, he knew that he had to live each moment, making sure that the significance of it did not escape him.
Thus, owing not only to the circumstances of his career but to choice as well, Domostroy had come to fashion his life as if he had always lived it only in the present. He chose for companions people who, because of their age or upbringing or taste, neither recognized his name nor cared that he had once done things to make it famous. Their judgment of him, like his of them, depended only on how he presented himself in any number of chance meetings, never on knowledge of his past. He avoided the company of those who were informed about his composing career and who might seek to convince him that his past accomplishments far outweighed his diminished popularity, his recent musical sterility, his failure to achieve lasting financial success, and his present obscurity.
He had gradually succeeded in turning his private universe into a well-guarded fortress, and up to now he had kept out anyone who might disturb the peace he found there.
On the way to see Andrea, Domostroy played his favorite tape on the car’s stereo. His mood was often determined by music, as if the waves of compression and dilation in the air around him influenced the pitch of his emotions. He perceived himself in terms of how he felt, not just in terms of who he was. In this age of video he often felt that he was an anachronism, trained to respond with his cochlea, not his retina; a creature of sound, not of sight. He speculated that, as mankind’s insecurity about its overcrowded physical world increased, so did its dependence on concrete space that could be seen and measured, and hence on visual art that portrayed it, from television to photography.
But Domostroy was guided by the auditory, and his art was music, which enlarged his spiritual world by demolishing boundaries of time and space and by replacing the myriad separate encounters and collisions of men and objects with a mystical fusion of sound, place, and distance, of mood and emotion. His spiritual ancestors included poets, writers, and musicians, especially those who, like Shakespeare’s pair of lovers, could “hear with their eyes.”
The two-hour tape he was now listening to contained about a dozen musical pieces, or fragments of pieces, some of them only a few minutes long. These pieces, selected over the years, were ones he trusted to ease him into a desired emotional state.
By learning to give himself up to the proper music, he had become expert in the process of self-induced reflex. He could trigger in himself a variety of mental states: anticipation, tranquility, enthusiasm, sexual hunger, and in his composing days even the need to compose music. In “Life’s Scores,” his last published interview, he had said: “Composing is the essence of my life. Whatever else I do provokes in me a single question: Can I–would I–should I–use it in my next score? Whenever I hear my music played, I feel as though my whole life were at stake and that a single wrong note could mess it all up. I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of; my music is my sole accomplishment, my only spiritual cast of mind.”
Only once in a while, recalling his creative past, did Domostroy wonder what had happened to the essence of his life. Had the music critic of the influential Musical Commentary who had once accused him of composing himself into “radical isolation” been right? Was his music really so bleak and naked that it would one day tempt its creator, as another critic had once suggested, to cut his own throat?
Domostroy remembered when, also some ten years earlier, he had appeared on Tuning to Time, a TV talk show. The other guest on the show was a foreign military leader who was living in exile in Florida. Although until his exile the leader had been backed by the United States in a war that had lasted for years, his country–and his cause–had eventually been defeated. “We still have a minute, gentlemen,” said the TV host cheerfully at the end of the program, and he turned to the military leader. “Tell us, General, after such a brilliant career–what went wrong?” Had the question been addressed to him, Domostroy would have panicked and not known how to answer. The military leader, betraying no emotion, casually glanced at his diamond-studded watch, then at the smiling host, then at the appreciative audience. “What went wrong?” he asked. “First, I was betrayed by my allies. Then I lost the war. That’s what went wrong.” To a military man, a lost war was the sufficient, obvious explanation for his life’s failure. But what wrong note was sufficient to mess up the life, of a composer and make him lose, in the prime of his life, the will to compose?
Domostroy parked the car in front of a renovated brownstone. Once inside, he ran upstairs and was out of breath by the time he reached the apartment on the fifth floor. He waited a minute for his heart and lungs to calm down, then he knocked. Andrea opened the door and let him in. She hung his jacket in a closet that was full of her dresses and coats and asked him to sit down on the low, oversized bed-couch, made up with a multicolored spread and flanked on one side by a table with a radio on it and on the other by a TV set. The room was comfortable, although sparsely furnished, and the few pieces were, he knew, fine antiques, complemented by several excellent copies of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and, on a separate table, a large collection of antique perfume bottles.
The kitchen and the bathroom were both at one end of the room, seeming to steal space from each other, and he watched as Andrea moved about the tidily arranged apartment to fix him a drink. She was dressed simply but expensively in a silk blouse and a voluminous skirt of fine wool.
The day before, when he had seen her for the first time at Kreutzer’s, he had managed to take in her youth, her formidable presence–expressive eyes, wide mouth, soft wavy hair, shapely rib cage, long legs. He had been aware instantly that she awakened in him a need, not for her exactly–not yet anyway–but perhaps for someone who looked like her. Perhaps, like a chord sounded from his past, she had simply awakened a longing for the feeling of wanting a woman.
“I didn’t believe you would actually, show up,” she said, giving him his drink and perching on the table next to the couch. “Last night at Kreutzer’s, handing you that note, I felt like a Band-Aid.”
“A Band-Aid?” he asked, uncertain.
“An aid to the music band, a groupie!” she said and laughed.
She slid lightly onto the couch, her drink in hand, and leaned back against the table, facing him, her legs stretched in front of her so that her shoes were only inches away from his thigh. “At Juilliard, where I study drama and music, lots of students are into your stuff. They say you’re a pro.”
“A pro, with no new record in years, and all his old ones in the Memory Lane department.”
“Not all!” she said. “Last month Etude Classics presented the Juilliard library with a gift of all its finest recordings, including every single one of yours.”
“It’s good of Etude to keep my masterpieces in print–and to get rid of them as gifts.”
Andrea got up and went over to some shelves filled with books and records on one side of the room. Slowly, one at a time, she pulled out all eight of Domostroy’s records and stacked them on the record player. Then she started the machine, announcing in a confidential disc jockey drawl, “Tonight’s program, ladies and gentlemen, will be devoted to the complete works of Patrick Domostroy, the distinguished American composer, the National Music Award winner.” As she sat down on the couch again, she brushed against him, and he caught the scent of her hair.
The music came to them from two large speakers placed on wall brackets at opposite ends of the room. As always, when he listened to his records, he was surprised by his own music, by the sounds he had once been able to hear only with his inward ear. Once again he was uncertain of his reaction; he could never decide whether he liked his music or not. Rather, he identified with it, knew each note, each phrase; he recalled how long–and where–he had worked on it. He even remembered his reactions to each piece when he first heard it in a concert hall, then on the radio, then occasionally on TV; and he remembered as well the anguish of waiting for each record to come out, the not-to-be-uttered expectation of success, and then the further anguish of waiting for the reviews.
“Don’t you feel good about being a composer?” she asked, looking at him intently.
“I don’t compose anymore,” he answered.
“Are you ever going to give another big concert?”
“No more big concerts,” he said firmly.
“I lost my following,” he said.
“But–why? They used to love you.”
“They–the critics, the audience–changed, and I didn’t. Or maybe it was the other way around.”
“You’re still a recording star,” she said. “Your records touch more people than any concert would.”
He felt her eyes on him, pleading, as soft and inviting as if she were a child, and he was tempted to kiss her.
“If my records touch you–can I?”
“Do you want to?” said Andrea, and she leaned back on her elbow and faced him. As she did so, her breast brushed against his hand.
“Only if you want me to.”
“What makes you think I don’t?” she asked, inching closer, her lips parting.
©1982, 1983 by Jerzy Kosinski. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.