Clavichord in the Trailer Park
J. David Liss
I was walking from trailer to trailer, making sure the connections between the mobile homes and the network interface boxes were clean. We were one of the few trailer parks that had offered Internet service since the early 2000s, and we hadn’t upgraded from Ethernet to Wi-Fi.
When I felt like getting out to the country and away from Queens, I visited Uncle Nicky’s park in Riverhead. It was pretty country, nothing you’d think of if someone said the words ‘Long Island’. Most people hear Long Island and think of suburban tracts and strip malls. But The Island has pine forests and cliff side views of the Atlantic. I could go to Uncle Nicky’s to get away from the City and focus on my doctoral dissertation.
Uncle Nicky’s suffered no freeloaders, and that included his favorite nephew. I was always welcome, but I had to get up early to help around the park. Uncle Nicky would send me to check the Internet connections since he got a lot of complaints about slow service. He figured I was young and getting a Ph.D. and I should know about the Internet. No point in telling him that a doctorate in musicology did not qualify me as an electrical engineer. He had installed the Ethernet terminals because I told him that it would bring more tenants (which it did). Anyway, I used the Internet, so I should know how to fix it. He drove a car and knew how to fix it. He used a toilet and knew how to fix it. A man should be able to take care of the things he needed; that was Uncle Nicky’s philosophy. And Aunt Sophie agreed since it got me out of the trailer early and gave her time to make pancakes by the time I got back.
I didn’t mind the job. There were always three reasons why the Ethernet went bad. The interface was covered with dirt that had gotten into the connection. The insulation was frayed. The wire had been chewed through by something that lived in the pine forest — usually a rat. For the former, I just cleaned the interface. The latter two, I changed the cable.
This morning Nicky said, “When you get to 22, the kid who is living there will probably be awake. You may want to talk to him.”
“He likes weird music. Reminds me of the stuff you played that time at Carnegie Hall.”
“You’ve never gotten over that Baroque concert my parents invited you to, have you?”
“It was great Franklin. No one in my family calls me Frank. I love driving to Manhattan. He’d rather have his teeth pulled. And I love music, you know that. He listens to Perry Como in the car. And I was proud as hell that my nephew was playing in Carnegie Hall. True. Uncle Nicky is very proud of me. I mean, I don’t know why you can’t study modern music like Perry Como and play that on the piano, but everyone at that concert seemed to think you’re a genius. Although none of them were wearing tuxedos at Carnegie Hall, so how smart could they be? Everyone there was wearing jeans and tweed jackets. And I never saw so many men with beards outside of the Jewish temple where your cousin Anthony married that girl Rebecca—which your Aunt Sophie and I are perfectly fine with; we like her a lot.
“Anyway, talk to this kid. His name is Edward — don’t call him Ed. He plays music on something that sounds like it’s old fashioned. And he likes to go into the woods and play for the trees, so he’s kind of strange.”
“He’s not paying the rent? Do you want me to try to get him to pay?”
“No. In the four months that he’s been here he’s good with the rent. He just keeps to himself more than your Aunt Sophie and I are used to, and I get the feeling he could use someone to talk to. He seems pretty good with that thing he plays and I think you and he would have a lot in common. You may even know some of the same people.”
So there I was outside of Lot 22 in my uncle’s trailer park listening to what I was shocked to recognize as the sound of a 16th Century clavichord. You may well ask how, listening outside the insulated fiberglass walls of a mobile home at 7:00 am I can tell you it was a 16th Century instrument? Clavichords aren’t super popular in the 21st Century, but people buy them. Ever since Stevie Wonder used one in his song Superstitious, musicians who play a lot of funk like to have one around.
But to someone who pays attention, the sound of a modern instrument is as different from the old ones as doorbells from church bells. The new ones have strings made of steel and their frames are made of resin—all very sturdy. In the best of the old clavichords, the strings are made of twined iron and brass. Their cabinets are made of aged, fine wood—usually spruce that if kept oiled and in the right humidity grows more resonant with time. Listening to that clavichord, I could hear the century, see the workshop of the luthier, watch him focus on getting the exact right thickness for the wooden bridge, tuning out the sounds of the carriage wheels and screaming mongers outside his door. I could hear the century of its birth in its song; I’m that good.
And the guy who was playing was that good too. His hands told me that without my having to see them. The clavichord is the most intimate of keyboard instruments. When you press the keys, a brass blade shaped like a screwdriver head drives up and hits the strings. Press the keys gently and the sound whispers. Pour on your passion and strike the keys and the instrument will sing back your emotions. But never very loud. It’s the great drawback of the clavichord—it never gets too loud. Keep your fingers on the key and the string will keep vibrating, humming, resonating to your needs. Take your fingers off the chord and it stops. More than any other instrument, the clavichord is one with the musician and always speaks in his voice. But it always has an element of privacy to it. It always speaks with the musician’s voice but sometimes it can be like talking to yourself, telling you what you want to hear most.
He was playing Bach’s Prelude in C Major, I recognized that stately procession and waited until the ever-advancing steps were complete. Then I knocked on the door.
“Hi. I was listening outside and really enjoyed your playing. My name is Franklin Lombardi. My Uncle Nicky told me about you and thought we should meet.”
“Soon to be Doctor Lombardi! Your uncle has told me all about his nephew the musicologist. He’s really proud of you. Of course, after he told me about you I went online and listened to your performance at Carnegie Hall, then Avery Fisher, and then I downloaded the samples from Juilliard. So thank you. I’ve been hoping that you would find the time to visit. Your uncle is right, we do have a lot in common.”
As Edward said this we burst out laughing because we both knew exactly what Uncle Nicky was thinking. My uncle has assumed I was gay since I was 11 years old. He saw how careful I am with my hands, how I preferred being inside practicing piano as opposed to playing sports, how I insisted on being called by my full name and wouldn’t let anyone call me Frank — he had a million cues that in his mind meant I was a guy who liked guys.
And he was completely wrong. I’m straight, though more focused on my career than relationships. Nicky would never believe it though, and won’t until I’m married and have five kids. I have always appreciated how much he loves me and accepts me, even though for an Italian his age being gay was a stigma on the family—disgratziada—my grandmother would have said. Nicky loved me and didn’t let anything get in the way. One day he will be relieved when I do get married and had five kids. I hoped he would live that long.
Nicky had assumed the same thing about Edward. Wrong again. But he liked Edward immediately because Edward reminded Nicky of me. And here my uncle thought he was making a match for his nephew, macho Italian-American that he was. You had to love the guy.
“Let me take a look at the person I really came in to meet. That’s an amazing instrument. Scandinavian by the wood. Late 16th Century.” Then the big question: “May I?”
I played something relatively modern, Farnaby’s His Rest. Edward applauded and bowed slightly in appreciation. I bowed in recognition, turned back to the keyboard and launched into Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground.
“Stop. I don’t play the new stuff. I have a strong feeling that it will turn the instrument in a direction I don’t want it to go.”
I stopped instantly. “Quite right. These things pick up bad habits pretty quickly.”
“You get it!”
And from that point on we were friends. Being friends with Edward was like being friends with my musical alter ego. He wanted to walk in the forest, long walks for no apparent reason. We developed a game I called, what note is that? We’d hear a sound, say a cardinal’s trill, and have to identify what notes of the musical scale we were hearing. We always got it right — at least we agreed on the note since we could both hear in perfect pitch. So the challenge became constructing either a song around the note or a narrative about the sound we were hearing. When I heard the cardinal’s song I composed a march–The Cardinal’s Pitch; the baseball reference was completely lost on Edward. Edward made up a narrative around the cardinal’s note: The cardinal was trying to explain to a female that he wasn’t singing to mate with her but to panhandle for quarters to buy birdseed. One day we were walking and Edward blasted a fart (he was mostly vegetarian). Without missing a step, I said, “A sharp.” We both cracked up. Just to make sure, when we got back to his trailer we took out his pitch pipe and sounded A flat. Yup. From that point on we could not hear an A flat without cracking up.
We got together most days for the next two months. I stayed longer at the park than Uncle Nicky and Aunt Sophie expected, and they were mighty pleased, although Nicky was more convinced than ever that I was gay.
I’d go over to Edward’s trailer and we’d talk music, art and life. He wasn’t really on top of popular culture, I was little better. He had no interest in politics but was very interested in local news. He loved history, which wasn’t surprising for a guy who played a 400-year-old instrument. He was incredibly handy and could fix anything. Every possession he had had been repaired in some way, and by his own hand.
Edward did not have money, that was clear, but he had enough to pay my uncle rent and buy food, which I learned he supplemented by foraging. The Internet was a gift for Edward. He could find clavichord recitals, chamber music recitals, instructions for clavichord repair, and any entertainment he needed. He didn’t need a lot, and rarely streamed movies. He had a thing for the actress Reese Witherspoon. He said he was attracted to very petite blondes. Other than that, he did not seem interested in Hollywood.
One morning I walked to his trailer but he wasn’t there. I decided to do my rounds, checking on the electrical connections. When I got to the edge of the park where the pine barrens start, I heard the unmistakable sound of Edward’s clavichord coming from the woods. I wondered why he would take that delicate instrument into the forest and take a chance it would be damaged or warped by the dampness.
I followed my ears until he was in sight. Weeks ago, Uncle Nicky had described Edward as playing to the trees. He wasn’t. He was playing in the forest, but his face, and the notes of the clavichord were directed outward. I could not see the audience he was performing for but it seemed that he could. It was a little chilling. It was so sad.
My ear is highly trained. If it wasn’t, I might have lost the music of the instrument in the sound of the wind. It sounded as if the clavichord was in dialog with the wind, pleading, having its notes swept away by the uncaring rush of the moving sky. But the notes were wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but Edward’s playing was fundamentally wrong. For someone of his skill, that was inexplicable.
Sorrow lay upon Edward’s face like a mask. That day I learned about Linda.
Of course she was a petite blonde. They met at the Eastman Conservatory in University of Rochester. He told me a story that couldn’t have been as easy and romantic as he described. On the first day of class they were assigned a project to reconstruct a work of Baroque music from historical documents. It was supposed to take four months, but they both loved Baroque music so much that they went to the library that afternoon and convinced the librarian to bring them documents that were reserved for faculty. They carried the material to one of the practice rooms in the library where there was a Steinway. But there was only one piano. Edward said he had the perfect solution, and he meant perfect! He jogged back to his dorm and returned carrying a clavichord. It wasn’t the masterpiece that he had in the trailer. This was a modern instrument. Linda’s eyes widened when she saw it and she laughed and said that it was perfect for so many reasons. He told her that he was in love with the 16th Century and was absolutely certain he was meant to live in those days, but something had gone wrong and here he was in the 21st. Her eyes were wide.
They both sat down to their keyboards and started working out the complexities in the documents they’d found. The piano overwhelmed the clavichord and they were having trouble. Edward was getting frustrated. The range of the piano was too great; it’s voice too loud. It didn’t understand the spirit of the time. It was like a drunken professor who had crashed his students’ party and wouldn’t stop lecturing.
Edward was so frustrated he nearly threw the old manuscript to the floor. Linda just smiled and told him she’d be back in a few minutes. When she returned, she was carrying the antique instrument that Edward had been playing when we met.
He was flabbergasted. She placed the clavichord on the table, but instead of playing she pulled him onto the chair in front of the instrument. “I couldn’t,” he said. She took his hand in hers and held them for a few seconds, before placing them on the keyboard.
As soon as his fingers touched the wooden keys they sprang into a life of their own, or perhaps they became possessed by the ghost of Bach. He played. It sounded to his ear that the notes were not bouncing off the soundproofed, insulated glass walls of the practice room but gently back from oaken wainscoting in a small, intimate room, where there was not enough light and rugs lay about the wooden floor and everything was muffled in darkness and wool, except two candles that burned near sheet music that was in the parchment roll of his brain.
He finished the piece—the Bach prelude he had been playing when I first met him—and suddenly he was back in a practice room in Rochester, New York. And Linda was next to him in a pale yellow satin bodice and gown that swept to the floor, except that she was in jeans and a blouse. Edward slowly emerged from his dream and took his fingers from the keyboard, and then realized that he had not taken his hands off the clavichord by his own effort; Linda had, and was holding them.
She said, “You were there.” It was all she had to say.
They played old music and dropped acid and fell in love and were inseparable. They went to museums to see 16th Century paintings by the Dutch and Italian masters. They stood in front of portraits of men and women playing instruments together in patches of light from windows or candles in rooms that were otherwise dark, creating private heavens of solitude and music. They tried to move their spirits into the paintings, to be there. It didn’t work. But when they played Linda’s clavichord it felt as if they had succeeded. They played for hours and became brilliant at performing on that old instrument, but no one heard them. They stopped going to class.
In addition to their research in old music, they studied the occult and were particularly interested in understanding the ley lines, the energy fields that run through the Earth and were believed to power magic. They understood that great mystical sites like Stonehenge or Machu Picchu were places where two or more of the great holy lines converged. But they didn’t think those great rivers of energy could help them. Edward was from New York; Linda was from Connecticut. They believed that the power they could reach would lie in the Earth of the East Coast. They were looking for streams of magic they could drink from, not a magical tidal wave that could sweep them away.
They went into the woods in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, looking for the doorway that could lead them to the time and place they belonged. They played music and could feel the ley lines. They made love in the forests and felt the magical energy in the Earth even stronger. Sometimes they felt so close that they were shocked when they looked around them and realized they were still here and now.
They met when they were both 21 and lived this life for 8 years. They had very little money. Both of their parents sent them some money whenever they asked. Edward supplemented their income by playing musical gigs when things were really tight and Linda would teach music for brief periods. But they needed very little. The East Coast is expensive, but not so much if your goal was to live close to nature. They rented trailers in parks that were close to forests, far from cities, and inexpensive. Every day Edward woke up next to the person he loved. They would spend each day on a magical quest and play music to get there. It was paradise.
Then Linda got sick. Ovarian cancer is so silent. It doesn’t play a note until it springs like a crescendo from empty space, the full orchestra blasting the finale. After two weeks of bloating, cramping. bleeding and weight loss, Linda shared her symptoms with Edward. They went to the nearest clinic. Two weeks later Linda’s parents took her to a major hospital for surgery and before Edward could visit her the next day she was gone. Linda’s heart had stopped while she was under anesthesia. Her parents called from the hospital to tell him. He did not go to the city to join them.
Strangely, as Edward was telling me this story he didn’t sound sad. He looked forlorn, but there was something almost whimsical in his voice. He said there wasn’t a day that went by, not an hour, that he didn’t miss her, that he didn’t feel the magnetic pull of her absence. He awoke each day surprised again that she wasn’t next to him. A thousand times each day he turned to her to share some insight or joke, and she wasn’t there. But he wasn’t crying as he said this.
I told him I was sorry. All that he said was “Listen.”
He returned to playing the melody to the wind. I realized what was so disturbing and sad about the music. He wasn’t playing complete chords. There was a note missing from each chord that he played, so that any tune simply sounded wrong. He saw me wincing.
“You’re not hearing it.”
“Well, you’re dropping the third from every chord. It sounds terrible.”
“If anyone besides me could have heard it, I was sure it would be you. But even you don’t hear it.”
“The full chord.”
“What do you mean? You’re not playing the full chord.”
He stopped playing and packed up the clavichord. “Never mind.”
“Really Edward, what are you talking about? I understand the pain of your loss, though I’ve never been in a relationship as intense as yours. But I know you are playing those chords wrong. You know it too.”
He started walking away. I followed. He stopped. “Listen.”
“Let’s play our game. The wind in that spruce tree—what note is it?”
It had been playing in the background the whole time; I didn’t even notice it. “A. The A above middle C.”
“Right. Now what note is the wind blowing through the notch between those two rocks?”
This was hard; the sound was very faint. “A-minus.”
“Do you get it?”
“It’s Linda. She’s completing the chord. She’s playing with me. It’s a duet.”
“Edward, you just told me that Linda is dead.”
“No I didn’t. I said she was gone.”
“Franklin, she found the door.”
“She found the way back, to the place we’ve been trying to reach. She’s in the 16th Century and she’s calling to me, trying to tell me how to follow her. I miss her so much, but she is so close. I’ve got to find the door. She figured it out and I need to get to her.”
“Didn’t her parents call you to say she died?”
“What do they know, Franklin, they can’t hear? You have ears; can’t you hear?”
“I’m not sure what I’m listening for?”
“The ley lines are strong around here. The music never stops. It’s why our game, what note is that, is so much fun to play here. There’s enough energy here that Linda was able to leave her body and move through time. I’m going to do the same. I just have to find the right sounds, the sounds the ley lines sing, and follow Linda.”
“Edward, I think you should come back to my uncle’s place tonight and have dinner with us. You’re hurting and I think you haven’t been able to talk about this with anyone. Also, you should eat some meat.”
“Thanks, but no. I’m not going to be eating until I find the door. I need to think and listen and play. Food will have to wait until I’m with Linda again.”
“I don’t think that you should be alone.”
I couldn’t change his mind. He went back to his trailer and I went back to Nicky and Sophie’s trailer.
The next morning I stopped by Lot 22, but Edward was gone. As far as I could tell from a cursory look, most of his things were still in the trailer. I didn’t really know what possessions Edward owned. But the clavichord was gone and the place felt empty. There was a note on the counter terminating his lease, with money for the remainder of the month. There was a deep, tolling absence of sound.
I told the whole story to my Aunt and Uncle when I brought them Edward’s note and the money. Aunt Sophie was a believer. “He found the door, she said, “He’s back with Linda in the past!” The thing that stuck with Uncle Nicky was that Edward lived with a woman for eight years. “I guess he really wasn’t gay. Why did you guys get along so well?”
We did get along well, though there was a lot I didn’t understand. And where did he go? Wherever it was, he didn’t seem to need extra clothing or bedding. I didn’t notice if the case of the clavichord was gone as well or if he had left it. Would I hear from him again? I’m not a believer like Aunt Sophie, but it seemed to me that the trailer park had a different sound to it, that some note was missing. Was that my trained ear or my overactive imagination?
I returned to the city to rewrite my dissertation. I was now less interested in structural anomalies in Bach. I wanted to explore spirituality in Renaissance music. My thinking had shifted on why this music was written.
I completed the first draft of my new thesis in record time. I had always seen music as a self-contained universe, a place where things made sense because the rules were consistent and universally understood. Since Edward disappeared, I started thinking about music as a way of understanding the larger world—a way of ordering chaos into a melody we can hear. Linda was the most important song in Edward’s life and he couldn’t imagine not hearing her anymore. So his life bent to the orchestrating of their reunion. I pitied him and wished his mind were whole.
Some months later, I got a call from Aunt Sophie. I couldn’t tell if she was super excited or super disappointed. “You got a letter. It’s from Edward. We haven’t seen you since he left. Tomorrow is Saturday; why don’t you drive out and pick it up. We’ll have meatballs.”
I would have done it without the added incentive of meatballs.
Next morning I left for Riverhead with the traffic and the departing geese. It’s always good to see my aunt and uncle. I would stay one night and head back.
The letter was on the table by the entrance to the mobile home. It was unopened. I had half expected it to be written on parchment by feather quill and sealed with wax. But it was an ordinary letter postmarked from Connecticut.
Let me apologize for the sudden departure without farewell. The evening we parted I was struck by the changes in Riverhead, that the ley lines seem to have shifted and there was less energy. I think Linda was trying to tell me that her leaving used up the energy that was available there, and that I needed to find a new place and a new sound. That’s when I realized that the trailer park was on the Long Island Sound and that I was on the wrong side, the wrong side of the sound. Do you understand? I was on the sound, but on the wrong side of it. So I crossed to Connecticut and have found powerful ley lines. I wanted to let you know that I’m all right and will be until I reunite with Linda. Let your aunt know that I’m eating enough and tell your uncle I’m not gay.
Until music triumphs over time I will try to stay in touch.
Your friend in A-sharp,
My friend until music triumphs over time; who knows, maybe even after.
About the author…
In 1984 J. David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, he became a speechwriter, then a lobbyist. In the past 30 years, Liss has worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His prose has been published in “Inwood Indiana Press,” “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Between the Lines,” “Adelaide,” and others. His poetry has appeared in “The Naugatuck River Review,” “Fifth Wednesday Journal,” “Blood and Thunder,” “Felan,” “Euphony,” “Poetry Quarterly,” and others.