Tune, Anyone?

VICTOR HILL was formerly in newspaper and advertising Work and is now employed in Providence by the Rhode Island Department of Health.

Looking back — which, by the way, happens to be the title of a solemn but engaging tune current a year ago but now in limbo except in my mental phonograph, where it is being fully and endlessly rendered because I happened to write an opening phrase made up of those two words. . . .

Let’s begin again.

To the best of my recollection, I once could hear a tune and it would leave me alone, up until a few weeks after my marriage. This association has nothing to do with my wife, who neither sang nor hummed, even as a bride, but rather with the fact that we spent most of our first year on the island of Jamaica, where we used to be annoyed every morning by the Spanish Rhapsody bird.

We never learned its ornithological name. It was the color of gray flannel and had an acute-isosceles tail about a foot long, twice the length of its body. Every morning it would land on a limb outside our kitchen window, awkwardly swinging its huge tail trying to find an equilibrium, and utter three trumpetlike notes — ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta — right out of Chabrier’s Spanish Rhapsody. Then it would lose its balance and fly away.

Since I knew that the other shoe, so to speak, would never drop, I was put under an automatic compulsion to finish the tune. It has a tricky cadence, and I had to repeat it several times trying to get it right, and the first thing I knew I was spending most of the day, every day, including Sunday, playing that theme over in my mind. Sometimes it got lost toward the end of the day or was superseded by another tune, but every morning the bird showed up again. Our whole sojourn there became so suffused with that excerpt that even today it begins again when I read advertisements of Jamaica or even stumble across an obscure reference to bird watching.

Ever since then this reflex has persisted, to the point of being almost pathological. I no longer need actual notes, such as the Spanish Rhapsody bird provided; a tune bursts in on me, full volume, whenever I hear an accidental title or a suggestive rhythm. Apparently I’ve had a compulsive and slightly masochistic memory for every tune I’ve ever heard, voluntarily or involuntarily, during my lifetime, and I never know what will pop up next.

When driving in the rain I always postpone turning on the windshield wipers until I can’t see a thing, because the rhythm will always start anything from that clarinet duet with kettledrums toward the end of Marche Slave to El Capitan to The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Driving in fair weather isn’t much of a help, either. I’ve discovered that a great many drivers blow their horns one short and one long, which is precisely the opening rhythm of Leroy Anderson’s Saraband.

Yesterday at a traffic light I drew up alongside an old car that had stalled. The starter was whirring and throbbing in a lively fashion, but the resistance of the crankshaft and the uneven compression and the eccentricity of the grommets all combined to give a definite beat to the process. It was a perfect samba rhythm, and by the time the light changed I was already going into the second chorus of Tico Tico. It continued all afternoon.

Today as I left the office and got into my car to drive home, I waited for another car to pass. The driver was one of the secretaries, a wellthought-of young lady who is generally addressed by her first name.

We waved at each other. Her windows were closed and so were mine, and there was no reason in the world why I should have given her the usual office end-of-the-day farewell. Nevertheless, as my waving hand descended to the wheel I said — innocently, I hope, but quite aloud — “Good night, Irene.”