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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

December 1993

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor

He was a first-rate composer, he believed, the real thing. He was not going to throw away his discipline just because he'd crossed paths with a self-deceived suburban girl.

by Ralph Lombreglia

IF you wanted the book on Karl, the official version of his creative life, it went something like this: As a very young man he'd achieved minor fame by writing a suite of chamber works that bounded harmoniously away from the atonal bog where serious music was shrieking and splashing like a sinking dinosaur. Karl's sunny compositions had the sound of a new time beyond great world wars -- the innocent, optimistic 1950s. They won a major prize, were recorded by a first-rate quartet, and, for music from the hand of a boy, were surprisingly influential: most experts still listed Karl among the originators of the epochal return to consonance. But Karl himself, it was said, seduced by false muses and beatnik foolishness, abandoned his original inspirations to devote the rest of his career to inferior experiments in chance and randomness.

The critics who made these judgments, he felt, had no talent or imagination, and no respect, and they had utterly missed the significance of Karl's later work. They didn't even know what "chance" and "randomness" meant. Nevertheless, their opinions had shaped his destiny. He was fifty-eight years old, and those precocious chamber pieces were still the only compositions of his that were performed regularly. When he wrote them, only a few players in the world could do them right; today they were played passably well by conservatory students -- who were often surprised to learn that Karl was still alive.

One of his own former students, Jennifer, was up in his barn studio as Karl's car crunched down the long gravel driveway through the woods; lights were burning in the barn's second story, and Jennifer's beat-up Japanese sedan was parked in the cul-de-sac. Karl had been on campus the entire day, teaching in the flourishing summer arts program invented by his wife, and he hadn't seen Jennifer since their fight the night before -- their third or fourth fight in a week. Jennifer was now Karl's assistant at school, though she hadn't bothered showing up today. She copied parts for him at his studio too, and in her free time she did her own work up there. He pulled his Land Rover into the spot between her car and his wife's Volvo wagon. He was amazed by the realization that he'd been famous when he was not much older than this young woman in his work space right now. He had been the youngest professor ever to hold an endowed chair at his college, back when the trustees were convinced they had the next Charles Ives on their hands.

Lights were burning in his house as well. He saw the shadows that Gloria cast on the walls as she moved around preparing dinner. When he stepped out of his vehicle, he caught the rich scent of a roast coming through the kitchen's screened windows. He smelled freshly mown grass, too, and looked through the barn doorway to see it on the rubber tires of the tractor. On its ground level the barn still housed heavy equipment for the farmer who worked some of Karl's land and mowed the meadows. The vast former hayloft was Karl's music studio. He climbed the stairway up to it.

"And what's this my nose detects?" he called out in his fairy-tale woodsman's voice, flaring his nostrils and sniffing loudly as he entered the cavernous place. "Methinks my nose smells blood."

"Boil and bubble," Jennifer said, her back to him at the distant kitchen counter. "Toil and trouble."

Karl's studio was bigger and better-appointed than the homes of most professors at the college, though he'd kept it, except for the bathroom, one large unbroken space. He stood in front, where picture windows looked into the woods from the walls framing his majestic grand piano, which rested on glossy floorboards beneath the skylight-studded ceiling. In the year since he'd begun his masterpiece, Karl had worked in the barn much of every night, sleeping on the sofa bed for a few hours before dawn. He needed very little sleep these days.

"More blood, my darling?" he said, switching to the voice of a soap-opera husband. "But sweetheart, you've made so much blood already."

"I need more blood," Jennifer replied, doing the vampire voice.

He strode across the gleaming floor to join her at the stove. Three large pots of blood were simmering there, Jennifer stirring them with a wooden spoon. Karl tried to bite her neck like Dracula, but she wouldn't let him. He used to bite her neck all the time. In the blood's bubbling turbulence he saw the chaos that wasn't chaotic, the randomness that wasn't chance. But he saw that in almost everything. Jennifer liked her blood fairly thick, with plenty of clots. She seemed especially pleased with this batch. She had discovered recently that if she reserved some cornstarch until the blood was good and hot, it produced numerous misshapen lumps that looked grotesque sliding down her arms and face.

Jennifer was a performance artist. The blood was a prop in her act. Jennifer's act required many props, but blood was the unifying device. She concealed plastic sacks of the homemade blood in various articles she had with her onstage -- a child's fluffy teddy bear, a pearl-encrusted evening bag, the bodice of a white bridal gown. For an hour she paraded about to her own synthesizer score, acting out dysfunctional family relationships and decrying bankrupt, oppressive governments while the Barbie-doll world hemorrhaged around her. Everything she touched turned to blood. For her finale she decorated a wedding cake with a bleeding pastry bag.

In Karl's opinion, her act was an embarrassing, juvenile cliche. It was also a fraud. Jennifer did not genuinely have the elemental fixation on blood that she portrayed herself as having. An obsession with blood was a serious thing. No, it was merely that bodily fluids were good for one's career in the performance game -- itself the most depraved development Karl had witnessed in his many years in the arts. He had assumed she would grow out of it, but she was doing quite the reverse, and now people in New York City were participating in her delusion.

"Why don't you stay for dinner?" Karl said. "Gloria's making a roast. Rare, the way you like it."

Jennifer deigned to chuckle over this, and then turned off the burners on the stove. Her blood was finished boiling. "I was going to clean up in here."

"You can do it later." He pinched her waist. "I'll help."

She created her blood in his studio because her own apartment had a useless kitchenette, and Karl, in his prosperity, had a full set of professional pots and pans, not to mention a six-burner Viking restaurant range -- and that was just in the barn.

"Karl, I don't really feel like having dinner with you and Gloria."

"You've had dinner with me and Gloria before."

"I'm trying to concentrate. I don't feel like feeling stress."

This batch of blood was for Jennifer's biggest engagement to date -- opening for some famous fake in a New York performance space this weekend. She had written new material for this occasion, and she was nervous about it. Karl blamed their fighting on this.

"I didn't get to see you at all today. I'd like you to stay."

She sighed. "Fine, if you insist. Let me change."

HE came down the barn stairs into the late New Hampshire day and smelled again his wife's cooking emanating from the house. A man enjoys a nice roast in the evening, he thought, to cheer himself up, and at that instant his heart thing happened again -- starting like a bird trying to fly in his chest and then escalating into a vibrating punching bag that made him sit on the steps, holding the railing and panting to ride it out. This happened to him two or three times a week, yet his asinine doctors said that nothing was seriously wrong with him. Their diagnosis was garden-variety arrhythmia -- an irregular heartbeat -- and they weren't inclined to do much about it. At Karl's insistence they had rigged wires all over his chest for twenty-four hours at a time, the results of this surveillance pouring into a recorder clipped to a canvas belt. Later they plotted his data on long paper scrolls. The black bursts on the green graph paper looked like the Reaper's palm prints to Karl, the Reaper advancing on hands and knees like a cannibal, yet one doctor after another insisted that this was a well-known nonfatal phenomenon. They told him to cut out coffee and booze, and to stop worrying.

But Karl was more up on these things than the doctors were. For years he'd been studying the phenomenon of chaos, of which an arrhythmic heartbeat was a perfect example. Chaos was not nothing. It was not the absence of purpose and structure. Chaos might even be structure -- what human beings called structure -- or maybe it was structure seen from the other side. Chaos was reality's essential ingredient. Everything had chaos in it. But chaos could amplify and feed back, propagating until it destroyed any system it was in. Scientists had lately discovered these things about chaos, but Karl had intuited the truth decades ago. Had he been a scientist, he'd have won the Nobel Prize by now. In his music he had explored chaos when it was ridiculed and reviled. Now chaos was respectable, but Karl wasn't. Most of the fundamental properties of reality that Karl believed in -- mind over matter, to take an obvious example -- would eventually be discovered too, and presented to the world on television shows, but Karl wouldn't be around to see them.

The devils stopped playing their bongos in his rib cage; they were finished laughing at him for the moment. He looked up the steps, half expecting to find Jennifer staring down at him, but the landing was empty. He rose and walked gingerly across the gravel drive, as though in his stocking feet. No one except Jennifer knew this, but the masterpiece he was composing was about his erratic heart. That was the genius of it, its beauty and raw, flawed life. That was even its title: Heart Chaos 1. It literally began with the anti-rhythms of his own mortal pump going berserk, captured one day when he held a tape recorder to his chest despite his mortal terror. Later he transcribed the pattern beat by beat into his overture. When it was done, Heart Chaos 1 was going to express perfectly what chaos really was -- the music of the world.

His attack left him shaky and weak and craving a slice of roast. He entered the kitchen and joined Gloria at the range, where she was stirring a broad saute pan of creamy sauce with vegetables in it. A large kettle of water boiled on a back burner.

"This isn't a roast," he said.

"Who said it was?" Gloria replied.

"It smelled exactly like a roast. I smelled it."

She turned to face him. "Karl, this smells like a roast to you?"

He bent over the sauce and inhaled. "No, it doesn't. Not anymore." The aroma dispelled most of his disappointment. He loved creamy sauces for pasta, though they were too rich and he had no business eating them. He had brought home bad cholesterol numbers a year before. He had no business eating roasts either, but a person tired of broiled eggplant slices with lemon juice. "Trying to kill me again," he said.

"Out to get you," Gloria said, stirring green peas into the simmering cream.

She was twelve years younger than Karl, his first student affair from his first year at the college. Thanks largely to her, the small, pretty campus of brownstone buildings was still a college and not some ashram or corporate retreat. The place had been in serious trouble when Gloria left admissions six years ago to take over the development office. Now the college had the beginnings of a well-invested endowment, the hiring freeze was lifted, applications were up. In meetings with the trustees the provost tried to take credit for the school's salvation, but everybody knew Gloria was the brains behind it.

"Jennifer would like to stay for dinner," Karl said.

"Fine. There's plenty to go around."

A bottle of white wine was already standing open on the kitchen island. He poured himself some and refreshed Gloria's glass. "Fair warning, though. She's in a stinker of a mood. I think she's terrified that she doesn't have her new lines memorized or something, that her big act isn't going to go over in New York. She's been quite unpleasant lately."

"Well, we'll have to stay off that subject then."

"Or we could get on that subject. We could quiz her. Give her a test, try to trip her up."


He looked out the window to see Jennifer crossing the cul-de-sac between the barn and the house. She'd changed out of her blood-spattered clothes into clean jeans and a T-shirt that said America has a reality problem.

She pushed open the kitchen's screen door and stuck her head inside. "Hi. It's me."

"Hello, Jennifer," Gloria said.

"We're not having a roast after all," Karl said, sipping his wine beneath the massive oval rack of hanging pots. "We're having pasta Alfredo."

"Primavera," Gloria said.

"Excuse me, primavera."

"Great," Jennifer said.

"Karl was positive he smelled a roast," Gloria told Jennifer.

"Maybe you were smelling a roast in your brain," Jennifer said. "A roast from your past that once made you happy."

Gloria laughed. "That's very funny," she said.

Karl didn't think it was all that funny. It was exactly the kind of thing Jennifer was always saying, the prototypical Jennifer statement. She would float around New York City saying things like this, and soon some people would be having a lot of fun with her. "You could put that in your skit," Karl said. She disliked having her act called a skit. She didn't care for "act" either.

"Maybe I will," Jennifer said. "A roast in the brain. I like it."

Karl caught Gloria glaring at him over her shoulder. "Wine?" he asked Jennifer. "Or would it fog your mind?"

Jennifer laughed. "Nothing could fog my mind more than it's fogged already."

The girl was the most amazing fount of truth sometimes. Karl poured a glass and handed it to her.

Gloria slid coiled noodles into the boiling kettle and stirred them around, and then turned to bestow a gracious smile upon Jennifer. "What's your mind so fogged about?" she asked.

Whenever Karl watched Gloria socialize, he understood how she could put on her handsome tailored ladies' suits, fly around the country with her computer, and come home with her briefcase full of money for the college. Karl couldn't get a Rotary Club to give him twenty cents. Gloria had "people skills" in spades. She made people feel good about themselves. Somebody had to do it.

"I'm fogged from working on my show," Jennifer said. "I've been rewriting my script and rewriting my music and trying to memorize everything and stay calm about it."

"Plus doing your work for Karl."

"Yeah, that too."

"Plus making lots of blood," Karl added.

"Right, let's not forget the blood," Jennifer said, and laughed.

"Are you excited about performing in New York?" Gloria asked.

"Of course! I'm psyched. I'm nervous, too."

"Working there is really important, I guess? As opposed to in other cities?"

"Oh, totally," Jennifer said. "I mean, people do performance in, like, Seattle, and Minneapolis, and stuff, but it's not the same thing. People in New York recognize only two or three area codes, and if you don't have one of them, they don't even call you. To tell you the truth, even living up here is becoming an impediment to me."

"I'm not surprised," Gloria said. "We're sort of in the middle of nowhere here. Aren't we?"

"Living here is an impediment?" Karl said. "Since when?"

"Maybe Jennifer is just realizing it," Gloria said.

"That's it exactly," Jennifer said. "It's just dawning on me. All the work for this show has made me realize how much harder it is not to be there."

"Makes perfect sense," Gloria said.

"Are you saying you're thinking about moving to New York?" Karl said.

"I've thought about it, yeah."

He stepped out from behind the kitchen island. Gloria had her eye on him. "When?"

"If I did it, I'd probably do it pretty soon."

"Jennifer, school starts in two months. You're supposed to teach sections of the intro course. You wanted an instructor appointment. I got you one."

The blood had rushed to Jennifer's face. She stood, looking mortified, her wineglass quavering and her free hand stuck in a back pocket of her jeans.

"Karl," Gloria said, "they can easily find a replacement for Survey of Western Music."

"That's not the point, Gloria."

"Then what's the point?"

He looked at Jennifer and squeezed an exasperated laugh out of himself. "I guess the point is, when were you planning to tell the department?"

"I wanted to get this performance behind me and then figure it out."

Gloria put her hand on Jennifer's shoulder. "I know more about this college than he does. Take your opportunities. Somebody else will cover the course." Suddenly the noodles foamed and boiled over on the stove. "You two are making me forget what I'm doing! Go sit down! Both of you!"

When they were all at the table with portions of dinner before them, Gloria poured more wine and proposed a toast. "To Jennifer's success in New York. I'm sure you'll be great."

"Thank you," Jennifer said.

Karl was fuming in his chair. "Here's wishing you minor fame," he said, and smiled witheringly before sipping his wine.

"Thanks, but I think I already have that," Jennifer said.

Karl heard this like a schizophrenic hearing voices. He looked to see if Gloria had heard it too, but he couldn't tell. "You don't say," he said.

"Yeah, I think you could say I'm kind of minor famous." She turned to Gloria. "Some pretty important critics in New York are talking about my work."

"Karl's been telling me," Gloria said. "Congratulations."

Jennifer shrugged her shoulders. "I mean, you know it's not real," she added. "You don't let yourself believe in it. You don't think about it when you're working. But as long as you don't, it's not a bad thing. It helps."

"That sounds like a very wise attitude," Gloria said, smiling and touching Jennifer's arm. "For someone so wonderfully young."

Karl sat like a man who had been turned to stone. "Indeed," he said. He had told Jennifer those very things, in those words exactly.

HE didn't pretend to be jolly at dinner, though Jennifer and Gloria did, and when dinner was over, Jennifer announced that she was going out to the barn to clean up her blood, and then she was going home to get ready for her trip to New York. Karl remained at the table with the second bottle of wine while Gloria cleaned the kitchen. For some time he'd felt that he was living in a bad knockoff of the world, or that the world itself had taken a fall on the head and was suffering from amnesia. Nobody remembered anything. Everything Karl saw in the arts was a watery reflection of something he'd seen firsthand decades before, but nobody was saying that. Nobody seemed to recall that all the currently fashionable gestures had been made before, and made better, by better people in a better time. But the most galling thing was Karl's feeling, something he could not really pin down, that Jennifer had stolen the whole blood business from him.

Gloria finished in the kitchen and came into the dining room. "Hey, how about that America with the reality problem?" she said, and laughed, but Karl didn't laugh back. "Oh, Karl, cheer up, will you?"

Karl poured the last of the wine into his glass. Cheering up, promoting good cheer, was actually Gloria's profession, for what was fund-raising if not leading the crowd in a cheer? Institutional-endowment people were really brilliant con artists, but he didn't see how she could stand the life. Once in a while he attended some college event with her, and watched in horror as hundreds of people cheered one another.

"I'm disappointed to see how little I taught someone who seemed to be a gifted student," he said. "The syndrome is a common one that we professors suffer from. Jennifer turns out to believe that if she doesn't get opportunities for exhibitionism in New York, her creative life isn't worth living."

"Well, for what she wants to do, that's true, isn't it?"

"And what's that? What she wants to do?"

"Her theater stuff. Whatever it is."

"She's not doing 'theater stuff,' Gloria. She's perpetrating a hoax on the public. It's the same thing in music and painting -- kids getting lionized for discovering their belly buttons."

"You were lionized as a kid," she said.

"For discovering my belly button?" he cried out.

"For having something new to say."

"These kids do not have something new to say. But that's not even the point. The point is, she'll be eaten alive down there. Devoured like prey."

"Lots of kids go to New York to do art and don't get devoured like prey."

"Jennifer will be devoured. She puts out a certain vibration. She invites it." And then, as though one thing followed from the other, he said, "I don't like helping people and then being treated with disrespect."

"She's young, Karl."

"I wasn't like that when I was young. Were you like that?"

"I don't know. You tell me. You knew me then."

"No, you were not like that. You were infinitely better than that. Kids today are off the map. This whole fucking civilization is out the window." He stood up from the table. "I'm asking her to leave right now. I'll clean up her mess myself. I have work to do tonight."

He kicked across the driveway, splashing gravel against the cars. In his twenty-five years at the college plenty of pretty girls had thrown themselves at him, and he'd slept with a number of them. True, girls threw themselves at other professors, too, and some of those professors practiced restraint. But none of those professors had lived through the experience of minor fame.

He stomped up the studio stairs, stood beside his grand piano, and called across the high-ceilinged space, "You expected me to leave her for you, didn't you? That's what this is all about."

Jennifer swung around at the sink. "Are you kidding me? I think she should leave you."

"You think you should have dumped this news on me in front of my wife?"

"Karl, don't talk to me like the big father, okay?"

He barked a bitter laugh. This was the major theme of their recent fighting -- Karl's being the big, controlling father. When she had studied with him at the college, his being the big father was the thing she'd loved; he happened to know that, even if she wouldn't admit it now. "All right, Jennifer, fine. But I hope you're planning to be careful what you say. Some people would assume I took advantage of you."

She snorted. "Who do you think seduced who, anyway?"

He was going schizo again, hearing things. "What?"

"I said, Who do you think started this? I seduced you, not the other way around."

He must have drunk more wine than he realized. He was going in slow motion and Jennifer was in normal time. He stood there saying nothing.

"I decided to have an affair with you, and I initiated it," Jennifer went on. "Think back."

"And now you've initiated another one with some boy in New York."

"That would be none of your business."

He looked around the studio for her red milk jugs. "Jennifer, I don't see your blood."

"It's in the car."

"Then why don't you go join it?"

When she passed him on her way to the stairs, he said, "You know, something occurred to me tonight. You never did your blood thing until I told you about my heart symphony."

"You're paranoid, Karl. You're sick. I have my own ideas."

"Do you? I think I've had a pretty big influence on you."

"Influence? I hate your music."

ON one of his bookshelves he had a few excellent cigars in a humidor, cigars he'd been saving for the right visitor or some special excuse to celebrate. He loved cigars, but he wasn't allowed to smoke them anymore. He snipped one and lit it, and squirted a volume of blue smoke into the air -- a textbook example of chaos, swirling smoke, along with the weather and the flight of butterflies.

He was a first-rate composer, the real goddamn lifelong thing, and he was going to put his feelings into his music and have a good night of work no matter what. He was not throwing away his discipline because he'd crossed paths with a self-deceived suburban girl. He was coming out of this just fine. But first he had to clean the studio kitchen; he couldn't write with Jennifer's bloody mess staring back at him from across the room. He clamped his cigar in his teeth and started washing one of the pots covered with congealed stage gore. It was even more realistic dry than wet, and when it did get wet, it dissolved and got all over his hands, and upset him. He started to succumb to nasty Charles Manson imagery and graphic imaginings of the bloody metronome throbbing away behind his breastbone. He threw the pot back in the sink and pulled a folding Japanese screen in front of the whole affair.

He paced the floor, hazing the big studio with blue smoke. The realization came to him, in that sickeningly palpable way you can't endure for more than a second or two, that he was going to die. What an abomination, he thought, almost out loud. That a man like me should return to dust.

He stood at the piano and looked at his messy score. It didn't tell him anything. Nothing transcendental was clamoring to get out of him at the moment. He sat on the bench, opened a manila folder, and unfurled a length of green paper portraying his monitored heart. He'd gotten some sections of these graphs from the clinic, and he'd been consulting them while composing Heart Chaos 1. They'd proved surprisingly inspirational -- the physical shapes on the paper suggesting sound and structure to him, telling him what to write. Now he found a burst of heart static he liked, and played something on the keys to go with it, but what came out was the most pointlessly ugly music he'd ever heard in his life.

He got up and walked to one of his big picture windows. Beyond his reflection small lights were flashing like the eyes of night spirits. It was July, and fireflies were floating around by the hundreds, tails lighting and then fading to black, here and there, you never knew where, their movements looking perfectly random to human beings not privy to the secrets of firefly love. A three-quarters moon washed its ghost light over the mown meadow beneath the window, and when Karl raised his eyes to look deeper into the pasture, his heart gave a huge, terrifying lurch. Someone was out there in the meadow, lurking around his secluded house in the middle of the night. He moved down the stairway, opened the door quietly, and stepped out onto the landing. The intruder was hiding something in the underbrush, or looking for something hidden there. After a few seconds he saw that it was his wife, hovering at the tangle of brambles that lined the edge of the meadow. "Gloria!" he called out to her.

She spun around in the moonlight. "You scared me!" she cried.

"I scared you!" he answered, thinking, I, who might never come back from a scare like that. He walked toward Gloria through the lightning bugs, ducking their lethargic flashing bodies. "What are you doing?" he asked from afar.

"Picking raspberries," she replied, speaking into the bushes.

"For what?"

"Because they're feeding the birds out here, or just falling on the ground and rotting."

Deep thickets of raspberries bordered the meadow in back of the house. In years past Karl and Gloria had made pies from the fruit of these bushes, but they hadn't done it this year or last, or maybe not for a few years. Fresh raspberry pie seemed almost a dream thing to Karl now, a creation tasted on vacation in some exotic place and not available in ordinary life at home.

He reached his wife beneath the moon. "Are you planning to make a pie?" he asked.

"I don't know what I'm planning to do," she said. She had a large plastic tub from the kitchen, big enough to hold berries for at least two pies. She had a snifter of brandy, too, glinting on the freshly mown grass, completely out of character for Gloria. Karl was the late-night-brandy type, not she.

"Can I have a sip of your drink?" he asked, and when she didn't answer, he picked it up from the ground and had one.

She took it back from him and had a sip herself. "You smell like a cigar," she said.

He looked down at his left hand. The cigar was hanging between his fingers. He'd forgotten it was there. "I was in the mood for one."

"Having a party?"

"No more than you, apparently."

"We're both having a party," Gloria said. "But not the same party."

"You're not really the party type."

"I'm not a fun person?"

"I meant the type for that kind of party."

"What kind?"

"Never mind. I'm losing track of this conversation." He took a puff on the cigar, but it was no longer lit. Some utterance evidently needed to be made, some accounting of himself to his wife. "Listen," he said. "I've been wanting to talk to you. I'm sorry I've had to work so hard lately."

"But you've always worked hard," Gloria said. "Is there something unusual about your working hard now?"

"I feel especially under pressure. I feel I have a lot of work to do in a limited time."

"We all have limited time, Karl, including you. But not because there's anything wrong with your heart." She put down her brandy snifter and continued to pluck the biggest berries out of the tangled, moonlit leaves. "But you have been especially passionate about your work this year -- sleeping out in the barn all those nights and everything. You've been especially intense about whatever you're doing out there."

"What I'm doing out there is creating a masterpiece," Karl said.

"Aren't you always?"

"I don't know what you're saying, Gloria."

"You told me once that in order to be able to create anything at all, you had to feel you were creating a masterpiece. You said that was the only possible attitude toward work. Didn't you tell me that?"

He had, in fact, told her that, and it was true, but he made a mental note to stop telling people things. "Except that this time I'm really doing that."

"Really? Are you worried to be so sure? You told me that artists are never sure they're creating a masterpiece but that's a good thing, because being sure is bad. The point is not to be sure and to do it anyway, on faith."

Life chose this instant to reveal to Karl that the "1" in Heart Chaos 1 would be one of his little jokes, because there would be no Heart Chaos 2. After Heart Chaos 1 he would write no more music. He would fall silent. He just couldn't take it anymore. He was feeling surprisingly good and righteous about this decision when, out of the blue, he remembered the radical black student from the 1960s who, in some curriculum dispute, had become briefly famous for calling Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms "old dead punks." Karl hadn't thought about this in years, and the memory of it cheered him out of all proportion to its real significance. He actually broke into a grin. "I guess I've told you just about everything, haven't I?"

Gloria laughed the way people laugh sometimes when the doctor touches a place that hurts. "No, not quite everything," she said, and held out her plastic tub for the few berries he'd picked.

When he opened his hand above her container, she pulled it away and his berries fell on the ground. He stared at their dark bodies on the matted grass mowings.

"Young Jennifer stopped in to see me as she was leaving," Gloria said.

Karl stopped breathing and waited for his heart to self-destruct, but the perverse vital organ beat on like a clock. "Oh? And what did she have to say?"

"The part I can't get over," Gloria continued, "is that you disliked her so much. You thought she was silly. You ridiculed her all the time."

"I did not ridicule her all the time."

"Yes, you did, in all sorts of little ways."

The situation was getting completely out of hand, and he was not going to allow that to happen. No person living on earth understood self-discipline better than Karl did. He stood up straight and composed himself. "Did Jennifer tell you how much she hated my work?"


"Well, she told me. She didn't spare me one speck of nasty truth tonight. But back when she wanted me to do things for her, my work was the greatest. You want the topper? She shamelessly stole her whole blood idea from the symphony I'm working on."

"You're writing a symphony about blood?" Gloria said, with a look of disbelief.

"It's not about blood as such."

"Then how could Jennifer steal it?"

Karl thought back to the experience of waking up this morning and wondered where he'd missed the sign. There had to have been one. A day like this would not arrive unannounced. "I don't deny that I made a mistake with Jennifer."

"Really," said his wife, wafting the brandy snifter beneath her nose.

"I should never have kept her here after she graduated. I thought she was ready for responsibility, but it only prolonged her adolescence. I thought she was a mature person, but you were right, Gloria: she's young. She didn't even show up on campus to do her duties today. She left me to do the things she gets paid to do, but let me ask you this: Who does the things I get paid to do? Jennifer has a serious problem. It's going to hold her back in life."

"Is it a reality problem, do you think?"

"Yes, it is. She thinks she's the center of the world."

Gloria sipped her brandy, and when Karl reached for the snifter to have some too, she pulled it away to keep it to herself. "The center of the world," she said. "That's a crowded place."

Copyright © 1993 by Ralph Lombreglia. All rights reserved.
Originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly, December 1993.

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