A Fugue

I am pursued by music.

Snatches of trombone, flute and accordion, the window-rattling thud of the bass on a car stereo, the Moebius loop of an ice cream truck. Bits of melodies and rhythms floating through the air like ticker tape, tumbling down the streets like yesterday’s newspapers and plastic shopping bags. No matter which direction I run, I can never get away.

Yet run I do: down a deserted avenue on a summer night, the echoing footfall of music just paces behind me. For all these sounds coalesce into a figure in my mind, flesh, though not visible.

A subway entrance nearby. I don’t know which line it is—I can’t even tell the color—but all the same I descend the double flight of stairs, and push through the turnstiles just as a wave of music washes by and dopplers off down the avenue above. For the moment I am safe.

Or so I think. I hear music again—the subway platform is not silent—no! The Chinese man with the two-string fiddle perched on his lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy bows away at the mournful tunes of his homeland. He does not see me, but no matter: the music does. The notes fly at me like howling furies.

I shrink against the turnstiles, wondering if I should take my chances on the streets again. Just as I am about to turn, a train roars into the station, pushing back the note-furies with a great gust of noise. I squeeze on between exiting passengers, find a seat just as the doors ding shut, and watch the Chinese fiddler disappear, bowing silently behind thick glass. I don’t know which way the train is going, and for the moment I don’t care—away from the music, that is all that matters.

And then I hear it: Showtime ladies and gentlemen, showtime! What time is it? Showtime! What time is it? SHOWTIME! and the boombox starts playing “White Lines,” or “Billie Jean,” or some other song that was big before these breakdancers were born. I can’t even look—I’m stumbling toward the door at the opposite end of the car, the music pushing me from behind like some beat cop holding me by my collar. They have already started clapping in time; I hear the stamp of feet—the landings of those acrobatic somersaults—just as I plunge out into the tunnel. The door bounces once, latches. And though I know I am not supposed to ride between cars while the train is in motion, I cannot help but stay a time in that warm darkness where all is noise, blissfully random noise.

But soon I begin to notice the rhythm of the wheels against the tracks, the monotonous beat of the city, and my heart starts racing. I step forward into the next car, let the door close behind me. That is when I see the mariachis, approaching me like a school of barracuda: three musicians in black cowboys hats and boots, festooned with spangles, one lugging a bass much larger than he. It is too late; the car is nearly empty; I am their chosen victim. They set up their instruments in a half-circle around me and begin to play, metal nails raking across guitar strings, out-of-tune nasal harmonizing and occasional clipped yodels, all while the bass um-pahs away behind. I am writhing against the door, but they do not see me, staring as they are at a spot directly above my head, like actors in a school play, or tourists looking at a subway map you have inadvertently sat under.

They finish their number just as the train begins grinding to a new halt, say their gracias to no one in particular. When the lead guitarist breaks away to make his rounds, hat in hand, I seize the opportunity to squeak by the other two. The bass player grabs me, but I manage to twist out of his firm grip. If I stay any longer, the breakdancers will block my exit, and I can’t understand why the mariachis themselves aren’t yet heading for the door—surely they can’t all squeeze out of the car together, and I do not want to imagine the war between mariachis and breakdancers which would no doubt ensue if both camps tried to squeeze through the same door at the same time, particularly with that bass in tow.

I am holding myself up by the cruddy wall of the station, gasping for breath, when the doors close and the train lurches off again. And what do I see in each successive car? Musicians. It is an infestation; the whole train is teeming with them. The mariachis, the breakdancers; in the next car, the blind accordionist, a sandwich in a baggie sticking half out of his left coat pocket, who says in his thick Russian accent that our “contributions are greatly appreciated”; the slide guitarist with Ozark beard and lazy eye, the Motown singer who uses his change-cup as a maraca, the trio of teenage conga players—singers and drummers, fiddlers and singers, until the train is going so quickly that they become a blur, and I imagine that there are no actual passengers on the train, only performers.

I am never as safe as I suppose; in this city there is no rest from music, only an eternal fugue. Looking left down the platform, following the red rear lights of the train, what do I see but a smiling kora player straddling his gourd, thumbing absently at the strings, and singing his lilting melodies, cascades of words over a hopalong rhythm? When he sees me, I feel like I’ve been spotted by a sewer-bred alligator. But it is not him, poor man; it is the notes, the notes, flying at me like swarms of poison-tipped darts.

Up the stairs and out into the evening again, I narrowly avoid a troop of Peruvian pan-flutists, decked out in their mantas and humming a Celine Dion tune, heading en masse for the platform. It is a lucky break; I would never have survived their concerted piping. The avenue is still deserted, rainwashed-looking; in the distance I hear steel drums playing a Jewish wedding song. Other tunes rumble by like the muted roar of passing jets. I have somehow ended up across the street from a park—the park? I don’t know; I can no longer tell which borough I am in. But I cross the street anyway, climb over the low stone wall, and then roll down a short hill. The landing is grass, though it is too dark to see where I am. I just know that the music seems slightly more distant than before.

But the park is no safer than the train was, or the streets. After a few minutes walking I no longer know in which direction the avenue lay; the music is once again all around me. I start running in no particular direction, hoping to surprise my pursuer into dumbfounded silence. In time I reach a procession of streetlamps, a hub of footpaths, and soon recognize the mall. It is a veritable gauntlet of music, one which I have no choice but to run: couples making out to Hot 97, petite jazz bands with drum kits that make Ringo Starr look like Tommy Lee, men passing guitars around like joints, a pianist who pushes his upright around on a giant scooter like Jesus with his cross, a lone saxophonist holding his horn so tightly I imagine his whole body would come to pieces were he to let it go, like an old stone wall. As I run each music impinges on the next, as though the mall were a giant radio, and I was running along the length of the dial.

There is a square at the north end of the mall, and in the square a bandshell, where an orchestra plays a symphony by Beethoven to silent auditors gathered along benches like birds on telephone wires, while unrepentant rollerbladers slalom rows of orange cones, their legs moving like cooked spaghetti, to beat-heavy music I can just hear on their headphones over the slow movement of the symphony. To the north is the valley of the lake and fountain, and beyond them a field of Puerto Rican men circled with their drums. I drop onto my belly and hug the ridge, crawling along like a soldier, lifting my head now and again to try to ascertain my direction and whereabouts—only to have the slaps on the quinto ping off my helmetless head.

The ridge ends at a road; beyond is a wooded hill. The music recedes in the thicket. I crawl until I reach another paved footpath, follow that until I happen upon something that feels like a bed of tile, and there roll over onto my back, gasping for air. Later—I don’t know how much; I may have slept—the sound of an approaching marching band stirs me to waking. I lift my head to see the benches around me crowded with figures that appear cut from stone, like the acolytes of some weird night-park cult. That is when I realize I have gone and died in Strawberry Fields; my bier is the “Imagine” circle! The sound of the marching band comes closer, until I can clearly hear their strutting arrangement of “Hey Jude,” snare rolling, a phalanx of horns Dixielanding the melody—a happy Jude, hopping along in one-and-a-half time, a sad song made better, indeed … for everyone but me!

Before reaching me, they have transitioned seamlessly into “Penny Lane.” I grip the tiles like a climber, resolved not to move.

It is something like being passed over by a speeding train, I the proverbial penny on the rail. But I have dug myself in between the crossbeams, lie deathly still as the twirling batons of the axles roar by just inches from the tip of my nose. Only when the band is almost entirely out of earshot do I dare roll back onto my belly and crawl out of the park.

The avenue again, empty. I rise shivering to my feet; the music senses my weakness, closes in, blaring from every open window, every passing automobile, every subway grate and sidewalk crack …

And so the fugue continues. What else can I do? I run as blindly as when I entered the park, legs spent, brain reeling. Now the sonic landscape of the city begins to morph around me. I pass the most fantastic musics, all in a blur. A man plays three clarinets at once, another holds a trombone to either nostril, and a third plays his trumpet with his ass. If individually they achieve sounds awful and brilliant and obscene, there are no words to describe them collectively. I pass drummers who make the city their instrument as much as skateboarders and graffiti-artists do, their bodies covered in wood blocks and zills, abandoning themselves to convulsive orgies in the streets, or running about in clogs heeled with castanets, up and down lightposts and buildings, somersaulting between taxis and pedestrians. I pass mazes of saxophones snaking between colonies of circular breathers, serpents of brass crafting vast networks of sonority that envelop me like the air from subway grates. I pass bagpipes as big as church organs, children jumping up and down on the bellows, while tightrope-walkers high over my head leap from one wire to another, leaving them to hum together in hives of chords, until the whole the city vibrates like the sympathetic strings of a sitar. And not just the humming wires, but all the sounds coalesce into patterns, into irrational rhythms and specious melodies and bottomless harmonies, multiplying, saturating the air, an ever-growing cosmic-orchestral monster.

I am headed toward the water—run in any direction in Manhattan and you are headed toward water. Somehow I do not have to cross any highways or barriers or run out onto any piers: I reach the shore unimpeded, wade out into the river, walking until it is deep enough to swim. I drift out with the current. I know from the width of the river than I am in the Hudson, that the lights across are the lights of New Jersey, a quieter place, a place without music, maybe. I turn over on my back and, ears underwater, stroke calmly toward the middle of the river. I can still hear the muted strains of the strange music, convinced it is only the echo in my ears. Until I raise my head. They are all there: breakdancers and mariachis, orchestra and drummers, accordion and guitar, kora and erhu, Lennonite baton-twirlers, asshornplayers and tightrope-strummers and bellowjumpers and Holy Roller streetdrummers, all assembled on the shore, waving their notes at me like hostile natives do their spears. I put my head back and stroke more vigorously. Some time later, when I lift my head again, I can see only a vague outline on the shore, and more importantly, I can no longer hear them at all.

I look up at the silence of the night, the stars, the only sound my own paddling, a drip if I raise my hand above the surface to stroke or my toe breaks it with a kick. I can see the bridge far away to my left, though the traffic is silent, dots of moving light against the stationary ones threading the cables. I paddle on, wondering what a world without music would sound like.

And then all of a sudden a horn louder than any I have heard in my life; and just as the word hits me—tugboat—I feel the keel against my side, and am swept under.

That’s when I wake up—to the radio!

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