on nostagia in sepia (tone)

This piece originally appeared in Caught in the Carousel, an online music journal.




on nostalgia, in sepia (tone)
                                                 
Let me tell you a story:

It was 2004 and I was 22 and I had finally found a time, a place and a people that seemed to ache as much as I did. Before, I’d only ever known the University of Nevada campus in Reno where I had just received my B.A. in English Literature. It was a place where I spent hours in the dimly-lit cafe beside the pond which contained two white swans and a handful of geese, the gray desk where I worked in Getchell Library with the white walls, gray carpet and black keyboard and the greeting they made you read from a script when you answered the phone. The library basement which was a windowless concrete box where I studied.
So, I’d gone to the Sierra Nevada Range in search of something real.  Beyond the nominal boyfriend; beyond the literature we read in class which taught me to suck the marrow out of life but that didn't tell me how. I went to the mountains to become a writer.
I left Reno for a small town called Tahoma on Tahoe's west shore just like singer/songwriter Pete Yorn left Syracruse University for Los Angeles in 1996 in the hopes of something more. And maybe that’s why Musicforthemorningafter spoke to me in the way not all music does even though the album had been released three years earlier in 2001 when Rolling Stone named Yorn one of the top ten artists to watch that year. Yet when I listened to it years later, he still sang to me. Or, more accurately, he sang me.
I know he’s produced albums since and there’s an order to them, a “trilogy” it’s been called: morning, day and night. Yet, none are like the album Musicforthemorningafter, his first, in part because (to use Yorn’s own words): “[my work] is more of a diary of sorts of a person gaining new experiences.” You can’t know a beginning without retrospect and sometimes (most times) without knowing the end.
And I was most certainly at the beginning when I was 22.  Yorn sang about the life I wanted-- a life I would come to have-- and, one that had already been lost by the time I realized missed it.
 *
Almost ten years later, the memories of that former life come to me as though I’m looking into a dusty mirror. Everything’s muted and reversed, not quite what it was. If I think about it long enough, sometimes I can still see a forest of Ponderosa and Sugar Pine trees dusted in the first fall of snow-rain in the quiet month November.  A building, long and lean like a motor inn but ramshackle and single-story like a cabin.
In an internal present, this scene sits wrapped in my mind, that evening on the cusp of winter when I was 22 and walked from exhibit room to exhibit room, dimming the lights at the end of day, locking doors with frozen fingers and a jangling set of keys until I reached the office of the Tahoe Maritime Museum again, where I was alone. Everyone else had gone for the day. An iron wood-burning stove to the right of my wooden secretary desk, placed into a corner before the Director’s office door, to the left. No window to look from, I had only pine plank boards, the sort found in nearly all of Tahoe’s construction in between the years of the two world wars.
The last light, the light by my desk where I tapped out stories, was the last I’d flick to darkness.
Stepping into the twilight, I could just see the last line of light which broke through the thin cloud layer. Above would have been a small, local ski resort, and I remember-- that night--they started the snow-making machines which sent plumes of of water-dust into the sunset sky, forming rainbows on the vibrant pink and violet twilight behind them.
It was color, just color, that rained around me in the still and quiet scene. The parking lot was empty, and I was alone, looking into this absolute beauty and that is what I want you to know
This is a type of knowledge that is a sounding: not of what’s to come, but what has already happened. The music of Pete Yorn’s Musicforthemorningafter is the articulation of perspective. The album recounts what might be called the territory of youthful nostalgia; the realm of the what-was-lost. Every time I hear a riff, a chord, a lyric, I’m cast back in time to the place I’m not sure ever existed, but that-- somehow-- I remember. And that I miss, still, after all these years.


*
When I was 22, I was once a teller of stories. Like Pete Yorn, my writing was a sort of diary. He said, of his work, that “...I keep addressing certain themes in my life and I think they are universal themes in everyone’s life. Things like love, relationships, jealousy, our own mortality and materialism and how those play out differently in other people’s lives.”
It was my job was to recount--and to write down-- maritime stories of the Tahoe Basin of ships scuttled, stolen, sailed and berthed. Like the story of a wealthy man named Frederick Kohl who purchased an estate on Tahoe’s west shore in the 1880's and owned a steam launch called the Rubicon. His wife-- a remarkable beauty, by all accounts-- was not known for her fidelity and flirted with the few men of society that came to the lake in the warm season.  Their estate became known as “Cliff’s Kohling Station,” Cliff being the name of Mrs. Kohl’s favorite male visitor. So, Mr. Kohl sent her away, to the city, and to replace her brought a maid from France with excellent references. But the maid quarreled often with the other servants at the Tahoe estate, stealing money from some, threatening violence to others. He dismissed the maid as he’d dismissed his wife, thinking the affair was over. But the maid returned, derringer in hand, and shot Mr. Kohl with an aim that ought to have been fatal.
It was not.
And though Kohl recovered, he received letters from the deported maid threatening his death as his wife toured the world and eventually married a Baron in England.
One morning, he woke up alone and ordered his usual breakfast. He ate it methodically, carefully even. Pancakes, I think, with syrup and a glass of orange juice and coffee. Then, without a note or word or gesture of farewell, he shot himself face-first. Dead on impact.
His relic, the launch Rubicion, would outlast him by nearly fifty years. She burned on Clear Lake in 1940 and no one ever thought much about that.

*


Pete Yorn’s stories use sparse words allowing what is not spoken to sound just as loud as what is sung in his melodic but-- as one critic notes,--”cracking voice” which contributes to the overall “dusty” feel of the album.
In Yorn’s song, “Closet”, he recounts the inner thoughts of a lover afraid to show his feelings to the person who is the object of his desire. The speaker’s desire for “Billie” conflicts with his need to conform to social propriety and to avoid the repeated “meetings and beatings” this love would, perhaps, lead him to.
Maybe I knew something about that when I was 22: wanting what cannot be had. Yorn must have written some of these songs with longing in mind; his continued playing at Café Largo in Los Angeles not amounting to what he thought it would, at first; just as I, at my tiny desk at the museum, tap-tapped on the keyboard of a computer hoping, by some strange miracle, that I would become a writer. 
But Yorn’s songs appeal to more than those with love longed-for, to love lost:  it’s how we all live our lives, hiding flaws. He, with a writer’s eye, cuts beneath the surface of action to reveal emotion. After all, writers--of song or prose-- are dangerous folk because we not only see flaws, we exploit them.”Closet’s”  repeated line of: “I’m trying to meet you” results in the speaker “walking around in closets” as if to say it’s only in hidden spaces outside the eyes of others that one can truly move-- think and feel-- freely.
And so, I wonder if that’s why history-- public and personal-- is so hard to grasp: so much of it is hidden, covered up.  Because someone, once, though it was inappropriate-- or unsafe-- to tell the entire truth.

*
I’ve read that what is seen is constantly in the process of vanishing. NPR wrote of Yorn’s album Musicforthemorningafter in 2001 that it was a “beefy, hooky, Springsteenian rock record”-- an unusual success in an era when such music had long fallen out of favor.
That’s how those long-ago days sometimes felt, living in a place not to be lived in year-round, but frequented by tourists in the “high” season. As anyone in Tahoe will tell you, a year-round-- to say nothing of decades long-- resident is hard to find. Most people arrive when the storms cease and it’s all blue lake and sky under a warm sun. But for those who stay, it’s a constant battle with elements: with cold and snow, ice and thick fog; rain and hail, traffic and construction. One might go without power for weeks in the middle of a hard winter storm when the snow falls as though it hates you. So, most people leave and only come back in the summer. Others leave and never come back at all.
As a Research Assistant for the Tahoe Maritime Museum, I worked in a place that was steeped so far in the past it was in danger of collapsing there. In the very least,  it was a peculiar operation: housed in what was once a hotel built in the early 1940s, the museum contained the best and worst of Tahoe, all at once. Our collection featured  notable marine craft, such as as Godfather, the earliest-known production Chris Craft (a make of antique wooden boat), Miss Tahoe, a 1939 triple cockpit Gar Wood runabout which served as our museum “ride boat” as well as several other gleaming mahogany-hulled bodies that were material contradictions of strength and beauty; delicacy and maintenance.
 This contrasted with the building we--the staff and more “intellectual” exhibits-- were housed in. We wore clothing not made by name-brand designers and worked with dust and dirt and the general populace of tourists that happened by.
There were ten rooms, if I recall, each in line, the first four still unjoined as though this were still a motel and not a museum. I had to open each and lock each every day. There was the film room where a DVD looped images and stories of Tahoe’s past, produced by the museum’s generous donors. The next room was the Chris Craft room with a case filled with miniature models of the boats we sometimes displayed in the parking lot outside.
The next, the Gar Wood room where a wealthy couple who gave us copious amounts of their time and money had wanted us to put on display a photograph with them and the son of Gar Wood, the manufacturer for which the company was named.
The Director, Phil, refused this request. “We are a Museum,” he said, “Not a who’s who of wooden boats.”  Perhaps my smile, then, was induced by the idealism you feel when you’re young. His fidelity to an ideal-- despite what would happen next-- inspired me. Of course, no one else in the room that day shared my reaction and I wonder, now, if I should have thought more about that, then. But I was swept up in it; that world: the sound of it, and Yorn’s insistence that life is meant to be recorded and remembered when you are starting out, not necessarily analyzed.  All that mattered to me were those days filled with color and people and Phil.
And so, we’d moved on as though nothing important had happened.
The next room was my favorite, the room I couldn’t help but love because it was a time already gone and dusty: the room of the Steam ships.
Filled with only worn and faded sepia prints of the large steam vessels that once provided the only transportation in the Tahoe Basin. There was the fast and economical Meteor, with her slender beam and long hull, which cut through the lake water faster than any other ever did. The privately owned Tallac with her painted white sides that was the property of gambler-tycoon Lucky Baldwin. Another, the Governor Blaisdel, provides the historical example of steam travel’s capricious nature: her boiler exploded and she burned at the dock, back when Lake Tahoe was not Tahoe, but instead called Lake Bigler after the governor of California at the time.
But then one can’t forget-- and I can never forget-- the majestic Steamer Tahoe, the largest to ever navigate the Lake.  One hundred and seventy-one feet long with a mere ten-foot beam, her body was slender, long and elegant like a crane. Her passengers were treated to live music and gourmet-meals as they circled the lake in a counter-clockwise direction from Tahoe City down the west and up the east shore to come back again to the Tahoe Tavern pier. A mini Titantic of sorts, she also had several “bulkheads” below deck to prevent her from easily sinking. In fact, it would take quite an effort in 1940 to scuttle the Tahoe. But that is another story, that I will get to later.
And there was a fishing room. A room for the evolution of outboard motors. A room for children.  The main lobby, my office and the door to my left which led to more rooms: the administrative office, Phil’s office and the museum archives.
Yorn’s gift is his compression-- or is it extension?-- of time: his remarkable reordering of perspective so that the past is mourned, but the present and future are longings, too, even thought they are physical realities. It’s all right if I was older/ It’s OK to lose your age, he sings. The second line: It’s OK to lose your age, suggests that time itself is a perspective: one that can be shaken off, or used. Time, for Yorn in MusicfortheMorningAfter, is ever-relative, ever-shifting and always, already, gone.
In that museum, there were so many rooms. I follow these memories, room by room, because, as Yorn has taught me, sometimes memory is all that’s left.


*
My first Tahoe summer: balloons bobbed to the museum’s ceiling from every tangible thing. High from helium, colliding with the eight-foot barrier, above. And there, they dangled their lazy strings in loose-ribbon curls which would tickle your face, perhaps voicing Yorn’s first hit “Life on a Chain” the liveliest song on the album. Families with children, couples, a bride and her retinue-- stopped by, arrested by the the polished boats on trailers which glistened under the summer sun in our parking lot. Laughter: a child bobbed for an apple and snatched it in his teeth it while I painted a little girl’s cheek with the classic sign of an anchor. Patrons wore colorful clothes; I sat beside Terri and John. Terri, a local artist, was our office assistant. John, her husband, did all the carpentry work despite his aggressive cancer and chemo therapy. They were my new friends since I’d moved into this new life at the Museum. My home is only a few miles down in the next town called Tahoma.
And then there was Phil and Deni. I can still imagine them there and I have to believe they are smiling. Phil: the Director, my mentor of writing, who said I should write since I liked it so much.  There he is, standing beside a boat, his hair reflecting sunlight, recounting history because that is what he does so well, and that’s what he wants to do the rest of his life. He told me so.
And Deni, his striking wife who has prepared appetizers and punch for this public event. Her waist-length salt and pepper hair is tied into an updo I might have only seen in photographs of Victorian women. She speaks with ease and warmth to this community I have only just broached. I feel as though, finally, there is a place I belong.
And then there is me, as I was: long blonde hair who called myself an almost-writer. I lived in a cabin, as I said, not far away, and when the weather permitted I rode my bike to work. My cabin was a simple A-frame. No TV. No internet. No telephone. I was with myself in the forest there. With myself and books to welcome the diminishing light of night.
But the scene fades as the present intrudes. If this were a song by Yorn, I might remember a line for two of what was said, but I mostly remember the sound of it. The strum, the silence. The pause.

*

Sometimes Yorn was my own narrative voice, standing in for my inability to articulate, exactly, what my life at the museum was like. I remember Yorn’s lyrics: You can never stop/ you’re sitting all by yourself/ you can never try to answer anything/ you will never stop and see/ what are you are doing.... always alone. I went to a bar on Tahoe’s West shore one night after Phil told me I needed to get out more and an older man asked me if I knew anything about the Lake and, before I could answer, he told me about the Steam Ship Tahoe and how they’d blown her up with dynamite.
A fantastic lie, I knew. I left even though he offered to buy me another drink.
At home, I sat on the deck in the final light of day and watched a boy who worked at the local coffee shop I thought was interesting walk by with a gleaming Golden Retriever and his girl. Gleaming, too.
I turned my eyes down, back to what I was supposed to be reading, for work.

*

Here is where the story begins, Life wasn't On a Chain; life wasn't in a Closet. Instead, it simply was.

My cabin was set back into the woods, in the shade and shadow from pine. 
My cabin.The first home I've ever had.
7th Avenue in Tahoma, one of the farthest towns from any actual town one can get in Tahoe, which is saying something. There was the PDQ market, a video rental shop, Angela’s Pizza, a post office and a laundromat which charged $5 for a single load of laundry-- to wash it, I mean. Drying costs were extra.  The homes were mostly old-Tahoe-style cabins set far back into the woods. There were no lake views in this neighborhood, just tree-view, trees all around and dark and populated by bear.
 Mine was actually a cabin behind a cabin; a smaller version of a single-family home, a good quarter mile back from the road with no driveway. There was a little porch with benches instead of rails. It was a porch I’d sit on, when the snow melted and the sun came. I’d watch the neighborhood life which passed in the street.
I watched a couple holding hands.
I watched children on scooters.
I watched grown men play ping-pong and horse shoes in the street.
Afraid to say hello because in Reno I lived in apartments and houses where you didn't know your neighbor as a rule and you never said a word to anyone on the street or curb.
But my cabin: you walked right into the kitchen with its 1940‘s refrigerator, gas oven and stove and a metal cabinet set of similar vintage. To the left, the floor turned from linoleum to worn and long untreated pine planks.  An iron, black wood stove sat in a a corner. There were four French-windows along the far wall which ended with the staircase, without a rail, leading up. To the right, round the kitchen, was the bathroom. Nothing fancy: toilet, sink and shower that had a frog in the drain which sang to me nearly every morning I was there. Upstairs: a single loft hardly tall enough to stand in with burnt-umber colored carpet, no closet but a rod affixed to the wall on one side.
I would have no bed for weeks.
I had a desk; I had flowers in pots and deck chairs, but no bed. Yet, I’d sleep on the carpeted floor wrapped in sheets and a quilt with the cat at my feet and look out into the pine canopy out the window and feel I was the luckiest person alive as that silent forest-silence strummed me to sleep, each note announcing an appearance of a new star.

*
I can only remember dim outlines and with all these years that have passed and I can’t say those are very accurate anymore. Or perhaps lyrics are more accurate. They seem to capture more feeling than my words can, as Yorn sings: Time flew away, but something won’t forgive it all, days and weeks, let’s start from the beginning of a life.
There was a easiness Phil projected that is not found in many people. He had written a book on wooden boats and was well-read in many subjects. But he never said those things. He only spoke to me as though I was his equal. He spoke to everyone that way.
Once, he took me to a café called the Tahoe House for lunch. Me whom, by then he called Becca-Rae  though no one else in my entire life had ever called me that. We drove in his big red truck with the camper shell on the back but that was immaculately clean inside. I wish I could remember exactly what was said that day: but I can only recall the song “Sense” and the lines: I’ll show you the things you've never seen, I’ll show you the things you only dreamed of.
“Sense” is a song that-- as one critic wrote-- shows Yorn’s attention to British Pop, particularly The Smiths which Yorn, in the “extended” version of his album, would cover. It’s an interesting connection, one that makes me pause, and remember something else: the day Phil introduced me to The Smiths.

When was it? It was dark, it was snowing: I was alone in the museum office until Phil came and he was quiet, walking past me without a “hello” which was unusual, unprecedented.
I sat there, in my desk chair, looking at the wall, for a long while. I listened for clues to what he might be doing in the wall beyond me: but there was not even the sound of typing. I finally stood and opened the half-closed door to his office and stared down at him. He seemed smaller, sitting the chair and maybe that’s why I felt something like authority, or maybe why I got the nerve to ask him: “What is going on?”
He said a close friend of his had just died. A forklift at a marina had failed and he’d been standing underneath a large boat.  “He left a wife and two kids,” Phil said.
How did the discussion of music begin?
I think it was his friend who had loved music. Who played and listened constantly. And then, because I could feel the way we were both alone and both subject to time, I’d countered by playing a clip of something William Shatter had sung/spoken-- and Phil had laughed. And how I loved to see him laugh.
We spent the day ignoring phone calls and playing songs for one another on the computer, back and forth, as though the songs were a conversation we would never have. The last one was Phil’s choice: There is a Light that Never Goes Out by The Smiths.  There isn't one line I can cite from the song, but only the feeling of it: know me as your peer. If only once before I have to go to back to, before I disappear.
And that’s what Pete Yorn sang to me--perhaps, as one reviewer suggests, with a faint echo of The Smiths--again and again, that year when I was 22.

*

Pansies and Sweet Alyssum and yellow Marigolds in terracotta pots lined the little porch of my cabin. I woke with the sun peaking in pale blue through the forest outside my window. I started the coffee maker and turned on the radio to NPR. I swept the porch free of pine needles that had fallen there in the night. Fed my cat. I took a shower, and sang to the frog in my drain; lyrics from Pete Yorn songs.
I had a shed attached to the cabin by a sloping roof line and from that I’d pull my bike and ride through the forest to the Museum where I unlocked doors and polished wooden boats and sold t-shirts to tourists just passing by.
And then home again in the warm twilight, a brief stop by the PDQ market to pick up the little details of dinner and home when I’d turn on the CD player and Pete Yorn would sing: It’s not your fault, there’s so many scars, I am on your side to water the plants again, to let the cat roam in the slender green grasses of early summer where she hunted ground mice and grasshopper, home to read pages of Ed Abbey before I sat before my desk in the final long shadows of day to write.  And then night lit by candles until bed in the silence of forest around me.

*

Another song, another story: The Steam ship Tahoe was brought up to the Sierras from Sacramento in pieces by ox and cart. Up and over the mountain, she was constructed on a beach in Glenbrook on the lake’s East side, piece by piece, and a champagne bottle broke on her bow by a boy of seven, dead by the time it became time for me to record this history.
171 feet long, her hull was painted white, the wooden banisters a shining, polished mahogany. She had four captains at her helm until her final day in 1940 when after five years without a contract to carry the mail from town to town, she’d sat dockside long enough.
The slow, sad cadence of Lose You played as the ship tilted to port, then starboard. Then, down, down, they opened her seacocks off Dead Man’s Point and she began to take on water.
The inevitability of loss, Yorn strumming-singing I’m gonna lose you as the last great white steam ship that symbolized an era sunk down before the dawn came. Down went the fine teak detail, the crimson-colored carpet and drapes, down with the crystal glass and ornate bar; down the kitchen, but not down with the helm (that was taken and stored and exists in a man’s living room somewhere;) down with the massive boiler where Chinese and Irish emigrants shoveled coal into her belly; down with the bow which was just large enough to hold the first cars. Cars that killed the steam ships because the highway was built in 1940.
Stop before you fall/Into the hole that I have dug here/Rest even as you/Are starting to feel the way I used to...And, finally, down under 400 feet of water the Tahoe sits on a slope, sinking deeper down into the depths where even the bravest divers can glimpse her no longer.

*
Phil had a dog named Chamois. Chamois: a golden retriever who was more white than gold. Chamois-boy, he called him. Chamois who was sometimes our Museum dog, that Phil brought with him when Deni was away.  Chamois, with the chocolate dark eyes and kind expression, who lifted his tail when he saw me.
He likes you, Phil sounded surprised. He doesn’t like most people. Or not like that.
It was late March. Chamois was there and Phil asked me to take him with me to get the mail from the Post Office a quarter mile down the road. The sun was pale in the pale blue sky, but the snow freshly fallen, glistening, still crystalline and lovely like the fine glitter you never get to use as a kid.
We walked the back roads, avoiding the highway. Glitter, shimmer, scintillating white. It would fall, at times, in a large clump from the telephone pole or an evergreen bough. My breath came in puffs as I sang, perhaps doing the work of Yorn myself: merging  bard, writer and the 22-year old who didn’t know enough to tell the real from story. I sang: I love to wear my work inside of my head, I can’t complain but you should never react the way you did, I feel your time in the way you sing when you are young and you don’t know the entire story.
Chamois rolled in the snow. Rolled and rolled. And I would say: “Good boy, Chamois. Good boy: roll in the sparkling snow!” as though I were a crazy person.
And maybe I was. Crazy, I mean. I was happy enough to be.

Chamois embodied my joy. He ran, plopped and rolled, paws outstretched to heaven and perhaps it’s then I made the mistake of believing heaven was not only tangible but eternal. Present and musical. A thing you could touch and feel. A thing you could sing and call back. Call it here.
When we returned with the mail, Phil was there. He’d made a fresh pot of coffee. As Phil handed me a mug and said he wanted to do this-- all of it--- for the rest of his life.
 *
John, Terri’s husband with a case of terminal cancer, came that Fall to built a new study for the Museum in our slower season out of what had once been a closet used for storage of forgotten things.
He arrived at eleven and worked until he was exhausted-- about two or three. The disease made him reed-thin and sickly in an ugly, gray way. He was not sickly in action: he drank  and smoked cigarettes and marijuana. And, he hammered.
But the hammering made me want to do it for him, as I sat there, writing. 
But on he went. And on and on; the closet became a space. A mundane phenomenon, I know: but I saw it grow from a sick man’s hands, from dark to light, from dirty shelves to bright and a ceiling at least seven feet up. It changed from a dream to implausible reality I could stand and walk around in.
I volunteered to paint the new room, and there I was painting, power or not as an early storm raged outside. Vanilla white onto the sheet rock gray, I painted as snow covered the door, the porch, my car.  I painted white space into the interior of a place that was anything but a void.  Painted, while the paint froze to my fingers and the cold water was too cold to wash it off.
 The white paint stuck to me, to my clothes. Even when I wash the fabric years later there are splotches of white and that’s all I have left, to remember since the bulldozers came, flattened it out.
I will get to that, later.

*

In the years that have passed, I have to wonder if there is wisdom in the lyrics to the final track on Musicforthemorningafter, Simonize. You should turn and walk with me, I’ll even follow Him, in search of wretched grand disaster. Phil and I: in the short runabout Bobcat and it’s a Friday in June, just before the tourists come so we are all alone at the Lake.
How often had I said I loved Bobcat? It was the boat that never went out, but it did, one day. Phil drove it. The short wooden boat with only two cockpits and how I loved her (a little) less when I realized the length of a boat makes the waves less easier to endure.
We sped along Tahoe’s West shore, moving south toward Sugar Pine Point. The sun, a gentile glint on the deep blue water. We broke down--the motor stopped--miles from Homewood Marina, where we had left hours before. The engine puttered to quiet and the shore was black like a silhouette. And another boat came to tow us back.
It turned out we’d ran out of gas. In the excitement to take her out, Phil had forgotten to check to see if we had enough to make it back.

*

The chairs on the Museum porch were made of solid pine. I walked past them every day on my way in and out of the Museum. I carried them outside in the mornings, banging my shins on the heavy legs, and I carried them back in at night. Phil and I sat in those chairs on summer afternoons, the quiet ones, when only a few people visited and we had nothing but the quiet mountain air, those chairs, and ourselves. Time began to warp for me: the age of relics irrelevant if they exist in the present. Like Yorn’s song June in which he sings: It’s all right if I was older, It’s OK to lose your age...you could have stayed on to June.  Was it June the day we sat outside on the pine chairs and Phil told me where they were from? They looked like they’d give you splinters, but by some miracle, they never did.
That is what I remember the most.


He told me they were chairs from the Tahoe Tavern, which had at one time been the largest tourist destination in the Tahoe Basin. Constructed in 1896 following the tragic fire of the Grand Hotel in Tahoe City, the Tahoe Tavern was both a destination and port of call: the narrow gauge train which brought travelers from Truckee through the Truckee River Corridor ended its fourteen mile journey on the Tahoe Tavern’s dock that stretched one quarter mile into the lake. There, passengers either remained at the Tavern with its luxury accommodations (indoor plumbing and heat, to name a few, not common features of mountain life at the time) or boarded the Tahoe which would take them to other, smaller, lakeside resorts.
The Tahoe Tavern had a ballroom. I saw a sepia photograph of it once.
A chandelier at its apex. Wooden floors reflecting the light of candles like stars. Windows tall and thin; taller than the tallest man. In the photo, there were chairs pushed up against the wooden walls as though the center of the floor was going to be used for dancing. There’s not a single person in the frame, just an empty space, tinged brown and sepia-tan.
And those chairs.
I sat in one of them, worn with age, in front of the Museum with Phil on days--more than just June days-- that, like Yorn, seem antiquated, yet ever-present.

*

Years later, I was 25 and my then-boyfriend was the captain of the coveted Thunderbrid: a pristine, rare and expensive wooden boat and he lived, for a time, on the property where it was kept: The Thunderbird Lodge on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.  I didn't (quite) love him and he didn't love me; I think he loved my age and I loved his boat and somehow, we lost ourselves in the swirl of the present: both longing for another time, another person.
I still had that ache I left college with, the one the museum hadn’t taken it away. And age hadn't-- yet-- granted me the perspective that I could understand your face, just like in Yorn’s song EZ, in which the speaker laments the loss of a friend or lover, but too late with the telling line: but you closed the door and said goodbye for good.
We had invited Phil and Deni, Terri and John, to “our home”-- to tour the Thunderbird Lodge one night in autumn. It was all dark and the paying tourists had long departed, the iron gate to the outside world, locked. But we stepped into a room with windows twenty feet tall and the autumn stars shining through and over the lake as though we were walking across the water.
For no reason that I can recall, Phil took me in his arms and we did a waltz across the empty room in silence, the starlight reflected in the polished wood floor. I don’t remember another motion, another sound:, another body: just us.   Only, it wasn't a waltz.  It was something where we moved round and round, laughing, to not one song but all of them, and suddenly all I ever thought about time was reversed, transversed, erased or created with muted light.
And, in the years that have passed, I have tried to understand it, tried for some new day I could understand your face...It came up unexpected. In fact, I've been terrified to write it because the written record might change its imprint, as though thinking it might lose its sense, that feeling I can sometimes still hold. Yet, it’s a moment I return to, again and again,  to in the way we hold onto the light from stars and places that are tucked into memory, ever-blurry and faded and never quite as they were and ever-vanishing. As though, to quote Pete Yorn, time flew away.

*

 Already it was August and Phil hadn’t arrived at the museum yet that day. Errand, he said on the phone. I worked at my little desk in the corner with all the doors and windows open to let in and out the heat. Two members of the Board arrived in their suits; I was wearing shorts and a button up tank with sandals.
They sat me down outside at a picnic table where I had first met Phil two years before.
It is over, they said.
I hadn't understood, but sensed those days when Phil refused to hang framed photographs of donors with boat builders had something to do with it. I am on your side, I might have repeated, uselessly, in my mind as the explanation unfolded and tears I hadn't wanted dropped from my eyes.
In so many words, they said:  Our image of what the Museum should be no longer aligns with Phil’s presence here. And we can’t pay you to work here anymore, either.  You should make arrangements for a new life.

I ran my fingers over that pine-paneled wall that day, the one you can find nearly everywhere in Tahoe, and used my fingers as the needle of a record player, as though sounds had burned themselves into this place. I heard Phil say: “I want this to be my life, here.” and I heard myself smile when I was praised for an article I’d researched and written. My fingers felt the clinking of wine glasses and of toasts to a promising future. I heard children laugh at a joke one of us told. I heard Deni changing the light bulbs and dusting off the little models of boats. I heard Phil sing, as he sometimes did, a song he’d made up with ridiculous lyrics set to to the melody of Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, something about and other food from bars. I heard Chamois’ paw-falls on the wood floor; I heard John hammering and Terri filing documents in the back room. I heard myself, typing, hoping by a keyboard to be called a writer.
I heard it all as I closed the Museum that day, the last day, on my finger’s last trace of a wall. I crumpled onto a corner, lost my breath, pressed the wood into the space of my cheek and eye until there was an indent in my skin.
And then, I closed and locked the door.

*

The second song on Musicforthemorningafter  is the song everyone knows.   Strange Condition tells the story of man in prison talking to his beloved through the bars of his incarceration.  A friend told me this is their favorite prison-song. Yet, it’s not just a song about a man in prison: it’s a song about the way we are all trapped  in our present moment and its philosophical blinders which obscure as much as they focus-- and, at times, remember.  Yorn’s lyrics: Read me the letter, don’t leave out the words... even though we all know something must always be left out, necessarily-- recalls the theme: how strange it is we remember, but can’t. Or, how much we need another person to remember with us in order for the memory to be true.
Think of a camera: point and click. There is only so much you can include. Take a picture of the road, you leave out the shoulder the neighborhood, the speed limit. Take a picture of the sky, you miss the forest, the creek, the ground. The other people meant to fill your life, you can capture them, but not you, who holds the camera, taking the picture. Perspective, by necessity, always implies limits.
It also implies two gazes: one looking out, the other, looking back.

*
I have one more story. Terri’s husband, John bought a motorcycle that fall after I left. He’d always wanted one. He took it out, he rounded a blind corner and crashed. I visited him in the ICU days before his death, not to cancer as we all had thought, but to internal bleeding.
And then, Phil.
Months and months; I didn't see him.
Only once in a late Indian summer, I’d glimpsed his truck parked in front of the marina where I worked part time and I ran, kicking my high-heals behind me, out onto the dock to watch him depart on a friend’s wooden boat. Take me out tonight or something like it: the strum of guitar and harmonica rebelling against the alternative rock everyone listened to: a stab at authenticity, something real.
Phil! I called into the dusky glare at the end of the dock
Phil.
And he turned.
Smiled.
Waved.
Disappeared into the golden haze at dusk.

The news came unexpectedly. Deni had called. Phil was in the hospital. He’d drank too much; a thing he did because he was not working with boats. The maritime community had rejected him. He had found work in construction, but the bills were not quite being paid.
I imagine he missed it, the thing he said he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
I didn't go to see him that day because I had class. I told myself I’d go first thing the following day.
Yet, by the next day, he, too, was gone.


*
Yorn has a voice that, for me, always echoes. Perhaps it’s due to his desire to address the universal themes in any life: “love, relationships, jealousy, mortality and materialism... and how they play out differently in other people’s lives.” And how they have played out in my own.
 If I think of the museum, I see a place framed in snow and color, an elemental thing, like the wistful strumming of a guitar, or of silence.
 I can go to the place where the museum was, but now there is a two-story building there, so big it echoes. And it occurs to me, that I’m the only one left to write, to remember, what happened one particular morning after. 




1 comment:

XO-1.ORG said...

I'm in awe of you for writing this, for sharing this, for revealing so much. Your honesty is remarkable, while the insights into your feelings, your thoughts, and your life simply amaze. The interconnectedness of all things is on display here and for that, too, I thank you! Plus, besides learning about you, I just learned so much about the Tahoe area and its - to me - previously unknown maritime history. Sadness permeates me that I can't visit that museum and explore it from room to room and learn some things from Phil. But you, thankfully, have preserved some of that precious history. Well done, Rebecca. You've done those people and that time justice!