Volume 2 Number 1
Winter 2008


Listening off Key

Benj Mahle

I could never draw a treble clef. My best efforts produced confused snakes and wounded dollar signs that writhed and clunk across the lined music paper. Miss Finstune hunkered over me and chided, "tsk-tsk," then penned frilly Deville-font treble clefs next to my mangled S's as examples of how mine should look.

"See here? It's easy. Try again," she said, then sidled down the row.

"Nicely done, Katherine. That's VERY good, Karen."

In third grade, Miss Finstune was my music teacher. She was pretty and smelled like those chalky valentine-heart candies, the ones with terse love notes of them. when she asked us to sing, she wanted gaping mouths and plenty of volume, but I stayed quiet, making tight-lipped little "o's," like a goldfish. It was my only revenge. I wasn't going to let her know I could sing on-key and with gusto too, if I wanted. It was small consolation.

Over time I've forgotted Miss Finstune. After all, she was young, this was her first job, treble clefs were important. Still, she might have noticed my bass clefs, which I ground dark and deep onto the paper, gripping the pencil in my fist like a dagger. I was proud of them, for they looked like the C-clamps my dad used in gluing furniture. Had she acknowledged them in even the most casual way, I would have sung for her. But she didn't, so I never sand, and soon I wouldn't listen to her either, for she'd made no effort to comprehend my little-boy feelings, and so had created a space between us that somehow diffused sound waves.

Every morning Miss Finstune would enter our room in a flourish of fresh pastel and sing in C-sharp, "Good morning Chillllll-dren," with the last syllables, "Chillllll-dren," launched a full octave higher than the first. We were to respond in similar fashion: "Good morning Miss Finnnnnn-stune." This "good morning" warble sounded flat to me, but was probably a melodic prelude to our hour with her that I had simply listened to "off-key." In any event, Miss Finstune was the first person to evoke from me a passionate indifference to understanding the female voice.

Karen was my girlfriend in third grade. She liked to chase me and wrestle and tear buttons off my shirts. that spring her big brother drove Karen across town with a May basket for me. She pounded on our door and ran when I opened it. I stood watching, eating a jelly bean as she looked back, then slowed, walked, frowned, and finally showed me her back for good. My big sister watched, amused, then said, "Dummy. You were supposed to chase her."


"She wants a kiss."

"Then why did she run?" "She's playing hard to get.' "She IS hard to get."

"C'mon, Stupid. I'll help you make HER a May basket."

Later, my sister drove me to Karen's house and instructed, "knock, wait 'til she opens the door, then hand her the basket. She'll try to kiss you!"

"What if she doesn't?"

"Don't worry. She will."

Either way I was worried. But I did as told. I extended the basket briefly, Karen and I shared the offering as she puckered and leaned out at me from the top step. I noticed her eyes closing and the adorable freckles across the bridge of her nose. Then I bolted.

Looking back I saw her in mid-reah, the basket swingin on her wrist, candy spilling onto the steps. She leaped to the sidewalk, landing in full stride, but I had too big a lead. As I piled into the front seat and slammed the door, I glanced back to see Karen standing, hands on hips, the basket and candy strewn behind her. Seeing me looking, she raised one hand and offered it to me as a fist. "I hate you!" she shouted. I thought, "So this is love."

Big Sister scolded me on the drive home: "You were supposed to let her catch you, Dummy. It's not a race."

"Then why run?"

She shook her head, "I don't think you heard a thing I said."

By now I was both sad and confused, for really, I had wanted to try the kiss.

My father directed the Methodist Church chancel choir. I often tagged along to the Wednesday night practices. At some point I noticed that the women sand the notes on the top line while the men sand notes on the bottom. Subsequently I began to connect female voices with treble clefs and male voices with sturdy C-clamps.

In high school I suffered two years with swollen glands: I dated a good Catholic girl. She had terrific posture, and when she walked her skirt fell wonderfully-a perfect waterfall of pleats cascading off the perfect round of her good Catholic rump. That wasn't all. Turning slightly in her chair, or standing-breathing made her sweaters shudder, her blouses pulse, the buttons dishing in, pulling every thread taut. Her proximity, even in my dreams, warmed every part of me and made me stupid. Friday nights after games we parked on the dead-end gravel road near her parent's farm. Just as my earlobes began to perspire she'd say, "No. I have to go to confession tomorrow." On Saturday nights she'd say, "No. We're going to early church." Until this moment I never thought to ask her out mid-week. Anyhow, at the twenty-year class reunion she confessed how "No," had sometimes meant "Yes."

"Couldn't you figure that out?" she asked. "Surely you knew the old joke."

"What joke?"

"You know-'Don't. Stop. Don't, stop. Don't Stop.'"

"Oh, sure. THAT old joke." Guffaw. guffaw.

After fifty years, female voices continue to perplex me. In my search for meaning I've tried hard to interpret nuances of tone, to fathom the full score of accompaniments: gesture, eye motion, facial drift.

Still, I don't know.

When my lover softly intones, "I'm going to bed now," and I think it's an invitation-a prelude calling me to shared staccato heartbeats and long lyrical whispers-I fill all up inside, ready to make huge capital "O's" with my mouth and sing "Wow!"

But I've learned that the same lyrics and tune may also connote her desire for a full measure of rest. If for instance, I leave a great ball game in the crucial closing moments and follow her to bed, I've usually guessed wrong, and return to the television angry and defeated just in time for past-game interviews. If I stay and watch, I've usually guessed wrong and return to an icy postlude: "I hope it was a GOOD game."

Too often I've listened off-key.

I realized now that I was doomed from the beginning, from the first time a female of essence rejected my best intentions. I remember those treble clefs, twisted entreaties "tsked" at, and the crush of rejection. I remember, and believe truly (here it comes) that failing to draw treble clefs successfully was but an elementary manifestation of my predisposition for misreading the voices represented by that symbol. Yes. Absolutely.

On the other hand, the male voice was my birthright, drawing bass clefs was, naturally, my forte. Fine.

I've thought a long time over this. Perhaps men like me, with more rehearsal, more rest, or a firmer baton to direct us would listen better (and play better too). I don't know, but it's probably worth looking at. For now though, I'm content with reflecting on the one insight that soothes me. Now when I'm confused by the dissonance of many and varied voices and am unsure of what responses are expected of me, I take comfort from the realization born of the treble clef memory. And though part of me still winces at missed cues, and agonizes when my intimacy-response time doesn't measure up, those are old refrains from an old fading hymn. Over all I'm more composed now, for I know it may be nobody's fault that with some kinds of voices, with some kinds of listening, not every good boy does fine.