At 2 a.m. Great-aunt Emma and I tried tactfully to close up a party celebrating publication of a new literary anthology. Cousin Henry, who hates to stop writing his books or practicing his violin order to go to some stupid party , hates even more to leave once he is there. This time, since he was helping Great-aunt Emma host it, he had an excuse to stay.
Great-aunt Emma is a pianist, not a writer, but her Southern hospitality embraces creative people of all sorts. But enough is enough: at midnight she served scrambled eggs and orange juice, a firm hint The Party Is Over. Most guests began getting their cars our of snowdrifts and skidding up or down the hills homeward. Carefully.
But the brilliant conversations among poets and physicists and others among us dishwashers continued, talk ranging from astrophysics to Zen.There is an old Russian saying, "Don't feart he seated guest, but rather the guest who is standing," for although the latter insists he must go home, he will continue standing there gossiping and philosophizing till dawm, and you'll be standing there with him. Dishes finished, we stood around in coats and boots, ideas bounding off the walls of the narrow all.
Cousin Henry towered over the knots of standing guests, continuing to probe, challenge, expound. He always asks three questions at once. He hopes, I suspect, that they will be synthesized into one compact response, and if they aren't, he will ravel up the ragged ends himself before throwing out more questions.
"Cousin on, Cousin Henry," I tugged at his coat sleeve. "We're the last guests, and Great-aunt emma is exhausted," (it was Im who was exhausted, while Great-aunt Emma looked fresh as ever in navy velvet and lace, but I find it easier to lay the onus on someone other than myself.)
"But they haven't had time to answer my question. . .," and he gesticulated toward a novelist and a botanist who were trying politely to leave.
"Questions are sometimes more interesting than answers," murmured Great-aunt Emma.
We kissed her goodnight and were going out the door at last when in came a black jazz musician and his poet wife. They apologized for not arriving sooner -- he'd been playing trumpet till 2 a.m. while his wife was reading poetry to the music for some university group, but they did want to cngratulate their writer friends on the new anthology, even if it hadm been an hour's drive.
By 3 a.m., of course, their particular writer friends were long gone. Great-aunt Emma in the doorway looked distinctly pale and nonplused.
"Oh, you must be so cold after that long drive," she said, rallying as usual. "Do come in and we'll fix some hot chocolate."
The trumpeter demurred politely, but Cousin Henry was already launching into questions. It didn't seem that a jazz trumpeter and a classical violinist would share much, but musicians manage to communicate even without a common spoken tongue. . . . And with Great-aunt EMma still practicing Bach fugues daily on her harpsichord . . . .
Three pots of hot chocolate later we were finally out on the snowy path.
Then the trumpeter, twirling his keys and looking back over his shoulder to prolong the conversation with Cousin Henry, slipped on the ice. He got up snowy and unharmed, though in the spill his keys had flung themselves across the white lawn.
By moonlight we searched and searched in ever widening circles. In vain. No sparkle of keys, no cold metal under our freezing finger tips.
"A rake!" Cousin Henry exclaimed, and went around to Great-aunt Emma's cellar door. He returned with four rakes, rusted, half-toothed, but they left patterns in the snow like those in the gardens of pebbles in kyoto.
So at 4 a.m. we raked the snow as if for gold. Conversations continued over the drifts and heaps. Monologue, dialogue, trialogue, quadilogue . . . . Luckily neighbors stayed asleep. Cousin Henry continued to pitch his questions like snowballs, the trumpeter threw back hiw own, his wife chirped questions like snowbirds, while through my chattering teeth I muttered answers that went unheard. I was thinking it might take till spring thaw for the keys to reveal themselves when snow began to fall again, covering our rake prints, bent shoulders and heads.
Noise of a window opening. Great-aunt Emma's head in frilly nightcap. "For goodness' sake, give up! The guest room beds are made up. Perhaps you'll find the car keys in the morning. . . ."
The poet and the trumpeter looked at each other through the snowflakes. Great-aunt emma had met them only an hour before, and here they --
But that is Great-aunt emma. Cousin Henry prepared us all more hot milk, carrying a cup up to her bedroom, giving her a final hug, and promising to ask no more questions tonight.As the snow continued to fall over the roads and paths and keys, we kept talk to a whisper and fell asleep in the various armchairs in her parlor. The rakes waited against the house for the morning, with the snow shovels. Maybe by April . . . .
Raking the snow it was as if we were raking away at emptiness, at mere water, at plenitude, or at whatever it was that kept the answers from us, and perhaps the keys would always be hidden from us, and perhaps we did not, after all, want to find them --snow.
Next day our trumpeter found the keys readily, but when he left he blew a last note. And my mind continues to hear a faraway trumpet and the chant of dark verses asking Why. Meanwhile from an attic window comes the tap-tap-tapping of Cousin Henry's typewriter. Only in the process of writing does he find hiw own answers. From the parlor window come the notes of the harpsichord as Great-aunt Emma's fingers continue to probe Bach. As for me, I never stop putting questions.