The peevish red of a skeptical sniff
When I ran into Owen Trayton at a class reunion, I owed him an apology. Owney was a musical amateur, as I was and still am, only he was learned. He could explain why Berlioz had the violins feverishly stroking away in one direction while he sent the cellos zigzagging off to a distant encounter with the brass. I accepted his word on this, but I had reservations about what Owney said he saw.
Beethoven's work was a thick, dark gray square dusted with silver. Sibelius's was also gray, but a different gray - a bleak icy gray with jagged edges. Berlioz, by the way, composed in blue and white stripes.
''Listen with your mind, not just your ears,'' Owney would tell me. So I'd listen with him in his room, but all I could ever see were Owney's light blue eyes staring fixedly from behind his gold-rimmed glasses.
''Listen!'' he would hiss. ''Can't you see that red?'' It was the Schumann Piano Concerto. ''Deep, winy red!''
I couldn't see anything of the kind, and I couldn't be sure Owney wasn't baiting me. He was the kind who would try to get you to agree to silly statements just so he would feel superior.
But recently I read Nabokov's collection of lectures on great books. He took apart portions of Proust's Remembrance of Things Pastm for closer examination and pointed out that Proust saw certain sounds in color.
''. . . the orange tint of a sonorous syllable,'' was the passage Nabokov referred to specifically, and here came Owney Trayton's thin, pointed face cutting across the years with the swiftness of any ''I told you so.''
I found more examples in Proust's masterpiece: the ''red and mysterious appeal'' of a certain chamber work, the ''deep blue tumult'' of piano chords, the ''purplish sound'' of the name Champi in a George Sand novel that Proust's fictional mother read aloud to him.
I had to admit it. Proust did make Owney look good.
On the strength of his claims, Owney outdid him. I can't remember every sound , every piece of music, Owney said he saw, but a few have stayed with me.
Brahms was brown, and Owney made him unforgettable for me by describing the slow movement of his Fourth Symphony as a river of chocolate pudding slushing between banks of fudge. Mozart's Figaro overture was scarlet and silver, the aria ''He Shall Feed His Flock'' from Handel's Messiah was polished ivory. There was Rimsky-Korsakov, all sparks, and Jules Massenet a solid purple. Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream was pink and white.
It wasn't only music that made Owney see things. The bang of a screen door, glass milk bottles clattering in a metal carrier, his father revving up the Pierce-Arrow in the driveway - all had their own colors. The wail of a steam locomotive whistle was a reddish orange streak, the deep blast of an ore carrier on Lake Michigan a navy blue oblong with white dots.
People's voices also had their tints and hues. Owney was particularly fond of one girl because she talked lime: calm, easy, quiet.
All that was years ago, and now here at the school scene Owney stood before me, still thin as a piece of chalk and almost as white, still wearing clothes at least a size large for him, still aiming his nose 20 degrees above horizontal. Bring on the crow!
I told Owney I had been thinking about him because of what I had read. Did he still see all those colors in sound?
My manner must have put him off. ''Of course,'' he said, as churlish as I remembered him. ''The color's there, why wouldn't I see it?'' He was obviously flattered to be classed with Proust, and he had to go and lord it over me.
''That's hard for you to take, isn't it?'' he said with the disdain of old. ''I see you're talking a nice bright green.''
That was just too good to be true, and Owney shouldn't have said it. Now I'm right back where I started with him and I'll have to figure it all out again.