The girl swings her heavy hair into William’s arm, making his coffee
slosh over the Styrofoam cup. She smiles but doesn’t apologize;
apparently he’s supposed to take the physical contact as a recompense.
Half the coffee has spilled. The clerk at the outdoor snack-stand
notices him refilling his cup and demands an extra twenty-five cents.
The girl is already gone, sitting on a bench under a eucalyptus tree.
The December climate makes William irritable. Sunlight slams into his
forehead, and the lush Santa Ynez mountains yawn at his foul spirits.
He carries his coffee to Van Orman Tower, where he will spend the next
forty-five minutes playing Christmas carols on the carillon. Then he
will go to the auditorium to administer the final exam for his music
theory course. Finals week is ending; the campus is almost deserted.
Everywhere you can hear the gossip of palm and eucalyptus.
When he gets to the top of the tower, he looks down and sees the woman
with the heavy hair standing up, gathering her books. A wind off the
Pacific comes billowing under her skirt, whisking it over her waist.
fabric floats, as free as a torn scrap of parachute, over her
buttocks. They are the color of iced tea.
In his dreams that night, the girl’s glassy hair lashes his body. Its
strands are sharp and cold. She whips her head back and forth over his
bare chest, inflicting a thousand microscopic scratches on his skin.
He laughs; the pain is exquisitely embarrassing.
She is wearing the same light dress. The bodice is tight, but the
skirt is full and sails upward whenever she moves. The dress is
printed with tiny pink roses, a design that reminds him of a
toaster-cover in his grandmother’s kitchen. The girl clambers off him,
leaving him sprawled out and blushing on his bed.
“Why would I make you think about your grandmother’s kitchen?” she
laughs, reading his thoughts.
She’s right. She would be alien to that Depression-era room. Her body
is a product of light and abundance. People wouldn’t think of covering
their toasters in a world that generated such a luxury of muscles,
skin and hair. That world is a careless theater of rare things, a
world measured by twelve-hour airplane rides and the seasons of opera
She reaches for the ceiling, grabs the light fixture, and starts to
swing. William jumps up, protesting, but she ignores him. The weight
of her hips carries her like a sensuous pendulum from side to side. As
he stands watching her, she suddenly swings backward and flies toward
him, spreading her legs wide, then bringing them together and pointing
“I love the carillon. Will you take me up there sometime?”
He promises that he will.
“I’ll swing from the bell rope, like Quasimodo!” she cries.
And all at once her weight is on him, pushing him back on his bed. He
kisses her before she can crawl off him again. She straddles his thigh
and rows gracefully up and down it–a swan riding a bicycle.
Her name is Kim Lindley. She is one of three Kims who registers for
his Bach class, which can be plugged in to the liberal arts curriculum
as four art appreciation units.
“Excuse me,” he addresses her one morning. She is talking to a friend
while he lectures about the liturgical structure of the cantatas. He
is describing the Church as a bride and Christ as a bridegroom, trying
to convey the sacred eroticism of it. In the end he makes it sound as
tantalizing as a sandwich of wheat toast and steel wool.
“Excuse me,” he repeats. His voice comes out with more pedantic
peevishness than he intended.
She turns and looks at him over her shoulder. The rest of the class
“I’d prefer you didn’t talk while I’m lecturing,” he says.
I’d prefer you didn’t lecture while I’m talking, he can hear her
thinking, but she is too well bred to say it.
“Sorry,” she mutters, and rights herself in her seat so that she faces
William asks if anyone in the class listened to the cantatas he
assigned. Someone raises his hand. William asks him to comment. The
student remarks hopefully that he noticed a lot of counterpoint.
“Excellent,” William says wearily. “That’s a brilliant observation.”
Bach lived in Leipzig, William drones. He hardly ever left. The
farmers who cultivated cabbage all week went to church on Sundays and
got to hear Bach playing the organ, something William will never be
able to do, though he knows more than enough about the lower middle
class and its cabbage patches.
William plays the second movement of Cantata 140 on the Baldwin
upright, to demonstrate its measured splendor for the class. It
tinkles out in a bourgeois propriety that makes him wince.
“Kim was the name of a girl I was in love with,” William tells the
girl, in his dreams. “Kim McMurphy. I loved her from third grade until
I graduated from high school. If I hadn’t gone East for college, I’d
probably still be in love with her.”
Kim Lindley cracks her blue gum, produces a bubble with a snide
farting sound, and shrugs.
Her father owned a music store. ‘McMurphy’s Classical and Exotic
Instruments.’ It was the only place in Missouri you could get a
cithara or a pan flute. Her mother taught piano at their house. I took
lessons from her because I wanted to see where Kim lived. In eight
years of piano lessons, I saw her walk through the living room
twenty-one times. I can describe to you every second of every one of
those times: what she wore, whether she looked at me, how much of her
thighs I could see.”
William is sitting at his harpsichord. Kim Lindley sneaks up behind
him and places her brown fingers over his. Her fingertips are bald and
globular, like a child’s. Only middle- class girls cultivate their
fingernails. Dirt-poor girls and very rich girls keep them short. Like
a pony, she fixes her mouth to his neck and sucks softly. Against his
collarbone, her hair is icy cold. Her hands, as she slides them up his
forearms, feel gritty and unwashed, and she smells of astringent
“What have you been doing this afternoon?” he laughs. “Planting corn?”
Playing volleyball,” she murmurs. “At the beach. You should have come
to watch. I lost my bikini top.”
Suddenly she lifts her hands away, and he senses her fingers working
behind his back. She is unbuttoning her white cotton shirt, the
oversized shirt with the sleeves torn out. Through its long armholes
her bra is visible, a sly, black flag; he looked away when he first
saw it. Now he looks down at the keyboard and tries stupidly to play a
scrap of a toccata, but he can’t get away from the black and white;
it’s in front of him, on his instrument, and behind him, on the girl.
He turns around, his eyes closed. She unzips his fly, then slides on
top of him, her nipples brushing his eyelids, then his lips. He
nuzzles her breasts, grabs handfuls of her moist hips, but his radio
alarm wakes him just as he’s coming. He explodes to the hyperactive
tinkle of a Scarlatti sonatina.
Bach had his chance to see the rest of Europe. He spent time in Italy,
then returned to Germany, where he continued writing and playing for
cabbage-pickers. He wasn’t the sociable globe- hopper that Handel
would become. With Bach’s death, the Baroque period ended, and so does
It’s late March now. Kim Lindley is going to Nice for spring break.
She’s been chattering about it with her friends and discussing it in
the notes she passes during class. “Should I go topless on the beach?”
she asks in one of these notes, which William finds abandoned under a
desk. The note feeds his fantasies for the next three weeks. He
imagines the girl’s waxy white breasts, exposed to the Mediterranean
sun, the nipples stiffening as she wades in the sea. William has never
been to a nude beach, in the United States or Europe. He did go to
Europe once. To Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, and England, on a
three-week tour with his sister. He hated it. He is one of those
people who is born to remain stationary.
One afternoon in April, when he’s walking from the auditorium to the
student union, he sees Kim Lindley crossing the campus alone. He is
only twenty-nine years old, he thinks. Why shouldn’t he date a former
student? The likelihood of Kim Lindley enrolling in another music
class is remote–she earned a C- as a final grade in the Bach class.
To his shock, she calls out to him.
“Dr. Weber!” she cries. “I heard the most amazing joke! You’ll love
He manages a crooked smile as she approaches. Over the break, her hair
has lightened from honey blond to several gradations of silver and
platinum. Her shoulders, under the thin straps of her white top, are
the color of hammered copper.
“Listen,” she says. “Why did Bach have so many kids?”
William waits. He’s heard the joke before–he hears it from someone at
least once every quarter–but he can’t remember the punch line to save
“Because he couldn’t pull the stops on his organ!” she shrieks.
William laughs politely. The girl pats his arm, tells him to take
are. They all say that, these pretty girls. Take care of what? If he
understood their language, maybe he’d be able to win one of them for
himself. But his mind is hopelessly baroque–convoluted, dark,
irregular–while their thoughts are streamlined and weightless, like
kites. This quarter, he’ll teach a course on the Classical Era.
Classical music is sexier than baroque, he reassures himself. By the
time he gets to Mozart, he could very possibly have a chance of