Dad learned to play the carillon in Sewanee. I didn’t know what a carillon was until living there; maybe you don’t either. It’s a collection of bells in a bell tower, controlled mechanically by a series of rods and cables. On one end of these rods and cables is a clapper, a metal ball that strikes a bell. On the other end is a large wooden lever which the carillonneur (the person who plays the instrument) strikes in order to produce a sound from the bell. But what makes a carillon distinct from a mere bell is that there are many bells together, tuned to the western chromatic scale; and there is a console with many, many levers—in Sewanee’s case, forty-eight—to correspond to each bell, set up to look something like a cumbersome keyboard.
Dad took me up into Sewanee’s bell tower many times—which is really a part of the larger structure of All Saints’ Chapel. Near the top is the cabin where the carillonneur plays, something like a hundred twenty-six steps up. A parapet gives the best view anywhere on the Cumberland Plateau. One of the coolest things about it, at least for me, is that the chapel was built according to the purest Anglican tradition, meaning that the so-called east wall actually faces directly east; and so from the parapet of the bell tower you know exactly which direction you’re facing without the help of a compass.
But Dad couldn’t practice in the bell tower—not without everybody on the domain hearing him anyway. For this he’d go instead into the carillon studio, a room at the back corner of the building where all the printing jobs were done on campus. In this room stood a full-size console, just like the one in the bell tower except that it struck metal chimes, like those of a xylophone, instead of bells. “Great practice tool,” Dad would say, “except the action isn’t quite the same. But I can work around that.”
Anyway, he’d practice at night, after he’d closed his books for the day and finished up with whatever chores needing doing around the house. This usually meant he’d leave about nine o’clock and be home by eleven, walking the half-mile to and from the studio, home in time to catch the seven or so hours of sleep he desired.
That’s probably why he didn’t mind so much when I went to Elena’s house for a sleepover rather than the other way around, rather than if she were to come to our house. Dad felt like he had to stick around whenever a friend was visiting, like he was a self-appointed entertainment committee or something. But whenever I spent the night away, well, that meant more free time for him to do things like practice the carillon; or, later, especially during our third year, to tinker on a motorcycle project or pursue a paranormal rumor.
You might wonder why he didn’t spend much time with Mom on these Sewanee nights. I don’t mean to convey that they didn’t get along. They actually got along quite well. And they did lots of stuff together on the weekends. But Dad’s an active person. He always seems to have a surplus of energy no matter the situation. So when he’d arrive home at the end of his work day, a day spent sitting and studying or listening to lectures, the last thing he wanted to do was sit around some more. Add to this that he has no need or desire for television. So a typical night for him in our Sewanee years included dinner with me and Mom, cleanup, helping me with homework, taking a mile or so walk with Mom and the dog—I always stayed home to give them some uninterrupted time with each other—Mom and Dad I mean, not the dog—followed by one of those activities mentioned at the end of the last paragraph while Mom watched some TV.
One typical Wednesday night in the spring of our first year, after Dad had gone off to practice the carillon, I asked Mom, “Can I spend the night at Elena’s on Friday?” Wednesday, I’d learned, was just about the right day to ask about a sleepover. Sunday or Monday was too early; Thursday or, worse because it was the day of, Friday too late.
“Um, isn’t there something on the calendar?” she asked.
I was ready. “Yeah,” I answered; “you and Dad have some kind of dinner.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Well, I guess so then. You wouldn’t have to go to childcare this way. Let me call Elena’s mom tonight.”
“You don’t have to, Mom. I already asked and they’re good. You know I don’t like childcare anyway.”
Okay, then,” she answered; “it’s okay with me if it is with your father.” Which was enough to say yes.
Truth is I liked going to Elena’s more than inviting her over anyway. I knew that Dad would become too involved if she were to come over. But there was this too: her parents were very hands-off, meaning we could stay out late doing our own thing and sneak out even later if we liked without too much fear of being found out. Besides, I was an only child—boring!—and Elena had three older sisters and a little brother. Her house was always a hub of exciting activity.
A favorite Friday night activity is taking in a movie at the Sewanee Union Theater, affectionately called “the sut” by students, faculty, and residents of the domain. Movies shown are often between theater showings and DVD release, meaning they’re relatively new. But admission is only $3 with $1 popcorn and snacks—just perfect for seminary families on a tight budget. The theater itself sits right in the middle of campus, across University Ave. from All Saints’ Chapel. This was Elena’s and my plan, to walk to the sut and catch whatever was showing that night at 7pm.
And so Friday came.
“What’s the movie?” I asked as we walked home to Elena’s house from school.
“Something called Sunshine from a Spotless Brain I think,” she answered, “or something like that anyway. Jim Carrey’s in it; should be funny.”
“Yeah, I think I know the one you’re talking about. Mom and Dad saw it a while ago, I think. But isn’t it rated R?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. My friends always let me in.”
And so it proved true. It was called Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, actually; and it was in fact rated R, the first rated R movie I ever saw; and Elena’s friends, a local Sewanee family, ran the theater and let her and me in, no questions about our age. And it was kind of weird, about a boyfriend and girlfriend who wanted to forget about each other after they broke up so they went through some sort of medical procedure that actually gave them slight brain damage in order to forget about each other. I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t tell you how it ends. But it left me feeling weird. That’s the best I can describe it.
That, and I knew Mom would never have approved. I never did tell her, incidentally.
“Do you want to see college students make out?” Elena asked me after we’d left the theater and were sitting on a rock wall just outside the sut trying to decide what to do next.
“Um,” I hesitated, “aren’t we going back to your house now?”
“C’mon,” she persuaded, “it’ll be fun. It’s barely out of the way; it’ll only take a few minutes. Our parents will never know.”
“Is it near a frat house?” I asked.
If there’s one thing Mom seemed nervous about in Sewanee, it was the frat parties on Friday nights. “Don’t ever go near them,” she’d insist. “Promise me! You never know what drunk college kids will do.”
“No,” Elena answered. “That’s not a bad idea. But I was thinking of another place. C’mon! Let’s go!”
Elena took me across University Ave. towards All Saints’ Chapel but veered left across the quad to what looked like a tower you’d see at the corner of a castle. Lots of buildings in Sewanee looked like that, so it wasn’t anything surprising, not yet anyway. But then she led me inside this tower where I saw a spiral staircase leading upward. Of course I remembered Dad’s story of his boyhood home and Polyphemus’s lair.
“Ssh!” Elena turned and warned as we began to ascend the steps. “Don’t make any noise,” she whispered. “We’ll probably see some couples at the top.”
She was right, by the way. I spotted at least three couples “making out,” as she called it, when we exited the door at the top of the tower. I say “at least” because it was very dark, and it looked to me like a fourth couple was farther down the parapet but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to stare too hard too long. In fact what I could see for sure of the three couples was rather embarrassing. They were really into each other, like literally, face into face. I don’t think they would have noticed Elena and me if we had been laughing and talking loudly all the way up those stairs instead of acting all stealthy.
Seeing this live display of passion brought that same weird feeling from the movie back in a fresh way. Naturally then, feeling weird and embarrassed, I quickly turned my head. When I did, I saw something that instantly cleared my head of these and all other thoughts; and now I was glad we’d been stealthy.
For there, below, some fifty feet away in the light of a streetlamp, walking deliberately and with a pained look on her profiled face—maybe even crying, I couldn’t be sure—was my mom.
“Elena,” I nudged and pointed, whispering, “look!”
She did. Then she turned to me with a look somewhere between sympathy and sadness. And without another word we took leave of the college lovers and descended the stairs quietly to follow in the shadows.
<We follow her to the building where Dad practices the carillon, but the lights are off.
<Mom breaks out in sobs.>