Issue 197, Summer 2011
The man who built this house—Royall Brown, 1750–1797—is buried in the graveyard up across the road, along with his wife, his son, and his son’s wife and children. I’ve outlived him, at least in the sense that he was forty-seven and I’m now sixty-one. He built it in 1790, so I’ve occupied his house longer, too—unless you believe the lady we bought it from, who told Deborah she used to hear his ghost. Bring your drink out to the porch and you can see his headstone up there, the one with the top carved in the shape of wings.
The year we moved here, Deborah did a rubbing and had it framed for my fortieth birthday, his epitaph in forward-slanting script: Dear Christian Friend, as here you stand / Thy Flesh is dust, thy Time is Sand. We were ironists but we weren’t—does that contextualize it for you? He the still-promising composer and sometime pianist who had studied with Morton Feldman; she the once-promising mezzo, pregnant with a last-chance child who was to be raised in clean air, among woods and white clapboard houses, where the wicked cease to trouble. Royall Brown’s epitaph sang to me, as words sometimes will even now, in a darksome, twisty melody, which I put through the grinder—inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion—and set for baritone and cello. You’ve heard that old Library of Congress recording of Golden P. Harris singing “I’ll Lead a Christian Life”? Well of course you haven’t, but that was the mood I wanted, though if you were to hear my piece—and there’s an if—it would just sound like good old dentist’s-chair serialism. Wasn’t I the shit back then? I must still have the thing on reel-to-reel somewhere, performed by colleagues at a faculty recital.