table of contents
table of contents — stories


Holbein drove into the garage, stopped the car, turned off the lights, but let the engine idle. The automated garage doors rolled slowly closed behind him. The heater murmured faintly. Except for the muted glow of the dashboard lights, all was dark.

He shifted around, wondering what to do while he waited. His big overcoat scratched his neck; he moved himself away from it. Idly, he turned the radio on, and tuned in this station and that, not able to settle on anything. More or less by chance he put on a classical music station; it was one of the few in which someone wasn't selling something hysterically or talking about the always awful news.

Holbein didn't know much about classical music. He didn't hate it but he associated it with certain places and situations which he found dreary. And it took time to understand. Now he was in a different place, he had all the time in the world, and the music didn't bother him. He thought it might be by Mozart or Beethoven, one of them.

'I am strong because I am sad. I am sad because I am strong,' some of the sounds in the music were saying. Later, there was thumping and blowing of horns, and later still, a sweet melody came over, saying 'I am beautiful because I am sad, I am sad because I am beautiful, beauty is sad because it is always fading away, but I will remain; I will always be with you; nothing can ever separate us. I will be here forever.' Then it went back to saying it was sad because it was strong, and so on. Holbein's attention began to diffuse.

Then the music stopped. The radio hummed for a moment, and then the announcer's voice came on. It was an upper-class voice, and sounded as if the announcer were smiling without having anything to smile about. He started talking about technique, repute, schedules, importance. The same old shit, thought Holbein. He shut off the radio and sat in the darkness; the only sounds were the motor and the heater purring. He's just doing his job, Holbein thought of the announcer. That's what they make them do — talk like that.

It was very dark, although now through the dirty garage window Holbein could see the reflection of a distant streetlamp.

All those people are dead, thought Holbein. The composer had been dead for centuries. The people who played the music were probably dead, too, he thought; he had the idea, from the quality of the sound, that it was an old recording. It was like an antique photograph: the people were alive once, looking at the camera, having their picture taken, no doubt doing their best to look good and thinking about it, and now they were all dead. But in some way the people who had done the music were not dead, because their thoughts were flying like ghostly wisps through the air, for Holbein to pick up on his radio, or for someone to have a record of, or have the sheet music, or think about.

Someday, though, he thought, everyone will be dead. Then only God will be able to listen to the music, if there is a God.

As if called forth by the cold, the darkness, the near total silence, a vision of 'God' sprang into his mind. God was a teenager, a thin girl with ratty straw-colored hair, wearing a loose sweatshirt and jeans with the cuffs turned up. She was sitting on an endless, featureless dark plain with one of the old-time phonographs, the kind that closed up into a sort of suitcase, and she was listening to the music Holbein had just heard. She was smoking a cigarette, and listening, listening attentively, and that was it. That was what was left. She had made her judgement. Although the teen-ager didn't look like anyone Holbein knew or had ever known, he felt a deep momentary pang of affection for her.

If I could see her eyes, thought Holbein, they would be pale blue, and empty as a mirror. But the vision drifted away and dispersed. Outside, Holbein noticed, it was beginning to get light.

Holbein sighed and turned the motor off. He got out of the car and opened the side door of the garage. The cold, fresh air drove knives into his chest. Above, beyond dark buildings and trees, was the eternal cloudless sky of early dawn. Holbein went out, closed the garage door, fingered his keys, walked up to the dark house, and let himself in.