December 21, 2016 by The Citron Review
by Fred Maus
1. On Fire
Yesterday I roasted red peppers on my gas grill. I turned them over repeatedly till they were black; then I put them in brown paper bags. Soaking the paper wet and dark, they scented my home with fruit, spice, and fire. Later, I rubbed off the black skin, leaving shiny carnelian-colored flesh, wet and soft, with dark spots here and there, burned.
Earlier that day, drinking coffee, I thought about the roasting that created its flavor and fragrance. Fire tastes good. There’s no danger in eating roasted red peppers, but the taste of fire adds wildness, a trace of fear.
I learned about the blistered goodness of burned food as a child, in my family’s living room, where we sat by the fireplace on winter nights. We used long wire skewers to poke hot dogs and marshmallows into the flames; they emerged black—crisp bubbled skins, soft warm insides. We used an old wire cage on a long metal handle to hold popcorn in the fire. Our delicious, dense popcorn tasted like smoke, with bitter black bits, different from the fluffy yellow popcorn we bought away from home. My parents went for days without time to relax; our fires brought calm and contentment. For a time, no one would work. We were together, because we wanted to be together. We watched the fire, entrancing, frightening, a wild animal brought into the house, under uncertain control. One night, the wood caught avidly and flames filled the fireplace. My father ran to the front yard, half-expecting to see flames surge from the chimney.
People said my brother burned down our garage, next to our home. I never saw the garage; I saw two concrete strips, parallel, leading from the street to a concrete rectangle, the floor of a one-car garage, a cracked, crumbling platform a few feet from our home. The destruction of the garage must have been terrifying.
I damaged our home with a fire when I was a child, a small fire. Someone gave me a candle in a red glass dish. Enchanted, I lit it, set it on the kitchen counter, and watched, with tender affection; then I wandered off, interested in something else. The candle burned to the bottom, the glass container broke, the fire made a small black hole on the red formica counter. My parents did not have money to replace the formica, and the black hole stayed for years, a shameful reminder of my inconstancy. Also in the kitchen, the orange pine cabinets, high over the stove, had wide black streaks for many years. One of my older sisters, alone in the house, wanted to make perfume by boiling rose petals in alcohol. A pretty idea. The alcohol caught fire and, as the cabinets still showed, the flames were huge.
2. Television, Telephone
On the TV screen, two penises, upright, puffy pink shafts and gleaming heads, dancing, bouncing like finger puppets, bumping together, playful, without shame or irony. Glittery music added cheer.
I was fifteen. My morning dream of dancing cocks left me hard, and I jerked off. I had been, as I would now put it, sexually abused by my older brother for four years. My dream said two penises together were sweet and innocent, childhood play. I knew it was true, and I knew it was not true.
The pleasure was undeniable, but nothing else about my silent, solemn frottage, hand jobs, and cock sucking with an adult man made sense. I swelled with confused emotions until I thought I would pop like a water balloon. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, except myself. That brother and I never talked about anything. “You are abnormal, crazy,” I told myself. “Call a mental hospital, turn yourself in.” It felt like a decision. The telephone glowed with unaccustomed significance.
3. On Fire
Fire figures sexual feeling. As a child, I read that fascination with fire is a symptom of sexual repression. This was mortifying: now I knew that my parents, who loved our living-room fires, unconsciously displayed their inhibitions for all to see. After a few weeks, the pop psychology lost its grip on me.
Adjacent to the fire of sex is the fire of shame. Sometimes they merge in a single blaze. Someone looks at me with disapproval or disdain; I burst into hot red flames. Shame is shameful: my skin, aglow, visibly accepts the scorching judgment of the other person, even when I don’t agree. Shame is exciting, like sexual feeling. Ashamed, you know you are alive, though you might wish you were not. Can fire taste good, even when it burns you?
My first sexual experiences, experiences of shame, began, too early, with sexual abuse by my adult brother. The feelings in my small body—feelings too strong for me, a excruciating scalding, alluring nonetheless—were arson. How to think of such fires as mine, not his, as somehow good?
“Aubade” from 1929 by Poulenc, for piano with eighteen instruments. I bought the record. I was thirteen.
I wanted to compose like Poulenc. Today I found the record, untouched for thirty years. I listened again. Listened?—no , it was as though sounds came from inside my body, melding with vibrations at my ears, as though I was that music by Poulenc, and I was that boy the music found, who knew something was right, not knowing Poulenc was homosexual or that I might be, though that hated brother who used me for sex was onto something.
Poulenc told few about his loves. He had secrets. I had secrets, too. Camp: the style of “Aubade,” proficient in sentiment, but with a gap, a chill, feelings shown and disowned. To me, that was grace, diversion, beauty without revealing. Yet in “Aubade,” at the end, a heavy pang, its cause cryptic. An opening?—Safe, unknown.
“Aubade,” my appalling lesson, assured, seductive: how to make music out of indirection, out of fear.
Fred Everett Maus is a musician and writer living in a house in the woods near Charlottesville, Virginia. He shares his home with a small English cocker spaniel and a large 1923 Mason & Hamlin piano. He has published poetry and memoir in Richmond Magazine, Vox Populi, Open Space, and elsewhere. He is indebted to musicologist Christopher Moore, whose research on Poulenc clarified for him his own early responses to Poulenc’s music.