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June 26, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 10 (p. 191-198)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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D. had been reading for several hours when she decided that her eyes and her mind needed a break. Breakfast had been a mess, with hungry morning scavengers tripping over each other in the large but cramped kitchen, so she thought that she might see how much work would be involved in straightening out the dining room enough to use it.

She looked up from her book. Huck, Steinbeck, and Jim were her only company in the courtyard. An occasional tap of typewriter hammers served to remind everybody that Martin was still in his room. She leaned over to pet Jim. "Where is everybody?"

Huck finished a paragraph and looked around, saying, "Well, Jake's a-fishin', John's off wherever 'e goes in the day. I think Nick went inta town fer more champagne, an' Holden's prob'ly off mopin' 'round the forest."

D. counted the bedroom doors of the opposing balconies. "What about Alex and Sal?" she asked.

"Don' know. Guess there ain't no 'countin' fer those two, seein' as Sal's al'ays off travlin', as he calls it, or sleepin' in the day time, and Alex ain't seemed ta be 'round much anyways."

D. scanned around at the doors again. The only rooms that were still unoccupied were Nathaniel's and the one between her room and Steinbeck's. "Looks like there's only one more vacancy," she observed. "I'm not taking anybody's room, am I?"

"No," Steinbeck told her. "You and Alex took our last two." Then he added, "And we've an extra if Othello doesn't come back."

"Mightn't he?"

"It's hard to say," Huck took up the thought. "It'll only be 'is second year."

All had been said on the topic, so D. returned to the thought that had originally raised the question, "I thought that I might straighten up the dining room."

Huck nodded and said it was such a good idea that he'd help. Steinbeck concurred, following them through the door to the eastern side of the house. Most of the papers and notebooks in the dining room were already in the boxes, and the majority of the boxes had lids nearby or already on them. "Where should we put all these?" D. asked.

There wasn't any storage room of which any of them knew, so D. suggested the adjoining hallway, considering, in the back of her mind, that it might make for a good time passer to find some way to store them there attractively. "No," said Steinbeck, "that hallway is generally understood to be Sal's domain, and I think he'd object that the boxes dampen the acoustic echo of his saxophone or something along those lines."

"So was he the one who woke me up late last night?"

"Yes. He always gets me out of bed, too. I think that he's trying to begin a tradition for himself, always playing the same tune and shouting the same line at the same time his first night here. That's the only time that he's discourteous enough to be loud so late at night."

"I guess I can live with it just this once," D. smiled.

"Well," responded Huck, "'ts been two 'r three a season. He al'ays disappears, inta the nation, he says, an' comes back a coupl'a weeks later. But he does spend a consider'ble 'mount of time in that there hallway, so we oughtta find some'er else fer the boxes."

They decided that it wouldn't upset anybody terribly if they put the boxes in the ballroom against the wall that it shared with the courtyard.

D. had expected to see some type of expression of Sal's personality when she first entered the southern hallway, to coincide with Jake's paintings to the north, but she found nothing but dust and a few dried leaves of the last Autumn swirling around in the wind that squeezed through the partially opened French doors. The boxes had nearly all been moved when Jake returned with a basketful of fresh water trout.

Saying, "Damn, Jake! I ain't never caught but a fish 'r two anywheres 'round here," Huck snatched the fish and began preparing them while Steinbeck and D. dragged the grill and a bag of charcoal to their usual summer place in the east and Jake took a shower.

The congregation of northern balcony dwellers ate contentedly on the lawn, and Jim trotted from person to person for scraps. While D. sifted through the remaining bones and flesh of her trout, she heard the muffled sound of Sal's saxophone seeping out into the early afternoon. "Should somebody ask him if he'd like to join us?" she asked, gesturing toward the music.

"It would be a friendly gesture," said Jake, "but he'd turn it down."

"Oh? Why do you say that?"

"He likes ta keep his gut lean, he says," Huck told her and then added, "fer the spahrs pickins he gets on the road."

"Well that's silly," said D. unassailably.

She walked through the front door, and the sound of the sax belched out a blues that bounced and bumbled around the empty hallway. She lingered in the dining room to wait for a break in Sal's playing. When it became apparent that no pause was forthcoming, she slid one of the few remaining boxes from under the table and dragged it to the door as an excuse. Turning the knob and propping the door open with her left foot, she hoisted the box and pushed through into the hallway.

Sal was leaning back against the inside wall, with one heel against the baseboard, looking through the French door. When he saw her move through the corner of one slit eye that was barely visible behind his dark glasses, he stopped playing and asked her, "'D'ya like a hand?"


His black hair shot out from his scalp in curly commotion and slid down his head as bushy sideburns leading to a youthful scruff that ran in patches across his cheeks until it broke into an overgrown turmoil around his mouth and chin as if pulled, magnetized, to the saxophone that was so often at his lips. From his neck down, splotches of stains were scattered across his well worn, and in places torn, t-shirt and jeans, as if the hair on his head and face were disposed to falling off in liquefied languish to the music, and the dirt leapt from his flaking leather sandal shoes and held parched and dry to the white strands that hung from the cuffs of his jeans.

He swung his horn on its strap around to his back, swaggered over to D., and slipped the box into his arms. D. was trying to place the name, "I feel like I should know, but what book are you?" and added, "If you don't mind my asking, that is."

Sal smiled, a long sly smile that pulled back farther on the left side, "What book am I? or what book is me?"

"Well which is it?"

Sal's smile grew, now showing the top row of teeth that were not old enough to be an unpleasant yellow. "The book is me, and I am Sal Paradise," he said, drawing out the "ise." "I always have been, and On the Road was a book about me written before I was born."

Satisfied with his answer, Sal asked D. where she had been bringing the box and started loping down the empty hall, sliding his toes, heels, and feet irregularly so that the hard soles of his sandals reverberated with a varying rhythm of tap-shsh-tap-shh-tap-tap.

"So I'm told that you like to travel," mentioned D. to fight back the silence that resonated like a grand pause when Sal flopped the box on top of another and came to a stop.

"Yass. Since I was old enough to leave my house I haven't been back for so long that my home is one big club under the sky where the night life is just to dig the world and the world's creatures and the crazy cats who share the bed of grass and take the endless commute across the country with a job that's never got to 'cause it don't exist."

"So I imagine that you've accumulated a huge number of stories."

"Well there's one difference 'tween me and Kerouac's version of me: I ain't a writer; I'm a musician. But I can pass a long haul on a train and entertain from the passenger's seat well enough if it's what the company wants. Dean's always askin' me to give him the ballad tour, but I say, 'Man, you got to Go.' 'Cause the road is pictures and a song, and no words can make the pass."


"Yes, the man himself who everybody seems to think is called Nathaniel. But I know they're wrong, 'cause I know time and so's he. And I know Dean, and he's eternal, and he won't be captured by a word or a bunch of words."

To emphasize the ineffectuality of words, Sal swept his horn under his arm in one fluid motion and blew a short melody.

"Is that the Dean theme?" D. asked humorously.

Sal parted his lips from the mouthpiece, "He ain't got just one, and ain't none of them ever exactly the same. When I first came here it was the winter, and all I wanted was to find myself a little warmth because I was used to bein' gone on the West Coast or down Mexico way when it's cold 'round here, but I hadn't seen snow in a while, and it's no good to only have the heat all the time, and what do I find? The craziest cat with the wild grit of the city out in the country. I guess his sound woulda been something like this..." and he rasped breath of gravel in a swinging jig through the saxophone... Boowaahh-da-da-dyadada-boowee... "and he'd play the piano soft and low with a melancholy chord and an out there rhythm like this..." this time the music turned minor and almost painful to listen to for all the disjointed sadness of it... Daee-daee-dy-dy-dyee-dy-twee-doo. "I thought that he must be grappling with something and that it was no good for him to be millin' 'round a sad silent castle like this in these mountains, and I dragged him out into the world."

D., who had been looking out the long row of windows while she listened, trying to picture the snow swirling through the trees and into the courtyard while Nathaniel sat at the piano shivering at what he played, looked up. Except for John, and Nick to an extent, she had yet to hear of Nathaniel outside of the Pequod.

"You traveled with him?" she asked.

"Oh yeah. He wanted to hoof and hitch it all the way across the country, and I didn't see any reason to disagree. Like two mad hermits on the side of the road, one with a horn and the other just bein' a melody." He played a series of forceful and shifty blasts... Blaahh-blaahh-droo-blablabla-eee. "We caught some rides and even insane Dean took the wheel and cracked us most of the way through the original colonies on his way to warmer weather like he was spinning the Earth faster to spring screaming down the road so fast that the teeth of the car's owner chattered as quick as the pistons and then stopped, 'cause he saw that Dean had it under control and there was nothin' to do but sit back and dig the feel of it all. But the guy was heading to Pittsburgh, so he made Dean pull over on Route 80 because he didn't know the way and lit out fast when we stopped for drinks at this little bar halfway into town, where we stayed long enough to realize that there wasn't nothin' to dig in Pittsburgh but a few college chicks who hadn't gone home for the holidays. They let us crash at their house for the night and drove us to the train station off this old brick road where we caught a train with some money that Dean had on him. We chose a train that headed southerly to get to where standing on the side of the road wouldn't be so painful and so Dean could see the Mississippi where Mark Twain must have gone up and down in a steamboat.

"We killed the time on the train just groovin' with the factory workers and some down-on-their-luck farmers and even a kid who'd been let out of jail in Jersey and been headin' home to Harrisburg, PA, but decided to keep going. In Louisiana we got off the train with the kid and had a few drinks. Dean pulled me to the side and said, 'Dig the kid, man, he's talkin' about snagging a bottle or two for the trip.' And the kid did get one bottle so that it barely showed in his pants leg, but when he tried to slip one down the other leg he was so gone that he did it upside down and had a big dark wet spot on his thigh that some girls we'd been talkin' to saw and made a big fuss which got us caught. But we were lucky, because Dean smoothed it over with the bartender, so he just threw us out without callin' the cops so that the kid wouldn't go straight back to jail.

"On the street Dean went wild and ran up and down in a hound-dog sweat lookin' for the sound of jazz that we heard floating on the lukewarm air. We found the bar with the jazz goin' on and the band leader was this old black fella who played the piano like Monk and sang the blues in this deep voice. And we dug him until a trumpet man with long hair and sunglasses stepped up and went way out and off on a solo that got every foot stomping to keep the distant beat. Well the guy jumped down off the stage and waved his horn from one side to the other like a weapon and people swayed back but didn't move 'cause the guy had it, and when he came to us, I spun my sax around and he laughed and blew at me and I returned it, and there was Dean right between us pointin' back and forth egging us to go and go and when we got to where there wasn't any farther to go he started bangin' his hands together and stomping to get us farther, and we went right along with him until there was nothin' to do but squawk back and forth with a" Sal spit wind into his horn, bourh-bourh-bourh, "and out of nowhere, the trumpet man and the old soul at the piano smacked back into the tune like they had never left or had some secret communication goin' on, and before he hopped back up on the stage, the guy with the trumpet played with one hand while he shook my hand and slapped Dean on the back while Dean smiled goofy like a kid whose just done something really right for the first time in the presence of a master.

"Next we swung down into Arkansas and hitched a ride with this wacky old hick in a rattlin' rusty pickup truck who told us stories of a whore named Cheryl-Lynn who had moved two states over and that he just had to find, but he wanted to get some rest so he let Dean take the wheel while he slept in the back on this ratty old mattress that he had brought just for the occasion. I don't know how he slept, but he did, and we had to be honest and stop where he told us, and he took an awful long time to get up when we got there. He thanked us and told us that if we waited for an hour that really turned out to be about twenty minutes, then he'd take us as far as Nevada, because he had come into a little bit of money that he wanted to turn into a fortune. And Dean told me to dig the guy and remember his face, and I still do, because he had the look of freedom, but with a shadow that knew he was fooling himself and didn't have much farther to go.

"While we waited we talked about the universe and folks and how the key is to just go with the current and leave nothin' undone. And when the guy came out, Dean took the wheel and was quiet and went slow for him, and in the middle of some big empty field, he pulled over and told me to take the wheel.

"I didn't want to leave him out there in the middle of the country with not much money, and it had been a while since we had seen another car going the other way, but Dean just swung down from the seat and smiled. 'See ya soon,' he said and began walkin' away. I watched his back in the red parking lights, and when he disappeared into darkness, I tapped the breaks to get one more look, and he was gone."


"Don't know. He just went," was all that Sal could say. "I made it out to California and swung in the Sans for a while, and took my time gettin' back across the country in the spring, and late in July I got back here and found Dean had gone farther than I could follow, 'cause he had it and he knew time, but he slid down to where I could understand, and we dug the summer together, but he had changed altogether, and I knew that it had only been a short swing for Dean and would never happen again but in a dream that I love to have. I guess it would be sad if it was anybody but Dean, but at least I had that quick run with him as he was when I could still get to where he was. I'll never get far enough now 'cause I don't have it in me. And I know me. Sometimes I think it'd be better just to go and see if I can't get out there myself and not come back ever, even if I found it 'cause then Nathaniel and I would know each other too good."

"So what keeps you coming back?"

Sal looked like he was thinking hard for a long half-a-minute and said, "Well alackaday. I just want to see what happens next. And besides, its a good place to stop when I'm in the East." He stamped his foot on the ground of the East like a man amazed to be home after a long hard trip. The sound ricocheted from wall to wall and even seemed to jingle a spiral up the two staircases. "And I dig this echo!"

He made his saxophone sing for a moment, then strolled across the ballroom. When he got to the line of windows, he spun, appearing to smile at D. from behind his glasses and his instrument, and slid sidelong to the last window to D.'s left. Leaning against the glass, he shoved with his shoulder and almost fell through. D. gasped and tensed to run to his aid before she realized that the window had been built to swing open with nearly no signs that it should. Sal stuck his horn into the warm afternoon air and blew.


"I..." D. began to offer the lunch of which she had lost her memory in the sweeping jump of Sal's story. She stopped and smiled inwardly, turned, and went through a door into the courtyard.

The sun radiates down from high in the western sky and heats the towers and the treetops and the tiles of the roof. It reflects at obtuse angles from the western windows of the house, illuminating the underside of the trees that loiter at its edge. The nearest trees, those that are always in shadow, seem to stretch to the warmth. The light sifts into and out of the wrinkles of bark and undulates as the wind blows and sways the trees. Across this stage of flowing lines a spotlight swings from left to right, as the sun is reflected more strongly by metal. And as we squint our eyes to the brass light, it is impossible to tell from whence the music comes.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 26, 2005 2:39 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches