Summer reading: The Sixteen Pleasures

A handsome, funny, earnest funny boy I worked with at my first job had attended Knox College and taken a class taught by Robert Hellenga, and he loaned me this book (the first personally signed copy of a book I'd ever seen). I liked it well enough: it takes place in Florence, after all, and it's about art and love and finding your way, all of which were primary concerns to my very self-concerned twentysomething self.

When I finished it, he asked me to guess which scene Hellenga had selected to read at a local bookstore appearance. I assumed, because the question was being posed by a 24-year-old boy and because "the sixteen pleasures" means exactly what you think it does, that the passage must have been explicitly sexual, or at least suggestive. But he pointed me to this instead: a memory of the heroine's father rigging a tape recorder for his wife on her deathbed, to enable her to record her thoughts as she lay dying. Three years after her death, the family members finally gather their courage to listen to the tapes, only to find that there is no sound: the recording device had failed, and nothing had been captured.

Because I liked this boy and wanted him to like me, I went back and read the scene again, more slowly this time, and I fell in love (with the scene, not the boy—he eventually married a girl who didn't wear makeup). And I read it often still, not only because it's heartbreaking and effective in a purely literary fashion, but also because it marks the beginning of my helpless addiction toanaphora (likewise my first exposure to the term—I wonder now what they were teaching us in those college literature courses). I know a lot of people find it a tedious device, but the compulsive linear neat freak in me eats it up like a pound of corned beef hash. The last paragraph is one of my favorites—lyrical and tender, living in the pauses—and quite possibly something I'll be able to recite on my deathbed.

About four or five times a year Ann Landers prints a letter from someone advising readers to tell their loved ones that they love them—before it's too late. Whenever I read one of those letters, I think of Mama and her tapes. But the analogy is imperfect; the moral is not the same. Mama was trying to tell us.

But then what is the moral?

Check all your equipment? Well, of course. The problem, it turned out, was with the new remote punch-in/out switch, which had been activating the tape recorder without engaging the recording heads. Papa hadn't used it it in the three years since Mama's death, so he'd never discovered that it hadn't been working properly. He sent the tapes to the Ampex Laboratory in Schenechtady, New York, to have them analyzed on the off chance that a weak signal had gotten through, but there was nothing to be recovered. The tapes were virginal.

So, by all means, check all your equipment. Yes. But that's a moral for the head, not the heart. What can I say about the heart?

I suppose the real question is, why does it matter so intensely? What could Mama have said that would have altered the course of our lives?

I think about this question a lot—not all the time, but often enough—without coming any closer to an answer. All I know is that my life is filled with little pockets of silence. When I put a record on the turntable, for example, there's a little interval—between the time the needle touches down on the record and the time the music actually starts—during which my heart refuses to beat. All I know is that between the rings of the telephone, between the touch of a button and the sound of the radio coming on, between the dimming of the lights at the cinema and the start of the film, between the lightning and the thunder, between the shout and the echo, between the lifting of a baton and the opening bars of a symphony, between the dropping of a stone and the plunk that comes back from the bottom of a well, between the ringing of the doorbell and the barking of the dogs I sometimes catch myself, involuntarily, listening for the sound of my mother's voice, still waiting for the tape to begin.

— Robert Hellenga, "The Sixteen Pleasures"