Keilor’s dilemma

When relaxing with the Halifax Symphony, never get caught listening to a table

DAVID E. LEWIS December 1 1974

Keilor’s dilemma

When relaxing with the Halifax Symphony, never get caught listening to a table

DAVID E. LEWIS December 1 1974

Keilor’s dilemma

When relaxing with the Halifax Symphony, never get caught listening to a table

DAVID E. LEWIS

My friend Keilor is a telephone fanatic. He loves more than anything to phone people he knows without any reason. “Just to say hello.” he justifies himself.

When I came back to live in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, for a spell, the phone would ring at any hour, sometimes as late as 4 a.m. At first my mother, who was no-nonsense Scotch, would answer it. and when the operator said, “Long distance,” she would exclaim, “I wonder who’s dead!” and blanch.

For my mother, a long-distance phone call and death were virtually synonymous, and each time she discovered that it was only a placid voice asking for me she would give me the phone with a baffled expression on her face and go back to bed with a worried frown.

Although she never came right out and asked me, I always sensed the next day at breakfast that she was still bewildered. At first I tried to explain lamely that Keilor was in an illness crisis, but I never could lie, and certainly not to her. Besides, he phoned so often that 1 ran out of medical crises and finally admitted that he had just phoned up to say hello. 1 had been so conditioned by her about long-distance calls that for a long time I too found Keilor’s behavior somewhat madcap, but it secretly pleased me.

Distance meant nothing to Keilor. Once I was at a party in his house in Halifax, and about 3 a.m. he went to the phone in the hallway and made a call. After a few minutes he motioned to me to join him. He handed me the receiver and said. “Say something.” and disappeared into the living room. 1 had no idea to whom 1 was talking.

“Hello.” It sounded like a hesitant question. “Hello?”

A faint voice answered back, also with the same bewildered “Hello?”

There was a long pause. Incoherently flashed through my mind Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas In Wales, where as a boy he and his buddies decided to carol outside the black bulk of a house they thought was empty and haunted. As they started to sing, “a small dry eggshell voice from the other side of the door” joined them. For a ridiculous moment, when this faint small voice in the telephone repeated “Hello?” I almost broke out into Good King Wenceslas.

“How is the weather?” I asked.

The voice could have been coming from next door on Tower Road or from Singapore. She doesn’t know who I am or where I am either, I thought desperately. 1 could tell it was a woman, but in those days there were a number of women on the North American continent.

“Very nice.” whispered my unknown partner.

I motioned to Keilor, handed him the receiver and fled back into the living room. Later on 1 asked him, “Who in the world was that?”

“Amelita.”

I stared at him. “Amelita what?” It sounded like a game of knock-knock-who’s-there.

“Amelita Galli-Curci.”

Keilor’s mother spoke of him as though he hadn’t come to earth by normal channels, but just materialized in Olympian grandeur

“You . . . mean . . . the . . . opera . . . singer?”

It was Keilor’s turn to stare at me.

“I phone her once in a while. She’s a wonderful old girl.”

I had difficulty absorbing this. GalliCurci had been a legend to me for years. She was the greatest coloratura the Metropolitan Opera ever had, in my modest

opinion. I thought she died years ago. “Are you sure?” I echoed hollowly.

He didn’t bother answering me.

“Keilor,” I persisted, “it’s after three o’clock.”

He looked at me with a mask of profound inscrutability. “It’s not three o’clock in California.”

Keilor lived a life of the improbable. 1

often spent weekends at his house. One of his projects was the Community Concert series, and he entertained most of the musicians he contracted for concerts. It was not unusual to run into José Iturbi or Jan Rubes or Gérard Souzay ensconced in the living room. One time I spent half an hour with Maureen Forrester without realizing who she was. We talked about her children, of whom she is very proud, and the problems of teachers, and we traded a few recipes.

Keilor’s knowledge of classical music was phenomenal. Once several of us decided we would baffle him (for he prided himself on recognizing a singer or pianist after the first few bars). We dug'around in attics, and finally found an old 78 record of Maria Muller, a singer born in Prague in 1898. We were ecstatically sure of ourselves, and carried it over to one of Keilor’s parties as gingerly as if it were priceless (which I think it was). When he was out of the room, we changed the record on the machine and put Maria on. He came in, laden with the vodka drinks he mixed in elongated glasses, glanced at the stereo and said casually, “I haven’t heard Muller in years.”

He always wore black suits and black ties. Always. His mother told me that he did even when he was a schoolboy. She seemed to have tentative doubts that he was ever a boy at all. She spoke of him as though he had never come to earth by the normal channels, but just materialized in Olympian grandeur, without explaining to her how.

In the old days in Halifax schoolchildren could buy a week-pass for the streetcars which jangled around the city. One day his mother, Jean, and Keilor got on the car, Keilor in his usual black tie and suit. Jean paid her fare and went over and sat down. Keilor produced his student’s streetcar pass.

“Who the hell do you think you’re kidding?” said the conductor. Keilor was 14 and looked 30.

“I am a school pupil,” he stated with dignity.

The conductor immediately started to get belligerent.

“Yeah? Look, buddy, that’s a sneaky trick. Passing yourself off as a kid.”

Keilor looked at him with controlled condescension.

“If you are going to make an issue of it,” he announced, “my mother is sitting right over there,” indicating Jean.

The conductor looked at Jean. By this time everyone in the car was intrigued or irritated by the delay.

“Well, lady?”

“I was bom out of wedlock,” Keilor said grandly, looking at his mother as though she were an utter stranger

Jean gave Keilor a glance und said, “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”

He never forgave her. He was not given to emotional outbursts. For years he never mentioned the episode. When he was working for a radio station as music librarian, he developed back trouble. Jean worked at the Victoria General Hospital, and made arrangements for him to come in for examination. Since she had remarried, she was known to her friends as Jean MacDonald, a detail she hadn’t bothered to explain. When Keilor arrived, she took him down to her friend who checked new patients in.

“Your name?” the friend asked routinely.

“Keilor Bentley.”

The woman hesitated. “Bentley, not MacDonald?”

Keilor drew himself up to his full stature, which was considerable, looked at Jean as though she were an utter stranger, and said grandly, “1 was born out of wedlock.”

Then he turned to his mother and said sotto voce, “That makes us even.”

Most people have a summer cottage or a cabin. Keilor has a lighthouse. It is the typically shaped lighthouse, a few miles beyond Baddeck. on Cape Breton Island. The only problem is to get to it. This necessitates parking on the main highway and clambering down a treacherous, steep decline with a mere hint of a path for a guide. But the view is glorious. An enormous bridge arches over it, and the Bras d’Or Lake lies there, blue and serene. There is a small beach to sit on and commune with Nature at her best. But then the realities of life take over. There is no toilet, no electricity, no water (except in a spring somewhere in the woods). The provisions have to be toted down this semiimpassable decline, in safari-size quantities, and no matter how many are brought, someone has forgotten the eggs or the bread or the matches.

I saw it first from the water. Some friends and I sailed from Lunenburg to Baddeck on a week’s trip. Our ultimate goal was Keilor’s lighthouse. After an unforgettable sail through the Bras d’Or Lake, we finally reached it. It was dusk,

Keilor was standing there waving to us, in a black suit and tie. His pet monkey was dancing up and down on his shoulders. “My God!” sighed my friend, “he’s got Papageno with him!”

One of the requisites of being Keilor’s friend was accepting his animals. It wasn’t the old cliché of “love me, love my dog.” Keilor had exhausted dogs as a small boy. He went in for cockatiels, garter snakes and raccoons. As a schoolboy he was such a recognized entomologist that he had classified and labeled the,exhibits in the Halifax museum. He sat in Fu Manchu inscrutability when someone looked at his tropical fish and commented on what pretty creatures they were. Keilor talked to them by their scientific names, which were usually unpronounceable words comprising about 14 inches in Latin.

Once, in a tavern after a few beers, he berated a mutual friend for some moments on his brutality to a Cervus canadensis (the friend had kindly brought him a feed of deer steak.) For Keilor didn’t believe in killing any living thing. This made it rather dilficult on picnics,

or walks in the woods, for in Keilor’s scheme of things, ants and mosquitoes had equal rights for survival with a species he sarcastically and unfailingly called homo sapiens. All this was rather difficult on his wife, Peg, for their large Victorian house on Tower Road was the sanctum sanctorum of all the mice in the neighborhood. The word of Keilor’s beneficence had spread into the neighborhood mus musculus colony. One weekend when I came in for a visit, Keilor had been called out of town.

“Thank God!” Peg exclaimed, as 1 arrived at the door. “You can help me take back the cats.”

“Cats?”

She thrust two cats into my arms, a tabby and a tiger-stripe.

“This one goes to the Olands, and this one to the Martins.”

It was only later that she explained that she had used Keilor’s absence to initiate an all-out assault on the mus musculi. She had borrowed all the neighbors’ cats.

The one aspect of Keilor’s animal fetish I concurred with was his dislike of caged things. It was distracting, however, to sit holding a drink with a parrakeet — pardon me, a psittacula cyanocephala — parked on the rim of my glass sampling my vodka. He had the run of the house. His name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his friends called him Wolfy. He was colorful and aloof, and it didn’t take too much vodka to make him relatively passive. Indeed, one night he over-imbibed, and flew straight into a picture of Galli-Curci that was hung above Keilor’s mantelpiece, and knocked himself out. We all spent an anxious vigil until the parrakeet regained consciousness.

Keilor’s house, in retrospect, was a continuing revelation. Once I was using what appeared to me to be a very amateurishly made clay ashtray, when suddenly Keilor charged across the room and grabbed it off the table. He held it tenderly, and looked at me with disbelief. “This,” he stated, “is an Aztec artifact.”

I should have known. He had given me Prescott’s History Of The Conquest Of Mexico for Christmas, and he had often yearned, over vodka, at three o’clock in the morning to go on excavation in the Yucatan peninsula. He was obsessed with the idea that he knew where Montezuma’s gold was hidden, and knowing Keilor I never questioned it.

One night I landed at his house unannounced. There were no lights, but 1 could hear Mozart’s The Magic Flute. which was his ultimate favorite. When I knocked at the door. Keilor opened it and shushed me.“We’re having a Mozart recital,” he whispered.

I followed him into the living room. It was completely dark, except for a vague candle at the far end of the room. 1 could make out silhouettes sitting around. Keilor evaporated into the darkness. I remembered that just inside the door, in a corner, was a pie-slice amplifier. I decided to desist from fumbling around and distracting people, so I squatted in front of the amplifier. Eventually Keilor snapped on the lights. There were a dozen people sitting comfortably around the room — and there was I, the focus of attention. Keilor’s wife Peg had moved the amplifier and put in its place a small drop-leaf table. No one spoke. My hand was still cupped to my ear.

“This,” said Keilor, indicating me, “is my idiot cousin from Raccoon Gulch. He visits me now and then.”

I managed to make the hallway, and ran upstairs like the Theodore Roosevelt character in Arsenic And Old Lace. Keilor had a small den up there, with shelves creaking under their load of books. (He is the only human being I’ve ever met who has read the complete set of Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past. I always bog down in the middle of Within A Budding Grove, although I’ve often wished to get at least to Sodome et Gomorrhe.

I slammed the door shut. From below strains of Scriabin wafted up the stairs. It was tempting, but I had no intention of spending an evening whispering to apprehensive strangers that I really wasn’t subnormal. Periodically Keilor brought me up a drink, coaxed me into joining the members of the Halifax Symphony who were relaxing below. This was, as Keilor well knew, the salt in the wound.

“No, thank you. I’m going to sit up here in solitary splendor, and write ‘shit’ on every tenth page of your Prescott’s Conquest Of Mexico.”

He blanched. “It’s a first edition.”

I smiled at him.

“I’ll explain to everyone that it was all a joke. You’re really not subnormal.” “Thank you very much.”

“Some of them might believe it.”

“I’ll make that every five pages.” “Please.” He had a knack of being irresistible.

I was adamant.

“Pretty please.”

“Pretty please” coming out of Keilor was too much.

“On one condition,” I said magnanimously.

“Anything,” he sighed.

“That you promise me I won’t have to ask Amelita Galli-Curci how the weather is in California ever again.” “You have the promise of a gentleman.” And he’s kept it. f?