Valerie Pavilonis

The nicest house on the street where I live happens to be a funeral parlor. It’s a huge building, with bare white walls and a flat roof and a long row of columns along the patio. All the windows are shuttered. No one seems to enter or leave. But every night, the sign outside lights up like a billboard on the highway — “Celentano Funeral Home.” I imagine reading: “Next exit.”

I live across the street in the attic of a big green house, overlooking all this. I’ve been trying to convince myself that the building is haunted. Like an ancient shrine, or a Roman monument. There isn’t actually anything wrong with it — I just think it would be easier to have guests over if I had a good story. People are always asking what I think of the funeral home, expecting a clever quip.

Here’s what I think about sometimes, when they ask. A boy at my school died a few weeks ago. I didn’t know him, or anyone who knew him, but my mom read about it and called me. I was at Walmart. They have this new thing at Walmart where you can order furniture online and pick it up from a giant orange tower in the store. I punched in my code and waited. My mom, on the phone, was quiet. I think I was supposed to say something — that I knew him, that I was sad, that I was crying in the middle of this Walmart between an oversized orange tower and two men arguing over a Gatorade. In the end I hung up, because for some reason I had started smiling, and this didn’t seem like the right answer.

One night in August, a friend and I went up to my roof for fresh air. We dangled our feet off the ledge, sucking on a handful of ice cubes and watching as the Celentano funeral sign flickered across the street. We could hear a radio program playing in the neighboring house — the weather channel, I think, and later, an orchestra concert. The night settled into its usual rhythm, with the heat and some crickets and the program from next door, until the radio started to play a new tune: Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez-vous?

There aren’t any lyrics in Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, but the third movement sounds eerily like this lullaby. It begins quietly, in a minor key, with a single bass player. A timpani joins, and a bassoon. Slowly the “Frère Jacques” crescendoes into a twisted, off-key version of itself — the kind of music they play in horror movies, right before someone opens the wrong door.

The first audience hated it. You can read angry concert reviews from that night, back in Budapest, Hungary in 1889 — everyone demanded an explanation for what had happened to the lullaby. Symphonies were supposed to have a story. Romantic composers often wrote elaborate program notes. (Hector Berlioz, in maybe the most infamous case, wrote a raunchy description of his opium-crazed romantic dreams.) But Mahler didn’t write about anything. The audience didn’t know how to react. What did the lullaby mean? Was it sad? Ugly? A joke?

I’ve been asking the same questions, about that boy and Walmart. It would be a lot easier to answer everyone else’s questions — to make up a clever story, or say the right thing on the phone — if I knew what really happened. Was I sad? Did I think some part of it was funny? Would that be such an ugly reaction?

I’ve played about six of Mahler’s symphonies. It’s not fun. People have special dictionaries just to translate his scores — you have to know the difference between, say, “mit etwas drängendem” (somewhat urgent), “noch mehr drängend” (still more urgent) and “heftigdrängend” (violently pressing forward). Mahler was a perfectionist. Nothing ever repeats. You can’t reduce, summarize or fake his music — there is no program-notes version, no in- between. It’s incredibly frustrating.

But I liked the lullaby, that night. I was glad that the music didn’t rush to a conclusion. It crept over the roof and the funeral parlor and the sign down below, which had busted a few lights and now flickered sort of sadly between “Fun … Home” and “Celentano Fun.” My friend was quiet. So we just sat there, uncomfortably and intensely aware of everything.