Sunday, December 29, 2013

Poem: Cadenza


(for JC Watson)

Starving tenor sits in his blank page of a room
rolling the head of his pen, staring down a team of Russian novels
he writes a song for himself, sings it into the mirror
watching his breath steam up in pancake ovals

In the dark hall near the exit he places solace and solitude
bred together like mutant apples
two bodies, one stem
and inside, the seeds shaped like stars

Starving tenor piles scored sheets in the center of his kitchenette and
shoots them sideways into a combine
pulling them out the other end wrapped in baling wire

He stabs it with a pitchfork and poles it high on his shoulder
trodding a metered path to the concert hall
humming me and my shadow
running it high and low for warmth
ready to plow through these soundproof doors and plunder the stage

This is my voice, hear it call
hear it rip down clouds from the heavens
but when he enters, he is struck dumb

Raven-haired mezzo, center stage
piping stories over the orchestra
singing his song
different notes, farther measures, but his song

captured in the bars of her southbound whisper he has no
choice but to sit and listen
snipping the wires from his baled manuscript and chewing it all down
wondering if he has been writing too low

I will shove it all up an octave
I will plant altos and basses beneath her
I will carry candles into my dark hall
until the music cracks my curtains
and pulls sunlight up from the east

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Operaville, the Novel, Chapter Thirteen: Purgatory

Read the novel here, a chapter at a time, or buy the book at


I would like to indulge in a full-blown depression, but the world seems dead-set against it. The first culprit is our decking business, which has kicked into full gear thanks to what we call September Shock. That’s when homeowners spy the first colors of autumn and say, “Holy crap! It’s September and we haven’t done the decks yet.”
            So it is that I find myself on the expansive hilltop lawn of a French-style home in Saratoga, looking down on the plebian flatlands of Silicon Valley. I would not be feeling so elitist were it not for the perfection of my situation. Our client is an absentee owner. Colin is off at the next job, doing some repair work. I am, for all intents and purposes, lord of the manor.
            My work schedule is a little weird. From nine till noon I pressure-wash, and then I have to take a four-hour break to let the place dry. My first stop is a local coffeehouse that offers a patio shaded by wysteria. On a 95-degree day, however, I’m headed inside for the AC. I am perched at the window counter, about to dive into an iced coffee when a carpenter bee rises to my eye-level, face to the glass, determined to find a secret passage to the other side.
            I’m no saint, I would normally smash the little bugger – but not on a breakable surface. So I fetch a small water-cup, trap Mr. Bee against the glass, slide a postcard beneath him and carry my ad-hoc prison to the patio. I unloose the trap and send him buzzing skyward. Even at the insect level, there’s something invigorating about animal rescue. I expect to re-enter the coffeehouse to applause, but alas, no. A young Korean lady gives me a secret smile over her laptop.
            Sister Carla sends a text about an errant piece of mail (I used her address during my divorce). I am driving north on Saratoga, nearing a three-to-two lane merge, when some idiot in a white pickup pulls out in front of me. I send him the Italian gesture for “what-the-hell?” and slide into the middle lane. I assume Mr. Bozo will cut in front of me again, but he seems strangely disinterested. He is, in fact, driving the striped-off shoulder as if he’s still in a traffic lane, and he’s not slowing down. I see parked cars a block ahead and I realize that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. He plows into a blue compact and sends it flying.
            I’m cool as all hell. I cruise past, see that the man is bleeding from his nose but still conscious, and I pull to the curbside. I walk back toward the scene, noting that he has crashed in front of a day-care center, and that two women are leading him away.
            Well, that does it. I’m the 911 guy. I’ve never been the 911 guy. I pull out my cell, dial the number, and the whole time I’m talking I’m thinking, Damn, I’m good at this.
            “Hi. Yeah, I’ve got a collision on Saratoga Avenue, a block south of Payne? Just saw the driver, he’s hurt but conscious, got a couple people taking care of him but he will need help. Oh, and here’s the address: 1468 Saratoga Avenue. The vehicle is a white pickup. Oh, um, let me see, a Chevy, license plate GO98134. Okay. Cool. Thanks.”
            I reconsider the old fantasy of doing play-by-play for the Giants, but there’s not much time to indulge. They’ve got the driver sitting in a folding chair, and he’s bleeding pretty badly, so I race into the center, wall-to-wall with screaming kids, and ask for some rags. One of the ladies delivers a king’s ransom of paper towels, and I trot them outside.
            The driver is a pasty-faced, middle-aged dude in a ballcap and a Hawaiian shirt. He’s got barfly written all over him. His nose is a mess; one nostril is split all the way up. This should gross me out, but it doesn’t. With sirens already cutting the air, I figure I better not do too much, but I hand him a couple of towels and proceed to the standard anti-shock interview.
            “Hi. Do you know where you are?”
            He dabs at his nose, inspects the stain and cracks up. “You too, huh? Everybody wants to know where I am. Look around you!”
            The lady behind the chair perks up. “I’m a former PMT.” Meaning she’s already been quizzing him. But one thing is clear – this dude is toasted to the gills. As I try to recall what PMT means, a fire engine and half the cops in the city show up. A young Latino cop calls for an eyewitness, so I spend a few minutes up the drive, giving him the full account.
            “What was his driving like? Anything unusual?”
            “Oh yeah. After he turned he looked pretty wobbly. Drove pretty straight after that, though.”
            “Looks like a potential DUI.”
            Oh yeah.”
            Having done my duty, I stroll to the impact point and find a tall cop doing a survey. No skid marks at all. The blue compact, a sporty little number, lies in the bushes thirty feet away, facing the wrong direction. The cop points out an SUV parked at the curbside, a foot from the wreck. “Check out that Expedition. Not a scratch.”
            “Time to play the lottery.”
            I spot a young woman taking pictures and peg her as the victim.
            “Sorry about your car.”
            “I’m just glad nobody was in it. And thank God the driver didn’t get hurt too bad.”
            I take a look at Mr. Barfly, being strapped into a stretcher. “I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about that guy.”
            I head for my sister’s house and have a good time relating my exciting adventure, then pick up a 12-pack of Gatorade and a carton of strawberries for my afternoon work. The house has dropped a veil of shade over my work area, but I’m still in for a strenuous shift. The previous owner went for a milky white stain that has flaked off in sun-baked patches, and it’s up to me to remove as much of the remainder as possible. The nice part is, Colin has promised – and charged for – our absolute best efforts, so I’ve got the luxury of time.
            I begin at plank one and I crawl every inch with a scraper; I do the same with a vibrating sander. It’s hard on the knees, but I’ve got the Dodgers and Giants on the radio, the Saratoga High marching band playing on a distant field, and a doe and two fawns dropping by to chew on the grass. Even with calluses on your knees, it’s good to be king.
            My PMT duties continue at Coffee Society, where I am braving the proximity of bad memories to consume a frappĂ© they call the Witch Hazel. I am deep into the comics when the lady at the next table begins to worry out loud.
            “Oh dear, he doesn’t seem to know the way out.”
            A blackbird has wandered through the doorway and is now trapped in the corner, beating himself against the glass walls. A guy in a Detroit Tigers shirt tosses some crumbs in the doorway, hoping to lure him over, but the bird is well into crisis mode, and has already evacuated several turds. Fortunately, I’ve been through this before, and I know the drill.
            “Anybody got a jacket?”
            Silly question – it’s eighty degrees outside. I peel off my shirt and head for the corner, where I toss it over our prisoner, gather him up in the folds and carry him outside. I glance down and am surprised at how calm he looks. I bring him to the edge of the parking lot and open my shirt. The bird flies in a straight shot, eager to be away from invisible force fields and featherless monsters.
            I expect to re-enter the coffeehouse to applause, but alas, no. The worry-lady says, “Nice job!” Her elderly tablemate says, “And thanks for the show!”
            I pull on my shirt and say, “No problem.” Bees, birds and drunks, slamming themselves into invisible obstacles. Ladies, I’m really just saving myself.

            Today is another split-shift. I arrive at my mansionette at 7 a.m. and spend three hours laying down the first coat. It’s ten a.m., I can’t return until the shade drops down at four, and I certainly don’t feel like driving back to the cabin. So I pick up a late breakfast at a diner, take a hike at the Fremont Older Preserve, and indulge in a long car-nap in the parking lot. When I wake it’s only two, so I venture to the Saratoga Library for some Internet time.
            I am trying like hell not to think about tonight. I’m able to find some silly websites to keep me distracted, and soon it’s time to get back.
            First coats fill up the grain, so second coats are always faster. I finish at six, and do my best to leave the empty paint cans and used drop cloths in a tidy corner of the garden. With no client around, my dressing-room options are excellent. They’ve got a fenced-off utility area, so I can just strip off and hose myself down. The bonus comes from the fact that the hose has been sitting in the sun, and the water is exquisitely warm. I emerge in my standard black suit; the tie is a red-and-black striped, a gift from Katie.
            As often happens in these parts, the high temps that roast San Jose and the Central Valley serve as a device for sucking fog into San Francisco. I walk along City Hall in an arctic gale, all too aware from that damn Harvey Milk movie that he was killed right there, within sight of the opera house. A canvasser greets me at the corner, soliciting funds for the gay-marriage campaign. I have no choice but to hand over a twenty.
            I have thus far played a smart game, shunning even Joe so I can operate solo and avoid awkward explanations. The question is, what does Delores know? I would guess that Maddie’s pretty secretive when it comes to personal matters, but I also recall her blabbing to Gabriella at the Seattle reception.
            I go for a deadpan entry. Delores nearly jumps at me, thumbing her envelopes to find my tickets.
            “Hi Mickey. Just you tonight?”
            “Meeting someone later?”
            That tells me two things. One, she knows we’re a couple. Two, she doesn’t know we’re no longer a couple.
            “Yes. A post-curtain rendezvous.”
            “Ah. Are you two doing okay? I never imagined myself saying this about Maddie, but lately she’s been… a little bitchy.”
            I put on my best boyfriend laugh. “Oh yeah. I’ve seen that before. I think it’s this role. She’s only performed it once before, and it’s got her a little wound up.”
            “That makes sense. Be sure and try one of our caramel-dip apple slices.”
            “Delores! That is beyond clever.”
            “We thought of skewering them with little toothpick arrows, but we were afraid someone would swallow one.”
            I sample a couple of slices and scam on out of there, eager to avoid inquiries from my peers. My seats are in row G, distressingly close to the performers, but the opera offers many helpful distractions. The overture alone provides a buffet of superlatives: the unusual five-cello intro, the rainstorm and morning-after segments (so illustrative they’re constantly showing up in cartoons), and the immortal brass gallop of the Lone Ranger finale.
            The opera opens on a wedding festival. A fisherman sings a song to his beloved, and I’m delighted to realize he’s a tenor I used to review at Opera San Jose. The principal tenor, on the other hand, is a friggin’ train wreck. Playing Maddie’s forbidden Swiss lover, Arnold, he barks like a dog. It’s certainly one of Rossini’s more demanding roles, but bringing in a pit-bull is overkill. My inner critic, however, is elated, knowing that this will make great material.
            For all the talk of the wunderkind stage director, the setting is pretty standard 13th-century Switzerland, and the costumes one elegant period-piece after another. Perhaps Jose Maria noticed that he was attacking one of history’s greatest choral operas with one of the world’s finest opera choruses, plenty of cash for extravagant stage-sets and, by the way, Maddalena fucking Hart up front. Smart boy.
            So William Tell ferries the Swiss fugitive Leuthold across storm-tossed Lake Lucerne, the Austrians take Arnold’s father Melcthal hostage, and I am released to the lobby to gird my loins. I know what opens the second act: “Sombre foret.” The song that led me from the pit after Song to the Moon saved my soul. Sung by the woman who I just fumbled five yards from the end zone. I visit the men’s room, just to have something to do. On my way out, I lean over a table and place a thumb on Renata Tebaldi’s nameplate. Perhaps these divas truly are goddesses; I certainly call on them in times of trouble.
            The stage is shrouded in green, more the evocation of trees than the trees themselves. The men sing a hunting chorus; the working folk answer with an evening song. Mathilde, the Austrian princess in love with the Swiss commoner, walks into the clearing, worrying about her illicit rendezvous in an agitated, storm-like aria, “Ils s’eloignent enfin.” She wears the exact outfit that she wore at the Renaissance Faire: the copper band, the chocolate apron, the braided gold patterns. Of course. Meeting her secret lover in the woods, she has disguised herself as a peasant girl.
            The storm calms itself into a breeze of strings, a kettle drum rolling underneath. Mathilde spots her lover in the distance (Rusalka spots her lover on the shore). “Brooding forests, moorland spaces, how great the pleasure you inspire. To yonder heights where the storm-wind races, calmly my heart will confess its desire and the echo alone will hear my sighs.” She pours out her legatos. When she nears the treacherous leaps at the end of the verse, she lands them with the touch of a dragonfly on a reed, a spiderweb spun from crystal, a Caballet messa voce, leads the note forward, resolves the line, the flute joins in, followed by a shift into a string sustenato. Rossini is a beautiful, beautiful man. I am pierced like a Catholic martyr with a hundred toothpick arrows. I am crying like a big fat wussy-boy.
            But here’s the miracle. It’s not Maddie my very recent ex-girlfriend who’s doing this to me. It’s Maddalena Hart the opera singer, same as it’s always been. I cling to these bits of flotsam as Maddie paints a series of marcatos into a rollercoaster cadenza, holds the final note forever, then tucks it to bed as the strings take her out on that same breeze-like motif. The conductor drops his arm; the audience produces one of those Italian-style outbursts that you only hear on recordings of Pavarotti.
            So I let Maddie do what she has always done to me, and I try to ignore the third-act irony when Arnold, hearing of his father’s death, forsakes her and sends her away in tears. I stand at the finale, the apple pierced, the Swiss people saved, the forbidden lovers reunited, and clap till my arms are sore. And I get the hell out of Dodge.
            I have always poked fun at the Junipero Serra statue next to the Burlingame rest stop. He is meant to be pointing the way West, but he looks more like Perry Mason sending another witness into a teary confession. I am guilty, I tell you, guilty! And so I take my medicine. At a sighting of the Stanford Dish, I pop in the golden cassette and I play both the Moon and the Forest, though I know it will make me tear up like a pathetic child. I am such a fucking idiot.

            Colin is not yet done with his repairs on the next deck, so I am forced to take a day off, which is exactly what I don’t want. All those free hours give me too much time to think, which takes this tiny acorn of depression and grows it to a sprawling oak. You would think this might bode ill for my softball game, but I have always found the effect to be just the opposite. When I am completely distracted, when I really don’t give a shit – that’s when I play like nobody’s business.
            At the plate, I am a big dish of spontaneous combustion. If the pitch is somewhere in the zone I smack it, and drive it to whatever direction it’s already leaning. Single to right, single to left, double to right-center, single up the middle. Sometimes the game is easy, and you keep these things in mind for those times when it’s not. In the final inning, somebody loops a ball into shallow left. I charge forward. My body shifts into reptilian mode. Because my glove is on my left hand, my course wanders subtly to the right, so that I may fly forward in the Superman pose and slip my glove underneath the ball, just above the grass. I slide, roll over and lift the ball into the air so the umpire can call the out.
            I enter the dugout expecting applause, but alas, no. Dougie gives me a slap on the back. “Somebody drinkin’ his mojo milk!”
            “I got my theories, Dougie. If one portion of your life begins to suck, you get a payback in some other portion. Seeing as how I’ve just trashed my love life…”
            “Ah, not the blonde! The opera chick?”
            “Wow. I am so bummed.”
            These long-married types depend on their single friends for the occasional vicarious thrill, and it’s clear that I have let him down.
            We blow out our opponents pretty thoroughly – it’s amazing how much we’ve improved this year. As I’m walking to my car I spy the lights of the Coffee Society across the way and I figure there’s no better time to pay the piper. Besides, I sorta like trudging into the coffeehouse in my grass-stained uniform. I order a blended drink and take it out to the patio, where the railings are wrapped in plastic-tube Christmas lights. I set out a Rossini biography, Grove’s Book of Opera and last night’s program, and I pray that I can shovel my way through all of this and come up with something cogent.

            Beyond the immortal Barber, Rossini is best know for composing an astounding forty operas by the age of 36, then spending the last 40 years of his life composing pretty much nothing. His parting gift was Guillaume Tell, an expansive, political, serious work that foreshadowed the Parisian grand opera style and tossed aside any notion that Rossini could deliver only yuks and pyrotechnics. So why the sudden shift? It could be that this most well-mannered of composers found his inspiration with the world’s most ill-mannered composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.
            Rossini came to Vienna for the 1822 opera season and, after numerous attempts, obtained an invitation to Beethoven’s home in the Schwarzspanierhaus district. What he found was appalling. The house was dilapidated and filthy. Beethoven had barricaded himself in a room filled with cobwebs. His hair was oily and disheveled, and he habitually spat into a handkerchief and inspected it for blood, a sign of his growing consumption.
            One might assume that the driven, intense Beethoven would disapprove of Rossini, but in fact he had written to a friend that “Rossini is a man of talent and an exceptional melodist. He writes with such ease that he would take as many weeks for the composition of an opera as a German would take years.”
            Though disturbed at Beethoven’s lodgings, Rossini was somewhat heartened when the composer greeted him in perfect Italian. “Ah, Rossini, so you are the composer of ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia.’ I congratulate you, it is an excellent opera buffa which I have read with pleasure. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any attempt to succeed in another style would damage your nature.”
            Rossini’s go-between, the biographer Carpani, reminded Beethoven that Rossini had created successful serious operas as well, including Tancredi, Otello and Mosè in Egitto.
            “Yes, and I looked at them,” he replied. “But, believe me, opera seria is ill-suited to the Italians. You do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama, and how in Italy should you acquire it?”
            It’s a great testimony to Rossini’s modesty that he took no umbrage at this statement; instead he expressed his “profound admiration” for Beethoven’s genius. In subsequent months he initiated a subscription campaign on Beethoven’s behalf and visited regularly with much-needed funds – a large portion of them from his own pockets.
            “Rossini was… haunted by the image of Beethoven,” wrote Rossini biographer Gaia Servadio. “Beethoven’s genius was inextricably linked to his dark temper and to the rage he felt against society; Beethoven did not compose to please or to serve other people’s taste. Maybe it was after this confrontation that Rossini thought of no longer aiming to please; he realized that, having composed so much and so successfully, he had always been at the service of others. Music was now moving in a different direction, where painting and poetry had already preceded it. Music was going to disturb and provoke; that was what Beethoven was doing, that was the reason for the reprimand of labelling him an opera buffa composer.”
            In February 1827 Rossini lost his mother; in March he lost Beethoven. In 1828, facing a contractual obligation to the Paris Opera, he began work on Guillaume Tell, based on a play by Schiller, whose “Ode to Joy” served as the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The story carried elements typical of the new Romanticism: a rebel who fights for the liberty of his people, a princess who loves a commoner.
            “Like Victor Hugo (and indeed Shakespeare),” writes Servadio, “Rossini was drawn to the idea that a bandit can make a better man than a ruler, that a pauper can be nobler than a nobleman.” For that matter, Rossini had made this point before – in Il barbiere, a ruthless satire of the noble classes, which was precisely one of the reasons Beethoven so admired it.
            With Tell, the sense of innovation is evident from the beginning: a four-movement overture, unlike any that had previously been written; an unprecedented dependence on the chorus; the inclusion of melodies from folk music; and subtle precursors to the leitmotif, an idea that would find its peak in the works of Wagner.
            Donizetti described Guillaume Tell by saying that the first and third acts were written by Rossini, while the second was composed by God. The second act begins with “Sombre foret,” an aria that gives the lie to Rossini’s reputation as a composer of nothing but showoff arias.
            The scene is set in extraordinary fashion. In a dark wood high above Lake Lucerne, a hunting chorus is answered by the evening song of Swiss folk working in the hills and fields. A breeze of strings sweeps by, graceful archways of sound, followed by the low call of a kettle drum. The Austrian princess Mathilde, having spied her forbidden Swiss lover, Arnold, sings of him in the form of a French strophic aria.
            Perhaps it is just my position in life to go around heaping praises on Maddalena Hart, but her handling of this aria is divine. The opening legato phrases demand a high level of breath and tonal control, and this she delivers. The ends of those phrases present athletic leaps, which Hart lands like a dragonfly alighting on a reed – magical, Disney-like, angels on a pin.
            From there, the aria dips into passion, a drive to forte over churning strings. Having so divinely leashed her power, Hart now lets it run free; the contrast is alarming. And, finally, the cadenza, a fluid rise up and down the scale, a pause between singer and conductor (Patrick Summers) giving Mathilde a chance to reflect, and then a finishing run that delivers the longed-for fireworks while seeming wholly spontaneous.
            Beyond this sterling musicality, the standout aspect of Hart’s performance was the sense that she was wearing her emotions very close to the surface. This was especially true of the third-act aria “Sur la rive etrangere.” After Arnold hears of his father’s death, he is obligated to renounce Mathilde. Her first reactions are panic, anger, denial, but as she resigns herself to the situation she sings a painfully direct aria. “If destiny’s cruel edict rules that I may not be with you, my undivided heart will ever stay with you, your sorrow share.” Her sense of loss seems to pour from the stage. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that this great soprano will break my heart.

            I am not in the mood to overthink, so I punch the review into my computer sans rewrite, upload a photo of Maddie in the brooding forest, and send it off to cyberspace. I take a long bath and return to find my old friend, Devil Diva.

DD: Wow, Mickey. Flying deep! All these chewy details about Ludwig.

M: Thanks. Found this Rossini bio at the library, been saving that story ever since.

DD: You’re so right about Sombre foret. Those slow arias can be the death of you. Especially that interval you mentioned. From here on out, I will visualize a dragonfly.

M: Those images just come right out of the music. I don’t even write them; they write me.

A bit of cyber-silence settles in, so I head to the kitchen for a beer. When I get back, DD’s back, as well.

DD: Mickey, are you trying to tell us something?

M: Like?

DD: This phrase about MH breaking your heart. I feel like you’re talking in code.

M: Not in code. Maybe subconsciously. I’m a little on autopilot right now.

DD: Uh-oh.

M: Can we retreat to our private quarters?

DD: Sure.

I can’t afford a therapist, and I’ve certainly got to tell somebody, so Devil gets the full account, no excuses, no evasions. I send it to her a paragraph at a time, just so I don’t leave her hanging. She saves her judgement until I’m finished.

DD: Wow, Mickey. I gotta say, that was pretty fucking stupid.

M: I know! (This is me, slapping forehead.)

DD: It’s Maddalena Hart! You couldn’t ditch a bimbo for Maddalena Hart?

M: Actually, I did – right after I took that photo.

DD: Oh, that’s much better – make sure and have the sex first.

M: It’s even worse. I did it mostly to try out the equipment.

DD: You’re not serious.

M: ‘Fraid so. After my failure with Maddie, I wanted desperately to make sure I was okay.

DD: You haven’t heard of jerking off?

M: Yeah, I did that. But then Katie showed up and I thought, Ah! Here’s a chance to make absolutely sure. And booty calls are tricky relationships. That Katie, she’s going through sheer hell, and I felt like I was bringing her a little relief. I’ve been through divorce. The worst kind. I remember how it removes you from the world of physical affection. How awful that is. I was never in love with her, but I did care about her, and I understood that sex gave her a reprieve from all that ugliness in her life.

DD: That is so touching, in a sort of psychotic way.

M: That’s me all over.

DD: Fucking idiot.

M: Thank you. May I have another?

DD: Oh I should put you over my knee. But you’d probably enjoy it.

M: You do know me!

DD: Sombre foret means something to you, doesn’t it?

M: You noticed.

DD: Lots of poetry and knowledge in that description. You know, you’re the only critic I know who actually writes about the music.

M: It’s a song that connects to a very bad time in my life. And very specifically, Maddie’s version. She made me cry last night.

DD: Sweet.

M: But you see, I didn’t cry because we’ve broken up. I cried because of her singing, and because she was Mathilde, and because she was in love with Arnold. Can you imagine how awesomely powerful that woman is?

DD: Yes, but I think you made your own little contribution. It’s easy enough for a singer to draw on old pains, but when it’s fresh pain, it can be pretty electric. So strong that you have to remind yourself to sing the notes.

M: So when opera singers suffer emotional distress, they immediately use it to supplement their performances?

DD: Hey we earned it, Bubba. So have you deleted the goddamn photo?

M: Why? Did you want to see it?

DD: For shame!

M: Seriously, it’s gone. I hope to God Maddie deleted her copy.

DD: It depends. Does she have any revenge roles coming up?

M: Lucia.

DD: Nah. More insanity than revenge. I’m pretty sure she’s deleted it.

M: The weird thing is, if it wasn’t such a beautiful photo – I mean, aesthetically – I never would have saved it.

DD: Art is a treacherous mistress. Listen, I gotta sleep. I’m assistant-teaching tomorrow. Sorry to hear about all this. It was nice knowing a star-fucker.

M: User! Exploiter! Hanger-on!

DD: You got it. But remember, Mickey. No matter how many stupid fuck-ups you pull with women, keep writing. You write like an angel.

M: Thanks, Devil.

DD: And keep it in your pants!

M: Yes ma’am. 

Photo by MJV

Friday, December 20, 2013

Operaville, the Novel: Chapter Twelve: Sheer Hell

Read the novel here a chapter at a time, or buy the paperback or Kindle book at Free on Amazon Kindle, Dec. 24-25.


Running water. Have to pee. Running water. I puncture the wall of sleep and come out the other side, a newborn babe to September 21st, longing for the womb. I feel a dream squirming in my back pocket; I try to pull it out and discover that I’m wearing no pants. Damn. I’m almost certain that it was a good one.
            Have to pee. Running water? I hear low, off-key whistling, and I know she’s in the bathroom. I’m not about to give her another free show, so I head for the front door. Trey the Fish is off to the Caymans, and there’s only one other car in the clearing, my old BMW. Doubtless she uses it so she can beat it senseless on my dirt road.
            I trot down the steps, naked, head for the golden grass of the orchard and release an arc of golden spray. The question in this rare position is, what do you do with your hands? I opt for freestyle, placing a fist on either hip and letting my dick fly solo. This provides a plentifully proud posture to my pissing. Man! Shouldn’t have had that last Tecate. Ah well. Let’s go face the beast.
            I pull on a pair of boxers and head for the bathroom. She’s rinsing the shampoo from her hair.
            “Greetings, former wife! What the fuck do you want?”
            I suppose this has become a pet greeting, because it fails to get the least rise out of her.
            She pulls a wet strand from her face. “I already got what I wanted.”
            “Nice hot bath?”
            “Nice hot screw. Jesus, pal, take a look at your own dick once in a while.”
            I peek inside my boxers and yegods she’s right. St. Peter is sporting those pink and purple splotches along his helmet, a sure sign of female chemicals.
            “I don’t know how you do it, honey, but when I arrived last night you were sound asleep with a raging boner. I managed to administer a blow job and a chick-on-top without waking you. What was really hot was, you kept crying out in Spanish: ‘Dios mio!’ ‘Chingada muchacha!’ I think you even said ‘Ay caramba!’”
            She starts snorting, which finally sets me off.
            “Shit! You can’t… You can’t fucking do that! I’m… I’m…”
            “In love? Whipped?”
            “Taken! Spoken for! Closed for business! Jesus. I’m not even safe in my fucking sleep. What the fuck is your problem?”
            I’m getting pretty loud, but Allison is the coolest evil bitch in North America. She runs a fingernail along her knee as she gives my question serious consideration.
            “My problem… is that I dumped you and married John for the express purpose of playing high-society monopoly. It turns out that John has all the money, but none of the personality. And you! You go out there with your little piece of pseudo-intellectual Internet crap and bag yourself a diva, effectively leapfrogging me by four or five levels. You won’t even let me have this, you shit!”
            She snaps her mouth shut and stares forward. It may just be a trick of light and steam, but I could swear I see a tear rolling down her cheek. For this I should send out press releases, for this I should run up the road seeking witnesses. My ex-wife, the Typhoid Mary of childbirth, crying.
            “I didn’t try. That is apparently why it worked. I found something I liked and told everyone why I liked it. Pretty goddamn simple.”
            “Thanks bunches, Dear Fucking Abby.”
            That’s better. “Fine. But really, I can’t fuck you anymore. So please behave and I’ll make you some breakfast. You like huevos rancheros?"
            She gives me a witchy smile. “I’ve already had your huevos.”
            I can’t help laughing, and I immediately feel guilty. But dammit, it’s funny. Despite my best efforts, I sometimes like my ex-wife.
            I manage to toss together some eggs, thin-sliced taters, refried beans and green peppers and dare to call it Mexican. I leave Allison on the couch with that and a Mimosa. She looks as hot as ever, god damn her, but I really have to see about changing the combination on the gate.
            I head in for my toilette and reappear a half-hour later as a pirate: tri-corner hat with plume, necklace of shark’s teeth, black satin sash, billowy shirt, cheesy fake cutlass, black leather boots halfway up my calves. I am one fuccan buccaneer.
            “Shiver me timbers!” says Allison.
            “Thank you, I think. I have some top-level access to the SFO wardrobe department.”
            “‘Pirates of Penzance’?”
            “No, but excellent guess! ‘Il Pirata,’ by Bellini. A rather groundbreaking little opera, actually.”
            “Tell someone who cares. I’d better get going. Thanks for the loan of the penis.”
            “Apparently, that’s the reason I’m here.”
            She stands to give me a kiss on the cheek. “Poor pirate. Everybody wants his dick.”
            And she is gone, into her/my Beamer and up the road. That was way too easy. I take a scan of my desktop, pocket the keys and wallet, and take the radical move of forsaking my cell phone. Nothing more annoying than anachronistic pirates.
            We meet at the Coffee Society in Cupertino and leave the Lexus at streetside. She waves a hand along her costume. “So what do you think?”
            “Luscious as always. Especially the copper band. Kinda surprises me, though. I expected something regal and operatic. Maybe Queen Elizabeth herself. Is there an Elizabethan opera?”
            “Rossini wrote one. In fact, he took the overture and used it for The Barber of Seville. But darlin’, I get enough of those one-ton dresses. I thought something in the merchant class would be more comfortable.”
            “So you’re slumming.”
            “You got it, baby.”
            “Shakespearean, please?”
            “Thou speakest true.”
            When I was younger, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire resided in Marin County. The setting was an oak forest spiced with bay laurel, and it felt about as British as California gets. A decade later they moved it to Casa de Fruta, a weird sort of rest area/agricultural fun park 40 miles south of San Jose, and I had no faith that it would have the same atmosphere. It sits in a cradle of hills covered with that golden grass that evokes vineyards and Steinbeck, but certainly not Jolly Old England.
            I was entirely wrong. Once you enter the main gate into the merchants, alehouses, jousting matches, strolling musicians and period-talking geeks, the grass hills and the dry heat fade from your attention. They also managed to find the same potpourri of oak and bay laurel to satisfy my scented memories.
            Maddie, of course, is a massive hit. Having learned her acting by performing Shakespeare, she interacts with the vendors and barkers on their own time-machine level. Having no such talent, I have found a cheesy dodge. When in doubt, I recall every bad pirate movie ever created and channel the dialogue.
            One of our merrier encounters comes at the dunk-tank, where a foole sits upon a board, awaiting a soggy fate should a patron strike the bullseye with a “cannonball” (a softball wrapped in duct tape). The foole incentivizes his clients by hurling insults. A pirate and a gorgeous lady make an irresistible mark.
            “What hempen homespun have we swaggering here? ‘Tis Johnny Depp’s homely stepbrother!”
            I enlist for five balls. Sir Don Rickles ups the ante with each toss, a strange blend of Elizabethan and Hollywood.
            “Thou lump of foul deformity! Try thy inconsequent skills.”
            “I’ll be sendin’ ya to Davey Jones’s Locker, y’scurvy dog.”
            Ball one. Inside.
            “He speaks, yet he says nothing! Do ya feel lucky punk? Well do ya?”
            “Ahr, ya landlubbin’ scalawag, to the plank with ye!”
            Ball two. Outside.
            “Aw-hahaha! You whoreson cullionly barbermonger – your purpled hands do reek and smoke. Hasta la vista, baby!”
            “I’ll be puttin’ the black spot on ye, ya lily-livered sprog!”
            Ball three. An inch too high.
            “Methink thou art a general offence, and every man should beat thee. You can’t handle the truth!”
            “I’ll have ya keelhauled, ya traiterous squiffy.”
            Ball four. One inch low.
            The foole is about to release another volley when he breaks character. “What the hell is a squiffy?”
            “A buffoon,” I reply.
            “Aye, that’s good.”
            “Thanks. Did a little research.”
            “Do you mind if I use that? I’ve got this… pirate thing tomorrow.”
            “Oh, by all means.”
            “Hold!” says Maddie. “Enough of these… futuristic mutterings. And thou, thou rapscallious varlet, thou has picked thy every joust from the pocket of the Bard. Thus far, I spy thee A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard the Third, Romeo and Juliet, Sir Clint of the East Woods, King Lear, Julius Caesar, All’s Well that Ends Well and Jack Nicholson. Thou hast not one unplagiarized thought in thy puny little melon.”
            The foole gives Maddie a cold stare and says, “How foul and loathsome is thine image.”
            “Taming of the Shrew.”
            “Avast!” I shout. “Now ye be talkin’ to me wench.”
            “Oh-hoh!” he says. “Verily, good sir. Better to insult the man who now doth possess only one ball!” He takes a deep breath and launches into a stream of invective from (I am told) Henry IV, Part One. “Why, thou clay brained guts, thou knotty pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow catch!”
            “Ahr!” I rejoinder, and release a blazing fastball.
            Strike one. The board collapses and sends my rival into the drink.
            “Down to th’depths with ye. May the sharks dine on yer cockles and muscles.”
            The foole stands in his tank, squeezing the water from his hat. “I desire that we be better strangers! Let’s meet as little as we can.”
            Maddie plucks a five-dollar bill from her cleavage and drops it into his hands.
            “As You Like It.”
            The front man hands her our prize – a bracelet of dried flowers – and she slips it on. As we walk away, the foole is already working on his next target.
            “Ho, look on that fellow! All that is within him does condemn itself for being there.”
            “Macbeth,” says milady.
            I smile. “Thou art a lady of extravagant wit.”
            “I thank thee.”
            “And one sexy bitch.”

            A little bit later, we arrive at the mead counter, where a lady of enormous endowment is one sneeze away from falling out of her cups. The man in front of me, a duke in a stylish black waistcoat, receives his drink and takes much leisure slipping his tip between her jugs. This is a long Ren-Faire custom, and the ladies seem to welcome it so long as it fattens their purses. I order up two meads; the lady sets them on the counter, along with her mammaries. I turn to Maddie and ask, “May I?”
            I deliver my gratuity and am about to pocket the remaining dollar when Maddie snatches it away.
            “My good man!” she calls. Her target is a strapping college kid with a floppy peasant-hat.
            “Yes mum.”
            “I wonder if thou wouldst sit upon thy counter.”
            “Beg pardon, mum?”
            “Thy bum, sir, upon thy counter!”
            He raises his hands in surrender, turns around and hikes himself up, presenting a pair of slim buttocks in black pantaloons. Maddie tugs at his waistband, slips her dollar inside, then sends him off with a spank.
            “I thank thee, sir.”
            She takes her mead and walks away. The womenfolk deliver a rousing applause. But then, applause and Maddie just seem to go together.

            An hour later, we’re sitting on a bale of hay, watching a troupe of theatrical combat artists. They’re quite good, and also loud. They’re finishing up the show with a sword dance, blades interlocked as they pace in a circle. I feel bad for the thickness of their costumes, and the heat, and the exertion. They are clearly suffering for their art. But I feel just as bad for myself, and these militant yellowjackets, who refuse to leave my turkey leg.
            “Damn these wretches!”
            “Dost thou… oh! Permission to forego Elizabethan?”
            “Thanks! My tongue is worn out. Are you familiar with the bee-and-switch?”
            “Amazingly enough, no.”
            “Take a hunk of turkey – don’t be stingy – and place it on that bale in front of us.”
            I do as she says. Sure enough, the yellowjackets gather for a convention over my discard.
            “Given the choice between being swatted at or not being swatted at, the bees prefer to take their lunch outside the war zone.”
            “Thou art a wonder, and a gift to all mankind. Zounds! Thy magic crystal doth emanate with strange… emanations.”
            “God! Who writes this stuff?” She pulls her cell phone from its leather holster and flips it open. “Well! What witchcraft be this? It’s from you.”
            She hands me the phone, which reads, Hi Maddie. Are you having fun?
            “Odd! But I left my, um, magic crystal at home.”
            At home. I see Allison driving to the vista point at the top of Highway 9, watching me drive past, then returning to my cabin. She spots the cell phone atop my desk and sees the potential for large quantities of mischief. She may be an evil fucking bitch, but she’s consistent. All that talk of high-society jealousy must have re-invigorated her instincts.
            “Hmm… My ex-wife.”
            The phone goes off again. I am so screwed. I have to show it to her; it’s her phone.
            Isn’t it odd that some other woman has Mickey’s phone? And that she’s sitting on his couch, across from a love note addressed to Don Jose?
            “Your ex-wife has access to your cabin?”
            “Yes. I left the gate open one night. I think she saw the combination. If I hadn’t mentioned it, she’s a psycho.”
            “Yes, you had. Oh! Another one. This is quite a little show.”
            I see from Don Jose’s calendar that he went to see you in Seattle at the end of June. How odd that he was still fucking me on July 7.
            “Well!” says Maddie. “Isn’t that lovely? And so specific!”
            Maddie’s amused tone is reassuring. I might even get out of this unscathed. Allison’s previous crimes have given her a complete lack of credibility. The phone shakes again.
            But why should you believe me?
            “Precisely,” says Maddie. “God, Mickey, I think you need to get a restraining order.”
            Another buzz. Maddie hits the button, begins to read, then peers closer, squinting. Her face bunches up, like someone who has just bitten into a lemon, and she looks at the screen again. She clamps a hand over her mouth, looks at me with wide eyes, then drops the phone on a hay-bale and walks away. The sword-dancers finish. The audience applauds. Maddie disappears into the swirling crowd.
            Katie and I were involved in our parting session, face-to-face on the living room rug, our limbs bundled together like a tangle of yarn. I noticed our reflection in an old mirror that I kept stowed against the wall. I saw my phone on the coffee table. I knew this was our last time. I flipped open the phone, and motioned for Katie to look into the mirror. I pressed the button. It was such a beautiful shot that I never had the heart to erase it. The line of digits above the phone reads 0707. I can assume that Maddie knows what this means. The photo disappears as another message flashes in.
            I hope you’ve enjoyed my little presentation.
            I am dying to respond, my thumbs are itching with curse words, but at this point I’d only be feeding the fire. I pocket the phone and head off into the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, feeling like I’d like to take a match to the whole fucking thing.

            I spend the next hour in a desperate wander, all the worse because I am not certain if Maddie wants to be found. I recall passing a bellydancing performance, a leathermaster’s shop, an African import booth with hand drums and marimbas. Meanwhile, I’m conducting a mental review of the haybale fiasco, like a football coach reviewing game footage. I think I actually gave a decent performance, but I never stood a chance. You can’t deny a photograph.
            I am standing behind a crowd, watching a man juggle large wooden blocks while standing on a loose tightrope. He looks a lot like me. The village drunk staggers by with a quintet of sexy bitch pirate girls who look like they could toss you into a stew and eat you for Thanksgiving. He looks a lot like me. I continue along the dirt thoroughfare as a maker of toy catapults takes aim with a tiny water balloon.
            The jousting arena is bright and dusty, the shaded bleachers packed with onlookers. The knights have finished their battles and made way for long-haired equestrian maidens, clad in sexy leather dresses dotted with jewels and weaponry. One of them floats past on an enormous creature the color of straw. The rider is slim, with long, dark hair, an olive complexion, a brilliant flash of smile biting down on a ruby-crested dagger. She looks a lot like Allison.
            I find Maddie at a nearby pen, stroking the muzzle of a black horse. She seems to be talking to it, likely recounting all of my sins. I approach with cautious steps and think it best not to speak. She raises a pair of eyes gone red with crying and gives me a listless nod. This is so not the woman I came with. She folds her hands together and lowers her gaze to my shoetops.
            “I am stranded, Mickey. I have tried to think of ways I could just be gone from here, but I can’t. So here’s the thing: you and I are over. Some women give second chances. I do not. This… fierceness surprises people, but it’s a tradeoff. I trust people completely, until they betray that trust. And then I leave.”
            She sniffles, and takes a breath.
            “So here’s how we get home. I have an IPod in my purse. I’m going to sit in the back seat of your car, and listen to music, and you are not going to talk to me.”
            “But I…”
            She slaps me on the arm, hard. “Not a word! You cannot possibly explain away…. You have no chance of forgiveness. I can only appeal to your sense of decency and… and your love of opera. I have to open in two days, and I am under enough stress already. Consider it your duty to get me to my car, so I can get home, so I can get myself onto that stage. Now go. Walk. I’ll walk behind you.”
            I march to my car, not daring to look back. I open the door for her, and I drive for an hour and a half without speaking. She’s right. I do this as an opera fan, because the rest of me is dying. I pull in past the Coffee Society, and I park next to her Lexus. I look at her. She gathers her things, takes off the IPod, and looks at me. I pull her cell phone from my pocket and hand it to her. She snaps it into her holster.
            “Goodbye,” she says. And she’s gone, into her car, backing up, off down the road.
            For a long time, I stare at my dashboard. Then I look up and see dancers, a whole room of teenage girls in tights, running through ballet moves with their instructor. The logical thing is to go get a cup of coffee. But then I notice the flare of white fabric at my wrist, and I realize that I’m a pirate.

Photo by MJV