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I got the tie from this obnoxiously friendly shopowner in Greenwich Village, half-off, such a bargain, and a thing of beauty – Italian silk, Roman silk, baroque patterns of gold and burnt orange. And this was why I was stuck in the downstairs men’s room of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, because this Italian tie, this Roman tie, had to hang just so. On my twelfth attempt, I straightened my back, edged a finger to its bottom tip, and pushed it through to the exact center of my belt buckle. Ah, perfezióne! I checked my hair once more in the mirror, threw a paper towel into the garbage can and made my exit into the downstairs buffet room, where I found Gabriella just outside the entrance, performing some sort of worship.
She stood before one of about fifty large color photographs of past San Francisco Opera performers, framed in simple, elegant gilt frames, and I could tell she had found a keeper. She had only to look at me with that atypically awed expression and speak a single word to explain everything.
“Renata,” she said.
“Ah,” said I. “I should have known.”
“It’s from ‘Andrea Chenier,’“ she continued. “God, she’s just gorgeous. And look, over here there’s Mario del Monaco, and on this side, Richard Tucker – just like bodyguards. Isn’t that sweet?”
“Yes. Did you remember to genuflect?”
“Oh, perdono.” She took a brief curtsy and smiled, glowing like a debutante in this gorgeous poofy satin dress she had shanghaied from State Ferry’s “Die Fledermaus” collection. She walked ahead of me to the white marble staircase, and it struck me that I had never noticed what a beautiful back, what graceful shoulders she had, her cream-colored skin making a stark contrast with the dark, dark green of the fabric. Her freckles seemed strategically placed, as if they had been painted on by some aesthetic numerologist for greatest effect. I double-checked the tip of my Italian tie and smiled with secret satisfaction.
As we entered the grand lobby, the five-minute bells went off like London on Christmas morning. Gabriella, who, unlike other females of her generation, knew just how to occupy that designated space to the right and in front of her escort, waded into the crowd with her gaze fixed firmly upward.
“God, Billy. Look at all those... um, florettes? Flowerettes? Damn, what do you call those things?”
“I have no idea, but they’re grand.”
“Like a big old field of flowers, only... symmetrical, covered with gold, and upside-down.” She turned to me and stopped, letting our fellow ticket-holders funnel around on either side. “Billy, this is absolutely the best thing that anyone has ever given me. Ever. Did you know that?”
I turned a laugh to the florettes. “I suppose I’ll just have to agree with you.”
“It’s opera, Billy. Opera-opera, real opera, big opera.”
“Maybe even grand opera.”
“Si. And next year we go to the Met.”
“And then Covent Garden the next.”
She giggled (I don’t think I had ever heard her giggle before), took my hand and towed me off to the leftmost entrance. “To hell with it, Guglielmo. Let’s go straight to La Scala.”
“No. I’m going to save some money and wait until you sing there.”
“Now that kind of pressure I don’t need, young man. I’d be happy right now to sing in, oh, I don’t know, San Diego, maybe.”
“They don’t deserve you.” I handed our tickets to the usher, who pointed us to the left. We found our seats halfway down, just across from the fire hose. “Egad,” I said. “The sign on the fire hose has gilt lettering.”
“Naturally,” said Gabriella. “And get an eyeful of that chandelier. Ain’t it somethin’? The last time I was here, they had a steel net under it from the earthquake.”
“Pity. So you’ve been here before?”
“Yeah. In college. Buncha U of W gals took the Coastal Starlight down here. Mostly to see the city, of course, but one night on an impulse we took a cab to the opera house and scored some standing-room tickets for ‘Fedora.’ Giordano – same guy who wrote ‘Andrea Chenier.’ There was this rather, shall we say, mature woman playing the title role and afterwards the closing-night crowd was tossing whole florist shops of bouquets and they threw down confetti from the balcony. I had not a clue what it was all about, and it wasn’t until two years later, when I had become a full-fledged opera chick, that I found the program for that night and realized that that woman had been Mirella Freni.”
“Yes. That ‘Fedora’ came toward the end of her career, so I guess that’s why they were giving her such a big sendoff. And it’s such a wonderful image for me to carry around. Any time I get depressed about the biz, I imagine myself up on that stage, fifty-five, sixty years old, and hundreds of fans at the foot of the stage, throwing all that pretty refuse at me.”
“You’re a lucky girl.”
“I certainly... oh, here’s the conductor.”
* * *
“You know, I’m kind of a traditionalist on this stuff, so the lack of recit/aria structure kind of put me off at first, but damn! This thing really gets into your veins, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s very different. It’s all dialogue – I mean, every last line in service to the story, every passage pushes the plot forward. And the music is so haunting.”
Gabriella sipped at her coffee and gave the matter a thorough going-over. “Something bugs me about the story, though. Older man, young wife, attractive younger man. Jealousy jealousy jealousy. Sound familiar?”
“And casting that black baritone as Golaud. Was that a good idea? Doesn’t it just make it a little more obvious?”
“Gabriella! What would Joe say? Come on, it’s opera. If you can’t freely cross-cast in this fairyland where people go around singing to each other instead of talking, where can you?”
“Okay, but if he ends up strangling her, so help me...”
“Scusi, un momento. I’m going to queue up for the water fountain.”
During my minutes in line, I adopted the obligatory forward stare, but turned around directly after drinking to spot Gabriella at the center of the lobby, conducting an animated conversation with a rather small, elderly woman decked out in a sky-blue satin dress almost as poofy as Gabriella’s. The woman had black hair and sharp Mediterranean features, and beamed a practiced smile as she listened to Gabriella, who was standing with her hands latched together in front of her like an awkward schoolchild. I detected something intimate in the exchange, and decided to hang back, leaning against one of the War Memorial’s gargantuan, cappuccino-colored columns as I observed them from a distance (it was a decision I would soon come to regret). After a minute, the woman was joined by a taller, rather patrician silver-haired lady in a flowing yellow dress. After a brief introduction and an exchange of gracefully feminine handshakes, the two women headed off toward the rightmost entrance as Gabriella followed their every step with her gaze. I strolled in for my re-entry, squeezing the back of Gabriella’s neck for an introduction.
“Oh, Billy! I didn’t see you come up.”
“Relative of yours?”
Gabriella watched the two ladies climb the stairs to the entrance and duck into the auditorium. “Licia Albanese,” she said.
“Oh, right. And I just ran into Arturo Toscanini at the water fountain.”
Gabriella flashed me a look of humorous offense. “No, Billy. Really. I took a master class with her last spring. She said I had a classic bel canto voice, that I sang ‘out of my time,’ the way she used to sing.”
It took me a second to compute all of this, but the dreamy, sighing tone of that last sentence was the clincher. I could feel my expression growing more and more stupid.
“Really?” (Duh?) “That was really...” (Huh-yup!) “...Licia Albanese?”
“Well yes! She’s a friend of Maestro’s.”
“Egad. I thought she was dead. I mean, you know, you just don’t think of someone like Licia Albanese walking around like that amongst we mere mortals.”
“Well she has to walk around somewhere, doesn’t she? Don’t get me wrong – she is a diva, which I actually sort of like, because someone has to be a diva, you know – but she’s very friendly, too. That interpretation of ‘Una voce poco fa’ that I do, that you love so much? I picked up a lot of that in Licia’s master class. She’s like this walking encyclopedia of opera performance – you can take some move she demonstrates, some turn of the hand or vocal trick, and you just know she made it just that way at the Met in 1954, or at La Scala in 1961. And as for energy – shooh! – she wears me out, she’s like eightysomething going on twenty-two. Maybe I can introduce you after the show.”
“Yeah. I’d like that. Geez, Gabriella – you surprise me sometimes.”
Gabi gave me a palsy-walsy chuck on the shoulder. “Just stick with me, kid. I’ll introduce you to all the greats.”
* * *
“I mean, I understand the concept, but where exactly does that come from?”
“The Italian is ‘flowering,’ which hints at coloratura but maybe a little broader, not quite so intricate or exacting.”
“Well, then. I will say that the baritone had a great fioratura.”
“Yes, he did. And what about that Frederica, eh? She is such the perfect mezzo – so even, so warm.”
“Yes, yes. And that opening piece, Act Two – what was that called?”
“I don’t know. I think they just call it ‘The Grooming Song.’“
“Well, whatever it was, it was damn tasty.”
Gabriella took that moment to slap herself on the forehead. “Billy! What are we doing? We have to find Licia.”
She grabbed my hand and towed me off to the south side of the opera house, where all the limos were lining up to collect the more financially blessed. We had just spotted Licia, waiting on the curb with her willowy friend in the yellow dress, when I heard a name I had not heard in several lifetimes.
“Kipper! Kipper! William!”
It didn’t take turning around to know who it was; it didn’t take seeing her face to strap a tourniquet over my heart. Gabriella was tugging me in the direction of the diva but not getting anywhere, because as much as I hated missing this chance, I couldn’t ignore the old nickname ringing in my ears. I turned to find Stephanie as bright as ever, a neat packet of light clothed in black pants, a red silk blouse and a jacket of dazzling black and white checks. Her long, light-blonde hair had taken on a patina of silver, but otherwise she was remarkably unchanged: the smile just as broad, cheeks just as smooth and plump, and sky-blue eyes so round and bright they were almost cartoonish. Before I could take any further account, she had me in a breath-stopping hug.
“Kipper! My God! I thought I would never see you again. Your dad never gives me a straight answer when I ask him, and... well damn! What are you doing in San Francisco?”
I focused every bit of energy on putting on my most pleasant face, but it was eating me out from the inside. “Sort of a business trip, Stephanie. I’ve been doing a kind of.…” I realized I had to quickly re-steer this sentence before it got too far. “A kind of travel research thing for this group in... Minnesota. Bed-and-breakfasts, bicycle tours, hot-air balloon rides, that sort of thing.” Redirect, redirect. “So what are you in town for?”
“Visiting an old college pal. Johnny. Oh, well, don’t get the wrong idea. Johnny’s gay.” She laughed her light, sighing laugh, a handful of feathers tossed up in the chill night air. “I suppose half the town is, if you believe my parents.”
Stephanie made a purposeful pause, waiting for me to jump in with something. She directed her eyes over my left shoulder at the exact moment that Gabriella squeezed my hand.
“Oh! Yes, I’m sorry. I’m just so surprised to see you and... Stephanie, this is Rosina. She’s a daughter of an old friend of mine – sort of my unofficial niece. Tomorrow’s her birthday, so I promised I would take her to the opera.”
The lie was so blatant that Gabriella quickly took the cue – bless her sweet larynx. After telegraphing an anxious and not altogether happy look in my direction, she took Stephanie’s hand with a gracious smile.
“Nice to meet you, Stephanie. Where do you two....”
I hated to do it, but I was going to have to cut her off.
“Oh! Stephanie! I’m very sorry, but I just remembered we were supposed to meet Rosina’s father at his office about fifteen minutes ago. He’s flying out tonight, and I promised him we would ride with him to the airport. Listen, why don’t you give me a ring tomorrow? I’m staying at the St. Francis. Just call and ask for my room. Okay?”
Stephanie gave me a look just like Gabriella’s, but decided to take the situation with her usual good spirits.
“Yes. Okay, Kipper. Damn, it’s good to see you, though. I’ve been so worried about you. But we’ll leave that till tomorrow.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek, then again took Gabriella by the hand. “Happy Birthday, Rosina. Nice to meet you.”
“Yes, nice to meet you, too.”
My escape came to a nicely choreographed finish as an empty cab stopped on the street in front of us, penned in by the stream of exiting limos. I tapped on the window, got the high sign from the driver, and guided Gabriella in ahead of me.
Our hotel was just up the hill on Geary, so our cab ride took only a few minutes. Whether from radical cooperation or stunned confusion, Gabriella rode next to me in silence, but I swear I could hear her ticking. She maintained this extraordinary mute act all the way up on the elevator, and all the way down the hall, but walking behind her I could see the muscles on the back of her neck twitching like piano cables, and I knew that a torrent of questions was making its way to the surface, ready to burst forth at the very first moment of privacy. But I was too quick for her. After pacing ahead to unlock the door and hold it open like a true gentleman, I dashed in behind her while she was busy removing her cape, and snuck into the bathroom.
It was not exactly an unnecessary trip, because as soon as I hit the butter-yellow tiling I found myself on my knees at the toilet, puking my guts out from gathered-up anxiety, having at least had the good fortune of keeping my favorite Italian tie out of the receptacle. I sat there gathering my breath, slowly rose to my feet and started cleaning myself up, brushing my teeth a couple of different times and wiping my face with a moistened towel. Fifteen minutes later, I was seated in a chair in the far corner, locked in a death stare with myself in the mirror, when the knock came at the door.
“Yes?” I said, trying to sound only slightly annoyed.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Sure. It was that Thai food, I think.”
Ten seconds of silence. Fermata. A tempo.
“Billy. You’ve got to come out of there. Listen, I don’t mind fibbing like that, I’m sure you had a good reason, but don’t you think you should tell me?” Quarter rest. “Billy?”
It was no use. The beast was calling. I straightened up, counting each vertebrae as it shuffled back into place, then slid over to crack open the door. She wasn’t there. She had retreated to the bed, a big, high Victorian thing with lacy fringes and a floral blue canopy (our hotel prided itself on its Gold Rush charm). She was lying on her back with her head against the big poofy pillows, gripping the brass piping of the headboard with both hands, trying to force down her irritation, trying to deal with me in the most adult manner possible. Here I was, being mothered by someone almost twenty years my junior. Nuh-uh, I thought. Ain’t gonna happen, baby. Not on this one. No way.
Had I been talking? “Nothing,” I said. I smoothed a hand down each pants leg and loosened my tie. “I didn’t say any thing.” I ventured halfway into the room, all the while I could feel her glare drilling me from all sides, port, starboard, bow, astern.
“Do you want to tell me, Billy?”
“Tell you what?”
She clucked her tongue. “Don’t even think about it, Billy. Don’t even try it. I’m not... a grand jury here. I think I’ve proven that before. We are not on opposite sides of this thing.”
She let loose of the headboard and pounded her fists into the bedsheets at either side of her. “Don’t. Just stop it! If we are pulling some kind of... con job here, you at least have to tell me why. Who’s Stephanie? Why are you working for a travel agency, why am I Rosina, why are we rushing off to the airport to meet my dad? Are you going to tell me one single goddamn thing?”
There are times when nothing makes sense to me anymore unless it’s expressed in terms of music, and this is the way it felt at that moment. It was as if every note, every sound, every musical fragment, every exploded consonant, every meeting of bow and string, breath and brass, mallet and drumskin, every passing minute of opera opera opera had sunken into my pores, taken root in my blood, ridden around my veins in blue corpuscles shaped like whole notes, leaving a trail of sharps and flats like graffiti on the walls of my arteries, the broad boulevards of Debussy’s chords, the mountaintop call of Wagner’s horns, the flowered hop of Mozart’s woodwinds, the potent, distilled grains of Verdean melodies rounded into an espresso machine and served up as cappuccinos, the greenleaf hillsides of Puccini’s sweet contructions rolled up in one of his beloved cigars and smoked away on the cold windy deck of a Seattle-bound ferry – and now liquid, compressed, easily contained. But standing there in a barely lit hotel room with high, old-fashioned plaster ceilings designed for men who were small and needed to feel smaller, I could feel the music reaching critical mass, gathering force under the glowering brown eyes of my muse, my siren, the music bubbling into my lungs, the music turning and writhing in the chrysalis, the music threatening to return to its original form, but this time poisonous and hateful. The flashpoint came quickly and ferociously, the single word so large as it burst forth that it scraped the sides of my mouth.
The explosion sent Gabriella straight back into the frame of the bed, holding on for dear life as the music continued to bullet forth in its rude, angry, crude oil stream.
“NO! YOU CAN’T HAVE THIS ONE! THIS IS NOT YOURS! This... one... NO! NO! I’M NOT READY! I’M NOT READY! NOT... THIS... ONE! This is mine, dammit! MINE! NOT YOURS! You... You...”
I was holding out a finger like a knife, stabbing the air as I ranted out a raspy chant that belonged to someone much crazier than myself. When the music finally began to lose its grip, I was attacked by seven emotions all at once. I wanted to punch, I wanted to run, to kick, to cry, to fall down, to bleed. To sing.
Crying came first, with a force that threatened to pull my knees out from under me. I braced myself with a hand on the bed, flashed out vague lights to Gabriella, poor Contessa, who had wrapped herself into a fetal position against the pillows. She held both arms to her face, peering out with wide, frightened eyes.
I held out a shaky hand in her direction. “Mi dispiace, Gabriella. Mi dispiace. I can’t tell you... this one. This one... will kill me. I have to... I have to leave. Pietá, Gabriella. I’m sorry.”
I rumbled stiff-legged to the door and out into the bright hallway. I could see the doors cracked ajar, our neighbors wakened by the gunshot yell ripping through their walls. I began to jog, and then to run, finding the stairwell and conducting a controlled fall to the street exit. I came out to the whoosh! of a cab cutting through the intersection, found a peninsula of stage-white fog curtaining out the sky above me, and followed its wake downhill to Van Ness, where I vowed to find the murkiest-looking bar I could and get myself very, very drunk.
* * *
I found my sanctuary in a musty cave known as Ollie’s Pub. I couldn’t tell you what it looked like, because it was very dark and because I really didn’t care what it looked like. I was on a mission. The barkeep was a stubbly-bearded guy with bulldog jowls, a twice-bent nose and a receding crop of clumpy-looking salt-and-pepper hair – just the kind of guy you look for in situations like this. I handed him a twenty and asked him to bring two Manhattans to the booth in the farthest right-hand corner, and to please keep me regularly stocked during my subsequent occupation. He grunted at me in an agreeable fashion, then ducked down to take an inventory of his liquor.
I went to my station and slithered in along a high-backed bench of wood the color of coffee. I scooted backward until I settled into the corner where the bench met the wall, and a minute later Ollie brought my first two Manhattans in matching tumblers, on the rocks because I like the rattle of the ice, with a single Play-doh maraschino because that’s the way Manhattans always come. I tossed Ollie another twenty and he smiled – or at least, his jowls lifted a little, and for that matter I didn’t really know if this was the Ollie or not, anyway, but I was willing to take the chance. As far as the Manhattans went, I suppose I picked them because it seemed like a good way to get drunk in a hurry, and being something of a dilettante drinker I had to go on my instincts. Manhattans in San Francisco. Why not?
The first swig settled neatly against my throat, still hurting from my recent eruption. I cocked my head back to find a Vaudeville showgirl, Contessa LaBeau, tossing a meaningful look at me from under a tiara of feathers and jewels. I tried to keep my eyes on her but she refused to stay in focus, so I took another swallow instead and found myself at the bottom of my drink, the ice cubes tapping pleasurably against my teeth. Hmm, that wasn’t so bad. I left the cherry in the glass – because whatever was keeping that thing such an unnatural shade of red was not something you would necessarily want in your bloodstream – then lifted Manhattan number two, flashing on an old country joke: “He had all the good judgement of a Manhattan Indian chief,” and noticed what a sharp dude Ollie was. By the time he delivered round three, he had noticed my maraschino negligence and begun to simply leave the cherries out. Quite a sacrifice, since I am sure that omitting cherries from Manhattans goes seriously against bartender aesthetic. He got a fresh new twenty every time he came back, so he seemed willing to bite the bullet.
All in all, Manhattans turned out to be not such a hot idea. Oh, I know, you’re already guessing at prolonged puking, long pointless efforts at recalling the lyrics to old Irish folk songs and the tossing of several items of furniture at the barroom mirror. No. No such luck. No, instead the damn things put me right to sleep, after six, maybe seven glasses, and I woke up a couple of hours later to find myself exhausted but distressingly half-sober from my little nap. It didn’t help that Ollie the bartender was jabbing his stubby little index finger into my shoulder, and had managed to select for his point of attack the very spot where I had cracked my collarbone twenty years earlier playing soccer – and it hurt like hell! I woke up like a crabby child after a too-brief nap.
“Ow! All right! All right already. Jesus, Ollie.”
“Oh, yeah, uh, sorry,” he grunted. “But I’m not Ollie. I mean, there’s no such guy, actually. Right? I think that maybe the original owner was sorta nutso about Laurel and Hardy, yaknow? Ollie’s the fat one, right?”
I was not comprehending a single word of this, but rather gazing at Ollie’s skin, a palette of mismatched Cezánne colors that ranged from a bruised purple under the eyes to a bright Irish red at the tip of his large-pored nose with greyish splotches at the landing points of his big flapping jowls. It wasn’t necessarily the kind of face you wanted to wake up to.
I squinted my eyes at Ollie and tried to give an incisive response.
“Benjamin. Name’s Benjamin. Actually, my family is Italian, right? So they like to call me Beniamino, but that don’t fly so well with the guys in the bar. Right? Too much of a mouthful. They get three, four drinks in ‘em, and it’s kinda hard to wrap your mouth around all those bouncy syllables. Mostly, they call me ‘Ben.’“
I wiped a rim of saliva from my mouth and gave Ben the straightest look I could manage. “Ben? Is there something you’re trying to tell me?”
“Well, yeah. It’s four o’clock, right? I gotta close up.”
“You all right? You want me to call you a cab or somethin’?”
I waved a hand at him but overshot and landed two fingers in the bottom of a melted-down Manhattan. “No. No, no. Really. I’m just up the hill.
Beniamino stared at me for a few more seconds as I made absolutely no motion. Eventually I managed to assemble a sufficient understanding of his expectations so that I could prepare to undertake actual action. “Oh, right,” I said. I hooked a sloppy hand around the top of the bench and hoisted myself up, handed Ben the last five dollars from my wallet, thanked him for the wake-up call, then headed out and up Geary to the intersection of Van Ness. It was alarmingly vacant; that and the sapphire night, bejeweled with mist, served to turn it into a kind of otherworldly landscape, the asphalt black and sleek as frozen oil, the stoplight sending out a circle of moist ruby arrowheads.
I crossed without looking, and received a few bonus heartbeats when a transit bus steamed along a mere two feet behind me as I scaled the opposite curb. After my breathing returned, I stared up at the big steep hill ahead of me and thought that maybe I shouldn’t look up like that anymore, that the best way to tackle this monstrosity was to fix my eyes on the little gray cracks at my feet and plod ahead, ten feet at a time.
By the time I reached the hotel, my legs decided to ditch me and take refuge in a neighboring country. I dragged them along like old chains as I pushed through the front door, gave a weary salute to the kid at the registration desk and found the button for the elevator. It arrived at my floor with a loud ding! – which woke me back up – and I shuffled inside, staring vacantly at all the numbers and trying to remember which one was mine. I was tracing the royal blue diamonds in the hallway carpeting, walking hunched-over like Groucho Marx, when I heard a sound just to my left and found Gabriella, peering through the doorway. I was a little anxious about how she would react to me, now that I had let out the beast in her presence, but I needn’t have worried. She rushed into the hallway to take my arm and pull me into the room.
She eased me down onto the bed, where I sat with my legs dangling like a little kid’s, then helped me out of my jacket, pulled off my belt, and knelt down to untie my shoes. I was muttering something entirely true and appropriate, like being a sorry-ass scumball entirely undeserving of these sort of ministrations, when Gabriella shot me the kind of look that could give a guy razor burns.
“Just stop it, Billy. Just shut up. Just don’t say anything and... be normal, okay?”
Well, to me, that sounded like an invitation to speak. I bounced my way too far forward and ended up with my face dangling over my knees, almost touching Gabriella’s forehead.
“Don’t you want to hear the story, Gabi? Don’t you want to hear the rest of the massively fucked-up Harness Family saga?”
“Not especially,” she answered, in rumbling alto tones that she saved for special occasions. “Not after the way you yelled at me before. I know it wasn’t you… exactly, but whatever it was, it scared the shit out of me.”
I managed to crank my spine into a half-normal sitting position to answer her. “But that wasn’t really it, Gabi. I am suffering from something I like to call Music Poisoning Syndrome. Moderation, you see. That is the secret to healthy living – moderation in all things, and I did not do that. No, I exposed myself to way too much music during this last year, and, as a consequence, I was poisoned. It got in through my ears, it got in through my skin and seeped into my veins, and you see none of the body’s organs are specifically designed to process it… and, let us say, eliminate, er... excess music, and so the only way to leech it from the body is to convert it back to its original form – noise, that is, raw vegetable sound – and for the sound-producing instruments of the body to collectively release this substance back into the air where it belongs.”
Despite her best efforts to maintain a veneer of motherly scorn, Gabriella had to smile. “Billy, you, signore… are drunk.”
“No. Unfortunately, I’m not. Believe me, darling Contessa, I wish I was. I suppose I’m about half-drunk, all right – but if I was any more sober, I wouldn’t be offering to tell you story number three, because, believe me, it - is - a - stinkeroo!”
Gabriella rose to her feet and rubbed her hands over her eyes, which were sore and red from crying. I hadn’t noticed that before. Then she sighed.
“Will it make you shut up?” she asked. “Will it take out some of the poison?”
“I clapped my hands together. “Yes! It will. I am almost sure of it.”
“Okay. So tell me.”
I raised a finger in triumph, then let it fall. “No. I can’t. Not like this. There’s too much light in here.”
“But it’s just the bathroom light.”
I held out both hands like a king handing out decrees. “No! It’s got to be pitch black, no light of any kind. Believe me, it’s for your own protection. You do not want to hear this story and see my face at the same time. If you make that connection, little girl, you will never want to talk to me again. This way! This is how we do it. I want you to go to the bathroom and turn out the light. I will arrange myself here on the bed, with my head up against the pillows, and will close my eyes. I wish this thing had some kind of mosquito net or something – that would definitely help – but it will have to do. Then! After you turn off the bathroom light, I want you to open the door into the hallway, and I will vi-su-a-lize you leaving. What you do after that point is up to you, but please do not make a sound, and please do not come any closer than, say, that chair, in the corner there. No closer, because if you stray too close to this thing it will sink its big pointy teeth into you, and the strongest rabies shot in the world will do you no good. And please, do it all just like that, to the letter, because in order to tell this story I have to convince myself that... you are not actually here. Okay?”
I settled myself back into the pillows, rubbed my eyes and let them sink slowly shut. I heard the flip of the lightswitch, the sotto voce slap of bare feet against the bathroom tiles, then the knobtwist and air-pressure inhale of the opening door.
“Goodbye, Gabi! Have a nice walk!”
Then I held a pillow to either ear so I wouldn’t hear what might or might not come next. It worked very well, because I am very good at fooling myself. It is, after all, my occupation. I began.
* * *
If you gathered up all the light, all of Apollo’s gift scattered into the corners of our family garage in several hundred diamond shards of windshield glass... if you took every single piece, placed it under a microscope and applied some sort of extraction device to suck out the light until you were left with a large pile of dull black pieces... then if you placed all that light in a tube, let it split and double itself like an amoeba, over and over until it filled the tube with brilliance, with refulgence, then injected every drop into a human being – that would be Bobby Harness.
Having lived through the initial extinction of that light, I was one of the colorless shards, a black hole of a boy, turned in on my own density and incapable of projecting anything bright out into the world. Bobby, on the other hand, had been only an infant at the time, and seemed to come out of my mother’s suicide largely unscathed. My father, with the assistance of kindly friends, neighbors, and a charitable promotion back to the home office, managed to make of himself the best father in the Northern Hemisphere, and although he spent plenty of time with me, he lavished even more of his attentions on Bobby. So did Grandma, during the few remaining years of her life, and, believe it or not, I understood this completely. There in that blue-eyed, blond-haired packet of sunshine resided the spark that came down from Olivia MacCorrey Harness, and goddammit, we had to save that spark, because the world would be a lesser place without it.
Bobby was not an especially brilliant student – B average, not bad, not great – but early on he was on icon, a leader of people, and so completely individual it surprises me to this day when I happen on someone else who shares even the vaguest of his traits. In fact, when people would bring up the usual family resemblances – nose, ears, carriage, that kind of thing – I would always shun them aside, because to acknowledge actual blood relations to a son of gods would be to commit hubris and invite more thunderbolts from the blue. And believe me, I have had enough thunderbolts for one lifetime.
Bobby was a rather atypical sort of leader, because he lacked the dishonesty for politics, the cruelty for business, or the competitive drive for athletics. He ended up being the guy you went to when you wanted to figure something out, or even to distract yourself from wanting to figure something out. He had an easy sense of humor that could loosen your muscles, clear your sinuses, and make you breathe easier.
Bobby went to a neighboring state for a pleasantly vague liberal arts degree, then worked his way through a long series of office jobs. He was so instantly likeable that he could get the job after a five-minute interview, but he rarely lasted more than six months before the boredom overtook him and he had to quit.
By the age of twenty-six, he had given up on the idea of a normal career, and began to consider other alternatives. Clearly, what he needed was to be outside somewhere, among people, out in the sun, in a playful, positive environment. And he loved baseball – especially the Boston Red Sox. So he became an umpire. He’d been playing the game all his life, was a pretty decent shortstop, nothing spectacular, but he knew the game, and respected it, so he got through his training quickly and was soon out working the fields like an old pro.
God, he was good. I mean, sure, he blew calls – everybody blows calls – but it was more the way he cultivated the atmosphere of his games. Do you know, in ten years of umpiring, my brother never once threw a guy out of a game? Anytime one of those weekend warriors would get his temper going, my brother had a way of smiling at him, gently chiding, giving a look, cracking a joke, the basic message of which was always, “Isn’t this an absurd little game? But isn’t this a fun little game? Don’t you just love being out here? Could you think of anywhere else you would rather be right now?” And the tough guy would inevitably have to smile back. Bobby was magic.
He especially loved working with kids – Little League, Bobby Sox – because that’s where it all started, you know, that’s where you needed to instill this idea of fun before the screaming parents, the over-zealous coaches and the ill-mannered opposition screw it all up.
In romantic matters, Bobby was about as uncatchable as a good knuckleball. Some girl would have her sights on him, go down to the sporting goods store and purchase one of those special oversize catcher’s mitts, reach out to land him in that big cowhide nest and – whipp! – Bobby would catch a draft and duck right past her, all the way to the backstop.
But that was before Stephanie Millen. Stephanie had a big, big catcher’s mitt, in the shape of a smile, and she was the only person in the world who could contain almost as much sunlight as my brother. She came up in the bottom of the second inning one night, took an appraising glance at the cute umpire, wiggled those tight pinstripe pants of hers – twice toward the pitcher, three times back, the same every time – then got ahold of an outside pitch, drove it into the right-center gap and galloped all the way to third.
Bobby was in love.
The final out of that game took the form of a long fly ball to left-center. Stephanie snapped it into her glove like Barry Bonds and trotted back to the infield, giving the opposing team their “good-game” high fives then handing the ball back to Bobby. After thanking her and extending a full appreciation to Stephanie’s carriage as she walked away to the home dugout, Bobby flipped the ball over in his hands and found handwriting, in bright blue ink, graceful, looping letters describing the easy arc of bloop singles over the stitching. Bosox/Chisox, it read. “Fenway. This Saturday. Want to go? Call me – Stephanie.” Followed by her phone number and a brief P.S.: “Good game, blue.”
Stephanie and Bobby spent the next five years circling around each other like twin suns, and we thought it pretty inevitable that they would get together, have a few little planets, and bring the MacCorrey/Harness spark to another generation.
But we were wrong. There was something about Bobby that we hadn’t counted on, that we’d misread, and every time Stephanie brought up ideas of weddings and family, Bobby put up another wall, until eventually the relationship that had seemed so perfectly equal had tipped entirely in his direction.
Stephanie grew more and more desperate – because she knew there was no one else, it was Bobby or nothing. There could not possibly be another human being who fit so well, who brought so much out of her. But every time she pushed, he pushed back harder, and the contest grew so ugly, the air grew so thin that they began to guard the words that came out of their mouths, until the manner in which they spoke was no deeper than on their second date.
One night, Stephanie showed up at my door, crying manically, destroyed. She had given Bobby an ultimatum, and Bobby had taken it. She would never be more than a girlfriend, he said. They would never marry. They would never have children. And that was just the way it was, and she would have to live with it or leave. So she left, and she came to me.
I don’t think I did it because I hated Bobby, or because I resented the extra attention he got from my father and grandmother. I know those are the classic dime-store explanations, but I really don’t think my motivations went back quite that far. The truth was that I hated Bobby in that moment alone, that I resented the way that he had destroyed Stephanie’s ego, had taken all her light away from her, left her so desperate and diminished. She was in pain, and perhaps the only way for her to get through it, for now, for that one night, was to sleep with Bobby’s big brother.
I don’t know if it did either of us any good, but we were convinced, at the time, that it was worth a try. The next morning I gave her a brotherly kiss on the cheek and sent her on her way, watched her walk to her car with an air of temporary sexual bravado, a step of vengeance, and didn’t see her again until the funeral.
* * *
It was a B-league men’s game – competitive, very competitive. They had to keep the field aerated so the testosterone wouldn’t puddle up on the grass. And there were four home runs allowed per game, per team, so there was a lot of muscle out there, too.
Sammy Fargo was a big, mean 250-pounder with muttonchops and tree-trunk biceps. Sammy was used to hitting balls out of the park maybe every other at-bat, but at some distant outpost in his expansive frame a neuron was misfiring. He’d inexplicably popped up three at-bats in a row. The last had been a wimpy little shot-put to the pitcher, Ned Shoat, who had made matters worse by allowing the ball to strike the infield dirt, waited for the high hop into his bare hand, then rolled the ball on the ground to his first baseman, all while Sammy Fargo stood no more than five feet out of the batter’s box, bat in his hand, thinking murderous thoughts as the steam hissed from his ears.
My brother, God’ gift to umpiring, conducted a quick session of humor calculus at this point, pitting Ned Shoat’s general demeanor (clownish, easy-going) against the need to appease Sammy’s much-injured ego (great), and took three long steps out in front of home plate to make the following declaration: “The batter is out, and the pitcher is a really big asshole!” To which everybody laughed, and once again Bobby Harness had worked his special brand of magic.
But Sammy Fargo wasn’t so mad at Ned Shoat’s hijinks as at his own mis-performing anatomy. When he came up two innings later, bottom of the last inning, tying run on second, and one out remaining, he was deeply attuned to his inner softball torment, instructing his various joints and fibers to relax, to tone down the expectations so he could at least get a nice, easy single, drive that run home, keep his team in the game and dig up a little redemption from an otherwise miserable night.
Ned Shoat may have been a clown, but as a pitcher he was no dummy, and he knew how to pitch to his opponents’ weaknesses. When it came to Sammy Fargo, for instance, most pitchers were happy just to keep him in the park, but Ned Shoat knew of Sammy’s solitary weakness: the big man would occasionally lunge at low pitches, dipping the bathead too low and driving the ball too far up. The thing was, Sammy was also aware of this weakness, so generally you couldn’t get him to swing at a low pitch – but tonight was special, and as Ned put the softball into his glove and tucked it into the wrap of his fingers he knew that Mister Fargo had a little too much adrenaline coursing through his system for his own good.
Ned threw Sammy a low, hump-backed liner, looking riper than a summer peach but headed for a spot three inches in front of the plate. It worked like a charm: Sammy’s over-eager chemicals took over, he lunged at the ball, and, sure enough, lofted a harmless pop-up over by the left-field foul line.
Two things happened. My brother shuffled to the right and straddled a spot just behind the foul line in order to keep an eye on the ball’s flight. The fielders had been playing deep, and you never knew, it might fall in for a Texas Leaguer, and Bobby would have to call it fair or foul.
The other thing was Sammy Fargo, stomping in big hateful steps down the first-base line, shiny silver-colored aluminum bat held upright in his right hand. When he saw the left fielder closing in for the easy catch, Sammy whipped the bat down and to his left, like a tennis player going for a forehand smash. He meant it, I am sure, only as a burst of frustration, a physical outlet for the pain, just to hear the sound of the bat whipping through the air, and then maybe he would bring it back up and slam it to the ground for good measure.
But Sammy’s body had refused to follow his commands all night, and this moment of feeble protest would prove to be no exception. The grip of his right hand, down near the knob of the bat, was not a sure enough grip for the velocity of the racquet-swing, and so, at the very end of this horizontal sweep, the bat broke free, flying off in a low line drive back toward home plate.
And this is the thing. Were my brother looking in any other direction, he might have been okay, but with his eyes fixed on the left field foul line, he was leaving his occipital bone, that part of the skull just above the neck, exposed to Sammy Fargo’s bat. The occipital is the most fragile portion of the skull, the best spot for a flying object to strike directly at the brain stem.
Sammy Fargo’s silver missile took a couple of neat horizontal spins over the chalk of the first base line, then the weight at the hitting end took over and plunged toward my brother’s skull. And hit the occipital, killing him instantly.
A week later, I stood there in a crowd of softball players, some from as far away as a hundred miles. And knowing that the last gesture I had made on his behalf was an act of cheap... stupid vengeance that didn’t really soothe any pain, didn’t really exact any revenge, didn’t accomplish anything at all except to hook its little fifty-pound weights into every square inch of my skin, I watched the Harness family bury its final shaft of sunlight into the ground.
* * *
I had to stop there for a while, maybe ten minutes, maybe twenty, as the moisture seeped from my still-closed eyelids. It was just like I thought – I wasn’t nearly drunk enough. The music that hadn’t gotten out before was boiling up in my stomach, hanging heavy on my ribs. My crying turned into coughing, and I doubled-up on the bed. If Gabriella was there – she wasn’t, I know, but if she was – she followed my instructions and stayed far away from the poison.
Some time later I took a dozen even, careful breaths and rediscovered my voice. I stretched my legs back out and laid my palms flat against the sheets at either side of me for... what? Balance, maybe, the sweet sure embrace of gravity. And I started talking again.
* * *
That’s not the end. That’s not... it. About a month later, after all the media stories had died down, after the police declared the death a freak accident and released Sammy Fargo so he could move somewhere far across the country, my father and I set ourselves to the task of going through Bobby’s possessions. It was a rather imposing job. By the third day, I had worked my way around to the guest bedroom, where Bobby kept all of his trophies.
Now, you wouldn’t think that umpires would get that many trophies, but Bobby was so well-liked by the coaches and players that they were always going out and getting him trophies with their own money. I was toting away the largest one, a three-foot-tall “Umpire of the Year” award from the local Little League, when I felt something shuffling around inside, a strange sort of loose weight that shouldn’t have been there. The center of the trophy took the form of an enclosed, gold-painted cup; I found a seam across the center and figured out that you could unscrew the top and bottom halves. When I opened it up I found cash. Lots of it. Loose bundles of hundred-dollar bills. Thousands upon thousands of dollars. I showed it to my dad, who was wrapping glasses in the kitchen, and we went back upstairs to look some more. We found five other trophies, all hollowed out, all filled with money. The total came to a hundred and twenty three thousand dollars.
We knew immediately that something was wrong. Even the best umpire in the world would not be able to amass that much money, especially an umpire who was making mortgage payments, and even if he had, why would he be hiding it in trophies? Stunned and fearful, my dad and I embarked on a two-day stall, reading newspapers, watching ballgames on TV, running errands, ordering pizzas – anything to distract ourselves from that ominous two-ton question mark hanging in the air.
When we finally got back to it on Monday, we decided to start in on the garage. I don’t know, I guess we thought the garage would be pretty harmless, and about as far away as you could get from all that dirty cash upstairs. I set up a ladder and climbed into the rafters, handing down boxes of Christmas decorations to my dad, who stacked them neatly against a wall for later sorting and delivery to the local thrift store.
After a troublesome wrestling match with a plastic Christmas tree and it’s long, deteriorated cardboard container, I came upon a bunch of boxes containing umpire uniforms. They were each about a foot and a half wide, maybe six inches high, and neatly arranged in stacks of five, about five stacks across. Nothing unusual, but when I pulled aside the first row, I discovered a second row behind them, and doing a quick calculation figured the total number of boxes at fifty. Now, Bobby may have been a hard-working and immaculate umpire, but I couldn’t see why anyone would need fifty uniforms. Clearly, something didn’t add up.
Before I could think about it too much, I took a box off the first stack, set it on a board and lifted up the lid. Underneath the lid I found a light blue shirt and navy blue slacks, both looking as if they had never been worn, and underneath those I found a plastic bag containing a stack of black-and-white photographs.
Kids. It was kids. Young, young kids with each other, with faceless adults, doing anything you could imagine, things that will never, ever leave my mind. And there we had our answer.
My father was destroyed. After lifting the boxes down from the rafters, we stacked them in the center of the garage and just sat there on Bobby’s old equipment chest staring at them, drinking beers and staring at them, afraid to touch them, afraid to say a word, imagining that if we stared at them long enough they might just go away on their own. The silence got too much for me, so I started humming. Songs. Opera songs, from my childhood. Songs I thought I had forgotten. I was afraid it might upset my father, but instead it seemed to revive him. I could see him turning into a soldier, one of those blood-crossed warriors who do their very best in the heat of battle, one of those tough boxers who can’t really fight until they’ve taken a good shot to the face.
We were lucky. Bobby had put in a woodstove a year before. I spent an hour stoking it with logs until it got really hot, then I spent the next ten hours opening up those boxes, taking out those photographs and feeding all that ugliness into the fire, watching the ugliness burst into flames and explode, and every time I undid the latch I would smell that acrid, fish-smelling odor, burnt-rubber photochemicals caking the inside of the stove, shooting smoke out of the flue in a steady column of grilled obscenity. The heat got so bad that I had to strip down to my shorts, and had to keep retreating to the kitchen to splash myself with water. By the end of the day I was drenched with sweat, my skin black with smoke, but I refused to stop till all the ugliness was gone from the house forever.
With the money, we knew that burning it would not be enough. We had to do something to reverse its polarity, to change its evil aura to something better. Dad used to be a tax accountant, a damn crafty one, and he managed to get the money into a checking account under a fictitious business, with me as the sole signatory, using the name Gualtier Maldè. Caro nome. Then he sent me on my way, driving Bobby’s old Pontiac across the country, spreading out this evil substance of my brother’s making in little strips of paper from a red checkbook, to try to find my mother’s sparks again, in little corners of the countryside, in the souls and voices of young singers, to try to get my mother’s sparks to rise up again in great and glorious flames.
It occurred to me, somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, that during that night with Stephanie, I had actually been punishing my brother for what had possibly been his one most civilized act. Somewhere under that well-crafted veneer, he understood what kind of a monster he really was, and knew that he was unfit to marry and bring children into the world. So he told Stephanie no. And we never told her a thing – her dream lover remains intact.
As for me, I will never feel completely clean again, because there was a moment, towards the end of those ten hours spent burning, that will never be washed from me, that will always shadow my thoughts. It was an old wooden wine box, stashed behind all the umpire boxes. It had a wooden slat that slid into the top, and when I pulled it out, I discovered photographs that were bigger than the rest, stacked in batches of ten and kept in protective wax-paper sleeves. There was a certain similarity to all the shots – at least, from what I could make out through the paper. It wasn’t much to go on, just young boys and girls with an anonymous man.
When you’re seven years older than your brother, you tend to see a lot of your brother’s body, because mom is always changing his diapers, and giving him baths, and she certainly doesn’t bother to hide him away, because after all, he’s only an infant. But you’re still a little kid, so you’re kind of fascinated with the way the different parts fit together, and when you ask about a certain peculiarity, a slight imbalance, a small scar, your mother tells you that the doctor had some trouble during the circumcision, nothing harmful, just a little cosmetic defect.
I burned those photographs as quickly as I could, barely able to stand the heat pouring out of the woodstove each time I opened the door. And then I kicked the wine box into pieces, and threw those in, too. Later on, after I’d taken a shower, I looked in the bathroom mirror and discovered I’d singed my eyebrows off.
* * *
I couldn’t go on any further, and I didn’t need to. It was all out now. That final image, my bare, browless face looking back at me like some moon-man prowler, took the remaining wakefulness right out of me, and I fell quickly to sleep.
I woke in another world, maybe two in the afternoon, an extraordinary December sun cutting ribbons of white light through the blinds, and Gabriella next to the bed in a chair, sipping from a cup of tea.
My voice came out raspy and weak, as though little elves had been working the inside of my throat with tiny metal files.
“Bongiorno, Contessa. Come stai?”
“Bene.” She gave me a careful, cat-like smile. “I had a nice walk this morning. I hope you didn’t mind my leaving.”
“No. Not at all.” I slipped a hand from under my pillows, and took her fingers, warm from the teacup.
“What do you want to do today?” I asked.
“Let’s go the art museum, Billy. Let’s go look at beautiful things.”
Photo by MJV