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In the final year of our great sad story, mom would spend her weekday mornings in the backyard, tending to her prize rose bushes. Roses were a little too hardy for such an avid gardener. They required not half the daily attentions she would like to have lavished, but it was enough for mom just to pay a visit. She would talk to them, of course, and, depending upon how long you’d been gone, she’d let out quiet musical sighs, or hum, or sing perhaps, and sometimes she’d scare off a tribe of aphids with a lively burst of descending “Traviata” laughter – Ah... ha-ha-ha-ha! – and a backhand flick across the leaves.
In the months from mid-spring to late summer, mom was joined in the backyard by a mockingbird, a particularly energetic, vocally versatile specimen who liked to hang out on the telephone wire running from the eaves over the kitchen to the pole behind the bottlebrush. Using his long gray tailfeathers to balance himself, he would spend the day rolling out a running repertoire of whistles, cheeps, clicks and caws. Mother immediately named him Mario del Mockingbird (after Mario del Monaco, a frequent tenor co-star of Renata Tebaldi’s), and for years she tried to engage Mario in conversation. For a long time, she failed; Mario seemed much more interested in the calls of other birds, as well as the occasional cat, dog, airplane, police siren or creaking gate.
On a morning in late May, however, she struck gold, claiming to have elicited a direct response with a little run from Rossini (“Guillaume Tell,” I think), delivered in a Minnie Mouse tone, much like the traditional marinara chirping of Susanna in “Figaro.” Once she had established this beachhead, Mom was determined to cast Mario into a broad scientific exploration of inter-species intercourse. Through the mornings of June and July, at least whenever you were gone on your trips, she would pull out every bird-like sound she could muster, every operatic quote, warm-up gimmick (mee-may-maw-moh-moo), messin’-around sound effect, mutter, bark or squeal, and on the infrequent occasions when Mario responded in kind, she would add it to their growing mutual vocabulary. Among the operas, Mario displayed a general preference for baroque and classical – Monteverdi, Purcell, Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini – and rarely ventured into the romantic. Verdi and Puccini were particularly ignored, their vocal lines being much too obviously human, but there were exceptions: a snatch of Strauss from “Der Rosenkavalier,” for instance, and even a little instrumental interlude from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila.”
In late July, mere weeks before Mario’s annual departure, I tiptoed around the corner of the house to find Mom on mud-caked knees in front of her pièce de résistance, a citrusy explosion of orange and yellow blossom known simply as “Gala.” Mario was perched five feet away, shuffling back and forth like a Vaudeville soft-shoer atop a trellis of passion vine, and for the next ten minutes the two of them carried on an amazing tennis match of twitters, beeps and splendorous songburst. It struck me that Mario wasn’t precisely echoing Mother’s offerings; it was more like he was offering birdish continuations, his expert opinions of where the line should proceed from there.
Being a nine-year-old boy, I inevitably lost patience – even with a scene straight out of Disney – and made my presence rudely known by grinding a foot into the gravel of the garden path. Mother turned around at an instant, and Mario hopped away to his telephone wire. Far from being irritated, Mom broke into a broad smile at my approach and spread her arms wide, pulling me into a deep, rocking embrace.
“Buongiorno, figlio mio! You surprised me! I was telling Mario del Mockingbird what a good little boy you were, and you know, he didn’t believe me! He said there could not possibly be a boy that good in the entire world.”
I didn’t say anything, partly because, in thrusting my head over my mother’s shoulder, I had planted my nose straight into the rice-paper folds of the biggest Gala rose I had ever seen. I inhaled its overwhelming tangelo scent and tried not to sneeze.
Mother let out a long, faltering glissando of a sigh and said, “I think sometimes, Billy, that I am Lucia di Lammermoor, and that Mario is my crazy flute. I will miss him so much when he goes.”
Some years later, these late-winter mornings of my Northwest exile, my own personal mockingbird is a willowy redhead with Lauren Bacall’s eyes and a lock on the remnants of my heart. Now that we are neighbors, I can see (I can hear) that Gabriella is a musical balloon, letting out song in a slow leak that lasts the whole day long. Though my cottage sits a good fifty feet from her room, I awaken to her showertime murmurings and unidentified sprinklings of phrases that echo off the tiles and sneak out like tiny insects through the windowscreen (and yes, apparently opera singers do sing in the shower). Through the remainder of her toilette, as she picks out her day’s wardrobe, she runs through scales in a roughshod manner, pausing whenever she has to put on a sweater or a shoe, or extend all four limbs in a cat-like, full-body stretch.
After that, she paces to the kitchen, from which place emanates the percussive clinkings of the teapot, water running in the sink, the gathering metal-play of flatware as she readies her tea and breakfast. The accompaniment here is a dozen troublesome lines from Tosca, oft-repeated, hammered in like blacksmith etchings on the orange-hot iron of her memory bank, half-voice, just for the sound of them, just for the words (next to the sheer athleticism of the singing, this is what I cannot fathom about opera singers, the sometimes three-hours-plus of precisely timed, pitched and enunciated words, words, words). I’ll admit, too, that this is one phase of my spywork that gets a little irritating, but if I take it all in as a malleable mass of sound, it doesn’t seem so bad (I’m sure those who attend Philip Glass concerts do the same).
By this time, I am ready for some overt reconnaissance, so I pull on a sweatshirt and take in the thirty-one raindrops between my cottage and Maestro’s kitchen door for my morning tea and visit. This particular morning, I find Gabriella in her Pegasus outfit – khaki pants, white blouse, black tennies – seated at Maestro’s timeworn Baldwin, picking out notes from her score of Tosca. (The score is her sole foray into the visual arts, a reckless collage of the singer’s media triumvirate: highlighter, pencil, post-it note. Lose it and she would be lost.)
When she seems satisfied with her studies, she settles into a long, empty stare out the picture window, the little kid from around the corner tossing the local weekly onto Maestro’s front drive, seagulls painting a jumbled spiral against the gray sky, and Gabriella inside, ignoring everything, letting all the neuromusical signals boil down into the reptilian southlands of her mind. After two or three minutes she blinks twice, smiles, and greets me as though I have just come through the door, as though I have not been there patiently waiting for the past fifteen minutes. She accelerates quickly from niceties into gossip – our favorite morning genre – as she straddles a stool and affords me bracing country looks from across the counter.
Evidently, the cast from “Figaro” was one of those rare productions which produced an absolute void of backstage scandal (which is probably why they’re all still friends). With “Tosca,” however, they are threatening to make up for lost time. The primary issue seems to be our baritone Joe, whose casting as Baron Scarpia has apparently gone to his head. The State Ferry regulars have all met Jagoda, the sweet little Serbian florist from Tacoma with whom Joe has been involved for some five years (and whose name, pronounced YAH-go-dah, means “strawberry,” which I find entirely enchanting). Which is why we’re all a little perturbed at his expanding flirtations with Lynn-Marie, the 18-year-old Dutch foreign exchange student who is acting as an assistant to our conductor, Antonio. I can’t entirely blame Joe, since I myself have laid guilty dirty-old-man eyes on Lynn-Marie and found her pretty irresistible, but I cannot approve of her as a replacement for Jagoda, who in any case deserves better treatment.
The less virulent gossip centers on Diego, the flaming gay tenor who has been squandering flurries of Italian-mama cheek-pinchings and transparent compliments on a unanimously hetero men’s chorus. Beyond a little initial discomfort, however, Diego’s pretty harmless. I myself spent a post-rehearsal gathering answering numerous leading questions regarding the non-development of my relationship with the lovely Gabriella (I believe his words were, “Maybe you’re fishing on the wrong side of the creek, bubbie”), and was honestly more flattered than offended.
On occasion, after I drive Gabriella to her job, I accept her offer of a complimentary latte, sit in the corner under my “Aida” poster, and am quickly astonished at how completely she has abandoned her hard-ass Cafe Trademark personality. Whether it be the calling out of orders, a greeting to regular customers, or just idle chatter with co-workers, what comes out of Gabriella’s mouth is just as likely to be sung as spoken. She has clearly reassigned herself to her true identity, and doesn’t seem the least bit self-conscious about people’s reactions. It seems as if her persona is at last catching up to her talent.
The only truly ugly moments in Gabriella’s mockingbird recitals come every other day, just before her late-afternoon sessions with Maestro, when she spends a full twenty minutes letting out the most horrible hacksaw lightning bolt cat-on-a-rack screams – a process she refers to as “taming the monster.” My reward for this traumatic domestication process comes soon after, when the full blossom of Gabriella’s opera-level voice spreads its arms over the grasses and stones of Cape Umbra (for that is what we call it) and noodles every ‘skeeter and cricket into sympathetic vibration. It’s a wonderful thing.
I make a point at this time of wandering out to Maestro’s deck, rain or shine, to further my slow progress on his Chartres labyrinth as I listen to the great cascade of notes filtering from his studio. My need to listen to this voice is insatiable; given a choice, I would donate a pint of blood for each five minutes of song. More than a few times I have caught the faces of children peeking from behind the young cedars at Maestro’s camp-side border, curious children who heard momentous sounds pouring out of the sky and scrabbled up the supposedly unscalable cliff to investigate. I pretend not to see them, and not to hear them later as they return to camp, trying to conjure sounds as big as those produced by the unseen opera singer.
Tonight, as Gabriella wraps up the final touches on Tosca’s great lament, “Vissi d’arte” (she first sang it when she was ten – did I tell you that?), I am out here placing luminous chunks of white quartz along my carefully penciled-out pathways. This is her last night of lessons for a while – the cast is headed into stage rehearsals this Monday – and I want to reward her with a stroll through these narrow, looping lanes: the way in for peace, the way out for life.
And I’m sure you know, Papà, that I am looking for more from this tiny Stonehenge than the mere entertainment of my neighbors. I don’t want to worry you, but the expulsion of Bobby’s final ill-gottens, combined with my one and only telling of his story, have not brought the great healing that I thought they might. I have to admit that I am a mess of a man, reduced to playing with tinkertoys, and I can only hope that if I hold on to these deck-bound dentures long enough, something in this odd, death-strewn life of mine might come together.
Don’t worry, mio babbino caro. I am not thinking Butterfly thoughts. I am the last Harness left, and to take that from you would be more evil and harsh than anything else I could think of. But I need to know: when does the devil’s mark finally get taken up from our family’s doorstep? When does the singing return?
Please write to me. I know that you find writing a great labor, but because of this your words come to me as strong and well-fashioned stones. I like to pile them up in the cottage, under a photo of Freni, next to my clock, just to remind me that you are still around, still with me.
Ciao, Papà. Take care.