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“Voi che sapete, che chosa è amor,
Donne, vedete s’io l’ho nel cor.”
(“You ladies, who know what love is,
See if it is what I have in my heart.”)
–Cherubino, “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Mozart
Maestro had a beautiful half-acre spread on a bluff overlooking the sound, with a view of North Seattle and a set of stairs down to the beach through piles of rounded steel-blue boulders. Past a row of young cedars on the north side of his property (the island’s old cedars had all been logged out early in the century) was an overlook on Fay Bainbridge State Park, a haven for young campers, old RV’ers and picnicking families who lined up for campsites on weekend mornings and spent the rest of the afternoon combing the shoreline for driftwood, flying kites and shouting their way through games of volleyball and frisbee. Maestro didn’t seem to mind the hubbub too much – partly because the cliff on that side of his property defied traversal, but mostly because, in his words, “It brings LIFE... to my house. I hear the SWEET... voices of children ALL... through the day.”
Gabriella found me resting on Maestro’s back deck, blowing the steam from a cup of tea while sizing up a stack of freshly purchased two-by-six planks.
“Are we puzzled?” she asked, sneaking up on me.
“Gabriella!” I said, with all necessary Italian flourishes. “Bongiorno! And Si, Rosina, I am puzzled.”
She leaned down to grant me a kiss on my cold forehead. “I saw your fences out front. They’re lovely! I felt like I was on the set of ‘Bonanza.’”
“‘La Fanciulla del West,’ actually,” I replied. “Maestro first saw them on the flats at La Scala – or so the story goes. Soon after sailing in to San Francisco, he took a trip to the country, saw the real thing on a ranch in Sonoma County, and vowed to have some of his own someday. Do you know what split rail fences are made of?”
Gabriella perched on my stack of two-by-sixes as only a soprano can perch, gave me her familiar squint and made the sarcastic reply. “This is going to sound kinda radical, but – split... rails?”
“Yes!” I said, exactly like Maestro, with a little touch of expelled air at the end. “But tell me, did you ever fully process that idea before? Whole lot of railroads in the West, lotsa extra rails sittin’ around, whattya gonna do with ‘em? Hey, I know, let’s take an axe to them suckers, split ‘em in two, drive a couple into the ground, stack the ends brick-a-brack just like Lincoln Logs and Voila! Fences! And you don’t even need nails.”
Gabriella gave me a rainwater smile and beckoned for my tea. I surrendered my orange ceramic mug to her eminence and she took a sip, letting it nestle against her throat. “Maestro was right. You did need some work. I can feel the energy shooting out from your face. All pink and healthy.”
“It’s my Scottish blood,” I said. “And the setting doesn’t hurt, either.”
“Si, Guglielmo.” She turned her gaze to a spot between the cedars, through which she could see children in the park below, a half-dozen towheaded pre-teens setting up a volleyball net over a spread of wood chips. “Maestro bought this place back in the mid-seventies. Twenty thousand bucks. Family named Newport, working their way backwards from Alaska to Indiana. So what’s he got you doing now?”
“Well.” I knocked twice on the surface of the deck. “You notice this little isle o’ wood we’re sitting upon.”
“Ja. I have spent many a half-hour here, waiting for my lessons.”
“Il Professore was having yours truly replace a few rotted-out planks and then water-seal the thing – something that he should have had done years ago, by the way – and it got to looking so nice, that he thought it would be wonderful, on those rare occasions when it rains in these parts, to be able to come out to this spot without trudging through the mud. Quoth he – I dropped my jaw, raised a backward set of fingers and went into my Maestro-voice – “On rainy days, you know... I like to WATCH... as the CHILDREN... play on the beach, and the BOATS... come by. But I am an old man... you know. I cannot get my FEET...” (here I paused for a ridiculous amount of time) “WET.”
“Ooh, that’s scary,” said Gabriella. “You know, for a minute there, you just became an old Italian man.”
“Honey, after I finish this project, I’m going to feel like an old Italian man. I mean, well, it’s like this: I have to take those twenty or so concrete piers in the corner there, sink them into the ground between here and the back door, level them, link them up with pressurized four-by-fours, level those, then take those planks beneath your derriere and nail them into place. And because Maestro is an ARTIST, and has STYLE – he wants this little walkway to curve back and forth like a Death Valley sidewinder. Which means I’ll have to take this rusty old Skil saw of his and cut about half of these planks diagonally – end to end.”
Gabriella released bright staccato leaps of laughter like she was singing “Gianni Schicci” and someone had just put a hand up her dress. “Oh God, Billy. What have I gotten you into?”
“Work,” I said. “Hard labor. Indentured servitude. It’s all right. It’s the least I can do to pay back the kindnesses afforded to me by his prima donna. And I sort of like it, you know? It’s right there in your hands. You can own this kind of work, you can look at it afterwards, wave your hands in its general direction and say, ‘See? Here. This is what I’ve done.’”
“I’m glad,” said Gabriella with a smile.
“And the pay is my favorite blackberry tea and, at lunchtime, turkey pesto sandwiches on Dutch crunch bread. So what brings you here? Lessons?”
“No. Meeting. The publicity committee.”
“Hmmm. You actually do run this company, don’t you?”
“It seems that way, sometimes. I can’t seem to help myself.”
“You know what you need?” I said. “You need photos.”
“Yes. That’s what editors need most, you know. You really don’t have to knock them out with how many times you’ve performed Mimi at The Met – but if you can give them pretty pictures to make their newspaper look good, then you’re talking their language. And as a reader, pray tell me, what’s the first thing you look at when you open the newspaper?”
“There you go.”
Gabriella heard a sound and cast her eyes toward the water; a small fishing boat was chugging southward, cutting shaving cream slices into the sound. “You know a photographer who works cheap?”
I reached out a hand and guided her face back my way. “Yes,” I said. “You got a good old-fashioned thirty-five millimeter? No autofocus or any of that other amateur shit?”
“Well. You got a photographer.”
“And an umpire,” she said, and smiled. I would pay many lira for that smile.
“And apparently, a carpenter,” I said.
She rose from her perch and shook down her peasant dress, a fabric salad of gray curlicues and cinnamon roses, then gave me an appraising look, like a visual tarp thrown over the whole of me. (I could feel the Countess already gaining hold of her movements.) “Is there anything you don’t do, Guglielmo?”
“Sing,” I said. “I don’t sing.”
* * *
I asked Rocky to blast every light he had while Gabriella assembled the troops onstage. A couple of junior sopranos (one the 16-year-old Asian girl that Gabriella had warned me about) caught me near the back of the theater and pleaded with me to avoid several parts of their costumes that weren’t quite done yet. I promised to try, and shuffled over to a table next to Maestro’s unoccupied throne to load in my film (unwilling to bet on Il Professore’s antique flash, I was shooting 400-speed film and betting on the stage lights instead). Gabriella swam by in a pink period dress four times her natural girth, and asked if I was ready yet.
I hadn’t seen “Figaro” for ten years (the Chicago Lyric, Ramey and von Stade), and was actually a little fuzzy on the plot details, so I was grateful when Joe, a burly, light-skinned black baritone who was playing the Count, took charge of the cast. I noted that Joe was wearing sandals, but, having no great urge to shoot his feet, anyway, made a mental note to forgo making a mental note. Although the troupe had not yet gotten past music-only rehearsals, they appeared to be well-versed in the opera’s many tight situations and sharp corners, and required little coaching to present some lively vignettes for my lens: Figaro and Susanna exchanging loving fiancetic glances; the Countess cringing under the Count’s accusing stare; the Count subsequently stealing a kiss from Susanna; Marcellina and Bartolo presenting Figaro’s old marriage contract, et cetera. Beyond an occasional complaint regarding the sauna-like combination of bright lights and big costumes, they were impeccably well behaved. And I had only to frame, focus and snap. Within a half-hour, I was nearing the end of my roll.
It was only during the more complicated arrangements of the full-ensemble shots that I had occasion to notice Cherubino, swaggering her way into many a trouser-role squat at the feet of her beloved Countess. She was wearing the most complete outfit on the stage (which she’d brought herself), a dashing royal blue silk waistcoat with long, sharp swallow tails, lemon-yellow breeches and a white vest, Napoleanic tri-cornered cap and ruffled lace cuffs bursting from her sleeves.
I knew her. And I wondered why, and from where. I ran a mental inventory, drawing up pieces like a police sketch artist. A shock of thick, straight coal-black hair. Big, round, Lucille Ball eyes. Thin nose and a slender, asymmetrical face, with modest, elastic lips set into an unbalanced smirk that, much like Maestro’s deck, never seemed to hit level. And all this in the span of three seconds as Joe the baritone finished sorting out the troupe.
“Okay, everybody,” I called out, one eye to the viewfinder. “Say, ‘Mozart should have written shorter operas, dammit!’”
To a one, they tried to repeat the whole thing through their stage smiles, and succeeded only in cracking themselves up, breaking into loose-lipped, open-mouthed laughter and giving me my best shot of the afternoon. When the film advance stopped halfway on the next crank, I told them, “Thank you for coming. We will notify you of the judge’s final decision,” and watched them ramble offstage in groups of two and three. And also took note of the pleasant curve of Cherubino’s small rump framed in those yellow breeches (perhaps I was remembering what it was to be male).
* * *
“Who is your Cherubino, Gabi? Was she in ‘Barber’?”
Gabriella cut her eyes back from a depth chart of the Puget Sound channels and clucked at me in imperial fashion (more Countess).
“Of course not, Guglielmo. Wouldn’t you know her if she was? You only missed three performances.”
“But I do know her. That’s why I’m asking.”
“Well in any case, I think Jersey’s got a boyfriend back in New York.” She waited just a beat before adding, “Alex is unattached.”
I slapped my ferry schedule against my thigh. “But I don’t know Alex.”
“And you don’t know Cherubino, either, so what’s the problem?”
“But I know Cherubino. And she looked like she knew me.”
Gabriella peered out the station window, then came to my bench and gave me a hug. “That’s my boat. Thanks again for doing the photos; I’ll let you know how they come out. Oh, and if you’re going to ask out Jersey, Billy, keep it discreet, would you?”
“But that’s not the... oh, forget it,” I relented. “Have a nice crossing.” I kissed her hand and watched her skip to the end of the walkway. At the very end, she stopped and called back in my direction.
“By the way! Maestro wants you to move in with him!”
Then she disappeared. She does these things on purpose, I thought. I picked up Maestro’s photo bag and headed for the exit.
* * *
One week later, I woke up in my new digs, a charming little cottage on Maestro’s back forty that, years before, used to be a garage. It was certainly a nice change from the hotel, where the constantly fluctuating tenants made one feel a little numb and impersonal after a while. It was also nice to stop throwing away money that was more properly intended for young singers. I had already strayed far from my mission.
The rent at Maestro’s, in fact, was completely cashless, a straight-ahead barter for services rendered. I had completed the walkway to the back deck, a pleasant assemblage of S-curves paying tribute to my artistic instincts and my aching spine, and Maestro so enjoyed the results that he assigned me to construct another one, this time from the back deck to my own cottage door. The project was progressing satisfactorily – I had managed to sink all necessary piers, and had laid down half of the four-by-fours – but Saturday came with an impeccably clear early-October sky and, feeling like I had contributed enough labor for my week’s keep, I commandeered Maestro’s rusty old ten-speed for a long ride into Winslow. After a hearty late breakfast of Cajun sausage and scrambled eggs at the Streamliner Diner, I wheeled down to the theater and, detecting some sort of movement inside, slipped in to check out the action.
Accompanied by the skinny pianist and the company’s new conductor, a short young Italian man with a pencil-thin moustache, Joe the baritone was huffing across the stage in jeans and black leather jacket, complaining to Susanna about having discovered his page Cherubino in a compromising position with his housemaid, Barbarina. He gripped the edge of a sheet covering an armchair to illustrate to Susanna just the way he had discovered the young scoundrel hiding under a tablecloth, and revealed, naturally enough, Cherubino himself, this time hiding in the armchair. Cherubino grimaced and ducked his head in anticipation of the coming blows.
Several minutes later, Jersey strolled out of the entrance curtains at stage right, dressed in brown cords, a white sweater, and her royal blue silk waistcoat – an odd ensemble, by anyone’s standards. She walked straight up the aisle and settled into the seat next to mine.
“I know this sounds like a line, Bill, but don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“No, but I know you from somewhere.”
She cocked her eyes at me, and chuckled quietly. “You too, huh?”
She waited until the Countess finished the first phrase of “Porgi Amor,” then said, “Isn’t this odd? Because I really haven’t, actually, met you before. But I do know you, don’t I?”
“Exactly,” I said. “Doesn’t happen every day.” I admired Gabriella sweeping across the stage, pretending to be wearing something much larger than she was (“It’s sort of like kayaking,” she said. “You have to allow for about a five-foot wake.”), then turned to find Cherubino, er, Jersey, admiring her also.
“She’s got ‘it,’ doesn’t she?”
“I think so,” I answered. “But you’ve got some of ‘it,’ yourself. Plus maybe a little Red Skelton.”
“And Harpo Marx?”
“And Carol Burnett,” I added.
“Ooh!” she smiled. “She’s my favorite.”
“And that first aria – what is it?”
“‘Non so più.’“ she said. “‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio.’ ‘I no longer know what I am or what I’m doing.’”
“That was gorgeous. You have such a creamy-smooth tone – and divine sense for dynamics. That second repetition of the last line there, um... ‘Parlo d’amor...’”
“‘Parlo d’amor con me.’”
“Yes, the way you back down on that – mmm, beautiful. And even early on, the same thing with the last line of the chorus, ‘Ogni donna mi fa... palpitar.’ (Every woman makes me tremble.)”
Gracious, Bill, that is so great that you notice things like that; do you know how long I’ve worked on those two lines alone?”
“Hours, I’d guess.”
“Days. Hmm.” She took a look at the stage and adjusted the collar of her waistcoat. “It’s time for me to do some more hiding. Been a pleasure meeting you again, Bill.”
She extended a hand; I held it for a moment. “Does Cherubino get any time off?”
“Tomorrow,” she said.
“How’d you like to go on a day trip?”
Jersey smiled in several directions all at once. “Love to. One catch, though.”
“Got a husband.”
Considering the brief span of real time that actually passed, I had an enormous amount of mental time to consider all facets of this news. Ordinarily this situation would present one of the great male dilemmas: would you really want to spend an entire day with an attractive woman without the possibility (no matter how slim) of getting laid? Or the opposite: would you really be willing to look like such a cad that you would say no? The answer was surprisingly obvious.
“Bene. I’ll meet you at Pegasus. Nine o’clock.”
And watching the flaps of Cherubino’s glossy waistcoat float off to the entrance like a half-man, half-woman, half-bluejay, I thought, of course. When you meet someone you already know, you should always take the time to get to know them.
Photo by MJV