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We journeyed to the great brick eye of the new Museum of Modern Art, which may not have been the best place to go for “beautiful things,” necessarily – but there were certainly things that intrigued. Arriving on the third floor, we were greeted with the sight of an infant on the ground, placed at the center of a gold star, surrounded by concentric rings of faceless, coal-black standard poodles – hundreds of them, identical, standing at perfect symmetrical attention, all of them facing directly toward the baby. Their neutral expressions gave no great hint at whether they were on guard or preparing for attack (contrary to the modern stereotype, standard poodles can be loyal, even fierce, watchdogs). Gabriella found it a little eerie, but for my part I could not keep my eyes off of it. After ten minutes of this careful study, Gabriella cried uncle and dragged me off to the permanent collection, where our first sighting was of a huge, gaudy ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles.
Our day and our energies were very short, but a late morning’s sleep the next day inspired us to venture out for a round of Christmas shopping at Union Square. Along one of the small side alleyways, Gabriella found a little fashion store that specialized in accessories, and was soon waving her arms like Leonard Bernstein over a table of half-priced scarves. The scarf, of course, is the de rigeur rehearsal-hall item for any serious opera singer – for reasons of function as well as style – so to Gabriella this was the mother lode, the answer to most of her Christmas-shopping needs. She bought a different scarf for each and every principal from “Figaro,” taking a full hour and a half to carefully weigh such matters as coloring, personal taste, even roles played. Jersey, for example, was quickly matched with a nautical silk number the exact sun-yellow and royal blue as Cherubino’s first-act waistcoat and trousers. Joe, who had made no secret that he was dying to play Otello, would soon find himself cloaked in a banner of deep umber, with wild slashes of burnt sienna straight out of Morocco. As for Maestro, ever the classicist, he was destined to have his neck wrapped in a silver number with embroidered art-deco geometrics of gun-metal gray, with a backside of soft raven-black fabric.
After she had filled up a large bag with this textilian loot, Gabriella banished me from the store – I suspect because I was her next target. I went out into the steel-gray overcast and cut the square in a diagonal path to the lobby of the St. Francis. I stationed myself in a high-backed armchair upholstered in blue and gold flowers, ordered a martini and listened to an old black pianist playing jazzified renditions of Christmas songs: “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and, believe it or not, “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?” from Handel’s “Messiah.” All done with a jaunty swing beat – I’m still not sure how he pulled that off, but he did.
It wasn’t until a half hour later, as I was paying my bill and heading off for the Square, that I recalled my big fat lies to Stephanie two nights before at the Opera House. I had inadvertently placed myself right in the line of fire, right where I had told her I would be spending the weekend. Nevertheless, I escaped without incident, met Gabriella at our appointed rendezvous at the ice skating rink, and took her for a dinner of seafood at Pier 39.
On the ride back to the hotel, Gabriella seemed to recognize the haze of dark memory still gathered around my head like a cumulus baseball cap. Her eyes brightened, and she suggested we cancel our plane tickets, rent a car and dawdle our way up the coast back to Bainbridge. At this point, I was agreeable to just about anything, I enjoyed the idea of sea breezes wafting in through the car window, and I also thought it sweet that Gabriella would think of new ways to rid me of my money, even though she was now aware of its evil origin. So I said yes.
We started out on a foggy Monday morning, and by the time we reached the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, I could already feel the layers of crust loosening on my skin. By the time we reached Gualala, on the Sonoma coast, the sun had kicked off its morning blankets of cloud and was giving us a full bath. We tooled up a lush green detour past hillside fields of cows and sheep, sheep and cows. Gabriella popped in a CD of Renata Tebaldi’s favorite arias and sang along full blast, creating a kind of stereophonic sound not available in any store, singing “Selva opaca” from “Guglielmo Tell” as we tooled onto the farmland flats in search of Mendocino. I noticed how the sound of La Tebaldi and La Gabriella were beginning to meld, how her voice was beginning to take on the same buttery breadth and rounded low tones of our favorite Italiana. I counted myself a lucky ragazzo to be in their presence. Still, it was going to take something more than great singing to crumble the tectonic plates of my brother’s sins.
A half hour later, I was wrapping my road-sore fingers around a downhill curve toward Fort Bragg, listening to Sinatra singing “The Summer Wind,” when I spotted a large, brown, rather whale-shaped creature embarking on a low flight just over the road, barely clearing an oncoming sportscar. Twenty seconds later, as we were passing that identical spot, I glanced to the roadside just in time to catch a blue-green blob heading directly for the side window of our minivan. The blob hit with a loud thwack! and shook Gabriella from her shallow slumber.
“What the hell was that?”
“I’m not positive,” I said. “But I think we’ve just been hit by a turkey”
It must have been a glancing blow; a look in the rear-view mirror didn’t reveal any feathered corpses, and a few miles later, when we stopped to inspect our vehicle, we were unable to find any blood, plumage, or even a recognizable point of impact. We concluded that our fowl flyer had somehow bounced clear of us and continued his way across the road. (We confirmed our story later with a local bed-and-breakfast proprietor who said there were, indeed, wild turkeys in the area, and that they were, indeed, excessively stupid.)
In the end, I think there was something about this surprise attack that knocked something loose in my guts, some little tremor of silly haphazard poultry terrorism forcing me to acknowledge that, outside of mathematics, things are not obligated to come to some kind of reasonable solution, that one side of the equal sign does not always come out the same as the other. Sometimes, for no reason at all, wild turkeys fly into the side of your minivan.
I also found myself being followed around by writing instruments. No kidding. We climbed to the top of a seastack at Patrick’s Point, just north of Eureka, and I found a ball-point pen. Sitting on a seawall outside the botanical gardens in Charleston, Oregon, I looked down to find a hunter-green pencil etched with merry silver snowmen. Outside an ice cream parlor in Florence, just beyond the Dunes National Monument, I opened my door to find a fountain pen waiting for me on the asphalt, mapped out in finely drawn portraits of kitty-cats.
What was all this supposed to mean? I didn’t know, and I didn’t actually care, but I was thankful for the intrigue, the distraction of details, and the little homeless tubes of ink waiting for my arrival, inviting me to write someone a letter.
We concluded our second day of driving at Newport, two and a half hours south-southwest of Portland, and in the morning we walked the widest flattest beach I’ve ever encountered, a veritable desert of a beach, a dozen football fields to the water. We walked until our feet ached, until we hit a ring of rocky tidepools with mussel shells the size of small fans and anemones tight as fists, pockmarked with shellbits, waiting for the next tide to loosen up their flowered innards.
* * *
I wish I could say that all of these inobvious wonders turned me into some kind of constellation-watching, rock-collecting, flower-naming optimist, but once we returned to Bainbridge I was bound to slip back downhill. My mother’s story, after all, had been tragic but noble, 100 percent sympathetic, a prime candidate for non-profit grants from the American Catharsis Society. My brother’s story – that was different. It was poisonous, and once spoken was bound to set off nasty chemical reactions with Methuselan half-lives. I was in for the mother of long hauls.
For one thing, the winter mist had steadily gained weight until it worked its way up to winter rain, dripping unceasingly from the sky for days at a stretch, too warm to produce entertaining snow, too cold to do anyone any damn good. I stayed in my little cottage and listened to tape after tape of Wagner from the Bainbridge Library; I also tried to read several classic volumes that Maestro had stashed away in his closet – “Walden Pond,” “Bleak House,” “The Brothers Karamazov” – but consistently lost interest at or near the hundredth page.
The worst of it came in mid-December, when Gabriella left for Vancouver, where she had picked up a gig singing Rosalinda in a New Year’s Eve production of “Die Fledermaus.” Even though it was only a single performance, it was one of the company’s biggest fundraisers, so the singers were obligated to rehearse as if they were presenting a crisply professional month-long run. I received postcards every two or three days, and on Christmas day I opened her present, a beautiful pair of replica art-deco opera glasses, modeled on a New York design from the thirties. But nothing could replace her voice.
I knew what I needed; I needed work. But the one job I had – those rambling plank walkways just outside my window, crying out for the companionship of hedges – was something I could not possibly undertake in this kind of weather.
That Thursday night, I arrived at the low tide of my exile. I had wasted the entire day in an on-again, off-again slumber, aided in no small order by a completely non-descript overcast, dark enough to wipe all sense of time from the sky. Finally the dark had turned to nighttime, and I was passing the time feeding logs into my woodstove, staring at the smoked-over orange glass with dead, nerveless eyes. I had just turned on Maestro’s old radio, searching for a broadcast of “Aida” from the Met, when a series of crisp, rhythmic tappings came at the door. It was the landlord himself – I could make out his long fishhook nose and the sharp, rough outline of his mouth through the criss-cross puzzle of the door’s tiny window. His very appearance brought a smile to me.
“Maestro! Buona sera! Come in – I have a fine fire for you.”
“Bene, bene,” said Maestro. He walked slowly to a rocking chair, measuring each step, left and right and left, and slid himself into it by careful two-inch descents.
“You will... excuse me,” he said, just above a whisper. “I have just FINISHED... my last... lesson. I am very... tired. It is that RODRIGO. Always below the note, NEVER... on top. He thinks he is a JAZZ... singer, he thinks he is SINATRA. He can creep up from under like he is singing ‘Witchcraft,” and the girls swoon. He is a NOTE-hunter, he is a Spanish cat, he is a SHARK. He will be good, however. This much I know. His throat has been kissed by God. That is what... I tell myself. Oy.”
Maestro slumped back in his chair, rocked it back a few inches and took a long, gathering breath (you could almost hear him counting off the beats, as he would with one of his students). Then he passed his eyes over to where I sat, on a stool, next to my woodstove altar.
“And you, my friend. How are you? Come stai?”
I weighed Maestro’s questions in either hand – the Italian question, the English question (they are never quite the same) – and decided it was best for me not to lie. This was Maestro Umbra, after all, and like Santa he knew things. He only asked as a matter of etiquette.
“I am not so well, Maestro.”
“You miss Gabriella.”
“Yes. And there are other things – but I cannot tell you.”
Maestro blinked slowly. I could see the wonderful old veins on his eyelids, the inside that comes out with age. “I understand these things.” He gathered his hands and held his long fingers pad-to-pad under his chin. “Gabriella is your angel, is she not?”
I picked up a section of birch from the woodpile – quarter-rest slashes of black on startling chalk-white bark – and drew it into my lap like a small child. “My angel, my muse, my siren. I cannot seem to find a single mythological figure to encompass her, Professore. How would I put this? I am a man who is constructed of Swiss cheese; I started out just fine, but as I matured there came certain agents, certain yeasts and bacteria, that caused me to form great gaping holes. Gabriella’s voice – and Gabriella herself – she helped fill them in. Not completely – I’m afraid nothing could do that – but she makes them smaller, she enables me to walk around like a facsimile of a real human being, and most of all, she gives me something to believe in.”
Maestro nodded slowly, so slowly that I could separate the ups from the downs. I cranked open the woodstove and settled my birch baby over the coals, watching the white bark take flame. When I turned back Maestro had shut his eyelids, but the pressure of my attention brought them back up.
“I know for a FACT... that Gabriella is an angel,” he said. “BECAUSE... because... she wanted to cancel... her opera, this ‘Fledermaus,’ so that she might stay with you. You have opened up an old wound for her sake, she said, and it will not heal... quickly. And I will tell you this, Guglielmo: this ‘Fledermaus,’ it will make Gabriella MUCH more money than she makes at the café, or at the State Ferry Opera, and it is a good company, a good contact. THAT... is how much she cares for you. But ME... I don’t care for you quite so much. Because I tell Gabriella NO... you cannot go back on your word to the company – that will TAINT... your reputation, and I... will not allow that to happen. But you go, I tell her, and I... will keep an eye on your friend.”
His hand flared up in a sweep worthy of a Mozart overture.
“SO. Here I am, and I have a story for you. Gabriella tells me you saw Licia Albanese in San Francisco.”
“Yes. We did.”
“Good! I will tell you a story about Albanese. In Italia, you see, opera singers... they are like Olympic gymnasts. We find them at a very young age, and we bring them UP... in the art. That is why they are so good. That is also why, in AMERICA... you have great baseball players, no?”
“I know this, because this summer I see a game of Little League. Very impressive. Well. ALBANESE... was apprenticed to a small touring company, and by the age of SEVENTEEN... she had learned four or five major roles. Not PERFORMED them, you see, but she knew them. Now. She was on tour with this company, watching the older singers perform, studying the way they move, and they sing, and one night, in Parma, I think, she was in the audience, watching BUTTERFLY... by my teacher, Puccini. After the second act, the teacher of Albanese... he comes to her, and he says, LICIA... the soprano has fallen ill, and YOU... will sing the third act. So, ALBANESE goes backstage, puts on the costume, and she sings the third act. BEAU-tifully! One of the TOUGHEST... acts in all of opera. But you know this. And that was the first time she sang a role, EVER. It eventually became her signature role – she sang it hundreds of times. But she is so PETITE, you see, and her dark features, and light voice – she is the perfect Cio-Cio-San. Now... let me see your palate.”
“Your palate, Guglielmo. Open your mouth wide, like the dentist, and tilt your head back.”
What could I do? I did what I was told, and Maestro made a careful study, leaning forward in his chair to get just the right angle (though I couldn’t tell for certain, as I was staring at the ceiling).
“Ah, you see, this I know, I know this. Gabriella, she tells me you are not a singer, but I can tell, the way you talk – and your palate. You have a tenor’s palate, nice, high, even palate. And this much more – you have a singer’s soul. You are made of Swiss cheese; this is what I hear. And you love the opera, no?”
“The opera is my church.”
“Bene! Bene. You should come to me for a lesson. I will MAKE you a singer. I will BRING... you a voice.”
“Perhaps I will,” I said, as I unlatched the stove and gave the coals a punch with the poker, for no good reason. “But tell me, Maestro. That story about Albanese. No offense, but... was there a point to that story?”
Maestro’s eyes flashed in the firelight and he gave me his stage smile, the lips drawn away from his gums like an oversize sweater.
“Some stories have a point, Billy. SOME... are for entertainment. THAT story – entertainment. But you take from it what you will. NOW... I have a job for you, because I KNOW... you need a job. I would like for you to make something.”
He reached into the inside pocket of his tan corduroy jacket and handed me a fold of papers. On one of them was an intricate circular design, broad lines like a plate of fettuccine, looping back and back on themselves until they came to a small, clover-shaped clearing at the center.
“I know that you will make a labyrinth... with hedges, in the spring. But now, I would like you to work on this. It is from the famous cathedral, the Chartres, in France. It is for meditation, for the spirit. It is for my singers, when they come for lessons, to take them out of the world, into the music – and for after, when I have worn them out, perhaps made them angry. I do that sometimes. Here. I will give you this. The REST... it is up to you. Let me know anything else you will need.”
I traced the path of Maestro’s strands with my fingers, then looked at him and smiled. “Thank you, Maestro. Grazie. I will start right away.”
Photo by MJV