Monday, January 13, 2014

Gabriella's Voice, Chapter Two: Evergreen Milkshake

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            Despite certain traumatic memories, baseball maintains a solid second place among my passions, and during my recent travels I have even become something of a ball magnet.   At Wrigley Field, Brian McRae nearly took my head off with a foul drive to the lower box seats.   At Camden Yards, Geronimo Berroa lifted a pop-up to the upper deck railing, where an unprepared patron had the courtesy to fumble it neatly into my hands twenty feet below (and visited us the next inning to retrieve his sunglasses, which also took the plunge).   Finally, in Kansas City, I played a Terry Steinbach ricochet with the forward thinking of an all-star shortstop, watching patiently as the mob two rows behind me fumbled the ball forward then crab-stepping along the row to pluck it out as it rolled under the seats.
            The day after Rosina, I walked out of the Elliott Bay Bookstore and wandered south through the fine old brick buildings of Pioneer Square.  I rounded a corner and was pleasantly surprised by the ugly concrete carcass of the Seattle Kingdome, a pre-game fan congregation around the ticket lines, and those beer company Clydesdales trotting around the back of the stadium.  Looked like an invitation to me.
            My seat was five rows back in the right field bleachers, so I felt fairly safe, but I should have known better, and it sure would have been nice to have had a glove.  I was squeezed next to a tunnel leading into the concessions area, and when the Orioles’ Brady Anderson came up in the top of the eleventh inning he hit a screaming drive right at me.  I hung onto the railing with my right hand and leaned out across the mouth of that tunnel, but found that my left hand, unadorned by leather, was about as useful as a big, wet tuna.  The ball struck my palm and continued barely abated into the tunnel, followed by a wild, echoing scramble of prepubescent footsteps.
            Still, glorious failure was glorious nonetheless (as Custer might have said), and I had to hide my odd, excited glow as I picked my way through a mob of pissed-off hometown fans.  I stopped briefly under a streetlight to study the red half moon across my homer-blessed palm, searching in vain for signs of baseball stigmata – stitchmarks, perhaps even the signature of the American League president.  It was a nice little wound, but believe me, it could have been worse.
            I hurried back toward the downtown area, hoping to pick out some sports bar where I could watch a television replay (I would surely be highly visible, stretched out across the tunnel for my unsuccessful grope).  The only spot I could find, however, was a dive bar called Maisey’s, smelling of well-earned, multi-ethnic B.O.  A sign over the taps listed a dozen house rules, beginning with “No drugs allowed on premises” and “Absolutely NO weapons!” I bolted the first one-dollar beer I’d possibly ever purchased, trying hard not to look too white or too educated, then continued back to the Sheraton.
            The game had run pretty late, and by the time I got back to my room all the news shows were done, so it appeared I’d miss the media commemoration of my public flogging.   Worse, however, was waking up the next morning to find my left hand completely flesh-colored, bearing not a single trace of the previous evening’s trauma.
            There was only one appropriate response to this larceny of memory, and that was caffeine.  I showered and headed east for Cafe Trademark.  Along the way I spotted a hair salon, reminding me of other recent profound events, and found myself whistling bits of the “Barber” overture as I entered the cafe.  A tall girl at the counter gave me the side of her eyes, then faced front with a full customer-service smile.
            “Bongiorno, signore.  What’ll ya have?”
            “Un espresso con panna,” I half-sang, raising a handful of backward fingers to get just the right inflection.
            “Little cioccolata on top?”
            “Mille grazie.” I clinked my change into the tip jar and retired to a far corner, then realized immediately that the heat produced by the coffee machines had settled there like an inversion layer.  I moved to a spot near the front windows instead and opened a copy of The Stranger to the personals, amusing myself with the many exotic variations and acronyms, feeling all the while like I was forgetting something.  Or something was forgetting me.  Or that the strips of pockmarked hardwood at my feet were sending me coded signals and I had left my decryption device in the car.
            A couple of gloriously gay Broadway Avenue boys came in just then, attacking the girl at the counter with a ballet of high-toned repartee and loose-limbed gestures.  She laughed, shaking the ring of shoulder-length red hair that framed her face.
            I realized I was staring and shook myself out of it, checking out the astrology page under Capricorn.  “I don’t know about you, Cap….”
            V-shaped chin, slightly upturned nose…
            “You’ve been getting signals as big as the Goodyear….”
            Large, expressive mouth, high cheekbones…
            “Blimp and yet you keep cruising down the interstate like a….”
            Wide, ripe, lips, a slight crease in the top…
            “trucker on intravenous No-Doz.  You’d better.…”
            Cat-like face...  and... 
            “Pull into the next station for some nachos before you….”
            I checked the whipped cream on my espresso and found a sprinkling of chocolate like...  freckles!  Then looked to the counter and found my final confirmation.  The tall girl glanced at something in my direction with eyes the color of walnut shells, then one of the Broadway boys told her a joke and she rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom.
            With my eyes I played a little game of dress-up, taking away her shock of red and replacing it with a mane of long, thick umber, and there she was, my diva.  The mere sight of her brought back entire passages of music.
            The grasp of her identity made me suddenly wary of looking her way at all.  I forced my eyes out the window and found myself staring at a zaftig woman in a blue plaid shirt reading an Isaac Asimov novel.  When she, in turn, found me looking at her and smiled back, I locked my gaze instead on the paper I was no longer reading.  My innocent instruments of sight had suddenly become politically charged projectiles, and after two minutes and a few fully comprehended words, I decided that this was getting really ridiculous.  Clearly, I would have to face the idea that keeping my sweet little Italian ward a non-speaking, ever-singing fantasy stage figure was something no longer in the realm of possibilities.  I gave myself a mental slap on the cheek and headed toward the counter, where she stood fully prepared to continue our previous conversation.
            “Bongiorno, signore! You’ve come back.”
            “Si, signorina.  I wish to...”
            “You want seconds?”
            “Er, no, I...”
            “You want a muffin, perhaps.  Or a peanut butter cookie.”
            “Please, no, really, I...”
            I found myself completely abandoned by the English language, and as my stammering silence drew itself out I could see a fringe of suspicion working its way over Gabriella’s shoulder like a shadow.  I picked up a napkin from the counter, folded it in half and said, “Una voce poco fa, qui nel cor mi risuonò.”
            Gabriella looked at me with all the glowing affection of an IRS auditor.  “Uh-huh,” she said.
            “You are...  Rosina?”
            “Of course,” I said.  “Gabriella.  I’m Bill, Bill Harness.” I extended a hand over the counter; she shook it insincerely.
            “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I don’t mean to bother you, but I saw you perform the other night, and you have an incredible voice.”
            “Mille grazie,” she said, then squinted her eyes as if she were developing a headache.  “Look.  Bill.  I’m sorry if I seem less than delighted at the recognition, but I have sort of a Clark Kent complex around here.  Otherwise I tend to attract middle-aged men with diva fantasies.”
            “Could I talk to you later? I want to talk about your voice.”
            Her squint got narrower.  “You didn’t hear me, did you, Bill?”
            “What I said before.  Just now.”
            We were interrupted by a young Indian couple who ordered a couple of iced cappuccinos.  I slipped a dollar in the express refill bucket and poured myself a house decaf as I decided whether to be offended by Gabriella’s last comment.  I came to the conclusion that Gabriella Compton could be the meanest, evilest she-bitch in the Northern Hemisphere and I wouldn’t care less.   As long as she was the gatekeeper to that glorious instrument of hers, I would tear my way through any abuse she could dish out.
            She handed the Indian couple their drinks and turned to the back sink, pretending to wash something as she avoided my gaze.   Finally she turned back around and looked me over with folded arms and pursed lips.
            “Still here, huh?”
            “Need anything? Carrot juice? Double mocha? Almond biscotti?”
            I saluted her with my decaf and smiled.  “Nope.  I’m fine.”
            She leaned over the counter and clicked her nails across the surface like horse’s hooves.  “So.  You want to talk.  What about?”
            “Your voice, as I said.  Your acting.  And opera.  About the second ‘ma’ you threw into ‘Io sono docile.’ About those bell-like staccatos you throw around like ping-pong balls, and the way your mezzo voce reminds me of Montserrat Caballe with its clean, easy grace, and that three-pulse trill you stole from Tebaldi.”
            Gabriella was working hard to maintain her untrusting squint, but I could tell I had at least caught her attention.  She waved a dismissing hand in front of her face.
            “I’m sure you could have picked all that up from books, or album sleeves, or maybe one of the regulars at the opera.”
            Her eyes went to the door.  “Oh.  Hold on a minute.” She walked to the end of the counter and motioned the dairy delivery guy to the swinging doors of the kitchen.  He pulled in a crateful of Half ‘n’ Half and set it down next to the cooler.  Then she came back to me.  Her eyes were a little more open now, but she was still running up the numbers in her head.  She took a sourdough bagel from a pile on the counter and loaded it into a small steel cylinder.   Then she took a smaller cylinder, this one armed at one end with a sharp triangular blade, and positioned it inside the larger cylinder.   And then she looked at me.
            “Name a French opera that takes place in Seville.”
            “Carmen,” I said.  Gabriella slammed down on the cylinder, and out the other end popped the bagel, neatly sliced in two.  She loaded up another.
            “Name the tenor smuggler from that opera.”
            “Le Remendado.”
            Again she slammed the cylinder.  Again the bagel came out the other end, neatly bisected.  She loaded in another.
            “A singer’s primary range is known as a...”
            Slam! This time, a poppyseed.
            “The original name of Rigoletto was...”
            Slam! Oat bran.
            “Cast me in a major role.”
            “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
            “Susanna in ‘Figaro.’ Maybe Gilda.”
            “How about Cio-cio-san?”
            “You’re not ready.”
            Slam! French onion.
            “The trouser role in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’“
            “You’re writing a new opera.  Where do you take it?”
            “Pronounce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Russian.”
            “Yev-GHEN-nee Oh-NYAY-ghin.”
            Gabriella paused, a bit winded, to study her remaining bagels.  “God, you’re tough,” she mumbled, then loaded in a cinnamon raisin.  “Okay, how about this.  ‘Die Zauberflöte’ and ‘Fidelio’ are both examples of...”
            “Which are?”
            “Austro-German operas in which musical scenes are divided by passages of spoken dialogue.”
            “Okay.  You’re casting for a studio recording of ‘Tosca.’ Callas or Tebaldi?”
            By now it was clear that I had already passed Gabriella’s test.  Down to one last blueberry bagel, however, she was determined to stump me at least once.  She flipped her final victim ring-toss-style onto her index finger, slid it into the cylinder, leveled her eyes at me like she had me for sure and said, “The name...  of Tebaldi’s...  poodle!”
            I took the last sip from my decaf and set it on the counter.  “New First,” I answered.
            Gabriella meant to welcome her blueberry bagel to the guillotine with a frustrated sotto voce gasp of “Shit!” but instead the word took on concert wings and flew from her larynx on a bright A-sharp, fluttering around the room and alarming the customers before it escaped out the front door.  Its owner flashed me an embarrassed grin.
            “Whuh-oops! Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
            “Never happens to me.”
            “Didn’t think so.  Look.  I’m convinced.  You are really into this shit.  Tell you what.  I’ve got a meeting with the music director this afternoon on Bainbridge.  There’s a coffeehouse called Pegasus, on the waterfront, two blocks down from the theater.  Meet me there at six, and we’ll talk about my voice.” She aimed a finger at my nose.  “Just don’t turn into a creep, okay?”
            “Wouldn’t think of it.”
            “Good.  Now get outta here, wouldja? I’m liable to let out another note and scare all these fine folks away.”
            I was already on my heels, turning for the door.  “Addio, Gabriella,” I said, and made my way to Broadway for a sandwich.

* * *

            The day felt extraordinary, so I sought to make it more so.  After donning my tidiest leisure clothes, I took the ferry to Winslow and, heading straight for the docks, found a nice seafood place called the Madrona.  I sat beneath a royal blue umbrella on the back deck, ordered a martini straight up (two olives), a bowl of cream-of-mushroom soup,  and a plate of steamed mussels.   I directed my gaze out over the silver-plated water.
            One directionless hour later, I migrated the few yards next door to the Pegasus, a comfortable-looking brick building with a side patio bordering on a construction site.  Not exactly picturesque, but I needed that shorefront breeze to keep me cool.
            Gabriella arrived an hour later, giving off charged ions from her meeting.  Our conversation began something like Carmen feeling for the sore spots in Don José, only what she seemed to be looking for in me was not blind devotion but a certain set of opera aesthetics.  For an even half an hour we discussed the major sopranos of the 20th century, and I learned to watch for the pointed dagger of her opinions.  After having a couple of my favored singers labeled “shouters and screamers,” I opted for a more passive approach, sitting back while Gabriella gave her opinions first, then wedging mine in alongside, wherever they might fit.  (After all, I might have my paltry opinions and my well-trained ear, but I didn’t have her voice.)
            After dispensing with the prima donnas (a mere ten percent of whom met Gabriella’s standards), we ran through a long menu of operatic debates: musicality versus theatricality, verismo versus bel canto, German versus Italian (she fell strongly in the Italian camp), the viability of placing classic operas in modernized settings (a practice she was strongly against), and the eternal struggle between conductors and singers.  An hour later, I finally got to my point.
            “So, no offense to the State Ferry Opera Company, Gabriella, but what are you doing here?”
            Gabriella gave me that squinty-eyed stare again (this was obviously her trademark gesture); after an hour and a half of carefully paced confiding I had nevertheless managed to trip a switch.   She broke off a chunk of raspberry scone and placed it in her mouth, chewing it slowly while she added up my motives.
            “Why would you ask me that?”
            I ran a finger across my sunglasses on the table.  “Because your voice...  and I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say this without gushing, and I swear I am not a man who gushes.   Your voice is an immaculate instrument, divinely played.   You do things on a stage I’ve never seen or heard before.   Your performance contains all the adrenaline and vigor of your youth, and yet you seem to approach the score with all the craft and forethought of a singer ten, fifteen years older.   Talent like that appears out of place at the State Ferry Opera Company, no matter how noble their ambitions.”
            “Well,” she said.  “I will tell you.  But it’s not a simple answer.” She crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, eyeing a French cabaret poster above my head.  “Reason One: sheer numbers.   Sopranos are a lira a dozen in this bidness, and Lord knows you’d better get used to the burn of the branding iron before you throw yourself into the herd.  Reason Two: politics.  In case you hadn’t noticed, I use some old-fashioned coloratura techniques that don’t always fly these days.”
            “Yes.  I wondered about that.  Where did that come from?”
            “Giuseppe Umbra, my teacher.  We call him Maestro.  He is ninety-three years old going on twenty-four, and he used to work with Puccini.”
            I thought I had missed something there.  My eyes began to blink without my permission.  “You mean...  he specializes in Puccini.”
            “No,” she said.  “He worked as an assistant to Puccini during his last years at his summer home in Torre del Lago.  Puccini was working on ‘Turandot’ at the time – and dying of lung cancer.   Isn’t that hideous?  It was cigars that did it.   I have nightmares about that.”
            “No doubt.”
            “Yes.  And singers were flocking there from all over to learn Puccini’s vocal methods.  He could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines for his students, so he used Maestro’s voice instead.”
            I ran a hand through my hair.  “So let me get this straight.  Your training basically comes directly from Puccini, and yet the folks at the operas don’t like the way you sing.”
            Gabriella put a hand flat to the table and fixed on me with wide eyes.  “I have scores that I work with, that have notations written in the margins by Puccini himself.  And nobody likes my voice.”
            “Well I certainly do.”
            “Grazie.  But the big companies, they want belters.  And shouters.  They want rock stars, they want big jumbo-jet sopranos who can stop traffic, cause sonic booms and fill up stadiums.”
            “That’s stupid.”
            “Yes.  And that’s why I’m here.  Maestro has his studio here on Bainbridge, and he’s the artistic director of the company.  I’m here to learn roles, and get better and better, and maybe return a little bel canto to the big opera houses.”
            “Excuse me a minute,” I said.  “I’ve been here for three hours and four drinks, and I need to.…”
            “See a man about a horse?”
            “Yeah, that’s right,” I said with a broad smile.
            When I returned, Gabriella was scanning a book I’d picked up about Pacific Northwest history.  Without looking up from the page she asked, “So what are you doing here?”
            I had neglected to think of an answer ahead of time, so the one I gave sounded very hollow and left a gummy film on my teeth.  “I’m visiting some friends in town.”
            “And where are you visiting from?”
            “Back east.”
            “Where? Korea?”
            I watched her until she set down the book and granted me her eyes.  “Can we go back to opera trivia?” I asked.
            “Well that’s a hell of an attitude.   Here I am pouring out my little coloratura heart for you, and you can’t name me a state of origin?”
            “Try something else.”
            “Okay.” She held an arm up by the elbow and tapped a finger against her cheek.  “What do...  or did, you do for a living?”
            “I’m an umpire.”
            “An umpire.  Baseball? Balls and strikes?”
            “Yeah, right.  And I’m Sam Ramey.”
            “Care to try another?”
            Gabriella turned to look inside at the clock above the kitchen, hiding her face behind a letter-size sheet of red hair.  “Actually, I have to get going.  The next ferry leaves in fifteen minutes.”
            “Can I come with you?”
            “I don’t know.  Are you becoming a creep yet?”
            I ran a hand over my mouth and jawline.  “I don’t seem to be sprouting fangs.   And my facial hair appears to be growing at a normal rate.”
            “Are you a tenor?”
            “I am but a weak baritone.”
            “Okay.  A baritone I can trust.  And an umpire, to boot.” Gabriella let out a “Die Fledermaus” stage laugh and headed into the cafe, leaving me trailing in her wake.

* * *

            Standing on the top deck, I was pleased to find that Gabriella shared my maritime tendencies.  I joined her at the railing, where she stood with her face toward Seattle, her eyes narrowed pleasurably against the stiff Puget breeze.
            “You look like the Flying Dutchwoman.”
            “Der Fliegende Hollandfrau.  I lo-ove this wind.  Maestro tells me to ride down below and protect my throat, but how can I when it feels like...  this?”
            “Well put,” I said with a smile.
            Gabriella turned away from the wind to study me, blinking her eyes in some sort of self-generated brain teaser, then just as suddenly reached out to jab a finger into my chest.
            “You! It’s you!”
            “Me? What?” And tried not to think, “The woman who sang Rosina two nights ago is jabbing her finger into my chest.”
            “That thousand-dollar check they found in the fishbowl this weekend.  That was you!”
            I was determined to steer clear of this particular subject.  I fixed her with an even stare and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
            Gabriella wasn’t buying it.  “Oh, Bill Harness, you are a piece of work, aren’t you? The nobleman parades amongst the commoners disguised as a poor student.  ‘Bongiorno, signorina.  My name is Lindoro.  My name is Gualtier Maldè.  How’s it hangin’?’ And the question I have to ask now is, are you in fact the good and sweet Count Almaviva, or are you perhaps the evil, two-timing, well-dressed Duke of Mantua?”
            I held up my hands, collecting the wind.  “Neither.  I swear.  I’m a baritone, Rosina, maybe I am Figaro, Largo al factotum, and I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you more than that.”
            She gave me yet one more well-aimed squint, then turned without a word to the emptiest portion of the horizon, where the sound crooks a northwest finger past Port Townsend toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
            “It’s so dark out there,” she said, speaking not necessarily to me but to the water.  “I want to gather up all that darkness, swallow it down piece by piece, and then sing it.”
            I was content to let the moment settle, but Gabriella was not.  She gave a linebacker’s slap to my shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s go up front and watch the skyscrapers sprout.”
            I followed Gabriella into the wind, and the blossoming aurora over the steering house, but not before I stole a starboard glance at her singable darkness.  I was either in heaven or in hell, but I felt remarkably alive.

Photo by MJV

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