Note: This novel will soon be released in a 20th anniversary edition by Dragonfly Press.
Allegro moderato maestoso
It was the first week of the new year. Nancy and I sat in the balcony of the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, watching David Lindley and El Rayo X, a wild Tex-Mex band. Nancy was scratching a fingernail along my thigh, peering over the rail, completely distracted.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “See a ghost?”
She looked harder, then held a hand over her eyes. “Omigod. It’s him. He’s here.”
Easy to guess who he was. I had carried this thought around all month: I am fooling around with another man’s wife.
“Where is he? Is he coming up here?”
She looked again. “No. I think he’s just waiting. But he looks like he knows I’m here.”
From what I’d heard about hubby, this was typical. I almost wished he’d come up. Something about being the spoiler in this little soap opera appealed to me; there was power there. But I knew it wasn’t the way Nancy would want it. She took a sip from her margarita, considering her next step.
“I’ll go down and talk to him,” she said. “You stay here.”
“Are you sure? Are you gonna be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Mark’s a pussycat. A screwed-up, worthless pussycat.”
I sat back and tried to enjoy the band. The guitarist ventured out on a solo, kneeling at the front of the stage. Nancy returned a few minutes later, visibly shaken.
“I’m so embarrassed.” She laughed nervously, then put on a French accent. “She eez a wonton woo-mawn, out een zee cloobs with her jhee-goh-loh. Zen zee jealous huzzbawnd walks een. Merde! It eez zee beeg-time truh-buhl.”
I tried not to laugh too hard. “Hey, it’s okay. What do you want to do?”
She let out a nervous sigh. “I want to wait fifteen minutes, then I want to get the hell out of here. Then I want to go home. I… can’t sleep with you tonight, Michael. It’d feel too weird right now.”
“I understand. I feel a little weird myself.”
I was tearing into my filing work when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.
“Michael, can I see you a moment? Let’s go into Mr. Cunningham’s office. He’s out sick today.”
This was my boss, but I had a hard time remembering her name. Roseanne? Rochelle? I played it safe and called her Miz Cater, slurring the Z because I couldn’t remember if she was married or not.
“Please sit down.”
Mizzz Cater seemed pretty agreeable. But hey, I was just happy to have work – I’d almost caught up with my bills. She sat on Mr. Cunningham’s desk while I settled onto a chair.
“I’ve been pleased with your work this month, Michael. You show a high aptitude for the tasks we’ve given you. You’ve been especially helpful in cleaning out your filing system, and in doing so you’ve shown a great deal of initiative and perseverance.”
You could find no better indication of my mental state that I took this as a preamble to terminating my employment. Just another boulder in the avalanche.
“Well anyway,” said Roxy, “what I’m getting around to is – we’d like to hire you permanently, full-time. We can’t start you too high due to the inconsistencies in your recent work history, but you would get health benefits. Also, and this should give you a good indication of what we think of your work, I will be spending a goodly sum buying your contract away from the temp agency.”
Roxy perched higher on the desk and crossed her legs. “So. What do you think? Will you stay on?”
I was so unfamiliar with good news that I didn’t know what to say. I felt like kissing her.
“Umm… Ungghk!” (I had to clear my throat.) “Um, yes! I’d like to work here. It’s… why, yes.”
Roxy rubbed her hands together. “Great! I’ll have the paperwork ready for you by the end of the week, and you’ll be official by Wednesday. Oh, and I’ll have some new responsibilities for you, too. I think you’ll enjoy the challenge.”
Roxy gave my shoulder a little rub as she walked out of the office, a motion of reassurance, but she had already done more to reassure me than anyone or anything in a long time. Nothing speaks so clearly to the soul as cold, hard cash. Our little conference ended right before closing time, so I went to my tiny corner desk to fetch my jacket and switch off my lights. I took the elevator to the ground floor, stepped out the front doors and took in a lungful of fresh air.
This morning, after she shower, I toweled myself off and I was dry, but for how long I did not know. Women would come and throw water on me. It was my destiny. I might have lost my job last night. It probably depended on how drunk Roxy Cater was, but I knew that dozens of others would remind her of the details. I tried to console myself with my Saturday ritual: a bona fide cooked breakfast of sausage and eggs, a load of laundry, and then, after the shift to the dryer, a walk to the community center.
I crossed the street in front of an impatient-looking cab and, in my hurry to get to the curb, landed sideways and rolled my ankle. I hopped over the sidewalk in pain and fell on the grass. In a couple minutes, the pain subsided, and I limped past my kite-sculpture to look out on an empty pond.
What?! Water everywhere but here? My former illusion of lake held nothing but a plain of off-white concrete. I padded downhill until I could read the sign: THIS POND DRAINED TO FACILITATE SUMMER DROUGHT CONDITIONS. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.
Bloody hell! I sat on the rim of the pond and gave the park a good scan: buildings, elm trees, a group of kids with a whiffle ball – and Bachelor Ducks! Confused as an elephant in a subway, but there they were. They milled around the large oak, quacking and squawking, obviously confused. The big black ugly one with the albino bill scouted out what used to be the edge of the water, took a look around and, in a moment of admirable executive decision-making, raised his wings and took off. The rest of them reared up their webbed feet behind him, and soon they were shooting down the length of their former home, off over the car dealerships. I was on my own.
I had no idea what fate St. Joseph’s held for me that night. Once Amy Fine trained those deadly hazel eyes on me and told me to sing, I would not be the same. With all its rhythms, its give and take, its dependence on breathing and the diaphragm, on sounds so close to ecstatic moaning, singing is too much like sex. It should never be done in public.
“Tonight,” said Mr. Stutz, “I want to be an organist. I want each of you to be a key, and I want to play you with my fingers.”
Am I right?
“I’d like to warm you up tonight by running through the entrances to each movement of the works.” Uh-oh. More accents. “This is not to check parts, this is simply to get into the flow of things, to know where we are all headed together. I want you to sing only loud enough that it’s comfortable. Don’t strain yourself.
“But before we do that, I want you to look around at this place, this incredible meeting of art and architecture. I want you do this place proud, and to sing beautifully, and to give this audience an evening they will not forget. Go ahead, I’ll shut my trap, look around.”
My gaze went to the ceiling and arches, the stained glass and statuary. Even without a congregation, the cathedral has hundreds of people in it. Between the evangelists on the corners of the cupola are other saints, performing religious-looking, beatific acts: St. Lucas, St. Joan, St. Francis (with the requisite animals), St. Ignatius. Each is attended by devout-looking young followers, holding the edges of their master’s robes, assisting in prayer. Altars to Jesus and Mary stand at left and right, little Italian marbles bracketed by deep rectangles of stained glass.
Behind me is King Jesus, thirty feet high, sitting on a throne, looking happy and glorious, a parade of saints, popes and bankers on either side, lesser people, commoners, congressional pages and children fading off behind. I look down and discover more paintings chronicling the voyage to the cross: Jesus is Taken from the Tomb, Jesus Falls for the Third Time, Jesus Stripped of his Garments. The Catholics had this thing covered better than the Super Bowl.
“A last word,” said Mr. Stutz. He set his baton on the podium and flexed his fingers. “You will spend very little of your time here on Earth listening to the sound of applause. Taken to its basics, it’s a rather strange idea, whacking your appendages together to show appreciation. But it represents affirmation, an audible stream of praise. Eat it up! And smile, try to look like you’re enjoying yourself. I have seen many too many stone-faced choirs in my life.”
He picked up his baton, important part over.
“Now, when we bow, I want you to follow my motion downward, and when you reach bottom, I want you to whisper the words tutti vivace and then come back up. Watch me.”
He cut us off as if we were at the end of a piece, then turned and bowed to the audience. Then he smiled in our direction, held out an arm and, in a grand sweep, invited us to face the floor. You could hear the choir whisper tutti vivace (“everyone, lively”), and we came back up as one. Mr. Stutz beamed.
“Great! Now, let’s get down to our entrances. Bring out your Chichester…”
We had an hour between the warm-up and the concert; I had to be as alone as possible. I descended the front steps and followed Market Avenue south, and stopped at a little Italian restaurant, Vendini’s. I ordered a Coke and sat on the balcony, which afforded a splendid view of the church. I sat there and watched the early arrivers: suits and floral ties, evening gowns, sweater vests, skirts, trickling in couple by couple.
I got through the warm-up just fine. Amy was up there for ten minutes. I looked straight at her the whole time and none of my internal organs blew up. I sang rather well. Who knew, this could be a whole new thing, maybe I’ll be just fine. I checked my watch and headed out, but before I left I saw a photograph on the wall, an ornate German-looking cathedral. The artist’s note read St. Martin’s Church, Salzburg, Austria (birthplace of Mozart).
For some reason, I remember very little from the first half. I had the honor of leading the choir onto the risers (no biggie, just the result of my odd placement). The only problem I noticed were the sustained notes in the Bernstein, written in 10/4. What I most remembered was the final Allelujah! of the Te Deum, left to stand there breathing hard while the orchestra finished up, an eighth note/eighth note, full, hold it, bring it up, let it go, bow off the string, strike the timpani, cut! And that tiny nickel of silence as 500 people waited for the conductor to lower his baton. The applause rained down. I recalled Mr. Stutz’s words and smiled, then followed everyone into our tutti vivace bow.
We filed off the stage and out the back of the church, me last, and headed for the rehearsal hall, a brand-new addition with trendy wallpaper and a shiny baby grand. The Mozart soloists were warming up, ringing out their superior voices while the rest of us gathered in our seats. If you ever need an evening of cheap entertainment, I highly recommend halftime backstage at a choir concert. The energy of the pieces just sung, the piece yet to come, roils everybody right up.
The rookie tenor with the Alfalfa haircut does some impromptu tap-dancing with a theater major soprano. The hipster quartet from the jazz department sits in the corner and works a doo-wop, Charlie the bass boom-bah-booming like he could lay down the stripe all night. The soprano section is one big stock exchange of yammer and faux opera – LAAAAAAA! – did you hear this and did you see that and do you think we ought to… And of course, our personal vaudeville act, Frank and Frederick, on the baby grand, playing the theme to All in the Family, the castrated female goat and the five-pint Irish baritone.
I find only one non-performer, alone in the corner, his feet up on a chair, writing something on the copyright page of his Mozart.
Alex finished a line and looked up.
“Mr. Moss. Sir.”
“Can we ix-nay the sir stuff?”
“Sure. Something different?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me.”
I scratched the back of my head. “Yeah.”
Alex swiveled his feet to the ground. “You have to watch her, you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“It’s blasphemy not to. You’re a good singer that way. You’ve got rules.”
“Yeah. I just hope I’m all right.”
“You will be. Do you love her?”
His bluntness surprised me. I changed the subject, and Alex didn’t fight me. “What’re you writing?”
“Poem,” he said.
“I should hope so,” he laughed. “I have my rules, too.”
“That’s nice, Alex. Hey, let’s knock ‘em dead with this fucking Mozart, okay?”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “Let’s do that.”
By this time, intermission was over and we had to wait for the madrigal group to finish its fifteen-minute set. After a stern warning from the choir president, the singers backstage were down to a dull roar. A minute later, we filed behind the sacristy, the choir lined up behind us all the way back to the rehearsal hall. The madrigals were finishing up a delicate Byrd motet, accompanied by hand chimes and a small drum. The final chime rang out and the applause began. I waited for the stage manager to cue me in. Some of the madrigal singers stayed in their spots as we filed in around them. My eyes drifted to the brass section, specifically the odd, reverse-plunger stands they use for their instruments.
I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.
I looked out on the audience, and they broke into a golf-clap. That would be Amy, coming in with the soloists. I slanted my eyes to the right, picking up the singers: short, stumpy tenor and tall, thin bass in white bow ties; soprano in royal blue, the alto blood red and dazzling. All four were masters candidates from San Jose State.
And then… Amy. She strode up the steps and bowed devotedly – thank you, your gracious servant. She wore a conservative skirt of black velvet and above that a monarch butterfly, splashed across the back of her blouse in sequined rows of gold, black and orange, its wings extended to her sleeves. When Amy began to conduct, the monarch would fly.
She turned to greet us with a small smile, then picked up her baton, checked her score and lifted it to starting position. From there, it all began.
Her hands are separate from her body, doves flying in loops, the creatures meet at the middle and divide, one hand portioning out the beat as the other dances in scoops of half-moon, sculpting the air, softer, softer, down to the grassland chirps of piano. Until the chord change, a minor third pulled from the air, teased forth from the strings.
Her eyes brighten and flash as she leans across and coaxes us into a waltz. She breaks into two on the maestoso, the pit for the pendulum. Calm, strong, but when the time is right she will light a fire at our feet, the opening strikes of a fugue that whirls around the church and carries us higher. I am drilled in on Amy’s eyes and simultaneously aloft, hovering in the grottos of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, pitching my song to the cherubim and back to the choir loft.
By the end of the piece I am near death, of one sort or another. I close my eyes and let the applause settle me back down, then watch as Amy Fine follows the soloists up the steps for her bows, a bouquet of red roses from the usher, and then she turns and sweeps us into our chant: tutti vivace.
Then she is gone. And they are gone. I stand in a square of lawn behind St. Joseph’s and stare at Orion’s Belt. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Alex.
“You all right?”
“I’m incredibly all right. Would you believe?”
“You learned something.”
“Yeah. I did.”
He smiles. Twice in one night. He looks good smiling.
“Come on,” he says. “We’re going to a party.”
For a post-concert party, simply take the energy of a backstage intermission and draw it out over four or five hours. Paula Meyer’s house was packed with glowing, smiley-faced creatures from some Mount Olympus where the natives wear used tuxedos and black gowns. Frederick grabbed Frank by the neck and threatened to throw him into the fireplace.
“I’ll be sendin’ ya down to a fiery hell, I will. The river Styx, boy, whattya say? Ya gonna put that horz-dee-orves down or ya gonna roast for all eternity?”
Frank flapped his arms like a trapped bird. “All right! You can have the damn pizza roll!”
The choir lecher, Steve Gilbert, had poor Rosy Oakland leaned up against a wall in the hallway. Rosy was barely out of high school and naïve even for her age.
“The marines, huh? Wow, was that dangerous?”
A boy-girl-boy-girl quartet was strewn across the couch, playing some Babylonian form of hand jive against their knees, growing in complexity until they inevitably burst into laughter and collapsed into the cushions.
The kitchen was one big roly-poly, a mob so tight you had to crowbar your way through – but crowbar I did, because these fine people stood between me and a punch bowl that I hoped for God’s sake was spiked. I broke into an Australian crawl, popped out of the undergrowth and looked back to see Amy, in the her butterfly top, holding a carrot stick like a cigar. Tonight she is a celebrity, surrounded by well-wishers and hangers-on.
I ladled a full cup, chugged it down and ladled another. I detected rum. A pair of hands reached around my face and fluttered over my chin, scent of wisteria, nails polished white. I turned and she was there. I stood stock-still, watching her hands, waiting for a downbeat.
“Hi.” She flicked a finger in a C motion across her bangs. Pink marble. Chestnut hair. Salzburg.
“Hi,” I replied.
“You have beautiful blue eyes, Michael Moss. I’m glad you decided to use them tonight.”
“I don’t think you looked down once. You knew that piece almost by heart.”
My face was feeling very warm. I stared into my punch glass.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “If I had known… You were terrific. And that blouse…” I ran my hand down her back, ticking my nails across the sequins. She shuddered. Did I do that? She broke into laughter
“I’m so sorry, I…dunked you. I hope it wasn’t too bad.”
I extended a hand. “Let’s call it even. Amy the Baptist.”
She took my hand, pulled me closer and gave me a kiss on the lips.
“You are a sweetheart, Michael. And sometimes I’m a little too… passionate.”
We were close to something awfully nice when Frederick and Frank began their expected riot in the living room. Frank perched high on Frederick’s shoulders and spoke like Chico Marx. “Ey! Ev-ah-ree-body! We’s a gonna have a game a tag inna da cornfield!”
Flashes of black and white streamed out the front door. I looked at Amy. Her eyes grew wide.
“You want to?” she asked.
I chugged the last of my punch and felt the tingle of booze-burn. “You betcha,” I said, and took her hand.
Paula’s house lay in the middle of a standard sixties tract, but between her house and the expressway stood the city’s major anachronism, a five-acre square of cornfield. Developers had been bidding on the thing for years, hoping to turn it into condominiums, but the owners, an old Portuguese family, kept fighting them off, content to sell their wares at a roadside stand called the Corn Palace.
For our purposes, we headed for the tallest section, about six feet high. Amy and I started next to the southwest corner and hesitated.
“Let’s break up!” she said. “I’ll find you later.”
“Okay,” I said, and she was gone. Jeez, I thought. Five minutes and we’re breaking up already.
I thought that came from me, but it was Chester and Johnson, fighting over who was “it” in their particular game. Johnson loosened his bowtie.
“Come on! Let’s have some goddamn rules here.”
“Hey, don’t swear,” said Johnson. “Julie’s out here. You know how she feels about that.”
“Julie can kiss my…”
“Hey guys,” I broke in. “New game – I’ll be it.”
Chester laughed. “You got it, bay-bay!” He high-stepped down the row, ducking under the larger ears. Johnson squeezed between a pair of stalks and was gone.
I let them get a head start then ran all the way down, thinking Chester would be the slower of the two. Through my quickening breath I could hear shouts and laughter in the air, a whole crop of spring loonies just begging for trespassing citations. Fuck it, I thought. Fuck it all. This is fun. Isn’t this fun?
I slowed up at the end of the row and looked around, finding Chester, hands on knees, blowing out breath. I snuck in behind him like a Cherokee scout, slapped him on his upturned butt and shouted, “You’re it, bay-bay!”
“Ah shit,” Chester wheezed. “I’m it.”
I spun my wheels and took off, corn leaves slapping against my arms. I found one-half of a moon above me and reared back to howl, not giving a damn where I was going, nearing the end of the row at a full clip.
What hit me next must have had sixteen wheels and a driver named Rölf. The sound went something like Whack! Higigagiga thump! Roll roll hummmph! Something like a good James Brown tune. I ended up on my back, checking the whereabouts of my limbs while some sort of woodland creature screeched and howled next to me.
“Ah-hahahahahaha! Oh! Ay! Ah-hahahaha!” She rolled on the ground like a brown bear ridding herself of honey bees, grabbing her ribs. She tumbled around in the corn leaves, then finally lifted herself to a sitting position and pulled the hair back from her eyes. When she saw it was me, she exploded. “Michael! It’s Michael! No! Ohgh! Michael Moss! Hahahaha! Ooooh!”
She rolled backwards, delirious, a jumble of sequins and hair and skin. Despite my pain, I thought it was pretty fucking hilarious myself, but I had other ideas. I pulled myself up by the base of a cornstalk, crawled over and took Amy Fine by the shoulders. When she saw what I was doing her laughter huffed to a stop, and her eyes came to mine. I took her hand in my face and brought my lips to hers, the smell of the earth and the cornstalks and the muffled shouts of our mates. I pulled back to set a duck on my trail.
“You’re magic, Amy. You have music shooting from your fingers. I want in.”
I’m not sure what I meant, but just saying it was something. I opened up Amy’s butterfly wings and reached inside, smoothing my hands over her pink-tipped breasts. She leaned to my ear and sang.
I dreamt the Lacrymosa that night. Lacrymosa means “tears” in Latin. It is the seventh movement of Mozart’s Requiem, the last thing he wrote before he died, and it will only make you cry if you are human. On the night of his death, Mozart beckoned three of his friends to his bedside to sing the parts, but he couldn’t go on. He dismissed them, then turned to the wall and breathed his last.
Making love to a butterfly in a cornfield with a song of death playing through your head. If you are not careful, there is something about this that will change you.
Photo by MJV