Saturday, March 22, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Six: If I Fell


Valzer cantabile

I read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales last month, and their themes come back like heartbeats. The ugly villain does something to the beautiful victim – lays on a curse, puts her to sleep, occasionally even cuts off her head – and the hero must wander into a dark wood to do something about it: kill the monster, slay the witch, trick the ogre. The details stray all over the place, but one thing remains constant: you must always go into a dark place to save something beautiful.

A month and a half after our first date, Stacy and I had settled into a regular dating relationship. We saw each other about every three nights, going to the movies, touring wineries, building campfires on the beach, sleeping together on the weekends. I had the feeling that the only thing we needed to kick this into full gear was a minor trauma, some obstacle to force us into deciding just how badly we wanted to be with each other.

The friction came from Stacy’s circle of friends, and my desire to have her all to myself. The Love Generation wanted her to play the party girl; a requisite part of this was recreational drugs. I had just watched a friend flush several thousand dollars down the toilet when he got involved with a small-time cocaine dealer. Late one night, I arrived with a friend’s truck to move him out. The next day, the police raided the place.

I sat in a smoky poolroom, debating the merits of jazz fusion with Johnny, a tow truck driver who had some wild stories.

“The guy had a twenty-foot stretch limo, champagne all over the place, and when I hitched the thing up they rolled down the window and I see this nude woman in the back seat…”

I lost the story when I saw Stacy and her friends gathered at the end of the bar, holding a serious conference. A couple of guys broke off toward the restroom with a guy dressed all in leather. Stacy headed my way.

“Excuse me, Johnny. Can I have my dance partner back? I think Steve back there wants a word with you.”

“Yeah, sure, Stace.” Johnny grabbed his beer and wandered back to the bar.

What Stacy wanted to tell me was that she and her gang wanted to go off and party, and she was thinking it might be best if I didn’t come along. She didn’t think I would understand. What I found out later was that they’d gone off to snort coke, and no, I didn’t understand. But what could I say? I had no particular reason for living other than the affections of Stacy Wilkes, and why would I want to risk that on some small matter of principle? She at least had the decency to give me an anxious look as she left the bar. One thing was for sure. I had to go somewhere, had to occupy myself.

Joe Fatazzio held the dual honors of manager of Catch This and owner of the county’s best comic book store. He also moonlighted as a singer/guitarist, and for ten years had entertained an increasingly familial ring of fans at the Grapesteak Restaurant in Capitola. I had yet to see one of his performances, but I remembered Stacy mentioning they were on Saturday nights.

The coastline clouds of Monterey Bay had a habit of letting you know exactly how they felt. During July and August, they huddled up against the hills. Come September, they headed off into the ocean, leaving the drive on Highway One a paring-knife slice through moonless nights. I circled the offramp and entered the lounge of the Grapesteak, sitting against the far wall with a seven-and-seven.

Joe leaned to the folk-tinged music of the sixties and seventies: Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Pete Seeger, Everly Brothers. He sang with a barrel-chested baritone that matched his thick beard. I was suitably impressed that he played four-hour sets, but I was beginning to understand how he did it. A lot of his show was talking.

“This thing, ‘Red Rubber Ball,’” he said, setting down his drink. “Great melody, great hook. Some of the stoopidest lyrics you ever heard, but you know who wrote ‘em?”

Someone yelled, “Richard Nixon!”

“Wise ass,” said Joe. Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Three college musicians from Pennsylvania go to Atlantic City, this New York attorney sees ‘em and likes ‘em. One of the attorney’s clients is Brian Epstein, manager of a band called the Beatles. One night the attorney is hanging out with Epstein and the boys, says he knows this group that’s looking for a name. John Lennon says” – Joe adopts a very bad Liverpool accent – “‘Wuhl, I’ve always thought a good name would be Cyrkle. C-Y-R-K-L-E.’ So already, these three have a name given to them by John Freakin’ Lennon, right?

“Next thing you know, they’re hanging out with Simon and Garfunkel in Greenwich Village. Artie and Paul hire their bass player, Tom Dawes, to tour with them on a month-long tour. Paul plays him this song, ‘Red Rubber Ball,’ says he can have it if he wants it. Dawes asks Epstein. Epstein says it’s great, you should record it. It’s a huge smash, number two on the charts behind Sinatra and ‘Strangers in the Night.’ Then, Epstein asks the band if they want to open for the Beatles on what would prove to be their final tour, in 1966, so now they’re playing in front of 70,000 screaming fans every night.

“But here’s the capper: Paul Simon offers the band another song, and they turn it down. They turn it down!” Joe slaps his forehead. “‘No thanks, we’ve got enough songs for now. Really you’ve done enough for us.’ DUH!” Joe waits a few seconds for that to sink in. “And what’s the name of the song? ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song,” also known as…” He waves a hand toward his audience.

“‘Feelin’ Groovy!’” says the wise-ass.

“‘Feelin’ Groovy!’” says Joe. “Idiots! Well, the gods of rock ‘n’ roll were quick to mete out punishment. The group was driven quickly back into obscurity, where they rightly belonged, except for Tom Dawes, who went into commercial jingles and wrote that ‘plop, plop, fizz, fizz’ thing for Alka-Seltzer. And now, I’ll sing the stoopid song for you.”

He followed that up with “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” When he got to the lah-lah-lah chorus, he let the audience fill in the final six lahs. This was great medicine; I really owed Joe for this one. Actually, I was feeling so good, I was thinking of calling it quits and heading home, when they walked in.

I never figured out if she brought the party there because she thought I’d be there, or if this was just more stoopid luck. They were whispering and walking tippy-toe, in that way that always draws more attention than it diverts. I pretended not to see them, but then Stacy sat right behind me. I froze for a count of three, then I figured what the hell. I turned and found her wearing her bad-puppy face, the cute collie seeking forgiveness for eating the roast. What could I ever say to those big brown eyes but yes?”

“Hi,” she said.


She took my hand in both of hers and studied it, trailing a finger over the knuckles down to my wrist.

The custom at Joe’s performances was to write requests on cocktail napkins, then fold the napkin around a generous tip and pass it to the stage. Stacy wrote something, put in a twenty and struggled between the tables to hand it to Joe. Joe raised his eyebrows, then went on to the next song, “It’s All Over Now.”

When he finished, he looked my way and winked. “There’s a guy here tonight, plays a hell of a mean shortstop on my softball team. I got a napkin here says, ‘Sing with Michael,’ and since I don’t know any song called ‘Sing with Michael,’ I’m going to invite Michael the shortstop up to the stage.”

I had heard about people singing with Joe before, mainly this annoying friend of ours who told this story about singing “Summertime” with Dizzie Gillespie when she was a kid, and then of course she gets up with Joe and can’t remember a word. Hmm, this was not an encouraging line of thought. But there I was, sitting at my table, and suddenly all these competing musical ideas are flying at me like yellowjackets. Something high, something difficult. With harmonies. And romantic. And something Joe might know. Miraculously, all these requirements managed to shuffle the list down to a single tune: “If I Fell,” by the Beatles.

I boarded the small stage; Joe gave me a stool and a microphone. We conducted the negotiations – me on the high melody, him on the low harmonies – and we got down to business. The intro sounded terrible, which it always does cause it’s so hokey British music hall – but once we broke into parts we were on it like cats on new furniture. Joe liked it so much he slowed down the tempo just to enjoy the sound. The audience was probably in shock, and Stacy was just glowing.

She wouldn’t take me into her condo that night; she wanted to sit outside. The stars were still out, handfuls of glitter in the late-summer sky. We faced each other on a bench off the courtyard lawn, holding each other’s hands. She looked at me and broke into an embarrassed smile.

“Michael, I really don’t know how to say this but you have just blown me away. I’ve never fallen this hard for anyone, and that’s why I had to get away from you tonight. I’m scared.”


“Hush-sh-sh. Michael, I’m… hold me.”

I put my arms around her neck and pulled her closer, looking past her at the lights of the harbor. After a minute, we pulled back.

“The company wants me to go back to headquarters in New Jersey pretty soon. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen just yet, but when it does… I was wondering if… if you’d like to go with me.”

She started to cry.

“I love you, Michael. I really do.”

I kissed her, feeling dizzy, feeling the stars eddying above us.

“I love you, Stacy.”

It was the first time I had ever said that. Somewhere in the foolish chaos of teenhood I had decided to treat those words as precious gems, not to be given away easily. Now, I had just condemned myself to adulthood.

The scene is the Bus Barn Theater in Los Altos – which, yes, used to be a Bus Barn. They’re doing Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, which is a bit of a mind-bending affair. A cornball mystery is taking place onstage, but there are also two theater critics, who are part of the play. The third level is me, the theater critic critiquing the theater critics who are critiquing the play but are also part of the play. Shew!

Intermission is another scene: a warm Friday evening in late May. The theater borders on a soccer field, bright yellow nets hooked over the goalposts for Saturday morning games. A dark figure traces the chalked boundaries, sipping at his coffee, looking pensive. You’d wonder why anyone would tackle such an anxious-looking person.



“Michael? Is that you?”

He can’t see her face, but she comes to him with arms spread, so he has no choice.

“Michael! God! It’s been so long!”

Three exclamations in a row. It’s got to be Suzanne.

“Suzanne! What are you doing on this side of the hill?”

“I’m from this side of the hill. I’ve come back for good.”

Her eyes scrunch upward, that smile she makes with her whole face, cat-like. “Oh, Michael, it’s so damn good to see you. You always were the best lay in the county.”

She was a hobby actress. Not a big talent, just in it for fun, and the cast parties. They were at a party in Ben Lomond, in a small mountain home, and they kept rubbing against each other till he couldn’t avoid the subject.

“Have you ever just slept with someone? Just sharing the bed? I’ve always thought that would be kind of nice.”

Even now, he can’t believe he would use such a bullshit line – but he’s pretty sure she didn’t believe it, anyway. They lasted ten minutes before his hand drifted to her breast and it was on. Six times that night. A personal best. It wasn’t till three weeks later that he realized he didn’t have the slightest bit of a thing for her, and she was pretty special, the way she took his honesty as genuine. They even agreed to leave room for the occasional booty-call, but when he saw her at a party, cavorting with a Deadhead named Joey, he was actually pretty happy for her.

Suzanne was still exclaiming over six times when the theater lights blinked on and off.

“Guess we’d better hit the trail,” he said. He took a last slug of coffee and poured the rest onto the grass. Suzanne stood in her spot, rubbing a hand down the side of her jeans.

“Listen, Michael, I’m here with some friends. But would you like to join us afterward for some drinks?”

He folded his program and slapped it against his thigh. “Yeah! That would be great. I’ll meet you right here after the show.”

“Okay.” She smiled and ruffled a hand over the top of his head.

“Walk you in?” he asked.

“Sure.” He pivoted and offered his arm. They waded into the entrance, and she left him at his seat, throwing a glance over her shoulder.

The theater critic critiquing the theater critics critiquing the show stole out the exit while applause shook the corrugated steel. Life on the edge of living made an exhilarating picture, but he wasn’t ready yet for another victory. He backed up and kicked a pretend ball into the bright yellow net.

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