Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Ten: A Badger on Speed


Allegro molto, stringendo

I discovered the Rose Man early one morning on the long way over the hill. Highway Nine, threading through the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was driving back from a friend’s house in the valley, trying to take as much time as possible to reach Stacy’s condo. The night before, she went out with her old lover, the amiable Italian guy. She asked me if it would be all right if she slept with him. It was the first time I ever told her no.

When I showed up, she had a hangover, but she could see something was bugging me, and she said, “What’s the matter?” When I told her, she said don’t be silly, I love you.

I bought her roses that morning, but at the time I was in such a daze I really couldn’t remember where I got them. It was the next week, when things were going well again, that I recognized the sign, Roses and Redwood Gifts, tacked onto a tree by the side of the road. He was out the door before I could leave my car: chubby middle-aged guy, tangle of gray-brown hair, three-day beard, drab mountain clothes.

“Hi there! How’re ya doin’? Hot date this mornin’?” He placed his hands on his temples. “Wait a minute, I can… feel… her name. I’m a wiz at this. Some of my friends think I’m psychic. Da…Do… Do-Do…Dorothy!”

Not even close, but he did get it on the fifth try. He took me into the shop, which was, essentially, the front room of their house, and showed me a wedding picture over the sink.

“Can you believe that handsome young devil is me? Celebrated our twentieth anniversary last week. Most wonderful woman in the world.”

“Great,” I said.

The most wonderful woman in the world walked in just then, wearing a look of Oh-my-God-he’s-got-another-customer-by-the-throat. She asked me if I wanted a ribbon, and I said yes, please. Mr. Showbiz, meanwhile, told me all about the operation, how he gets slightly blemished roses from his cousin in Castroville and that’s how he can sell them so cheap. And then he tried to guess my name.

“Me-me-me… ma-ma… Matthew, right? Gotta be Matthew.”

“Close,” I said. “Michael.”

“Michael. That’s good. Archangel – real bad-ass. Whipped all the devils in Revelations. You have a good time with Dorothy, Michael!”

I didn’t bother correcting him. I must’ve bought two hundred roses from the Rose Man, and all for her.

On Halloween we went to a costume ball sponsored by my sole employer, the Coastal Times. The Times is no gem of a paper, but it puts on one helluva party. Its annual Halloween Ball is helped in no small part by the citizens of Santa Cruz, who consider the mad role-playing fandango of October 31 the event of the year. The ball takes place at the Cocoanut Grove, a restored 1920s ballroom at the tail-end of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

The costumes were remarkable. Two men came as the Golden Gate Bridge, twin towers with a full span of cables, lights, roadway, toy cars and pedestrians. One couple came as a ten-foot-tall pay phone. The girl, dressed as a phone, could actually hang herself up on her boyfriend, the receiver. One group came as the cast of The Wizard of Oz, including the tornado, a circular curtain of fabric adorned with miniature cows, fence posts, and farmhouses flying around on strings.

Stacy and I had a brilliant idea that transformed itself into two stupid costumes. We put on our finest business suits, complete with power ties and briefcases, then splattered our faces with white pancake and fake blood. Night of the Living Yuppies! Get it? Neither did anyone else.

We took ourselves and our pitiful outfits to Annamaria’s Italian Restaurant for dinner, and I think it was there that it started. I was reading something different in this woman. She was annoyed. I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice: the way she wouldn’t look straight at me, the sharpness of her tone, a series of sawed-off answers to casual questions. What had I done to inspire annoyance?

I tried to let it go. When we arrived at the ball, Stacy headed to her friends at a back table. I wandered out to the floor, checked out the costumes, listened to the band, talked to friends from the paper – anything to avoid being a clinger. These were small things, I thought, these were the incidental symptoms of coexistence.

It didn’t work. When we got home the barriers were still there. She was getting away from me. I spent an hour on the sofa, holding a bottle of antacid. Maybe just the Italian food, sure, but this was just the beginning. My stomach would grow weaker and weaker in the months to come.

The Sunday before Halloween we went to Bargetto’s, a small winery in Soquel. Stacy was a member of their wine-of-the-month club, and while we were there picking up October’s chardonnay we bellied up to the tasting counter to sample a few others. A quick run down the menu – reds, whites, dessert wines – had us ensconced in the yellow-feather walls of an afternoon buzz. I sat her on a bench in the middle of the courtyard and took her picture. She smiled for me, in a shy, endearing way, eyes halfway down, a face I had never seen before. I snapped the moment and, afterwards, studying the print, was convinced that I had captured her. I wrote a poem about it.

The child of a human face sheds its contours
a familiar form
held in the arch of a friend’s fingers in
brassy ballroom light

She smiles sideways
trapped within her four corners, I
take her in my palms

I have shared this smile in wrinkles of the night,
these eyes have danced with mine in waking quartets my
breath has fluttered the measures of her hair

But perhaps I can only possess her on a
square of silver and paper, and
perhaps this is enough

I slide her into the
pocket of my shirt,
her face to my breast.

The turn in the poem surprised me. I still don’t know if I wrote it that way to satisfy the fashions of the day, or if, that early in our story, I already knew the ending.

“Michael, is that picture of that woman gone?”

“Geez, Naomi, don’t I ever get a ‘Good morning’ first?”

“Good morning, Michael,” she said, sweetly. “So why’s the picture gone?”

“I, uh, it was time, that’s all. Just… time.”

“Oh,” said Naomi (dressed in a cherry-red jumpsuit). She began shuffling papers and looking like she was actually going to go to work. “Michael, I have a friend I’d like you to meet. I think you two would make a sweet couple.”

“Naomi, I think I’d…”

“Oh come on now, Michael, just meet her. I could bring her to the company party on Friday. She won’t even know you’re checking her out.”

I stood from my desk. “I think I forgot something in the mailroom.”

I could feel Naomi’s eyes glaring after me. I didn’t care.

“Michael? Is everything all right?”

Late afternoon. I was sorting the outgoing mail, and Roxy Cater leaned in, looking eager, for God’s sake.

“Oh, you mean… I, uh, talked with Mr. Cunningham yesterday, and…”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” she said, ticking her tongue. “I mean just… anything. Is anything wrong?”

Concern from the boss. I was confused.

“Michael, just let me know if I can do anything. I’m here if you need me.”

The words are not that odd. It was more what she did as she said them. Roxy Cater, former nun, placed a hand behind my neck and slid it slowly back along my hairline.

“Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie…”

Despite a specific note from Leonard Bernstein instructing otherwise, Mr. Stutz assigned the boy-alto solo of the Chichester Psalms to a female, Jeannie Pletman. Bernstein’s ghost was punishing Mr. Stutz by causing Jennie’s vibrato to swell to womanly proportions.

It was our first rehearsal with the college orchestra. We were in the concert hall, instrumental dweebs in the pit, extrovert singers on stage in chairs, and a thousand upholstered seats stretched out before us.

“Jeannie, you have to suppress that urge for warmth. Flat tone. You are an eight-year-old boy in your first Sunday mass. Forget everything we have taught you!”

The choir snickered along, but of course we felt a little guilty. It’s almost impossible to un-learn vibrato. But Jeannie, a thin, petite sophomore who seemed built for boys’ solos, was ready to try again. She closed her eyes, then got the tone so flat that she proceeded to lose the tempo, the rhythm and the words.

“Yi!” Mr. Stutz squeaked. “All right. Now let’s put it all together. Orchestra? Watch me on the 2/4. I’m separating the quarter notes for the soloist. Remember, you don’t move.”

Jeannie took three breaths, closed her eyes for a second and nodded at Mr. Stutz. Six beats at 3/4 and she entered, a voice stolen from an English chorus. She took the high D with only a hint of vibrato, then followed three measures on with the purest of E’s, ranging out over three beats, then one beat of a 2/4 measure, and down into quicker, tougher rhythms. Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”), eighth notes weaving their way into multiple meters. By the time she neared the entrance of the women’s chorus she had it free and loose, dangling the triplet like a jewel between two Adonai roi’s and eyeing Mr. Stutz for the poco ritard leading into the chorus. She held the final note for six long beats into the cutoff.

Mr. Stutz stopped everyone, and stared at her for a terribly long three seconds, then set down his baton and started clapping. The choir joined in as Jeannie demonstrated the full range of the color red. The basses began to chant “Jean-nie! Jean-nie! Jean-nie! Jean-nie!”

“Okay, okay!” Mr. Stutz shouted. “Now that we’ve embarrassed our soloist out of her gourd, let’s take a break. Everyone be back here at eight sharp for Mozart.”

Shuffling from the tenor section, I heard Frank Debucci yodeling, “I bet I could sing boy alto.” And Frederick Guttman right behind: “And I bet I could help you get there. Wham!”

“Ouch!” Frank yipped.

I was laughing and not watching where I was going. I turned left at the door and slammed my shoulder into someone, grabbing them by the waist just in time to keep them from falling. It was Amy.

“God… I’m sorry, I…”

Amy put on her best Mae West. “Ooh! I do like a man who’s rough.”

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Yeh, I’m fine.” She smiled. “I used to play tackle football as a kid.”

I steadied her one more time, squaring her shoulders with my hands, trying hard not to look at her eyes.

“Sorry… again,” I mumbled. I walked off down the hallway, lost.

I wandered around for a few minutes, past a music room where a guy was practicing jazz drum, brushes on a snare, tossed salad. At the lobby, I ran into Alex.

“Mr. Blanche, sir,” I said.

“Mr. Moss,” he said.

“Calling the Missus?” I asked.

“Just finished, Mr. Moss.”

“How are things?”

“Fine, sir. Muchos grandiosos. Two more weeks of classes, hell-week finals, and I get my wife back.”

“Fantastic! Care to chat by the fountain?”

“Tell you the truth, I have to go to my locker and pick up some notes for a friend.”

“Can I ask you something, Alex?”

Alex jammed his hands into his pockets and studied me for a second. “Sure. What do you need?”

“Do you know anything… about Amy?”

“You mean conductor Amy?”

“Yeah, Amy Fine.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything. I just need to know anything.”

“Well, I heard she was an orphan. I heard her parents died in a bus accident in the mountains when she was a kid.”

“Oh.” I stared at the baseboards. “Anything else?”

“Um, no. That’s it.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Alex headed off to his locker. I wandered by the Help Wanted bulletin board: “Bassist needed for R&B group, must have own amp.” “Need second violinist for string 4tet. Prof. ambition only.” What the hell am I doing?

The members of choir drifted onto the concert hall stage for the second half of rehearsal at about five after eight – five minutes being the international standard for choir tardiness. Jenny was standing up in the front row of the soprano section, leading the windstorm of chatter like a majorette, arms flaring left and right. Would I ever marry a soprano? I doubt it. Give me a whisky-voiced alto any day. The section settled down as Amy took the podium, spreading her score in front of her like a picnic blanket. She raised her baton for attention, waited for silence, then put it back down and began to speak.

“Thank you. What I’d like to do tonight is run through the entire piece, and then, if we have time, go back through and hit all the trouble spots – especially the entrances. Now I know you’ve hard choir directors say this before, but I swear to you, if every single person in this room loses their place, I will keep conducting. If I lose my place, I will keep conducting. If an eight-point-oh earthquake knocks the ceiling down on our heads. Okay, then I will stop conducting.”

Laughter. “All right, all right. Straight from the top: Dixit. Oh, and could everybody stand? Just for the run-through. I’ll let you sit for the second part. Thanks.”

Amy gave the upbeat, a little more precise than Mr. Stutz would have, and choir and orchestra came together:

Domino meo:
sede, sede, a dextris meis
donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum

Mozart seemed ultimately logical by this time – the thunder you expect to hear after the lightning strikes – especially after the uncertain trolleys of Dvorak and Bernstein. The basses scampered up the scale on rational eighth notes into a long whole, whereupon the tenors took the baton and ran higher, beginning the fugue, and the sopranos and altos offered their parts of the jigsaw until the last tutti unison placed the final piece of sky there above the steeple with a grand maestoso homophonic Amen.

I guess that’s why I thought I could get away with not looking at the conductor. That and the privacy of my position – four rows back on a flat stage, my eyes sandwiched between the heads of Frank DeBucci and Carl Lapone. She would have to lose her beat to even notice. To compensate for the lack of visual signals, I anticipated the orchestra by a microbeat, which kept me well in sync for the whole work: the lively 3/4 stroll of the Dixit, a tennis match between the choir and a solo quartet in the Confitebor and Beatus vir, the somber fugue of Laudate pueri, the soaring soprano solo of Laudate Dominum, and, finally, the Magnificat, starting in princely Adagio and chasing its way into an Allegro full of tricky tied notes and off-beats.

Take the top of page 66, for instance, nineteen stinking measures from the final cutoff. There’s a trick entrance in the tenor line, right after the solo quartet winds up a brief passage, then a quarter rest, a lightning-fast eighth rest, then a quarter note on the upbeat, completely exposed, on a high G – which just happens to be the break in Michael Moss’s singing voice.

So I’m not paying much attention, gearing into the full cruise of the Mozart Expressway, and I turn the page and there’s the note, right on the off-beat. Like a driver slipping to the side of the road, I overcompensate, jumping in a full beat early, all alone and half a step sharp from the adrenaline, sounding like an adenoidal taxicab. Amy nearly breaks her promise not to stop, because the choir is snickering and losing it, but somehow we hold it all together and pull into the final “Amen.”

Amy cut off the orchestra on the dotted eighth/sixteenth/quarter-note combo that makes up Mozart’s final punch, then turned to us, waiting while the nervous energy of the choir settled in around her. At this point, a hundred sight lines jabbing at my ribs. I could’ve handled a grand whimsical statement, the kind Mr. Stutz would have rolled off, but Amy had other feelings about it. She threw me a look of simmering disgust as she spoke her judgement low and flat.

“Well, if you’re going to screw up, screw up loud.”

What I needed was a fortissimo burst of laughter, some ribbing, a few hearty backslaps from my fellow tenors. What I got instead were nervous titters, sheltered whispers, the sounds of shame. Amy held up her baton again and waited for silence.

“First, let’s go to page seven, middle score. Basses, you’re missing the dotted quarter there. Let’s run through it alone…”

I was about ready to call it a night.

With Dvorak’s great curtains of brass and timpani ringing in my ears, I wandered off the stage, a lost man. I heard Alex tell me good night, and I muttered something in return, then marched up the aisle, through the lobby, and into uncertain night. From the long low steps outside the music hall I could see the shaggy silhouette of Sam the Cat. I paused to dip my fingers in the fountain, then found Sam rummaging around his cart, muttering as he worked.

“Hi, Sam!”

“Sorry, Mistah. I’se closin’ time. Gotta git home.” He looked up, squinted at me and smiled. “Oh! You one of them Kway-ah Boys. Wha’s yo’ name again?”

“Michael Moss. Tenor.”

“Well well, high-voiced critter. You wants some coffee?”

“If you got it.”

He handed me a cup with coffee black as oil – bottom of the barrel. But it was warm.

“He’e ya go,” I said, the mimic kicking in again. I handed him a dollar.

“Oh no. Dregs is free.”

“Ah owe it you from befo’.” God, this was getting bad.

He took it and ran the back of his hand across his whiskers. “You remin’ me o’ someone. A seeker. Whatchoo lookin’ for?”

I laughed, a single staccato note. “Wish I knew.”

Sam reached down and picked up the Persian, a stocky-looking veteran with ragged ears. He scratched him behind the ears. The Persian squinted with pleasure.

“Ah, there’s a life there. Don’ have no partikler thoughts ‘cept findin’ the next meal and waitin’ for someone like ol’ Sam to scratch yo’ ears. Humans, we jes’ mess it up by thinkin’ too much. Thinkin’ leads to wantin’, and wantin’ mean you gotta take it from somebody else.”

I rubbed the Persian under his chin and he started to purr, a toy lawn mower humming away in his chest.

“You lookin’ fo’ a answer, maybe that’s one there.”

I gave a last pat to the Persian’s neck, and he gave me a playful jab with his paw. I picked up my music and turned to go. “Thanks, Sam.”

“You are most welcome, Michael Moss. Hey! You gotta holiday in yo’ name. Michaelmoss! Thas’ a good one.”

I headed off one way and heard Sam pushing his cart the other. I took my prescription-strength coffee out to the football field and climbed to the top of the bleachers. Two diehard runners paced around the track, and the scoreboard flashed Day Planner entries: MEN’S BASEBALL… VS. TRAMMELDON… 1 PM SAT MAY 29… DAPPER FIELD…JOIN ASU NOW! MEMBERSHIPS STILL AVAILABLE FOR SUMMER…

This is worth a photograph, I thought, steam wafting out of my cup. I took a deep, bitter swallow of mud and chewed a few grounds through my teeth. Shee-oh!

You can think of photography and music as diametric opposites. Photography depends entirely on the stoppage of time, whereas music depends entirely on its passage. Between the two, music is more natural, more reflective of the actual operation of life. You can’t hold on to that note forever. The fermata will end, the conductor will kick you back in to the flow, and like everything else the chord will pass on, first into overtones, then into silence. Give it up. Let it go.

After ten minutes the scoreboard ran back around to MEN’S BASEBALL. I clanked down the shiny aluminum strips, drifted through the outdoor weightlifting area, rusty barbells clamped into iron yokes, and tossed my empty cup into a Dumpster before entering the yellow lights of the parking lot.

Where I found Amy. She was out in the center of the lot, tunneling through the back of an orange hatchback like a badger on speed, throwing out books and tennis racquets and God knows what else, mumbling to herself in not very pretty language.

“Son of a bitch thing, can’t find the fuckin’… God why does this happen to me anyway, why can’t you pick on someone else for a – OH!”

She noted my presence.

“Oh God, Michael, you scared the shit out of me!”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

She sat on the bumper of her car and gritted her teeth. “Ooh… I’ve got a flat, and I can’t find my lug wrench.”

“Oh. Umm, mind if I look?”

“Hah! Go ahead, you’ll have as much luck as I would in this garbage scow of a car. And please, don’t tell anyone I’m this much of a slob.”

“Looks just like my apartment,” I lied. I lifted the board supporting the floor of the hatchback and peered into the tire well, then reached in to check something.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“What? What?” Amy asked.

“The lug wrench is missing, and…”


“And your spare tire is flat.”

“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ,” she said, then broke out in laughter and grabbed the shoulder of my jacket. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I’m a little foul-mouthed sometimes.” She straightened up and eyed the car like a sick patient. “I’d better find a phone.”

“No, no, don’t,” I said. “You have a thirteen-inch wheel, right?”

“Um, yeah, I think so.”

“Well, so do I. Listen. I’ll drive my car over here, loan you my spare, and you can return it after you get your tire patched.”

“Um, yeah. Sure,” she said. “That is, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure I don’t! What am I gonna do, leave you stranded? I’ll be right back.”

I retrieved my car and parked it next to Amy’s, pulled out my spare and began the operation. Having just rotated my tires, I almost looked like I knew what I was doing. I was wiping my hands on an old T-shirt when she came over.

“Michael, you’re wonderful. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t come by. Listen…” Her voice decrescendoed (conductor’s voices don’t just soften like other’s people’s). “I’m sorry I was so hard on you tonight, I… I guess I’m still mad at you for not watching me.”

“I didn’t think you…”

“Yes, I noticed. And I guess you can’t tell me why, since it’s obvious you know the music by now, and you look up during all the other pieces…”

“Well, why is it so important?” I blurted out. “Why do you care?”

Amy Fine trained deadly hazel eyes on me and crept up to kiss me on the cheek.

“Because I like you,” she said. “And I need to know you respect me.”

“I… I do, I do.” I was all out of thoughts, and breath. I looked at my left wrist, which had no watch because I’d taken it off to change the tire. “Um, listen, I gotta go. I’ll see you Thursday. Don’t drive over fifty on that spare, okay? It’s one of those temporary things, it’ll overheat if you drive too… um… well, seeyuh.”

I jumped in my car, started it up, and took off before Amy could say another word. I caught her in the rearview, hands on hips, staring after me as I wheeled out the exit.

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