Presto, con fuoco
Our life together began unraveling, small certain pieces at a time. Our meetings, our couplings, our quiet moments would cause her to glow, and tremble, but let them pass and the signs of annoyance returned: the dark sideward glance, the constant sense of distraction, the hurry to get somewhere other than with me.
In the cold rush of the falling I held onto words. Since Stacy was the first woman to whom I had uttered the words “I love you,” she damn well owed me something. These three fragile syllables became my lifeline – or my lance. She reacted with an inner cringe. But no matter what, she would not fight with me – which was, after all, what I must have been looking for. Confrontation was too difficult; all she could offer me was the empty luggage of annoyance.
Jerry was an auditor. Sent out from Michigan by company headquarters in New Jersey. Jerry possessed an easygoing style and a comforting appearance: receding hairline, wire-rimmed spectacles, an easy smile. Jerry became an instant hit with the older brothers and sisters who made up the assembled family of the softball team. And there I was at shortstop, ball in hand, the only place among this crowd where I really belonged.
One night, they went out bowling. Stacy escaped the unpleasant task of disinviting me; I had a play to review. I must have reviewed at least twenty of them in our time together; Stacy came to none.
Afterwards, I dropped by the bowling alley, a small set of lanes near the boardwalk. I walked through the glass doors of the entrance, past the cocktail lounge, and stopped at the corner. I could see them; they had not yet seen me. And the tape played back like this: laughter. Snippets of conversation. Jokes. Small smiles, swimming in the air between Stacy and Jerry the auditor. The sudden uneasiness as they saw me, the downward glance, the overeasy attitude covering up the annoyance. My forehead filled with heat, but I would not give in to jealousy. To put at risk the only important thing in my life was a button I would not press. I said nothing, then sidled down the racks to find a bowling ball.
She drove Jerry around town; of course she had to, it was part of her job, and she hoped I didn’t mind but the poor guy was away from home and besides, he’s such a kick! Lunch at the wharf, drinks at the harbor, afterwards a stop for coffee or yogurt. I stayed buried at the condo till late in the evening, burning all her logs in the fireplace, calling friends from my previous life and annoying them with my anxieties. Five moments after I’d given up on her, the gears of her garage door kicked in. I dashed into the bathroom so that I could make the entrance instead of her, nonchalance being the last phony weapon of the desperate and pitiful.
I asked her about Jerry.
“Jerry?” she said. “C’mon, he’s a fun guy. Don’t worry, Michael, I’m not fucking him. But I’ll tell you, it was fun to spend some time with someone new, watching him take in this bay of ours with those fresh Midwestern eyes. We really need to spend more time with other people, Michael, it’s very… rejuvenating.”
She was drunk, but just a little, and she was probably telling the truth, but I couldn’t know. That night I targeted my three syllables on her again, and this time I received a new response.
“Michael, look, I love you too, but I wish you wouldn’t say it so much. I can’t handle so much affection. I’m just an old East Coast hard-ass, I’m sorry.”
Another piece drifted away. Jerry went back to Michigan, his mission accomplished. Stacy said she was too exhausted to see me on weeknights. She encouraged me to spend more time and energy finding a job. She was too tired or too drunk to make love, or else she had to wake up early in the morning for work. Even the Thanksgiving trip was on the verge of collapse, but she had promised, and I insisted on going.
By then, I had moved back to Silicon Valley in hopes of finding work. I rented a room from an old high school buddy who was buying a house with his fiance. The rent was cheap, I had some assignments from a temp agency, and I was slowly catching up with my bills. Stacy drove up early Thanksgiving morning to pick me up, the look of annoyance replaced by a stoic acceptance. Very businesslike.
The day was perfect – beautiful, warm, sunny, clear. We took 101 down the middle of Western California, great oaks scouting the gold-brown hills, the fenced-off geometrics of farms, finally the coast and an ocean shining with a million fishscales. For the first time in the month of November, I thought I had a chance. After a hundred miles of deliberation, I reached over the stick shift and took her hand.
“We’re just different, Michael. We come from different cultures.” She looked at me along a straightaway. “In seven years, Tony and I never once sat down to talk about our relationship.”
“And look what happened,” I said. I was into sudden-death overtime now – it was okay to piss her off.
“Yeah,” she answered, back to tough girl. “Maybe you’re right.” She dropped my hand to light a cigarette. “I come back from a business trip and the asshole’s fucking some bimbette. In our bed, for Chrissake.”
And look how much better you’ve got it with me, I told her with my hands. We plowed the same ground for the next hundred miles until the hard crust opened up and the soil sifted through our fingers. Stacy decided she was really horny and she wanted to pull over somewhere and fuck my brains out.
Two hours later, she changed her mind. It was getting late, so we’d better keep driving.
We hit an off-ramp into a suburb just north of Santa Barbara, middle-income, palm trees along the curb. A short block off the freeway and there we were, traversing the lawn, greeted by strange relatives who had spent the last seven Thanksgivings with Stacy and Tony. East Coast alcoholics all, and by our fifth bottle of wine I was wearing them down with my remarkably vivid remnants of my sense of humor. Her sister-in-law, a long-married, pleasantly plump Southern girl, made an easy target. Female relatives were my specialty. Maybe this was my problem.
I thought my gallant performance might merit a sexual reward, but Stacy would have none of it. Not in her niece’s bedroom, not with the whole family in the house. This from the woman who had earlier wanted to fuck me ten yards off the interstate. My body twitched with energy all night. Stacy slept the sleep of angels, across the room on a roll-away.
The next day, her brother Tom invited me to play tennis, and I acquitted myself rather well, dropping a close two-of-three in the final set. Beautifully orchestrated, exactly the way one should lose to one’s boss, except that that wasn’t my intention. I wanted to beat the bastard silly. But he was good.
Stacy and I exchanged perhaps twenty words all the way home. I gave her a good night kiss, told her to be careful driving over the hill. I called her an hour later to make sure she got home all right. We made no plans for the coming week.
Passing through Salinas, Stacy mentioned the changes in Kenny, how he was starting to push the boundaries of their platonic relationship. Kenny was feeling a little pathetic those days, with a rapidly disappearing hairline and a body that had failed him. He was starting to drink more, and he had entirely too much time on his hands. She said she found the whole thing annoying.
The parking attendant eyed me strangely, rolling his pupils northward. I plucked the ticket from his hand and kept singing.
Dvorak’s motif was incredibly catchy. I crammed my car into a tiny little spot, sandwiched between two manly trucks, and tried to squeeze out the door without puncturing myself. I dashed upstairs and into the maestoso spaces of downtown. It was great to be back where the action was, if only for an evening. I skipped over the trolley rails and headed down the straight-arrow path of Chavez Park.
The park is a pure north-south oval of green, iced off with rows of fountains that spurt straight out of the concrete square, water-pipe ballets that inspire the downtown munchkins into summertime dashes. I prefer the old Market Fountain at the north end, similar to the one at Westfield: low circle of bricks, metallic mermaids spitting water for the passers-by. I settled on the low wall to go over my Mozart. After Tuesday’s fiasco, I didn’t want to miss a thing. I ran over my botched entrance a good seven times.
The last time through the finale I felt a presence and looked up. An elderly Mexican man with a wooden cane, a businessman in a dark suit, a covey of college-age intellectuals – an orange hatchback pulling into the parking garage from whence I had just come. I leaned back and dipped my fingers into the water, then shook them dry and walked toward the church.
St. Joseph’s was a flurry of activity, the floor in front of the altar a maze of chairs, music stands and instrument cases, patches of silver, wood and brass open to the light. Frank DeBucci and Frederick Guttman wheezed and grunted as they assembled the risers.
“Ah! Ah!” Frank gasped. “Just a little more, Freddiehoney, I’m al… most… there.” The riser joint clicked into place. “Oh, Freddy, you’re soooh gooooood!”
Frederick sneered. “That’s the only riser you’ll get from me, baby.”
Having arrived early, I sat in a pew and scanned the architecture. St. Joseph’s was a cathedral in the grand Italian style, domes and vaults, chandeliers, icons everywhere. The diocese had just finished a six-year refurbishing job, and the interior was magnificent. The walls of the nave were marked off with simple oils of Christ’s journey to Calvary: Jesus Falls for the Second Time, Jesus Speaks to the Beggar Woman. Stained glass fell in twenty-foot ribbons down the far sides of the church, deep blues, reds, and purples of saints and heroes in positions of beatitude. Directly above the altar was the cupola, frescoes of the four evangelists ringed by cherubim with scrolls – the Word descending on the congregation. Behind the chancel were the pipes of the newly installed organ, some a foot tall, some as high as trees.
In the ten-minute span of my study the choir trickled in, sopranos as giggly and nervous as Girl Scouts, basses somber and business-like (considering the great responsibility of being the foundation, after all, of the choral harmonic, rubbing their whiskers thoughtfully like old Jewish men). I eventually rose and joined them on the risers, watching the orchestra warm up, thinking how nice it was to be a chorister and not have to spend all that time and energy on technical matters like tuning, polishing, rosining, soaking, cleaning out spit valves. It’s no wonder they’re all so nerdy.
Mr. Stutz strolled in from the back room, stroking his beard, spreading books of music on the clear Plexiglas conductor’s stand, coughing nervously. He called us all to attention and handed down our marching orders.
“Okay, people. Tonight is it. I want you to think of tonight’s rehearsal in terms of performance, because if we don’t know these pieces well enough by now to perform them, we are not in a good place. We’ll run through the pieces in the order we’ll be presenting them, which, if you hadn’t heard, is the Chichester first, Dvorak second and the Mozart as our finale. If you do miss any spots tonight, I expect you to mark them down and work them out yourselves by Saturday.”
Everyone has their speech patterns, and Mr. Stutz’s is this: pre-concert anxiety turns him into a font of accentuated words.
“Tonight we will take a small break between the Dvorak and the Mozart – just ten minutes or so. Please get yourself adjusted to your spot while the orchestra tunes up. And please – remember where you are. If we have any mixups while filing in Saturday, just remember that spot and go to it. Do not worry, the audience will not notice.”
Due to the awkward configuration of the altar, some of us were not able to stand on the actual risers. Being one of the taller tenors, I was squished onto a sideways-facing step ascending to the altar. This made my sight-line a difficult one. I would likely get a sore neck, not being able to shift my body in the same direction I had to look. Alex was a step below me, in a similar predicament.
“Shitty placement, Mr. Moss,” he whispered.
“Break out the Ben-Gay, Mr. Blanche,” I whispered back. “Yes sir, yes sir.”
“Michael,” he said. “I have something for you.”
He slipped me a canary yellow envelope. I placed it on top of my music folder and pulled out a piece of beige paper.
I’m counting on you!
–AF the semi-conductor
Jeez, I thought. More pressure.
“Orchestra! Choir! Are you ready? From the top, Chichester Psalms. Watch me all the way, especially entrances.”
Mr. Stutz tapped his baton twice on the podium, cueing the orchestra, bows lifted, mouths on reeds, the timpanist holding his skins mute.
Being the most exotic of the three pieces, the Chichester had drawn most of our attention during rehearsals. As a consequence, we had it down cold. The only slip was a 10/4 passage in the third movement. The conducting instructions for this passage are thus: This 10/4 should be conducted in the shape of a divided 4 beat, adding an extra inner beat on 2 and 4 (1+2++, 3+4++). Yikes.
The choir had somehow adjusted to the pattern, but the orchestra, which learned the piece under its director, Madame Forge, hadn’t caught on and proved a little slipshod. What’s worse, the movement later slips into 5/2, then 12/2. We had our theory on this: Bernstein wrote this particular movement during a 1964 vacation to Monte Carlo, where he borrowed his meters from winning numbers at the roulette table.
The Dvorak brought a bonus. We had been skipping the bass solo in the second chorus for lack of a soloist, but that night we were introduced to Thomas Chapman. He’s a choir alumnus, a tall, distinguished-looking black guy with a huge mustache. Thomas sings like God would if He took steroids. Thunder, earthquake, horse’s hooves, black of night, great horned owls, Orson Welles – you think of the metaphor, it works.
Tu rex gloriae, Christe!
The King of Glory. One of our sopranos almost swooned.
The only comedy came in the third chorus, right after the men applied a coda to Thomas’s solo. The strings lay out a track of galloping eighth notes over 3/4 measures, and the sections of the chorus pass a driving vivace vocal line from one to another in a relay race, alto bass soprano tenor, which finally drops into several more manageable phrases of unison. The first two words of the initial entrances are aeterna fac, but the rapid pace and the odd rhythmic accents conspire to turn this into aeterna fuck – especially with our meek little altos, who seem to have a mental block about the whole thing.
After months of rehearsal, we thought this was an old joke, but here in the rarefied air of St. Joseph’s Cathedral our papally endorsed obscenity took on new power. Our somber, businesslike, beard-fondling basses just couldn’t handle it and began tittering so uncontrollably they almost didn’t make their re-entry. Directly after the finish, with many accents hanging over his words, Mr. Stutz chastised us, explaining how in certain languages, certain words may take on the sound of certain, shall we say, unseemly words of our own language, and that we should, in a word – get past it! He let an appropriate silence sink in, then set down his baton and looked at his watch.
“It is now eight-ten,” he announced. “I will expect everyone back in their places, ready to sing, at eight-twenty. Let’s all be on time so we can get home at a decent hour.”
Most of the choir wandered out to the front steps, congealing into the usual cliques about the steel rails and Samson-sized pillars of the church’s façade. A trio of basses hopped across Market to a fast-food place, hoping to score some ten-minute fries.
I felt like doing nothing. The Solemn Vespers pulled at me like a huge weight. I sat on the bottom step, watching a cop whiz by, his yellow passing light ablaze, following the high-rise rooflines as they cut into a purple afterglow. Looking up at the rest of the choir, I considered how easy it was to disappear in a crowd. Even Alex, up there with Marcia Balentine, he doesn’t know I’m here. The only standout was Barbie with the one-and-a-half makeup job, ten feet away hugging a parking meter.
The end of ten minutes snuck up quickly, but I could not move, I sat there on my stone step like a gargoyle, scaring off evil. The choir drifted back in packs, tailed by the trio of french-fry basses stuffing their mouths. I held my face to the evening breeze, blowing north-to-south through the wind tunnel of buildings, and suddenly it stopped, the only sound the stream of cars along San Fernando. It felt like loneliness.
I managed to rise and prod myself into the vestibule, stood there peeking in through the crack of the ever-so-slowly closing door. There she was, Amy Fine, stepping up to the podium in charcoal pants and a deep blue sweater the color of saints and a blood red scarf the color of devils and lips of pink marble waiting to chew me apart… da capo al fine… from the beginning to the end.
No! They can’t have me yet. I don’t belong to them. I am St. Michael the archangel who kicks devils out of heaven! I let the door slip shut and turned around, not quite knowing what to do. A sign reading Choir Loft pointed me up the stairs. I creaked up two flights of narrow steps and found the door unlocked. Deo Gratias! The loft was dark and dusty, seven pews deep, hymnals and bulletins in wooden pockets over green kneeling pads. I crept along the shade of the back wall and into the highest pew, set down my music folder and retrieved the Mozart. This was my plan: I didn’t want to skip out entirely, so I would just follow along from this safe distance and Saturday – yes, Saturday! – I would sing for everyone to see and hear. And then everything would be over and I could wake up in the morning and make some French toast and watch a couple football games in peace. I could only hope Alex was covering my spot. I could only hope Amy didn’t notice. She had to be too preoccupied to look for something as inconsequential as one solitary tenor.
From the top of the loft my compadres looked like a toy choir. Amy straightened up, hit the downbeat and pulled the choir along on the waft of her four-pattern swing, extending her hand on a thread, pulling it back up for the fourth with a flick of her wrist. I could watch her, at last, without watching her eyes.
The piece was over before I knew it. In my head, I sang perfectly, hitting that last God-forsaken entrance dead on the mark. Mr. Stutz took Amy’s place at the podium to hand out final instructions.
“Be here at six-thirty for run-through. We open the doors at seven-thirty and start the concert at eight o’clock sharp! Men, black bow ties, check with Gordon on extra tuxedo shirts. Women, no heavy jewelry or perfume. Oh, and remember, there’s a party afterward at Paula’s house. See Paula for a map and instructions. I encourage you all to come. Believe me, after the great performance you are about to give, you will be wired and ready to celebrate! Good night.”
His final instruction was my cue. I galloped down the stairs and snuck out the front door before the rest of the choir could get to the vestibule. I jaywalked across San Fernando, just missing a passing pizza delivery truck, and headed for the park. I had to get to the fountain. I slowed as I hit the center path, my heart going prestissimo. Two Latin boys in Raiders jackets walked past, staring at me under low-brimmed baseball caps. I paced on, arriving at my altar of bricks and mermaids.
Perched on the wall, my hands soaking in the water, I thought, Ah, that’s it. Tu rex gloriae, Christe! I closed my eyes to hear the small sounds of citydom: trolley bells, chatter from a hotel, lead-pipe bass line from a club, a rapid set of footsteps, growing louder.
“Why Moss?!” Amy Fine, right on top of me. I pulled my hands from the water, accidentally splashing her face. “Are you trying to make me look like a fucking idiot? I don’t need this shit. I saw you up there, you chickenshit. Why are you hiding from me?!”
She got out of my face – Deo Gratias – and paced back and forth, a lion in a cage, nostrils flaring, her breaths getting shorter and shorter. I felt dizzy, I couldn’t sit right, watching her go back and forth.
“Oh no, oh no, I have to like the one guy in choir won’t even look at me, I have to like the American Psycho. How do you think that makes me feel, Moss?! I’m not a bad-looking woman, I’ve heard that from some pretty good sources, but you can’t even bear to be in the same fucking concert with me. Just for a blown entrance in some lousy… Mozart!”
She spit his name at me and shook me by the shoulders. Hard. I didn’t know what to do. I thought she would slap me, but instead she backed off and kept berating me, with the relish and vigor of a drill sergeant.
“Have you got anything to say? Anything at all? Because if you don’t, I don’t ever care if I ever see you in this fucking choir again, or in this fucking city… or in this fucking lifetime!”
That’s all I could say. But I said it twice for good measure.
She looked away and snorted, grabbing at her hair like an operatic soprano doing a mad scene, then she turned back with eyes of pure venom.
“That’s it? That’s it!? That’s all you’ve got to say?”
I was down to one vowel, one stinking vowel to save my life.
She looked at me for one more long second, an expression of pure disgust, then huffed and turned to leave. But she fooled me. The dizziness took over. I closed my eyes; I was a ready target. She spun around with a siren scream and hit me with a body slam. The park flipped around like a deconstructionist slide show and I was underwater. For a second I didn’t know if I was facing up or down, but I felt the bottom with my hands and managed to get to a kneeling position, hoisting myself up with what turned out to be a mermaid’s tail. Amy was gone; I could hear her steps fading off behind me. Water dripped from my hair. The sensation was even morbidly pleasant – how much further, exactly, could one sink?
I crawled to the bricks and pulled myself over the edge, then sat there a while, thinking and dripping, forming a little puddle that made its way into the cracks of the sidewalk. I wrung out my sweater and squeegeed my hands down my jeans, slopped over to the fast-food joint and managed to sneak a few minutes with the bathroom’s hand dryer. I evaded the looks of the late-night customers and shuffled around the bank building to the parking garage.
When I got to my car, I started the engine and turned on the heat, full blast. After five minutes of treatment I spotted a curious object on my hood. There, placed square in the center like an offering, was my spare tire.
Photo by MJV