Thompson keeps his word, almost too well. He is a ghost in his own house, disappearing before dawn, not returning till after midnight. Jack knows this pattern well: overwork as a distraction. And a procrastination. Because work is eternally noble, that tireless pursuit that one undertakes because the world demands it, because one must pay one’s bills, because the children require food and health care and IPods. That’s why it makes such a solid rationale when you’d really like to avoid an unpleasant task, like facing the wife you have just betrayed, like beginning the painful process of retracking four lives that have just been derailed.
On the more selfish side, Jack is glad for the freedom to behave just as he had as a house-sitter: to lollygag, to walk along the waves, skipping rocks; and to let his brain ramble like a leashless terrier over the second half of his life. That’s how he thinks of it. This is intermission. His life as an accountant is now over, and his task is to pick a new identity for Act Two. He gives Ben the credit for leading him to this idea, because it is not an idea he could have had two months ago.
Meanwhile, Jack has yet another date with the thrift stores, because Ben has instructed him to assemble his own tuxedo. In his Internet searches, he discovers that the tuxedo, like Jack, is in a period of flux. For a while, people were entirely forgoing the classic bowtie, opting for an unadorned collar buttoned to the top. (He recalls David Letterman picking out Tom Hanks at the Oscars and saying, “You couldn’t wear a tie?”) The new trend is a standard necktie, worn with a standard collar, but tucked into a matching vest. Jack suspects that this will play right into his strategy.
He begins by rifling the racks of suit jackets at three different thrift stores. He has nearly lost the thrill of the hunt when he strikes gold: a classic tux jacket with single-breasted notched satin lapels. The lining bears a tag from a rental shop, just over the likely reason for its exile: a large white stain, anathema to prom dudes and bridegrooms but no care for Jack. The cost is an entire 15 bucks. The jacket is a little tight in the shoulders, but for 15 samoleans Jack will just have to deal.
From there it’s on to retail. Jack locates a discount men’s store where he finds a snow white vest with a fetching crosshatch pattern. The box also contains a matching bowtie and the trendy midget necktie, pre-knotted, with a clasp for easy hookup. At an adjacent department store he finds a snazzy pair of Italian dress pants. In the area of shirtness, he makes his play for rebellion. He purchases a black dress shirt, hoping to shake up the salt-and-pepper in a spicy fashion.
Ben arrives at Big Brown in a classic tux, underpinned by a low-cut silver and blue vest with matching bowtie. The surprise is a gray felt fedora, with a hatband made from the same fabric as the vest, and a plume fashioned from the last six inches of an ostrich feather. As they head off, Ben offers an encouraging critique of Jack’s class project.
“Somewhere beneath that nerdish exterior lies an artist. You have rejected the norm and gone for your own unique melange. I am mightily impressed. So what’s your analysis of my creation?”
“Hmm,” says Jack, pretending great deliberation. “Classy and retro. The conservatism surprises me, but the little touches – especially the peacock feather – are very nicely done.”
“Excellent! Just what I was going for.”
Ben is clearly in a good mood, but it’s different than his usual. The trip over the Santa Cruz Mountains is a quiet ride, and his mind seems fully occupied. They pull into the clean metal-and-glass skyscrapers of downtown San Jose, each building sporting a red corporate logo, like a handkerchief in its top-floor pocket. Many of the names are vendors that Jack used to see on his quarterly reports.
Ben works his way to a parking garage and circles all the way to the top. Jack gets the strategy right away: why hunt around for a space when there’s an elevator anyway? It also affords another cool view: the white webs of the federal building across the street, the new Hilton rising like a stalk next to the convention center, the stout, regal Fairmont standing sentry over the green oval of Cesar Chavez Park. They leave the elevator at street level and walk north along the light rail tracks, crossing at the cobalt cube of the San Jose Rep and entering a Thai restaurant. The walls are covered in bamboo screens and tropical-looking art. The hostess leads them to a table in the corner, which is already occupied by a dark-haired woman in a black pantsuit. She spots Ben and flashes a broad smile.
“Hi! I’ll have you know, I’ve been waiting an entire three minutes. You owe me, buddy.”
Ben kisses her on the cheek and sits. “What say I buy you dinner?”
“Oh! Big spender.”
“This is the aforementioned Jack. He’s a virgin.”
“Hi,” says Jack. He takes her hand for a moment and sits down. “I think he means opera virgin.”
“I should hope so! I’m Barbie.”
“Barbie’s with the opera.”
“Yes!” she says. “And tonight will be a perfect beginner for you, like an appetizer plate. Some mozzarella sticks, some oysters, a veggie platter. Ha!”
Barbie talks with the energy of a New Yorker, her words gathering force and speed until she has to release the pressure with a puppy-dog yelp of a laugh. She has a round face, a broad nose, and dark eyes that squint when Ben makes her laugh, which is often.
Ben recommends the mango fish and pad Thai; being no fool, Jack goes with precisely that. Ben’s also pushing the Thai iced coffee.
“This being opera, I want your nerve endings wide open,” he says. “So Barbie, they’re not going to miss you at the dinner?”
“Oh! I just can’t do these things. Too much small talk, and Lord knows I don’t need the calories.”
Ben laughs. “Barbie and I are tennis partners. It’s my job to run her utterly ragged, so she can maintain the integrity of her wardrobe.”
“He’s a slavedriver! I can’t even remember the last time I won a game. Ha!”
Jack takes a few sideways glances to figure Barbie’s figure. She’s large-breasted, which sometimes creates the illusion of fat-ness, but her stomach and hips seem to be what you would call “well-trained.” She is, indeed, a big-boned gal. When she places a hand on his, he thinks he’s been caught.
“It’s so nice to meet a fresh recruit, Jack. But I’ve really got to go. Post-opera, Mister Ben?”
“The Wailing Wall?”
“Ha! I’ll be there. Bye, boys.”
She walks away, looking a little rushed and nervous. Jack settles down to his pad Thai. The peanut sauce connects with all the right taste buds.
“Barbie’s on the production staff,” says Ben. “I knew she couldn’t stay – that’s why I offered to buy her dinner. Ha! But she’s so busy I have to grab some face-time whenever I’m able. Hope you don’t mind.”
“No, no. God, I love this stuff.”
“Had the feeling you would.”
They’re far ahead of schedule, so they dawdle over dessert – sticky rice with yet more mango – as Jack updates Ben on Thompson’s pending tragedies.
“Egad. He has really dug himself a pit, hasn’t he? Well, if it gets you a little more beach-time, what the hell.”
“I must admit, that was my exact thought.”
By the time they finish, the air outside has taken on both cold and moisture, draping halos over the streetlights. They navigate the circle of palms outside the art museum and pass the Fairmont to find a parade of elders heading down Market in formal wear.
“Like a geriatric senior prom,” Ben chuckles. “The gala dinner is at the Fairmont, and then they hike to the California Theater for the performance. I call it the March of the Penguins.”
“That’s good!” says Jack. “You are a witty devil, young man.”
Jack is thankful for the crowd. The tux is still a new idea for him, and he feels like a wolf who has found his pack. They cross to First Street, round the corner at Original Joe’s restaurant, and wind up outside the California, at the northern tip of the nightclub district. Jack has seen the impressive vertical sign dozens of times, the letters spelled out in white bulbs, but has never given the interior much thought.
And what an interior. The entrance hall is high and mighty, bathed in golds and reds – a broad Persian rug underneath, a high ceiling ribbed with beams of Oxford brown, long chandeliers emanating Italian light. A crowd gathers around a man playing a large organ. It sounds like a carousel. Someone in the crowd shouts “All skate!”
“The California is an old film palace, built in 1927,” says Ben. “That’s why they have the Wurlitzer here. This place sat fallow for decades, until the city and David Packard, the computer heir, decided to return it to its original grandeur. And this,” he gestures toward the hall, “is just the beginning.”
They climb the broad staircase to find a mob of socialites in the upstairs reception area, sipping champagne and chatting up what seems like an actual storm. Ben stops to study the crowd, launching into lesson mode.
“In understanding your cause, Jack, I realize that I have spent a lot of time on the rastafarian/bohemian/beatnik side of the equation, and I didn’t want you to think that there weren’t similar delights to be plucked from the land of the hoity-toit. There are, of course, many people who are here mainly to be seen.”
“And to have their cleavage seen,” says Jack.
“Yes! But I would bet that even the sixty-year-olds with the teenage breasts have a sincere affection for this artform, because there is passion in opera, and violence, and good old-fashioned smut! Not to mention heartbreakingly beautiful music. Be forewarned, however. Do not listen too intently; don’t get intellectual about it. Just soak it in. I think you’ll like it.”
They head downstairs to a side entrance. The theater’s interior is so stunning that Jack can’t quite maintain his balance. He decides to keep his eyes on his shoetops until they are safely seated. Once there, he lifts his gaze to the ceiling and finds one half of an African sun, rays of gold, orange and brown slithering toward the stage like desert snakes. The proscenium arch is outlined with Hellenic figures in gold plate. The ceiling over the balcony is covered with rough geometrics, painted in Western shades of green, brown, rusty red.
“This theater is…”
“Yes it is,” says Ben. “Seventy million dollars’ worth. And wait till you hear the acoustics.”
Jack glances at his program, filled with foreign words. He expects to be entirely lost.
“I expect you might feel a little lost,” says Ben. “Now, just to be clear, if you were at an actual opera, they have translations above the stage – supertitles – so there’s no reason you can’t follow the story. With a recital, however, you are sadly out of luck. Fortunately, you are seated next to a genius.” He pulls a small notepad from his breast pocket. “I brought this with me, and I will sketch a few notes as we go along. You will find a handy floor light next to your seat.”
The audience starts applauding, for no apparent reason, but then the conductor, a white-haired man with finely rimmed glasses, pokes his head over the railing of the orchestra pit. Two tall men walk to center stage, both wearing dark suits, and the conductor starts the unseen orchestra into a slow, sweeping intro. To Jack, it sounds like a sunrise. The black man, looking a bit like the pop star Prince, sings in a high voice to the other man, who has an olive complexion and curly hair, and responds in a lower voice. It seems as if they are telling stories to each other. Ben hands him a note: They’re talking about a hot chick.
The next performer is a slender Indian woman in a gown of burnt orange, singing from an opera called La Traviata. She begins with a stunning fusillade of notes that rankles Jack’s ears – he’s not used to such high, piercing sounds. Then she stops suddenly, and goes into a dreamy, waltz-like ballad. Ben’s note reads, She’s hot for a guy, but doesn’t want to give up her independence. Jack thinks immediately of Audrey.
The next piece is from Il Trovatore (which sort of sounds like “troubador”) and features a chorus of two dozen singers. The men are in tuxes, the women in various ensembles of black. Two of the men push carts onstage holding anvils. This seems very odd, until the refrain arrives and the men pound on the anvils with hammers. Jack recalls the tune from a TV commercial; the familiarity gives him a small thrill, an island upon which his hard-working senses can rest.
At the end of the anvil song, a slender woman in a spangled white dress comes out to sing to the chorus. What’s with all the skinny women? he thinks. Aren’t opera singers supposed to be fat? The woman has dark, angular features and an Italian-looking nose with a slight hook, giving her the appearance of a sexy witch. Next to the white chocolate of the Indian woman’s voice, hers is a dark mocha, and she seems to be telling them a story filled with foreboding. Ben finally scrawls a note and passes it Jack’s way: Downtrodden rebels led by a charismatic witch. And yes, you’ve heard the Anvil Chorus before.
It goes on this way for an hour and a half, different people singing, Ben summarizing the action. The music grows on Jack, and he begins to understand some of the things that the singers are after. Many of their notes have little lives all their own, growing and lessening like restless creatures. The best singers fashion their songs into conversations, as if they are simply talking in music and this is a perfectly normal way to behave.
Soon they are down to the final piece. A man and a woman enter the stage; the man carries a chair, which he places at a spot that seems to be preordained. The man has a medium-sized torso and legs, but his chest is quite broad; he has thick, slightly wild brown hair, and the kind of neatly trimmed beard that seems typical of opera singers. The woman is short and busty, dressed in a blueblack sequined jacket and a long, dark skirt with a slit along one leg. She has thick, dark hair arranged in a fanciful up-do, dark eyes, a broad nose. When the man comes to take her hands she smiles, her eyes squinting pleasurably. He gestures toward the chair; she sits to listen to him.
The man’s voice – what they must call “tenor” – has a bright resonance that stands out from the others. With a gun to his head, Jack would say that it has a “ping,” an electric quality that slices through the air. He reaches the crest of the song, a melody that rises and falls like an arch, holding his arms as if he’s about to embrace someone. Ben passes Jack a note: Trying to impress hot neighbor-chick with life story.
He ends with a grand flourish. After the applause, the woman rises to tell her own life story. But of course, thinks Jack. This is every first date I’ve ever had. She is timid, unsure, but her emotions seem to take hold of her; as her singing rises in force Jack notices something extraordinary about the woman’s voice. It’s nearly radioactive. It doesn’t merely slice the air like the man’s voice, it spins wildly, like those whirligig rockets that shoot away from the center of pyrotechnic explosions. The woman shapes her phrases like the other singers – lessening, growing, slipping away, returning from nowhere – but she gives no indication of working at this, and somewhere through the Italian words, Jack understands her completely. She is smitten with this new man, but also afraid – that he will discover some dark, secret thing about her, that she will scare him away. As a poker player would put it, her “tell” is her tremendous passion – it’s not entirely appropriate to the moment. She seems to realize this herself; at the end of the aria, she rambles into a string of small, apologetic syllables.
The audience responds with thunderous applause; several people down front stand from their seats. The woman keeps her eyes on the tenor, staying in character. It must be very difficult, thinks Jack, to take all that love without exploding into ecstasy. Finally, the orchestra starts back up, and the man sings a swaying melody, the tone of which is something like, “What are you worried about? Everything will be fine!” (Oh yeah, he’s in love.) The woman joins in, and then they do an unusual thing: they link arms and walk offstage. Even after they’re out of sight, they continue to sing, the woman rising to a high final note, the man just beneath her. The notes go on and on, and when they finally cut off the audience lets out a roar, punctuated by individual exclamations of “Ho!” and “Woo!” A woman behind them yells “Brawvee!” which makes no sense at all. The man and woman return onstage for their bows; after a moment, they’re joined by the rest of the evening’s performers. The audience rises, section by section, until they’re all on their feet.
The applause goes on for a long time. Jack finds his arms tiring out, and as he lets them dangle for a moment he realizes that he has not yet received his note from Ben. When he looks to his left, however, he finds Ben transfixed by the scene, clapping wildly, tears streaming down his cheeks. This opera is strong medicine, thinks Jack. He shakes his arms and goes back to clapping.
They follow the crowd as it oozes from the theater, and Ben cuts left to the restrooms – a welcome vision for Jack, who has watched 90 minutes of opera directly following an enormous Thai iced coffee. Back in the hallway, Ben leads him outside to a patio area covered in squares of blue-gray granite. Ben stops to study a wall fountain, rivulets of water murmuring a tall rectangle of black stone.
“That last piece,” says Ben. “Puccini. La Boheme. The Garret Scene. Most astonishing stretch of melody in opera. Three ‘hit songs,’ one after the other: ‘Che gelida manina,’ ‘What small, cold hands’; ‘Mi chiamano Mimi,’ ‘I call myself Mimi’; ‘O soave fanciulla,’ ‘Sweet, beautiful girl.’ The poor poet Rodolfo discovers a neighbor girl, Mimi, whose candle has blown out. He tells her of his life. ‘I am a poet. How do I live? I live!’ She tells him of her life as a seamstress, and all the sweet little things that bring her joy: the rooftops of Paris, the first light of spring, rosebuds in a vase. What she doesn’t mention is that she is dying of consumption, which is why she pays such close attention to these small things. And then poof! Rodolfo and Mimi are in love, and they run off to the Café Momus to join their friends. Love happens very quickly in the opera. It’s partly a technical problem. It takes much longer to sing words than to speak them, so everything must be compressed. But still, it’s always a… surprise… when it comes.”
Ben is lost in the fountain, an unfocused stare attached to a non-functioning face.
“Ben? Is there… I mean, all evening, you’ve been… Ben, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Ben snaps out of it, and laughs at Jack’s outburst.
“I’m not entirely certain, but I think I’m in love.”
Now it’s Jack’s turn to lose focus. This is nowhere close to the answer he expected.
“How? I mean… Really?”
Ben throws up his hands, helpless.
“Her name is Gina Scarletti. She lived next door to me, when we both had families. Now her kids are all moved out, and her husband passed away a few years ago. She’s a gorgeous, gorgeous woman – classic Italian, Sophia Loren with a Bronx accent. All those years ago – I mean, you can imagine how dreamlike that part of my life seems to me – Gina and I indulged in a playful, over-the-hedge flirtation. Nothing unseemly, just a little break from our all-encompassing marriages. After the fire, I lost track of her. I guess I didn’t really want any reminders.
“So there I am at the jam party, partaking of my hookah next to the fireplace. You and Audrey were off fucking in the secret garden – and don’t deny it, I saw you take her there. So I’m just sitting there people-watching, and the crowd in front of me seems to part, and who should appear but Cleopatra, dressed as Gina Scarletti. Or perhaps vice-versa. I have never seen anyone so beautiful in all my life. We talked for hours. And get this: she lives two houses down from Terra! I must have driven past her front porch a hundred times. She runs a training center for horses – show-jumpers. You’ve probably seen all the little fences and hedges. A New York Sophia Loren Cleopatra who rides jumping horses. I have got to be making this up.
“Hours, hours later, we were out on the lawn and down to a single musician, a mandolin player. Poor guy was half asleep, but somewhere in his dreams he was playing an old country waltz. I took Gina’s hand, she curtsied, and we waltzed around the lawn like we’d been doing it all our lives. She was so light in my hands, like an armful of wind. The sky began to brighten, and our mandolin player leaned against the porch and fell asleep, the instrument still in his hands. I looked over Gina’s shoulder, saw a sliver of sun over the hilltop, and I kissed Cleopatra. We walked to her house and fell asleep on the couch.”
Ben is eyeing the fountain again, as if it contains a high-def replay of the scene he’s just described.
“I’ve seen her several times since and…” The tears creep in on Ben’s voice, forcing him to push at his words. “I never expected this, Jack!”
He sits on the ledge before the fountain and wipes at his eyes.
“Big goddamn baby,” he mutters.
Jack doesn’t know the proper response to tears of joy, so he sits next to Ben and stares at his hands. A door opens, followed by the tapping of high heels on granite. Jack looks up to find Mimi. Mimi! The woman with the radioactive voice.
“Yaknow, I warn you and warn you about the garret scene, but you never listen. Ya big softie!”
The woman leans down to kiss Ben on both cheeks. Her hair is spangled with glitter. She turns to reveal banners of blue eye-shadow. Stage makeup. A little bit scary.
“He could never handle Puccini. That Giacomo could take a Scandinavian fisherman and make him weep like a menopausal mother-of-the-bride. Ha!”
Jack freezes. What kind of funhouse has he been thrust into?
“That was… you?”
“Barbie’s the best,” says Ben. “Best goddamn singer I’ve ever heard. And you didn’t even know it was her, did you?”
“Ha!” says Barbie. “Our little plan worked.”
Jack scratches his head, feeling murky.
Ben rises from the ledge and smacks Jack on the shoulder. “Never assume that someone you meet under mundane circumstances might not be capable of extraordinary things.”
“You tricked me.”
“Yes. But we did not lie. I simply asked Barbie to be a little vague about her job description. All the assumptions were yours.”
Jack can’t help himself. He stands and gives Barbie a kiss on the cheek.
“You were glorious.”
Barbie begins to blush. Given how many times she must have heard similar compliments, this seems odd.
“Also,” says Jack, “Uncle Ben is in love.”
“No!” Barbie squeals. “You are? Really?”
“Stool pigeon!” says Ben. “Rat fink!”
“Crybaby!” says Jack.
The three of them sit before the Wailing Wall as Ben tells the story once more.
Photo by MJV