Note: This chapter has become a favorite among readers of this blog, so I'm re-printing it for ready access. Thanks! Michael J. Vaughn
Read the novel on this site, a chapter per week, or buy the book and companion CD at Amazon.com.
Read the novel on this site, a chapter per week, or buy the book and companion CD at Amazon.com.
One thing I love about our decking business: I’m always discovering little enclaves of civilization that I never dreamed existed. Today I stand atop a sunny hillside next to Summit Road, ten miles east of Highway 17. Looking at the uninhabited mountains to my north, it’s easy for me to imagine that I’m in the middle of nowhere. Fly a chopper over that ridge, however, and you will find the million-plus inhabitants of Silicon Valley.
Colin is a magnet for UK clients. Today’s deck belongs to a Welsh couple, high-tech immigrants who seem intent on re-creating their agricultural homeland. The fenced-off slope beneath the deck plays host to two horses, four goats, and a quartet of peafowl – two cocks, two hens. As I’m off-loading the pressure-washer, I look across the property to find one of the cocks perched on the branch of a pine tree, thirty feet off the ground. I never knew that peacocks could get to such heights. Nor that they produced piercing calls that could eat your brains out. I’ll bet that’s real popular with the neighbors.
Colin’s in a hurry to get to another client, so he sets me up with Gatorade and beef jerky and heads out. The message is clear: I am to stay on-site with my survival rations and get this deck cleaned up.
The job presents immediate obstacles. A small balcony means that I have to set up the washer just below, start up the engine, then climb a ladder, wand in hand, and hop over the railing. Performing the precarious trip back down, I recall Colin’s favorite cautionary: “Now don’t go breaking your neck. That would be horrible for business.”
The shaded balcony railings are thick with moss, and already my clothes have developed a layer of pond scum. Things get worse on the main deck, where the cracks are filled up with dog fur and dirt from wintertime puddles. Running the stream into the cracks, I am blasting myself with black muck.
Fortunately, it’s a sunny day, so it’s simple enough to ignore my evolution into a street urchin and enjoy the vista. I am forever delighted by the landscapes that accompany my work, and I laugh when I think of all those years I wasted in cubicles.
With the assistance of Colin’s generous provisions, I am able to work straight through, and am about to turn the corner onto the last run of railings when I come face-to-face with an enormous peacock. He has perched on the railings and raised his tail feathers in a regal display.
I am half-dazzled and half-petrified. Understanding this posture as a mating ritual, I fear that the peacock has taken me for a rival, or worse, a potential partner. The majority of my concern lands on that long beak, which looks like it could be razor-sharp. This was not in the company guidebook.
This calls for a jerky break. I back away, switch off the engine and head for the cooler. There’s still a little ice in the water, and that first swallow of red-punch Gatorade is a fantastic sensation. I grab a strip of jerky and plop myself on the grass next to the driveway. The two goats – ugly, ugly creatures in the grand British tradition – stand at the fence watching me with soulless eyes, stretching their necks between the wires to nibble on the grass.
Once I am sated, I look back toward the deck to find the peacock still there, feathers at attention. I extend my break a little further by going to my car and checking my cell phone. There’s a message. The voice is young, female and nervous.
“Umm… Geez. Hi, Mickey? This is Delores, from San Francisco Opera? We’ve got a bit of a crisis here, and we were hoping you could help us out. Could you possibly meet Ms. Hart this evening? Um, tell you what. If the answer is yes – and I really hope it is – just give me a time and location and I’ll look it up. I’m really sorry for intruding like this, but I figured at the least I shouldn’t go around handing out your phone number. Well. Thanks.”
This is the single most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard. Give her my Social Security number, my credit cards, my left kidney, what the hell do I care? I text her back: Coffee Society, Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, 6 p.m.
The response is immediate: Thanks. I return the cell to its nest and I look to the railing. Goddamn peacock still in place. Goddamn peacock about to meet up with 2600 pounds per inch.
I’m screwed. I’ve got the station wagon packed and ready to go, but it’s 5:30, which leaves me barely enough time to get to the coffeehouse. Problem being, I’m a mess, and I’ve got no change of clothes. Perhaps I should just show up naked. I take off my Wellies (the Brit term for galoshes), revealing a distinct line across my calf between mucked-up and not-mucked-up. Well, screw it. If this is truly a crisis, she’ll have to take me as-is.
The Coffee Society is a habit that goes back to my previous incarnation. It’s part of the Oaks Center, one of the few survivors from the early-‘70s trend of landscaped outdoor malls. The buildings are modestly proportioned, topped with clay-tile roofs, marked by beamed overhangs, pebbled walkways and fountains. And oaks, lots of oaks. The specimens out front are old, sprawling live oaks that give the place the feel of a private university.
The Society resides in an airy space with angled, open-beam ceilings that give it the feel of a mountain chalet. The south and west walls are made entirely of glass, providing a good view across Stevens Creek Boulevard to De Anza Community College. The college supplies the place with lots of students and a young, funky energy to go with the laptop techies and the groups of immigrants who gather for boisterous chats. The college also provides artworks, currently a collection of airbrushed celebrity portraits that includes a gigantic painting of Heath Ledger as The Joker.
Although my cabin has turned me into something of a recluse, I still come here to fight off cases of lead-block (the inability to come up with that all-important first paragraph) or to digest a Sunday paper. I also have the occasional need for a really well-done cappuccino, and the Society is one of the last places in the Valley to get one. My favorite source is Caleb, a slim twentysomething baristo with curly blond hair and a ready supply of rhetorical jibes. When I arrive looking like a kelp monster, I’m an easy target.
“Didn’t I make it clear that this establishment has a dress code?”
It’s easier to play along than to explain myself. I adopt an abject expression.
“I’m very sorry, sir. But a group of ruffians made off with our washing machine.”
“Russians you say? Damn those Russians! I suppose you’ll want your regular?”
I slam the counter. “Yes! And I want it now! And a banana!”
Caleb mutters into his T-shirt as if he’s wearing a wire. “Suspect is ordering a banana.”
I hand him my money and switch to the pick-up counter so I can watch the production. He pours the standard rosetta figure in the foam, but first he mixes cocoa powder into the espresso, which gives the image an extra sharpness. The effect is almost a little Van Goghish.
“I’m waiting for a diva,” I say, attempting nonchalance.
“Aren’t we all?” He hands me my drink and dashes off to the next customer. I head for the patio, a railed-off area out front. I’m barely four sips along when I spy a silver Lexus with Tatyana at the wheel. Since when are prima donnas on time?
And how does one greet a superstar when one is covered head-to-toe in algae and dog fur? The quandary is eliminated when Maddie virtually trots to the patio and lassos me with a hug.
“Hi Maddie. I’m sort of… I’m filthy.”
“Don’t care.” She’s not letting me go. This makes me oddly uncomfortable. All I can see is that pile of lush hair, the straw, the wheat, the honey. I think she’s afraid to let me see her face. Is she crying? Do I have another Katie on my hands? I hope to God Caleb’s watching this.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “All I was sure of was that I needed to find Mickey and give him a hug.”
“That’s okay. Can I ask…?”
She finally pulls back so I can see her face. No redness, no sign of tears, but a tightness in her features, a pinched anxiety.
“No. I can’t. Can we go for a walk somewhere? I need to walk.”
“Sure.” I give a longing glance to my half-finished cappuccino. Maddalena Hart fits her fingers into mine, and I lead her across the street to Memorial Park.
The park is a magnet for waterfowl, particularly Canadian geese. The resultant glut of fecal matter necessitates a chemical treatment that turns the water hunter green. We walk the asphalt path that circles the pond. I seem to be compensating for Maddie’s silence by relating a rambling story about duckherding.
“I just didn’t think that Mama and her kids should be wandering around next to an intersection, so I decide I’m the freakin’ Duck Whisperer and I start walking them back toward the pond. We’re halfway across the field – and I’m feeling like I need some really tiny cowboys on the backs of dachshunds – when some five-year-old kicks a soccer ball at them. I coulda wrung his little neck. And then finally, when I get them to the pond, this big old mallard comes out and pecks Mama right in the forehead! And I’m thinking, Jesus! These animals are savages. So I scare him off, and I manage to get them to another pond, but then I’m thinking, Do we have any business pursuing these St. Francis fantasies? Are we just screwing with Darwin? Do we have any idea that what we’re doing is helping at all? Maddie, really – are you okay?”
We stop at the entrance to a gazebo. Just across a narrow channel of water is an amphitheater of terraced lawns. They do free Shakespeare there, and it’s pretty cool, watching a play across a moat.
Maddie looks at me as if she has no idea how I got there.
“It looks nice over there. Let’s go sit on the lawn.”
We settle on the third terrace. I sit with my back to a low wall. Maddie takes off her silver-gray jacket, sets it over my dirty shorts and lies on her side with her head on my lap, looking toward the gazebo. She’s wearing a gauzy mauve blouse, the fabric done up in stripes of different widths. I work up the nerve to run my fingers along her hair, the way I do with Katie. I feel like I’m breaking a law, like a commoner daring to touch the queen. She sighs and takes a long breath, and sighs again.
“Even here, even in my escape, I end up at a theater. It’s beautiful, though.”
In my head, I’m trying to pull up the calendar on the SFO website. I saw her on Friday, then probably a Sunday matinee.
“When are you singing again?”
Another sigh. “Never.”
Oh no. Not on my watch. But I remind myself that she’s a diva – literally, a drama queen – and given to exaggeration. I spread my hand across her forehead and use my thumb and ring finger to rub her temples. It’s a trick I learned from my ex.
“What happened, Maddie?”
She hums contentedly. “Won’t tell you. But keep doing that. It’s divine. I love you.”
Exaggeration, I repeat. But Maddie Hart just told me she loved me. Jesus. Bring on the kryptonite. I focus my superpowers on the tips of my fingers. I can’t remember the last time a woman gave me a massage. I have become a healer. I will soon have rock singers, ballerinas and movie stars lined up at my cabin, seeking asylum. Maddie speaks as if she’s dictating a dream.
“I realize you’re a fan, a devotee, and that I am taking complete advantage of your feelings for me. But I had to get away, and I… I can’t tell you right now.”
Just over the gazebo, I see a groundskeeper dragging a square of chain-link fence over the infield.
“Maddie, I do have one… obligation.”
I take her to a grassy mound just above the bleachers, and leave her there while I fetch the car. I give her a clean dropcloth to serve as a picnic blanket, and a stain-speckled Giants sweatshirt in case she gets cold. Then I take my bag to a nearby men’s room and change into my uniform (wondering why I didn’t change into it before – duh!). Maddie’s eyes light up at my return.
“Well! Mickey Siskel leads a double life.”
I adopt a baritone radio voice. “Effete opera critic by day, at night Mickey Siskel becomes Softball Man!”
“Yeah and you’ve got the tights for it, too. Nice codpiece, by the way.”
“Round these parts we call it a cup.” I demonstrate by rapping my knuckles against it. “You wouldn’t want me to go castrato on you.”
She gives me a stage laugh, a Merry Widow laugh. Pure manna.
“Of course not. I don’t need the competition.”
I descend to the field, feeling like a doctor abandoning his patient. Doug’s doing his pre-game stretches along the right-field foul line. He gives a look past my shoulder.
“Jesus! Who’s the babe?”
“I’m not sure if you’d believe me.”
“Biggest opera star in the world.”
“You’re shittin’ me.” When I don’t say anything, he gives me a serious look. “Wow. You’re not shittin’ me.”
“Nope. Hey, let’s warm up.”
I have this ham instinct that kicks in when someone comes to see me play. Where a normal person might get nervous, I get phenomenally good. With Maddalena Fucking Hart in the stands, I am destined for greatness. On the first pitch of the game, their hitter strokes a ball up the middle. I’m heading that direction when the ball glances off our pitcher’s glove and heads toward the spot where I started. I stop and sprawl back toward first to knock the ball down, then I grab it with my bare hand, lunge forward and backhand the ball to first just in time to beat the runner. Maddie’s soprano whoop fills the field. I clamber to my feet and give a small bow.
At the plate, I take a pitch down the middle and push it a little too much toward right, causing it to elevate. I am so focused on hitting line drives, I’m muttering curses as I jog toward first, until I realize that the right fielder has stopped, that the ball is rolling toward the duck pond, on the other side of the fence. I try my best to fake a home run trot, pointing a finger to my one-woman fan club as I cross home plate, and make a mental note to never try that again. The temptations of Lady Home Run can be as fatal as Delilah, especially to a leadoff hitter, and this one was just a glorious mistake.
Four-for-four, two double plays (one started, one turned), five RBI, four runs. We win handily, and on the last play of the game I sprint into right field to catch a shallow fly over my shoulder. Much to my chagrin, my soprano audience lets out a resounding “Bravo!” I suppose it’s payback.
After running the line of hands at the pitcher’s mound, I climb the steps, bag in hand, and she greets me with a hug.
“You’re so good!”
“Ooh. You’re bleeding.”
It’s the scab from last week, which I probably re-opened on that first play. I blot it against my thigh, adding to my collection of Rorschachs.
“God, Mickey. You’re so butch, I’d swear you were latent.”
“If that were true, I probably wouldn’t go to the opera so much.”
She grabs my hand, which still puts a shock through me.
“I don’t want to stop, Mickey. I don’t mean this in… the usual way, but… could you take me home?”
I’ve had enough of being cowed by royalty. My answers are getting clearer.
“Yes. Anything you want.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
I’m careful to explain to Maddie about my cabin, so she doesn’t think I’m abducting her. She makes me stop on the dirt road at the first overlook, where the lights of Silicon Valley look like a patch of luminous gladiolas. I’m trying to ignore the gasoline smell of the pressure washer, the piles of decking supplies, the dozens of empty Gatorade bottles, but I suppose if she can hug a man covered in algae, she can put up with a few alien odors. But that’s the part I’m not quite getting. Why does Maddie Hart seem to have so much faith in me? She’s behaving as if she’s known me for years.
When we pull in at the twin redwoods, Maddie wanders toward the orchard, where the full moon is painting the field in silver. She stands at the edge of the road and reaches up with both arms, as if she’s greeting an old friend. Her hair creates a dazzling silhouette. As I come behind her, she takes a deep breath, drawing in air with the entirety of her frame, and she does the most remarkable thing. She sings. She sings the opening lines of “Song to the Moon.” In person, without an orchestra, the sound is rough and raw. It is the voice that I have depended on for a thousand small salvations, contained within this physical vessel, this woman I have spent the evening touching and talking to. She approaches the refrain and I close my eyes, anticipating Dvorak’s ethereal turn, the musical equivalent of moonbeams, expecting my heart to collapse right here in the field – and then, suddenly, she stops, turns, and laughs.
“I’m being a very bad girl, singing in the cold air.” She gazes back toward the moon. “But how could I not?” Then she turns back to me, notices something, and reaches out to touch my face. “Mickey? You’re crying. Does that song make you cry?”
“When you sing it.”
She places a hand against my cheek. “Good answer. Now let’s go inside before I do further damage to myself.”
I collect her bags from the car and walk her up the steps. I soon have her settled on the couch with a glass of pinot noir and a plate of macadamia/white chocolate cookies. I light up a couple of Duraflames. She twirls a lock of hair with a finger, which I guess means she’s comfortable.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I’m tired of being filthy in your presence. I’m going to take a bath.”
She smiles. “A bath? Not a he-man shower?”
“A bath. Would you like to watch TV?”
“No thanks. A little silence would do me well. In San Francisco, they don’t have silence. They’ve outlawed it.”
In the bathroom, out of Maddie’s presence, I can feel myself aging. My 47-year-old body has suffered much abuse. But the water and the mango soap are magical, and soon I’m feeling better. I slip on a pair of jeans and a golf shirt and return to the living room.
She’s asleep. I should have expected it. Whatever affliction has driven her my way is exacting a toll. She is curled sideways, her head on the arm of the couch, her jacket folded across the adjacent armchair. I take a blanket from my closet and drape it across her, pulling it up to her shoulders.
I fully expect to lie awake for hours, riding the celebrity buzz, but the body is wise. I’m two pages along on a biography of Rossini when my eyes begin to droop. I switch off my bedside lamp and drift away.
Next to me, something is moving. I squint at the ceiling, pull my arms under me and roll over. It’s Maddie, in striped yellow pajamas.
“Mickey? Are you awake? Are you conscious?”
I’m self-conscious. Because I tend to sleep in the nude. But I notice that she’s lying on top of my comforter, so we still have one degree of separation. A whisper of light seeps through the windows. I’m guessing it’s six, six-thirty.
“Hi.” She’s wide awake, full of energy. “I owe you an explanation. But I can’t tell you unless you’re fully conscious.” She taps a fingernail against her teeth, perhaps the habit of a reformed chewer.
I rub my eyes, throw out my arms and stretch everything else, gaining an immediate preview of all the aches that will follow me for the rest of the day. I manage to generate one-half of a smile.
“It’s those goddamn minor characters. I’m rushing through costume changes, making my way to the stage, running parts through my head, and I pass the green room, where I see Monsieur Triquet and Olga and they’re playing cards with the techies and laughing, and I’m thinking, Why do I have all this freaking stage time? This is crazy! Why am I doing this impossible thing? I have placed myself in a position where the Sunday afternoons of thousands of people, the day’s wages of a couple hundred musicians, ushers, administrators, et cetera and a notable percentage of the local economy depends on my doing this horribly difficult thing. Stepping onto that stage is like a bungee-jumper stepping off the platform. Every instinct of self-preservation tells you that you are putting your trust in a thin elastic band – your training, your memorization, your rehearsals, your stage skills – to prevent you from becoming a messy smudge on the rocks below. But I do it. I take that leap and these sounds fly from my mouth and I fill the artificial soul and emotions of this fictional character. And I do understand that I’m very good at what I do, but sometimes I don’t really understand how I do what I do. What I’m afraid of is…”
An idea lands on her satellite dish, her eyes widen. She grips my shoulder.
“When I was a kid, I would watch these cartoons where the character, let’s say Daffy Duck, would be thrust out over the edge of the cliff. But he wasn’t aware of it, so he would just hover in mid-air. However, the second he looked down and realized where he was – that’s when he would fall. (Of course, part of the joke was that Daffy kept forgetting that he was a duck, and could fly.) But here’s the lesson: it’s not the gravity that makes you fall, it’s the realization of gravity.
“On Sunday, during the final act, for the briefest of moments, I realized that I didn’t know my next line, and for just a moment I froze. Jesus, bless him, saw my predicament and bought me a second by kissing my hand. Then the conductor, Donald, slowed the tempo just a bit – a grain of sand, but just enough for me to recall the next line and smuggle it into the flow of the music. I’m sure that no one in the audience knew a thing. But for me, for just that one lightning-flash, a chink opened up in my little world, and through that chink I glimpsed the enormous void of gravity and impossibility that underlies everything I do. It scared the hell out of me.”
I fully expect her to break into tears, but this is not a crying thing, it’s something closer to the brain. Anxiety. Fear. She tucks her head into my shoulder, I wrap an arm around her as best a civilized-but-naked man can, and I stroke her hair. I am Mickey, who solves all problems by stroking hair. We lie in pools of faint light for fifteen minutes. Maddie’s breathing slows to a regular pace and she says, “Mickey? Could you make me some breakfast?”
Last Thursday’s inspired round of grocery buying has left me in good stead. I lay down a base of sausage, wait till it’s sizzling in grease and then slice in some onions, red potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes. When everything’s fried up, I stir in six eggs, and dish out our portions when they’re still a little undercooked. When I deliver it to the coffee table with a pre-sliced grapefruit and fresh-ground coffee, Maddie looks at me as if I’m Onegin, and I’ve just said yes.
“My God, he cooks too. Why have you not been snatched up by someone?”
I laugh. “That requires an answer of Wagnerian length. I’ve got a simpler question for you, though. When do we need to get you back to the opera?”
She gives my query a long, thoughtful blink. “Thursday. My final performance.”
“Tata, Tatyana. Then I start on Mimi.”
“Really?” I take a forkful of my scramble and chew.
“I’m a little old for Mimi. I have to find a way to use that.”
“Oh come on, you’re not…”
“Of course I am. A singer spends her entire life playing teenagers, being constantly reminded of how old she is. And then, when her career is just about over, they let her play the Marschallin. Finally! Someone her own age. But then that scares the hell out of her, and she wants to go back to playing the teenagers.”
I point a fork at her. “You are involved in a weird industry.”
“Indeed I am.” She takes a sip of coffee and gives a satisfied sigh.
“So I take it,” I say, “that by recruiting me as your rescuer, you have given me responsibility for getting you back on that stage.”
“This is what I do. When my cup of stress runneth over, I gleefully share it with others. I’m lucky to have an occupation where I can get away with this.”
“So you’re in my hands? I can do with you what I will?”
“That sounds a little provocative, but yes. I give you the reins.”
“Are you a hiker?”
“Yes. I started to look like Montserrat Caballe a few years ago, so I hired a personal trainer. She works me so hard that a critic recently made flattering remarks regarding my derriere.” She gives me a look that threatens to melt me into the floorboards.
I pretend to take a long time chewing a recalcitrant pepper. I really have no good response.
“It’s all right, Mickey. It’s more than all right. It made me feel 14 years old. Maybe that’s why I thought you could save me from the Daffy Duck Syndrome. And I was right. Last night, watching you hurl yourself around the infield, that was… thrilling.”
“I’m a ham.”
“Oh, and I’m not? Maybe that’s why we understand each other. Now do your job and find me a way out of this labyrinth.”
I take a swallow of coffee, relishing the bitterness as it spreads over my tongue.
“After breakfast, you will take a long bath in my clawfoot tub. You will use the mango soap, which is produced by Valkyries in Valhalla. You will keep the window open so you may gaze upon the madrone forest. Then you will put on some hiking clothes – because today, you will be put to the test. Am I clear?”
She spoons a chunk of grapefruit into her mouth and smiles. “Sir yes sir.”
As Maddalena bathes, I step to a spot just east of the twin redwoods and manage to work my cell phone up to two bars.
“Micko? What’s up, lad?”
“Can’t come in today. Really sorry.”
“Under the weather, are we?”
“You remember our agreement about days off?”
“Throwing-up sick or a fantastically gorgeous woman.”
“That last one there.”
Colin’s voice goes up an octave. “Really? Anyone I know?”
I consider keeping this to myself, but I don’t see how I can. The man is going to spend the day sweating on a deck on my behalf.
I don’t need to see his face to know that Colin is beside himself. His answer is packed with incredulous vowels.
“No-o-o-oh! Really! Egad, friend. You’ve hit the fucking jackpot. Well, you give her a couple of… you tell her I said hello. And do let me know what’s up for tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Colin. I owe you several favors.”
“By the way, one of the peacocks has disappeared. I hope we didn’t scare him off with all the noise.”
I know I shouldn’t say anything, but I can’t help myself. “Maybe he couldn’t handle the pressure. I’d better see to Madam Diva. Ta!”
“Ta! You devil.”
Relatively speaking, Big Basin State Park is right in my neighborhood, so it seems like a good place to start. We begin with the main trail, where we gawk at monstrous redwoods whose birthdates end in B.C. After a stop at the snack shack for granola and bottled water, I lead her to the trail, a half-mile uphill followed by 3 1/2 miles down. The final half-mile follows a creek banked in thick stands of fern and moss, then takes a right-hand jog to Blackberry Falls.
The falls make a modest drop of 30 feet, but the aesthetic qualities are absolutely premium. It’s got a wide release point, ten feet across, and the water that doesn’t make it to the big drop funnels off to the sides, running in silver rivulets along walls furred with moss. It’s very Celtic fairytale Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of course Maddalena, perched on a wide rock next to the receiving pool, gives it an operatic context.
“Lucia di Lammermoor. The fountain, haunted by the woman whose corpse was left there by her jealous lover. I think Lucia was in love with that story; I’ve always played it that way. I think she was in touch with the other side. And then the other side came over and got her. You know, you can go crazy just doing that role. Often during the Mad Scene I fall into a kind of semi-conscious state, and finally click back in at a reception three hours later, my stage director waving a hand in front of my face and saying, ‘For God’s sake, Maddie, where are you?’”
I have found yet another charming quality. In her blue jeans and plaid shirt, Maddie shows no sign of the fish out of water. I also notice something about her teeth. They are a little bigger and out-front than they should be, giving her just a taste of the chipmunk, making her smile easy and accessible.
“I’m amazed you don’t all go mad. Like that soprano in Tales of Hoffman who’s told not to sing or she’ll lose her life.”
“Antonia. Eesh. How awful. You know, I was a pianist first.”
“I was a hyper child. Smart but unfocused. Today they would pump me full of Ritalin. Instead, they gave me piano lessons. I found out I was good at it. But I certainly didn’t love it. I only loved the part about being good. But I stuck with it, all the way through a bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t good enough to do concerts, but I had just enough vocal training – choirs, madrigal groups – to make a good accompanist for singers. They really appreciated that I understood what was going on with the vocals, the spots where I needed to back off, or wait on an entrance, or a sustenato.
“One of them was a tenor named Ray Atlas. He went on to a wonderful career in Europe – even landed a tour of Les Miserables. Occasionally, when we were rehearsing, I would make reference to parts of an art song or aria by singing them. ‘Okay, on this part – la la la la – do you want me to take a pause,’ et cetera. One time he stopped me, mid-phrase, and he said, ‘You need to sing somewhere. You’ve got a lovely voice.’ I thought he was just being nice, or flirting – but the next day I saw a flyer on the auditions board for a community production of The Sound of Music. And I thought, What the hell.
“The Mother Superior. A little odd for a 23-year-old, but I had the right sound for the part. We had a three-week run, and the audiences seemed favorable. ‘Climb Every Mountain’ is quite the show-stopper, and I got really addicted to the applause. After the final performance I’m hanging out by the stage, talking to some friends when this man comes up. He looked very professorial: balding, spectacles, tweed coat. He said, ‘You need to sing opera.’ And I said, ‘Well thank you!’ and we talked for a while and I didn’t think much of it.
“When I woke the next morning, the phrase You need to sing opera was sitting on my nightstand like an impatient housecat. I was pretty well-versed on the local voice teachers – being one of their pet pianists – and I called the most charismatic of all: Dr. Charlene Archibeque, six-foot-two blonde, former fashion model, sometimes called “Big Bird” by her students (but never to her face). Dr. A was personable, but dead serious when it came to music. I had not had time to prepare anything, so I took something that Ray was working on – Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” from Don Giovanni – and sang it up an octave, as I played the chords on the piano.
“When I finished, I turned to find Dr. A wearing a very puzzled expression, as if my head had just sprouted forget-me-nots. She excused herself, dashed down the hall and returned with a colleague, Dr. Sharkova. Then she looked at me and said, ‘Again.’
“When I finished, the two of them exchanged a glance, looked at me with two very uncharacteristic grins, and the next thing I knew I was in the counselor’s office, sorting through applications to MFA programs. I ended up at the University of Houston, got my degree and began to play the regional opera companies. Three years later I won the Met auditions, and a year after that I made my debut singing Rusalka. Which explains my freakish attachment to ‘Song to the Moon.’
“So I owe it all to two men who told me I needed to sing. And here’s the difference, here’s what I tell my students. I played piano because I was good at it, and I enjoyed the approval. I sing opera because I love opera. And I’m good at it, and I enjoy the approval. And the dresses. And the money – did I mention the money?”
She lets out a laugh that rings off the walls. It’s good to see her take a step out of her funk, and it occurs to me that she has told that story (which she has doubtlessly told many times before) more for herself than for me.
I peer at the angle of the sun and say, “We’d better get going. And it’s all uphill, baby.” I take her hand and pull her to her feet.
“That’s okay,” she says. “I’m tough.”
“Big talkin’ diva. Hyah!”
I don’t really know any diva-worthy restaurants near the park, so I drive over the hill to Saratoga. My old reliable is Bella Mia, an 1894 Victorian that’s been dolled up like a layer cake in tiers of sky blue, navy and white. It sits in the village, a strip of shops whose curbside trees are forever wrapped in Christmas lights.
Since we are royalty, a parking spot opens up right out front, and soon I am escorting Maddie to a table on the patio, separated from the sidewalk by a picket fence. I love sitting here. I love watching the villagers walking their labradoodles, the slow parade of Mercedeses and BMWs and landscape trucks. I sit across from Maddie as she digs into a basket of pastry bread and a spicy blended butter. After a day in the woods, she looks pretty roughed-up, but she looks healthier. It’s like stripping the paint from a beautifully varnished armoire and discovering that the wood underneath looks even better.
All through dinner – mozzarella-stuffed chicken for me, shrimp rigatoni for her – I sense a buzz in the air. For a Tuesday, the place is pretty packed, and I can feel the attention being progressively focused on our table. Saratogans are more immune to celebrity than most. Two arts venues bring famous musicians through on a regular basis, and the old-money culture frowns on fawning. So no one makes an approach – at least, until we receive our espressos con panna. I see Maddie’s green irises lift from her drink, and I turn to discover an elderly couple, leaning on our fence like friendly neighbors. The man is tall and gangly, with a head of silver hair and a fin de siecle moustache. The woman is slim and cute, a lady who will never lose her girldom no matter how old she gets. The man speaks in a voiceover baritone.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but my wife and I saw your Tatyana the other night and we just wanted to thank you. It was magnificent.”
At this point, Maddie becomes a slightly different person. Public Maddie. Overly pleasant, effusive Maddie.
“Thank you so much! I always wonder how it’s coming across.”
The woman laughs. “How could you ever wonder about that?”
“This is my wife, Jeri,” says the man. They exchange handshakes all around. “I’m Leigh Weimers. Used to write a newspaper column.”
“Yes!” I say. “I was in your column. Turkey on a Volvo.”
“Ah!” says Leigh. “Turkey on a Volvo.”
The women look at us very blankly.
“Up on Skyline Boulevard,” I say. “I saw a wild turkey, sitting on the hood of a Volvo.”
“This is Mickey Siskel,” says Maddie. “He’s an online opera critic.”
“Oh-hoh!” says Leigh. “Dining with the enemy.”
I think I am realizing what I like about Leigh. He is exceedingly comfortable in his own skin, and he’s obviously used to talking to celebrities. If Maddie weren’t here, I think I’d be hitting him up for some tips.
“Mister Siskel has the good taste to adore my singing,” says Maddie. “To a soprano, there’s no quality quite as attractive.”
“Say,” says Leigh. He pulls out a pencil and a steno pad, which after all these years must be permanent appendages. “Give me your website. I’d love to see what you wrote.”
“It’s operaville dot blogspot dot com,” says Maddie. “He combines his reviews with historical tales about the composers. It’s delightful.”
“Can’t wait,” says Leigh. “Well, we leave you to your drinks with a hearty ‘Brava!’”
“Brava!” says Jeri.
“Grazie,” says Maddalena Hart. “I would take a formal bow, but I’m sort of trapped.”
“Bye!” they call, and continue down the street. Maddie watches them go, then turns to me with a smile.
“Did I do all right?”
“Yes. Gracious. Not too effusive. Friendly, witty.”
“You’d be surprised. I had a colleague, ten-year veteran of the big houses, and I heard her arguing with her admirers. ‘Oh, no, I wasn’t very good tonight, I had so much trouble with that one part in the third act, blah-blah-blah…’ I had to take her aside and tell her to stop insulting the judgement of her fans. Even if they’re wrong, just smile and say thank you.”
“I think I know someone like that. But no, I give you an A-minus.”
“Are you insulting my judgement?”
“Oh, you’re good.”
“I just want to give you something higher to shoot for. Have you ever been to a laser show?”
“Well, you’re about to. Let’s get our bill.”
“I’ll get our bill.”
“Bless you, diva.”
I saw a flyer for the Cosmic Concert on the Coffee Society bulletin board. I couldn’t believe it was still around. In the ‘70s, my bored high school self went quite often, and rarely in a non-altered state. It took place in the De Anza Planetarium, where Maddie and I are lined up with an assortment of college students and aging hippies. We filter into our reclining seats and gaze at the star-spangled dome as the laser-master creates a menagerie of ultrabright shapes and patterns to a rock and roll soundtrack. I am amazed to find that many of the pieces are the same ones I saw thirty years ago: the B-52s’ “Love Under the Strobelight” with spinning red telephones, Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with a drifting green astronaut, Yes’s “Roundabout” with the equivalent of an indoor fireworks show. My pupils are officially on overdrive, and I feel Maddie’s fingers wrapping my hand, her hair brushing my cheek, her lips brushing my cheek. My nerve endings are performing Swan Lake, and I know any second I will wake up.
After the show, I’m tempted to drive to Maddie’s car – which is parked just across the street – and ask her to follow me up the hill. But I don’t think I could bear the separation. Also, she might wise up and drive back to San Francisco.
So we drive the mountain. The streetwise deer come out to say “How you doin’?” We slip into that mode where nothing need be said. We’re descending the dirt road, nearing the first overlook, when Maddie takes her hand off my shoulder and searches the controls on my dashboard.
“Where’s the heat on this thing?”
She hits a button and finds her own voice pouring from the speakers. It’s “Song to the Moon.”
Her smile blossoms like a morning glory at sunrise. “Pull over here.” So I do. She says, “Keep the song on and turn the headlights off.” So I do, and I join Maddie in front of the hood. There’s a spread of grass on the turnout, and the lights of the Valley are laid out before us like a Cosmic Concert picnic blanket. Maddie holds out her hands and I take the invitation. We dance to Dvorak, we dance to the song of my resurrection, in the dark and cold mountain air. When the tape pushes forward to “Sombre foret,” Maddalena Hart comes closer and closer and I kiss my diva for all I’m worth.
There’s a third cabin on the property, but it’s hardly ever occupied. Apparently, it’s being rented by people who never vacation. The previous renter assembled a fire pit, using stones salvaged from the nearby woods. Maddie and I sit on a log, caretakers of a vigorous blaze, doing our best to roast marshmallows on the tips of bouncy coat-hanger rods. I consume my latest victim - blessed with a suntan worthy of a bikini model – and I decide that it’s time to ‘fess up.
“May I tell you my story?”
“I expected you might,” she says, and takes my hand. “I give you the downbeat.”
I steer a ship’s-captain gaze over the flames to find my subject, a third up from the horizon, three percent on the wane, a wisp of cloud crossing its beacon.
I didn’t have much of a calling, but I went to college during the Reagan era, so I ended up in business school. Finance. I was a very social creature – president of my frat, an athlete, not unattractive. My guidance counselor said, You’re good with people – go into stocks. You’ll be good with the clients.
So I did. Didn’t even need a master’s. He was right, I was good, and it was certainly the right time to get in. Weathered the early-‘90s recession, got into tech stocks, surfed my way into the Clinton boom. I married a co-worker, Allison – marvelous girl, beautiful, sexy, smart as a whip. We bought a house in south San Jose, we were in excellent shape. It was time to start a family.
We couldn’t. Seven miscarriages. We got pregnant, but poor Allison couldn’t hold them. She quit her job, thought that might help. It didn’t.
Our reactions were a little cross-gender. Each of our miscarriages hit me like a steamroller. Deep depressions that lasted for weeks, couldn’t even get out of bed unless I had to go to work. I saw each one as a real, living baby – a creature that poops its diapers and giggles when you make a face – so each one was, to me, a genuine, visceral death. Allison seemed wholly unaffected, as if these were not deaths but failures, part of a process. She wanted to try again, as soon as she was able, for as long as it took.
After seven, I couldn’t do it any more. And neither one of us wanted to adopt. That might seem selfish, but I think it takes a certain kind of couple, with a certain mindset, to take that on. We were wise enough to know that we were not those people.
For a few years we went on as a childless couple. People do this, we said. People live fulfilling lives without children. I was always the wiz kid at the brokerage, always on the edge of things, so it was natural for me to get into derivatives. It was very creative. I was helping to invent entirely new ways to produce revenue; sometimes it felt like I was pulling cash out of the air. But a few years down the line, when the inventing part was over, I came to realize that what I was doing had no real value. I wasn’t producing anything that was any good to society. I was only using this mathematical sleight-of-hand to make a stacked deck even more unfair, to make filthy rich people even richer.
I decided that I wanted out. With no children to provide for, and Allison back at her old job, I thought I deserved a little time to lift my nose from the grindstone. I met Colin at a barbecue. He told me that he was starting a deck-staining business and needed an assistant. I had always done all the work on our house myself – including painting the exterior and staining the deck – and, in fact, had found it to be excellent therapy. So I took Colin’s card.
Allison didn’t like it. She wanted us to be a power couple; she wanted us to keep piling up money and play the games of the elite: Junior League, charity boards – maybe the opera. We fought for a month, non-stop, viciously, noisily. I’m surprised the cops never showed up. She called me a lazy, self-absorbed piece of shit. I called her a money-grubbing bitch.
I summarily quit my job and began working for Colin. I adored the work. I loved the ache in my muscles, the long, quiet hours, the spectacular views. There was even an element of voyeurism, getting to invade all these private spaces, to see how other people lived. And mostly, I loved the concrete-ness of the product. We took these graying, sun-baked, moss-covered wretches, cleaned them up, stained them over and made them into beautiful objects. I pictured our clients coming out for their morning coffee, seeing their shiny deck through the kitchen window and thinking, Maybe I’ll eat breakfast outside.
As I got more into the business, I realized I needed a more appropriate vehicle. I bought my sister’s station wagon. It had already suffered ten years of child abuse (so to speak), so I certainly didn’t have to worry about being nice to it. For years, I kept discovering bits of its previous life: a Spiderman action figure under the passenger seat, a pack of bubble gum tucked under a seat cushion, an empty juice box next to the spare tire. The only thing I didn’t like was that the stereo didn’t work. But after hot days I was certainly grateful for the air conditioning.
Eventually I moved into an apartment. I let Allison have the house. But that wasn’t enough. I learned from mutual friends that she intended to ruin me. She hired an expensive attorney and took everything: assets, bank accounts, my BMW. I have no idea why she deserved any of this, but it’s amazing what a good lawyer can do. His most astounding move was to use the miscarriages as an example of the pain and suffering she had to undergo during the marriage. My lawyer (the big overpaid jagoff) had no answer for this. The settlement included alimony – alimony! – and I was soon on my way to bankruptcy. An actual bankruptcy, however, might have put an end to the bloodletting, so they left me barely enough money to live on. And to twist slowly in the wind.
The apartment was now too expensive, but Colin was moving out of his cabin and told me what a deal it was. I really wasn’t sure about the location, but I was getting used to driving mountain roads, so I thought, What the hell. It seemed like a good time to get away from civilization. On a Sunday in July, I made a trip to the cabin and unloaded my first wagonful. When I got back in, the car wouldn’t start. I checked the battery terminals, the wires, made sure the alternator belts were tight. I tried the ignition. Nothing. So there I am, beset by all these doubts about living in the woods, and already I’m stranded. As the full weight of this thought struck me – accompanied by the baseline depression I was already living with – I could feel the life force seeping from my limbs. It wasn’t sadness, or anxiety – those carry a certain emotional vigor. This was me, an empty shell, nothing left. This was the bottom.
I sat there in the driver’s seat for a long time, in something like a psychosomatic coma. Couldn’t move, couldn’t lift a hand, didn’t have enough energy to swear. Allison had finally got me. I pictured her somewhere, holding a voodoo doll, gleefully raising a pin.
Some time later I noticed the fuse box, just behind the parking brake. I was just ignorant enough about cars to see this as a possibility. I slid off the cap, and behold! two fuses that appeared to be loose. I pressed them back into place and, holding on to the thinnest thread of hope, I cranked the ignition.
The engine did nothing. But the stereo came to life! And out of the speakers came this song of indescribable, ghostly mournfulness. I had no idea about the words – they sounded Slavic, maybe Hebrew – but I could hear the pleading, the unbearably beautiful sadness. And the voice. I had the usual pedestrian ideas about opera – that snooty thing that had nothing to do with real life. But this voice, this woman, was so much the opposite. The voice was big but intimate, confiding. I’ve been there too, she said. I know how you feel. I imagined her as the mother of my miscarried children.
Then the orchestra began to well up, and the woman’s voice rose to these long, sustained notes. I felt the sound strike me at a point just beneath my eyes, and I sat there in my car, sobbing. A minute later, the woman sounded like she was pleading for her life, and then, suddenly, that was the end. Another song began, and I cranked the ignition, and it started!
I find Maddie trying to suppress a smile.
“‘Song to the Moon?’”
“Sitting in that tape player, all those years, waiting for someone to reconnect that fuse.”
She folds her hands beneath her chin.
“You know, sometimes I get this idea that what I do has no relevance to real life. Sort of like your derivatives. But then, someone tells me a story like that. But I never dreamed that I faith-healed a car!”
“Well,” I say. “It turns out it was the starter. Apparently, before they completely die out, they can still work every fifth time or so.”
“But only if you’re playing the right aria.”
“By the right singer. No. I don’t give you complete credit for restarting the car. But you did restart me. In any case, I headed right up the hill, having no idea that I was driving to a tune called “Somber Forest,” and I took it straight to my mechanic in Los Gatos. Colin was nice enough to give me an advance so I could get it fixed. All things considered, I remained at the low point of my life for perhaps ten minutes. So I guess I can’t complain. You want another marshmallow?”
She gives me a close-lipped smile. “I want another kiss.”
I’m 47, and I’m not dumb. I begin at the upper right-hand corner of those luscious petals and I work my way across, taking my time to dip my tongue in between. This will be no surprise to aficionados of opera, but Maddie is very talented with her tongue. Keep that in mind the next time you see Rigoletto and you hear Gilda whip out a really wicked rolled R. Ten minutes later, I finish with a kiss on the tip of her nose. She speaks without opening her eyes.
“So that’s when you became obsessed with the opera.”
“Yes. That’s also when I dreamed up my devious, terribly involved plan to find the woman who sang that gorgeous aria and make out with her.”
She opens her eyes just barely and gives me a grin. “You are so lucky it wasn’t Joan Sutherland.”
It’s early morning. We’re at Hobee’s, an American diner with a California health-food attitude. I’m staring down a scramble and realizing it’s almost exactly the one that I make at home. Am I in a rut? I laugh at the question before I’m even done thinking it. Maddalena Hart the international opera star sits across from me, the sharpness of her grapefruit juice producing two or three of the expressions that she used in the Letter Scene.
“Have you seen Rusalka?”
“So you don’t know the context of ‘Song to the Moon’?”
“I considered it magic. You don’t want to come too close to magic, or you’ll scare it away.”
She takes a sip of coffee and folds her hands, assuming the demeanor of a newsanchor. I can’t get over her hair. Even after a rushed shower and a drive down the hill, the honey, the wheat and the straw tumble to her shoulders like the hair of an angel. I’m back to the album cover.
“Rusalka is a water nymph who lives in a lake, and she falls in love with a prince who comes there to swim. She goes to the witch Jezibaba, who agrees to turn her into a human, but there are a couple of catches. She must win her prince’s love without the power of speech, and if she fails she will be accursed forever. Before her transformation, Rusalka sings to the moon, asking it to tell her beloved that she longs to hold him in her arms. At the end of the song – those desperate final passages - she pleads with the moon, ‘O do not disappear! Do not go!’”
It’s not becoming for a man to be so constantly enchanted by a woman, but any attempt at artificial coolness would be lame. So I accept my fate and go the other direction.
“Are you real?”
“Full-gonzo water nymph, baby. Hum a few bars of the Habañera and I disappear.”
“O do not disappear!”
“You’re funny. For a prince. And I’ve met a few. So how come, last night, you didn’t put the moves on me?”
“I thought I… Didn’t I put on some moves?”
“You know you could have…”
“I had my suspicions. But… Damn. You’re probably going to insist on the real answer, aren’t you?”
She gives me a solemn nod. “That’s what I’m asking.”
I want to get this just right, so I look away from the hair and the eyes and the famous face. A trio of overdressed Japanese girls stand outside, taking part in a serious rund of chatter.
“Oh God, don’t make me say the word ‘vulnerable.’ ‘Vulnerable’ is the word of cowards. Let’s say ‘susceptible,’ ‘fragile.’ That’s what you are, and a proud hunter does not like to knock off easy targets.”
“As opposed to a Mad Huntress?”
“Yes. And… You mean a little too much to me, Maddie. Frankly, I worship you. I’m not ready to carry you down from the heavens.”
“I’m not a diva, Mickey. I’m not a goddess, or a siren, or even a water nymph. And it’s the nature of the business that I don’t always have the time for a standard romance. In fact, for now this it. I’m off to Seattle first thing Friday. I don’t have a different man in every port. I kind of wish I did. But I had a feeling about you, Mickey. You’re one of the good ones.”
Her anxious expression melts into wistfulness. She puts a hand on my knee and smiles.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rain on our parade. It was so sweet of you to offer me distractions, to tell me your beautiful story. To romance me. To kiss me. And I’m going to tell Speight Jenkins to use lasers in his next Ring Cycle.”
She laughs. “Sorry. Opera singers are so presumptuous. He’s the general director in Seattle. And he’s nuts! Believe me, he’ll consider the lasers. But Mickey… I’m certain I’ll see you again. I guess what I’m saying is… What I’m saying is Yes! Be a little rude next time. I can take it.”
I slip a hand under her hair, around the back of her neck, and give her a messy, highly inappropriate kiss. She settles back against her chair, eyes half-closed.
“Yeah. Like that.”
I walk Maddalena Hart the opera star to her Lexus, parked on the street behind the Oaks Center. I wave her off down the road, and I get in my car, and I head for the hills. Colin leaves his paint-tray to greet me, looking like a proud father.
“Behold! Mickey San Franciskel, diva debaucher.”
I accept a brisk handshake.
“No debauching, but yes – a remarkable weekend. Thanks for the day off.”
“Absolutely no problem. I will expect the same during my impending affair with Jennifer Aniston. But I will be needing some details.”
“Of course! Why don’t I start on these steps, and I will shout my story in your die-rection.”
Photo by MJV