The combination of hauling and rock and roll seemed a potent distraction, but still there were times when the pain slipped in through the cracks. One such occurrence came on a rainy Sunday in March. Scootie was planted on the sofa, a neatly rubber-banded Chronicle next to him, holding a photocopy of a John Cage diagram that he had been studying for half an hour.
As far as Gelatinous Bubba went, things were looking good. He had lined up tentative gigs at Doc Ricketts’ Lab in Monterey, the Cactus Club in San Jose and Corinne’s Bottom of the Hill. But he couldn’t confirm anything till he sent them demos, and the recording was still three weeks off. It was also futile to make any press calls, since few of them were in the office on Sundays.
He managed to tear himself away from the diagram long enough to gaze out his front window. He spotted a man in a black overcoat and fedora ambling uphill toward the Bolero, and there was his answer.
Rip saw Scootie coming twenty feet away and flashed his manufactured teeth through the window. Scootie banged through the door to the bleacher-bum crackle of his voice.
“Chromosome! I was hopin’ you’d come one down. How are ya, pre-schooler?”
Scootie stood at the counter and called back. “I am fine, o oldest of the old, o carbon-dated fart. I’ll join you as soon as Pedro pulls me a cappuccino.
Pedro was laughing at their performance, and had a hard time keeping the espresso cup steady.
“I say, o Rock of Ages,” Scootie bellowed on. “Our counter-man has been drinking the stock again. He’s shakin’ like a leaf in a windstorm.”
Pedro smiled timidly, letting out a hiss of vapor from the steamer. Scootie approached the table and extended their now-customary Roman salute: straight arm, fist to the chest, followed by the more generic handshake.
Rip winked. “Scootie, I believe you’re developin’ some fashion sense. The hair is gettin’ longer, and what do we have here? A little lobe-silver?”
“Strictly a business move,” Scootie answered, fingering the stud in his left ear. “Had it done at Cindy’s Family Salon. It was just me and Rebeca Syvertsen’s five-year-old twins. I was frankly disappointed at the lack of pain. I wanted to suffer for my art.”
Just forget to clean it for a couple days – then you’ll suffer.”
“A little familiarity here?”
“I let it grow out a couple years ago,” said Rip. “It was gettin’ in the way of my hearing aid.” Rip lifted a chai to his lips. “So what’s on your agenda, Mouseketeer?”
“Wife number four.”
“Mmm. Number four. That’s a sad one. Sure you’re up for it?”
“Somehow, Rip, your sad stories make me happy.”
“Because they didn’t happen to you?”
“No. Because no matter how sad it was, you went on, and you found love again. It gives me hope.”
“Hope and half a buck’ll get you a doughnut,” said Rip. “But Scootie, you are a rare soul.” He took another sip and clapped his hands together. “Romanzas de Rip – Opus Four. After the Filipina beauty died in the car crash, I found my solace in San Francisco. Got a job in the bookstore across from the opera house. Met quite a few music-lovers there, and I got so hooked on the opera I bought a season ticket.
“My unorthodox single-ticket purchase threw off their seating chart, so the seat next to me became a throwaway that they used for the occasional celebrity passing through town. Saw Tosca with the mayor of Dallas, Carmen with a Broadway producer and The Magic Flute with Bob Gibson, that pitcher for the Cardinals. He was really into it, too, but folks kept buggin’ him for autographs.
“A week later, I’m watchin’ Eugene Onegin next to this ravishing dark-haired beauty. I’m about to ask her her business when I realize she’s the lady who sang the Queen of the Night the week before. And when I say she sang it. I mean to say she pulled that sucker down from the heavens, knocked it upside the head and coated it with gold dust. In a subtle way, of course.
“She was pretty sharp, too, ‘cause she saw that look in my eye and said, ‘Yes, it’s me.’ Then smiled, one of those sneaky, slightly tilted smiles that makes you feel all loose in the shoes. Her name was Josie Vantessian, and I wasted no time asking her out. We went to the top of the St. Francis, ordered martinis and listened to jazz piano. It seemed to me that Josie musta been lookin’ for someone to talk to, because we hardly settled in our chairs before it all came tumbling out
“She was born in Cooperstown, and by the time she was four had latched onto a flute and was playing Poulenc and Mendelssohn. By sixteen, she was touring Europe. That was when her fingers started refusing her commands. She tried to work through it, but the mistakes got too many and she knew it was time to check out.
“The diagnosis was lupus, which is an odd little disease. It causes inflammation of the connective tissues. In some cases, it can cause loss of muscle control and even life-threatening strokes. And there’s no cure.
“She had to quit the tour right there in Munich, and she had no way to get back home. She had fooled around with cabaret-style singing – much to the chagrin of her teachers – so she wandered the cafes till she found a jazz trio that needed a chanteuse
“Once she got home, she began to find the standards a little too easy, so she signed up with an opera coach. Within a year, she made the finals of the Met Auditions, which opened the way, eventually, to the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera.
“At the time I met her, she was deathly anxious over her future. Her muscle control was steadily deteriorating. A month before, doing Violetta in La Traviata, she dropped a tray full of glasses, and was only saved by the quick thinking of a ‘servant girl’ in the chorus, who rushed in to clean it up. Josie completed the cover by snatching her lover’s glass and gleefully tossing it into the pile – a pure Violetta move. One of the critics gave the stage director credit for thinking up such a great gag.
“Josie’s misfortune was my jackpot, in a sense, because she cancelled all her road gigs and settled in the Bay Area, hoping a respite from travel would improve her condition. I proposed to her three months later. Three months after the wedding, the lupus had gained control of her faculties, and she had to give up even her local performances. I took care of her for the next three years, watching that damned disease take more and more of her, until one morning in late February, angel-cake fogs drifting by our house on Pacific Heights, and I came to her bedroom to find her gone. I have not been able to attend an opera since.”
Rip concluded his story with a look of surprise, because Scootie was wiping tears from his eyes.
“Sorry, Rip. I knew it would be said, but...”
Rip placed a hand on Scootie’s arm. “’Salright, youngster. That one makes me cry, too.” Rip paused and gazed out the window. “Well! How ‘bout another subject? Have you heard about the Barran cabin?”
“The Hysterical Society, now under the leadership of Aggie, has fully refurbished the place – which ain’t sayin’ much, since it was in perfect condition to begin with – and is opening it for public tours starting two weeks from today.”
“Gee,” said Scootie, working to hide conflicting emotions.
“Not only that,” said Rip. “The goddamn National Geographic is doing a story on the place.”
“That’s great,” said Scootie, his cover beginning to weaken. “Rip? Did anyone tell you that your eyes look just like... that you... You got real nice eyes, Rip.”
Rip responded with a quizzical look. “Well, gosh, um, thanks, Scootie.”
Re-energized by Rip’s company, Scootie decided to drive to San Jose for the opening weekend of Sophomore Jinx. He was crossing First Street when a Cadillac, stopped at the intersection, began honking furiously. A compact was backing out of a curbside spot, right at the Cadillac’s fender. What’s more, the compact had no driver.
Scootie’s body took over. He reached the compact in two long steps, placed his hands against the trunk, and pressed it to a stop, two feet away from the Cadillac.
After taking a breath, he pushed the car back into its parking spot and waited as the driver, a flustered, thirtysomething Latina, rushed across the street to pull the parking brake. A beefy, middle-aged businessman stepped from the door of a restaurant to slap Scootie on the back. “Hey – you’re a hero.” He pointed toward the Cadillac. The driver, an elderly woman, was waving him over.
He walked over in a daze and smiled dumbly as the woman thanked him. She reached into her purse and extended a twenty-dollar bill, but his decision on this was just as rapid as his action. “No thanks. I got my reward already.”
He sat alone in the theater, the adrenaline ticking back out through his fingers. A half-hour later, he appeared over Frank Platten’s right shoulder and stayed there for an astonishing twenty seconds, serving wine to an elderly Japanese woman. Juliana Kross had ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Photo by MJV