Wisdom of MY Words

Random Musings & Book Reviews

09 September
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Rachael Sarto

 

I am 52. I am dying. Of metastasized breast cancer. Located in my brain. While I don’t have an oncologist, because I tried with Dr. David Potter. He lied at the start of his phone call to me. I realize that most people don’t listen and therefore he feels like he can say whatever he wants. The problem is, I listen. Then again, that’s why doctor’s are said to have a G-d complex: because they don’t listen.

Sarto’s Linked In profile states, under job title of Clinical Social Worker/Therapist, Kind and direct clinical social worker and therapist with experience supporting people in the midst of loss, grief, change, physical illness, and mental illness,. I enjoy working with individuals, families, groups.

Uh. What just happened?

This is the introduction post to <B>every single solitary MSW in existence. Over all time.</B>

What’s she telling me about herself?

What makes her unique?

Nothing apparently. I should see her because she says she listens?

Her references on LinkedIn are a circle jerk from her coworkers. She has no information that tells me anything about her. In order for me to confide in someone, especially after 38 years of therapy, my grandmother treating me like a Catholic Church priest abuse victim, forcing me into therapy at 16, I’m not able to confide in someone who so clearly has zero personality.

Then her photos. A big part of my problem is that since I am beautiful, thin, and smart; I need a therapist that can understand unwanted attention from both sexes. My entire life, starting when I was 11–going to Dave Ziemer’s father’s dental office and getting cat called by construction. workers, I thought that was normal.

Juan Carlo didn’t say anything when I showed him her photo. He was pensive and then he replied, Yeah, there’s no way I can sit in session and look at her face.

Then an old home GF from Milwaukee came over and spent the day talking, making me feel less crazy because her manner of speaking is the way I speak. She is home. Like Sara Oxton is home because she has similar background to my sweet bearded Scandoboy. Highland Park has always reminded me of the North Shore. It’s a first tier suburb that still thinks it’s in the city. St. Paul is old and was built by Catholics. Jews too.

 

14 August
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Abuse

I was pregnant, my belly prodigious, full of a ginger haired baby. A mercurial Pisces birth. A contrarian at heart, he was raised fiercely. It was the same old single mother story, my husband hit me when I was pregnant with his first-born son. Right prior to the wedding he threw me in to a full-length door mirror. I was 7 months pregnant. Dave drank to excess and he hit me. But I was me, and I took what little love he gave me and I stomped all over it. Matter of fact I was so angry and so cold that when he did finally apologize, with overflowing green eyes, I refused to accept his apology. At that point we were both in the wrong. Dave wanted another chance at that point. He wanted to start over and woo me, as if I’d date him after discovering that he was an abuser.

It was the same old story you hear from plenty of working women who also juggle their house and kids—I’d had an affair and fallen head over heels. I didn’t mean to fall in love. I’d had sex with other men because my husband was more in love with an amber liquid in a glass bottle than me. I stuck exclusively with my exes. Boyfriends that knew me, knew how to get me off, in relationships or newly divorced. I stayed away from anyone new. Yet new is what I got. I’d married David Michael Meyer for a couple of reasons. I was pregnant. Never wanting children I’d had Robbinsdale Clinic’s abortion punch card. Scared of commitment. Scared that my mother’s vitriolic words were true: no man would love me.

My mother’s wholesale rejection of men started at birth. Major William Gilbert Davis III showed up at St. Joe’s just as Margaret Davis the junior crowned between Margaret Davis senior’s legs. Marge Davis the elder turned her head to see her curly haired husband whispering behind his hand to her mother as the wee baby was whisked away. Her maternity floor at St. Joe’s was staffed by Marquette University Nursing School students. Most had been educated with her before the war. The elder knew some of them. She knew them by sight, either from university classes or mass. A group of women displaced by the war now working at the overflowing hospitals all over the country as the boys came marching home.

Helen Wolski’s jaw was set as she listened to the mumblings and grumblings and petty grievances by this man. Major William Gilbert no longer wanted to grow old with Nana Davis. He’d fallen wildly for a French woman. Much later, when my mother had firmly decided she liked women and not men, Nana told me that he’d cheated on the second wife too. Like mother, like daughter; my mother called me Tom’s bastard and her mother called her Will’s. The sins of the mother repeated, as my mother picked an equally emotionally unavailable man for my father.

Since I didn’t meet Tom until I was well into my 30s, I wasn’t able to learn in advance that my ex-husband was exactly like him. An emotionally unavailable man. Not understanding men because I had no siblings and no father, no grandfather, just a bunch of male cousins who teased me, and were beaten senseless by their father, my Great Uncle Gerry, just like my mother beat me, caused me any number of problems in life. The message in my house was that men wanted one thing and if you gave them that one thing they’d be happy. I assumed I’d eventually be happy by making men happy. Instead I felt empty. Most of the time I felt no better than a whore in relationships. Men (and women) wanted me either as a friend or a fuck. Yet I could never confide in any of them for fear that if they knew my thoughts and feelings they wouldn’t like me.

Sundays Grandpa Wolski would drive us down Santa Monica in his big, wide, baby blue Chrysler to Temple Sinai where he’d scrub the floors, dust the doodads and beebawbs, and plant me in a classroom to learn about living as a Jew. I learned Hebrew, and talked with other children about G-d. Then on Wednesday nights I’d run through the St. Eugene’s School doors and into a classroom where Steven Dragos would be waiting to make me smile, giggle, and laugh as someone taught us about Jesus. The son of god made the divine human.

I learned that the prophet Isiah’s suffering somehow made him a better man. A better person. Five-year-old children were told that Isiah suffered because we Jews suffer in order to redeem the wicked of humanity. They’d bring in Holocaust survivors twice a year, like a circus act. They’d talk about their horrors and their truths. G-d abandoned us during the war, they’d tell us, as they unconsciously patted their paper-thin skin with it’s faded black numbers. The North Avenue dam kept the riffraff in Milwaukee proper where they belonged. In the North Shore, elitism and money, a sort of suburban classism, divided us. Nana Davis always spoke in terms of new money, as opposed to us, somehow, was the implication, We were not the Steinhafel’s, we weren’t old money. We fancied ourselves old money though. I didn’t understand it until I read Blanche McCrary Boyd. She said, as poor white trash in the South they defined themselves with their smarts, their education, and elevated themselves.

Helen married and in 1916, at the wee age of 18 gave birth to her first daughter.

Aunt Regina moved from the farm to the Wolski duplex on Humboldt Avenue after Margaret Mary was born, baptized at Holy Redeemer. She was the second girl born, baby number sixteen. Females weren’t as desirable as males in the agrarian lifestyle of the Great Lakes region.

My family was exactly like that. A century ago my maternal great grandmother was working in a sweatshop making clothes.

I’d done the worst thing possible. I’d fallen in love.

 

 

06 August
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Brown & Greene Floral

I have brain mets from breast cancer and yesterday my husband and I were walking around the Sidewalk Sale in Linden Hills. I’ve had an infection on the back of my head for months, and I’m blind in one eye since neurosurgery. When they operate on your brain you have to recover and you do not come out the same. I picked up some stuff, bowls and a measured ceramic pitcher, and then went inside.
There were glass domes over the candles. Diptyque, in Paris, does the same thing. So does the mall tea store. I am 52, and I have money for nice things. I’m terminally ill, I only want to shop at pleasant nice stores that do not cause me grief. That is NOT Brown & Green Floral.
Because of neurosurgery and the changes to my brain if I smell using the dome I will ONLY smell the first candle, I will sneeze, and I won’t be able to get the smell out of my nose for hours.
To avoid that problem I smelled the candles. Lisa decided to come over and criticize the way I was doing things. She decided to tell me her tip. You could feel the air get sucked into her wide body, crackling with energy. Lisa’s unattended anger shoved out into the air and I was frightened. The air was so oogey my husband of 23 years shifted and started to come over. He felt the energy and was concerned for me. He said later that he thought I was holding my own, so he did not interject.
Lisa stood with her arms across her prodigious girth and said, Oh, tell me how your sense of smell changed? I tensed up, and she became more aggressive, clearly thinking I’m a liar. She was behaving like she wanted to fight me because her way was the right way and there was no way brain surgery, if I had even really HAD brain surgery, changed the way I smell.
I was clearly trying to be difficult Lisa’s puffy Iowa farm girl face said.
Because she stood staring at me, gawp-eyed, I started to babble a bit, saying that neurosurgery changes everything, hot flashes, bowel movements.
Oh does int, she said, leaning in and sneering. Tell me more, she said and stared and stared and stared me down. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed and the last thing I wanted to do was talk about my terminal cancer with an angry stranger. Or my Bfs. Or my menopause. (SMH)
But I hesitated being a Mean Girl because I am thin and pretty and Lisa is not. So I chose to take the high road, leaving the store while my husband checked out because I was shaking and close to tears. We purchased an over priced $40 candle because I was tense and stressed by Lisa’s aggressive attitude. I felt ASHAMED that I am sick. I don’t need shame. I’m busy dealing with sorrow.
We will not be back.
I will be writing up an even bigger and longer blog post about it because I am sick of being treated like garbage. By a sales clerk! Oy! Insecure much? My husband told me that she was rude to me because I am beautiful. Oh whatever, she was aggressive, shaming, and nasty because she has a whole lot of seething anger underneath her skin. The shop down the way from Brown & Greene was super friendly, handing out over sweet Prosecco and totally chill. Quite unlike the experience I just had.
I dislike that I have to air my personal business to give this retail experience a thorough and fair review. It’s wrong.
As an author and small business owner I love small businesses and I have never shopped at Wal-Mart and very rarely at Target, not since my 30s. I practice what I preach. I do not go back to restaurants or stores that treat me badly. Life is, honestly, too short to be treated poorly when you are spending money. My husband said to me in the car, if I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed you. The way Lisa treated you was absolutely awful.
Lisa?
Brown & Greene?
Why you gotta make life so hard?
–Michele Davis, PhD

05 August
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Gabby’s

Sitting at a high top table in the NW corner of the bar were two girls about my age. Both blonde with straight, short noses, high cheekbones, skin so pale it could be translucent, and thin, bird-like lips. I was slamming Diet Cokes, tense, jittery, just wanting to blow off steam, alone, at a bar, on the dance floor. I’m not dressed for the club. Adrienne is not with me. It’s an impromptu stop on the way home from the Broadway Avenue Y after swimming precisely 82 laps, which, in that particular pool, was a mile.

It was 1985 and Ami strutted her stuff across the street from that Y. I’d given her a ride and some cash. I’d stopped at Gabby’s because I desperately wanted a drink but hated alcohol. Standing at the bar wearing blood red Swatch capri leggings, Joan & David black skimmers — just black leather flats with a sole that allowed me to skim on the wood dance floor, feeling weightless, an oversized Ralph Lauren white button down with a blank tank top underneath, big gold hoop earrings, and a giant loose curl bob that stuck out five inches on either side of my head.

In private to my friends and boyfriend, I called it my Jewfro. When I turned around there were now four blonde girls at the high top. These Minnesota girls were worse than Nicolet girls. Their blondness intimidated me. All four were staring at me. They’d occasionally lean towards another blonde head, hand a wall between

01 August
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Chronic Pain by Arthur Rosenfeld

Chronic Pain: Patients and Professionals on How to Face It, Understand It, Overcome It

by

Arthur Rosenfeld

Despite the fact that we live in the affluent and technologically advanced nation in the history of the world, millions of people continue to suffer for no good reason at all.

 

01 August
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Forces of Habit by David T. Cartwright

In 1936 New York City police destroyed 40,000 pounds of cannabis they found growing in the city.

Pg 44

But cannabis in America was not just a syncopated version of the ganja complex. It was more narrowly geared toward pleasure. Eric Hoffer once observed inspiring leaders cannot create mass movements unless conditions are historically ripe. Mass media played a role in delivering the fake news about drugs, specifically cannabis. No fewer than 72 films released in the US and Europe from 1955 to 1972 contained drug-related episodes and themes.

01 August
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Insane Clown President by Matt Tiabbi

Most veteran political observers figured that the impact of the Trump presidency would be limited in the worst case to destroying the Republican Party as a mainstream political force.

That made Trump’s run funny, campy even, like a naughty piece of performance art. After all, what’s more obscene than pissing on the president? It seemed even more like camp because the whole schtick was fronted by a veteran reality tv star, who might even be in on the joke, although the concept was funnier if he wasn’t.

Pg 39

Trump is striking a chord with people who are feeling the squeeze in a less secure world

and want to blame someone, the government, immigrants, political correctness, incompetents, dummies, Megyn Kelly, whoever, for their problems. The key to his (Trump) success is a titillating message that those dusty old rules about being polite and saying the right thing are for losers that lack the heart, courage, and Trumpitude to just be who they are.

Pg 41

Then there’s Iowa’s Steve King, who is unusually stupid, even for a congressman.

All of this (bad behaviour and stupidity, as well as outright bleeds out into the population, hostility to women and people of colour) When a politician says dumb thing X it normally takes Merica two days to start publicly flirting with X + way worse.

01 August
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Losing the Beginning

“It’s drugs or me,” she screamed, tires skidding, the dust behind her car oozing in the breeze, the sun burning on Barry’s skin, his tears hot, his throat aching from growled screams, the birds the only witnesses to his anguish.

Barry ran after his wife’s car, missed it, skidded, ended up on the dusty road.

Eventually, he ended up on his wide porch, overlooking Mount Mitchell, bloody, crying and screaming. Life beyond success, his nose half into the mirror littered with Columbian magic powder, Barry sat up in his expensive Chippendale chair and stared into the wilderness. He probably sat there for over an hour before calling rehab, the number Rowena had found for him a year earlier. It was late summer before he was back, the house sold, the furniture moved to Florida to a new house, his mother still not notified.

Catharsis lead Barry Winslow to truth. Still, so much unmitigated pain lingered in his soul. Why it happened, he didn’t know. Maybe just because the drug simply had become obsolete to him. Whatever it was, one day Barry Winslow woke up, his nose half buried in cocaine and the left hand plucking on the personal computer, writing one of the violent crime novels that had made him famous.

Violence raging on the white screen, violence raging in his life, violence raging in his soul, Rowena’s slamming doors echoing in his mind, Barry’s nose oozing milky sweat, a proverbial lightbulb appeared inside his head.

Barry Winslow had one clear thought that couldn’t even be described.

All this pain, a ghost in his brain? Maybe.

Rowena slamming the doors behind her, packing her bags into the car and heading for the highway. A ghost inside his brain?

As he sat by the lake on that summer’s day, it all seemed like one of his earlier paintings or one of his crime novels with a clearer ending, the whole crisis presenting itself as a picture in its dark and rich colors and airy textures. It seemed evident.

The question, of course, remained: how would he explain this to his mother … and his father? Giving up the house by Mount Mitchell had never been a choice that he conciously made or wanted to make. It just remained something that had to be done, especially since Rowena left. Nothing left for him to do, he sat there by the lake on that exact spot where Rowena and he kissed for the first time, sort of saying good bye to the place.

Saying goodbye to cocaine.

Goodbye to a future ex-wife that had started as his interior decorator.

“Good bye,” Barry whispered. “Goodbye, house.”

His own voice seemed strange, foreign, weird, somehow funny. Almost as if he didn’t recognize it at all. The rays of the oncoming sunset glittered on the lake, making little twists and turns on the waves of the water. The gleaming of the evening sun disappearing behind the mountain mirrored his own life at the moment: a farewell … to what? Farewell to welcoming strangers of solitude, a hello to old friends? Which friends? Which lovers? Which relatives?

Barry looked down at the book. This oldest book in his possession rested calmly in his hand. He felt the soft texture of that cover, the one that he had caressed as a child, written secrets about how his school friends had locked him into the bathroom and forced him to take that … stuff.

Barry looked up, seeing how that sun had set one more inch, disappearing a little more behind the Appalachian Mountains. Strange, how you at 44 years of age have to start anew. He had never thought it possible, although he knew he had to trust this. He knew that that one event had been the beginning of a series of events that had domino-stoned into pain. Now, Barry sat here by his own house, knowing he had to go home.

The smell of lilacs in the springtime, of mom’s baked apple pie, of a freshly mowed lawn and the sight of dad’s coin collection. Certainly, there was work for an author there. It didn’t matter to his agents and publishers where he lived. By golly, the readers wouldn’t care if Barry Winslow lived by Mount Mitchell or back in Florida.

Florida. Had he really talked his agent into letting him move back, knowing that he would have to tell his mom that he moved back because of his career?

Barry sighed, looking at the clouds slowly drifting past the setting sun into what seemed to be an eternal moonrise. The moon’s round shape now appeared on the one side of the mountain, the sun on the other. The queen of the day saying good bye, the other queen offering the world a darker coup-de-tat of dreamy bliss. Barry knew his own sun was rising, rising toward truth and love and family. That famous author, infamous for his outbursts and drug scandals, now had found truth in the fact that he had followed a ghost.

The ghost of fame.

The ghost of cocaine.

His entire career had taken off before he realized that the ghosts of the past, those ghosts he had followed, actually were simple neurons bouncing in his brain.

If he had only known …

He could have said no, broken out, saved his life.

Would he be famous today?

Did it matter?

A 16-year-old kid is locked into a bathroom, Barry told himself, and is forced to take cocaine, expelled from school, leaves home and works himself through countless oddjobs, living in countless cities, always on the road, finally reaching success, never aquiring peace. That one page with some information about three guys who had bought some dope from a strange fellow in a crimson red suit, asking Barry to try sniffing that bag.

It had been Rowena, hadn’t it?

She had been the catalyst.

Good old Rowena, who had forced him to send in his manuscripts, to try new creative paths, to stay true to his creativity no matter what the agent said. Good old Rowena, to whom he had promised to stay clean. Good old Rowena, who now was gone.

And now nothing left but a runny nose and a few dozen bestsellers, a diary and an empty soul.

The sun now almost gone, Barry tried to find the truth in that sun setting beyond Mount Mitchell. The truth in those green trees. The truth in that water. The truth in those leaves. The truth in his own house, sold for over a million dollars to some big executive and his family.

No, Barry didn’t burn bridges. He built new ones.

My, oh, my. Who was he kidding? Thinking of the fact that he had actually flown over there to inspect that new house and not telling his mom about it, driving past her home and not walking in. It’s been twenty years. Too long a time to pay her and dad a visit.

Mom.

Mom, who lived there in his old childhood home.

Mom, seventy-five. God help her, would she forgive him, ever?

Dad? Dad.

Barry stood up, walking that path up the familiar house, a house that he and Rowena had bought fifteen years ago. He had spent years as an author, chasing his luck, refusing to have anything to do with his family. Why? Because they were … what? Twee? Bourgeois? Provincial? Small Town, America? Now that he needed them, would they want him back?

He needed to go back.

Now, “Small Town, America” was all he needed, all he craved for, all he loved.

Truth.

As Barry Winslow walked up on the porch of his old house, the view of Mount Mitchell seemed new, as if he had never ever seen it before, as if he never needed to leave. The endless pain screamed in his heart that staying here without Rowena had no future.

The real beauty could now be found elsewhere.

Calm?

Not really. Not without Rowena.

Now, his heart needed someone to love.

His duty and his conscience awoke, the lightbulb again.

Family.

Truth.

Sincerity.

So, Barry Winslow took one last look at his porch, the path down to the lake, the swing, the garden, the old road toward the mountain-side, the sounds of the birds chirping feeling like love, but lacking substance.

Maybe love could be found back in Florida.

No love like hers.

Running away from responsibility again, Barry pretended he did not have to call her.

So, Barry picked up his cellular phone, desperate, pushing Rowena’s number, hanging up, stopping, waiting, crying, but knowing suddenly, beyond all the pain of lost love, that he had to call … her. Her. The woman he had avoided for decades.

Mom.

Silently,Barry leafed through all those contacts, leafed through all the pain, the screaming pain of the rising or falling of fame and found one moment of peace inside what really seemed to be the only solid truth in all that loud noise: mom.

Dad.

He lift the receiver to his ear and waited for the long tone, the long tone of solid pain.

Standing on the porch of his old house, a house purchased with his millions, the sun set not only behind Mount Mitchell, but on his life and what it had been. How did that sound? What it had been? Had he actually left himself?

At what point had he actually abandoned his real self? His innocent self? The kid that played in the yard, dressed up as a cowboy, eating strawberry flavored ice cream sundaes in the park with his friends. Was that boy back in his heart?

That dial tone sounded like an ominous echo of the past, the smell of the Appalachian summer sending its heat into his own broken life. As good old Barry found his real self waking up again, his body standing on an expensive porch, he waited four beeps for mom to answer the phone, always taking a long time to answer the phone, the sunrays spreading its light across local water. Spreading like sunshine.

Holy Christ, Barry wondered again, how am I gonna be able to talk to her …

“Winslow,” a familiar voice, older and more fragile, spoke. A long silence followed the introduction, a silence just clicking away across the distance. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

Barry closed his eyes, trying to feel how he had felt before walking into that damn bathroom and taking that cocaine. 16 years old and so damn stupid.

Mom almost hung up on him, when he suddenly spoke up. His voice sounded hoarse, a left over growl a month after the quarrel with Rowena, a voice almost unused to speaking after years and years of fear and running away from reality, pain taking its toll, drug-beaten nostrils withered away. Fame can do that to you, he told himself, and Barry meandered through his own life of pain. Catharsis. What a joke.

“Mom? It’s me.”

Not a word was spoken this time, the speaker simply waiting for a reply. A breath issued as a response. One small intake of air. Mom wondered what to say, but didn’t say anything. The haunting voice from his past, one voice that had been a theory for all these years. It spoke to him, the voice, called him by his name. All those bestsellers on mom’s shelf, all those friends and relatives asking questions, her son just a picture on a wall. Home.

“B-Barry?”

One tear rolled down Barry’s cheek, made its way down toward his chin and hung there like a blister of dirty air.Barry slumped down on a semi-broken chair on his old white porch, one that he had decided to leave here after leaving Mount Mitchell tomorrow.

“It’s me, mom,” he said, his voice cracking and fluttering. “How … how are you?”

One guffaw of sobbing hit the receiver, the old clock in her Florida hallway announcing the full hour in the background from the other end.

“I never thought you would call. Barry, is that really you?”

The question hung there, like a strange bird floating on an airpocket.

“It’s me, mom. I’m still in North Carolina.”

“Barry? Why are you calling me? Why are you friendly to me?”

The pain seemed endless, all those years of mistakes drilling their holes into his heart as the sun set on Mount Mitchell and on his heart.

“Because … I … love … you,” he mumbled.

Barry wondered what to say. In fact, the words all stood in the way.

“You do?”

“I miss you,” he said.

“Oh, son. Come home.”

“Rowena left me, mom,” Barry said. “She …”

Mom gasped a couple of times, by the sound of it fidgeting with her hands.

Memories of a younger woman making tea and inviting lady-friends for brunch returned. Memories of a better life came back, guilt knocking on his inner door.

Mom waited, listened, wondered, hoped, sighed.

“Uhm, mom,” Barry started. “I’m off the … white stuff.”

The one thing that he had been longing to say ever since he left his hometown simply slipped out. Barry laughed, standing up out of that broken chair, opening up the door to his old and now empty house. He walked in, the screen door banging shut behind him.

“My agent wants me to write a novel with Florida as the place of action,” he lied. “My last novel had this one scene in Miami and people have been asking him if there will be more scenes like that. So, he’s …”

Barry cleared his throat, trying to articulate himself in a fearless way, trying to play the role of the macho star, the role he played when he visited Hollywood, the role of the fake Barry. That guy had nothing to do with him. Why did he say those things to mom?

“Well, mom, to put it this way: my agent has assured me that if a create a story set in Florida, we can interest a whole lot of producers into making it into a movie,” Barry continued, waving it off. “They have this idea of me including Orlando and the beaches and I don’t know what. The publisher is a big Florida fan. It’s a long story. I don’t want to bore you with all that. Main thing is that I am clean, free and … I am coming home.”

Mom started laughing, desperately. It was hard for Barry to say from where that laugh came. Just that it came. When it did, the river of that happy laugh suddenly grew melancholy, sad and turned into a cry very quickly.

“Who am I kidding? I am coming home, because I miss you guys,” he corrected. “I have stayed away for too long.”

That sad laugh fit really well with the empty house that Barry walked around in. Reality had been conceived for him at this moment, Barry in his house overlooking Mount Mitchell and his mother miles away, making up for lost time.

Time is of the essence. Wasn’t that the phrase of choice right now?

“Barry,” she said, the otherwise complete silence speaking volumes. “My dear Barry, why did you stay away from us?”

“I don’t know,” Barry answered, truthfully. “I resented the provincial attitude, thought I was better than you, irritated … I don’t know. Mostly, it was my own problem. I will back come to Florida and I won’t leave again. How’s dad?”

“Oh, Barry.”

“What? How’s dad, mom? Tell me.”

The sadness of the silence in her tone felt like a withered rose, an oppurtunity missed, a train that already left the station too early with the passenger coming in way too late to catch it. As if he had known, Barry wandered around his empty house, one foldable bunkbed in the entire house reserved for his nightly rest, Barry stopping in the corner overlooking his station wagon. As he stood there looking through the living room window at his car and the road that eventually would take him back to Florida, one thought arose. The setting sun shone its last ray on the front wheel of the Dodge, leaving only a the sign of the Uniroyal tire logo on the tire. United and royal. Barry laughed at the wordplay. Even commercial merchandise has a worthy cause. We will be unified, Barry thought to himself.

“Barry,” she said. “Dad lost the battle against cancer this morning. He is dead.”

The sun had now set completely and Barry stood in complete darkness now, watching the moon rise, all those lost years never to come back. Fame, what could fame bring him now? The Pulitzer Prize on the shelf dusty, the Oscar silent and neutral, something reached into his chest and pulled out his heart, a carpet yanked away from under his feet. The smell of the Appalachian summer now felt sordid, wrong, out of place, making him feel defeated.

“No,” Barry wept, his eyes flowing over, killing his peace, wounding his spirit. “Mom, no, no, no, no, no …”

“You snapped at us, so badly, in fact, that we just figured you didn’t want to have anything to do with us. So, we left you alone. I have wanted to call you all day.”

In this darkness that Barry knew to be his soon-to-be ex-house, he fell down onto his knees. He felt the parquet floor hurt his already wounded, rehabilitated bones, laying his head on the floor, falling over, crouching together like a baby, rocking back and forth, closing his eyes.

As he lay there, the moon shone a ray onto the floor, on his face, leaving the day behind, and Barry wanted to disappear. No matter if his fame brought him bestsellers. In his heart, he felt like a little boy who just missed his daddy, the bicycle rides, the meetings behind the Christmas-Tree, the trips to the west coast, the traditional family dinners, the Saturday Monopoly-games.

The moon came searching for him, letting its beam slowly crawl up onto his eyes.

“His last words this morning were that he will be keeping close watch over you from heaven. He never forgot you.”

Barry opened his eyes, looking at how the moon shone on the parquet floor. The one ray that shone on the floor looked like a pillar.

The long pause filled up with an atmosphere, strangely new and unsusual.

Interesting, because he had never felt this way, at least not since … back before the incident in the school bathroom.

It felt like waking up.

“Where is he now?”

“The undertakers took him to enbalm this afternoon.”

His lower lip started trembling, ever so slightly. Like a leaf in the wind.

“Barry?”

“Yes?”

 

“Why didn’t you come here to visit us when you bought the house?”

The quiet question made him feel like an assaulted gangster, like a fish out of water. Something in him jumping out, only to be pushed back into his belly, lashed out. Not at his mother – at himself.

“You know about the house?”

Mom laughed, sadly.

“Everybody is talking about it.” Her voice became pleading, sad, forgiving. “There are no hard feelings, only …”

His mother’s sad and very feeble cry reached the other end of the line, danced around Barry’s ear for a minute and came dancing back with a horrible, hungry and very sad sob.

Old emotions returned, old anger at parental demands danced in his heart only to disintergrate, wrath disappearing with the rising of the moon.

“Just come home, okay?”

“I am leaving Mount Mitchell tomorrow.”

The click on the other end of the line left a black hole in Barry’s soul.

That night, Barry didn’t didn’t go up to the bunkbed, bought for kids that never were born. Barry Winslow, that famous author and ex-cocaine-addict with destroyed nostrils, didn’t even look at the moon as it shone through the window upon his face. In fact, Barry left the phone lying on his ear just like he had when he had spoken to mom.

He fell asleep on the floor.

Barry didn’t notice that he had left his old diary laying by the empty living room window. It lay there, hoping he would notice it.

Barry didn’t even notice how that light searched Barry’s pain, trying to make amends. A spiritually awake person might even say that a spirit was in that light. The spirit that danced inside that light had just left its body that morning. Now, when Barry slept, that spirit visited him in his dreams, caressed his hair and whispered:

“Good night, son, and sweet dreams!”

Barry dreamt about home.

The sunlight pushed Barry’s eyelids that next morning, letting in little rays of light onto his iris. Barry blinked a few times, his eyes first seeing a parquet floor for the first time for what it was. Just a floor. Expensive, okay. Worth a million dollars, okay. But just a floor.

Barry tried to sit up, but quickly noticed how stiff his neck felt. He rubbed it a few times before he actually could manage to hold his neck still, hearing all his bones crack from sleeping on the floor. When he did sit up, however, he sat there for a bit, he felt numb, taking in the pain, feeling the emptiness, getting used to having missed the greatest chance of a lifetime: getting to know his own dad. Trying to smell his soon-to-be old house, one he had loved smelling and feeling and living in, Barry shocked himself with the fact that he hated it.

It stood for the denial of his origins.

Now, the next pain that arrived had nothing to do with the body.

It spoke to him of lost chances, of actually having missed an entire life with his father. The pain spoke to him about having wasted all those bloody years on fame and cocaine. And Barry let his heart out and cried. The tears that fell down his cheeks felt so hot, they literally burned his cheeks. A pain that wanted his father back.

He had only thought of mom.

Barry looked down.

Soon, he stood up, picking up his phone, but leaving the diary behind, walked around the house for one last time. He decided to leave the bunkbed where it was, a kind of reminder that someone else once had lived here.

When Barry Winslow handed over the keys, seeing the new owners wave good bye against the elegant backdrop of that marvellous mountain, Barry Winslow hit the gas. His tears hot as burning charcoal, he sobbed in silence, trying his best to ask his parents of forgiveness for the ill that he had committed. It all seemed so sordid, the interior decorators of his new house chasing about the grounds trying their best to recreate how the layout had been in the old house. And after he chased them all away, asking them to stay away, he drove to his mom, falling down on his hands and knees and asking of her forgiveness.

He felt her old hands stroking his hair to the sound of the old clock on the mantlepiece striking five times, the reverberations making him feel thirty years younger.

Barry listened to his mother speak of old girlfriends gone and relatives moved away to distant place. All the time, though, dad was there in spirit, his ghost lingering in their hearts. Phone calls were made, the undertakers were called, invitations sent out, tears were shed.

Barry still cried three hours later, holding his mom, eating with her, drinking coffee with her, taking walks with her, singing songs with her, crying with her.

It had seemed right to leave Mount Mitchell, had it not?

Father was going to die and it was Barry’s job to go home to comfort his mom.

Fate.

The week passed in an unspectacular manner, the scent of the old house reminding him of old wounds. He remembered being younger, actually never ever recalling until now that he had been happy back then.

Barry didn’t even remember forgetting the diary.

Spending the funeral in silence amongst a few chosen friends, Barry and his mom chose to go home afterwards and looking at old scrapbooks. They cried in each other’s arms, getting drunk on cheap Burgundy wine and eating tons of Hershey bars.

 

Barry and his mother sat in the dining room, a Sunday morning it was, when the familiarly unfamiliar doorbell rang. Mother Bertha Winslow stood up, leaving her pasta steaming on the rose colored plate. Barry put his hand on her lap, asking her to remain seated.

As Barry opened the front door, the woman that stood there had the sun shining on her sweet sandré hair from way across the bay. She held a book in her hand. The diary with the soft cover seemed familiar. Barry stood there in the doorway of his mother’s house, smelling the roses from his mother’s garden, hearing the chirping of the birds, realizing that he had forgotten about Rowena and how she slammed all the doors of the house and told him she would never return unless he stopped “taking that shit”.

Rowena stood there for an endless time, before Barry’s mom carefully asked him if he didn’t want to let that poor woman in.

“How did you know I was here?” Barry whispered.

Rowena walked into the house, giving Barry the diary ever so slowly, ever so carefully, her Nina Ricci perfume spreading across the room like a cloud of misty memories.

“I called the rehab centre, Barry,” she said, apologetically. “Just out of morbid curiosity, I guess, I called them to see if my outburst had caused you to react.”

Mother Bertha Winslow sat down on the brown couch, folding her hands and putting them in her lap, looking at a coffee table book about North Carolina, pretending not to listen, knowing that her movements revealed otherwise.

“When they told me your rehabilitation had been a success,” Rowena mused, “I called the house in North Carolina. You must’ve been in Florida the first time round. I understood quickly that you were selling your house.”

Rowena walked over and sat down next to Bertha Winslow, who looked up at the beautiful woman that still could be seen as her daughter-in-law. Friendly, thankful gazes were exchanged before Rowena looked up at Barry again, pleading for him to understand.

“I must’ve just missed you,” Rowena said, ever so quietly. “The new owners had lots of trucks there, people, furniture, cartons.”

Rowena pointed at the diary, dreamily.

“When they heard who I was, they gave me this,” she said and reached for Bertha’s hand, holding it, caressing it, shrugging, unable to explain why she was here. “I drove all the way, not knowing why.”

Rowena saw her mother-in-law’s eyes fixed on hers.

“Now, I know why we hadn’t gone through with the divorce yet.”

Barry’s feet involuntarily shuffled across the carpet, his tush slowly descending down upon the cushions of the old couch.

She up nodded Barry, slowly, coldly, painfully.

“You still want to be married to me?”

Rowena looked at Barry, blinking a few times, trying to find the truth in his gaze.

“If you promise to stay clean,” she answered.

Barry nodded, his hand automatically reached across his mother’s lap and finding his wife’s arm. Bertha Winslow lay her hand on both of theirs, smiling.

“Main thing is that you are both here,” she said.

 

That night, in the new house, Rowena came to bed a little later than her husband and found him crying, his pillow flooded over in tears.

He turned over toward her, her hair hanging down across her face down into his eyes, his eyes red and bloodshot.

“I miss my father.”

Biting her lip, Rowena Winslow leaned over Barry and kissed him, gently.

Her lips tasted like the strawberry-flavored ice cream sundaes of his childhood.

That thousand dollar waterbed positioned under the original Rubens shone in all its wealth. Still, the only thing Barry really cared for in the bedroom was the picture of his family on the nighttime table.

“Barry?”

Barry looked up, his eyes a little less red now.

“Huh?” he said, his voice trembling.

“What has all this fame really brought you?”

He looked at his wife, so sweet and so present in all her surprise, obviously wondering what to answer. “A legacy. My life’s work.”

That same moon shone into the bedroom that night. A moon that had shone on Barry’s ex-parquet floor near Mount Mitchell. Now, Barry noticed the spirit in that moonlight. It was dad. Dad, who wanted to tell him that he loved him.

“That’s your creativity, Barry,” Rowena said, looking into the moonlight. She looked back at Barry, caressing his cheek. “I’m talking about your vanity, how many likes you get in facebook. Not your creativity.”

Barry looked into the moonlight.

“I’ve been chasing a ghost, haven’t I? How many tweets I get or what the press says when I network a Beverly Hills party.”

Barry lift his left hand and caressed his wife’s right cheek as it shone in the moonlight, looking smooth in the light of the Florida night.

“And to think that my fans think I lead a golden life.”

“Now, you will.”

As Rowena sunk onto the pillow of her side of the bed that night, Barry embraced his wife and fell asleep in her arms. And Barry dreamt about father standing in the moonlight.

 

That next morning, one ray of light drifted across Barry’s eyes. It fought itself through the window and forced his left eyelid open. His eye slowly met the sun, shining through a crack in the blinds and letting the sensitive blinking of his eyelid open. Orange colored see-through-draperies graced a cream painted window. A heart hung on a string from the curtain. It bobbed slowly back and forth from a breeze that came from somewhere.

His eyes drifted over to the pillow next to where he was laying.  Crumpled orange sheets with pictures of Tut-Anch-Amun on them met his gaze.

The satin sheets felt soft. The strange house smelled of newly washed bodies reeking of coconut cream. He paused and looked up toward the ceiling. Cream colored. Cream and orange. Barry breathed in slowly. The salty, welcoming smell of frying bacon met his nose. The girl he had made love to, was that her making breakfast, was she his wife?

That comforted Barry.

A new beginning.

The girl in whose arms he chose to fall asleep in, she was his wife, the mutual choice to feel each other out really didn’t concern anyone but them.

God, I believe in you.

Those were the words ringing in his ear that morning.

Soft music played in that kitchen, the noises of plates being taken out of cupboards.

When he stood up, he stumbled over his own jeans. The lay in a crumpled bunch on the floor next to his T-shirt. Faked old-style floor, made to look like log-cabin-boards, graced the floor. Picking up the pants and putting them on, Barry smiled to himself. Walking out, he saw a reproduction of an old Monet painting on the outer wall. He knew it was Monet. He had seen the original at the Museum of Modern Art. Its estimated worth of £ 41 million exceeded her financial gain. He had made a good choice.

Walking out of the bedroom, the smell of bacon with an extra whiff of eggs gave Barry a feeling of truth. Now coffee and toast also came floating over. The sandré-haired woman had thrown on a dress with flowers on it. The balcony table overlooked what from his position seemed to be the inner yard. Was this woman desperate? No. Barry’s heart told him that this woman was a goldmine. This woman was an angel. He must stay. This woman was fate. After all, this woman arrived just when he needed her.

Was all this for him? If it wasn’t, Barry would leave and never come back. Realizing that he was still barefoot, Barry strode up anyway, feeling the chill of the grey marble floor in the kitchen. At first, she didn’t see him, carrying out the bacon and eggs onto the balcony.

He stood there, wondering why this woman had made this fabulous meal for him. Happy about it, sure. Another man with the same night him behind would probably have left by now. Still not turning around to look if Barry was there, the woman reached with her hand behind her and picked up her coffee. She drank it in slow sips.

Barry felt the soft fabric of the Persian carpet under his feet. The fluffy sound of his bare feet walking across it sound like home. More home than what he had over in Mount Mitchell in his loneliness. Standing at the edge of the balcony, he looked at her features, her hair swaying in the wind.

The woman slowly turned around.

The two of them hesitated, like children before a first kiss. The breeze refreshing, their souls still shy even after a complete take-over of nightly lust, they realized that they looked at each other for the very first time and liked what they saw.

The woman took some elegant, striding steps up to her man. Standing there close to him, she lift her arms and put them around his waist. She bit her lip, trembled a bit, exuded some gorgeous perfume, sweated, sighed.

He felt her breath on his, this fingernails tickling his back, her scent seducing his nose, her voice soothing his lonely heart. She looked down on his mouth, lifting one hand and running it along his lips.

She looked up at him, into his eyes. And if the eyes are the windows to the soul, then a signal came from that deep soul right into his. She laughed, threw her eyes open, raised her eyebrows and crouched with a giggle that could’ve belonged to one of his female ex-high-school-students.

She opened them again.

Barry gave the woman a long intense kiss, tongues probing hungrily inside her mouth.

“You’ve run out of milk, so the eggs are just sunny side up.”

“I’ll have your milk instead. That probably tastes better than Walmart’s.”

Barry kissed her again. And by the time they did sit down to eat, the food was cold. But that didn’t matter. The juice was fresh, the bacon was crisp and the jam was home made. As they ate, they spoke about who they were and what they wanted out of life.

Rowena gave her love-interest a half-grin, shaking her head. She spread some butter and jam on her toast and took a bite.

Rowena smiled, bitterly.

Barry laughed nervously, fidgeting with his hands.

He looked down.

“You seem to me like an angel, Rowena.”

And so, she sat there, in her garden chair, holding her juice. Barry feared she would burst out laughing. Instead, she cried.

Barry stood up and walked over to her. He kneeled down beside her, caressing her lap.

“Don’t cry. That’s my job.”

Rowena let her hand drop to her pretty lap. “No kidding.”

Barry ran his hands up and down her lap. The fabric was thin and soft.

She waited.Barry knew that, but he didn’t seem to have the strength to continue.

Rowena rubbed her fingers gently together. The fingers made a small sound. He waited for her to say something. She gave him an open gaze.

Rowena seemed distant, out of reach, rubbing a wound that didn’t want to heal.

“I need you in my life.”

“Ditto.”

“Ditto. That’s nice. Ditto.”

The two of them laughed again and kissed.

“Just promise me to stay clean.”

The pleading gaze in Rowena’s face made him feel like a little boy again. A boy that had been innocent, one boy that passed that bathroom and never walked in to take that first shot of cocaine. That boy would never have run away from home, he would never have become the party boy of New York. Then again, he would never have become a famous author.

Now, however, Barry Winslow sat with his wife in a new house, a new beginning, not afraid to start anew, not afraid to let go of the past. Trusting God was right, wasn’t it?

So, after breakfast he made love to his wife, went to see his mother, went to pray by his father’s grave.

After that, Barry Winslow went home to write a new story.

He took the diary and positioned it beside the computer.

The plot about a boy, challenged by three friends to take drugs and refusing, felt real. What felt amazing soared like a beautiful eagle inside his heart: the boy turned into happy father, an adored husband, a consummate professional and a good friends.

Famous? Yes. That, too.

And Barry decided once and for all to let go of the pain of his own lost beginnings.

 

 

 

01 August
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Prince Wenzel

The exotic smell of freshly brewed coffee warmed up her senses. Spicy and cosy, it meandered across from the open square from the tables over to her nose. Although Salzburg felt more cuddly than exotic, the city’s historical melange offered a lovely blend of brilliant culture and colorful worldliness. Funny how certain smells evoke certain emotions. This coffee smell felt like music, Austrian music.

The mezzosoprano’s mind commanded her feet with the high heels to stop walking and stop to take a moment to rest, for whatever reason. The last echo of her clicking, high heeled shoe hitting the big wall of the dome bounced back toward her. One white pigeon took off into the late morning sky as a result of the sound. It headed for the horizon, the sight reminding Gun Kronzell of countless afternoons in places that aroused her musical interest. Stockholm, Paris, Rome, Vienna and this place: Salzburg. Somehow, the sweet and cremy taste of Austrian sugar under a continental sun, hot drinks as seductive as a musical melange of tastebuds, reminded her of Mozart. His creamy, steamy ingenius musical notes seemed to her dancing gifts of joy for her willing tastebuds. Mozart and coffee had that much in common. Certainly his piece Rondo alla Turca gave a coffee a good name, knowing that Turkey, in actual fact, had introduced the drink to Austria after its defeat during the seige of 1683. The mezzosoprano smiled at the thought of Turkish coffee being the birthmark of the Viennese café, just like the croissant had been the left-over of a Turkish war.

But the mezzosoprano was Swedish and she knew how many Swedes studied and lived here, singers, musicians and diplomats. That remained the Scandinavian legacy.

She gazed over at Demel’s Café and knew that history lived here in this town. East met west, coffee met music, religion met spirituality, architecture met history, nature met gluttony, love met friendship. Friendship. What a nice word. This place felt like a good friend. Maybe she would meet new friends here. What had her mother Anna Kronzell said before she left for Salzburg?

“A stranger is a friend I’ve never met before.”

Gun stopped, recognized the smell. That smell felt like a friend. For one moment, she let the scent seduce her. The whiff felt familiar, worldly, experienced, like a promise to be kept, but still a different coffee smell than the smell back home in Sweden. There, in Kalmar, pure coffee mixed with a shot of milk and maybe some sugar felt like a summer breeze. The young singer thought of seaside cafés and simple pancakes with strawberry jam, like the ones her mama Anna Kronzell made every Sunday. Eggcake, Äggakaka, the Swedish recipe her father Knut had brought with him from Helsingborg. Both mouthwatering flavors met right here in Salzburg. Here, it smelled like Mozart. Like Rondo alla Turca.

Gun Kronzell shook her head, away from the smell of coffee and the lure of Austrian cake. Her high heels started clicking again, that white pigeon returning to the wall of the cathedral. As she slowly left the coffee-house behind her, she was still close enough to hear  a waiter serve a guest with familiar words: “One Sacher-Torte for you, Miss!”

The voice sounded familiar.

Gun turned around and watched the scene. The waiter, a young twenty-something with slick blonde hair, held his left hand behind his back and bowed to a girl her own age. From this distance she didn’t realize who she was. She would, though, wouldn’t she? She knew that girl, didn’t she?

Gun took a look at her the golden watch. Twenty to two. There was still time for one coffee. One little Rondo alla Turca to remind her of the summer wind from across the sea. She smiled and strode back, the white pigeon taking off again toward the summer sky and strode past the buzz of the conversation onto a free table.

As she passed the table with the familiar woman, happy to be here as a young singer in such a great city, she dreamed of what future might entail and missed the possible aquaintances that could be sitting at Demel’s Café. An equally young voice echoed across the square, making the pigeon take off again, trying to tell her something.

Gun turned around, wide eyed and innocent and open minded as was her custom, looking around for the possible owner of the voice. Her eyes rested on a dozen faces, heard the voice call again and again as she smelled the scent of freshly brewed coffee, until she finally saw the female colleague sitting there. Now, she recognized the woman. Her smiling face beamed over towards her, giggling over from across that Sacher Torte, holding a gilded fork and getting ready to dig into Salzburg’s most prominent and delicious chocolate cake.

“Gunnel, my friend,” Gun exclaimed, threw her arms about and ran over, as was her custom, embracing her friend from across the continent. “My Lord, how nice it is to see you.”

“Come over,” the other woman said in brilliant Swedish. “Let’s form a Swedish club.”

Gun’s beautiful personality shining, her absolute glow projected her inner soul.

“Gunnel,” Gun exclaimed, addressing the woman with such a similar name and play-acting a cordial princess-scene, bowing her head and scraping her foot. “May I?”

Gunnel threw her head back and chuckled with mirth.

“Always happy to oblige.”

As Gun sat down, she chattered, eager to learn all the details of her travels from her home. “Did your train just arrive?”

Gunnel pointed toward her bag, nodding, inserting a forkful of chocolate sin into her mouth. “Yes, I chose to stop a few times along the way, first staying over night at a friend’s house in Hannover and then taking the train down to Stuttgart. Now, here I am,” she said, letting that gorgeous chocolate ooze down her tongue. “You have got to try one of these. They are to sing for. I choose to say that they are to sing for, because, after all, we are singers. We don’t die, we sing.”

“Indeed,” Gun said, waving her hand and gathering the blonde waiter’s attention. “Sir, could I have what she is having?”

A young, blonde man came striding up, nodded and smiled happily, still holding his arm behind his back and then walking away with a happy smile. Gun turned back to Gunnel, laughing. “These waiters are so polite. We should take them home with us and have them serve us coffee on the terrace back in Sweden.”

Out of nowhere, it seemed hard to understand from where the feeling came, Gun and Gunnel began laughing. Maybe it was the smell of the Sacher Torte, the scent of that newly brewed coffee, the sight of the pigeons, the beauty of the cathedral in that open market place, the fact that both of them were young singers, that both of them were Swedish mezzosopranos that happened to be studying in Salzburg at the time. Or maybe it was just the friendly waiter. Whatever it was, the laughter caught on and the girls kept on laughing until they saw, in the corner of their eyes, a bird approaching them.

The flapping wings of those pigeons would’ve seemed disturbing at any other moment, given the fact that they really didn’t have the finest of reputation. Now, however, Gun and Gunnel looked up in the midst of their laughter and saw one of them  approaching and then taking off toward the summer sun. The white pigeon flapped its wings. As it did, it seemed much more like an angel than a bird. For one moment, one sacred moment, they saw the bird taking off to the heavens very much like a pigeon of peace. They didn’t even notice the waiter arriving with freshly brewed Mozartian coffee and a sinful chocolate cake. In fact, the blonde and young and quite good looking waiter looked up toward the heavens, as well, joining them in witnessing how the bird fly into the sun. Of course, it didn’t really fly into the sun, but it certainly looked like it, though. In fact, it looked like an angel.

“Schön,” the waiter said in his very special dialect, leaving them to their sweet and feminine Swedish ways. “Sehr, sehr schön.”

Of course, fate always gives its favorite friends small hints. Hints that come in pairs, actually. Poignant pairs. Obviously, it seemed to Gun at the time that the bird really was a sweet natural phenomenon. In actual fact, the fact that a little boy walked by, followed closely by his mother and the fact that this boy was addressed as Charlie, obviously by an American mother … well, there had to be a reason for that.

Gun forgot about it, only to remember it years later, when the pigeon came back in her mind.

Gun and Gunnel really spoke about everything but music that day. They spoke about their homes in Sweden and what they would do when they got back to their flats. They spoke about places, faces, traces of their past, they spoke about trusting God. Interesting, but that seemed to be the main topic that day. God, they said, would never let anyone down who trusted him. There was too much fear in the world, but no wonder that there was fear. The year was 1952 and that horrible war was only seven years back. A lot of people had suffered. A lot of people had cried. Looking around, no physical trace of that fear could be seen. In the midst of that memory, actually, hope soared. A golden era had commenced.

Well, that chocolate cake rolled down into Swedish stomachs, the pigeon returned with what seemed to be leaf. The smell of coffee still lingered inside her nostrils. Gunnel still exchanged tidbits of information as to where she stayed here in town. Gun realized, as she spoke, that she lived in the same house as Gunnel and knew that they would be sneaking up to visit each other at night. She knew that she would spend most of her time here practicing, but also knowing her sweet tooth and her love of those lovely, candescent Mozart-Kugeln would also occupy her free time. Maybe Gunnel would find her actually eating them in the dorm room and join her.

That pigeon of peace actually never left her mind. Gunnel told her she had to go and enjoy a lesson with Ernst Reichert. Gun told her with a smile that her lesson had been a success and that she knew there was a mass in the cathedral in fifteen minutes. That would be her reward.

“The ensemble rehearsal for Beethoven’s Ninth?”

“At eight tonight,” Gun answered.

“So most certainly, we will see each other then.”

All through those lovely little pieces of information, Gun followed the pigeon in her mind. Gun hugged Gunnel, enjoying her friend’s company here where she could share this seminar in this beautiful city. As they parted ways, Gun followed the only white pigeon in the square to the side entrance of the cathedral. Gazing at it for a while, she followed it and ended up looking up at the church. She found herself looking at all the figurines and the statues and the stones, trying to understand what they all meant.

This wonderful place seemed have been created only for her.

This wonderful moment seemed to have been conceived just for her to experience.

The Franciscan monk couldn’t have been standing there long. He seemed to be deeply involved in the reading of his bible, his soul at peace with reality. Gun realized that the smell of coffee had disappeared inside her mind, replaced by the attraction of this place.

The pigeon? Hmm, gone. Not even a trace of it. Instead, a Franciscan monk stood there reading a bible. What a silly thought. A pigeon turning into a monk. Well, in a way a priest was like a bird of peace. A match made in heaven.

In that moment of realization, the friar looked up at Gun and smiled. The friendly gesture, warm and giving, immediately spoke to her with a wonderful emotion. It told her, without any words, that she actually had found a friend. His thick-rimmed glasses couldn’t hide the fact that a soul glimmered and glittered behind those eyes, a soul interested in people.

“What a beautiful church,” Gun said, smiling, making the first move to start a conversation.

The Franciscan monk nodded, lowering his bible, sighing and gazing at the wonder of this fantastic building.

“Yes, this is quite a wonderful place,” the man answered, revealing his nice and sonorous bass-baritone, one that certainly could’ve been used on an opera stage, had he made the choice to sing. Given the fact that Gun felt that she had found a friend, it seemed a lucky draw that he was a cleric. “I often stand here in the summer, simply enjoying the weather and reading my bible.”

The short pause came as a surprise to Gun, just because a mischievous smile followed his words. She hadn’t expected that from a monk. At once, Gun began laughing.

He took a step closer toward Gun and giggled. “But I chose the shade. I am not much of a sunbather.”

“Neither am I,” Gun said.

Gun nodded, realizing that this day might be a day of merry laughter.

“Are you here as a tourist?”

The friendly man’s honest interest came across as quite genuine and the enthusiastic Swedish girl smiled, shaking her head, happy to reveal the nature of her visit.

“I am studying at the Mozarteum this summer with Mr. Ernst Reichert,” Gun said. “I am a student in Stockholm in Sweden and here because I won a scholarship from the Rudd-Foundation in Norway. My aim is to eventually get a job as a singer at an opera company, maybe in Germany or here or somewhere.”

“Why not in Sweden? In your home?”

Gun shrugged. “Maybe, yes.”

“Well,” the nice monk said with a content grin, “I live and work at the Franciscan Friary over at Franziskanergasse. You need someone to show you around?”

“Yes, I would love that,” Gun said.

After a moment’s peaceful and waking meditation, the man added:

“Are you going to mass?”

Gun nodded happily.

The monk stretched forward his hand: “Friar Bonifaz Madersbacher, Miss.”

Gun took his hand. “I am Gun Kronzell, a mezzosoprano from Kalmar in Sweden.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Friar Bonifaz said.

One could have said that this was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Friar Bonifaz and the young mezzosoprano walked into the Salzburg dome that day, the monk explaining to the young singer how every little nook and cranny of the cathedral had a meaning. Yes, certainly, this was match made in heaven. In secret, Gun really believed that the coffee had taken her to the white pigeon, who in turn had led her to the Franciscan friar.

The two new friends went to mass together, they even sat and drank a cup of coffee at Demel’s. Gunnel even arrived there after her lesson and so there were three new friends sitting there looking at the white pigeon sail towards the sun. Gun even ate her second Sacher Torte that day after confessing it to Friar Bonifaz. The monk said that she should be careful of not ruining her dainty figure.

Of course they all exchanged numbers and address and made a date for the next day where and when to meet again. Gun even promised to bring her friend, the witty Swedish singer named Gunnel. Gunnel said that she wouldn’t miss that date for the world.

Bonifaz remained Gun’s closest confidant through the years. The friar gave her good advice when a love crisis made her cry or a personal crisis threatened to challenge her mind. As he was appointed Bishop of Bolivia, having to remain there 25 years, Gun and Bonifaz managed to keep contact and remained her closest spiritual mentor.

Gun married a charming Irish-American baritone in Hannover, 1966. In 1969, she bore a son. Difficult to say, but fate had it that a little boy named Charlie had passed her as she sat in the café back in Salzburg. She also called her own little boy Charlie.

Well, Bonifaz and Gun kept contact even until their mutual old age. Gun had a marvelous career as a singer, as did the entire Kronzell-Moulton family. They all met all kinds of famous people, sang on prominent stages, teaching students who became colleagues of famous singers.

Bonifaz moved back to his old home town of Hall near Innsbruck in the 1990’s.

That gave Gun a good reason to take her whole family to see him.

Bonifaz spoke of Charlie as a man who inspired trust.

Charlie had won a new friend.

As time went by, Gun and Bonifaz grew even closer, visited each other where ever they lived and exchanged information about each other’s lives.

As Bonifaz died, he soared toward the heavens just like a white pigeon of peace.

Gun remembered Bonifaz long after he died, thanked him for his friendship every day of her remaining life and loved him for his eternal help. He remained her angel and once Gun died, Gun and Bonifaz joined Gun’s husband in heaven and all their relatives became Charlie’s and his family’s angels.

Bonifaz was and always would be the bird of peace, a heavenly mediator and a man whose presence had been revealed to Gun through a small pigeon soaring towards the Salzburg sun as she sat enjoying a cup of freshly brewed Salzburg coffee and eating some delicious chocolate cake. Charlie often called Gunnel to talk of old times and how that afternoon in Salzburg had been the beginning of a lovely lifelong companionship.

In actual fact, wasn’t it the Sacher Torte that ultimately led Gun to that match made in heaven?

01 August
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Turkey Cock

Imagine being a 19-year old opera freak, a voice student between jobs and suddenly finding yourself shepherding a whole carload of famous, if impoverished opera singers overnight from Chicago to New York in the middle of a midwestern winter – in February 1947 yet.

Imagine that these splendid artists have been stranded by an opera season that folded before it opened, and, just to add to the fun, that they have barely a word of English among them, while your own knowledge of foreign language is almost as sketchy as theirs.

Then imagine that this whole bizarre, impromptu  interlude would turn out to be one of the most memorable of your lifetime, vivid even now, more than half a century later.

But first we’d better backtrack a bit …

The previous summer, dazzled by the prospect of mingling with some real live opera singers – past, present, and future – I’d given up an academic scholarship for the richly rococo voice studio of oldtime diva Anna Fitziu and her fascinating entourage of students of hangers-on. (One of her last and finest gifts to the world would be the megastar Shirley Verrett). That same summer I was engaged as the youngest 2nd tenor to grace (or disgrace, as some would have it) the Chicago Opera Company chorus for what would be the city’s last resident season until 1954 – no connection there, really, folks.

By mid-July we were rehearsing for the October opening of a 6-week season to feature such household Gods of ours as Milanov, Björling, Traubel, Warren, and Tibbett, along with overseas newcomers like Ferruccio Tagliavini and Italo Tajo. For me, all this amounted to The Big Time, or as near as you would come to it in Chicago of 1946 – but wait! What was gthat brilliant light shining on the horizon? A brand new opera company. Glory! Hallelujah! A veteran impressario from South America named Ottavio Scotto had suddenly appeared – a feisty little turkey-cock of a gent with flowing silk scarves, a wide-brimmed champagne-colored Borsalino hat, silver-headed cane, and – I swear it – spats and pince-nez glasses. And he was fizzing over with grandiose plans for an ambitious new undertaking with the imposing name of The United States Opera, to open its inaugeral season at the Civic Opera House on January 6th, with an all-star production of Puccini’s Turandot. But that wasn’t all – thanks to generous backing, a constellation of legendary European stars had already been signed, names familiar from recordings and opera magazines, along with an excellent musical staff from conductors (Sergio Failoni, George Sebastian) and coaches to a chorus master from the old opera days. And the company would live up to its name by using Chicago as a base for touring all over opera-hungry America.

Signor Scotto strutted through the studio several times to audition singers for smaller roles, always with a squad of Cosa Nostra types, and though Madame Fitziu was always her usual gracious self, it was obvious that she Didn’t Quite Trust that Little Man. She disclosed that he had at one time been the manager and possibly lover of the tragic, Duse-like prima donna Claudia Muzio. Also, his vibes were negative in the extreme. Once at a rehearsal in Soth America she saw him slap star tenor Miguel Fleta viciously across the face for cracking on high notes due to sexual excess. (Ah, the mysterious mystique of Art!)

Anyway, we choristers were at once plunged into daily rehearsals for the new season. In addition to Turandot, there would be several operas new to many of us: Tannhäuser, Don Pasquale, Cavalleria, and two Massenet works, Thais and Manon, as showcases fora star of the Paris Opéra, Georgi-Boué, and her baritone husband, Roger Bourdin. (She was reputed to be drop-dead gorgeous, perfect casting for Massenet’s romantic heroines.) We never did see this pair – did they know something we perhaps didn’t?

Among the Italians would be established singers like Mafalda Favero, Galliano Masini, Cloe Elmo – while the German wing would be led by Heldentenor Max Lorenz, the famed Konetzni sisters, Hilde and Anny, from Vienna, and the young Swiss bass Heinz Rehfuss. Most compelling of all: a superb Italo-Russian basso from La Scala, Nicolo Rossi-Lemeni, who arrived early enough to become a familiar figure at Fitziu’s studio, a stunning singing-actor, 27 years of age, too intellectual really to be an opera star, simpatico, and physically what nowadays would be called a Hunk. Moreover, he was probably the only singer ever to get a rave review from critic Claudia Cassidy for singing over the telephone, sending her to the highest heaven of invention, where she remained for at least 24 hours.

It was Nicola who first told us about our Turandot, a fabulous young Greek-American soprano still back in New York – only 23 years old: shy, nearsighed, plump, and awkward to play the fire-in-ice princess, but possessor of one of the most fantastic voices that he or anybody had ever heard. Her name was something like Maria Kalogerapoulous shortened, or so he believed, to Callas (though advance publicity, bumbling as usual, dubbed her “Marie Calas”.) She had been something of a phenomenon in Greece during the war – singing roles like Tosca, Santuzza and Fidelio, but for the past year or so, back in New York she hadn’t had a chance. Learning Turandot had been a godsend – coached by a singer-pianist, who was along on our epic trip – but with the collapse of the season, she’d be back to square one, poor girl. However – the future held such things for her that no fairytale could envision. (By the way, many of the the Callas biographies have her coming to Chicago and getting stranded there like all the others, but it simply isn’t true. She remained in New York. If she HAD been along – in that concert AND on that train, I’m sure somebody would have noticed. So much for good reporting. Take that, Arianna Stassinopoulous. Sic semper Tabloidiensis!

Another outrider from the Scotto troupe was an Italian comprimaro tenor named Virginio Assandri (or “Sandro”), amiable and high-spirited. From him I acquired the Italian cusswords and scatological terms that still stud my vocabulary. (He later went on to New York to sing in several of Toscanini’s legendary NBC opera productions, starting with Cassio in the benchmark Otello the following autumn.)

December came and went, and with it the usual Chanukah and Christmas festivities, with Turandot all but coming out of our ears – one foot in Ancient Peking, the other in Limbo, because at that point we didn’t know where we stood: still no “Marie Calas”, and, what was worse, no money. Illustrations artists kept on arriving, and, though the opening had already been put forward a couple of weeks, ticket orders were already being filled. Rumors were rife and speculation becoming general because nobody had as yet seen a penny of rehearsal pay. And we were constantly being put off by the vaguest of excuses – the money was there, all right, but (a) being held up by the government, or (b) caught up in the bureaucratic tangle of international finance, or (c) tied up in the escrow, whatever the hell that meant.

When the opening date was again moved forward, our AGMA chorus-delegate, a lady named Evelyn Siegel, who Took No Prisoners, issued a Put-Up-or-We-Shut-Up ultimatum that brought matters to a nasty head.

Signor Scotto, meanwhile, last of the Bigtime Impressarios, had vanished in a puff of smoke like Rumpelstilskin – scarves, pince-nez, and spats, leaving his luckless partner, an agent named Eddie Bagarozy, holding the tab for something like $ 100 000 in debts.

The backers – invisible Millionaires from Outer Space – had suddenly withdrawn their support, taking all of their gold with them like Alberich and his seven dwarfs in Das Rheingold. The bitter, unvarnished truth: there would be no opera season, there would be no United States Opera Company ever. The key word was bankrupt. Kaputt. Fini. Finiti. That’s all she wrote, as they say in This Man’s Army.

            And those magnifiscent singers from overseas, what would happen to them? How would they going to bankroll their journey back to Europe? What, by giving a benefit concert for themselves, that’s how …

And what a concert it turned out to be – one of those rare occasions which one can, in all confidence, call unforgettable. The Civic Opera House was packed, and the audience was as enthusiastic as the Super Bowl’s. True, the programme handed out consisted of only one page mimeographed in that blotchy purple ink that old office machines used to have – no Xerox yet in 1947. The vast stage was empty except for the piano, a seat for the accompanist (Sandro on his very best behavior). The singing and the artistry were, of course, something else again. As one by one these wonderful artists came and went, most of them in pre-war finery that had seen better days, they planted themselves by the piano and delivered with a grandeur of voice and style that had nothing to do with costumes or scenery – an inner pride, a rocklike self-confidence that could only come from generations of tradition and hard work, showing us just what were about to be deprived of. Now, more than five decades later, highlights are still fresh in memory, and these are only as one spectator remembers them. There are bound to be some errors. Nodody’s perfect, as the fellah said.

Especially memorable high points – a Rigoletto Quartet that was, in a word , simply to die for – Mafalda Favero’s lovely but delicate soprano, heartbreaking in scenes from La Boheme and La Traviata (the latter with an attractive lyric baritone named Daniele Cecchele) – a humorous basso buffo (Melchiore Luise?) and itinerant quack hawking his wares to a gullible country bumpkin (tenore-di-grazia Nino Scattolini) who looked like a waiter at the Italian Village café a few streets over, but who sang like a Donizetti angel – sparkling Rossini from a beauteous young senorita named Carmen Gracia – superb arias from Masini, still one of the greatest Italian tenors extant. Then there were the tremendous Wagnerians, and you’d have to journey all the way to Bayreuth or Vienna to hear them or their like – Max Lorenz and Hilde Konetzni flooding the house with the lyrical springtime of Die Walküre (So what if it was incest? This was opera!), and her sister Anny, her dramatic soprano matching the royal purple velvet of her gown, taking us through all 18 minutes of Brünhilde’s Immolation, the longest aria in the lexicon, and this to only the plinkety-plonk of a piano. Most impressive of all: two singers on the brink of world fame – the contralto Cloe Elmo, delivering a Il Trovatore aria which critic Irving Kolodin would call an “incitement to arms” when the same lady debuted with it at the Met a year or so later – and Rossi-Lemeni, as unique an actor as he was a singer, with a Boris-Godunov. That oldtimers were comparing to Chaliapin’s. (A few seasons later, when Nicola was performing Boris with the San Francisco Opera, one of my oldest friends, the actress Janice Rule, was suddenly stricken with a bursting appendix, but refused to be taken to hospital until Boris had expired. Luckily, she didn’t follow suit, but greater love hath no opera buff!

For me the concert had an unexpeced encore, a Second Act in this young American’s life that rounded things off perfectly. My own troubles seemed tiny indeed compared to the stranded titans, but still and all, in addition to disappointment of the shipwrecked opera (six or more weeks of unpaid rehearsing), I’d been bellowing Grand Old Opry for something like seven months and felt I deserved a break. And what better tonic that a weekend in New York? So I got myself a ticket ($ 34,50 round trip) on the New York Central’s economical, no perks, no-frills coach train, the Pathfinder, which left the LaSalle Street Station every afternoon and plunked you down at New York’s Grand City Central early the next morning, come rain or come shine, all in one piece, and, apart from feeling rather moldy, ready for anything. But please hang on – here’s an excerpt from a letter which my dad wrote to his father about it – were are a family of incurable letter-writers and letter-savers, as well, for which I have been grateful many times –

 

Nell and I went to see Herby off at 3 p.m. on the 6th. Waiting to take the same train were all of the stranded stars mentioned in the enclosed clipping. He had met several of them backstage or at Fitziu’s and had made good friends with Rossi-Lemeni especially. They sang and had a glorious time all the way to New York. The Turkish Consul was there with baskets of lunch. Herby threw his box of lunch into the pot. The sane people on the train wanted to get some sleep and the conductor threatened to put the whole crowd off at Buffalo …

 

And thereby, as they saying goes, hangs a tale …

There weren’t any seat reserveration (at those prices, you were lucky they had seats) so we got there nice and early so the Beamish Boy could get a decent place on this, his first real adventure. My mom Nell, as was her custom, had provided me with enough provender to sustain a goo-size travel group a full week on the Trans-Siberian Railway – none of it was going to be wasted.

There was something unusual about the crowd milling about, waiting to board the train. Besides the usual clutter of seedy Willy Lomans with their cardboard sample cases, and the families with kids who should have been in school, this was a mob not exactly typical for a Thursday afternoon in February – a laughing, babbling, polyglot crush of wayfarers and wellwishers, many of them flamboyant in flowing scarves and berets, some armed with bottles of wine and long loaves of fresh French bread, one even wielding a king size salami. The air was vibrant with chatter and snatches of song.

And suddenly there was Sandro, pushing his way towards me: “Ciao, ‘Erby! Tu stai qui? Molto bravo! Anche tu a New York? Benissimo!” – “Una gioia improvvisa, Dearie!” put in “the Fitziu”, at my elbow and suddenly gone all Traviata. She had arrived with what seemed like half of the town’s music world – Rosa Raisa her husband Giacomo Rimini, Edith Mason, Claire Dux, and the critic Rene Devries. Her trilling continued: “I had a distinct feeling that something marvelous was going to happen today. You’re just the one to lead all these poor darlings to the promised land!” And she was jostled away by a moustached gentleman in a black homburg and a fur-collared overcoat, who turned out to be the Turkish consul, and he and Fitziu began handing out beribboned lucnh bags to our displaced canaries.

They seemed to be everywhere you looked – Favero and Masini and Elmo with her rich contralto laugh, and the lovely Spanish soprano, Carmen Gracia, lugging the guitar which would help us thru the long night ahead. I could also pick out some of the others – Melchiorre Luise, Cecchele, and the boyish Scattolini, Rossi-Lemeni, who greeted me with a hug, and a lady who proved to be the wife of Bagarozy, the agent who had lost such a bundle on the scuttling of the season. She was also a singer and had been coaching the Greek-American girl, Maria Whatzername, for the role of Turandot.

But where was the Wagnerian contingent …? Ach ja, they could be seen off to one side in a stolid little cluster, looking rather askance at the Roman carnival swirling all around them. As was their custom, they were keeping themselves to themselves, which was fine with me, considering the new-found responsibilities I had just fallen heir to as bellweather to the Italian herd.

Deafening loudspeaker crackling, and the train’s departure was announced – much hissing of steam and whistling as the train backed majestically in from the yards up ahead. The crowd started moving toward the gate, where some of the crew had gathered, looking most important: official caps, dark overcoats, clipboards … But first Sandro had to make his farewell speech to the troops, which ran somewhat as follows: This was ‘Erby, he began, aa fellow singer and a Chicago Paisan, who would take good care of them all until delivery at the hotel in New York. This news was greeted with smiles and clapping, and, I have to say, I stood mighty proud. Boy, what would they say at the Music School I’d opted out of?

A final chorus of “Ciao’s” and “Bye-Bye’s” and “Arrivederci’s” and we pressed forward. My parents, who had been enthralled by the spectacle being played out all around them, kissed me goodbye, handed over the grubstakes especially prepared for the trip, and took their leave. A final departure call and the conductor bawled out in a  ratchetty voice: “ALL A-BO-O-ARD!” – one more impatient whistle and I hustled the last of precious charges up the steps and into the day-coach. The epic journey, pure Fellini, and surely one of the most singular in the history of American rail transport, was about to begin …

Once inside, it took some time to get everyone sorted out and settled in our portion of the coach, lifting luggage – bags, umbrellas, cardboard boxes, real gypsy impediments – up onto the overhead rack, finger wiping off dusty windowsills and grimy windows – to a true worshiper like myself, every one of their actions and reactions, each small gesture had flair and style. One immediate project: an improvised buffet to be arranged on top of two suitcases piled one on top of the other on one of the seats, followed by sloshing of red wine into wax-paper cups (Chin-Chin! Cheers! Salute!) and slicing of bread and salami and cheese, all of it spiced with laughter. It was all so easygoing, so goodnatured that you couldn’t help wonder at these blithe musical spirits. They weren’t any of them despondent or depressed over the shipwreck of the opera. The thumping success of the concert the night before, both artistic and financial, plus the unqualified praise for each of them in the newspaper reviews of Claudia and Colleagues kept spirits soaring. Even if I’d had my pocket dictionary with me, I couldn’t have provided a very good translation, but they got the gist of it and were duly set up.

When you think about it, those weeks in America must have been  a kind of vacation for them all, perhaps the first most of thm had ever known. Remember that in the winter of 1946 – 47, the war had only been over for about a year-and-a-half, and privation, rationing, and black marketeering were still a big part of everyday European life. The threat of rampant communism was growing ominously, though the newly-coined phrase Iron Curtain wasn’t even a year old. The Nuremberg Trials were still fresh in memory and the Marshall Plan wasn’t even a plan yet. Large population centers like Berlin and Vienna were divided and being administered by the occupying victors, while most of the once-lovely historic towns still lay in ruins.

What a contrast with our own bustling, prosperous, wasteful and wisecracking cities. Even viewed through the grimy windows of a cheap day-coach, Small Town U.S.A. with all the lights and cars and overflowing shops must have had the storybook unreality of a Hollywood movie. Compared to what these happy and gifted people had endured – who, with their music and their merriment, were even now annoying the hell out of the Willy Lomans and the day-coach conductors – compared to all that, the collapse of a mere opera season was small beer indeed, and the fineglings of a tin-horn impressario were reduced to their proper puniness.

During the first leg of the trip I was like a Red Cross orderly heading out relief-packets to the survivors of a disaster, supplementing the Turkish contributions with my own hoard of fried chicken, meatloaf-and-peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, topped off with a variety of traditional American delicacies like Hostess Twinkies and cupcakes, Fig Newtons, and Tootsie-Rolls.

“Grazie, caro, molto gentile –“ I can still see the great lyric soprano Mafalda Favero, whose recordings of Boito and Massenet and the Cherry Duet from L’amico Fritz with Tito Schipa were among my most cherished 78’s, polishing off the last of my mom’s tollhouse cookies and rolling the crumbs between forefinger and thumb: “Delizioso, veramente, Signor ‘Erby!”

I’d be so pleased to discover that my Puccini-and-Pizzeria Italian wasn’t so hopeless after all. My only regret was that I had no German. How I’d have loved checking out the Wagnerians, wherever they were roosting for the night, to ask if they’d ever heard of this or that singer, and to pick their brains about prewar Bayreuth and Salzburg and Vienna. But, alas, at that point all that my Deutsch consisted of was “Bei mir bist du schön” (Early Andrews Sisters damage), a verse or two of Schubert, and bits from Lohengrin, one of the two German operas I’d ever been in, and there are limits to what you can do with phrases like “Heil dir, Elsa von Brabant!” and the praise for a knight’s shining armor: “Wie glänzt sein Waffenschmuck!”, while couplets like “Heil, deiner Fahrt, deinem Kommen!” wouldn’t do at all.

We must have been halfway across Indiana and well into the vino rosso when somebody toom out the guitar and struck up the Brindisi, the Drinking Song from La Traviata, and soon everybody joined in. For the first time the other, “normal” passengers actually sat up and took notice. (“Sane” was my Dad’s word for them, and who needs it?) The voices were so powerful and the singing so stirring and so true that at first the audience was simply incredulous – the newspaper reviews helped clarify matters – and before long they’d be genuinely interested. Of course, as the hours flew by on wings of song and as Sandman-time approached, the fascination began to wear a wee bit thin.

Each time the conductor came through, he resembled more and more the old Scots comic James Finlayson. Remember Fin? Laurel and Hardy’s furious nemesis with the Scots-burr and the baleful double-takes? Well, he had a Doppelgänger working for the New York Central in the 1940’s and that particular week his luck ran out. I don’t suppose he’d ever had to deal with a coachload of opera stars before. How do you ever prepare for such a challenge? Just then, our storied songsters enjoyed a high approval-rating, so all the poor sod could do was shake his head and to plead with me to “get ‘m to put a lid on it.” But imagine anyone putting a lid on a singer like Cloe Elmo? Follia! The sturdy little contralto was only just warming up, and soon, with only a guitar and not even a piano, let alone a full 110 piece orchestra, she’d be trading glavanic Sicillian taunts with the intensely dramatic Masini in the big showdown duet from Cavalleria Rusticana. (They’d been scheduled to do it in Chicago along about that time.) This might confrontation ends with Santuzza laying a death-curse on her former lover, and with him brushing her off with loud sardonic laughter, and if that didn’t break every window in the car it wasn’t for want of decibels. That should give some of the Hoosier Hot-Shots something to talk about at their next Kiwanis meeting.

The dearly handsome Masini had been a special idol of mine ever since ten years before when my parents took me to a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Lily Pons, we we all adored. She tweeted and chirped divinely, but the one I remember to this day was her tenor-lover Edgardo, played by Galliano Masini right up to the hilt and perhaps a quarter-of-an-inch beyond, the same Masini who was even sitting across the isle from me, nibbling chicken from Nell Moulton’s suburban kitchen and bantering between bites.

Back then in autumn 1937, he was winding up one of the most sensational engagements our opera had ever witnessed, “one long crescendo of excitement,” as the trib critic described it. To this day I can see him in his last aria, espiring from a self-inflicted dagger wound, propped up on one elbow and singing his great Livorno heart out. Then, at the final curtain calls, waving his hands up over his head to screams and cheers, like the true champion that he was. Later, during my high-school goofing-off period, I used to haunt the main Public Library reading room to pore over the old Tribune reviews of his performances, many of them hysterical in tone: WILD OVATION STOPS OPERA AS MASINI SINGS, headlined the Trib about one of his Tosca appearances when he had to encore his last act aria, something almost unheard of before or since. The same critic nominated him for “the mantle of  Caruso.”

The next year he’d had to share the limelight with none other than Beniamino Gigli, who was singing opera for the first and only time in Chicago, and not even a grand “Can Belto” like Masini could top that. But he went on to a successful Met debut in the same season that was Favero’s only time in New York. After her second Mimi there, both she and Masini, so the story goes, were ordered back home to Italy, and in those days nobody defied Il Duce. Then came the war and that was the last the were heard from for years, except for an occasional recording like the complete Forza del Destino, which Masini made in Rome and which is still state-of-the-art. If Masini had his faults, they came with the territory and Caruso and Gigli shared them, too – emotional overdrive heartrending sobs even in the middle of a word, and the endemic terminal grunt at the end of a high note. Sure they were (and are) in questionable taste, but audiences lap them up regardless.

So when both Favero and Masini were announced for the U.S. Opera in Chicago, it all but blew my mind. And as Masini walked on out onto that stage that had witnessed such triumphs a decade before, to be greeted by polite, but hardly wild applause, I wondered if I was the only one there who recalled that “one long crescendo of excitement.”

It was a nice enough success that he scored with a couple of arias, a consummate Boheme Act I scene with Favero, and the Rigoletto Quartet with himself as the Duke and Elmo as a once-in-a-lifetime Maddelena, joined by Carmen and Cacchele. It was as grand a finale as possible, given the circumstances: still and all, it was deeply anti-climactic , and must have perplexed him, like Othello, in the extreme. If only my Italian had been up to the task of telling just how much his voice and his art had meant to me all of these years. But no – there he was, just across from me, relaxed and receptive as he would be for the next few hours – and what did I do? Italiano or no Italiano, I blew it, let the moment slip away from me forever. I have regretted it ever since.

My bittersweet musings were broken off by more urgent matters. The ladies of the ensemble, temporarily exhausted by so much high-powered yodelling, and sated with juice, cola, and red wine, sent up such a heartrending lament for “acqua fresca” that I set off at once in my appointed role of Ganymedes, cup-bearer – no, make that PAPER-cup-bearer to the Gods – on a search for fresh water. My quest too me through each and every stuffy, smelly coach on that train, past the scowling Finlayson and his goons, past knitting womenand senior couples doing crossword puzzles and trying to ignore the minor sex-plays of necking teenagers, past people still nasching and others already snoozing. It also took me through squealing knots of small nosepickers, one of whom, a fat little girl with glasses, plunked herself right down in my path and greeted me with an enormous pink Double-Yum Bubble-Gum balloon, which emerged slowly but surely from her mouth and was almost as splendiferous as I could have blown myself if I’d not had better things to do.

Moving on, I knew at once which car was serving as Valhalla-on-wheels for the German-speakers, for they were conversing in low yet resonant Deutsch. Funny how the less you know a language the more you try to cover your embarrassment with idiotic grins, and I must have been grinning like a zonked-out samurai. My efforts were met with regal nods and a courtly bow from the Heldentenor, Max Lorenz, highly esteemed on both sides of the Atlantic, just then between pre- and post-war Met engagements. He and his companions seemed so grateful for any contact with another humanoid that I was instantly swept up in a handshaking mara