Story: Underneath the Arches

By: Gaither Stewart  

 stagefright

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Oscar Wilde.

The crowd had started yelling and hollering and clapping at the first notes from his guitar. There were many of his old classmates out there, he knew, but he couldn’t see them because of the stage lights aimed at his eyes. He wanted to see just one; he would sing to him … or hopefully to her. Instead, everything out there was darkness for him.  I cried, yes I cried for hours/ Forget the evening showers …

Maybe better the stage lights to hide behind, considering his timidity … and his solitude that here he didn’t perceive. He couldn’t see them seeing him so he could let himself go … a liberating sensation when he thought about the lights objectively; they made him feel like he was performing for himself. Still, liberated or not, he hated those lights; their blinding glare and their heat directed at him alone were unbearable … and admittedly they intensified his feeling of isolation that had come to infect his entire life. If those people out there in the darkness only knew the solitude he felt up here on the stage, alone and blind to the world, their envy of his artistic successes would fade. That’s why underneath each note of each of his songs lingered his overpowering solitude. In his next song, he consoled himself he would change everything. Joy would sound in it. The joy of Beethoven’s Ninth which he had once confused with the Fifth. Duh duh duh duh! In a way he had copied the four-note power of the first movement of the Fifth in Camp of Flowers and Two Trains. He felt guilty for that little bit of plagiary that seemed excessive. But, he told himself, they all did it. Everybody says so. Wagner and Prokofiev and Mussorgsky all ‘borrowed’ chords from each other. Writers did the same, reaching all the way back to ancient Greek playwrights to steal words, phrases and images. He wondered if some of his audiences caught that in his music. But still anyone must hear his own very personal solitude in all his music that was only his … not to be imitated. Liam had read that a critic of Beethoven’s time wrote that “the Fifth incarnated the romantic axiom that orchestral music … sets in motion the machinery of awe, fear, terror and of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism.” Liam felt in his innermost self that his music was filled with the same elements—unique, solitary, inimitable … and romantic. Still, he thought, I never wanted to ‘borrow’ anything from anyone else even though sometimes I’m almost obligated to. But even then I dismantle the other’s music—even if it’s only a single note, I denude it, I skin it, right down to the bone and then I reconstruct. Then no one else can recognize it but I know it’s there, deep down in the marrow. I would rather leave a blank space than do a cover song by someone else.

Is that conceit? Yes!

Self-assurance? No!

I’m always worried sick about a new song … until it has proven itself. It’s a test of courage. Courage I seldom feel. But I go on anyway, a simulacrum of a creative artist. Forget the camp of flowers (duh duh duh duh)/ of my head, (duh duh) of my head. (duh duh)

As his voice rose, he heard his own mournful words echoed somewhere out there in the darkness. He thought he would even prefer his first nights on stage of now so long ago when he had no choice but to face himself, even though he had never overcome his innate timidity … and his solitude. It was so humiliating. Was he a performing artist or not? Everything would be different if he only wrote songs—for others—even though each song was so intimately connected with his life. How could he give them up to strangers? There I was, I was lost out in the warm rain;/ There was people laughing, people dancing all night….

Actually, he confessed to his secret self, despite the acclaim it brought him he didn’t even belong up here, even if it was the fulfillment of his dreams since childhood. He’d even come to hate doing this Rome song without which none of his concerts was complete. They ALWAYS demanded it if he tried to omit it. “A silly little song about a piazza I used to know,” he explained to Ursula each time she asked why he hated his big hit.

            Then, interrupting his ruminations and self-examination—and all just about that silly little song—a face emerged from the darkness just at his feet. Only a face. She had smiled when he sang the phrase “people dancing all night”. Not a hysterical star-struck smile like the smile most of them showed him. But a smile that said ‘let me come to you.’ Then the smile faded but the face remained, stock-still, frozen, irrepressible, maybe irremovable. When he had first exploded on the music scene he chose one girl a night, sometimes at random, but those times had passed. Especially since Ursula, both manager and life companion, but also because of his timidity also with women—especially those that came on to him—and a sensation of violation of some never-discussed, never even conceived moral code, that something dark and obscure in his English background and that of his religious Polish grandfather who said grace before meals. Yet the main problem was that doing it like that took away the romance that he needed so that half the time he couldn’t even get it up and his sexual life was reduced to fellatio. Fel-la-tio. His whole lifestyle of then was too humiliating.

Time ticked and ticked. And today at only thirty-two he already felt old, exploited and consumed.

“So who were you out there tonight, Italian, English or Polish?” Ursula asked, rather testily, he thought, while he rested and drank water and took just a sip of gin after one hour straight of songs. He had no shitty entertainment backup. No fancy dancers. Just him in front of the mike with a three-man string group somewhere behind him.

“I’m sick of that Polish shit. So since my fans expect me to be a foreigner I was Liam … English Liam from Manchester. If I added the Polish Wieczorek they would really be discombobulated.”

“Why not say who you are once in a while then? Makes good PR.”

            “Nein, my lovely Ursula-manageress. No! Too risky. Better to let’em speculate.”

            “About what?”

            “About who the fuck they think I really am. Most think I’m English and they just fancy I’m Italiano. Those who think they’re in the know believe I’m really Italian but play the foreign roles like the Polish one for fun. While I couldn’t explain who I am even if I wanted to. Am I Italian since I was born here? Or English like my father? Or Polish like my grandfather? You’ve seen it in my father’s house where we speak three languages. I speak first Italian because I was born here, my father first English because he was born in Manchester and my grandpa ONLY Polish. Sometimes we translate for each other.”

            “Crazy!”

            “You can say that you are pure Prusso-Teutonic Borussian!”

“Prussian? I was born and raised in Berlin as were my father and his father…. Anyway, are we going to sit here and philosophize or are you going out there on the stage and sing the second half? Don’t you have to get ready? Powder your face or take a piss or something?”

            “Get ready? Just let me take off my shirt. There, I’m ready.”

“Are you going out there bare-chested again, you skinny chunk of virility? This place is too under-heated.”

            “Not under those stage lights! That’s the reason I started this shirtless stuff. I just couldn’t take the heat. Italians are diabolical. The spectators can freeze their balls off but the artists on stage die of heat strokes.”

While he had toured, singing and playing his guitar to packed music halls from the southern tip of Sicily to towns in Italy’s Tyrolean region in the north, Liam had had one fixed destination in mind: he had dreamed of performing in one of the concert halls of the Auditorium, Rome’s City of Music, just under the arches of the Flaminio Bridge over the River Tiber and the freeway over the village. Now he was a fixture here. The district too was his. He had grown up here. His father’s apartment was still in the Olympic Village that he had helped build. Although Ursula wanted to move to a more chic district high on one of the nearby hills like Parioli. Liam also had his Rome apartment here, all just under the arches of the Flaminio Bridge, equidistant between the heart of the village and the stadium and the Auditorium where he was about to step back onto the stage … and wait for the face, the new face emerging from the darkness, the face perhaps destined to save him.

            He had sung Red and Two Trains Runnin’ and was nearing the end of Must Have Been Blown Away before she returned, the same face, the same place, but this time with only the trace of a smile. Perfectly aware of what he was doing, he had been singing to her all the time. When the stage lights dimmed even more and the hall lighting returned, he couldn’t locate her in the usual fan rush forward toward the stage. No sign. No signal. No trace of the face.

For the encore—Camp of Flowers it had to be—the hall lights again magically extinguished, the stage lights flashed back on, and her face reappeared. She was with him till the end. At the stage exit, Ursula grabbed him, pulled him off the stage and pushing him all the time toward his dressing room threw a robe around his now quivering shoulders.

“I thought you would never leave the stage tonight. You’ve never had such patience. Looked like you were waiting for your turn in a dentist’s office. What were you waiting for?” She talked a mile a minute.

Liam instead stood there in a daze, still waiting. He had the star’s dressing room. Like a fancy living room. The door opened to the small bedroom in the rear. He could see its high window, the view from which never failed to please him: you could see two arches supporting the freeway passing overhead. If you stood close and opened the window you saw flashes of speeding cars and heard their roar, Ferraris and Maceratis and God knows what. Sounds that he had included in Two Trains Runnin’. It happened to him all the time. Objects bursting over the Campo square like little rockets. Sometimes big rockets, nearly missiles. Such sounds and ideas of sounds thrashing around in his brain when he wrote simply ‘people laughing, people dancing all night.’

 She had to come.

‘It gives me the creeps,’ he was thinking. ‘What’s that sound? I ask myself. What was it? I have to include it. Crazy that I hear sounds like music—like music to be—and I have to include them. I want to re-write every song I’ve ever written, knowing all the time that I can’t because people know them and love them as they are. Lyrics have been published, disks printed, concerts sung. Like a book, over, done, completed. Good or bad. Too late to change. I too once wanted everything to end allegro con brio and I wrote people singing and dancing all night. But at the same time, I hurt too. I have feelings like everybody out there in the darkness. I’m not well at all, at only thirty-two. Artists die young. I hope I am to die young. Oh, Liam, you know he died young. Maybe an airplane crash. Or the bridge collapsing over my head, Wait, what’s that?—over my head, over my head, over my head.  The makings of a good song in those words. Good lyrics. Too good. Probably already done somewhere. But my illnesses? What about them? My high blood pressure and eye pressure and sick sinuses and arthritic knees. The list gets longer. Maybe I should go take another look at Manchester first. Maybe a visit to my Grandpa’s Poland before it’s too late. He so wants me to go.

And she did come. Hardly recognizable in normal light but he knew it was her the moment she stepped though the door. Small, but with the same smiling-unsmiling face framed by thick dark hair, she was dressed in svelto black with tight-fitting knee-high boots. A Mediterranean beauty.

            “Yes?” Ursula said in her coldest manner reserved for good-looking women.

            “Hello. My name is Marcella. The singer, Liam, and I spoke briefly out there,” the girl said, tossing her head in the direction of the theater. “Or we communicated. I had the impression I was expected.”

            “You did?” Ursula retorted, who, Liam saw, was at first somewhat taken aback, then completely flummoxed by this unusual backstage fan visit.

            “All unspoken of course.”

            “So you came even though it was unspoken.”

            “Seemed clear to me … the invitation, I mean.”

            “Well, you’re here now. What did you expect? That he would bed you. Just like that? Well, he doesn’t do that anymore.”

Liam had still said nothing. Rather embarrassed and still chilled, he pulled the purple robe tight. The girl, Marcella, showing no signs of awkwardness or embarrassment, looked around as if for a place to sit.

“No?” Marcella began. “I really did want to ask where the words in Camp of Flowers came from. I grew up in that district, in fact I still live just behind the Campo de Fiori. The words struck a chord, There I was, I was lost out in the warm rain; there was people laughing, people dancing all night. That ‘lost out in the warm rain’ gets to me … too.”

In that moment Liam adored her. He loved his song again too. Reunited, reunited! He should have sung it again as a second encore. Yet his attention wandered from his creation back to that face thrusting out of the darkness. His imagination passed over distant horizons, he holding her hand tight amidst swirling images, of rain … yes, of rain too. He trembled. His heart drummed. That drumming too was a sound he should have included in Two Trains Runnin’. Trembling and drumming heart … from the cold? Or from trepidation? He wanted to embrace her. Take her into the bedroom and lock the door against Ursula. Car lights from the overhead freeway flashed and were gone leaving he couldn’t imagine what behind. Silence reigned. Back there they could just stand at the window and watch the flashing lights. Sometimes the white flashes would illuminate her face for a split second and he would again see her as he had from the stage and he had not felt the everlasting cold. They could open the window and hear the roaring from overhead. But no, then he would start hearing notes and bars and passages he just had to reproduce. Sounds obsess me. Always. Give me the creeps, the way I am. When because of a sound you want to rewrite every song you ever wrote. But you can’t because people know your songs and like them the way they are.  You want everything to end con brio but people hang on to parting and dying and heartbreak. And yes, you hurt too, like everyone out there in the darkness. A new lease on life, that’s what he needed. He should really visit Grandpa’s village in Poland. Now they would walk through the Olympic Village and he would take her to Grandpa and the old man would love her too as he never had the Prussian, Ursula. She was too … just too German, ruled the staruszek, the wise old man of our family, a family united underneath the arches of the Flaminio Bridge. The moment reminded him that he was nearly born in Manchester, not in the Rome Policlinico. Would that have changed his life? He doubted it. But maybe. Instead Rome had defined him more than he desired to be known today, even though he had had an English passport before he acquired Italian citizenship. ‘But what does that have to do with anything, Liam? You’re no less lonely for it.’

He saw what was happening and glimpsed the future. He knew it was a dark future … for Ursula. For him too. Danger ahead. She didn’t deserve this treatment. Loyal Ursula. Her reliability. Her innate tact with others. Her acceptance of his eccentricities and his shortcomings as a companion. Content to a life of service. For her he was always right. He was persecuted. Persecuted by fans and misunderstood by the media. She never pushed forward to the foreground when the journalists and photographers swarmed around him. She was always present. Always protective. A mother hen to him. He counted on her but she couldn’t possibly count on him … although she so wanted to.

Marcella sat relaxed and calm on the couch, a little-girl look on her face, the total self-assurance in her manners reminding him of some newly-named state leader caught up in the flame of his ambition. Ursula grabbed her bag and left in a huff, a look on her face of a person who had not known real happiness for some time, knowing and not knowing what she was leaving behind: a beautiful woman who wanted answers together with her companion of years, he too still ‘feeling lost in a warm rain’ while somewhere people were laughing and dancing all night. So painful to watch her, Liam thought, the pain I suffer just watching her. Dying a little and only thirty-two years old.

“Do you prefer to speak Italian or English,” Marcella now ventured, still speaking in Italian.”

“A preference? You ask me which language I prefer when I don’t even know in which country I prefer to live or which nationality I prefer to be.”

“But all your images, your song ideas, your motifs too, all sound Italian. That must mean something.” In that moment she chose to cross her legs. The sound of leather boots against the rough cloth of pants sang a melody. Sang nearly a song. Swish, swash, swush. A kind of wail. Then stopped. Confined only in his mind and in that mysterious place where sounds are stored. But what is it? She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs, swush, swash, swish, now the left over the right. The sound was nearly the same. Not exactly, but nearly. Two sounds. ‘Is she telling me I should rewrite the song? Include that sound? I think I’m finally going mad.’

“Yes, but I always thought they were universal, not just Italian. I mean, people singing and dancing all night. That’s Italian. And it’s the Campo di Fiori … but not only.”

“Then what about Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony?” Marcella asked, deviously. “What can be more Russian? Yet it’s universal. No?”

“The Seventh? It’s my favorite of all. And yes, it’s universal.”

“So lonely people walking in the rain and laughing and dancing all night are what? Roman?”

“Universal.” Liam muttered.

“Come with me, Marcella, I want you to meet an important person.” Liam said, taking her hand and leading her out into the warm rain of the Rome night. Leaving the bedroom, each of them glanced surreptitiously at the waiting and most likely disappointed bed. The walk was short. The warm rain continued to fall. Outside they could see clearly the flashing lights in both directions on the freeway overhead. The speed of the autos seemed like that of a Formula 1 race.

The entrance porch faced two, three, four arches and a successive row of brightly illuminated, heavy gray abutments planted like the feet of some prehistoric monster spread wide apart under the bridge freeway.

The door opened on the first ring. The man standing with the inside lights at his back reminded Liam of himself on the stage just after the theater lights extinguished and the stage lights hit his eyes. He wondered if he and Marcella were even visible to Grandpa. Just in case he pushed her gently forward out of the early night and the warm rain toward Pyotr Wieczorek.

“My grandpa,” he said gently. Then in Polish, “Grandpa, my future wife, Marcella.”

Dobry wieczòr, Pana,” Marcella said, surprising Liam and his grandfather.

Còrka! Moja droga còrka!” the old man said, calling her his dear daughter and drawing her into the apartment where he embraced her as he never had Ursula.

“Tell him that is the extent of my Polish, from a visit there last year,” Marcella said. Her head on the chest of the tall and slim old man with gray hair and gray beard, she smiled while he stroked her hair. Liam stood by now somewhat embarrassed but convinced that he was going to love her more than he had ever loved any woman on earth.

Then he quivered and shook in his water resistant sneakers when he saw a sudden look of panic cross her face and she made as if to free herself from Grandpa’s fierce embrace.

A month has passed since Marcella’s arrival and Ursula’s disappearance. Liam had not conducted a real search for her but he had frequented their old places and kept his eyes open. No one he asked had seen her. In the meantime he had prepared the last three concerts of the Intimate With Your Favorite Artist series in which he would sing all his best-known songs in one ninety-minute marathon.

In this moment he was standing in the wing of his favorite concert hall at the Auditorium, the smallest one of all, which had big windows looking out directly onto several of the overhead bridge’s gray arches. He was admiring the architectural gem as he followed the irregular flashing and blinking of the white and red of car lights. Already shirtless, he was freezing, as much from stage fright and theater awe as from the cold running over him. He sniffed mucous from his runny sinuses. The veins in his neck pounded as his blood pressure soared near three hundred, he believed.

He hadn’t seen Marcella since early afternoon and she never came to the dressing room anymore, preferring to simply show up in the front row right at show time.

When the backup group sounded a few chords that strangely resembled Beethoven’s Fifth he ran to the mike, looking over the crowd in which he could distinguish individual faces. He didn’t note any old school friends, but Marcella sat in her place, smiling up at him.

In the absence of stage lights in these intimate evenings, he seemed to be standing in the vicinity of the North Pole holding an ice cold piece of metal in his hands. He shrugged showily, hung the guitar on the mike and ran off stage and returned wearing a quarter length fur coat. He’d planned the whole thing ‘to break the ice’.

The audience was still laughing when he struck the first chord of one of his doubtful new songs, thinking ‘this is the payoff’. It was the only way to get to the truth, to conquer his stage fright and for the next hour and a half to partially escape but at the same to time to underline his solitude.

Liam saw from the stage director’s clock that he had entered the last ten minutes of his show. His fans were in ecstasy. He had just finished the last of several new songs and was offering some of his oldest favorites that he thought of as his evergreens. He looked down at her face when he sang somewhat off key …”lost out in the warm rain; there was people laughing, people dancing…when he felt it surging up his left arm and across his chest under the warm fur coat and he felt himself sinking, sinking, sinking and his world turned to nothingness.

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