by Stephen Dixon


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Contemporary short stories about edgy, urban, obsessive characters by one of America's best writers of experimental fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566890816
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 04/01/1999
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

the rehearsal

Red stops in the park to watch an opera rehearsal. A concert version of the opera will be given tonight on the acoustical shell stage where the rehearsal's taking place. Forty thousand people are expected to attend. The size and conduct of the audience will be compared favorably in the reviews with those of previous years. Most people will bring blankets and sit on the grass. A few hundred will bring chaise longues and collapsible chairs and put up with the complaints and groans of the people on blankets directly behind them. About half the crowd will have picnics before the opera begins. It will still be light then. Many champagne and wine bottles will be uncorked. Several groups will cook on hibachis. One group will have a six-foot-long hero sandwich delivered to it. The crowd surrounding this group will applaud the sandwich's two delivery boys. The sunset will illuminate the outlines of the westerly clouds. Someone will pump up and suspend above his party an orange weather balloon and during the performance blink a flashlight off it to indicate applause. An announcement will direct parents of lost children to the bowling green permit building in back of the audience. It will get dark. A little cool. Several of the infants brought along will begin to cry. Stray dogs will weave through the crowd scavenging for food. The orchestra and chorus will begin assembling on stage. All planes will have been rerouted around this section of the park. Only an occasional police helicopter will pass overhead. The conductor and cast will enter the stage and take their positions to anintensification of applause. The city's Recreational and Cultural Affairs administrator will address the audience. He'll thank the generous benefactors who make these free performances possible. He'll say the trailerized shell created especially for these concerts will henceforth be named the Sally in honor of the recently deceased woman who donated the funds to buy the trailer and build the shell. He'll urge everyone to fight the increasing whittling away of recreational and bucolic park space by commercial and uncivic-minded municipal interests and to pick up all litter as they leave. He'll say "Now let the city's third annual opera-in-the-park summer season begin." The National Anthem will be played. Then everybody on stage will sit and rise again and bow to the audience. All of them except the lead soprano will be dressed in white. The woman who plays Lucia will wear a salmon-colored gown designed for her for this performance by a noted couturier. She'll receive an ovation after her Mad Scene tonight that will oblige her to curtsy from five to seven times. Almost the entire audience will enjoy the opera and have a good time. Many will comment how lucky they are it didn't rain, as was forecast, and that the midafternoon thunderstorm didn't last long enough to make the ground too wet to sit on.

    Now the cast sits at the front of the stage for the rehearsal. The tenor who plays Edgardo is dressed in an undershirt and blue dungarees. The baritone who plays Enrico wears Bermuda shorts and fishnet polo shirt. The lead soprano wears a brown chino shorts and short-sleeved blouse outfit designed by the man who designed tonight's gown. She has a lot of makeup on her face. Perhaps to prevent a burn, as some sun has streaked across the stage near her feet. The conductor is dressed in a white shirt with French cuffs and unloosened tie and has on tinted glasses. He raises his baton. "Quiet, everyone," a voice over the loudspeaker says. The orchestra plays. "No, no, no," the conductor says. "Excuse me again, please, but I'm very sorry." The chorus stands behind the orchestra in a single row that extends the entire length of the back of the shell. Some hold librettos. Many unstick their blouses and skirts from their skins and wipe their faces, necks and arms with handkerchiefs and towels. The conductor signals. The cast rises. They share three microphones: Lucia and Edgardo on one, Enrico has one for himself, Alisa and the three male soloists on the third. Edgardo and the chorus sing. Lucia looks out to the meadow. For a few seconds during her slow semicircling stare she settles her eyes on Red standing about thirty feet away in the sun. He's one of around fifty people watching the rehearsal on the grass. He was walking through the park to the library when he heard the music. He knew an opera was scheduled here for 8:30 tonight if it didn't rain. He's familiar with this opera and was planning to go alone to it at eight with a rubber poncho to sit on and a bottle of chilled white Bordeaux or at seven with a married couple and a half gallon of chilled rosé. The couple hadn't decided yet. The wife was a little ill this morning and the husband might be too tired after work, but if they go they'll bring the blanket, picnic service and food. When Red heard the music he redirected his walk to the shell a quarter mile away where he knew the music must be coming from. He'd seen the shell being detached from its trailer the day before and some of its wiring installed. He thought he'd watch the rehearsal a few minutes, continue his walk to the library and later return home along a shadier park route and work and read till around six when he'd call his friends to see if they'd made up their minds to go. What he didn't know was that there'd be an opera rehearsal in the park today. He did know that on this same day next week this opera company will perform Pagliacci and two Rossini overtures to fill out the program, if it doesn't rain. If it does rain the performance will be given two days later. The tenor, after his famous aria about a clown who must make people laugh while his own heart is breaking, will bow and thank the audience from three to five times for its prolonged applause. Then the opera will resume. But that's next week. Now the soprano and her flute accompanist rehearse the Mad Scene aria. The conductor cuts them off halfway through and says "Save for tonight." The audience applauds the soprano. The flutist shakes the spit out of his flute. The soprano looks at Red, who's not applauding, and then at her wristwatch. Red looks at the temperature-time indicator at the top of an office building facing the park. It's 1:10. It's 89 degrees. In the shade or sun? Red's been here for twenty minutes. His back's getting soaked with sweat. The conductor points his baton at a man standing near Red who's holding a walkie-talkie. The man says into the speaker "How goes?" The voice that comes out of the walkie-talkie from a man who's waving a white cloth at the end of the meadow where the washrooms and main refreshment stand are and where most of the last thousand people will sit tonight, says "Sounds dandy back here, Chris, how goes it down middle and below?"

    "Perfect," Chris says to the walkie-talkie. "A-one, everybody," to the conductor, flutist, soprano. She smiles, sits, glances at Red. Why? She's very pretty. He didn't think so at first. She bunches back her black hair and lets it drop to her shoulders. She slaps at a bug on the arm of the first violinist who's seated a little behind her. The violinist says something that makes her throw her head back and laugh. Edgardo says "What gives?" She tells him while patting the violinist's hand consolingly. Edgardo nods but doesn't smile. While Enrico asks Edgardo what everybody's getting so amused about, the conductor alerts the orchestra and chorus and the soprano looks at Red. He meets her look for the first time, just to see what she'll do. She turns away. He would have liked her to hold her look on him a second or two longer. A signal so to speak, not that he'd know what to do with it. But her immediately looking away from him was a signal also. Does it mean she'll avoid looking at him from now on? She might not want to give anyone the wrong impression or put false leads in his head. Does she think she recognizes him from some place? Or he looks so much like someone she knew or knows that she still can't believe her eyes. It would be nice to be somebody she knows. To be standing where he is and knowing he's the man she cares very much about or at least is beginning to. To sit on the grass tonight and know that that voice in the air's coming from that mouth way over there that very often meets his mouth or very often will. And after the opera to wait around for her while she changes her clothes. To have a sandwich and beer with her at an outdoor deli or café. To go home with her where she could say "Well, how do you think it went tonight?" Not at his home, which is small, dark, poorly furnished, depressing. Where he could reply "I thought your singing divine but your acting imperfect. For example the way you bumbled around the stage trying to pull your sword from your sheaf." "I don't have a sword. And it's a sheath, not a sheaf. And you're pitiful. Come here." He'd come here. "Now what's this about someone's sword in a sheath?" "Cymbals, cymbals, cymbals," he could say and gesture to show the homonymic difference. "Mouth organ, mouth organ, mouth organ," she looks like she could say. "Oh, I am very tired tonight. And two more Lucias in two more parks this week. But I thought my dress dramatic, didn't you? Contrasting against everyone's white, swept back by the wind. But how do I get out of tonight's performance? By saying I'm no longer Lucia, that's how. 'I'm no longer Lucia, that's how.' Let's see, I'm Gia Lardo and I'm with Red writer and he's got a sword in his sheath I'm now going to speak symbolically of and even trumpet and drum on about till he dares step into the next room with me before I flop asleep right here." It could go on like that. He could step into the next room with her. She could have several nice rooms in a clean attractive building as she's done very well in opera these past few years. Lead roles since she won this company's annual audition contest. He recently read that. Also: several opera recordings and she's signed up for more. And she was once a champion intercollegiate swimmer who almost got a place on the Olympic team and her apartment has a terrace overlooking one of the city's two rivers and this long narrow park. There could be trees and shrubbery and a round glass-top table on the terrace they could eat dinner on two to four times a week. She's looking at him. She's planning to sing Salome in Europe this summer and remove all seven veils. To wear only a bikini bottom underneath and maybe for one performance to wear nothing as the role was written to be played. It would be the first, the writer of last Sunday's newspaper interview said. "Maybe a second," she said, "our researcher on the subject's unsure." She's looking at him. How could he get to meet her? Chance encounter on the street. "Uh ... how do you do?" It'll never take place. The two books he had under his arm he sets on the grass between his feet. The manuscript he held in his hand he tucks under his arm. The conductor taps the podium with his stick. She stands with the rest of the cast. She wears sandals. The rest of the cast wear sneakers or shoes. Her feet are small. "Quiet, please," the loudspeaker voice says. Her legs are lean but well-made. The orchestra plays. It's the sextet they're about to sing. They're not stopping halfway through. The crowd has about doubled since he came. He once knew someone in her company who might have known her well enough to ask her to meet a good friend. She isn't married. She told the interviewer she's waiting for the right fellow to come along. He's here. Someone not in opera, she said, as those marriages usually end up as great battles of ego or arrangements to further one another's careers. And then most male singers, helpful, talented and sweet as they are, too often because of the concentration of operatic roles all their adult life, tend to become loud, melodramatic and vague. If he were her fellow he'd somehow arrange to go to Europe with her this summer. They'd stay in a hotel in Salzburg where she's scheduled to sing for a week. He'd take his typewriter along. They'd drink unfamiliar wines, take cool mountain walks, visit Beethoven's birthplace or is it Mozart's? Beethoven's is in Bonn. People would recognize her name, maybe her face. Someone would call him Mr. Lardo. She'd hold his hand under a restaurant table when strangers asked for her autograph in languages he doesn't understand. She would. She's looking at him. Private jokes between them while eating about symbols and cymbals and sheaths and sheafs. He'd of course have to say what a better time he'd be having if he was able to pay for his whole trip by himself. She could say her talent is no more estimable than his. "It's just that I'm making more of a splash right now or there's a shortage of young coloraturas these days. One day you might be better paid for your work and I can be getting peanuts for mine. Voices can go. I can give you many examples, while your talent can't do anything but improve. But why worry about my spending for us if I don't? I really don't. Another fine talent you have is for ruining good things and one which I wish you'd quickly lose. Because no soprano who sings the roles I do for the company I sing for gets any less money than I. I don't much like making recordings but maybe in ten years I'll be glad I had. And bedridden people and oldsters are able to listen to opera that way. But don't let me get soap-opery. I can't even work in the park for nothing as there's something called minimum union scale. That's the way it is. Drink some more wine. And my salary's way above the scale. If you want I'll give it all away and for a while we'll both be poor. Won't that be fun? But it'll only be for a short time as I love learning new roles and lieder and singing before huge audiences and that brings in lots of bread. I think our food's getting cold. I love feeding a man sometimes. No more thoughts about filthy money tonight, all right? May I feed you with my fork? Nobody's looking. Even so. This restaurant's particularly uncrowded for one so good. Now open wide. Now isn't this more fun? Have some of the sausage also. Try removing the food without scratching your teeth on the prongs this time. You know how I am about such sounds. Is it still warm? Now we've eaten from the same fork. What does that symbolize do you think? Take another bite. A little sauerkraut and potatoes on my schnitzel this time. Wide again. Like a good little boy. You still have some sausage on your tongue. Pass it from your mouth to mine as we must always share."

    She's looking at him again. Usually only gay men look at him as interested and often as that. If he saw her looking at him at a party that way he'd walk over to her despite knowing who she is. And say something, though what? Not "How do you do?" again, but why not? But he must find some way he can actually meet her. Maybe when the rehearsal's done. But how long will that be? It's very hot. So it isn't just a question of time. The sextet's over. The cast speak to each other about the fantastic acoustics for a field so large and with so few enclosing trees. They seem especially friendly to one another. Alisa asks whether it could be the tall buildings that surround the park. They totally ignored the people applauding them from the grass. Some from already established blanket positions for tonight. On top of these blankets near the fence which is a few feet from the stage are thermoses, baskets, ice chests, reading material, sweaters, radios, portable record players, adult board games and playing cards. The unrolled picket fence defines the grounds around the shell. Inside the compound are three Mr. John portable outhouses, two house trailers, a canopied picnic table where some men are drinking canned soda or beer and playing checkers or chess. He could meet her at this side entrance where a guard sits on a high stool under a tree checking the people coming in. He could say as she leaves "Excuse me, Miss Lardo, but I was just thinking ... I mean the truth is that before ... in front ... I was standing there ... perhaps you saw me ... holding some books and a manila envelope ... a little to your right and about thirty feet out ... next to the walkie-talkie man for a while ... that you have a very ... pretty ... remarkable ... voice." Oh god. No good. Give up. Tongue-tied mind. Think what the actual presentation would be like. "Excuse Miss, I Lardo and...." She and Edgardo are singing. The conductor cuts them off near the end of the duet. "Sufficient," he says. The loud applause trickles off. A thin old man sitting on a newspaper, his back burned and cracked by the sun, continues to clap alone. She looks at him and then at Red with one eyebrow raised. As if questioning this man's reason for applauding so much or maybe Red's in some kind of comparison for not applauding at all. He feels it's too hot to applaud. And then he generally doesn't applaud at concerts, shows, operas when the performers enter the stage, after arias, between scenes, after acts and when the opera's over and the cast and then the conductor with the cast and then when the conductor points to the orchestra, stand, curtsy and bow. Maybe she thinks he's being aloof or disdainful in withholding his applause. After all, she could be thinking, it isn't easy singing in this stifling heat. Though it's he who's in the sun and she in the shade. Maybe he's trying to make a statement that he's different from the herd, more discriminating with his applause. Acting for her on the grass as she in a sense has been singing for him on stage. But why? And if she is, then how come she always looks away from him each time he returns her stare? He might not be applauding simply because he's too bushed from the heat. Or still tired from some past physical work he's done. Not that he looks much like a laborer, though he is wearing what could be considered workman's shoes and clothes. Casual, a bit grubby, so unmodlike, not put on at all. But that's such a silly thing to say about someone's clothes because of course they're put on. Either by him or someone else for him if he can't dress himself, and he has no physical disabilities as far as she can see. Just the opposite in fact. And his face is pleasant and intelligent looking, though not far out with the hair or glasses like so many people these days. The words she uses. Far out. Put on. Too much! Too much is just another example of her child's vocabulary. Teenager's, rather, if she wants to get even closer in her ... what? The word is what? Analogy's the word. And he's about thirty-two to four. An age she likes her male companions to be about, as they usually have the same identifying factors in life as she. Similar, she means. She means ... what? Oh to be good with words. Someone with a similar frame of references is what she means. Brought up during the last world war. Not radical or revolutionary in politics or social and moral beliefs. Raised on radio shows, Saturday afternoon movie shows, the great show of shows of family, public schools, church and flag. God Bless America ... the first song she can remember learning by heart. Belting it out solo before the school assembly the first recital she had. She wonders if he likes her voice. She hopes he's not an opera singer himself. That envelope. Does it contain composites, resumés, scores? His chest. Doesn't look like a singer's, though that's not saying he's not built well. She especially likes his arms. Long and strong. And his neck. As solid and thick as her thigh. And that cute rear end that time he turned. High and small like a dancer's, though he's too heavy and bulky on top to actually be one. And his hair which has receded like an extended widow's peak and probably makes him better looking than if it hadn't receded at all. But that beaten-up fat envelope. What mysteries does it enclose? Spoiled sandwiches, newspaper, more books, material swatches? But he doesn't smile. And never any applause. Part of his strength does he think? Don't delve into that again. Some people just don't applaud. Some very quiet and self-conscious people especially don't. And he looks like he'd be quiet and self-conscious with lots of people though lots of fun and very open with someone he particularly likes. Though how can she tell? These daydreams. These acoustical shell park dreams. Easier to pass the time with, perhaps, though so silly to think she knows what's in his head. But saying he was her man or something like that. Like that. Why not? Just her own moony game again. Standing where he's standing and admiring the people admiring her for the way she sings. Well, after the rehearsal she'd meet him at the gate for lunch. She'd bring the food and even the wine which she'd first chill in the trailer refrigerator used by the conductor and the cast. They'd have it under a wide spreading tree. On thick big grass. Where there was no garbage around. Few people around. And she'd drink mostly iced tea since she wants her head extra clear for tonight. One sandwich for her, two for him. Cole slaw or macaroni salad she'd have made the previous night. And they'd lie on the blanket after she put everything away. She'd play with his hair. Bust up the peak. Run her finger around his lips, something she likes to do. And stick one finger in his mouth between the times he sips from his glass. A good wine glass with a long stem on it though one she wouldn't miss if it broke. He'd suck her finger. Something she likes done. And kiss her lips. Their mouths wide open. His tasting from wine. Tongues touching. What's she saying? Hers from iced mint tea. He looks like he'd like picnics with wine and fooling around some on the grass. Like he'd want to see her every day for months. Maybe marry her in a year. Who'd object to the tons of money she makes and high standard of living she keeps but who'd eventually know there's no escaping the way she lives. And have a child by her. Does he also think it's about time he had one? Such a fine looking boy it'd be. The rapturous parents with baby girl. Picnics with iced tea, formulas and wine. Now with the infant crawling off nowhere fast on the grass. And especially nonworking clays when she could get as wine-woozy as she wants and where they'd return to her flat and put the child in the crib to nap and open the windows to get more of a breeze or lower it so they wouldn't start to sneeze and they'd settle down on her giant bed. How do people really meet? The men at parties of late have all been such frauds or drags. She hates even going out with them. She'd just like to stay home with her gentle intelligent man. It's been so long. Where'd he go? Gone like that. Most likely back to work or home. There he is. Getting an ice cream from the ice cream cart. It looks like the Red, White and Blueberry flavor he's unwrapping, in honor of the upcoming Independence Day. He sticks the wrapper in his pocket. Bites into the pop. It's still too cold and hard. What a cute disgruntled face he made. He looks at her. She gives him a straight stare back. In honor of the upcoming Independence Day? How else to give a quiet self-conscious man courage? He looks away. He's not very brave. That's all right. It means he probably won't hurt anyone. Should she smile at him next time he looks? But that might just be enough to scare him away. And why's she so sure he's even interested in her? Maybe he's just curious why she keeps looking his way. She should really have more class. He's probably married. Three kids and a sublime adoring wife. What the hell ever got into her? Just another fantasy she's coasted onto some rocks. Though maybe with enough subtle encouragement from her he'll come to the gate when rehearsal's over, which shouldn't be too long from now. And say something such as how difficult introductions are under these circumstances, which might take more courage than she thinks he has. But it's up to him. Though it could be up to her. She could easily. Not easily, but she could, after the rehearsal, go up to him where he is, or around the side where he might go, and say something obvious though bendable enough to get out of, such as "I've been looking at you from the stage ... I'm sure you noticed that ... and I hope I haven't made you feel uncomfortable with my looks, I mean my stares ... but I swear I know you from some place ... ridiculous as that sentence must sound to you in its reversed gender state ... but I swear ... from maybe fifteen to twenty years ago ... it's not that I never forget a face ... I in fact forget most ... but yours? ... even the way you stand ... I grew up downtown, you see...." And what would be the difference if he said he was brought up uptown, out of town, half way around the world, that this is his first visit to the city and he's only been here a day? Because if he acted in any way irrational or effeminate or intimated he's married, then she'd say "Then I guess I was wrong." That's all. "Wrong." And excuse herself and return to the compound. He'd never suspect. She'd be safe there once past the guard. If he did suspect then he'd just have to be honest to himself and think "She was interested in me till I opened my mouth, but that's the way things go." She could do all that. He's biting the ice cream. It doesn't always have to be up to the man. It's soft enough now. And if her words worked to the point where they got something going for themselves, then this whole embarrassing first meeting would only seem funny and harmless to them later on. He's smiling. At a child crying as it tries climbing out of its stroller. For the first time since she took notice of him. At the nurse having so much trouble trying to get the child back in. Then at her. She smiles back. They can both smile very easily when it comes to kids. She looks away. The ice's been broken. Nothing irrational or effeminate about him that she can see. If he's still around after rehearsal she's definitely going up to him if he doesn't approach her. She hopes he doesn't think it'll go on till tonight. If he does he'll probably leave. Everything is so much a matter of chance.

    "Is everything all right?" the conductor says to the man with the walkie-talkie. The man says "All right by me." "And what about the little man inside your machine there?" the conductor says, waving his baton at the walkie-talkie. "He says everything's all right too." "Then we are ended with the rehearsal, okay?" "Okay by me, maestro," the man says. The conductor leaves the stage. The chorus begins filing out of the two exits in back. The musicians start packing their instruments and covering up the larger ones and leaving the stage through the shell's middle exit. The soloists are standing. Enrico adjusts his mike. Edgardo is tying his sneakers. The workmen walk across the stage dragging thick wires attached to the generator on the grass. Miss Lardo talks to the violinist who made her laugh before. She throws her head back and laughs out loud at something he says. She has a habit of running her hand across her forehead to brush away stray hairs from her eyes. She looks at Red. She smiles at him, pats the arm of the violinist and makes her way around the abandoned music stands and chairs to the middle exit. Red walks to the side she's coming out of. He waits near the gate where the guard sits. He'll start off with a compliment if she does walk past this gate. The words will come. Her smiles before were sure signs. All he can do is try. All she can be is polite and say thanks. And then, if nobody else is around. But of course other people will be around. She's the lead. She might walk out with an entourage. Even if there are other people around, though not if she's on the arm of a man or with a man she obviously cares for very much, he'll say "I realize, Miss Lardo,"—this will be after his opening compliment about her singing—"you must be extremely busy and all ... and maybe what I'm about to say will sound presumptuous if not even improper to you ... but I was wondering if you wouldn't like to have an iced tea with me or even a hot tea or coffee or some cold sangria at the park's fountain café which is barely a five minute walk from here." All she can do is say yes or no or she'd like to but no thanks or thanks for the invitation but she's quite tired or busy or not feeling so well or has a previous engagement or has to see her designer about tonight's dress or go to a hall to rehearse next week's opera or to her agent's about her European tour or she really must go, run, hurry, sorry, but thanks nevertheless. She might even say "Maybe some other time." He could then say "That'll be tough arranging unless we make it a specific time. How about tomorrow around now or perhaps for lunch at the café if you'd like?" She's talking to Alisa as they walk down the shell's exit steps some hundred feet away. She looks at the gate. He turns away. She's going to change her mind. He's getting cold feet. She's going to think he's standing there too conspicuously for her. He doesn't know what to do. She's walking along the path between the grass that leads to the gate. Does she really have to leave the compound or is she walking to the exit just for him? Maybe she'll stop along the path to make a right or left to some other place. Maybe she's walking on the path because it's easier on her sandals than the grass. Though he'd think the grass would be easier to walk on. Less springy and dirty and no wood chips to get lodged between her toes and between her foot and the sandal sole. The iced tea or sangria might be just what she wants. Will he soon find out? She's still walking along the path. His stomach aches. Getting the proverbial hemmed-in flapping wings again as he did with girls when he was a boy. His back faces the path. Is it just the stance she needs to put her in reverse? Listen, she could be thinking, if she can walk to the entrance so he can say what she thinks he wants to say, then he can stay and wait for her. That's what he hopes she's thinking. It's rough on both of us but we'll know soon enough, she could be thinking, he's thinking. Don't fall to pieces and fly out of here the last moment, she could be thinking, he's thinking. Besides, she could be thinking, he's thinking, skipping off like that might embarrass me or worry me or do something to me and then I'm sure for the next few days you'll regret not having carried your plan through. He turns around. She's standing ten feet away. The guard's paring his nails. She's talking to the acoustician from before. She smiles. The acoustician laughs. The walkie-talkie voice says "I'm coming in now, Chris, all right?" Chris says into it "Right." She kisses Chris's cheek while the walkie-talkie's still by his lips. "No hanky-panky on the job now, Chris," the walkie-talkie voice say. Chris breaks up. She squeezes his fingers and winks goodbye. She continues to the exit alone. She looks at Red. Chris starts back to the shell. The guard's clipping his nails. Chris is stopped by the flute accompanist. Both look at Miss Lardo from the rear. "Don't I know," Chris says, fanning his face with his hands. She's at the exit. Red approaches her. What will he say? What will she say to what he says? Now's no time for such thoughts. But she'll think him so dumb. "Miss Lardo," he wants to say, "I feel I want to faint." Does she want him to be honest? Then "Miss Lardo," he whispers very low to her through a whistle hole, "I feel like I just might faint." The whole thing's too risky. She might say "Excuse me?" in a way to make him appear menacing to whoever's around. The guard might say "Is this man bothering you, Miss Lardo?" just to show he's on the ball and doing his job. Passers-by might look at him disparagingly, threateningly, say something also. "Very nice," the guard says to her. "I was listening from my seat here and you sang prettily like a bird." "Miss Lardo?" Red says. She's past the gate. "Thank you, Jeff," she says to the guard. "Miss Lardo?" Red says. She looks at him as if for the first time. Why is this unfamiliar face saying this her face seems to say. "Pardon me?" she says. The guard looks at them. The flutist runs past saying "See you tonight, Gia." She waves at the flutist while looking at Red. "Pardon me""

    "I ... well this might sound absurd to you, even extraordinary. Well, not extraordinary. Maybe not even absurd. But first off, I thought your singing before was very beautiful."

    "Thank you."

    "You've of course heard inane compliments like that hundreds of times before."

    "Inane or not, they're always nice to hear. I don't knock them."

    "I don't sing myself, you understand."

    "You're much better off."

    "Except maybe when I'm alone and walking through the park at nights. Not that I spend all my time walking through the park singing, mind you, though I do do it sometimes."

    "This is beginning to sound a little bewildering to me."

    "What I meant was that I don't want to give the impression I stalk around parks at night. That's not what I do. Neither did I want to give the impression that I don't walk through the park singing at night, which I sometimes do. But sometimes when I walk through the park—let's say, to the opera you're in tonight—well then, if nobody's around, within earshot I mean, I'll often sing to myself, though aloud, and very often melodies from opera, like the sextet aria just before, though with my own meaningless improvised words instead of the actual Italian ones. But this is getting equally confusing to me, which must be evident to you."

    "Don't worry so much about impressions then."

    "It was very hot out there watching you from the grass."

    "I'm sure. I don't see how you people could stand the heat. And the ones who'll be waiting till tonight. But it is kind of hot standing even here."

    They're in the sun. The guard's in the shade. The guard was listening to their conversation but resumes clipping his nails. A few people linger around them. Some of them watched the end of the rehearsal. All of them seem eager to get close to Miss Lardo to see what she's like off stage. One woman holds a pen and the libretto for Lucia di Lammermoor. She seems to be waiting for a chance to ask Miss Lardo to sign it. Miss Lardo bunches back her hair and lets it drop to her shoulders. The man's smiling and pointing to his throat. The woman asks Miss Lardo if she would please sign the libretto. Miss Lardo takes the pen and begins to sign her name on the back of the libretto. The woman says "Could you please sign it here, above the name Lucia, on the front?" Miss Lardo signs her name where the woman's finger was. The woman says "Thank you very much, Miss Lardo. I think you have one of the finer voices in the world, bar none." Miss Lardo says "Thank you." The woman walks away. Miss Lardo seems to point out the man's nervous foot movements to him. He lifts his shoulders as if to say there's nothing he can do about it and points to his belly. They speak. Most of their conversation can't be overheard. Just parts of it such as both of them saying "Why not?" She first. He second. She goes past the gate. The guard says "Forget something, Miss Lardo?" She says "Yes." She heads for the trailer. "I hope it wasn't anything important," the guard says. For a few feet she runs to the trailer. While she's inside it the man seems to study the ground around him. He kicks a stone which bounces past the gate entrance. The guard looks at the stone till it stops and then at the man. The man's reading from one of his books. Then he closes the book, his finger between the pages he was reading from. She comes out of the trailer. She's wearing a skirt over her shorts. The skirt is the same material as the shorts and blouse. She walks quickly to the gate. The man's looking up at the tree the guard sits under. The guard's filing his nails. A bird's in the tree singing. The man's looking at the bird flying away when she comes up behind him and says "Surprise." Her hair is bound in back with a rubberband. She's removed all her makeup. She's carrying a tote bag. "That didn't take long," he says. He points to the limb the bird was on. "All bird are—" something, he says. "All birds?" she says. "Well certainly not every single one of them, but I'd say just about most." "Even there." "You still don't agree?" She shakes her head. He shrugs his shoulders. She looks at her watch. He looks at his feet, her feet. "You see when you said all birds I immediately though of magpies, grackles, crows, hawks and I don't know how many else." "I wasn't even thinking of them as birds," he says. "They're birds." "I stand corrected." "I didn't mean it like that." "Anyway I do." "Then if you do you do." She looks back at the stage. "I don't know if you still want to," he says. She says "What?" He points to the area where the park fountain café is. They walk in that direction together.

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