by Carl Watson
The biased, blue-grey eye of Frank Payne wandered from the stucco-tufted neck of the opera patron to his right, down to the subtitle screen in front of her, then further down to the orchestra seats below, hemmed in as they were by a gilded horseshoe of balconies, then back up to his own subtitle screen where he focused momentarily on the English translation of the German lyrics. Hey there, you Forest Guardians. And slumberous guardians at that. At least wake up with the morning. You hear the call? Frank did—it was a French horn mewing in the pit.
It was the Met’s sometime Good Friday production of Parsifal, and though Frank was no opera buff, he did like the pageantry, the extravagant production values and, sometimes, the music. He also liked the Grail stories, and while there is no crucifixion in Parsifal, the Grail does supposedly hold the blood of Christ, so he guessed the Good Friday scheduling made some sense.
Odee was into this stuff as well. She had a morbid interest in masochistic imagery that was not limited to the Christian franchise. Sure, you had your Christ and your St. Sebastian, but there were plenty of other sacrificial nailings of animals and men over the ages—from Quetzalcoatl to Prometheus. And then there were your everyday human hangings—judicial, racial, suicidal. And beheadings too—can’t forget those—a political, historical mainstay.
Odee always did identify with the sacrificial lamb role, the punching bag, the scapegoat. It was only natural. The crime is predetermined, she would say, and the punishment is pain. Put a man in stocks and pelt his head with tomatoes and rocks or put him on TV in front of a panel of sadistic clowns—we’re exhibitionists by birth and the price for our sins must be paid in public. The message from the top is always the same: “Be careful people; look what we can do if we want. Anybody could be next. Maybe even you.”
Odee was into this stuff as well. She had a morbid interest in masochistic imagery that was not limited to the Christian franchise.
Frank felt that whatever ritual truth there was at the Met this evening, it had something to do with masochism as some kind of bridge between love and lamentation, shame and salvation, piece of mind and piece of ass. The last item may seem hard to justify, but opera was sexy if only because it was voluptuous. It was also punishing. There was tedium and confinement to deal with, and, for some, the enjoyable humility of being a spy amongst the rich. Not least, there was the colonization of the mind by ridiculous melodramatic plots. Going to the opera could thus be seen as voluntary martyrdom, and therefore appropriate to Good Friday, even without the cross nonsense, the passion, et al. There—he had solved the puzzle. Time to go home.
But he decided to stay a while longer. After all, if you’re going to spend your life making decisions that worked against your own well-being, you had to be willing to endure pain and to be fully aware why. Subscription was required. The dress code was expected. The adoration was somehow assumed. We are fools to hope for relief, old Gurnemanz sang. And this was true.
Frank had been in NYC for several years. He’d always been attracted to things in their actively decaying state—whether it was falling women, cities in crisis or just old logs in the forest that glowed at night. There were words for it—fluorescence, phosphorescence, luminescence—whatever had to do with the production of light by decay. Thus when God said, “Let there be Light,” he/she was basically initiating the decay of some initial perfection into entertainment value and ego gratification. In the beginning, this ego was God’s own.
Opera was often thought to be an art of decay. It was excessive, overwrought and focused on death. 19th century fin de siècle esthetes flocked to such luminescent masterpieces as Tannhäuser, Pelléas and Mélisande, and Salomé. They relished the glow. Name a vice, there’s an aria to serve it. Name a fatal flaw, someone has put it on stage for your enjoyment. And decay was good in other ways. It made better scotch. It ripened the best cheese. It was all a matter of timing.
With cities, you had to arrive at just the right moment—when one heyday was ending and before another began. That’s when you could make your mark. With women it was similar; they were most attractive to Frank when they were falling—away from self-confidence, away from youth and into the doubt of age or the self-hatred of addiction. This isn’t to say that Frank was so astute as to recognize the beginning of any person’s decline. It was, rather, an unconscious draw, an opportunism disguised as compassion. Frank Payne—compassionate man. He liked the sound of that. In any case, when he met Odee Bones, she had an irresistible glow about her, and that’s how it all began.
Just then Gurnemanz sang out, Now a slave to his malady! Well, that seemed right. Listen, the King groans! Another well-timed remark, because Frank’s stomach was starting to groan as well. It may have been that piece of old quiche he had eaten earlier, something Odee had made, or a bad ham sandwich left over from the previous week. Whatever it was, it was raising a gaseous clown head in his gut.
The quality and due date of the food they consumed was one common point of contention. But Odee was ever keen to point out other differences as well, and one of them was this: she was master of her obsessions and he was not. Of course, Frank didn’t believe he had obsessions, and he didn’t believe in the subconscious either. For him, the game board only had one level, one plane. There may be numerous conflicting patterns that could be categorized as “sub” or “beneath,” consciousness, but the prefix suggested a hierarchy. It allowed people to deny responsibility for their actions. They could just say “I don’t know why I did that! My subconscious is responsible.” It was even a legal defense in the courts.
Frank also believed that the idea of a “sub”conscious was dangerous, because it fostered the idea of “descent” as a form of psychological salvation: you go down, you delve deeper into the self, you descend through the planes and frames of the various costumes and narratives of your being and you eventually arrive at a supposed “sub” world of liberating truth. It sounds good if you haven’t actually been there. Most people don’t make it. Some do and don’t come back.
Frank forgot for a minute where he was, until Amfortas sang out: The pure fool. I think I know him now: I would call him Death! Now, Death was something that did obsess Frank Payne. He looked over the balcony edge and wondered what it would be like to jump. Would he die? Did he want to? Would he kill someone else? He looked down into the vastness of the crowd, and they seemed to him like people at a pagan coliseum, awaiting the staged Killing of the King (a common plot device in these operatic tales).
Then he looked up at the chandeliers, couched in the dark ceiling. The chandeliers at the Met always fascinated him, the way they slowly retracted before the opening overture, like the old, ornate testicles of a bejeweled and ancient race, contracting, pulling back, frightened, perhaps, not so much by the approaching drama as by the audience itself, with their insane human needs.
Even the beasts are sacred, sang the wild woman, Kundry, and Frank agreed. He thought time was sacred too so he checked his watch, wondering if he could still get a seat at the bar, any bar. True, the opera had just begun, but it was going to be a long haul. Nearly five fucking hours! Parsifal always starts early for that reason, at 6:00 instead of 7:30 or 8:00, so the evening was still young. And although he’d paid a sacrificial price for the ticket, something else was bugging him, some slowly rising beef with the script.
See, they weren’t 20 minutes into it, when a certain sequence of actions triggered some personal anxiety. A wound was burning in his side, This wound it is that will never close. He began to feel sympathetic pain with the character onstage. And then he saw what was supposed to be a wild swan flutter unsteadily over a fake lake until it fell to the ground dead. A knight drew the arrow from the swan’s breast: A swan! A wild swan! And wounded! Shame Shame! Who shot the swan?
That’s when the hero, Parsifal, stepped onstage: Whatever flies I can hit in flight.
Where had Frank encountered this scene before? Then he remembered—it was in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wagner, the antisemite, must have stolen it from Coleridge, the Orientalist. A Romantic lawsuit should have been filed. But the stolen scene had an effect: it caused Frank to think of all the people he had hurt in his life, the things he had killed and was killing every moment via his life-long character flaws such as indifference, unnecessary consumption, incessant self-doubt, and passive aggression. In fact, he was killing something now, just by existing at this place and time. Life exists at the expense of the living. Odee always made that truth quite plain. We are all criminals, she claimed, and anybody could be thrown in jail at any moment.
Suddenly, Frank felt the people around him in the opera house were watching him, commenting on his low moral character. He blamed their suspicion on the trivialities of the plot and he took comfort in a brief feeling of superiority—a pretense without feedback, because no one could read his mind.
And yet recriminations continued from the stage. Are you conscious of your sinful deed? Frank’s stomach started grumbling again, even louder, which it often did when he was in a quiet room. The hyperactive intestinal distress sounded like an earthquake disaster movie soundtrack, at odds with the opera he was watching and definitely disturbing to his fellow opera patrons. And the Rolaids Frank had taken earlier weren’t helping. He took some gas tablets too, but no result.
This woman sitting next to him did not hide her disgust. Then he saw one of the ushers take out a flashlight, and it became clear that he would soon be asked to leave. Fortunately, he had a cheap high balcony seat, so it was easy to get out. He stood up, walked up the aisle toward the back and slid out the door. The libretto of the opera followed him like a trial lawyer. He didn’t need to read it. Where are you from? Who is your father? Who sent you here? What is your name? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve had many names, but I don’t know any of them anymore.
Frank made a visit to the restroom. It took awhile and it was unpleasant. Then he headed across the velvet landscape of the opera house hallway. The ushers were a bit surprised to see someone leaving so early, and so he made a point of looking at his watch with feigned urgency, pretending that he had some place to be—a meeting or a family tragedy or a flight to catch. He was an important guy.
He descended the blood-red carpeted staircase that led to the main door where he burst out into the free air of Lincoln Center plaza. It was an early evening of faded light and spring drizzle. He paused by the Revson fountain. Many films had used this fountain as a setting for romantic meetings. Frank thought of Moonstruck, but there must be others. He did notice a number of people hanging around the fountain as if they were waiting for someone to step into their lives, waiting to be swept up into a movie scene. Most waited in vain.
He crossed Columbus Ave. then entered Dante Park, the little pocket park outside Lincoln Center with the Dante statue. Years ago, traveling in Europe, Frank picked up the habit of talking to statues late at night. If you were drunk enough you could hold lengthy conversations with stone-faced celebrities, grim reapers, satyrs, fawns, dead philosophers, famous politicians, and mythical heroes. And so, continuing that tradition, he looked up to the bronze 12th century pilgrim and gave him a “Brothers-in-Hell” nod.
“Selva Oscura,” Frank said, that being one of the few phrases he remembered from the long poem he’d only partially read.
“Selva Oscura, your momma,” the statue seemed to reply. It might as well have said, “Abandon all hope, asshole” or “That Way Madness Lies” or any number of other literary warnings. Frank began to walk away, but thought he heard one last admonition from the old Italian, this time delivered in an affected outer-borough accent: “Good Luck, Bro!” And then like a true New Yorker, the statue added. “Don’t forget to check out my book.”
Thus began Frank’s down-going and the long trip home to his sweetheart and nemesis, Odee Bones.
CARL WATSON is a poet and fiction writer. His work has appeared in various journals, including Sensitive Skin, The Brooklyn Rail, Evergreen Review, The Village Voice, NY Press, Downtown, Tribes, and The Williamsburg Observer. His latest books are the novel Idylls of Complicity and the poetry collection Pareidolia. Watson received the Kathy Acker Award for Fiction in 2012. The novel Only Descend is upcoming from Autonomedia. He splits his time between NYC and an old barn in the Catskill Mountains.