“Oh, the secrets she took with her.”
There are moments when the order of life collapses in mid-breath, when a missed heartbeat brings on an earthquake. At such a moment, this story takes an unexpected turn.
Perla, the day nurse, calls out from the Señora’s bath, “Oye, Lockwood!” Her shout, cracking with anxiety, cuts through the morning stillness.
Mark Lockwood sets down a mug hard on the kitchen counter, wincing as hot coffee splashes the back of his hand.
He hurries across the living room to Señora Casals’ bedroom. Perla stands at the bathroom door, her easy familiarity with him turning grave, as if at the click of a switch.
A moment later the nurse and the writer are staring down into the sunken marble tub where Mercè Casals, the legendary soprano, floats motionless. She is a sight, so fleshy and pale, blubberous and opalescent, buoyant in her fragrant bath, green eyes open and staring up out of the water as if at a precise point on the ceiling. A question seizes Lockwood’s mind: What did she think the moment before dying that would cause her to open her eyes in wonder, and turn the corners of her mouth in what was distinctly, even as her features were settling into death, a smile?
He reaches reflexively for the notebook tucked into the hip pocket of his khakis. For months he has been writing down the insights and telling details that will help his task as ghost writer of the Señora’s autobiography. “She loved a long bath. It was the perfect way to start her day.” He scribbles down the thought as he speaks.
In the dim light, in the steamy warm air, in the scent of the orchids and the ferns and the snaking tendrils of ivy and clematis and jasmine, Lockwood hears himself think:
My diva is dead.
Perla is usually in the bathroom only long enough to help the Señora out of the water and into a plush robe. Now, past any options that would have resolved a medical crisis, she sits on a brass chair, ready in her crisp white uniform to take on her professional role. "I always envied the Señora’s bathing in such a lovely space. And now, an appropriately sensuous end to her life.”
Lockwood gazes down at the tub where Mercè Casals lies undisturbed. Her thin dyed-red hair, undulating in the slight motion of the water, is a halo around her head. "Somehow it's not as bad a sight as I imagined."
Perla looks at him curiously. "You've never seen a dead body before. A muertito?"
"How can you tell?"
"Everybody has the same impression, ‘My, she looks peaceful, like she's sleeping.’"
Lockwood agrees. "Serene, I would say."
"I've seen maybe a hundred dead people," Perla says. "I've seen them when they're going, I've seen them when they've gone, and I've seen them when they're just a collection of parts. But this is the first time I've seen the Señora naked. She wouldn't have liked that, the two of us gawking."
"You're her nurse. It's a professional thing."
"You're her writer. Is that professional?"
"It won't be easy to find another famous lady in need of an autobiography," he sighs unhappily. "What now?"
"We look for work."
"No, I mean after someone dies, and they're found, what happens next?"
"I call her doctor. There’s paperwork. Approximate time of death. Probably between seven and eight. Tuesday, October 14, 1999. Too bad. She had been looking forward to celebrating the turn of the millennium. It meant a lot to her to live to the year 2000. "
“She had a sense of her place in history.”
“You will go on with the book, right?”
Lockwood shrugs. "I’ll call her agent," he says. "He's also my agent. Kill two birds."
"Dumb choice of words, for a writer."
Lockwood tries not to stare at the submerged body. "She wouldn't want us to send her away yet. I feel her spirit needs the company."
"She died in her favorite room."
The bathroom is a jeweled grotto, with only a faint glow from lights recessed into the ceiling, so that the tiles gleam like gems and reflect each other on mirrors and polished gold fixtures and black marble bases under the basin and the tub, where air jets and a spigot sculpted into a brass dolphin are aimed to whirl and spray and burble on all the right places from aching vertebrae to the elusive hot button. Sconces on brass pedestals burned sage and myrrh. To drive away devils. To attract male angels with golden curls, pearly teeth, fleshy earlobes, small penises. From hidden speakers would come the voice of Mercè Casals as Floria Tosca, as Norma, as Violetta, always the Señora listening to herself. The remembered songs took her breath away and made her heart pound.
Lockwood can hear her still: Ah! she might have exclaimed to herself. How
I held that B-flat in 'Vissi d'arte.’ It was as if God was breathing through me and the note would resound for all eternity.
“Did I die of natural causes?” Lockwood thinks she might ask at the end of her memoir.
"Whatever makes you die is a natural cause," Perla says briskly.
He dips his fingers into the still tepid water and brushes a stray wisp from the Señora's forehead. "I think she died of her years weighing heavily, each like a stone upon her chest, as she tried to feel a little lighter by floating in her tub."
"Nobody dies of things like that." Perla is suddenly authoritative. "Too much bacon fat clogging the veins and causing a heart stoppage. As natural as death by Nembutal or Absolut or China White."
Lockwood shrugs; hard science is not about to cancel imagination. “Oh, the secrets she took with her. Just look at her expression."
Perla glances toward the Señora's face. "Cardiac arrests often bring on what looks like a smile. But it isn’t one, not really."
He loves it that she can turn, in a heartbeat, from playfully seductive to coolly rational.
After nearly one hundred visits, past countless confidences and evasions, Lockwood had not wanted to go to the Señora’s condominium the morning she died. Vague apprehension had tightened into a knot. Locked into the thick of traffic, with little choice but to continue grinding down I-5 toward La Jolla, he listened to her legendary "Sempre libera" of thirty years ago, turning the volume high --- above road whir, traffic hum, engine whine, wind flap. Louder. The melody uncoiled dangerously, the consummate soprano slicing through the tape hiss in his cheap player, buzzing the speakers and sending a vibration all the way up his chest to the metallic frames of his sunglasses. Brushing anxiety aside, he drove on; a day without Mercè Casals’ meandering talk would be like the silent yawn of an empty house.
Still, diminishing returns had set in; week by week, their ongoing conversation added up to less and less. Lockwood could handle being the Señora's hired scribbler, “Marcos Loco”: Also tapeworm, father confessor, unpaid shrink, reliable yes-man, royal hack, and bad-dream exterminator. She was, after all, a client; he'd had worse, and none of them famous.
At forty, Mark Lockwood felt on the verge of his first big book. Only modestly successful in his home-based business -- Mark My Words, Inc., freelance writing of just about anything --- he’s been promised a big share of the advance, and a cut on the book club deal, foreign rights, perhaps a miniseries. With his anticipated success, he had also become prone to moments of unexpected anxiety. Along with the disturbing evidence of his braking metabolism -- softening flesh, thinning hair, dying brain cells -- has come a heightened awareness that his recent good fortune could unravel in an eye blink.
He already had on tape five-hundred hours of reminiscences, confessions, gossip and the occasional rant; they were bound up in a Gordian tangle. "You can busy yourself with the unraveling after I'm done speaking into your little box," the Señora had promised. "But first the story has to come out. In whatever way it chooses. Ask and listen. Leave the arias to me." He went along with her. There would be time to follow the thread that wound through the singer's triumphs and disasters, her loves and betrayals.
Lockwood wedged his tennis shoe of a car into a tight slot inside a garage studded with Benzes, Range Rovers and Jaguars in Vortex Black, Eternity Blue, Gunmetal Gray. He reached into the back seat for his cassette recorder, blank tapes, extra Uniball pens, note pad with curling pages, and a brown paper bag containing two mangoes that have been ripening for three days, their scent now jammy and promisingly sweet. He’d felt a rush of anticipation because he was bringing them to Perla as a special gift.
By the time he reached Shore Tower, he was resigned to whatever approaching turmoil his stomach had been signaling. He tucked the tails of his white shirt into his khakis, slipped the tie knot to the collar and checked his hair in the lobby mirror; the Señora was critical of his appearance. Preston, jovial behind the concierge desk, let him into the lobby.
"A glorious day," Preston offered, because it was not in his nature to be less than radiantly optimistic. "Will be nice and bright once the fog lifts."
They chatted about the traffic on I-5; Preston wanted a full report so he could relay the information to Towers residents venturing out to San Diego or LA, out for an early start on hair and nails, Neiman's or Saks, and always the doctors, legions of them, the cardio man, the knee jerk, the chemo gal, the diet director.
The guard's affable reception lifted Lockwood's spirits. The elevator carried him up to floor twenty-eight, where he expected to sit one more day, listening to Mercè Casals, his thumb poised over the pause button of a cassette recorder, a $29 dollar antique from Radio Shack that produces tapes to play in his car and office boombox,
Perla, here since seven, greeted him at the door. "Señora is still in her bath," she said. "I'll check on her soon." The Señora was usually dressed by the time Lockwood arrived.
He hovered in the kitchen and drank the coffee Perla had offered him. He persuaded himself that every one of her gestures of goodwill was evidence of some erotic current flowing between them. He found her exotic: a big-city girl from the DF, the Mexican capital. After considering the variations on olive and cinnamon used to describe Latino skin, he decided hers was nutmeg. Lustrous black hair, cut short and combed into a boyish part, gave her a bold, somewhat dismissive look. Her brisk Spanish accent was by turns amusing and provocative.
This morning he tried to please Perla with a mango. He took it out of the wrinkled brown bag and held out to her the plump fruit, mostly yellow with green striations.
She showed him how Mexicans eat them, stabbing a fork through the mango's rump to the seed, then peeling down strips with a paring knife to reveal the golden pulp awaiting the first bite of her perfect teeth.
"I'm having a hard time keeping this under control." She laughed, the back of her hand wiping the juice that ran from her mouth.
"Few acts are as sensual as a woman biting into a mango," he observed.
"You're pushing your luck, Lockwood."
"I've made an impression on you at last."
"Not necessarily a good one."
"Perla, what a heartbreaker you are."
"Tontito. You don't think adolescent behavior comes with risks?"
He sighed unhappily. "It's nice of you to worry."
"I'm a nurse."
"Do you have any professional advice?"
"Yes. Back off a little.”
"You’re not telling me to go away, though."
Perla only shrugs.
"It could lead to something interesting?"
"Don't count on it, Lockwood."
He liked for Perla to call him Lockwood. He found the mixture of familiarity and distance wonderfully unsettling. Sometimes she called him "Mark-in-Time Lockwood." Or "Top-of-the-Mark" when she wanted to flatter him. It beat being called Marcos Loco, as Mercè Casals did when she first met him.
"Señora is taking a long time with her bath," Perla nodded toward the closed door beyond the living room.
"Let her," he said, clinging to her presence. This moment alone had been a gift, possibly planned by the Señora, prolonging her bath so that her scribbler and her nurse could be alone. She was like that in her sense of fun, her meddling.
"Will you know when she's ready to come out?"
"She’ll ring her bell, and I’ll hold up a big towel in front of my eyes." She adds seriously, "I'd better check on her." Disappointed, Lockwood watched her march toward the bedroom. Even as medical fashion tended to pastels, the Señora liked Perla in white because it was the professional color for a nurse. Lockwood is both attracted and frustrated by her crinkly whites, the panels of starched fabric boxing and masking the roundness of womanly shapes, boat-like shoes and opaque hosiery inhibiting his imagination.
When the job of day nurse to Señora Mercè Casals was posted, Perla had called immediately. Señora Casals explained the position. "I want you to wear a uniform at all times. No, I'm not sick, and beyond handing me my pills at the appointed times, and informing my personal physician, Dr. Velasco, when my blood pressure reads high, you will hardly need to do anything medical at all. But wearing your nurse's uniform will keep our relationship serious. It's too easy for two women spending day after day together to become too chummy. I need you to remain a professional. We will become friends, of course. I like you already."
"But it's even more important that you like me." the Señora had sighed, as if she were already despairing of the young applicant’s rising to such a challenge. "I will be able to tell, you know, no matter how cheerful and efficient you are. If you are covering up negative emotions, your hands will give you away. I will ask you to rub my neck when I feel a headache coming, massage my feet when they swell, spread lotion on my back when my skin is thirsty. I cannot bear to be touched by someone who holds back. It's a special, rare gift to be able to touch another person and let her feel the goodness of your heart by the weight of your hands and the movement of your fingers. Timing is all. If you withdraw your hands too soon, I will sense reluctance; if you prolong touch past a certain point, it will be cloying and insincere. You will also bring my morning coffee and afternoon tea. And you will tell me the story of your life and your dreams and fears because we will have much time to get to know one another. But mostly, you will spend a lot of time by yourself staring at the wall. That's the most difficult part of the job."
Perla smiled. "I have some reading to catch up on. There's TV. I can write or call my family in Mexico."
"Unfortunately no, not when you're on duty," her new employer said firmly. "I wouldn't want to feel I'm interrupting a greater pleasure when I call you. You can knit or crochet. You will be happy to answer my call."
“It will be your words.”
After years of dealing with corporate clients and their concrete objectives, Lockwood had felt out of his depth for the job interview. Six months ago, he waited in the gloom of Mercè Casals' shuttered condo and tried deep breaths that came up short on oxygen and long on the blended scents of cut flowers and dishes of potpourri.
Standing before wall-to-wall windows, he parted the heavy brocade curtains. From twenty-eight stories above the ocean, he imagined he could see south to Cabo San Lucas, north to Santa Barbara.
The Señora wore rhinestone sunglasses with lenses so dark she would haltingly feel her way from a wall to a lamp to her chair. Her world was fragile: Chalky bones in the hips, knees, shoulders. Around her, glass cats and goldfish and frogs by Lalique. Chinese vases and Murano bowls. Tiny Limoges boxes in fanciful porcelain shapes -- trunks, clocks, purses, pianos, peapods and dogs clown hats, and party shoes -- all down to the details of the enameled latch and the interior glaze, with the signature that said they were a higher class of knickknacks.
On that first afternoon, the Señora's aspiring writer waited on a velvet couch that drew him into its pillowy depths, a silk-and-feather quicksand that rose all around him, giving way under his butt and elbows and spine, so that he felt his knees rising and the whole of him curling up.
Lockwood had reached down to the end table beside the couch and plunged his fingers into a candy dish. He grabbed a couple of chocolates wrapped in heavy gold foil and put them in his pocket as Mercè Casals emerged out of the shadows into the living room. She went to him, extending her hand and smiling warmly. Lockwood started to rise, but he had sat so low that his knees had lost their leverage and his character, its will. His hand let go of the softening chocolates.
“I see you’ve been admiring the goodies,” she smiled. It took long moments before he realized she was speaking of the figurines on the shelves.
“I’m a bit of a collector myself.” He exhaled with relief. “You know -- books. Good books, old books, unread books. It’s a writer’s obsession.”
She smiled benignly from her wing back chair, as if waiting for him to go on and explain why he was here. “You are not at all what I expected,” she said, trying to be diplomatic. “My agent, our agent, Mr. Holloway, assured me you were a real writer. That you have earned your living writing for twenty-five years and that therefore you would certainly look the part. Silly me, I was expecting horn-rimmed glasses and a pipe, and a jacket with leather patches on the elbows.”
“I have a corduroy jacket somewhere.” He heard the strained lightness in his voice and feared his eagerness was too obvious.
“Has lovely Perla offered you something to drink?”
Lockwood wasn’t thirsty, but the possibility of getting another look at the nurse prompted a request.
“Anything diet would be fine,” he said. "Diet Pepsi is the elixir of poets." Then he added, as if needing to explain himself again. "Especially of the overweight ones."
"But you're not a poet," she said. "You are the exterminator." She explained: “Someone hired to flush the rats from my past.”
"I wish you wouldn't look at it that way.”
“Oh, let’s move on, shall we?” she said. “I already have a first impression of you.”
“A bad one?”
“Heavens no,” she laughed. “I’ll just have to reconsider my idea of what a writer should look like. Rumpled khakis and a baggy shirt with pockets for notebooks and pencils might yet fit in with my idea of a real author. But a tie might indicate a professional attitude.”
He was glad for the respite as Perla brought Pepsi and ice in a tall glass. He tried to catch her eye and smile in gratitude, but she had resolutely avoided his gaze. “Gracias,” he said.
"What makes you think you're suitable to write my story?" He could feel the Señora’s gaze behind the sunglasses.
"Experience." Lockwood found himself at a loss for words.
"As a music expert?" she smiled.
“Well, no. I write about everything."
"Sex, drugs, teenagers, farm machinery, weather patterns, horses, computers, retirement plans, insurance policies, shopping malls, sleep apnea, mobile home bank loans, periodontal disease, gardening, cooking, digesting---”
"Please. Stop, for the love of God."
"I've written about those also."
"Love. God. They're part of my How to Talk to Your Teen series."
"Have you written about music?"
"Sure, here and there. A few notes." He tried to signal his joke with a smile.
"I seem to have made you tense. I’m sorry. I have a right to ask, if I'm to consider you for the job."
“Of course, Señora.” Lockwood felt that there was little he could do to rescue the interview. "You have my resume. Writing samples," he said lamely.
“I'm an artist. But you will tell me if I sound like an insufferable egotist?"
"A bit of ego won't hurt, Señora. Readers will expect this of you."
"The whole of my life story, since I first sang publicly at age four, seems like one long, uninterrupted performance. Not just the great roles as Lucia and Gilda and Norma and Violetta. The way I slurp soup in a restaurant has been observed by someone. A moment of whispered conversation raises speculation. The dash of a pen when I sign my name, the ornate M, the bold C. Everything I do is considered a deliberate artistic act, measured by someone somewhere. It has been a cumbersome way to live, you understand."
"I can only imagine, Señora."
"Good. I need your imagination, your empathy. I'm afraid to trust my life to a hack."
He cleared his throat defensively. "There's something to be said for hacks. They get the job done."
"Well, I certainly need you for that. I'm eighty . . . something; my memory is erratic, and I've already been paid an advance for my memoirs."
"I'm your man."
"Of the first five writers I’ve talked to, you are the only one who isn’t a bigger prima donna than I."
"It will be your words that matter, Señora."
"Understand this, Mr. Lockwood: Singing is a spiritual act for me. Not one of those churchy things with men in taffeta and triangle hats. When I sing, there are aspects of the universe that take on a sharp and luminous clarity. I am like Einstein -- without the mathematics."
“I’m eager to hear your story.”
She nodded as if already taking his cooperation for granted. She pushed herself off the chair and walked to a cabinet at the end of the living room. After some consideration, she selected a disc from the rows of tightly packed CDs.
"Take Tosca home. I sing Floria. It may give you a headache the first time you hear it. Keep playing it until it doesn't hurt. Don't sleep, read, eat or talk through it. You can glance at the libretto. But only at the Italian. It doesn't matter if you don't understand every word. Just sit and listen. Then call Mr. Holloway, if you still want to do this."
“A generous kill fee.”
By early afternoon the tying-up of the Señora's affairs is in full progress. Earlier, Perla had made phone calls, written a report, filled in her last time sheets. Lockwood collected his notes and then went through the stuffed file wallets she always kept at her side search when his questioning made her want to reach beyond her memory into the interviews, letters, photos, reviews she had saved through the years. On impulse, he hastily stuffed the folders into his leather satchel. It had taken only moments for the now unmoored Lockwood to reach a decision. He would finish the project they had started together.
Perla came up behind him as he buckled the satchel up. “Ladronzuelo,” she teased. Little thief.
“I’ve still got her book to write,” he explained.
“I won’t tell.” She pressed a finger to her lips.
Doctor Velasco and Hank Holloway arrived at the same time to take care of the two sides of the Señora, the body and the legend. The two men studied each other discreetly in the elevator, one in a smoky-gray suit and starched shirt, armed with a leather medical bag, the other in lime-green pants, black linen jacket, carrying an alligator attaché case. They finally acknowledged each other, one through Ray-Bans, the other through tortoise-shell bifocals.
"Quite a tragedy," they murmured when they realized they were both going up to the twenty-eighth floor. "Yes, indeed."
"The passing of an era," said Holloway, also known as Hollywood Hank. “A wonder for the ages.”
"Death by drowning," the doctor decided ahead of his examination. " According to the ancient Mexicans, it's the passport to the happiest of all heavens. To the realm of Tlaloc with no detours or side trips. It’s the only happy place in the afterlife, where the Señora will become like a child again to sing and dance and chase butterflies in a rain as soft as mist. I can see her, you know, truly happy for the first time."
"Are you some kind of writer?"
"No, you can trust me. I'm her doctor."
"I knew her well, too. I'm her agent."
They shared parallel objectives. Dr. Velasco would deal with a police report, sign the death certificate, and let the nurse go. Hollywood Hank would do his best to get rid of the writer amicably. Settling accounts with the nurse of a dead patient presented no ambiguities. The matter of the book-in-progress would be awkward.
As soon as he heard of the Señora's accident, Hollywood Hank had placed a call to Alonzo Baylor with an offer to do the life story of the famous diva. The celebrated author had shown, with his highly intrusive Salvador Dalí and Martha Graham biographies, that he was good with the passions of art and flesh, the longing of the old and the regrets of the famous. Alonzo Baylor might not know anything about opera, but then, Hollywood Hank was sure he hadn't known a whole lot about modern art either, before he took on the great Dalí.
Dr. Velasco was in the business of life --- as opposed to death. He held the Señora's wrist, his fingers feeling for her pulse even though anyone could see that it was too late for such ceremonies. Gazing down on her face in the water, as accustomed as he was to the placid expression of death, Doctor Velasco was nevertheless moved to observe, "Ah, those are pearls that were her eyes!"
Standing before the naked floating Señora, Hollywood Hank could only muster a solemn nod or two, a requisite sigh. Waiting beside him was the writer he had sent to Mercè Casals to help her pour her heart out. At the time, Lockwood had been what was needed, a proficient wordsmith who knew how to crank out the prose and deliver a manuscript on deadline with a minimum of fuss. After sending his client five other writers, this was the one that Mercè Casals had decided she liked, and trusted. “He’s a listener,” she had said.
The agent took Lockwood by the arm and gently, almost seductively, pulled him away from the bathroom and into the parlor, as if the tenor of the conversation that would follow might disturb the dead Casals.
Things were different now. Hollywood Hank envisioned royalties for all eternity and special commemorative editions and tributes to the fallen star. La Casals was a gift for the ages, her book in the hands of someone more marketable than Lockwood would sell for as long as her voice was on CDs. The agent tried to be reasonable: A ghost writer was no longer required. What was needed was a famous author, a name comparable to the dead queen's. It was a dog-eat-dog publishing jungle and only a major Big Game Book Gun would do.
But I've got the recordings," Lockwood explained patiently. "Five hundred hours worth. I will tell her life in her words. It will be her final aria.”
“Listen to me, Lockwood. I want a brand-name writer to tell her story. A real wonder boy for the wonder singer.” Holloway raised his hand to signal there was nothing else to discuss. "You'll receive a generous kill fee. For the time you've spent on the project."
"This is not about time," Lockwood protested, weakly because Hollywood Hank had already made a grab for the project, and he didn't know how to stop him. "It's all about the story. Don't you see? This a really great story I'm telling."
"Give me directions so I can send someone to schlep your files."
Lockwood bristled. "Schlep? Is that agent talk for scooping up, grabbing, stealing, and surrendering?"
"Where can I pick up the interviews?" Hollywood Hank repeated in a steely tone.
"I'll mail them to you," Lockwood evaded.
"I'll send a courier to your house in Anaheim."
"I need to listen to them. Do some editing."
"I'll take care of the editing."
"Some of the stuff is personal. Strictly between the Señora and me."
"Your secrets are safe."
The two men faced each other from opposite sides of the parlor, Lockwood standing, the agent sitting back on the red velvet couch, his arm extended along the back, his fingertips lightly caressing the upholstery. Hollywood Hank dangled one boot over the other; his foot twitched nervously. He masked his increasing frustration by breathing out a long sigh. "Do you really think Alonzo Baylor gives a shit about your secrets?"
"It's not my privacy that is at stake here. I was entrusted by Mercè Casals with her life. Her life became my life. It was going to be her book, in her own voice. I made promises. Nothing would go into it that she did not choose to reveal. Alonzo Baylor, the Hemingway throwback, ham-fisted, bare-knuckled could-a-been a contender, monosyllabic, semicolon-impaired, cliché-rich typist would like nothing better than to be able to pick over her lifeless bones." Lockwood paused to catch his breath.
Across the glass table, Hollywood Hank slouched into the folds of the plush sofa. He looked wiry and small in his black and green Armani ensemble, his feet sweating inside the Tony Lamas, a blue amoebae expanding under the leaking Mont Blanc in his shirt pocket, his face reddening as if he were resisting a dark impulse to spring out like a snake. "We'll need to talk again," Holloway sighed. "Stay in touch."
Excerpted from THE WONDER SINGER © Copyright 2011 by George Rabasa. Reprinted with permission by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved.