At the San Carlo
There was a portico running along the outside of the San Carlo Theater. There was also a traffic island and a green-lighted pro Station. The opera crowd reached in a queue out of sight, except for a few who waited for their opera guests outside the arches Or those who were more than usually lonely waited here to invite or to be invited inside.
Michael Patrick managed to get across from the arcade in blind lunges that carried him to the doors of the San Carlo. At first he thought he'd give away his extra ticket to somebody in the waiting line, but instead he ran up the stairway and shoved his ticket at one of the Neapolitans. They wore dirty powdered wigs, brocade crimson coats, knee breeches and stained white stockings. As his ticket was torn in half, he laughed and looked down at the splayed pumps of the ticket taker.
-Trade ya my boots, he said a little thickly, and watched the bowing flunky bounce back from the impact of his own vermouthy breath.
Michael Patrick climbed to his box in the sixth tier at the right-hand corner of the proscenium arch. There was no one else in this palco. The box door was unlocked by yet another character in eighteenth-century costume. Michael Patrick dug out a tip of one hundred lire and settled himself in a high-backed poltrona by the railing of his box. He could look straight down into the orchestra pit where sweating gossiping men and women were tuning up or chaffing their friends who had dropped in casually on them in the pit. The San Carlo orchestra pit was as friendly and communal as a bomb shelter. Over the burr of the oboe and the running scales of the strings, the players and their guests chattered and fanned themselves with the evening newspaper.
Looking again with relief to see that there wasn't anybody else besides himself in the box, Michael Patrick loosened his belt and extracted the bottle of cognac from his trouser leg. As he took his first swig, all the lights in the theater blinked out. Red glows appeared over the exits. The flutter and movement in the house abated, giving way to a noisy shushing by the audience. Only the orchestra in their cellar gave off a nimbus of phosphorescence; the footlights stained the velvet curtain as rich and dark as blood. Michael Patrick gasped with delight and leaned far out over the barrier of his box.
A tired old man, a turkey wearing a frock coat, came into the orchestra pit from under the stage. He groped his way among the crowded music desks until his grizzled skull jutted over the podium and the wall of the pit. A hand reached out of the prompter's box and diddled with a mirror. For a while the old Neapolitan talked to the orchestra, dispensing wisdom and sadness to them like a Dutch uncle. He seemed intolerably weary, sternly kind. Then he lifted his stick and the trombones blatted out a hectic and cynical phrase. The strings muttered and swayed. and the curtain went up on a skylighted garret overlooking the frozen roofs of Paris.
Like a child Michael Patrick peered and listened to the persiflage of the painter with green smock and easel and the writer who burned his manuscripts to keep warm. He heard the tenor and the violins in unison lift and drop in long tender melodies that were both sad and gay. Sometimes Michael Patrick would raise his bottle to his lips, never taking his eyes or his ears from that sweet world on the stage.
There was a rap on the door of the garret.
He watched the violins plug on their mutes. The old maestro concertante leaned over them cajolingly. An aching perfumed strain rose in the darkness till Michael Patrick felt his heart begin to ache with a wild wistfulness. A shy little seamstress came onto the stage carrying a lighted candle. At this moment Michael Patrick ceased to be anywhere particular in this world, least of all in Naples of August, 1944. He was happy.
What was there here in the sweetness of this reality that he’d missed out on in America? He’d opened a door into a world that had nothing to do with merchandising and selling, with the trapped four-four beat of boogie-woogie, with naked girls shaking their navels through cigar smoke on a runway, with nervous old ladies totting up their insurance, with the fact that be wouldn't live to be twenty-eight, with the gum-beatings of topkicks, with the smell of a world like a slaughterhouse, with groping and misunderstanding and cruelty. He felt himself inundated with the loveliness that men seek in a woman's arms, that old nuns sense on their death-beds. He saw for the first time in his life that the things which keep the world going are not to be bought or sold, that every flower grows out of decay, that for all the mud and grief there are precious things which make it worth while for us to leave our mothers' wombs-if someone shows us these priceless things. Before and after this truth, he saw, there's nothing, nothing at all…..
His body was racked with a delight from outside himself. And when the lights came up again at the end of the first act, he fell from his paradise. The applause, the simpering curtain calls had nothing to do with what he'd felt-for the first time to be abstracted from his own sweating tired body, from a regimen that tormented him because it had no meaning he could decipher. So he retired sulkily to the rear of the box, sat on the floor out of range of the theater lights and the chatter of the audience, and drank slowly and methodically. There were no odds in walking down to the foyer and making a pretense at a social promenade. Besides he was pretty drunk.
Near the close of the third act of La Boheme Michael Patrick had emptied his cognac bottle. It lay by his boots like a spent rifle. He leaned heavily on the barrier and stared out at the stage. He couldn't see too distinctly now, but the music and the voices came up to him in a vortex that carried him along in its conical eye. His sight was blinking and bloodshot.
He laid his head on the plush railing by his arms. His tears fell on his knees. He wept very quietly but at length. It was okay to cry because he knew with clarity and brilliance exactly why he was crying. For his own ruined life, for the lives of millions of others like him, whom no one had heard of or thought about. For all the sick wretchedness of a world that no one could, or tried to, understand. For all who passed their stupid little lives in the middle of a huge myth and delusion.
At the end of the opera Michael Patrick felt and reeled his way down the five flights of stairs. He leaned bemused and lost in the portico of the San Carlo till the shrill crowds had gone away. The moon was out above Vesuvius. The bay shimmered out toward Torre Annunziata and Salerno. The night still had the hot heaviness of daylight hours. Naples was a murmur of sound, the river-rushing of people fleeing and seeking and pretending and betraying.