We arrive in the Syracuse University gym at 6:35 for the first annual rehearsal of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“And if a million cops charge in and haul me away with all these people watching?” I say. “What will the other singers think? I might as well kill myself,”
“Ain’t gonna’ happen,” she says.
Marion throws her hands. We cross the highly polished oak gym floor to where Mother stands, chatting with a man I’d never before seen.
“I heard you sing Violetta at the Met last November,” he says to Mother.
Marion’s lips move, but the man’s voice holds my attention. He stands princely. Aloof. Blond hair. Wide-set eyes. A woman carrying a cello hands him an instrument case.
Shouts of, “People,” comes from the podium. Conductor Winston Hanford, asserting an air of British supremacy, beats the baton on the music stand. The stick becomes a blur. Orchestra and chorus members scramble to their positions. Marion leads me to the third tier bleacher. The soprano section.
I elbow her side.
“The trumpet player,” I say. “Adonis.”
“Look. No wedding ring. I’ll elope with him tonight.”
“No ring don’t mean no wife.”
We tuck our bodies in line with other sopranos. I gawk at Prince Valiant. My knees buckle. Marion catches me.
Without regard for the aged or disabled, offering no warning, Winston, pinched nostrils pointing at the ceiling, initiates the starting downbeat. Orchestra members are not ready. Start one after the other and try to catch up.
Their transgressions masked behind arched brows like poster images of cherubs, chorus members balance music on the left palm at the level of the heart. Their right hands turn pages. Saintly women and pious middle-aged men sing out in voices of uneven ability, blending with the hallelujah vociferating of other bifocaled folks. Male save us pleading tones soar above the halos of God-fearing folks and blend with the creaky strains of female ancients.
Unstable bleachers threaten to collapse under our rhythmic sway. Shoulder crushing contact with singers, the libido-stimulating odor of perspiration left over from a recent night’s basketball game, bullied together under the gesticulations of Winston Handford, so impressed with the particularity of his position, seems unaware of how out of pitch we sing. With three weeks to the performance, overworking details, Winston risks leaving many parts unrehearsed.
I stand on my toes.
“I have to meet him tonight, Marion. I’ll die unless I do.”
“I seen him playin’ trumpet in Papa’s speakeasy, so don’t worry bout it.”
“What’s his name?” I say.
“Vinnie never said.”
“Quit askin’,” she says.
One of her left-arm spasms sends the music tumbling from the fifth tier to the gym floor.
“His name. What is his name?”
“Jeez, Galena, give me a chance to tell ya. Max Anders is alls I know.”
“Max Anders, a beautiful man, a perfect name. You’re standing beside Mrs. Max AF
“What makes him so great?” Marion says.
“Are you blind? He’s the personification of everything beautiful in a man.”
The grandma-type next to me bangs a fingernail on the score at the line where we are to join in. My voice rises in unnatural exuberance. “Hallelujah.”
The female leans her cello against an empty chair and pokes Max with the bow. She sashays to the door. Slinks out to the hall. Max follows. Winston, brow furrowed, tracks Max.
“What’s going on?’ I say.
I stare at the aisle.
“Max, he ain’t once looked at you,” Marion says.
“Once he sees me, he’ll dump the bitch.”
To my left, middle age women block access to the aisle. One fills a wide space. Another needs assistance to move around. Two others stoop to speak with folks of normal height.
The cellist and Max scurry into the gym and take their places.
“I want to kill her,” I say.
Marion’s voice breaks, drops to tenor range. Glances pass between the conductor and Max. Mangled note after note blares out from Max’s trumpet as he fights to subdue a laughing fit. Surface veins on Winston’s cheeks light up.
He says, “Mr. Anders, your services are no longer required.”
I push past Marion.
“I’m leaving with him.”
Marion squeezes past two singers. I follow her, and leaving three matrons agape, stumble into the aisle. Miss the plank. Skin my inner thighs. My crotch slams against a bleacher-board.
“Oh Max,” I say, in a whimper.
Max and the cellist, carrying their instruments, head for the exit. I bolt. Marion wraps her arms around my waist.
“H ain’t worth nothin’,” she says.
I push her away.
“Let go. Stop mauling me every minute. I . . .”
Winston glares at Mother. She leaves her place beside to the podium and climbs the bleachers.
“Go home, Galena,” she says.
“I’ll not sing another note, ever,” I say.
Marion half carries me to the exit. We hit the street: I search the block, one end to the other.
“Damn. Gone,” I say.
“They ain’t gonna’ hang around waitin’ for you,” she says.
I say. “This will not happen again.”
Marion says, “Gould’s funeral tomorrow? Heads so hacked up, wife’s keepin’ the box shut. One thing’s for sure. He ain’t gonna’ bother you no more. Nobody else better try, neither.”
I believe her. I’ve never experienced such a powerful feeling of being protected. Not from Hawkey. Not from Mother, any teacher, not even Daddy Baldwin.