Happy Wednesday! I hope you all have gotten over that episode of Lost last night and are ready for drama of a different kind - opera! - because that's what you're getting today from friend-of-the-blog, Gale Martin. She is sharing with us an excerpt from her novel, Deviled by Don, about a small-town production of Don Giovanni that goes horribly, and supernaturally, awry.
Gale's writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a short story published in Greensilk Journal. You can also check out her blog, Opera-toonity (!), to read more about her research on classic opera used in Deviled by Don.
Deviled by Don
By Gale Martin
Chapter 1: The Claque
Late March, downtown Hankey, Pennsylvania. Morning has broken like a brown egg cracked into a rusty skillet. The main thoroughfare, Henry Avenue, is deserted. Its centerpiece and the primary setting is the Hankey Opera House—three stories tall, the only handsome building on a blighted street. The Hankey Opera Guild has assembled in the boardroom to interview applicants for a new general director.
A social climber, a retired physician, a hometown singer nearly-made-good, and one hospital auxiliary outcast—all the officers of Hankey’s lone theatrical guild hunkered over a conference table, finishing their evaluations forms. For what other reason would such a mismatched foursome meet early on a Saturday morning? No interest in yard sales, a round of best ball at Hankey Hills, or Belgian waffles at the Steel City Diner in the crumbling side of town now dubbed “Rust City.”
No, today the guild was meeting on important business. The right choice could mean their solvency. The wrong one, financial ruin.
Hankey socialite Deanna Lundquist chaired the guild. It was her responsibility to lead them out of their muddle to a sound employment decision before noon. A Continental breakfast might make them more decisive or more civil. Either would be an improvement over the chaos recently unleashed at guild meetings. On her way to the opera house, she stopped at the only decent coffee shop left in town and picked up a medium decaf, black, for Dr. Richard Rohrer; a tall café au lait with two sugars for Oriane Longenecker; a short espresso for her herself; and three almond bear claws. She didn’t know Vivian Pirelli—the new member—well enough to order her coffee or whether she even liked coffee. At their last breakfast meeting, Vivian refused a cherry Danish, downing a rainbow assortment of vitamin capsules instead. So, Deanna bought her a decaffeinated soy milk chai latte and a gluten-free bagel—scooped.
At every meeting, Deanna claimed the head of the table. Barely five-foot-two in flat feet, once she was ensconced in the power seat, her long torso disguised her petite frame. She’d take a few seconds to summon her inner tigress—beauty and ferocity in equal measure—before calling the claque to order.
Time to bring in the first candidate for grilling—Don Blank from Boston. Though she threatened them with one of her trademark savage glances, while Blank was still on the hook, Richard and Oriane were x’ing off the evaluation categories in record time, like it was a timed Olympic event. It had taken Deanna days to research and prepare that form; she’d been thorough to ensure they were hiring the best person for the job.
“A vexatious list of considerations,” Richard had said, when she distributed the evaluations earlier. Not vexatious enough, as it turned out. She neglected to include a question about whether he preferred modern opera to classic opera—which he did. End of interview, end of act, curtain.
Blank had driven down from Boston last evening, a six-hour exercise in misery, fraught with bottlenecks around Hartford and New York City any night of the week, but especially on Fridays. Inside twenty-five minutes with them, he was headed back to Beantown.
It was Deanna’s duty to see the candidate out. She pulled the hallway door closed behind them and gestured to the elevator. “You’re excused, Mr. Blank. You won’t be hearing from us again.”
“I’ll have you know,” Blank said with a sneer, his six-foot-three frame dwarfing hers. “I’m a Boston Blank.”
“You’re a blank, all right,” Deanna said, with little choice but to stare straight into nostrils as hairy as if he’d stuffed a pair of fuzzy slippers up there.
She pointed to the exit. He snarled at her.
If they were kickboxing, she could take him. Because like a tigress, she had fast-twitch muscle. One cross power punch to the fuzzy slippers, and he’d be on his knees before he realized what had decked him.
He turned to leave but not without hurling a final lob. “You had a real chance to produce something fresh, something contemporary. Instead you chose an improbable, stupid tale! Gothic dreck. I hope it tanks.”
Seconds later, the door flew open, and Deanna blew back into the boardroom, first neatening her angled bob, then collecting, alphabetizing, and paper clipping everyone’s forms, giving herself time to process that she’d just dispatched their leading candidate for the job. Don Blank had looked glorious on paper—experience, education, references. Another zero putting himself out there as an opera champion.
While she strode to the double-hung windows, she asked herself why she hadn’t prescreened him? In one phone call, she would’ve learned that Blank was intent on producing a modern opera. It was the first thing out of his mouth during the tell-us-about-yourself portion of the interview.
Deanna watched the candidate lumber across Henry Avenue three stories below. “Blank’s mopping his face with his handkerchief. He’s turning around. He’s waving his fingers through the air, like he’s putting a hex on us. Now, he’s squeezing himself into a cherry-red sports car. Too small for a man of his heft,” Deanna said, providing both play-by-play and color analysis. Everyone else surely noticed it, she thought. It had to be said:
“Why would someone with a plug of nose hair think he belonged in a car like that?”
“Excessive nose hair is common in middle aged men,” Richard said. A dermatologist, now retired, Richard was the only doctor on the guild and the self-proclaimed expert on all matters relating to human physiology. Richard played his M.D. card at every board meeting. That might have been the most annoying thing about him, other than being an egghead and wearing bolo ties. For the most part, the group bore his shortcomings in silence. Such long-suffering might have been teased out by his annual contribution of twenty-five thousand dollars and by the fact that he sported a head full of silver-white hair. Deanna found it hard to lay into a sixty-two-year-old man with hair that sublime, even a vexatious one like Richard. But she’d give it her best. She never should’ve brought up the nose hair.
“Spare us the anatomy lesson, Richard. We’re finished talking about nose hair. Blank’s and everyone else’s,” Deanna said, though she herself hadn’t ceased thinking about it. Besides the nose hair, Blank must have real deficits—another nine tenths of an iceberg’s worth—to bring about the guild’s demise. She’d come too far in the last ten years to hand over operations to someone flouting propriety in manner and grooming, for whom the word modern rolled off the tongue like ping pong balls whooshing into a plastic tube during the nightly drawing of the Pennsylvania lottery.
She gripped the window ledge. “We’d have to fund-raise our fannies off for him,” she said, because the brunt of any campaign to raise money would be borne by her. She shifted her gaze one story down to the statue of the city founder, Henry Hankey, mounted atop the opera house marquee. Pigeons circled his outstretched arms like planes in holding patterns. “And for what? Modern opera?”
“Blank drove—such—such a long wa—ay,” Vivian said, because she suffered a few vocal tics, and because, in the short time Deanna had known her, she’d observed that Vivian always sided with the underdog. According to Richard, the latter was a character trait of those descended from Germanic tribes such as the Teutons.
Pirelli was Vivian’s last name by marriage. By birth, she was half Teutonic, specifically, a Frantz (rhymes with ants), and the sole heir to the Frantz Ketchup fortune though she’d yet to come into a nickel of it. Deanna also knew Vivian was divorced and not just because she no longer wore a wedding ring. She’d uncovered a lot she needed to know about Vivian Pirelli (and more!) from an online tabloid that included a photo of her wearing a shower cap, sucking on a Frantz pickle. Guido Pirelli or one of his Sicilian racecar-driving kin must have slipped the press that photo. A cousin on the Pirelli side was quoted anonymously saying, “Guido married a-Vivian for the money and got a-tired a waiting for her mother to a-croak.”
“He didn’t do his homework.” Deanna reseated herself, folding her arms in front of her. “Modern may fly in Boston, but Blank’s out of touch with Hankey, Pennsylvania.”
None of the other guild members had any grasp of the Boston opera scene, something they were no more likely to admit than Deanna was right about modern opera flopping in the Rust Belt. Yes, Nixon in China had been a critical success in the eighties, one of the few modern pieces even those with a limited appreciation of opera could name. But Blank’s insistence that Hankey mount an original show, Bush in Beijing, without the sponsorship of a famous patron or a go-ahead from the Kennedy Center would be sheer folly in the oughts. A modern opera with political overtones wouldn’t sell today—not in Louisville, not in Knoxville, and certainly not in Hankey, which was both smaller and more blue-collar than either of those towns. Bush in Beijing wasn’t all that fresh. If you’ve seen one opera that opens at the Beijing airport, you’ve seen them all.
None of the guild officers, not even Hankey’s resident conductor Maestro Jan Schantzenbach, a guild member ex officio, could sit through modern opera. Too dissonant and atonal. All that exoticism and alienation. Their taste trended along with most of Middle America’s. Call them provincial; they preferred to think of themselves as practical opera buffs. If tempted to credit their season selections to audience pandering, consider the offerings of the country’s most respected companies: Chicago’s Lyric, San Francisco, and the New York Met. They rarely gambled on modern opera, and Hankey couldn’t afford to either. “Bring on the fatal stabbings, the cross-dressers, the heroic fiber that turns to hubris faster than opera house patrons hit the restrooms at intermission,” Deanna had remarked when it was time to select this year’s slate.
“You’re not supposed to pluck nose hairs,” Vivian said because she showed an early tendency to resurrect subjects long after they’d been tabled. “It can be . . . lethal.”
“What about his sport coat?” Deanna said because she’d set aside further nose hair discussion five minutes ago. “It looked like he borrowed it from his teenage son.”
“I didn’t mind his ill-fitting jacket as much as his sweating,” Oriane said, her voice high-pitched and lilting, even at nine-thirty in the morning. Oriane—the little soprano who could—named for the shining ingénue in Bach’s Amadis de Gaule. She would have much preferred to be named Paris, like the city, like the Hilton. Paris did sound more alluring than Oriane, though no better with Longenecker. Fingers crossed, she wouldn’t be keeping Longenecker much longer.
“Did you notice that water was, like, dripping from his palms?” Oriane began playing with her hands, as she was wont to do. This time she’d intertwined them, massaging the soft skin on the insides of her long fingers. “If he sweats that much in April, what’s going to happen during Riverboat Days in July?”
“I wouldn’t concern myself with his sweating. He could have hyperhidrosis,” Richard said. “An easily rectifiable condition.”
“Wh—what now?” Vivian said. “Blank was our last candidate.”
“No, we have one more,” Deanna said. “God help us if this one’s no better.”