I saw it all, from the very beginning, heard it all, too, every word rising on the air … in our first classroom, in church, everywhere it happened, you name the place and I was there. Unannounced it came. From the heavens it must have come, taking over his soul, his body, his mind for a few bare minutes of magic. Once, and once only, every five year like clockwork, it came on him, as if grabbed by the heavenly spheres or ignition itself lighting up his lungs from the inside. My pal Victor, classmate for 16 years of schooling, teammate for 8 years, inseparable companion, fifth year custodian of miracles that made him, for the nonce, an extraordinary singer without explanation, an indescribable tenor so gifted I have to place the cause on an element beyond us mere men.
V for Victor, dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah.
I never saw the miracle coming, in any of the situations. Neither did he, but it took hold of him and wouldn’t let go until the last word fell from his lips, from his throat, from his lungs, and to depart then forever from him. No song was ever repeated, making the miracle even more mysterious, as he could not even recall the scenario within a half hour of its happening.
I often thought I hoped I’d be there when it was over. Or maybe I didn’t hope so. It’d be sad enough to hear the last of it, knowing at that moment he’d be gone before another five years had passed.
You think I’m off my rocker, I’ll bet, but I’ll tell you I have not missed a word. Not that I was clued in on the moment of coming (I rarely knew it was coming until I was out of college and back home for good) and then the math of it hit me. So, because he was my best friend, because he was so loyal in his own right, a trusted teammate, a productive teammate, a leader, I started keeping a journal, plotting the next revelation, the next miracle.
His musical renditions were all glorious, out of this world, infused with so much talent it shook me.
Perhaps it was a part of his emotional and physical make-up that brought up a message from within, carried it off so it could be shared. There just had to be something in the air, surrounding him, waiting for his hand or eye or lung to breathe it in so it could be let loose.
The time it happened when he was 15 years old, and not the first time I had been a witness, was the first time I thought his surroundings or the company he shared dictated his revelation, his sharing, his improbable gift. It was as though it was needed, not by Victor but by those about him.
I tried to trace that import from the third incident.
We were sophomores in high school, and every Wednesday evening, five of us, all teammates and classmates, would gather at Paul Barbanti’s house where his mother fed us the ultimate in Italian meals. She and her daughters loved to cook, to feed us and her son during the football season. The good old smells of rich sauce were deep and delicious and flooded the house, all the rooms, the hallways, the bathrooms, probably the cellar and the attic, calling on the appetites, not letting go until cake or pie hit the table.
Mr. Barbanti sat at the head of the huge table partly in the kitchen and partly in the dining room where it was extended to accommodate we weekly guests, with a jug of wine, an old cider jug, in place beside his chair … a deep, delicious Dago Red he called it, made in his own garage from his own grapes off his own backyard vines, a recipe from Italy come by boat fifty years earlier. That Dago Red, barreled in the garage, was often a target for theft of a pint or so, late at night, Barbanti house lights all dimmed or shut off, the four of us pals mischievously out on Saugus town.
Heavy, Buhda’ d in his chair, the classic icon of the East Saugus Italian community, stonemason, violinist of sorts, warm as sin, Mr. Barbanti, by habit, often by choice, talked to his wife in beautiful Italian, almost musical, as if it had come directly from La Scala. I loved to hear him speak, sonorous at some moments, secretive another, yet a tenor’s carry in his voice. I dreamt about learning Italian, but did not follow through with my intent. I think the result is the way I listen to opera now, putting in my own words for those being sung, making my own dreamscapes, composing my interpretation of an aria.
When Mr. Barbanti spoke all commotion in the kitchen stopped, kettles stopped singing, pans stopped banging and clanging, glasses and plates stopped clattering. Sentences stopped in mid- statement as if a gavel had smashed down on the countertop. “Angelina, that sausage will be the best ever served in this room, I am sure of it," as interpreted by his son in a low whisper, and the order it indefinably contained, would be understood, the tone set for the evening, the feast ready for us princes.
So it was on that night, the table cleared, a hum in Mr. Barbanti’s throat coming musically across the room, a tune from old Italy most likely, that the ignition started in Victor’s chest. The younger people in the house that evening were in the hallway to the upstairs, set off to the side of the kitchen, some sitting on steps, a couple standing, all gabbing, comrades at ease, sated, our mouths in a sweet and sour taste after being curried by meatballs and gravy and the inevitably delicious strawberry shortcake. That’s when Victor stood up at the foot of the stairs, at attention to an invisible order, unsaid direction, with no outward sign, no outward expression, no full giveaway on his part. Alertness told me I was again to be witness to the miracle only he could accommodate. It was likely a moment, I was sure, that Victor did not know was coming, from wherever it was loosed, from what housing or crucible or dais where it was issued, as if on demand to be a living moment of time.
It came in Italian, rich as Naples I’d guess, abruptly, suddenly, rising from him who could not speak Italian, who could not read music, who had not sung a song, unknown to him but a few seconds before, for the previous five years. Instantly I remembered the last time, when he was ten, when I was once aghad heard a hundred times but never from Victor … never before from him and, as time would prove, never to come from him again.
He sang about what a wonderful, beautiful day it was: but it came in the Mother Tongue, La Scala- powered, as beautiful if no more beautiful than Caruso himself: Che bella cosa è na jurnata 'e sole, he sang, sonorous, rising up the hallway and through the whole house, n'aria serena doppo na tempesta! It was majestic, soaring, tilted the whole house on an edge. Pe' ll'aria fresca para gia' na festa. . . Che bella cosa na jurnata 'e sole. Eyes opened wide at 'o sole mio. Mouths agape at a boy singing in Italian who knew no real Italian other than a few curses, how to greet the day, say hello or goodbye, say supper was late.
Ma n'atu sole cchiu' bello, oi ne', 'o sole mio sta nfronte a te! 'o sole, 'o sole mio sta nfronte a te! sta nfronte a te!
A glorious song it was from the first note to the last note, a glorious sound loosed in the house, probably the first time ever the words rose in such incredible beauty within that brick house now set with fantasy or mystery. I had no name for it.
And heavy, chair-bound, stunned by beauty, Mr. Barbanti rose from his seat, his eyes also wide in amazement, a huge smile beginning on his face. "Mama mia", he said a number of times, and again as the song was finished, as Victor turned slowly, shaking his head in his own sense of wonderment, wondering again where this power had come from, this sweep of energy that came up out of him, this talent beyond measurement, this music and these words he had never known, and him also suddenly knowing he would never sing this song again as long as he lived. That knowledge must have also come to him from some distant place, must have been understood.
“You’ve been holding out on us, Victor?" Mr. Barbanti said. “All these times at dinner you never sang such a song, such a beauty of a song, and in a voice only the Maestro would own. I never knew you could sing. My God, son, do you know what this house has heard tonight? What I have not heard since I left Italy and my one night in La Scala, night of forever, Caruso out there in the light by himself, and that glorious voice raising the very heavens. What else do you have hidden? What songs hide there? Do you know la Donna e mobile? The Barber ofSeville? Turondo? Sorrento?" He must have known something else, been aware of some secret of the ages, because he blurted out, “Quick, son, before it is gone. Before the words go away." Had he been witness himself to such an outburst before? Had such a dream been realized in his presence, or by him, in that old Italy of his, the Italy rich with the glorious tenors, for now he had been in the presence of another magnificent voice?
And I knew exactly what was going to happen, as it happened before, five years before and five years before that … Victor fled. Out the door of the Barbanti house he flew, down the street we saw him go, as if he was at Manning Bowl and the goal line was all of 80 yards away. Flew, he did, into a kind of reclusion where the upstart evening might somehow be put in a proper place of mind, if such a place existed for him. I doubt that it ever did, for on the following day he’ d have no memory of the happening. There would be no note left hanging for him to hear (being tone deaf to begin with), no single article of his delivery, no reception remembered. A song would come and go, and every five years of his lifetime, as I had come to measure them.
It was his destiny, his fate, his mystery. I was the chosen observer.
The huge smile slowly leaving his face, wonder beset by awe and deepest curiosity, Mr. Barbanti said, “What happened here? Did I really hear what I just heard? Tell me what I heard. Please, somebody, explain it to me. My God, where did Victor go? Why did he go? Something is terribly wrong here or terribly right, but it’s all amazing. What have we seen, or heard? I am not alone in this, am I? Did you not all hear it?" He stood beside his deep, comfortable chair, a man up from his throne, caught up in wonder a young man had freed in his house. “Mama mia," he said again, “Blessed Mother."
He seemed happier than he might have ever been in his whole life.
His wife and daughters were still speechless in the kitchen. Not a glass tinkled during the whole song, or yet. Not a clatter of a pan, though Angelina, the 14-year old, said boldly in her eyes she had fallen in love at the moment. “Yes, Papa," she said, “like The Gloria."
Still standing, amazement yet written all over his expression, he pointed at me and said, “He’s your closest pal, Tom, right? What do you know?"
Unwavering, steady as a post, he waited an answer, his eyes beginning to get red, and a story on his face.
I tried to explain it to him, and to all the others, though mysteries like this, or miracles, were things I did not handle well myself. “I first saw it happen in kindergarten. Victor, never having joined in a song that I can remember, suddenly one day stood up from a circle of little green chairs we sat in and began to sing a song called, I think, My Dog Blue. It was beautiful, so beautiful, that for three or four weeks the teacher, inviting the principal and the music director into her classroom, tried to get Victor to sing the song again. It never came back to him. He never knew a word of the song, even though he tried. It just would not come back to him from wherever it had come from in the first place."I paused, trying to remember some feeling I had back then. “They pushed hard at it, all of them. One of them finally must have said, 'Maybe we push him too hard. Let’s sit back and see what happens.’ It just went away after a while."
From the kitchen, a dish towel still in her hands, Angelina said, “Nothing ever happen after that? Once I heard about a boy in the Armitage School, in West Cliftondale, who sang a song at recess that brought the neighbors right out of their houses, and the teachers from inside the school all tumbled into the schoolyard to hear the boy sing one song. I don’t know what that song was, or the boy’s name, but I’ll bet it was Victor." Her eyes flashed their new-found joys again, as if she was laying claim on Victor for evermore.
“Were you there, Tom?" Mr. Barbanti said. Did you hear that one too? What was it, the name of the song he sang that time? Do you know what’s going on with him?"
“I was there," I said. “That time he sang a troubadour’s song, in the old Irish I guess. I don’t think anybody in the schoolyard knew any of the words, but later on I heard that Mr. Dineen, the retired mailman sitting on his porch across the street from the schoolyard, was crying all the time, sitting in his old chair, his chin resting on his hands on the porch railing, just crying his eyes out. And they said he had been here for more than fifty years."
Mr. Barbanti said, “That’s his piece of the miracle of this young man of ours, Tom. I wish I could have been there to hear that one. So, the Maestro doesn’t own him outright, does he? What a pity. Nor La Scala herself. What comes after this? How will you know where to be, if you go to different schools, take jobs in a different places, how will you be at his side? You are fated, I assume, to be the only one to be in all his outbreaks, if I can call them that." The weight of him was deep into his chair, but he was uncomfortable once more, his face still shining with glistening curiosity, searching out causes and explanations.
He stood again, preparing to put a demand into the air. “You keep me advised on what happens to that pal of yours. Make sure you tell me. If you ever get a clue on the next time, tell me." The king had spoken beside his throne, the echoes undoubtedly ringing yet in his ears.
Thus, I departed under oath that night to keep him informed of his personal La Scala tenor, if and when I would still be privy to such an undertaking, my calendar marked for five years hence.
We left his house that night, the season over on the weekend, and never went back; Paul hurt his back in an accident a few months later and never played ball again. We drifted apart after that, except for Victor and me. And five years to the day, in church one Sunday morning.
At the altar the priest said, “Please be advised that Peggy has had a bad cold and is just recovering. Help her out if you can." His eyebrows were part of the announcement.
The procession started down the main aisle, Peggy singing. Obviously her recovery was not complete. She sang terribly, a dissonance creating a stir in the church, not approaching a sense of music. The priest flinched at the altar at her feeble attempts. And Peggy, unable to let go, tried to continue.
“Oh, what is this?" Victor said to himself, as he sat beside me and something happened in his gut, at the back of his head, coming like an incomplete statement. He didn’t know what it was, something breaking loose, coming apart, gaining its own force.
Again, I knew.
Then, in a crowning moment of some distant demand, he was jump-started like an old Ford or Chevie rescued from inertness; loose wires connected, a nerve touched into reality, a collection of breath taken in, and a stampede of energy loosed. One vein must have leaped across another vein. A nerve, twisted in the mix, lost its old harmony of things, its natural order, and found another setting. The new torrent came from a place he did not know in his body or in his psyche.
Victor stood up to help Peggy through the song. It was a revered hymn, one usually solemn and suddenly brought to heavenly acceptance, as Victor, my old pal Victor, began to sing, a most remarkable tenor, sonorous and golden-toned, operatic, like Pavarotti or Domingo or Carreras or blind Andrea Bocelli, a tenor the church had never heard. The priest cried at the beauty of the song. Peggy’s mouth stuck open, an “Oh" caught up in awe. Every person in the church turned to look at Victor in the back row singing in that glorious tenor voice, everything freed from the fateful ignition, the magnificent torrent loosed from him.
It is five years later as I write this. I am in the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. Victor and I joined the army two years ago. I went to Afghanistan, Victor to Iraq.
Accidentally, the pain in my legs determining my mindset, I just looked at the calendar. It’s been five years and a day since my dear friend sang one of his songs.
The silence is deafening.