TOP ALTO

Just like all people, I have my talents and weaknesses. There are some things I can do very well with pride and great ease. At the same time, there are tasks in life for which I have no talent whatsoever and have zero chance of accomplishing even with someone holding a gun to my head.

It’s been a known fact since elementary school that I’m absolutely terrible at mathematics; I just didn’t have a head for numbers. Having to tackle word problems would make me sick to my stomach and anything beyond basic math would cause me to break out in a cold sweat. It was quite distressing and I’m sure I failed every math test I ever took. There’s no grey area in mathematics, no wiggle room, and I found it to be stifling and utterly confusing. Clearly my left brain was dominated by my right. Eventually the time came for me to study algebra and geometry. The situation was so traumatizing for everyone that the school principal and teachers took pity on me (and themselves). They had a discussion with my parents where it was decided I would be dismissed from further math classes and allowed to concentrate of different subjects. I was granted a pardon from the warden and permitted to double-up on courses such as English, foreign language, music, history or religion.

Two other things I’m really bad at are playing sports and drawing. Can you imagine the humiliation of never being chosen to play on any sports team? I was always the last person standing on the sidelines, staring down at my shoes waiting for my name to be called. Likewise, in art class I couldn’t sketch a decent stick figure or draw a crooked line let alone a straight one and most of my work was unidentifiable, leaving people scratching their heads in bewilderment.

My stronger points lean toward the creative and dramatic, including the ability to learn foreign languages, music, singing, playing the piano and organ, acting, cooking and gardening. If there’s a trivia game, I’m the girl you want on your side. I was always good at fashion and makeup which opened the door for some modeling. I’m also a damn good driver, unafraid of bad weather, 18-wheelers or New York City taxi drivers. And let’s not forget my great love – writing – a true passion realized later in life. I’m good with words and turning a phrase, my imagination is unstoppable and I’ve got fantasizing down to an art form!

While I’ve only been writing in earnest for five years, music has always been a huge part of my life, hence my nickname “Top Alto”.

In school I auditioned for and landed the lead role in every musical. I can sight read any piece of music I’m asked to sing. In fact, when practicing my alto lines at home, I would often play the soprano, tenor and/or bass line on the piano while singing the alto line. It’s not that easy to do but an excellent way to learn your part.

Now, please don’t misunderstand; this is not bragging – it’s simply stating the facts. And if you want a list of other things I can’t do very well I’ll be happy to provide one. Believe me – it’s a long list! But that’s not the purpose of this story. Today I want to tell you about a time I failed at something I normally do very well. I didn’t just fail; I tanked. Royally.

You see, our choir was practicing for a special Mass, one we had been anticipating for weeks. Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, along with a retinue of religious bigwigs and officials, was going to visit our parish and I was chosen to be Leader of Song for the Responsorial Psalm. The melodies of some Responsorial Psalms are complex while others are rather easy. This particular psalm was bordering on ridiculously easy, a tune I could sing in my sleep. It consisted of ten words all chanted on the same note. Let me repeat that: ten words, one note, ridiculously easy. This was not Celine Dion belting out “My Heart Will Go On” while precariously balanced on a replica of The Titanic in Las Vegas.

I practiced a lot; the Mass was a big deal. The Cardinal, previously mentioned bigwigs and a church packed with the faithful as well as TV crews from Catholic Faith Network and Fox News were in attendance. Did I say it was a big deal? Now, I’ve sung at countless Masses in front of packed churches for years; this was a no-brainer!

The choir looked resplendent in robes of red and gold and I was hell bent for leather. Fifteen minutes into the Mass and it’s time for the Responsorial Psalm. Ten words, one note, Top Alto.

The organist played the intro, nodded at me to begin and I opened my mouth to sing. Now, let me just say if I choked and nothing came out of my mouth it would have been preferable to what did come out of my mouth. I, a mature, confident, talented woman, had suddenly been transformed into Alfalfa from The Little Rascals!

This was supposed to be a piece of cake and I was so damn sure of myself. I was ready; I didn’t clear my throat or wet my whistle before singing. Nope, I just plunged into the deep end of the pool.

Ten words, ten frog-like notes, Alfalfa.

Everyone averted their eyes and I couldn’t blame them. To say I was stunned and humiliated is an understatement; I just sort of slunk down into my chair and hid behind my music binder. Why is there never a rock to crawl under when you need one? I couldn’t help wondering if Cardinal Egan was asking himself “WTF was that?”

It’s all water under the bridge since that debacle and it’s something I can laugh about now but at the time I just wanted to croak. Come to think of it, I did!

RIBBIT!

NAR © 2022

OUR LITTLE TRYSTS

“Given. Frank Given. Suite 412. Please check again” I implored the unfamiliar desk clerk at the Pierre Hotel. 

I’m sorry, ma’am, there’s no one registered here by that name.” The young man behind the desk looked at me with a mixture of embarrassment and pity. 

“You must be mistaken” I replied quietly. 

“There’s no mistake, ma’am. There isn’t even a reservation for a Frank Given. Perhaps you have the wrong hotel” the clerk suggested, trying to give me a way out. 

Well, of course I didn’t have the wrong hotel! Frank and I had been meeting at the Pierre the second weekend of every month for three years. I noticed two female clerks huddled in the corner looking in my direction and chattering conspiratorially. My face turned red knowing they were talking about me. 

I checked my phone for any texts or missed calls from Frank; there were none. Rather than stay in the lobby looking distraught and abandoned, I walked into the lounge and ordered a martini. 

I sipped my drink and absentmindedly fingered the outline of the crest of the Pierre Hotel on the cocktail napkin. From where I sat I had a clear view of the front desk on the left and the entrance on East 61st Street on the right. I’d be able to see Frank the moment he arrived. 

After thirty minutes and two martinis I began feeling paranoid. It was painfully obvious, at least to me, that everyone who saw me sitting by the bar thought I was either an elegant call girl just past her prime or a now lonesome and tedious woman who had been stood up. 

Now in a state of semi-panic, I took my phone out again and texted Frank. I stared at the screen waiting for an answer which would offer a perfectly understandable and forgivable explanation. 

Feigning nonchalance, I called Frank’s cell; it went straight to voicemail. Laughing flirtatiously, I left a message proving to no one in particular that all was right in my crumbling world. 

My mind drifted back to that night when Frank and I first met. We shared a taxi and instead of continuing to my apartment, I accepted Frank’s invitation for a late dinner at the Pierre. One thing led to another as it often does and we spent the night together. A fling turned into a romance. 

I became aware of someone approaching. Expecting to see Frank, I looked up, smiling; it was the concierge. Whispering discreetly, he handed me a note. It read: “Dearest Christine. I have treasured our little trysts but now we must go our separate ways. Farewell. Frank” 

Our little trysts!” I was shattered. 

Just like that, as suddenly as it began it was over. Looking straight ahead, I gracefully walked out of the hotel. After buying a bag of roasted nuts from a vendor on the corner, I walked over to Central Park. I sat on a bench feeding the pigeons, thinking of everything and nothing.  

NAR © 2021

ARR, MATEY!

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when my son Tom called.

“Dad, Allie’s gone into early labor! We need you to stay with Molly.” He sounded excited and nervous.

I’m on my way!” I immediately answered.

As soon as I arrived Tom and Allie left for the hospital.

Grampy, can we go to the school fair?” Molly asked. “Daddy was gonna take me today.”

Sure, pumpkin. Let’s go!” I replied – anything to help pass the time.

The playground of Molly’s school, St. Cecilia’s Elementary for Girls, had been magically transformed into a carnival with food stands, games of chance and a giant inflated pirate ship.

Look, Grampy! A bouncy ship!” Molly tugged at my sleeve. “Can I go on, please?”

“You bet, honey! Looks like fun!” I gave my granddaughter a boost. I was half in and half out when the ship started bouncing, taking me for a ride I’ll not soon forget!

Well, a bouncy anything is no place for a 60-year-old man and 20 little girls. They were rolling all over me and every time the damn thing came to a stop, I tried getting out but kept losing my balance.

Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the pirate ship was surrounded by police. One cop with a megaphone shouted “Sir, this is for children only. You’re in serious trouble. Come out now or we’ll come in and drag you out!”

I finally managed to crawl my way out. My clothes were in total disarray, little girls were crying and I heard someone yell “You sick bastard!”

Arr! I made the news that night. My fifteen minutes of fame!

NAR © 2021

FLORENTINE FOOT WASHING

When my sister Rosemarie graduated high school in 1965, our parents surprised us with a trip to Italy and Sicily. 

First stop was Rome where we visited my mother’s cousin Concetta. She lived in a quaint apartment building with a balcony. The first thing Rosemarie and I noticed was Concetta had a pet chicken on the balcony. Having never seen a live chicken, we spent a good portion of the day playing with it. After a while, my parents suggested we go shopping. We didn’t want to leave the chicken but our parents made us go. 

By the time we returned it was early evening and Concetta had prepared a wonderful dinner of stew and homemade bread. All the curtains were drawn and we felt very grown up as we sat at the candlelit table sipping wine just like  adults. The next morning Rosemarie and I were anxious to play with the chicken, but she wasn’t on the balcony. When we asked where she was, Concetta laughed and said “What do you think dinner was last night?” 

We were shocked and started crying but our parents explained the chicken wasn’t a pet; Concetta bought it as a special treat for our dinner. Needless to say, it took me and my sister a very long time to eat chicken again!

Our next stop was Florence and we stayed in an exclusive hotel. My parents had one room and Rosemarie and I shared another. The rooms were exquisitely decorated with expensive furnishings and rugs. In the bathroom was a claw-foot tub, an elegant sink, a toilet and an odd-looking fixture we’d never seen before. It was about the size of the toilet with faucets and a small sprinkler in the middle of the bowl. When we turned the faucets on, water shot out straight from the  sprinkler. We immediately turned off the water trying to figure out what this thing was. 

After much thought we decided it was for foot washing. Tossing off our sandals we turned on the water and bathed our feet. We dried our feet with small paper towels and pulled the lever expecting the towels to flush away. Well, they didn’t. In fact the foot washer filled with water and overflowed as Rosemarie and I tried desperately to stop the water. Before we knew it the entire bathroom floor was covered with water which leaked out into the bedroom, soaking the rug. We watched helplessly as the flood entered the hallway drenching the carpet. A maid saw what was happening and began screaming at us in Italian. People came out of their rooms, including our parents. The carpet was ruined and our parents had to pay for the damages. It wasn’t until a week later when our parents relayed the story to relatives in Sicily that we learned what a bidet was. Everyone had a good laugh at our expense! 

Talk about embarrassed! What did we know about bidets? I bet they’re still talking about us in Florence! 

NAR © 2019

WHAT GOES UP

My cousin MaryAnne was finally getting married which meant my mother, sister Elisa and I had to go shopping for new dresses and shoes. When shopping day finally arrived we all climbed into Mom’s car – even Dad who followed us everywhere. 

So off we went to Macy’s, happily chatting about what kind of dresses we wanted to get – grown up ones this time. Dad said maybe he’d look for a new suit but Mom reminded him he had a perfectly good one reserved for weddings and funerals. Maybe a new shirt and tie but that’s it. We weren’t the Rockefeller’s after all. Dad grumbled something and Mom informed him that she would happily turn the car around and take him home. She was in charge and we knew today was going to go her way. The rest of the ride to the store was quiet and sullen. 

Finally Mom pulled into the parking lot and we excitedly jumped out, running for the entrance. “No running!” Mom screamed after us. “This is a fine department store and you are to act like young ladies at all times. And we stay together. No wandering off. Is that understood?”  And we hung our heads and mumbled “Yes, Mom.” 

Once inside, Mom told Dad to meet us back there in exactly one hour and off he went to the men’s department. Mom, Elisa and I went to the elevator to get to the 2nd Floor. The elevator was being serviced so we had to take the escalator, but the up escalator was also being serviced. 

Well, isn’t this dandy?!” my mother huffed. “How are we supposed to get upstairs?” 

The repair man replied “Up the down escalator.  Just walk up and jump off. See – everyone’s doing it.” 

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. I’m not doing that. We’ll just have to come back another day.” 

“No, please!” we pleaded. “We’re here already. Come on – we’ll help you.” 

Reluctantly Mom agreed. We stepped onto the down escalator and started climbing up. It was actually quite easy – until we got to the top. Elisa and I jumped off but Mom couldn’t do it. This stoic, practical, fearless woman suddenly looked like a hamster on a wheel, all the while screeching “Help me! Help me!”  

No matter how many times we told her to just stand still and ride the escalator down, she just didn’t get it. People kept jumping by her like gazelles on the Serengeti while she huffed and puffed, treading water. Elisa and I got on the escalator, held Mom’s arms to keep her steady and rode down to safety on the 1st Floor. Mom was mortified. 

Smoothing out her dress, Mom walked to where Dad was dutifully waiting for us. “Perfect timing! Did you girls have fun?” 

Mom gave Dad the most withering look . “This store has definitely gone downhill. We will not be coming back here any time soon. We’re going home. Everyone to the car. Now!” 

NAR © 2019