"Play of situation: A play in which events rather than character or atmosphere dominate."
I look at him there, sitting on the settee, leaning to the left, his feet tucked up under his long, lean legs, his right arm resting on a cushion, his left crooked on the small couchís arm, his fingers caressing his chin. He stares down at the book his right hand holds before him, tilted backward slightly, catching the light from the floor lamp behind him. It shines on his hair as well as on the printed page, his hair which shines with brilliantine, combed to perfection. He wears a shirt open to the third button revealing his neck and his clavicle, the tiny Adamís apple which surprisingly hasnít made his voice tinny or high-pitched, the space between his pectorals. The shirt hangs limp there moving with his even breathing. I want to ask him what he reads, but I donít. I donít really care to know, I just want him to speak to me.
I donít know what Iíd do without him here. Max. How long has it been? How long have I known him? When did I even know that I knew him? Does it really matter now? Heís here. He helps me with things. Thatís all that matters.
He is my valet. He helps me dress, cares for my costumes, cleans and restocks my stage makeup, powders and finger-waves my wigs for me. He keeps track of my rehearsals, my appointments, my performances and my aprťs-performance needs. He even does the dirty for me, when I need that little act performed before I sing. He is my perfect friend, my little helpmate. He is Max.
Of course I knew his parents, of course I did. Years back, in New York, at the Metropolitan and at the hotel, his father was the one, the Max of his own day. He made certain that I always had the room I liked, the sheets I liked, and the champagne I preferred. He would usher Helga into my room and we were free to love, to make love, to work at love at any rate, for as long as we wished. Helga Meerstadt. Where is she today, I wonder? What could have happened to that grand bosom, those amazing hips and those thighs, those eternal thighs that held me in their grip? Helga. So long ago now. Twenty years ago.
Our affair lasted for eleven years. Some would say that this is a sign that we shared a true affection for one another, perhaps loved one another. Some would say. I say only that we shared one another unstintingly. We gave to one another the physical attention that no one else would provide us, in spite of our stature in those days: Helga the leading soprano in the key Wagner roles and I, the perfect basso, the ideal Don Giovanni, the consummate Boris Godunov, the flawless Sarastro.
We were an ideal match in voice, temperament and sensual pleasure. We were both married in those days, Meerstadt to an analyst, a pscho-analyst, and I to a woman who designed all-white furniture for all-white rooms with all-white carpeting and all-white lights. I am a basso, filled with light and color and patches of darkness in my spirit. I suffocate in all-white spaces.
The day I left Miranda at the house in Rancho Mirage, told her we were through, I thought Helga might do the same with Meerstadt, her Georg. It was a day of major losses for me, as it turned out. Helga turned her back on me, called me every vile name under the Deutsche sun, refused to speak to me ever again and Miranda added a great deal of color to the rooms we had once inhabited by slitting her wrists and proving that red was her other color. Before she expired she added orange, blue and gold to the decor by immolating herself in the room she had drawn with such pale attitudes.
I think I would have died, more of embarrassment than anything at that time, if it hadnít been for Maxís parents. They opened the doors wide to their lives and took me in. The opera company cancelled my contracts. The Hurok office, that fat old Sol with his Russian accent and his cigars, cancelled my concert tours. RCA Victor put my new records on a back shelf, to wait out the scandals they said, and within a week I had totally disappeared professionally. I went from being the highest paid, most avidly sought-after male American singer since Lawrence Tibbett to being just another out-of-work, unemployable, unsaleable drug-store basso. Paul Donner no longer existed. I was only "poor Paul Donner" from that point on.
Max, I recall was kind to me. Nothing he knew about me could have altered his childish generosity and that meant something to me. At the time I had no idea where that gratitude would lead me. That would only reveal itself in time. But just then, in 1956, when he was ten and I was forty-three, his sweetness made me reconsider my present and my future.
I stayed with them all for about a month, and then, with a firmer grip on the way of my world, I left them. I wouldnít see them again, any of them for many years. I went back to California and made my third and final film, my best role in the cinema actually and one which helped to cleanse the image that my wifeís odd suicide had created for me.
The role was El Perpetua, the man who cannot die. Not a vampire film, not a horror film of any kind, but movie about a man who has made himself immortal through his tonsilaria. El, as the character was always called, was a singer, a great man in Vienna. As with my own career this El had created many of the great opera roles and even though he was aging he had maintained the voice. This was where the acting, my greatest talent actually, came into play. I was forty-four now and the man I played was supposed to be over one hundred years old. He looked great for that age, especially as played by me, and his sang with the gusto and interpretive genius of a man of, well, forty-four. In love with a woman much younger than himself he had to pretend to be someone else, someone new and young and vital, in order to win her hand. When she discovered, on her wedding night, that she had married El Perpetua, she wants to kill herself, but his sweet serenade, his song of love and devotion, halts her in her pathway to damnation and she promises to love and honor him for himself alone and not for who he has been for a century.
I loved that part. I sang five arias and a new song written just for me by Harry Warren and Sammy Fain, called "I can live it again." It hit the charts within a week of the single coming out, one for the first classical singers to make an EP recording, a 45rpm for those who donít understand the technical language. In two weeks it was number three on the pop charts, right behind a Bobby Darrin song and one by a group called Mudlarks. Suddenly I was back on top and even though the film wasnít a hit, the song was and I was again.
Three years later I was on the concert circuit and opera companies were requesting me and by 1961 I was back. I hadnít visited New York since 1956 and my quick trip there was hampered only by the knowledge that a new opera house was in the planning stages. I so wanted to open it. I visited the top agencies hoping for some interest in the restart of my stage career, but no one took the bait. Even with my records selling well and my excellent notices for the concerts and recitals, the opera world had closed its doors.
That was when Helga came back to me. Meerstadt had died and she was alone. I thought she returned to me for the sex, but all she wanted was the voice. She wanted to pair with me for recitals. She wanted to blend our musical elements, but not our physical ones, and I turned her down. I didnít want a washed up Wagnerian rising again on my musical coat-tails. I turned her down flat.
But in 1967, on a Carnegie Hall date in New York, I met Max. I met the boy who was almost a man, just twenty-one to my fifty-four. He was looking for work and, he said, not interested in his familyís "business," and I needed an assistant and I offered him the work. He took it. He took to it. And he took to me. He didnít mind my special requests now and then. He had no objections to my odd quirks and my unusual needs. I could use his talents for my own pleasure and my own purposes and so, without meaning to, he stepped into that family profession in his own peculiar way.
Now, in 1973, there he sits, reading, thinking, but not cogitating on the exigencies, the pressing needs, the urgent requirements of an aging basso profundo, the man who pays the bills. Max has his own world now. His place in the world, one not given or taken, but one earned and held. I would like to think that he thinks of me, of thanking me, but he doesnít. This is not the boy, any longer, this is the man. My man Max. Max.