Poetry of Robert Fisher

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Recalling Francesco:

Tales from the Life of a Modern Saint

 

M. Dobrovolsky


… those whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.

Da Vinci

     Francis Caporali was a first and for nine years an only child.  He was archetypically Pittsburgh in his genes—Italian father, German mother.  In Pittsburgh, where ethnicity is highly valued, ‘I’m Italian,’ or ‘I’m German’ or ‘I’m Macedonian’ can mean anything from ‘I was born there,’ to ‘My great-grandparents are from there and I don’t speak a word of the language.’  His father, Frank Caporali, was second generation, a working-class guy and a local athletic star who hung out with the likes of Honus Wagner and who himself had the talent to make the big leagues, a man’s man and an honorable guy.  His mother Lucille’s family was from Baltimore; she was a tall, sweet tempered woman with a down-to-earth sense of humor who worked at times as a hairdresser. They were both of that generation who worked hard, demanded little, kept their religious faith, and followed the natural rhythms and course of life—youth, marriage, kids, an accepting maturity. They were also both very smart people, but were hardly prepared for what their boy would be.

     It must have been a mystery to them what part of the sky Francis dropped in from.  It must have been a surprise to him to find himself in Brackenridge, near New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a factory town squeezed along the side of the Allegheny River upstream from Pittsburgh, part of a dreary stretch of mills, bars, and small houses, above which lie modest towns.  From the start, Francis was himself; the clothes, the photos, the scrapbooks show a boy of the forties and fifties, but they tell only the surface of the story.  As a child, he said, my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I told them I wanted a cave.  The sports equipment was rejected.  The sweet Catholicism was scrutinized. Once past a certain age, Frank’s honest approaches were probably rebuffed. I can only speculate on this but Francis told me that his relations with his dad were ‘distant’.  Not unfriendly, and not without love—one could see that—but words were few and Frank usually excused himself and left the room after not too long when we visited.  Francis was close and loving with his mom.  When she had problems with her heart or eyes, he stayed at home and looked after her. Yet she herself never had any hooks in him.  She let him be himself.

     Nine years after Francis, three more kids came along, one after the other, two boys and a girl.  Bill and Tom were healthy, honest, and athletic young men made in Frank’s mold.  Linda grew up strong in a house of four men, and with her mom’s sweet good nature.  The house, it seemed to me, was typical of its time and of small town decency and indeed courtesy.  Francis was never treated as anyone different than who he was by his family.  There was a full measure of love, affection, and respect.

     Of course the outside world had to deal with Francis, too, and it was often baffled, confused, and thwarted by him.  By his teens, he was as deep-dyed an individualist as Thoreau, whom he had read at an early age.  He was as intellectually gifted as anyone you or I have ever known, with mental abilities across the board in the arts and hard sciences, and at the same time was given—or cursed with—the emotional sensibility of a great artist, one that was painfully in tune with the pain and suffering of all of us in this transient world.  Emphasize ‘all of us’; he was not some solipsistic minor poet who can only see his own problems.  His sense of empathy was deep and real and was for all living things.  You have to add a third element to this mix—an absolutely uncompromising individuality, a powerful sense of self and awareness of one’s human uniqueness within a conforming and largely unoriginal society.  There was only one route for someone death-stung and independent like this to follow: dying early or sainthood.  In his case, both.

     Even saints have to get through adolescence.  There were two stories that he told me, that he chose, significantly, to reveal.  One was the story of high school gym class.  Early on, he had rejected anything that stank of organized sports.  By high school he was tall and well-knit, and could walk for hours in the woods, lightly following the contours of the earth.  But ‘games,’ as he dismissed them in his light baritone voice, were of no interest.  He refused to take gym class.  There were calls to home, threats of expulsion.  No threats at home, just attempts to get him to compromise, but the school system up there was stuck with this kid who would not even agree to change into the shorts and tee shirt and just stand out there, for Christ sake, just stand out there on the field.  Finally, he agreed to this: he would put on the gym uniform and sit in the locker room for the duration of gym class.  It’s a miracle he wasn’t beaten and broken by his manly young classmates. There may have been threats for all I know, but what I believe is that his individualism was so pronounced and forceful by this age that he was simply left alone.

     Then there was the English teacher.  This story has always remained clouded to me; he only spoke of it allusively and with great difficulty.  There was an English teacher, a woman, who reached him and deeply affected him.  Imagine her in that little high school in a small town along the river, trying to teach English to these decent but largely uninterested working class kids.  Once and a while someone gifted and sensitive comes along that you can reach and then, sitting there quietly in class, is Francis.  I had the impression they may have become lovers or, at the very least, fallen in love.  He only spoke of her with the greatest difficulty and greatest gratitude and admiration.  Apparently it was she who gave him the blessing, who made it clear to him that he was ok, that what he was feeling and seeing was right and natural.
 
     Small towns breed conformity, but they also sanction oddballs.  I met some friends of his once who lived in the country out that way in a large house that was not too well kept up, kindred spirits who had found him or he them, who knows how.  The missus ran the American Bell Society and wrote up its journal on a typewriter that she kept on the stove while she cooked for her family.  There were older kids and rambunctious young twins.  I saw almost no discipline around the place and yet the older kids were all mature and self-reliant.  The young twins had the run of the house; once when I was there they announced, We’re going upstairs and make all the noise we can.  That’s nice, dears, said their mom tapping away on the typewriter as she stirred a pot with the other hand.  There were also many bells, including a thousand-year-old Chinese bell sitting on a side table. You could feel Francis relax when we were there, and his good nature—his mom’s great gift—emerged.

     The idea of university did not really appeal to him.  I think he found university life, and for that matter the whole idea of organized society, a sad and feeble attempt to provide meaning in a chaotic and impenetrable existence.  But he went to a small place in Ohio, and then left (more events that he was not ready to discuss) for the University of Pittsburgh.  It was there that I met him, and Robert Fisher, and a three-way friendship developed.

     I believe I met Francis in a linguistics class at Pitt, but I’m not entirely sure. I know that we begin to talk one very bright day and discovered each other’s interests in language and music, in writing and art.  More talk revealed that we both aspired, somewhat randomly and uncertainly, to be civilized in an old fashioned way.  We began to meet and started to play piano duets.

     I met his family.  Not a surprise that I was warmly accepted.  The younger siblings were mere teenagers and passed through the house on their own trails.  Frank was friendly and interested. Lucille was warm and funny.  She had a big heart that always had room for someone else to love.  Francis and I walked in the woods around New Kensington.  He met my family and hit it off with my dad, a cultivated old-world music teacher, and my voluble mom, herself a singer.

     Francis was finishing up an undergraduate degree in Italian and had amazing stories to tell of his time it Italy.  He had just spent a year there on some sort of fellowship and had gone completely native.  He was one of those people who attracted eccentric companions and strange events like a magnet becomes befuzzed with iron filings, and Italy had turned out to be rich with such times.  He told me that once he had fallen ill there and was taken to a hospital run by nuns.  At one point, he had to be moved from one room to another.  He was too weak to walk, and four (six?) nuns were hauling him bodily there when one asked him what his religious affiliation was.  Quoting Joyce, he said, “Senza.”  One of the nuns screamed “Atheist!” and let go so she could cross herself.  The others couldn’t hold him and he fell to the floor.  A few days later, he checked himself out, thinking that the social system was covering the cost.  The hospital hounded him relentlessly about payment; they were still after him ten years later, when he was in another county; the consulate kept finding his address, no matter where he went.

     In Perugia, where he studied, he had ended up living in a pensione of some kind above the Arco Etrusco, a place that was shared with a whorehouse.  He had met various exotic people, not just whores, but other robust and interesting types, Ethiopians, Germans, Spaniards, and a woman named Maria, an American like himself, and they had become lovers, an experience that would open him up, change him, and mark him for the rest of life. (How often young men have these life-changing experiences around 22 years of age.)  He had traveled all over Italy and mastered various dialects.  He had hiked over the Alpine passes with a group of friends.  He had briefly mastered German to pass a course and then forgotten it.  Classes were, on the whole, not very important that year.  He had spoken so much Italian day in and day out that he had temporarily lost his North American retroflex ‘r’ and could only use an Italian ‘r’ for several months after he got back home.  And now he was playing out his last courses in Italian lit and looking into linguistics.

     Our piano sessions continued and expanded. We introduced each other to new music.  He fell deep into the revelation of the Goldberg Variations and I was astonished by Scarlatti, who I barely had paid attention to until that time.  Our tastes merged and meshed in many areas, but not all.  There were things we would never agree on, his passion for Robert Graves, for one, and mine for new music.  Reciprocally, we accepted these interests without becoming coverts to each other’s views.  My dad had bought a second piano, a rich sounding spinet to go with the baby grand. Francis and I began to play two-piano music and even a few concertos. We began talking about giving a recital.

     To understand a little more of who Francis was, you have to know two of his great loves in life: Leonardo da Vinci and Domenico Scarlatti.  He had admired Leonardo since high school and had modeled his enquiries in life on da Vinci’s.  He wanted nothing to be strange or foreign to him.  He also understood Leonardo’s struggles with his conscience and his sensuality.  I think he saw himself in a world not unlike Leonardo’s, filled with the necessity of painful compromise.  Scarlatti was another side of his complex interior world.  Here was a place outside the clear peaks of intellect and the harsh emotion that drove him; here was a world of virtuosity, complexity, of Mediterranean brightness and, occasionally, wistful sorrow.  But there was more.  Scarlatti above all composers of that period speaks directly to our sensibility today in his quirkiness and originality; he’s neither as lofty as Bach, nor as worldly as Handel, nor as directly accessible as Vivaldi.  He lives in his own space, psychologically acute, technically daunting, and unique in focus.  The 555 “Exercises” are as great a compendium of human wisdom and insight as Bach’s fifty volumes of glory.  Like Da Vinci, Scarlatti went his own way and found new and unexpected things in the universe.  Francis never tired of either one of them.

     Classes went on and the second term rolled around.  In another linguistics class, I met Robert Fisher.  He was slight, hugely intelligent, talented, and highly sensitive, a perfect target on the grade-school playgrounds of his childhood in Wilkinsburg.  He had later survived Central Catholic High and an ongoing battle with a difficult father to finally find a refuge of sorts at Pitt, where he drove elevators for sorely needed cash and drank in knowledge, as he was born to. He was studying languages—indeed had already taught himself Norwegian and written a novel by the end of high school—and had the intention to follow Indo-European studies.  He was far more advanced that me in linguistics and when it came to historical linguistics, most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about.  Aside from his elegant wit, he also had an earthy if not raunchy sense of humor, so we hit of off there, too.  He loved pop music, especially the great black singers and groups of our era, and he opened me up to them as I expanded his view of the classics.  In short, we took up with other easily and enjoyed classes together.  There’s someone you have to meet, I told him.  Not surprisingly, Robert and Francis hit it off easily and a bright triangle of friendship began to form.  But we were not three musketeers.  As I recall it, we tended to meet and hang out in pairs as much or more often than as a trio.  And yet, often when we met our conversation was about the third. We were all interesting to each other in different ways.

     Throughout the winter term, Robert and I saw a lot of Ken Naylor, a massive young prof who was teaching us various courses in linguistics. African-American profs were rare enough those days, but an impossibility in Slavic linguistics. Naylor hadn’t finished his PhD yet (he was working with the great E. Stankiewicz at Chicago) and pretty much hated most of what he was doing at Pitt, the reason being that young as he was, he was already one of a receding species, the old-fashioned structural linguist.  He taught us good morphology and typology, but the still relatively new Chomskian syntax caught in his throat and we spent an inordinate amount of our syntax classes in the cool Greek Room at Pitt planning the coming weekend’s party at Ken’s miniscule apartment.  There we drank a lot, laughed for long stretches of the evening, scandalized Jelena, the earnest female Yugoslav exchange student, and told stories.  Ken’s were increasingly painful to hear as the evening wore on and the booze took hold; we began to understand in our guts how difficult it was for even a relatively privileged black man in America.  He never felt sorry for himself, just told us what was, but his suffering was evident.  He enjoyed being treated with the normal good-humored disrespect young people give to a near contemporary who they like and admire.  We joshed him about his weight and his hatred of ‘new stuff’ in our field.  He finished his PhD, got a plum job at Ohio State, and died some thirty years later, still fairly young.  There is a chair of Slavic Linguistics named for him there.

     Francis was not in on most of this contact with linguistics yet.  I remember an afternoon in a lounge on campus where he was with friends from the Italian department.  As at the bell-lady’s house, he was another person in Italian, laughing, relaxed, casually witty.  Linguistic abstractions played no role in the conversation.

     No matter how casual the setting, his intelligence was always honed and ready.  When we first listened to the Goldberg Variations together, I commented that the final reprise of the theme was a gorgeous and unexpected idea.  He smiled and said he found it rather smug.  A few moments later we were glancing at Glenn Gould’s written commentary.  Gould wrote that he considered the final reprise to be smug.  I believe to this day that Francis’s extreme sensitivity to music picked up on Gould’s musical interpretation.  Can music be smug?  Gould thought so, and Francis heard it.  I sure didn’t.  Francis took me out of the classroom and cured me of my structuralist training in music one afternoon.  I recall mentioning that Mozart’s development sections were perfunctory at times, while at other times he seemed to toss in new material at will, all very unlike the requirements of strong compositional technique in that era.  Francis smiled, looking like Voltaire, and nodded. Yeah, he said, isn’t it great? I never worried myself about it again.

     We all got out of Pitt the end of summer ’66.  Or did we? Francis was required to pass a proficiency test in Italian, one of those standardized creations that you had to pay a handsome sum to take and which almost anyone with basic grammatical knowledge and a little vocabulary could get through.  But he refused to take it, citing his year in Italy and perfect fluency, which rendered it unnecessary.  The Pitt bureaucrat he appealed to told him that there were no exceptions and that he had to take and pass the test or he would not be permitted to graduate, that he would not be awarded his degree.  He said he found the test pointless and wanted a bye.  So she said, he told me, that if they made an exception for me, they would have to make an exception for anyone.  I said that I didn’t want her to make an exception for anyone, I wanted her to make an exception for me.  She refused.  So what are you going to do? I asked.  I don’t really need a degree, he said.  As far as I know, he never got it.  Perhaps his mom talked him into taking the test.  Perhaps Jeremy Moyle, his Italian lit mentor, pulled a string or two.  I don’t know.  The final fact is that Francis was not going to compromise on a point of bureaucratic stupidity.  He was completely prepared not to have the degree.  I believe now that the idea of a degree made him uncomfortable, a stain on his identity.  Can I convince you that there was nothing odd or eccentric about this at all?  He lived in the world, but he saw it directly, as a world in its own right, as a wonder that exists apart from the artificiality of social structure.  He was, to a greater degree than anyone I have ever known, a part of great nature itself in all its blinding incomprehensibility.

     All the pieces shifted about.  Robert was going off to UCLA with promises of marriage to a young woman from Dormont, my home town just beyond the southern fringes of the city.  He was out there frequently and we saw a lot of each other.  In the spring, the two of us had been spending time with my dad, who was leading us line by line, verse by verse, through Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, explaining the linguistic and cultural details.

     We were all discussing the draft as well.  It was the Vietnam Era. The war was overwhelming the country during those years;  now it’s a historical embarrassment, a shard of dirty mirror on the floor.  I had an overseas job that the draft board decided not to let me take.  Why should I teach foreigners when there’s a war to be fought?  I got called in, passed the physical and was classified 1-A.  I formally appealed to the board to let me go take up my job.  An incompetent army doctor failed Robert, scaring him about a heart condition which turned out to be a false alarm, too late for the board to know.  At some point, Francis wrote a long and detailed report of his spiritual life and the reasons for his pacifism to the draft board in New Kensington.  It’s an astonishing document in its breadth and depth and maturity.  I don’t know how the honest citizens on New Kensington’s draft board responded when they read it, but he never heard from them again.

     Summer passed, and I was still fighting the draft board.  I lucked into a job teaching French at a community college.  I had no business teaching French, but this seemed to calm the draft board down for the moment.  Robert was in Los Angeles, and Francis was taking some linguistics courses at Pitt.  He had no idea what he was going to do.  The concept of deciding that he had ‘to do’ something or ‘become something’ was strange to him.  He suggested that we find a place together.  What kind of place are we looking for, I asked.  Ideally, he said, some place high enough up that we can walk around naked.  Of course he found one.

     It turned out to be the third floor of a small building on a street near Schenley Park  in a working class area of Oakland.  The first two floors were occupied by two Greek families, relatives.  We had the top floor.  There was a small living room that looked out onto the street and a constricted, tree-top view of the park, a very small bedroom that you walked through on your way back to the large kitchen, and a bathroom at the top of the stairs that you left the apartment to enter.  We put mattresses by each wall of the bedroom and lit it with a candle at night—the bare electric bulb was too bright.  We often stayed up late talking each other to sleep as the candle guttered out, working out the problems that concern young men—meaning, values, life.

     It was sometime during that period than Francis gradually became Francesco.  I think it was my fault, and I don’t think he ever fully accepted it, but it happened and became irrevocable. 

     Many other things happened during that time as well.  Only the highlights are visible from the lowlands we inhabit now.  Women came and went, but Francesco gradually began to see more of Donna; she was calm and Rubenesque, playing off his emotions more than his intellect.  A circle of acquaintances widened.  We had a birthday party for Jeremy Moyle, but almost everyone bailed out and we wound up with too much food and wine.  We stayed up late into the night, the three of us, and ate and drank almost everything that we’d prepared, enough for six people.

     We were invited to a Hallowe’en party.  The whole chain of people that led to the invitation was so extenuated that Francesco knew only the address—we weren’t all that sure who the host was.  He said he was going as Saint Francis, who else, and somehow acquired a Franciscan monk’s robe and a small model of a bird that he could attach to a finger.  Francesco didn’t want to neglect the stigmata and he cheerfully added them—very realistic—to his palms.  He used some almost indelible artist markers and he was very pleased when they lasted for weeks.  I pieced together something medieval and barbaric and went as Prester John, the legendary medieval Christian King of Central Africa.  The party was in a large and crowded apartment somewhere in Oakland.  There was an angry turkey, the door prize for the evening, in the bathtub.  You had to turn your back on it when you peed.  I had to drop my red tights to do so, and was very uncomfortable with my bare ass exposed to the bad tempered bird, who gobbled savagely at anyone who came in the room.  Out in the heat of the party, you couldn’t help but be attracted to the shining blond in the Dutch girl outfit.  It was perfect in every detail and she filled it out at every seam; her face and big blue eyes matched the outfit as if she had just been flown in on KLM, specially selected by the Netherlands Tourist Bureau for the occasion.  At midnight, she jumped up onto a table and began removing her costume piece by piece—she was a stripper hired for the occasion.  The next day we got on our gear again and my friend Mimi took some pictures of us standing in front of a faux-Romanesque church. The pictures are lost now, along with Mimi, alas.

     We invited some women we scarcely knew over for lobster once. The woman I had invited lay down on the floor after dinner and fell asleep, snoring rather loudly.  We brought out a cheesecake and I was moved to put it on the floor and drop a knife into it from my full height.  Francesco’s friend screamed as if something terrible had happened.  He told me a year later that she had jumped from a building in New York and killed herself.

     We decided to have a Thanksgiving picnic.  Mimi and her friend Shelly came along.  Francesco had it in his head to go out into the country near a place called Brady’s Bend, where the Allegheny looped back around itself.  The air was chilly and so were the little towns we passed through; there were few people on the streets and those that were treated us like outsiders, city folk come to Appalachia to gawk.  We found a rock by the river, huge as a glacial erratic, and clambered up.  Thanksgiving dinner went well, the menu by Omar Khayam, and we felt joyful up there on our promontory.  Just after we finished, someone took a few shots at us from the brush far across the river, one splashing into the water and the other whining overhead. We decided to accept the invitation to leave.  Maybe it was the wine, or the brisk air, or the happy company, but there was no sense of alarm.  It all fit with the day, the mournful leafless trees, the empty towns, the huge rock in the cold river.  We joked and drove home.

     It snowed just after Thanksgiving, right on schedule for Pittsburgh, and Francesco and I went out to walk in Schenley Park, very late, maybe two AM.  The flakes were huge and the park deserted.  After a while it became clear that we were in a blizzard. Our footsteps were snowed over almost as soon as we walked on in the hugely muffled silence.  An owl soared silently over our heads and back up into a tree.  We must have walked for two hours without speaking.  The next day we considered ourselves snowed in.  Perhaps we didn’t want to break last night’s mood by doing something as crass as shopping.  All we had in the house was carrots and potatoes, so we doused them in olive oil and baked them in a slow oven for several hours.  Since that was all we had to eat all day, they were as delicious as if made by the hand of the finest cook in Italy.  When Robert came back at Christmas, we got together.  The wedding was off—I think it was because Karen’s mom expected to move out to California and live with them, among other things—but he was thriving at UCLA.

     I met a woman on a bus once, coming back from New York.  She was a New Zealander going round the world, adventurous, sensitive, and kind. She stayed with us for a while—she and I moved into the living room at night—which Francesco took with bemused aplomb.  He found the restless search for the mystical partner strange.  You and Fisher, he said, always looking for THE woman.  He saw nothing as permanent, and everything as valuable.  A great movie, a good meal, a walk in the woods, an interesting thought, some birds pecking at the ground.  He lived naturally and unpretentiously, as if he had been practicing his own form of Zen for years, the Zen that sees everything as prayer, that says ‘Eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep.’ 

     We went to the movies whenever we could, especially the reruns at the universities and library.  In the movies, he found the same vocabulary of images that touched and defined us all.  Commercial Hollywood had no appeal for him, except as it touched his sense of irony.  He was at home with ‘serious’ movies I think, because they were serious—they confronted themes that mattered to someone who lived life without the surrounding fluff and compromises of commerce.

     His taste in actresses was revealing.  He found my attraction to the cool looks of Catherine Deneuve puzzling. Bland, he said, beautiful, but so bland, oblivious to what I saw as an erotic furnace under the glacial, witty smile.  He found Monca Vitti more interesting, probably because of her vulnerable neuroticism.  He was primarily attracted to wild women, especially Anna Magnani, another surprise, at first, until I got to understand his passions and view of his relation to women—as an Orpheus among the Bacchae.  Magnani, descending into the volcano in Vulcano; dreams of vagina dentada that he asked me whether I, too, had experienced, tied in.  He loved the elemental in women.

     One night, a friend of a friend showed up to see him.  They lay down together, and I retired to the front room.  Late that night, she left.  He said that she had come to tell him that she had finally decided to lose her virginity, and that she only trusted him with the task.  He said, I talked her out of it; it’s not the kind of role I see myself in.  But lost in the liberating charms of Maria Cosenza, Maria of the Arco Etrusco, ah, this was something altogether in keeping with how he saw himself.  She was a compact woman, pale and dark haired, not unlike an anima twin to him, who wore her wildness well.  Like himself, she was someone who could pull up and leave for who knows where at any moment.  In her case, it looked as if she was about to.  One night we were all three at my parents’ place and stayed over.  There was a third floor with two large rooms;  I stayed in one, and they in the other.  The next day my dad, whose room was below theirs, irritably told me that they had kept him up all night with their lovemaking.

     He was going to write about her, about the whole year in the Arco Etrusco, the Ethiopians, the Spaniards, the whores.  I don’t doubt it would have been worth reading; his literary gifts ran deep.  He was prolific from an early age.  After he died, Lucille showed me a large box filled with all she had saved of his work. Take anything you want, she said.  I took only a book on Scarlatti, rife with Francensco’s underlinings, and asked if I could borrow the rest to catalog it.

     One night in Toronto, Robert and I sat down and did the cataloging, an amazing revelation of poems, essays, drawings, and academic papers. There was an undergraduate paper on Spencer which his professor had noted was of fully publishable quality.  There was an essay on Castro written in high school for no particular purpose.  Drawings in the DaVinci style.  Poetry, all first-rate, especially one of the death of his grandmother, whose body he had found one morning.  Once we had finished, I got as far as getting our hand-written notes into a computer; I gave Lucille the printout when I next visited.  I couldn’t go any farther.  We had hoped to write a remembrance and bind the catalog.  It seemed too final at the time and I never finished.

     I don’t mean by all of this to fall into sad reveries about works of genius that never got to see the light of day.  If he had wanted to publish, he would have.  Now that Lucille has died, who knows where the box is.  At his sister Linda’s?  He would have written the Arco Etrusco novel, though, it was in his head.  He said it would be loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, with himself as Alice.  What a movie it would have made.

     We decided to play music for some people, two of the Mozart concertos we were working on, arranged for two pianos.  What we chose was revealing about us both.  I did part of the K488 in A major, the first movement sunny, the second sadly sweet.  Just deep enough for me.  Francesco played the first movement of the K466 in d minor, shadowed, disturbing, and filled with turmoil.  The major key theme of the second movement is like a glass of clear water, but the last movement leads us back into darkness.  It was his favorite concerto, not coincidentally in the same key as his favorite opera, Don Giovanni.  We made a day of it; there was also a singer and a flute player, a number of friends, and a lunch at intermission.  It took place at my parent’s house on a blazing summer afternoon.  We called it Music Day, and Donna taped it.  She still has the tape, wherever she is now.  There’s also a photograph.  We all look into the camera except for Francesco and my dad.  My dad, who had lived through the Russian Revolution and lost everything, World War I, then the Depression as a Yugoslav citizen, starting yet again in America, World War II, and who now had crossed eighty, looks down and away, the weight of his life in his face.  Francesco also looks down and away, and he seems to be still hearing the melancholy turmoil of the d minor concerto.  Their gazes intersect at a point below the edge of the photo.  When I see that photo, I too hear the Mozart d-minor concerto, and when I hear that music, I think of another sunny day when Francesco said to me, you know, you’re going to live a long time.  I said, what about you?  He looked away and said that he already knew his fate.

     Sometimes we influence each other in ways that only play out later.  I know that Francesco’s way of life in the world, and Robert’s insistence that if he was drafted “they would have to chase me into a corner and then I would fight them like a trapped rat,” were feeding my own discomfort with the war.  The draft board had finally not let me go to my overseas job but seemed satisfied for the time being that I was teaching Americans and not foreigners.

     Chance pointed its shapely hand at me and I got a job accompanying modern dance classes at Pitt.  The instructor was a youthful and inexhaustibly energetic woman in her fifties named Jeanne Beaman, a former student and disciple of Martha Graham’s.  Jeanne ran a rigorous class but shot it through with demanding originality.  One night she had the students—a rainbow of ravishing young women—produce finger paintings.  They then put the paintings, one at a time, before me on the piano and told me to interpret them.  The students had to dance to my improvisations.  Another time she asked me to produce a taped composition for a performance.  It was based on Yates’s At the Hawk’s Well.  Francesco worked with me, quietly absorbing the technical side of this kind of composing and making hugely valuable suggestions on the content.  He was composing as well at this time, about which more below.

     Jean told me to prepare for a visit by a famous New York dancer and teacher.  I asked Francesco if he wanted to come along and participate. I thought we could play duets to accompany the class. The Famous One was amused by our efforts and said that she thought we were cute.  Her face and tone of voice made no secret of her implication.  How often women have misunderstood the nature of male friendship.  I suppose I have to deal with this, given the current social atmosphere.  It was then, and is now, possible for men to have deep and intimate friendships without them becoming sexual.  I believe all relationships are physical to various degrees.  But the attraction of friendship, the shared physicality of living together, the openness of emotion that some men are capable of, doesn’t automatically construct a bridge that leads to sex.  Gay friends have told me that they knew they were gay early on.  Some of us knew we weren’t.  I have loved a number of men friends in my life, hugged them close on greeting and parting, kissed them tenderly on the cheek, strolled with our arms about each others’ shoulders, but never had any desire to engage with them genitally.  On the material provided with the DVD of the recent Merchant of Venice, Jeremy Irons comments on his choice of playing the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio as a tender and intimate one but not as a sexual one.  He’s correct when he says that such friendships were common at one time, more common that now perhaps, given the curious mix of neo-Victorianism and license that surrounds us.  My first wife, for all her good qualities—a pantherine protective love for our children and imperious demands for excellence among them—simply could not grasp that such male friendships were possible.  Why don’t you go sleep with your friend Francesco? she yelled more than once (or substituted Robert’s name for Francesco’s.)  Perhaps this response fell out of her own need for absolute security, but I think there was more; she came out of a middle class family with highly defined male and female roles.  She didn’t get it. Francesco, Robert and I loved each other, but were never lovers.

     Something else came out of the dance classes—Francesco found a métier.  He was intrigued by accompanying.  He saw it as a way to face the necessity of earning a living while doing something he loved and still being his own person.  Dance accompanists are always needed, and are always moving on, a profession made for him.  For the moment though, we played music and he began composing again.  He wrote a number of challenging piano pieces, among them a Toccata that he dedicated to me, and later began to write songs.  The songs emerged in Toronto.

     Toronto, sooner or later, was in all our fates. My negotiations with the draft board collapsed and my lover, later wife, was pregnant.  We left. I worked for a time in Switzerland; later, I got a job offer in Turkey.  I wasn’t recognizing the draft board any more but they certainly recognized me.  An indictment was to follow me about.  I was now officially a draft resister in the eyes of the government.  Or a draft dodger, as I prefer to call it.  Meanwhile Robert was about to take a trip to Montreal for Expo ’67, where he would meet a Québecoise who would become his wife and go back to LA with him.  Francesco and Donna had settled in; she was now living with him in the apartment in Oakland.  I had a note from him when we were in Switzerland. My mother had filled him in on a few details. “Mamacita,” he wrote, “has been generous with information.”

     Close as we were, we were never letter writers, though a postcard from him was always rich with observation and oblique advice. “ ’You who speculate on the nature of things, I praise you not for knowing the processes which nature ordinarily effects of herself, but rejoice if it be so that you know the issue of such things as your mind conceives.’  — Leonardo,” he wrote (or warned) me once on a postcard with a portrait of da Vinci on the obverse.  Another postcard of a figure from a Pompeii mural simply cites a Medieval Latin poem about spring.  It was as if he wrote, you know me, so these words are enough to know what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling.  There was one letter, though, which I still have.  It’s written (over several days) in a neat, but not too neat, sans serif hand that slips between printing and writing.  He ranges over art, the movies, food, a project for a literary magazine that we were going to call Vita Nuova, after Dante.  His conception of the magazine was this: “Lots of photographs, I think, - what else.  Essays, short stories, poems, etc. don’t seem to fit – recipes, yes, anecdotes, parables, yes poems too.  Drawings, etymologies, myths – conversations, songs, aphorisms, hexagrams …. Polyglot crossword puzzles that meander all over the page twining in and out of columns of print … calligraphy, alphabets, topographical maps, lists …  .”   Above all, he is unsentimental about his condition: “Little concern for the certainties & uncertainties of the future, scarcely any nostalgia for the past – (nostalgia, however, can be a very sweet emotion – like being sick, but not very sick, in bed with heavy blankets and warm things to drink) … “.   Robert is a letter (and now e-mail) writer of 19th century proportions.  We kept in touch fairly regularly then.  To what extent he and Francesco did I don’t know.  It was as if we were all three leading independent lives that were on another plane continually intertwined.

     Toronto became our city of reunion. We eventually landed there, my wife and I and our little son, when I got some funding to go to grad school.  We’d reached the low point in our lives the year before, when we were in England.  We were broke, we were at each others’ throats, and my dad had died.  My mom had kept from me the news of his final illness until the last moment.  During that time, Francesco had stayed at the house, looked after my dad whenever he was needed, and taken over teaching the piano students.  When he got to Toronto, he told me, simply and undramatically, his voice tender with feeling, details of my dad’s last months.

     He moved to Toronto and lived with us a while—not surprisingly our little boy and he became instant friends—until things got too crowded.  He got a job at Berlitz teaching Italian and found a sunny place to live where he started, as he described it, “the largest indoor avocado plantation in Southern Ontario.”  He also found a lover at Berlitz, but that was short lived.  I never even got her name.  All this time, all these years, he thought and read, and walked and brooded, fought loneliness, and wrote.  He looked after himself and kept at his music and his writing, never falling into self-pity or the slack hippiedom so common at the time.  He was not drifting or wondering what to do with himself, or trying to escape any responsibilities; he knew who he was.  It was the world that couldn’t accommodate him.  Years later, Robert wrote: “I think of Francesco as one of those people of exceptional strength who refuse to cave in, but who lived strange, peripatetic lives, like those old Russian pilgrims who wandered that vast land from shrine to shrine, observing life, very probably despairing of this fallen world.”

     I agree with every word except “probably.”  Francesco was despairing of this world, though not in a showy, self-indulgent way.  He quietly carried around a lot of pain.  If life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, Francesco could use his fine mind to fend off the grief of this life with laughter, but it was in the end tragedy that ruled him.  There is an accommodation we all come to, each in our own way.  We work, we create, we accept.  Our intensity of feeling diminishes, and unlike the young Gautama, we get over the shock of seeing the sick and dying on the streets.  We narrow down the world to make it something we can deal with.  Of course Francesco did this as well, but not as successfully as the next guy.  His face in repose would often take on an expression that still haunts me, as if he had slipped away from the diversions of life, or the pleasures of music and companionship, and back into the place where he daily seemed to confront human suffering and mortality. There are such people, unable to put aside these facts or gloss them over with sound and color.  There is one solution, though, and he would eventually if briefly encounter it—love.

     Robert also moved to Toronto.  He had broken up with his first wife, and in Toronto he met Anna.  I remember a sunny cool day in late November when Robert and Anna spent the day with our older boy, then just four, while his brother was being born.  They were all happy and excited when they came to the door and I could give them the good news.  The next day a ferocious blizzard hit Toronto.  We later joked that it was an omen of the new baby’s forceful personality.  Both boys would grow to be good friends with Robert.  Eventually Robert and Anna married.  Francesco was there for the wedding, and afterwards, they all went back to Robert and Anna’s place, where Francesco was staying at the time.  Best honeymoon I’ve ever been on, said Francesco.

     There is more about Toronto.  For one reason or the other, Francesco and I began to see less of each other, at least at the Charles Street apartment.  I was certainly more and more involved with graduate school and family, but there is also no doubt that my then-wife played a role in this gradual separation of friendship as well.  I’ve spoken of her jealousy of my friendships before.  I recall trying ot explain to Francesco the strain I felt between loyalty to my friendship with him and what I saw as my family loyalties and obligations.  Let’s not be mealy-mouthed.  Of course the stress arose from my wife’s attitudes.   She simply didn’t want him around.  I grew weary of the clashes and I couldn’t figure out how to resolve them.

     Still, Francesco and I met in town, or at his rooms now and then or on campus, where we talked or played piano duets at Hart House at U of T.   At that time, a Hart House member (which I was) could deposit his card and use a good piano in an upstairs hall.  We met many times to play Schubert and Mozart duets there, even polished a few of them to a good level.  I offered my card to Francesco for his own practice time.  He used it so much, and for such long periods of time, that complaints arose, and a time regulation was installed.  All because of that Dobrovolsky guy who practiced so much.  I thought it was funny.  He, guileless as always, said, “If anyone else wanted the piano all they had to do was ask.”   That’s of course what he would have done, but he was unfazed by dealing with people.  It never crossed his mind that other people might not want to interrupt someone practicing as intensely as he always did.  Perhaps they thought he was preparing for a concert.  He was also writing songs, in particular a set of songs based on texts from Ecclesiastes.  They’re profoundly sad, compassionate, and presciently, exhausted.

     We moved to Ottawa, where I had a temporary job.  The summer before the job started, summer of ’74, I was commuting between Ottawa and Toronto, helping teach a course at U of T.  On one trip to Toronto, I looked him up and we had a brief chat.  I’m going back to Italy, he said.  Stay in touch, I said, and we hugged farewell.  It was a little awkward; neither one of us was sure at that moment where our friendship stood.  I went back to Ottawa, and that was the real beginning of a break between us, a break constructed of time and distance and changing life.  It wasn’t an abandonment of our friendship, but it was a gap.  I thought of him, wondered how he was doing, wrote letters in my head, and had no doubt that we’d be in touch again—that was a given.

     He was in Europe, and then back in Arnold, PA, across the river from New Kensington, where his parents had moved, talking care of his mother as she convalesced from heart troubles.  They were remarkably close, the greatest of friends, and without a trace of any mama’s-boy ickiness or possessiveness on her part.   A splendid, loving friendship.  He came back from Europe to look after her.  Imagine, a guy turned thirty with plenty to do in life, spends the better part of a year helping look after his mom.  He felt no awkwardness about it.   He loved her, and it was the right thing to do.  When he left again, there was no talk of holding him back.  So, he was in Italy again.  This was the summer of ’76.  My marriage was finally, well overdue, falling apart.  Pain and relief.  I was talking and writing to many people about the terrible changes.  Again, I composed letters in my head to him: “Tell me about your life.” “Have I got news for you!” and the like.

     My wife took the kids to Boston to visit her parents.  It was clear that things were very bad between us, very fragile, that any moment could bring an irrevocable decision.  I talked to my mom on the phone and she said she had called my wife’s parents.  My mom always believed she was psychic and was always predicting disasters.  Eventually she got one right.  My wife had gone with the kids to her sister’s in New Mexico.  She’s very unhappy, my in-laws had said.  I decided to work some emotion out of my system with a long bicycle trip.  Four days later I came home.  I was soaked and muddy from pedaling the last day in the rain.  I showered and ate and felt refreshed and ready for what would come next.  It came the next day.

 

     Again the phone rang, again it was my mother.  Have you heard about Francesco? she asked.  What about Francesco?  A pause.  He died.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up.  I felt cold, and then I felt an electric shock pass through my body.  I shook for a moment from its force.  Where, how?  In Florence.  Some kind of brain tumor, it seemed.  He collapsed in a bus station.  Never regained consciousness.

     I had to call Robert.  I worked out the time difference to Australia, where he was teaching.  It seemed to be afternoon there, I might catch him.  Laboriously, through various levels of information, I got a phone number.  The department secretary answered, said she’d put me through to him.  Robert picked up the phone.  Robert?  Hi!  How’d you find this number?  I have news.  Be prepared.  Francesco is dead.  All Robert could say was, Oh, no.  My God.  How?  I told him what I knew.  As we later discovered, what I knew was incomplete and partly wrong.  I’ll keep you posted, I said.  After a while, we hung up.  Curiously, neither his department nor I was ever billed for the call.

     As it turned out, there was no bus station and he was not alone at the end.  On a visit to Pittsburgh the next year, Lucille showed me a letter from Florence Colby, the woman he had been living with.  Lucille told me that Francesco and Florence were planning on staying together.  The letter was detailed and filled with painful emotions.  Francesco had been having increasingly worse headaches.  He was working as an accompanist at a ballet school and it was harder and harder for him to work.  Still, he thought it would pass.  Florence had planned a trip.  He said, go ahead, I’ll be all right.  She left on her trip but at some point—I think she was already in France—she had a compelling intuition that she should turn back.  Meanwhile, Francesco’s headaches were becoming more severe, blinding, and scary.  He finally called a hospital to come and pick him up.  When they arrived they found him unconscious on the floor.  When Florence got back he was already in the hospital, still unconscious.  He would never wake up again.  Florence sat by his side and spoke to him and stroked his hands and arms for several days.  She called him part-way back several time—there was some response in his breathing.  He finally slipped away.

     Years earlier, Francesco had been in an automobile accident.  He was losing a lot of blood.  He once told me that he remembered quite clearly lying on a gurney and feeling a nurse stroke his ankle and speak to him to keep him here, to help him stay with us longer.  He said it was pleasant, even sensual, and he didn't want her to stop, and yet it also made him feel that death would be quite easy.  And then, years later, in a cyclic turn more strange that any fiction, he lies in a hospital in Italy and Florence strokes his arm and calls him back from the edge several times before he slips away.

     His body was shipped back to Pennsylvania—another Atlantic crossing (he hated to fly and traveled to Europe by boat whenever possible).  He’s buried in a cemetery just up a hill and not too far away from his parents’ house.  They saved spaces for themselves to be with him, and they are all three there now, together.  Whenever we were in Pittsburgh, Robert and I visited Lucile and Frank, and, of course, Francesco’s grave.  I asked Lucille how she got through the news, his return, the funeral, and she said, simply and directly, “I thought I was going to die.”  Her religious faith and her family were there for her.  She and Frank were people who I always remember as very much alive, able to accept what life brought, and to live on.  There lived life to old age, enjoying their children and grandchildren.  I am unsentimentally sure, though, that she was always ready to go and join Francesco.

     A friend of mine asked, why do you think Francesco was a saint?  This, I said.  He saw through the world and its follies, the absurdities of categories, the artificial boosterism of patriotism and the arbitrarinesses of society, the impermanence of everything we make, and he smiled.  He was terrible at the game of life, one up, one down, do this and I’ll do that.  In its place he worked out, with his mind and his heart, a coherent and beautiful view of life, and lived it without compromise, sometimes intransigently, at times pushing us all, anyone, friend or family, to the point of exasperation.  He carried our griefs, the pain of life and the unanswerable question of death, and also the hunger and fear of countless others.  He loved unconditionally. 

     Perhaps you read this and think I’m exaggerating or romanticizing these memories.  I might have, if I had written this in 1976, just after Francesco’s death.  When our grief was hard and almost paralyzing, my view of the recent past would have been deeply colored by it.  But at the age I’ve reached, the distance between me and the edge of the horizon has shrunk to such an extent that I’m compelled to the truth.  This is no time for frivolity.  We celebrate his day, September 15, with happiness.  He was, and is, our friend, our brother, and our saint.

 

2006-2007