Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Ercole Gaudioso retired after thirty-four years
in law enforcement and has since completed a Masters in Writing at
Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, and an MFA in Professional Writing
from Western Connecticut State University. He has published numerous short
stories and has won several fiction competitions. His novel, Bronx Sex
Crimes (working title), is currently with an agent.
The upright, rescued from the ashes of a German speakeasy, arrived one snowy night, damp and sooty, stinking of fire and beer. Mended and tuned, Grandpa Enzo Burgundi installed it in what became the heartbeat of his home, the music room. That was in 1925, when the upstairs and downstairs of the two-family house chattered with a dozen Burgundi brothers, sisters and cousins and rang with music from the piano and from radios with lighted dials and Victrolas with wind-up cranks.
Most all the Burgundis have left the house. Toni Burgundi and her father remain. Toni lives upstairs, spends a lot of time in the music room, her fingernails clicking the piano’s yellowed and chipped ivories. She sings, too, and composes and sometimes wakens whiffs of fire and beer.
Her father is Ben Burgundi. The famous Ben Burgundi. He lives downstairs, he’s pushing eighty and practices his sax every morning. He’s kept all his hair—none of it black anymore—good blood pressure and, he says, the same belt size since he got out of the army in 1949.
Since childhood, Toni has asked him, "Tell me about Mommy’s eyes?"
"I like to hear."
"Like yours, little girl. Just as green and just as beautiful. Once you saw them you never could forget them."
And she has asked, "You know what I was wondering? You and Mommy, how come your theme song was Them There Eyes? Why not Green Eyes?"
"You were wondering. Ninety times you asked that."
"Them There Eyes we could do more with. Green Eyes belonged to somebody else. Your mother never got tired of Them There Eyes, every time she sang it, it was like the first time."
Atop the piano an ancient metronome—nobody knows how ancient or from where it came—sits with stacks of sheet music, books about Gershwin, Moten and Jobim, a cigar tin, Saint Cecilia and a tape recorder.
On the wall above the piano the glamorous Maxine Mercer, in a black and white eleven-by-fourteen, watches Toni at the keys, a pencil in her teeth that makes a grin.
Flanking the glowing photo, a half dozen eight-by-tens: the young Ben Burgundi and his sax, the Ben Burgundi Orchestra. Another Maxine Mercer, younger than Toni is now, on a poster that is a rendition of the marquee that in better times sat at the tall doors of The Savoy Ballroom.
Maxine Mercer was Edith Mercer back then. Southern black, gentle and pretty. She became Edith Burgundi some dozen or so months after the Savoy appearances and, during a well contained neighborhood fuss over the marriage, moved into the Burgundi home. Three years later, Toni.
Toni knows little of her mother’s life before the Ben Burgundi Orchestra, little of Grandma Mercer. Toni and Maxine once visited the woman in North Carolina during the December when Toni was four. There’d been no Grandpa, no piano, uncles, aunts nor cousins and, except for the help of a dozen or so photos, Toni holds no memory of the visit.
She’d spent considerable kitchen time with Grandma Antoinette and Aunt Carmella, cooking and gossiping—in English when she was included, and when not, in the dialect of Naples, much of which she understood.
She learned traditions and philosophies and stories more fascinating than glass slippers and sleeping beauties. While under the gaze of crucifixes and plaster saints, of horseshoes above thresholds, she became comfortable with casual allusions to good and bad spirits.
In school she eagerly read and listened to Catechism lessons, the study of God, His angels, His saints, the devil, and life everlasting. Life everlasting. And so there grew a link of logic between daughter and mother. A vague, certain union.
Next to the piano, a cabinet with glass doors displays all the Burgundi-Mercer records, 1951 to 1959, two or three duplicate albums still in sealed jackets. On a shelf is a photo album that Toni leafs through once in a while.
On the opposite wall, next to a computer on a narrow table, sits a small couch from the apartment where Toni lived for some months with a guy she doesn’t think about now, and in a corner stands the vacuum cleaner that Toni will put away after she rewrites a verse.
In photos of the album that she opens once in a while, Ben and Maxine admire baby Antoinette at her Baptism. Then First Communion, then Confirmation. Three sacraments, according to Ben, much of the major chord that would be complete with the Sacrament of Matrimony.
A rug zigzagged with green geometry covers most of the polished oak floor. Toni spends hours at a time on that rug, head on a cushion, legs on the piano bench, thinking, reading, evaluating one of her compositions, or listening to the recordings of Maxine Mercer, mother and daughter bonding with each repeat performance.
Ben has told Toni, "Listen to your mother and hear more than music and words. You’ll hear her spirit because it’s your spirit, and I’ll be proud and say that my little girl turned out the same way she would have if her mother was still with us."
So Toni knows her mother well. Her presence, the messages in her voice—as rambunctious as Betsy, loveable as Ella, believable as Billie. Phrasing spontaneous and nurturing. Maxine—though Ben had something to do with it—taught Toni to find rhythm in the bass, not the drum, to shout as if she were singing and sing as if she were shouting, to lean on the note and not be flat, to tease the melody while scatting its harmonies.
Toni hears, in the banter of Ben’s horn and Maxine’s voice, their breakfast table chats, arguments in the dining room, play in the bedroom. All this she talks over with Maxine, never failing to mention what the Burgundi-Mercer performances mean to her, especially Them There Eyes, the way it swings and rocks at the same time.
"I love you Mommy," Toni utters when moved by one of Maxine’s performances, or when discerning from her a better chord or lyric, a piano run, a subtle inflection.
The vacuum cleaner is in the closet, Toni is at the keys, her newest song on paper and on tape. She presses PLAY, she and Maxine listen. Maxine is excited with a chord change she’d never expected, but suggests that the lyric needs a more explicit theme. A presence, an emphasis. And Toni suggests a verse with more memory—but no, a feeling about a memory—and she writes rapidly, then sings to the recorder.
She hits PLAY and lies on the rug. Her song begins, her voice indistinguishable from Maxine’s. She is proud of that and she is aware that the rug and its abstracts emphasize the green of their eyes.