The Predicament of Otto Ratalli
by Robert Wexelblatt
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, including Amarillo Bay; two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; and a book of essays, Professors at Play. His recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.
Three quick knocks on the door. "Dieci minuti, Maestro. Ten minutes."
The walls of the dressing room were venerable. How much talent had prepared itself within them, stared at them as he was doing? Ratalli ran his supple fingers over the dressing table, caressing phantom keys.
When he was a child and failed to perform a proper dive the first time or to assemble a puzzle or hit the bull's eye, Otto would scream, punch the side of his head, roll on the ground. The compulsion to behave in this fashion was a bodily thing; it began in the gut and filled his frame. He still felt that incubus agitating in his gut, but now as a kind of happy ferment.
Ratalli's father Luigi had early ambitions of becoming a painter. These evaporated when his uncle was killed in a car accident and he inherited a good deal of money and an undemanding sinecure in the family furniture business. Thereafter, he married, begat Otto, and became a generous, idle, pleasure-loving man with an unreliable heart. For a short time after Luigi's death Otto's mother had indulged in expansive conversations with her teenaged son. In one of these she explained why she and his father had insisted he take piano lessons. "It wasn't in order that you'd become a musician but so that you'd learn discipline, learn to practice. Even when you were still a toddler I could see how unhealthy this tendency was. We wanted you to be able to cope better with shortcomings—your own and the world's. The idea wasn't that you submit to imperfection but, well, simply come to terms with it. We didn't foresee you'd work so terribly hard." And she had looked at him oddly, with some pride, yes, but also with motherly concern, nearly disappointment.
"Five minutes, Signor Ratalli."
"Good, very good."
It was to be an appealing program: three Scarlatti sonatas to begin, then Bach's Third English Suite, followed by Schumann's Kinderscenen and Chopin's Fourth Ballade, winding up with five of his favorite Shostakovich's preludes and fugues. He had planned for two encores, the third of Rachmaninoff's Moments Musicaux, full of Russian poignancy, and, to send the audience into the night on a lighter note, Poulenc's irresistible First Novelette. The program was not excessively long, but demanding in its technical requirements and historical scope—which was the idea. Ratalli had just turned forty-one and felt himself at his peak. So that endemic roiling in his gut did not signify impending failure; it meant this was the night when he would at last achieve the perfection he had been seeking since, looking out from his cradle, he first became conscious of this defective world.
Ratalli's mother was unable to attend. She was ill. This might have pained Otto had he ever sought her praise or performed for her pleasure. If she sometimes regarded his playing almost as a disease this was because she knew the single-mindedness which made her son indifferent to the opinions of all but a respected few—chiefly, himself. Not for nothing was he tagged with that forbidding and ambiguous phrase, a pianist's pianist.
In her busy widowhood Elettra Ratalli had earned a doctorate in archaeology. While her son was tormenting himself and building his career, she was poking around the ruins of the old Roman port of Ostia. A cultivated, well-read woman, Elettra had a particular taste for poetry. She was fond of the poetry of Robert Browning, whom she regarded as virtually Italian—pił o meno, as she put it. To her son she said she would prefer more girlfriends and fewer hours of practice. On three occasions she had quoted to her son from Browning's poem on the paintings in Florence. Always anxious about his perfectionism, disapproving the arrogant solipsism that attended it, she meant the lines to warn rather than inspire:
What's come to perfection perishes.
Things learned on earth, we shall practice in heaven . . .
Who can say how much these lines of Browning contributed to Ratalli's mad notion of proposing a contract with Carlo Tedesco? Tedesco likewise would not be attending the recital. He had no interest in music, though his financial and criminal interests were certainly varied. The two had met at the wedding of Otto's cousin Giovanetta to a businessman with dubious connections. They were seated at the same table and found that they interested one another, as Ratalli had never before met a criminal nor Tedesco a concert pianist. Otto had liked the man personally and, though aware of his reputation, found he could not wholly disapprove of him. For his part, Tedesco thought Otto's earnest naiveté amusing and was intrigued by his obsession with the purity of performance. The latter he respected and even shared, for he too took pride in the smooth execution of his programs. In Tedesco's view perfect crimes were no more common than perfect performances. Indeed, either can provide aesthetic satisfaction so long as one regards technique as amoral, which both men did. And so they chatted pleasantly for more than an hour and exchanged business cards when they parted.
Two months after the wedding Otto phoned Tedesco and invited him to lunch at a quiet restaurant near the Piazza Navona. It was a rainy November afternoon and they took their time, chatting and eating. Tedesco did not ask the ulterior motive for the invitation, though he knew there would be one. After their espressos were set before them and the waiter had withdrawn, Otto extracted a small piece of paper from his breast pocket.
"On this slip I have noted two sums of money. I will pay you the first now—in cash, of course—on condition that you agree to do what I ask of you to earn the second."
Tedesco leaned across the table and took the paper without revealing the least interest, as was his manner. He put on his reading glasses, read it, and laid it down on the table between them. "Both are considerable sums, Signor Ratalli. I had no idea you musicians did so well for yourselves."
"I'm entirely serious," said Otto seriously.
"Yes. I know you are a serious man."
"And so you should tell me what you are proposing."
"I want you to kill me."
Both of Tedesco's eyebrows went up a millimeter, a rare show of surprise.
"I'm not certain I could do the deed myself; after all, it's not a thing you can practice, like the piano. It might, I suppose, go without saying that I would like you to do it as painlessly as possible. Also I don't want to be informed of the precise time or place. I wish to avoid anxiety. However, the vital thing is that you do it only after I have given you a signal."
Otto waved his hand. "That can be easily arranged. However, I may never give it—the signal, that is. In fact, it seems unlikely. But I need to know that you will carry out my wishes when and if I should ask."
Tedesco smiled coolly. "I understand that in such a case my word would be insufficient, though I must say the retainer is generous."
Otto went on more quickly. "The second sum, also in cash, will be placed in a safe deposit box in the Trestevere branch of Banca Intesa. You will have the number and a key. However, the bank manager will be instructed to permit access only on the presentation of proof of my death."
Tedesco took out a cigarette and asked permission to smoke. Otto nodded, the circumstances overcoming his usual prohibition.
"You are rather well known, Maestro. Would a headline from the Corriere do or will the bank manager insist on the full obituary?"
"Again, I'm quite serious."
"Forgive my tone. But really, you must admit it's a strange request. In my experience such arrangements are aimed at removing someone else from the scene. May I ask the reason or at least what it is that might, so to say, trigger your request?"
Otto stiffened and waved away the cigarette smoke. "That is a private matter."
"Very well. As you wish. Great artists, I'm told, are different from the rest of us—no doubt the greater, the more . . . different."
During the recital Otto was scarcely aware of himself, or rather his consciousness was concentrated as if by centrifuge in those fragments of his Reptilian Complex, Limbic System, and Neocortex dedicated to feeling rhythms, moving fingers, grasping structures. In other respects, he was, in effect, unconscious. The applause hardly reached him; the auditorium and all within it simply vanished. He was merely hands and sensibility and drew forth the notes the way Vermeer wielded his brush, the way Baryshnikov leapt. His Scarlatti was precise and lyrical; the Bach as good as Gould; the Schumann and Chopin Romantic yet disciplined, their passion made touching rather than diffuse. He executed the Shostakovich pieces as purely as the composer intended when he sought refuge in them from his nation's atrocious politics. The audience gasped. In the event, a third encore was demanded and Otto played Busoni's arrangement of Bach's rampantly joyful Nun freut euch, liebe Christen gmein, during which the comportment of his left hand amazed even him. The evening was unique, a non plus ultra; it was a dream fulfilled, an apotheosis.
Otto got to his apartment with its expensive view of the Tiber at one in the morning. He was still in a condition of euphoria which expressed itself not in restlessness but a yearning for quietude. For the first time in a life of frustration, inadequacy, gaffes, dropped notes and missed timing, he felt at peace, centered by the integrity of what he had accomplished and could not hope to achieve again. He felt he had won a victory over insufficiency, disorder, mess. What's come to perfection perishes. And so it ought to, he thought.
Otto kept the dedicated cell phone number Tedesco had given him in the leather box that held his studs and cufflinks. He had prepared his signal message carefully; he wanted, for his own sake, to make it both significant and intimate. And so he had settled on a few lines from his mother's favorite poet—indeed, from her favorite of Leopardi's poems.
Morrermo. Il velo indegno tersa sparto,
Ri fuggirà l'ignudo animo a Dite,
E il crudo allo emenderà del cieco
Dispensator de' casi.
[We die; this worthless veil scattered in earth,
The naked spirit fleeing to Dis, amends
The harsh fault of the blind disposing Power.]
Without giving the matter any thought, Otto punched in the number, listened to Tedesco's courteous and dispassionate voice inviting him to leave a message, then recited from memory Leopardi's verses.
At eleven the following morning a courier from his recording company brought him the first pressing of his performance along with a personal note from Antonio Luchetti, the chairman, which was a string of admiring adjectives: "stupendous, sublime, etc." Otto put the CD aside, dressed himself with care, and left his apartment building. It was a fine day, dry and crisp. He strolled to the store where he procured his delicacies and bought some good minestrone for his ailing mother.
He found her reclining in a dressing gown on her couch reading one of her archaeological journals.
"They've dug up some tombs in Ostia Antica," she said after thanking him for the soup. "The usual accident; maintenance work in the Parco dei Ravennati, near Via Gesualdo. I'll need to take a look."
The visit was not what he had hoped. He was prepared to be moved while Elettra was not, being both unwell and ignorant of what her son had done. She was, in fact, rather peevish; worst of all, he had to remind her about the recital.
"So, Caro, it went poorly?" she said from the couch.
"No. It actually came off fairly well."
Elettra tossed away her journal and sat up on the couch. "What's that? Fairly well? I'm astonished to hear you say such a thing, Ottorino. Who's winning the snowball fight in Hell?"
"No, it really did go satisfactorily. Three encores."
His mother was momentarily speechless. "Look at you! I swear, you're actually smug." She quite lit up. "I'm desolated to have missed it."
Otto was reluctant to go, but his mother said she needed a nap. He took his leave with unaccustomed tenderness, which Elettra met with more irony.
"Mama's boy," she murmured as he kissed her on each cheek.
Otto took the long way home, leaving the boulevards and cutting through narrow streets, giving Tedesco, as he thought, plenty of opportunity. It was curious, but he felt it a kind of duty.
It was after five when he returned home. Otto recalled the CD of his recital, put it in the player. He could not sit down. The Scarlatti sonatas really were marvelously realized, but something was not right in the Allemande of the Bach suite, and, he found, the Gigue was paced more quickly than he had intended. With growing alarm, and a sudden cramp in the vicinity of his upper colon, he listened to the Schumann. Halfway through Kind in Einschlummern he switched off the sound system and ran to the phone.
What had he done with Tedesco's number? He fumbled frantically in his jewelry box before finding it down among his socks. He rang the special number and, just as before, Tedesco's recorded voice asked him to leave a message.
"Listen. I want to cancel," he said, his voice pitched higher than usual. "Cancel," he repeated more loudly. "Please be so good as to call me and let me know you've received this message. Understand?" There was a tone, middle-C.
Otto searched for the business card Tedesco had given him at the wedding and found it stuffed in his telephone book with a score of others. Here was the telephone number for ordinary criminal business, likewise numbers for faxes and telexes. This time there was no answer at all, not even from a machine. It just kept ringing. He tried twice more.
Otto stayed at home all the next day. He did not prepare the veal dish he had planned to make himself for a special treat the night before. He had no appetite and the meat stayed in the refrigerator.
He was afraid to go out but after dark he muffled himself up, put on dark glasses and a hat, then rushed to the kiosk at the corner and back. He missed his Corriere della Sera though he seldom read it all the way through. On the third page there was an item about one of the interminable investigations of official corruption. Tedesco's name leapt from the article, which Otto then read in detail. It reported that the authorities urgently wished to interview Signor Carlo Tedesco but had, thus far, been unsuccessful in locating him.
Otto pulled the drapes shut. He sat down at his piano but did not feel able to play. His sound-proofed apartment seemed to be leaking air as, all around him, the darkness solidified and silence deepened.
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