The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (2 page)

BOOK: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
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It happened here, in Villareal, Spain, a city near the sea that was founded by a king more than seven centuries ago. I prefer to begin everything with a time signature, so let us set this as August 1936, in an erratic 6/5 tempo, for it was a bloody period in the country’s history. A civil war. Something whispered as El Terror Rojo—the Red Terror—was coming to these streets and, more specifically, to this church. Most of the priests and nuns had already fled to the countryside.

I recall that evening well. (Yes, I have memory. No limbs, but endless memory.) There was thunder in the skies and rain pounding on the pavement. A young expectant mother hurried in to pray for the child she carried. Her name was Carmencita. She was thinly framed with high cheekbones and thick, wavy hair the color of dark grapes. She lit two candles, made the sign of the cross, put her hands on her swollen belly, then doubled over in pain. Her labor had begun.

She cried out. A young nun, with hazel eyes and a small gap between her teeth, rushed to lift her up. “
Tranquila
,” she said, cupping Carmencita’s face. But before the women could make for the hospital, the front doors were smashed in.

The raiders had arrived.

They were revolutionaries and militiamen, angry at the new government. They had come to destroy the church, as they had been doing all over Spain. Statues and altars were desecrated, sanctuaries burned to a char, priests and nuns murdered in their own sacred spaces.

You would think when such horror occurs, new life would hold in frozen shock. It does not. Neither joy nor terror will delay a birth. The future Frankie Presto had no knowledge of the war outside his mother’s womb. He was ready for his entrance.

And so was I.

The young nun hurried Carmencita to a hidden chamber, up secret steps built centuries earlier. As the raiders destroyed the church below, she laid Frankie’s mother on a gray blanket in a corner lit by candles. Both women were breathing quickly, creating a rhythm, in and out.


Tranquila, tranquila
,” the nun kept whispering.

The rain rapped the roof like mallets. The thunder was a tympani drum. Downstairs the raiders set fire to the refectory and the flames crackled like a hundred castanets. Those few who had not fled the church were screaming, high, pleading shrieks, met by lower barking orders of those committing the atrocities. The low and high voices, the crackling fire, whipping wind, drumming rain and crashing thunder created an angry symphony, swirling to a crescendo, and just as the invaders threw open the tomb of Saint Pascual, ready to desecrate his bones, the bells above the basilica began to chime, causing all to look up.

At that precise moment, Frankie Presto was born.

His tiny hands clenched.

And he took his piece of me.

Ah-ah-ah. Am I committing to this tale? I must consider the composition. It is one thing to tell the story of a birth, quite another to tell the whole life.

Let us leave the coffin and go outside for a moment, where the morning sun is causing people to squint as they emerge from their cars, parked along the narrow streets. Only a few have arrived so far. There should be many more. By my measure (which is always accurate) Frankie Presto, during his time on earth, played with three hundred and seventy-four bands.

You would think that means a large funeral.

But everyone joins a band in this life. Only some of them play music. Frankie, my precious disciple, was more than a guitarist, more than a singer, more than a famous artist who disappeared for a good chunk of his life. As a child, he suffered greatly, and for his suffering, he was granted a gift. A set of strings that empowered him to change lives.

Six strings.

Six lives.

It is why, I suspect, this farewell could prove interesting. And why I will stay to hear the mourners speak—Frankie’s remarkable symphony, as played by those who knew him. There is also the matter of his strange death, and the shadowy figure who was following him just before it.

I want to see this resolved.

Music craves resolution.

But for the moment, I should rest. So many notes already shared. Do you see those men on the church steps, smoking cigarettes? The one in the tweed bowler cap? He is also a musician. A trumpeter. He had nimble fingers once, but he is old now and battles illness.

Listen to him for a moment.

Everyone joins a band in this life.

Frankie was once in his.

 

Marcus Belgrave

Jazz trumpeter, Marcus Belgrave and His Quintet; the Ray Charles band; sideman with McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and others

LEMME HAVE A LIGHT. . . . MMM . . . MMM . . . THANKS. . . .

No, uh-uh, I can’t believe it neither. Nobody dies like that. But I’m telling you, Frankie had some strange stuff going on, magic, voodoo, something . . . I never told no one this story, but I swear it’s true.

We were playing a club up in Detroit, maybe 1951 or ’52, in the part they called Black Bottom. Used to be a nice buncha clubs there, but after the war, it got pretty dicey.

Anyhow, we’re playing a Friday night, four sets—eight, ten, midnight, and two a.m.—and Frankie’s with us, just this skinny teenager playing the guitar. This was way before he made them hit records or even started singing. Shoot, I didn’t even know his last name. Just “Frankie.” He wasn’t supposed to be there on account of how young he was, but he never asked for no money, and to the guy who owned the club, that made him twenty-one, know what I mean? We let him sit in the back, out of the spotlight, his big mop of black hair bouncing in the shadows. At the end of the night, he got a free plate of chicken, and we got us a free guitar player.

I know, I know, I’m getting to it. Like I said, the place was low-end now, some bad elements, and at one point we were playing “Smokehouse Blues,” and a big bearded fella is sitting in the corner with this pretty young blond thing who’s wearing too much lipstick, maybe trying to look older.

Well, something musta happened, because the Beard jumps up and pushes the girl against the wall, his chair goes flying backward, and he’s got a knife to her throat. He’s choking her, screaming, calling her every kind of name. Tilly, our piano player, walks straight out the door, because that was how he was—“Don’t-Want-No-Trouble Tilly,” we used to call him—but the rest of us were riffing on the chords with that frozen kind of look when you don’t wanna watch, but you can’t turn away? It was almost like if we stopped playing, the Beard was gonna kill this girl. He’s screaming, waving that knife, she’s choking, and nobody was doing nothing, because this guy was
big
.

Well, next thing I know, Frankie jumps up front and starts playing real loud, and fast. He’s playing so good, people kinda don’t know where to look. And Frankie yells, “Hey!” and the Beard looks over and hollers something drunk. But Frankie just plays faster. Me, Tony, and Elroy, we’re trying to keep up but he’s off into something, fingers moving like they’re possessed.

“Hey!” Frankie yells again, and he’s playing like lightning, still getting every note clear and true. And damn if the guy doesn’t turn and point the knife at him now like he’s taking the challenge.

“Faster,” the Beard grumbles.

So Frankie goes faster. Some people start whooping, like it’s a game. And now Frankie’s off “Smokehouse” and he’s on to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” you know, from that Russian opera? I’m trying to find the notes on my horn, and Elroy is banging the pedal so hard his damn foot is gonna snap off.

And again, the guy yells, “Faster!”

And we’re thinking there’s no way on the Lord’s earth anyone can play faster than—but before we even finish that thought, Frankie’s upped it again, his fingers running from the bottom strings to the top strings so fast I swear a buncha bumblebees is gonna come flying out of that guitar. He’s not even looking at his hands. He’s just staring at the guy, with his lips kinda open, hair falling onto his forehead, and everyone is clapping now, trying to keep pace with Elroy’s beat, and Frankie starts this run from the far end of the neck up to the highest frets and the Beard is damn near hypnotized and he comes closer for a better look. Frankie’s staring at the lipstick girl and she’s staring at him, and then he jerks his head and she’s outta there, quick as a bullet.

And now the whole place is whooping in that way crowds do—you know, “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!”—and the kid squeezes his lips and he’s up in the highest notes, sounds like he’s pinching baby birds it’s so damn high, and the Beard is by the edge of the stage and Frankie points the neck right at him like some kinda machine gun—
bangadedybangedybang—
and then he’s done. Finished. And he whips the guitar over his head and the whole place is going crazy, just breathing hard, like, man, that boy can play and we’re glad nobody’s dead.

And then Frankie races out the door, chasing that girl.

But here’s the thing.

I look at his guitar, and one of the strings has turned blue. I swear. Blue as the middle of a flame.

I thought to myself, I don’t know where this kid come from. Maybe I don’t want to know.

 

2

WELL.

There’s a hint.

The young blond girl with too much lipstick would have died had Frankie not done what he did. But he was too young to understand such things, or to even know he possessed such power. . . .

My apologies.

Up here.

On the windowsill.

I have been listening to a kitchen radio playing Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” into the alley behind the church. Did you ever notice how music sounds different played outdoors? A cello in a garden wedding? A calliope in a seaside amusement park?

That’s because I was born in the open air, in the breaks of ocean waves and the whistling of sandstorms, the hoots of owls and the cackles of tui birds. I travel in echoes. I ride the breeze. I was forged in nature, rugged and raw. Only man shapes my edges to make me beautiful.

Which you have done. Granted. But along the way, you have made assumptions, like the more silent the environment, the purer I am. Nonsense. One of my disciples, a lanky saxophonist named Sonny Rollins, played his horn for three years on a bridge in New York City, his tender jazz melodies wafting between the traffic noises. I would pause there often, on the girders, just to listen.

Or my beloved Frankie, born amid the cacophony of ringing bells and clamorous destruction. Remember that night, inside the burning church? Carmencita, Frankie’s mother, had to keep her newborn child from crying, lest they be discovered by a murderous militia. So, lying together on the gray blanket, she hummed a song in his ear. It was a melody from the past, well known in the town of Villareal, written by one of its native sons, my brilliant guitarist Francisco Tárrega. Carmencita hummed it as purely as any song has ever been hummed, tears falling from her cheeks to the newborn’s skin.

He did not cry.

A good thing, since, within minutes, the raiders had reached the main altar and could be heard destroying everything below. They were drawing closer and would soon ascend the steps. The nun with the hazel eyes and the gap between her teeth was trembling. She knew the new mother could not be moved; she was too weak, there was blood everywhere.

She also knew the raiders would kill any nun they discovered.

She mouthed a prayer, pulled her tunic off over her head, and pressed her fingers against the flames of the candles, extinguishing the light.


Silencio
,” she whispered.

Carmencita halted the only melody she would ever sing to her son.

The song was called “Lágrima.”

It means “teardrop.”

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