The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (7 page)

BOOK: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

A few years later, he ran away once more.

His wandering would affect his music. Tárrega—who eventually became famous and in demand all over Europe—found himself in London once, alone and depressed. He missed the sunshine of his country. Someone encouraged him to capture his sadness in music, so he wrote a composition that embodied his yearning.

That composition was “Lágrima”—“Teardrop”—the beautiful melody hummed in Frankie’s ear in the church chamber, the one that kept him from crying, the one that, in truth, saved his life. It was a favorite of Frankie’s real mother, Carmencita, because, like others raised in Villareal, she knew the music of her city’s most famous son.

So did El Maestro, the blind teacher in the sleeveless undershirt, who played Frankie many Tárrega compositions. This is how talents weave from generation to generation, how the shadow stretches, and how an artist born nearly a hundred years earlier begins to fill the soul of a child who shares his name.

For the longest time, by the way, that was all El Maestro did during their lessons. Play. Frankie sat in a kitchen chair, mesmerized, absorbing every note, watching the man’s fingers and wondering if his eyes were open or closed behind those dark glasses. After every song the man would smoke or drink from a bottle of red wine or the cheap but higher-alcohol
(“burning water”). When at last he’d drop his head back and lower his arms, Frankie would rise from the chair.

“Good-bye, Maestro.”

“Yes, yes, good-bye.”

Frankie would walk downstairs to find Baffa and the hairless dog and they would go home together, no sheet music, no assignments.

No guitar.

“Señor,” Baffa asked El Maestro one day, “why is the boy not playing the instrument?”

“Go sit in the laundry,” El Maestro growled.

Two weeks later, Baffa asked again.

“Señor, shouldn’t the child be playing by now?”

“Go away. Your dog smells.”

Baffa dared not get angry, for he had great respect for an artist’s talent, something that always endeared the fat sardine maker to me. But he was persistent. Two weeks later, he brought Frankie to the door and raised the issue again.

“Señor, I must insist—”

“No, you mustn’t.”

“But I am paying for lessons.”

“Do you want an artist or a monkey?”

Frankie felt himself smiling.
A monkey

“Of course, señor, I want an artist, but—”

“Then stop talking. I am getting a headache.” He scratched under his armpit. “Do you have my money?”

Baffa sighed. “Yes.”

Frankie watched Baffa hand him some bills, which El Maestro stuffed into his pants pocket with his cigarettes.

“You cannot write if you do not read,” the blind man said. “You cannot eat if you do not chew. And you cannot play if you do not”—he grabbed for the boy’s hand—“listen.”

He yanked Frankie inside and slammed the door.



“First your ears, then your hands,” he insisted. Meanwhile, he
music. He explained it in Spanish—and in English, which, having learned himself when he was younger, he deemed vital for Frankie’s progression, believing the rhythm, syntax, and pitch of languages helped the understanding of such things in music. Week after week, jumping between tongues, he demonstrated my chords, my scales, my voicings, laying them out like fine silverware until Frankie could identify them by sound. He made Frankie memorize the names of each composer and composition. Sometimes they listened to music on the small kitchen radio, and El Maestro squeezed Frankie’s hands at certain parts. “Do you hear? Right there! That is a minor key . . . that is a triplet . . .”

As far as Frankie could tell, El Maestro had no other students. He was often sleeping on the couch when Frankie arrived, the door unlocked, and Frankie would push him on the shoulder until the man growled and rolled over and Frankie knew he was awake.

Still, as the months passed, the blind man seemed to grow less angry with his young student and stopped calling him “stupid boy,” which made Frankie happy. Baffa, meanwhile, gave up arguing over the guitar. Instead, he took his laundry with him to Crista Senegal Street and made use of the time, coming home each week with clean socks and underwear, wrapped in string.

When the big moment came, Frankie was so excited he could barely hold still. El Maestro had him sit in the chair, so he could position the instrument correctly, but the guitar he had chosen was too large. It came up to Frankie’s chin.

“You are very small for eight,” El Maestro said, reaching around the boy’s frame. “Does your father not feed you?”

“Yes, Maestro, he feeds me.”

“Give me your left hand.”

Frankie did.

“Your nails are too long. You must cut them.”

“Cut them?”

“The left hand. Every day.”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“You cannot play the guitar if your nails are not cut.”

“All right, Maestro.”

“Do you know why this is?”

“No, Maestro.”

“No, you do not. Most people think it is because the nails get in the way of pressing on the strings. But I say it is something more.”

“What is it, Maestro?”

“The nails protect the fingertips. The fingertips are sensitive. Only by cutting the nails back can you truly be in touch with the music.”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“Only then can you feel the pain of every note.”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“There is no protection.”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“Music hurts. Do you understand me, boy?”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“Now show me to the closet.”

Frankie stood and led his teacher across the flat, taking tiny steps.

“Walk faster, boy. I am not a cripple.”

Frankie walked faster.

“We are at the closet, Maestro.”

“Open the door.”

Frankie pulled on the knob, revealing stacks of shoe boxes, some clothes hanging from a bar, and four guitars, each one smaller than the next.

“Give me the smallest one,” El Maestro said.

Frankie took the instrument with both hands and lifted it toward his teacher. He looked down and noticed a pair of shoes, but they were for a woman, and on the hangers were several dresses and a handbag.

“Do you have a wife, Maestro?”

“Back to the chair,” the teacher said.

Frankie closed the closet door.

That guitar, the one that would introduce Frankie Presto to his destiny, was, in fact, not a guitar at all, but a
, an instrument similar to a ukulele. It had just four strings. The neck fit in the cup of Frankie’s small left hand, and the curve of the body fit on his bony left knee, which protruded from the short pants he wore in the hot weather. It was a perfect size, as if molded to his body.

He would take it everywhere.

“Bend your right arm and relax your right hand,” El Maestro instructed. “Do not squeeze it in; you are not choking something. And do not push down; you are not drowning something. Your right fingers are talking to the strings. Would you talk to someone by choking or drowning them?”

“No, Maestro.”

“No, you would not.”

“What do I do with my left hand?”

“The left hand finds the beauty. She makes the notes and chords. You can show off all you want with your right hand, boy, but you are nothing without the left, understand?”

“Yes, Maestro.”

“Show your left hand respect. Each time you play, begin by holding it out like this.” He straightened Frankie’s palm. “Like you are asking for something.”

Frankie thought of people in church, on their knees at the pews, hands out before them.

“Like I am asking God?”

El Maestro smacked Frankie’s hand.

“Stupid boy. God gives you nothing. God only takes.”

At that stage, all Frankie knew about God was that He had a big house and He slept a lot. The big house part he assumed after Baffa told him his mother lived with God—and all the other good people who died—so it had to be a big place, right?

The sleeping part Frankie deduced after Baffa showed him the basilica in Villareal, which had been burned and destroyed by bad men. God would never allow such a thing to happen unless He slept through it, Frankie figured, just as Frankie sometimes slept through the hairless dog whining at the door and woke up to see a puddle on the floor. Bad things can happen when you sleep, Frankie reasoned, and bad people could get away with evil if they knew when God closed his eyes.

Or maybe God was sometimes like his guitar teacher, wearing the dark glasses.

“Did you ever see anything?” Frankie asked El Maestro one day.

“Will my answer make you a better guitarist?”

“No, Maestro.”

“Then why ask the question?”

“I am sorry, Maestro.”

“What would I see if I saw you?”

Frankie smiled at the idea.

“A boy.”

“A boy who is not playing his lessons.”

Frankie’s smile went away. He had been practicing for months now, every day in the garden, with the hairless dog at his feet. He wanted to play songs like the ones El Maestro played. But for now, all he got to play was exercises.

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