The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
I HAVE COME TO CLAIM MY PRIZE.
He is there, inside the coffin. In truth, he is mine already. But a good musician holds respectfully until the final notes are played. This man’s melody is finished, but his mourners have come a great distance to add a few stanzas. A coda, of sorts.
Let us listen.
Heaven can wait.
Do I frighten you? I shouldn’t. I am not death. A grim reaper in a hood, reeking of decay? As your young people say—please.
Nor am I the Great Judge whom you all fear at the end. Who am I to judge a life? I have been with the bad and the good. I hold no verdict on the wrongs this man committed. Nor do I measure his virtues.
I do know a great deal about him: the spells he wove with his guitar, the crowds he enthralled with that deep, breathy voice.
The lives he changed with his six blue strings.
I could share all this. Or I could rest. I always make time to rest. Do you think me coy? I am at times. I am also sweet and calming and dissonant and angry and difficult and simple, as soothing as poured sand, as piercing as a pinprick.
I am Music. And I am here for the soul of Frankie Presto. Not all of it. Just the rather large part he took from me when he came into this world. However well used, I am a loan, not a possession. You give me back upon departure.
I will gather up Frankie’s talent to spread on newborn souls. And I will do the same with yours one day. There is a reason you glance up when you first hear a melody, or tap your foot to the sound of a drum.
All humans are musical. Why else would the Lord give you a beating heart?
Of course, some of you get more of me than others. Bach, Mozart, Jobim, Louis Armstrong, Eric Clapton, Philip Glass, Prince—to name but a few of your time. In each of their cases, I felt their tiny hands at birth, reaching out, grabbing me. I will share a secret: this is how talents are bestowed. Before newborns open their eyes, we circle them, appearing as brilliant colors, and when they clench their tiny hands for the first time, they are actually grabbing the colors they find most appealing. Those talents are with them for life. The lucky ones (well, in my opinion, the lucky ones) choose me. Music. From that point on, I live inside your every hum and whistle, every pluck of a string or plink of a piano key.
I cannot keep you alive. I lack such power. But I infuse you. And yes, I infused the man in the coffin, my mysterious and misunderstood Frankie Presto, whose recent death during a festival concert was witnessed by a sold-out crowd, his body lifting to the rafters before dropping to the stage, a lifeless shell.
It caused quite a stir. Even today, as they gather in this centuries-old basilica for his funeral, people are asking, “Who killed Frankie Presto?” because no one, they say, dies that way on his own.
That is true.
Did you know his first name was actually Francisco? His managers tried to hide that. “Frankie,” they believed, was more palatable to American fans. The way young girls would scream it at his concerts—“Frankie! I love you, Frankie!”—I suppose they were right. Shorter names are more suited to hysteria. But you cannot change your past, no matter how you craft your future.
Francisco was his real name. Francisco de Asís Pascual Presto. I rather like it. I was there the night it was bestowed.
That’s right. I know the unknown details of Frankie Presto’s birth, the ones historians and music critics—even Frankie himself—always labeled a mystery.
I can share them if you like.
Does that surprise you? My willingness to begin with such a coveted story? Well. Why delay? I am not one of the “slower” talents, like Reason or Mathematics. I am Music. If I bless you singing, you can do so from your first attempt. Composing? My best phrases often lie in the opening notes. Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik? Dum, da-dum, da-dum da- dum da-dum? He burst out laughing when he played that on his fortepiano. It took less than a minute.
You want to know how Frankie Presto came into this world?
I will tell you. Simple as that.
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 cham- ber, 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.