Sometimes you wake up and feel like you’re in the absolute wrong story. The train bell is clanging on time, there are sirens sounding like a rescue to someone out there and a couple of robins that fought for and won a spot on the last anemic elm are making good on the phrase “for crying out loud.” That’s how it sounds to me, their bird blather, though it’s probably just me. I’m no good before the third mug of coffee. Still, this is that morning when waking up feels like an off-beat, failed response to a wrong cue.
I sit by the open window, my bleary vision drifting over the city’s fancier angles and spires, then rectangular testaments to cheap but everlasting. This has been my perch for eight years and the armchair fits me, a lumpy nest. The fluttering beige curtain slaps my face like a soft hand. I close my eyes, raise mug to lips and let tongue meld with the first acidic, bright savoring. Swallow, stomach lurching. A tinge of rum from last night still sours my taste buds and glazes the far reaches of digestion. But the breeze is alive with life. Other people’s, other places’. I can appreciate it nonetheless after the tenth swallow and a dried out cinnamon roll. I pick at it, inhale the air and its fragrant messages joined with others.
I’m not what you call a slob but I’ve been given to neglect lately. I feel the weight of unwashed hair on my head and neck. My apartment is strewn with nothing necessary or good. It’s been four weeks since the last job set me free so I can feel more poor. Not that it wasn’t expected; it was temporary, like most jobs of the last couple years. Still, nothing like the defining sound of a metal office door closing, and that envelope in hand feeling too light for even the little it bears within it. It’s a small throwaway life says the paycheck for all my sweat and muscle strain while on the line, soldering wires and impossibly tiny pieces that make up parts that go into bigger ones to ultimately get airplanes off the ground. Never mind, though; it wasn’t work I liked. But it was something, wasn’t it, not this sitting here and noting layers of grime on the sill and staring at deep scratches on the ancient wood floor and going blind while studying windows that wink at me from across the street.
“Rise and shine, son. Got to look for ten new jobs today?” my father says when he calls to see if I’m out of bed by eight.
“It’s like being in a swanky hotel, getting a wake up call every morning. Don’t you have anything else to do, like feed the pigeons? You don’t have to hustle, anymore.”
“No, I got my own life of leisure, my pension could send me to the Riviera but I prefer Omaha. You need to take more action, Kelly, not wait for things to happen.”
“Okay, thanks for calling, Dad. I’m going back into hibernation mode, so don’t call tomorrow.”
“It’s get up and go time, not snooze time,” he says as I hang up.
“Bye, love you, too,” I say, tossing my phone onto my all-purpose round metal table.
I’m actually concentrating hard on the phone, willing it to ring again so I can answer, then hear someone inform me I’ve won the jackpot, come on in for an interview. The resumes I’ve sent hit sixty-two yesterday but he wouldn’t even believe that. Dad thinks it’s still forty years ago, you can always find another gig; it’s a matter of beating the pavement. He never had to even beat the pavement. He was a supervisor at the same factory his father worked so when I turned it down he worried I was some sort of fool. But I wanted to go to community college. Then he bragged on me. He was right, though, as the measly two-year degree landed me right where I am. Associate of Arts, so not a big deal in the work world.
It’s nearly ten. Mrs. Havers is leaving her apartment across from mine. She goes in late because her boss is always late so why not? She does flower arrangements at the floral shop, takes two buses across the city and has done so for years. Her knock on my door is crisp, methodical, three raps and then a considered pause followed by a hard fourth. That’s her secret knock, she told me once, so I’ll always know it’s her.
I open the door, proffer a closed-mouth grin. This is not a morning to chat or to tell lies about my success. It’s a morning like an empty stage and I’m starting to wring my hands.
Her light eyebrows, drawn with delicate precision, flick up and down like wings. “You’re up but not yet motivated, I see.”
“How can I feel motivated? No one’s called since the temp agency. The guy wanted me to try detailing.”
“Cars, cleaning up cars,” I explain vaguely.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound like you.”
“No. And I just own a bike.”
“But nice to not be trapped in a factory.”
“Maybe.” I notice her smock. “New one? It has herbs all over it like you’re going to work in a natural foods cafe. Or a gardening center.”
“We’re now selling herbs, set up a stall on that bricked area in back. It looks good out there with potted pansies, a couple of director’s chairs in yellow. I used to eat lunch there, though. Mr. Kent’s trying it out since people ask for them now and then even though it’s a flower shop. Go figure. So I thought I’d get into the spirit, look the part. You think it’s too much?”
Her dyed harsh red hair is pulled back into a neat bun; her lips are peach, as are her cheeks. The smock looks like the rest of her, tidy and colorful. She loves plunging her hands in dirt, making the beautiful even better, giving encouragement when you deserve far less. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life, like the mother I no longer have. Mrs. Havers would be embarrassed to hear that; she thinks she’s a failure in that department as she had one kid who never calls. I know that kid is missing out.
“No, you’re ravishing, as usual.”
She flashes a mock beauty queen smile, then swings the sturdy cloth bag she calls a purse so it deliberately thumps my knee. “You need to look your own part, get out there and find that job!”
“The problem, Mrs. Havers, is that I haven’t been able to find my place. The play keeps going on without me, no intermissions, no clues about my character.”
She shoves a stray carrot red hair back in place. “My, you’re quite the talker–you trying to be Shakespeare? The clue’s practically staring you in the face. You figure it out.” A quick pat on my shoulder. “Now get in the shower. Have a decent day, Kelly.” She takes a few short steps, turns around before I shut the door tight. “You seeing Milt soon?”
I wave her off with a genuine half-smile.
I’m thirty-four, not a genius, not a winning replica of a dream son. I’ve worked since I was fifteen but after nearly twenty years it’s getting redundant. What do these people expect? If it isn’t my dad or the neighbors, it’s my ex-girlfriend, it’s the guys at the bar down the block. I’m there almost every night lately, the neighborhood haunt. Three of my buddies stop on their way home from work. We have a couple of beers, they give me tips on meeting women and getting jobs, they complain about their jobs and their domestic bliss and then they go home to wives and kids. I stay on awhile, drink some more. I know this isn’t good as Lou the bartender has been reminding me when I should head home. But why? Call it depression, call it burn-out blues, call it a rut but morning til night seems one and the same. I feel myself slipping.
Well, there is this: on week-ends I perform there along with other wannabes. Karaoke, but I get a lot of applause. I can sing a bit. It’s about blowing off steam, having some fun. I look forward to it more than most things. Pathetic when you consider that.
Then a couple days after seeing Mrs. Havers, Milt the bar owner asks if I want to play piano and sing on Wednesday and Thursday nights, says he thinks I might draw more business. I thought he was joking and it wasn’t funny. I’ve always felt a reluctance, more of a rawness in my throat with a strangling sensation in my chest when I try to sing out. With a few drinks I can ham it up with the canned music. Stumble home, mind empty.
“Right, Milt, thanks for that. Of course I’m fine with the other karaoke nuts–but let’s get real, it doesn’t really require anything, does it?” I slurped a third foamy beer. “But alone? Not so much. Once, maybe. Now…”
Lou joined Milt, his youthful blondness startling next to Milt’s overripe body, his shiny baldness.
“I caught that,” Lou said. ” Really? You can sing, can’t you hear yourself? You’ve got pipes.”
“Lisanne Havers says you play piano, too–you’ve got one in your apartment. Says you’re good.”
I turned around on my stool, surveyed the regulars. John came in the door, high-fived Todd whose real estate investments were paying off at last. I wondered what cases John had won or lost in court that week. I vaguely suspected they thought I was a loser bar buddy, one more lowly factory rat scrambling among the rat kings.
“I’d like to hear you with that piano. See if Lisanne Havers is correct. I generally trust her judgment.”
I knew Milt had a longtime thing for her, imagined she’d put him up to it. I swiveled back.
“I don’t do that sort of thing, anymore. It’s been years. Since I was twenty-three or so.”
He leaned over the counter and shook his shining dome at me. “Gotta try something else, Kelly, the factories don’t want you lately. If you’re any good, I’ll give you decent change for a couple hour hours a night to start–once you bring in just ten more paying customers. Then I’ll expect better, of course, and you’ll be better remunerated.”
“Why are you doing this?” I could feel a shift, as if a time warp machine was controlling the scene’s atmospheric pressure. I was going backwards and I was about to audition for my first bar gig. I flashed on that dump, then blinked.
Milt spread his hands out. “Why not? A favor to us both, maybe.”
He had no idea what he was asking of me. I left early and went home, sat by the window and fell asleep to rattling and buzzing in my head, the tracks of my past. But the next day his words felt still like a magnet I couldn’t repel. He had laid down a challenge. The prize might be more music in my life.
So tonight I’m going in with nothing but a memory full of old standards that my mother taught me. I’m like an old juke box with no control over selections. When I sit down at the piano, notes and chords will roll out from the piano, that’s how it works. My hands will pretend they belong to someone else; it’s easier that way. And if my voice gathers force I might have to leave, because then my secrets will fall out my mouth and all will know the truth. That I need this.
I haven’t really sung–not good singing, committed-to-the-music singing– since my mother passed. She was a genuine singer, sang in back street dives, then bigger jazz clubs around Chicago and Detroit before she married my dad after he got out of the service. They moved to Omaha; well, it was where his family resided. Why she did that, I don’t know. I was going to be born, so likely for stability–who can say for sure? But not pursuing her dream nearly killed her; she drank like a madwoman. She finally vacated our home when I was twelve.
St. Louis got Marie Whiting. And they got the better parts, her artistry. Chicago got the most and best, I read years later.
Dad instructed her to call weekly or not at all. She called sporadically, saw me a few times, tears and kisses, until he put a stop to it. It was too hard. She was travelling, getting known. She recorded four albums I never heard, even when I got older and might have. I’d heard her sing for us for twelve years and it was heaven but that was her in the flesh, not a CD. Then I caught her voice accidentally on the radio. It was a jolt of happy and proud–until bitterness took the goodness of it, a landslide undoing a pocket of green valley. Only Rona, my ex-girlfriend, has known who my mother is. I live far from Dad and Omaha folks who knew her once. Rona has kept all my secrets. I couldn’t find my way to reciprocate her decent love, not when I’ve had so little to spare. I wrote a song for her that one day I may share. Way late, but why not.
My mother died at her peak, the magazines said. Breast cancer. My long forgotten aunt called Dad out of backlogged anger, then regrets. He and I went to her funeral only because I begged him. We sat in the back. As we watched the crowds gathering it was too much, a sweltering pain. We slipped away and then I went numb. We never spoke of her again.
I wonder what Dad would think if he knew I still sing a little. He oddly enough tolerated it when I was a teenager. Sometimes left what he was doing to stand in the living archway as I played the piano we kept. But he never said a word. Music was her showing up in me; that might have felt good or bad, I never knew for certain.
Of course I want to perform, that’s what anyone would think if they knew Marie Whiting was my mother, if they knew I also play piano well. They might ask why didn’t I get on with it, why did I go to community college then work in factories? I mean, factories are fine, but I had to learn that work piece by piece, my will the victor.
Am I some mental health expert? No, but I saw one after she left us and by even then I knew what was going on. What was cutting me off, what I’d lost or could lose. So maybe I’ve chosen to just get by, to fit in with family and friends, avoid memories. To forge my own path. Save my dad from more hurt, too. I’ve tried to beat down the desire to give myself away to music. Like she did. And it took and took and left us reeling.
Music the wound maker.
Still, I answer when it calls me.
Tonight I head to Milt’s Bar and Grill to play a few songs, anyway. I’m tired of repeat boredom, the same views, same failures. I might as well change something. I’m running out of cash and ideas. I have to do something and something presented itself. What’s a song or two to me? I sing for nothing at the drop of a hat, hollow songs, pop tunes that mean little to nothing, music that allows escape for a moment. I can do that much–and I can do better if I have to, can’t I?
“Why isn’t this just a regular audition?” I asked him. “How come I have to play for the patrons now before we know I can do it?”
“It’s the audience who’ll decide, as usual. You aren’t afraid, are you?” He looked me up and down. “We can call it off. Just doing you a favor.”
“You’re a scoundrel, a nice one but…”
He crossed his arms, cocked his head at me. “What’s to lose, kid?”
So now I suck in a shaky breath, dive into beery darkness. The piano is left of the small stage. No spotlights are on, per my request. I’ll sweat it out in complete smoky obscurity.
“Kelly! Ready for good times? Man, glad I got here early!” Todd calls out as I thread my way through clots of early drinkers. He’s on his second beer already.
I lift the piano cover to reveal a very worn keyboard but know it is in tune. I asked for that much and Milt took care of it. It may sound less than sterling but my own upright is a third-hand instrument. I pull out the bench, sit unceremoniously. Stretch out my arms, flex fingers. Grab the drink on a chair beside me and sip. The pop music that had been playing over speakers goes soft, then silent.
“Ladies and gents, we’ve gotten together tonight to drink, gossip and enjoy music as usual. But tonight is an experiment, as some of you know. I’ve invited a guy up here whose reputation precedes him. I give you our star karaoke singer, Mr. Kelly Whiting!”
A nice smattering of applause with some hollering and hooting. From the corner of my eye I see Mrs. Havers but she is looking down. I have a sudden urge to check if Rona is sitting in front but no, she’d call out my name even now.
I’m not prepared for the moment when everyone awaits that first note. I think I’ll suffocate. Almost get up, leave–but then I start to hear the music in my head. If I want this to go the right way so that it is a minor means to a possibly bearable end, I have to dig deep, be honest with those listening. So I am still a minute or two more. It’s best to relax into things, let things unfold of their own accord.
The cue is in me and I hear it and take action.
I set my hands in motion but as if suspended above my body. See them touching stripes of ivory and ebony keys, my head moving to and fro as my body responds. A sudden rushing of blood in my veins, lungs pulling oxygen from the ordinary world. The static inside quits. The music spins, turns me inside out. Spills across the stage and covers the room, the people. I open my mouth as if I have something that needs to be sung and it happens. For me. Whole and intact, the song erupts as if it has been saving up courage, gathering up soul and body, finding the resolution that will change it all.
It all comes back to me like a kind of natural wonder revealed. The music lives.
The broken nights and days wrapped in self-loathing–they deserve no more of me. There is something more left, it stirs and releases the music, a surge over edges and rolling outward like an offering of what still survives. Joy amid longing.
Now a spotlight floods the stage and covers me. There are cheers. All I feel is heat, that combustion of energy let loose by the music. I am in the center of a storm and I am casting for hope. And note by note I am given ownership of the tune, riding a swell of crescendos, chords and runs like honey and fire, stony rivers and shooting stars that take me into mystery. My voice opens, reaches. I barely hear the rise of applause as I move out of my own way. But I’m getting closer to where I’m more certain lies deeper belonging. Can you hear me, Marie Whiting? Hear me and know I am your son.