In Hollywood, autumn has its own sense of foreboding. It never rains in summer, so by October of the year I moved back there, the air was foul with brown dust and car exhaust. The street gutters were littered with dead yellow leaves, gum wrappers, and flattened faded paper cups; the darkened sidewalks of the Boulevard, pocked black with ancient gum, were splattered here and there outside of bars with round pale flowers of dried vomit. In time the rain would flush the filth away, leaving it clean, but not until winter. In time I found temporary work downtown, first on Flower Street, and later on Fifth and Grand, which provided money, and passed the time, but in the evenings or on weekends, I was back in my apartment.
Weekends were especially slow. Much of the time I spent lying on the thin gray carpet, reading War and Peace. My apartment window faced east toward downtown, so the light of the late afternoon sky refracted ethereally through its water-spotted glass. I lay on my stomach, propped on both elbows, reading the soft-cover Norton edition, a doorstop of a book, the pages pulpy, onto which shone the failing afternoon light. In truth I did not enjoy War and Peace, and this secret made me feel guilty, but I kept reading it because I felt it would sophisticate me, and also because it filled up the endless time between Friday evening and Monday morning. Except for the murmur of the TV next door, long periods of relative quiet would pass as I read down the left page, went up to the right, and progressed downward again. Then there would be a crisp crackle of paper as I flipped to the next page, smoothed it, and the story of Prince Andrei, Natasha, the Battle of Borodino, and the great campaign eastward continued.
It was pleasant to read under that dull blue rectangle of afternoon sky. My window was open, and from outside I could hear the kids in the courtyard below playing basketball, their sneakers scraping the concrete, knowing without looking up that their light, like mine, was beginning to fade; it would become harder for them to see the hoop. And always, with the passing of each day, I felt dread at the approach of evening.
On such an afternoon I first became aware of the singer. She had a record player with a microphone, and as I lay there reading, my window open, I would hear, distantly, the bass feedback as she turned it on, which I learned would signal the beginning of a session. At first I was barely aware of her singing. But over time, I took notice. In weeks and months, I learned the whole routine: first there would be an electronic thump as she dropped the needle on the record, which was prefatory, like clearing one’s throat. Next came, with a reliability I would find pleasing, the opening bars of the same song: “If I Was a Bell” from Guys and Dolls. Finally, after a few beats, she would start to sing. I knew little at that time about music, or musicals, or, it now seems, much of anything, but eventually I would come to understand that this was a song about a woman who finds a man who makes her feel alive. I also knew that the apartments on our side of the building were all singles, which meant that, like me, the singer was alone.
Lying on my carpet, facing the window, I would see through the dim tunnel of my apartment (wood-paneled walls on each side; above me, the water-stained popcorn ceiling) out to that lifeless blue afternoon sky, infrequently populated by the entrance and exits of circling hawks from Griffith Park as they hunted the rabbits on the hillside below. At floor level, the carpet smelled of that faint but distinct flat bitternessan accumulation of dust, perhaps, but also the particularization of every past tenant who had come to the city before, who had lived in the apartment, stayed awhile, then left, leaving behind only that faint odor, that essence, as the sole evidence of having been there at all.
I started to listen for her singing.
I liked to picture her at her window, gathering herself, microphone in hand, staring down at that courtyard we both knew, its gray tarpaper-covered garage on one end, basketball court on the other, which in the mid-afternoon shade of our building would be lit in its top latitudes by an ascending yellow light, pursued at its bottom by the advancing purple dusk.
The singer was diligent. She did not believe, as some did, in slacking off today in the belief that one’s best days lay in the future. She was not one who was made content merely by the peculiar blue opacity of that autumn sky. No, the singer practiced every afternoon; every afternoon, she put herself up for judgment before all of us in the east side of the building, before fate itself. It took something to do that: ambition, sure, but more than that, a willingness to risk it all, a willingness, really, to live. It took me weeks to notice her efforts. But when I did, I applauded her persistence. I appreciated her voice, a husky alto that somehow seemed earned. I enjoyed the flavor she brought to the afternoons.
So, as I said, there would be the thump as the needle went on, then that same tune. And although she always began the song with uncertainty, a few lines in there was a transformation: her voice grew stronger, deepened, and when the song entered its eponymous line, the singer’s voice came to life. When she sang
If I was a bell I’d be RINGING
her voice would swell, swell into something large and wonderful. I felt lighter when she sang that line. And as the weeks passed, I started to look forward to her singing, all of it, the early timidity, her growing confidence, and then The Line itself.
Who was that singer? I mean, who was she? And why did she sing? Perhaps she could sing nothing else, no other line, no other song, but what she sang, she inhabited. She may have been ordinary, but in the singing of that line, in feeling, in conviction, in the way it infused the afternoon, had things been different, well, who knows what she could have been. On the floor, my book open, I felt an excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Outside, in the sky’s deepening blue, a hawk would be circling overhead, its underside dark, the tops of its wings gleaming from the sun. The singer would keep going a line or two, and theninevitably, inevitablyshe’d flub a word, she’d get off key, she’d stop. Maybe she lost confidence. She’d stop singing, though the music would play on gaily for a few moments before she’d yank the needle off the record. And then there was only me, my book, the cries of the kids playing basketball, the triumphant chain rattle of a basket made.
The moment she stopped singing, the novelty of what I had heardits daring, its successhung in the air, bright, tangible, as real as the blue of the sky. But as silent minutes passed, the afternoon seemed to grow darker, the circling hawk more oppressive. Time and again, I would go back to my book, unsettled, but with a fuller sense of the afternoon and its possibilities. Finally, to my relief, after what seemed like forever, she would drop the needle back on the record and start at the top of the song again. Then and only then did our afternoon lurch on.
In the weeks and months of that fall, until I closed the window from cold, she kept at it. She never tried any other song. Over and over, it was always “If I Was a Bell,” sung the same way, abandoned halfway through. Maybe she liked that song. Or maybe she understood the narrowness of her talent, its paucity, and wished to harness it to its best expression, which was that songhalf of it, reallyand of that half, really only one line, in which she could reach out and stroke the sleeve of something akin to greatness.
In the Tolstoy novel, when Napoleon’s Grande Armée entered Moscow that September, they found the capital silent, foreboding; the Russians had checked out, vanished, and winter was on the way. The French, in a fit of pique, set fire to the city. The army, already starving, meandered south, then east. Cold came; the men froze in their tracks. The emaciated horses, one by one, faltered, and when they did, the men hacked at them with knives before they were dead.
I spent my weekends that fall in the apartment, reading page after page, chapter after chapter of that book, making plans I knew I would never fulfill, as the darkness came on. Then I closed the window.
But that winter, something happened. I began to make friends, I spent more time out of the apartment. I developed the beginnings of a life and forgot about the singer. When I reopened the window in spring, I listened, but there was nothing. She was gone. The rectangle of sky was lighter then, and the boys returned with their basketball. The air was cool. Some-times I thought of her. Where did she go? Was she still singing? I suppose I wished her the best. But more than ever, I was glad to be past all that. Somehow, I knew it was time. When I stared out my window, the trees with their new leaves flashed bright in the spring winds, and for the first time since I had returned, the sidewalks shone clean.
Alex R. Jones lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, The Sun, and elsewhere.