When Sylvie Sang
It is longer than my usual posts.
I hope you enjoy it.
WHEN SYLVIE SANG the men at the bar would stop and turn on their stools to listen. The bartender would dry his hands, move to the end of the bar and light up a cigarette. The waitresses would huddle by the wall and hug their trays. And the drunken man who cried softly to himself in the corner by the door would lift his eyes and rub his hands together underneath an invisible spigot.
When Sylvie sang, the room was locked in glass and still – as still as a new widow hearing that first long silence.
In the spotlight the smoke was frozen.
“When Sunny gets blue, her eyes get gray and cloudy.”
When Sylvie sang she never really heard the music or thought about the words. She was far away in a small town by a riverbank, holding onto someone she loved. She only heard his voice, felt his heat, and the nightclub disappeared.
When Sylvie sang she wasn’t there and the people she sang for knew that because she took them with her.
“What would they say if we up and ran away from the roaring crowd?”
But the song always has to end and when the music stopped the men at the bar would turn again and start to laugh and talk. The waitresses would rush to cover their thirsty stations and the drunken man would close his eyes again and descend inside himself. Sylvie would go out into the alley and smoke until the next set called her back.
The singing paid the rent and bought groceries and books, but it cost her – dearly. Every night when the neon lights went out, she’d walk back to her room, six blocks down, two blocks over, past the on-ramp, North, next to the Hallmark store. And there, with no lights on, Sylvie would sing for herself and make love by the riverbank with no audience looking on. And every night the return trip from the riverbank got longer and longer.
Pieces of paper were pinned to the walls. Held with colored tacks and covered with her dreams – slashed in black Magic Marker. Over her bed, behind the blood red sofa, taped to the mirror in the bath. Each page with a word, each word a storyboard. “Forests”, “Curtains”, “Dancing”, “Peru”. All the things that Sylvie dreamed of and wanted so to be.
She paced away her days inside that room and she walked along the Inca Trail, laid down on a bed of late Autumn leaves and shivered as an edge of Belgian lace slid slowly against her skin.
When the daylight began to fade she would pin the dreams back to the wall and fix herself something to eat. As she ate, the wordscape “Bayou” spiced her dish and blew hot across her neck.
As the wind picked up and darkness came and the dinner shows were ending, Sylvie changed into black silk and heels and walked two blocks over and six blocks down, as she clung for a moment to the sound of the mountain pipes. She paused when she saw the neon circles sweeping orange across the sidewalk in front of the “Satin Rose”, and she closed the gallery in her mind and slipped into a world of smoke and mirrors.
Her room next to the Hallmark store had once been part of a large flat that was broken down into crash pads in the late ’60s. The shadow of a large Peace sign could still be seen struggling through the dirty green paint on the eastern wall. The bathroom was a converted closet and, in the haste and disinterest of the conversion, the owner had neglected to remove three coat hooks from the wall just inside the door. The bathroom always smelled of mold and standing water.
By the terms of the rental agreement there was to be no cooking in any of the apartments. The wiring was just a crime and I’m sure the Fire Department and Insurance companies would agree.
Everyone cooks. I have a two-burner hot plate. It’s more than I need. Sylvie has one of those GE Toaster Ovens that she keeps on the floor by her bed and on those cold nights she turns it on and opens the glass door just a crack to let it warm her face.
The fear of fire in the building is outweighed by the people’s need for one of the basic civilities of life: cooking something to eat when you are hungry. Whether its cinnamon toast at 2 AM or hot Twinkies on a Sunday morning to have with your coffee and “Times”.
Sylvie used to cook for herself, but because of the fear of fire, blown fuses or her growing sense of detachment, now she only uses the oven to heat water for tea or to dry her books.
Her books were ruined on a Sunday night when there was no show, no songs for her to sing, no way for her to leave the Here behind.
Images came to her in flashes of light. Voices yelled at her, called her name, and swore. Distant blows landed on her body. The river overflowed its banks and her Lover floated away, out of sight, and was gone.
The books were ruined on a Sunday night when the water seeped into the floor causing the ceiling of the apartment below to discolor and drop pieces of green painted plaster and onto the bed of the Filipino widower who lives alone and keeps diaries so that someday the World will know – so they’ll all know.
When his ceiling began to fall he ran into the hall and pounded on my door across the way. The commotion pulled some of the other tenants out of their rooms and after a short crisis meeting that bounced back and forth between English, Tagalog, Spanish and, I think, Greek, we marched, as a small mob, up the stairs to Sylvie’s door.
The water coming from her room followed the slope of the floor out into the hallway, soaking the frayed edge of the runner. The Filipino widower pounded on the door as we all yelled for her to open up. When we got no answer and the water had started its way down the stairs, I moved the others out of the way and … I kicked it in.
The door jumped from its hinges and the wood by the lock powdered and fell to the floor.
As I looked inside the first thing that caught my eye was a white ceramic hand sticking out of the wall by the bathroom door. In its grip were three silky-looking black dresses on padded hangers.
We could see the water coming from the bathroom and so the Filipino widower and I crowded in. The others filled the doorway.
There she was, sitting, naked on the floor of the shower with her arms full of books. Paperbacks, hardcovers, mysteries, romance. A National Geographic was open to an article on the Bicentennial. The water rained down on her and the books then out onto the floor. She didn’t look up when we came in. Her eyes stayed fixed on the wrinkling picture of the Tall Ships coming into New York harbor.
I reached over and turned off the water while the Filipino widower began to scream at her about how her craziness was going to cause trouble for all of us. About how if the Building Inspector came in and found out about all of the cooking, the owner would be forced to bring the place up to code and where were we all supposed to live while the work was being done? And about how, even then, we wouldn’t be able to afford the new higher rents that the repairs would cause. So, for Christ’s sake would she either get her shit together or just get her shit out of the building and leave us all in peace.
She didn’t hear a word he said. She just stood up, her arms cradling the dripping books and walked past us. As she lowered herself onto the sofa she stopped and looked me in the eyes. The back of my skull felt the bump. Then she rolled over and went to sleep. The others started to leave. I went over and covered her with an old afghan that was draped over the back of the sofa.
I should have left then too, but I didn’t. I stayed and looked around. At all those words taped to the walls, at all the books and at those three black dresses.
Those dresses just didn’t fit in. Everything else in the apartment was worn and neglected, but those dresses were immaculate and cared for. All of the other clothes in her closet were thrift shop and casual. Those dresses were expensive and classy. And they faintly smelled of… cigarettes and lilac.
I put the door back on its hinges, went home, and got a little drunk.
After that night the others began to freeze her out. The Armenian woman with no bottom teeth stopped saying, “Hello”in the hallway and the young couple, who are both runaways and so much in love, never asked her to share a joint anymore.
One night when I was taking my garbage out I saw her, in one of her black silk dresses. I followed her to the nightclub, the “Satin Rose,” and I stayed until closing time and then I followed her home again.
Night after night I went to the club. I’d sit at the bar, close my eyes, and let Sylvie’s voice make me feel good.
She never knew I was there. I didn’t want her to see me. I would be compelled to tell her how I felt and I couldn’t do that. I was falling in love with her and she was barely aware of me. And besides, everyone in the club knew that Sylvie was in love already with someone we could never outshine. One song and you just knew.
But I wanted to be something to her. I had to do something for her. I wanted to offer her something. So, I began to feed her. I would fix food for her and put it by her door. Soup, eggs, some meat when I could afford it. I’m not much of a chef, but I can fix what my mother fixed for me. Stew. I crushed vitamins and mixed them in.
At first, she didn’t eat anything that I made for her. Then she started to take a few bites and, finally, she began to eat everything I put down for her.
In the morning, while I knew she’d still be sleeping, I’d come up and get the dishes from the hallway. One time a piece of paper saying “Mozart” was on the plate. Last month, she left me a paper napkin that she’d kissed. I wish I could say things to her in words as eloquently as she spoke to me in scraps of paper and empty plates.
Last Friday I had to work late so I couldn’t go to the club. When I got home I fixed myself some supper and put a plate in the hallway for Sylvie. The next morning it was still there.
That night I went over to the club but, somebody else was singing. I asked the bartender and he said that the night before Sylvie had done her usual show except, after the last set, she went through the house and thanked everybody for being there – shaking hands, kissing cheeks . Then she said, “Good-bye,” picked up a small brown suitcase from behind the bar, and walked out the door. Then he handed me this note.
“Thank you very much. For coming to hear me sing, for the food, for loving me when I couldn’t.”
I guess that night she sang the last song that she felt she had to sing and now she’s on her way back to some riverbank in some small town somewhere.
Good for her, I guess.
When Sylvie sang.
“Love brings such misery and pain. I know I’ll never be the same.
Since I fell for you….”