Later, Brendan could never remember whether he was already awake or not. Certainly he was floating somewhere close to the surface, at least, or he never would have heard it at all. But so many of his nights were spent in an oscillating state, eyes open, eyes closed, throwing off sheets in the summer or burrowing under covers in the winter. He trailed after sleep like a wounded hound, hopelessly dedicated but often deprived of his mark. It was very possible he was lying there for several minutes before it started, trying not to steal glances at the clock, the day’s worries darting in and out of the gloom above his head. But however it happened, the main of it would always shine on amidst the fog of his mounting years: at some point, he was sitting straight up in bed, listening to the sound of a woman in the apartment below him singing.
It wasn’t especially loud, or showy, or even always audible. It hovered at the fringes of his hearing, sometimes dipping down into silence, then rising back up a few moments later. But at its height, during what he thought might be the chorus, it was a full presence in his bedroom. He could very nearly make out the words. The melody felt archaic, in some way he couldn’t quite identify, and the woman paused for breath often, so he felt sure she must be older. Someone’s grandmother, maybe. He could imagine her, sitting over a child’s bed, stroking his forehead. Superhero bedspread, night light, her glasses on a chain. Or maybe it was nothing like that. Maybe she was singing to her grown son or daughter, as they suffered through the night with prescription drug withdrawal or late-stage cancer. The innumerable possibilities of other people’s lives.
The details escaped him, but he felt sure that she must be singing to someone. There was a performative quality to her voice, and something else, too, something too soft to be intended for her alone. When Brendan sang to himself, as he often did (in the car, long nights after a shift, his voice hoarse from exhaustion but still belting it out, half-yelling it), the idea was to just get it out of him. To cleanse himself. To expel. This was nothing like that. This had a distinct lightness, a cadence he found soothing, and he felt that had to be the intent. It was either a lullaby or a love song; it had that tone, of affection, of gratitude, of intimacy. In it Brendan could hear all the other songs for all the other people she must have sung to before (too practiced to be an amateur, too sure of the lyrics).
Strange, he thought, how rare this was: people singing for one another. It was the sort of thing he could only think about at two-thirty in the morning, addled by insomnia, sitting frozen and tense while he eavesdropped on a neighbor. People sang all the time: for a crowd, for a contest, for a mirror. But how often did one person simply give a song to another? How often was that shared so privately? And how often was there a third party simply around to witness it? He felt both privileged and a little embarrassed to be given the chance.
For a long time he simply sat there, blankets bundled at his waist with his hands clenched around them. He strained to detect the notes, and each time they faded his heart leaped at the thought that they might be over, but always they returned, the new verse, the refrain, always more words. Eventually, an idea seized him, and he fled the bedroom to retrieve his guitar from its stand by the couch, hoping that the thump of his heels against the hardwood floor wouldn’t interrupt her. Fast as he could he took it by the neck and came back, practically flinging it and his body across the mattress. There he sat cross-legged, the curve of its body against his bare legs, and tried to pick out the singing again. It was a little difficult at first, beneath the sound of his racing pulse in his ears, but he managed to catch up with it, like swimming back into a gentle current. Slowly, he began to pluck at the strings, muting them as best he could to keep from drowning out the vocals.
The song was a wistful one, a lot of minor chords, but the more he heard it the more attached to it Brendan became. There was something in it that resonated, something that closely resembled his state of mind in the last several weeks. Little by little, his fingers found a suitable accompaniment, and within minutes the two of them were intertwined. When her voice rose, so did the guitar. When it sustained, so did he. A part of him wondered if she could hear what he was doing, whether she was continuing on in spite of him or whether she felt compelled by the same distant kinship he felt for her.
The time came, inevitably, when the song did fade for the last time, and Brendan could hear, in its final moments, the desperation that signaled it had reached its climax. It was as though it were the last song she would ever sing for anyone, and perhaps, for reasons he could never know, it was. Maybe it was she, and not her companion, lying bedridden, retreating into a vastness only she could begin to comprehend. No way to tell, never any way to cross that divide. But even when the end had come and gone, he continued to play, even picking up the vocals himself. No words, of course, but a quiet hum, an approximation. It was the first time in a long time that his singing had not been ragged with anger and weariness, the first time it was possessed of anything like gentleness. The first time he had played the guitar in months.
Was it for her, he wondered, or for him? To whom was he performing? Was this a tribute, did it have that nobility, or was it just another way for him to wallow in anguish? It was, after all, the closest he had come to another human being in many weeks. But he concluded, in the last several bars, that it didn’t matter. Possibly the woman, too, knew his brand of loneliness. Who but the lonely could sing a song like that? It was for both of them that he kept on. And it was for both that he woke the next morning, still in the dark, and began to write down the notes.
Photograph by Kimberly Richards