SOLFEGE PART I
She’s taken to asking questions now since Helen is gone. First about the accident. The details. How could we forget to strap Helen in? Do you think she knew what was happening? Do you think it hurt?
I try my best to answer. But now she asks about me. A lot of questions that she hadn’t asked before. What do you tell a lover after the first night? New details are only good luck--or new mistakes. I suspect she’s looking for things. What have I carried into her life to make it this way? What is it she didn’t see? The scar is there in plain sight--but she looks at it with creased eyes, squinting in the dark.
I used to head out every night to drink with Jay. Before I left the apartment I’d set the lights. One in the bedroom, one in the living room. A soft glow in the hallway. I liked the way they made the place look. Kind of comfortable. A place you might want to be. I always figured it’d be just right if I brought someone home. Besides, there’s nothing like having to turn on the lights to let you know you’re alone.
Jay’s a good guy. I met him over my first car, a green Chevy Nova. The middle of the summer and it was smoking. I pulled it into his garage and popped the hood. He came out in the cleanest, whitest, coveralls you’ve ever seen. He looked like a doctor. When I asked him what I should do he just looked at it, waiving the smoke away. Let it die, he said. Let it die. I give Jay a hard time about his hands. They’re never dirty, no grease under the nails, nothing. And they’re slim, with tapered fingers. Girl’s hands I tell him. "Jay, you’ve got girl’s hands." Sometimes we have a few beers and call it quits. Two people isn’t enough. You can still be lonely that way.
I’d get home and be startled by the lights. Open the door and they’re there, like the room was living without me. I’d walk around and turn them all off--three lamps. Sometimes I’d stop at the intercom and push the button out of habit. Listen to the traffic move by outside. I used to have this daydream that one night some guy I didn’t know just came to the building and rang my button.When I’d answer he’d tell me that he saw me on the bus to work, that I got off a couple of blocks early and would walk the rest of the way. That I seem like a nice guy. He’d tell me he just wanted to let me know that he noticed me today, no big deal, and that maybe he’d see me around sometime. In my head I would tell him sure, maybe I’ll see him at the bar and we’d have a drink. All right, he would say. Then I’d let go of the button and the rush of the traffic--gone.
We’re never right in the morning. Her body holds in anger like a boys, tight, frustrated. I would wake up to the sound of her teeth clicking away. She grips herself in an embrace, nails clinging to the backs of her arms. Sometimes I call her: Batiste. Pull her leg across my thighs, her arm across my chest. She just grips me, tiny speckles of blood on the sheets the next day. Now I hum to her, a low murmur, almost a song, and she’s quiet for a while. But, if I run my finger down her jaw it is still tense, unforgiving. I know she misses Helen though. I know.
Batiste came to my work. That’s how I met her. I work in one of those stores that looks like a warehouse, only bigger. The ones where we have only six employees and if you’re a customer you never see us, just hear the echo of our voices over the intercom. It’s like the Wizard of Oz--warm bodies behind big thick curtains. She was walking up and down the aisle in front of my counter and I was trying to watch her without really watching. She had this brown hair, and hips on her. Nothing too uppity because I could tell her blue sweater was old. The eyes were terrific when she turned around, dark, really dark. She had hold of a cassette player, one of our expensive ones, and she put it on the counter in front of me.
-Can you open this for me?
Sometimes guys come in, even a few women, and ask to open a box. The trick is to get a salesperson to take it out of the package, something small like a CD player or hand-held TV. Once it’s out of the box they make it out the door without the alarm going off. No security chasing you. All we get is out of breath and some other moron trying to steal something while we’re gone. I could hop the counter quicker than you think. She didn’t look nervous though.
-We’re not supposed to take things out of their packages.
-I know, but sometimes you can hear the little wheels turning in the background.
I pulled the cassette out of the package and took some batteries off the wall. Popped them in. She smiled and I handed her the player. She pulled out a tape from her back pocket and put the phones over her ears. If I was smart I would have gone over to the other side of the counter but I stayed where I was and didn’t worry her.
She walked up and down the aisle slowly, half humming, half singing to herself. Each note she sounded followed the next all the way to the top of the scale. She held the last note and backed her way down, a little less sure.
-What are you doing?
She looked surprised and pulled the headphones off her ears.
-Solfege, ear training.You know, like do-re-mi-fa-so-la.
And she pointed up.
-They each stand for a note and you copy them to train your ears.
-What kind of music?
She pushed the button on her tape.
-I’m Omar, I told her, and held out my hand. I looked silly I guess because she was a full ten or so feet away. She walked over and shook it.
-Batiste, she said.
-That sounds like a singer’s name. Like Pavorotti. Something complicated.
She leaned on one hip and eyed me, like maybe I was making it up.
-You don’t look Mexican.
-Yeah, well. You don’t look like you’re going to buy that cassette player.
She laughed and pushed it towards me.
-No, I guess not.
I went on campus once to meet her. This was all before Helen. Or maybe she had already arrived and I didn’t know. At any rate, those were the early days. It amazed me, everything up at that school. I think in places like that you can be anonymous. In the city someone eventually want s to know who you are and why you have that stupid smile on your face. Or why you’re frowning. At Batiste’s school you could be anyone and no one would care. I saw a guy walking around with a clown hat on, little bells on the tip clinking against his shoulders. No one even looked.
I found the building easily enough. A red brick job with, big doors. There was a monitor at the door and she pushed a clipboard at me when I walked in. Can you sign this? Sure, I told her, and wrote my name in huge scrawl across two lines.
There were stairs at the end of each entryway. The second floor was a long corridor, one door after another. Muted sounds coming from all different sides. A piano, a violin. Singing. I peered through a window and watched this girl. She had long blonde hair, her hands folded in front of her, and she was smiling. I couldn’t understand the words but her voice was slow and winding. It seemed to me that singing that way, even closed off, you wanted to be found. Sending those notes out to catch someone’s ear. I knocked on the glass and waived to her. When she opened her eyes she stopped smiling, just turned towards the other wall and kept on.
I found Batiste on the third floor. She was sitting at a piano picking out chords. She played one, paused, and then matched it. When she reached the bottom of the scale I echoed her last note, a long drawn out"do." It was flat, sounded like an apology, but she looked up and smiled.
-How did you get the scar, she asks?
I have a scar that runs the right side of my face, cheek to mouth. It’s a piece of meanness, a reminder of the stupid things I’ve done--though when I smile it sinks into my laugh line. The doctors were worried that movement in my face would aggravate the skin, thicken so that a large part of the cheek would turn leathery. I’d be stuck with a heavy cheek that would sink. The doctor said this as he frowned, pulled the flesh on his cheekbone down ever so slightly. It was ugly. The complete orb of the eye. The crescent of red flesh underneath. Everything healed though. I was seeing a woman who rubbed cocoa butter into my cheek every night until the skin was slick, and yellow, and soft.
What her name was I don’t know. It was my habit to forget these things. A habit that made me lonely before Batiste.
-How did you get that scar?
SOLFEGE PART II
Maybe I should have run that night. When she opened the door the first thing I saw was Helen’s small face. She stood there in the narrow hallway watching until Batiste scooped her up into her arms and carried her to the front room. I might have backed out then and disappeared, but instead I stared at the lights, the tiny night- lights dotting the hallway. Each socket with two bulbs glowing. I heard Spanish in the next room and a short giggle. Batiste came back and took my hand, led me to another room at the end of the hall. There were records, a bed, sheet music spread on the floor. I asked her who the little girl was and she told me that it was her sister, Helen.
-Why does she live with you?
She began to unbutton her shirt.
-That’s just how it worked out.
She looked up from her hands and I lost track of the little girl in my head.
I pictured balancing myself on Batiste’s hips.
This is how it always was. I’d call from a pay phone across the street when I got off work. Batiste would answer. From the corner I could see her figure in the kitchen window and she would waive before running down to open the door. I’d come quietly into the apartment, careful not to wake Helen, and she pull me close there in the hallway, just holding me with her lips, pushing the breath back inside me until I pulled away to breathe.
The morning I loved. Waking up to the sound of them singing in the bathroom. They sang in Spanish, following each other’s lead. I would peek in to see Batiste washing Helen’s hair in the sink, the girl standing on two suitcases and a book. I’d chime in and Batiste would turn to me with mock horror, Helen giggling a stream of Spanish. When I asked what she said Batiste would just laugh.
-Nada, she’d tell me. She didn’t say a thing.
The little girl shunned English. Everything I said would go through Batiste, translated in-between. We got by mostly on smiles. She was easy to please.
A couple of paychecks and I had bought and old Volvo from Jay. I’d gun the engine and Batiste buckle Helen into the car seat I bought. We’d look at maps sometimes and sometimes just head out of the city, roam around small little towns and eat in cafes.
SOLFEGE PART III
-I got the scar in a fight over a woman. Who wasn’t mine. I was twenty and stupid, I tell her.
-We’re all stupid at twenty, she tells me.
She wants to make me feel better. It’s a pause in her grief. When she feels like maybe we’ll both sink, she let’s me know she’s still there.
Elias dragged me out of my bed at three in the morning. Everything around me swimming in sweat. I was out of my mind with fever and dreams.
They kept me in the hospital for a few days. When I woke up I had a thick bandage on my face. Elias took me home.
But he disappeared when I could move around. Disappeared for a week. I figured that he’d gone back to Los Angeles, back to everyone. I thought I’d go back too. I could wait tables without the snow, I told myself.
I packed the car with all the small things I had accumulated in less than a year. Dragged the futon I slept on out to the parking lot and propped it against the building. I always wondered about those things scattered across parking lots, left in heaps. Those cheap chairs that folded out into a thin mattress, or halogen lights that seemed new. People leaving in haste. Here was my own pile. Now I knew how it was done.
When I went to warm up the car I found a note on the windshield. Elias’s writing. It said “leave the keys, I’ll take care of the rent”. That was it. Just that. I ran to the street. Looked for him but he was gone.
I finished packing the car and left the apartment door unlocked, the keys in the kitchen sink.
I ask her what’s wrong and she tells me she’s dreamt the accident again. She tells me that she hears my voice screaming and the glass and metal cracking and that she feels Helen at her shoulder, Helen’s cheek brushing her cheek before it’s all over. She reaches for me in the dark and pulls my palm up to her hot face. Can you feel her, she asks? I tell her yes. She turns around to face me, half in dreams, angry, almost asleep.
-You must have done something to make him leave.
She slips this out between her teeth. Furious. But her eyes are heavy, almost closed. I turn away from her, telling her to go back to sleep. Then she pulls up close to me. Her foot finding the curve of my foot, her forehead at the back of my neck.
Hours pass until I wake to my own voice. Those kind of words, or half sentences that you carry out of sleep.
-He didn’t hear me.
I get out of bed and wander into the living room. There are no lights in the hallway. This is the first time I’ve been in this room so late at night. Usually Helen would be sleeping. Everything is dark, save the steady red light of the answering machine.
I know the number by heart. My father left it for me on my apartment door. Elias’s number. Elias back in the city. In Los Angeles. But where? Neither of us knows. He’s only called once and never left an address, or when he’d call again. My father has the message saved on his machine.
I pick up the phone and dial. It rings, and rings, and then clicks over to the answering machine. Just a click, no voice, no beep, no music. I want to ask him if he heard me that night with that woman. Did he hear her cry out to him? Did he hear me push her to do it even when she resisted? Does he know that it was a mistake? That I recognized myugliness out of her mouth? The second it came out of her mouth? I want to tell him that he was a soft kid and that I wanted to push him to women, help him find the same kind of protection they gave me—what I couldn’t give him. He was a soft kid that needed me, but not what I could give.
I speak softly into the phone so as not to wake Batiste.
-Elias, call me please. I need to know some things.
SOLFEGE PART IV
YOU CAN’T FIX THIS THING
It was dusk when I wheeled the car into Jay’s. We stood there for a while in the quiet and just looked at it. Every now and then a car would circle in off the street and Jay would shake his head, point to the closed sign in the window. I suspect that they had come to watch. The crumpled cars on the highway with the flashing lights and the sirens, it’s easy to locate death there, so well lit. But here, where do you find grief?
Jay ran his finger along the front end, tracing a mean, jagged piece of grill.
-It’s really not that bad. I can put in a new grill, lights, windshield. Someone will buy it.
-Okay, I told him. Let’s do it that way.
Jay walked me out onto the street and put his arm around my shoulder. I had the urge to grab his hand, pull it close to see if the nails were still clean. But I let it go.
-You sure you don’t want to grab a drink?
-No, I told him. Batiste is alone.
I told the guy that even the radio still worked. A new hood, a new grill.
I watched traffic roll by. Each car comes to a smooth stop at the intersection. He was a little heavy and moved around the car slowly. Stopped to kick the tires.
He grunted and then slid into the driver’s seat, keyed the ignition and let it idle.
What? I asked him, his voice lost under the engine.
He raised it.
-I suppose that I could give you two hundred.
He stood up an leaned on the inside of the door.
He wrote me a check on the hood of the car.
When I got back home I told Batiste that I had sold it, that it was gone. She was mostly silent about it all, moved around the living room until she froze mid stride. She turned to me and asked:
-The car seat. You took the car seat out right?
Her eyes were wide and her voice wavered. I had left the seat in the car, still buckled in.
-It’s gone too.
- She crumpled there on the living room floor, sobbing. I went to her and she pushed me away.
The evening is quiet when I call. Not a lot of cars on the street. Batiste answers the phone but there’s no waiving from the window.
-What’s wrong? I ask her.
-I think that you shouldn’t come back here tonight. It’s nothing with you but I need time alone.
I start to tell her that she should let me come up and that we’ll work things out but she cuts me off.
-I can’t do it this way. You’ve got to go away for now.
-I don’t know. I don’t know the time.
I can hear her breaking on the other end but she sets the phone down softly just the same.
When I get back to my apartment everything is dark. The blinds, I had left closed. The air is stale. The living room is quiet, not even the noise from the street. I sit there for a moment on the couch before reaching for the lamp. When it clicks I realize that I haven’t paid the bills, nothing will work without electricity. I move to the hallway and on the way I touch the intercom, press the button marked “hear”. It crackles and the room is filled with the wind from outside. I hear a distant honking car, and over it a voice:
-No, it’s me, she says. But don’t come down.
-I can let you in.
There is a long pause and I hear her mouth close to the other end.
-I just wanted to tell you. I just wanted to tell you that she said you had a sweet voice. That at night I hear you singing to me. Your voice--it’s sweet.
- She leaves me with this and then the apartment is quiet again.
All rights reserved to Dominic Saucedo.