In which our hero listens to the songs of an old man and reminisces about a love that is gone.
As was his evening habit, his downstairs neighbor, Salvatore, was singing on the fire escape between cigarettes. Salvatore was a very thin man with gaunt cheekbones and deep set eyes that were always squinting at something. For his performances to nothing he wore just a slightly yellow beater and tighty-whities. From the arm and leg holes his long, wiry limbs jutted out and vibrated with his singing, as though his body were too frail to support the force of his voice.
Salvatore sang mostly old music. Italian folk songs, pieces of opera, jazz standards. Salvatore had a raspy voice that was ground down by years of chain smoking, alcohol, and yelling, but there was a quality to it that was very even and smooth despite its rockiness.
One evening, back when she used to live in the apartment, Lily called down to him while he was smoking between songs.
“You have a very nice voice.”
“I said you have a very nice voice,” louder this time.
“I said you have a very nice voice,” screaming it this time.
“Ah not as lovely as yours, Signora. Like a lark your voice is,” he called back up and then began singing an old Italian song called La Signora del Balcone.
“Bravo, bravo,” Lily called through applause.
“Bravo, bravissimo,” she yelled.
“Ah, thank you Signora, you are kind,” he said. Then, after a slight pause, “Do you have any wine?”
“We have a bottle of red. It’s nothing special though.”
“All wine can get you drunk, Signora, and that is special. Bring it down. We will drink and you can do me the honor of flirting with an old man.”
After this first time Lily would come down once or twice a week with a bottle of wine. He came with her a few times, but it became clear very quickly that Salvatore didn’t want him there. When Lily was there Salvatore got possessive of her attention and shot him angry looks whenever he said or did anything.
Adding to his discomfort was the fact that after a glass of wine Salvatore would get a very large boner in his tighty-whities. In this state he would flirt very aggressively with Lily touching her and giving her open direct compliments about her breasts.
But even this flirtatious state was preferable to what followed when, after the second or third glass of wine, Salvatore became maudlin.
“You work very hard to accomplish many things but you get old and people do not want you anymore. Everything you did is no longer important and you are too weak and too, what is the word, irrelevant to do something important.”
Sometimes the wine would make Salvatore cry and Lily would hold his head in her lap. Then then, lying in her lap, he would start to sing again through his tears. But in these moments his mind got confused and the songs came out jumbled up: the words would change from English to Italian, the style from folk to jazz, the rhythm from something upbeat to something downbeat. There was no sense to the chaos of notes bellowing out from him between tears.
For 6 weeks after Lily had left, Salvatore sang the same array of old tragic songs about love going away and love dying out.
He had to keep the windows shut throughout this 6-week stretch of summer preferring to sweat than to hear those songs. This didn’t help, though. He could hear still Salvatore’s faint singing through the panes of glass: the somber notes seeping quietly into his ears and growing louder as he began to hear the songs in his head.
Finally, he decided to just go down and ask Salvatore to stop. Salvatore slapped him in the face and called him a fool, but then, nevertheless, agreed to stop singing those songs in exchange for some wine and cigarettes every once and awhile. So, now, once every two weeks or so he would come down with wine and cigarettes and sit with Salvatore on the fire escape as Salvatore sang songs and chain smoked.
“Why do you do this every night, Salvatore?” He asked once.
Salvatore shrugged. “It is a habit, maybe. My wife did not like cigarettes or music in the house, so I did this outside. Then, I did not have arthritis and I would sit outside and play guitar and sing. When we moved here, however, there was no outside, so I came out here to sing. Now my wife is dead, I can sing and smoke inside, maybe, but I do not like doing this. It is unpleasant to sing to an empty room.”
Outside of those two days in the month he didn’t interact with Salvatore much. The singing at this point had become so ordinary that it was usually drowned out of awareness by the whatever he was watching on his computer or whatever music he was listening too. Some nights, though, when he was feeling a very nameless kind of sadness, he would open the window and lie on his bed listening to the Italian sing songs that, even when happy, had the sadness of a memory.