The woman who sings only does so the day after she weeps. Her name is Mariah, and I know this because the sound of his rage spills across the floorboards, puncturing the calm of night.
Mariah lives on floor eight—the top floor—and I on floor seven. Our apartment building is old as prohibition and years ago began its gradual sag into the freeway. When semis pass, the walls shake. When the walls cease their quiver, the mice begin to gnaw. In the springtime, when the air grows dense and heavy rain persists, the plumbing backs up and the stench of sewage perfumes the rooms. Methodically, the landlord calls each tenant, urging us to wait it out, as if there were another option.
By any definition, the place is a slum, the product of an underpaid city inspector whose palms possess a proclivity for grease.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone living inside the vertical shoebox on West Cooke knows it’s a Class Action waiting to happen. One rust balcony rail or faulty electrical socket and it’s all flames and a flying dream. Admittedly there are some here that pray for litigation, justifiably concerned that the government money will cease to be enough. Others—the addicts, the disabled, the crazy—just need a cheap roof over their head.
We’ve made a home here, all of us, on the border of health and safety.
Out of all this bad, there is some good. The windows face east and west; mornings and afternoons are soaked in the shift of traveling of light. Then there’s the fire escape, the real saving grace. It’s the only place in the entire building worth more than the price of rent. If I’d never picked up smoking, I’m sure I’d still find myself out on the fire escape, legs dangling, chin resting on folded arms and staring into the densely gray Chicago skyline. And it’s not that the view is just good. It's heart stopping, breathtakingly beautiful. Every time feels like my first on that balcony. It’s magic out there. I swear the view has the power to separate body and soul, tells me each and every time to leave this place and seek somewhere of equal beauty.
When I stare into the skyline, I imagine myself living the life of someone, anyone else. Someone whose walls don’t shake or lean or stink. Someone who's had the gift of success placed neatly on her doorstep.
Somewhere between marble countertops and enough money to pay back a mountain of debt, my thoughts drift to Mariah, her face swollen and eyes red as she lies awake deep into the night, listening to her husband’s snore sneak into the hum of passing cars. A myth of fury and rage, I have never seen the beast who sleeps ten feet from my own bed. Have only heard his anger as it echoes through the hallow of the building.
With many exceptions, their routine goes like this: Early in the blue morning, he leaves for a job that requires of him steel toed boots and unending back pain, works him “too fucking hard for too fucking little.” Once gone, she rises, as if a spirit unsure of its own death. When the creaks pause in the bathroom and she hovers in front of the mirror, I imagine the look on her face. Disappointingly alive.
Soon after, she cooks. This is when it begins. Her song starts low, like a broken hymn dragging itself through an empty church, but by the time she’s finished, the sound leaving her throat is warm, has risen into the sun. Thus the day goes by, her seraphic voice burning away the weight of misery. Come noon, an intermission. Mariah turns the radio to a station that moans the sounds of Holiday and Simone. When the music fades, her voice begins again, imbued by the power of those who went before her.
Into the late evening it continues like a tide, coming and going, washing over the thin gray walls until her refrains contract with the heat of the day. A final task, Mariah climbs through the small of the window. On our communal balcony, she waters a pot of hydrangeas, watches all the things as they pass by. From here—the top of our world—her chorus breaks on the open sky. A performance complete.
A voice that deserved joy instead contained sorrow.
Soon, the time comes: the sound of boots travels the length of the hallway. Through the window, Mariah’s frame stumbles. The song is gone, but the warmth of it hangs in the air, refusing to leave. I know it will return again, ready to resurrect the dead. It does so every day.