A piano box waited in the alley below the tenement.
“Mine,” said Fannie. “The day I die, bring the piano box up, tuck me in, hoist me down. Mine. Oh, and while you’re at it, there’s a dear soul, hand me that mayonnaise jar and that big spoon.”
I stood at the front door of the tenement, listening. Her voice flowed down through the halls. It started out as pure as a stream of fresh mountain water and cascaded through the second to the first and then along the hall. I could almost drink her singing, it was that clear.
As I climbed up the first-floor steps she trilled a few lines from La Traviata. As I moved on the second flight, pausing, eyes shut, to listen, Madame Butterfly sang welcome to the bright ship in the harbor and the lieutenant in his whites.
It was the voice of a slender Japanese maiden on a hill on a spring afternoon. There was a picture of that maid, aged seventeen, on a table near the window leading out onto the second-floor tenement porch. The girl weighed 120 pounds at most, but that was a long time ago. It was her voice that pulled me up through the old stairwell, a promise of brightness to come.
I knew that when I got to the door, the singing would stop.
“Fannie,” I’d say. “I heard someone singing up here just now.”
“Something from Butterfly.”
“How strange. I wonder who it could have been?”
We had played that game for years, talked music, discussed symphony / ballet / opera, listened to it on radios, played it on her old Edison crank-up phono, but never, never once in three thousand days, had Fannie ever sung when I was in the room with her.
But today was different.
As I reached the second floor her singing stopped. But she must have been thinking, planning. Maybe she had glanced out and seen the way I walked along the street. Maybe she read my skeleton through my flesh. Maybe my voice, calling far across town on the phone (impossible) had brought the sadness of the night and the rain with it. Anyway, a mighty intuition heaved itself aware in Fannie Florianna’s summer bulk. She was ready with surprises.
I stood at her door, listening.
Creaks as of an immense ship blundering through tides. A great conscience stirred there.
A soft hissing: the phonograph!
I tapped on the door.
“Fannie,” I called. “The Crazy is here.”
She opened the door to a thunderclap of music. Great lady, she had put the shaved wooden needle on the hissing record, then surged to the door, held the knob, waiting. At the whisk of the baton down, she had flung the door wide. Puccini flooded out, gathered round, pulled me in. Fannie Florianna helped.
It was the first side of Tosca. Fannie planted me in a rickety chair, lifted my empty paw, put a glass of good wine in it. “I don’t drink, Fannie.”
“Nonsense. Look at your face. Drink!” She surged around like those wondrous hippos turned light as milkweed in Fantasia, and sank like a terribly strange bed upon her helpless chair.
By the end of the record I was crying.
“There, there,” whispered Fannie, refilling my glass. “There, there.”
“I always cry at Puccini, Fannie.”
“Yes, dear man, but not so hard.”
“Not so hard, true.” I drank half of the second glass. It was a 1938 St. Emilion from a good vineyard, brought and left by one of Fannie’s rich friends who came clear across town for good talk, long laughs, better times for both, no matter whose income was higher. I had seen some of Toscanini’s relatives going up the stairs one night, and waited. I had seen Lawrence Tibbett coming down, once, and we had nodded, passing. They always brought the best bottles with their talk, and they always left smiling. The center of the world can be anywhere. Here it was on the second floor of a tenement on the wrong side of L.A.
I wiped tears on my jacket cuff.
“Tell me,” said the great fat lady.
“I found a dead man, Fannie. And no one will listen to me about it!”
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