They say Grace Ferrell was an opera singer. It was a while ago. She sang in opera companies all over the world. That‘s what they told me. I don’t remember who said it, one of my brothers, probably. I don’t know opera. I don’t know anything about opera singers.
I run my fingers along the coarse green curtains in my bedroom window and look down at the silent form of our next door neighbor as she shuffles in the soft glow of her kitchen light. Grace is thin, with mousy, curly hair the color of a newly-ignited campfire. I stare at her as she moves in her kitchen, from counter to stove to table and back to the counter. I never get a good glimpse of her face from this angle, for she always seems to be in constant motion, her soft skirts curling and billowing with every turn. She pushes up her sleeves of her button-down top and moves her hair off her neck, letting the air cool her newly exposed skin.
I cannot hear her tonight but sometimes as she cooks or moves about in the kitchen, I can almost make out what seems like a song – a muffled elongated echo when her voice pushes into a higher octave. It penetrates the glass in her kitchen, streams across her driveway and then up to my second story bedroom window. I strain and place my ear to the glass hoping to make out the words, her voice, but it dissipates, a suffocated melody that I just can’t quite make out.
“What are you doing?”
I pull away from the window. My eldest brother is towering over me, all six foot two with a scraggly beard.
“You spying on her, you little freak?”
I don’t say anything, but he moves in, lowers his head and gently pushes aside the curtain. “What’s she doing?”
I peek beneath his arm and look down to see that the kitchen is quiet now, a silent gray, with no movement at all. Most visible, the small table near the window is empty.
“She’s crazy, you know? I saw her the other day, hanging clothes on the line and she was in her underwear.”
I crawl backwards on my bed and lie down, my head resting on my pillow.
“I’m serious. Completely in her underwear, out in her yard. Not a care in the world. She’s weird.”
I stare at the ceiling, the criss-crossed shadows emanating from the light.
“Mom said you should be asleep by now.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say and I pull the covers over my shoulders. I close my eyes and dream of floating on a homemade raft, on a winding river winding beneath an old Irish castle.
Grace Ferrell has a blond haired daughter my age, Kara, who is in Ms. Nankin’s 6th grade class. I kissed Kara when we were younger and Kara is cute — I think she still likes me — but it is the mother that I think about, the one I long to see. She is the opera singer, she has traveled all over the world, she is the mystery. She captivates my dreams as I wait for her to appear, in this window or that one. Unannounced, she appears and then vanishes. Sometimes I see only a portion of her, just an arm or a hand, for just a moment. Sometimes I don’t see her for days, other times, she is the last person I see before I drift off to sleep. I don’t see her during the day, but every night, I peek down. My heart races and I hope to catch a glimpse of her, but more than that, I long to hear her sing. If only I could hear something, anything, just her voice, but her song remains just out of reach.
Her kitchen window has become my theatre, with the frame of the window acting as the proscenium arch. She moves about in the house, gliding from room to room, her life a dramatic offering for me, an audience of one. Tonight it is just me. I anticipate her grand entrance. I wait, peering from window to window, room to room. My heart beats and I wait some more. When she finally does appear, it still catches me by surprise. I watch Grace Ferrell enter, the room like a heroine crossing down to center stage, commanding her space. I wait for her to stop. I move closer to the glass and wait to hear her begin singing, I long for what I imagine to be the light and joyous sounds of her voice. But it does not come. There is no sound. The scene remains stilted and undramatic. She sets the dishes in the sink and then crosses back out, exiting off stage right.
One afternoon as I walk home from school. I see Grace in the flesh, out of her house, in her front yard with a cardboard box tucked in her arms, books spilling from the top. She drops it at the curb amongst several other boxes, a jigsaw pile of varying sizes. I watch her from our front walkway, letting my book bag slide off my shoulders and fall to the ground.
“You want some books?” She gestures to the boxes, piled in twos and threes. “Huh?” She looks to me and it is the first time I have seen her face. From a real life angle, her skin in full dimension.
“Come on over. You can have them, if you want. I can’t keep ‘em anymore.”
I take a few steps towards her and stop. She is wearing a thin green and orange plaid blouse haphazardly buttoned and green Capri pants with no shoes. Her toenails are painted red. She smiles and I watch a mole just above her mouth dance and dip as she talks, and her eyes seem to sparkle. She gestures with the fingers of her overturned hand.
“That was the last box but there’s lots of good stuff in there. You can have whatever. Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
She is suddenly distracted and her eyebrows stiffen. She looks down the street one way and then the opposite way and runs her fingers into her curls, scratching the scalp.
“There’s some good books in a lot of those boxes. Just take whatever you want.”
I watch as she turns, and with her bare feet slapping against the sidewalk, she walks back to the house, the screen door on the side of the house slamming, echoing in the afternoon air.
After dinner, when my brothers have all left the house, I sit on my bed and pull the three books from my bag. Caravaggio: the Complete Works was the biggest book, an old green cloth edition with Robinson Caruso emblazoned in golden leaf letters on the cover and the spine, and The Victrola Book of the Opera. I run my fingers along the hard cover of the books, their weight, the softness of the pages inside. We have a set of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedias in our living room but that is about all the reading we have in the house. I have never seen books like these. They are heavy and serious looking books. I can almost feel their history. These books had been in her house, on her bookshelf, surely, on her living room table. She has held them in her hands, pressed the pages between her fingers. Maybe she had them in her dressing room at the opera. I can only guess where they have been. Now, they feel like a hidden secret that she has given me, as soft as a breath, like a special smile that she and I can now share.
I don’t see her for two nights, but then on a Thursday evening, her boyfriend Butch arrives, his dark blue Chevy Impala burping and gurgling to a stop in the driveway, even after he has removed the key and climbed out of the car. I am doing my Biology homework on my bed and I crawl over my opened book to get closer to the glass. I look down. As he heads for the side door of the house, he glides his hand over the damage newly done to the front end, a large bite taken out of the once angular left headlight. He shakes his head and walks into the house without knocking, banging the door shut. Though I have never been in the house, I can just sense the mood in the house change. I can feel the tension seep into the house, as I hear their voices, muffled like solid drumbeats, stop and start and tumble.
Suddenly, they appear in the kitchen. Butch throws his keys on the table and sits at one of the two chairs and Grace moves to the refrigerator. She brings him a glass of juice and he pushes it aside, playing with a fork, balancing the bottom end on the table and then on its side, then turning it over in his fingers countless times. I cannot tell if they are talking, then suddenly he slams the fork down and rises toward her but she moves quickly from the room. He chases after her, out of view. And then, there is nothing more. There is no sound. I look from window to window but there is nothing. There are no lights, no movement. They aren’t there, they aren’t anywhere. The kitchen window is silent, the living room window at the front, the bedroom window on the second floor opposite my window are still. Grace and Butch are gone. I wait and watch — and listen — my eyes dart from living room window to kitchen window to the two upstairs windows, even out to the yard. They do not come back, they do not reappear. Finally, after ten or more minutes, I push myself from the window. I check again before bed but the house remains dark and quiet. A deep stillness settles on the house as Butch’s car cools under the full moon. I crawl into bed and from under the covers, I stare into the darkness and listen. I continue to listen. I wonder, I whisper to myself, I hope she’s okay.
By morning, the sun has risen, the light is new but the house is silent, almost frozen with inactivity. Butch’s car is gone, and everything is quiet. I do not see Kara in class that day and when I return from school in the early afternoon, there is no sign of Grace in the kitchen. There is no singing, of course, but also no billowing of skirts, barefoot choreography between the kitchen counter and table. There is no movement anywhere. I watch and wait, and by the evening, there is no sign of life in the house, or around the house, and there are no cars in the driveway. The kitchen curtains are closed.
That night, I look through The Victrola Book of the Opera and I find a small white card, one I hadn’t noticed before, between pages 173 and 174. There is an illustration of a stemless bouquet of flowers in the upper left corner and a flowing cursive dominates the card, “Toi Toi Toi! Love, Babula.” I do not know what it means, but I am transfixed by the wide loop of the “L” in “Love.” I hold the card in my hand and rub my thumb against the soft, slightly weathered texture of the paper and the rounded corners, it’s fragrance of dirt and dead ink lingers and fills my nose. I set the card back between the pages and close my eyes. For the first time, I hear opera being sung. I do not know the score but a strong and lilting soprano sways and dips as my head hits the pillow and I fall into a deep sleep.
On a warm Saturday morning several weeks later, there is a sudden rush of new neighbors next door. I look down and see an endless parade of six or seven young men — I can’t seem to keep count — and various cars alternating in the driveway and out in the street. The front and side doors of the house open and slam close at all hours, as do car doors. There is laughter and yelling from voices I can make out quite easily.
At dinner, my dad shakes his head as he wipes his mouth, “It’s like a goddamned circus over there,” he mutters; “I should call the police on those kids.” I close my eyes, longing to hear the voice of a soprano I have never heard, and hold on to an aria I do not know.
David Bontumasi’s stories and poetry have been featured in Prairie Avenue Writers Anthology, and several other publications including Black Mirror Magazine, and ETA. His novella, Of This Earth was published in 2015. He is currently writing his second book, a collection of short stories. David lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.