Chapter 7

 

On the other side of the bridge, the streets of Williamsburg bustled with people enjoying a mild sunny day after a week of cloudy skies. Young boys rode bicycles back and forth, shaking their faces free of sidelocks as they threaded their way through pedestrians and raced around street corners. One caught me watching him and smiled as he veered toward me, pretending to run me over before turning away at the last second and looking over his shoulder with a laugh. Girls played on the sidewalks, two of whom rose to chase a different boy who kept riding his bike through a puddle nearby in attempts to splash them. Bearded Hasidic Jewish men, some in broad-brimmed black fedoras and all wearing white shirts under black vests or coats, walked together leisurely in the street, talking, laughing, and nodding their respects to older men who sat clustered on stoops or in café chairs in front of shops. Women wore plain suits with long skirts and walked with stately aplomb, each heading somewhere important, some pushing baby strollers, some stopping to chat with the men, some scolding the boys for behaving like hoodlums.

I followed Driggs Avenue to 8th Street and turned right for the final two blocks of my journey — a tree-lined residential street with brownstones and apartment buildings — finally arriving at the address Sibyl had given me. She buzzed me into her building without asking who it was, and once I reached her apartment on the second floor, but before I could knock, she opened the door against its security chain. Her face swung into view and she smiled through a waterfall of straight, natural blonde hair, which she quickly hooked behind her ear with the slide of her fingers. Faint freckles peppered her nose, and cloud-blue eyes softened after a brief study of me.

“You look like you could use a cold glass of water,” she said, closing the door to unhook the chain.

“Yeah, that was quite a walk.” I stepped in past her as she locked the door behind me.

Barefoot, she shuffled along the edge of the single-room apartment to a small kitchenette. Her white linen frock, sleeveless, thin, and soft with age, billowed around her narrow figure as she skirted objects scattered on the floor.

“I hope you’ll ignore the mess,” she said. “It’s an occupational hazard.”

At first, I didn’t understand what I was looking at. The entire floor of her apartment lay hidden beneath small, neatly ordered piles of papers, books, magazines, and folders. Every item in each pile appeared intentionally placed, as if together the piles formed a single work of art. I followed her to the kitchenette, careful not to accidentally kick anything.

“I know. It’s probably a little weird, right?” She poured two glasses of water.

Her voice carried hints of the sleepiness I’d heard over the phone.

“It looks amazing,” I said.

“I just started doing it one day — and it grew from there.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A closer look revealed pages ripped from fashion editorials, handwritten notes, song lyrics and poetry, newspaper clippings, sketches, photographs, and other memorabilia assembled in mixtures as individual collections or created works, some embellished with amulets or crystals or gemstones.

She handed me the water. “I’ve lived here way too long. I’ll dump most of this stuff when I move.”

“Really? But it seems like … What is all of this?”

“They’re just thoughts, really. And some memories.” she said. “I call them simple inspirations — a way to get the juices flowing.”

Enshrined in the center of it all on a small rug sat a circle of musical instruments and gear. An acoustic guitar rested on a stand; a keyboard lay across two stacked plastic milk crates; and stacks of stereo and recording equipment sat on top of two speakers spread apart with cables draped between them. The center of this circle remained opened, the only area in her apartment free of clutter and the place where, undoubtedly, the prophetess sat to conjure her muse.

“I had to borrow a cassette player from my producer,” she said as she sidestepped past by me. “Mine crapped out on me yesterday.” She made her way to the middle of the room, stepping over certain piles and onto others before sitting cross-legged among her equipment on the rug.

“Here,” she said. Her hair fell over her face as she reached forward to clear a space for me to enter.

I slipped my shoes off, pulled a cassette from my back pocket, and tiptoed carefully through the piles to join her.

Sibyl had the qualities of a youthful Mitzi Holt, the Mitzi from high school who still had a charming blend of confidence and humility, aware of her appeal but uncertain of what she could do with it.

“I’m the assistant engineer when we’re in the studio.” Sibyl had risen to her knees to connect the cassette player to the back of the stereo. “Not that I’m very techy.”

Street sounds came infrequently from the two open windows at the front of her apartment. Translucent lavender curtains, pulled across the windows, moved softly and sporadically and filtered the afternoon light to give the sparsely decorated walls a subtle, animated purple hue. In the front corner, next to a window and farthest from the door, sat a twin bed covered with an assortment of pillows and a couple of stuffed animals.

“There, let’s see if I did it right.”

I handed her my cassette.

“So, I think I told you … Which side?”

“Side A.”

She placed the cassette into the tray. “So, like I said on the phone, I’m trying to put together a demo that I can shop around to the record labels. I have free studio time, which is huge, and I just don’t want to blow it. Here, you should drive.” She angled the cassette player in my direction. “I’m working with this producer who, I don’t know … I’m not totally sure why he’s working with me — he’s the one with the studio time. I hope he’s not just trying to get in my pants. He insists that I’ve got something.”

From what I had heard on the phone, she had something. And from everything I was witnessing in her apartment, that something looked extraordinary.

I scooched to the cassette player and studied its controls. “These songs aren’t in any order, so I’ll go back and forth some.”

“Okay.”

I started with a song I had just finished writing in my room at the Y, and then shuffled between the ones recorded by the Mollies and two others I thought might work well with her vocal range. She said very little between the songs, and after playing five, I pressed Stop.

Sibyl sat there nodding her head and upper torso in time to the music that was no longer playing. She didn’t say anything.

After a moment, I asked if she wanted to play for me some of the things she had been working on in the studio.

She hesitated.

She doesn’t like my songs, I thought. She hates them.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, I’m embarrassed. They really don’t compare to what you just played me.”

“They don’t?”

“You know, when I was little, I wanted to be able to just sit down with my guitar and sing a song … you know, just have a song come out” — she fanned her hands out above her head, from the center — “just magically, like it wrote itself while I was singing it or something. You know? I used to think it could just … happen like that.” She took a deep breath and straightened her back. “So silly.”

She was twenty-three, four years younger than me. She seemed older than that, more mature, more exposed. But suddenly, she brimmed with animation and the playful, childish traits her piles on the floor would require.

“These songwriters I’ve been working with take forever, and their songs are … crap.” She gestured with an open hand toward a discarded cassette on top of the stereo. “I can do better than they do. The only song I like that we’ve recorded so far is mine, ‘I Sigh’, the one I played for you on the phone. But …” — she held up a finger on her other hand while still directing her first one at the cassette — “my producer says it’s not strong enough for the demo. It might be good for filling out the album, but it’s not good enough for the demo.”

Her face went blank and her body stiffened as she quickly plunged her hands into her lap.

I became concerned. “What?” I said.

“I do that all the time.”

“What?”

“Talk with my hands.” She slowly relaxed her posture.

Her sudden awkwardness was endearing.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said.

“Oh, I hate it. When I get excited … I took dance all through my childhood, and when I was little, my dance teacher kept yelling ‘Hands! Hands!’ And ever since, my hands have been flying all over the place.” She made a jazz hand beside her face.

“Well, it’s charming,” I said, “and it looks like it helps you get your point across.”

She looked at me and smiled. “I want songs to get my point across.” She ejected my cassette and handed it back to me. “Those are catchy hooks.”

“Thanks.”

We drank from our glasses at the same time.

“For what it’s worth,” I said, “I couldn’t get your song out of my head. It might not be right for the demo, but it’s a memorable track.”

Sibyl looked at me tentatively, accepting the compliment but still unsure how much she could trust me.

“Have you written any others?” I said.

She took a breath, as if she was about to say something, then looked at her acoustic guitar. She pulled it from its stand and removed the capo, then carefully positioned her fingers on the fretboard. She began playing for me a new ballad she had just written. The chords were infrequent beneath another odd yet wistful melody, and the sparse arrangement showcased her voice perfectly. At the moment when she closed her eyes to sing the higher part, I found myself — just as I had standing at the pay phone on 7th Avenue — in that place artistry takes you where it steps aside and disappears into the background to leave you alone with your experience.

Sibyl finished her song with a short vocal phrase and held the last note until it faded into a soft breath. She placed the guitar back on its stand, and we sat for a moment without saying anything.

“Where were you just now, when you were singing?” I said finally.

She put her chin on her knee and looked down at the floor between us.“I don’t know. I was inside this really beautiful light,” she said. “This purply light.”

I looked over her shoulder at the light coming through the lavender curtains.

“Not that,” she said, smiling. “Sometimes … I don’t know, I just let go, and drift pretty far out there. Have you ever done mushrooms? It’s like doing mushrooms.”

She looked at me and wrinkled her nose briefly, afraid she might be telling me too much.

“I get it,” I said warmly with a smile.

The city seduces new arrivals. The canyons of skyscrapers, the sparkle of luxury, the hustle — everything in New York conspires to establish all that happens here as preeminent. Sitting among these piles of simple inspirations and listening to this exhilarating voice, I felt the seduction more strongly than at any other time since I had arrived. I struggled with it. I was stunned by Sibyl’s artistry and perplexed she could still have need of anything I could offer her. Here I sat on the floor of a one-room apartment in Brooklyn with this “girl singer, creative and marketable,” unsure whether any part of it would disappear suddenly, like the card dealer and his conspirators in Times Square.

Sibyl sensed my hesitation and leaned forward slightly, waiting for a sign that her performance of the song had touched me in some way.

“I’m blown away,” I said finally.

The song needed work, but everything about Sibyl was beautiful. Her performance had drawn me to her in that tranquil way the reflection of the moon on a still pond lifts my gaze skyward. Captive, her eyes holding fast on mine, I fell victim to her wordless curiosity. When we started talking, it was all I could do not to spill my heart and tell her how my hopes, in spite of everything, still landed beyond my recent sadness, that they had not been destroyed by Pop or Dad or by the mysteries that surrounded them, and how Nehemiah, wise like her, would find a way to explain these mysteries to me one day.

The light from the windows was now coming mostly from a streetlight in front of the building, and the air in the apartment had become cool. I pushed myself up from the floor, aching in spots from having sat there so long.

“I should go,” I said.

“Really?  We could go get something to eat.”

Sibyl stood and walked to the area near her bed. She pulled a pair of jeans on under her dress, then lifted the dress over her head, revealing a cotton tank top. She bent to collect her keys, then stepped across several piles to the kitchenette to retrieve her Walkman. Her slight frame moved fluidly under the influence of her dancer’s posture.

“Want to?” She didn’t fix her hair.

I wanted to.

 

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