Night Singing

William Doreski

The hum of Times Square woke me before I’d finished my dream. The cheap hotel stank of sweaty feet and empty sex. I’d dreamt of stalking someone or something through a bog, tripping through hanks of saplings, every footstep heavy with muck. Before I caught up with him, her, or it, a thud in the next room broke into my sleep, and I snapped on the bedside lamp. The dingy silver-striped wallpaper sneered in the harsh glare. No further noise. Someone had fallen out of bed and apparently still lay on the floor. Good enough. He’d have a hell of a headache in the morning. I dressed and crept down the fire stairs.

In the fake marble and peeling gilt lobby, the desk clerk snoozed in a chair. He leaned back so far I thought he had a good chance of breaking his neck. A security guard, a sleek young Latino with carefully ironed uniform—the cleanest sight in this shabby establishment—said “Good evening, sir,” and looked me over. As I waved and stepped into the orange glare of West Forty-Third he smiled with brilliant molars and traced me with his eyes. At three-thirty AM Manhattan seemed about as quiet as it gets. Traffic groaned and stalled at the traffic lights, sirens complained, and a surprising horde of pedestrians tripped drunk or stoned along Broadway.

I walked uptown past all-night coffee shops crammed with hookers, pimps, and cops. The side streets were gorges, ravines, gullies too dark to tempt me. Taxis slurred along in schools like yellow carp. I reached Lincoln Center and climbed the few steps onto the plaza. The glare of the lamplight rendered the flat expanse as pale as the surface of the moon. The Metropolitan Opera House, New York State Theater, and Avery Fischer Hall loomed over me.

I stood in the center of the barren space and opened my mouth as wide as I dared and sang. This was it. This was what I wanted. I sang “Du kennest jenen stillen Ort and “Bin ich nun frei?” After catching my breath I sang “Un Inca, eccesso orribile” and “Cara patria già madre e reina.” Then, in the full splendor of my mediocre, untrained voice I sang “I’ll do My Crying in the Rain” and “California Dreaming.”
The lit windows of the great venues glared at me. Their rebuke felt palpable as a chill wind. But I didn’t care what the dozing city thought, didn’t care that Maria Callas would have disapproved, didn’t care that more than one police car had paused to stare, or that a couple of drunks had slumped on the steps to applaud. I needed to explain myself to the smoggy night, and I didn’t care that the skyscrapers leaned over me with mock concern.

As I sat on the concrete pavement, exhausted by the unaccustomed effort, a figure approached with fiery breath. “Give you something for another song or two, fellah,” it said.

“No more. Nothing left.” I thought him one of the drunks who’d applauded, but despite the slurred speech he maintained a determined posture. “Give me what?” I asked.

“Give you a good life, forever and ever.” He smiled, and his teeth looked too clean and shiny for someone in so deep a state of inebriation. His clothes looked like burlap, his breath reeked, but he presented himself with dignity.

I smiled at his serious offer. “Like the devil and Daniel Webster. I don’t need a good life, I just need a life. Period.”

He looked past me at the opera house. “You got its attention. Look. The lights’re on. They wasn’t before.”

I turned, and sure enough, the rest of the lights had come on and the building blazed like a bonfire. It was four-thirty in the morning, so the cleaning crew must have been working in the lobby. I could make out a couple of figures moving back and forth, probably with brooms or maybe floor polishers. The tall windows, though, looked bleak and mournful, as though all the music in the building had died an unfortunate death.

The drunk nodded and said, “Somebody will do alright by you. You’ll see. Those people, they’re your audience even if they don’t know it. See if you can make ‘em hear. Sing one more. How about a Beatles tune?”

I should have begged off and headed back to my hotel but I always had trouble refusing polite requests, so I launched into “Lucy in a Sky with Diamonds,” followed by “I Am the Walrus.” The men in the opera house, busy with their routine, obviously couldn’t hear me. The man before me looked pleased, though, and although I felt a little foolish, I was glad that he’d enjoyed it.

“Good enough. Thanks. Remember art’s salvation, if anything is. Be seein’ ya.” The man staggered off to whatever mysterious life he led in daylight. The city felt quieter than it had an hour ago. Walking the two dozen blocks back down Broadway I passed almost no one—two cops laughing with a hooker, an old man vomiting in the street, a scary guy picking his fingernails with a switchblade. The all-night coffee shops were calm now, but the doughnut shop at the corner of Fiftieth was busy with guys who looked like construction workers. I arrived at the hotel just as the first light broke through the clouds above Queens.

When I entered the lobby, the security guard held up his hand to stop me. “You got a friend in Jesus,” he smiled. I wondered if the long nights had made him a little crazy. Half the population of the city seemed to be religious freaks screaming in the parks about sin and damnation.

As I dodged past him toward the elevator, he burst into song:

Che gelida manina,

se la lasci riscaldar.

Cercar che giova?

Al buio non si trova.

Ma per fortuna

é una notte di luna,

e qui la luna

abbiamo vicina….”

He sang beautifully, professionally, catching Rodolfo’s gentle personality, his loneliness and grief for the doomed Mimi. Astonished and intimidated, I froze on the stained carpet in wonder. His voice flowed over me, shaming my amateur warbling. When he finished the aria I asked, “Where did it come from? Where did you get such a gift?”

He smiled and pointed at the sleeping desk clerk. “Let’s not wake him, Good night.”

© 2009 William Doreski. All rights reserved.

About the Author

William Doreski is the author of seventeen books of poetry, criticism, and memoir. His nonfiction work include The Sun Keeps Setting, about the last months of his father's life. An English professor, he has taught creative writing at Keene State College since 1982.