There's a saw hanging on the wall of my living room, a house key for a giant's pocket. It's been there a long time. “What's your saw for?” people ask, and I say, “It's not my saw. I never owned a saw.”
“But what's it for
“Hanging,” I answer.
By now if you took it down you'd see the ghost of the saw behind. Or—no, not the ghost, because the blue wallpaper would be dark where the saw had protected it from the sun. Ghosts are pale. So the room is the ghost. The saw is the only thing that's real.
These days, though it grieves me to say it, that sounds about right.
Here's how I became a singer. Forty years ago I walked past the Washington Monument in Baltimore and thought, I'll climb that.
It was first thing in the morning. They'd just opened up. As I climbed I sang with my eyes closed—“Summertime,” I think it was. I kept my hand on the iron banister. My feet found the stairs. In my head I saw myself at a party, leaning on a piano, singing in front of a small audience. I climbed, I sang. I never could remember the words to “Summertime,” largely because of a spoonerized version my friend Fred liked to sing—Tummersime, and the ivin' is leazy / jifh are fumpin', and the hotten is cigh . . .
Then a man's voice said, “Wow.”
In my memory, he leans against the wall two steps from the top, shouldering a saw like a rifle. But of course he didn't bring his saw to the Washington Monument. He was a big-boned, raw-faced blond man with a smashed Parker House roll of a nose. His slacks were dark synthetic, snagged. His orange cardigan looked like it'd been used to scrub out pots then left to rust. A tiny felt hat hung off the back of his head. He was so big you wondered how he could have got up there—had the tower been built around him? Had he arrived in pieces and been assembled on the spot? “Wow,” he said again, and clasped his hands in front of himself, bouncing on his knees with the syncopated jollification of a love-struck 1930s cartoon character. I expected to see querulous lines of excitement coming off his head, punctuated by exclamation marks. He plucked off his hat. His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast.
“That was you?” he asked.
I nodded. Maybe he was some municipal employee, charged with keeping the noise down.
“You sound like a saw,” he said. His voice was soft. I thought he might be from the South, like me, though later I found out he just had one of those voices that picked up accents through static electricity. Really he was from Paterson, New Jersey.
“A saw?” I asked.
I put my hand to my throat. “I don't know what that means.”
He held up his big hands, one still palming his hat. “Beautiful,”
he said. “Not of this earth. Come with me, I'll show you. Boy, you sure taught George Gershwin a lesson. Where do you sing?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
I couldn't sing, according to my friends. The only person who'd ever said anything nice about my voice was my friend Fred Tibbets, who claimed that when I was drunk I sometimes managed to carry a tune. But we drank a lot in those days, and when I was drunk Fred was drunk, too, and sentimental. Still, I secretly believed I could sing. My only evidence was the pleasure singing brought me. Most common mistake in the world: believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, inversely or directly.
He shook his head. “No good,” he said very seriously. “That's rotten. We'll change that.” He went to take my hand and instead hung his hat upon it. Then I felt his hand squeeze mine through the felt. “You'll sing for me, okay? Would you sing for me? You'll sing for me.”
He led me back down the monument, the hat on my hand, his hand behind it. My wrist began to sweat but I didn't mind. “Of course you'll sing,” he said. He went ahead of me but kept stopping, so I'd half tumble onto the point of his elbow. “I know people. I'm from New York. Well, I live there. I came to Baltimore because a buddy of mine, part of a trio, he broke his arm and needed a guitar player, so there you go. There are 228 steps on this thing. I read it on the plaque. Also I counted. God, you're a skinny girl, you're like nothing
, you're so lovely, no, you are, don't disagree, I know what I'm talking about. Well, not all the time, but right now I do. I'll play you my saw. Not everyone appreciates it but you will. What's your name? Once more? Oof. We'll change that, have to, you need something short and to the point. Take me, I used to be Gabriel McClonnahashem, there's a moniker, huh? Now I'm Gabe Mack. For you I don't know, let me think: Miss Porth. Because you're a chanteuse, that's why the Miss. And Porthkiss, I don't know. And Miss Kiss is just silly. Look at you blush! The human musical saw. There are all sorts of places you can sing, you don't know your own worth, that's your problem. I've known singers and I've known singers. I heard you and I thought, There's a voice I could listen to for the rest of my life.
I'm not kidding. I don't kid about things like that. I don't kid about music. I was frozen to the spot. Look, still: goose bumps. You rescued me from the tower, Rapunzel: I climbed down on your voice. I'll talk to my friend Jake. I'll talk to this other guy I know. I have a feeling about you. I have a feeling
about you. Are you getting as dizzy as me? Maybe it's not the stairs. Do you believe in love at first sight? That's not a line, it's a question. I do, of course I do, would I ask if I didn't? Because I believe in luck, that's why. We're almost at the bottom. Poor kid, you never even got to the top. Come on. For ten cents it's strictly an all-you-can-climb monument. We'll go back up. Come on. Come on.”
“I can sing?” I asked him.
He looked at me. His eyes were green, with gears of darker green around the pupils.
“Trust me,” he said.
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