A voice shrieks from the house next door. Brittle notes pierce the air and the song splinters like a window hit with a bat. That’s what death must sound like—a shrill howl of fear. Frosty, my bichon frisé, paces the kitchen, ears perked, his body trembling. He hates the noise, too. Although I’m nervous to venture beyond my yard (I no longer trust my old, wobbly legs), I can’t bear another minute of the caterwauling. I slip on my wool cardigan and, with stiff fingers, manage to attach Frosty’s leash to his collar.
We amble to a nearby park, each step careful. I can’t afford to slip on the autumn leaves. Away from the dreadful noise, I enjoy the quiet until the loneliness of silence returns. I hum to fill my ears, a habit from childhood. We turn right, and right again. I admire Angelo’s roses, and Frosty sniffs after a squirrel. The afternoon passes away. A little lost, I’m relieved to find myself in the alley behind my house. Mercifully, the cacophony has ceased.
As usual, trash litters the alley behind my neighbor’s house. Frosty smells a treat and lunges towards a fast food container. Despite his small size, his leash wraps around my fingers and my joints loosen, as though I’m detaching from my skeleton. With a creak and a pop, I bend to dislodge the trash from Frosty’s mouth and fumble to open the neighbor’s bin. The lid refuses to budge and I curse my useless hands. Once strong and nimble, this body of mine is not what I want it to be. The bin is a grim reminder, along with countless other recent failures, that I must get my affairs in order.
A few feet away from the neighbor’s garage door, the phrase La Révolution is spray painted in an ugly red script. My father built their house, along with the one I live in, in 1923. When he died, I sold the twin property— my biggest mistake. It changed owners a few times before being converted into a rooming house, accommodating twelve anarchists at last count. They sport leather jackets, tattered clothing, and shorn hair. Corpse chic, I suppose. I don’t understand the appeal, but I don’t understand much these days.
A young person punches open the gate. “Bonjour, madame,” the creature says.
I studied French in university, was fluent for years, I’m sure of it, but I can’t remember a single word.
“Good afternoon,” I say in English.
She (or he?) is bald, short with wide hips, delicate wrists, and lips lacquered red. Baffled, I can only assume she’s female.
“Horrible! What a mess.” Her words are thin and underscored with a strong French accent. She advances towards us. Up close, black eyeshadow bruises her eyes, and all manner of metal detritus protrudes from her face. “Here, let me get the lid for you. I’m Syd, by the way.”
Should I insist that this child call me Mrs. Moulton? No need, that ship sailed long ago. I toss the trash into the bin. “I’m Ella.” My voice, unused for so many days, rasps in my throat.
“Cute dog.” She drops to a squat and scratches Frosty behind the ears. “He is a fluffy, how do you say… marshmallow. What is his name?”
“Frosty. He’s a….” The breed eludes me. But then, like a wish, I catch it. “He’s a bichon frisé.”
Frosty licks Syd on the lips and she giggles, pushing her face into his. Frosty, overwhelmed by the attention, starts yapping and jumps on the young woman, pushing her onto her bottom. She laughs, a high-pitched sound of angels; then she coughs, clears her throat, and her voice changes to a low, guttural tone. Odd. “He’s so soft. He is my white fox, Monsieur François. He lives in my heart.”
Frosty continues the tongue bath, moving onto Syd’s ears and scalp. “I think you’ve earned a place in Frosty’s heart, too.”
She rises, tiny and sweet despite the war paint, like a demon child’s doll. “Sometimes, when your windows are open, I hear you singing. I love your voice, a contralto, non? I am super jealous.”
Although I appreciate her kind words, it occurs to me that she may be the source of the shrieking. “Thank you, dear. I was in a choir when I was young, but that was another lifetime.”
“Were you? Cool. In Montréal I was also in youth choir. Another lifetime, oui.” Gaze downcast, she regards her combat boots. “You’ve probably heard me trying to sing. I know it sounds…terrible. Singing is my passion, and I must protect my voice through my transition.” She points towards her neck.
“I don’t follow, dear. Your transition?” I inspect the faint stubble on her chin. I could tell her that tweezers will get rid of those pesky hairs. I could also tell her that ambition, striving, resolve—the lot of it—is meaningless. But what else is there other than hope?
She doesn’t answer and instead crouches down, gathering used ketchup packets from the ground.
Doubt wells in my throat. Is this young person trying to confuse me with her strange language? With all the scams directed at women my age, one can’t be too careful. I should return to the safety of my kitchen. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. I didn’t mean to pry.” I yank Frosty’s leash.
Syd gathers more trash, straightens, and throws the refuse in the bin. “It is not a problem, I can tell you. I take testosterone for my transition and singing is part of my therapy. You’ve probably heard my voice cracking as it slips through the octaves. People say I will lose my singing voice, that my vocal cords will be ruined, but I am determined to find a new range.”
I’m utterly confused, but I let it drop. There are so many unusual cures these days, some suggested by my GP—aromatherapy, acupuncture, enemas—and I couldn’t possibly comprehend them all. “You needn’t worry about me, dear. I have cotton for my ears and wonderful little blue pills I take every night. I sleep like a log.”
There’s an awkward pause in the conversation. Perhaps I said the wrong thing. “How long have you lived next door, dear?”
“One year. You?”
“I’ve lived here my whole life. Ninety-five years.” She whistles and smiles, her red lips stretched thin.
“A long time to be in one place. Do you live alone?”
There is something familiar about her. I search my memory and find a vision of my father. Like her, he was delicate, debonair, effeminate almost. Every day, without fail, he wore a three-piece suit and a hat. In winter, he topped his outfit with an impeccably tailored tweed coat. How I loved his gentle soul and generosity. I miss him every day. He’s been gone, how long? Forty years at least.
I glance around, perplexed. Where am I? Sometimes, my mind wanders and I become stranded in the past. My brain used to stay put, never venturing further than a trip around the block, but then it became unmoored and now wanders far and wide. “What was the question, dear?” I ask.
She raises her coquettish shoulders again. “I wonder if you have a partner. It is not my business.”
“Oh, no, dear. Don’t worry, I’m an open book. Are you asking if I’m married? I had a husband for less than a year in the forties. Manny didn’t return from the war, God rest his soul.”
“World War Two? Incredible. And you never remarried?”
“Oh, goodness gracious, no. I was much too busy for any of that nonsense. I was a senior sales manager for Pacific Oil. I travelled the world: South Africa, Thailand, Mexico.” The memory of warm locales flows in around me, floating me away; a time before arthritis and swollen ankles anchored me at home.
“Supercool. That was before climate change, oui?” She shrugs away a flash of disapproval and brightens. “You lived your dream. You are an inspiration.”
My cheeks grow hot. I’ve not had such a pleasant conversation in a long time. But then, I wonder: did I live my dream? I’ve never thought about my career in those terms. Sure, I found my way through life, but was it the life I wanted? Something elusive has failed to materialize, but I can’t put my finger on it. Sometimes, I feel like Frosty when he digs holes in the backyard, searching for something but never finding it.
She pulls open the gate. “I am here if you need anything . . . like, uh, for Monsieur François Frosty. I can walk with him or get dog food. It is no problem, Ella. And please do not stop your beautiful singing.”
I pull my coat tight. A little ember of happiness warms my stomach as I totter through the backyard and up the steps. In the kitchen, out of breath from the short climb, I pop on my glasses and put an X on a square on my calendar, along with a happy face. Saturday, October 10. I’m not sure if this is correct but no matter. I write Get Your Affairs In Order in red ink and underline it twice. I’m growing more forgetful by the day. I’ve always been an organized person, and I won’t let my dissolving memory get the better of me.
A good day. I pour Frosty’s dinner into a bowl and sing my favorite song, “Pennies from Heaven.”
My body has always been an ill-fitting gown. When I was young, it didn’t bother me—I was strong and nimble and that was enough. No longer. I step from the shower and take stock in the mirror: sagging breasts and a wrinkled collection of skin and bone sloughing ever further away from my real self. Now, I wear this costume of an old lady.
Another morning. I read the note written in red letters across my calendar: Get Your Affairs In Order. I call a real estate agent. Then a lawyer to draw up my will. My house will sell to some energetic young couple, and I will leave my assets to the SPCA.
I write lists and cross off tasks as they are completed. It’s so hard to hold everything in my mind at once and with that noise from next door, that high-pitched shrieking, I can barely think.
Another afternoon. Leaves swirl across my backyard. I inspect the calendar. I’d missed a few X’s, and I worry that time has slipped away from me. Late November, I think, but it might be December. I glance out the kitchen window, hoping for clues. In the neighbor’s yard, a raccoon scrambles over a disembodied motorcycle, then along a skateboarding ramp, before disappearing behind the garage.
Another evening. The terrible singing from next door is unrelenting. I push cotton into my ears and wish my father had built higher fences between the two properties, instead of that three-foot-high wrought-iron number. But he didn’t know the neighbors would howl like injured were-creatures day and night.
Another morning. I call the utility company. Review the pamphlets for nearby care homes. Fill in forms and sign my name. Frosty’s eyes regard me with fear and sadness. He must sense that my time is coming to an end, my transition towards my fate, away from him. I invite him onto my lap and stroke his soft fur.
Another late night and a bonfire roars in the neighbor’s yard, accompanied by electric guitars and banging drums. The anarchists are having a heavy metal concert at my father’s house. The smell of cannabis wafts through the old windows, along with profanities in a foreign language. The singing is like a dying songbird trapped in a scarecrow’s chest. Frosty barks in protest, but his efforts are futile.
I’ve run out of blue pills and can’t sleep. Outside, I stand by the rear yard fence and yell, “Please, turn it down.” No one hears. A beer can sails past my head and lands in my father’s rhododendron. I grab Frosty and flee inside my kitchen, body shaking. My joints scream in pain, and my stomach is a rotting lemon.
I think about calling the police, but then a memory, almost like a dream, comes into my mind. A young woman with red lips and a friendly smile. I will let it go, just this once.
I open the liquor cabinet and pour a brandy. They’re kids having a good time. Try to remember what it was like to let loose back in the dancehall days. Try to remember being young and invincible.
Although I have Frosty, I’m keenly aware of my solitude. I put “Blue Moon” on the turntable and sing as loudly as my voice allows. I roll open the pocket door and pace slow laps around my house. From the kitchen into the dining room, through the living room, along the hall, and back to the kitchen. Too strong for loneliness, I must expunge this emotion before it festers and metastasizes. Round and round I go. No need to duck when passing under the short dining room door. I was once tall, too tall for a woman, and although I squeezed and slouched my way to respectability, I never quite fit. Now, with an arched back and skinny limbs, I float through my house, a ghost.
I stumble past an old trunk and open it. Inside, there’s a stack of curled black and white photos. My mother, father, and brother, all long dead. My parents toiled, drank, and argued. They lived short, bitter lives of purpose. My father taught me right from wrong, to know my role, to have a sense of duty. The kids next door, with their too- loud music and wild parties, don’t understand the power of striving to be your best self.
I find my wedding picture. Manny, dapper and handsome, wears his Sunday suit. I’d barely had a chance to love him and then he was overseas, buried in a cemetery I’d meant to visit but never found the time to. Who is that standing beside Manny? Is it my brother? My feeble eyes are playing tricks on me. I find my glasses. That person looks like me. I am the bride.
I slide into my old trousers and my feet dance a leisurely jitterbug. Rock step, right, left, right, left, right, left. Or was it: rock step, left, right, left, right, left, right? I can’t remember the dance, and the specific steps don’t matter, only the feeling of my body, light and airborne, perfect for those few moments on the dance floor.
A few more laps and a few more glasses of brandy down the hatch. I dig through the closet in the spare room. My furs are buried behind boxes of mementos and work files. I keep the furs safe in special-made plastic zip-bags, unwilling to pay for an expensive, climate-controlled storage facility.
I pet a fox stole and wrap it around my neck. Frosty jumps onto my leg, barking and trying to bite the stole. We are on a grand hunt and must defend our boundaries, kill the prey. There are no fences.
Frosty’s mania annoys me, and I lock him in the bedroom. He scratches the door; his begging and whining echo my basest feelings. Why doesn’t he go to sleep? There’s nothing for him to rage against. Nothing to escape from. I slip on a mink coat. It’s luminous, with shades of brown and tan, puffed sleeves and bone buttons. I brush my hands over myself, fleecy and plush. I smell like a forest or a glen. That’s it, a glen.
My body has become a foreign being, a dying creature wrapping itself around me to warm itself before passing. I sing and dance to stay alive. Now, I am most myself. The band plays Glen Miller, my glasses fly off, the sound of heels sliding over floorboards, curtains lining the walls, chandeliers swaying above, everyone clapping.
Manny smiles such a beautiful, white smile. The music accelerates. I hold his arm, strong and sure. We jive in figure-eight patterns—hips, knees, and feet arcing in circles, Manny’s sweaty palms on mine. Women wear dresses that twirl to show their underpants. Not me. I wear a hat, suspenders, and trousers. Manny calls me “Braces.” Stippled lights flow up the curtains and onto the ceiling. A row of trumpets blares. Men in uniform pair up with women, their hair in pin curls and victory rolls. A raven- haired beauty dances against my back before Manny twists me away, her glossy red lips disappearing in the crowd.
“What’s the big idea?” someone calls.
Manny twirls me away and raises me in his arms. I’m flying.
Afterwards, in his car, he kisses me, and we laugh. He’s my best friend, my buddy, but I don’t want any funny business.
We marry. It’s our wedding night, and we drink blue champagne. We dance, dance, dance all the way to heaven and back.
The song finally ends. Hazy, stiff, aching—my body is prone on the living room floor. Silence. My brain switches off and on, and then off again. A dead creature curls around my neck, choking me, dragging me down. I’m not ready to go. Not yet. There’s something still to be learned and understood.
Outside, I shove the dead animal’s hide deep into the bin. The first snowflakes fall and icicles cling to the eaves. The barking resumes.
Daylight. I’m dizzy and my head pounds. It takes too long to stand up. I’ve had another stroke, I’m sure of it. Frosty scratches the bedroom door, and I let him out. He runs into the kitchen, and then I open the back door so he can relieve himself. It’s gray and slushy outside. What day is it? I examine the calendar, hoping for answers, but the X’s blur together.
I shuffle to the bedroom to dress. Claw marks mar the floor in deep gouges by the door. How long had Frosty been confined? Back in the kitchen, I search the cabinets for dog food. Nothing. When did I last feed him? I defrost a batch of beef mince and fry it up. Atonement.
I set the table, one bowl for me and one for him. He jumps into the chair and gobbles his portion. I have no appetite. I was born in this house, and I planned to die here, but I can’t depart yet, not like this, with gaps and bottomless voids.
From next door, a booming bass voice rises to falsetto then plummets back down to a rich, thick timbre. I fall into its depths. Manny. I met him in choir. His voice was hypnotic, cool, smokey. I open the windows to catch every note. Cold air rushes inside the kitchen, invigorating. Oh, how I love that deep, velvety voice.
Each day brings the wondrous singing from next door. I check the calendar. In capital letters over the box for February 2: Move to Serenity Care Home. If the X’s are to be believed, today is January 30.
In the backyard, a dog barks. I tug on my winter boots and don my tweed coat. Someone leans over the fence. A boy? A young man? He waves, and I wave back. He dashes inside his house, reappears with a large mug of what looks like dog food, and plops it onto the snow. A dog runs out of my kitchen and inhales it.
“You don’t have to do that, dear,” I say.
“Just a little treat for Monsieur François Frosty,” he says.
I check the dog’s tag. Frosty.
The young man hands me the half-full bag of food. “Here’s some more. I don’t need it.”
“That’s very kind of you, dear.”
He has an odd tattoo, five horizontal lines with a musical symbol above his left eye.
I can barely raise my arm to point towards his face. “What does that symbol mean?”
He smiles, beguiling. “It’s an F-Clef. I got it to celebrate my transition to baritone.”
“You’re the singer from next door?”
“Oui. Does it annoy you?”
“No, dear. It’s beautiful. It helps my mind stay clear, so I can get my affairs in order.”
His face lights up. “Thank you.”
I return to my kitchen and write Frosty is my dog on a pad of paper. I hum a few bars, but the tune eludes me.
A young man with a musical note tattooed above his eye leans over the fence. I search my mind, trying to understand the strange words, but no comprehension comes. Then I search for his name—surely, I must know my neighbor’s name—but that’s gone, too.
He wears a woman’s mink coat. It looks absurd on him, brushing his combat boots when it’s meant to be three-quarter length.
He pats the pelt and laughs. “I found this poor creature in your bin. I would hate for the animal’s life to have been in vain, so I rescued it.”
My bin? I would never wear such a garment. “But, dear, it’s a woman’s coat.”
“Ça n’a pas d’importance,” he says. “Besides, it’s super warm.” He bends to pat the dog. “I saw furniture being loaded into a truck. You are not leaving us, Ella?”
“I leave soon.” Suddenly emotional, my hands shake.
Where am I again? Do I know this place, this person? I used to dance, to sing, to love. Didn’t I?
His face pinches with concern. “We will miss you.”
I blink with confusion. “Who are you, dear?”
His eyes moisten. It must be the cold. “I’m Syd, the singer.”
“Oh, the beautiful singing,” I say. “I adore it.”
He smiles. Beneath his beard, his lips are vibrant red. Odd. “What about Monsieur François Frosty?” he asks.
He clears his throat. “When you go, what will you do with your dog?”
My mind sways. Strange boy, I have no dog. Oh, wait, yes, I do. Oh, God, I do.
“If you would like, I could take care of him?” he asks.
“Yes, dear, yes. Take him. Now, before I forget.”
He scoops up the white dog, takes off his bandana, and ties it around the dog’s neck. “There, now he looks like a diva.” It licks the man’s cheek, and its tail thumps against the man’s small arm.
“Thank you.” I turn away before he can see my tears.
I find my bag, already packed. I sing “Blue Champagne” as I check my suit in the mirror. The pants, suspenders, vest, shirt—all crisp and flawless. A knock at the kitchen door. I answer, wriggle into my tweed coat, and accompany an attendant down the rear steps, careful not to stumble, and into the backyard.
As I walk, I nod to the neighbour who holds a white dog.
He nods back, and the dog licks the young man’s face, ears, and neck. “You look super great, Ella. Bon voyage.” Unsure to whom my neighbor is speaking, I glance at the woman beside me.
The attendant turns to me and speaks slowly, as if to child. “It’s time to say goodbye, Ella.”
“Thank you, dear, but I’m not Ella. You must have me confused with someone else.”
The young man leans against the fence, his mink coat open at his throat. He nuzzles against the dog’s fur and smiles. “Vous as changé, monsieur.”
Somehow my mind translates these unfamiliar words. You’ve changed, mister. I feel strong and whole for a moment, proud of what I’ve achieved. I lift my hand to wave.
The attendant hooks her arm through mine and tugs me gently away. “Now, let’s hurry, the van’s waiting.”
The young man raises the dog’s paw and waves it at me, a silly little gesture that fills me with joy.
“You are my inspiration. I sing for you,” the young man calls out, as I let the woman lead me away.
“Les Chanteurs” by Michele Alba and the artwork titled Neighbors by Ara Cho appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Michele Alba has a Master’s degree in painting and fine arts. About five years ago, she tried her hand at writing fiction and fell in love. She’s written several novels of questionable quality, along with many short stories. She was delighted and somewhat shocked when four short stories were selected for publication in literary magazines in Canada and the USA last year, including Blank Spaces, Blood & Bourbon, and The New Quarterly. She lives in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, and is working on yet another novel.
Ara Cho is publishing art for the first time that was made for the general public and she thinks that it’s really cool. She is a freshman undergraduate art major and she entered college looking for new opportunities to expand herself in the art world or in the art community here in Berkeley away from her home and this was a really great experience.