Jason M. Jones
Learning to Sing
He was ten and didn’t know he had a voice, but this wasn’t his mother or father’s fault. They weren’t an artistic family, and they didn’t have the sensitivity to recognize talent. They owned records—Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Nat King Cole—so they had some taste, but they didn’t own any instruments and they couldn’t play a lick to save their lives. The only time he’d heard either parent sing was in church where they’d blend their songs with the choir to conceal them, but his father would sometimes whistle in his tool shed and his pitch wasn’t bad (a bit shrill here and there, but mostly on key). The boy’s favorite spot to hide was by the dirt mound behind this shed, and he’d go there to sing when it was empty, since even if he didn’t know he had a voice, he loved music, and by then, it had become a lasting passion.
Now this side of the shed didn’t have any windows, and he felt sure that his father wouldn’t see him if he happened to wander inside, but just in case, he took precautions that only a child’s imagination could devise. In the fall, he’d bury himself to the neck in the dead
leaves to reduce his identity to throat, nose, ears, eyes and lips, and for the first act, a dried shrub heap took the stage with songs of religious exaltation. The trees were his audience—the oak, elm and fir in the woods behind their home; the sun was his spotlight; and the curtain was nightfall. Their three-story house, backyard, and shed were the perfect backdrop for the story of a lonely boy, and this was what his timbre, if not his actual words, carried: all the space out there and how large the world was. He didn’t make friends easily, and his solitude gave him an understanding of this most children his age couldn’t grasp. He would have called these afternoons practice, if he knew what practice was, but he sang what he heard the way he’d heard it in church, and these sessions were his meditation. He didn’t have proper instruction until meeting Sister Helen that year in fourth-grade music class.
“Class,” she told them the first day. “We’re going to hold tryouts for the choir. I’ll ask each of you to come up and sing your favorite hymn, and if you don’t have one, you can sing Amazing Grace, but please remember that this isn’t a forum for you to goof off. I want you all to try your hardest and use your best voice.”
She sat behind a piano and called their names from a roll sheet in alphabetic order. The children stood on risers in their uniforms and went forward one by one.
“Do we have to try out?” he asked.
“It’s not mandatory,” his teacher replied. “But I’d appreciate if you did,”
which meant he had to. His mother employed this method of passive coercion for
chores ("could you mow the lawn,” or “please rake the leaves”) while his father,
with no illusion of choice, was straightforward: “Yes, you have to.”
This approach, his father once explained, was designed to make a man of him,
and he followed this with, “A man does what he has to, even if he doesn’t want to,”
but his father’s advice didn’t do much good right then, and he was still
scared to sing in front of the other students. This stage was more open
than his dirt mound; his audience was actually other people; and the
branches could neither clap nor hoot, which, when a strangled
screech emerged from his throat, was exactly what they would do:
mock him. Thomas Middleton came before him in Sister Helen’s order,
and they were fast approaching the M’s, but Thomas also had a tendency
to act up that could eat the clock. Just a few extra minutes
would push this period into lunch and he’d be free, but Thomas,
following his teacher’s instruction, neither butchered
Amazing Grace nor tried to turn it into a strange little dance,
but sang it quite nicely, with a strange respect and zealous deference
that only intimated the next vocalist in line. When Thomas had finished
his angelic version, he was next, and this flawless performance had only
increased his anxiety.
The piano was in a pit between the stage and seats, and he stood there with his back to the class. Sister Helen played, but on cue, he couldn’t sing. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, not a sound or a croak or a note, and not even that dreaded screech—just the hiss of arid wind rushing past his larynx. His tie was knotted too tightly and his lips were dry. Tears welled in his eyes, and he broke into a cold sweat, worried that his trepidation might be misinterpreted as insolence. The bench creaked beneath his teacher’s weight and its legs clacked on the checkered linoleum. A few children snickered, but she put a stop to that with a stern look at the offenders.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “Stay after class. You don’t have to sing in front of them.” And he went back to the risers, relieved but also ashamed that his first engagement had been a failure. Sister Helen never revealed why she gave him a second chance, but when the bell rang, he was the only student who didn’t rush off.
“Are you frightened to sing in front of your classmates?” she asked.
“Why?” she said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I can’t sing very well,” he said.
“Are you sure about that? Would you sing for me?”
A habit framed her face. Her thin brows were arched; her pink lips pressed firmly together; and the white doughy flesh around them beamed brightly. “You can sing anything you’d like,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be Amazing Grace…” Her hands, unlike the smooth skin of her face, were dry and chapped. On their surface a web of thin white lines ran in every direction like a roadmap, and underneath, her blue veins stood out like a network of subterranean pipeline. Her nails were yellow and bitten to the nub—certainly not the hands of a natural pianist—but he was too inexperienced to recognize that.
“Aren’t you going to play the piano?” he said, hoping to hide behind the instrument’s volume, but her fingers didn’t touch the keys.
His first notes were a wisp, a butterfly beating its wings, hardly disturbing the air:
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul...
When he finished the first verse, he cast a discreet glance in her direction. She was smiling and his confidence grew. For the second verse, he inhaled and transformed his voice into a high falsetto that echoed from the auditorium’s walls:
I’ve got joy like a fountain,
I’ve got joy like a fountain,
I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul...
But when the echo hit, he was uncomfortable with its volume and let it fade, even if the silence that followed was also uncomfortable.
“You have a beautiful voice,” she said. “No one ever told you that?”
He shook his head: “No.”
“You should be singing,” she continued, “and I could teach you. What do you think of that?”
He liked that she took his opinion into consideration, but he replied: “I don’t think my mother would want me to.”
“I’ve been teaching for thirty-six years,” she said. “And I’ve never heard a voice like yours. Most children sound sweet, even if they are a bit off-key. But you, your voice, well, sweet just isn’t the right word. I’d like to teach you, and I’ll speak with your mother to see if we can come to some kind of arrangement. Is that okay with you?”
On his walk home that afternoon, he was elated. The trees were changing color and the musk of fallen leaves filled his nostrils. Warm sun danced on his shoulders, and once in a while, he skipped a few paces. Ahead of him were groups of other children, and he paced himself at a distance. If he ventured too close, they often found reasons to taunt him, and he wasn’t in the mood to fight. He crossed the street toward an arbor where a trail ran behind the high school, and on the other side of this trail stood his parents’ house. It was small for their neighborhood with black siding and beige trim, but it was comfortable and safe.
In the living room, he dropped his schoolbag in a corner, took off his shoes, and put on the slippers that his mother, who suffered from chronic migraines, made him wear around the house. Usually, he’d go straight upstairs to start his homework, but today, he went into the dining room where his mother sat smoking, reading the newspaper, and listening to the radio. The walls here were once white, but had yellowed from years of nicotine stains; the windows and curtains were closed year-round; and the only light she let inside came from three bulbs that hung from a ceiling fixture. The brown rings above this fixture, resembling dark storm clouds, were remnants of water damage from a plumbing leak, and his father hadn’t fixed the tiles yet. The boy passed his mother slowly, slid a slipper on the carpet, and ran his hand across the tablecloth. His mother tapped a cigarette into her brown ashtray, closed the paper and wheezed:
“Where do you think you’re goin’?”
Manila blinds, acting as corks, kept the sun from coming in, and he stopped in the shadows.
“I was gettin’ a glass of water,” he said.
The faint trace of big band swing floated from her speakers.
His mother ground her teeth, slid her tongue between her upper lip and front cuspid, and lit another cigarette. She wasn’t pretty like some students’ moms, but he loved her. She had curly blonde hair—a permanent, she called it—and rosy cheeks. Her fingers were long and slender, and some nights, when he went to sleep, she’d stroke his scalp tenderly. She wasn’t always terse, but when her head hurt, her mood became sour and his father taught him to stay quiet then.
“Your teacher called the house today,” she told him, “ and she says you can sing.” He didn’t relish the smoke, but a fresh scent in the stale room was welcome. He looked into the lights, and grayish-blue spots appeared in the corners of his eyes. “I’ll let you sing in the choir,” she said. “But you’ll have to do some extra chores around here. Privilege comes with a price, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”
She opened her paper and went back to reading it.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and continued to the kitchen where he took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water. He drank quickly and rushed out the back door. His mother’s permission surprised him, and he worried that if he lingered, she’d take back her consent.
The yard was unkempt and the grass was long and littered with sticks and branches. His father’s shed was fifty yards from the house, and since he hadn’t come home from work yet, it was empty. He snuck past the bordering hedges, hid in his usual spot near the dirt mound, and buried himself in the leaves. Everything was at rest, but periodically, a flock of migrating birds took to the sky. He wanted to finish the song and hear what the nun had heard; he wanted to understand why she’d call his mother—a woman he’d never cross himself—and ask permission for him to join the choir; but when he sang, all he heard was the sound he always made—high-pitched and a bit brutal to his ears—and it wasn’t at all like the
crooners from his parents’ records who he wanted so
badly to emulate. His deciduous audience was as quiet as the empty seats in the school auditorium, and here he didn’t have the teacher’s encouragement. What did she see in him? There wasn’t anything particularly special in the reflection he saw from his mirror each morning, but he’d have to trust her judgment, see the people he sang for as he saw these trees, as he saw the sky. He still wasn’t sure if he could do it, but there was nothing he’d like more than to join this group and perform in the school concerts. Maybe if he was as good as she claimed, he’d have a solo, but he’d have to work to overcome his fears. First thing first, however: he’d have to learn to sing.
©2009 by Jason M. Jones