During my brief Yoga era, it was my Thursday evening habit to roam the hallways of the famous C___ Hall during the fifteen minutes or so before seven o'clock class and sit on the third step of the black and white marble staircase. I'd take my coffee and donut out of the already coffee-soaked brown bag, peal the sports section from under my arm, and chew and sip and read.
But on one of these Thursdays, the acting class behind the closed door in front of me caught my attention. Male voices and female voices went through exercises, during which they repeated—softly or full-lunged, earnestly or with disgust—the same phrases or the same questions and answers. At first I thought it was all real and sat up, alarmed.
"I hate you," a man's voice said matter-of-factly.
"I hate you," another said in the same tone.
"Get out of my house!" the first man screamed, and I looked around, my eyebrows knit.
"Get out of my house!" the other echoed, adding extra umph to the "out".
Then, softly… "You make me sad."
"You make me sad…"
"You make me so sad," the first said again, this time with melodramatic syrup.
"You make me so sad," the other repeated, on the verge of boo-hooing.
It wasn't until I heard laughter behind the door when I realized that, after all, I was in C___ Hall, and music and acting and dancing and Yoga were everywhere, so I relaxed.
I returned each week with my coffee and donut and newspaper and flipped through the sports section, listening with pleasure to the screaming and the crying within. When there was particular anguish or harshness, I looked up from my paper.
"You have absolutely crippled me!" an actress cried shrilly from within on the third or fourth week. Then she said it again, without prompting, in a different, weepy tone, and then said it a third time, incredulously.
"Make up your mind, lady, how you feel about being crippled," I muttered, my voice echoing up the stairway.
Yoga classes had begun to bore me because I couldn't direct my foot anywhere near my head from any angle, so on Thursday evenings it became of secondary interest to that pleasurable before-time on the stairway when I listened to them—different actors' voices, almost each time—cajole and berate and tease and complain and holler and accuse. Art in the making, I nodded knowingly.
When the shrill crippled actress returned after a brief two week hiatus from her misery, her voice had lowered an octave. She spoke softly.
"The beach is nice," she said.
"The beach is nice," a male voice repeated, but with a harsh rasp.
"The beach is nice," she said again, her voice even softer, and I felt my blood pressure taking a much needed dive.
"It's very nice," he rasped at her, and I thought, Shut up and let her talk.
"It's very nice," her voice said, with extra honey, and I was in love.
There were worse things than being in love with the shrill silky voice of a crippled actress. I comforted myself like that when I returned the following week, this time at six thirty, with a hamburger, coffee, and a raspberry tart. I forgot to bring the newspaper.
This time, however, instead of hearing her shrill or honey voice, I heard two men's voices, and I became a sour puss, rolling my eyes and munching my hamburger while a Richard Burton type and a Peter O'Toole type went back and forth about dumplings or something. I was only half-listening.
"I didn't order the damn dumplings!" Richard Burton may have said.
"Then what are they doing here?" roared Peter O'Toole.
I shrugged, reasoning that these two seasoned actors had dropped their repeat-after-me routine and had advanced into full-fledged scripts.
"How the hell should I know?" Richard Burton said sharply.
"How dare you—"
"What did you do to her?" cried O'Toole.
I sat up, chewing and chewing my hamburger. It was like old radio, and I hoped that the sweet shrill crippled actress in question was Karen, and that she'd chime in at any moment and talk about the beach.
But instead one of them muttered something I didn't quite get. It was either, "Go blow your nose," or "So the crow knows."
There was a loud gunshot sound—and my heart jumped—followed many seconds later by a faint thud, then silence. Just as I was figuring that they were about to try that part over again, the door flew open and a man, either Burton or O'Toole, burst out and pulled the door closed after him. His face was set hard and he glanced up at me briefly. I lip-smiled, raising my eyebrows and nodding my appreciation, and then listened to him race down the stairs behind me on the other side of the hall.
I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to seven. There was no beach-loving Karen-voice, no sound at all from the room. The show was over for the week, it seemed, so I headed over to my stupid Yoga class.
I have a sort of sixth sense about things, so it was no surprise to me when I returned to the stairway the next few weeks with only a coffee, and spent two or three silent minutes in front of that plain black door. No voices came from within, so I moped my way through each Yoga class. Jeanne the instructor, an older woman who nonetheless could reach her big toe to her ear without a squawk, wondered aloud what on earth was wrong with me. Why was I so blue, she wanted to know, and why couldn't I twist myself to look like a caduceus? I just shrugged.
One evening after class, I squeezed into the elevator crowded with artists from the floors above, and just before we reached bottom, a woman's voice behind taller heads said to someone, "Saturday is beach weather." I almost snapped my neck looking for her through the thick crowd, and I lost her among the four or five women who got off the elevator and scattered along Seventh Avenue.
I walked home all fifty-seven blocks downtown, thinking of that voice, still in existence after all, practicing her voice-art on a higher floor. I counted out the possible number of studios times the number of floors above the Yoga floor, but was snapped out of my calculations by some drunk guy sitting against a wall near 14th Street and Third Avenue.
"Hey man," he said as I passed. "If my head was shaped like yours…I'd wear a hat."
The next week I was all business, arriving at six o'clock and starting from the seventh floor, listening carefully outside each black studio door. I had a newspaper with me, so when anyone abruptly came out of a studio or walked down the hallway, I held up the sports section and cursed the Mets under my breath.
By the time I reached the twelfth floor my legs were tired from the climbing, my mouth tired from muttering about the Mets, and my insides ached. I'd already forgotten what she'd sounded like, and my class had already begun, so I sat dourly on the stairs, imagining Jeanne telling me to cheer up. I blew a raspberry at the imaginary Jeanne just as a group of men and women appeared at a studio to my left. They looked over at me curiously before going inside. "Bunch of busy bodies," I grumped after the door slammed.
I leaned back, my elbows against a step, and decided to philosophize instead of going to Yoga. Everyone had their own talents, I mused, their own art, and the art of speaking with a silky voice was unlike any other art. A person can try to feel again all he wants the deep pang into the stomach a beautiful voice gives him, but he'd fail every time. On the flip side, a horrid voice can send chills through a person, but only in that moment. The chills don't come back, only the memory of the words themselves, of the tone itself. I remembered but couldn't re-experience how I'd felt during my teen years when I passed a pretty girl on a Long Island street. She'd looked so easy-going and gentle, and I lifted my chin, about to say hello as I passed, but her face twisted up and her head sprang from side-to-side. "Watta you lookin' at!"
Voices came from behind the door to my left. The people I had raspberried laughed a little, and then a male voice droned on for a while, stopping the laughter cold. I sat up and opened my newspaper, not reading. There was silence for a while before the droning male voice said casually, "Are you eating my omelet?"
"Are you eating my omelet?" a second male voice repeated, in a colder tone.
"Eat my omelet," the first said encouragingly, and I knit my brows.
"Eat the damn omelet!" the second voice roared, and I curled my lip at the force of his tone and muttered, "Yeah, eat that omelet, punk."
There was a pause. Then another, familiar voice chimed in softly. "I like scrambled," she said, and that pang, her pang, went through me again. I sighed and waited, trying to remember which of the women she'd been in the group receiving my raspberry. "I do so like scrambled," she went on.
"I like poached," the first male voice complained, pouting.
"I like scrambled…eggs…very much," she purred, and my mouth fell open.
"You know," broke in the second male voice with rising rage, "I'd like to smear these eggs all over your stupid face!" I sat upright.
"You know…" she crooned, and I slumped back pudding-like against the stairs, "I'd like to smear…these eggs…all over your…stupid…face." I pressed my palm over one eye.
I had found her again, and so I went back the next week, passing the Yoga floor without a thought and heading to the same twelfth floor stairway. There were already voices coming from inside the studio when I arrived.
"All right, you," said a voice, almost exactly like Clint Eastwood's. "There was a banana muffin on that table. You've got two seconds—"
"I don't know where your damn muffin is," another voice cut in. He sounded a little like Buddy Hackett.
"Maybe your girlfriend ate it," said Eastwood, and I muttered to myself, "Now it's muffins…"
"You should mind your own…stinking business about Karen," said Hackett.
"What did you say?"
"Mind your own stinking—"
"That's what I thought you said…"
There were prolonged gasping, gagging, and strangulated kinds of noises from behind the door, and I sat there on the stairs rolling my eyes, waiting for Buddy Hackett to die. Finally, there was a heavy thud, and silence for a while. I tilted my head from side to side impatiently, waiting. And then the door flew open and a man, the same guy who'd killed Peter O'Toole or Richard Burton, walked out and shut the door quickly behind. He glowered up at me for a second as he went by and then raced down the stairs, and I kind of smirked after him.
During my long walk home, I decided that it wasn't worth hanging around weeks between murders for Karen to chime in just once and make my insides go all gooey. Her voice was rare art, yes, but maybe not worth waiting through the same-old scripts to get to one soft-toned, honey coo. I was fully into this train of thought, sorry for myself and enjoying my yearning—complete with strings and woodwinds—for so much more from life than the ordinary, when I passed 14th Street and Third Avenue, and that same drunk, sitting against the wall, startled me as I went by.
"Hey man," he said, and I rolled my eyes. "If my head was shaped like yours…I'd wear a bag over it."
BIO: Lou Gaglia's stories have appeared in Blue Lake Review, Bartleby Snopes, Prick of the Spindle, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Untoward, and many other publications. His collection of stories, Poor Advice, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books (2014). He lives and breathes in upstate New York after living and breathing in New York City for many years.