"Moon River Balustrade"
Bill pushed a mug of beer over to Vera; some of it slopped onto the scratched table.
“Drink this. You’ll feel better.”
Vera took the mug and began chugging the beer like it was water in the Mohave Desert. Then she thumped it down and sat there staring straight ahead for several moments, a trail of beer dripping from one side of her mouth and down her chin as though a snail procession had passed across her face.
“What am I going to do?” She fingered her wedding band and engagement ring, clicking them together like a set of nesting tables. The engagement ring was a glistening diamond with rubies surrounding it like cherries on a plate of meringue. Bill put out a hand.
“It’s going to be okay. You’ll find something else.” He left his hand there, but she didn’t take it. After a while he brought it back onto his lap.
“We just bought a boat.” Vera wiped the side of her mouth with her hand. “A bass trawler with room for 10 people. It’s even got a refrigerator.” She started crying again. “And Nathan just made the down payment on the lake house. We were going to move in this weekend.”
Bill stared at his shoes, $7.99 on special at the Payless across the street from his apartment. One of the laces had snapped and he’d tied a knot to keep it together. The rubber was starting to wear away on one toe where he tapped his foot against the air conditioning vent at work to help keep him awake in the afternoons.
“Nathan has a good job. You guys’ll be fine.” He tried to sound fatherly, but a lump came up in his throat whenever he said her husband’s name.
Vera wiped her face with one of the cocktail napkins. Then she reached out her hand, and he put his in it, his heart palpitating. Her hand was warm and a little tough, like she’d worked in the red clay soil. He knew from gardening his small plot in the county that the clay had a way of sucking all of the moisture out of your skin and leaving it dried up like an autumn leaf.
She only held his hand for a second. “Thanks, Bill. You’re a pal.” Then she let it go, and he felt the warmth where her hand had been, lingering as though a small animal had rested there.
“Let’s get out of here.” She stood up. “I need some air.”
Bill threw a $20 bill on the table and followed her, pushing stray chairs out of the way while she weaved between them like a garden snake.
Outside was warm and humid, and the sun was just beginning to set. Vera hooked her arm through his.
“Where are we going?”
Vera sighed and looked around as though seeing Elm Street for the first time. “I’ll show you where we’re going. Come on.”
She walked fast, leading him like a pet poodle. They reached a side street and she took an abrupt turn, nearly stepping on his foot. Bill started to sweat and wished he’d left his jacket in the car.
At the parking deck, Vera jerked to a stop, and Bill bumped into her, catching a whiff of her Intrigue perfume; he’d smelled it at the Belk’s counter when he was trying to decide what to get her for her birthday. In the end, he’d picked an expensive pen set and a leather-bound journal. She’d sent him a thank-you card in the mail, signed, “Love Vera and Nathan.”
Vera pushed open the heavy metal stair well door. It creaked, and Bill reached out to help her, and for a split-second he had his arm around her, all the blood in his body reaching the same spot at once.
Inside the stairwell it was even hotter, and Bill paused to take off his jacket. Vera was already five steps ahead of him, holding onto the rail, her rings clanking against the metal. She looked upwards at the glass skylight, as though she was a spy in a James Bond movie. They always went to the roof in those movies; Bill never knew why because once up there, the only option was to kill or to jump. Neither seemed a good option to him.
“Where are we going?” he asked, out of breath. He turned purple when he got too hot, and his bald head stood out like a beacon. He hoped it was dark by the time they got outside again.
“Just keep going,” Vera yelled, now about 20 steps ahead of him.
Bill heard another door opening, and when he looked up again, Vera was gone.
“Vera?” He started to panic, imagining that she had disappeared, and he was really alone. “Vera?” He loosened the top buttons of his shirt. Blue and purple spots started to float in his eyes; his forehead felt cold. He sat down on a step and put his head between his knees.
“Bill? What are you doing?” She was looking over the railing from the top landing. “Come on up here!”
It was almost dark on the roof, the last rays of the sunset lingering on the sides of office buildings and in the steel trimmings of signs and antennas. Bill grasped the metal railing someone had thoughtfully stuck around the rooftop. People laughed down below, women who sounded like they were on a night out, perhaps an evening away from the boyfriends and husbands. He felt an ache at the thought of the husbands waiting, curled up one the couch, smiling as the other person came back that night, smelling of smoke and strawberry daiquiris and Coco Chanel, laughing and telling him how some guys had tried to dance with them, but they’d just ignored them and rolled their eyes.
“Isn’t it beautiful out here?” Vera took a cigarette from her purse and lit up. The smoke swirled around her face like a cloud of mist, and Bill wanted to put his hand through it and dispel it.
“Yeah, it’s nice. What made you think of this?”
“I always come up here when I’m stressed.”
“Oh.” He’d hoped this was her first time, a spur-of-the-moment kind of discovery.
Vera sighed. “When I was a kid I wanted to be an opera singer.”
“Really?” Bill wished he smoked, sometimes.
“When I was about 8 or 9, I used to sing in the bathtub, and I didn’t care who heard me. Actually,” she took another drag, “it never occurred to me that anyone was listening. You know how it is when you’re a kid—the whole world revolves around you.”
“So, I was singing in the bathtub one day, just belting out Sesame Street songs and old Jean Kelly tunes that I’d seen on movies with my grandmother; I thought I was really good!”
“Then, from nowhere, I hear this voice in the hallway, shouting, ‘What is that awful noise? It sounds like a cat died!’ And I froze, like I’d been shot or something, you know?”
“Turns out it was my Auntie Delia. She was a piece of work. She wore fox furs with the heads still attached and used to tell me they were alive. I had nightmares about that for years!”
Bill couldn’t help laughing. “So, what happened then?”
Vera threw her cigarette over the edge of the roof, and Bill stared after it, hoping no one down below would catch fire.
“I never sang again. I was so humiliated. It was like the spell had been broken.”
They stood there, watching the sky turn red and dark, purple shoots streaming through it like Bill’s purple face.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “You shouldn’t let anyone stop you from--”
It was then that Vera broke into song. She just opened her mouth, and out came a powerful earthy voice that blanketed everything—the sky, the cars in the street below, and all the thoughts in Bill’s head.
“Moon River…” she sang, and Bill watched her eyes getting shiny and her face muscles relax, and she looked for a moment like Ingrid Bergman, staring out into the sky with her arms at her sides in a dramatic role.
After a while, people began to appear below them, hearing her perhaps from the street or from downstairs, getting into their cars and stopping in surprise. A small group had soon gathered, looking up at Vera singing.
She got to the middle, “Moon river, wider than a mile ...” and the energy seemed to build, and Bill felt it in his chest and stomach, and suddenly someone from the back of the group joined Vera in a small trembly voice, “I'm crossin' you in style some day…” and everyone smiled and seemed to relax. It was like a relief valve in a tire had been loosened.
Vera finished the song and stood there with her hands clasped in front of her, rather limp but happy looking.
“That was wonderful,” Bill said. “You can sing any time for me.”
She looked past him to the crowd, who slowly began to clap, like people becoming conscious. Then, one by one, they walked away, back to their cars, or wherever they’d come from. Vera started to shrink as each person walked away. When the last one had gone, she started crying.
“I really thought it would make a difference,” she sobbed, holding onto the rail. “Wasn’t that stupid of me, thinking that something as silly as a song would make a difference?”
Bill put his arms around her and brought her close to him. “It did. It really did.”
But she was staring out over the rooftops, away from him, looking out at her future, the boat, the lake house, the ring on her finger glinting in the last strands of light that finally dissipated. And they were left in darkness.