We might have carried on like this for a long time—I might never have built up the courage to introduce myself—except, after I went out on disability, my aunt bought me an electric sewing machine “to keep my hands busy.” That was Aunt Hannah’s mantra: Busy hands are happy hands and an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. I accepted the machine to humor her, as I had no intention of doing my own stitching, let alone anybody else’s, but I did plug the machine into an outlet in my parlor…and the entire first floor went dark. Not only my own first floor, it turned out, but also the Carrano’s: the singing next door stopped, and about ten minutes later, Sebastian Carrano appeared at my door in a plaid shirt and chinos.
“Looks like we’ve blown a fuse,” said Sebastian. “If I ever buy my own home, first thing I’m going to do is put in circuit breakers.” He held up a bright orange plug and it took me a moment to realize this was a replacement fuse—not an exotic musical accoutrement. “We haven’t actually met,” he added, extending a hand. “Sebastian Carrano. My wife and I live next door.”
So he replaced the fuse and that was that. Twenty minutes later, the lights were back on and the parlor again filled with an upbeat rendition of “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.” And I was sadly disappointed. I suppose I thought that once the ice between us had been shattered, I’d become a regular in the Carrano’s home—that Sebastian would invite me to dinner...and that one thing might lead to another. But all I actually got was a brand new fuse and the cold shoulder.
So I made myself a regular in Sebastian’s home. I don’t know how the idea first came to me, but I found a hand drill at the hardware store on Steeple Street, and I bored a fine hole into the plaster between my parlor and Sebastian’s conservatory. The hole proved just wide enough to afford a view of the piano and the nearby music stand—thank heavens, I didn’t end up behind a bookcase or something—and, on my end, the opening was easy to conceal behind a flap of wallpaper. The following Monday afternoon, when the buxom brunette named Bonnie arrived to croon “Come On-A My House,” I had the lights off and a stool perched at my peephole.
I’ll confess I was somewhat surprised when Sebastian kissed his student on the lips and even more surprised when he turned on a cassette player. At first, I thought the recording was merely a prelude to the lesson—a model for Buxom Bonnie to imitate. But then the more intimate sounds from beyond my line-of-sight told me the rest of the story: The voice I’d been hearing on Monday afternoons was Rosemary Clooney. Sebastian Carrano had recorded voice lessons to mislead his wife while he and Buxom Bonnie performed a different sort of music. And I had to hand it to him: He’d spliced the tape in such a clever way that it genuinely sounded like a voice lesson. Another few years elapsed before I learned why he hadn’t just recorded Buxom Bonnie herself: At the end of one of their “lessons,” she confessed with a laugh that she couldn’t carry a tune.
Buxom Bonnie wasn’t the only middle-aged matron whose “voice lessons” Sebastian had pre-recorded. He also “taught” a mousy lady with a penchant for torch songs and a rail-thin Black woman named Hortensia whose voice proved a dead ringer for Sarah Vaughan—although with these women, he actually pre-recorded their own voices. But I don’t want you to get the wrong idea: Sebastian offered real lessons too—most of his lessons, in fact, were of the traditional sort—and these were thrilling to see. He’d sit at the piano, lost in the music, his face a torment of ecstasy. After watching him for five minutes, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever loved Aaron Sucram.
Of course, I secretly dreamed of something more. But as with Aaron, I bided my time—bided it so long that somehow thirty-eight years evaporated. Uncle Ethan burst an aneurysm; Aunt Hannah died in a nursing home in Providence. Alice Carrano’s hair turned from black to steel-gray. One Monday afternoon, crouched at my perch at four o’clock, I found Buxom Bonnie had been replaced by a teenage girl who actually did her own singing. Yet Sebastian managed to find another lover for his five-thirty slot, a morbidly obese peroxide blonde in her fifties. He remained as dashing in his early-sixties as he’d been in his late twenties: still trim and his skin as bronze as ever. He never managed to buy that home with a circuit breaker, but one day his lessons started at one o’clock in the afternoon, and I realized that he’d retired from the middle school. And what did I do all those years? Other than biding my time, that is. Honestly, I can’t really tell you. I’d like to say that I mastered a dozen foreign languages, or painted an attic’s worth of breathtaking canvases, or even taught myself how to embroider, so that I could ornament throw pillows like Aunt Hannah’s—but I did nothing of the sort. I just minded my own business, and kept on good terms with the grocery clerks, and waited for my opportunity with Sebastian. I suppose it’s rather sad really. But no matter.
I mention all of this because it might explain how my life suddenly veered off the rail at fifty-eight. I was flipping through the Clarion one Friday morning—it was a daily paper when I first moved in, but now it’s only a weekly—and I turned first to the obituaries, as I always do, to see if I recognized anyone from high school. And there was the name Marcy Sucram: Marcy Sucram née Hopkins, 59, of Creve Coeur, survived by husband, Aaron, and Lord-knows-how-many children and grandchildren. Somehow thinking of scrawny Marcy Hopkins dead of pancreatic cancer left me raw with anxiety, as though I’d been sent a warning to act before I too was just a four inch column on page seventeen of the Clarion.