I once knew a 3-year-old kid who was so musical that he would sing all the time. Al was astounding. While playing with toys, he would sing. While walking, while eating, while in the car, there was a constant song issuing from his mouth. I have never seen anything like it before or since. Morning or night, it was like there was a river flowing through him, like the River of Fa La La.
The next time I saw Al was at age 16. I was invited to dinner. He was dressed in a baseball uniform and wasn’t singing anymore. He was a handsome, muscular young man, still smiling and happy, but to tell the truth, it made me sad to think that the River of Fa La La within him had dried up. It is so sad to see that dry riverbed.
When I wrote my novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, I made a pact with myself to put in the novel all the best anecdotes I had ever lived through or heard of. That’s how Al found his way into this passage:
“From the moment she could speak, Cat had sung all the time, constantly, never stopped. Her first spoken sounds had been fa la la. Occasionally, her mother would try to kill it. “Will you stop it, girl, you’re driving me batty!” Or she would just go into the backyard and pull a switch off the tree and give her daughter a whipping. “That’ll teach you!” In time, Cat learned to sing only outside the house. It didn’t matter that people looked at her strangely at school. By six, however, the forces of discouragement finally reached a critical mass. One unpleasant boy called her Shut Up Mouth, “because you make me want to tell you to shut up your mouth.” The term tard was thrown around. So finally, she just shut up.
At 13, a neighbor convinced her mother that her child should start going to the local Baptist church. Cat joined the choir, where Miriam, the red-haired choir director, knew music but not how to talk to people. The strict doctrine of this particular faction prohibited both “mechanical instruments” and solos. Cat often longed for a great voice, but then scolded herself for coveting personal glory. Besides, it was Rose, the girl who stood next to her, who had an operatic voice and a three-octave range.
By the time Cat turned 17, strange things began happening in the church. Miriam disappeared without a word. Cat was now getting drunk with Lainie every weekend on fake IDs. On Sunday mornings, desperately clinging to some vestigial idea of goodness, Cat dragged herself to church despite epic hangovers.
One day, Cat ran into Miriam at a hardware store. A strange relaxation now filled her face and voice.
“I met a man,” Miriam said.
“He’s teaching me about the world. It’s not as bad as they say, the world. It’s strange. The further I get from the church, the happier I become.”
That confused Cat, because on the one hand, misbehaving pleased her, as well, but at the same time, her hangovers seemed like ancient judgment and pulled her back.
“They excommunicated me, you know,” Miriam said with a sly grin.
“They did it in secret. Five miserable honchos in a church of seventy miserable wannabes trying to ruin the life of someone who’s finally thrown away her antidepressants.”
Miriam sighed, then smiled.
“You’ve graduated, then?”
“Will you be continuing your music?”
“Oh no, I’m no Rose.”
“Yes. I don’t have her technique. She has all the talent.”
A mysterious smile appeared on Miriam’s lips.
“You’re mistaken,” Miriam said.
“What do you mean?”
Miriam had always withheld compliments because, she thought, Cat possessed only an average voice. The dream that Cat might have anything better had been dashed a couple years earlier.
“Rose has all the skills and God-given gifts, that’s true,” Miriam said, “but there’s something more important than all that.”
Miriam searched for the words, as if they were scattered on the waters like lilies and she was mute until she saw the right one.
“You feel the music,” Miriam said in a conspiratorial near-whisper. “The feeling makes all the difference.”
The look on Miriam’s face was something Cat had never forgotten. Contrary to church doctrine, as it turned out, Cat had an actual self, and apparently, it was an extraordinary and beautiful one, as well. She floated on a cloud for the longest time. She took that comment and protected it in a glass case in her heart, even through her years as a drunk, and then into her past year of sobriety. It was something she reached for when she was low. When a man didn’t call her back after a first date or she failed to land the job she wanted or someone at work ran a head game on her, she would sit in front of the glass case and fill herself up with Miriam’s long-ago comment.
Now, with the street, Cat had a chance again. Maybe now, the River of Fa La La would begin flowing through her again. Maybe she could finally reclaim her self.”
What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, is available for download onto your Kindle or computer for only $3.99.
Yesterday, I received an email from Al’s mother. He just earned an engineering degree. I hope he still has music in his life.