There’s a handsaw hanging on the wall of my living room, a house key from a giant’s pocket. It’s been there a long time. “What’s your saw for?” people ask, and I say, “It’s not my saw. I never owned a saw.”
“But what’s it for?”
“Hanging,” I answer.
By now if you took it down you’d see the ghost of the saw behind. Or—no, not the ghost, because the blue wallpaper would be dark where the saw had protected it from the sun. Ghosts are pale. So the room is the ghost. The saw is the only thing that’s real.
These days, though it grieves me to say it, that sounds about right.
Here’s how I became a singer. Forty years ago I walked past the Washington Monument in Baltimore and thought, I’ll climb that. It was first thing in the morning. They’d just opened up. As I climbed I sang with my eyes closed—“Summertime,” I think it was. Yes, of course it was. “Summertime.” I kept my hand on the iron banister. My feet found the stairs. In my head I saw myself at a party, leaning on a piano, singing in front of a small audience. I climbed, I sang. I never could remember the words, largely because of a spoonerized version my friend Fred liked to sing—Tummersime, and the iving is leazy / jif are fumping, and the hiver is rye…
Then a man’s voice said, “Wow.”
In my memory, he leans against the wall two steps from the top, shouldering a saw like a rifle. But of course he wouldn’t have brought his saw to the Washington Monument. He was a big-boned, raw-faced blond man with a smashed Parker House roll of a nose, a puny felt hat hanging on the back of his head. His slacks were dark synthetic, snagged. His orange cardigan looked like rusted Brillo. He was so big you wondered how he could have got up there—had the tower been built around him? Had he arrived in pieces and been assembled on the spot? “Wow,” he said again, and clasped his hands in front of himself, bouncing on his knees with the syncopated jollification of a love-struck 1930s cartoon character. I expected to see querulous lines of excitement coming off his head, punctuated by exclamation marks. He plucked off his hat. His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast.
“That was you?” he asked.
I nodded. Maybe he was some municipal employee, charged with keeping the noise down.
“You sound like a saw,” he said. His voice was soft. I thought he might be from the South, like me, though later I found out he just had one of those voices that picked up accents through static electricity. Really he was from Paterson, New Jersey.
“A saw?” I asked.
I put my fingers to my throat. “I don’t know what that means.”
He held up his big hands, one still palming his hat. “Beautiful,” he said. “Not of this earth. Come with me, I’ll show you. Boy, you sure taught George Gershwin a lesson. Where do you sing?”
“Nowhere,” I said.
I couldn’t sing, according to my friends. The only person who’d ever said anything nice about my voice was my friend Fred Tibbets, who claimed that when I was drunk, sometimes I managed to carry a tune. But we drank a lot in those days, and when I was drunk Fred was drunk, too, and sentimental. Still, I secretly believed I could sing. My only evidence was the pleasure singing brought me. Most common mistake in the world, believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, directly or indirectly.
The man shook his head. “No good,” he said very seriously. “That’s rotten. We’ll change that.” He went to take my hand and instead hung his hat upon it. Then I felt his own hand squeeze mine through the felt. “You’ll sing for me, OK? Would you sing for me? You’ll sing for me.”
He led me back down the monument, the hat on my hand, his hand behind it. My wrist began to sweat but I didn’t mind. “Of course you’ll sing,” he said. He went ahead of me but kept stopping, so I’d half tumble onto the point of his elbow. “I know people. I’m from Philadelphia. Well, I live there. I came to Bawlmore because a buddy of mine, part of a trio, he broke his arm and needed a guitar player so there you go. There are two hundred and twenty-eight steps on this thing. I read it on the plaque. Also I counted. God, you’re a skinny girl, you’re like nothing, you’re so lovely, no, you are, don’t disagree, I know what I’m talking about. Well, not all the time, but right now I do. I’ll play you my saw. Not everyone appreciates it but you will. What’s your name? Once more? Oof. We’ll change that, have to, you need something short and to the point. Take me, I used to be Gabriel McClonnahashem, there’s a moniker, huh? Now I’m Gabe Macon. For you, I don’t know, let me think: Miss Porth. Because you’re a chanteuse, that’s why the Miss. And Porthkiss, I don’t know. And Miss Kiss is just silly. Look at you blush! The human musical saw. There are all sorts of places you can sing, you don’t know your own worth, that’s your problem. I’ve known singers and I’ve known singers. I heard you and I thought, There’s a voice I could listen to for the rest of my life. I’m not kidding. I don’t kid about things like that. I don’t kid about music. I was frozen to the spot. Look, still: goose bumps. You rescued me from the tower, Rapunzel: I climbed down on your voice. I’ll talk to my friend Jake. I’ll talk to this other guy I know. I have a feeling about you. I have a feeling about you. Are you getting as dizzy as me? Maybe it’s not the stairs. Do you believe in love at first sight? That’s not a line, it’s a question. I do, of course I do, would I ask if I didn’t? Because I believe in luck, that’s why. We’re nearly at the bottom. Poor kid, you never even got to the top. Come on. For ten cents it’s strictly an all-you-can-climb monument. We’ll go back up. Come on. Come on.”
“I can sing?” I asked him.
He looked at me. His eyes were green, with gears of darker green around the pupils.
“Trust me,” he said.
I wasn’t the sort of girl who’d climb a monument with a strange man. Or go back to his hotel room with him. Or agree to move to Philadelphia the next day.
But I did.
His room was on the top floor of the Elite Hotel, the kind of place you might check in to to commit suicide: toilet down the hall, a sink in the corner of the room, a view of another building with windows exactly across from the Elite’s windows.
“Musical saw,” said Gabe Macon. He opened a cardboard suitcase that sat at the end of the single bed. First he took out a long item wrapped in a sheet. A violin bow. Then a piece of rosin.
“You hit it with that?” I asked.
“Hit it? What hit?” Gabe said.
“Look,” he said. The saw he’d hung in the closet with his suits. I’d thought a musical saw would be a percussion instrument. A xylophone, maybe. A marimba. He rosined the bow and sat on a chair on the corner. The saw was just a regular wood saw. He clamped his feet on the end of it and then pulled the bow across the dull side of the blade. You could hardly see the saw, the handle clamped between his feet, the end of the metal snagged in his hand: he was a pile of man with a blade at the heart, a man doing violence to something with an unlikely weapon.
It was the voice of a beautiful toothache. It was the sound of every enchanted harp, flute, princess turned into a tree in every fairy tale ever written.
“I sound like that?” I said.
He nodded, kept playing.
I sound like that. It was humiliating, alarming, ugly, exciting. It was like looking at a flattering picture of yourself doing something you wished you hadn’t been photographed doing. That’s me. He was playing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
He finished and looked at me with those Rube-Goldberg eyes. “That’s you,” he said. He flexed the saw back and forth then dropped it to the ground.
I picked it up and tried to see my reflection in the metal. “You don’t take the teeth off?”
“Nope,” he said. “This is my second saw. Here. Give me.” I lifted it by the blade and he caught it through the tawny handle. “First one I bought was too good. Short, expensive. Wouldn’t bend. You need something cheap and with a good length to it. Eight points to an inch, this one. Teeth, I mean.” He flexed it. The metal made that backstage thunder noise I’d imagined when he’d first said I sounded like a saw. “This one, though. It’s right.” He flipped it around and caught it again between his brown shoes and drew the bow against it. He’d turned on just one light by the hotel bed when we’d come into the room. Now it was dark out. I listened to the saw and looked at the sink in the corner. A spider crawled out of it, tapping one leg in front musingly like a blind man with a cane before clambering over the embankment. The saw sighed. Me, too. Then Gabe reached over with the bow and touched my shoulder. I flinched, as though the horsehair had caught a case of sharp off the saw.
“That’s you,” he said again.
Maybe I loved Gabe already. What’s love at first sight but a bucket thrown over you that smoothes out all your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time that I was capable of being loved.
Or maybe I just loved the saw.
We left for Philly the next day. The story of our success, and it wasn’t much success, is pretty boring, as all such stories are. A lot of waiting by the phone. A lot of bad talent nights. One great talent night in which I won a box of dishes. The walk home from that night, Gabe carrying the dishes and smashing them into the gutter one by one. Don’t do it, I said, those are mine—
He held one dish to my forehead, then lifted it up, then touched it down again, the way you do with a hammer to a nail before you drive it in.
Then he stroked my forehead with the plate edge.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he said.
He wrote songs. Before I met him I had no idea of how anyone wrote a song. His apartment on Sansom Street smelled of burnt tomato sauce and had in the kitchen, in place of a stove, a piano that looked as though it had been through a house fire. Sometimes he played it. Sometimes he sat at it with his hands twitching over the keys like leashed dogs. “The Land Beyond the Land We Know.” “A Pocket Full of Pennies.” “Your Second Biggest Regret.” “Keep Your Eyes Out for Me.” He was such a sly mimic, such a sneaky thief, that people thought these were obscure standards, if such a thing exists, songs they’d heard many times long ago and were only now remembering. He wrote a song every day. He got mad that sometimes I couldn’t keep them straight or remember them all. “That’s a Hanging Offense.” “Don’t You Care at All.” “Till the End of Us.”
We performed them together. He bought me a green Grecian-draped dress that itched, and matching opera gloves that were too long and cut into my armpits, and lipstick, and false eyelashes—all haunted, especially the eyelashes.
History is full of the sad stories of foolish women. What’s terrible is that I was not foolish. Ask anyone. Ask Fred Tibbets, who lied and said I could carry a tune.
We cut a record called Miss Porth Sings! For a long time you could still find it in bins in record shops under Vocals or Other or Novelty. Me on the sleeve, my head tipped back. I wore red lipstick that made my complexion orange, and tiny saw-shaped earrings. My hair was cashew-colored. That was a fault of the printing. In real life, in those days, my hair was the color of sandpaper: diamond, garnet, ruby.
I was on the radio. I was on the Gypsy Rose Lee Show. Miss Porth, the Human Musical Saw! But the whole point was that Gabe’s saw sounded human. Why be a human who only sounds like an inanimate object that sounds human?
This is not a story about success. In the world we were what we’d always been. The love story: the saw and the sawish voice. We were two cripplingly shy, witheringly judgmental people who fell in love in private, away from the conversation and caution of other people, and then we left town before anyone could warn us.
In Philadelphia he began to throw things at me—silly, embarrassing, lighter-than-air things: a bowl full of egg whites I was about to whip for a soufflé, my brother’s birthday card, the entire contents of a newly opened box of powdered sugar. For days I left white fingerprints behind. He said it was an accident, he hadn’t meant to throw it at all. He was only gesturing.
And then he began to threaten me with the saw.
I don’t think he could have explained it himself. He didn’t drink, but he would seem drunk. The drunkenness, or whatever it was, moved his limbs. Picked up the saw. Brought it to my throat, and just held it there. He never moved the blade, and spoke of the terrible things he would do to himself.
“I’m going to commit suicide,” he said. “I will. Don’t leave me. Tell me you won’t.”
I couldn’t shake my head or speak, and so I tried to look at him with love. I couldn’t stand the way he hated himself. I wanted to kill the person who made him feel this way. Our apartment was bright at the front, by the windows, and black and airless at the back, where the bed was. Where we were now, lying on a quilt that looked like a classroom map, orange, blue, green, yellow.
“My life is over,” said Gabe. He had the burnt-tomato smell of the whole apartment. “I’m old. I’m old. I’m talentless. I can see it, but you know, at the same time, I listen to the radio all day and I don’t understand. Why will you break everyone’s hearts the way you do? Why do you do it? You’re crazy. Probably you’re not capable of love. You need help. I will kill myself. I’ve thought about it ever since I was a little kid.”
The saw blade took a bite of me, eight tooth marks per inch. Cheap steel, the kind that bent easily. I had my hands at the dull side of the saw. How did we get here, I wondered, but I’d had the same disoriented thought when I believed I’d fallen in love with him at first sight, lying in the same bed: How did this happen?
“I could jump,” he said. “What do you think I was doing up that tower when you found me? Windows were too small, I didn’t realize. I’d gotten my nerve up. But then there you were, and you were so little. And your voice. And I guess I changed my mind. Will you say something, Marya? You’ve broken my heart. One of these days I’ll kill myself.”
I knew everything about him. He weighed exactly twice what I did, to the pound. He was ambitious and doubtful: he wanted to be famous, and he wanted no one to look at him, ever, which is probably the human condition—in him it was merely amplified. That was nearly all I knew about him. Sometimes we still told the story of our life together to each other: Why had I climbed the tower that day? Why had he? He had almost stayed in Philadelphia. I’d almost gone back home for the weekend but then my great-aunt Florence died and my folks went to her funeral. If he’d been five minutes slower he wouldn’t have caught me singing. If I’d been ten minutes later, I would have smiled at him as he left.
We were lucky, we told each other, blind pure luck.
One night we were at our standing gig, at a cabaret called Maxie’s. It hurt to sing, with the pearls sticking to the saw cuts. The owner was named Marco Bell. He loved me. Marco’s face was so wrinkled that when he smoked you could see every line in his face tense and slacken.
There’s a land beyond the land we know,
Where time is green and men are slow.
Follow me and soon you’ll know,
My green dress was too big and I kept having to hitch it up. It wasn’t too big a month ago. At the break, I sat down next to Marco. “How are you?” I asked.
“Full of sorrow,” he answered. He leaned into the hand holding the cigarette. I thought he might light his pomaded hair on fire.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You do it, Miss Porth. With your—” He waved at the spot where I’d been standing.
I laughed. “They’re not all sad songs.”
“Yes,” he said. There was not a joke in a five-mile radius of the man. He had a great Russian head with bullying eyebrows. Three years earlier his wife had had a stroke, and sometimes she came into the club in a chevron-patterned dress, sitting in her wheelchair and patting the tabletop, either in time to the music or looking for something she’d put down there. “You’re wrong. They are.”
I said, “Sometimes I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors.”
Then Gabe was behind me. He touched my shoulder lovingly. Listen: don’t tell me otherwise. It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say—as people will—that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well, it might not have been nourishing, but it sustained me for a while. Once I’d left I’d be as bad as any reformed sinner, amazed at my old self, but even with the blade against my neck, I loved him, his worries about the future, his reliable black moods, his reliable affection—that was still there, too, though sullied by remorse.
I stayed for the saw, too. Not the threat of it. I stayed because of those minutes on stage when I could understand it. Gabe bent it back and it called out, Oh, no, honey, help. It wanted comfort. It wanted to comfort me. We were in trouble together, the two of us: the honey-throated saw, the saw-voiced girl. Help, help, we’re still alive, the saw sang, though mostly its songs were just pronouns all stuck together: I, we, mine, you, you, we, mine.
Yes, that’s right. I was going to tell you about the saw.
Gabe touched my shoulder and said, “Marya, let’s go.”
Marco said, “In a minute. Miss Porth, let’s have a drink.”
“Marya,” said Gabe.
“I’d love one,” I said.
Maxie’s was a popular place—no sign on the front door, a private joke. There was a crowd. Gabe punched me. He punched me in the breast. The right breast. A very strange place to take a punch. Not the worst place. I thought that as it happened: not the worst place to take a punch. The chairs at Maxie’s had backs carved like bamboo. He punched me. I’d never been punched before. He said, “See how it feels, when someone breaks your heart?” and I thought, Yes, as it happens, I think I do.
I was on my back. Marco had his arms around Gabe’s arms and was whispering things in his ear. A crowd had formed. People were touching me. I wished they wouldn’t.
Here is what I want to tell you: I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it.
About five years ago in a restaurant near my apartment someone recognized me. “You’re—are you Miss Porth?” he said. “You’re Miss Porth.” Man about my own age, tweed blazer, bald with a crinkly snub-nosed puppyish face, the kind that always looks like it’s about to sneeze. “I used to see you at Maxie’s,” he said. “All the time. Well, lots. I was in grad school at Penn. Miss Porth! Good God! I always wondered what happened to you!”
I was sitting at the bar, waiting for a friend, and I wanted to end the conversation before the friend arrived. The man took a bar stool next to me. We talked for a while about Philadelphia. He still lived there, he was just in town for a conference. He shook the ice from his emptied drink into his mouth, and I knew he was back there—not listening to me, exactly, just remembering who was at his elbow, and did she want another drink, and did he have enough money for another drink for both of them. All the good things he believed about himself then: by now he’d know whether he’d been right, and right or wrong, knowing was dull. I didn’t like being his occasion for nostalgia.
“I have your album,” he said. “I’m a fan. Seriously. It’s my field, music. I— Some guy hit you,” he said suddenly. His puppy face looked over-sneezeish. “I can’t remember. Was he a drunk? Some guy in love with you? That’s right. A crazy.”
“Random thing,” I said. “What were you studying?”
“Folklore,” he said absentmindedly. “I always wondered something about you. Can I ask? Do you mind?”
Oh, I thought, slide down that rabbit hole if you have to, just let go of my hem, don’t take me with you.
“I loved to hear you,” he said. Puppy tilt to his head, too. “You were like nothing else. But I always wondered—I mean, you seem like an intelligent woman. I never spoke to you back then.” One piece of ice clung to the bottom of his glass and he fished it out with his fingers. “Did you realize that people were laughing at you?”
Then he said, “Oh, my God.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Not me,” he said. “I swear, you were wonderful.”
I turned to him. “Of course I knew,” I said. “How could I miss it?”
The line between pride and a lack of it is thin and brittle and thrilling as new ice. Only when you’re young are you able to skate out onto it, to not care which side you end up on. That was me. I was innocent. Later, when you’re old, when you know things, well, it takes all sorts of effort, and ropes, and pulleys, and all kinds of tricks, to keep you from crashing through, if you’re even willing to risk it.
Though maybe I did know back then that some people didn’t take me seriously. But still: the first time they came to laugh. Not the second. I could hear the audience. I could hear how still they were when I sang with my eyes closed. Sure, some of them had thought, Who does she think she’s fooling? Who does she think she is, with that old green gown, with those made-up songs? But then they’d listen. It was those people, I think, the ones who thought at first they were above me, who got the wind knocked out of them. Who brought their friends the next week. Who bought my record. Who thought: Me. No more, no less, she’s fooling me.
Later I got a letter asking for the right to put two songs from Miss Porth Sings! on a record called Songs from Mars: Eccentrics and their Music. The note said, Do you know what happened to G. Macon? I need his permission, too, of course.
The night of the punch, I went home with Gabe for the last time. Of course, don’t call the police, I told Marco. He was exhausted, repentant. I led him to the bed, to the faded quilt, and he fell asleep. From the kitchen phone I called his sister in Paterson, whom I’d never met, and I told her Gabe Macon was in trouble and alone and needed help. Then I climbed into bed next to him. Gabe had an archipelago of moles on his neck I’d never noticed, and a few faint acne scars on his nose. His eyebrows were knit in dreamy thought. I loved that nose. He hated it. “Do I really look like that?” he’d ask, seeing a picture of himself. He’d cover his nose with his hand.
I didn’t know what would become of him. I had to quit caring. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t the saw and it wasn’t a fear of being alone that kept me there: it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.
At five a.m. I left with a bag, the saw, bamboo-patterned bruises on my back, and a fist-shaped bruise on my right breast. Soon enough I was amazed at how little I cared for him. Maybe that was worse than anything.
Still, no matter what, I can’t shake my first impression. Even now, miles and years away, the saw in my living room to remind me, when I think of Gabe, I see a 1930s animated character: the black pie-cut eyes, white gloved hands held flat against the background, dark long limbs without elbows and knees that do not bend but undulate. The cheap jazzy glorious music that, despite your better self, puts you in a good mood. Fills you with cheap jazzy hope. And it seems you’re making big strides across the country on your spring-operated limbs, in your spring-loaded open car, in your jazzy pneumatic existence. You don’t even notice that behind you, over and over in the same order, is the same tree, shack, street corner, mouse hole, table set for dinner, blown-back curtains.
*This story is taken from: Thunderstruck and Other Stories © 2014 by Elizabeth McCracken, The Dial Press, New York.