A Song to Remember
When Pearl sang "Memories," her soprano voice floated through the door of her small Brooklyn apartment left ajar in the July heat and down the darkened stairwell to the dim lobby with graffitied walls. Suddenly a man called out from downstairs, "Hellooo, Mrs. Bernstein, is that you singing?"
Pearl, alarmed at a stranger entering the building, dried her hands on a towel, hurried to the musty hallway, and arched over the dusty bannister.
"Who's that? How'd you get into the lobby?"
"I'm your new landlord! May I come up?"
She squinted in the gloom. "Step away from the door so I can see you!"
A short gray-haired man stepped into the pool of light from a dangling bulb. "See? It's only me, Arthur Applebaum. I recently bought the building and wanted to chat with you. The bank holding the mortgage didn't supply much information about the remaining tenant."
"Well..." Pearl checked the buttons of her orange ruffled blouse that topped tiger skin pants. "All right!"
"Thanks!" He climbed the stairs, mopping his face with a handkerchief from a jacket breast pocket. "It's terribly hot out," he said.
"Yeah and I don't have air-conditioning! Maybe you could do something?"
Looking up, he said, "We'll see."
As he approached the fourth floor landing, she noticed the hump on his back like a baby camel; his oversized face protruded from a nearly absent neck. He was the ugliest man she'd ever seen. Pearl led him to the sagging sofa and gave him tap water. Then she sat in the old rocker near the open window, daubing at perspiration beading her forehead. She wanted to strip but that wouldn't look right in front of a guest.
He glanced at the wall tapestry of a belly dancer with gold-sequined harem pants and bra, and said, "May I take off my jacket?" At her approving nod at his gentlemanly way of asking first, he folded it over the sofa back, gulped water, and set the glass on his handkerchief to avoid staining the thrift-shop's wooden coffee table.
She liked his thoughtfulness.
"Well, you're a lovely lady," he said, "those dark eyes and pretty black curls. I'm sorry I stopped your singing. You have a nice voice."
"Really?" Pearl, smiling, patted her poodle-cut hairdo, dyed to hide the gray. "I sing in nursing homes, tell jokes and belly dance. I get paid, but I hope some day to entertain on television."
Mr. Applebaum's thick brows rose in surprise. "Well, well, talented, too!"
She smiled again at his compliments and paused. "Maybe you could make some repairs?"
He rose and she showed him the stove with broken knobs, the half-refrigerator that lacked a freezer cover, the dripping shower head, and inoperable door buzzer.
"I'll have everything fixed," he said, reclaiming the sofa.
"And what about air conditioning?" she said.
His warm smile seemed to soften his face; his eyes were a tender brown. He said, "I'll do my best but only if you sing for me."
"What?" Pearl's hand fisted on hips. He had a line all right but she'd never fall for it, not with looks like his!
"I love to hear a woman sing and especially a woman as beautiful as you."
"Me, middle-aged and beautiful?" She stared at him, then laughed. "I should tell my grown daughter that one--she lives in California."
"Mrs. Bernstein, a woman can be beautiful at any age. Please do sing."
She hesitated. He was an oddball. Maybe the disability had affected his brains. Yet he was surprisingly nice--for a man in his condition. "Call me Pearl." Posing before the television she sang her favorite, "Memories," using the gestures taught her by Farita, her exotic dance teacher. Once again the thin soprano voice wafted through the apartment, her arms held close to her breast as if hugging herself and then held out but now she had a rapt audience. Mr. Applebaum sat frozen, as if mesmerized, his eyes widening with pleasure.
"Ah, how charming! Would you sing for me again? If Mr. Bernstein doesn't object."
"I'm divorced. Make the repairs and get me some air conditioning and I'll do it. I'm a professional, you know. I don't sing for nothing unless when I'm by myself."
Smiling, he stood and shook her hand. "I must leave. It was a pleasure meeting you, Pearl."
"Likewise." She watched him lumber down the stairs, his hump rocking forward as he grasped the dusty bannister. Poor man, probably desperate for a woman. All of her divorced friends were anxious to remarry but not that anxious!
Later, donning her belly-dancing harem pants with fringed beaded bra for a practice session at Farita's studio, Pearl forgot about the new landlord. He didn't call for several weeks; then, one evening, she heard his gentle voice on the telephone.
"Pearl, my handyman will drop by next Saturday if you'll be home."
She agreed, delighted that finally she'd fix up this dump and maybe get air conditioning.
He paused and said softly, "I'd be honored if you'd join me for dinner tomorrow. I could pick you up in my car and drive you home."
Uh-oh, trouble brewing! Pearl frowned. The last thing she needed was an ugly hunchback wining and dining her. Still, she couldn't ignore his help. "I'd like that," she said, grimacing.
"Good! I'm looking forward to it." He sounded delighted.
Hanging up, she regretted her decision but her lease had expired and she couldn't afford another lawyer after the divorce battle with Syd. If her new landlord threw her out, she'd have no place to live. Despite her revulsion she must humor him, at least until she saved enough for a co-op in Brooklyn Heights, convenient to Manhattan. Then she'd fly out of Brighton Beach so fast he wouldn't even spot her shadow!
The following evening she chose a sexy black jumpsuit with gold studs spanning the bodice and spaghetti straps, and stiletto heels only an inch and a half so he'd feel taller although she was only five feet two.
Arriving promptly at seven, he rushed to open the door of his Cadillac for her. She slid onto a creamy leather seat, admiring the clean smell, and exchanged smiles with him while he drove. He was a funny man, so polite, probably because he needed a woman and she was available. She shouldn't have let the cat out of the bag that she was single!
At Bertolini's with its soft Italian music, waiters served delicious food at outrageous prices. Naturally, as soon as she'd spotted the linen tablecloths and candles, she figured the restaurant was expensive. Her landlord discussed his career as an architect, how he'd then retired and drifted into real estate. If she avoided looking at him he seemed interesting, especially when describing trips to Europe and the Far East. He smelled of money.
He explained how he'd helped with renovation plans for major New York sites like Madison Square Garden, then he paused and leaned toward her with his big face. "Please tell me about yourself."
"Well, Mr. Applebaum, there's not much to tell. I work as a secretary and keep busy but I love to go dancing."
"Call me Artie, please. I love dancing, too." He drank some wine, and said softly, "Any boyfriends?"
She shrugged. "Nah, I just got divorced so I'm not really looking, but maybe someday." She immediately regretted her remark at seeing him grin, his neck disappearing altogether. My God, he probably thought she was encouraging him! But then she couldn't help noticing his even white teeth and his warm eyes that seemed to light up whenever she looked at him. Maybe she had him all wrong. So what if he looked ugly. He was a gentleman with plenty of money and didn't mind spending it. They could be friends...
When he brought her home, he smiled but didn't try to kiss her. Climbing the four flights alone she thought about his politeness, not like Syd who'd called her stupid because he'd graduated from college--big deal! She'd learned plenty from just living; what more did she need? And what about all those jerks she'd met at singles events since the divorce! Compared with them, Mr. Applebaum--Artie--didn't seem so bad.
Sitting on the sofa with a glass of water she shuddered at her sudden interest in her landlord. How could she make love with someone so ugly? She'd never be that desperate. She shook her head. She'd date him but they'd just stay friends.
After that, she saw him twice a month, then weekly, then twice weekly. Despite his misshapen body, he was an excellent dancer and they enjoyed foxtrotting and jitterbugging to big band music at Roseland after dining at lovely Manhattan restaurants. Later, they lingered at a fancy cocktail lounge, the kind where they sank into soft living room armchairs beyond the bar area and sipped cocktails with funny names like Blue Margarita and Brandy Alexander.
During that fall and winter, Artie's workers renovated Pearl's apartment. They hung sheet rock and repainted the walls a delicate blue, brought in pretty white French Provincial furniture, replaced the threadbare carpet with blue shag and matching blue drapes, and installed new kitchen and bathroom appliances, along with an expensive air conditioner. In the hallway she passed rose patterned wallpaper and gleaming pink tiles. One day, Pearl realized she wouldn't want to lose her apartment or Artie.
That evening, when he dropped by for a home cooked meal at her invitation, they ate borsht, blini, and babka at the new white-marble coffee table and sat together afterwards on the tufted sofa, their heads bent over photos of her Jewish emigre parents, hard-working Russian peasants. She touched his arm. "Artie, you're the best friend I ever had. I hope you'll stick around for a long time."
"Just friends, nothing more?" he said softly.
"Well..." Pearl paused shyly. "If you want more..."
"Oh, Pearl!" He touched her, his arm quivering. "May I kiss you, please?"
She nodded. It was the sweetest kiss she'd ever had.
When they separated, he said "I won't ask for more, if you don't want it."
She smoothed his graying hair, thick and wavy, not like Syd who was nearly bald. "I can't get over it--the way you always think of the next person's feelings."
"I think about you all the time, Pearl," he said and they kissed again.
"Artie, I wouldn't mind if we...I mean.." She paused, and added, blushing, "I mean, if I thought we'd be together permanently."
His face flushed. He turned away.
"What's the matter?" she said, alarmed.
"Pearl...I couldn't tell you before, but I'm...that is...I have a wife."
"What!" She stared at him, then jumped up, the album thudding against the carpet. "My God, why were you leading me on this way!"
"Please try to understand," he said. "My wife became a paraplegic, our chauffeur was driving drunk, and she's very bitter. We've had no sex for ten years but I can't divorce her. I'd marry you this second if I could."
"I see..." Dazed, Pearl returned to the rocker. "You have a wife...Geez, I didn't think--"
"Oh, Pearl,I love you so much but this one thing I can't do. I'm sorry." He buried his face in his hands and sobbed. "Please promise me you'll still see me. I don't know how I'll stand life without you."
"My God." Sitting, Pearl stared at him, stunned. She finally pulled herself together and rose to comfort him. His face nestled in her arms. "It's all right, Artie. Honest." She forced a short laugh. "Like I said when we met, I'm not dying for a new husband anyway. I just got rid of one..." She stopped when he lifted his wet face.
"Do you love me? The truth."
She nodded. "But what's the use?"
"That means everything!" He embraced her. "We have each other. I'll take care of you."
Gently she removed his arms. "Artie, cheating isn't right, no matter what condition your wife's in."
He stared at her. "How can you say that? You don't love me."
"You're the most wonderful guy I ever met! But cheating's wrong. At least separate from her."
"I can't...she's in a wheelchair and completely dependent on me. I have an obligation. I can't just toss her aside."
"Artie, I'm sorry. I can't run around with a married man. My parents raised me with principles. Only a loose woman would break up a home."
He shook his head sadly. "Okay, Pearl, I won't bother you anymore. I'll send a lease so you'll feel secure. But if you ever need me, please call my office. I have no hard feelings about it. I just wish...Well, I'd better go."
Reluctantly she led him to the hallway and watched him decend the gleaming wood stairs. "Artie," she called out softly, "take care of yourself, huh?"
He looked up, the tiny neck swiveling to catch a last glimpse of her. "I'll always love you, Pearl, remember that! Never stop singing."
For weeks Pearl moped, unable to sleep, unable to practice her belly-dancing, unable to think of anything except Artie. Then, one evening he called, apologizing for going against his word and bothering her.
"It's no bother," she said, her heart lightening as if shedding a heavy load. "I can't see you but I'm glad to talk with you."
"Then, may I call again?"
"Yes!" Pearl beamed. Who knew what life had in store for her? Maybe his wife would die from her illness and he'd be free to remarry. She was patient, enduring Syd for thirty years before finally throwing in the towel but now she had something worthwhile to wait for.
After hanging up, she donned her belly-dancing costume for a lesson at Farita's. She'd better practice again or she'd become so rusty she'd have to drop her career! Tying the beaded head piece, she thought of Artie, his generosity and kindness, and her heart filled with love. For the first time in weeks, she sang, "Memories, all alone in the moonlight..." Once again her thin soprano voice wafted through the apartment and past the window drapes, bathing the streets below, mellow in late spring sunshine. It seemed as if she'd never sung it so well.
Smiling passersby glanced up at the apartment nearly hidden behind tree foliage, perhaps wondering how the unseen lady upstairs had achieved such happiness.