Not long ago, I went to a concert by a folk singer who used to live in the apartment above ours, in Brooklyn Heights, where I grew up. His songs were funny and genuine and his guitar-playing beautiful in the way you’d expect after decades of composition and performance. Midway, he sang a selection from his first record, which I’d played over and over again as a girl. I remembered each of these songs, even many of the lyrics. I hummed along harmonies I’d worked out before. Fly away, flying child, fly awayyyyy… the music came right back, as if I’d been listening to it ever since.
He seemed to look at me as he sang, but when I introduced myself after the show, he was clearly surprised; why is this woman shaking my hand? I watched the smile on his face recede like an outgoing tide and then fill back in. “You were just a little girl,” he marveled, eyes wide. No, he wouldn’t have recognized me, he said. To me, he looked remarkably the same. His face was unlined, and his jeans and t-shirt made him look youthful. “Henry Street!” we cried in unison, and embraced like old friends.
The folk singer had been in his twenties when he moved in upstairs; I was in grade school, shy—no father around and no brothers or sisters made me wary of strangers. When my mother and he would talk, neighborly chats at our place or his, I kept silent as a rag doll. As we spoke now, I recalled she’d invited him to sing at my birthday party and it had embarrassed me. I was only turning six, or perhaps a year older. “Really?” he said, “I did?”
An elderly Syrian lady lived on the top floor of the building. One afternoon, when I was in fifth grade, a spark ignited her belongings; fire gutted her apartment. “She had towers of junk, everywhere,” the folk singer told me now. “A hoarder.” Water flooded downstairs, warping our parquet floors and buckling the plaster moldings on the ceilings. My mother grew impatient with the pace of repairs. She didn’t trust the “slumlord, that bastard” to get anything right, so we moved to a place in another neighborhood.
Years earlier, Mom and I had visited this lady for a grandmotherly tea. She whispered “here,” and gestured for us to take a seat. There were none. All of her furniture was made out of newspaper, old copies of Daily News and The New York Times. We balanced little china plates of homemade bread studded with sesame seeds, and slices of cake dripping in syrup, upon a stack of magazines. As a child who glued and sewed her own dollhouse furniture—wingback chairs with ottomans, and cabinets out of balsa wood, felted pillows, tiny vases of dried flowers, even a record player made out of cellophane—I found her purposeful collection of paper enthralling. She had conjured a magical domain, her smile crinkling across her face, surrounded by a gyre of looping, silver hair.
“You know, she sued the landlord,” the folk singer said. We laughed and agreed it seemed impossible that the old lady had sought a settlement because of a faulty electrical panel, though her possessions were clearly a hazard. “I wrote a song about it,” he added. Eventually, he moved back into the building. Where else could you find rent for under $200 dollars? I didn’t know.
I only knew that I’d felt sad about leaving a home where the bright blue kitchen led to a large garden shaded by dogwood trees and a tall sycamore along the back wall. Every year, a blue jay returned to nest there. I learned its song, and believed it was the same bird coming back year after year like an old friend, to teach of loyalty and joyful recurrence, the opposite of dread.
The singer and I embraced again, then he looked me in the eye. “Are you well?” Yes, I said. I told him my mother was still alive, too, still in Brooklyn, hanging on but ready to go. “Ninety-three, oh my, give her my regards, will you?” I said I would. “You are well? Life is good?” he asked again. We hugged for a third time, and then he started to sing as if he were just retrieving a lost lyric.
She’s quiet and she’s shy, hmmmm, hmmmmm, hmmmmm, but when Jenny smiles, the sun comes up on Henry Street.
This was the song he’d written for my birthday. “It’s true, you wouldn’t say a word,” he said. I smiled, no longer afraid to meet his gaze. I was guarded around men while growing up. I loved my father, but his visits were rare and brought the alarming promise of my mother’s tears. It made me not want to see him at all.
The singer clasped my arms again. “Your life is good?” he repeated as if he needed to be sure. His hair was shorter now, and still light brown; he wore different glasses. He had a daughter who was also a musician; they gave concerts together. “Yes,” I nodded, our faces close, heads almost touching. We had nothing in common apart from the waxing song of memory, and a brief, glancing adjacency of two fledglings rising like fire into the air, taking hold.
Lyrics to “Flying Child” David Buskin, 1972. David Buskin, Poso Music, ASCAP. Reprinted with permission.
Jenny Apostol is a writer, television producer, and literary translator. Her essays and poetry have been published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads,” River Teeth Journal’s “Beautiful Things,” Haibun Today, and in Blood Tree Literature. Jenny is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop, at Pacific Lutheran University.