Micah Dean Hicks is a master’s student in the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. His work is published or forthcoming in over twenty publications, including Cream City Review, PANK, > kill author,
Prick of the Spindle, and Moon Milk Review. In 2010, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short story, “How the Weaver’s Wife Killed the Motorcycle Man.”
In a city of rain and brick, neon haze and cigarette smoke, the gentlemen came every Thursday, crawling from the wet into a small theater to hear three lovely singers: a soprano, an alto, and a tenor. The gentlemen shook off their damp coats and pressed against each other in the entryway. They were small and pale in coal-black suits with hats and canes. They packed hip to hip in the dark wooden seats and waited.
A light bloomed on the black wood stage. The singers walked out and faced the mass of cricket-like gentlemen twitching in the seats of the auditorium. The tenor, tall and plump, wore a black gown with rhinestones across her mountainous breasts. The alto, a girl with coffee-colored hair and eyes, wore a plain black dress. The soprano, so tiny as to be only diaphanous blond hair and long-fingered hands, wore a gown the color of cream. They lifted their faces and began.
The tenor’s voice was low, and she set on the gathered gentlemen a foundation of sound that pressed down on them and made them gasp for breath. The alto raised smokestacks between them, columns of song erupting through the rows, all the way to a young boy in the balcony, his body breaking to feel the lovely alto so near. But the other gentlemen watched the soprano. She wailed, rolling out pillar-like arias that pressed against the ceiling of the theater, swept down the gentlemen’s throats, saturated their clothes until they even stank of her voice. They crouched low behind their seat-backs, hard shoes trembling against the floor and mouths working open and shut.
After the performance, the three bowed and left the stage. The gentlemen thumped their canes and waved their hats. They rushed to meet the ladies around beside the stage door, offering their cold hands and sweeping the singers up in sooty hugs. Always the soprano was mobbed, the gentlemen clicking their tongues rudely at each other as they fought for the touch of her hand. The tenor had her select group who held themselves above the rest and who, a few minutes after the show was over, pulled her off into the dark pubs of the city to buy her Scotch and kiss her heavy knuckled hands. But the alto had no one. It was her job to fill the space and create the body of the piece, not to stand out. The boy watched her from the balcony and wanted to go to her, but didn’t know how he could survive her glance. And so the gentlemen marched by the alto, speaking softly and tipping their hats, but did no more than was their obligation. It went on like this for years.
Then one Thursday, the soprano and the tenor came into the theater, and the alto was not there. They paced and swore, leaving the gentlemen squirming in their seats for an hour, but she never came. Hand in hand, the soprano and the tenor took the stage without her and began to sing. But the heavy quiet of the room swallowed up their voices so that the gentlemen could hear nothing, only watched them swaying on the stage in silence. The gentlemen jabbered to each other, wiped their brows nervously, and were afraid.
The boy flailed his cane and pushed his way through the crawling rows until he reached the stage. Looking up into the red eyes of the soprano and tenor, their wide empty mouths, he wondered if he’d lost his chance forever.
After the performance, the gentlemen shook their heads and rushed back into the rain, abandoning the singers. The soprano went alone to the street and stood in the cold, hair and hands limp with water, waiting for someone to call her a cab. The tenor wandered, looking for her pub, but all the glowing signs seemed the same. The next day, the soprano and tenor met, locked the doors of the theater, and did not perform again.
That summer, the boy came squinting down a gravel road into a whitewashed town on the grass. The people there took slow steps. Their shirts were loose and white, their faces full of heat and wind. They had never seen a city. The boy’s jacket was sun-grayed, his cane broken, and his shoes thin as cloth at the soles. He hugged the buildings’ shadows and crept into the back of a little church. He slept through the service until the very end when the choir rose and a gap-toothed piano started playing. The alto’s back was to him, leading a group of young tenors and sopranos. There was not an alto in her choir. She directed the country girls, singing the first few notes, and sound swelled in the room until lines ran in the wallpaper and the sides of the church bowed out. Afterward, people in starched shirts and obscene boots clapped her on the back and grinned whitely, made suggestions for what songs they wanted to hear next time. The boy could not abide it.
Clutching the sides of the pews, he scurried to the front and fell down at the hem of the surprised alto. She recognized him as one of the gentlemen, looking threadbare and ill so far from the city of rain and brick. Shaking, he took her hand. He told her that he had come miles and miles under the gentleman-killing sun, checking every whitewashed church in the country, until at last, he stood reflected in the glassy curve of her coffee-colored eyes. The people smiled at each other, not liking the scent of him.
The alto held her throat and looked down at the boy. She remembered him from the theater, how he’d always sat far in the back where her voice rippled over his head and stirred his hair. In his skin, she could feel the city—its wet bricks shifting under her feet, the bar signs hovering in the dark, the taste of air filled with iron and exhaust on her tongue—and she missed it.
She said that she could never come back, though, not after the way it had been. The boy threw himself around her legs, before he could consider what was proper, and told her that it wouldn’t be the same. He said that the gentlemen needed her. He promised that she would never feel unloved again.
They sat in the shade behind the church and talked for hours. The alto stroked his hair, felt his eyes and body angled toward her, all of him focused on the notes of her voice alone. She multiplied him in her mind, imagining the theater full of such boys, all there for her song. There was no way she could stay at the church now. The white-shirted men kicked the grass and knew that they had lost her. They gave the alto and the boy their blessing, then watched them disappear down the road to the city. Turning back to their church, they found the choir of tenors and sopranos looking sad in their pews, and they wondered where they would ever find another alto.
The alto and the boy got to the theater on a Thursday, but it was closed. The black-coated gentlemen were wandering through the rain and hissing at each other, shaking soggy newspapers under streetlights. They could only remember what Thursdays had been. The alto led the boy through a side-door into the lightless theater, faded posters peeling from the walls. They found the tenor lying on the stage on heaps of sour-smelling blankets. Her face looked cracked and old.
The tenor said she’d been waiting months for the alto to come back, the low boom of her voice pushing away the motes of dust that hung in the air. The alto said that she was sorry for everything. She asked the tenor to take her to the soprano.
Dress askew, the tenor led them out into the rain. The smoke, wet, and lights of the city were pulling the heat out of the boy’s skin. He stood a little straighter. His clothes thickened and mended in the city air. They found the soprano at a music school downtown. She stood at a podium directing a vast auditorium of cream-gowned, young sopranos. From her place on the stage, she turned and looked down at the alto, her face unforgiving.
The alto asked what it would take for her to come back.
The soprano looked at her with hate, then at the young gentleman standing in her shadow. Everything, the soprano said.
Agreed, the alto said, and pushed the shaking boy toward the soprano. She thought of the gentlemen he’d told her about, her imagined theater of boys just like him, all the people who needed her.
In a city of rain and brick, neon haze and cigarette smoke, the gentlemen came crawling in from the wet to hear three lovely singers: a soprano, an alto, and a tenor. After the performance, they rushed to meet the ladies at the stage door. Always the soprano was mobbed. The boy stood quietly at her side to hold the roses brought for her and to attend to anything she might want. The tenor had her select group who pulled her off into the dark pubs of the city. But it was the alto’s job to create the body of the piece, not to stand out. And so the gentlemen marched by her, tipping their hats, but doing no more than was their obligation.
Afterward, the alto went alone up to the loft above the theater and slept. When it was almost morning, the young gentleman pushed open the loft door and lay down beside her. His trembling coat was still thick with the soprano’s voice. The alto stroked his back while he said he was sorry over and over and told her that her voice was all that he wanted. The alto did not speak. She hummed, the sound pushing the high ringing out of the boy’s head.
It went on like this for years.