the original and unedited version

Kathryn Paulsen

Music of the Stairs

Kathryn Paulsen’s prose and poetry have been published in New Letters, West Branch, the New York Times, et al., and may currently be read in Humber Literary Review, The Stinging Fly, and The Smart Set, among others. For fiction and playwriting, she’s been awarded residence grants at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and other retreats. She also writes for stage and screen. She currently lives in New York City, where she works as a freelance editor, but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places. See her occasional musings at

New York

          The old woman two flights below me on the second floor used to open her door to see who was coming upstairs but close it as soon as a head appeared above the floor of her landing, till she heard the steps ascending again; then open it wide and sing or recite into the hall, sending her voice upstairs with you.

          With a voice like a scratched but precious record she would sing off and on all night and all day. I could hear her through the airshaft window of my bathroom or, sometimes, depending on where in her apartment she stood, through my rear windows on the courtyard.        

          Sometimes she rang a bell—a dinner bell, a funeral knell, a church or sleigh bell, depending upon what play she was reciting or inventing. I didn’t like it when she woke me up at night or when I was trying hard to concentrate. But in my small, bare apartment she was my showpiece. You’ve got to hear this, I’d say to a guest, and guide him into the bathroom.

          I never knew what I was going to hear from her next: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “After the Ball,” “The Whippenpoof Song”—as if she’d been the belle of Mory’s forty years before—or a song I didn’t know, or one I did, given wrong or better words.

          The first time I heard her recite, I think, was in the early afternoon, and I mistook her for a television show till I realized that whatever that soap opera was had been going on for three hours.

          There was lots of other music in the building, and still is. Just below me on the third floor is a singer with an operatic voice who vocalizes every morning at ten-thirty.  One day at three, unprepared, I was upset to hear her, but she hadn’t changed her habit, just overslept. Sometimes she turns her stereo on loud in the evening and I ask her to lower it. She doesn’t mind.

          Neither did the two girls upstairs mind, but I tried to tolerate their music once I found out they were both deaf. Presumably the pleasure they took in it was from feeling rather than hearing the vibrations—they ran their vacuum cleaner a lot. Only twice did I push a note under their door, but others may have done so more often. After three or four months they moved out.

          The girl who moved in across the airshaft from me would play “Here Comes the Sun” and other songs I liked so often I got tired of them. Over the music she used to talk loudly about her love life on the telephone.

          The longest conversation I ever had with her was the first time I met her in the hall, when we were both going up to the top floor to protest the loudest music ever heard in this building. A jilted, drunken lover was playing “A Horse With No Name” to drown his sorrows in his girlfriend’s apartment, to which he still had a key. He lowered the volume for us, then insisted on telling us the whole sad, incomprehensible story. Late that night or early that morning, long after I’d fallen asleep, he rang my downstairs buzzer, leaned on it, and on several others at the same time, and wailed into our intercoms, “Help me, let me in.” None of us did, so he broke the little window in our outside door. I think his girlfriend married the man she’d left him for and moved out.

          I never cared to get to know any of my neighbors here, though I was curious about the old woman. At first her music and her speeches had depressed me, but after a while they began to have the opposite effect. I thought now and then about joining in, but I was sure she wouldn’t like it. I spoke with some friends about recording her—wasn’t she a perfect city version of the folk that scholars go around collecting? But I wouldn’t do it without asking her, and I couldn’t ask without knowing whether she’d be frightened or furious or pleased.  Perhaps I could have found out if I’d tried.

          Late one afternoon after I’d lived here several months, she came to my door.

          First I heard someone whistling on the stairs below, making sounds that might have come from an instrument other than human lips. A few minutes later came a faint knock, and I opened the door and saw her. It was the closest I’d been to her, and the first time I’d seen her outside her apartment. She looked tired and out of breath, as if the two flights had been too much for her.

          She was parchment-colored, from wispy hair to dingy blouse, and, it seemed, growing paler, like my parents’ old overexposed home movies, on which my grandmother’s red roses get whiter every time they’re shown. Nevertheless, she didn’t look as old as I’d thought from a distance, not over, say, sixty-five. She had a finely modeled head, a high, full forehead that came about to my shoulder, and a pointed chin.  Not so many years ago, her features would still have been called handsome.

          “I should like to ask whether I might borrow a cup of sugar,” she said. “My name is Rachel Lea. I live on the second floor.”

          “I’m Liza,” was all she allowed me.   

          “You don’t think I look like a Rachel, I can tell. I always thought I should have another name—Theresa, perhaps, or Cordelia, which do you think?”

          “They’re both nice names, but so is Rachel.” I opened the door wide and stepped back, and she stepped in. I asked her to sit down.

          “No, I must go, I have an engagement.” She followed me to the cupboard of my kitchen, which is merely one end of my small studio.

          “You look like your mother, don’t you?” she said.

          “Yes, but I look like my father, too.”

          “Most people do. I look more like my mother, though. My mother was said to be extraordinarily beautiful.”

          “I’m sure she was,” I told her, wanting to say what she wanted to hear, “to have a daughter like you.”

          “Thank you, you are too kind.” She lifted the cup, as in a toast. “I shall return this very soon.  I apologize for the intrusion.”

          I said, not entirely truly, that there had been none.

          A week later she knocked again, this time dressed darkly, which made her face look even paler—again with an empty cup in her hand.

          “I am so sorry,” she said, “that I have not yet returned the sugar you so kindly lent me last week, but the weather has been so inclement and I so—so unusually forgetful, and sleeping so little, but falling asleep at just those times I intended to go outside to the store. But I realize there is no excuse, no excuse at all, to ask to borrow something else before even having returned—especially something so common, so simple as sugar.”

          “Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “Do you need any more?”

          “No, but what I do need, that is, what I should very much like, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, and if you have it, of course, is some brown sugar.”

          I asked her in and said I’d see if I had some, which I did, though, having been opened some time ago, it was dry on top.

          “Look, would you like some coffee?”

          The invitation came out before I was sure that I wanted to encourage her to linger—and felt risky: having given her coffee once, would I be called upon to give more, and again and again? Would she become a care, an obligation, and just at a time in my life when, with great relief, I had shed other obligations? After all, hadn’t I moved into this apartment in the first place after realizing, on the eve of the day appointed for me to take my few belongings to the apartment of the man I’d thought I would marry, that he had come to seem an obligation to me, someone I didn’t even much like, let alone love?  Some weeks later, realizing that I had no desire to teach philosophy, I abandoned my doctoral program to read and study at home, supporting myself as best I could by temporary work while trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.  Whatever I was to decide, it was clear that, having become conscious of my own weaknesses, I had to protect myself from other people’s notions of what was good for me, and even from casual opinions and distractions. People interested me, but people were dangerous. 

          “Oh, thank you, you’re very kind, but I couldn’t trouble you,” Rachel said.

          “It’s no trouble,” I said, as if I meant it, as if Rachel were just another neighbor, and I someone inclined to be friendly toward neighbors. “I was just making it for myself.  Would you rather have coffee or tea?”

          “Whatever you’re making for yourself, dear.”

          “Actually, I’m making both, to save for later.”

          “Then I’ll have a little tea, but a very small cup. I shouldn’t stay long.”

          After I’d set pot and cups on the battered coffee table, she said, “This is such a lovely apartment, my dear.”

          I thanked her, wondering whether, despite her tender tone, she could be mocking me. My friends were always asking me when I was going to get the place together, or making suggestions they thought would help me do so. And I was always explaining that it was hard to make livable an apartment I disliked so much and wished to move out of as soon as I could afford to.

          “Do you know,” she said, “hardly anyone else in the building has ever had anything I needed, even simple things. It seems remarkable that you do.”

          “That’s just because I have such a terrible sweet tooth,” I said as I set before us a plate of cookies I’d made over the weekend. She took one and nibbled it quickly, then took another.

          “Oh, my dear, sweets to the sweet, as they say.” She tilted her head and smiled.  “Someone so sweet as you of course must have a sweet tooth. That’s the way the world is, you know.”

          “Well, I don’t know. I wish I could control it.”

          “Don’t say that. It really doesn’t matter at all. Believe me. You are meant to have one. I can tell.”

          By now she was on her third cookie. She finished it, took another, thanked me, and said she really had to go. I handed her the box of brown sugar and wished her a good evening.

          That weekend, another dateless one for me, since the man I’d been seeing lately was out of town, I spent reading Tender Is the Night; and, walking down the stairs on Sunday morning, thinking about Fitzgerald and art and life and women and love, I heard Rachel’s voice behind me for the last flight, singing a song with new words to a familiar tune I cannot now recall—words about “poor little Zelda.”

          To subdue my goose bumps, I asked myself whether she might have noticed the book while we were having coffee. I didn’t think it had been in a conspicuous place then, I didn’t think she’d looked at anything intently, she had had a somewhat removed look in her eyes; but who knew what she had done when my back was turned? Well, whether or not she could read my mind, I thought, she seemed to wish me well.

          Besides a paper, I bought myself a pastry. When I returned, Rachel’s door was shut and it did not open behind me. I heard nothing more from her all day. But that afternoon I heard something else that disturbed me more than it should have. When I telephoned the man I would not yet have called my boyfriend but whom Rachel, had she seen him, might have called my beau, I heard that he wouldn’t be able to see me for a while because “a couple of things have come between us.”

          I had to admire that phrase, which seemed elegant to me despite the use of “things” for what must have been women, and I appreciated the regretfulness in his voice.  I answered vaguely and politely, as if I, too, had other romantic interests but hoped that we could become friends, however distant.

          When Rachel knocked a few days later, she was carrying not her cup but a paper bag. I invited her in but she shook her head no.

          “I am so ashamed, my dear,” she said, “so very ashamed that I have once again abused your generosity and forgotten your sugar, but I did bring you something else. She handed me the bag so formally that I almost asked whether I should open it then or later.  Inside was a plastic-topped container of chicken livers. They were fresh, dated that day. I thanked her and said I liked chicken livers very, very much.

          “Oh, I’m so glad. I got them for my tabby, but I forgot—you see, I forget so much these days—that he doesn’t like them, he only likes beef liver. He’s got very special tastes, poor tabby. And I cater to them, I do, because I feel guilty.”

          During the pause in which I was expected to ask why, I did.

          “Because I slammed his head in the kitchen door,” she said, as if mouthing the words to a song. “It was years ago. When I lived somewhere that had a kitchen door. The vet fixed him up fine, but who knows whether underneath he’s really all right. So I do my best to keep him happy.”

          She said, no, she couldn’t stay for tea, next time perhaps I could come over and have tea with her.

          The next morning as I stepped onto the second-floor landing, she opened her door entirely—wonder of wonders—and beckoned me. She whispered that she was feeling a little ill and wondered, if I was going to the store, whether she might trouble me to pick something up for her.

          “What do you need?”

          “Milk and some honey, just a small jar. Here, I’ll give you some money.”

          I waved away her quarters and said we could settle later. As I turned toward the stairs, she pulled my sweater and stood on tiptoe to whisper in my ear:

            “My dear, the things I could tell you about this building—what goes on here is truly shocking, and after all my years in the theater, I am not easily shocked.”

            I said I’d wondered if she’d been in the theater.

            “Have I been in the theater,” she said loudly, still into my ear. “Why, I’ve been Cleopatra, Ophelia, Saint Joan, Elizabeth Barrett, Katharine Cornell—I’ve been them all.  I’ve even—” she lowered her voice till I could hardly hear “—danced.”

            “You must have had a good time,” I said.

            “Yes, I have always had a good time—always, every place, even here, but I tell you it’s hard, with the criminal elements, our esteemed landlady, you know, dear, is just an old whore, and her son, he could, well, murder isn’t too strong a word—the trash, the trash!”

            Speaking softly, conversationally, to set a good example, I said that I had thought it a little peculiar that her second floor neighbors left more than just garbage in their paper bags in the hall. Most of what they left seemed still good, the sort of things people threw away only if they were moving and couldn’t be troubled to pack—contents of icebox, of cupboards, of medicine chests; magazines, books, CDs. At first I’d assumed someone was slowly moving out. Someone, too—did Rachel know who?—left items of food, cans, and bottles on the radiator downstairs. I had never seen anyone leave them or pick them up.

            She shook her head. “Sometimes you can find nice things here,” she said, pointing at her neighbor’s door. “You should look. But I didn’t mean garbage or leavings. I was speaking of trash.”

            I’d been looking intently at her face, trying hard not to look over her shoulder at the gray-brown heaps of boxes, dishes, clothes, and dust beyond her door.

            I wondered then how she would react were I to tell her things about my life.  Hearing about the loss of my latest beau, would she not have shrunk into herself like a frightened bird, pretending to be dead feathers, reminded perhaps of painful events in her own life, of which there must have been more than a few. 

            But later, up our airshaft, might she have sung a soothing song to me, even a lullaby? I’ll never know.

            That night, a rhythmical clapping, a hollow sound, kept me up till dawn. The last thing I heard before I finally slept was Rachel’s bells and her voice reciting—it might have been anything, it might have been Hamlet.

            All day the next day she was silent. On my way outside, after passing her closed door, I caught myself humming a song the words of which I could barely recall: “Liza, Liza, skies are gray, but if you’ll smile on me, all the clouds will roll away.” The words fell over each other faster than we fell down on the playground after music class, where I learned the song. When did I first hear it? Was it the reason I traded in Betty to be Liza? Or was it that other song, which I knew no better: “Charlotte town is burning down, goodbye, goodbye. Cotton balls are turning brown, goodbye, Liza Jane.”

            There was nothing from Rachel that night either. That night for the first time here I listened to my own slight voice in the shower. I sang something easy and familiar, like “Singing in the Rain.”

            I sensed Rachel so strongly behind her door each time I passed that it didn’t occur to me she was gone till I saw the door hanging open as if broken, or broken open, not that there was anything inside that anyone would break in for. I know that because I entered, to see whether she needed help. She wasn’t there. It was impossible to tell how long ago or in what condition she’d left. Gaping open, like the door, was the top of a large old trunk, standing vertically, in which hung clothing probably not worn in decades.  Yellowed papers, sheet music, theater programs, scripts, all darker than usual, covered every surface. I looked for her name in some of the programs, but failed to find it.

            The long cloth on the round table nearly touching the floor and the printed cloth from India draping her sofa looked as though they might dissolve into the dust that covered them. Dust seemed brushed on the window with delicate strokes in service of a design, an effect I’d observed in sand at the beach. I resisted the impulse to write my initials in it with my finger. There were no curtains. 

            I touched nothing. The last thing I noticed was a blouse crumpled on the floor, bent and curled and twisted like someone’s insides.

            The room stayed that way for days. Then the door still hung open, but everything was gone except for a table and a bed and maybe another thing or two you couldn’t see without going inside. After that the door was closed.

            Late one afternoon inside the outer door to our building, by the mailbox, Rachel’s next-door neighbor, whom I’d only seen once or twice and whose name I did not know, touched my shoulder. She’s a thin woman, with thinning, paling hair, and thickening skin pulled tight over prominent bones. She asked if I wanted a cat.

            I said I didn’t and started to explain why, but she touched me again to stop me.

            “It belonged to the woman next door,” she said.

            “Rachel Lea?”

            “Her name was really Frances,” she said, “but yes, it’s hers, and I don’t know who I can get to take it, it’s so homely. I was going to keep it myself, but mine don’t get along with it. They’d do the poor wretch in in a week.”

            “What happened to her?” I asked, expecting to hear about a nursing home or a mental institution.

            “I’m sure she’s dead, poor soul. She was quite ill, you know, a diabetic, among other things.”

            “No, I didn’t know.”

          She dug into her purse, as if for her keys, ending the conversation, and I pushed the outer door open.

          As in other buildings, there is a rhythm here of doors closing at certain hours, which I heard now for the first time. I heard laughter, sighs, shouts. I heard dogs barking in warning or greeting. All the sounds of life.

          I saw people emerging from basement doorways and disappearing into doorways at tops of stairs, carrying paper bags from shops on this street where I myself go. But I did not know any of them. I stepped back inside and caught Rachel’s neighbor in the middle of the first flight.

          “I’ll take the cat,” I said and followed her upstairs to fetch it. I wanted to ask her if it had been for Rachel that she’d left the food and things in the hallway, but I was too shy.

          The cat is still with me, though I don’t think he wants to be. For a while I didn’t think he would be for long. He wouldn’t eat anything till I gave up trying to feed him my superior scraps and started giving him cat food.

          It didn’t take them long to paint and rent Rachel’s apartment. I have yet to meet or even see the new tenant.

          I still hear the girl across the airshaft talking about her love life and playing her new CDs. Instead of Rachel, or Frances, now I hear politics, news, and movies on televisions above and below.

          And myself singing sometimes, not just in the shower—no, almost anywhere but the shower now. And I sing anything, like free associating, whatever comes to mind, songs I don’t know or half-know, or will learn some day.

“I’m a mean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone. I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own—”  

          Songs that bring back the fevers of childhood, when you fell into patterns on plaster walls.

          “I’m a mad dog, a bad dog, teasing silly sheep. I love to sit and bay the moon to keep the folks from sleep.”

          Songs you long ago imagined standing up and singing in an inappropriate public place, like school or church or lecture hall, getting for a few moments the attention of the multitude, but suffering forever afterwards unspeakable humiliation.

          Songs you dreamed of singing to a rapt audience, if only of humble fellow student guitar players who didn’t know them either.

          I’m thinking about getting a recorder. I’m discovering that I like the sound of my voice in a vacuum, without a real person, or should I say, without another real person, listening. I think I am getting to know myself better.

          I am still afraid to be heard. I sing into my hands or into a sheet. If the cat hears me, he pays no attention.

          “Hey, ho, nobody home, eat, no, drink, no, money, got I none. Yet will I be merry, meh-heh-hey-ry—”

          (That’s a tune from church youth group or summer camp.)

          “Noah built himself an ark, one more river to cross. Built it stout with hickory bark, one more river to cross. One—more—river—”

          (Fourth or fifth grade music class.)

          “Don’t you think  it’s a little too late for singing?” a friend of mine once shouted down to a drunk serenading outside his window, who was keeping him awake at an ungodly hour.

          Believe me, all you who will never be forced to endure even one flat note of mine—it’s never too late.