Coronavirus Chronicles — The Shower Singer, Part 1 of 3

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As promised, here’s my first installment of “The Shower Singer,” a quarantine romance parable set in Minneapolis. The story does not provide all the answers. It makes readers think. It’s one of a series that I’m working on for an anthology on the theme of deceiving appearances.

I hope it offers a fun, but relevant distraction during these trying times for you, my virtual neighbors, as we fight an invisible enemy together.

The Shower Singer

by Marie Zhuikov

. . . When those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.
— Ibn Khaldun (an early founder of modern sociology), from “Muqaddimah,” 1377 AD

Sam sat at the chipped yellow Formica table in his kitchen and slurped the milk from his cereal bowl. The cereal box next to him proclaimed that Honey Sunshine was a healthier, organic alternative to Captain Crunch. He wasn’t so sure.

As he took a spoonful and his teeth ground through the rough squares, he mulled his situation. He hadn’t written a song in a couple of months. No melodies drifted into his head. Not even any tuneless lyrics. He just wasn’t inspired.

Being songless was boring. Eating this cereal was boring. Why did he eat it, anyway? It was like chewing thirty-grit sandpaper with a bunch of sugar on top. Lord knows his mouth could use a clean start. But this wasn’t the way he wanted to get it.

Maybe it had something to do with Selene. They had broken up about six months ago after she got frustrated by his schedule. At first, after their break-up, he was at least able to write morose songs. Now nothing — as if the longer he was away from her, the more the creativity drained from him.

When they met, he was the noon entertainment at an arts show at a conference center in downtown Minneapolis. Between sets, he wandered, looking at the booths. He stopped at hers, “Selene’s Silver Spoon Jewelry.” As he admired the rings and bracelets she had made from recycled silver spoons, he noticed how her smile lit up her face, then seemed to spread across the room. One thing led to another and soon they were spending all their free time together.

After things got bad, he had tried to explain to her that his gigs were planned months in advance — months before he met her. He couldn’t just cancel because she wanted to spend Valentine’s Day together or because it happened to be her birthday. This was his career, the money he enjoyed making most — way better than his job stocking shelves at the Seward Co-op.

But she wouldn’t buy it. Selene of the killer smile and long legs dumped him after she met someone else at a craft show where she had a booth.

He drew his fingers through his straw blond hair that stuck out in every direction. He chewed more cereal, studying the Honey Sunshine box in front of him.

Damn Selene. He was beginning to wonder if his condition was permanent. He was still getting gigs, and the money was okay. But the Twin Cities audiences wouldn’t follow him for long if he didn’t come up with some new stuff. And his agent, Gary, was bugging him about another album to follow up his first.

Damn Selene of the silver spoons.

Selene of the Silver Spoons. He knew that would make a good song title, but meh. He couldn’t work up enthusiasm to do anything about it.

Damn Selene of the soft sighs, long blonde hair, beautiful smile.

Sam closed his eyes, trying to block the memories that were coming to him, when he heard the shower turn on in the apartment next door.

This was a pretty good apartment building on the West Bank, but the walls were thin. The neighbor’s shower butted up against his kitchen; he suspected their plumbing was connected.

He also assumed his neighbor was a woman from the bright flowery couch and chairs he saw moved into her apartment last week. And they were modern flowers — geometric — not old lady flowers. She had a lot of people helping — he couldn’t tell which one she was — and he hadn’t run into her in the hall or anything to say “Hey.”

Thank God she replaced Old Stella, who complained to the manager every time he as much as plucked a guitar string.

He chewed some more. Drank a few swallows of juice. Almost time to go to the co-op and arrange cans by size and color. At least it was a co-op and not some lame big-chain grocery store. He liked living and working on the fringes. Working for Wal-Mart or some other big company wasn’t his style. Plus he got a discount on food from the co-op.

Through the grinding of his molars, Sam heard something. Was that his radio? Had he hit the snooze button by accident?

He stopped chewing. The shower water was the only sound.

Sam started chewing again and the noise — no, the music — returned. He stopped chewing. Was that singing?

Yes, it was singing. Good singing. Just the snippet of a melody — haunting and slow — a woman’s voice in a minor key. His arm was resting beside his bowl. He watched as the hairs on it started to rise.

Then the singing stopped. Sam looked at his kitchen sink, willing the music to start again through the wall. After a few moments, it did.

Just eight notes, which the woman repeated. Sam jumped up, spilling cereal and milk across the table. Heedless, he ran for his bedroom. A thin reporter’s notebook lay on nightstand beside his bed. He grabbed it and a pencil, and came back to the table, sitting on the dry side. He scribbled furiously, writing down the notes his neighbor sang.

He felt on fire — as if this were the first song he’d ever heard. The notes were wondrous, round, and melancholy.

His mysterious neighbor kept repeating the notes for a couple minutes — enough time to allow him to record the melody on paper. He could see himself playing the tune on his guitar — see it spinning out into a longer song, easy. Add a little harmonica riff in the middle. Shit, he hadn’t felt this good in weeks!

The singing stopped and Sam looked at the kitchen wall again, noticing the time on the clock above the sink. Crap. Time to head to work. He stuck his notepad in the back pocket of his worn jeans and quickly sopped up the mess on the table with a rag he threw into the sink.

He put on his favorite baseball cap, the red one with a big yellow corncob on the front, courtesy of some company his dad got his corn seed from. He grabbed his bike, which was leaning next to the door.

Carrying his bike down the four flights of stairs was faster than taking the elevator, so he headed down and out into the bustling morning streets of Minneapolis.

*

During his five-hour shift at the co-op, Sam was distracted. More pieces of the song kept coming to him as he hauled boxes of food from the storeroom out to their place on the shelves. He didn’t have a title for the piece yet, but knew that it would come once he had more time with it.

Sam vaguely noticed his co-workers were trying talk to him, but they quickly gave up when met by his preoccupied stare. Later, a couple of the new girls whispered something about him doing drugs. The others set them right. They said Sam was clean, he didn’t do that crap. He was just working on a song.

Sam smiled.

He usually worked mornings, saving the afternoons and evenings for songwriting and gigs. He left the co-op at one, after buying some organic convenience food. He shoved it in his backpack and biked straight home.

More pieces of the song came to him while he was riding. He climbed up the stairs to his apartment as fast as he could with his bike on his shoulder, barely noticing the people he met on his way. He dropped the bike inside the door and almost ran to the kitchen table, pulling out his notebook.

He finished the melody in stops and starts. Now for the words. He paged back in his notebook where he kept phrases that came to him upon waking, or that he overheard people say on the street or at work. He looked for words that fit the rhythm to the song – the shower lady’s song, as he now thought of it.

He stopped and listened, straining his ears to hear anything next door. It was quiet. Of course, she was probably still working. It was only early afternoon. Still, he kept an ear tuned for her as he wrote, curious about her schedule.

Since nothing was coming together with the words, Sam decided to take a break — to balance his checkbook and the money that bounced out as fast as it bounced in. Always living on the edge.

Later, as he was finishing his supper of garlic bread and organic canned spaghetti, the words came to him. It was like they sifted through his head from all the words he’d heard or thought about earlier in the day, and fell out on his plate.

“Oh baby, why’d you sail away and leave me, stranded on this shore. Baby, oh baby why don’t you say you love me anymore. . .” And the rest followed.

*

Months ago, after Old Stella had started complaining, Sam moved his practices from his apartment to the dust of his friend Randy’s garage. Randy and his wife lived only a few blocks away, so it was easy for Sam to ride his bike to their place, guitar slung on his back, whenever he had the urge.

Randy had given him the key code to the security panel on the garage door. Sam would sit on a folding chair among the smells of street gravel and grass clippings, experimenting with the shower lady’s song; moving out of the way when Randy or Melissa needed to park their car.

Sam soon started playing “Stranded,” as he ended up naming the song, at his performances. Audiences liked it. So did his agent, who was excited that Sam was finally producing something new.

“More,” Gary said. “Gimme more like that, Corn Boy, and you’ll have enough for another album in no time!”

“Corn Boy” was Sam’s nickname, a nod to his previous life with his dad and younger brother on the corn tundra of southern Minnesota. Plus Sam’s hair was the color of corn silk, and there was that cap he liked to wear. But his respectable stage name was Samuel Collins.

Sam did give Gary more. During the next couple of weeks, his neighbor kept singing in her shower. Every few days she offered a new snippet of a tune. Almost every time, the melody struck Sam and inspired him. Those days passed in a pleasant creative blur.

Back at the apartment, Sam had tried to catch a glimpse of his new neighbor — listening for her door to open — still trying to figure out her schedule. Other than her shower during his breakfast, he didn’t hear her over there. He didn’t hear her come home at night, which he suspected either meant she worked late, or that she had someplace else to go after work.

Maybe a boyfriend’s house? He didn’t want to think about that. She was his, after all — his own secret muse, just on the other side of the wall. . . .

That’s all for now. I’ll post Part 2 on Tuesday.

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