The Vocalist

No. He argued that this was altogether different, and maybe he was right. Grace hated musicals herself. She’d had to sit through My Fair Lady one year because Josh was operating the sound board. It had made her feel restless and a little violent. 

Lots of times they buy the rights but never make the movie

Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“It’s Singer again,” Mrs. Liao called from the kitchen.

“Okay Mom, I’ll take it in my room,” Grace said, picking up the phone.

Singer was having trouble with a translator—too flashy, too full of tricks. He’d also worn through the elbows of his nicest suit jacket and felt tempted by a woman in his building who flirted with him in the laundry room. She would take his socks out of the dryer and stretch them provocatively.

“Have you told her to stop it?” Grace asked.

She couldn’t remember quite when Isaac Bashevis Singer had started calling her, long distance from Manhattan to Winnipeg. It was after she’d gotten her own phone, after the cold had come back—October maybe? And why had he started calling—why did he trust and confide in Grace Liao, a 15-year-old girl he’d never met in person, a girl who read voraciously but sometimes without real comprehension?

They’d talk long into the night, mostly about his troubles—his editors, his lovers, his travels. Singer had a rich, punchy voice, heavily accented but easily understood, and Grace loved the wet fricatives that scraped through words like ridicule, gratitude, betrayal, transmigration.

Grace’s mother had been nervous about it from the start. Was it appropriate for a teenager to hear about adult, New York City lifestyles? But most of all she worried that he was stealing her sleep, draining her mental capacity, and leaving her groggy, entranced, and unprepared for school the next day.

“And think of the cost,” Mrs. Liao said. “The telephone bill.”

“We don’t pay. He does,” Mr. Liao shot back. “And he probably has a special rate for evenings.”

Mr. Liao was proud and excited that a Nobel laureate was calling his daughter, and he liked to offer opinions about the Diaspora, Poland, the secrets of the Talmud, goose fat on rye.

“You know, the Taiwanese are the Jews of Asia,” he said one night.

“What is our Exodus?” Mrs. Liao asked. “Who is our Moses?”

Was the Exodus the Air Canada flight they’d taken sixteen years earlier? Was each immigrant his own Moses? Mr. Liao said nothing to his wife, and Singer didn’t call that night; but on Saturday the phone rang just after 11 PM.

“Grace, it’s so late already,” Mrs. Liao said. “Too late to begin.”

“Tomorrow is Sunday.”

Singer needed help.

A very famous person that he referred to only as The Vocalist had offered to buy the rights to one of his stories. She wanted to adapt and direct a Hollywood film version. Of course it sounded like a mistake, but the sort of money she was talking about was insane. Could he trust her with the characters and the incidents and the spirit?

“Sit down with her—face-to-face. Sit down and talk. Don’t make a decision until then,”

Grace told him.

Yes, this was excellent advice. He could only get a true sense of a person if he could watch her as she spoke. A neighbor had lent him one of The Vocalist’s albums, and it had told him nothing, just that the woman could make very forceful noises. She could overpower a brass band and sustain one piercing high note longer than Singer could hold his breath. He knew because he’d tried and failed and was left panting on the couch, impressed with her strength.

“The woman who gave you the album—this is the same woman you see in the laundry room? Who pulls on your socks?” Grace asked.

Maybe it was, but she hadn’t given him the record. She expected it back. It was only a loan. After Grace hung up she felt pleased, then a little ashamed at her own sense of self-importance, then very very sleepy.

Josh Finkleman came over the next afternoon. Josh from three doors down—stronger in math, weaker in English, equal in history. There had always been this Joshua.

“Fine, don’t tell me who you talk to every night, but this is silly,” he said.

“He’s a very famous Yiddish writer of—”

“I know who Isaac Singer is. You’re not talking to Isaac Singer all night. Is it Steve Macaulay?”

This was a deliberate insult. Steve Macaulay? That cruel, square-jawed defenseman?

He’d made slanty eyes at her nearly every day until grade five, and then he’d drawn a wavy phallus on her copy of Jane Eyre in grade six. Never Macaulay. Josh went home without eating anything.

Singer took the meeting—as they say. A friend had warned him that there was something otherworldly about actually being in the same room as The Vocalist. Don’t get too close or you are likely to lose something, the friend had said. Your soul? A deeply held belief? A chunk of your nose? What?

“You gave her the rights?” Grace asked.

When The Vocalist took out her checkbook and started writing all those fat, insolent zeroes, Singer sat still and said nothing. She told him that he didn’t need to sign that day. She’d call in a week and then send the contract over to his apartment by courier.

“So you haven’t given her the rights yet?”

No, he hadn’t. Only she had signed, pledging only money. This was a crass way to operate: give him the check and hope for it to work its magic on him, hope that the gold in his breast pocket would infect his heart. These were the actions of a woman who belted out cheap songs through her nose and then basked in the cheers of wolves.

“Lots of times they buy the rights but never make the movie,” Grace said.

She’d read this somewhere—People Magazine or the authorized biography of Jackie Collins that she’d taken out of the library. Ashamed even at the memory, Grace reminded herself of all the Tolstoy she’d read in junior high. In more or less random grabs off the shelf, she’d gone From Goethe to Dostoyevsky to George Eliot to Chekov to Woolf all the way back to Sterne, and then Singer. Singer with his dybbuks and his delicatessens and his unreliable holy books. Reading Singer in the little indent between the gym and the shop class of Pearson Junior High, plugging her ears to the shrieks of girls playing indoor ringette, why had he made so much sense?

It was another week before he called again. The Vocalist had phoned him from an Emirate where she was performing at the birthday party of a prince’s fiancé. It was like a fairy tale; and if you gave it some real thought, it was as brutal and heartless as the fables that actual peasants told each other. The Vocalist was pressing Singer to make a decision. She said that the story really spoke to her.

Really spoke to her? That’s what she said? Oh my God, for real?” Grace sneered.

It felt good to have a clear target for her scorn. But to her surprise Singer defended the platitude and warned Grace not to judge people by the stock phrases they used. We didn’t all have to be so original with our language all the time. It was exhausting when every sentence you heard was stuffed up with colors, smells, and winged words. As one who was easily fatigued, Singer had no quarrel with cliché. Again, he’d put off the decision.

At school Josh asked if she wanted to go to a concert with him two weeks from Saturday.

He’d already bought the tickets.

“I can’t go. He almost always calls on Saturday night,” Grace said.

“Your mom can take a message.”

“Why did you buy me a ticket without asking?”

“If you don’t want to go, someone else can use it.”

The night of the concert Grace stayed home and Singer called.

“Hey, have you ever heard of Leonard Cohen?” she asked.

Yes, Singer knew about this one. They’d met in Montreal. Cohen’s French was appalling and all his songs were in accusatory second person—you wrapped someone’s face up with hair, you were unkind to a girl named Suzanne, you destroyed the world’s chance at redemption. No, Cohen, you did all this. Don’t put it on the rest of us.

“So do you think Josh was, like, asking me out?”

Singer was confused by the question. He seemed to be under the impression that Josh was one of several longstanding lovers of hers.

“No, I’ve never—no, not even a little anything with him.”

Hadn’t she told him of nights in a sticky hotel room in Argentina? Making love to the suspicious stares of subtropical lizards?

“No. That’s not—what—I mean, what are you even talking about? He just asked me to go to a Leonard Cohen concert with him.”

A mistake. We all made them. One story of passionate sexual congress could sound very much like another. Grace changed the subject. Singer still hadn’t signed the contract.  They were almost certain to use tricks and lies on him.

“But they’ll give you money,” she said. “You can always help people with the money.”

It was true that Singer gave generously to displaced people: Soviet Jews, a family from Cambodia, an old couple from Cuba, a young firebrand from South Africa. He gave without specific political emphasis. He gave from personal connection to a narrative.

“Cash the check. Ignore the movie,” Grace said.

Maybe The Vocalist would get distracted, singing for her millions in Las Vegas or for free at fundraisers for doomed Democrats. Singer cashed the check and signed the contract.

It was an especially cold winter, Singer started calling nearly every night, and Grace’s father began sleeping on the couch. He said it was because of allergies.

“Dad, do you think I’m a child?”

Mr. Liao folded the blanket he’d slept under and draped it over the arm of the couch.

“Singer would enjoy Winnipeg,” he said. “It’s like Warsaw.”

Bitter, numbing, sleep-inducing cold, solid gray buildings downtown—would Singer really like these things?

“Hey, Dad, maybe you’d like Haiti, because it has similar weather to that place where members of your family were killed,” Grace thought. But she didn’t say it out loud. Last year she would have, but she felt like she was growing wiser, more patient, more forgiving of the world and all its stupidities.

Singer got another check in the mail from The Vocalist’s production company—something about the contingency. It was for a lot of money, almost as much as the first check.

What could it mean?

“Probably they’re making the movie,” Grace said—more wisdom culled from glossy pages.

Hadn’t she assured him that they wouldn’t make the film, that it was merely an act of egotism, a way to impress the other middlebrow Californians with false commitment to real literature?

“No, I said sometimes they don’t make the movie. But it looks like they are making this one.”

Singer was silent so long that Grace thought he might have hung up, but when he finally spoke he was decisive: he would tear up the check; that would put a stop to things.

“You’ve already signed over the rights. They’ll make the movie whether you cash the check or not.”

That was a cheap trick.


He’d been hoodwinked, seduced. It was a crime. Grace could undo this.

“I can’t.”

And then Singer was metaphysical, describing the strong sense he’d felt recently that animating spirits were all around us, and how human souls were deeply, rapturously unknowable. He cited the miraculous connections between the ancient folklores of disparate cultures. And why did people look down on automated food? Once it was thought that this was the future—meals dispensed by machine. Then in the middle of a sentence there came an unexpected voice, shocking and ethereal.

“Now, it is too late. It is much too late. Please, Mr. Singer. She must be in bed.”

“Mom, I’m talking—”

“No. You must be in bed.”

“I am in bed, I’m—”

“Go to sleep. Please, Mr. Singer.”

He was stiff, polite, offended. He said goodnight.

Mr. Liao was angry when he found out.

“She’s learning more from Dr. Singer than she could ever learn at school,” he said.

“Doctor? He’s not a doctor.”

“He has an honorary degree. University of Albany.”

“An honorary degree is fake. It’s all make-believe.”

Mr. Liao shook his head and left the house. He came back the next day, but a week later he flew to Toronto to stay with his brother who ran a discount clothing store.

“He won’t be there forever, will he?” Grace asked.

“He’s there now,” her mother said.

Singer called that night. Grace wanted to ask him about her parents, about the chance of them getting back together, but Singer had to tell her about the second check: he’d cashed it. Much of the money had already been given away—struggling friends, refugees. He’d also given to some kids from the Philippines who wanted to start a literary magazine. He told them a small literary magazine was for fools. It would make them poor and angry and ruin all their friendships. It would harm their skin and their digestion and they’d become depressed and conceited. But he loved them for the belief that they were the exception.

Josh won a national award for a science project that translated simple English commands into a language called Pascal.

“Right now, it’s kind of nothing,” he said. “But down the road, I think that some of the ideas could be useful. But probably not. I don’t know.”

“There was a science fair?” Grace asked.

“Where have you been?”

In the early spring Grace started to see advertisements for the movie: a musical. Not just adapted and directed by The Vocalist, but also starring her. Singer didn’t understand how any of this was possible. The Vocalist couldn’t play a teenager. And how could songs be added to a story that originally had no songs? When did people ever sing their feelings? When did that happen in life?

You write about spirits and demons. You write stories where dreams and fantasy are indistinguishable from reality.”

No. He argued that this was altogether different, and maybe he was right. Grace hated musicals herself. She’d had to sit through My Fair Lady one year because Josh was operating the sound board. It had made her feel restless and a little violent.

“You don’t have to see it,” she told Singer.

Of course, you don’t have to go to the movies. You can stay home and read or knock on your neighbor’s door and ask if you can listen to some of her tango albums. You don’t have to head over to the theater, buy a ticket, smell the pretend butter, and find a seat near the back.

“Don’t do it, Isaac. Don’t go. Do not go.”

That Friday for the first time in months Josh stopped by her house, but he was bitter and angry about everything. Every conversation was a skirmish.

“He has to see it all over the place—plastered on all the walls,” Josh said. “On TV every five minutes. You shouldn’t have told him to sign over the rights.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No, but you do? Somehow you just know everything. You’re so high above the rest of us, aren’t you?”

“I thought you didn’t even believe Singer was calling. I’m just making it all up, right? So why do you care so much?”

“I don’t know, Grace.”

He looked down at his beef curry. He used to eat three or four servings in one sitting.

That day he only stirred the meat around the bowl without taking a single bite.

“My dad moved out,” Grace said.

“They’re getting divorced?”

“I don’t know. I guess.”

“Sucks so much. I mean—why did they get married in the first place? You’re in love and then you’re not in love? What the hell is that?”

Josh’s parents had divorced when he was eleven. He shook off hugs and shoved away the kindly, bearded counselor—physically pushed the man. He was fine. One day after school he and Grace stopped into Zeller’s to look at the pet department. In her arms, he cried and cried, soaking her parka and her mittens in front of the parrots, the fish, and the lizards.

Singer’s voice wasn’t loud, but it vibrated with rage.

“I told you not to see it,” Grace said.

One thing was for sure: there was too much singing in the movie, much too much. It came from all sides. Every time it seemed as if there might be a moment of genuine import, someone—usually The Vocalist—would burst into the shtibl singing at the top of her lungs.

“She’s a professional singer. Is it so surprising she’d make a musical?”

And the story he’d written took place exclusively in Poland, but somehow at the end of the movie The Vocalist came to New York on a steamer ship, shrieking about how she could fly, and swoop, and rip a man open to feast on his viscera.

“There was a song about feasting on viscera?”

Why hadn’t Grace warned him? Why had she stood by while his child was butchered, smothered in kitsch, and devoured as passive entertainment? Money? What was money? He wanted her to void the contract, remove the film from theaters. He was a simple man victimized by jackals. He demanded that she use her power to stop this crime.

“I can’t.”

He was silent for a moment, but she could hear him breathing heavily. When he spoke again he was calm and formal. He thanked her for all of her wise counsel and wished her a good evening.

He never called again.

Grace’s father remarried, her mother sold the house and rented a smaller place in the same neighborhood, Singer died, Josh started working on a government cryptography program, and Grace moved to New York to join an electronic magazine called Pasulong. Everyone on staff smoked and argued, and Grace didn’t know where the money came from.

It wasn’t hard to find Singer’s building—they’d named the whole street after him. She walked up and down the block twice until she found herself in front of a payphone on the corner. Grace put a quarter in the slot then realized she’d never known his number to begin with.

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