Cat is a recovering alcoholic who is being chased by someone who means her harm, but she doesn’t even know who he is. She leaves her apartment and her job to run, sleeping where she can, and eventually picks up a big-hearted professional magician named Dante. What they don’t know is that her pursuer works in government surveillance, and that’s why every time they use their cell phone or the Internet, he finds them.
Cat and Dante eventually go off the grid entirely and cross the country, settling in the underground tunnels beneath an upstate New York university. They will have to earn money somehow, but it will have to be cash.
Over the next few weeks, Dante slipped back easily into busking. He had spent the last eight years performing most of his shows in legitimate venues—cocktail parties at hotels for $300 an hour, pitching product at trade shows for $1,500 a day, shmoozing clients in hospitality suites for $800 an evening, wowing at holiday parties for $900 a show, and even one motivational presentation that had paid an astounding $8,000, which was a jackpot he tried hard to duplicate but which ended up a futile endeavor. He had fallen out of the rhythm of the street, but catching the beat again turned out to be a simple matter of retrieving a meme. In his previous incarnation, his first pitch of the day had been Wall Street, so that’s where he started again, setting up a table in City Hall Park during lunchtime and promising Wall Street brokers and their ilk that his show was “just three or four minutes of my best stuff, nothing that’s gonna make you late back to the office,” and then he launched into his repertoire of jaw-dropping miracles that made the brokers envious of what one joyless manager called “his prolonged infant lifestyle,” and the suits threw loads of cash into Dante’s hat, mostly ones but sometimes tens and twenties, and once, five hundreds from a guy who didn’t even tell him why, just tossed in five bills rolled up and walked away and Dante didn’t know until he sat down in a café and unrolled them that it was “a day that would live in famy,” as he put it.
Soon, Dante was busking all over town. Cat followed him around and marveled at the remuneration. By her count, Dante was pulling down three times the money that she had been pulling down back in San Francisco at her pitiful little office job, and it was all tax free. Not only that, but they didn’t have to pay rent or utilities. It was actually turning into quite viable employment.
All the while, Cat wondered if Dante’s jungle was one in which she could possibly survive. There was only one form of combat that gave her a fighting chance. From the moment she could speak, Cat had sung all the time, constantly, never stopped. Her first spoken sounds had been fa la la. Occasionally, her mother would try to kill it. “Will you stop it, girl, you’re driving me batty!” Or she would just go into the backyard and pull a switch off the tree and give her daughter a whipping. “That’ll teach you!” In time, Cat learned to sing only outside the house. It didn’t matter that people looked at her strangely at school. By six, however, the forces of discouragement finally reached a critical mass. One unpleasant boy called her Shut Up Mouth, “because you make me want to tell you to shut up your mouth.” The term tard was thrown around. So finally, she just shut up.
At 13, a neighbor convinced her mother that her child should start going to the local Baptist church. Cat joined the choir, where Miriam, the red-haired choir director, knew music but not how to talk to people. The strict doctrine of this particular faction prohibited both “mechanical instruments” and solos. Cat often longed for a great voice, but then scolded herself for coveting personal glory. Besides, it was Rose, the girl who stood next to her, who had an operatic voice and a three-octave range.
By the time Cat turned 17, strange things began happening in the church. Miriam disappeared without a word. Cat was now getting drunk with Lainie every weekend on fake IDs. On Sunday mornings, desperately clinging to some vestigial idea of goodness, Cat dragged herself to church despite epic hangovers.
One day, Cat ran into Miriam at a hardware store. A strange relaxation now filled her face and voice.
“I met a man,” Miriam said.
“He’s teaching me about the world. It’s not as bad as they say, the world. It’s strange. The further I get from the church, the happier I become.”
That confused Cat, because on the one hand, misbehaving pleased her, as well, but at the same time, her hangovers seemed like ancient judgment and pulled her back.
“They excommunicated me, you know,” Miriam said with a sly grin.
“They did it in secret. Five miserable honchos in a church of seventy miserable wannabes trying to ruin the life of someone who’s finally thrown away her antidepressants.”
Miriam sighed, then smiled.
“You’ve graduated, then?”
“Will you be continuing your music?”
“Oh no, I’m no Rose.”
“Yes. I don’t have her technique. She has all the talent.”
A mysterious smile appeared on Miriam’s lips.
“You’re mistaken,” Miriam said.
“What do you mean?”
Miriam had always withheld compliments because, she thought, Cat possessed only an average voice. The dream that Cat might have anything better had been dashed a couple years earlier.
“Rose has all the skills and God-given gifts, that’s true,” Miriam said, “but there’s something more important than all that.”
Miriam searched for the words, as if they were scattered on the waters like lilies and she was mute until she saw the right one.
“You feel the music,” Miriam said in a conspiratorial near-whisper. “The feeling makes all the difference.”
The look on Miriam’s face was something Cat had never forgotten. Contrary to church doctrine, as it turned out, Cat had an actual self, and apparently, it was an extraordinary and beautiful one, as well. She floated on a cloud for the longest time. She took that comment and protected it in a glass case in her heart, even through her years as a drunk, and then into her past year of sobriety. It was something she reached for when she was low. When a man didn’t call her back after a first date or she failed to land the job she wanted or someone at work ran a head game on her, she would sit in front of the glass case and fill herself up with Miriam’s long-ago comment.
Now, with the street, Cat had a chance again. Maybe now, the River of Fa La La would begin flowing through her again. Maybe she could finally reclaim her self.
The next Thursday at 10 am, Cat walked into the half-mile stretch of trees on hills that surrounded the dorms. She stood on a bed of dry leaves and began to warm up her voice, softly at first with scales and exercises, her sound filling the woods. It felt like crawling into an old bed. To a freshman who was home at that hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it sounded like nature had suddenly come into bloom. He was an awkward teenager who had grown up in dismal suburbs, where no one sang and there were no woods, only asphalt and strip malls. He hadn’t been in college more than a month. He was young in so many ways. It opened his eyes to realize that some people were bold enough to create. Cat was singing only scales and vocal exercises, but hearing them made him more comfortable about other things in his life that had always made him feel darkly different, such as his unfashionably curly hair and his awkwardness in front of crowds.
Gradually, Cat began adding songs. To the freshman, it was like someone had thrown open the windows in all the rooms of his house for the first time in his life. He followed the songs vaguely while he studied economics, statistics, and calculus, smiling every now and then at good turns of phrase and strong notes. It made him feel that his spirit was an actual thing, unlike the way his father had made him feel growing up, which was that there was no inner life, only habit, money, and what people think of you. Creating the music made the woods come alive for Cat, too. She looked across the rolling hillside while she sang and was filled with emotion. She began wondering why the woods without music was so pedestrian to her, while with music, it suddenly became charged and taut, the towering trees suddenly turning noble, the shafts of light evoking immortality. One morning after a particularly invigorating practice session that had made her blood flow, Cat felt that the definition of music should be changed to: “a way of structuring beauty so that it can be felt.” Finally, six weeks after she had started, Dante accompanied her to the woods, listened patiently to her set, and concluded that she was ready.
There were to be no more practice sessions; Cat would take her show to the street. The very next day, a Tuesday, the freshman noticed her absence. On the Thursday, he began missing her, hoping this wasn’t the end. He felt that in some way, he had known her, that she was unreachable and divine, even though he had never seen her face and never would. Thirty years later, he would still remember with fondness and longing The Girl Who Sang in the Woods.
One sunny Saturday morning at 10, Cat stood by the sprawling bronze statue in Central Park that depicted Alice in Wonderland sitting on a broad mushroom and flanked by the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Dormouse, and other characters. Singers often gathered a healthy crowd there. Cat gently placed a black felt hat on the ground in front of her, Dante standing nearby. She felt his eyes on her and she looked away, to where fathers and sons operated remote-control boats on the Conservatory Water pond. She forced her mind to focus on her opening song, which was “I Dreamed a Dream.” She stood still, centered her thoughts, cleared her throat, and took a deep breath. On the exhale she heard, to her alarm, the sound of her anxiety.
I should feel the beat, she thought, and then catch it like a train. She listened for it, waited for it, but it didn’t seem to be on the tracks yet.
“Just give me a minute,” Cat said.
“Take your time,” Dante said.
Cat thought about Miriam’s compliments of years ago, of the look in her eyes, of her phrase, You feel the music, and wondered whether she still had the ability to feel it in the same way, after all the damage she’d done. Perhaps the machinery had been broken. Perhaps she’d lost it along with her dignity, her job, her home, her life. She remembered Miriam’s words: The feeling makes all the difference. She searched herself for the feeling, which might be a rhythm or an earworm or even just a notion, but in the end didn’t know what she was looking for. The clock was ticking. The feeling makes all the difference. She began to think about how she looked from the outside, how strangers might see her, some girl who didn’t know nothing about nothing but had intimations of fame, aka arrogance, and she began to tremble. The feeling makes all the difference. She redoubled her efforts. Dante was pulling in all the money and she was freeloading, that was the thing. Dante didn’t even like her, she was convinced, he just pitied her, but how far would that pity take her? Cat had to pull her weight or eventually get dumped. She looked up and saw people walking by, glancing up at her, noticing her, paying attention to her, and it made her think of circles within circles within circles, how each person knew a circle of people, and each of those knew a circle of people, and so on until they reached Kevin Bacon, so how many degrees of separation would it take before word got back to Noyes that there was a girl he was looking for who was singing in Central Park every weekend?
Cat looked down at her hands, which were clasped together, her palms wet. She had to sing something, anything, even if she didn’t feel it. A rivulet of sweat was coursing down her neck. A ringing noise echoed in her ears. She opened her mouth and tried to make it happen, but nothing came out. Her voice simply wasn’t there. She hung her head.