by Hugh Gilmore
A guy who couldn’t sing worth a damn floated into hearing range on the pond last night and though he annoyed me at first, I wound up envying him so much I wanted to holler him ashore and make his acquaintance.
What annoyed me is that I was out on the screened porch and just beginning to enjoy the quiet of the Maine woods at twilight when he came along. The cottage where we stay is on the rim of the bowl that holds the pond. When the sun goes behind the hills opposite us, the spruce trees around the cottage turn to silhouettes against the dark blue sky. The woods seem magical then.
The long, traffic-ridden drive from Philadelphia was over. My nerves were beginning to un-jangle. I’d just turned on the low-wattage lamp on the table beside me and put my reading glasses on. It’s quiet here at night. Not even crickets or locusts. Certainly no human sounds, here at the end of the season on a quiet porch on a placid pond. And then I heard this guy playing his guitar down there, singing in the semi-darkness.
His voice sounded so loud and amateurish I thought that a canoeist or small powerboat passenger was horsing around with a friend or two. Saturday night beer party kind of thing. It would soon pass. They just needed to go by, reach the end of the pond, turn around and go back into the purple haze. But when the man finished “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gray” (I forget the title.), the pond returned to silence. Well, that’s strange, I thought, one song, but I’ll take it. I picked up one of the old New Yorker magazines I’d brought up to finish.
But he started singing again. This time he sounded closer. I hadn’t heard an engine. Nor an oar or paddle thumping the gunwales of a boat. There’s no path lining the edge of the water. And I’d have heard the rustling if he was walking through the brush (with a guitar), so now I guessed he was letting his canoe drift with the slow current of the pond. I put down the magazine and cocked my ears to listen.
He was now singing a country song of the self-pitying kind, complete with little catches in his voice, especially on the high notes that bended. His voice, though confident, was fake sincere, a poor imitation. That sounded really bad, especially in this environment, as though somebody decided to do a vocal selfie in a cathedral. With luck this concert would not last long.
But after he finished that country song he paused only a few seconds before he began another. He was closer now. It’s not quite right to say he was trying to do country, I thought, he’s kind of folky. Reminds me of Phil Ochs. There’s probably a name for the genre, but I don’t know it. He’s gutsy though, singing so loud, all by himself, out in the middle of the dark pond at night. He had to be alone. I can’t imagine anyone companionate enough to listen to the voice I was now leaning forward to hear.
He started another. Kind of like singing in the shower, I’m thinking, really crooning away. Not too bad though. He’s really selling it, not caring that his only audience was the spruce woods overlooking the water. He’s making up with earnestness for the tin ear that guides him. Besides, an acoustic guitar sounds beautiful coming toward you from over the water and through the trees. I don’t think I ever appreciated before how natural it feels.
I couldn’t make out most of the words he sang, but once in a while – I guess because he went past a gap between the trees – they came through clearly. It reminded me of how a car radio’s reception goes in and out when you’re driving through rural areas. I started wishing I could fiddle with the dial so I could hear more clearly. And that’s when it hit me.
I realized I was sitting back in my reading chair, my magazine in my lap, listening to this guy. Who is he? I wondered. I imagined he was having fun. Out on the water, twilight turned to moonlight, playing his guitar and singing his heart out. I wish I’d thought of it first. I wish I could do that: sing without caring what I sound like, I mean. I thought about going down the hill to the waterside and hailing him and thanking him for the concert, but at the moment it was quiet. And it stayed that way. I guessed he went back wherever he came from. And I sat there under the soft reading lamp, the only light in the woods, kind of regretting the silence and wanting to tell someone about my adventure out on the screened-in porch.
Hugh Gilmore has just finished a memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” which will be published late this fall. He is the author of the noir bibliomystery “Malcolm’s Wine” and several other titles available through bookstores and Amazon.com.