Ragna sang from her rooftop. Some of the houses on our street were abandoned or foreclosed, and the rest were haunted by sleepless but deaf septuagenarians, with the lone exception of ours, a foster home of motley gatherers. Ragna, a large brunette with a Norse countenance, in her late twenties from the looks of her but fast on her way to forty, climbed to one of the tall nooks and crannies of her grandparents’ roof and sang every morning at sunrise. Sometimes she sang the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge or another Broadway show. Sometimes she sang along to Josh Groban. No one in our neighborhood minded, but people in our county knew what she did, and kids who ventured down our street Halloween night threw eggs at her house and called her names: a goblin, a witch, though no single name seemed to stick, and we chased the kids off.
The nature of Ragna’s movement when she sang was something to behold. She sang in billowy t-shirts and sweats, waving her arms languidly through the air and swaying to the rhythm, not quite conducting, but as if directing a troupe of ballerinas.
Sometimes we talked with her, though we were bashful to bring up the singing. Grete told us that Ragna had a Master’s in Vocal Performance, that she’d seen the diploma hanging in the living room. Ragna said she gave vocal lessons at a private school an hour away, which fit with the image of her weekday afternoons coming home in black slacks and a crisp button-down.
At Ragna’s invitation, we went to see her sing with the city’s symphony orchestra, in an auditorium where long dresses and tuxedos stared at us until we wanted to rip our clothes down the middle. Sitting in the nosebleeds, we squinted until we finally singled out Ragna’s wide round mouth and tripled chin as she stoically sang in a black robe among other black robes.
We went to the Y every Saturday night for various dance classes, and people on our block came out to watch when we practiced our moves at the end of the street in a cul-de-sac by Ragna’s house. Ragna was our biggest fan, sitting in a lawn chair with her legs crossed and one bouncing up like a reflex to the beats.
Don, who had a boyishly winning demeanor that made lonely women spill their guts, told us her story. Her best friend, Brian, the guy she dated all through college-first love, first everything-married someone else, but called Ragna regularly for long talks, keeping her bedroom light on late into the night, and stringing her along and along, and in the morning, she sang along and along to the stereo playing behind her while she moved her arms and swayed high up on the roof. Some of us talked about setting her up with someone, but all the guys we thought of said no way. Here was Ragna, white, fat, buck teeth, thick glasses and a bulbous nose. But she had a pretty voice. It was the kind of voice people have when they study singing for years and years. It had a lot of emotion. All of the songs she sang were romantic.
One night, Brian was having problems with his wife, and he stayed over at Ragna’s; the next morning, both of them were wearing the same clothes they had been the night before. Ragna stood out in the yard holding coffee mug against her chest and watching his car back out of the drive and roll down the street. We felt like throwing eggs at it.
Then Ragna wandered over to our yard and talked to Kaylin, who was new-we had a full house but our foster parents took Kaylin and made her promise she would raise her GPA-she liked to sit on the porch and do her homework while Ragna sang, so Ragna probably felt closer to her. Ragna said that Brian had given her a pair of earrings and a necklace when they were in college. She was going to have them made into a ring: two emeralds surrounding a diamond. For her part, Kaylin complained she couldn’t go to prom because her bad influences would be there, but she wanted a prom, and she really wanted to go. Kaylin said some things were just a bad idea.
Somehow, the two of them came up with the idea that we’d have a neighborhood prom, and Ragna would sing for it.
So we all got dresses and suits from Goodwill or wherever we could; Liang, an amateur DJ, brought a table, and we even made punch and commenced set-up in the cul-de-sac. October was the perfect month, cool breezes, not too chilly yet. As the sun set, we put a mechanical mirror ball atop Ragna’s mailbox, and our dates and friends parked cars in a circle and opened the backs or the doors for seating.
At first we were standing around awkwardly in our dress clothes when Liang threw down some kind of trance beats on top of an orchestral background, and Ragna opened her window, climbed onto the roof, and began to sing. The words were in some kind of foreign language like gravel under tires, but the vowels grew as if they could begin as sound and form into whole beings out of thin air-we didn’t realize until then how magnificent Ragna’s voice really was-it belonged with that kind of music. As she sang, Ragna in her flowing robe opened her arms into the air as if she would fly-and years later, what we remembered most was not how Liang played Wagner’s Ring Cycle the whole time, or how we danced a couple hours and then came back to our house to watch a horror movie, where Ragna was great at yelling out what the heroine should’ve done-we remember when she began to sing, how nobody was dancing because Ragna was dancing.