In the morning, as the sun slanted through the leaves of the mulberry trees, I climbed into the police cruiser behind my little sister Edie. Her head was tilted, her clean hair covering her face, but I could tell she was still crying. Me, I wasn’t crying. I was almost twelve and I already knew that last night was just a fairy tale, and that fairy tales always end. And most don’t end with happily ever after.
The cicadas were already buzzing in the trees with the promise of another day over one hundred degrees. I knew that it wouldn’t rain again today, and that it would be hot and humid inside our house. The swamp cooler would rattle and blow, but little comfort would come. And I knew, too, that I would be feeling hungry once again, soon, in spite of nearly gorging myself sick for the past two meals.
“Ellery,” Edie gasped and she started to cry out loud again. She grabbed my hand as the cruiser pulled from the curb. I held her hand and watched as the houses glided by in blurs.
I knew that my life was getting back to its sad normal self. I knew that I shouldn’t bother to comfort my little sister, and I shouldn’t bother to comfort myself. There was no hope for us. None at all.
“I’ll be back to pick you up. You need to be outside, right here. I’m not getting out of the damn car to find you, you understand?”
Dad was already slurring his words, and it was only early afternoon. Thursdays were always like that, the beginning of his weekend binge.
We got out of the car and he pulled away and out of the school parking lot, the brown station wagon coughing and sputtering smoke. School had been dismissed early, but I had to come back for band practice. Graduation was tomorrow night and the concert band would be playing. Mr. Lewis, the band director, said we needed more practice. Then, he said, “Hopefully, you guys won’t screw it up.”
It was my first year in band. I really wasn’t very good at the clarinet. I hoped that maybe I’d learn to play jazz. My dad liked jazz and listened to old crackly records while he smoked and drank in the afternoons with the drapes pulled tight. Birth of the Cool with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan – that was our favorite. The music spoke to us both, and I loved to sit next to him and close my eyes. We’d never talk, just listen.
Recently, he’d shown me how to change the record when we reached the end of one side. I loved the way the components of the record player all had a purpose, and the way they all moved. I loved the way the record would slip onto the silver spindle and twirl around and around. And I loved when the needle would first prick the disc, that sharp crack, as if to say, “Attention! Here comes the music!” Those grooved black discs contained so much music, so much emotion – that was a big mystery: how could all that fit? I knew my dad held them sacred. I understood what they meant to him.
So far, though, Mr. Lewis told me, I wasn’t ready to play jazz. I was to practice the scales and the boring second or third clarinet parts of monotonous songs. Even Mr. Lewis didn’t seem to like the music we played.
And I knew he wouldn’t like the fact that my little sister Edie was with me. We walked into the band room and I told her again to just sit by the door patiently. I reminded her to not even look Mr. Lewis in the eye. She was a good kid, better than most six-year-olds.
I got my clarinet ready to play and sat in my seat, the one farthest from Louise, First Clarinet. She glared at me. I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel the heat of her glare. From the corner of my eye, I could see her shiny white go-go boots and how her geometric-patterned jumper flowed smoothly over her breasts. I didn’t even own a bra yet. And I wished I’d been able to find a clean shirt this morning. And I could also sense, without even looking up, that she was whispering how awful I looked to her best friend Kristi. Sucking on the reed for my clarinet, I lay the clarinet across my lap and tried to tuck my bangs behind my ears. My hair was greasy, though, and my bangs were too short to go behind my ears and so long they covered my eyes. My ears were turning red and heating up.
I looked over at Edie. She was on the floor, quietly sitting on her hands, legs crossed. She was looking at the posters of instruments lining the walls. Her lips were moving but she wasn’t making any sound. Her hair, too, was dirty and stringy, and I should have washed the milk mustache off of her face. Mr. Lewis tapped on his music stand with the baton. He began to make sure each section was in tune, a tedious process that took most of our practice sessions. When he said, “Clarinets,” we played our tuning note, and I tried to hold it as long and steady as I could. He sighed, and his eyes seemed to bore through me. “Ellery. You are flat. Can you not hear that you are flat?”
Joey Santos and the other boys in the trumpet section snickered. Mr. Lewis still stared at me. I felt the heat rising in my ears again, as I tried to remember what I was supposed to do. Was I supposed to pull the mouthpiece out a little or push it in for flat? Guessing, I pulled it out, just a hair’s width.
“Again,” he said.
I played my note with the other clarinets.
“You’re more flat now.”
The boys were turning red and snorting. They weren’t even trying to hide it now.
I adjusted my clarinet, pushing the mouthpiece back in, hoping that was right.
“Again,” he said, his eyes still on me.
I played the note. My note wavered, shaky, as I tried to blink back the tears that were rising.
“Fine. It’ll have to do for now. Saxophones!” and Mr. Lewis cued his baton.
Finally, satisfied that we were as in tune as we were going to be, he sat up a bit from his usual slump and tapped the baton on his music stand. “Pomp and Circumstance. From the top.”
I did my best not to mess up. And I promised myself that I would practice as much as I could before graduation on Friday night. But we didn’t sound good. We couldn’t play together. The percussion section was always too fast, and the rest of us would just follow their lead.
“Enough!” Mr. Lewis yelled. He laid his baton on the music stand and closed his eyes. “Enough,” he said again, rubbing his eyes with his pudgy fingers. He stood up, muttering, “I can’t take much more of this.”
He went into his small office and closed the door. Then he pulled down the shade on the window that looked out into the band room.
Like the other students, I packed up my clarinet and closed my music folder. I thought again about my promise to practice. I looked at Mr. Lewis’s closed door. He wouldn’t care, and probably wouldn’t even notice if I practiced or not. Standing up, I placed the clarinet case on my seat and walked to the door. Most of the other band students were gone by now. It wasn’t my clarinet anyway. My dad was paying Mr. Lewis a discounted rate for the clarinet.
Edie was trying to tie her shoe, but when she saw me, she stood up and smiled. I knelt down and tied her shoe.
“You’re going to have to learn to do this someday, Edie.”
“Not if I stick with you.” I loved the way she squenched her eyes when she smiled. It was like her eyes disappeared except for their sparkle.
I leaned against the metal door and could feel the sun’s heat radiating through it. I pushed the door open and she slipped her hand into mine and we walked out into the blinding light together.
As we crossed the campus, even in the shade of the breezeways between the buildings the heat was stifling. We walked to the parking lot to wait for Dad to pick us up. There was no breeze. In the trees lining the playground, the cicadas droned on, and even the sun seemed tired of their din. We sat on the curb, the rays beating on our backs. I could feel the concrete’s heat rising through the seat of my pants. Sweat trickled from my armpits. The only car in the parking lot was Mr. Lewis’s. I knew it was his because it had a peeling bumper sticker that said, “I brake for music!”
Edie was pressing her flip-flops into the soft asphalt, making a fan shape. She got up and wandered, looking for small rocks to press into her design. It actually looked kind of neat, like a fancy bird’s tail, a peacock, maybe. Her face was flushed and her greasy hair was now matted to her sweaty head. But still she smiled at me, working in her quiet way.
After a while, Mr. Lewis waddled by, hugging the perimeter of the lot, head down. His car squealed as it turned out of the lot.
With my right hand, I leaned over to grab a stick, resting my left arm on the hot curb for just a moment.
“Ow!” I yelled. I dropped the stick and rubbed my arm. A layer of dust stuck to the sweat where my arm touched the curb. “Ow.”
With the stick, I poked holes into the asphalt. Unlike Edie’s design, mine had no beauty to it. It was just holes, just time passing. I wondered how deep the stick would go into the asphalt. I stood up and pushed the stick with my palm. Edie looked up at me. She was squatting by her fan, lining it with tiny pebbles from her hand. I pushed harder, bending and putting my weight into it. And then, it snapped. It broke right in two, and I started to fall. The end of the stick dug into my palm. It was bleeding and splinters were sticking out of it.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow!” I cradled my wounded hand with the other and was hopping on my feet.
“Ellery, what’s wrong?” Edie was on her feet and trying to grab my arm. “What happened?”
I stopped and looked at my hand. A little pool of blood was filling my palm. I showed it to Edie and watched as her eyes grew bigger through my blurring vision. I was so stupid. Stupid. And Dad, he was always late. Always. And every time, every time, I was stupid enough to think he’d remember.
“You’re gonna need a bandaid, Ellery.” Her face was very solemn, and she petted my arm to comfort me.
“No shit, Sherlock,” I said. It wasn’t something I ever said. It was something Dad said, far too often. Her face crumpled.
She threw her handful of pebbles at me and turned and walked away.
I dodged and turned away, and when I looked back she was running, away from me, away from the sun, in the opposite direction from home.
“Edie, come back.” She didn’t look back. If anything, she picked up her pace. “Edie.” I said again, but it was really only a whisper.
By the time I caught up with her, she was two blocks away. She was walking now, and I was breathless. Between my fingers, the blood was sticky. I wished I had something to wipe my hand on, but I didn’t want to make my shirt worse.
“Edie, please, wait.” I coughed, my throat dry from the hot air.
She turned and scowled at me but kept walking, her arms determined, swinging.
“Edie, I’m sorry.” I ran to catch up, grabbed her shoulder with my good hand, and spun her around. “We are going to be in big trouble if Dad has to wait for us. We need to go back.”
She flung my hand off her shoulder and looked at me through her too-long bangs. She crossed her arms. “No shit, Sherlock.” And she stood there. Defiant. Waiting.
And I stood there, a little shocked, staring at her. I looked back, toward the school and its empty parking lot. The shadows of the palm trees stretched long across the street. He wasn’t coming. He wasn’t coming.
To continue reading, click here.