by Cynthia Dockrell
Cynthia Dockrell has been an editor at various publications over the years, though she now focuses mostly on her own writing. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Boston Globe, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other outlets.
It's Tuesday night and I'm on the risers again, my flute in my lap as Mr. Giuglialmi chews us out. We've been rehearsing the prologue from West Side Story, which is so gorgeous it can lift you right out of the galaxy, but he says we sound like cars crashing. This is mostly the brass players' fault. On each run-through they manage to nail the opening notes, but before we get through the first page of the score, they lose the beat and off we go into that pile-up.
"Are you even reading the music?" Mr. G. asks. He's peering over his glasses at the trumpeters, who answer by blowing spit out of their horns onto the floor. I'm one of the few people who dare to look at Mr. G. while he corrects us, because so far I haven't committed any mistakes. I've never played this piece before, but I've listened to it so many times that I know exactly where it's supposed to go.
"Take a minute and count it out," says Mr. G. Feet tap behind me, mouths whisper beats. I glance around at the trombonists' bloated lips and ask myself what I'm doing here. This is the symphonic band, a cut above the regular high school band because it requires auditions and the kind of commitment most people can't be bothered with when they're 16, and yet here I am, halfway committed at best. And there's Mike on the top riser, his sax strung around his neck, dutifully counting as he squints at his score. I've been dating him since shortly after I moved back here to Pennsylvania a year ago, but I don't like to admit that that's what I'm doing. He sees me looking at him and smiles. I turn away and stare at Mr. G.'s goatee.
"Let's try it again," he says. "And remember to count as you play." Up goes his baton and so does my heart as I hope against all evidence that it will somehow come out right. For the first several measures it does, mostly, because Mr. G. has us playing at a slug's pace. This music is hard to learn, I'll give you that, with complicated rhythms and a theme that darts all over the place, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that nobody can capture it. That doesn't make it any easier to hear it being abused. The noise we're soon making hurts not only my ears but every part of me right down to my bones, which is where West Side Story lives. I first heard it when my mother put it on the hi-fi one afternoon when I was in fifth grade, and I had to lie down in front of the speakers and take it in through all my pores. It was nothing like My Fair Lady or The Music Man or any of the other musicals I was being raised on, and most of it was over my head, but that didn't matter because all its jazzy and tragic notes sounded like life.
Mr. G. stops us again and says, "Look, I know you can do better than this." In the fidgets and sighs all around me I can hear everyone thinking, No, we can't. "We still have a half-hour left, plenty of time to get through the first page." We start again, and this time he lets us go on. I try to block out the drummer's screw-ups and listen for Mike's sax up there behind me. Even though Mike doesn't look like the kind of person I want to go out with and spends way too much time washing his car, I have to admit he's pretty good on that instrument. He also plays in our school's jazz band, which has won all kinds of district and county competitions, and he's a senior, and he actually practices his saxophone, so the music teachers like him. In fact, he's so mature I expect him to start going bald any day now.
I can hear his big breathy sound on top of the others saxes, and it cheers me that he's missing fewer notes than they are, until I realize that this is because he can sight-read pretty well, not because he knows the music the way I do. Of course he doesn't. He's a Man of La Mancha kind of guy. He'll listen to rock music if it's no heavier than the Beatles, but he'd sooner put on a Stan Getz album. He'd never even heard Jethro Tull until I played one of their records for him, at which time he sat there blinking, still getting used to the contact lenses that were part of an image upgrade he'd been working on since losing 50 pounds, and said, "Huh. Never heard anyone play a flute like that." And went on to talk about the new Mustang he wanted to trade up to, apparently not noticing that that cannonball of a flute had pinned me to the wall.
Mr. G.'s hands punch the air and his frown deepens, and I'm sure he's about to cut us off and say, "That's it, go home, we'll try something else next week," but the torture continues. Beyond him, I see the door open across the room, and Lee Fleming comes in. He tries to be inconspicuous by ducking into a chair near the wall, but it's as if Bob Dylan or John Lennon has shown up, and everyone knows he's there. When Mr. G. sees who it is, his frown clears. His hand with the baton keeps conducting while the other hand sends Lee a do-you-want-to-join-us signal, but Lee shakes his head and makes it clear that he's just listening. It seems to me that we start playing better then, finding the concentration or the desire to do better for Lee's sake if not for Mr. G.'s. There are whole measures that sound almost right.
My eyes start shifting from Mr. G. to my sheet music to Lee, who's such a distraction that I lose track of the rhythm and get lost. I scramble to catch up and force myself to look only at the music, but I can still see the jeans and the dark hair and the navy-blue pea coat hovering there across the room. Lee is so strange looking that I noticed him as soon as I moved here. I'd see him wandering through the halls, gazing up at the ceiling or down at the floor, almost never carrying any books, not even a pen, his hands jammed inside his pockets—like he'd been plunked down here from another planet and was trying to make sense of Earth life. I finally asked my friend Chris who that guy was with the scrunched-up face. She just stared at me until I said, "You know, curly black hair? Looks kind of like an ape?" It took her a second, but then she said, "Oh, that's Lee Fleming. He's a genius." Besides being an Einstein, she told me, Lee was so amazing on the piano and the trumpet that everyone assumed he'd be making records soon. But then one day he quit all the music. He started skipping classes, too, which explained the hall-wandering. Legend had it that his parents had sent him to a head-shrinker—an eye-popping fact, since the only people who did that lived in New York City—but he had quit that too after only one session because he was so much smarter than the doctor.
We're at the part of the prologue now where the Sharks and the Jets are provoking each other. The first clarinet and a few other woodwinds are taunting the trumpets more or less the way they're supposed to, but the horns are still flailing around and can't answer. I glance at Lee, looking for disgust or impatience or even pain in his face, but it's as blank as the wall behind him. Why he's even here is a mystery; this is one of the bands he used to play in, but he dropped out before I joined. When he quit the jazz band it was an even bigger loss, Mike said—ike losing Miles Davis. He told me this after practice one night as we drank our Tabs at Longhitano's Diner, where we always stopped before he took me home, and I only listened with one ear because it was months ago, before everyone started wondering what was up with Lee, and as usual I was thinking ahead to the ride that awaited me, which would involve high speeds on back roads and the fear that I might not make it to 17. Now I was wishing I'd paid more attention.
Lee's head swivels like a periscope as he glances around the room, but then he gets up and leaves, and it's as if he was never there. If I had the nerve, I'd follow him out of here. Maybe I'd ask him if he hates the instruments he doesn't play anymore, the way I hate this flute I used to love. I've had it for so long—since third grade—that the finish around the mouthpiece is worn away, and my thumbs have left permanent stains on the nickel plating. It has moved with me from upstate New York to Maryland to Pennsylvania to Illinois and now back to Pennsylvania, thanks to all of my father's job promotions and transfers. Illinois was supposed to be the last stop—my parents promised my brother and sister and me when we moved there that we'd stay put, that it was finally safe for us to dig in—but a year and a half later we were loading our furniture onto another moving van. I should have left my flute there in the Midwest, where I stopped caring about it as soon as I started high school. I'd found better things to do—riding around in boys' cars with my friends, listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, wandering with those friends through our town like we owned it, all of us feeling like we were at the beginning of something. And then the moving van came and took me to this other future.
Mr. G. looks over at the door as it closes and then at the clock above it. His baton makes a final slash and he tells us that's it for tonight. Everyone rushes to pack up, ignoring Mr. G. as he reminds us to practice, and hurries out of the room. I'm already in the hall before Mike catches up. I try to stay a step ahead of him so he can't put his arm around me, at least not till we're outside where it's dark. I feel like I've eaten too much of something heavy and unsatisfying, like the cream-filled doughnuts Mike used to eat six of in one sitting, and all I want to do is go home and lie down. But I know we'll head to the diner and then to the grid of roads around the farms where Mike will show me yet again what his Mustang can do, and we'll finish off the evening on the gravel road by the lake where he'll try to show me something else. And I'll go along with most of it because going along with things is what I seem to do best.
Mike's hand lands on my shoulder as soon as we step out into the cold, which is so shocking it freezes my nose hairs. The Mustang is on the other side of the lot; Mike always parks far away from everyone else so the car's finish won't get nicked if people are careless with their doors. His voice splits the icy air as he remarks on what a shitty rehearsal that was. I'm too cold to answer and keep walking, my toes already frozen. When we're halfway to the car I notice someone else walking in that part of the lot, and as we get closer I see that it's Lee. He doesn't seem to be heading anywhere as he wanders among the few cars parked out that way, his hands deep in his pockets. He stops now and then to look up at the sky. The stars are extra bright tonight, like crystals in black ice. The whole of it seems so flat and finite, and yet if I were still in Illinois, I'd see the same exact thing if I looked up. Maybe I'd be looking at it with one of those guys from the cars I rode around in—a guy who'd know every one of Jethro Tull's songs.
Lee pushes his collar up around his ears and starts hopping in place, like someone trying to warm up at a football game. I keep expecting him to get into one of the cars, but he lingers in the open space, his head tilting first toward the sky and then toward the ground. It occurs to me that he might be talking to himself; it could explain why he doesn't hear us until we're just a few feet away.
"Hey, Lee," Mike says.
Lee turns around suddenly; we've startled him.
When he sees who it is, his shoulders relax. "Mike," he says, his eyes skipping over to me. "How you been?"
# # #
For all the oddness of his face—the broad, short chin, the ski-jump nose with nostrils as big as caves, the forehead that slopes too far forward—it's Lee's eyes that unnerve me. They won't leave me alone. We've been through the introductions—"I've seen you around," Lee said when Mike told him my name—and yet he's still staring hard, like a kid with no manners. There's nothing kid-like about those eyes, though. Even in the moonlight, they seem plugged in, electric.
"You want a ride?" Mike asks him.
"No, that's okay," Lee says. "But can I sit in your car for a few minutes, just till I warm up?"
"Yeah, sure," Mike says, "we're in no hurry. Here, hop in." He opens his door and pulls the seat forward. Lee finally looks away from me as he folds himself into the back seat. He's stocky, his body broad like a man's.
Mike walks me around to the passenger side and unlocks the door, then closes it after I get in. He always does this, even if we're just heading to the A&P for a pack of Marlboros. That he's a gentleman is one of the things I'd appreciate more if this were 1958 instead of '68, if I hadn't ridden in all those cars with long-haired Illinois boys who didn't talk so much about their engines. The only reason I'm with Mike is because my friend Chris fixed me up with him; she thought that since we both played music, we'd like each other. After the first date, I didn't have the heart to say no when Mike called and asked me to see a movie with him, and then when he asked me to go bowling the next week, and mini-golfing after that. He has always come up to the door for me and been polite to my parents, and he pays for everything. It's wrong of me not to appreciate him, but whenever I've sat next to him in dark theaters, his arm around my shoulder as we've watched Bullitt or Barbarella, I've wanted to leap into the screen, or back to Illinois—back to some place where I didn't feel lost.
Behind me, Lee blows into his hands and rubs them together. "Freezing tonight," he says, his coat collar still pushed up near his ears.
"No shit," Mike agrees. He starts the engine and revs it, then shifts into neutral and cranks up the heater. "You sure you don't need a ride?" he asks, turning so he can see Lee behind him. "How'd you get here?"
"Walked over," Lee says.
Mike raises his eyebrows. "Kind of far from your house, isn't it?"
Lee shrugs. "I had nothing better to do." His eyes settle on me again. "Wish I'd worn gloves, though."
Mike turns up the heater another notch, and the cold air that's been blowing at us warms up the tiniest bit. The clouds we're all exhaling grow fainter. When I glance back at Lee, he takes his hands out of his pockets and folds his coat collar back down to his shoulders. His eyes are still on me, like they're stuck there and can't move.
"So you play flute?" he finally asks, nodding toward the instrument case in my lap.
"Yeah," I say, "but not that well."
Mike makes a snorting sound. "You wouldn't be in this band if you couldn't play. Why'd you say that?"
Now they're both looking at me. I can't admit the truth, that the only reason I joined this band was to have something to latch onto, so instead I say, "I don't know. That rehearsal was hard tonight."
"Hah," Mike says, "that's an understatement." He turns to Lee and adds, "We sure could've used you."
Lee looks out his window and then back at Mike. "West Side Story's rough," he says. "Great music, but not for this band."
There's silence for a minute; I can feel Mike trying to figure out if he's just been insulted.
In my head I hear the prologue again, and before I can stop myself I blurt, "I love that thing. We butchered it so bad." This comes out with more force than I expected, maybe more than Mike has ever heard from me. He looks at me as if he's never seen me before.
Lee smiles for the first time, his black eyes shining in the dashboard light. "Painful, isn't it?" he says. I can't tell if he means this as a joke or if he can somehow see inside me—if he can see the fifth-grader who's still in there, still in love with a bunch of songs she doesn't understand. The thought is so embarrassing that I dig around in my pocket for a cigarette.
Mike lights it for me and then pulls out one of his own. "Want one?" he asks Lee, holding out the pack, but Lee shakes his head. His eyes are still digging into me.
"You didn't grow up around here, did you?" he asks.
"No." I wonder if there's still some Chicago in my accent. "I moved here last year."
"Illinois. But I've lived a bunch of other places too." I don't know why I said that last part.
Something in his faces changes. "That must've been hard," he says. No one has ever said anything like this before—everyone assumes it's exciting, even fun, to keep starting from scratch in new places—and it hits me that Lee seems eons older than 17. I also wonder if he's flirting with me, right here in front of Mike. But it doesn't feel like flirting. Maybe this is simply what you do when you're a genius, examine people like you're a doctor or a lawyer and in a matter of minutes find out everything that eats at them.
The car is warm now, almost hot. Mike opens his window a crack to let out some of the smoke, and the cold air seeps in. "We should probably get going," he says.
"Right," Lee says, his eyes darting from me to Mike and back to me. "I'll let you go."
"You sure we can't drop you somewhere?" Mike asks. "It's like Alaska out there."
"No, I'm fine. Really."
"Whatever you say." Mike opens his door but then pauses. "I wish you'd come back to jazz band at least," he says to the rear-view mirror. "We need you, man."
Lee shrugs. "Yeah, well …"
When it's clear he has nothing else to add, Mike gets out and moves the seat. I'm about to tell Lee that it was good to meet him when I feel his hand on the back of my head. He holds it there as if he has no intention of ever removing it. The warmth of his palm penetrates my thick, unruly hair—it feels like the heat from a fire. I hear him leaning toward me, his clothes making noise on the leather seat, until his wide, weird face hovers just beyond my vision. "Nice," he whispers, almost in my ear. My scalp tingles now; for a moment I can't breathe. We stay like this for an eternity, my heart slamming around in my chest.
And then suddenly it's over, the hand gone. Lee gets out of the car without another word, says goodnight to Mike, and walks off.
# # #
I think about this for days afterward. I don't know what it means, or if it means anything. I consider the possibility that Lee might have been flirting with me after all and then decide this is ridiculous, that it was just a strange moment with a strange person. I look for him in the halls but don't see him anywhere. At band practice the next Tuesday, we struggle again with the Sharks and the Jets and again get nowhere. All through the rehearsal I watch the door, but it stays closed.
Over the next few days I find reasons to walk by the band room even when it's out of my way. I know Lee won't be there, but I want just a glimpse of him, maybe to prove to myself that I didn't dream him. It almost feels that way—that I made him up, that he came out of nowhere to tell me something.
But of course he was real, which I'm reminded of too cruelly. During my first-period English class a few days later, the principal's voice comes over the PA system. "I regret to inform you," he says without warning, "that Lee Fleming took his own life last night."
Everyone gasps; Miss Bauder drops her chalk.
"I have no information yet about arrangements but will let you know when I do. Thank you." His voice cuts off, and there's dead silence in the room.
People look at each other with their mouths open. Miss Bauder stares at the floor for a long time and then tells us she's dismissing us early. All the other teachers must have had the same idea, because when I go out into the hall, the other classrooms are emptying. There are students everywhere but it's strangely quiet; all you can hear are feet shuffling. A few girls start to cry.
I walk toward the music rooms, knowing I'll find Mike there. The halls are so crowded it feels like classes are changing, but no one is going anywhere. I pass a cluster of football players and hear one of them say, "I wonder how he did it." Go to hell, I think.
Mike is standing outside the auditorium, leaning against the wall. He sees me coming but doesn't move, not even when I reach him. I want to say something, since Mike and Lee were friends—maybe not close friends; maybe Lee didn't have any of those—but I don't know what to say. I don't know what to think, what to feel. This is my first death, but it isn't mine to claim.
Mike rests his arm on my shoulder and I let him keep it there. Still he says nothing. I clasp my books to my chest and wait. Kids wander aimlessly all around us, most of them whispering, some of them crying softly.
I feel weightless all of a sudden, like an object floating in space. I go back to that night in the parking lot and see it all over again—Lee wandering under the frozen sky, the air cold enough to shatter. The image is so clear it's as if we're both there again. I try but fail to see what Lee sees as he looks up at the sky and down at the ground and then, finally, at me. I feel him behind me in the car again, his presence there altering the weight of everything. I feel his warm hand on my head; I hear that one word he spoke just to me. The moment lasts and lasts. It stays with me for days afterward, for weeks, even—I can't seem to let it go. I'll hang on to it so hard that it will live in me forever, through the moves that still await me, the friends I'll make and lose, and the deaths that will be mine to claim.
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