As soon as Lionel entered the family room, tie undone, shirt untucked, beer can in hand, his eyes fell on the saxophone. It has occupied the same corner, slouched at the same unaltered angle, for the past four days. Dust has settled on its upper slopes. A cobweb draped between one of the keys and the wall. He stared at it as he lifted the beer can to his face for a long guzzle. The search for the remote would have to wait. He grabbed the neglected horn and went back upstairs to find Sonja.
Reggie sat on one of the stools at the breakfast counter doing his math homework. He did not look up as his father passed.
“Have you seen your sister?”
“She’s in her room,” he said.
He went up the back stairs from the kitchen. Her room was on the left at the top of the landing.
Large knuckles rapped the door three times.
“Yeah?” a voice called out.
Lionel pushed the door open and walked in, shirt still untucked, her axe in one hand and his beer in the other.
Sonja looked up at him, then back at her magazine.
“You wanna talk about it?” Lionel said.
“Is Momma home yet?”
She looked up again. “Can I have a sip?”
“It’s not your favorite.”
He closed his eyes and sighed, the usual signal of surrender then walked over to her, making sure the door closed behind him.
“Just a sip,” he ordered.
She took the can from him and made the liquid linger on her tongue as long as possible before returning it. “Thanks.”
“Mind if I sit down?”
He rolled over the chair from the desk. The sax rested on his lap.
“It’s not fair, Daddy. I practice. I know the material. He knows I’m good, but he doesn’t ever give me a chance to play.”
He took another swig and leaned forward.
“If I’m lucky, I’ll get one bar, everyone else gets three or four.”
“Have you called him on it?”
“Maybe you should.”
“That’s what Leticia did, and then he rode her until she quit.”
“What’s Leticia doing now? She still playing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Uh-uh. You should connect with her. Start your own group.”
“Dad, I don’t want to be known as the ‘girl’ player and just play with girls. I wanna play in the band like everyone else.”
“I’m sorry, baby. Like I said when you joined, Rick can be a jerk.”
“Rick the Dick.”
“You’re not the first one to call him that. But honey, the last thing you want to do is lose your chops, ‘cause then you’re just giving him ammunition. He’ll know that you haven’t been practicing. Take out your anger on your axe. That’s what I did. You’ll be surprised how good you sound when you’re pissed off.”
She cracked a small smile, then reached out for the can again.
“Just a sip,” he said. She took a portion then passed it back.
“You gotta pay for the beer, now. I wanna hear some serious woodshedding tonight, hear?”
“I will. You can leave it on the bed.”
Lionel rose from the chair and pushed it back to the desk. He left her door ajar to make sure he could hear any noise that emerged.
Sonja didn’t touch the sax right away. She kept the magazine in her lap for a few minutes longer, before finally looking over at her instrument. Her brow crinkled. Dust. She picked it up and began rubbing it clean against her t-shirt.
Lionel, back in the family room, located the remote and turned on the system. ESPN blared.
He took his cell from his shirt pocket and found himself staring at it in his hand for a length of time.
“Fuck, just call the man,” he told himself. But instead, he tossed it on the coffee table. It slid across and nearly fell off the other end.
Lionel, Rick, and Mickey. Three egos, three big dreams, three different paths traveled. In the end, he and Rick took the safer route: day jobs. Rick’s been teaching music at Hamilton High for nearly 25 years. And Lionel made partner at his firm almost a decade ago. He still played on the weekend occasionally, as did Rick, but their big dreams of playing at the Blue Note or at Monterey or recording in Van Gelder’s studios in Englewood Cliffs were just yeah-right chuckle moments now, remembered over another round of pints at the bar.
But Mickey stayed with it. He still lived the dream. His name still appeared in folks’ Rolodexes, meaning it also appeared in liner notes and program bills. He doesn’t headline much, but if he’s on stage, you knew it. Ben Webster was still a touchstone, but Mickey had his own style, a hybrid of several, and he made it his own. His chops had aged like the finest Napa had to offer, honed and sharp.
The bitch of it all was that Mickey had it the worst of all them back in the woodshedding, dreaming/scheming days, yet he was the one who ended up going the farthest. They all gave him a hard time, including Lionel, an uncomfortable truth he relived whenever he saw his own going through her paces. Rick liked to say that all the shit they gave Mickey just make him stronger, a bullshit, face-saving way of taking credit for the man’s success. “That’s why he stuck with it,” he’d say.
Yeah, well, maybe. Or maybe he really was just better than all of us, a better player, a better writer, and a better arranger. And that fact didn’t sit well with us or our fragile male egos. Mickey didn’t need us. He could’ve struck out on his own and done just fine if he didn’t have to deal with what he’s had to deal with, just like Strayhorn could’ve for the same reasons.
If anyone could help his little girl through her personal crisis, Mickey the survivor could. He stared at the phone again, perched on the far edge of the coffee table, still deciding whether to fall to the floor or not.
Then he heard something. The TV went mute and he cocked his head to listen. A smile appeared. Sweet blues oozed down the stairway. Play that horn, baby, play it!
He grabbed the phone from its precipice and started dialing Mickey’s number.
“Karma ain’t always instant, but it’s still a bitch,” he muttered.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.