“Sonja! Oh my God, girl, how are you? How’s it blowing?”
“It’s blowing,” she replied with a smile that Leticia could hear over the phone.
“It’s good to hear from you, Sonja.”
As Mickey rounded out the ballad he cooed from his tenor sax, Sonja opened her eyes. She reclined on his too comfortable sofa. He put Duke on the stereo, the famous Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue from Newport featuring Paul Gonsalves’ solo for the ages.
“Leticia and I started hanging out,” Sonja said.
He took the comfy chair across from the sofa. “Hey, that’s great!”
Reggie led her to Sonja’s room, using the backstairs from the kitchen. He knocked too hard, as usual. Upon opening the door, he announced detachedly, “You have company,” and then gave a look that relayed both his displeasure at having his solitude disturbed by having to answer the door, and a ‘what’s up with this, she never visits’ leer that demanded more information. Sonja ignored all of the above. Little brothers can be such a pain. He did have the decency to close the door behind him when he finally stopped putting on a show. It could be, though, that he saw what he needed to see. Both of their faces, Leticia’s and his sister’s, lit up like the Fourth of July.
“What’s she been up to?” Mickey asked.
“Gigging, like you said she would be.”
“Sweet! Where at?”
“It’s called the Cushy Café.”
“Oh yeah, I know where that is. It’s on Robinson, isn’t it? It’s just like half a mile up from Hamilton, right?”
“Uh-huh. I didn’t know they did live music. Well, I guess they started doing live music after Leticia talked them into it. They do spoken-word events, and Leticia said she played behind a friend of hers at a slam. Afterwards, she talked to the owner about having her band play there, and the owner was like, ‘sure.’”
“Uh-huh. See? She’s hustling. That’s good. That’s good.”
“No, girl,” Leticia said, “I didn’t leave the band to stop playing. I left the band to start playing. Rick has his little hang ups and his little problems, but that’s got nothing to do with me, OK?”
“Uh-huh,” Sonja said, a shy smile on her face. She liked hearing her voice. She liked the way it lingered on certain words for emphasis.
“Shit, I practice two to three hours a day, and for what? For him to tell me during my solos to ‘keep it short, honey’? I swear to god, Sonja, if I heard him say that one more time. I wanted to shout back at him, ‘yeah, honey, let’s ask your wife how short it is!’”
Sonja started laughing. She liked how she didn’t hold back.
“You know it is, honey! You know it!” Sonja shouted.
They both couldn’t stop laughing.
“Who’s playing with her?”
“Audrey on piano, this girl that graduated last year. She’s at USC now. And this guy she knows named Barry, he plays bass. And this other girl that used to go to Hamilton named Maureen on drums.”
“She needs a sax player,” he said without blinking.
“Yeah, that’s what she said to me.”
“And?” he insisted.
They harmonized just like they had been rehearsing for weeks, just like Leticia hadn’t left the band. Just like they did when they traded glances while warming up before Rick showed up to lead the band through practice. It all felt very natural and right when they played together. Their notes synced up so well.
When they didn’t play, they listened. Leticia played some tracks on her iPod of stuff she’s been woodshedding to. Sonja did the same.
“Oh my god!” Leticia exclaimed. “Girl, I’ve been looking for them since forever! Those chicks are hot!”
“You know them?”
“Know them? Honey, everyone should know the Billy Tipton Memorial Sax Quartet! Those sisters can bring it. Where did you get this?”
“This friend of my father’s. He’s been showing me some stuff. His name’s Mickey.”
“Wait, not Mickey Washington?”
“You know him?”
“Sonja, honey, baby, he’s like one of the top tenors in the country! Or at least he is to those in the know, but you know, girl. He’s got the LA jazz curse. Seriously, though, he’s played with everyone, and everywhere. All the big festivals, girl. Wow! Your father played with him? That’s sick!”
Pride for her father being associated with someone so All That helped to erase her embarrassment at not knowing more about Mickey in the first place. Leticia made everything sound grand and wonderful, though. She made the room sparkle.
“She said she snuck into one of your shows, at a club once.”
“Really? She did? Aw, a girl after my own heart. Here in LA?”
“Well that’s alright, then. Next time, let me know and I’ll get you both in through the stage door.”
She sipped her water, staring at the wall hanging.
“She said you played with a big pink ribbon on your horn.”
Ah, that gig, he thought. Now he had a clearer picture of Leticia and a better understanding of Sonja’s almost-smiles as she talked about her. It’s the almost-smile that runs deepest. How much did Lionel really know? How much did he allow himself to know?
“She said that you were called the Pink Ribbon Man.”
“Yeah, that’s what they called me. I guess they still do, though I don’t always put it on anymore. Only on special occasions.”
Gonsalves finished his 27 choruses and pandemonium set in. Ellington soothed the crowd by bringing on Johnny Hodges.
“She saw me play at a benefit for AIDS Project LA, in Hollywood. That’s my guess. That’s the last time I played with the pink ribbon on, in LA anyway.” He sighed, then stood up. On the stereo cabinet, just underneath the big framed bow, sat a small framed photo. He took it and walked it over to Sonja. He stood behind her while she looked at it. She saw a younger man standing next to another, both touched by almost-smiles and arms embracing.
“That’s Steve,” he said.
Sonja put two and two together instantly.
“Is the ribbon in memory of Steve?”
She handed the photo back and Mickey returned it to its perch. He returned to his chair.
“How long has he been gone?”
“12 years. The concert happened to fall on the anniversary. Playing an AIDS benefit concert on the day he died seemed like the right time to drag the ribbon out. Steve always liked it when I played with it on. That is how we met, after all.” Long agos took him for a brief flight. He returned from his mental sojourn to see Sonja very still, staring at him. “I guess I have to tell you the story behind it. I didn’t just put it on at AIDS events. Naw, it’s much older than that.”
He saw his father approach the garage through the door frame, clutching his belt buckle. That walk usually meant it was ass-whipping time for the one waiting silently among the ancient, cluttered articles. He made you go out there and wait for him, and then made an entrance most grand before closing the door and getting down to business. That’s what it felt like, even though Mickey was well passed that age, and he wasn’t out in the garage specifically awaiting his father, though he wasn’t surprised to see him. No, he was out there woodshedding with his sax, playing riffs like crazy. “I wanted to out Coltrane Coltrane,” he told Sonja. He wanted to pour every ounce he had inside of him out so that he would become an empty vessel, a colorless, odorless being with no substance, impervious to hurt and pain. His father stood in the door frame as he hacked and hacked away at a riff. Sweat dripped from his forehead and hands. His notes slurred without coaxing. Control became secondary to the need to purge.
And his father just waited patiently. He was in no hurry. No longer clutching his belt buckle, he folded his arms over his chest. Then, slowly, he eased his hands behind him into his back pockets, a less combative stance. He knew the moment would arrive, and it did arrive. Slowly, Mickey just blew himself out, until the sax came away from his mouth, and he huffed and puffed. That’s when his father allowed himself to enter. He closed the door behind him and sat next to his son.
“I knew he wasn’t gonna give me a whipping with his belt,” Mickey said. “But I was afraid of his tongue.”
“Mickey,” his father started, “if you were on your way to being a doctor or a dentist or a fireman or a policeman, my advice would be what any black father should tell his son. Watch your back. But you ain’t going into one of those fields. You’re a jazzman. Can’t say you didn’t get it honest, what with your uncles and your mother being such fine musicians. There are limitations, and there are challenges, of course, as any of them can tell you. But you’ll be entering a profession where it ain’t unheard of for black folks to be in, you understand what I’m saying? You won’t be the only one in the room, in other words. And that’s different than if you were gonna go to law school or medical school or whatnot. Alright?
“But you got yourself another situation. And it’s one that most of us just don’t take to. But you got chops. You earned them. You studied hard. You practice hard. You’ve earned everything you got, hear? So I’m here to tell you that you still gotta watch your back, not just from them, but from us, too. ‘Cause some of us won’t take to who you are, even if you don’t have a problem with it. Even if your mother don’t have a problem with it. Even if I don’t have a problem with it. Some folks will. So you keep standing proud, hear? And watch your back. And you make sure you got someone who can watch it for you after I’m gone, you hear?”
Mickey hadn’t purged himself sufficiently. What remained gushed out in spades as he embraced his father, clutching him tightly. His father patted him on the head with tears of his own flowing softly.
“I had been at a rehearsal,” Mickey continued, the stereo now silent and Sonja’s rapt attention filling the room, “and we took a break. I sat my horn down and went to the restroom or something like that. Anyway, the point is that when I got back they were all snickering and stuff.” Rick and Lionel were among those snickering, ill fitting hands over their shit grinning mouths. “And I turned to look at my horn and someone had tied this big fat pink ribbon around it. Made it into a big bow. The more my jaw dropped, the louder they got.”
Sonja loved her father’s cackle. It rang through the house, turning it into a giant bell. It sounded at family get-togethers, where old stories were retold. It sounded during bad plays made by the opposing team. It rang and rang and rang, and Sonja smiled each time. She heard it clearly now, and her face grew pale.
“I packed my horn up and was out of there. I didn’t even bother to take the ribbon off. I’m checking out, goom bye, like Strayhorn wrote. But the deed wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. Someone called home. Someone told my folks that their son was a swish with a ribbon on his horn, then hung up before questions could be asked. So that’s what I came home to, my momma disturbed and my daddy cross-armed.” He read their faces and knew. He flew out to the garage, ripped off the bow and started playing, just as his father had found him.
“That’s awful,” Sonja said, barely above a whisper.
“But it got better. After my father came out and talked to me, I took the ribbon and washed it up, got it all sparkling clean again, and tied it back to my horn. The next rehearsal came and I was there again. They were still snickering, until I took the horn out of my case, with the ribbon still tied to it.”
Stand proud, his father had said to him. And that’s what he aimed to do. He set himself up while the room got stiller. He started to warm up. Everyone stared at him playing with this big pink bow tied to the end of his sax. Finally Earl complained, “This is too much!” Cue Rick, who marched over to him.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” He kept blowing.
“Look, we’re a band, alright? A unit. A unit works like a baseball team, right? Our instruments are like our uniforms. And right now, you ain’t in uniform.”
Mickey played another couple of licks and then stopped.
“Well, I guess I’m in someone’s uniform, ain’t I?” he said. “I mean, I didn’t put this thing on my horn. Someone else in this room did. So someone seems to think that it’s my uniform, and if that’s the case, then I’m gonna wear it.”
“Well I ain’t playing with no one with a fucking big pink bow on his horn,” Earl declared.
“Me neither,” Rick said.
The others began to crowd around, arms folded. Mickey looked at each of them. Earl, Rick, Lionel, Harold, and Terrance. In a few of their faces he saw me-too eyes. Tagalongs. Their convictions weren’t as resolute as those of the loud mouths. He smiled to himself and brought his horn back to his mouth.
“Then I guess I’m playing alone.” And he began to play his horn again, without a care in the world.
“At every rehearsal, I had it on. The night of the performance, they begged me to take it off, and I refused. We couldn’t back out of the gig, and I knew we couldn’t. So there I was, playing with a big pink bow on my horn in front of the whole audience. I don’t think we ever sounded better than we did at that gig.”
He started to laugh. Sonja laughed, too, though she still wondered about her father’s cackle.
To be continued…
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.