Rick called on Lionel’s cell just as he was packing up his briefcase. It had been a long ass day filled with too many meetings about too much stuff that they had been dealing with for too long and he wanted to bolt from the office. So naturally, the phone rang. He hadn’t even had a chance to get the damn Bluetooth in his ear. He had to cup the phone against his shoulder while his hands shuffled briefs. Just when are we supposed to go paperless, anyway, his frazzled mind grumbled as he juggled too many things at once.
Even sitting perfectly still in the family room with a cold one within hand’s reach, and the TV blasting ESPN at its usual comfort volume, his mind still raced. Rick had that effect on him, dating back to when they played together.
“Well, tell her I need her to play the gig. She has to be there, OK?”
“Why wouldn’t she be there, Rick?”
“You tell me. She’s changed. She’s sullen and just isn’t with it like she used to be.”
“Have you asked her why?”
He heard Rick’s patented petulant sigh clear over the phone, even with it cupped against his ear while closing his stuffed briefcase. In the old days, that meant the start of an argument or a full-on fight. This time it meant that he didn’t want to take the time to explain the problem, “just fix it, alright? Make it better.” That’s what he was really saying, beneath the repeated sighs and stuttered words. He was a hell of a musician, despite his hang-ups, but still Lionel didn’t understand why the school put up with him. There had to be other, more qualified folks they could hire.
“Look, Rick, you know you don’t use her as much as you should,” Lionel finally said, exasperated. “Maybe if you engaged her more, she wouldn’t feel so lackluster.”
Another petulant sigh.
“Alright, look, I know I said she couldn’t play with her friend. Alright, I admit it, I was the bad guy. But like I said, the program is filled and it just isn’t fair to the enrolled kids to have someone no longer part of the group taking up stage time.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“Leticia,” he said as if Lionel should have known. “She left the group, right? So she shouldn’t be in the program. Look, Lionel, just talk to her, alright? Tell her I’ll make it up to her. She can solo on one of the pieces we’re playing, alright? Does that make it better?”
How generous, he thought.
He wanted to sit in the family room and chill, but it wasn’t happening. His mind couldn’t leave the phone call alone, the way his fingers couldn’t stop twiddling a pencil during a long meeting. Rick said things he didn’t realize he was saying, but Lionel could hear them loud and clear.
He had to go face the situation, so he went up to Sonja’s room. She was blowing up a storm.
“Hey,” he said, poking his head in. The door knocking wasn’t working. “Sorry to bother you, honey.”
“That’s OK. Everything alright?”
“Yeah, fine, sweetie. You sound good.”
“You mind if I come in for a sec?”
He grabbed the desk chair and swung it around. She sat on her bed, her sax still hanging from her neck.
“Rick called me. He said that you don’t want to be in the performance this weekend.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Because I have another gig I want to play instead,” she said.
“Really? You didn’t tell me that.”
“I was going to.”
Lionel looked into her face. She avoided eye contact.
“You won’t get class credit if you miss performances. What’s this other gig? Where’s it at?”
“The Cushy Café.”
“Really? Well that’s all good. But why are you skipping the school concert to play there?”
“Daddy, you know how Rick is. The concert isn’t about us. It’s about him and his boys, and making himself look good. I’m the only girl left in that band, and he won’t give me anything to do. I can do so much more, but he won’t give me a chance. I’m tired of it. And now I have a chance to play with some folks I really connect musically. I’d rather do that than waste time in his class.”
“But sweetheart, you won’t get a passing grade in his class if you miss the performance. Now it’s too late to drop the class, so you have to stick it out for the semester. You can drop it in the spring if you want, but you have to stick it out.”
“It’s a waste of time! The only reason he’s afraid of losing me is ‘cause I am the last girl and he know that it looks bad.”
“He told me that you wanted to do a duet with Leticia.”
“Is that who you’re playing with at the Cushy Café?”
“Yeah. She has a group that plays there on Saturdays. I’ve been rehearsing with them.”
Lionel sat up. “Well that’s great. That’s fantastic. You didn’t tell me all this. I didn’t realize that you two have been playing together that much.”
So much she wanted to say, but a 405-sized traffic jam clogged her words on their way from her head to her mouth. And echoes of her father’s cackling laugh made it all the worse.
“Daddy, I have to ask you something,” she finally said.
“Sure, baby, what is it?”
“Daddy, I need to know. Did you tie the pink ribbon on Mickey’s sax?”
He closed his eyes. He had hoped they wouldn’t go there, his heart moaned.
“He told you that story?”
“Yes. I kept asking him about it, ‘cause he has it framed and hanging on his wall. He keeps it over a picture of his late partner. And then Leticia told me that he was called the Pink Ribbon Man, so I asked him again and he told me. Everyone laughed at him when he saw it tied to his horn. You were part of everyone, so you must have laughed to!”
“Baby, are you alright?”
Her chin trembled.
“I just need to know if you tied it on his sax, Dad. And did you laugh at him? I need to know!”
He unclipped her sax and put it aside on the bed. Then he got on the bed on the other side of her and cradled her with both arms.
“Shhh, I’d alright, baby. It’s alright. Daddy loves you, baby.”
Many times when he cradled her as a baby he felt like he was protecting her from all the harms the world had to offer. His muscles alone would deflect every weapon, every savage leer, every groping hand, every mean word, so that she would not have to endure them. And he squeezed her tightly, thinking of what was out there, beyond his ability to reach in space or time. Just hold her tightly, he thought, so that the feeling would carry her for the rest of her days.
The sting of karma coming back to bite him in the ass made him squeeze her tightly again.
“I am not the person I was back then, baby. Not at all.”
She relaxed in his arms. The tears stopped flowing. Senses engaged again.
“Did Mickey talk about his father?” She nodded against his chest. “When we played the gig, where he had the bow on his horn, his father sat there in the front row. Right there,” he pointed, “front row center. He had his arms folded and he was staring at us, each one of us, one by one. Then when Mickey played his solo, he closed his eyes. His head sort of shook a bit, like a vibration. He was just all the way in the zone. In fact, Mickey was supposed to play two choruses, and we gave him a third one. And when he finished, his father opened up his eyes and clapped long and hard for his boy.” Now Lionel almost felt something, but he choked it back. “Then he stared at us again, Sonja. That’s when I knew that he was trying to figure out which one of us had done it. I think we all felt it. You could say that it scared us all straight.” Sonja giggled. That felt so good to Lionel, to feel her giggle against his chest. “We never bothered Mickey liked that again. Never. Old Man Washington was a force of nature. You didn’t cross him or his. That’s the lesson we learned that day. He let us off easy.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too, baby.” He kissed her on the head and released her. She sat up.
“Listen, sweetheart. I’m not going to pressure you about the performance. You do what you think is best. But wherever you end up playing this weekend, you know I’ll be there in the front row.”
She kissed him on the cheek.
After patting her on the head, he walked out the room and closed the door. Sonja put her horn back on and was about to blow again, when she heard something. She rolled her eyes.
“Come on in, Reggie,” she called out. The door crept open.
“You and Daddy had a fight?” he asked.
“No, we didn’t have a fight, Mr. Nosy-body.”
“It’s all good?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.
Reggie smiled, too. “Told you!” Then he dashed from the door, leaving it ajar. Sonja smiled, then started blowing again.
Rick called her name along with all the other soloists, as the crowd clapped, cheered, and whistled. All the players stood together and accepted the accolades. But then Sonja booked. She couldn’t pack up fast enough or get to the door soon enough. Rick looked at her as she hit the exit. Their eyes met briefly. Rick’s almost looked apologetic. Sonja turned quickly and was out of there.
Her father drove her, her mother, and Reggie up to the Cushy Café. He let them out at the corner while he went on the hunt for parking. The first face she saw was Leticia’s. They exchanged warm glances. The other members of the band, Audrey, Barry, and Maureen, started to clap. They gave her a star entrance.
“Go get ‘em!”
She turned and saw Mickey seated comfortably on a sofa. She gave him a hug. Her mother and Reggie sat down next to him.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” Leticia called out, “now we have our special guest star, Ms. Sonja Cliff, joining us for the rest of the set, so we’ll let her get all set up and then we’ll continue.”
Leticia wasn’t about tripping. She wasn’t about guilt or pressure. “Look,” she said over the phone, “just come straight over, honey-girl. We’ll have your place all ready for you.” The absolute last thing she wanted was for Sonja to get a failing grade from Rick the Dick. “I would not give that man the satisfaction,” she insisted. Sonja was grateful.
The stage never felt so magical for Sonja nor had it ever been so filled with smiles and good vibes. She and her comrades exchanges winks and giggles, knowing they were in charge of the world from their cramped stage in the crowded café. And in front of her on the sofa and comfy chairs sat her whole family and her friend Mickey.
“Alright!” Leticia said. “We’ll start the next set with an original by our special guest star and it’s called ‘The Pink Ribbon Blues.’”
One last grin, then the blowing began. She slipped into a long, sassy statement and received much hooting and hollering from the packed house. Then Leticia joined in with the rhythm section backing them up. They dragged their blues in sweet harmony, acknowledging the burden and triumph of their triple threat status, and daring everyone to rejoice in it.
Lionel couldn’t stop shaking his head to the treat his ears could taste. He recognized the tune as one Sonja’s been doodling with for the past couple of weeks. Mickey nodded his head, with his eyes closed.
Rick appeared in the door, just as Sonja blew her final statement, a solo of runs and honks, her head tilting back and her sax raised high. Closure brought everyone to their feet and a boisterous crash from Maureen’s drums.
“Sonja Cliff!” Leticia called out proudly. “Sonja Cliff, ladies and gentlemen!”
Rick saw Mickey next to Lionel, both on their feet. Mickey whistled through his fingers. He looked like his father, Old Man Washington. Rick brought his hands together, too, and clapped for the star of the show, before turning around and leaving again.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.