JONAH GRIPPED the heavy case and urged his legs to move faster. If only he hadn’t stopped to chat after sixth period, he might have avoided the bastards. He’d almost made it out of the parking lot and out of sight, when Antony and his sidekick Justin banged out of the front entrance. Even from three rows away, he’d caught the flash of Antony’s grin.
“Fuck.” He stumbled over a crack in the concrete, and the case bashed him in the knee. Why couldn’t he have picked a smaller instrument to play in Jazz Ensemble? He’d wanted to please Mr. Gaston was why. Mr. G had turned his fucking blue eyes at Jonah and asked him to fill in because he needed a baritone saxophone player. Jonah had been so surprised to be noticed, let alone asked to help, that he’d said yes without stopping to think. It hadn’t occurred to him what it would be like to drag the oversized instrument all over creation. It didn’t help that he was short for his age and skinny. If his parents would just let him get a car, things would be different, but cars were not toys for irresponsible teenagers, so there would be no car for him. Never mind that he was probably the most responsible teenager in the entire fucking town. You couldn’t tell his dad that.
Jonah glanced over his shoulder to see Antony and Justin jogging lazily in his direction. Antony waved merrily without picking up his pace. It wouldn’t look cool to appear in too much of a rush. He said something to Justin and batted him in the arm. Justin laughed and shook his head, leering at Jonah. Neither boy carried a heavy pack or an instrument case like Jonah’s. They didn’t need to work to catch him. Jonah tried to pick up speed, panting with the effort. Another block and he would make it to the city bus stop on Main Street, where he could catch the number 12 home. It had been weeks since he’d taken the yellow school bus parked on 5th Street. It wasn’t worth the hassle. If he was lucky, the city bus might come along before the creeps caught up with him.
No city bus ground its way up Main when Jonah reached the stop. Trying to escape was futile now. They would catch him. Maybe they would only tease him this time and leave his shit alone. Yeah, and maybe an alligator would climb out of the sewer and bite Antony in the ass. Jonah put the saxophone case down and sat on it. He might as well catch his breath.
“What’s your rush, Whale Bait, got a gig or something?” said Antony, sauntering up.
Jonah just looked at him and waited for what would come next.
Antony pressed the toe of an expensive Nike trainer to the side of the saxophone case and shoved it over, forcing Jonah to scramble to his feet. Justin circled behind Jonah and tugged the handle of Jonah’s pack, pulling him off-balance.
“Quit it, asswipe.”
“Who you calling asswipe, Whale Bait?” said Antony.
“Who do you think, fucker?”
“The pretty boy’s got a mouth on him, doesn’t he?” said Justin. He yanked on Jonah’s pack, forcing Jonah to stumble backward. “I think he needs his mouth washed out.”
“He’s got a dirty mouth all right. Been sucking something nasty, have you, Whale Bait?” said Antony.
Jonah was too busy trying to keep his feet as Justin pulled his pack from side to side to answer.
“Faggots like sucking cock, don’t they?” Antony grabbed the crotch of his low-slung jeans. “You’d like a taste of this, wouldn’t you?”
Antony palmed Jonah’s head like a basketball and pushed it to his crotch. “Yeah, you’d like a taste of that, wouldn’t you?”
“Mr. Winfield? Perhaps you’ll stop playing with your friends and come inside now. It’s time for your lesson.”
Antony let go of Jonah’s head, his mouth dropping open in surprise at the sound of the man’s voice. Justin must have let go of Jonah’s pack, because the side-to-side motion stopped. “Who the hell are you?” said Antony.
“You’re standing in front of my shop. Come inside now, Mr. Winfield. Don’t forget your instrument.”
Jonah gripped the handle of his saxophone case and lurched into motion. He hadn’t registered that Antony and Justin had caught up with him in front of Avakian Music, but it was sort of ironic now that he thought of it. The music store was where his father had rented the saxophone after Jonah had begged to be allowed to join Jazz Ensemble. “You are a pianist. What do you want with a saxophone?” his father had asked. “I’ll pick it up,” Jonah insisted, and he had too, even though he’d never signed up for lessons.
The man who’d spoken, Mr. Avakian, Jonah supposed, held the door to the shop open and gestured impatiently as though Jonah were late. “Now, unless you boys want a lesson as well, why don’t you stop blocking the door to my shop?”
“Fuck you, old man,” said Antony, but he was backing away as he said it.
Jonah watched them leave, the tension in his body draining, leaving an irritating tremor in its wake. “Thanks, Mister.”
Avakian smiled as though they knew each other. He reminded Jonah of a praying mantis—improbably long limbs and angles draped in a pale-green shirt, and an oddly formal way of holding himself. “You’re welcome,” he said.
“How did you know my name? I’ve never been here before.”
“I rented one baritone saxophone this year. The man who rented it said he was a fool to do it, but it was not worth arguing about, because his son would only hound him until he got what he wanted.”
Jonah’s face warmed. “Right.”
“He said you wanted to play in a jazz group. Do you like it?”
“It’s all right, I guess.”
“He said you didn’t play the saxophone.”
“I don’t, I mean I didn’t.”
“But you do now? Are you taking lessons somewhere?”
“I’m not taking any lessons. Mr. Gaston said I should try.”
Avakian’s smile faltered. “That would be Mr. Gaston from the high school?”
“Yeah, the band director. He conducts the band and orchestra too, but I don’t play with them.”
“I see. So Mr. Gaston thought you should try the baritone saxophone.”
“I know it sounds funny, but he knew I play the piano and we got to talking, and I told him I’d taught myself to play the guitar, so when he couldn’t find anyone to play the bari sax, he asked me to try it.”
“So you’re a prodigy.”
“I don’t think so. I just pick things up fast.”
“Have it your way.” The man’s smile was back. It was broad and white and contrasted nicely with the olive tone of his skin. His eyes were good too, big, almost black—not as striking as Mr. G’s blue, maybe, but with a good-humored gleam. Avakian cocked his head sideways. “Perhaps you’d like to try our new Steinway? I’d value your opinion of it.”
Nobody outside of school had ever before asked Jonah’s opinion about much of anything, so the question took him a moment to process. “I guess that would be okay. Actually, it’d be kinda cool, but I don’t really know anything about pianos other than ours. It’s a Baldwin, not a Steinway. Well, and my Aunt has a Yamaha, but I’ve only played that once, so I don’t know that it would be fair to compare it….” He was babbling, so he closed his mouth.
“Follow me.” Avakian straightened up, and it struck Jonah again how tall the man was. He had to be more than six feet, compared with Jonah’s midget-like five foot two. Jonah followed him through the display area, past a glass case filled with cornets, clarinets, and flutes. Another case displayed violins and violas. He continued past a double row of filing cabinets with labels like “Quartet, string” and “Guitar, solo,” through a curtained archway, and into a large back room. Guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments hung from pegboard walls. A row of narrow doors lined one wall. Jonah peered through an open one and saw a music stand and walls lined with acoustic insulation. The faint squeak of a clarinet drifted from behind another. A gleaming black Steinway grand mounted on heavy-duty rollers took up the center of the room.
“Wow, that’s a concert grand, isn’t it? What does that cost?”
Avakian chuckled. “A lifetime of practice.”
“I’m not sure I should—”
“Don’t be silly. Here, let me raise the bench for you.”
The bench adjusted, Jonah sat down and rested his fingers on the keys. “What should I play?”
“Whatever you like.”
Jonah closed his eyes and recalled a piece he’d heard on the radio. He’d been trying to work out the notes for the last week or so and thought he had most of them right. After running through it in his head, he opened his eyes and started to play. He was tentative at first, but Avakian stepped from his line of sight and said nothing, so after a minute he relaxed and focused on the music. It wasn’t quite what he heard in his head, but it was pretty close. When he finished, he sat for a moment and let the faint sounds from the street filter back into his consciousness. The clarinet had fallen silent.
“Scarlatti,” murmured Avakian from behind him. “My mother is very fond of that one.”
“Scarlatti? Is that who wrote it?” said Jonah.
“You didn’t know? Where did you get the music?”
“I don’t have any music. It’s just something I heard.”
Avakian came around to peer into Jonah’s face, as though he were looking for clues to a mystery. “You played it from memory? How many times have you heard it?”
“Just the once, on the radio. I’ve a pretty good memory for stuff I hear. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how to play it.” He wiggled his digits. “Which fingers to use.”
Avakian blinked. “I see. What do you think of the piano?”
“I like it. I mean, it’s a little stiffer than our Baldwin, but….” Jonah played a scale. “It’s more predictable.” He tapped a key. “This one doesn’t sound right.”
“One of the strings is flat,” said Avakian. “I haven’t had it tuned yet.”
“Have you a piano teacher, Mr. Winfield?”
“Can you call me Jonah? Mr. Winfield sounds like I’m in gym class or something.”
“Jonah.” Avakian nodded. “You may call me Davoud if you wish.”
“Davoud? That’s like French or something, isn’t it?”
“Something like that.”
“Forgive me, Jonah, but I’m really very curious to know whether you have a piano teacher.”
“Not really. Mrs. Olivetti used to give me lessons back in Chicago, but we moved, and Dad said he couldn’t afford to hire someone anymore.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. I mean, I know I could learn faster if I had a teacher, but I like to work things out on my own.”
Avakian grinned suddenly. “Yes, I do too.”
PAUL KNEW it was coming. It buzzed in his head when he was conducting and made him ask the orchestra to repeat sections because he’d forgotten to listen for the critical phrasing. He bore it as a tension in his shoulders that didn’t loosen after an hour of running. Charlie Wong, the principal, had told him at the end of the last budget cycle that the budget cuts would mean another music class cut or moved to an after-school activity. Paul knew the required course load, and that he was the youngest history teacher in the high school, but he’d managed to keep those facts cocooned in separate parts of his psyche like components of an unstable explosive. In Charlie’s office, that careful ignorance ended with the words “You can’t teach another section of history, Paul. You’ll have to teach something else.”
He’d never taught anything but music and history. He didn’t want to teach anything else. Music and history were his twin lodestones. His interest in them gave him the energy to endure… everything.
Paul dropped into the chair behind his desk and stared at the mementos on his wall: an aerial view of the place in East Sussex where the Battle of Hastings was fought, a stage shot of Angelo Debarre at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
“Mr. G? The band’s ready…. Do you want me to start them on something?” It was Virginia Ruff, his drum major, her eyes widening as she peered around the door of his office. He really had to pull it together.
“Thanks, Ginny. Why don’t you get them started on ‘Africa.’ I’ll be along in a moment.”
“Okay, Mr. G.” She hesitated for a second.
“Go, please. God knows what they’ll get up to if you don’t give them something to do.”
Charlie’s suggestion was that Paul should teach AP English. Paul had been good at it in school. He’d certified in both English and history when he started teaching, and could probably muster some enthusiasm for the topic. But did he have the patience to read student writing? The acid that flooded his gut as he imagined himself trying to pry coherent sentences from the likes of Billy Preston didn’t bode well. Maybe it really was time for the change. Maybe he should pursue the music career he’d abandoned for the safety of education. Even as he thought it, he knew he’d never take the risk. He didn’t have what it took. He’d known that as a teenager. While he might be good enough, he just didn’t have the personality. He needed the stability of a regular salary. And he needed Jazz Ensemble to keep him from coming apart during the school day.
PAUL DROPPED into the hardwood chair he kept beside his desk for visiting students and leaned it back on two legs. “Gaston speaking.”
“Paul, it’s Davoud Avakian. I was hoping to speak to you about a student of yours. Jonah Winfield?”
He brought the chair forward with a crash, possessed by a sudden desire to hang up the phone. Jonah was his. Special. Not someone to share with the peculiar owner of Avakian Music. Even though he didn’t get Avakian’s students until long after they’d been through the ceremony of instrument selection—the annual event when Avakian “helped” elementary students pick instruments like some kind of human sorting hat—he was still skeptical about the whole business. No one had ever complained to him about the instrument they’d chosen in Avakian’s shop, but it still made Paul uncomfortable that the owner of the business that rented musical instruments to the children was also the man who told them what to play. Wasn’t there a conflict of interest? What if Avakian had too many flutes to rent and not enough clarinets. Wouldn’t he be tempted to steer impressionable kids to the instruments he had on hand?
A soft sound transmitted over the phone reminded him that Avakian was still waiting for a response.
“What about him?”
“He was in the other day.”
Paul waited for the soft-spoken man to spit out his business.
“Some thugs were bothering him in the street in front of my shop.”
“Is he okay? I don’t have Jazz Ensemble until fifth period, so I haven’t seen him today.”
“He wasn’t physically hurt. I can’t speak to his state of mind.”
“Is that why you’re calling? There really isn’t anything I can do unless I catch them on school grounds. I’ll try to look out for him, but I can’t follow him around all day. If they assaulted him, you should call the police.” Paul’s sense of guilt sharpened his tone.
“I didn’t call to ask for your intervention, Paul.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I asked him into the shop to get him away from the thugs, and he told me that he plays the piano, so I asked him his opinion of our new Steinway grand.”
The man was too weird, Paul thought. Why would he do that? Did he ask everyone who said they played the piano to give him an opinion on his most expensive instrument? “Uh, okay.”
Avakian continued in the same soft baritone, as if he didn’t sense Paul’s discomfort. “He is a talented pianist.”
“Yes, he is.”
“That’s why I called. I’ve invited him to use the piano after school whenever he wishes.”
As if that explained anything. Could the man not come to a point? “Listen, I have a class coming up….”
“I’m curious why you steered him to the baritone saxophone.”
Stepped on your toes, did I? Now the call was beginning to make sense. “He asked to join Jazz Ensemble. What was I supposed to do? We don’t use a piano, and he was eager to join.”
“But the baritone saxophone? The bullies would never have caught him if he hadn’t been dragging around that monster.”
The guy would make a good Jewish mother. “I needed a bari sax. I suppose you’ve never steered someone to an instrument just because you had one to rent.”
Paul knew he’d probably gone too far when, after a pause long enough for someone to count to ten, Avakian responded with an uncharacteristically sharp tone. “I have never done such a thing. Never.”
“Believe it or not, he’s really taken to the sax.”
“I suspect he would do well with any instrument.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“He should develop his talent as a pianist. He has an amazing gift.”
“Being in Jazz Ensemble is good for him. He feels he has something in common with them.”
When Avakian finally answered, his mild tone was back. “I see. Perhaps you’re right. Thank you for your time, Paul.”
“DAVOUD? ARE you there, Davoud?”
Davoud spun idly on the stool behind Avakian Music’s sole cash register. “Yes, Mother. Who else would answer my cell?”
“I don’t know. Your voice sounds strange. Are you sick?”
“No, I’m fine, Mother.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Maybe he was a little out of sorts after the talk with Paul Gaston. The man never failed to irritate him—no less when he was right. Maybe being a member of the jazz group wouldn’t hurt Jonah after all. The extraordinary boy would need friends and a sense of belonging. A sudden flood of memories from his childhood threatened to overwhelm Davoud’s senses: the chlorine smell of the high school swimming pool where he took lessons three years running in order to escape the torture of gym class, the heat of his father’s grip as he watched his mother get into a taxi to leave on one of her endless tours, the spatter of winter slush from the taxi’s spinning tire as it pulled away.
“Did you need something, Mother, or did you just call to say hello?”
“There’s no need to be rude about it.”
Davoud sighed loudly enough to be heard over the telephone connection. “It’s nearly quitting time, Mother. I have to close out the register.”
“But I have news for you, my baby boy. Mother is coming home.”
He loved his mother. He really did. Moreover, he respected her. She was an extraordinary singer and musician. But the prospect of her imminent retirement from the opera stage and return to the family home was terrifying. First, there was the problem of the Music Box, as they called the family-owned building that housed Avakian Music on the ground floor and family apartments converted from hotel rooms on the others. Proceeds from the music store, which had once paid upkeep on the Music Box, no longer covered the rising cost of maintaining the old building. The poor performance of the store embarrassed him. This year he’d been forced to get creative with the budget in order to pay for new windows and a replacement boiler. If his mother came to stay, she’d certainly find out what he’d done. Worse yet, the third-floor apartment where she’d raised her three sons needed more than new windows. There was a smell of dampness in the old place that suggested a leak in the plumbing or—God forbid—the roof. His own apartment on the second floor looked seedy. The laminated kitchen counters were peeling, and the old refrigerator barely kept a carton of milk cold enough to last the week.
He would have to ask her for rent.
Then there was his personal life. His mother knew he was gay. He’d announced that the day he returned from college, eighteen years ago. She’d cried. His father’s slumped shoulders had spoken eloquently of resignation. Davoud had surprised no one then. What he dreaded now was for his mother to find out how small his social circle had become. It wasn’t just that he had no lover. He had so few friends left—most of them having abandoned small-town life to pursue work in larger cities where jobs were easier to find and advancement was quicker. Davoud felt he’d been drifting along half asleep and hadn’t woken until she announced her retirement.
She would try to set him up.
“Davoud! I swear it’s like talking to a ghost. Did you hear me? I’m coming home.”
“I heard you, Mother. So it’s official, no more tours after this season? You’ve told Marty not to book you?”
“That’s right. These old pipes have nearly sung their last.”
“I hardly believe that. When do you expect to arrive?”
“In two months. In time for the holidays. I’ll e-mail you the details. You’ll have the apartment cleaned this time? Last Christmas, I thought I was going to choke to death on the dust.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Have you heard from your brothers?”
“No, it’s early yet. I expect they’ll let me know their plans eventually.” Amir would pick vacation days to avoid Chicago Symphony performances and bring his wife and daughter. They’d stay in 1B. Rasul was touring somewhere with his string quartet and would undoubtedly call at the last second to announce his imminent arrival and requirement for a room, as if the Music Box were still a hotel. Davoud sometimes wondered if his brothers thought he had a staff to call upon for cleaning and room preparation. Even if Avakian Music employees would have stood for it, they had long since been reduced to Marta, his full-time clerk, some part-time music teachers who watched the register for him during the busy times, and a part-time janitor. All the others in and out during the day were independent contractors, part-time music instructors who paid a commission for the use of a practice room and some help with marketing.
It had been easier to manage the shop when his father was alive. The heart attack that had claimed Farhad Avakian three years ago had left a hole in more than the schedule. His father’s absence could still catch Davoud by surprise and leave him gasping.
“You’ll enjoy seeing your brothers again, won’t you? I know you miss them.”
He did actually. Even if he sometimes wanted to strangle them.
“Yes, Mother, I do. I’ve got to go close out now. I’ll look for your e-mail.”
IN COLLEGE, someone once asked Paul what it felt like to play jazz. He’d struggled for words, unable to explain how improvising with a set of skilled musicians took on the dimensions of a whole world, unwilling to confess that the intimacy he experienced went beyond any he’d felt in his limited relationships. Part of the attraction was that his companions were competent enough to set aside technical concerns and simply express musical ideas as they played: harmonic concepts, melodies, rhythms, even jokes. He could, without the embarrassment of words, get to know a person with a degree of intimacy difficult through other means—even the rushed and awkward sex with boys he picked up at gay bars or the campus gay club. This was before everything had to be LGBT or—heaven save him from political correctness—LGBTQ. It was just the “gay club” in those days. Often, while improvising, Paul knew what his drumstick and horn-wielding friends would do before they did. Occasionally, one would surprise him with a sure-footed gentleness or quivering rage entirely foreign to his persona outside the practice room. He cherished those glimpses of his friends’ inner lives all the more for their rarity.
The Martin Luther King High School Jazz Ensemble was not composed of musicians of the same caliber as his old college group. But there were moments when they got it right, and they transcended the chalk dust, grubby linoleum, and arthritic music stands of the band room. On those days, the nagging issues of student discipline and reduced funding for the arts fell away, and Paul played lead or rhythm guitar with the simple joy and abandon of his youth.
Jonah’s arrival at the start of the fall term had both sharpened faded memories and inspired an overwhelming yearning for physical intimacy Paul hadn’t experienced since his last relationship. He wasn’t attracted to Jonah. The boy was cute, in a birdlike way, flash-headed and small-boned, but he was twenty-three years Paul’s junior. Even if he’d had the balls to risk it, Paul was no chicken hawk. The feelings Jonah evoked were protective. Paul had also been an outcast in high school. Never having been a parent, he didn’t feel particularly competent to help, but he wanted to anyway. No, it was not sexual attraction, but the intimacy of playing guitar with a revitalized jazz ensemble that had reawakened, through some odd transference, his sexual desire. Paul found himself thinking about visiting the town’s only gay bar. Maybe he would give it a try after work one day.
This afternoon, he planned to have Jazz Ensemble sight-read newly acquired Count Basie tunes composed by Sammy Nestico. He listened for the fifth-period bell with the pent-up energy of a randy teenager waiting for his girl behind the bleachers. When it finally rang, Paul grabbed his guitar case and burst out of his office, nearly knocking down his hapless first trumpet in the process.
“Hey, Mr. Gaston. What’s up? Somebody spike your fruit punch?”
As usual, Paul didn’t know whether Billy Preston’s question contained a hidden barb, or whether it was merely intended to be funny. Was the mention of fruit a reference to his sexuality? He’d never actually told a student he was gay; in the sexually charged and increasingly politicized high-school atmosphere some things were perilous and best kept outside school grounds. But he’d always figured some of them knew.
“Sorry, just excited to try the new Sammy Nestico stuff.”
“Who’s Sammy Nestico?”
“I mentioned it last time? Count Basie’s composer and arranger?”
“Oh yeah. Guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
Once again, Billy had him at a loss for words. Was he supposed to chastise the boy or just take his admission that he hadn’t been listening as a joke? “So you were mesmerized by the soft sheen of Julie Patterson’s hair? Intoxicated by Sandy Benson’s perfume?”
Billy’s quizzical look said his effort at humor was wasted. “You sure you’re okay, Mr. G?”
“Come on, Billy. We’ve got some sight-reading to do.”
“I hate sight-reading.”
“Yeah, but it’s good for you. Like spinach. It makes you a stronger musician.”
“You know I’ll probably never pick up the trumpet again after I graduate. My brother left his trombone behind when he went to college. It’s still in his room, and he was better than I’ll ever be.”
“Don’t say that, Billy! Hasn’t anyone ever told you there are things the adults in your life don’t need to know?”
Billy shrugged. “Yeah, but they weren’t talking about music, Mr. G.”
“WARM BREEZE,” the title song from Basie’s 1981 album of the same name, started off well enough, assisted by the confident buzz of Jonah’s bari sax. Billy managed to get through the long Sonny Cohn solo, missing notes but sticking with it. But when they reached the tenor sax solo, Paul looked up from his guitar to see the lead tenor sax red-faced and shaking her head. Carol was a solid player, but she tended to shy away from solos unless she’d had time to practice them to death.
Paul waved the group to a halt.
“I can’t, Mr. Gaston. I’m not good enough. I sound terrible.”
“It’s all right, Carol. This isn’t a performance. The point is to do your best and stick with it. If you get behind, just keep counting and come in when you can.”
“But….” Carol still sounded pretty shaky.
“Would it help to have someone take it with you?”
Carol shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Anyone want to try it with Carol?” Paul looked around the room. Five saxophone players were suddenly intent on blowing spit out of their instruments or marking up their scores. Billy caught his look and glanced away quickly, probably relieved to have gotten through his own solo and not wanting to mess up a good thing. The scores came with the solos written out so no improvisation was required, but the Nestico pieces still pushed his students’ technical limits. Paul glanced at the far end of the line. Jonah’s eyes were glued to his saxophone. Paul knew Jonah would do it if asked, but he wouldn’t volunteer. The boy didn’t like to call attention to himself in class or show up anyone.
“Jonah, would you mind helping Carol out?”
Jonah looked up and caught Carol’s eye. “If she doesn’t mind.”
Carol grimaced, red-faced but rallying. “Sure.”
Paul tried for his most reassuring smile. “Let’s try it again from the start. I’ll take the Basie part.”