Following The Notes.
Posted on March 4, 2014
In high school I had a job as the hostess at The Trawler, a seafood restaurant at Esplanade Mall. My battery went dead and my father had to come to the mall parking lot to give me a jump. He dug for the cables in his trunk, pissed that he’d been called away from the new piece of music he was writing at home. It was Father’s Day and what he’d asked for was for a quiet house and lemon pie for dessert.
“You left the headlights on?” he said.
“The passenger light,” I said, pointing at the back seat. “Door wasn’t shut all the way.”
“Who was in the back?” he said. “I thought you were driving to work and home, only.”
My daily comings and goings were charted in the kitchen, reviewed when I got back in the evening. I had the use of a Buick Century as long as I kept it filled with gas, washed it once a week in our driveway with mild detergent, and didn’t joy ride with my friends.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” I said
“Don’t be a smart-ass.” He clipped the cables on the battery. “Get in and rev the engine when I tell you.”
The parking lot was dark. Some of my co-workers stood outside under the street lamp, smoking. Bugs were flying in from everywhere to swarm in the light.
My father raised his arm for me to step on the gas.
Sherman’s sweatshirt lay on the back seat, where he’d stripped it off. We’d had sex there before my shift, at the far edge of the parking lot, then switched shirts for the day. He wanted my Sacred Heart tee so he could show off the muscles he was sculpting for me. That’s what he’d said. I wore his faded Ninja Turtles tee, had it stuffed into my jeans. Washed a thousand times, so smooth against my skin. I zipped my jacket to my neck so my father wouldn’t see.
“This isn’t working,” he said. “There’s no juice.”
I drove home with him in his old green Mercedes. Sometimes he let me drive this car. Last week I’d taken Sherman for an evening drive out in Richburg Hills to look at the twinkling lights of the power plant. Oz. The front seat was a bench and Sherman scooted next to me, his hand restless on my leg.
My father whistled what he’d been working on when I called for help. We caught every red light. I smelled like cigarette smoke and sex with a busy top layer of peppermint Tic Tac. Half a box in my mouth.
“You didn’t leave the house in that shirt,” he said.
“Grease stain,” I mumbled. “I borrowed someone’s.”
Bugs out of nowhere dove into the windshield. “Is Mom feeling better?” I said. She’d been in bed when I’d left that morning, said she had a cold, but I knew it was a hangover. I’d rinsed out her mug and it smelled like scotch.
“She’s okay,” he said. He pressed the washer button but nothing came out.
“I showed you how to fill this.” The wipers squeaked across the dry windshield, smudging the spots into a mess. “Goddammit, Liddie,” he said. “I can’t see.”
I knew what to do make him forget my screw-ups. I simply placed him right there in the palm of my hand. “What were you working on before I interrupted?”
He told me too much, like he’d been waiting all day for someone to ask. “A choral piece-SATB-with woodwinds. I’m setting a John Ashbery poem. The Grapevine.” He falsettoed the soprano part because it carried the melody.
“Lyrical,” I said.
My father’s readiness made me sad. The guys I liked used just a few words to explain what they meant, left the rest mysterious, but my father answered anything I asked like he had one chance left on earth.
He leaned forward, squinting through the streaks, and asked me to be another set of eyes and help get us home safely.
“Why don’t we pull into a gas station, Dad? I’ll get out and clean.”
I called Sherman when I got home to tell him about my dead battery, but he didn’t have time to talk. I heard a giggle in the background and he said it was his sister, but I knew.
For dinner we had my father’s favorite meal—chicken cacciatore with a warm loaf of Italian bread for dunking. My mother was quiet and excused herself during dessert to go upstairs to watch TV. My father looked sad, dumped, and I pushed the rest of my lemon pie at him. “I’m full,” I said, and wanted back the one who would always be true, so I asked if he’d play for me what he’d written that day. We sat on the piano bench. I followed the notes and turned the page when he nodded.
My short short “Following the Notes” is anthologized again in the ninth edition of WRITING FICTION: A GUIDE TO NARRATIVE CRAFT, this time with an early, cringe-worthy draft beside the final product. Thank you to Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French. And to Mississippi Review and the divine Carrie Hoffman Spell for publishing it way back when.