When I was growing up, taking lessons from Mrs. S., her students used to give recitals, and the first year, when I was only six, I got so scared I wet my pants right up on stage. After that, I wouldn’t play in public, no matter how much they punished or bribed me. I don’t know how Molly got me to say yes, but I guess after all the work we’d put in, there was no way I could let everyone down. Plus, as I said, Molly’s got a big rock-star Lady Gaga complex, and that means always getting her way.
We’re an all-girl band. Molly sings lead and writes most of our songs, and Sam does backup and plays the guitar, and Georgie works out on an old beat-up electric bass her dad used to play before he turned into an attorney. We really need some new equipment, but as my mom says, Beggars can’t be choosers. Last, but not least, we added a secret drummer in July. She’s only eleven, but she can wail, and her name is Tracy Carville. And of course, me on keys.
At practices I can let loose if I get my left hand rooted and let my right hand range up and down. I know a few standard riffs, but sometimes I just make it up. High-end licks are my specialty. I’d been listening to Georgie’s dad’s old records – they’re all on vinyl so I had to go over to the rec room they’d made out of their basement – and trying to figure out what Carly and Ray, and someone called Bud Powell, were up to. Georgie’s dad had a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s stuff, too, like Joni Mitchell and the Doors and Janice Joplin who Molly really likes, but we have our own sound – a little ‘80s retro, sometimes we go punk, and Molly likes to rap with the drums, just her and eleven-year-old Tracy Carville, jamming it up.
But as the gig got closer, I got nervous. Every time I thought about playing, my stomach turned to ice, and my hands started shaking. I was scared I’d go blind and wouldn’t be able to see the keys, I was scared I’d forget the chords, irrational stuff like that. More than anything I was scared Johnny Quintana would show up, standing there in the back, his thumbs in his pockets, those dark squinty eyes judging me.
Me and Johnny, we had a thing back in sophomore year. It was a tragic mixed-race love affair. See, I’m a little white Irish girl, red-haired and freckled and rosy-cheeked. I stand out in this neighborhood like a flashing neon light, and Johnny is like everyone else, a nice mellow shade of brown, and he has the most beautiful sad face you ever laid eyes on. He could make my knees swoon, just by looking at me, and we had some pretty hot sessions in the backseat of his car. Not going all the way, I don’t mean, because I was too young for that, he said; just, you know, most everything else. And then he went away to Memphis without graduating, no goodbye or anything, and ever since, I’ve had this aching in my heart that never stops.
Now he’s back in town, working at the plant, that’s what they say anyway, and Molly told me he’s studying for his GED.
I told my mom I was going to the school dance Saturday night because if she’d known what we were up to, she would have made a big deal and wanted to come and watch. And that would only remind me of Mrs. S’s recitals when Daddy was still alive and we’d all sit there in the front row, and he’d say, Becky, honey, you’re better than all of them, don’t you want to go up and play now?
Mrs. S., who was once almost a concert pianist, sat me down before each recital to tell me basically the same thing. Have a little pride, she’d say. Let your light shine so people can see it. That’s what they come for, and when they clap, you just let them.
That never made a lot of sense to me because music isn’t about seeing, it’s about hearing. But now that I’m a little older, I think maybe it is the seeing part I’m scared of.
The night of the gig, Molly came by for me in her brother’s car, and said hello Mrs. J, all nice and sweet, and talked about how this other band, the Memphis Ramblers, was playing at the school and we were going to go listen and pick up a few tips. They’re all electric, of course, and college guys, and I don’t know why they’d want to mess with a little minority high school like ours, except that maybe there’s too much competition in the city and maybe the door is pretty good here because there’s nowhere else to go on a Saturday night.
We had a great big plastic mayonnaise jar that Sam brought over from the diner, all washed and cleaned, and I’d made a background of Xeroxed George Washingtons, for the subliminal message, and put “TIPS” in giant red letters on the front. We passed the plant, dark because of the weekend, and the high school, which was all lit up and the kids were streaming in the gym door and congregating around the cars in the parking lot, smoking, and the ones like me, who didn’t drive and didn’t smoke, were all sitting together in little bunches on the grass. We even saw Joanie Evers, who has a metabolic disorder, lumbering around. She weighs like two-eighty, and I heard it used to be three-fifty. She wears these stretchy tan pants that cling to her backside and show every crease and bulge, but she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. You can tell by the way she stares you down if you look at her too long. One time I tried to make friends with her in gym class. I said something, like would she like to come over and study with me, but she stared back and said, Who made you the fat police? And then I felt really bad because I’d been thinking maybe I needed someone besides myself to feel sorry for.
The coffee shop was dark inside with some old lava lamps from the ‘60s bubbling along at the back and the fake wood paneling and the bar with Mr. Tachy behind it, scowling at his customers. There were a few regulars slouching at the tables, scribbling in their notebooks or tapping on their phones, and I could see the poster I’d drawn gleaming in the background. Molly put us through the paces of a tune-up and sound check, and the piano wasn’t too bad, just the chipped low E, which would probably be helpful as I could find it even with my eyes closed.
I was terrified, at first, up there on stage, but Molly said I looked good, really good, in my best jeans and my Irish green cut-off shirt that showed my midriff, even if my skin was the color of milk, and that I sounded even better. A few more people came in, just some nerds drinking coffee and talking about whatever nerds like to talk about, probably math problems and suicidal poetry.
We started slow, a little bluesy ballad that Molly wrote, and then Tracy showed up with her parents. They were both accountants over at the plant, and they were looking all proud-like and I could see they were going to move away to the city and become upwardly mobile as soon as they figured out they were better than the rednecks over here in Cementville, and even though their skin was black, they’d send Tracy to school on the east coast, and she’d be something. Well, they were cool, sitting way in the back and didn’t clap and yell except on the first song, and then just talked to each other kind of quiet.
I made myself pretend we were in Georgie’s garage, and I could mostly, except I had to keep getting up to go to the unisex bathroom to pee, so I missed a couple songs. There was a bigger crowd each time I got back to the keys, and once I nodded out there and they clapped a little to say they were glad I was back. I could feel some of the pride that Mrs. S used to talk about, a kind of excitement when I hit the right notes, and an I-don’t-care-if-you-don’t-like-it, when I hit a wrong one. Which I could disguise pretty well by sliding around right past that wrong note a second time, sometimes glancing off it, so maybe it seemed like I’d played it on purpose. I’d read that trick somewhere in a music magazine.
Mr. Tachy gave us all free coffees, and mine was a mocha latte. I don’t usually drink coffee, but it tasted like coffee ice cream and I drank it right down. The buzz set my fingers flying. My back was to them, which was lucky, because when I turned around after a particularly hot version of Should I Stay or Should I Go, I saw all those shadowy faces, lined up three deep, and my heart sped up and my fingers were trembling and my bladder was going nuts.
One more, before we take a break, said Molly, featuring our keyboard player, Rebecca Johnson, and we launched into the one I’d written, and Sam starting it out with the familiar picking of the E-minor, and Molly wailing, Johnny. Well, there wasn’t much I could do about it, it was my song, so I set my left hand on the chipped key and played the chord, then let my lick go inside and around Sam’s picking, and Georgie plunking back and forth on the E and A, and then the bridge with its second and sixth thrown in, and the words, Where did you go, oh where did you go, and then, Take it, Becky.
At this point Tracy got a little out there, double timing, so I went with her, leaving the ballad feel behind and letting it rock, like, hell, it’s over and who cares. Life goes on, as my mom likes to say. Then I could feel the black keys wanting their say and my right hand took off, putting in a little color, letting it run and slide, letting it all out. Then I could hear Molly’s voice again, and my solo was getting mixed up with it, so I reined myself in, getting my breath back, realizing what I’d done when I heard the applause from the back, a thirty-person applause, and I felt that pride swell, that pride Mrs. S. had talked about.
I went straight to the bathroom, wishing I had a big shade hat to cover my red face, thinking I’d splash a little water on to cool it off, but the door was locked so I waited, fidgeting, feeling like my head had lifted straight off. Then the door opened and I saw who it was. Johnny Quintana.
He took my hand and led me out back without saying a word. I was so weak I couldn’t have resisted him even if I wanted. He put his mouth over mine and pulled me so close my back arched, and then I was swimming with his tongue and his hands were under my shirt.
Don’t stop, I think I said when he looked down at me, but he did stop. He gave me a little shove towards the back door, not rough, but enough to say don’t follow me, as he sauntered off. Wait, I said, and his long black hair slid a little to one side. I watched him as long as I could, wishing we could start up again where we’d left off. I was older now, almost seventeen, and maybe I’d do it with him tonight, if he let me. I thought about running after him and telling him, but he was gone into the blackness and I was left there, my lips swelling, and the longing back like a tumor.
After awhile I could hear the band starting up, so I slunk back inside. They sounded pretty good without me, but Sam had to work extra hard to make the chord rhythms and Tracy overwhelmed her at times, so they were kind of fighting to lay it down, and Molly sounded a little cross when she started singing Becky, Becky, where are you, oh Becky. And the crowd was thinning out, going back to the school dance, which must have had an intermission was all, and so I sat back down and did We Got the Beat, featuring Tracy, and then her parents were on stage packing her up to go home. She looked pretty sleepy.
Molly gave me a good tongue thrashing, and when it came time to split up the money she didn’t want to give me my share. You only played half the time, she said. I was going to just take it, but then I couldn’t. I came to all the practices, I told her. I made the posters. I wrote songs.
You were out there with Johnny for like half an hour, she said.
I almost said it was only one kiss, maybe twenty seconds, but then I didn’t because I wished it had been half an hour. Maybe it had lasted all night. I wanted it to last all night.
Oh, hell, she said, we got a few tips.
I left with my ten dollar bill from Mr. T. and six more from the tip jar, figuring I’d spend it all getting into the dance if I had to, not to hear that Memphis band, but to find Johnny. It was dark, we don’t have street lights down here in Cementville, and the trees were weeping all over the sidewalk. It was still puppy warm at night, and I was sticky with sweat. I could hear the band over at the school, doing Maneater and suddenly I knew they were just a cover band, that we were better. And I felt that pride again, swelling inside. Something, I was something tonight.
That’s when I came up on the backside of Joannie Evers, her butt jiggling as she moved to the music. She was blocking the world. All I could see was that wide rear end, that waddling dance step, her poor droopy hair, her not caring who saw. And then she moved to one side, and there, leaning his frame against the big oak, was Johnny Quintana.
Hey, he said, not smiling, but took my hand and we went over to the school and listened to the band from outside the gym and we kissed some more. They started playing Achy Breaky Heart and I guess it sounded pretty good and the jam went on a long time.
Listening to the instruments playing back and forth, I started to imagine my life after graduation: I’d move to Memphis with Johnny, he’d go to work and I’d stay home and practice, and then I started to hear the new band I would join, a really good band, and suddenly, for some reason, Johnny was out of it, just gone from my dream, like he’d never been there at all. So I could see it was up to me, to lay down the right chords, to put in the riffs that I could hear like they were being told to me, because there was a space left in the music, a space I had to fill. Because right then, I could hear way beyond this present moment in time.