Confessions Of An Honest Man
A Novel by Arthur Rosch
Cover design and photo by the author
All characters in this book are either fictional or in the public domain
September, 1967. Detroit, Michigan
Aaron Kantro follows his colleagues through the labyrinth of the nightclub's kitchen and out the back door. A waft of cool air hits his face as he steps onto the concrete platform next to the loading dock. His sweat instantly begins to dry and he can see steam misting from the other musicians' tuxedos. It's the band's third break. They will play one more set of forty five minutes. Then their work for the night is done.
There are nine or ten people gathered around the rear entrance to the club. They are either jazz fans who want to hang out or they are so loaded they don't know how they got there.
A man with his shirtails dangling from his suit stumbles into Aaron. "I wan' shake your hand," he announces. He extends his unkempt digits and then pulls his hand away as if to recalibrate his arm's trajectory. Aaron, when he puts his hand out to respond, feels like an idiot. He puts his hands in his pockets and hopes the man will go away.
"I tell you somethin'", the man says. "You play some drums for a white boy. Some fuckin' drums. I close my eyes, can't tell the diff'rence. Sound jus' like a real drummer." He tries again to extend his hand and stumbles across his own feet.
"Excuse me", a young lady says as she passes between Aaron and the drunk. She wants an autograph from the legendary saxophonist, Zoot Prestige. Aaron's boss transfers a cheroot from his hand to his mouth. He leans down to inscribe his signature into the lady's little book, while trying to keep his eyes averted from the cleavage that is so conspicuously thrust into his face. Aaron notes this little drama and loses his anger. Zoot Prestige is just too funny. Aaron quietly moves behind the imposing figure of his boss. The drunk rambles away, talking to himself.
Aaron is the only white person beneath the scalloped awning. There are perhaps ten white people in the club. It bothers him more than he likes to admit that he longs to see other white faces. It has been his decision to play jazz, and his brand of jazz carries him to black clubs in black neighborhoods. Sometimes, the moment he walks into a place, he feels the air freeze with racial tension. Sometimes he is scared. The only way through it is to play the music.
As the little throng disperses, Zoot butts his smoke in the sand of an ashtray. He steps off the concrete pad and walks across the lot towards his car.
After waiting about thirty seconds, the group's organist, Tyrone Terry, follows the lanky figure of his boss. Aaron waits another thirty seconds and follows his colleagues to the cream-colored Continental. This precaution seems a little silly but there are probably narcs in the club and Aaron has to admit that it is pretty obvious what's happening when three jazz musicians get into a car and don't go anywhere.
Soon the men are engrossed in the ritual of the pipe: lighting, inhaling, holding breath, exhaling. It's cozy in the Continental’s plush interior. Air comes sighing through the upholstery’s leather seams as the musicians' weight compresses the seat cushions. Zoot and his side-men are settling down, recharging their nerves for the next set, the last set. It is one o’clock in the morning.
"She wanted you to look at 'em," Tyrone says to his employer.
"I know," responds Zoot, "but it seems so...I don't know...un-chivalrous to put my nose right into a lady's cleavage. Besides, it's redundant. I seen titties before. Wan't nothin' special about hers...they's just...."
BANG! There is a huge sound, an explosion. The men's bodies react instinctively. They duck, and their arms rise to cover their heads.
The car lurches as a man dives across the hood, holding a pistol in his right hand. His legs swim wildly as he fights to stop his momentum. Whatever tactic he has in mind, it isn’t working. The car’s sheen and finish turn the hood into a sliding board.
"Jesus fucking Christ!” In the back seat Aaron curses loudly without thinking. He has never before heard a gun shot. In spite of this fact, he recognizes the sound. It is rounder, weightier, and more final than the sound of a firecracker.
The man on the car's hood waves the pistol frantically. Slithering to get his balance, he clutches at the windshield wipers and misses. Gravity and car wax slide him across the polished metal until he lands on the ground. The pistol fires as he hits the gravel. The bullet penetrates a tire with a loud hiss.
The man springs up and disappears among the ordered rows of vehicles in the parking lot.
Zoot Prestige holds a finger to his mouth, slides from under the steering wheel and drops quietly to the floor of the passenger seat. Zoot doesn't want to get shot. Zoot doesn’t want to be a witness if somebody gets shot. Zoot doesn’t want questions. Zoot doesn’t want any dealings with the Poe-Leece!
Aaron scrunches onto the floor of the back seat until his arm rests on the hump of the drive shaft. Tyrone, on the other side, is hoping to disappear via the flawed logic of an ostrich. He is pulling his little pork-pie hat over his eyes.
A voice shouts, "I'LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER!”
Two more shots are fired from the opposite corner of the lot. Two sparking ovals of muzzle flash light up the windshields of Cadillacs and Thunderbirds. A man’s face appears, pressed to the window of Zoot’s car. His cheek is distorted against the glass, with an eye like a panicked horse. His quick breath steams the window only inches from Zoot's face. With a slight turn to the right, Zoot becomes a virtual nose-to-nose mirror image of the man with the gun.
The enraged shooter doesn’t see the human being an inch from his face. He raises his snubby revolver over the top of the vehicle, fires twice without aiming, and runs to cover behind a black Eldorado. The wind has changed. The shots are barely audible.
"Sheee-it!” Zoot grumbles, “I hope nobody messes up my short. I paid three hundred bucks for this custom paint job.” The immaculately polished car is long and sleek as a submarine.
A voice shouts, "HEY LOOK HE'S OVER THERE!"
Bang bang bang! Flashes light up the musicians’ faces. Guns are all over the place. Aaron looks at Tyrone. The keyboard player has twitched and spilled a pipe full of burning marijuana into his lap. He brushes and pats frantically to prevent embers from smoldering through the pants of his tux. Thrusting his hands into his pockets he makes a basket to prevent sparks from spreading onto the seat or the carpet. Aaron produces a handkerchief and helps contain the disaster. Tyrone is feeling little stings of fire burning their way into his palms. He is tossing the embers back and forth as he jumps and wriggles all over the tiny floor space behind the driver’s seat. When the young musicians’ eyes meet they realize that they have entered the realm of the completely absurd.
They begin to giggle, as quietly as possible. Tyrone manages to empty his lungs without breaking into a hacking cough. The bodies of both men are convulsed with terrified hilarity.
Aaron's legs are crossed on the floor of the back seat. Zoot gestures with his fingers for the pipe. Tyrone hands it to Aaron as he muffles his cough and puts out the fire in his lap. Aaron gives the pipe to Zoot through the space between the seats.
The parking lot is a bedlam of running, screaming people.
Two men, fingers snarled in each other’s sport coats, roll across the hood of Zoot’s car. The metal on the Continental goes‘scroich! bunk!’. Zoot winces and hides his face behind his hands. The men vanish somewhere in the gravel of the lot, grunting and cursing. A grey fedora with a black band lays on the hood for a moment before a stiff breeze carries it away. Zoot elevates his head a few inches and tries to inspect his hood for damage. It's impossible. The windows are now opaque with steam.
Zoot relaxes. He sits with his face level with the knobs on the dashboard. His wrists are on his knees and his hands hang loose in the shadow beneath the glove box. He loads the pipe and hands it to Aaron through the crack.
“Don’t strike no match!” he says. “Use that thing.” He points to the black knob of the cigarette lighter. Each door has an ashtray and each ashtray has its own lighter.
Zoot sniffs the air inside the car. “I smell somethin’ burning,” he says. “You cats makin’ barbecue back there?” His voice is good natured and mocking.
Observing Zoot's total poise, Aaron and Tyrone hiss through their lips with suppressed giggles. It is impossible to tell which part of the moment is funny and which part is terrifying. The giggles and spluttering have equal components of panic and the hysterical disbelief of pot heads in a bizarre situation.
Big cars roar to life and race from the lot in clouds of gravel and fumes. Sirens doppler past, right on their tails, red lights whizzing through the intersection. Crimson slashes of reflection light up the Continental’s glass.
Then there is silence. People stealthily emerge from cover, crunch-crunching across the gravel. They run for shelter inside the club. The musicians straighten their bodies with the slowness of clock hands moving. Soon they are sitting normally on the seats. Zoot loads the pipe, lights and inhales. He holds his breath for a long time, then exhales an almost transparent cloud. He replaces the pipe in a leather pouch, conceals the stash under the seat, and twists his head from left to right and back again, loosening his neck muscles. He is sixty-two, and a tenor saxophone has hung from his shoulders for more than fifty years.
"Should we go back in and play?" There is a squeak in Aaron's voice. He makes a few mock rolls with invisible drumsticks.
Zoot looks at Aaron with a bare vapor of a smile, tolerant of his drummer’s naïveté. "Why wouldl we NOT go back in and play?" The marquee lights of the street's clubs and bars glow on half of Zoot's face, shadowing the other half. This gives his eye a demonic glitter. He wets his thumb and forefinger with his tongue and smoothes the hairs of his moustache.
"Let me point out something to you, babe,” says Zoot. “We're professional jazz musicians. We play music, and we get paid. Rather nicely, I might add, thanks to my modest fame and the fact that I placed at number eight in Downbeat’s Tenor Saxophone category." He pauses for a moment and says with a trace of gloating, “AHEAD of Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Gene Ammons.” He laughs a ripe and disdainful laugh. The magazine polls have such appalling power to determine a musician’s pay level.
Opening the door, Zoot brushes a tiny flake of ash from his tuxedo pants with a dapper gesture, and corkscrews his six foot three inch frame upright. The saxophonist makes a quick but careful scrutiny of his vehicle. He circles it, running the flat of his hand along its sculpted façade. There are no bullet holes that he detects, no scratches. The hood has resumed its normal shape.
Tyrone and Aaron squeeze themselves out of the car. Aaron closes the door delicately, with the barest of clicks, as if he fears the automobile will fall to pieces if he so much as breathes wrong.
The world flickers. The young musicians’ hearts race, their nerves tingle. They are playing a jazz gig with a famous saxophone player! Zoot Prestige has apprenticed with Duke Ellington, he’s played with Charlie Parker. He is a legend.
Zoot straightens his lapels and moves his shoulders inside his jacket so the garment settles more squarely on his body.
"That's right,” he adds. “We're hipsters, babe, we stay cool. We got a paying gig, we play until the club owner asks us to stop or it’s two a.m." Zoot's voice is like velvet and sand, Scotch whisky and smoke. “Long as the drummer doesn’t get shot. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Last drummer I lost was Bobby Beffords, in ’65. And before that I had a good run, only lost two drummers in six years. Course, I never had a white drummer before. Everybody upset about that.”
He aims a gentle look at Aaron, to check that he isn’t being taken seriously. His smile is full of irony and play. He brushes a bit of ash from Aaron’s tuxedo jacket. It is a tender paternal gesture.
Fourteen drummers had come to audition when Zoot was putting together the band for this tour. Thirteen of them were black. Aaron was the third drummer to play. As soon as he finished the tune, Zoot sent the other drummers home.
He knew he would take a lot of heat for hiring a white drummer. Fuck ‘em. The kid was worth it.
“Ain’t nothin’ unusual happening here, babe”, says Zoot. “It’s just another gig, somebody’s old lady got too friendly with somebody else’s old man and things got ugly.” The tall man shepherds his young friends toward the door of the nightclub. “It’s human nature. Why don’t we go inside and play some music to soothe the savage breast? We’ll lay down some Recalcitrant Funk-itis."
Zoot has just coined another of his classic nonsense terms. Recalcitrant Funk-itis now joins the lexicon along with Groove-matic Ubiquity, Heliocentric Hot Sauce and other such crazy combinations from Zoot’s fertile mind.
Tyrone pulls at his cummberbund to conceal the holes in the crotch of his pants. The young men follow the urbane figure of their mentor back into the humid noise of Mickey Tucker's Jazz Corner.
Home Is Where The Heart Is Not
1956: University City, Missouri
There's always one of these kids at every school playground. On the blacktop at Daniel Boone School this kid is Aaron Kantro. He's the one with the "Kick Me" sign scotch -taped to his back. He knows people are laughing at him. His temper ratchets up like beans in a pressure cooker. He'd better get control of that rage, stuff it back inside himself. He gets into trouble when the rage comes out. He does crazy things that have big consequences. He knows what the word means. He's endured plenty of Consequences. They aren't funny, like on the TV show, "Truth Or Consequences". He's learning the trick: he's learning to put his feelings into a steel safe with ten combinations and gleaming chrome wheels that turn smoothly. He's learning to lock away his feelings. They're dangerous.
In baseball season, football season, soccer season, it's always the same: Aaron stands in line when the team captains chose their players. He waits slightly pigeon-toed, his shoulders held high and his hands fisted tightly at his sides. At school he can't compete with boys his own age, so he has been put back a year in gym class. It doesn't help. They might as well have put him back with the first graders. He is too little to hurt anyone. If he punches a bully in the nose the force is no more than a gnat landing on its six tiny legs. There's no power in Aaron's body. He barely weighs seventy pounds. He's uncoordinated. He isn’t obnoxious or funny. Without these ingredients for childhood charisma, his place in the playground pecking order is at the bottom. Last. "Kick Me" dangles from the back of his shirt on an inch of Scotch Tape just below the collar.
Aaron isn't afraid of these jerks. The person he fears is his mother. He's terrified of his mother.
The dark shadows under Aaron’s eyes give the impression that his soul is etched with some serious concern. His thoughtful demeanor earns him a nickname. He is called “The Professor”. It's not a happy nickname. It isn’t like “Slugger”, “Speedy” or “A.J”. One of Aaron’s teachers started using it as a term of affection. The kids adopt it as their expression of contempt. When they drawl “Here comes the Professor” they use a throaty mocking tone that is the currency of sarcasm and insult. They draw things on sheets of paper. "Place Foot Here" with an arrow pointing towards his behind. They've drawn Aaron with a yarmulke and a tallis. He's on his knees crawling after a pig. Lock away that temper. Put it in the big black safe.
His mother says she wants to kill him. She says it often. Aaron wonders what it's like to be executed. What's it like to know that you have one minute to live? Count down: sixty, fifty nine, fifty eight. He would spend his last minute praying, he decides, but not to the Jewish God. He thinks there's a God but He lives at the center of the universe, far far away. Jewish god, Catholic god, Methodist god. That's just stupid. People invented religions so they can stick "Kick Me" signs on each other's backs. Aaron feels in his heart that there is a great and beautiful god because birds sing beautiful songs. Because the night sky is majestic and sometimes meteors whizz down from deep space. Because the lowliest bug has patterns on its body that only a genius can design. He thinks of God when he crosses the Mississippi River over McKinley Bridge. He looks down at that huge powerful thing and knows that only God can make something like that.
At school, he spends most of his time lost in fantasies, looking out the window with unfocused eyes. Through the day he dreams heroic myths. He is enraptured by Vikings. In his fantasy he is the leader of a crew of sea raiders. They charge castle walls, wearing helmets adorned with ox horns. Inside the castle is a pretty blonde princess who waits to be rescued by Aaron The Strong.
He always delays going home. His mother's usually at home. He is completely terrified of his mother.
Aaron’s school is two blocks from the modest house on Parkway Court. Aaron has explored alternate routes. He walks around Greenwood Park, up to the railroad tracks, then across the bridge. He slides down the embankment and takes the foot bridge that leads through back yards onto Ruth Street. Another back yard path leads to the bottom of his street, which is called a "court", where the houses form a closed semi-circle. Number 8024 is halfway up the eastern side of Parkway Court, which is one of a twenty four street subdivision. None of the houses are more than five years old. A sapling is planted in front of each house. It will be twenty years before they provide shade.
If he's lucky, his brother and sisters are home or his mom has gone shopping. He grabs a snack and then slides like a ghost through his siblings' cries and demands and gets into the room he shares with his little brother. Avoiding his mother’s attention is the highest priority. Little currents of fear race along his nerves when he thinks of Esther Kantro.
Aaron has a friend named Jeffrey Rubin, who lives five houses up the street. When he goes to Jeffrey's house the atmosphere is so different that he can barely understand it. Jeffrey’s mom cracks bad jokes, makes cookies and tries to hug and kiss her wriggling son as he pretends to try to escape. Things aren't tight and quiet at Jeffrey's house, things move along in a way that's actually fun.
The attraction isn't really Jeffrey, whose mind seems to move at about half the speed of Aaron's mind. The attraction is a home that isn't one continuous scream of terror.
Aaron’s mother frequently says, as if to excuse her rages, "I love you the only way I can." He doesn’t understand what that means. He's sure his mother does not love him. She hates him! When she says she loves him “the only way-I can”, that must mean there is something wrong with him.
Aaron is certain of his father’s love. He wants to see his dad, wants dad to be at home all the time, wants dad to talk to him, ask him questions about what he's thinking. He wants his dad to understand that he isn’t stupid, he's just…just too mad to think, maybe. He wants dad to tell him things are okay. He isn’t afraid of his dad. Maybe love is just not being afraid. When his father's home, Esther is a different person. She doesn't shake him or scream at him, she doesn't squeeze his arms until fingernail marks show.
More than anything, Aaron wants his father to be at home.
Aaron can’t have what he wants. Aaron is getting used to this state of being denied what he wants. It seems like it's always his mother who blocks him, taking away the things he wants.
It's a secret, this fighting that takes place when his father is away.
Esther makes threats. “I’ll kill you if your father hears of this”, she says one day. "I'm sick of it! I'm sick of you! You drive me crazy!" She is twisting a wet dish towel in her rough red hands. Aaron sees his neck between those hands. He is seeing the thoughts in Esther’s mind.
While Aaron tries to banish this image, his mother enters her ongoing tirade. In some abstract way Aaron knows that his mother isn't really speaking to HIM, she is speaking to something or someone that made her angry a long time ago. “How did the toaster get knocked to the floor? It’s broken into a million pieces! How did that happen? How? HOW? Your dad better not find out about this! I have to throw away the toaster and buy another one. I’m so mad I can kill you! I'm sick of you, I am, totally sick of you and your tricks and your behavior. Dad has enough on his mind. He works all day and half the night, and he doesn’t need stories about you, running around the house flying like an airplane, knocking things down right and left. You’ll give your father a heart attack! You're going to kill him!” Her voice rises in pitch and volume. “He’ll drop dead and it’ll be your fault! Is that what you want? Is it?”
The word "kill" is as common as pennies in the currency of the Kantro's domestic language. Killing, murder, suicide, death death death....the siblings scream at each other, "I'll kill you," and "no you won't, I'll kill you first!"
. Sometimes Aaron slaps his hands to his ears. No no no no! His father can’t die! He won’t tell, won’t utter a word about this strange …strange…situation. That's a good word. It's a situation. For Aaron this is a new way of using a familiar word.. He likes to discover new words and new ways to use words. It is one of those pleasures that comes from inside his mind. This is a way of thinking that he enjoys. It's the USE of his mind that he enjoys. He loves finding new words and learning how to use them.
Aaron will protect his father at all costs from this...situation. It isn’t dad’s fault he has to work so much. Mother always says it: money’s more important than anything, even love!
It isn’t dad’s fault that he goes to work so early and comes back so late. It isn’t dad’s fault that Aaron gets so mad he breaks dishes and never does his homework and threw a baseball through the living room window.
The problem is that without dad at home, mother does anything she wants. It depends on the way she feels. She makes him stay for hours in the dark closet with the door closed. He curls up into a ball and listens to her talk. Her voice is louder and then softer as she moves about the house. She tells him what he is and doesn't spare the curse words. He's stupid, lazy, ugly, a disappointment, a worthless no good son of a bitch and it would have been better if he hadn't been born.
Sometimes Aaron’s mom feels bad and sometimes she feels good but it's spooky good, there's something wrong with how she feels good. She dances by herself around the living room, singing corny old songs, and then she puts on her mink coat and drives to the stores in Clayton and Lake Forest. When she comes home she moves so fast she looks like two people at once while she hides the stuff she bought. She moves the heavy coats aside and gets into the deep shelves at the back of the closet. She pushes at bags and boxes until she makes room for the new shoes, earrings and bracelets.
She buys a lot of stuff and Aaron wonders if she is the reason why dad works all the time. Dad is scared of her, Aaron realizes. He lets her do whatever she wants rather than start one of those terrible fights where screams get so loud the neighbors call the police and mom hits dad so hard his eyes go black. Those fights terrify Aaron.
Aaron doesn'’t blame his father. It's just bad luck. He has a vague knowledge that his mother hasn't always been this way. She was different when she and dad were first married. She looks different in the pictures. She looks happy and..and...nice!
What has happened to change her from a nice person to such a mean person?
By late September school has already become boring. Aaron doesn't have the attention span to hold on to subjects that aren't related to his interests. Numbers, chemicals, categories, all these things whoosh past him without leaving an impression.
Then, on the last day of the month, a notice appears on the main board just outside the principal's office. It has symbols that Aaron recognizes as musical notes and a floaty cartoon of several men in top hats and tuxedos, tootling on various instruments.
MUSIC APPRECIATION. An elective course available to fourth graders begins in two weeks. Those who are interested should sign their names on the numbered sheet attached. A pencil dangles from a string. This IS interesting and promises to break the daily monotony of teachers' droning voices. Aaron picks up the bright orange nub and signs his name.
He waits eagerly. After the passage of two weeks, his home room teacher hands out a number of folded notices. One of them is for Aaron and he finds notification that today, yes, TODAY! At one thirty the kids who signed up for the class are to go to the cafeteria.
One thirty comes and Aaron is in the biology lab with Mr. Warren, the science teacher. He presents his note. The teacher scans it and nods Aaron towards the door.
Aaron finds himself traversing the near-empty halls towards the cafeteria. A few kids converge on the double glass doors leading into the expanse of the lunch facility. They push the doors open and find an area where the long rectangular tables have been cleared away to make room for a chalk board, an upright piano and three rows of chairs.
The students find their seats with the usual clamor. After getting a glance at the teacher, kids are bumping one another to sit in the back row. They've done their lightning appraisal of the instructor and they don't like what they see: the music teacher looks mean.
It seems pretty stupid to Aaron to try and get away from this strange looking woman. He takes a seat in the front row at the right corner, next to the window. He counts the attendees: eleven students. Eleven out of a total of ninety seven fourth graders at Daniel Boone School. Of those eleven, Aaron guesses with accurate realism, there might be four who are actually interested in Music Appreciation.
The two minute bell rings before third period. Wooden floorboards in the halls amplify chatter and the sounds of hurrying feet. The staccato booming quickly dies as classroom doors close behind tardy students.
The teacher stands next to the blackboard with one hand on her hip, the other holding a long piece of chalk that she passes through her fingers with intricate dexterity. It twirls from thumb and index finger down to the middle finger, where it stops and whizzes around that long digit and somehow balances on its point in the teacher's palm. The chalk then continues and finds its way to the pinky and returns the way it has come. The teacher's fingers look like five perfectly trained snakes.
Aaron is transfixed by this skilful movement. Under his desk he attempts to work the pattern with his pencil, which he instantly drops and just as instantly picks up.
The kids are wary. A couple of girls whisper the word “ugly”. Aaron looks at the new teacher and tries the word ugly, but it doesn’t fit. He rummages his mind for a word to describe the woman. Not ugly. Not scary. Not mean. Not repulsive.
Then the word comes to him. It's a word he doesn't know he knew, but somehow he knows what it means. Maybe he read it in David Copperfield.
The word is Homely.
The teacher is homely. Her hair is in a net. Its red brown coils are tucked in an orderly bun. She has large ears. She wears a green blouse and a pink sweater that covers a long bony torso. The sweater is too short at the waist and buttoned to the top over her large adam’s apple. The long brown skirt looks as if it was made a hundred years ago. There are a pair of checked men’s pajama pants visible beneath the hem of the skirt. The grey and green flannel pants swish over white tennis shoes as she walks.
“Take your seats, take your seats,” the woman says in voice that's more like song than like speach. When the students sort themselves out, the teacher begins to write her name on the blackboard with brisk muscular strokes.
“I am,” she says as she taps the chalk rapidly on the board. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. There is a pause as she finishes printing her name. “I am….Mrs. Leek.”
There's an immediate titter throughout the class. Aaron agrees it's a funny name but feels that it will be rude to laugh at another person's name.
Mrs. Leek turns and puts her hands on her hips. The laughter diminishes but doesn't die out. Mrs. Leek looks at the students as if she can stab them with her eyes. Only one boy continues laughing. He's a big dumb kid named Bennie Shapiro. His eyes are closed and his head points towards the ceiling as he brays like a donkey.
“YOU!” The woman points to Benny Shapiro. She is holding the white chalk as if it can beam death-rays. “Do you think there’s something funny about my name?”
Benny’s face comes down and turns almost crimson. His long legs are splayed out beneath the chair in front of him, his shoes almost pointing in opposite directions. “Ummm,” Benny murmurs, “I was just, uh…”
“And your name is?” The teacher demands. She takes a small pad of paper from her skirt pocket and holds a pen over it.
Benny is stunned into silence.
“Can someone tell me this young man’s name?”
“Bennie Shapiro” emerges timidly from several children.
Mrs. Leek writes quickly on her pad, tears the leaf free and walks to Bennie Shapiro. She folds the paper once and hands it to the boy. “You are dismissed from this class, Mister Shapiro. Permanently. I don’t tolerate rudeness. Take this note to your teacher. I’m informing her of why you are no longer in this class. I’ll want her signature, and a signature from one of your parents.”
Bennie is confused and scared. He pulls his legs back under him and gets up. He looks around, appealing to his classmates. None meet his eyes.
Discipline problems are thus ended in Music Appreciation Class.
Aaron has never encountered a person so strange as Mrs. Leek. She sings rather than speaks. When kids are outside her danger radius, she is a ripe target for mockery. Everywhere in the school some piping voice imitates her trademark delivery.
“Students!”, they sing, “Who can tell me the name of this music? Students! What instrument do you hear in this solo?” After two weeks the kids shave the imitation to a lilting utterance of the single word in two notes: Students! They become like bird calls, emitting from the playground, answered from the second floor, again from the gym. “Students!”, they sing, and follow with fits of giggling.
Mrs. Leek doesn’t care. She is terrifying. This capacity to instill fear is a combination of her stunning dour face and the expressions of contempt she can use to bore straight through a student’s soul. Her lips are extremely full and marked with cracked vertical lines. Her skin has the texture of pitted leather. Sometimes her face looks like a tree knot, a place where a branch has failed to sprout.
Her teaching methods are strict and direct. She doesn't mind getting wrong answers. At least they are answers. One day she points a yardstick at a boy named Mark Rabinowitz.
“Can you tell me, Mister Rabinowitz, what German composer struggled with deafness throughout his life?”
The boy yawns, blinks, appears to think for a moment. “Umm, uh, Fats Domino?"
Mrs. Leek pops the yardstick across a desktop, making it snap so loud everyone jumps.
“All I want to know is whether or not you are alive!” the woman says. “I’m not asking so much. Make a guess, take a chance. You can’t look more stupid than you do now. ‘Duh, um, Fats Domino?,’”she mocks. “Beethoven’s Balls, most of you kids are stupid as fire hydrants.”
Mrs. Leek’s curse has brought all the students to a state of fascinated alertness.
“I suppose I’ll get fired now,” she says calmly. “I’ll only miss two or three of you.”
Her eyes meet Aaron’s and she gives him the slightest wink. Aaron’s insides relax with unfamiliar gratitude as he realizes that he will be one of those few students.
The incident passes and the eccentric teacher does not get fired. She continues the arduous task of instilling music into the lives of her students.
She brings record albums from her collection. One day she brings 45’s by Fabian and Elvis. She plays them side by side with old records by Mississippi blues men with funny names. Blind Willy this. Pegleg Joe that.
“You see how the rhythms and chords are really the same?” she asks. Two or three sets of eyes are alert. Aaron Kantro nods but is too paralyzed with shyness to speak.
When the teacher plays Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington, Aaron feels like he is on a rocket ship. He thinks a fuse has been lit under his chair. The music gives him goose bumps. He feels a strange warmth at the back of his neck.
One day Mrs. Leek brings an album in a sleeve painted in wild abstract colors.
“Students!” she says in her two-note fanfare. “Without further ado, I bring you ‘The Prelude To The Rite of Spring’, by Igor Stravinsky. For all of you eggheads, it's played by the New York Philarmonic and conducted by Leonard Bernstein.”
She puts the 33 rpm record on the spindle of the school’s little blue Zenith record player. She turns the knob and the record drops to the turntable. The tone arm automatically lifts and positions itself over the rim of the album. It drops onto the vinyl surface and there are a few seconds of crackling static before the music begins.
An instrument plays, solo. Maybe it's an oboe, or a bassoon. It seems to Aaron as if it's calling someone or something, maybe a bird in the forest. Soon its call is answered by another bird, and another. The music gathers power, momentum, and starts battering itself like a pair of huge mountain rams clashing horn to horn.
Nine kids put their hands over their ears, slump, jerk, make pig faces. Mrs. Leek tolerates this behavior. She knows she is asking a lot.
One child, Aaron, is transfixed. His eyes go soft and distant.
Mrs. Leek lets the music play for three or four minutes, then gently turns down the volume until it is silent. Taking care not to call Aaron “Professor”, she asks him what he thinks of the music.
Aaron is aware of the other students watching. He thinks it best to shrug and say nothing. He fits in better when he pretends to be stupid.
From the first day of class, Aaron has felt Mrs. Leek's attention. He can tell that she knows something about him, and that she likes him. She does nothing to single him out, nothing to embarrass him. He will never admit it to other kids, but he likes her. Now he is overcome by his need to share his feelings with the teacher. She is homely, but Aaron sees a kindness in her face that makes the homeliness vanish.
"It sounds so weird!”, Aaron says... “I can see, like, giant birds calling and dragons dancing, and planets moving through space. There are spooky vines and flowers growing really fast and then when it got loud and, um, rhythmic I, ”…he pauses, looks around the room, and his voice tapers away in embarrassment.
Mrs. Leek's gaze penetrates him thoughtfully. Again, she restrains herself from calling him “Professor”. It is such a perfect nickname for the precocious little boy.
"That’s good, Aaron,” is all she says. “That’s very good."
Mrs. Leek enters Aaron’s name as a candidate for the Comprehensive Musical Aptitude Test. This search for young talent emerges from The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and its bundle of civic programs. The test to discover promising musicians between eight and ten years old is the obsession of Saul Lefkowitz, first violinist and Concert Master of the orchestra. The distinguished violinist has made careers blossom through the decades of his life. He is adept at finding grant money and has kept the Youth Orchestra thriving for more than twenty years.
, Mrs. Leek is supposed to give Aaron a note to be signed by his parents, a simple consent form. She signs it herself, forging the signature of Aaron’s father, and sends it on. There is something wrong in Aaron’s family. She doesn’t have to be a genius to know this. Her experience has taught her that talent often emerges from trouble. She isn’t taking any chances. She knows that this child, this thin sad-looking child, has a real passion for music. He has been born with the soul of an artist.
A few days later Mrs. Leek hands Aaron a precious invitation with its date, time and address. The conspiracy is unspoken. Aaron knows he has been granted a favor. He doesn't want his mother to know about the test. She will tell him he can't go, and she will scream at his dad until he gives in. He knows that if something good comes of this test, he will have to fight for its possession. His mother ALWAYS says no. He has given up asking for things. He lives an alternate life, completely beyond the ken of his family. He has become a precocious virtuoso of bus, streetcar and other forms of transportation. He does everything in his power to avoid going home. He spends late afternoons watching the fifty cent double feature at the Varsity Theatre.
On a Saturday morning in early October, the chosen students are allowed into the presence of the maestro.
The big dark auditorium swallows the fifty children. They sit in the first rows, just below the stage. They can see into the mysterious empty orchestra pit. The stage and front rows are lit. The rest of the vast chamber is in darkness.
Saul Lefkowitz sits dangling his legs from the polished teak stage, holding a violin in his left hand, idly touching a string with his pinky finger.
The concertmaster is a short bald man with a plump torso and eyebrows that fly upward like flames from his bright blue eyes. He is a familiar type. Aaron dismisses him as completely unremarkable. He reminds him of his uncle Morris, the one who farts so much that it isn't funny any more.
When the children are seated and quiet, Saul Lefkowitz picks up a bow, puts the violin to his neck and begins playing with incredible agility and fire. He is completely transformed! His body rocks like that of an Orthodox Jew in prayer, his elbow slicing the air, the bow riding across the strings, bouncing into the air, then skipping like flat stones thrown across water. All of this motion unleashes a cascade of precise yet passionate musical sound. Aaron has never seen anyone who possesses this magic, this amazing skill!
Aaron Kantro promises himself that some day, he too will have this intangible thing, this Genius. He doesn't care how hard it will be, how much work it requires, how much time, how much sacrifice.
Having gotten the attention of the aspiring musicians, Saul Lefkowitz has a bundle of sheets passed around and begins to administer The Test.
An hour later, the violinist snaps his case shut, unplugs the tape recorders, the tone generators, and stuffs the envelope of tests into his briefcase.
"Thank you very much, children. It will take a couple weeks to process these scores. You will be notified if you qualify for a place in the Youth Orchestra. I'm sure you all did very well and I wish there was room for every one of you in the orchestra. Fech! It can’t be. I will tell you now that perhaps five of you, at the most, will qualify. So I’m just asking you not to get your hopes up. And most of all, just because you don’t get a place in the Youth Orchestra doesn’t mean you should give up an interest in music. If you already play an instrument, keep practicing! And those of you who don’t, find an instrument you enjoy, get a teacher and learn music! It’s wonderful!"
Aaron finds the test stimulating but not difficult. Which chord is identical to the preceding chord? A, B, C, or D? It's effortless. Aaron knows the answers.
Aaron quickly marks his test sheet. He notices a boy in the row ahead of him who is his equal in speed. The boy is relaxed and marks his test sheet with nonchalance. As Aaron emerges from the auditorium into the light of an autumn afternoon, this boy approaches him, open and confident.
"Hi, my name is Lester Stiers. I'll bet you did pretty good. I was watching, I can tell. I already know about chords and intervals, my dad taught me. I’m lucky, my dad's a really good musician."
Aaron isn't used to friendliness. He blushes, and fights an impulse to turn away. He forces himself to respond.
"I'll bet you did pretty good yourself. What instrument do you want to play?"
"I’m already practicing woodwinds. I'm gonna be a tenor sax player, like my dad. He's a jazz musician. That’s why I’m named Lester…after Lester Young? You know who that was?”
Aaron makes a sleepy-eyed face and pretends to hold a big saxophone sideways. "Doo ta dooo ta doo", he tries to imitate one of The Prez' licks.
Lester’s face goes slack with amazement. “Wow! We must be the youngest hipsters in the world! I get this all from my dad. He’s so frustrated sometimes. To make a living he has to play a lot of schlock, you know, Mickey Mouse, bubblegum, ticky tick, but that’s life for a jazz musician. Hey, what school do you go to?"
"You mean with Mrs. Leek?"
Aaron laughs. "Yeah, Mrs. Leek. Everybody hates her, but I think she's okay."
"My dad says she's nutty as a drunken camel but she’s a bitchin' musician. Ha ha!” Lester mouths the curse word routinely, but his giggle betrays his nervousness. “I'm coming to your school in January. Dad's got a gig in Gaslight Square, and we just moved to U. City. I’ll be in the fourth grade. What about you?”
“Me too,” says Aaron. He hopes they will be in the same homeroom. Aaron is desperate for a friend, and he’s never met anyone that he likes so much, so fast.
“So…. guess I'll see you at Daniel Boone School," Lester says breezily. A car, driven by a woman who must be Lester’s mother, is pulling to the curb.
Lester gets into the car. As he waves goodbye, Aaron can tell that Lester’s mother is going to offer him a ride. He is overcome by shyness. He quickly disappears into the crowd and waits for the bus.
When a week has passed, Aaron takes to racing home from school so that he has a chance to be first to the mailbox. He has said nothing about the test, has betrayed none of his hope.
He is filled with dread.
When the result arrives eighteen days later, it is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Max Kantro.
This is a complication Aaron has not anticipated. Why didn't he think of this? Oh, what a dummy he is! He can't open it. His mother will be the first to open it.
A hot poker of fear prods his heart. He can't remember when or how it began, this war with his mother, but he knows that if he likes something, if it's fun, if it gives him a sense of skill, then he will have to fight for it. He knows these feelings if not the words. He has no idea why he is locked in this contest with his mother, why it bothers her so much to see him happy. He accepts it as one of life's dark mysteries.
He places the mail on the end table in the den. Then he sets himself to wait. He is like a statue. He has no attention for television, for books. He is preparing for battle.
Esther comes whistling into the house two hours later, arms full of packages. Aaron knows by the whistle and the packages that his mother is "up". This isn’t good. He’d rather face her “down” than her “up”. When she's "down" she is mindlessly brutal. When she is "up" she is unpredictable. She is capable of anything. She's devious. This is a word he has looked up in the dictionary. “Devious: departing from the proper or accepted way. Not straightforward. Deceptive or crooked.”
Esther glances at her son, whose eyes are pointed at the television. Aaron recognizes an episode of Sky King, but it is nothing to him but moving figures and noise.
"Hi," Aaron mumbles, seeing nothing.
Esther Kantro drops the packages on the couch and hangs her coat in the closet. She is dark-haired, dark eyed, stout, powerful. Her nose is like the blade of an ax.
"Did you have a good day?"
"Yes, fine." Aaron's voice sounds as if it has no breath behind it. When he was younger he was wild and angry. That had been shaken out of him. Now he is quiet. He has learned stealth, guile, even treachery. These are his weapons, his only means of waging war.
He has put the letter in the middle of the pile.
Esther gets organized and comes to the table and begins going through bills, advertisements and letters. She stands over the trash can, dropping envelopes from her hand to the grey bin.
Aaron watches her every movement from the corner of his eye. He sees his mother reach the distinctive grey and blue striped envelope containing the letter from Saul Lefkowitz. She opens it and reads it. She makes a little splutting noise with her lips, puts the paper back into the envelope, crushes the thing into a wad and throws it after the junk mail.
Aaron's heart begins to pound with terror. He knew this would happen! He knew it!
He will wait until she leaves the room, he'll get the letter and show it to his dad when he comes home. That's his plan.
"Look, the trash is full, Aaron. Why don't you take it out?"
Aaron lifts the plastic cylinder full of trash and heads for the back door. His mother follows him. "Get the other cans. It's collection day tomorrow. We'll put everything in the trunk and take it to Shepman's so his truck doesn't wake your dad in the morning."
Lev Shepman is the garbage man. He owns a dump on the other side of the highway. Taking the garbage to Shepman in his filthy grey jumpsuit is unthinkable, ridiculous.
Aaron hasn't reckoned with his mother’s powerful psychic antennae. Is she some kind of witch? How can she know?
She knows. She has been deceived. Aaron has achieved something without her permission. He has lied and concealed things. That means Aaron wants something very badly. Esther is aggrieved; she radiates outrage, but says nothing. She will simply eradicate the letter before Max comes home. She can tear it to pieces but that's too simple. She wants Aaron to participate in its loss. She wants him to know that his desires are nothing to her but garbage.
Briefly, mother's and son's eyes meet. Aaron turns away, lest she see his hate and his desire.
Esther follows Aaron from room to room as he gathers the trash and puts it into a big plastic bag. His heart beats painfully against his rib cage, like mallet blows on some tympani of foreboding.
When everything is collected, Esther, dangling her keys, escorts Aaron towards the car.
He has to do it, now. Hefting the sack on his scrawny shoulder he lurches down the driveway, dodges a car, cuts through the neighbors' garden, squeezes through a hedge, and is gone. The sack is heavy with melon rinds, leftovers gone too ripe, newspapers and an old phone book. As he adjusts the clumsy weight of the sack, Aaron hears a muffled squawk of outrage from his mother. He knows she's too fat to run. He makes it down into The Dell, a tiny copse of wood and water that has yet to fall under the developers' tractors.
Terrified and exultant, he finds the letter near the top of the heap, straightens it and reads it by the fading light.
"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kantro,” it says. "It gives me great pleasure to inform you that your son, Aaron, achieved one of the highest scores for musical aptitude in the history of the Comprehensive Musical Aptitude Test. In the entire state, among thousands of children, Aaron ranks in the upper one tenth of a percentile. I strongly encourage you to enroll your son in the Youth Orchestra. We have openings at present for violin, flute, bassoon, trumpet and percussion. With his enrollment comes instruction in his chosen instrument, free of charge. In the future, should Aaron express a desire, he will be given training in Harmony, Theory and advanced musical forms. This is thanks to the Zellman Endowment, whose funds have been set aside to encourage those students with special promise. Please fill out and sign the enclosed form and return it to me in the provided envelope. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Saul Lefkowitz, Concertmaster, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "
The letter is crumpled, damp and stained with coffee grounds. Aaron looks at the form, a questionnaire with check boxes and signature lines. He studies it carefully, then sponges the sheets dry on his shirt and folds them. Aaron hugs the letter to his chest. He laughs hugely and silently and dances in a little hopping circle, throwing his arms to the sky, showing the letter to the gods in Heaven. Nothing like this has ever happened to him. He has never been praised, never succeeded, never been special.
Now he is someone! Upper one tenth of a percentile! That means he is better than ninety nine point nine percent of all the other fourth graders in the state. Oh God! An area in him is opening up, a place, a scent, a taste, a way of being that he has never known. Victory!
It is dark. There is an owl that lives in The Dell. It hoots, a familiar and beloved tone. To Aaron the sound means autumn. It means Halloween, burning leaves, Thanksgiving. It brings the spirit of the Indians to his imagination. They are laden with pumpkins and sheaves of corn. Something about this time of year shivers his very core with a thrill of olden days, of uncut forests and great running rivers.
Once, as he was playing Army with the other kids, the owl took a giant white crap right on his head. He didn't take it personally. He loves the owl, and wonders where it will go when the tractors come.
He still has to go home, to face his mother's wrath, his father's weakness. He isn't in the Youth Orchestra yet. He has pushed defiance to a new level. He knows, from bitter experience, that his mother will make him pay.
Through the trees he can see the lights coming on. He can hear the cars of fathers coming home from work, and knows that his father is still some hours away. He waits, trying to re-read the letter, but it's now too dark.
At last, seizing his courage as if it is a brick and he a workman, he starts home, with the letter and consent form folded neatly in his pocket. He emerges from the trees into the suburban night. Cicadas buzz and the ghostly glow of television light escapes from curtained windows. When he gets to the next-door neighbors’ garden, he sees with great relief that his father's car is in the driveway.
His parents are in the den, watching television. Max has his supper on a portable tray. None of Aaron's siblings are present.
As the boy lets himself in the back door, Esther is silent.
"Where on earth have you been?" Max Kantro is concerned but not angry. Aaron is never frightened of his father. He advances, avoiding his mother's glare, and holds out the letter.
"Mom threw this in the trash. I had to get it back."
"What are you talking about?” Esther protests. “There is only junk mail. I threw nothing......"
Max sees his son cringe away from his wife, and it hurts, but he doesn't know what to do. He takes the letter. He wants to give the boy a big hug, but that isn't his way, has never been the way in his family. They don’t touch, don’t hug.
As he reads, the wrinkles in his face change direction. A proud blush flows from his neck to the top of his head. He had been exhausted. Now there's energy in him. His poor lost son may have found something to guide him through his difficult childhood.
"Look at this, Esther. How can this happen? He scored in the upper tenth percent. My god, this is fantastic. Aren't you looking, Esther? I've heard about these tests from everybody down at the deli. It's become the big status thing, to get your kid into the Youth Orchestra. It’s a scholarship! Aaron, why didn't you say something? I didn't even know you took the test."
Esther sits with her shoulders rigid, her nose wrinkled. “Let me see." Max hands the letter to his wife. Aaron blanches, imagining that she is about to tear the missive to pieces.
Esther's expression remains fixed as she reads the letter. "That's very good, Aaron. We're very proud of you." She hands the letter daintily back to her husband, holding it with the tips of her fingers. "Music....hmm..uh huh." She says the word "music" as if it refers to a noxious gas.
Max smiles. He seems unaware of the tangled wires that grip his wife and son. "I can't wait to tell my sisters. One of my customer's kids took the test. He got a polite form letter. Nothing."
Esther brightens as she thinks of having something over her sisters-in-law. Aaron knows the signs; he knows that a battle has been won.
"Have you decided on an instrument?" Max refers to the letter. "Look, you can......"
"Drums." Aaron makes this announcement as boldly as he can. “See,” he points at the application sheet, “It says ‘percussion’ but that means drums and everything about drums.” Mrs. Leek showed the class a movie of the Count Basie orchestra, and when Aaron saw the drummer, Sonny Payne, dashing his way through "The One O’clock Jump,” he found a new hero, a new kind of icon, a sweaty madman at the helm of a giant ship, a drummer-captain commanding the guns of the brass section, summoning the torpedoes of the woodwinds, driving it, steaming ahead, locking with the bass player in a majestic stomping wildness that thrilled every atom of his being.
"Drums," he says, hammering the word into the firmament like a mountain climber planting a flag.
"Well, okay," Max begins, but Esther interrupts.
"Anything but drums, Max. That will drive me crazy. My migraines...I can't stand it.....no way can it be drums."
Max sees a sudden bleakness ripping away the triumph in his son's face. Beside him, smoky thoughts waft from the crypt of Esther's mask-like countenance. The battle that has been proceeding between his wife and his firstborn son reveals itself in all its frost and frustration. The naked enmity that exists between the people he loves emerges like a buried archive from a melted avalanche. He understands suddenly that he is in a delicate situation.
"Aaron," he says, knowing that this will be a huge disappointment for his son. "Choose another instrument. Your mother's only being fair. She has it rough with her headaches. Maybe in a few years, maybe her headaches will get better...." his eyes plead back at his son's pleading.
Something rippes and gives way, and Aaron accepts his lot. He has anticipated as much. It can never happen, that he will get what he really wants. It will always be the consolation prize.
"Can I play trumpet?" he asks, timidly. "I want to play jazz, like Satchmo and Dizzy."
Where on earth is a nine year old getting this stuff? Max looks toward Esther, and sees an objection perched on the edge of her lips.
"Listen to that," Esther says, her spite gaining momentum. "He wants to play Schvahtze music. Not respectable music, not Lawrence Welk or Mantovani. He has to be a bum and go around with the coloreds. What kind of life will that be? Imagine me having to say to my friends, ‘My son, the jazz musician'. He’ll bring schvahtzes right here, into this house. He’ll be nothing but a bum and a dope fiend. He'll end up like Mark Holtzman, playing bar mitzvahs and weddings with a bottle of gin in his pocket, nothing but a schlepper."
"Esther, for Christ's sake he's nine years old! He's not making a career choice."
"All right, then, but if I have migraines, he'll have to go out to the garage or down in the basement. And there will be no schvahtzes in this house except Etta and the lawn mower boy when he needs to use the spare bathroom."
"Let him play the trumpet, Esther, it'll be good for him. God knows he' s no athlete and not much of a student."
Max knows all about Esther’s racial views. She hates coloreds, she hates all Goyim, and she is a self-hating anti-semite. She has a special terror of schvahtzes, as they are called in the local Yiddish dialect. As a child she witnessed a robbery, she saw her father shoot a black man. It is one of many searing memories from her childhood. The things she doesn't remember, or half-remembers, are far more disturbing.
Aaron sags, limp with relief. The battle, for now, is over. He has gotten something, something big. He will be in the Youth Orchestra.