The first part of my novel, CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN
Home Is Where The Heart Is Not
1956: University City, Missouri
Home Is Where The Heart Is Not
1956: University City, Missouri
Shortly after Aaron Kantro's ninth birthday he had a revelation: he was smarter than everyone he knew. It was true his grades were not good. They were C plus type grades, arrived at with no effort and no interest with the exception of things that involved words. Spelling, for instance. He could spell words he had never heard, and often knew what they meant. There was something in their construction that guided him. It didn't always work. Some words snared him and then he got impatient, and even a little angry. He would find out what that word meant!
One such word that trapped him like a fly on sticky paper was the word Hermaphrodite. He couldn't decipher it without the dictionary. He encountered it as he was exploring his father's forbidden bedside drawer, the one where the naughty magazines were kept.
Hermaphrodite: a person or creature having characteristics of both male and female gender. Wow! The word was an entire universe, a maze down which he strode bravely with imaginary sword in hand. In order to crack the word's code he needed the good dictionary, the one at school. But the school's dictionary was inadequate, it led him to a dead end. Yes, something that was both male and female. Many kinds of snails and fish partook of both genders but that didn't explain where the word came from! It was Greek, that's all the book told him. He took a bus downtown and referred to the dictionary at the St. Louis Public Library, the big one that could kill somebody if it fell on their head.
And there, THERE, he learned not only the words Hermaphrodite and Androgynous but he learned about the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, who had a child named Hermaphroditos. By some magic process the divine child merged with a nymph (which was always female) named Salmacis and became a single person who was both sexes, both male and female.
In spite of his mother's continual hammering at his self-esteem, Aaron knew he was smart. He wasn't Straight A-do-your-homework and pay attention to your teachers SMART. That was a KIND of smart, sort of a machine kind of smart but there were different kinds of smart, he realized, and he had a special kind of smart.
No matter that his mother called him stupid and lazy fifty times a day. No matter. He didn't believe her, not any more.
Aaron was a little boy; small, thin and pale. When lined up for scouts or gym he stood pigeon-toed, looking angry and scared. His shoulders bunched high against his ears and his hands fisted tightly at his sides.
At school he could not physically compete with boys his own age, so he had been put back a year in gym class. This was a bottomless well of humiliation. He lacked strength and coordination. He wasn’t even obnoxious or funny. Without these ingredients for childhood charisma, his place in the playground pecking order was at the bottom. Last.
Sure, he was smart. He learned very quickly that showing he was smart was downright dangerous. Still, being smart was all he had; it was his only defense against a world seemingly arrayed against smart little children with lousy grades.
He was every kid’s favorite victim. They enjoyed goading him into a rage because of the comical results. He had a ferocious temper that would spring him into frenzies in which he wanted to maim his tormentors. When he released his rage the result was a pathetic windmilling of his arms. He was so small and light that he was easily deflected. He couldn't hurt anyone. Therefore, he couldn't scare anyone. The idea of using a stick or a bat just wasn't in him. Somehow it offended his dignity. Using a weapon was sneaky and brutal, and Aaron wasn't sneaky or brutal by nature. He was only sneaky with regard to his mother and her irrational Blockade, her refusal to allow him to be himself. He called it a Blockade because it felt like his mother was suffocating him, depriving him of all he needed to get any fun from his life. He was like Great Britain in 1940 when the U-boats cut off all the supplies of food and steel.
There were dark shadows under Aaron’s eyes, shadows signalling that The Blockade was having an effect, that he was in trouble, that he was scared. No boy of nine should look the way Aaron looked.
His reclusive and thoughtful demeanor earned him a nickname. He was called “The Professor”. It was not a happy nickname. It wasn’t like “Slugger”, “Speedy” or “A.J”. One of Aaron’s teachers started using it as a term of affection. The kids adopted it as their expression of contempt. When they drawled “Here comes the Professor” they used a throaty mocking tone that had become the currency of sarcasm and insult.
Aaron escaped into fantasies. At school, he spent most of his time looking out the window with unfocused eyes. Through the day he dreamed heroic myths. He had an obsession with Vikings. He day-dreamed himself as the captain of a crew of sea raiders. The rails of his ships were lined with circular shields. As the sleek dragon-headed craft etched their tracks in the sands of the beach, the men took their shields and charged castle walls, screaming war cries and wearing helmets adorned with ox horns. Inside the castle was a pretty blonde princess who waited to be rescued by Aaron The Strong.
He always delayed going home. His mother was at home. He was completely terrified of his mother.
Aaron’s school was two blocks from the modest house on Parkway Court. He explored alternate routes. He walked around Greenwood Park, up to the railroad tracks, then across the bridge. He slid down the embankment and took the foot bridge that led through backyards onto Ruth Street. Another backyard path led to the bottom of his street, which was called a "court", where the houses formed a closed semi-circle. Number 8024 was halfway up the eastern side of Parkway Court, which was one of a twenty four street subdivision. None of the houses was more than five years old. A sapling was planted in front of each house. It would be twenty years before they would provide shade.
Hunger usually ended Aaron’s meandering. If he was lucky, his brother and sisters would be home. He could grab a snack and then slide like a ghost through his siblings' fights with each other and get into the room he shared with his little brother. Avoiding his mother’s attention was the highest priority. Little currents of fear raced along his nerves when he thought of Esther Kantro.
Aaron had a friend named Jeffrey Rubin, who lived five houses up the street. When he went to Jeffrey's house the atmosphere was so different that he could barely understand it. Jeffrey’s mom cracked bad jokes, made cookies and hugged her wriggling son as he pretended to try to escape. Things weren't tight and quiet at Jeffrey's house, things moved along in a way that was...well...things were fun.
Jeffrey's mom was very physical, a hugger, a smoocher, sweeping kids into the air with her husky arms. When Mrs. Rubin hugged and kissed Aaron, he didn’t try to escape. He shrank from her a little bit. Mrs. Rubin’s affection gave him an odd feeling, as though he was touching dry ice. He liked it but didn’t know how to hold it. When he had to leave, to go home, he felt a wrenching sadness. Sometimes, as he left the Rubin's house, he started to cry and had to press his chin into his bony chest, press it hard, pulling the bill of his baseball cap over his eyes until the urge to cry stopped and he could walk to his own house. Leaving the Rubins' got so hard that he became reluctant to go there at all. The attraction wasn't really Jeffrey, who was kind of stupid. The attraction was a home that wasn't one continuous scream of terror.
Aaron’s mother frequently said, as if to excuse her rages, "I love you the only way I can." He didn’t understand what that meant. He was sure his mother did not love him. When she said she loved him “the only way-I can”, that must mean there was something wrong with him.
Aaron was certain of his father’s love. He wanted to see his dad, wanted dad to be at home all the time, wanted his dad to talk to him, ask him questions about what he was thinking. He wanted his dad to understand that he wasn’t stupid, he was just…just too mad to think, maybe. He wanted his dad to tell him things were okay. He wasn’t afraid of his dad. Maybe love was just not being afraid. When his father was home, Esther was a different person. She didn't shake him or scream at him, she didn't squeeze his arms until fingernail marks showed.
More than anything, Aaron wanted his father to be at home.
It was a secret, this fighting that took place when his father was away.
Esther made threats. “I’ll kill you if your father hears of this”, she said one day. She was twisting a wet dish towel in her rough red hands. Aaron saw his neck between those hands. He was seeing the thought in Esther’s mind.
While Aaron tried to banish this image, his mother entered her continuing tirade. It was a conversation she had with her anger disguised as a conversation she was having with her son. In some abstract way Aaron knew that his mother wasn't really speaking to HIM, she was speaking to invisible monsters in the air. “How did the toaster get knocked to the floor? It’s broken! How did that happen? How? HOW? Your dad better not find out about this! I’m so mad I could kill you! Dad has enough on his mind. He works all day and half the night, and he doesn’t need stories about your behavior. Running around the house flying like an airplane, knocking things down right and left. You’ll give your father a heart attack!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “He’ll drop dead and it’ll be your fault! Is that what you want? Is it?”
The word "kill" was as common as pennies in the currency of the Kantro's domestic language. Killing, murder, suicide, death death death....the siblings screamed at each other, "I'll kill you," and "no you won't, I'll kill you first!"
. Sometimes Aaron slapped his hands to his ears. No no no no! His father couldn’t die! He wouldn’t tell, wouldn’t utter a word about this strange …strange…situation. That was a good word. It was a situation. It was a new word for Aaron. He liked to discover new words. It was one of those pleasures that came from inside his mind. This was a way of thinking that he enjoyed. It was the USE of his mind that he enjoyed.
Aaron would protect his father at all costs. It wasn’t dad’s fault he had to be at work so much. Mother always said it: money’s more important than anything, even love!
It wasn’t dad’s fault that he went to work so early and came back so late. It wasn’t dad’s fault that Aaron got so mad he broke dishes and never did his homework and threw a baseball through the living room window.
The problem was that without dad at home, mother could do anything she wanted. It depended on the way she felt. She whipped him with a belt on his behind. She made him stay all day in the dark closet with the door closed. He curled up into a ball and listened to her talk. Her voice got louder and then softer as she moved about the house. She was telling him what he was and she did not spare the curse words. He was 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 felt bad and sometimes she felt good but it was spooky good, there was something wrong with how she felt good. She would dance by herself around the living room, singing corny old songs, and then she would put on her mink coat and drive her car to the stores in Clayton and Lake Forest. When she came home she was moving so fast she looked like two people at once while she hid the stuff she had bought. She moved the heavy coats aside and got into the deep shelves at the back of the closet. She pushed at bags and boxes until she made room for the new shoes and earrings and bracelets.
She bought a lot of stuff and Aaron wondered if she was the reason why dad had to work all the time. Dad was scared of her, Aaron realized. He let her do whatever she wanted rather than start one of those terrible fights where screams got so loud the neighbors called the police and mom hit dad so hard his eyes went black.
Aaron didn’t blame his father. It was just bad luck. He had a vague knowledge that his mother hadn't always been this way. She was different when she and dad were first married. She looked different in the pictures. She looked happy and..and...nice!
What had happened to change her from a nice person to such a mean person?
Fighting For The Right
By late September school had already become boring. Aaron didn't have the attention span to hold on to subjects that weren't related to his interests. Numbers, chemicals, categories, all these things whooshed past him without leaving an impression.
Then, on the last day of the month, a notice appeared on the main board just outside the principal's office. It had symbols that Aaron recognized as musical notes and a floaty cartoon of several men in top hats and tuxedoes, tootling on various instruments.
MUSIC APPRECIATION. An elective course available to third and fourth graders would begin in two weeks. Those who were interested should sign their names on the numbered sheet attached. A pencil dangled from a string. This WAS interesting and promised to break the daily monotony of teachers' droning voices. Aaron picked up the bright orange nub and signed his name.
He waited eagerly. Finally, after the passage of two weeks, his home room teacher handed out a number of sealed notices. One of them was for Aaron and he found notification that today, yes, TODAY! At two o'clock, just after the end of recess period, the kids who had signed up for the class were to go to the cafeteria.
Two o'clock came and Aaron was in the biology lab with Mr. Warren, the science teacher. He presented his note. The teacher scanned it and nodded Aaron towards the door.
Aaron found himself traversing the near-empty halls towards the cafeteria. A few kids were converging on the double glass doors leading into the expanse of the lunch facility. They pushed the doors open and found an area where the long rectangular tables had been cleared away to make room for a chalk board, an upright piano and three rows of chairs.
The students found their seats with the usual clamor. After getting a glance at the teacher, kids were bumping one another to sit in the back row. They had done their lightning appraisal of the instructor and they didn't like what they saw: the music teacher looked mean.
It seemed pretty stupid to Aaron to try and get away from this strange looking woman. He took a seat in the front row at the right corner, next to the window. He counted the attendees: eleven students. Eleven out of a total of one hundred ninety seven third and fourth graders at Daniel Boone School. Of those eleven, Aaron guessed with accurate realism, there might be four who were actually interested in Music Appreciation.
The two minute bell rang before third period. Wooden floorboards in the halls amplified chatter and the sounds of hurrying feet. The staccato booming quickly died as classroom doors closed behind tardy students.
The teacher stood next to the blackboard with one hand on her hip, the other holding a long piece of chalk that she was passing through her fingers with intricate dexterity. It twirled from thumb and index finger down to the middle finger, where it stopped and whizzed around that long digit and somehow balanced on its point in the teacher's palm. The chalk then continued and found its way to the pinky and returned the way it had come. The teacher's fingers looked like five perfectly trained snakes.
Aaron was transfixed by this skilful movement. Under his desk he attempted to work the pattern with his pencil, which he instantly dropped and just as instantly picked up.
The kids were wary. A couple of girls whispered the word “ugly”. Aaron looked at the new teacher and tried the word ugly, but it didn’t fit. He rummaged his mind for a word to describe the woman. Not ugly. Not scary. Not mean. Not repulsive.
Then the word came to him. It was a word he didn’t know he knew, but somehow he knew what it meant. Maybe he had read it in David Copperfield.
The word was Homely.
The teacher was homely. Her hair was in a net. Its red brown coils were tucked in an orderly bun. She had large ears. She wore a green blouse and a pink sweater that covered a long bony torso. The sweater was too short at the waist and buttoned to the top over her large adam’s apple. The long brown skirt looked as if it was made a hundred years ago. There was a pair of checked men’s pajama pants visible beneath the hem of the skirt. The grey and green flannel pants swished over white tennis shoes as she walked.
“Take your seats, take your seats,” the woman said in a sonorous voice. When the students had sorted themselves out, the teacher began to write her name on the blackboard with brisk muscular strokes.
“I am,” she said as she tapped the chalk rapidly on the board. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. There was a pause as she finished printing her name. “I am….Mrs. Leek.”
There was an immediate titter throughout the class. Aaron agreed it was a funny name but felt that it would be rude to laugh at another person's name.
Mrs. Leek turned and put her hands on her hips. The laughter diminished but didn’t quite die out. Mrs. Leek looked at the students as if she could stab them with her eyes. Only one boy continued laughing. He was a big dumb kid named Bennie Shapiro. His eyes were closed and his head was pointed towards the ceiling as he brayed like a donkey.
“YOU!” The woman pointed to Benny Shapiro. She was holding the white chalk as if it could beam death-rays. “Do you think there’s something funny about my name?”
Benny’s face came down and turned almost crimson. His long legs were splayed out beneath the chair in front of him, his shoes almost pointing in opposite directions. “Ummm,” Benny murmured, “I was just, uh…”
“And your name is?” The teacher demanded. She had taken a small pad of paper from her skirt pocket and held a pen over it.
Benny was stunned into silence.
“Can someone tell me this young man’s name?”
“Bennie Shapiro” emerged timidly from several children.
Mrs. Leek wrote quickly on her pad, tore the leaf free and walked to Bennie Shapiro. She folded the paper once and handed 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 was confused and scared. He pulled his legs back under him and got up. He looked around, appealing to his classmates. None met his eyes.
Discipline problems were thus ended in Music Appreciation Class.
Aaron had never encountered a person so strange as Mrs. Leek. She sang rather than spoke. When kids were outside her danger radius, she was a ripe target for mockery. Everywhere in the school some piping voice was imitating her trademark delivery.
“Students!”, they sang, “Who can tell me the name of this music? Students! What instrument do you hear in this solo?” After two weeks the kids shaved the imitation to a lilting utterance of the single word in two notes: Students! They became like bird calls, emitting from the playground, answered from the second floor, again from the gym. “Students!”, they sang, and followed with fits of giggling.
Mrs. Leek didn’t care. She was terrifying. This capacity to instill fear was a combination of her stunning dour face and the expressions of contempt she could use to bore straight through a student’s soul. Her lips were extremely full and were marked with cracked vertical lines. They contrasted with the gaunt angles of her cheekbones and the horse-like shape of her skull. Her skin had the texture of pitted leather. Sometimes her face looked like a tree knot, a place where a branch had failed to sprout.
Her teaching methods were strict and direct. She didn’t mind getting wrong answers. At least they were answers. One day she pointed 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 yawned, blinked, appeared to think for a moment. “Umm, uh, Fats Domino?"
Mrs. Leek popped the yardstick across a desktop, making it snap so loud everyone jumped.
“All I want to know is whether or not you are alive!” the woman said. “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 mocked. “Beethoven’s Balls, most of you kids are zombies.”
Mrs. Leek’s curse had brought all the students to a state of fascinated alertness.
“I suppose I’ll get fired now,” she said calmly. “I’ll only miss two or three of you.”
Her eyes met Aaron’s and she gave him the slightest wink. Aaron’s insides relaxed with unfamiliar gratitude as he realized that he would be one of those few students.
The incident passed and the eccentric teacher did not get fired. She continued the arduous task of instilling music into the lives of her students.
She brought record albums from her collection. One day she brought 45’s by Fabian and Elvis. She played 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 asked. Two or three sets of eyes were alert. Aaron Kantro nodded but was too paralyzed with shyness to speak.
When the teacher played Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington, Aaron felt like he was on a rocket ship. He thought a fuse had been lit under his chair. The music gave him goose bumps. He felt a strange warmth at the back of his neck.
One day Mrs. Leek brought an album in a sleeve painted in wild abstract colors.
“Students!” she said in her two-note fanfare. “Without further ado, I bring you ‘The Prelude To The Rite of Spring’, by Igor Stravinsky.”
She put the 33 rpm record on the spindle of the school’s little blue Zenith record player. She turned the knob and the record dropped to the turntable. The tone arm automatically lifted and positioned itself over the rim of the album. It dropped onto the vinyl surface and there were a few seconds of crackling static before the music began.
A strange sounding instrument began to play. It seemed to Aaron as if it was calling someone or something, maybe a bird in the forest. Soon its call was answered by another bird, and another. The music gathered power, momentum, and started battering itself like a pair of huge mountain rams clashing horn to horn.
Nine kids put their hands over their ears, slumped, jerked, made pig faces. Mrs. Leek tolerated this behavior. She knew she was asking a lot.
One child, Aaron, was transfixed.
Mrs. Leek let the music play for three or four minutes, then gently turned down the volume until it was silent. Taking care not to call Aaron “Professor”, she asked him what he thought of the music.
Aaron was aware of the other students watching. He thought it best to shrug and say nothing. He fit in better when he pretended to be stupid.
He had felt Mrs. Leek’s attention from the first day of class. She had done nothing to single him out, nothing to embarrass him. He would never admit it to other kids, but he liked her. Now he was overcome by his need to share his feelings with the teacher. She was homely, but Aaron saw a kindness in her face that made the homeliness vanish.
"It sounded so weird!”, Aaron said... “I could see, like, giant birds calling and dragons dancing, and planets moving through space. There were spooky vines and flowers growing really fast and then when it got really loud and, um, rhythmic I, ”…he paused, looked around the room, and his voice tapered away in embarrassment.
Mrs. Leek's gaze penetrated him thoughtfully. Again, she restrained herself from calling him “Professor”. It was such a perfect nickname for the little philosopher.
"That’s good, Aaron,” was all she said. “That’s very good."
Mrs. Leek entered Aaron’s name as a candidate for the Comprehensive Musical Aptitude Test. This search for young talent emerged from The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and its bundle of civic programs. The test to discover promising musicians between eight and ten years old was the obsession of Saul Lefkowitz, first violinist and Concert Master of the orchestra. The distinguished violinist had made careers blossom through the decades of his life. He was adept at finding grant money and had kept the Youth Orchestra thriving for more than twenty years.
, Mrs. Leek was supposed to give Aaron a note to be signed by his parents, a simple consent form. She signed it herself, forging the signature of Aaron’s father, and sent it on. There was something wrong in Aaron’s family. She didn’t have to be a genius to know this. Her experience had taught her that talent often emerged from trouble. She wasn’t taking any chances. She knew that this child, this one thin, sad-looking child, had a real passion for music. He had been born with the soul of an artist.
Aaron received the precious invitation with its date, time and address. The conspiracy was unspoken. Aaron knew he had been granted a favor. He didn't want his mother to know about the test. She would tell him he couldn’t go, and she would scream at his dad until he gave in. He knew that if something good came of this test, he would have to fight for its possession. His mother ALWAYS said no. He had given up asking for things. He lived an alternate life, completely beyond the ken of his family. He had become a precocious virtuoso of bus, streetcar and other forms of transportation. He did everything in his power to avoid going home. He spent late afternoons watching the fifty cent double feature at the Varsity Theatre.
On a Saturday morning in early October, the chosen students were allowed into the presence of the maestro.
The big dark auditorium swallowed the fifty children. They sat in the first rows, just below the stage. They could see into the mysterious empty orchestra pit. The stage and front rows were lit. The rest of the vast chamber was in darkness.
Saul Lefkowitz sat 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 was a short bald man with a plump torso and eyebrows that flew upward like flames from his bright blue eyes. He was a familiar type. Aaron dismissed him as completely unremarkable. He reminded him of his uncle Morris, the one who farted so much that it wasn't funny any more.
When the children were seated and quiet, Saul Lefkowitz picked up a bow, put the violin to his neck and began playing with incredible agility and fire. He was completely transformed! His body rocked 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 unleashed a cascade of precise yet passionate musical sound. Aaron had never seen anyone who possessed this magic, this talent and this amazing skill!
Aaron Kantro promised himself that some day, he too would have this intangible thing, this Genius. He didn't care how hard it would be, how much work it required, how much time, how much sacrifice.
Having gotten the attention of the aspiring musicians, Saul Lefkowitz had a bundle of sheets passed around and began to administer The Test.
An hour later, the violinist snapped his case shut, unplugged the tape recorders, the tone generators, and stuffed the envelope of marked 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 single 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 had found the test stimulating but not difficult. The Maestro played a series of five notes, then, after waiting a few moments he played three more series of five notes and asked whether A, B,or C was identical to the first series he had played. The Maestro played recordings of music. He would tell the students that Piece Number One was in a “Major Key” and Piece Number Two was in a “Minor Key.” Then he asked in which kind of key was “Piece Number Three.”
The test continued. Which chord was identical to the preceding chord? A, B, C, or D? It was effortless. Aaron knew the answers.
Aaron quickly marked his test sheet. He noticed a boy in the row ahead of him who was his equal in speed. The boy was relaxed and marked his test sheet with nonchalance. As Aaron emerged from the auditorium into the light of an autumn afternoon, this boy approached 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 wasn't used to friendliness. He blushed, and fought an impulse to turn away. He forced 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 made a sleepy-eyed face and pretended to hold a big saxophone sideways. "Doo ta dooo ta doo", he tried to imitate one of The Prez' licks.
Lester’s face went 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 laughed. "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' clarinetist.” Lester mouthed the obscenity routinely. “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,” said Aaron. He hoped they would be in the same homeroom. Aaron was desperate for a friend, and he’d never met anyone that he liked so much, so fast.
“So…. guess I'll see you at Daniel Boone School," Lester said breezily. A car, driven by a woman who must be Lester’s mother, was pulling to the curb.
Lester got into the car. As he waved goodbye, Aaron could tell that Lester’s mother was going to offer him a ride. He was overcome by shyness. He quickly disappeared into the crowd, and waited for the bus.
When a week had passed, Aaron took to racing home from school so that he had a chance to be first to the mailbox. He had said nothing about the test, had betrayed none of his hope.
He was filled with dread.
When the result arrived eighteen days later, it was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Max Kantro.
This was a complication Aaron had not anticipated. Why hadn’t he thought of this? Oh, what a dummy he was! He couldn't open it. His mother would be the first to open it.
A hot poker of fear prodded his heart. He couldn't remember when or how it began, this war with his mother, but he knew that if he liked something, if it was fun, if it pleased him, if it gave him a sense of mastery, skill, control, gratification, then he would have to fight for it. He knew these feelings if not the words. He had no idea why he was locked in this contest with his mother, why it bothered her so much to see him happy. He accepted it as one of life's dark mysteries.
He placed the mail on the end table in the den. Then he set himself to wait. He was like a statue. He had no attention for television, for books. He was preparing for battle.
Esther came whistling into the house two hours later, arms full of packages. Aaron knew by the whistle and the packages that his mother was "up". This wasn’t good. He’d rather face her “down” than her “up”. When she was "down" she was mindlessly brutal. When she was "up" she was unpredictable. She was capable of anything. She was devious. It was a word he had looked up in the dictionary. “Devious: departing from the proper or accepted way. Not straightforward. Deceptive or crooked.”
Esther glanced at her son, whose eyes were pointed at the television. Aaron recognized an episode of Sky King, but it was nothing to him but moving figures and noise.
"Hi," Aaron mumbled, seeing nothing.
Esther Kantro dropped the packages on the couch and hung her coat in the closet. She was dark-haired, dark eyed, stout, powerful. Her nose was like the blade of an ax.
"Did you have a good day?"
"Yes, fine." Aaron's voice sounded as if it had no breath behind it. When he was younger he was wild and angry. That had been shaken out of him. Now he was quiet. He had learned stealth, guile, even treachery. These were his weapons, his only means of waging war.
He had put the letter in the middle of the pile.
When Esther got organized she came to the table and began going through bills, advertisements and letters. She stood over the trash can, dropping envelopes from her hand to the grey bin.
Aaron watched her every movement from the corner of his eye. He saw his mother reach the distinctive grey and blue striped envelope containing the letter from Saul Lefkowitz. She opened it and read it. She made a little splutting noise with her lips, put the paper back into the envelope, crushed the thing into a wad and threw it after the junk mail.
Aaron's heart began to pound with terror. He knew this would happen! He knew it!
He would wait until she left the room, get the letter and show it to his dad when he came home. That was his plan.
"Look, the trash is full, Aaron. Why don't you take it out?"
Aaron lifted the plastic cylinder full of trash and headed for the back door. His mother followed 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 was the garbage man. He owned a dump on the other side of the highway. Taking the garbage to Shepman in his filthy grey jumpsuit was unthinkable, ridiculous.
Aaron hadn't reckoned with his mother’s powerful psychic antennae. Was she some kind of witch? How could she know?
She knew. She had been deceived. Aaron had achieved something without her permission. He had lied and concealed things. That meant Aaron wanted something very badly. Esther was aggrieved; she radiated outrage, but said nothing. She would simply eradicate the letter before Max came home. She could have torn it to pieces but that was too simple. She wanted Aaron to participate in its loss. She wanted him to know that his
desires were nothing to her but garbage.
Briefly, mother's and son's eyes met. Aaron turned away, lest she see his hate and his desire.
Esther followed Aaron from room to room as he gathered the trash and put it into a big plastic bag. His heart beat painfuly against his rib cage, like mallet blows on some tympani of foreboding.
When everything was collected, Esther, dangling her keys, escorted Aaron towards the car.
He had to do it, now. Hefting the sack on his scrawny shoulder he lurched down the driveway, dodged a car, cut through the neighbors' garden, squeezed through a hedge, and was gone. As he adjusted the clumsy weight of the sack, Aaron heard a muffled squawk of outrage from his mother. He knew she was too fat to run. He made it down into The Dell, a tiny copse of wood and water that had yet to fall under the developers' tractors.
Terrified and exultant, he recovered the letter from the bag, straightened it out and read it by the fading light.
"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kantro,” it said. "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 ranked in the upper one tenth of a percentile. I would 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 and return envelope were crumpled, damp and stained with coffee grounds. Aaron looked at the form, a questionnaire with check boxes and signature lines. He studied it carefully, then sponged the sheets dry on his shirt and folded them. Aaron hugged the letter to his chest. He laughed, hugely and silently and danced in a little hopping circle, throwing his arms to the sky, showing the letter to the gods in Heaven. Nothing like this had ever happened to him. He had never been praised, never succeeded, never been special.
Now he was someone! Upper one tenth of a percentile! That meant he was better than ninety nine point nine percent of all the other fourth graders in the state. Oh God! An area in him was opening up, a place, a scent, a taste, a way of being that he had never known. Victory!
It was dark. There was an owl that lived in The Dell. It hooted, a familiar and beloved tone. To Aaron the sound meant autumn. It meant Halloween, burning leaves, Thanksgiving. It brought the spirit of the Indians to his imagination. They were laden with pumpkins and sheaves of corn. Something about this time of year shivered 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 loved the owl, and wondered where it would go when the tractors came.
He still had to go home, to face his mother's wrath, his father's weakness. He wasn't in the Youth Orchestra yet. He had pushed defiance to a new level. He knew, from bitter experience, that his mother would make him pay.
Through the trees he could see the lights coming on. He could hear the cars of fathers coming home from work, and knew that his father was still some hours away. He waited, trying to re-read the letter, but it was too dark.
At last, seizing his courage as if it were a brick and he a workman, he started home, with the letter and consent form folded neatly in his pocket. He emerged from the trees into the suburban night. Cicadas buzzed and the ghostly glow of television light escaped from curtained windows. When he got to the next-door neighbors’ garden, he saw with great relief that his father's car was in the driveway.
His parents were in the den, watching television. Max had his supper on a portable tray. None of Aaron's siblings were present.
As the boy let himself in the back door, Esther was silent.
"Where on earth have you been?" Max Kantro was concerned but not angry. Aaron had never been frightened of his father. He advanced, avoiding his mother's glare, and held out the letter.
"Mom threw this in the trash. I had to get it back."
"What are you talking about?” Esther protested. “There was only junk mail. I threw nothing......"
Max saw his son cringe away from his wife, and it hurt, but he didn't know what to do. He took the letter. He wanted to take the boy onto his lap, but that wasn't his way, had never been the way in his family. They didn’t touch, didn’t hug.
As he read, the wrinkles in his face changed direction. A proud blush flowed from his neck to the top of his head. He had been exhausted. Now there was energy in him. His poor lost son might have found something to guide him through his difficult childhood.
"Look at this, Esther. How could this happen? He scored in the upper tenth percent. My god, this is fantastic. Weren'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 sat with her shoulders rigid, her nose wrinkled. “Let me see." Max handed the letter to his wife. Aaron blanched, imagining that she was about to tear the missive to pieces.
Esther's expression remained fixed as she read the letter. "That's very good, Aaron. We're very proud of you." She handed the letter daintily back to her husband, holding it with the tips of her fingers. "Music....hmm..uh huh." She said the word "music" as if it referred to a piece of liver in a butcher’s freezer case.
Max smiled. He wasn’t fully aware of the tangled wires that gripped 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 brightened at the thought of having something over her sisters-in-law. Aaron knew the signs; he knew that a battle had been won.
"Have you decided on an instrument?" Max referred to the letter. "Look, you can......"
"Drums." Aaron made this announcement as boldly as he could. “See,” he pointed at the application sheet, “It says ‘percussion’ but that means drums and everything about drums.” Mrs. Leek had shown 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 said, hammering the word into the firmament like a mountain climber planting a flag.
"Well, okay," Max began, but Esther interrupted.
"Anything but drums, Max. That would drive me crazy. My migraines...I couldn't stand it.....no way can it be drums."
Max saw a sudden bleakness ripping away the triumph in his son's face. Beside him, smoky thoughts wafted from the crypt of Esther's mask-like countenance. The battle that had been proceeding between his wife and his firstborn son revealed itself in all its frost and frustration. The naked enmity that existed between the people he loved emerged like a buried archive from a melted avalanche. He understood suddenly that he was in a delicate situation.
"Aaron," he said, knowing that this would 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 pleaded back at his son's pleading.
Something ripped and gave way, and Aaron accepted his lot. He had anticipated as much. It could never happen, that he would get what he really wanted. It would always be the consolation prize.
"Can I play trumpet?" he asked, timidly. "I want to play jazz, like Satchmo and Dizzy."
Where on earth was a nine year old getting this stuff? Max looked toward Esther, and saw an objection perched on the edge of her lips.
"Listen to that," Esther said, 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 would 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 knew all about Esther’s racial views. She hated coloreds, she hated all Goyim, and she was a self-hating anti-semite. She had a special terror of schvahtzes, as they were called in the local Yiddish dialect. As a child she had witnessed a robbery, she had seen her father shoot a black man. It was one of many searing memories from her childhood. The things she didn’t remember, or half-remembered, were far more disturbing.
Aaron sagged, limp with relief. The battle, for now, was over. He had gotten something, something big. He would be in the Youth Orchestra.
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