Literature

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #19: “Offkey” by Kate Robinson

 

New Short Fiction Award

     Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

     Kate Robinson of Chino Valley, Arizona is the winner of the nineteenth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 7, 2008. Ms. Robinson is also the first two-time winner.

Photo by Joe Dibuduo © 2008

Kate Robinson

*

     An amateur pianist and songwriter who gave up music to write, Kate began her literary career writing bad poetry and playing bad piano in Des Moines, Iowa during elementary school. In addition to short fiction, she’s the author of two middle-grade reference books, and a dash of poetry and creative nonfiction featured in a variety of venues: Literary Mama, Absolute Write, Kaleidoscope, Sandcutters, and June Cotner’s acclaimed prayer and poetry anthologies, among others. She lives with her two golden-brown teenagers in a juniper forest on a star-studded ridge in Chino Valley, Arizona.

*

Off-key

by

Kate Robinson

_______________________________

If Mom and Dad had heard about my friend Benny and all that jazz from me, they’d have handled it. But when my fifth grade teacher ratted on us, it became a big, fat deal. Mom had to meet me in the front office after school and we silently trudged back to my classroom, both taking refuge in our own mental world.

     Mrs. Drake motioned us to identical chairs in front of her desk. “I don’t want to alarm you. This isn’t an emergency, Mrs. McKenzie.” She forced her goosy face into a sympathetic mask. “Cathy’s not a problem child by any means.”

     Mom’s shoulders relaxed under her starched cotton housedress, but her hands clutched the white gloves and tooled leather pocketbook positioned mid-lap.

     The Duck, as we kids called Mrs. Drake, took a stiff little breath, sucking her nostrils in. She smoothed the cuff of her pastel blouse, flashing a plastic smile in the general direction of my face. “Strong-willed at times, yes, but no troublemaker. So bright and creative! Wonderful on the piano during the Christmas Pageant. Wish I had more like her.”

    Liar, I thought. She couldn’t stand the sight of me and undermined everything I said or did.

     “Cat’s studying jazz piano with – ” Mom started to say.

    “I don’t normally interfere in my students’ lives,” the Duck interrupted, droning in a nasal tone, “but I thought . . . well, as a parent you’d want to know about this.”

     Mom sank into the straight-backed oak chair. I slouched in its twin, borrowed from the principal’s office for the occasion.

     Mrs. Drake pushed the folded paper toward Mom. I died ten thousand deaths, then chose defiance, one foot furiously kick-kick-kicking dead air.

     “I intercepted this during Social Studies. I wouldn’t think this note unusual if Cathy were sixteen, but from an eleven-year-old! And I shouldn’t say this, Mrs. MacKenzie; however, Benny is an immigrant, a Negro from Cuba. . .” My teacher’s words spewed like Daffy Duck’s spitty cartoon commentary.

     Flustered, Mom scanned the note. She refolded it with a deft movement of thumb and forefinger and snapped it into her pocketbook. Gauging by the pained look in her eyes and the red splotches rising on her cheeks, she’d begun one of her worried internal dialogues. So worried she didn’t even glance at me.

     I followed Mom outside and down the block to our old, dinged-up ’53 Chevy, parked under a mesquite tree. Climbing into the scratchy front seat beside her, I winced in the searing heat and pretended nothing had happened. Denial was a strong suit in our family and if I played the bars right, little more might be said.

     Mom braked the car abruptly at the only stoplight between school and home, throwing her right arm out to prevent my inevitable tilt toward the scorching metal dashboard. Six blocks from our house, she talked to herself aloud, wondering if she had bid Mrs. Drake goodbye. Her fingers twitched on the steering wheel and then she recited the lament I’d hear often in coming weeks: Just wait until I tell your father . . . what will the neighbors think?

     The next day I cast surreptitious looks at Benny, mentally caressing his high cheekbones and enormous toffee eyes. He cocked his broad, angular face over the grayish-white loose-leaf paper lined in aqua, supplied by Mrs. Drake for an English composition. His cushiony lips moved with the unspoken sounds he tried diligently to record to paper. Fluent enough in American English to interact with classmates, he still struggled with reading and writing the strange, unphonetic words. Benny labored over all his assignments, oblivious to everything around him, tapping his pencil eraser on his desk in syncopated rhythms.

     I aced anything connected with reading or writing, so I finished early and pretended to keep working on my paper for fear I’d get another assignment. Mrs. Drake never missed a beat. I glanced at her often, gauging her level of concentration. She was shuffling papers at her desk, legs spread wide enough to see her stocking tops bunched at her garter belt clips, and above that, a lacy line of dark unshaven hair. Yuck.

     Bored, I gazed around at my classmate’s faces. Something about the darker members of the class – Delbert Willy, Ernie Ramos, Juliana Gutierrez, Marta Vittorio, Juney Jackson, Chucky Ramsey and Benny – intrigued me. The more I looked, the better I felt. Diversity was comforting. Their beestung lips, blue-black hair and gleaming dark eyes (except Ernie’s, a startling shade of blue) held secrets of a world beyond Caucasian borders.

     I focused primarily on Benny because he liked me. I liked him too, but I wasn’t supposed to. A mostly unspoken rule said white girls could be friends with colored boys but they couldn’t like them. Last year Roxanne Hunt and James Jackson, both sixth graders, had liked one another, she a flaming redhead and he the darkest boy in school. In a flurry of secret activity, Mr. Dexter, our principal, and Miss Jamison, a pruny, old-maid teacher, and both sets of parents came to a status quo agreement thought best for everyone. They put a clamp on it before the kid’s bodies finished changing, certain that chocolate and vanilla didn’t mix.

     All this – in simpler, juvenile terms – fluttered through my mind between bouts of staring at Benny. Uncharacteristically, he looked up, then right at me with his direct-current smile, those white teeth perfect and even against mocha skin. I looked down demurely and scratched my pencil against my paper, pretending to write. But a shiver ran from my tailbone to the middle of my shoulder blades, making me feel good. I wanted to jump up and dance to Benny’s bobbing pencil rhythm.

     At lunch, Benny joined the boys’ high jinks – peas and carrots lobbed across the gym turned cafeteria, a milk-drinking tournament. We girls giggled with fascination and mock disdain.

     “Did you know that Jimmy S. can drink four bottles in a row?” Mary Ellen was always in the know.

     “Oh, right,” said Sarah Singer, a science teacher’s daughter and perennial skeptic.

     Her twin, Susan, agreed. “I’ve heard he can drink three and he just fakes the fourth.”

     “Oh, you two are just jealous.” Debbie Obermeyer always let them have it. The most fashionable girl in class, Debbie wouldn’t let the eggheads have the last word. She had breasts, and it was rumored, her period as well. Many girls illogically felt that made her an expert on everything.

     “What difference does it make? The boys are pigs, anyhow.” I was a last-word contender too. “I bet we can beat them, anyway. Last summer I held my breath underwater for three minutes.”

    My statement launched a discussion about a friend of someone’s cousin who could hold her breath an amazing length of time. Interminably bored, I swiped at my mouth with a paper napkin, headed to the cafeteria counter with my pea-green lunch tray, and then performed the pre-recess routine of stacking the tray and tossing the silverware into a big gray dishpan.

     Suddenly, I heard a soft voice behind me. Someone tugged the sash of my dress, undoing the square knot I’d fashioned that morning. I considered myself too old for bows, and hated them.

     “Stop that!” I squealed like the prettier, popular girls, soaking up the attention Benny lavished on me.

     I ran out the propped double doors of the gym/cafeteria, then through an outside entry, slamming against the bar of an outside door. Catching the reflection of my freckled face and tousled pixie haircut in the safety glass as I raced outside, I grinned at myself, listening to Benny’s feet pounding a dull rhythm on the polished concrete pad behind me.

     The playground was just beginning to fill with upper grade kids as the lower grades lined up from their lunch recess. As I headed for the fifth-grade hangout near the back fence, I pretended to stumble and looked back at Benny’s black high-top sneakers reaching to reduce the distance between us. I raced past the swings, and then high jumped the long metal bar that girls liked to throw one leg over and twirl around on. Benny and I raced and ducked through every piece of playground equipment until we found ourselves at the entrance to the “prickly patch.”

     The Emerson Elementary School grounds sprawled in a big half-moon around the building. Beyond the baseball diamonds at the back of the school sat a low fence with angled outlets that deterred the passage of an occasional horse or cow that wandered in from a parcel of state land on the other side of the fence, a mystic tangle of palo verde trees, prickly pear, cholla, sage and saltbush that spiraled around a saguaro cactus cavalry. The “prickly patch,” as we kids called it, was our favorite hangout, forbidden territory during school hours. Recess monitors were supposed to track dozens of cavorting charges at recess and keep them inside the playground. But we snuck in anyway, the curious, the bad boys, the daring groups of giggling girls, and the bookworms seeking a quiet sanctuary. Annual rumors suggested that precocious sixth-graders got their first kiss there, a nibble of future delights.

     I zigzagged through the fence, giggling aloud, intending to circle around and back out if one of the monitors, usually a volunteer mother, blew her whistle at me. None of us liked being whistled at, which meant stopping in your tracks and holding an arm up as though asking a question. Everybody else stopped and looked, and for the rest of the day you’d get teased.

     But no one seemed to notice. Out of breath, Benny and I stopped running and faced each other, panting and grinning. I kicked a pebble at him, and he kicked it back.

     “Here,” he said, his accent delighting me, “let me fix you vestido – dre – dress.”

     I tried to hide behind a stand of teddy bear cholla cactus. I’d never hear the end of it if someone saw us. Not so much because of Benny’s skin color, but because boys didn’t do nice things for girls in plain view even if they liked them. Kids my age showed affection with good-natured pushing and elbowing.

    His hands were graceful and sure. “You jazzy now,” he said, turning the j into a y-ish sound.

     I turned to face him, thinking about running back through the fence, but his eyes looked so tender that I just stood and stared. I’d had vague, romantic thoughts about Benny – the ones in my note had already gotten me in trouble. A real live encounter like this had never entered my world before. I wondered what to do. Benny pulled off his NY Yankees baseball hat, held it by the brim and leaned forward, puckering his lips. For a moment, a tiny moment, I hesitated. Then I mirrored his moves. We brushed lips.

     “Cata, muy bonita,” he murmured.

     I reveled in the moment but felt embarrassed by it. Giggling, I ran for the fence. My field of vision filled with kaleidoscopic streaks of yellow and green lit by the noonday sun as I ran through stands of blooming prickly pear cactus, lush from generous winter rains. Benny’s footsteps thudded behind me, his laughter accented by something tropical. When I turned my head to taunt him, I realized I’d imagined his footfalls, knowing the sound so well I superimposed it over the sound of blows thrust at him from all sides.

     I stopped and stepped away, stopped and stepped away again, leaving parallel tracks rather than footprints in the dirt. Horrified, I screamed, inching toward the school.

     “You guys stop that! Stop! I’m telling!”

     One boy looked at me, laughed, and continued to swing a short length of broken, weathered board at Benny.

     One of the fastest runners in fifth grade, I hightailed it toward the school, trying not to listen to the batterers cussing, calling Benny a damn spic and a dirty nigger. Even blue-eyed Ernie Ramos, the son of a prominent Mexican grocery store chain owner and a white mother – nicknamed “Blue” – would smack someone in a hot second if they called his dad a beaner. But here he was with two white boys, beating a boy not much darker than himself, a boy who didn’t fight back.

     Benny stood virtually motionless with his arms crossed over his head. Not like a coward. Like someone bewildered by the hate raining down upon him. Since his arrival at Emerson during the final quarter last school year, he was everyone’s friend, popular with students and teachers alike. Even squawky Miss Drake enjoyed his endearing ways; her only problem with Benny being he dared like me.

     Enraged tears filled my eyes. I slid to a stop in the small pebbles littering the walk at the school entrance. Did those boys think they were protecting me? Would I get in less trouble if I didn’t tell? Surely, someone else would and then Benny and I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed. The Duck was still keeping her nose too close to my business. My mother and father still regarded me with dismay, as though I’d humiliated them. Scared, my mind pulled me this way and that. I walked through the double doors without really seeing anything, headed straight toward the drinking fountain. I didn’t see anyone in the hallway. I took a long drink, hunched over hard, staring cross-eyed at the water and exuding what I hoped passed for nonchalance. I looked around again and splashed cold water in my face, seething with anger and confusion. Then I lapsed into a self-protective mode. Benny would understand my fear and embarrassment, and still like me, I rationalized, pretending my quick rationalizations were true.

     Soon after the recess bell rang, Mrs. Drake noted Benny’s absence.

     “Excuse me, class. I’m stepping outside for a moment. Continue working on your math. If anyone moves a muscle, they’ll stay after school.”

     We knew better than to cross Mrs. Drake. Elementary schools didn’t have disciplinary staff or in-school suspension rooms back then. You simply saw the principal or stayed after school, hoping your teacher didn’t call home. We might jabber at each other when another teacher left the classroom, but we knew the Duck meant business. She was gone only a minute and came back grim-faced. I hung my head, heavy with the knowledge of Benny’s whereabouts and that the Duck had probably saved Benny’s life, not me.

     The three perpetrators stirred in their seats. I imagined raising my hand or boldly approaching Mrs. Drake’s desk, telling her what I knew. But I didn’t budge. Not then, and not minutes later when a siren floated closer and closer to Emerson School, nailing my ears with a wail less pointed than my internal critic, who began to fill my head with screams of conscience. I lowered my face, feigning indifference. My classmates craned their necks or jumped from their seats, trying to look out the window at the red ambulance, soon chased back to their seats by Mrs. Drake’s gruff reprimand.

     I died a million deaths until school ended. My best friend Carla, from another fifth grade class, came at me like a magnet grabbing iron filings. “Cat, what happened to Benny?”

     My tongue felt huge and dry. “I dunno.” I struggled to hold my tears. “Call me,” I said, my voice wavering.

     Carla tried wrapping her arm around my shoulders. I pulled away. She cast me a puzzled, rejected look. I furtively grabbed stuff from my locker, uttering monosyllables to the kids who circled around me like piranhas. Did you hear about Benny, did you hear about Benny? Ashamed, I shrugged my shoulders at them, darting to the nearest exit with my head down. Did anyone know, had any of the boys who hurt Benny confessed?

     Not only had I let Benny down, I’d let three very guilty boys off the hook.

    I moved like a zombie through the rest of the afternoon and evening. My little brother eyed me with suspicion as I picked at my dinner. No doubt he’d heard about Benny in his third-grade classroom. My older sister had something else on her mind, judging from the vacant look on her face. A rare occasion, no three-way chatter or squabble at the dinner table.

     “You must be coming down with something,” Mom declared.

     Dad raised his eyebrows, relieved. “I could live like this,” he murmured. Though Mom always threatened us with Dad’s wrath when she disciplined us, he never did much more than look at us through narrowed eyes. He had clenched his jaw a lot since Mom’s conference with Mrs. Drake.

     I grunted, keeping my eyes riveted on my glass of milk.

     At bedtime, I fell on my knees at the head of my bed and pled for mercy, whispering the Lord’s Prayer with impunity, expecting redemption in the form of a lightning strike. I alternately tossed in restless sleep punctuated by dreams of fleeing a faceless villain and engaged in bouts of staring at the ceiling as the light reflecting from passing cars flashed in rhythmic patterns between window shade and window frame. Maybe tomorrow I could, would, should tell, the headlights seemed to signal.

     Tomorrow came and went. My class made get-well cards in the art room for Benny from white construction paper aged to disintegrating ivory. I drew yellow sunflowers in front of a purple desert mountain faintly resembling a heart. Get Well, Be Happy, I advised in thick red letters. Your friend, Cat McKenzie. I traced over friend three times, lying about how I felt.

    The other girls expressed concern about Benny, but soon chattered in happy tones about other things. I moved as if under water, sodden with the melodies I hummed to blank the class out. When I cast sidelong glances at Ernie, Jay and Greg, they alternately smirked at me or squirmed in their seats as if they expected a cop to burst in.

     We all held our guilty silence.

     When a transient – called a bum in those days – lit a campfire in the prickly patch a few days after the incident, adults came to the misguided, wishful conclusion that an outsider had assaulted Benny during recess. Apparently he didn’t remember what had happened or wouldn’t tell. Two weeks later, hushed rumors that some other students had hurt Benny circulated around the school. But every adult connected with the situation went into a complete and mysterious denial, aided and abetted by Benny and myself.

     When Benny came back to school nearly two months later, he seemed no worse for the wear, his gentlemanly ways intact. But his smiles seemed cautious, thin like a waning moon. “I fix you pencil,” he’d say to classmates, humbly taking their pencils to the sharpener.

     “Oh, thanks,” kids said, their expressions showing they didn’t know what to make of it.

     The guilty boys steered clear of Benny and me, hoping never to be found out. He still liked me, his dimples prominent whenever he looked at me. I felt filthy to the core and tried to cover it with daring words and actions. Cracking pointed witticisms by the dozens, I morphed into the intelligent class clown. I wore new skirts as short as a fifth grader could get away with and matching tights of clashing Day-Glo colors. Continually spouting the latest top 40 tunes, I hid by being noticed. I stopped writing in my diary and playing the piano until blossoming adolescent angst prompted a torrent of entries and sad new songs in junior high school.

    Benny disappeared early in our sixth grade year. His father made a name for himself drumming in a back-up band for a big jazz musician whose name I can never remember. I missed Benny terribly and dated nearly every brown kid I met in high school, trying simultaneously to shed my guilt and recreate what I’d felt for him. My parents breathed a sigh of relief during my long courtship with a Baptist minister’s randy blond son my senior year.

     “He’s not our denomination, of course, but such nice hair!” Mom said after meeting him. In other words, he had the correct skin color, but by graduation, he’d drifted away to college on the East coast and I started classes for an Associate’s degree in music at the new community college. Ironically, I’d already given my virginity to the blond football player, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me out of their sight.

     As the sixties ground to a close during the Vietnam dilemma, I went outside the box again, trying to sort through my psychological contradictions. This didn’t happen easily. Some revelations came to me after a bout of self-medicating with pot, caffeine, and food. I ballooned up to nearly 200 pounds, safely insulated from my agony until a friend gave me Ram Das’s little book on yoga and meditation.

    About that time, I discovered Benny playing tenor saxophone in the community college band room. I thanked God and the gods that he didn’t recognize me. Motivated by the power of possible love, I kept a low profile and shed pounds fast.

     I mustered the courage to talk to him the morning I finally wiggled into a size 8 dress.

    “Hello,” I said tentatively.

     “Cata.” Benny looked up with surprise from his sheet music, his brand new sax reflecting light in golden pools around him.

     “Benny.” My tongue got stuck on the two short syllables and I turned fifty shades of pink. Of course, he remembered the missing measures, the grating, off-key notes and troubled, silent bars that ended our innocence. How could he do anything but despise me?

     I tried to apologize, to explain why I hadn’t told anyone that the boys in our class had hurt him. He answered with his sax, fingering a riff, low and plaintive, then another, a moody heartbeat, and then burst into a third, pure joy and frolic. I answered with my piano hands: despairing, searching, reunited.

     His eyes met mine, holding every inch of me.

     Many of our conversations now are jam sessions without words, thoughts shared by eye contact and music. We’ve practiced meditation and jazz riffs since coming back together, digging deeper and deeper into our true natures. We dissolve the prickly patch day into our still minds, a clear melodic space that salves our wounds and brings us peace.

     “I’m so proud of you,” Dad says through clenched teeth. I can’t help grinning while he escorts me to the front the nondenominational campus chapel into the arms of Se?or Benito Raul Vega Torres, who looks very handsome and very brown in the pastel Mexican wedding shirt favored as dress wear around Tucson.

    I force myself not to hold my bouquet aloft in a signal of victory. Friends’ and siblings’ faces glow with amusement. The jaws of our older family members tighten. Mrs. Torres’ ample bosom heaves under her rose-colored bodice. My mother sweats, plucking at her lavender chiffon gown, slightly less worried than the day she conferred with Mrs. Drake. What might be more embarrassing than little brown grandchildren – perhaps realizing I’ll soon share a bed with someone as dark down there as those toffee eyes?

     Ben reaches for my hand, holds it between his. “I love you,” he whispers, pulling my eyes into his.

    “And you.” I tremble with the memory of my old shame while I open a perfumed palm and unfold the old crumbling, wide-lined paper. My heart beats a refrain: would if I could. Would if I could, string my tears, prayer beads fingered back in time, to a sacred space in our childhood. Would if I could, go back and tell, extract truth from the lie that nearly buried me.

     “You never got my note back at Emerson, thanks to the Duck, so I’ll read it now,” I whisper back.

          “Notes for Benny

               Beat of my heart,

                    Melody of my mind,

                         Song of my soul,

                              Luv of my life.

                                   You + me = harmony,

                                        Cat “

     Ben grins, and our ebony maid of honor and ivory best man catch their breath and sigh with romantic fervor, eyeing each other nervously.

     I sigh too, with pure contentment. I thought Ben and I were forever separated into pigeonholes of fear and misunderstanding. I’d never dared dream this – standing hand in hand, bathed in colored light cascading from the chapel’s stained glass windows, flushed with enthusiasm for our future. After all, besides being soul mates, Benny plays a mean sax, I’m quick with a keyboard, and our combo’s the hottest on campus.

     “Do you understand and agree?” asks the Zen master, reading the one-line ceremony Ben and I wrote.

     “We do the tune,” Ben and I say together, sealing our union with a kiss. A long kiss this time.

 

*

Short Fiction Contest Details