Florentina and Geppetto (a twist on pinocchio, in progress)

Florentina’s arms shook as she carried the heavy basket down the cobbled street of her little Italian town. They didn’t shake because the basket was heavy, for she was very strong. The basket contained a large pot of soup and two loaves of bread for Geppetto, the mean old woodworker who lived on the edge of town. Fifty years ago in this very street, Geppetto had beat up Florentina’s cousins and her brothers and any other boy who got within striking distance.

However, Florentina’s arms weren’t shaking because she was afraid, either. She had long since stopped being afraid of anything. Her arms shook because she was angry. And not because Geppetto had beaten up her cousins and brothers, but because the rest of the townspeople had bestowed upon her the duty of taking Geppetto soup because they thought she needed something to do to make herself feel useful as the childless widow of a witless fisherman who had finally made a fatal error on the sea. Or at least that was what they told themselves. Florentina knew that they just didn’t want to help Geppetto themselves.

Geppetto was rarely seen in town anymore even when he was well. Folk would make the trek to his tiny house to order a chair or a clock, braving his temper because he was the best craftsman in town–perhaps in all of Italy. When he did come to market, the children made fun of his yellow wig until his face turned the color of the grapes of Calabria. Parents would shush them sometime between the moment he’d had the ridicule he deserved and the moment he might throttle even a child.

Florentina knocked lightly on the door of Geppetto’s simple but neat house. Hearing no response, she opened the door slowly.

“Mastro Geppetto?”

The room had the smell of a home whose windows had been closed for a week. Geppetto lay on his narrow bed pale and limp, his wig thrown haphazardly onto a log which sat on a table partially carved into who knows what, his few strands of real hair damply sticking to his head.

“Mastro Geppetto!” Florentina set her basket on the table next to the partially carved log and yellow wig. She ran the three steps to the bed and knelt beside it.

“Geppetto! Geppetto!” She tapped the back of his hand and then his blazing cheek. “Can you hear me?”

“Mama?”

Geppetto’s mother had long since died.

“No. Florentina. Oh thank goodness. Geppetto I brought you a pot of soup. Do you think you can eat it?”

Geppetto looked right at Florentina and said hoarsely, “Mama, Pinocchio killed the cricket.”

“Geppetto I’m going to go get Fata Azzurra.”

“Oh. Oh. Please first listen and tell her about Pinocchio.”

“Of course, Geppetto, but who is Pinocchio?”

Geppetto slowly pointed toward the log on the table. “He makes trouble as diligently as I carve wood. Oh I carved him myself. See what a fool I am. And now he has killed the cricket and eaten my wig.”

Florentina looked harder at the log. She could see now that something like a neck had been carved out, a small branch had been sawn off at about three inches long where a nose might have been, and the beginnings of two eyes stared out from above it, already beginning to show the lifelike emotion Gepetto’s dolls always had. If Geppetto had begun a mouth, Florentina couldn’t tell, because the yellow wig lay over it. Not knowing what else to say, she got up and edged toward the front door. “I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her.”

“Mastro Cherry brought me a piece of wood that was crying, and I did not know what else to do but carve it into a boy.” Geppetto’s voice was stronger now, but he still sounded delirious. “See his long nose! He tells so many untruths!”

“Wood. Crying. Surely it was sap.”

“Sap indeed! No, tears. The tears of a boy trapped in wood.”

Florentina found herself breathing quickly. “I’ll be right back!”

She fled–down the street almost to its other end, where she knocked rapidly on the door of Fata Azzurra, who could almost always heal, and who always wore blue.

•••

Florentina pounded on the door for a moment even after she’d realized that Fata Azzurra must not be home.

When she heard Fata Azzurra’s voice, it came from behind her. “Florentina, what’s the matter?”

Fata Azzurra, in her flowing blue blouse and pants, carried her little leather bag of tools and medicines. She’d been on a call.

Why You Shouldn’t Let A.I. Write Your Blogs

(This blog originally appeared in my humor blog.)

You’ve seen the “I made my computer read every script from Alf and then write a screenplay” posts. Hilarious. I have seen them, too, and so when I started getting ads telling me that I should let Jasper the A.I. writing whiz write my blogs for me, I thought, “Wow, computers must be getting better!” 

First of all, it’s silly that I was even getting these ads on Facebook. I don’t own a business. I AM the blog writer. I’m the one Jasper is going to replace. Somehow this is still less insulting than the barrage of makeup and weight loss ads I’d previously gotten. Take note people, deep down we’d rather lose our jobs than be body shamed! I’d rather you say “Hey beautiful,” as you flip a quarter at my cardboard box sidewalk home than yell “Hey fat ugly sasquatch,” at me from the gate to my mansion driveway. Deep down. 

I digress. Anyway, I clicked on the video for Jasper, and as the announcer is talking about how fast Jasper is and how you only have to rephrase and edit, there’s a computer screen in the background with text appearing rapidly. The words are much too small to read, and the visual aid is quickly replaced by another. 

However, with my high tech sleuthing skills, I replayed the video and screenshotted Jasper’s blog. I zoomed in. It was about space travel. Here are some things I learned about space travel from Jasper, with his great capacity for scouring the entire internet:

One. “Elon Musk needs another job, but never fear! He has the answer to all your space travel chestnuts.” I’m learning so much already! I would never have guessed that Elon Musk needed a new job or that I even HAD any space travel chestnuts. It’s a good thing Jasper told me I needed to work out my chestnut problem before I boarded my space flight! Can you imagine being miles above the Earth and suddenly you’re surrounded by floating chestnuts with no idea what to do about it? Thanks, Jasper!

Two. “A voyage on zero-g could ruin their insides like a shaking up a soda.” Okay I’m just going to skip right past the grammar issues and right to oh my God, who are THEY and what are they going to do?! Jasper doesn’t say! Is it the chestnuts? Is it the pilot? Is there any way to avoid this? Holy shit! 

Three. “Space is Black and White so will need some classics on board for those long trips…what about Hollywood classics of our time?” Jasper has not told me how far we’re going, but until now I had assumed it was just Musk’s little day trip into orbit and back. Again, grammar aside, what in the great milky way is going on? If I’m going on a day trip, I’m making the most of the window seat! I’m not watching Matt Damon go to Mars when the entire continent of Africa is out the window. If I AM going farther, then I’m going to need a much longer blog. 

A.I. blogs are for one thing and one thing only. Google USED to search sites for new content as part of its ranking method. Constant fresh content would get you higher on the page when people searched. But Google has had to get smarter. These days, real clicks, reads, shares, and links are what count, and no one is going to share Jasper’s space travel blog no matter how much you edit it. 

Hire real writers. We take a little longer, but we actually care about your success, and we will never confuse your customers with space chestnuts.

Ode From a Bad Songwriter

I want to write a song about you

But I can’t decide whether to put it in a major or a minor key

Or mention the time I was convinced I was in love with you

Or the time you fell at Annadel and that cute ranger came

Or the time you called me at 4 in the morning because you couldn’t find your cat and we found her under the deck feasting on blood, eyes glowing, and you screamed and we laughed our fucking heads off

Or the time you actually gave a stranger the shirt off your back

I can’t rhyme all that

So someone else will write you a song

And go viral

By saying something you would hate, like “They lit up the room”

Which of course you did

Someone else will write you a song

And get famous

And I’ll be on my bed

Strumming my guitar

And remembering how we brought binoculars and were surprised we could see the comet with our naked eyes

Negative Space (a novel)

Chapter One

What Louise McKnight hated most about bar gigs was that the first thing that seemed to happen to people when they drank, before they started dancing pressed up against strangers and long before they started missing the toilet when they threw up, was that they forgot what a trombone slide did. She’d be playing a note in first position and a dancing couple would grind their way to about two inches beyond the end of her slide, and she’d have to limit herself to first position notes, move away from the mic, or joust them in the arm or the back or the head, depending on their height and whether or not the stage was raised. This particular night she was aimed at the kidneys. She really needed to invest in a bell mic.

But most of it she loved. She loved being in the kind of environment she would never have dared to explore in her first twenty years of adulthood. She loved the guys in her band. She loved the hang after the gig while Mike divided up the tip money and the bartenders wiped down the bar. She loved seeing people young and old dancing. She loved the venues that offered free french fries to the band, and the venues that told them they’d have a sound guy and then didn’t, and the venues that had parking lots she wouldn’t walk through alone.

She moved away from the mic and played louder. When the song ended, the dancers cheered, unaware of the slide injuries they’d narrowly avoided. Sometimes Louise closed her eyes when she played and the dancers weren’t so lucky.

The song ended and Mike, the somewhat grizzled guitarist, singer, and band leader, announced, “We’re Bodega Blues, and we’re going to play one more song for you tonight. Check our social for upcoming gigs. This is Dominic Dee on the drums–” the little crowd cheered. “This is Baby Elias on the sax–” the crowd cheered again, this time with a few catcalls. “On the bass, well, we just call him Bro.” Bro waved, and the people clapped. “And Louise McKnight on the sliiiide trombone.” The crowd cheered some more. “And I’m Mike. Thanks so much for dancing.”

And he counted off their closer, a Tower of Power cover. The band was tight after five years together. Elias was the newest member, but even they had been with the band for two or three years. Louise was happy when Elias had joined, because the younger generation was a little more hip to the nuances of sexism. She would remind people to use “they/them” and not “he/him” for Elias, and Elias would believe her when she said someone didn’t respect her as much as they would have had she been a man. Elias always had her back. The two of them hit their pops with precision and understood each other’s body language. Elias had a way of staring into the middle distance that meant, “I’m too tired to solo,” and a way of lifting their head that meant, “Let’s trade fours.” Louise took her solo on the Tower of Power song and didn’t spare her chops since it was the end of the night. In the middle of the solo, she put a quarter note on beat one and then waited for the next measure, when she put quarters on one and two, and then waited for the next measure, when she played eighths–one and two and three.” In the next measure she let loose, and the crowd ate it up. Sometimes she used the negative space for effect, like this. Sometimes she used it to rest her chops. And sometimes she left space in a solo because she couldn’t bring herself to share the melody that had appeared in her mind. There was something too personal about it. She would just sing it to herself and then reluctantly break out of her trance and jump back into the solo before people started to wonder if she’d had a stroke.

After the final song and short applause, Louise put her trombone back in its case next to the stage while women came up to hit on Dom and Elias. She lined up for the bathroom behind a woman who had unwisely taken off her shoes. The woman, whose hair miraculously looked good although the rest of her looked like hell, said, “The band was good tonight, right?” Louise said, “Thanks. I’ll tell Mike you said so.” The woman said, “Oh are you here with him? Are you the wife?” Louise cocked her head to the side, slowly realizing that the woman didn’t recognize her. “No, I’m in the band.”

And from behind her, she heard Elias say, “She’s only like the best member of the band.” Louise turned, and Elias, who had joined the bathroom line, winked at her. She appreciated the lie. “She doesn’t have to be just someone’s wife.”

What Louise hated second most about bar gigs, or any gigs for that matter, was the fact that Elias had to have her back so damned often.

When she left the bathroom, trying to convince Elias that it had smelled like that when she went in, she headed to a front corner of the bar where the bar owner was laughing with some other men so that she could thank him for a good night. But as she approached, she heard him say, “I told her that when she decided to put out I’d put the money back in the account.” The men laughed.

Louise froze. She listened for a moment, sure that the owner must be telling a joke or something, but he was indeed talking about hiding money from his wife.

She couldn’t take any more. “That’s financial abuse!” The men turned to look at Louise. They weren’t laughing any more. “Please tell me you didn’t take away your wife’s access to money because she didn’t sleep with you.”

The owner didn’t say anything, and Louise grabbed her trombone and her purse and her stand and left.

With her daughter an hour and a half away at college and her son at his dad’s, Louise expected a night alone, but when she pulled up to her peeled-paint flood, fire, and earthquake zone little house with Highway 101 almost in the back yard, she saw her daughter’s car out front.

“Hey Athena! Everything okay?” She threw her purse on the kitchen table.

Athena called from the living room. “Yeah, fine, I just made plans with Kat and Frizz tomorrow and decided to just stay the night here.”

“Ah, well Tristan’s at your dad’s, and I have bakery delivery in the morning, but I’m glad to see you now!” She shoved her trombone and stand into the corner and plopped on the couch next to her daughter.

Athena tossed her phone down on the pouf chair. “Are you just going to stay up?”

“Yeah, I have to be there in about three hours. I’ll sleep after. What are you and Kat and Frizz doing tomorrow?”

“Just hanging out. Not sure where yet. How was your gig?”

Louise told her about the last thing she’d heard the owner say.

“Good job mom. You’re getting braver in your old age.”

“Hey! I mean thanks, but hey! I’ll have you know that according to new polls, forty-four isn’t even considered middle age.”

“Heh. How’s Tristan?”

Louise scrutinized Athena’s face. The question had sounded like she already knew how Tristan was, and it wasn’t good. Under all that wavy dark hair was a prettier version of Athena’s father’s face, from the pale skin to the inscrutable brown eyes.

Much as she hated to admit having missed some sign that there was something wrong, she asked, “Is something going on?”

“He texted me Friday. He talked to Charles.”

“Oh. It didn’t go well?”

“Charles was really nice about it. He just didn’t feel the same way. Don’t tell Tris I told you. I’m sure he’ll bring it up tomorrow, well, later today.”

And he did. After her Sunday nap, Tristan came home and told her everything. She gave him a long hug. “Are you still going to go to prom? It is your senior year.”

“Yeah, I can just go with some theater friends.”

“Do you think things are going to be uncomfortable with Charles now?”

“Nah, he’s pretty great.”

“Yeah. He is. I’m sorry.” She patted him on the cheek, her kid who used to get teased for being pudgy and having his voice change late. “You’re pretty great, too.”

Louise’s first student on Monday was a brand new fourth grader. “You must be Emil!” she said when she opened the door. Tiny Emil with his big glasses and trombone case, and his music folder clutched between his arm and his body sliding farther and farther down, nodded.

She gestured him in. “And Gretchen? Would you like to be in here during the lesson? You’re welcome.”

Emil’s mom said, “Maybe just for today. Is that okay Emil?”

Emil nodded again and shrugged. Gretchen sat in the rocker, and Emil and Louise sat in two kitchen chairs she always brought into the living room for lessons. Emil sat up straight and tried to put his instrument together the way Louise showed him, although it took him several times to screw the slide onto the bell at the right angle.

“I can’t get it in,” he said, and Louise took a deep breath and cursed herself for thinking “That’s what she said.” The kid was the most sincere and innocent fourth grader she’d ever seen.

She helped him and showed him how to blow into the mouthpiece. His eyebrows shot up in surprise when he made a sound.

“See? You’re a natural! That was an F. It looks like this on the staff. “She pointed to the fourth line up. “If the F is a circle that’s not filled in, you play it for four beats, like this. That’s called a whole note, and it takes up a whole measure. Now what happens when you move the slide out? The sound gets lower because the instrument is getting longer. Try it!”

Emil did a glissando, and his eyebrows shot up again. He paused to smile and then moved his slide around like crazy, playing glissandos that sounded a bit elephant-like.

“I like sliding it in and out!” He reported.

“Oh God,” Louise thought. “Don’t make a face. His mom’s right here.”

She taught him the different positions and the first five notes of a B flat scale. He couldn’t quite reach C, but she told him not to worry about it. “And,” she said, “Don’t worry if you can’t remember these next week. We’ll be working on these five notes for a while.”

“Can I try them again?” He asked.

“Sure!”

He played two notes and botched the third. Undeterred, he started again, and again the third note eluded him.

“I have trouble with the D,” he said.

And thank goodness, Gretchen murmured, “Honey, join the club.”

After the last of her Monday students, Louise wolfed down a microwaved meal and answered texts. She turned down a four week run of West Side Story because too many of the performances conflicted with Bodega Blues gigs. Nearly all of them, in fact. She hated to do it, because West Side was one of her favorite trombone books and she didn’t get offered too many gigs that paid so well. She texted Mike and asked if he still planned to set up a photography shoot for a new band photo for the website with the photographer she’d recommended. And when her phone’s alarm played “Time Is On My Side,” she heaved herself up, regretting agreeing to sub in an orchestra rehearsal for no money. Tristan had a theater rehearsal, so she’d figured she might as well. She didn’t even like playing in orchestras. Too many long rests.

During one of those long rests, Louise’s phone buzzed on her fifty-second measure of counting. She surreptitiously looked down into her purse and saw that Mike was calling. “Geez, ever hear of texting?” She thought, and then she felt guilty because it might be an emergency. He usually did text. When she looked back up, she thought, “Crap am I on 54? 55?” She counted starting at 55, but when she got to 71, the piece didn’t sound like it was only a measure away from a big brass quarter note, so she hesitated. The other brass players whipped up their horns and hit the note.

“Motherfucker,” Louise said, and the guys on either side of her cracked up.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five…”

She didn’t call Mike until the next day. They didn’t have a gig until Friday so she figured it couldn’t be too time sensitive. Since she didn’t deliver for the bakery that day, she slept in, made herself some tea, and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Hi Louise.”

“Hey what’s up?”

“I think we’re going to have to go with someone else.”

“For the photo? Why? It’s fine, but why?”

“No.” He paused. “For the trombone.”

She knew what he meant, but she couldn’t quite believe her ears. “I mean, what?”

She heard him sigh. “We lost our regular Graton’s End gig.”

“And?”

“And it was because of something you said.”

Louise’s chest felt funny. “About–the financial abuse thing?”

“Yeah.”

“Mike, that IS financial abuse! Women are oppressed with it every day!”

“I’m not saying it’s right, but this is the second gig we’ve lost…”

Again she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Are you talking about Morningstar? When the guy slapped my butt? I thought you were on my side on that!”

“I was, but…”

“But what?”

“We just can’t keep losing gigs. I called Joe today, and he’ll be playing from now on.”

Joe. Louise’s sub on the rare occasion she needed one. He wasn’t a better player than her.

“So that’s it. We can’t even talk about it.”

“I’m sorry Louise. I hope things work out for you.”

“Fuck you.” She hung up and picked up her tea mug to throw it but decided against it. She picked up her tea bag instead and flung it against a cabinet. And then she cried furious tears.

After a 30-second cry, she texted Elias.

“Mike effing kicked me out of the band because of something I said at Graton’s End.”

She waited for a reply, knowing that if he wasn’t busy, he would reply. Unless he agreed with the decision. But that didn’t seem possible, so she gave him enough time to finish with a shower or a lesson. And then she gave him time to finish with a shower and a lesson. Finally she texted, “Hello?”

And immediately the reply came.

“We have bills to pay, Louise.”

“Oh my God, Elias.” She didn’t even use the abbreviation. “Et tu?”

He didn’t respond, so she went on.

“I have bills to pay, too, and kids!”

“Not all of us have alimony coming in.”

“That is a low blow. You know I get almost nothing. You’ve seen my falling apart house. You know everything, E. This hurts worse than Mike. You know everything.”

Chapter Two

Louise didn’t even know who to call. When her kids were little, her social life revolved around them. She was friends with the moms of her kids’ friends, but it only went as far as pleasant chats during playdates and school events. When the kids got older and she got back into gigging, the other moms faded from her life. Her high school and college friends lived far away, and she hadn’t talked to them for ages. She had four friends, and she couldn’t talk to them about her heartbreak, because they were her heartbreak. She felt worse than when her marriage ended. Corey was gay. It was nothing personal. They were still friends. Not close enough friends that she would call him about this, but at least she hadn’t felt sucker punched like with Mike. She hadn’t even been that surprised about Corey.

And the money. “Pull yourself together, girl! You need money,” she said aloud. She texted the woman back about the West Side Story gig she’d turned down because of calendar conflicts.

“So sorry,” the woman replied. “We already found someone else.”

“No problem. Keep me in mind for subbing or future shows!” Louise added a happy face emoji. If only they could see her actual, desperate, bloodshot-eyed face.

She hadn’t wanted to burden Athena, but Athena would care, and she would find out eventually, so Louise sent her a message.

She smiled when she read, “WTF mom!!! I’m coming back this weekend to hang out with you. I want to kick their butts. OK gotta go to class, but seriously WTF!”

Tristan’s reaction when he came home from school was caring, albeit with a different tone. “I know how rejection feels. Do you want some ice cream?”

“No,” she said, thinking about the price of ice cream.

“Want to play Minecraft?”

“I think I might be in more of a Fortnite mood.”

Louise was terrible at Fortnite and didn’t get to take out her aggressions as she hoped, so they switched to Minecraft after a few minutes.

When Athena came home on Saturday after Louise’s deliveries, she sat Louise down on the couch.

“Mom? I thought about it, and I think you should start your own band.”

“Oh honey, I just don’t think I have that skill set. Finding the people, booking the gigs. And ugh, the equipment.”

“You can do it, Mom. Look at everything you’ve done for me and Tris. Go mama bear for yourself for once.”

“I don’t know. Part of my problem was that I didn’t diversify before. I lose this one band and now I have nothing. I think it would be better if I found a bunch of different groups to be in. Get my name on brass quintet sub lists.”

“But if it were your group, you wouldn’t get kicked out.”

“Everyone else could quit.”

“Well you could do both. Put together a group AND be in other bands and get on sub lists.”

“I don’t know.”

Athena sighed. “Well, let’s get you some gigs then. Have you contacted anyone?”

“No. I felt so lucky to get the Bodega gig. It’s such a boys’ club.”

“Hand me your phone,” Athena said.

Louise unlocked her phone and handed it over. Athena leaned close to show her what she was doing. She changed all of Louise’s profile names to say “Lou McKnight.”

“Is that all the sites you’re on?” She asked.

Louise nodded and smiled conspiratorially.

“Okay.” Athena handed the phone back to her. “Find me a picture of just your trombone. Or any trombone.

Louise scrolled through her photos until an old close-up photo of the bell and part of her slide appeared.

“Perfect,” Athena said. She took the phone back and changed Louise’s profile pics to the trombone. “Do you have any clips of you playing that we can just use the audio from?”

Those took Louise longer to find, but Athena reposted them. “Now these are what people will find when they check you out. Start sending messages, Lou!”

Tristan came in from his rehearsal, warmed himself up some leftover casserole, and stood in front of the couch looking down at the phone. “What are you two up to?”

When they told him, he said, blowing on his forkful of food, “Don’t you think they’re going to figure out who you are? It’s a pretty small town. Don’t you want to use a fake last name or something?”

Louise looked over at Athena, who was already looking at her and waiting to laugh with her.

“What?” Tristan said.

“Once in a great while,” Louise said, “the invisibility of being a woman comes in handy. No, they’re not going to know who I am.”

Any band or ensemble that Louise had ever liked or heard good things about that was based in a city less than two hours away she sent messages to, explaining that she had a music degree and experience in the style of the group. She attached links to her social pages, and she set her phone aside, feeling like she had accomplished a lot. Now to wait, and to eat casserole with her kids.

A few messages about putting Louise, or Lou as it were, on sub lists came in immediately, but the first one that actually asked her to show up came about two weeks later. Subbing for the trombone in a blues group the following weekend. Starting easy!

A drizzly Saturday afternoon, she drove up to a little winery on a hill. It hadn’t been too long since she’d played this venue with her old band. She parked in the end of the lot nearest the patio bands usually set up and carried her horn, stand, and bag with her ipad across the lawn where the winery staff was setting tables. There would be no dancing into her slide here. Only polite applause, good food during the break, and decent pay.

The guys were mostly set up but helping the drummer carry his gear from his van, which was parked right on the lawn.

“Hi,” she said when she reached the patio. “I’m Louise. Lou.”

To her surprise, they didn’t stare at her in confusion. The leader didn’t skip a beat. He held out his hand and said, “Bill. Nice to meet you.”

Louise shook his hand and thought, “Back in business. I’m back in business.”

She asked where they wanted to stand, and the drummer said, “Right in front of me.” She put her stand down a few feet in front of his bass drum, but Bill said, “He’s kidding. Over here.” She was still wondering whether the joke was that it would be really loud right in front of the drums or that he wanted to look at her ass when Bill elbowed her and said, “It’s too bad we can’t put a tip jar out at this place. That shirt would probably double our money.”

And so Louise spent the entire first song holding her shoulders forward slightly in hopes of making her shirt look a little less tight and wondering whether she should have made a joke about tripling their money or told Bill he was out of line. What she actually did was look around awkwardly, thinking about how she needed the money too badly to just pack up and go back home. She played well, ate her free and fancy lunch, got a significant amount deposited into her account, and left with Bill’s compliments on her playing and promise to call her the next time they needed a sub.

The next message was from a still-forming ska band that had no name and no online information. “Topher” must have gotten her name by searching “trombone,” because Louise certainly hadn’t contacted the group. Topher wanted to video chat to see if “Lou” and the band would be a good fit, and Louise spared them both the awkwardness of Topher’s having to come up with an excuse so that he didn’t have to say, “I don’t want a mom in the group,” and Louise didn’t have to say, “There’s no way you’re going to make money.” She messaged that she was too busy.

Finally, after sending Tristan off to Homecoming with his theater friends, who, God bless them, actually enjoyed a mom taking their pictures, Louise got the kind of message she’d been hoping for. Soul Forever’s trombone player was moving to New York, and they needed someone for at least the next four gigs. They’d gotten her message saying she was available, but really they’d contacted her because a mutual friend had recommended her. They called her Louise.

She reminded herself that she’d been excited about Bill’s blues group, too. She messaged Marco, the guitarist and band leader, that she was excited to play with them, and he sent her the list of gigs.

“Oh, of all the places,” she said aloud to herself at the kitchen table. She texted Athena.

“What’s wrong with Oak Ridge Bar and Grill?” Athena replied. “Wait, I’ll video call.”

“What’s wrong with Oak Ridge,” Louise said as soon as she clicked on, “Is the clientele. Really sketch. Even Mike wouldn’t play there. It’s not til next weekend, but I should get back to them as soon as possible.”

“Isn’t it all ages? Like, a restaurant?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know. Look at their website. You’ll see what I mean. I haven’t actually been inside, but I’ll just say that if I weren’t white I wouldn’t even consider going.”

“Ohhhh. Are you still going to do it?”

“I guess Marco’s not white. And I guess I’m not in much of a position to say no to gigs.”

“Mom, you can always say no.”

Athena’s roommates popped into view. “Hi Louise!”

“Hi girls!”

Athena said, “We’re going to a house concert.”

“Have fun!” Louise waved to them. “Watch out for each other.”

“We will.”

Before she left the chat, Athena said, “Follow your heart! If I don’t talk to you before next weekend, keep me posted. Love you Mom.”

“Love you too.”

Louise made herself some tea, staying in her jeans and sweater instead of changing into pajamas, in case Tristan’s friends came over after the dance. She looked through the pictures she’d taken of them looking so grown up in their fancy clothes. She found herself pulling up favorite pictures of both her kids when they were in elementary school. Halloween. Choir concerts. Fairs. Then baby pictures. First birthdays. First solid food. First day outside the womb. Follow her heart. Her heart told her to stay safe for her kids and her heart told her to play music with reckless abandon anywhere and everywhere. A video of Athena trying to give Tristan a ride with him hugging her calf and sitting on her foot when he was about two. Both of them laughing their heads off. Her kids had hardly squabbled with each other and never rebelled. She’d been so lucky. What would she want them to do in her situation? Probably stay away from Oak Ridge. But she was a grown woman, and she also wanted to teach her kids to be brave. And was this even so brave in the big scheme of things? She texted Marco.

The inside of Oak Ridge Bar and Grill didn’t look so bad. Louise stood just inside the doorway in the woman’s fit tuxedo she’d splurged on when Marco told her the guys usually wore tuxes. Men never had any idea what to tell her to wear. The stage was actually big enough for the seven of them including Rob’s giant drum kit. Families sat in large booths eating steaks and burgers, and the people at the bar were drinking calmly and quietly. Louise introduced herself to Rob, and he introduced her to the other guys, who were setting up the sound system.

Mac and Jason, keys and bass, said hello, and Marco said, “Thank you so much for coming. We didn’t know what we were going to do. Not that many good trombone players around.”

Louise thought, “I’m around. I’ve been around.”

“You come with the highest recommendations,” he went on.

Admittedly she may have been in a generous mood because of the compliment, but Louise liked Marco right off. He didn’t seem worried that a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the fast and loud horn lines, and he didn’t seem like he would ever make a comment about the fit of her shirt. And when he smiled, the lines that appeared on his cheeks were deep evidence that he smiled a lot.

Varun said, “Let me see your music. There are some changes in the road maps.” Louise turned on her ipad and handed it over. Varun clicked and swiped a few times and handed it back. She thanked him profusely.

No one introduced her to the woman singer, but Louise surmised that it was the trim thirty-something blonde woman in the short sparkly number sitting and alternately watching the setup and her phone. So she went over and introduced herself.

“I’m Louise.”

“Kelsey,” the woman said, extending her hand. She had a firm grip and friendly, sky blue eyes.

But Kelsey was apparently not a chatter, so Louise went to set up next to Varun. She put her heavy black stand down and, with a wary glance at the size of the drum set, put her earplugs in. At five til eight, Kelsey took her place up front with Marco.

A few mic checks later Marco strapped on his guitar, looked at Louise with twinkling eyes, and said to the whole band in a rhythmic staccato, “Here we go!”

Rob and Mac kicked off an intro, and Marco stepped up to his mic and announced, “We’re Soul Forever, and it’s time to dance!”

Varun lifted his trumpet a few inches to help Louise know when their first entrance was coming. After the sixteenth note run, when they had a few bars of rest, he looked over at her and a corner of his mouth turned up. They were going to have fun. By their first of two breaks, Louise was pretty sure the band would ask her to join permanently. She joked around with Mac and Jason, decided she would ask Varun and his wife, Avni, who had showed up during the first set, to dinner if the band did indeed ask her to join (Avni confirmed that Oak Ridge was one of her least favorite venues), and double checked to make sure that Marco wasn’t wearing a ring.

It was during their final set that the men at the bar started talking louder and taking more trips to the bathroom. The families with children had finished their dinners and left, and Avni pulled her chair closer to the band. Louise noticed her looking warily toward the bar every time laughter erupted. During one of Varun’s extended solos, Louise heard a glass break at the bar. The only bartender on duty was rushing around to talk to a meaty, red-haired man with a denim shirt and jeans rolled up to show black work boots. The bartender, who looked like he spent his off hours at the gym, walked with him across the open space in front of the band until the man seemed to realize he was being kicked out and started to walk back toward the bar.

“Hey,” the bartender yelled.

The man flipped him off.

Still, Varun soloed. The rhythm section watched the action with mild interest, and Kelsey was dancing with her eyes closed. The bartender, who was standing about five feet from where Avni was sitting, started calmly toward the problem man, but the man drunkenly rushed him. Louise couldn’t process the fact that no one was coming to the bartender’s aid. She looked from side to side, set her trombone on its stand, tossed her ipad to the stage floor and picked up her black music stand. She hopped off the stage like she was her sixteen year old soccer playing self and carried it over to the fight.

The drunk man was shoving the bartender but hadn’t thrown a punch yet. Avni sat frozen in her seat. Louise stood just ouside punching range of the two men and aimed the top of her stand at the drunk man’s neck.

In more of a shriek than she intended, she yelled, “I could take your head off with this. Get the fuck out of here.”

The bartender was as shocked as the drunk man. He held his hands up and said, “It’s cool. I got this.” He waved his hand toward the door. “Get some sleep, Luke. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Louise, just starting to notice her surroundings again, turned around to see the band still playing, watching her amusedly. She set her stuff up again but still hadn’t found her place in the song when it ended. So much for her future with this band.

Immediately after the last song, she walked up to Marco. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? That was awesome.”

Chapter Three

After their second gig, a winery wedding, Marco asked Louise if she could add a couple dates to the four she’d already obligated herself to. She put the dates into her phone before she even put her trombone back in its case and texted Athena.

Athena replied, “I knew you would do it, Mom. Hardly missed a beat. I mean in your career, ha ha. You never miss a beat playing. P.S. I watched some of the video from your last gig. Marco IS cute. You haven’t dated for years. Maybe it’s time?”

Louise pulled her phone close to her chest and grinned at Marco. He hadn’t had a good angle to see her phone, but she felt like she’d been caught. Marco was maybe five years older than her and hadn’t had a significant other at Oak Ridge. At this wedding he couldn’t have brought a date, of course, but he hadn’t mentioned anyone waiting for him at home. He was a little pudgy, so maybe he wouldn’t mind that she was, too. Lots of skinny guys didn’t mind, either, Athena liked to remind her. Athena sure was keen on her dating for someone who had sworn off it herself.

“Okay, pencilled them in, as we used to say.”

Marco smiled. “It’s so great to have you in the band. You’re solid, man!”

Just an expression. It didn’t have to mean that he saw her as a man. So she was wearing a slightly ill-fitting tuxedo. So what? And she was “In the band!”

Kelsey approached Marco in her tiny dress. “It’s freezing out here! Make me a cup of something hot to drink when we get home?”

Marco gave her a squeeze. “Absolutely. You were a trooper.” He whipped off his tux jacket and gently wrapped it around her petite, thirty-something-year-old shoulders.

Of course. Fuck.

While Louise was crouched down putting her horn in its case, she snuck a picture of the two of them hugging in an almost kiss and sent it to Athena, who replied. “Well, fuck.”

But she was in the band to play music, of course, and their third gig, a much calmer bar and grill than Oak Ridge, went well. The fourth gig was back at Oak Ridge, which Louise found out was a regular monthly booking. Athena was home for the weekend, and Tristan wanted to take her to the gig, but Louise forbade it. The three of them were in the kitchen for various reasons. Athena was foraging for cookies. Tristan was sitting at the table texting friends. Louise was filling her water bottle.

“Another time,” she said, already in her tux. “Another venue.”

“Is it that bad?” Tristan asked. “I want to see it! It’s not like I’m not old enought to go there without you sometime.”

“You don’t want to go there,” Louise said authoritatively. “If a fight broke out near you two, I’d have to kill someone, and then I’d be in jail, and then where would we be?”

Tristan gave up, but Louise continued. “I don’t even want to go. Maybe after I’ve been in the band longer, I can broach the subject of dropping that venue, but I haven’t been in it nearly long enough. There are a couple songs with seriously sexist lyrics, too. Someday I’ll suggest replacing them. Not like there’s a lack of great soul songs. Okay, I gotta go. We’ll party when I get back.”

Tristan got up and started to rinse their dinner dishes. Louise grabbed her gear. “Aw, thanks, Baby.”

“Mom,” Athena said from her seat at the kitchen table, cookie in her mouth. “You know who doesn’t have to play at Oak Ridge?”

“Who?”

“YOUR OWN BAND.”

“Ha. It’s just not my thing, Sweets.”

“Okay. But you know who doesn’t have to play songs with sexist lyrics?”

“I get it, I get it. Okay, I have to go. Love you.”

Oak Ridge wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it had been the first time, and Louise was starting to be able to play her parts without looking at the music. She and Varun started doing little bits of choreography for their own entertainment. Avni hadn’t come, but at the end of the night, Louise invited Varun to bring her over for dinner the next evening, and Avni texted that she’d love to.

Athena stayed a little longer than she’d planned in order to help Louise and Tristan make the curried chicken and butternut squash dinner.

As soon as the five of them were seated, Avni recounted Louise’s Manhasset stand heroics for Athena and Tristan, who ate up the story as ravenously as they did their dinner.

Louise knew about Varun’s job at a video game startup, so she asked Avni, “What do you do? Are you a musician as well?”

“Oh no,” she said, swallowing her bite and setting her fork down. “I do sound editing for Lucas. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to stay, though. I kind of fell into the job. My degree is in chemistry.”

“Wow!” Athena said. “Smart. You’re one of those people who can do anything.”

“Like you,” Tristan said to Athena. “The worst.”

“Aww, thanks.”

“I’m not a musician by any stretch,” Avni said. “You’re in college, Athena? What are you studying?”

“Environmental economics and policy. But I’m kind of thinking of changing majors.”

“You are?!” Louise blurted.

At the same time, Avni said, “Are you at Cal? That’s my alma mater.”

“Yeah! And mom, I’m thinking about something in the women’s studies arena, but I’m just toying with the idea. Don’t worry, I’ll probably stick with this.” She didn’t have to say that she knew if changing majors meant going longer than four years they didn’t have the money. They didn’t have enough money for four years, but she and Corey had accepted the loan amount, albeit with much trepidation and a few stomach aches. They secretly hoped Tristan wouldn’t want to go to Juilliard or something.

“Tristan’s going to be an actor,” Athena said. Her tone could have been sheer pride, but there also may have been one percent of sarcastic, “Isn’t THAT practical.”

“Maybe,” Tristan said. “I’d, I’d like to try, anyway. Take some classes.”

“Go for it,” Varun said. “There’s always time to do something else if it doesn’t work out. I got a music degree before I started into game design.”

“So Avni,” Louise said, “You don’t like your job?”

She shrugged.

Tristan asked, “You miss chemistry or whatever?”

“Not really,” she said. “My job is just kind of…”

Varun finished her sentence for her. “A sausage party.”

“Varun!” Avni looked back and forth between Louise’s kids.

Louise laughed. “It’s okay. I say worse.”

“Daily,” Tristan added.

“Mom knows exactly what it’s like,” Athena said.

Avni’s shoulders dropped. “Of course you do! We could probably share some stories.”

“I’m sure.”

After a delightful evening, it was back to bakery deliveries and lessons. Emil, whose mom still came into the living room with him, had become quite the talker. Louise normally let kids talk as much as they wanted, but with Gretchen there, she felt five minutes at the beginning was enough chatting. She wasn’t being paid to chat, after all.

As he packed up at the end of the lesson, he told her, “Our school’s choir is singing a song at the holiday concert where they’re all supposed to say, “Dong, dong, dong” at the end.” He held the words out like a big church bell. “But the choir teacher asked my teacher if we had any trombone players who could play the dongs instead, and my teacher recommended me because I’m the most advanced one in the section!”

“Wow, that’s great!” Louise said sincerely. “Practice pays off, doesn’t it?”

“Yep. Oh I should have played it for you! Well, I’ll play it next week. I think I have a really good dong.”

Gretchen’s shoulders were shaking again when they left.

After Emil, Louise’s long-time student Kaleisha showed up.

Louise looked past her to the parked Prius. “Oh my gosh, did you drive yourself?”

Kaleisha smiled jubilantly. “I got my license yesterday.”

Louise pictured Kaleisha as a fifth grader, right here on the doorstep with her mom. “And next year you’ll be driving off to college. I just can’t believe it.”

Kaleisha smiled again, passed Louise, and set up her horn. She pulled several sheets of music out of her bag and put them on Louise’s stand. “I think I’ve decided on the Morceau.”

Louise sat in the other chair. “I think that’s a good choice. Let’s skip the other stuff and just work on this until you make your recording.”

“I’m so nervous.”

“Listen, Kaleisha. You’re going to get into some good schools. This is more about how much money you get.”

She nodded. “Thanks. That helps. But I want to get a lot of money.”

“Well let’s get to work. Get out your tuner and let’s work on the first interval.”

Kaleisha’s smile both delighted Louise and made her wonder if she’d done enough to prepare her student for what she’d face in college. She didn’t want to discourage her. Part of her hoped that things had changed a little for Kaleisha’s generation in music. But that seemed overly optimistic. Part of her wondered whether Kaleisha would believe her or be able to comprehend what she was trying to tell her. Louise probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought if a woman had told her she wouldn’t be as respected as the male music students. She would have thought the woman was complaining and just didn’t practice enough. Part of her just didn’t want to be responsible for making Kaleisha’s smile even a millimeter less wide.

Chapter Four

With the holidays came a few extra gigs. Brass quintet Christmas carols at the outdoor mall, hymns at evening church events, and a Soul Forever office party gig that was a strange combination of true Christmas cheer and obligatory enthusiasm. People kept coming up to request Christmas songs, which Marco politely ignored even though Louise was sure they could have improvised something the partiers would have been content with, especially as they got progressively drunker.

Athena drove up the weekend before her finals to watch Tristan in his high school production of the musical Elf. Both she and Louise were torn between irritation that the part of Buddy had gone to a girl instead of Tristan and appreciation that the director would make such a bold choice. Several of the male parts were played by girls, as they dominated the class. Tristan was an excellent Santa, though, and nailed his Nobody Cares About Santa reprise. Louise and Athena agreed that the production was one of the high school’s better ones. Several lines were forgotten, but only one set fell over.

Louise was going to have the kids on Christmas Eve and Corey would get them Christmas Day. Tristan had helped her put lights around the kitchen window and ornaments on the tree. When Athena came home for vacation, she hugged them extra hard.

“It’s so beautiful.” Athena had a sentimental side, and it definitely included thinking that a few aged decorations, a short, rented live tree, and one lighted window was beautiful.

On Christmas Eve, they made dinner together with Christmas music blaring. Tristan was in charge of the mashed potatoes and Athena the salad. Louise baked the chicken, which had been expertly marinated by the chefs at the grocery store.

“Ugh, I ate too much salami and cheese before dinner,” Athena said as she forced down her last bite of chicken.

“Presents!” Tristan said as soon as she swallowed.

“Some things never change,” Louise said happily, unnecessarily adding, “We’ll clean up later.”

When the kids were snuggled in blankets on either side of the couch, Louise started handing them their smaller gifts. Socks, accessories, and for Athena, cooking gadgets.

“We pooled our resources for you this year,” Athena said. She brought two neatly wrapped gifts to Louise, who had lodged herself in the big puffy chair.

“Open this one first.” Athena tapped the lighter box, the one that didn’t look like a book.

So Louise ripped into it. “It’s not! You guys, bell mics are expensive!”

Both kids beamed.

“I can’t believe it!”

She didn’t feel like she could simply start opening the second gift, so she read the details on the back of the package to the kids, interjecting “Wow,” and “That will be useful!” Finally, she moved on to the book-shaped gift.

“It’s about women band leaders,” Athena said before Louise even got a chance to read the title. “For inspiration.”

Louise gave Athena a look. “Thank you. No promises. Well, I promise I’ll enjoy reading it. Thank you both.” She got up and gave each of them a hug. “Now your grand finale presents!”

She handed one to each, and Tristan said, “You first.”

So Athena ripped into hers. Inside the box was an envelope. Tristan peered over.

“Aww, thanks Mom!” She showed Tristan the handmade card that said, “Good for four new tires.”

“Gotta have my baby safe!” Louise said. She had toyed with the idea of getting Athena something else and getting her tires separate from Christmas, but this was a financial stretch as it was. Athena seemed to appreciate it. Louise hugged her. “I’m just glad you come home so often.”

“Can I go?” Tristan asked.

The women nodded, so he tore into his box, which also contained an envelope. When he opened the envelope, his eyes opened wide and he stomped his feet repeatedly. “The pitter patter of big feet,” Louise thought.

Athena laughed, already in on the secret.

Tristan sang, “I’m gonna be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens.” He’d been lamenting for over a year about being the only one in his drama class who hadn’t seen Hamilton in the city.

The next morning, the kids left for Corey’s, and Louise left for a Christmas service gig. She had never been religious, but everyone was always in good moods at Christmas services, and Christmas was one of the few times people hired brass quintets. She pulled up to the little church, feeling like cars were anachronistic. Everything here seemed straight out of the 1800’s. The building. The church volunteers. A man a bit older than her was taking a French horn out of the back seat of his car, and she walked over so they could enter together. Arriving at a church was always a little unnerving. At some she felt invisible and at some she felt like the entire congregation had just taken a class on evangelizing. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

Inside, she and the horn player were offered coffee from an ancient coffee pot and shown to a small room offstage. They made small talk, figured out who their mutual musician friends were, and warmed up. He played rather well in tune for a horn. He knew the two trumpet players, who came in the room next, followed by Joe, the guy who had replaced Louise in Bodega Blues.

“Oh, hey Louise,” he said kindly, looking like he would rather be anywhere else.

“Great,” she thought. “Four old white men, one of whom took my place without a second thought, or so it seemed. And why am I playing second. Someone got bad intel.”

But once the read-through started, she forgot everything but tuning and balance and her love for the sound of brass vibrations mingling. Her cold horn filled with condensation quickly and she found a plastic trash bin to empty her spit valve into between songs. One trumpet had brought a washcloth to spread on the ground. The other just blew pitchless air through his instrument, pressed the valve, and spit on the floor of the house of the Lord.

They rehearsed the Bach piece at length, as it was a difficult arrangement and the only piece they’d play without singers. Then the obligatory Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, etcetera. After an hour, they were led out in front of the congregation, where their sound had more room to bound around. The Bach sounded magnificent despite a few hiccups, mainly from Joe and the second trumpet player. It was Bach, after all. The traditional Christmas songs were admittedly joyous. The congregation sang with passion. Louise felt a little guilty for the part she played in the brainwashing. Still, who didn’t love Christmas, whatever it meant to each soul? To her it meant a day of peace. Family. And of course permission for millions to listen to classical music when they usually listened to pop.

They sat through the sermon about God sending his son and played the congregation out with Joy to the World. Louise was joyful that she was getting as much pay as she’d ever gotten for a Christmas gig and there was only one service.

Back in the warmup room, they chatted while they put their instruments back in their cases. Joe packed up fastest and walked out without saying goodbye. Snapping out of her Christmas music trance, Louise ran out after him.

“Joe!”

He stopped on the cement stairs and turned back.

“How’s it going in Bodega Blues?”

“Good. Good.” He nodded.

She couldn’t think of a less blunt way to ask. “So, did they tell you why they kicked me out?”

“That guy being a jerk? Yeah.”

“Abusive. He was being abusive.”

“Definitely. Well, you’re a great player. You’ll find a group that suits you better. I hear you’re playing a lot with Forever Soul. That’s great.”

“Soul Forever. It’s all right. It’s not the same, though.” She was still processing the fact that he didn’t say whether he thought she should have been kicked out. He didn’t say whether the band missed her. Of course they wouldn’t tell her replacement if they did. And of course they would have called or texted if they missed her at all. Hearing about the band made her suddenly realize that Soul Forever wasn’t the same. Her solos were few and basic. The set list never changed. She missed that fucking band. It was a terrible day to be going home alone. On Christmas.

Corey had invited her for Christmas, but since she had already seen the kids without him, she felt it would be intrusive to go. Not to mention pathetic. The kids had already texted her “Merry Christmas” with a selfie of the two of them with cheesy smiles, holding Corey’s Boston Terrier.

She called her mom, the only person she knew who had retired and moved somewhere colder. She ate leftovers for lunch. She took a nap to the ever present sound of cars on the nearby freeway. She texted “Merry Christmas” to people she hardly knew. She put on Christmas music and scrolled through pictures of shelter dogs, pretending for a moment that she had time and money for one. It was still only three in the afternoon. She made herself some tea and put three snowman cookies, which she and Tristan had frosted together, on a plate. She set them on an end table, grabbed a blanket and throw pillow and her new book, and settled onto the couch.

She didn’t know why she was afraid to read the book. Reading it wasn’t a commitment to leading her own band. These were women she wanted to know about because their lives seemed interesting. It didn’t need to be more than that. So why did she not want to read it?

The introduction gave brief bios of each woman, including a few quotes from them. And now Louise knew why her gut had been twisting. Some of the best musicians of the 20th century being assaulted, being ignored, being belittled. And these were the ones who made it to the top. It wasn’t that Louise would feel pressured to lead a band, it was that she didn’t know if she could handle sympathizing with a firehose of mistreatment, self doubt, and disappointment.

It was all familiar. Maybe more blatant because it was more acceptable eighty years in the past, but very familiar. They pushed though years of shit only to be told they slept their way to success. Requests to wear tighter dresses. Smaller paychecks. Groping. And it wasn’t the biographer steering the narrative. The book was full of direct and devastating quotes.

It made Louise want to start her own band both more and less. She closed it and looked at the time. Four o’clock. With a soundtrack of brass quintets, pop stars, and symphony choruses singing Christmas carols, Louise stared at the lights on her tree until they blurred and thought back on a conversation with a male acquaintance. “Maybe girls just aren’t as interested in playing,” he’d said. One of the more frustrating comments she regularly received. “But they are! They are interested!” What more could she say? He’d said that Louise might not be representative of most girls. She thought further back to a big band in San Francisco that she’d joined right out of college. She sat down in her third trombone seat at her first rehearsal, and the very first words she heard from any one of the men in the group were, “You’re only here because Dan wants to sleep with you.” She had shrunk down in her seat and played more quietly than usual. After the rehearsal, the only other woman in the group had approached her. The bass player. Scarlet. Scarlet was conventionally pretty and unconventionally nice. Louise quietly told her what the guy had said to her. “He’s a dick,” she said. “Don’t let it bother you.” But a couple months later, after their first gig, Dan did get Louise alone in the storage room where she’d put her case. “Great job,” he’d said. He hugged her, and everything seemed normal in a post-gig buzz way. But then his hands found their way around to her abs and down to her thighs. He looked into her eyes and smiled as if they were old friends who were finally taking things to the next level. She backed away and emailed him later that she had decided San Francisco was too far to drive. She had never told anyone.

Louise grabbed her phone and, after searching the section of her brain that stored old last names for several minutes, searched the social media sites until she found Scarlet.

Chapter Five

Surprisingly, Scarlet messaged Louise right back. “Of course I remember you! I only played with three or four women in that band.”

They exchanged details of their current lives. Scarlet had a fourteen-year-old daughter, had never married, and lived just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Less than an hour south of Louise. She was a few miles away at her parents’ for Christmas. She had an office job for the county and still gigged in the city, although not with Dan’s band. She hadn’t seen him since.

That was the information Louise was waiting for. She hesitantly wrote what had happened after that first gig.

Scarlet responded, “God, what a douche. I’m sorry. I wish I would have known. No wonder you didn’t come back. He did something similar to me early on, but I just told him to fuck off.”

“It wasn’t so much that he did it. It was that the sax player had told me I was only in the band because Dan wanted to sleep with me, and I figured that meant it was true. I figured I wasn’t good enough to be in the band based on my playing.” She was only realizing how true it was as she typed it. She’d thought she wasn’t good enough. The fact that he’d had his hands all over her was a distant second as far as emotional pain went.

“That’s tragic. I’m so pissed. He wouldn’t have asked you to be in the band if you weren’t good enough. He was desperate to have a good reputation. Musically I mean. You were good enough and he was a douche. Two separate issues. Listen, I have to get back to dessert time, but do you want to go out for drinks sometime?”

Louise enjoyed the next week with her kids so much. She had her delivery job in the mornings, but her students all had the week off and she didn’t have another gig until New Year’s Eve, so she and the kids watched movies and ate leftovers to their hearts’ content. They may not have been rich, but Louise had good credit, and so they had a lot of leftovers. Both kids’ friends popped over once in a while, and Louise wished it would never end.

The New Year’s Eve gig was at the clubhouse of a rich neighborhood in the hills.


Gigging in the Time of Covid

A couple months ago I booked my first two gigs since the before times for this week. I booked them before the mask mandate was lifted and then brought back. The first was a wedding at a winery, and the second was a recording studio the next morning. I had never met any of the people I would be working with.

The whole drive to the wedding, I wondered if I had been stupid. Instead of being excited, I was worried. I had to stop and ask a construction guy at a gas station for directions and he looked at me like I was a Martian. I guess because I’m the only person on Earth who doesn’t use GPS or something? But he also thought it was weird that I was on my way to a winery at 7:30 PM. He said, “You’re going there so late?” Still looking at me like I was a Martian. None of his fucking business, but I smiled and said, “I’m playing at a wedding.”

I got a little of the old gig excitement when I drove up the winery entrance. The winery sat atop a hill with acres of open land around it. Its patios, strung with thousands of white lights, beckoned in the warm evening air and clear dusk sky. I parked, and it occurred to me that no one was ON the patios. I hadn’t bothered to ask whether the gig would be outdoors because 1. I’ve played enough gigs to know that the answers you get are right about 40% of the time and 2. Who the hell would have a wedding indoors at a gorgeous winery in August during a pandemic?

These people, that’s who. I met the band outside and watched the wedding party and guests dining in a big, beautiful room with its many big, beautiful doors shut. Part of me felt like I should back out, but I had committed! The guys had forgotten to bring my music, so I would be trying to make shit up to sound like part of a tight cover band horn section. How much was I going to contribute? Either the keyboard guy or the leader asked me if I was okay soloing, and I said yes. Hey, something to contribute! Well, at least I was going to prop open those fucking doors when I got in. Younger me wouldn’t have dared.

And at least I probably wouldn’t be spreading Covid to THEM. Until two weeks before, I hadn’t seen anyone indoors unmasked and very few outdoors unmasked. I was vaccinated. I had been so careful! In the week leading up to the gig, I had seen two people indoors, separately, unmasked. It had felt like a big risk, and yet so much less risky than what just about everyone else seems to be doing.

So I asked the friendly sax player to open the doors nearest us (luckily I was standing RIGHT by some) and asked a guest to open the doors opposite (no one complained, yay) and played the gig. Good band with great singers. There were no horn solos.

The next morning I got a text. One of the two people I had seen indoors without a mask the previous week had come down with symptoms the following day and tested positive for Covid. I looked up the CDC recommendations, which seemed to say I should quarantine. I texted the person I had the recording gig with and she was very nice and said I could come separately from everyone else after they were done, and I said I would get back to her. My friends insisted that schools were not having people quarantine if they were vaccinated and had no symptoms, so I called the Kaiser advice line and they confirmed this. I just had to mask. I still wanted to record after everyone else had left, so I went in the evening and walked masked through the room with all the (reeeaaally nice) sound stuff and the masked band leader and masked sound man and into my own room, where I played pretty well and felt like a real musician–a feeling I’ve missed so much.

The thing is, I feel like most people don’t get told they were exposed. In fact, the person didn’t even call to tell me they were exposed. They told me they had Covid and I asked when they’d started getting symptoms, and I looked up how long before symptoms you’re contagious. (About 48 hours btw.)

I don’t know, y’all. I feel like I was so much more careful than most people, and frankly I’m tired of it. 18 months of watching most people go out lot more than I’ve been doing. I feel like maybe all we can do is get vaccinated and hope for the best. I think we should mask indoors, and I don’t think the kids who are too young to get vaccinated should be in school. But mostly I feel tired and confused. I’m worrying so much about ONE event that no one else in the room seemed worried about. Were they quietly worried? Certainly the bride wasn’t or she wouldn’t have planned an indoor wedding. I don’t want to go overboard and just go crazy, but should I loosen up a bit? Should I take more gigs? Despite the worry, it sure felt good. I don’t know if I can explain how much I’ve missed it. Oh and a week after exposure, I still feel fine. Fingers crossed!

Goodbye, Genesis

Goodbye, Genesis. Goodbye, Woman only being created to keep man from being lonely. Goodbye, jokes about Eve falling to temptation and bringing Adam down with her. Goodbye, original sin. Goodbye, notion that being willing to sacrifice your child is noble. Goodbye, patriarchy.

Goodbye, Exodus. Goodbye to the notion of a chosen race and everyone else can suck it. Goodbye, God who hardens Pharoah’s heart and then kills a bunch of innocent firstborn sons.

Goodbye, Leviticus. I think this is where we get rules about capital punishment for adultery. I think this is where we condone slavery. Goodbye! I used to know for sure what book you were in, but I’m glad the memory is fading.

Goodbye, Numbers. Goodbye, continued patriarchy.

Goodbye, Deuteronomy. We don’t need to hear the rules again, thanks.

Goodbye, Joshua. You won a battle. I don’t give a shit.

Goodbye, Judges. I tried to tell people that Deborah was a judge because she was chosen to be a judge the usual way, but they continued to lie and say it was only because no good men were available. That’s nowhere in the Bible, but I give up. Bye.

Goodbye, Ruth. Too bad you didn’t get to tell your own weird story.

Goodbye, Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles. You’re somehow both violent and boring.

Goodbye, Ezra. Another story I’ve forgotten.

Goodbye, Nehemiah, everybody’s favorite way to pretend the Bible has a prescription for good leadership. It’s been fun!

Goodbye, Esther, everyone’s favorite way to pretend that women not having a choice in whom to marry is noble.

Goodbye, Job. It sucks that God killed off your wife and kids and everyone pretended it was okay because you got a new wife and kids.

Goodbye, Psalms. I used your words in many a song. They all sucked.

Goodbye, Proverbs. Your prosperity gospel verses don’t fit in with the rest of the Bible. Nice going. Goodbye, Proverbs 31 woman with your strong arms and financial smarts. Be free!

Goodbye, and fuck you, Ecclesiastes. Thanks for telling me that all the ways I might try to be happy won’t work anyway. Flowers, lovers, none of it. What gets us through life is trying to find out for ourselves. Flowers make me happy. Seriously, fuck you.

Goodbye, Song of Solomon. You tried.

Goodbye, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel. Seriously, I used to know all this. By the way, my heart is NOT wicked, Jeremiah.

Goodbye, Daniel. I studied you so hard. I wrote a song about you. I thought it was cool to jump into a furnace and of course I wouldn’t get burned. Suuuure, that happened.

Goodbye, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah. I really did know this stuff.

Goodbye, Jonah. I mean…

Goodbye, Micah. I wrote my first novel about your verse where sins are as far away as the ocean floor. It was preachy and immature. Go figure.

Goodbye, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. You are random dudes I’ve spent enough time poring over.

Goodbye, Matthew. This one stings. I wrote an entire Bible devotional based on your passage about seeking God’s kingdom. The birds don’t store food and yet God feeds them. Why do people starve, then? Goodbye, coming down on myself for worrying. Goodbye, excuse for not allowing divorce. Goodbye.

Goodbye, Mark. Nice try.

Goodbye, Luke. I led a Bible study based on you.

Goodbye, John. You came the closest to convincing me that God is love. You wrote beautifully about Jesus wanting unity among believers. Boy did they fail. Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, Acts. Goodbye men writing all of history.

Goodbye, Romans, and all of Paul’s epistles. Paul who somehow got his sexist, anti-gay, judgy words right there in the Bible next to Jesus. Fuck you, Paul. Fuck you and your single man advice that husbands should be the head of their wives. Fuck all the way off.

Goodbye, James, half brother of Jesus and you still didn’t get it until he was gone. Congrats, and keep your advice to yourself.

Goodbye, Peter. You’re funny, I gotta give that to you. But goodbye.

Bye again, John, you really kept trying.

Bye, Jude.

Bye, once again, John. Revelation was one step too far. But I studied it all. And as many times as I say goodbye, the damage is done.

Lost

Have you ever laughed maniacally, alone in your car? Last weekend was my first time outdoor dining since the start of the pandemic. My mom and sisters and I are fully vaccinated, and it was my mom’s 75th birthday. My sister made reservations at a restaurant in Larkspur, a rich town full of beautiful redwoods and fit cyclists. It’s almost an hour south of me, and I decided to be adventurous and research places I could hike in Larkspur before lunch.

I don’t like to use my GPS. I’m not sure why. I don’t have my phone location services turned on. I found a waterfall trail that probably wouldn’t have any water in May during a drought, and I took a glance at the directions. Up Madrone, right on Redwood, left on Oak.

I drove up Madrone trying to remember whether I’d heard that this was where the Star Wars Ewok scenes were filmed. Redwood was close and easy to find, but Oak started to wind up a narrow hill that seemed very difficult to evacuate from if there were a fire. To anyone who hasn’t lived in California these last four years, that might seem like a paranoid thought, but it’s not. Paranoid was when Oak kept winding higher and its name changed at a turn and I pulled over, my body tight from my tailbone to my eyelids.

No, I thought. I don’t want to get lost and be late to lunch.

I decided to go back and park on Madrone and just take a walk in the redwoody neighborhood with houses designed so perfectly you hardly notice they’re enormous. Before I got out of the car I checked the directions to the trailhead again, and the directions did indeed mention the street name change.

I felt silly for having turned around. Suddenly it seemed so absurd. I have hiked by myself in a place I didn’t know had mountain lions until one chuffed a warning at me. I have held my infant while I watched the World Trade Center collapse on TV. I have had men who admitted they were jealous of my musical talent never hire me for a gig or use me as a sub.

Talk about feeling lost.

I have had a pastor tell me not to let people question the church. I have tried to convince myself I was a lesbian because I played softball and trombone and stopped shaving, and let’s face it, because men. I have watched best friends surprise me with their inexcusable votes and had best friends believe a lie about me. I have had chronic itching that made me want to be dead and many years of not enough money for groceries. I have now been through a fucking pandemic. I have had salesmen talk to my husband when I was the one buying and talk to my pretty sister when I was the one buying or just plain ignore me when I was alone. A lot. Am I here? Where AM I? What IS this place?

I sat in my car on Madrone, looking at the map on my phone, where Oak Street changed to something else, and I laughed. I laughed like a mad woman whose laughter should turn to tears but she doesn’t have any left. Fear of getting lost two miles from town indeed. Fear of being physically lost indeed.

It was a lovely walk.

Shelter in Place Month 13: Why I Got the Vaccine

I have been talking up the vaccine since it was first available, but let me tell you something. I have a very real phobia of drug side effects. I didn’t use the pain meds they gave me after getting a wisdom tooth out. I refused anti nausea meds when I was pregnant until I ended up 104 pounds in literal starvation and the doctor said it was medicine or a feeding tube. I have happily taken antibiotics a few times but always spent that first day just waiting for a rare reaction that never happened. (I did get hives and switch kinds once.) I gave my kid every vaccine except HPV, but I still FIRMLY believe in vaccine choice. I argued against California’s new school vaccine law. I never get a flu shot.

But even though I’m scared of medications (not the needle, just the drug) the numbers were very clear. I have 5 Facebook friends who have had a friend or relative die of Covid. Over half a million Americans have died, and it’s not because of misdiagnosis. This thing is real, and to speak in Seinfeld terms, it’s spectacular. Even though, as some argue, it seems to have a 99% survival rate, one percent of my friends is a lot of people! And 30% of survivors have serious long term health problems! And the numbers could very well be worse with any variant that develops before we knock this thing out.

So the choice was clear to me. I was waiting my turn, but anxiously. I took notice of my older friends’ and essential worker friends’ reactions to their shots and kind of thought I would prefer the Pfizer if I had a choice. I wondered whether I’d wait until I did have a choice or just take the first available like everyone said. With no long term studies to analyze, I figured I’d just take the first.

As it turned out, a couple weeks before my “turn,” my best friend texted and said, “Get to ___ High School! They have leftover Pfizer and I just got one!”

I almost didn’t go because I didn’t know exactly where the high school was, and I figured by the time I looked it up and drove the 20 minutes I’d be too late. But Pfizer! And it was a Saturday so I didn’t have any students! So off I went. I can’t remember the last time I was so tense. I missed a turn. I told myself over and over that it was no big deal if I didn’t get one that day.

I was the first in line outside the high school gym, followed soon after by my BFF’s son. The organizers announced that it would be 45 minutes while they injected people with appointments, but I started to feel like this was actually going to happen. I was first in line! Such a surreal feeling. I chatted with my BFF’s husband and son and was so worked up I was thinking, “Is this how to have a conversation? Am I doing it right?”

Dozens of other people showed up, and when our time came, they ASKED FOR OUR AGES! Stress again! I was not one of the oldest, but I did eventually get called. My friend’s son did not.

As is often the case with me, I didn’t show my emotion in public. Why wasn’t I crying like I’d heard my friends did? I was so relieved and thankful. I DID profusely thank everyone working there. And as you can imagine, waiting my 15 minutes after the painless shot was the worst part. I sat at the bottom of the bleachers in case EMTs had to cart me and my rare reaction away.

But you know what? It was fine. I was achy and exhausted for a week, but I took one for the team, and I’ll be safer, too. I was worried the effects of the second would be worse, but they actually weren’t quite as bad. Just a little tired. Will there be long term bad effects? Unlikely, and Covid is VERY likely to have long term bad effects. I choose my medications and vaccines carefully, and for me the choice was clear.

You can do it. We can do it!

All or Nothing Girl (a short story based on a true story)

“You don’t ever want to get married?”

What was she even doing on this date? Disappointed as she was, at least Alex could relax about looking dainty as she ate her BLT.

Mick raised his freckled brow. “You do?”

“Definitely. I mean I have always liked you, but I don’t see a reason to date someone if I already know it’s not going to end in marriage.”

Mick chuckled. “All or nothing girl, eh?”

“I guess so.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just be friends. I had a nice time today anyway.”

To end the awkward moment, Alex excused herself to go to the bathroom. When she opened the door to the single vintage toilet room, a middle aged woman was just standing on the round mauve rug.

“Oh!” Alex backed out. “I’m sorry!”

“No, no, come in,” the woman said. She looked like she needed help. Alex balked. There were some crazy people downtown.

“Don’t be such a baby,” the woman said. “It’s me. It’s you. From thirty years in the future. Give or take.”

Alex knew this should make the woman seem even crazier, but she sounded, well, sound. Still. “Where’s our bike crash scar?”

The woman pulled her stretch pant leg above the knee, and there it was. Alex had already been pretty convinced by the unfortunate face.

“Oh my goodness. You don’t shave your legs? I stop shaving my legs?”

“Not important.”

“How did you get here?”

“Not important. We don’t have a lot of time. The important thing is that I got to choose one time to go back to, and this is it.”

“Why?”

“Because you are going to regret not letting yourself get a little more experience and find out who you are. No, Mick doesn’t want to get married, and yes he’s crazy to think that a beautiful eighteen year old would date a penniless musician ten years older than her, but geez, he’s nice. Just let yourself have a nice time with him. Go back to his place or something.”

“Are you kidding?”

“You know you want to.”

“Well, kind of, but God knows what’s best for me.”

Old Alex grimaced. “I really regret thinking that way.”

“Get thee behind me, Satan. I’m not living for me.”

Old Alex gave a pained smile. “Oh, honey. I know. You’re living for a bunch of men who lived over a thousand years ago. You’re living for the men who profit off them now.”

There was no way Alex would say this at any age. “This is crazy. How are you here?”

“I don’t even know, and I don’t know how long I have. Just please trust me. You won’t be happy like this.”

“I don’t think sleeping with Mick is going to change that.”

“It’s not the sleeping with Mick. It’s the letting yourself have a little freedom. Maybe it won’t be Mick, whatever, but he’s nice and, he doesn’t seem possessive, and you’ve known him for a couple years. And he has a genuine smile. I’d kind of forgotten.”

And with that word, Old Alex began to fade. She wasn’t so much transparent as muted. Her eyes welled with tears, and she mouthed, “I love you.” And then she was gone.

Alex forgot to pee. She sat back down across from Mick, who smiled genuinely, if a little forlornly.

She came out and said it. “Can I come over and see your house?”

“Really? The all or nothing girl?”

“It’s your lucky day.”

Mick’s smile broadened goofily and he said, “Check please,” to no one. A commotion behind him near the bookshelved wall distracted Alex. Old Alex was back, and this time she was waving frantically and dressed in a nun’s habit. When she saw that Alex recognized her, she pointed toward the bathroom.

“Would you excuse me again?” Alex asked.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I think I may have dropped something in the bathroom.”

Alex hurriedly followed Nun Alex to the bathroom. “What on Earth?”

The other me gave you terrible advice,” she whispered. “You get to his house and right before, well, you know, he realizes he doesn’t have protection, but you do it anyway because, well you know you, and then he convinces you to get an abortion and you feel guilty and become a nun, but the guilt never totally goes away even though Jesus does take all our sin. This time I know how little time I have. I love you! Jesus loves you!”

Alex didn’t wait for Nun Alex to disappear. She walked back to the table and said, “Can we stop at the store on the way to your house?” So what if his tee shirt was ragged.

“Of course. Good idea.”

Old Alex, in regular clothes this time but somehow managing to look even more haggard than the first Old Alex, stared at her from a nearby table. Alex gestured at her to stay where she was. She didn’t want to alarm Mick with another trip to the bathroom.

“I’ll be right back. I see someone I know.”

Haggard Alex quickly faced away from Mick. When Alex slipped into the seat across from her, the old woman whispered, “I remember the other Alexes visiting, and I just want to tell you what happens this time. The condom doesn’t work, but you decide to keep the baby. Mick is no help. You drop out of college. It’s really hard. Your son is amazing, but you don’t always have a roof over your head. I have no advice. I just wanted you to know.”

Stunned, Alex walked back to Mick as Haggard Alex hurried out of the restaurant. How was she supposed to decide whether her amazing son was going to exist? She stared at the glossy, gnarled oak tabletop.

“Alex? Are you okay?”

Alex looked up at Mick and once again thought about getting him and his soft new tee shirt alone.

“Yeah. I just had a weird deja vu or something.”

She herself was wearing something nicer than she would have been if the fourth Old Alex hadn’t decided to visit a time much further back and solve the real problem, which wasn’t young Alex at all.

Shelter in Place: The One Year Mark

This won’t be a recap of the last 12 months. You can scroll through my past blogs for that. This is where we are now and how I feel now. Will my thoughts and feelings about a year of social distancing be wrapped up with a neat bow? We shall see.

The world has lost 2,630,000 people to Covid 19. The U.S. 530,000 of them. My county, Sonoma, 306 people. That’s not to mention the long term effects for many who have not died. For comparison, the U.S. usually loses 30,000 to 50,000 a year to the flu.

My husband got his first dose of Moderna last week (Thanks Dolly Parton!) and he felt fine afterward. It’s a huge relief that he got it, but I’m still furious with the parents who pushed schools to open next month regardless of whether teachers had gotten their shots. He’ll still bring a hundred band kids’ germs home to me and our daughter, who have been so careful for an entire year. I swear if we get Covid two months before we’re finally able to get the shot I’ll have an absolute shit fit.

I think I already reported that my 74-year-old parents got their first doses of the Moderna thanks to my on-the-ball friend finding an appointment for my mom and the VA calling my dad. Phew!

My predominant emotion right now is longing for my kid to be able to participate in her music major rehearsals and performances again. I miss gigging A LOT, but she’s just getting started, and college for music majors is so immersive and enriching.

But I have many emotions about many things. I’m grateful that my family has not lost the main part of its income and that we have been able to work from home. This has been less stressful for us than for many. For me personally, much as I’d rather be gigging and rather my kid get to go to school, not driving around like a chicken with its head cut off (and that can mysteriously somehow drive) has been sort of relaxing. Yes it’s healthier mentally to be able to visit friends, but a pause on driving around also has its restful benefits. Easy for me to say, being an introvert.

My new, more diverse city council just voted to ban the sales of fireworks which is another happy result of the November election. Most of the other cities in our county already had. $1400 federal stimulus checks should be coming soon (as well as millions to businesses and health services) and we plan to give a little to the local food bank, buy an area rug for the living room (we got much needed hardwood floors last year) and get our bathroom sink fixed. We’ve been washing our hands in the kitchen.

According to the CDC, as soon as my parents’ second shots reach their full effect, I can visit them even before I’m vaccinated! I will if they want me to but will also wait until I get mine if they want. I know that variants of the disease might cause us problems even after vaccines, but it is nice to pretend we’re going to get back to normal soon. In a related note, it’s nice to have a president who speaks like a normal person. And as I say on every social media post about legislation now, thank you Georgia. Thank you Stacey Abrams.

A year. Every day has so many thoughts and emotions about the pandemic, and yet when I look back and think “How do I feel about the year?” My brain stares back at me blankly. So many people died, but I got some rest and some extra time with my college kid and we were financially okay. I missed playing music with people, but at least my students stuck with me virtually. I didn’t see much of my sisters but I had less polluted skies to hike under. I got to see comet NEOWISE. My emotional lows were pretty darn low, I mean a fast hard plummet, but I think I was actually happy more regularly than before the pandemic. I got a new writing job but am in sort of a mental fog so it’s hard to focus on it. What a mishmash of thoughts and feelings! This blog only scratches the surface. Even if I could untangle some of my other thoughts there are some I couldn’t share because I don’t like to get too personal about other people.

There are lots of blogs about life and the pandemic and feelings and what we should do with our thoughts and feelings and lives, and for the most part I find them saccharine or overgeneralized and often something even the author looks back on later and says “Well I wrapped that up and put a neat bow on it but I don’t really agree with it anymore.”

So I have veered away from bows, much as physical bows seem to be in style among women celebrities right now and metaphorical bows are always in style. These thoughts and feelings aren’t even in a box, much less wrapped up. Thanks for reading my mishmash of thoughts this year. What are your mishmashed thoughts and feelings?