SAN BERNADINO, 1998: from TESTAMENTS

We lived on East First Street. Our house wasn’t very big. Backyard nothing more than a square of grass was all. A shade tree in the middle, swing hanging off one of the branches, love seat to sit and rest, look up at the Milky Way at night. That’s where Lewis practiced. Under that big tree. He was always out there. Didn’t matter what kind of weather. Twelve years old, in overalls, t-shirt, skinniest kid you ever saw. Nothing to him but flesh and bones; ribs showing like he was a skeleton, not a real live person. Silver horn my father gave him was always in his hands like it was his first girlfriend. He slept with that instrument. I mean it went under the covers with him. I can still see him through the kitchen window, puckered, blowing away. My younger brother. Those big eyes, black pupils, pure white around them. Playing a sweet melody though I was never sure what it meant or where he got it from. Maybe from the clubs he stood outside of to listen to the bands playing after sneaking out of the house? Didn’t matter. He kept after it. Couldn’t help himself. He was making something on his own that sounded good. He knew it and he’d tell you. You could see the joy in his eyes when he was playing, being him, a sound leaving the horn only he could make.

Our neighbors didn’t always agree with the quality of his playing. And even if they liked it, they did so in small doses. They knew there’d be no end to it unless they did something about it. They’re coming to our front door from the right and left. One, two houses away. From across the street. A few knocks at the wood around the screen. Marie tells Mom its Mrs. Taylor. Mom already knows what it’s about. Lewis’s out back, so what else could it be? She ain’t bringing us a blueberry pie. Come to ask for some quiet. Mrs. Taylor don’t mind Lewis playing some of the time. She thinks Lewis’ll be good at it someday. Hopes he’s a professional that gets work in a big hall. But why so many hours? Shouldn’t he have more to do? What about school? Doesn’t he go like the other children? Some days he walked to the park at the end of East Third. Sat on the top row of the ballfield stands and played until it got dark. Or until the bigger boys came around and he had to run back home so they wouldn’t steal the horn and play it themselves. Or try to sell it in a pawn shop. No one else ever used it. Lewis made sure of that.

Sometimes he played indoors, in the room he shared with Billy and Robert. An hour here and there. If he went longer we rose up and sent him outside, told him it wasn’t fair to fill the place seven of us lived in with only him. He was the oldest boy and supposed to set a good example for his brothers. Home was small. Clean but small. Four rooms under a roof that rose to a point in the middle. You were always looking for extra space to be alone and knew you were never going to find it. Lewis just needed more space than the rest of us.

We were a family that spent a lot of time together. Except for Lewis. Besides the trumpet, he was always out on his own, like the things he was doing were big secrets. Never wanted to get to know people close up. Even ones he was raised with. I try to picture all of us together and it’s a struggle to make Lewis show up in it. He caught on with a band when he was fifteen. I didn’t seen him again until many years later, here in L.A. I went with a girlfriend to hear him play. Sat right up front. Small table around a bunch of others. After the last set we talked and I told him about Dad. He had cancer and Marie was taking care of him. Did he want to see him? I wrote the address down for him and he put it in his pants pocket. Promised to go the next week, but he never did. That was Lewis.

Dad put the music in the house and horn in Lewis’ hands. I think he wanted Lewis to be a musician. Saw a lot that he might have been in him if he didn’t have a big family. He played piano, which took up a lot of the living room. Gave lessons to some of the neighbors. They were the ones that didn’t complain so much about Lewis’s playing.

No matter what Dad expected from him, Lewis never thought of anything but playing the trumpet. I don’t remember the time when he made that decision. That one moment when he saw himself on stage playing, people out there listening even though they may not know what they’re hearing.

By the time Dad went west to find work and call for the rest of us to come Lewis was already bringing home money playing at neighborhood dance halls. Like I already told you, he left when he was fifteen, took the apprenticeship in the trumpet section of a band. McShann was the name of it, I think. Is that right? You must know better than me if you’re here asking the questions. He’d heard about Lewis when they came through Oklahoma City, let him play with them when they were in town. Invited him to go to Kansas City. Didn’t take no more than that. Lewis was gone. Never looked any of us up after that until years later. Not even Dad until it was too late.

(1998)

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