Sunday, April 03, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Lamar Stories

So, I know it has been a week of political mayhem, basically-- I have thrown myself into a maelstrom. 

But there is a counterpoint, too. I've decided to do something new, something gentler, something that comes from a different part of me.

I have started to write short stories. They are all about one place, a place I have never been: Lamar, Colorado.  I have written four so far, one of which (the first in the series) will be published tomorrow. Below is one of the others. Characters recur in all of them, so far.  I'm wondering what people think.

 Smile, Leah

When you play the oboe, and you're good, you can look around now and then. I can't help it, either, even in Lincoln Center with a full house. My eyes are up, looking at music and beyond at glimpses of faces and the shapes in the dark beyond our pool of brilliant light.

As I finish the little piece I used today to close my presentation, I see eleven people. Eight of them are on their phones playing a game or texting. An older couple sit in front, severe and serious. One girl, a high school kid wearing an old tie as a belt, is listening intently, nodding along.  I meet her eyes as I play and she flinches a little.

All in all, the Lamar Community Center was not my best gig. My regular job is as the principle oboe for the New York Philharmonic, which is what people always expected of me. When I was in grade school, my mother and my teacher took me from Waco to New York to see the Philharmonic, and my mom would point to an oboist and say "that will be you!" She was right. Sometimes moms are right. That, and most of the day every day in a practice room growing to know and love and hate your instrument.

But even the Philharmonic takes breaks now and then, and I needed to get out of New York to someplace far away. I had never been to Colorado, and the state funds an "artists in residence" program that was posted on a job board, so I jumped at that. When the Colorado people asked where I wanted to go, I told them I didn't care and that I just wanted to see something new. So, here I am in Lamar, a place that looks like a photo from the Times above a story about a dust rancher who has been asked about politics.

Two days into my residence, I sit on a plastic chair and watch my audience file out. I thought that the older couple might want to talk, but they head to their car almost before I am done. The others take a little longer, since they had to finish whatever they were doing on their phones. The girl with the tie for a belt is the last one out. As she gets to the door, I call out to her. "Hey, excuse me?"

She turned, again a little startled. "Yes?" she responded, and then "I liked your oboe playing." She walked back towards me.

"Thanks," I said as she looked at my instrument, "the crowd didn't seem too into it."

The girl shrugs. "Lamar is kind of a country music place."

I am desperate to keep her near, since she is the closest thing I have to a friend in the place I have dedicated three weeks of my life to. I motion to her to sit down in a blue plastic chair near me. "I really like your belt," I tell her. It's true, too. The tie is a red and blue regimental stripe, like a congressman wears for C-Span. She is wearing it with jeans and a white satin top with thin straps.

She lights up. "I made this!" she says, touching it. "From one of my dad's ties, from when he was... working." She looks down at it self-consiously. "I want to wear one thing every day that isn't so, you know, so Lamar." She looks up. "I love your hair."

Instinctively, I touch my hair the way she did touched her belt. When I play, I tie it up in a thick braid of rope. Lawrence loved to hold it in the palm of his hand when I would lay next to him in the morning after a concert. I would fuss about this mistake or that one, and he would say "no, it was good. Smile, Leah."

The girl is watching me reach for my braid. "I have to keep it away from the oboe when I play," I tell her. "Does anyone here play oboe?"

"We have a little orchestra at school, and this guy Jape plays oboe, but not very well. He mostly cares about football."  There is a tiny pause, and then the girl sticks out her hand. "My name is Julie Harris," she says, with a professional air. "I'm a senior in high school. Where did you go to college?"

"Julliard," I tell her, and then wonder if that means anything to her. I look in her blue eyes, but they don't tip either way. "It's by where I work now," I tell her.

"Yes, in Lincoln Center. You're amazing."

"Have you been there?" I ask.

She shakes her head vigorously. "No, I've never been out East. But, I'm a writer, so I know it from researching stories and things like that." 

I nod. I suppose it makes sense, that she would know that. The internet changes everything.  "So, why did you come to hear me? If you don't play oboe?"

Julie looks at me intently. She is getting more confident around me. "It was assigned for music appreciation class. And I know that guy Jape who plays oboe in the orchestra, and I wanted to hear what it was supposed to really sound like." She pulls out her phone and shows me a picture of Jape and his oboe, which makes me laugh-- it looks like a football player stole an oboe on a dare-- and then Julie looks at it and laughs, too. In a flash, though, her seriousness returns. "Why are you here?" she asks.

Sometimes honesty bubbles up in me unexpectedly. I'm the kind of person who says "I love you" at the wrong time, or gives an accurate review of a child's performance on stage. So, being like that, I blurt out "I broke up with my boyfriend," one second before I realize how wrong that might be to reveal to this high school girl. It's really an understatement, too. I walked out on him, really, while we were out to dinner with another couple. He had just finished telling them how much he loved hearing me play, and it was like he put me in a cage shaped like an oboe, just like everyone else who said they loved me.

This time, Julie doesn't look startled at all, just understanding. I suppose that in high school breaking up with your boyfriend can explain any number of irrational behaviors, after all.  She accepts it, and moves on. "What is New York like?"

"Big. Busy. There's always something to do, if you want to."

Julie cocks her head. "Like what?"

It is a pointed question, a journalist's question. The answer is too large to bear, so I go for something very specific. "A few weeks ago I went to hear a band at a bar. I have a friend who plays a lot of instruments, and he's really good at baritone sax, so when a band needs a bass or a baritone sax they hire him to come in and play one or two songs. So I went down to the Mercury bar with him at, like, 11:30, and we had a beer, then he went and played the two songs and then we left and went to another bar with him carrying this gigantic saxophone, and it all was just kind of normal in New York." It wasn't a random story, I suppose; it was the last night I had with Lawrence. He loved his instrument in a way I did not. He lived it, full bore, even in those few moments with the saxophone at the Mercury.

Julie is intrigued. "There's a bass saxophone? What does that sound like?"

I think for a moment. "It's deep, really deep, and a lot of times they use it as a drone, almost, like in Indian music. Just this one long note, sometimes, and everything else layers on top of it. But the drone is there the whole time. It's like it makes the other parts stronger."

Julie nods. She is tall, and when she nods her whole body moves like a willow. "What's your favorite place in New York?" she asks.

That one is easy. "It's a bookstore," I tell her, "a couple blocks from where I live. From the outside, it always looks closed because it's kind of dark and there is no sign except a tiny one that says 'rare and used books.' But in fact it seems like it is always open. There are books stacked up everywhere, and the guy who works there, I think he lives in there. And if you need something, he always seems to have it."

Julie is leaning in now. Since she is a writer, I think that this place would appeal to her. I am about to tell her about the man who ran the place, Arnie, when she stops me with a question: "Are the books expensive?"

I shrug, remembering the faint pencil mark on the inside cover of each book, a number that is more of a baseline than a price. "Not really. It's funny. Sometimes he won't sell a book at all. Before he will sell it, it's like he is figuring out if you really need it. He asks you 'what is this for?' and then you are evaluated on your answer. I went in there once and wandered around and found an old Joy of Cooking that reminded me of my mom. He asked me if I cooked, and I told him 'no,' and then he wouldn't sell it to me. Another time, I convinced him I needed an old map of Virginia, so I could understand what this guy had said in a class I took, and he just gave it to me."  

I laugh, but Julie doesn't. "So..." she said slowly, "the books are distributed more on need than price?"

"Yeah, I suppose." I hadn't thought of it that way. "It's like you have to love it and need it, and then you get to pay for it."

"I want to go there," Julie says earnestly, "not just to New York, but to that store."

"We can," I say, quietly, meaning it.

"There is a place like that here, kind of. It's not a store, but it's full of stuff people don't know they need, or know that they need but don't want to have." Julie rubs her nose, thinking. "If that makes any sense."

And then she takes me to The Shed after I toss my oboe and its case, a little too roughly, into the back of the little Honda I had rented. We walk down the main street, then on a little residential street, and then on a dirt road. We pass people on foot or in pickup trucks, and they wave at Julie. Most of the people here seem to dress the same way I do in New York, in jeans and a t-shirt and boots. Looking down at the dust of the road, my boots look at home.

When we get there, Julie pushes open a metal door. Inside the Shed is all the stuff a town doesn't know what to do with, the things we just throw out in New York: old equipment, and banners for festivals, and barrels that might as well be labeled "misc." Julie shows me where kids hide pot and notebooks and photos. It's like a Robert Rauschenberg combine that was assembled by a whole town. I think how much Lawrence would love it, each item a found art treasure.

Out behind The Shed, under a little awning, is a worn couch. Someone had attached a little cupholder to it, and nearby was a six-pack of beer tucked under a red flannel shirt; abandoned, or set away for later, by a mysterious owner. I flopped down on one end and Julie on the other.

"Should we drink the beer?" I ask, motioning over to the shirt. 

She shakes her head. I can't tell if she is just saying no to the idea of drinking stolen beer with a visiting oboist, or if she just wouldn't drink a beer. It doesn't matter.

In front of us, dusk is preparing itself.  Lamar is a place like New York, really-- this mash-up of the mundane and stark beauty.  Julie looks over me, suddenly more woman than schoolgirl. 

"You didn't really leave your boyfriend, did you," she says, a statement more than a question.

"I don't know," I almost whisper, and look over at a soaring hawk, hunting. "I don't know." In front of me, I watch the brown landscape beneath the hawk change color, like the fading sunlight on Hudson Street on red bricks and a stoop where I fed someone else's cat. I look over at her, and she is listening intently, like almost no one listens to me ever unless I am playing the stupid fucking oboe.  She looks like she is about to cry; she is someone, I can tell, who cries.

"I have a boyfriend," she says, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand, "or I had a boyfriend." She looks at me with those blue eyes.  "He's the one who plays the oboe, Jape."

"I know," I tell her, and I did. I knew that when she told me about the guy who loved football. I know how that feels.

It was warm, like a night in Houston, and we sat and talked about boyfriends, and then the sun went down and some other girls came to get that beer they had left with the shirt.  We talked with them for a minute and then let them have the couch and set back down the dirt road to the paved road to the main road.  I walked in New York, all the time, but I never heard myself walk there, never heard the crunch of gravel under my boots or the rhythm of each footfall. It was too loud.

We were quiet, though, and my footsteps syncopated with hers and I began to hum. And another sound, too, crickets in the yards, a drone, beneath it all, making it stronger, waiting for us to add our layers on top until no one noticed them at all. But tonight, on the dirt road in my boots, I could hear my own footsteps and the earth beneath, and no one had to tell me "Smile, Leah."

Gorgeous. You are astonishing. I very much like the new identities you are inhabiting...although I do notice that even here,your hair does make a cameo appearance. I love it that he plays the oboe and is gay. I love it that he compliments Julie on her belt and the way he explains the bass sax to her. The ease of their talk. All relationships are odd,and you have made a glory of them here. I am so damn proud of you,as a writer and as a lawyer. Especially this week. Proud to know you. End avant!
That will teach me to mess around with French. I meant en avant,of course. More! MORE!
Very nice! I love reading short stories, because they're just the right length (not a fan of long novels) and because it takes real skill to write a good one. Well done.


There's no mention of barbecue
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