Sax and the Suburb
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I didn’t think there was anything sinister about trombonists David Hu and Ralph Tucker being late to band rehearsal that night, though I did think it was weird. Normally they would arrive with just enough time to wolf down a Sonic brown bag special between them, occasionally throwing tater tots to any of us who cared to meet David’s decree that we had to bark like a poodle to get one.
I usually stood on pride. I only barked for tots if I’d skipped dinner. That night I had missed dinner due to working late at the office yet again, so I had a Pavlovian response to just being in the band hall at the usual tater tot time. I tried to contain my stomach gurgling, but I hoped the guys would show up soon.
The other problem with David and Ralph being late was that it left a big gap in the trombone section. This gave Cheeto a clear shot at the only female trombone player. Luckily that wasn’t me. I was the only female in the sax section, which was much safer. The saxes sat at least ten feet away from Cheeto, plus as the only tenor player I sat squarely between the alto and bari player, who were both kindly older gentleman.
Cheeto, who was not particularly kindly or old, was also definitely not a gentleman. He had earned his nickname from the way he wore his favorite junk food all over his shirts and bedraggled beard. He wasn’t very successful with the ladies. He was cementing his continued lack of success that night by emptying his spit valve into the wide-open purse of first chair trombonist Flora Wyndam. I figured he’d asked her over for a homemade fried fish dinner, like he did every week. She’d obviously turned him down, like she did every week. He’d decided to take action, and David and Ralph weren’t there as buffers. By the time I noticed what he was doing, it was too late. The grossness was complete, and Flora wasn’t in sight to warn anyway. I turned around and kept warming up my sax.
Flora still hadn’t clued Cheeto in to the fact that she was a lesbian. You’d think her frequent avowals of praise for Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls might have warned him. I wondered how Cheeto had managed to store up so much spit without even playing a note, but I decided not to think about it, wincing as I squeaked a "g" on my tenor. I'd just gotten new reeds and they weren't broken in yet.
My friend Louise Parkinson turned and flashed a reassuring smile at me. Louise never squeaked her ‘g’s’, or any other notes. She was a formidable bassoonist who played well enough to occasionally sit in with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She slummed with us to keep up her technique, or so she said. I was glad she did, since she was a lot of fun. This was despite the fact that she was pretty much perfect and occasionally sent me into envy spins. She had the face and figure of a Botticelli Venus, the wit of Dorothy Parker, and the circular breathing of a Tuvan throat singer (handy for extended bassoon solos). I coveted all of her blessings, but I still liked her.
“Beer later?” she said loudly over the frantic warm ups of the clarinets. I nodded fervently.
Louise turned back to continue flirting with oboe player Frank Nesmith, who was a shy computer programmer with a beer belly and coke bottle glasses. He looked shocked that Louise was talking to him, as he always did. She leaned over and playfully tickled the bit of belly exposed by his slightly too small t shirt. He squeaked a ‘g’.
High-pitched giggles and the smell of cappuccinos announced the entrance of the entire flute section, which was prone to moving in a blonde, flighty pack of middle-aged babes. They were always the last group to arrive at rehearsals, due to their penchant for stopping at Starbucks first for their skinny lattes. The smell made me want one too, but as distracting as that had the potential to be, I was a little concerned about Ralph and David. Mark Garcia, our fascistic band director, was going to be furious if he arrived before they did. He might throw things, and the saxes sat in front of the trombones, right in the line of fire. I practiced ducking behind my stand for a minute just in case.
The Murdock Junior High band hall was overly cold, now that the a.c. unit was fixed. I shivered even though it was a warm summer evening outside, and I was wearing a light sweater. The place smelled of paste and mud and old musical instruments. It also smelled of old musicians, which was primarily a mix of Ben Gay and other arthritis relieving rubs. Most of the folks in our community concert band were over seventy, with a few notable exceptions like me, aged twenty-eight. But, hey, I have an old soul.
"How you doing there today, Miranda?" asked the oldest band member, Corky Potter, who was our first and only alto sax player. At seventy-five, he was dapper in his straw boater and peppermint striped shirt. He could still knock 'em dead at the Elmwood Retirement home second Saturday concert series with his geriatric swing band.
"I'm fine, Corky. Working a lot." I stared at my tenor nervously and fingered a chromatic scale.
"Well, better you than me, honey," he said and he returned to his swinging, Coltrane inspired warm up. I listened in awe, wondering why I still improvised like the "one note wonder" sax solo on the Beach Boys “Little Deuce Coupe”.
"Live long enough to retire, kid," said our bari player, Sam Waterston, on the other side of me. "Then you can practice all you want."
Sam had a disconcerting tendency to read my mind. This probably came from his having six kids. He was also a retired high school band director, and was smug about it. He was always second-guessing our current director about some musical point or other, but not to Garcia's face. That would have been dangerous.
Sam was also the guy responsible for spiking our drinks during rehearsal, and I was grateful to notice that he was pouring a little something in my coke for me from his ever present flask. I hoped it wasn’t his homemade wine, though. He made that from elderberries or some other unpopular fruit. It was never good. Luckily he didn’t bring the wine often, and the aroma from my glass indicated a high grade of rum. I took a happy sip.
"Herb? What have you done, you cretin?" shrieked Flora, making me spill high grade rum and coke all over my sweater. Her pretty face was twisted up in disgust. She had discovered the spit in her handbag. Cheeto, whose real name was Herb Fenster, worked at the post office and had mastered the art of studiously ignoring irate customers. He contemplated his orange crusted hands and didn't reply.
Flora emptied her purse over his head, shaking a variety of interesting looking items into Cheeto's thinning hair. Lipstick, pens, a candy bar, condoms? Maybe Flora played on both teams. Cheeto jumped up and started denying everything hotly, and throwing pens and gum wrappers back at Flora.
"Yes, this is just the kind of mature behavior I expect from the supposedly adult members of my band," said a cold voice at the band hall entrance. Flora and Cheeto sat back down hurriedly and picked up their horns.
Mark Garcia, a man with a grudge for every occasion, walked in with his face set in an angry stare. He had reason to be angry. Once he had headed the Richland High School band program. He'd been the toast of the Texas Music Educator Awards. Although he had apparently never committed any unsavory "Lolita-like" encounters, one of his many flirtations with underage flute players had caught up with him at last. The girl's parents had filed a complaint with the school. This had gotten him fired. He'd fallen from his lofty perch, never to dream of directing at the college level. The U.T. Longhorn band in Austin wouldn't touch him now with a ten foot branding iron. Now he worked as a night manager at the local Safeway.
At his entrance, the other denizens of the band hall fell silent. Garcia climbed onto the podium, and stood there clenching his teeth, glaring around at each of us with dark, wounded eyes. Even Corky looked subdued under that gaze. When he'd successfully stared us all down, and we were all gazing worriedly at our horns, he smiled, showing gleaming white teeth. The flute section collectively put down their lattes and sighed as he picked up his baton, masterfully.
"Orff" he snapped as he tapped the stand before him. "First movement"
And we were off into the world of “Carmina Burana”. This was one of my favorite symphonic pieces, even when adapted for a concert band. Normally I'd be delighted that we were doing it, but with only thirty or so not so great musicians working on it once a week, not so much. I also thought it was too ambitious to be trying to play it at our July Fourth concert, especially when our audience would be expecting Sousa marches. Nobody asked me my opinion. I guess my law degree didn't make me an expert.
"MS BEELING," shrieked Garcia in the midst of my series of quiet tied whole notes. The band stopped.
"Yes, Mr. Garcia?" I replied, as calmly as I could while pierced like a dying bug by that black and baleful gaze.
"You sound like a mix of Boots Randolph and a foghorn, Ms. Beeling," he said with finality. I waited to be fired from the band for about the fiftieth time, but he relented.
"Stuff another scarf in your bell, and try to play quietly. This is not a honky tonk."
"O.K." I stuffed another scarf down my bell, effectively blocking off all sound from my horn for the duration, but I couldn't complain. I wanted to play, didn't I? Even this unexciting sax part was better than no sax at all, right? So I have a bad sax life. Ha ha.
Sometime during the next seventy-two measures of rests, a small paper airplane sailed expertly over my stand and into my forehead. I kept counting my rests while opening it. It was from Louise. She’d sent me a sketch of Garcia dressed up as Napoleon, except his hand was stuck down in his pants instead of his coat. She’d written a caption: “Don’t let the little dic(tator) get you down!”
Below that was a “P.S. Don’t despair. Beer is in your future!”
I grinned back at her and started to wad the note up when I felt the weight of big, dark angst- filled eyes on me. I looked up into Garcia’s disgusted gaze. Uh oh, he was putting down his baton. That was never a good thing. I wondered if he’d seen the note passing and would demand that I show it to the band. Could I eat the note? I’d never actually eaten paper before but was willing to try if it meant I wouldn’t have to show it to him. I also didn’t want to get Louise in trouble. No, it wasn’t lost on me that I had completely regressed into middle school mentality.
“Ms. Beeling, is there something more important to you than counting your rests?” he said in a silken and hateful voice. You’d prefer playing a washboard in the Country Bear Jamboree perhaps? Or trying out for American Idol?”
Before I could gabble any kind of coherent reply, the band hall doors burst open, and Ralph Tucker, our missing third trombonist, came crashing through the doors. His wild mop of curly red hair looked black against his whiter than usual face. He looked sick to his stomach. Garcia stopped glaring at me and turned on him.
"And why are you coming to rehearsal an hour and a half late, Mr. Tucker?"
"Someone shot David. I think he's...dead…" gasped Ralph. He dropped his trombone case, sitting down heavily on the floor. He was clutching his cell phone, which he waved at us frantically.
"My phone isn't working. Somebody's got to call the police. Now."
"What happened?" I asked. But nobody answered me right away, because right about then, Louise fell out of her chair in a dead faint, breaking her bassoon in half on her way down.
"Goddamnit," screamed Garcia. "That bassoon belongs to the school." He ran through the weeds of clarinets and flutes and grabbed the broken instrument, cradling it in his arms. Meanwhile, Sam sprang up, handed me his saxophone and hurried to Louise. Frank Nesmith had already beaten him to the punch, gently putting his jacket under Louise’s head and patting her unresponsive hand. Sam held out the flask of whatever he’d put in our cokes and tried to offer Louise a restorative sort, but she wasn’t conscious. I pulled out my cell phone, which was miraculously charged, and dialed 911. I don't remember clearly what I said, but it was basically, “Get an ambulance and police over here now!”
Flora held Ralph, who shook in her arms. Everyone else was either milling about in confusion or sitting in stricken silence. No one, including me, knew sure what to do. I took a deep breath.
"Ralph, where is he?" I said. "Are you sure he's dead?" Ralph looked at me blankly, and then pointed outside.
"Miranda, maybe you should just wait for the ambulance to get here," said Flora, as I pulled my saxophone off my neck and put it down on my chair. I put Sam’s sax carefully back on his chair as well, mentally bracing myself to be brave.
"He may be hurt badly, but he may not be dead," I said. "I think I'd better check."
"He's in his truck," said Ralph. "But you can't help him." He pulled away from Flora, then put his head in his hands.
The parking lot was only half full. I could easily see David Hu's deli truck, with Hu's Produce and Groceries printed on the side. It was parked just behind the recycling dumpster. I honestly couldn't remember if I'd seen it when I'd come in to rehearsal.
I didn't want to go up to his truck, but I forced myself. I'm not a nurse, but I'd taken first aid training as a girl scout. I could do CPR and make tourniquets. I had the merit badge to prove it, somewhere in the clutter of Dad’s house.
The driver's side door of the truck hung open. When I got closer, I could see that Ralph was right. I wasn't going to be able to help. David hung from his seatbelt, half in and half out of the truck cab. There was blood all over the ground, and he'd been shot in the gut. His eyes were still open. I took a deep breath, and then wished I hadn't. There was the bitter, acrid smell of blood everywhere. I couldn't stand to see his eyes staring like that. I walked up to him, strained up on my tiptoes to reach his face and gingerly closed them. His body was still slightly warm, but he was definitely dead.
I had closed my mother’s eyes too, when she’d died. The feel of a body that’s just lost its soul is the same. I saw her head on the pillow again, and I could smell the medicines they’d given her.
"Ma'am, could you step away from the body, please," said a woman's voice behind me. I jumped about twenty feet. A woman police officer grabbed me and balanced me, since the ground was slippery with blood. I felt nauseated.
She walked me back toward the band hall door, stopping short of the entrance, and positioned herself in front of me. Both of us faced away from the scene at the truck, for which I was grateful.
"What were you doing there, Ma'am?" She had grey streaked hair that matched her narrowed grey eyes. I could see another officer walking past us toward the truck. There was a siren in the distance. Help was arriving too late, just like me.
"Trying to help," I said after a minute. She pulled out a notepad and a beaten up ball point pen and took down my name and contact information. Then she asked me some questions about David and when I’d last seen him alive. I answered as best I could.
"You’ll need to go inside now, Ms. Beeling, and wait for a while," she said, sounding stern and professional and utterly unfazed by the horrible sight. Of course, it wasn't her friend who was dead.
I went back inside and sat down with my saxophone. Louise was being attended to by a paramedic, with Frank and Sam hovering protectively over her. At least she was conscious, but she looked as sick and shocked as I felt.
I couldn't feel any grief yet, at least not grief specifically for David. I shook my head violently and reflexively fingered a solo on my sax. The keys thumped like worry beads, or a rosary. I mentally steered away from David’s death and the memory of Mom’s death, which had happened only a year before. My mind veered in the direction of remembering how David and Ralph had helped me move my things back into my Dad’s house after Mom died. David had seen my saxophone case and invited me to join the band, thereby giving me a social life again.
"He was so nice…" I muttered to myself, watching the police move through the band hall, talking to everyone and trying to assess what happened.
"Pardon me?" said a mellow baritone voice. I looked up into a beautiful pair of green eyes and got lost in them. They were like the forests of Olympia National Park, a cool rain forest that I had loved since my parents had taken me to Washington to see the forests when I was ten. I had wanted to move up to where it was cool and wet and deep green, and now that precise color was right here, blinking at me.
"Miss, are you all right?" he said. It was the kindness in the eyes that was getting me. Grief welled up for my mother and for David, senselessly killed while he was just coming to play music with his friends. Tears prickled behind my eyes.
"Here," he said, and handed me a Kleenex from one of those little pocket packs. I blew my nose, and then looked fruitlessly for a place to put the tissue. He was staring at me, so I felt awkward about dropping it into my purse, so I just held onto it.
"Did you know Mr. Hu well?" he asked sympathetically.
"Not that well," I blurted. "I mean, he was a friend, but I typically only saw him at band practice. But he shouldn’t have…." Shouldn’t have been killed, I wanted to say, but this was obvious. I couldn’t speak past the lump in my throat.
"It's o.k. Take your time," he said. He sat down by me and just waited for a little bit. He smelled like cinnamon and vanilla and clean male sweat.
"That's a cool saxophone you have," he said, looking at my tenor as I placed it carefully on the stand by my chair.
"It's a professional series Yamaha," I said with reflexive pride. "It's a great horn. Wish I could play it better."
"I feel that way about my trumpet," he said. "But I haven't had much time to practice it lately."
"You play trumpet?" I squeaked. "You ought to sit in with the band sometime,”. "I mean, when -" I trailed off. When my friend’s not lying dead in the parking lot just wasn’t the right thing to say, ever.
"That’s kind of you, Ms.-?"
"Beeling, Miranda Beeling," I said.
He pulled out a little notepad and started writing. I told him what little I knew, and gave him my phone numbers and address.
"I'll be in touch, Ms. Beeling," he said, handing me a card. "But you can go home now if you like."
The card read, Lieutenant Jason Hartley, Detective for the City of Richland Police Department.
"Please call me Miranda," I said. Just call me, said my inappropriate hormones as he stood up. He was tall, but not tremendously so, maybe a little less than six feet, and he moved like a dancer, or a gymnast. He had dark brown hair that set off those fabulous green eyes. No wedding ring, I noticed. I shook myself hard. This wasn’t the time or place to start fantasizing about anyone, no matter how green his eyes were. I realized I was grasping at distractions, trying not to think about David’s death. It didn’t make me feel all that great about myself though.
"Lieutenant, you need to come see this," said a uniformed cop walking up to us.
"I'll be in touch," said the Lieutenant Hartley again. I smiled at him. He smiled back, briefly, and walked out.
"Miranda," said Sam from behind me. "Some of us are going to Eleanor's to decompress. You want to come?"
"Yeah, sure," I said, as I started taking my saxophone apart and putting it back in its case. Eleanor's Bar and Grill was our usual after band hang out. I could use the beer, and maybe somebody there would have a clue as to why this had happened.
It looked like everyone from the band had come to Eleanor's. Everyone, that is, except Mark Garcia, who had gathered up Louise's broken bassoon and fled the band hall with it, and Corky, who had to go to bed early, tragedy or no tragedy, or he'd hear about it from his wife, Eustacia.
"He said he wondered why David hadn't picked him up for a ride to rehearsal" Flora whispered in my ear. She nodded over at Ralph, who had insisted on coming, even though he was obviously distraught. He wasn't eating, but had drunk a pitcher of beer singlehandedly already, and was lying drunkenly in a booth, no longer shaking, but with tears sliding down his cheeks now and then. We were sitting at the long table by the booth, and now and then one of us would pour him some more beer. Only Cheeto was eating pizza, but he'd never been a sensitive kind of guy.
"Is that why he was late?" I whispered to Flora while trying not to stare too obviously at Ralph.
"Yes" she said. "Ralph said he waited for David till it was way past his usual pickup time, and then he guessed David had gotten hung up somewhere..." She stopped and swallowed. "He says the truck was in the parking lot when he got to rehearsal, and it looked like David was just sitting there. So he went up to ask him what was going on, and he opened the door and..." She trailed off, looking queasy.
"I saw," I said, feeling queasy myself. I put a hand on the table to steady myself, wondering whether I’d need to make a run to the Ladies room.
"Poor Ralph," said Flora. "They were best friends." She took a sip of her Shiner Bock reflectively.
"Well, yeah," I said. "And poor David, obviously."
"Yeah," she agreed. I poured myself another Shiner from the pitcher. Nobody was talking much. Louise had recovered from her faint and had come along with us, but she didn't seem much better off than Ralph Tucker was. She'd skipped the beer and gone straight to whiskey, and I could see her taking a little pill from her purse that was probably Valium. Her gorgeous blonde hair was tangled over her face, and she had circles under her eyes like she hadn’t slept in a year. I couldn’t remember her looking so tired when she’d sent me the “Little Dictator” doodle at rehearsal.
"I think Louise is in shock," said Sam, who was sitting on my other side. "She and David were… you know." He shrugged expressively.
"No, I didn't know," I said loudly, in shock myself. He put a finger over his lips and nodded towards Louise, who was oblivious.
"So does anyone know why he was killed?" I asked Sam and Flora as quietly as I could.
"No, but the police are probably going to talk to all of us more closely, ’cause we knew him best," said Flora.
"We did?" said Sam.
"I did," said Ralph defensively from his seat.
"You didn't know him at all," said Louise, from where she slumped in the booth next to Ralph. The Valium and the whiskey were kicking in. I wondered if we'd need to call an ambulance for her soon.
How could Louise have kept an affair with David a secret from me? I thought she was blissfully married to her handsome older husband Stanley, despite her tendency to constantly flirt with everything hairy and insecure. David Hu was nice, but nondescript. He was just an ordinary, quiet guy in the band, who always played his trombone a little too quietly. What could sleek, lovely Louise have seen in him?
"He was a hell of a lover," muttered Louise into her whiskey.
Well that was one mystery solved.
"Yes, he was," muttered Ralph into his beer.
Well that was another mystery solved.
Ralph and Louise looked up and glared at each other.
"Who knew?" I said inanely.
"Who knew Hu?" said Sam, even more inanely. Flora shushed us both. Louise got up and ran to the ladies room. Ralph drained his glass and poured himself another. I followed Louisa, but it was a small restroom and she had locked the door behind her. I went back to the table to wait, feeling lost.
"I thought you girls were good friends," said Sam, peering at me curiously. "You didn't know about her and David?"
"I guess there are secrets in every relationship." I said, feeling embarrassed. Louise was certainly my best friend in my post law school life. Outside of band, we’d had lunch together and gone shopping and gotten pedicures. We traded jokes about everybody in the band, especially Cheeto, though never to his face of course.
But apparently she’d been having an affair with David Hu and not bothered to mention it to me, or maybe I had been too self-absorbed to notice any obvious hints she might have dropped.
"Miranda," said Sam. "She needs your help now, even if she didn't tell you about David."
"Well, how did you know about them?" I asked him, exasperated with his constant perception and insight in the face of my cluelessness.
"I'm a keen observer, Miranda," he said, smiling a little at me as he took another slug of his coke. He had ordered three of them in a row without adding any high grade liquor from his flask. He looked pretty alert. "I'll drive Ralph home if you'll take Louise."
I ate half a slice of pizza and drank a coke, while waiting for Louise to come back from the restroom, which helped me metabolize the alcohol in my system enough to feel confident driving Louise home. When she came out, she wouldn’t say much, but she went with me to my car and climbed inside, staring teary-eyed out the window. I wanted to ask her about David, and when things had started going wrong with her hubby Stanley, but I didn't dare.
Stanley Parkinson appeared to be a great catch, especially financially. When he was in his early twenties, Stanley had invented some useful computer hardware gizmos. The income from the resultant patents meant that he never had to work again. So he didn’t, except perhaps for investing in stocks here and there.
Stanley and Louise went on vacations constantly. Louise was often missing for weeks from rehearsals. She'd eventually show up with a Caribbean tan, or a well-rested aura from dining at the finest Parisian restaurants and going to art museums all day. She and Stanley shared a passion for paintings and sculpture, and they had one of the Southwest's most highly regarded private collections of Modern Art hanging on every wall of their tastefully appointed mansion in the wealthiest neighborhood in Richland.
They looked good together. Yes, he was ten years older than she, but he worked out in their huge pool and at the gym, and I suspected he colored his hair to hide any grays, not that they would show much. They both had beautiful blond hair of an almost white shade, and blue eyes. Hers were dark blue and his were lighter, like cornflowers. They would have had gorgeous children, but they didn’t have any. I supposed that would have cut into their carefree life a bit too much. Stanley had two kids from a previous marriage, but they were grown up now, with kids of their own. The kids were on good terms with their young stepmom, at least I never heard about any problems with them from Louise. Maybe Louise had gotten bored with all the idyllic perfection.
Louise dozed off on the drive, but revived when we reached her house. She couldn't find her keys to get in. She gave a little hiss of despair, then gazed at me.
"I've got to throw up," she whispered. "And then I need some mouthwash."
"Well, I don't have any, honey, so I don’t know what I can do."
"You go in the back and get some for me. There's a key under the ceramic obelisk by the back door. Stanley’s probably asleep."