Father’s body was paralyzed on the left side. His face sagged. A tube
snaked from his mouth. Saliva slid over his slack lips and down his
chin, onto his neck. The stroke had rendered him helpless, he was
strapped to his bed, yet I expected him at any moment to bolt up in a
rage to seek revenge on the nurses who supervised his detention. I
imagined that they, who wiped the spittle from his face, changed his
bags and measured his bodily fluids, turned and bathed him, kept him
alive, would experience his wrath if they were tending to him when he
His body jerked violently before it settled down to its unceasing
shaking. I felt a tinge of pity for him, but little else except guilt
for not feeling something more appropriate.
I pondered the long evening ahead.
“Maybe some music will help us make it through the night,” I said.
I looked at Dad, half expecting a response. Getting none, I plugged in
my tape player and moved close to his bed.
“We’re listening to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. He had a
commission to write the piece, you know, but told his wife that it would
be played at his own funeral. He was, unfortunately, right. It was the
last thing he wrote.”
I took a wicked delight in talking to my father this way, knew he would
rather die right now than listen to anything by Mozart. I turned up the
volume as much as is prudent in intensive care, closed my eyes and spoke
over the music.
“Be sure to listen for the trombone solo in the Third Movement. It’s
called the Tuba Mirum.” I played the Requiem throughout the night.
Very late, with the chorus soaring, I dozed off.
I was awakened by a cacophony of loud beeps, alarms and footsteps as
nurses rushed into the room. In a flurry of activity, they checked
Dad’s blood pressure and pulse, put a light to his eyes. They called
for a doctor who repeated everything they had just done. Finally, the
doctor shook his head, indicating the battle was over.
He pulled the sheet over my dad’s face. “I’m sorry. We did all we
could. We’ll leave you two alone now.”
The room was silent. Dad was still. I felt nothing. Tentatively, I slid
my chair to his bedside and pulled the sheet from his face. His eyes,
open, revealed not a trace of the smirk or disdain that I expected. He
seemed peaceful, his face untainted by anger or remorse.
I can still feel her coming to get me out of bed, the trailer shuddering
with each footstep as she comes clomping from the kitchen. I can feel
her desire to help me break away, though she has but a vague idea of how
to go about it, never having escaped herself. This seemingly ordinary
day was to be a pivotal one for me and, except for the fact that my
mother had a lofty but unformed vision for my future, I might never have
gotten out of bed that morning.
“This is the third and last time I’m telling you to get up.” She
jerked the blanket off me. “Now.”
I smashed my fist into the mattress. “I hate school and I ain’t
“Don’t you be saying ‘ain’t’ when you’re talking to me,”
she snarled. “And in case you think a nine-year-old kid makes his own
decisions around here, think again.”
She spun around to leave, still talking. “One thing I know for sure is
you won’t be making any new friends here in bed.”
She rattled pans in the kitchen so nobody could sleep even if they
wanted to. I plopped down at the table, ate a plate-sized pancake and
asked for another before trudging down the dirt road. The school bell
was ringing as I slipped in at the back of the line just in time to have
to listen to some older kid who started out his bragging the minute I
“Guess what I get to do?”
Nobody answered or even cared but he kept on.
“I’m going to the City to hear a man play his violin.” He lowered
his head and glanced at me, smiled an ugly smile. “Probably none of
you ever even saw a violin.”
He took a chocolate bar out of his pocket and held it up so we could all
get a good look. He unwrapped it slow-like and took a bite.
“Anyway,” he went on, “my dad says that nobody in this one-horse
town would care anything about a symphony concert or even that
Tchaikovsky will be there.”
“Who?” I asked
“Chai - coff – skee,” he said, looking me over good. “But they
don’t let fruit-picking trash like you in concert halls.”
“Just shut up.” I shoved him hard out of line. “I can go anywhere
I want to.”
“Liar!” he said, pointing at me. “You don’t even have any
I punched him in the face and kicked him. When his chocolate bar fell to
the ground, I tromped on it, squishing it through my toes. “You’re a
piss-pot, turd face,” I yelled just before the teacher grabbed me.
“Maurice! Joey! What’s going on here?”
“He started it,” I said, struggling to free myself.
“Did not!” Maurice the bragger pointed to the melting chocolate mess
in the dirt. “Look what he just did.”
“Joey! Just a few days here and you’re in trouble already.” She
yanked me inside and stuck me in the corner for the rest of the morning
without even listening to my side.
After school, I left there quick, running. As I got close to our
trailer, I stopped by the wooden storage shed dad had cobbled together
just so I could savor the yeasty, wonderful smell of fresh baked bread.
The shed stood with its door hanging open, padlock dangling. A 25-pound
sack of flour was leaning against the wall, its top slashed open, a
measuring cup and sifter poking out of the soft, white contents. On a
small shelf alongside the half full bag of flour were two more neatly
folded empty bags with blue and white flowers on them.
Knowing I’d have to tell her about the fight with Mr. Stuck Up Asshole
Turd Face, I opened the screen door, knowing she would be standing there
with her apron on, sprinkling flour over the small wooden table and no
longer mad at me. She smiled as I opened the screen door.
I figured I’d get it over with right away. “I got in a fight today,
but I didn’t start it.”
She put down her rolling pin. A frown replaced her smile.
“Some kid was making fun of me,” I cried. “He called me trash and
said I couldn’t go to a concert like him because I don’t have any
shoes and I said I could, too. So can I?”
“Chai - koff - skee,” I said, proud of myself for remembering. “He
has a violin. It’s a symphony concert in the City.”
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip, Joey. We barely have enough
food to eat and you want to go to some concert.” She pushed her hair
back from her face, leaving a smudge of flour on her forehead. “How do
you think we’d pay for it?”
“You hide money sometimes.”
“Not for wasting.” She wiped her hands on her apron, looked at me.
“In my whole life, I’ve never been to any kind of concert. I doubt
if you’ll even like the symphony.”
“I will, too, like it!”
“And San Francisco’s got traffic and cable cars everywhere.” She
sounded impatient. “And hills so steep you think you’re going to
roll off the earth.”
“Maurice is a crappy jerk and he was making fun of me. I had to say I
could go.” I clenched my fists and pounded on my hips. “Take me just
this once. I promise I’ll never ask for anything ever again.”
“You’ve got to be the most persistent kid in the world.” She
plopped the dough on the table. “I need to make a pie now.”
“No.” I yanked on her apron. “Not yet. You didn’t say you’d
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“That means you’re not going to do it. ” I stomped away, my throat
tight, eyes burning.
“You don’t need to be walking away from me like that.” She came
after me, knelt down, wiped away my tears with her fingers.
“Listen, now. For the life of me, I don’t understand why this is so
important to you, but since it is, I’ll try to find a way to get us
there, if it’s not too much money.” She shook her head a little,
stood. “Remember, I said ‘try’. ”
I’d won. I put my arms around her waist, hugged her tight. “They
won’t let me in barefoot.”
“There’s a rummage sale this weekend,” she said, rumpling my hair.
“Looks like I’d better cut that thick mop of yours, too.” She put
her finger in front of her lips. “Let’s keep this just between the
two of us for now,” she whispered, though there wasn’t anybody else
around. “I’ll tell Vernon when the time is right.”
My older brother and I shared a tiny room off the kitchen, with one bed
on either side of the short passageway that led to the not-much-bigger
bedroom at the back end of the trailer where my parents slept, just a
sliding door between the rooms. John had taped a photograph of dad to
the wall over his bed. In it, dad’s head was tilted slightly, his lips
curled into a barely discernible smile, his nearly-black hair slicked
neatly back. He was shirtless, holding a beer in one hand. On the wall
over my bed, I had taped dozens of puppy photos torn from old magazines
- collies, German shepherds, retrievers, terriers, mutts - as many
photos lapped over each other as would fit on the wall from my pillow to
On the night mom chose to tell dad about our concert in San Francisco,
she wore a dress with little blue and yellow flowers on it. She had
sewed a ruffle around the hem and designed a belt that tied around her
waist and made a bow in the back. She put on lipstick, pinched her
cheeks, let her long, wavy hair hang loose.
Dad took notice. “Well, look at you.” He put his hands around her
waist as she put a cold beer on the weather-worn table. He patted his
thighs, grinned, and said, “Sit yourself here for awhile.”
Mom laughed her flirty laugh as she put her arms around his neck, sat on
his lap, laid her head on his shoulder. “So you like my new dress?”
She snuggled her face into his neck.
“You don’t look like no mom of two boys, I’ll say that.”
She kissed him on the lips before she scooted off his lap. She went
inside and brought out a loaf of bread hot from the oven, corn on the
cob and baked potatoes piled onto a plate, fried Spam, sliced tomatoes.
And, she had filled the icebox with Pabst Blue Ribbon.
She winked at Dad. “Let’s eat now. Later, John can take his little
brother into town to watch the free movie tonight.”
“I’m thinking that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Dad
said, reaching for his beer.
A couple of weeks later, Dad got one of his buddies to drive him and
John to Fresno where he was supervising a fruit-picking crew while Mom
and I climbed into our ’32 Model B Ford that dad had bought just a few
months earlier, proud that he’d paid only $95 for it, proud that it
was in such good condition, and we began our journey. Dad normally took
the wheel when we went anywhere, men being the better drivers, but today
mom was in charge. The windows down, her long brown hair blowing around
her face, I could see she was ‘a looker’, as Dad would say, and a
whole lot prettier than the pinups he was always showing me in his girly
Mom was holding the steering wheel tight as we drove forty miles an hour
onto the amazing new Oakland Bay Bridge. I got on my knees and stuck my
head out the window, felt the cool air on my face, counted six lanes of
traffic. “This must be the longest bridge in the world,” I yelled
into the wind.
“You and this bridge are about the same age.” Mom yelled back.
I wondered how people got to San Francisco before there was a bridge.
Mom, who scared me a lot of times by reading my mind, answered my
thoughts. “People had to take a ferry to the City before.” She
grabbed my shirt and jerked it hard. “Get your head in. We’re coming
to the tunnel through Yerba Buena Island. Soon after, the City!”
Mom was right about the people and traffic everywhere. When she finally
found a parking place on the street, she scrambled out of the car,
grabbed my hand and said, “We’re running late. Hurry on.”
We half-walked and half-ran hand in hand for blocks before she yanked me
to a stop. “Oh, Joey, look.”
We stood and gawked at probably the most beautiful building in the whole
world. I’d never seen anything like the War Memorial Opera House with
all those arches and columns. When we’d filled our eyes, we walked up
a lot of stairs to get to the ticket man only to find out the concert
had already started and we couldn’t go in until after intermission.
“I should think the tickets would be half price, then.” Mom grabbed
my hand and pulled me to her side.
Mr. Ticket Man looked at me from head to toe and I was glad Mom went to
that rummage sale. She’d polished my shoes and they looked pretty
good, even if they weren’t new.
“If you don’t mind standing,” he said, “it won’t cost much at
She handed him the money, took the tickets and we went inside. There was
so much to see, I just planted my feet and pointed. “Look. Up
Her eyes followed my finger. “My Goodness. I’ve never seen such a
place.” Mom thumbed through the program notes. “Says here this is
the Grand Entrance Hall and what you’re pointing at is the high barrel
vaulted ceiling.” She put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a
squeeze. “If you hadn’t been paying attention, we might have missed
Holding my hand, walking and reading all at the same time, she said,
“After intermission they’re performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin
Concerto in D Major. That’s who you wanted to see.”
“What does ‘D Major’ mean?”
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “Let me read some more. Maybe it
will tell us.” She frowned. “It doesn’t say a thing here about D
Major, but it says that Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer from the
“What’s a composer?”
“That’s who writes the music. I do know that much.”
“What does the Romantic era mean?” I was upset, not knowing so many
Mom was a little short with me when she said, “I told you I’ve never
been to a symphony concert before. These program notes don’t tell us
“But did Tchaikovsky play the violin?”
“He started piano lessons when he was only five.” She shook her head
like she didn’t believe it. “Goodness.”
“How come he wrote music for the violin, then?”
She put her finger over my lips. “You can just stop asking questions,
because I want to relax a little now.”
I knew she wouldn’t be silent long, so sat looking at the beautiful
Grand Entrance Hall until she spoke again.
“Look, son. Here’s a picture of the man who’s going to be playing
his violin.” She handed me the program.
“That looks like a fiddle. Is it the same thing?”
She ignored my question, said, “If you’ll listen, you can hear
inside they’re playing Mozart’s music right now. And we’re having
to sit out here in the lobby and miss it.”
“Is Mozart in there?”
“I don’t see how he could be, since he was born in 1756.” She
laughed. “There’s a world of things to learn, Joey. Like this, for
example.” She pointed to her program. “Mozart was a child
“A child what?” I asked.
She read a little bit more trying to find the answer before telling me
that Mozart at six years old could play blindfolded and with his hands
crossed over. Since I was nine already, I didn’t see how that could be
and said so. She read that Mozart also composed his own music when he
was my age.
Finally, the music inside ended and people came pouring into the lobby.
Mom grabbed my hand. “We can go in now.” A woman who said she was an
usher looked at our tickets. “Is this your first time at the
symphony?” she asked.
Mom blushed and nodded. The usher touched her arm and led us to the very
front row. “These seats aren’t taken. You sit here with your boy.”
Mom looked around. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. The front row’s great for getting a good look at the
musicians, and it sure beats standing.” She winked at Mom before
After a while, there must have been a hundred people on the stage.
“Look at all those fiddles,” I remarked.
“Violins, Joey, violins!”
I was surprised to see so many different sizes of violins, some so big
the men had to stand beside them and hold them up. And there were all
kinds of strange-looking horns and drums. “What are all those?” I
“What I know is all these men with their instruments is the symphony
orchestra you wanted so bad to hear.”
The squawky noise they were making didn’t sound too good. I thought
maybe Mom was right and I wouldn’t like the concert after all, but I
didn’t tell her that. Maurice the piss pot was wrong, though, because
Tchaikovsky wasn’t there at all since he was dead, too. Just his music
was going to be played.
My thoughts were interrupted with the sound of clapping as a man wearing
a black suit and carrying a violin walked onto the stage. The audience
got quiet as he turned to face the orchestra and motioned to a man with
a strange-looking black horn to play a note while he tried to copy it.
That didn’t look too hard to me, but it must have been important
because when he was satisfied he’d got the note right, the rest of the
instruments with strings had to try. When they all hit the same note,
the strange black horn sounded again, and the horns had their turn to
try to copy the note. If this was what a concert sounded like, it was
pretty boring. The first guy who started this whole thing sat down and
another man with a violin came onto the stage and the audience went
wild. I didn’t understand what all the clapping was about as nothing
had happened besides that one note being played over and over again.
“That’s the soloist, Joey,” Mom whispered.
When the audience settled down, a man dressed in a long black coat with
tails on it walked to the center of the stage and bowed several times.
Everybody clapped all over again for a long time and still there was no
“That’s Pierre Monteau,” Mom said. “He’s the conductor. And
before you ask, he’s the leader of the orchestra.”
Finally, the conductor turned to face the musicians, raised his stick
and when it came down the orchestra began to play so softly at first
that I could hardly hear them. I was confused and didn’t know where to
look or how to listen to the different sounds coming from all around me.
When the man with the violin began playing, I thought it must be the
sweetest sound anybody ever heard. The breath went out of me. Everything
but that music was shut out of my mind.
I don’t know how much time passed before everybody stood up and
started clapping again and yelling, “Bravo! Bravo!”
Everybody except me. I just sat there in a daze, staring at the
musicians. Mom shook me and asked if I was all right. She pulled me to
my feet as the San Francisco Symphony played The Star Spangled Banner. I
could feel the music come into my chest as the horns sounded the melody
of the rockets’ red glare and I knew right then what I wanted to be
some day. I wanted to be somebody really special, somebody just like
that man who played the violin.
Excerpted from "Tears and Trombones" by Nanci Lee Woody. Copyright © 2014 by Nanci Lee Woody. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.