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The Gulf of Pass by Jessica Lee Richardson | Word Riot
Short Stories

July 21, 2016      

The Gulf of Pass by Jessica Lee Richardson

Peaking over the pea waters was a sixty piece band, stranded on the Gulf of Pass. The instruments fogged. The strings sagged. But the eyes remained alert. “How long has it been now?” One. “Our whole lives.” Another. They clutched a tuba and cello respectively, while the wienie waves underscored them with bath noises. Basin noises. Quick dunks and no roar. “I suppose we should rehearse again,” the Conductor said sighing. The orchestra groaned but placed their lips on brass, their fingers on tuning knobs, their eyes on sheets.
      The salt had worn at the sound, the water had warned the holes, the spectators had stayed home again, weary of the passionless music. To say nothing of the dissonance. The musician’s talent had left with the crowd. The crowd had left with the imitation pagoda, the convention hall, the tumble of the last gazebo resigned to the inclement weather and corrupt governance at the Gulf of Pass. There was nowhere left to perform. They lined the rock wall of the dinky beach to rehearse. Performances proper were reserved for the struggling pier. It could still bear their weight, but they worried. For how long? It’s legs splintered and shook. Some pretended the clacking was applause.
      The conductor cleared his throat and turned the page. His hands rose into points and heavy notes rose to lose battles with wind. It sounded like a circus dying of a degenerative disease. The conductor tried to infuse it with morphine. The band blundered on for lack of much else to do. They had finally rolled into the section of the score with the most promise, the part that always cheered them with rondo when the soloist arrived clutching a cup of coffee with both hands.
      The soloist had long hair, gleaming in almost black, cascading around her eggshell sweater. The wide neck and soft fabric protected her vocal chords like the precious babies they were. She was the only one who hadn’t lost her talent with the leaving of the crowds. But she refused to perform anymore. Presently she was climbing the dilapidated stairs to the top of the rock wall while the band stiffened and puffed their sagging chests against the feelings threatening them.
      The conductor began his furious nodding. His attempt to fluff them deflated them, because they could feel their lack in his needling desire. They were still playing the best part of the song, though, so the sound carried them to the least degrading section of their shame. The Soloist had arrived on the wall and had saddled up to the conductor. A small nod of her perfect chin excited the front line so much that the smiles of the Woodwinds flattened their breath and notes and the nervous fingers of the Strings twiddled vibrations into costume parties of their intended sound. The conductor nodded harder. Whether he was pretending this was how it was supposed to go, or fighting the inevitable breakdown of something only resembling song in the first place, no one could tell. But the soloist wrinkled her nose and the breath and fingers all faltered further.
      “Stop!” She yelled, and they did. Except for Michael, the snare drummer in the back, who hadn’t heard her, and who was really jamming out back there. He was young enough to not remember harmony. Rhythm. He thought they were doing just fine. Everyone turned their heads at him, though, and the dopey smile drooped slowly into a frown while his beats banged with wider and wider gaps until they silenced. He dropped his head, and the other fifty-nine heads turned back to the angry soloist.
      “WHEN are you going to get your mother-loving SHIT together?” She bellowed. For a woman with a singing voice of golden rivers, she sure had a wretched speaking voice. It pierced the sensitive ears of the band members, it barreled into their brains and shot down into their sunken hearts and lodged like a jagged peach pit.
      The conductor began a string of apologies that embarrassed everyone, they lowered instruments, stuffed hands in pockets, looked elsewhere, as if in elsewhere, there were something to see.
      It was in this moment of back-peddling grovel and collective avoidance that something surprising happened—an infrequency, as you can imagine, in the Gulf of Pass.
      Some among the players were not pocket handed and gaze lowered. The flautists had kept their eyes forward and holey wands raised. The flautists were the band’s feature in the old days. They hadn’t preserved their talent like the Soloist. But they had preserved their diligence. They were the only section that could still stay in key and on beat. They oiled their mouthpieces. They visited one another’s children. They practiced at home. No one could understand why, but they respected the reedy women nonetheless. One among them was pushed forward by the others to speak. Martine Costa, the stoutest and oldest, was not one to betray her fellows. So she did what they asked. In fact, she shouted.
      “Oh shove it up your tight ass, Maureen,” She yelled.
      Smiles rose and bounced from one to the next. The band didn’t know why they were smiling. They wanted to protect the Soloist as warmly as her wide sweater neck, normally. But something else in them pointed their mouth corners. Each other. An ever-microscopic glimmer of something like pride, undeserved as it may have been.
      The Soloist saw the smiles but did not smile herself. Her tiny white ears flamed and her forehead drilled forward and foremost. The air around her cheeks vibrated raggedly. Her body was so slight it looked like she would levitate with the force of her pissedness.
      Martine was unmoved. Her feet stayed planted squat. Her mouth ducked and eyes squinted at the tiny woman. Her floutists flanked her.
      The band was paying attention now. Even young Michael, the happy handed drummer was utterly silent.
      The conductor shifted from foot to foot.
      The Soloist visibly changed gears from fireball food-fighter to the measured heat of an ultra-casual pastry chef. Coming down from her tippy toes, she tried to match Martine’s hard-earned grandmotherly cool. She emitted a fake laugh. It was harsh to the inner ears of the musicians. She felt the flinch and recovered. Sipped her coffee. Said: “Am I supposed to be insulted? You are REALLY lucky I still come to visit you at all.”
      A family strolling along the crumbling beachfront had sensed the drama and paused to listen.
      The Soloist knew how badly the band wanted her back. She was their ticket to an audience. Some remembered the bird lassoing magic of her voice. Some didn’t, but with a singer like that, word spread. It was the ongoing charade they played, like children roping their parents into the living room to watch their dance routine. They rehearsed for the Soloist alone. Without her there was little chance for them. The Soloist held this understanding aloft. Waved it like a flag, never fully agreeing to join them, but never fully not.
      The band began saluting. They wished they could silence Martine now. It had been a fun moment, but they were ready to return to reverence. Really, the day was lost. They wanted to go home and watch the internet. Pat their scrubby dogs. There was no way they were getting the Soloist on board today, so the day could be over now. Gulls squawked and litter danced around them. A couple had joined the listening family, leaning against the remnants of a town side fence below. Damage control, they thought in unison.
      Harold Walker, a mighty trombonist in his day took a step forward and said, “Yes yes, Maureen, we so appreciate—”
      But Martine’s hand rose to shush him without breaking eye contact with the Soloist.

“We have not heard you sing in over three years, Maureen,” she said. “Why don’t you give us a little concert, eh? Prove your worth.”
      The small cavalcade of spectators had pulled out phones and punched at them.
      The soloist emitted a cackle. “I do NOT have to prove myself to you,” she said.
      “Of course not,” Harold began and the conductor shot out a supportive arm to Maureen’s shoulder, but up went Martine’s hand again. There was something about the hand of a grandmother flanked by flautists.
      “Just to inspire us. We come here every Sunday in search of our dormant talent. Just for you. Give us a reason to keep showing up.”
      “I am protecting my vocal chords, Martine. Perhaps if I had worthy accompaniment I would—”
      “A voice like yours needs no accompaniment,” the older woman said, tickling Maureen’s pride. “Acapella is fine.”
      There were now no fewer than ten people standing at the fence, blowing on their cold hands. Their ears were delighted by the heated conversation. But there was something else in their ears too. A child zipped through the legs of the adults. Singing.
      Smiles bounced through the band again. They turned their heads for a moment to enjoy the terribly uncommon pleasantness of this common pleasure. Took a breath. The child was oblivious to their watching at first. She had a pretty voice. But the revelry was interrupted by the soloist and she froze her feet, shy.
      “FINE,” Maureen said loudly. “I’ll sing.” If one wasn’t above such ludicrous postulates, they may have thought the soloist jealous. Of a five year old. There were a few fence goers who knew the soloist’s work and they too pulled their phones out to snap and send pictures. The child stopped singing.
      “But not acapella,” the soloist bellowed. “These good people should hear,” she flicked her hand toward the fence, “what I’m up against with you people.” She turned to the conductor to select a song. If there were some among the band who had not noticed the growing audience, they saw them now. And they were increasing. Over the course of ten minutes the crowd had tripled in size. By the time Maureen had made her selection, there were forty or fifty people at the fence. Despite the poverty of the town, some had even brought snacks to share. The jovial mood infected the band. Their lips buzzed warm, their fingers tingled with their hearts. There hadn’t been a crowd in ages. They knew the soloist was the draw, but it mattered little against the strong thump of their blood.
      “I am ready,” the Soloist said finally, lifting her head from the sheets of scores. “Stravinski’s Nightingale. Number three, the nightingale’s first aria.”
      Martine looked surprised. It was, she felt, a softball. With heavy-handed symbolism, nonetheless. When she opened the sheet music she remembered that her flautists open the arrangement. Maureen’s dirty look confirmed Martine’s hunch that the Soloist had certainly not forgotten. She decided to play this clean.

When the flautists nodded and blew the Soloist looked pleasantly surprised. Their high notes were crystal.
      But then the violin solo began, and a thousand monkeys were burping, the sky was raining antacid.
      The first note of the beloved flesh nightingale, the sweet live thing singing, “From high in the sky/a star tumbled to the ground/it tumbled and spun itself,” sounded stilted, numb throated and lozenged. It turned out the soloist had a tough time singing to out of key accompaniment.
      The growing audience strained to enjoy what they knew they were supposed to enjoy. But not the little girl, she was laughing harmoniously. She sung into the Soloist’s dull vibrato and gave it the shimmering dew of the lyric. The audience erupted with laughter and clapping. The Soloist’s face turned red, but the band cheered. The violinists bowed with more bow. The flautists opened up into round whole notes, bright and fresh as plucked pears.
      The conductor did something terribly surprising then, seeing his band alight so. He turned to the crowd and raised his hands like a roof.
      He was inviting them to join.
      Of course, Le Rossignol was not something the townspeople sung in the shower. Nor were they particularly fluent in French. But they improvised and mimicked their little nightingirl who was laughing and jumping the purity of her pipes to the sound of the horns entering. The horns, it should be admitted, were not great. But they weren’t half bad either, the apples of their air puffed cheeks betrayed more than breath expanding, they betrayed breath’s ultimate impulse. Joy. The chorus swelled.
      The band had never had a better day, not even in their hey day.
      The Soloist tried to hover above the crowd but she was drowned out. By the time they’d reached the edge of the woods, she had resigned to harmonizing quietly with the singing crowd, waiting it out with her eyes on her finger beds. She sounded better now.
      Long into the evening the people sang. When it was over they walked home link-armed and gust-breathed unaware of their contribution, complimenting, endlessly, the wonders of their beloved soloist, Maureen.
      “Such a beautiful singer!” One.
      “The best!” Another.
      Even Martine agreed, as she strolled to her flat giggling with a flask and her flautists, but not before she had offered that little girl free voice lessons with a certain sweet bird, winking across the Gulf of Pass.

me at readingAbout the author:

Jessica Lee Richardson’s first book of stories, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides (FC2, 2015) won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award. Her shorts and poems won awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald museum and have been featured online at The Short Form, Ploughshares, and the Authonomy Sunday Shorts Series by Harper Collins. Her fictions have appeared or will appear in BOAAT, the Collagist, the Indiana Review, Joyland, and the Masters Review among other places. You can read some of these at www.jessicaleerichardson.com.

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