Blowing Across the Top By Michael Foy

Maya waits on the church stage in an ankle length black dress with white stripes holding a flute. She stares at a giant window covered in coloured plastic panels that play with the light. Looking at all those colours, she can’t tell if outside is cloudy, raining, or sunny. One blue panel has a spider web crack across its surface.

Joanne brushes a hair from Maya’s shoulder.

“Mama, I’m nervous.”

“That’s normal. You’ll be great. Oh look love, he’s back,” Joanne points at Steve, Maya’s step dad, keeping her eyebrows up, as if she wants Maya to recognize his value. He sits in the front row. She saw him earlier searching for a stronger signal on the steps outside of Our Lady of Good Council. He chose Dramatic Cool, and put a burst of photos on Facebook. He tagged her in the photos. He doesn’t have many followers.

“Why can’t Dad come?”

“We’ve talked about this; you know they don’t get along.”

“He could help me. He’s done this before.”

Joanne frowns: “Time and place, Maya.”

“Can’t we all talk about it? Together.”

“It’s not that easy… sometimes talking doesn’t fix things.”

“But if he were here—”

“Enough.” Joanne raises her hands. “Remember, I am not staying long.” She turns and walks toward the first pew. “I’m leaving right after you perform. Steve is taking you home.”

Joanne moves in next to him; the oak bench is worn. The wood stain lightens at the contact points, like old jeans at the knees. All those sliding backsides have given it some comfort. Joanne and Steve are wedged in next to all the other families, shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh. Everyone paid $25 to see their kid play; the place is packed.

Joanne reads the program. She leans closer to Steve and bumps his shoulder, “She’s seventh. There has to be some luck in that. She’ll hear some of the other kids play but doesn’t have to wait long. Forty-eight performers. Should I stay for all of them?”

Steve looks up from his phone and rubs a finger across his nose.

“No. Unless you think it’s rude to just watch your kid and leave.”

Maya’s in line behind a guitarist, two pianists, a singer, and a drummer—all ten and under. She counts a hundred people in the audience. Her left hand trembles. She tells herself that she’s played the song on her flute that many times. She imagines playing for each audience member, one by one. They smile at her trills, her movement across the keys, her embouchure. But a thought creeps in: what if I blow it? She laughs. What if I don’t?

 

Tommy is in his apartment when he spots Maya’s photos on his news feed. Despite the divorce, they are friends on Facebook. He scrolls her post, adding a like, a love and a heart-eyed emoji, before he pushes off.

Tommy has no laces in his shoes. He is using them to tie off. Staring at the skin on his wrist, he feels for a large vein. Gently, over and over, he presses it, leaving a fading white finger print as it expands. Holding a loaded needle parallel to his arm, C’mon, Tommy slides the bevel deep into his vein, and on the pull, blood clouds the barrel—he’s sure he’s in.

Be there for me.

After the plunge, he removes the needle, dropping it on the carpet, and loosens the laces. His heart pulses and this new blood mix washes him back into the soft sofa cushions. Tommy’s lips part. He draws air in through his teeth. He thinks about the recital, Maya preparing to go on­—she must be nervous, afraid even, just like him. He exhales.

Last time they were together Tommy left her unaccompanied on the bus, she ended up at the bus terminus in Newton 2 hours later, lost and upset, her phone died. Her safety was in jeopardy. So Maya and her father have not gone anywhere together in over a year. Tommy’s never invited; Maya’s not allowed. About two months ago he broke into his old home and took Steve’s entire comic book collection, including a mint condition Amazing Spiderman #2, valued at $5,000, and pawned it all. Before taking the comics, he wandered around all the rooms, a creaky floor in an empty house. He stopped in Maya’s room, picked clothes from the floor, dropped them in the hamper and reorganized some books on her desk. His addiction comes in at $200 a day.

Joanne refused to go to the police, even though the neighbours saw Tommy leaving the yard, balancing two boxes on the handlebars of his mountain bike.

Maya tried, but she couldn’t imagine her father on a bike.

Maya overheard Steve confronting Tommy, on speaker phone, and Tommy laughed.

“Your fucking comic book collection? You’re telling me I took your comics and traded them all for a couple points of junk.”

Tommy spelled it all out right there, the truth can embolden, but Steve wasn’t sure what to say…

“Well, uh, you know where the spare key is, and what they’re worth.”

“Jo never married you for your brains. You’re a landscaper. She just hired you to see someone in the yard again.”

Click.

But Maya would never feel the same toward him. He was an imposter. She saw him cut the lawn every week, fix the eaves, and rev the leaf blower he paraded around on his back while swinging the blow tube: the sound rattling the kitchen window, interrupting her homework. He was always outside, trying to get in.

 

Tommy pulls on his blue hoodie with a faded Pepsi logo before leaving the apartment. He used to be a flautist, and now he’s on his way to a performance with no instrument. He rides the bus, Joanne calls it ‘the loser cruiser’. He lost his car in the same accident that disfigured his face with third degree burns. The scar tissue made playing impossible. He was discharged from the Burn Unit with an oxycodone dependency, and a promise ‘to be monitored.’ He replaced oxy with heroin anyway. No choice.

On the bus he’s cold, even with warm air blowing from the vent. When he’s like this Tommy usually forgets where he’s going, that he’s a musician, and a father…but today he wants to remember.

The guilt of leaving his family is his life song, always on in the back ground. His disappearance, not coming home night after night: the dumpster diving, a carboard mattress, sleeping huddled against the air exchange at the Skytrain station.

When he spots the church on Fieldfare, he yanks the stop chord, exits the bus and enters the church high as a kite, drifting through all the parents and the kids waiting to go on. With his hood up, it’s hard to see his face; when he passes, he gets a wide berth. Maya knows that Pepsi hoodie, the soft creases at the elbows from all the washings. She knows if his head were uncovered, that distance would be greater. No longer bearded, hair gone, and with no eyebrows it is difficult to read his expression. People stared at the scars that formed to repair the wounds. Over time they have faded, flattened and softened, but his face is a patch work of skin grafts. There is no pain, the receptors were obliterated, but the emotional pain remains.

Maya about to perform. On stage, five-year old Holden Mendez is making the drum beat dance. Tommy stands next to the lectern at the side of the stage swaying, like you could push him over with a finger. His jeans have a rear pocket hanging off, like an opened ear of corn, revealing a dark patch of denim underneath.

Tommy looks at all the people: a field of stars he can’t touch or rearrange. He’s the centre, they pulse from dim to bright, moving in and out, circling him over time, like star trails in a time lapsed photo of the night sky. Tommy’s arms and legs are heavy, everything droops—his eyes are half-hooded, like closing blinds. He lifts his chin to the applause, his lips twitch a smile, but it’s not for him.

“Thank you, thank you very much Holden Mendez,” calls the M.C. “Hey little man,” he points a finger, “you certainly can keep that beat.”

Holden, fitted with a red bow tie and squeezing his drumsticks, bows at center stage.

“Now, please welcome Maya Reid and her flute. She is performing Hatikvah for you this afternoon.”

Some people recognize her name, know her story, and look for the cracks.

Joanne and Steve see Maya on stage, but it’s Tommy they hear—his soft soles squeak the hardwood. He’s moving closer. A walking confession, wearing all that’s happened on his skin. Most of him’s in slow motion; his head sinks low then rises with a start, like he’s struggling to stay awake.

“Oh god, look,” Steve whispers. “You getting this?”

“What if it throws her off?” Joanne asks.

“He needs to leave.”

Steve stands.

She pulls him back down. “Just wait and see.”

Maya wants to run to him. It’s her father’s old flute in her hands. Tommy told her that as a kid he had to save up to buy it, a year of delivering papers and chopping firewood. And in grade twelve he received the provincial medal for excellence from the Royal Conservatory of Canada. She saw it hanging in his office.

The day Tommy gave her the flute, he opened the corduroy lined case and showed her how to clean the three silvery sections with a soft rag wrapped around the cleaning rod. Walking her through the assembly, he slid and twisted the head, body and foot piece into one.

“When you play, keep both elbows up a little, up like this, and the barrel down slightly. Thumb goes here. And always, always focus hard on the music. Not the audience.”

Tommy had pressed his bottom lip onto the lip plate. “It’s like blowing across the top of a bottle.”

That lesson was three years ago.

Right now, Maya wants to rebuild everything around him. Pull it apart, clean and reassemble, remove whatever’s blocking that music he made. But she can’t. She remembers the family therapist and all the adjustments, the changes, but he became even more depressed. He couldn’t leave the house and once he did, he never came back.

She places the sheet of music on the stand.

She moves her foot, tap, tap, tap, and nods, cueing her piano accompaniment. When she lifts her elbow to play her music sheet falls, swinging back and forth, like a fallen leaf. It lands near Tommy.

“That’s it,” Steve says. “Freak show’s over.”

Joanne swats his wrist. “He’s not a show!”

Steve turns to Joanne, “Well, listen to you, you’re here together again in the church, ask him for a do-over?”

Tommy takes two steps and picks up the paper, folds it length wise and snaps it flat.

“That should do it.”

He hands the music to the M.C.

“Thank you, sir. Let’s get that back where it belongs.”

Maya has her father’s brick brown eyes. She wipes them and clears her throat. Focus hard.

Again she taps her foot, again the piano plays.

Maya’s breath moves through the barrel, her fingers press the right keys, and the notes sweep in like a robin’s evening song. And for the duration, everyone in that room breathes together, and Maya’s tone is just right—soft, then loud, then soft and finally silent.

 

Michael Foy 

Image by A_Different_Perspective from Pixabay

7 thoughts on “Blowing Across the Top By Michael Foy

  1. This story hits the right notes. Believable characters, and the piece does a good job of seamlessly weaving in the backstory. I gradually developed sympathy for Tommy. Some tough times for Maya, but it seems she’s going to come through them.

    Like

  2. Quite an involving story. The unfortunate fate of Tommy is well described, how he acquired the addiction that now dominates his life, rather than the music that was his calling. His daughter carries on. He has not abandoned her, she feels and knows his support as he arrives on the concert scene. He fights his depression and addiction to be there for her. I feel sorry for Steve the step dad, a practical guy kind of shunned by the daughter and not truly loved by his new wife. Tommy, the romantic musician, the true father, is still at the heart of Maya and her mother’s attention and feeling.

    Like

  3. Hi Michael,
    Tommy’s involvement with his daughter is to be expected but due to his circumstance, admired. But there is a dark shadow of escalation when reading this. It is the toss of a coin whether he will always be there for her or his other needs will take priority.
    What I enjoyed about this is that it is a snap shot of a specific time and event with just enough back story to give us the history. You leave it up to the reader to decide on the eventual outcome.
    Excellent flow and very interesting characters.
    Hugh

    Like

  4. Just read 200,000 deaths from opiods in the U.S. causing mortality rates to rise in middle age men. In this case Tommy went on to heroin, which I believe is common. Makes one wonder what someone who had Tommy’s accident would do. How bad is the psychic and physical pain before one breaks down?

    Too many real life stories like this one.

    Like

  5. As others have said, you weave backstory into your story seamlessly, and you use just the right number of telling details: the “spider web crack,” Joanne pointing at Steve as if she’s trying to get Maya to “recognize his value,” and the ending in which everyone “breathes together.”

    Like

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