Ace in the Hole

Claire improved enough to go to church the next Sunday. When one of the other women heard we were going to go, she asked if she could come along, too. Her name was Rita and I was of course happy to chauffeur whoever, so long as they were medically cleared to go.

Rita had some kind of heart problem, but a staff member assured me she was unlikely to keel over during mass. She did ask if I was certified in CPR, though, just in case. (I wasn’t.) Rita also had very short hair, and the two of them were about the same height. So she and Claire made sort of a matched set. During the mass I daydreamed, as I often did. This time I daydreamed about how my life might have been different if I’d been raised by a lesbian couple.

I actually couldn’t think of a lot that would be different by that point in my life. Maybe there would have been a bit less strife and angst in getting there, though?

And maybe without the strife and angst, maybe the music wouldn’t be as good.

Cold comfort, I know. I’m sure there would have still been struggles; they just would have been different struggles, right? Ha. Maybe I would have been hungrier for male role models.

It struck me then that I wouldn’t have Remo in my life if not for Digger and Claire.

What would I have, though? I remember being a kid in school. People often talked about a “gift” for music or art or whatever, like you came with some kind of special ability wrapped up in a package inside you. But an innate “gift” and talent aren’t the same thing, I don’t think. Talent is what you get when you nurture that gift.

I did a lot of the nurturing of my talent myself. Remo helped. Digger also helped, but–as I was coming to realize–in some very backhanded ways.

Claire, on the other hand, hadn’t helped at all. Other than forcing me to go to piano lessons, but that had been almost more of a lesson in manners and conformity than in music. Everything after I quit those lessons had been negative reinforcement: she didn’t want me to play the guitar, so I played it more.

At the time it had just felt like the purpose of parents was to crush you into a box. When I was twelve I thought Digger was cool because he wasn’t doing that. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he still was, just in his own way. He didn’t care about appearances for polite society the way Claire did, but he did care deeply that his son not turn out a sissy.

No wonder I’d been miserable.

The other piece I now understood was that Claire’s attitude about child-raising–especially about raising a musically gifted child–was warped by a huge pile of baggage about her own derailed career as a singer and performer.

After church, Rita declared that it would be nice for us to play cards. Apparently at some point in her life that used to be her regular after-church activity and having found me and Claire agreeable company, she wanted to keep that party bus rolling.

After we got back, we sat down in the activity room where they had decks of cards and board games. She shuffled the cards and asked me if I played hearts.

“Um, no, I’m monogamous,” I said, unsure why she was asking.

She and Claire tittered like I’d made a good joke. Apparently, “hearts” was the name of a game. “Unlike some games where you need four, you can play hearts with three,” Rita said. “If you take out some of the cards so that the numbers work out right.”

“We used to play a lot of cribbage on the road,” I said, while she fished the two of diamonds out. “Is it like that?”

“Not really,” Claire said. “Here.”

They taught me to play it. Have you played this game? It’s kind of a weird one in that you’re trying to accumulate the fewest points, not the most, and whoever has the fewest wins. Kind of like a junior high purity test, remember those? (Didn’t Ziggy say he used the purity test as a To Do list…? Or was that Bart? I’ll ask him later.)

Anyway, the idea is to collect the fewest hearts per round. (See, it really is like the purity test.) But there’s also an alternative. If you can get everything to go exactly right, you can instead collect ALL the hearts and the queen of spades, and instantly knock 26 points off your own score. This of course appealed to me on a philosophical level: by being a contrarian it’s possible to reap big benefits. Plus, hey, it’s called “shooting the moon.”

But it’s very hard to do. We played for about two hours, during which no one shot the moon. I asked Rita if she knew what the probability of shooting the moon was, and she said she heard it was under one percent, but that math wasn’t her subject.

The cards went around, and around, and around, and it was easy to lose track of time, caught up in the numbers stacking up and combining. I was humming a song to myself while we played without really being aware of it.

While it was my turn to shuffle at one point I was humming loud enough that Rita jumped in with the words, “…knowing it ain’t really smart, but the Joker ain’t the only fool, who’ll do anything for you.” She and I broke up laughing.

“I can see why you have that song stuck in your head,” she said. “Wait, I know another one that goes with it.” She began to sing Steelers Wheels, “Stuck in the Middle with You.” I sang the harmony in the chorus because Nomad used to cover that one sometimes at gigs down the Shore.

Claire stared at us with a slightly astonished look on her face. Rita patted her on the hand. “Oh come on, Claire. Don’t be shy. Join in.”

“You just… I mean… You…” Claire’s brain was on the fritz.

“Mom used to sing on Broadway, back in the day,” I told Rita.

“Delightful! I was director of a high school show choir for about ten years, before I got married.” She made jazz hands when she said the words “show choir.” “I’ve been trying to get them to tune the piano here for over a month. I’d love to lead some sing-a-longs, you know? But the thing is so out of tune, it hurts my ears.”

“Your pitch is perfect,” Claire finally said. “Both of you.”

“Hardly,” I said. “I’ve just got good ears.”

“But that’s what perfect pitch really is,” Claire insisted. “It’s not whether you can hit the notes or hold them, it’s about whether you can hear them.”

“Well, sure.”

“I could never sing well acappella,” she said, shaking her head. “I could sight sing and I could sing perfectly well with musical accompaniment, but just me and two or three other voices? If we weren’t in unison, I’d lose my pitch. I’d slide around and end up singing someone else’s part.” Her face was red. “It was awful.”

I really didn’t know what to say to that. Claire admitting any fault was a new thing I didn’t know how to react to. “Um, lots of people have that problem,” I tried. “Probably the majority of musicians.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. Tons of instrumentalists are terrible singers,” I said. “And even the ones who can sing, unless they really work at it, it’s only natural to converge instead of harmonize.”

Rita joined in. “It’s the hardest thing to teach kids in choir. Some of them, you just have to stand them next to someone real loud who sings the same part.”

“Is that really what you do?” Claire asked. The game had ground to a halt while we were talking about this, Claire clutching her cards tightly. “You don’t… kick them out?”

“Oh, the choir I ran was open to all comers. No auditions. Just show up and we’ll figure something out. Made me so proud when they’d win.”

“Win?” I asked.

“Your school choir didn’t compete?”

“No, just a Christmas concert and maybe graduation.”

“Up North somewhere?”

“New Jersey.” It felt like Claire was being very quiet all of a sudden and letting me answer all the questions.

“I don’t think show choir is such a thing up there,” Rita said with a nod. “Were you in the choir?”

“No chorus, just a brief stint in school band.”

“Only a stint? Was your band director bad?”

“In junior high yeah, he was awful. Mr. Green. He was a tyrant who seemed to resent having to babysit forty kids who didn’t want to be there.”

“Well, no wonder they didn’t want to be there if he was a tyrant. If you can’t make music fun, I say, you shouldn’t be allowed to teach it.” She sniffed. “What instrument did you play?”

“That was the other thing, I guess. My chosen instrument isn’t a band instrument and I was better off saving my practice time for that.”

“Oh, which one is that?”

“Guitar.”

“Of course,” Rita said, with a little glance up and down me. Having just been to church I was at my least rock-star-ish, but, you know, back in 1992 any guy with hair halfway down his back and red stripes in it was almost certainly at least a rockstar wannabe. I wasn’t bothered by her mild skepticism/criticism.

Claire was, though. “Daron’s a professional musician,” she said sharply. I still wasn’t used to hearing my mother say my name.

Rita clearly wasn’t impressed, or wasn’t going to allow Claire to tell her what was what. “I’m sure he is.”

And Claire wasn’t going to let anyone take that kind of condescending tone. “He’s toured the world with two different bands and he’s had a song go to number three on the Billboard Top 40 chart.”

I don’t know which was more astonishing, that Claire leapt in to defend me in the first place, or that she knew off the top of her head what my highest chart position was. Especially given that was for a song I wrote, not performed, but whatever. Now that I think about it, that makes it likely she was just parroting something she heard someone else–Courtney? Remo?–say without really knowing the information, but at the time I took it as a sign that she’d been following my career a lot more closely than I’d expected. I remembered the scrapbook in her closet.

Rita still wasn’t moved, though. “Famous musicians have to flush the toilet just like the non-famous ones do,” she said. “And I’m sure Daron would agree with me about that.”

Which was one-hundred percent true, but I didn’t dare agree with her out loud since that would seem like disagreeing with Claire and I knew it.

“But I suppose I can’t blame a mother for being proud of her child.” She gave me a thumbs up like she was sticking a gold star onto my imaginary grade chart and that seemed to smooth things over. “Claire, honey, it’s your turn.”

The game resumed and I resolved to try to find a moment later to tell Claire thanks for sticking up for me, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that moment didn’t come.

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