“Theo, have you practiced for the talent show?” Ma called out from her bedroom-now-‘rona-office. “Your teacher says you’re doing great, hey? Just need to keep putting the work in.”

My music teacher’s a total liar, not that I’m complaining. Because since we went back to in-person schooling––mornings for group A (mine), afternoons for group B––Ma’s had the mistaken belief that my trumpet lessons were happening at school, too. The trumpet. An instrument you play with a mask off, then blast lung-scum here, there, and everywhere. Ja, no. Trumpet lessons were still online. Although for the talent show they’d be filming me on the stage, alone, from waaaaay back. Supposedly. If I did it.

Theo!” Ma snapped. “I have a Zoom meeting in 20, get it done now.”

I opened the black case and the sunlight from the window bounced off the brass. It was still as stunning as the day Daddy bought it for me in Chicago. It still made me want to throw up, scream, and cry all at the same time.

“I’ll practice every day,” I’d told him.

“My honour to God, every day,” I’d begged.

I was eleven, visiting him over our winter break (summer there) like I did every year. He worked for the Chicago branch of National Public Radio (NPR), which now also produces podcasts. But he took leave and we had fun. We went to baseball games, both the Cubs and the White Sox, to the museums (Museum of Science and Industry is sick), and ride bikes along their lake that is so big it looks like the sea and has huge ocean liners floating in it. We even went to this massive place where you do mountain climbing indoors. But that summer, it was jazz that had got under my skin.

Not just jazz, the trumpet. How something that could blare so loud and brassy, setting my teeth on edge, could crone so sweetly it was like watching a slow, sensual dance. I was hooked. Addicted. Needed it more, more, more, like my ma needs her coffee, or maybe like how those kids on the street need their tik.

I needed to go to more shows.

Daddy took me. Again, and again, that winter, yet summer, break. I kept begging. I didn’t just want to hear the music, I wanted to learn how to make it. And in the end, he called Ma, she agreed she’d sign me up for lessons, and the man bought me the trumpet. Brand spanking new. I’d been playing it ever since.


Until two months ago, anyway.

Tap, tap, tap, came Ma, her shoes beating out the rhythm of her mood. I knew her hand was going to fall on my shoulder before it touched me.

“He’d be so proud of you,” Ma said. In that voice. The one of hushed pity, that nobody wants to hear. I’ll bet that’s why the blues were invented, because they can express feeling, the harsh edge of grief, without sounding so pathetic. Weak. A tone that just makes you want to be angry at the person speaking.

I shrugged her off. Said, “I’ll practice tomorrow,” and fired up Netflix.


Tell us: Do you understand what Theo means about pity making you feel angry? Have you ever had that happen?