Clarinets and Milkyways

By Gay Degani

Sally was in Mrs. Lee’s fourth grade class at Marshall Elementary, the third school she’d attended in four years. Her father, a restless, impatient man, insisted she was old enough to walk the five-and-a-half blocks from their rented house to school: “What are you, chicken?” This was long before parents got arrested for letting their kids wander the neighborhood without adult supervision.

The only thing Sally worried about was the goose two doors down. When anyone happened by, the bird charged the picket fence, honking furiously, bobbing its head in and out, in and out. Sally pretended she was Annie Oakley sneaking past a gang of desperados as she tiptoed through the ice plant along the curb. Still, she covered her ears.

There was a little market on the way to school at the corner of Playa Street and Avenue A. Her mother gave her some change to buy candy for the walk home. Sally preferred Milky Way to  3 Musketeers. She liked to bite around the bar, removing all the chocolate first, then suck the sticky, sweet caramel off the top, and pop the light, malted nougat into her mouth—yum! But sometimes, after school, she’d walk across the Pacific Coast Highway (something she was forbidden to do) to the Frosty Freeze. Sometimes a dipped ice cream cone was worth the risk.

In the winter, the sea air had a tangy flavor that lingered in her nose. She could taste the cold salt wetness on the back of her tongue, and even though she wore a heavy sweater and knee socks, the chill still crept up under her plaid skirt. Girls wore dresses or skirts and blouses then, cotton in fall and spring, wool in winter. A slip usually took care of the itchy wool, except at the shoulders and underarms. Sally scratched all day at her neck and limbs, her body a stinging pink.

She walked to her appointments since Dr. Bridge’s office was on her way home from school. Her mother met her in the waiting room, the two hugging before the receptionist took Sally back to the doctor’s office.

The doctor’s office had toys and a table with paper, crayons, and paints. Sally liked to draw flowers along a fence, sand castles on a beach, the combative goose next door. One time, Dr. Bridge placed an inflatable clown in front of her. Almost as big as Sally, it had red hair winging out on both sides of his head and a red ball for a nose. Dr. Bridge told her she could hit it, kick it, hug it, paint it. Sally hesitated before giving Bozo a tentative punch, but Dr. Bridge encouraged her to get mad, to let go, so Sally kicked and slapped until she was out of breath, then she asked if she could really paint it, and when the doctor nodded, Sally smeared his face brown and covered the rest of him in yellow and purple and red.

The school brought in Mr. Harris, a music teacher, and offered fourth graders music lessons. Sally chose the clarinet. She thought it would be easy because her mother loved Benny Goodman and they’d watched him play on TV. Plus, she liked the sound of the clarinet. It had a deep tone that settled into her chest in the nicest way.

No extra rooms were available for the lessons because of baby boomer overcrowding and because no cafeteria had been built at the school, they had their lessons outside the classroom in the hallway. There were four clarinets, two flutes, and two piccolos. They were doing scales when Sally, wanting to be just like Benny Goodman, moved her clarinet up and down and side to side, trying to get into a rhythm as she’d seen him do while playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a black-and-white movie on Channel 9.

“Stop, stop, stop!” the music teacher hollered. He asked Sally what the heck she thought she was doing, scolded her for having the “wiggles,” told her to hold the instrument still and focus on the notes. She wanted to disappear, run away, but knew she couldn’t. Face burning, she managed a choked, “Yes, sir.” They started again. Sally focused on the notes, holding her arms tight against her sides, barely blowing into the clarinet.

In the class room, Mrs. Lee was teaching a unit on music, famous composers, the orchestra, and all the different instruments. They listened to Mozart, Beethoven, and John Philip Sousa. After a week, Mrs. Lee lined up cardboard pictures around the room in the chalkboard trays, each with an instrument carefully depicted. She asked if anyone could name them. No one raised a hand. From her desk, Sally glanced at the clarinet, the flute, the piccolo, waiting to see who would stand up. The room crackled with nervous rustling. She eyed the tuba, the trombone, the trumpet, and her hand went up.

Mrs. Lee’s face lit with a smile. “Sally, you want to name some of them?”

Sally blushed. Didn’t stand up. Mrs. Lee said, “Just get us started. Please?”

Sally’s throat clogged as she made her way to the beginning of the display. “Drums.” “Symbols.” “Triangles.” She continued until she had identified all twenty-six pictures and finished to a burst of applause. Mrs. Lee was surprised and delighted. So was Sally, her head dazed, body thrumming.

On the way home, Sally bought two Milky Ways, sat on the curb in front of the market, and, as the cars whizzed by, gobbled down the candy bars  in two bites, She licked her fingers, and grinned in triumph.

Gay Degani’s work has received  Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions nominations. Her work has also placed or received honorable mentions in contests. Her story “Something about L.A.” won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. She has published a full-length collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Books, 2015), a short story collection, Pomegranate, and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.