Hot Lips This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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He calls me Hot Lips. Through the thick glass encircling his weary eyes, I see a sparkle when he says it. His own lips pull back slowly, revealing coffee-stained teeth as he laughs. I’ve heard it before, but I laugh anyway. Not at his wispy white hair like a maniacal scientist in a laboratory. Not at bizarre expressions like “Hot dog!” that unconsciously escape from his mouth. Not at the make-shift plunger mute he cups over the end of his trombone during jazz solos, or even at the fact that he dares to play jazz in church. A rebel. My laughter mingles with that of a seventy-three-year-old rebel. It didn’t always.

A cold metal folding chair greets me as I enter the room. I avoid it. Glancing at the unfamiliar scene, I stand still, afraid to touch anything for fear it will crumble. Yellowed snapshots watch me, scrutinizing the amateur. “Ah, another victim,” they whisper. Ashamed to be intimidated by frozen black and white faces, I direct my eyes toward the opposite wall. I break the tense moment by laughing at a sign partially hidden by the mountain of musical paraphernalia. “Never Teach A Pig To Sing … ” Who is this guy?

“It wastes your time and annoys the pig,” a voice from behind me finishes. Startled, I gasp. Not a quick gasp that can be covered to avoid embarrassment. No, this was one of those high-pitched squeals I was eager to reach out and grab the moment it exited my mouth. Reluctantly, I peer at the man standing behind me.

A caramel-colored corduroy jacket with elbow patches just barely concealing an ink stain on his blue denim shirt. I glance at his faded jeans. Probably hasn’t bought a new pair in years. Worn, soiled Nikes complete the ensemble. Yet, a sense of order and dignity polishes his appearance, mends the frayed edges.

“Sit down,” he says directly, the smile sliding off his face, replaced by intense concentration. I sit. A red book appears on a black metal stand. Rummaging through the pile, he pulls out a case. Not as dusty as the others. The handle isn’t even broken. Maybe there is hope. From it emerges polished brass, oiled valves, greased slides. He places the object in my hands, which receive it tentatively. He opens the red book. Except for the sentence “When you see six sharps, what key signature are you in?” and the inescapable phrase “Practice, practice, practice,” I remember nothing else.

Sunday morning. The congregation before me. The rebel behind, in Sunday best. He traded in his Nikes for black polished leather. I adjust the stand before me, placing the music on the right side as always. “That way your bell can face straight out, kid. Never forget it.” I hadn’t. Taking a deep breath, I place my cornet on my lips. Sensing I am finally prepared, he raises the baton, chipped plastic with a worn wooden handle. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his arm move, the baton coming down slowly. The first note echoes in the chapel simultaneously.

I cringe at the sound, hearing a swift gasp from the observers. “Just keep going, kid.” I do. With the rebel behind, his baton conducting each note, right or wrong, I continue. The melody soars higher, my confidence growing. Imagining the intensity on his face, I relax my tense muscles. Sensing his arthritic hand shaking with each sweeping motion, I cease my own nervous trembling. As his asthma leaves him short of breath and coughing in the background, I fill my lungs and release the oxygen into the warm brass against my lips. We reach the last note together, my face numb, my lips contorted to reach the upper limits of the musical realm. I hold the note, waiting for his cut off. When it finally ends, there is no applause. But behind me, through a smile of coffee-stained teeth, four words emerge that only I can hear. “Good job, Hot Lips.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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