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Minstrel: A Novella

1 …

The weatherman on Channel 5 had said that the temperature would reach upwards of one hundred ten degrees, which meant that the mayor’s office would announce a code red heat index. And so when Isaiah Williams climbed on the bus and attempted to put his quarter into the slot with his one free hand, the driver’s gloved one waved it away, obeying the mandate of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Even though he was receiving treatment usually reserved for senior citizens, Isaiah didn’t sit down in the sideways seats that faced each other, but with both hands dragged the leather guitar case down the aisle, and sat in the back, alone. He closed his eyes, inhaled, and listened to the bus’s rumbling as the brakes exhaled at the stoplight.

He figured that they would have amps at the studio. It would not be a large studio. There would be mirrors and a long, metal bar on the far wall because there is a ballet class on the weekends. There would be hardwood floors with blue mats because there is a karate class for elementary school kids in the afternoon, and a women’s self-defense class at night. Perhaps to defend against people who looked like him, he mused. They would not own it, but they could afford to rent it, and they could afford their own amps. He was sure of that.

He opened his eyes, looked out the window, and saw houses with trees that were planted in the front yards but reached across the street towards one another and blocked the burdensome sun from the finishes of the cars below. On the sidewalks were blonde women in sweatsuits with iPods on their hips and the leashes of golden retrievers in their hands. The bus rumbled to a stop beside a small Bank of America, and the doors opened as Isaiah stepped down the stairs, then pulled his bass guitar case off with him. He scratched his head, his finger running between the long, thin cornrows that curled around his skull and draped down his spine. Despite the weather warning, he wore his baggy carpenter blue jeans, but because of it, a very loose-fitting XXL Bob Marley T-shirt that hung upon his tall, lanky frame. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded up sheet of newsprint cut out from the underground newspaper called the CityPaper. It read:

AUDITIONS FOR POST-PUNK PROTO-FUSION METATRONIC NEW WAVE AVANT GARDE NOIR NOUVEAU RICHE NOBLESSE OBLIGE CUBIST MODERNIST SURREALIST EXISTENTIALIST REVIVAL SUPERGROUP

All instruments, styles, religions, philosophies, dojos, and film schools are welcome.

Those willing to remain starving artists preferred.

Leave your influences at the door, or sneak them in through the window.

Call (202)-555-9691 or e-mail str8edgejunkie@gmail.com

Isaiah had circled “Existentialist” and “Post-punk.” “Existentialist” because he had read Albert Camus’s The Stranger for English class and found Meursault to be intriguing. “Post-punk” because he had heard that term used to describe Bloc Party, a British band. Not the kind with oily hair falling over their ears and two-piece suits that don’t quite fit right. The kind that like to wear their collared shirts tucked in and with the sleeves rolled up, but no neckties, or perhaps simple T-shirts that wrap around them with sleeves that reach inches below their shoulders. When Kele Okereke, with skin like pine bark, and dreads like a willow, lead sings, he sounds like a young boy who has learned something about the world that he does not like, and will see to it that it is changed once he grows older. He had downloaded their album at school and brought it home on two Zip disks to listen to in his room. Isaiah’s left knee would bounce up and down until he was forced to stand up and roll his hips and knees like pistons when he listened to their “post-punk art rock” sound, his upper body ricocheting from one pose to another, and then rocking back again. He would continue this rocking and rolling until he heard the door to his room creaking open. He would turn and see his father, a bespectacled bald man with a grim goatee, wearing a necktie and an ID card in a lanyard, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

His father did not download, but bought Motown compilation CDs that he rarely listened to, content to carefully arrange them in alphabetical order on the shelves beside his own computer. So, each night, after Samuel Williams checked in on his son after arriving home from work, he would then go to his room and turn on Newshour, and Isaiah would turn down the volume on his computer’s speakers. At least they both supported public broadcasting.

His father had heard The Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone play on The Kojo Nnamdi Show a month before, and had recorded the stream onto a CD and given it to him. Isaiah put it in his computer drive and soon felt his shoulders tilt up and down in time with their reggae-like rhythm, his lips soundlessly responding to the lead singer’s calls. As soon as he had finished listening to it, he took it to his father’s bedroom and handed it back to him. But his father’s hands were always busy dealing cards for solitaire. He never took it back without first giving the preamble to one of his long black history lectures.

“You know, boy,” he would begin. “The style of music your band plays wasn’t just influenced by the ones in sequined bellbottoms and afros. It goes even further back. Back past the speakeasies where the men wore loud suits and fedoras with long feathers and the women’s lipstick and nails were so red they could ride in the backseat and just turn around to signal that the vehicle was coming to a stop. Back behind the fields where eyes sunk beneath hats of straw as they lowered themselves to reach into the leaves to pull out what was inside and whispered songs into the soil while they were down there. Back in the wake of the ships carrying those uprooted, whose lips were sealed but whose feet stamped the wooden planks hoping they could force themselves back in and somehow get back home. Back home, where though they had been betrayed by their own they could find solace beneath the sun that gave gifts, not burdens.”

Instead of asking an intelligent follow-up question to further the discussion as Kojo Nnamdi would do, Isaiah would, at that point, say, “This has been another black history barrage with Samuel Williams. Stay in school, so that he doesn’t take it upon himself to educate you.”

And defeated, his father would sigh and say, “Fine, son, fine. You can go, for now. I’m through with you.”

He’d written “smooth jazz” in the corner, as a note to himself, to remind himself to watch for any evidence of the commission of the offense. He hoped they did not turn out to be guilty of being a smooth jazz band. Smooth jazz bands, he knew, do not play jazz because they enjoy jazz. They play jazz so that people will find them intriguing, because everyone says that they enjoy jazz. They play jazz at jazz clubs with “No smoking” signs and autographed photos of Kenny G on the walls. Bands that play smooth jazz are not the only smooth jazz bands. Any band that puts out an album on CD with a DVD as a “limited edition” is a smooth jazz band. A band that plays a set that is shorter than its opening act because it only has one album and hasn’t written line one for its new album is a smooth jazz band. A rapper’s entourage, whose members do little more than march around on stage and shout along with the end of every rhyme, that is a smooth jazz band. Michael Bolton is a smooth jazz band.

Isaiah already knew he would get into the band. Or, at least, that he had the requisite talent, skill, and experience to play with them. The question was if they would turn down their noses long enough to be able to see it, for he knew that the band he had formed before had been known all over the city, or at least the parts of the city that mattered. Where the bouncers didn’t worry about your cheap, cotton-polyester clothes, just as long as there was no metal underneath them. Where smooth jazz was contraband.

His guitar case handle tight in his hand, he began to walk down the street, looking again at the address he had been given from his phone conversation with whoever called himself “str8edgejunkie.” Even before he had finished writing it, he had clearly drawn the neighborhood in his mind. He knew he would cross even streets and pass coffee shops on the lobby floors of high-rise buildings with windows for walls, displaying all the laptops the patrons feverishly typed (but never spilled their lattes) on. He knew he would not see any fried chicken carry-outs with barred windows, surrounded by long since faded posters advertising the new Kool Moe Dee album. He might see some of the friends he had made (“acquaintances,” his father always called them) from school, since it was only a few blocks from the high school that his father had (begrudgingly) allowed him to take the subway across town to attend. He would not see any of the friends (“hoodlums,” his father always called them) that he grew up with.

The building he had been searching for was a two-story building with walls of yellow bricks, shoved between a dry cleaners and a video store. Isaiah entered and squeezed through a narrow corridor to a metal door plastered in chipping blue paint with a window just big enough for his face to be seen from the other side. He pushed it open. Across the hardwood floor with a rolled up blue mat in the corner, he saw his own reflection, severed at the waist by a metal bar attached to the mirror. In the middle of the room, three boys stood hunch-shouldered beside the drum set, muttering to each other with the same affected, aloof voice that had filled the halls of Isaiah’s high school. They turned and tilted their heads up in his direction. Isaiah stepped over a tangled web of cables that came from outlets in the walls and approached them.

The ad wasn’t kidding. They were dressed so differently from another, Isaiah thought they could have been in a three-tour-bus pileup on the highway, and had to exchange insurance info before they could continue on to whatever battle of the bands they were headed for. Except they were all wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

The first was a punk, all in black from head to toe, in a studded belt, safety pins in the sleeves of his T-shirt, eyebrow and lip rings, and a checkered flat cap on a mass of restless black hair. “Sup?” he asked. “I’m Aidan.”

The emo kid waved briefly, the sleeves of his wrinkled white, collared shirt rolled up, and peered at Isaiah through brown, unkempt bangs and horn-rimmed glasses without lenses. “Hey …” he muttered. “I’m Cameron.”

The last one sat behind the drum set, which obscured the faded blue jeans but not the black T-shirt with the yellow smiley face on it, under red hair, draped back to make room for long, similarly colored sideburns. Isaiah was less certain about him, but he settled on “alt-country.” “Nice shirt,” the alt-country kid said.

“Thanks.”

“I’m Zeke.”

Aidan looked down at Isaiah’s case. “You said on the phone you play bass, right?”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “So … I guess you’re str8edgejunkie, huh?”

Aidan nodded. Isaiah handed him the flyer, Aidan chuckled when he saw what Isaiah had circled, and handed it back. “Cool. Glad you could make it.”

“No problem. So, I guess you guys have up been in this studio all day, then.”

“Yeah,” said Aidan.

“You’ve been here, standing in a circle like this, faking like you’re all equal, like the Knights of the Round Table, when really, your instruments are all trying to out-blare each other, assert dominance over each other, because might makes right.”

“Yeah.”

“And you all are the core of the band because you already know what each other’s true voices sound like and determined that only the most grandiose terms would apply. And that ad in the CityPaper was a clarion call to all other grandiose-thinking, restless thanes seeking honor and glory on the field of battle.”

“Yeah.”

“So you have all been standing and stomping here, pausing only at the sound of that metal door behind me making semicircular skid marks in the floor, with each newcomer swaggering in, knowing how badly this test will wear away at his number two pencil but not having an accurate account of just how much lead he’s got.”

“No,” said Aidan.

“No?”

“You’re the first to call and the first to take the bold step of descending into the pit we’ve been digging in here. Perhaps you are the only one with just the right amount of insanity to even tune into our frequency.”

“Oh,” said Isaiah. He then wondered if this white boy had even noticed that he had written the words “smooth jazz” in the corner in sarcastic ink. He wondered if they were speaking the same language. “Well, you guys must have plenty of insanity to want to form this kind of supergroup. Where’d you get it from?”

Cameron pushed the glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Well, I was in an electronic synth-rock band. Not to be confused with synth-pop. It was not for dancing in dark rooms with checkerboard floors. Not for those people wearing oversized neckties, swinging their hairspray-contaminated sweat everywhere. On stage, our lead singer was a vile redheaded temptress right out of a black and white detective movie and our guitarist played music that could have been the voice of The Internet Pedophile in Peter and the Wolf. I did the synthesizers, to balance out the creepy feeling he invoked, and I also did regular maintenance on the drum machine. We were called Land Line. The music we made was always really cool, but I listened to a lot of other stuff. Especially since I grew up next door to an obnoxious, causeless rebel who spent his afternoons in his garage with a bunch of others who could barely read their tablatures what with all the hair over their eyes.”

“Hey, fuck you,” said Aidan. “Don’t listen to Cameron. He’d have you believe that hardcore punk is spoiled children trying to hide their petulant rants about how unfair their parents are behind the guise of biting political commentary, and … he would be right ninety-nine percent of the time. But Burning Chrome was the exception. We didn’t try to compensate for our lack of melody and chord knowledge with screaming. Our lead guitarist played solos like a man in a padded room, rolling around on stage like he was trying to get out of his straitjacket. Our drummer could be heard for miles and sent the citizens of Tokyo running. I played rhythm guitar and sang. Eventually I met this kid in my music class at school, who handed me his noise-cancelling headphones like they were his recipe for homemade hydroponics. So I put them on, and was amazed to hear lap steel guitar without a hint of conservative propaganda, or odes to Chevrolet pickup trucks.”

“Hell no. Strictly Ford,” said Zeke. “We were an alternative country-rock collective with way too many members, called Ethanol. Everyone was versatile, except me. Our vocalist played acoustic guitar, our acoustic guitarist played harmonica, our harmonica player played the keyboard, our keyboardist played the fiddle, our fiddler played bass, our bassist played lap steel, and our lap steel guitarist sang vocals. Solve for x.”

“You’re the drummer,” said Isaiah.

“Guilty as charged. Get my cell at Folsom ready,” he said. “What about you? Don’t tell us you’re just carrying that case around just for show.”

“Yeah, man,” said Aidan. “What do you usually play?”

They were all watching him. He knew that what they were waiting to hear was the record of his own travels, the sound of his own footsteps, taps, and stomps upon pedals, in equal trade for their own. But it was not the time to give it to them.

Isaiah relaxed his grip on the handle of his case. He set it down on the floor, beside theirs. “I was in a go-go band,” he said.

Zeke nodded, slowly. “Go-go?” he asked. “Sweet.”

“All right,” said Aidan. “Let’s get set up and get started.”

Aidan went to the corner of the room, opened up a leather case, and lifted out a Gibson Les Paul with an explosive red, orange, and yellow design, and the letters “TW/OR” written on the body in Wite-Out, which Isaiah correctly presumed to be the protest against Congressional rule of DC, standing for “Taxation Without Representation.” He plugged it into a Peavey combo amplifier, twisted a few dials, started stroking, and out of it came a few yips and a long, longing howl that slowly faded as if it had dissipated into the clouds of a night sky. “Okay, good.”

Cameron approached the silver Yamaha DGX520 88-note keyboard sitting atop its stand and switched it on. His fingers then stroked the stickers that he had slapped onto its front—the tye-dye decorated peace sign, the yellow equals sign on the blue field signifying gay equal rights, and various stickers advertising local tour dates for various indie electronica groups. He tapped the keys, then turned to the others and pushed his glasses back up onto his face.

Zeke twirled his sleek, finished drumsticks and used them to smack the dots above the letters in the faded “Zildjian” that appeared on the crash cymbal. His foot tapped on the pedal that flung the beater into the kick bass, and the other pedal that clapped the hi-hat cymbals together. Finally, he struck the Pearl snare, tracing the lines in the worn canvas. He stretched his neck, and gripped the sticks in both hands, his knee still bobbing up and down, his foot inches from the bass pedal.

“We’re just gonna jam for a little bit, first,” Aidan said. “Isaiah. Why don’t you start us off with a nice, funky riff and we’ll, ah … splash some cologne on it.” At this, he put his hand out, his forefinger and thumb forming the barrel and action of a pistol, pointed it at the ground and then shook it.

Isaiah unlocked his leather case and pulled out a dark blue four-string Fender Precision Bass. There were no marks or stickers on it, or anything else that could have made it any less aerodynamic, or depreciated its value. He lifted it out of its case slowly, leaving behind several sheets of paper towels that made up an extra layer of insulation.

He lifted the strap over his head and dropped it on his shoulder, and looked around at the others, all of them ready to play their instruments. His wasn’t quite as sleek as theirs. Their instruments, he decided, had been bought for them by their parents.

His was a gift from his Uncle Jerome, who’d bought a new one for himself to play in that smooth jazz band. The one he joined, not the one he formed. The smooth jazz band that sounded like it plagiarized the air-conditioned music in a department store. Not the one with the drummer who made sparks fly from his cymbals and the horn player who could store a winter’s supply of hazelnuts in his cheeks. Not that band. That band was his old band. Now he was in a smooth jazz band.

Isaiah plugged his uncle’s bass into a nearby Crate combo amp. His right hand started teasing the strings of his guitar as the left twisted the knobs at the top until it moaned to his liking. Though his eyes were fixed to the headstock as he tuned, he could feel the band still watching him, waiting. He lowered his right hand over the pickups and quickly rolled and unrolled it into a fist to force out the fatigue of gripping the leather case, and then his fingers dripped over the strings while his left hand bit into the meaty spaces between the bone-like frets.

He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped. The white boys watched as
He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped. The white boys watched as
He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped, and when they joined in
They strummed,
They strolled,
They struck a couple of matches,
They strummed,
They strolled,
They started a wildfire that
They sparked,
They stoked.
They scorched. Brought it back again.

His eyes closed as his head bobbed to the rumbling of the amp on the wood. He opened them briefly and saw Aidan’s closed eyes looking up at the ceiling, while his lips mouthed words he might have been considering as candidates for lyrics. Cameron’s shoulders see-sawed up and down while his waist slid from side to side and his head softly turned from side to side. Zeke slammed his feet on the ground as the toms and snare were punished by the sticks that he gripped between tense, white knuckles.

Cologne is pretty flammable, Isaiah thought.

After the final flourish, Isaiah watched how they watched him again, and they all saw on each other’s slightly reddened, heavily-breathing faces the possibilities, their rabidly blinking eyes darting around as if counting the leaves on all the branches of all the trees in Rock Creek Park. He saw that their noses had been down the whole time.

Isaiah smirked. He took it upon himself to voice their concerns. “So what do we call ourselves?”

They looked at one another, and then Cameron, looking down at the floor, put his hand up, requesting silence.

“How about …” He cleared his throat. “The Lobbyists?”

By the time their jam session had concluded, the sky had turned red, the sun behind trees, houses, and streetlamps. Isaiah carried the leather case, the blue bass nestled back into its paper towel bed, back to the bus stop, and climbed on. The air conditioning of the bus slowly chilled the sweat on his back that he had accumulated from carrying the case down the street. He could not hear the bus’s rumbling. It was drowned out by the sizzling sounds made in the not-large studio, still cooking in his head. Isaiah had to admit, The Lobbyists were clearly not a smooth jazz band, but a rock band. A rough rock band.

When he got off, he dragged the case over the uncut grass on the front lawn, up the concrete stairs to the porch, through the living room with the sofa covered in plastic and prints of (White) Jesus on the wall with the lines from John 3:16, and (Black) Jesus on the other wall with that poem about the footsteps in the sand. He went down the wooden stairs to the basement where the 27-inch screen and XBox were hooked up at the moment, but only because no one was practicing there anymore. No one needed an outlet now.

No one needed an outlet now, so the XBox stayed plugged in and hooked up, but one of the controllers was still in Malik’s keyboard bag. No one would bring a CD with the name of some band from College Park written on it in felt tip marker for Dante to study the beat, for he had already packed his drum set up in his Oldsmobile and gone to his apartment twelve blocks away. No one would bring a yellow flyer from Bar Nun still warm and wet with the time of their set, their name in a list that usually ended with Backyard Band or Suttle Thoughts. No one would bring the lyrics of a Linkin Park song heard on the Top 40 station along with an old Grandmaster Flash LP so that Victor could re-mix and -mash it. Victor would not be scratching for them anymore.

He had left his turntables there, sitting next to the TV and the Xbox. Isaiah had stopped returning Victor’s mother’s calls after she had asked him if he could bring them by. She finally sent Victor’s half-brother Ronald over to pick them up, while Isaiah was out. Isaiah left a key for Ronald. He would not be there when the turntables were taken away. He would be getting off the bus in front of the not-large studio being rented by whichever of them had put that ad in the CityPaper, whoever it was that he had called and given his name to in return for an audition. He had gone to that audition and played with them, on the bass given to him by his Uncle Jerome.

They had been Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor. They rented almost everything they had, though they felt like it was their own. The only things they bought were a few cords. The microphones and the PAs and the amps had belonged to the clubs, and the cars that had taken them to their gigs had belonged to their parents, who took turns attending each show for their safety.

They were a band that went by many names, partly because they could never agree on the ones that they tried to give themselves. At every show there was always something singular about how they played, some florid metaphor that someone used to describe them, and pointed out to them, so they would just shrug their shoulders and go with it, until the next show, until someone gave them their new name, or a name they had been given, translated into the dialect of Shaw, or Anacostia, or Brightwood, or whatever neighborhood their travels had taken them to. And yet, wherever they went, the people knew who they were. They played music that could have an R&B singer, a rapper, or a dancehall deejay toasting over it, accompanied by a keyboard or an organ, a saxophone or a lead guitar, though it required a drum kit as well as congas. They played music that demanded that its listeners put down their drinks and stand up. They played go-go.

Isaiah could have said this when they had asked him, but he had kept it back to honor Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor, to keep their names unsoiled. It was not until he saw the guys pick up their instruments that he knew he had to take the audition seriously. And he’d played perfectly. Now he realized that achieving that level turned everything he had ever done before into a kind of failure. And now he felt a heavy debt upon his head. A debt that he, Isaiah, the artist, owed to The Lobbyists, for disparaging their name before he had even heard it, and for refusing to give them Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor’s names. And then there was the debt that he, Isaiah, son of Samuel, owed to Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor for waiting until he was in the presence of the dearly purchased guitar, keyboard, and drum kit before making his dear uncle’s cheap bass guitar truly priceless.

Isaiah laid his guitar case against the wall and climbed back up the stairs to the kitchen. He looked inside the refrigerator and pulled out a gallon of milk, raised it to his lips, and as he stepped towards the door to the dining room, stopped, turned around, and slowly tiptoed towards the cupboard to get a glass.

“Wrong cupboard, boy,” his father said, from the dining room. “Those are the good glasses.”

“Hey, Dad,” said Isaiah, reaching for the other cupboard. “How was work?”

“Productive,” he said. “What did you do all day?”

Isaiah walked into the dining room. His father was still wearing his suit from work, his necktie loosened, and a lanyard still around his neck with an ID card that read, “Samuel Williams – D.C. Department of Health and Human Services.” His jacket lay on the back of his chair, and his wingtips lay on top of the scattered pages of the Washington Times on the floor. He was reading the Sports section of the, the pages laying neatly on the tablecloth, his elbows on top of them. Beside his newspaper was the television remote, a glass of melting ice and an empty bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. Washington Post

“I had an audition for a new band,” he said, as he sat down.

“A new band? Is it a blues band?”

“No.”

“A jazz band?”

“No.”

“A marching band?”

“No.”

“Not another go-go band?” His face screwed up into an affected visage of disgust, then fell out of character, back to reading his paper.

“No,” said Isaiah, grinning. “An indie rock band.”

“An indie rock band?” He looked at his son through the upper half of his bifocals. “What you want to be in a rock band for, boy? What’s them songs they always singing? You want to be on American Idol or some shit?”

Isaiah put his head in his hands. “No, Dad. That’s not what you do on American Idol.”

“Don’t go on Showtime at the Apollo, now, boy. They’ll boo you offstage, and then you’ll have to call me and I’ll have to come pick you up. And I’ll embarrass you. I’ll see to it.”

“We’re not going on Showtime at the Apollo, Dad.”

“So you got in the band?” asked his father. “They let your black ass in their band.”

“Yes, Dad. They did.”

His father sighed and turned the page of the newspaper. Michael Wilbon had written a column about the Redskins. “Okay, son,” he said. “I’m through with you.”

Isaiah walked out of the dining room and climbed the stairs to his room. He could hear his father pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The opening fanfare of Newshour was playing.


2 …

Four days later, Isaiah went to the first practice session. For most of the afternoon, The Lobbyists’ instruments stayed dry in their cases, while Isaiah, Aidan, Cameron, Zeke sat in a circle on the floor, discussing what direction the band should go. They all agreed that they wanted to make music that none of them had ever made before. Cameron had brought his laptop and a microphone so that they could record what they played. Aidan had brought a spiral notebook full of incomplete, scratched out lyrics and doodles of prospective band logos. They listened to Aidan sing the lyrics he had written to the tunes of their favorite songs, then deconstructed the melodies, hacked them down to their core riffs and beats, and then imagined how their favorite bands would cover them. Then they picked up their instruments and played them. They revised the lyrics to fit the rhythms, and vice-versa. At the end of the day, with three hit B-sides for seven different bands, they shook their fists at the gods for cursing them with such eclectic tastes and poor long division skills. Then they looked at their watches and cell phones and realized it was not yet 2:00 pm.

“All right, fuck it,” said Aidan. “I’m hungry. Is anyone else hungry?”

“Yeah,” said Zeke. “Let’s go to Chipotle.”

They loaded their instruments and amps into Aidan’s van and piled in. Cameron sat up front with Aidan, while Zeke and Isaiah sat on the floor with the instruments. They began to drive down the street, past Woodrow Wilson High School, the District of Columbia Public School that everyone in the car except for Cameron, attended.

“What school are you at, Cameron?” asked Isaiah.

“Georgetown Day School my whole life,” said Cameron. “Started in Pre-kindergarten right up to the eighth grade, then came over to the high school campus not far from here. I was with the same incestuous enclave of uniformed pedants year after year, sitting in the same classrooms with computers on every desk so that we did not have to risk jeopardizing our chances at Harvard by looking at each other—even though we were all mirror images of one another anyway.”

“What about you guys?” asked Isaiah.

“I went to Janney, then Deal,” said Aidan. “Pretty standard around these parts. Almost everyone who goes to Wilson started out at Janney, indoctrinated by the same bunch of soulless disciplinarians, then pushed along the assembly line until it is time for college and we split up across the country and lose touch with each other. So if you see us self-segregating in our bullshit little cliques, all of us sitting outside on the stands at the football field smoking our smuggled-in cigarettes, it is not because we do not associate with minorities. It’s because our parents have done such a good job of subtly hinting that it’s not in our best interests.”

“My mom pretty much home-schooled me until ninth grade, then I came to Wilson,” said Zeke. “My lunches consisted of vegetables grown entirely in our backyard with the occasional tofurkey sandwich. Once my neighbors got home from school, though, I got to go over and play video games and marvel at other technological advances such as the incandescent light. Of course, my mother would always Scotchgard me with her teachings before I would go over, explaining that I should not activate any electronic devices myself unless there was someone available to make certain my soul was not pulled away from the loving embrace of mother nature for too long.”

“Where did you go to school before Wilson, Isaiah?” asked Cameron.

“I started out at Rudolph Elementary until sixth grade, then I went to Paul Public Charter School,” he said. “We always managed to violate the separation of church and state by singing old Negro spirituals in music class, apparently a method of breaking our spirits by removing our sense of agency and making us think only God could decide our fates, so that we would not organize an escape during recess. Black History Month tended to last from Kwanzaa to St. Patrick’s Day, starting with a packet of Kwanzaa assignments to do during Holiday break, then thirty days of Martin Luther King speeches, then, the big three-thousand word report on important, non-Republican figures in black history, ending with the scenes from Gone With The Wind with Hattie McDaniel in them.”

“Yeah,” said Aidan. “Social control, man. Everyone wants your head on their mantel.”

Isaiah could hear the offhandedness in his voice, affected to sound young enough to rebel against all of adult society, but old enough to be nonplussed by it. The insistence that their experiences were just different branches of the same tree. He watched as Aidan reached into the ashtray and picked up the iPod he had left lying there, connected to the car stereo. He clicked on Minor Threat.

When Isaiah heard the song, he decided to have a bit of fun with them. “Is this the one with ‘Guilty of Being White’ on it?” asked Isaiah. He remembered the lyrics.

I’m sorry for something I didn’t do …

“Yeah, yeah it is,” said Aidan. He turned down the volume. “Wait … So you know Minor Threat?”

Lynched somebody, but I don’t know who …

“I’ve heard some of their stuff,” said Isaiah. He had their complete discography on his computer.

“So what do you think of ‘Guilty’?” asked Aidan.

You blame me for slavery a hundred years before I was born … Guilty of being white …

“It’s an okay song,” said Isaiah. He showed the rear view mirror a daring grin.

“Yeah, personally, I think Ian MacKaye was a lot better in Fugazi,” said Aidan.

I’m a convict of a racist crime …

“Oh yeah,” said Isaiah. “It doesn’t get any better than Repeater.”

“Definitely,” said Aidan.

I’ve only done 19 years of my time … Guilty of being white …

Once Aidan had safely shifted the conversation from Ian MacKaye’s younger, angrier band to his older, wiser one, Isaiah knew that he could not reveal to the rest of The Lobbyists the story of his band, because he could not be certain that they would understand the risk involved in the telling—that they would listen to his words but hear only what they expected was the truth. He could not be certain whether anything he said would make them see any clearer what he was describing, or if his words would simply refine the ideas that their parents had passed down to them, that their Eurocentric textbooks (even as they themselves described them) had preached to them, with which their televisions had bombarded them. He knew that he had been wrong about them after leaving the studio the day before, but he did not yet know whether they were wrong about him, or whether they would be less wrong about him after the words left his mouth and became a part of their minds and became theirs to interpret.

And he knew that first he would have to receive the blessing of his old band. To inform them, and take whatever condemnation they would lay upon him, perform whatever acts of contrition they demanded of him. Only then could he walk into the house of his new brothers and still be accepted in the house of the old.

When they reached their preferred fast-food chain, they climbed out of the van and went in to order their burritos, then sat down to eat them.

“You ever heard of Bad Brains?” asked Aidan.

“No,” said Isaiah. “Who are they?”

“They’re considered the first ever hardcore band. They formed here in DC in the late seventies,” said Aidan. “They basically invented hardcore, but switched back and forth between that and reggae between tracks on their albums. People disputed whether they qualified more as one or the other, as if one part was some kind of mask and the other was their real flesh. I may not have been alive back before they were banned from performing here in DC, but I don’t think that one of them was a mask. It was more like they had two souls inside them. But they weren’t split personalities jockeying for total control of one body, they were more like unmarried parents, not divorced, with joint custody of the children. And they would come to each other’s houses to pick the kids up every week. I don’t even know if such an arrangement is legal, but perhaps that is part of the reason why the powers that be decided to ban them from this city.”

Isaiah nodded. “Yeah. Maybe.” Aidan didn’t have to say it, but the image of four bearded black men, dreadlocks pouring from their heads was vivid in his mind. Maybe Aidan hadn’t mentioned it because he thought it better to sound color-blind. Or maybe there was just something more solid, more heartfelt, more clench-fisted about Aidan’s somewhat clumsy way of saying “You might be interested in this band whose members happen to be black” without sounding like he was saying “Hey, black guy, here’s some black history for you to get your black on with,” that he had heard so often from his friends (“acquaintances”) at school. The shame he felt at not knowing of them faded when he realized his father probably didn’t know of them either.

Thanks, man, Isaiah thought. They ate their burritos and talked of other DC bands that they had made themselves deaf with.

Isaiah left satisfied with what they had accomplished in their first practice session. When he returned home, his father had already started stirring the marinara, and Isaiah picked up the cheese grater. He answered his father’s questions about the band, describing the convergence of styles that they were inching towards. His father nodded and grunted, understanding his son’s words. They sat down and ate lasagna, and afterwards, washed the dishes. His father went upstairs to his room to play computer solitaire while watching CNN, while Isaiah went downstairs to the basement to practice playing the bass. He played the choppy, bouncing bass lines that they had practiced, his mind trying to recreate them, forcing his fingers to follow along. Then, without warning, his fingers went off the tracks and began to play the swerving rhythms of what his old band had played. When he realized this, his hands completely derailed. He didn’t know how long he spent in the basement, sitting on the floor, staring at the silent guitar in his idle hands, but seeing his old band on stage.

1, 2 …

The day after that practice session, Isaiah walked to the subway station nearest to his neighborhood carrying his CD player with an AM/FM tuner and MP3-CD capabilities, the earphones pumping a mix he had burned of heavily Afrocentric rappers wittily decrying the foibles of sucka MCs, troubadours telling tales about whales swallowing sailors, and blonde Japanese miscreants advertising their coming-of-age stories through the medium of the anime opening theme. In his pocket, Isaiah had a couple of extra batteries, a Metro fare card with 20 cents left on it, and just enough change to get himself to Gallery Place, as well as satisfy the gaunt wino extending his empty palm to him.

Fort Totten was an outdoor transfer station for the Red and Green Lines. The Red Line was on the upper level, on raised rails that ran alongside tracks belonging to rusty, graffiti-covered freight trains that passed through the decayed post-industrial section of the city, their rumbling sounding more senile than wise when compared to the younger subway cars’ overconfident, sliding screech. Crossing the Red Line like an ‘X,’ the Green Line was on the lower level, one escalator ride below the entrance gates, where its tracks took it through a concrete trench overlooked by nearby woods and the ghetto suburbs—the residential area made up of row houses and apartment buildings shaped like row houses. He passed the coin-operated newspaper racks, passed the grinning people in suits handing out pamphlets explaining why all of Adrian Fenty’s accomplishments as a city councilmember would make him a great mayor, and he went to the fare card dispensers to add his remaining change to his card.

He went upstairs to wait for the Red Line train to Shady Grove to arrive. He stood near the edge of the platform, beneath an awning constructed over the elevator. In the distance, he could see the train’s headlights. He turned and took three steps further down the platform. The train rushed past him, so his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt billowed in its wake. A falsetto whistle lowered an octave as it slowly came to a stop, the last door of the third to last car landing neatly before him, as always. It opened, and he pushed through the crowded mass of commuters, soon wedged in between a law firm intern reading the latest John Grisham novel, a long-bearded old hippie with a walking stick and a handful of environmentalist newsletters, and a little Aryan girl from the Midwest, looking up at him curiously, the last in a long chain of children on the train, that lead to a portly mother with a short-strapped purse and a slightly portlier father wearing a fanny pack and a visor. He grasped the cold metal bar running along the ceiling of the train car and read the ads overhead for the Washington Nationals and public service announcements encouraging civic-minded citizens to volunteer for HIV vaccine testing.

“Stand clear. Doors closing.”

His hand fell from the cold metal bar when he heard that mechanical, feminine voice, and he realized that he had just missed Gallery Place-Chinatown. When the train arrived at Metro Center, the underground station that served as a transfer point for the Red Line and the Orange and Blue Lines, he got off and ran down the platform to the escalator, climbed it, then ran to another escalator, climbed down, and he was on the Glenmont-bound platform directly across from the one bound for Shady Grove. The dark, dank cavern’s air-conditioning comforted him as he peered into the tunnel, searching for the glowing eyes of the steel serpent that would soon emerge. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned and saw Malik’s grinning, goateed face, and thick black dreadlocks that turned brown as they fell down over broad shoulders. In one hand was a biography of Stokely Carmichael. His other, open hand reached out.

“Malik,” said Isaiah. Their right hands clasped together, their left arms swung around one another, clapping against each other’s backs, and then snapped off. They each took a step back, restoring personal space while reassessing one another. “I ain’t seen you in a minute. What’s up?”

“Not a whole lot, just gotta return this book to the library.”

“Remedial reading?”

“Man, fuck you,” Malik said. “What you up to?”

“I was just going to The Tuning Fork. Look around a little.”

Malik chuckled. “You mean molest that five-string Ergodyne.”

“How can I resist, man?” asked Isaiah, as he pulled the earphones down around his neck. “Have you seen it? It’s jailbait. So sleek and supple. It couldn’t have been any sexier if it’d had a Brazilian wax, man.”

“You still got that blue Fender, though, right? The one you brought to school every day and sat in the back of Ms. Parson’s classroom, guarding it like a swole Secret Service agent? The one you would always pull out slowly like you’d found it in an Egyptian king’s tomb, then claw at the strings ravenously and dirty it, then wipe it clean with your sweat, then gently put it back in its sarcophagus again? The one you said your Uncle pretty much dropped into the dumpster in your backyard while he was on his way to a gig at the Abercrombie-Fitch wedding? You still got that one?”

“For the time being,” said Isaiah. “I’ll probably trade it in at some point, though. Four strings ain’t enough for me no more.”

“I hear that.”

“You still got that Casio with the 76 light-up keys?”

“Yeah, it’s sitting at home between my suitcases and my computer, waiting to get loaded up on a plane to Atlanta and get knocked around during the flight like a kid caught stealing cash from his grandma’s purse.”

“Right, right,” said Isaiah. Right, he remembered. It won’t be long until he is heading down South for Morehouse, where he’ll rub elbows with professors who will apply the master-slave dichotomy to everything from the Foucauldian panopticon to the Freudian Oedipal complex and turn him into a turtleneck-wearing communist revolutionary. He is leaving two months early for a summer program, where he will meet all the others studying the history of blues and sit with them in classrooms and eventually it will become clear to them that they must look to Malik for wisdom on the subject. He was not skipped ahead a grade for no reason. He will run to Spelman on the weekends, then run back, struggling to keep his pants up, his belt lost somewhere between a young woman’s dorm room and his own, along with whatever Toni Morrison book they will have been heatedly arguing about as a justification for their tryst. He will start a campus jazz band, but if there are already a hundred jazz bands, he will start a blues band, or a ragtime band, until he runs out of willing accomplices and is forced to find a harmonica rack and a pair of cymbals to attach to his knees.

“So, you excited about going to college?” asked Isaiah.

“Yeah,” said Malik. “I’ll miss this Chocolate City, even for all the blemishes it has and the blemishes it puts on your skin. I’ll miss the construction workers’ shouts over the jackhammers breaking through the blacktop, the lawyers’ drunken rants while out on the town on Thursday nights, the voice of a protestor that can only speak the truth when it’s through a megaphone. Everything except for the gunfire that strikes midnight. Forget that shit. You’ve got another year of high school left to go, though. Where do you think you’ll go? There’s Hampton in Virginia – that’s where Booker T. Washington went. Then there’s Lincoln, the pioneer of the arts and sciences. And I’ll give your application a student recommendation if you want to come to Morehouse.”

“Mrs. Parson thinks I can get into an Ivy league. Like Harvard.”

“No, no, Isaiah. Don’t fuck with them Ivy leagues, man. Trust me. The academics are getting to be so overrated these days, it’s not like it used to be. You’ll only be going to Princeton and the only good thing you’ll get out of it is classes with Cornel West, like my brother wound up doing. He hated it there. He thought he’d be okay as long as he was in the BSU and then they were even whiter than the white kids, quoting Huey P. Lewis like they were alive in the sixties, getting chased by Rottweilers and sprayed with hoses, and then they turn around and vote Republican. I’m telling you, man, just go with an HBCU.”

“It’s not like that everywhere, though.”

“Go visit them and see for yourself.”

“All right, all right. I’ll come up and check out Morehouse at some point. Don’t bother setting up a spot on your dorm room floor. I’ll be sleeping over at Spelman.”

The train slid into the station, and unloaded its passengers. Isaiah and Malik walked in and sat down across from each other in the sideways senior citizens’ seats, separated by a wall of pleated slacks and nylon laptop cases. The train pulled out of the station and sprinted the short distance to Gallery Place. Isaiah and Malik got off and rode the escalator up to the hundred-degree light of the sun. As they drew nearer to the exit of the station, they could hear the sound of a piano playing a ragtime tune, and when they stepped off the escalator, they could see an old man in a pinstripe suit, wearing a bowler hat and sunglasses, sitting next to a mobile hot dog stand, his wrinkled fingers covered in gold rings and slamming the valves of a saxophone.

The old man pulled the reed from his lips and hit the Pause button on the boombox beside him, then turned to them and gave them a 24-karat grin. “What’s happening, youngblood?”

“Not much, D.M. How are you?” asked Malik.

“I’m good,” said D.M. “Who’s your friend over there?”

“This is Isaiah Williams. Used to play go-go with him. He plays electric bass,” said Malik.

The old man nodded. “I know this one. Is it a Fender as blue as Robert Johnson’s soul? With sweet, fickle strings that fall out of tune as quickly as a streetwalker responds to a catcall?”

“You know my uncle.”

“We played jazz that was like bullets ricocheting off the walls of dark, smoke-filled clubs and made the audience get up and dodge them. Yes, I was once in a band with Jerome Mason, but I guess he moved on to bigger and better things. He did talk up a storm about you, though. He sure did. Said that you had asked him to teach you how to turn each one of your fingers into magic wands and cast spells on those bass strings, and that all he had done was stand in the room while you said incantations with his guitar—cuckolded him. He told me how much potential you had. I’d like to hear it sometime. They call me Def-Mute Tangerine Buchanan.” He extended his hand to Isaiah.

Isaiah shook it. “Why ‘Def-Mute’?”

“It’s a name was given to me by the slam poets that would recite at a club that I play at every once in a while. They come by once a week, the night right after stand-up comedy night, then climb up on that stage and unburden themselves of the stories they were trudging around with. The ones they couldn’t fit on the page anymore so they unloaded on everyone else, then ran away, wringing their hands, laughing into the night. I was the warm-up act, and we would have drinks together after the shows. When they named me they were probably thinking of that show on the HBO, Def Poetry, the one with the people that make rhythms and rhymes with their voices that get sent out over the airwaves. And since I play a horn, they took ‘Mute’ and called me ‘Def-Mute.’ Pretty cute, huh?”

“Okay,” said Isaiah. “Why ‘Tangerine’?”

“Because they’re delicious, and full of vitamin C,” said D.M. He turned to Malik. “So, what you been up to, Malik?”

“Got this internship over at National Geographic.”

“National Geographic? Damn,” said Isaiah.

“Nothing big, just this ‘Diversity Internship’ that they told all the high schools in the city about. I just grabbed an application and turned it in. I’m basically just a gopher, running to the printer and making copies. I get money and they get to look at me and smile the exact same smile on the ID cards hanging around their necks and feel like they’re helping some poor, inner city kids ‘finally break the cycle and have a chance at a future!’” he said, his hands clasped together, a dazed look on his face like a Jehovah’s Witness. “As long as they don’t try to take a photo of me with a bone through my nose and my titties hanging out I won’t have to go shoot up the place.”

D.M. laughed. “You’ll be all right, youngblood.”

“How about you? What have you been up to?” asked Malik.

“Not much, not much. I pretty much spend my days out here playing the sax for the tourists that are naïve enough to drop a coin in an old coffee cup but too tasteless to drop one in a leather case. I should probably be sleeping, considering I’ve got shows to do at night. God knows these old bones need their rest. You boys heading over by The Tuning Fork?”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah.

“You see Solstice, remind her that we got to practice. Don’t want her getting high.”

“We got you, D.M. See you later,” said Malik.

“Good to meet you,” said Isaiah. He followed Malik to the street corner, leaving D.M. as he pressed the button on the boombox and put the reed back to his lips. Isaiah turned back and watched the old man coast into the current that flowed through his fingers, a softer tune than the one he had been playing before, smooth and yet somehow not-smooth jazz that he knew his uncle had walked away from. He did not notice the Walk signal appearing, and so Malik tapped his shoulder again, then stepped off the curb. Isaiah followed, not looking back as the flow filled his ears, drowning out the honking horns and honking morning DJs.

Martin Luther King Library was right across the street from the exit of Gallery Place station. Malik slid the book into the slot in front of the carousel doors, then turned to Isaiah. He followed him for several blocks through the crowds, their feet clanking on metal grates in the sidewalk then stopping intermittently at corners, waiting for the traffic signals to show them the little glowing white man again, only to step off and narrowly miss the taxicabs that stopped inches short of the crosswalk, and continued on. Above them, the flags hung from the streetlamps advertising Chinatown wafted and were soon behind them, for they had reached the exit of the roofless tunnel of skyscrapers they had been passing through, and reached a strip of tenement houses. The entrance to The Tuning Fork was on the corner, between a dry cleaners and a takeout.

Sitting on the stoop was a stout woman with braided gray hair that draped her shoulders, wearing a long, white blouse and a long skirt that covered her ankles, just above a pair of rope sandals. Stroking mandolin strings, she rocked back and forth, singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” She noticed Isaiah and Malik, and stopped singing, but kept stroking.

“Hey, boys. Still breathing easy?” she asked.

“We’re doing good, Solstice,” said Malik. “D.M. says hi.”

“Did he tell you we’ve been playing at Mikhail’s? Did he tell you to remind me that we need to rehearse and not to get high? Did he say that because he thinks I would sing like a cow carrying sour milk when I am chewing my cud, or did he admit that he just wanted me to save some grass for him? Well, doesn’t matter anyway. I’m cashed this week. Come on in, boys. I invite you both to come in and dirty my merchandise with the last margarine-soaked breadcrumbs from the toast you ate this morning, especially you, Isaiah. You know, you would be surprised at how many people have this weird idea that they can just take things off the shelves and bring them to the front counter, attempting to offer me green pieces of paper for them so that I can not-die for another month, and then I have to tell them that this is actually not a store, but a museum, and I am its curator—the rare kind that doesn’t accept donations but just gets a nice, warm feeling from having people inside, humping the air-conditioner for as long as possible.”

“You know, for a hippie, you are capitalist as a motherfucker,” said Malik.

“Peace, love, and understanding is overrated when all you can afford for lunch is parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Take your time inside, boys. I need to practice.”

“Thanks,” said Isaiah. Their entrance was heralded by the jingle of the bell hanging over the door. The air-conditioning chilled them as they stepped onto the creaking hardwood floor of a wide showroom made small by the bevy of instruments hanging on the walls, surrounding the counter with the cash register. They passed the glass display cases of microphones, sidled around the patrons tipping through the CD aisles, until they reached the back wall where a row of basses hung. Isaiah looked at his own face in the cold, black body of the five-string Ibanez Ergodyne. He took it down from the wall, put its strap on his shoulder, and slid his left hand up and down the neck. He plucked the strings, but the only sounds he heard were the lifeless twang of a guitar not plugged in, his own erratic breathing smoothed out by the cessation of withdrawal, and the lurching groan of the floorboards as the skinny, brown-haired young man stepped from behind the counter, approached slowly, and turned, satisfied that he had subtly informed Isaiah and Malik that they were being watched. He pulled the strap off, looked at the price tag, and sighed.

“You good?” asked Malik.

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “This fix will last me about a week before I start convulsing and waking up in a cold sweat.” He put the guitar back on its shelf, then followed Malik to the CD aisles, stopping to look at an album by TV On The Radio, a band whose name had often reached his ears, along with the ambling beat and echoing, agitating guitars like crackling static. He remembered first seeing one of their music videos, and reeling with surprise upon seeing the bespectacled, black visage of the lead singer, Tunde Adebimpe, and seeing that the rest of the band was black too, except the one white guitarist. He looked at the track list on the back, then put the CD back on the shelf.

As they returned to the entrance to the shop, Isaiah turned to get one last look at the Ergodyne, and noticed a stockroom worker walking out of the storage room in the back, carrying a large cardboard box in front of him. When he put it down in the CD aisles and opened it up, Isaiah could see that it was Zeke. And he thought, Oh, I didn’t know Zeke worked here. I didn’t know Zeke worked. But there he is, with a clipboard in one hand, the other putting a handful of Wilco CDs on the shelf. I could introduce Zeke to Malik, and Malik to Zeke. I could do it right now. I could. I am not. I am not going to, he thought. Because if I do I will have to tell Zeke the story of Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor and I will have to tell Malik what kind of band has replaced ours. I will have to tell Malik and he will think I have given up every memory we have had, and then, he too, will forget, when he is far away in the Morehouse classrooms …

Isaiah remembered the classroom at Rudolph Elementary where he sat in a cold metal chair, his gaze fixed on a poster of a bespectacled worm bursting from a red apple with an open book somehow connected to its skin, grinning and shouting, “Reading is fundamental!” from the cartoon speech bubble next to its head. He remembered looking down at his finished arithmetic worksheet, being glad that he would not have to finish it at home like the rest of the class, most of whom were still dragging their No. 2 pencils across the pages. But he had to wait for Mrs. Leary, who had stepped out into the hallway to talk to another teacher. So he spread his hands out over his desk, an open palm down, the other in a loose fist, and began to beat on the desktop, his shoulders accompanying the rhythm, his neck stretching forward and back, and on the other side of the room, he saw another pair of hands, providing a melody to his harmony on their own desktop, and he looked up and saw short but still somewhat thick black dreads poking out of another bored boy’s head. Soon there were more boys and girls beating, beating, beating on the desks, getting out of their chairs and dancing on the rug that they sat on for the morning circle. When Mrs. Leary came back into the room, she stood next to the door, silently, her arms folded, while the students scrambled back into their chairs and sat with their hands clasped together on their desktops. She asked, simply and tersely, who was responsible for disrupting the learning environment that she had so carefully crafted to instill discipline and cultivate a sense of values, and unhesitatingly, the children pointed their fingers at the two bored boys who were the first to question the necessity of silence.

And so the two boys were sent to the principal’s office and told to sit on the long wooden bench in the waiting room, their legs dangling off the edge, shoelaces swinging over the shag carpet.

One turned to the other and said, “I’m Isaiah.”

The other responded, “I’m Malik.”

And as they waited for the principal to call them in, their idle hands wandered to the tiny metal zippers on their jackets, pulling them up and down, making a sound much like DJs ravaging vinyl like it were tissue paper, until the secretary with the beaded glasses and the long, turquoise fingernails stopped typing and said, “You two need to stop with that noise,” so they stopped and sat, bored and patient once again.

If they were ever in the same class, they sat beside each other. At lunch, they found each other’s tables as if by sonar and sat down, trading oatmeal raisin cookies for barbecue potato chips. Then, one day, Malik came to school with his older brother’s tape player in the pocket of his jacket, and managed to avoid having it confiscated until recess. At a bench on the basketball court, they listened to the scratchy recording of a Backyard Band live show, the voices and instruments all muffled, the explicit content so unintelligible it was harmless. They listened, bobbed their heads, and knew that this was what they would devote themselves to.

Now, years after, outside The Tuning Fork, Malik turned to Isaiah and shook his hand. “All right, man, it’s been good catching up with you, but I got to hurry up and get to work.”

Isaiah cleared his throat. “I’m starting a new band.”

Malik stopped and looked at him. “For real?”

“Yeah, we just had our first practice the other day.”

“You guys got a name yet?”

“Yeah. The Lobbyists.”

“The Lobbyists?” asked Malik. “What kind of music you guys play?”

“Rock.”

“Rock?”

“Rock. Like, you know, indie rock.”

“What … you mean like that Death Cab For Cutie shit, man? Like them chubby dudes with the cardigan sweaters and the five o’clock shadow playing mandolins and singing about how lonely they are now that their girlfriends cheated on them with their badminton instructors and then moved away to the Hamptons?”

Isaiah sighed. “It’s not even like that, man.”

“Oh, so it’s more like those emaciated crack addicts that hit the same chords over and over again expecting different sounds to come out while singing lyrics based on the SparkNote of a Hemingway novel?”

Isaiah looked at the ground, shaking his head.

“You know what?” asked Malik. “It’s cool, man. I mean, there’s plenty of go-go bands you could have joined, but whatever.”

“I didn’t want to join a band. I wanted to form one,” said Isaiah. “And we are all trying to make something new, to put something out there, into the atmosphere that will won’t just diffuse but gather together and can block out the sun—not some desiccating smog, but the cloud of a storm. To breathe out something more than we’ve always been breathing in.

“I’m telling you, man, these cats are real,” said Isaiah. “I had them all wrong at first, too. All I had to go on was this ad in the CityPaper and I thought they would be whiny private school brats who wanted to ball their stepsisters; that they thought music was something for graduate students to write dissertations on, not for people to shake their ass or even just nod their head to. But that’s not the case. These cats are real. They understand what it’s about.”

Malik looked Isaiah up and down. He sighed and said, “All right, man. Do what you got to do. And, hey: make sure you make that paper.” He edged his elbow into Isaiah’s ribs. “You just make sure your name is in the record contract, not just the name of the band. Otherwise, they’ll demote you to equipment manager and get the bastard child of Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice to replace you at the first opportunity. I’ve seen it happen, man. Major labels are cutthroat like that.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Isaiah, grinning. “Good to see you again, Malik.”

“Yeah, I’ll catch you,” said Malik. He clapped Isaiah’s hand and swung his arm around him in a brief embrace, then released him. “One.”

Isaiah turned back toward the subway station, and looked back at Malik, who stood at the corner, waiting petulantly for the little glowing white man. Isaiah pulled his headphones back onto his ears, and pressed play.

1, 2, 3, 4 …

When Isaiah arrived at their studio two days later, he found Zeke in the room, alone, standing on top of his wayward skateboard, trying to tame it. He was alone with his drum set, the amps, and Cameron’s laptop.

“They went to CVS to get some CD-Rs,” Zeke said.

Zeke was standing on his skateboard, the plastic wheels rumbling on the hardwood floor of the studio, occasionally running into the bass drum. When he grew tired of this, he began to walk the skateboard across the floor, managing to keep his feet magnetized to its surface. Isaiah knelt beside Cameron’s laptop, examining his music collection, finding the previous week’s practice session, and then sat astride an amp, the blue Fender in hand, teasing the strings, twisting the machine heads. He began to pluck the strings, closed his eyes and listened and nearly fell out of consciousness had his fingers not kept reaching for the fifth string that wasn’t there.

“So your old band played go-go?” Zeke asked, watching as his feet balanced his body on his skateboard.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Isaiah. No, he thought. That is not quite right. It was more than that, much more, but he couldn’t bring himself to say how much more. Not just yet. He had to be able to say it loud, proud, and unabridged, as if Malik, Dante, and Victor were right behind him, nodding their approval.

“I’ve only been able to hear that on the radio,” said Zeke, as he stepped off of the skateboard. “I think it was on late one night on 95.5.”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “WPGC usually has some good shit on GoGo 95, but the rest of the time, its just regular old commercial hip hop.”

“Yeah, I don’t listen to too much commercial radio in general anyway,” said Zeke.

He sat down behind his drums and began rapping out a beat not fast enough to catch up to the pace Isaiah remembered.

“There aren’t any good radio stations around here, man,” said Zeke. “But my big brother goes to college in Massachusetts and they have a college radio station where they play nothing but the finest indie rock, but not too much pretentious electronica crap with no beat and nothing but static and a woman with a fake, bored British accent quoting random nineteenth-century Russian literature. Mostly bands made up of nothing but Canadian first cousins, one of which plays the violin, but not like the violin underneath pop rock singles to remind you that its a ballad and you should buy the album so your girlfriend will think you’re sensitive and wait a little longer before she dumps you.”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah, as he turned the reverb dial down. “The Arcade Fire is pretty good. Hey, Zeke.”

“Yeah?”

“You work at The Tuning Fork, right?”

“Yeah. You saw me there?” asked Zeke.

“Yeah. I would have said what’s up, but you looked busy.”

“Oh no, no, it’s a pretty laidback atmosphere, man.”

“Right,” said Isaiah. “Do you guys get an employee discount or anything?”

“Yeah, actually. Fifteen percent off. You want me to pick something up for you?”

“Well, you think you could get me a job there?”

“I think so. There aren’t that many shifts, though. But I’ll ask my mom.”

“Your mom? Solstice is your mom?”

“Yeah,” said Zeke. “Is that weird or something?”

“No, not at all.”

Zeke nodded, and then a wry smile infected his face.

“Yeah, I’ll get you a job, but on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You got to let me go with you to a go-go show.”

“You want to go to a go-go show?” asked Isaiah. “Why?”

“Why not? You think I don’t know anything about it? Like just because I’ve been growing up in Northwest associating with the same incestuous group of people there, endlessly chattering about their retirement plans and the charities they give to that I can’t hear what’s going anywhere east of Rock Creek Park? Bass carries well through the ground, man.”

Isaiah’s doubtful stare wiped Zeke down as he asked himself whether Zeke could genuinely enjoy himself enough to slacken his limbs and let his body be swept into the current of the sounds he had once made. Isaiah cringed because when he looked at Zeke, he could not help but imagine him standing in a corner, nodding his head, surveying the scene like a viceroy on a sugar plantation, watching two of his slaves jump over a broom, and then lose themselves in celebration afterwards. But Isaiah blinked and the leather whip in Zeke’s hand became a drumstick again, his handlebar mustache becoming chin stubble. He decided it was unfair to assume that Zeke had to reverse two centuries’ worth of inculcation in a single night in order to prove himself worthy of another one.

Well, Isaiah thought, we all have to start somewhere.

“All right,” said Isaiah. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The metal door scraped open, revealing Cameron and Aidan with their instruments, and a crinkled plastic bag, from which Cameron pulled a spindle of recordable CDs, and laid them beside the laptop. The door scraped open again, and Isaiah saw a short girl with light brown, almost amber skin, wiry black hair that fell in sharp curls around her shoulders. She wore a white tank top, jeans a column of bracelets around her thin wrists, pair of rose-tinted sunglasses and gold hoop earrings.

“Hey, guys,” said Aidan. “Hope you don’t mind if Naima hangs out for a little while.”

“Oh no!” Cameron, Zeke, and Isaiah chorused.

“Come on, Aidan,” said Zeke. “We’ve been a band for what? A week? And here you are, bringing in this harbinger of our now-destined dissolution and subsequent comeback tour. Next thing, she’s gonna bring us knowledge of good and evil in the form of a MacBook with random samples from foreign films for us to shove into our songs.”

“Actually, from what I’ve heard, this band is pretty experimental enough already, so you can’t blame me if you guys break up,” she said.

“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way,” said Zeke. Naima took a step away from him.

“Yeah, watch out for Zeke,” said Aidan. “He’ll hog-tie you.” He stooped down beside Cameron as he plugged the microphone into the laptop, and set up an audio recording and editing program. He did not see the middle finger that Zeke turned towards Aidan, accompanied by several other gestures that Zeke mimed, that elicited Naima’s silent laughter.

Isaiah watched as she pulled her earbuds out of her ears, and tucked them into her purse, where he figured her iPod must have been. She was no Yoko Ono. She was more like David Bowie’s new-and-improved supermodel wife, Iman. Looking at her while she stood still reminded Isaiah of the blonde girls he had seen hanging out after school, finally relieved that they could smoke their cigarettes, call their boyfriends with their cell phones, and listen to the smooth jazz on their iPods. Who had often complained in class about the workload, as if the same tactic that worked on their fathers would work on their teachers. Who eventually met up with their boyfriends and together, walked as if the world moved from the motion of their feet. But she was walking over to him, not in that aimless, expectant way, but with purpose and interest, smiling, her lips deep red like shiraz wine.

“Apparently, my boyfriend is bad at introducing people,” she said.

“Oh, right. Naima, that’s Isaiah. He’s our bass player,” said Aidan. He turned back to Cameron’s laptop.

“Is that your guitar?” she asked, pointing at it. It was lying on the floor behind him, nowhere near its paper towel-insulated leather case, but quite close to the loose shoelaces of Aidan’s sneakers. Isaiah did not remember putting it down.

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “It’s kind of old, but it still plays well.”

He nearly began to pour out how his Uncle had taught him and how strange it was that Jerome had told his old band that he was some kind of natural when Isaiah actually remembered a long, slow process, the endless repetition of a timid riff that became more self-assured each time, and how he had formed a go-go band with three of his friends that played around the city. No, wait, don’t talk about you, ask about her first.

“Can I see what you got on your iPod?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said, pulling it out. Her small, cold hands put the mp3 player into his, and his thumb soon circled the face, cycling through the list of artists. The Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, Cake, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Yes, yes, good good. Coldplay, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band. No, no, bad. The Decemberists. Yes. Default. Bad. The Dismemberment Plan, Fugazi. Yes, good. Hootie and the Blowfish. No. Iron & Wine. Good. Iron Maiden. No. Jimi Hendrix, Laura Veirs, Led Zeppelin. Yes, yes, good. Lifehouse, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park. Bad, bad, no. Modest Mouse, Matisyahu, Metric, Minor Threat. Good, yes, who? yes. Nickel Creek. Good. Nickelback. NO. Phantom Planet, Pixies, The Postal Service, Rancid. Good, YES! Yes, good. Semisonic, Sevendust. Bad, bad. The Silver Jews, Sleater-Kinney, Snowpony, Sufjan Stevens. Who? who? who? good. Third Eye Blind. NO. Wolf Parade. Yes. Wolfmother. No.

He handed the iPod back to her. “Cool.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“All right, I think we’re ready to get started,” said Cameron. The Lobbyists picked up their instruments, plugged in, and took their places. Aidan told Naima that she should grab the blue mats from the corner of the room and make a seat for herself, and apologized for not having any helmets on hand. He then strummed a slow, sauntering riff that he had been working on, and Cameron’s fingers tickled his keyboard, giving the saunter more of a skip. Isaiah concocted a bass line, so that each step did not just go straight forward but side to side, and Zeke swung the sticks into the drums, turning every other step into a stomp.

And they ripped out, ripped out, ripped out the pages

Of the books, of the books, that others put on their reading lists

And told them, told them, told them they should read them

They rewrote, rewrote them, but were still unsatisfied

So they ripped out, ripped out, ripped out the pages

Of the books, of the books, that they had just been writing

And they pasted, pasted, pasted them in each others’

And then read them aloud so they could rip out more pages

And Naima, stranded on the battlefield, tapped one toe, but refused to move, as if she had heard the click of a mine beneath her other foot, and must therefore stand perfectly still on pain of death. And when it came to an end, she applauded softly. “I think that one actually sounded like a third single.”

“Third?” asked Cameron.

“The first single has to be the most harmless, radio-friendly one you can possibly pull from the depths of your ability to compromise your artistic integrity,” she said. “The third single has to be the one that people who have already bought your album really want to see a music video for because it is your essence at its most essential. And the second single is the slow, emotional one.”

“That’s good enough for me,” said Aidan. “Guys, I think we’ve got ourselves a demo. Think we can start burning?”

“Not yet. We’ve got one more song. Isaiah needs to lay down a bass line,” said Cameron.

Isaiah approached the laptop at the sound of his name. “What’s up?”

“We just need to get the bass part for this one song,” said Aidan. “We got most of it done yesterday at Cameron’s house.”

“I thought we were recording all the songs here,” said Isaiah.

“This one has a lot of electronic samples in it,” said Cameron. “We had to take care of this one at my house. We borrowed my Dad’s computer. It’s a G5 desktop. This one is actually sounding really good. We should do a few more like it.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Aidan. “Just listen to this, Isaiah, and make a quick bass line, and we’ll just loop it on the track.”

Cameron connected Isaiah’s amp to the input of his laptop, and hit the enter key. Isaiah gripped his guitar and listened to the track. He began to finger a simple bass line. He watched the waveforms spread out over the screen, and saw Cameron’s fingers on the track pad, sliding the equalizers on the screen up and down. “Okay, good.” Then Cameron stopped, clicked on a few more things, and Isaiah’s bass line was a wave form that could be moved around, repeated, and edited. He played the song back and Isaiah’s bass line repeated itself over and over again. He found himself nodding to the song.

“That sounds great,” said Zeke. “Nice job, Isaiah.”

“I think we can start burning,” said Cameron. “I’ll bring the copies I’ve made to the next jam session.”

It was not at all a smooth jazz song. But he knew that smooth jazz bands recorded their songs alone in studios on multitrack recorders. The members came into the studio, passed another on the way out, and sat down in a tiny booth with a microphone and headphones and played along like subjects in an experiment. But a rough rock band always played together, in huge rooms with dozens of microphones, surrounding the band. And Isaiah felt sure that he was listening to a rough rock song.

He decided that he was. But it was not a rough rock song by The Lobbyists. It was by Aidan, Cameron, and Zeke, with a special guest appearance from Isaiah. He walked back over to the case and pulled the guitar off, and put it into the leather case. He picked it up and walked over to the heavy metal door, passing Naima on the way.

“I think you just made a first single,” she said.

Isaiah smirked and pushed the door open, then let it swing shut with a bang behind him.

In the evening, Isaiah walked in through the front door, and called out for his father, but received no response. He smelled no chicken frying or collard greens boiling, and figured that his father was not home yet. He set his leather case down on the sofa, and went over to the bookcase. His finger tripped across the spines of Roots, Beloved, Black Boy, over the treatises by Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, and James Baldwin. He stopped at a thick spine with ornate floral patterns, put his finger in between the pages, pulled it out, and opened it. Inside the first clear plastic sleeve was a photograph of a baby whose cheeks were spilling off his face. The baby was held in the arms of a grinning, bald, beardless man in his rolled-up collared shirt sleeves and lazy necktie sitting in front of the same fake, vaguely grey background he had sat in front of to take his high school yearbook picture. And sitting beside him was a wheat-skinned woman in a red pantsuit with frizzy, baked brown hair, giving a sidelong glance, red lips Isaiah had been told were like merlot, had been told were wearing an almost mischievous grin which was the result of pride at her string of successes in the courtroom.

And Isaiah asked himself if the girl with shiraz wine lips was beautiful because she is the closest thing to his mother as all truly beautiful women are for all men, or if she was beautiful because she was the closest thing to the blonde girls with cigarettes, and even then, found himself unable to decide which was acceptable. He remembered once, a few years ago, being summoned into his father’s bedroom, seeing his father flip through the channels and stop on BET to find a rap video with girls dancing, champagne poured on them, and going tsk, tsk at the image of black women in the media, before turning off the television and reaching into his drawer and pulling out a photograph, then turning to Isaiah, and showing it to him …

“Isaiah, I kept this picture hidden from your mother so she wouldn’t get jealous, and I kept it from you because it was not until today that you needed to see it. You’re at the age where your body will be going through some changes real fast, and your mind will struggle to keep pace. There will be many things you must come to understand through a long and painfully confusing process. You will question whether you must be strong or sentimental, when to ask and when to assume, or even whether you are gay or straight or bisexual. But here is something you got to attach to your brain now before anything else.”

Isaiah looked at the picture and saw his father with an enormous, fluffy afro and long, scraggly beard, wearing a suit with no tie, his collar popped, and a gold chain hanging around his neck. His arm was wrapped around the waist of a woman in a tight-fitting brown dress, her hair cut short. She had dark brown, almost onyx skin, much darker than that of Isaiah’s mother, and her eyes were round but thin like seeds.

“This woman I married and divorced before I met your mother. She didn’t want children and I thought that I didn’t either, so in the three years we were married, until I came to my senses, we didn’t have any. Her name is Allison.”

“She’s beautiful,” Isaiah said.

“Glad you agree,” his father said. “I just wanted to make sure you knew this: your mother is beautiful, yes. But so is she. Remember to treasure black women—all black women, every gradation, age, shape, and thought they have. You may meet some who associate strength with the volume of their voice, who learned from seeing their mothers mistreated by the so-called men who waded into and out of their lives, and so refuse to let you close to them, but do not think they are cold. Behind those walls they are still fragile and priceless, but don’t ever try to lock them away. As long as you remember this, and keep this in mind, you will have an enriched life, and one day, an enriched household. That’s all I wanted to say, son. I’m through with you.” He took the picture back, ripped it up, and put it in the trash …

Isaiah had said, yes, she is beautiful, when looking at the picture of his father’s first wife, but he could not help but look at the picture of his mother and say to himself that his mother was far more beautiful. He could not be sure if it was because it was the simple bias in favor of his mother over any other woman, or if it was because his mother’s skin favored her white ancestry. And he worried that because of that, there was a sickness in his mind, a sickness that also made him think that the music he made with The Lobbyists really was his best work yet, or if he were simply confused. Rock music is black music, too, he had heard so often. But is it honest, onyx music like go-go, or has it become like some kind of tragic mulatto that had tempted him with the promise of satisfying a curious lust with its red wine lips?

He put the picture of his mother back into the photo album and put it back on the bookshelf. He picked his leather case up and walked towards the staircase leading to the basement. He heard footsteps coming up the stairs, onto the front porch, and keys jingling as they came out of a pocket. Isaiah realized he had left the door ajar, and his father had told him he must always make sure to close it. Isaiah went into the basement. He made sure to close that door behind him.

5 …

The next day, Isaiah went to Fort Totten and boarded the subway in the other direction, toward Glenmont. He sat down in an empty seat in the last car, facing forward. He listened to a long-bearded solo guitarist sing folksy tunes in whispered tones, songs that were not about, but made Isaiah imagine, running through a vast, maze-like cornfield and coming out the other side only to turn back and find that whoever it was who was running with him had been lost in the process. He stared out the window and watched the rooftops of the neighborhood rushing by just below the train tracks. The houses were even smaller than his own, and bunched closer together, leaving even less room for front and backyards, most of which looked as though their grass had gone uncut for months at a time. He saw stray cats strutting across the alleys, climbing atop old, rusted scrap heaps in vacant lots. Then, the city limits of Silver Spring, Maryland, came into view. He saw the car wash that still had a sign that read “Shine-O-Wax: $7” that had been left unchanged even though it now cost twice as much. He saw the tavern with the mural painted on its side of a billiards table from the white cue ball’s perspective as it waited for its chance to break that uppity group of colored and mixed balls.

Then he saw complete darkness. The train descended underground, Isaiah turned away from his reflection, looked around the train car, and saw that it was mostly empty, except for an old woman with a kerchief on her head, and a brightly-uniformed transit cop with a buzz cut and a short mustache. He got off the train at Wheaton, and rode the escalator upstairs to the entrance to the Westfield Shopping Centre, through a cool, dry tunnel that connected directly to the department store, allowing him to avoid the humid air aboveground. He rode up the escalator inside the department store, and walked down the aisle past the frilly bras leering at him from the women’s underwear section, around the jewelry and perfume kiosk that got little patronage now that it was over a month past Mother’s Day, past the bald women that silently stared without pupils and the disembodied legs wearing long stockings, and stepped out into the mall.

He was headed toward No Cream No Sugar, the café and bookstore that focused on African-American literature. He went there whenever he could, even when the book he wanted was available at Barnes and Noble, or when he wanted a latte that could easily have been bought at Starbucks. He had heard that a new anthology of critical essays about hip-hop had a chapter on underground hip-hop, with a section on the DC scene, containing a paragraph about go-go. He could see it through the window, sitting on top of the New! shelf, then dashed in and picked it up. At the café counter, the equal-opportunistically employed white boy waited for Isaiah to look up from the book and step forward and order. He ordered an ice-blended mocha to go, but when he turned around, he saw Dante. The short-haired, clean-shaven man with espresso skin sat at a table, wearing a short-sleeved, collared shirt, jean shorts on long legs that struggled to fit underneath the tabletop, sneakers, and an earring in his left ear. He had a cup of coffee in front of him, and a baby bottle in hand. He squirted some of the milk into his coffee, sipped it, then reached across to the wide-eyed little girl lying in a bassinet beside him, and offered the child her bottle. He looked up at Isaiah and grinned, then turned his gaze back to his daughter immediately.

“How’s it going, Isaiah?” he asked. He managed to correctly aim the plastic bottle into the baby’s mouth.

“It’s going good, Dante. How about you?” asked Isaiah. He bent over slightly, reaching into the child’s field of vision, opening and closing his hands in an exaggerated wave. “Hi, Desiree. I’m Isaiah. Can you say ‘Isaiah?’”

Desiree sang scat to Isaiah, reaching for his face. “Damn. She looks just like you.” Dante shot steel eyes at Isaiah. “I mean, ‘Dang.’”

“Thanks,” said Dante. “So how’s your father doing? Does he still use you as his whipping boy for our generation, dragging you out to mechanics and barbershops every weekend so he and his friends can make fun of your hair and sigh about how lost we have become?”

“Yes, he does,” said Isaiah. “But I read that link you sent me, the one about the history of the African-American family. So now I know that he’s just wary of anyone who might let word get out that his son is strong or smart or capable of fathering children, for there is no telling who will help steal the guns from the shed and set fire to it, and who will run into the big house and wake up the master.”

“And even those who woke the master were, themselves, vainly trying to prevent their children from being sold,” said Dante. “Now my worst fear is that this one will grow up not knowing how beautiful she is.”

“No need to worry about that,” said Isaiah. “How old is she now?”

“Thirteen months,” said Dante. “We were just out here last month, scanning the stores for anything with a pink bunny sewn into it, and already we are struggling to fit her into them today. And people wonder why parents let boys go out with pants that hang off their ass.”

“Because they gotta last,” said Isaiah and Dante, as they clinked their paper cups together.

“So when am I gonna see your name in the paper after the cops pick you up while you’re running down the street, naked, screaming in horror at the results of your girlfriend’s pregnancy test?”

“Not for a while,” said Isaiah, as he pulled up another chair from an empty table. “Don’t really got that girlfriend thing locked down yet.”

“Don’t worry,” said Dante, glancing up. “You’re about to get your first lesson.”

A young caramel-skinned woman with short, straightened hair teased out, wearing jeans and a halter top beneath a jean jacket, walked into the café. She carried several shopping bags and a leather purse with a short strap that clung to her shoulder. She had a portable headset for a cell phone on one ear.

“… is already in the mail. As a matter of fact, it’s postmarked for last week, so it should have arrived by now. They’ll just have to wait. I can’t go out there tomorrow, I already have an interview at the hospital, and after that, we have to rent the U-Haul. Dante, honey, reach into the Hecht’s bag and pull out that cute little knit cap and put it on Desiree, will you? No, not the pink one, the hot pink one. Yeah, that’s it. Hi, Isaiah,” she said, waving.

“Hi, Virginia, how you doing?”

“I’m doing fine, how are you?”

“I’m good.”

“That’s nice. Yeah, thirty-five. They’re actually cheaper than the one on Rittenhouse. They lowered their prices because they started losing customers. Apparently, there was a shooting at the Laundromat across the street …”

Isaiah listened to her and could not help but imagine a domestic Naima from years in the future, appearing before him, and somehow the proper husband to her proper wife should not be Aidan but himself. And he could not silence the voice in his mind that said, “Stop thinking about this, stop thinking of your friend’s girlfriend like this” anymore than he could obey it. He imagined Naima with children, and remembered that this was the reason his father had said his first marriage had ended. It had nothing to do with whatever combination of cyan, magenta, and yellow God had used to make anyone’s complexion. But Virginia was a beautiful woman, whose skin was dark like his father’s first wife, and she seemed to take to motherhood quickly. And one day, the daughter she and Dante had made together had a face that would one day launch a thousand ships. It seemed impossible to deny that there was some greater value in having a woman like Virginia, that confirmed that there were other reasons to keep himself away from Naima besides the fact that she belonged to his friend.

Now he was beginning to feel cursed by his thoughts. As if someone were implanting them in his head as some sort of experiment, like hamster food slipped through the bars of a cage. He wondered if his journey were being orchestrated by some warlock peering down at him through the bubbles rising from his cauldron. It seemed rather strange that he should meet Malik by chance on the subway, and here at the coffeeshop, Dante. But, then, hadn’t some unseen loom tied their threads together a long time ago? It seemed so. But, then, what exactly did that make this entire ordeal out to be? A cycle of fate or a cycle of destiny?

Isaiah watched Dante lift the not pink, hot pink knit cap out of the creased paper bag and pull it down over Desiree’s head, who responded with a moan that let a thin line of dribble pour onto her bib. Dante wiped it away with a napkin. She will sleep soundly, Isaiah thought. Even in the crib at night, in the narrow house in Baltimore, despite the police sirens and the despite the angry, drunk men throwing their liquor bottles on the ground, despite their rushing footsteps and peeling-out cars. And in the day care in the hospital, she will sleep soundly, while her mother brings bowls of ice cream to children mourning the loss of the tonsils they left in an operating room, while her father is in a classroom, slapping the conga drum while conducting the orchestra full of children mourning the loss of the innocence they left in health class, preparing them for their performance at the all-school cultural assembly in the auditorium …

Isaiah remembered sitting in the auditorium of Howard University, watching a series of performers find the courage to get onstage in front of a crowd of nearly only other performers peppered throughout the otherwise empty room, all of whom were too understanding of the process of raising a hand or committing one’s name to a sign up sheet to be able to deliver an unbiased critique. Every act had been recorded and applauded. Occasionally, a musician climbed onstage, placed a songbook on the rostrum and plugged his instrument into the sound system provided for them. Mostly, all that was necessary was a voice and a good memory, and so poet after poet got up, turned away the mic and spoke directly to the audience, supported by an undergraduate sitting in the background, whose hair had been in cascading dreadlocks at the time, with a conga drum sleeping between his knees that he awoke at their behest.

And while the others who had brought instruments with them gave no indication of regard for the conguero, when Isaiah had climbed on stage, carrying his leather guitar case, he gave a short bow to the conguero, catching his eye for a full second, and plugged his bass in. And instead of facing the audience, he turned toward the conguero, and clamped the frets and pulled three strings, letting the last one linger, awaiting a response. The conguero responded in kind, with three slaps on the conga.

They rose on the cresting beat. On the crest of it.
Rose on the cresting beat. On the crest, the crest.
Rose on the cresting beat. On the crest of it.
Rose on the crest. And then came the rest.

Only a few more acts took the stage after Isaiah, and when the emcee thanked the performers for coming and closed the mic, Isaiah jumped back up on stage with an open hand extended to the dreaded conguero as he was putting the drum into its nylon bag. He picked it up and rose to his full height, towering above Isaiah, and then took his hand.

“Isaiah.”

“Dante.”

They walked up the aisle to the heavy metal doors and pushed them open with a shrill creak …

Virginia hung up her phone, dropped it into her purse, then lifted Desiree out of her stroller. Isaiah moved to another chair so that she could sit down across from Dante. “I’m so sorry that took so long,” she said, looking at Desiree, cradling her in her arms. “How have you been, Isaiah?”

“Keeping busy,” said Isaiah. He stirred his straw in his now-melted ice-blended coffee and cleared his throat. “I’ve started up this indie rock band.”

“An indie rock band,” Dante repeated. “Oh, you mean like them Death Cab For Cutie dudes. They did that song on the soundtrack to that TV show. What’s it called, Virginia?”

“Which one?”

“It’s the one about the impoverished, misunderstood white boy who just got out of the ghetto and can’t seem to find someone who can love him for the broody, malcontent brat that he is.”

“No. No. No.” Isaiah put his head in his hands.

She kept her eyes on the baby. “No, I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.”

“Who else you got in your band?” Dante asked.

“Some guys who also went to Wilson,” said Isaiah.

“Oh. So, some white boys?” he asked, grinning.

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “What’s so funny? The thought of me playing in a rock band with a bunch of white boys is funny or something? What, I’m the black chick from Josie and the Pussycats? Do I look like I drive around in a psychedelic Winnebago with cat-ears and a thong, mystery-solving my way ‘cross the U.S. of A?”

“Nah, nothing like that,” said Dante. “I mean, to be honest with you, it kinda makes sense. No offense, Isaiah, but you probably the whitest boy I know.”

“Man, that’s just wrong. How am I the whitest boy you know?”

“You used to tape episodes of Friends.”

“Man, I only taped that one episode where Monica almost got back together with Richard because he was finally ready to have a baby and Chandler was too chicken to propose until the last part, when …” Isaiah slowly looked down at his ice-blended mocha, and sighed as he stirred it with his straw, shaking his head.

“Seriously, though, man. I mean, that ain’t really saying much, coming from me. Myself, I catch an episode of The King of Queens when I can,” he said. “If you ask me, though, no amount of television can take anything away from a man’s skill on an instrument. Especially not yours.”

Isaiah nodded. “Thanks, man. I appreciate that.”

Dante reached into a plastic bag with a toy store logo on it and pulled out a rattle, a plush rabbit that whispered encouraging slogans when squeezed, and a Lego construction set. He looked at Virginia with affected skepticism. “What did you get this for?”

“I just thought I’d buy them now for when she’s a little older,” said Virginia, as she took the spoon from him. “Because, you know, Legos help build motor skills and develop hand-eye coordination.”

“Baby, that’s what the video games are for! She’s gonna be way past Legos once she starts playing Halo 3,” said Dante. “You know, I read that there’s this three-year-old kid in the Midwest who can beat anyone at Halo. He’s like the Tiger Woods of video games.”

“And you think I’m just going to let you turn my child into a digital junkie that’s completely desensitized to violence?” she asked.

“Why can’t a father have goals for his daughter?” asked Dante. “Why can’t a man just get all the parenting out of the way right now and set a clear path for her to follow that steers clear of jail and the stripper pole so that he can relax in the new house she bought him from the interest from her hotel chain and he can count the $200 he got from pushing her past Go?”

“Because his daughter also has a mother,” said Virginia. “This particular mother is the one who sets the agenda and keeps the schedule. And right now, the schedule says it’s time for her doctor’s appointment.”

Dante finished his coffee and tossed the cup into the trash can. He turned to Isaiah. “So what do you call your new band?”

“We’re The Lobbyists,” said Isaiah.

“When you get a MySpace and start posting your songs on it, send me an e-mail,” he said. “And when you go on tour, make sure you stop in B-more.”

“I will. But until we come around, you can’t have another kid. Give that one some time to enjoy the only-child life.”

Dante nodded and pushed the empty stroller, following Virginia and Desiree as they walked out of the bookstore. Isaiah opened his book and began to read, undisturbed. Nothing but the sound of their passive-aggressive arguments could be heard. The baby had fallen asleep in her mother’s arms.

6 …

Isaiah spent every free moment at his new job at The Tuning Fork staring at the five-string Ibanez Ergodyne Bass, counting how many boxes he would have to move from the stockroom to the front room, how many dust mites he would have to sweep up, how many receipts he would have to print and IDs to check, before he could buy it at its employee discount price. Then he would feel a tap on his shoulder and turn to see Solstice’s not-so-mellow face, and back away. He would then sidle over to a chuckling Zeke, and join him in whatever task he was undertaking.

“You really have an art-boner for that guitar, don’t you?” asked Zeke.

“Man, that shit’s fucking trying to seduce me,” said Isaiah. “Part of me knows that as soon as I take it home, it’s gonna pull off its wig and ride away on a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter with my briefcase. But those precious few seconds when that wig is still on is all I need. Must be nice when your mom owns the guitar shop.”

“You’d think so, but she can be a real hard-ass,” said Zeke. “She demanded I buy that drum kit with my own money. I mean, seriously, demanded. I told her I wanted to be a dentist and she said, ‘No, you’re gonna be a drummer. Nobody’s even looked at that drum kit in the six years it’s been here. Get it off my floor.’”

Isaiah shook his head. He then wondered if Cameron or Aidan had ever worked during the summer, or even during the school year. He realized that he might owe them even more than his story. But he could not give it to any of them until he had received one more blessing from the last core member of his old band.

The bell over the front door jingled and Isaiah saw Naima enter, look around at the instruments for sale, and approach the CD aisles. As she passed the cash register, she mouthed, “Hey” at Isaiah and Zeke. Isaiah glanced at the front door. No one came in after her. He walked around Zeke to the edge of the counter towards Naima.

“Hey, do you need help finding anything?” he asked.

“Maybe,” said Naima. “I’m looking for a band called TV On The Radio. There was a song that I heard Cameron playing one time but I haven’t been able to find any information about it. I downloaded another song by them, one about a certain emperor who was so preoccupied with sending his knights to a faraway land to kill a demon of arid sand that he failed to protect his own citizens from a demon of stormy water. But I can’t find the one about werewolves falling in love.”

“I think we got their first album, but neither of those songs is on it,” said Isaiah. “The song you have is only online, and the other song is probably on their next album, their major label debut which will surely signal their surrender to the dark forces of commercialism, their thirteen-track whimper from between the vice grip of the corporate machine. That one doesn’t come out until September, although I think it’s been leaked on the internet for the past couple of months.”

“Okay, well, if you have their first album, I’ll take it. I’m sure it’s still good.”

“It is,” said Isaiah. He checked the inventory on the computer. “Yeah, we put it in the techno section for some reason. Last aisle, on the left.”

When she returned with the CD, Isaiah rang it up and bagged it. “Thanks,” she said. “Honestly, there’s no good reason why there aren’t more black rock bands. I mean, I used to buy Lenny Kravitz albums just so I wouldn’t feel guilty about downloading Matisyahu.”

“So does that mean one black Jew cancels out one white Jew?” asked Isaiah. “That sounds like a household cleaning product.”

“Yes. I think the commercial starts with a housewife who’s like, ‘Oh no, look at all the Jew all over my floor!’ and then Lenny Kravitz magically appears and he’s like, ‘Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt and grime and grease in just a minute.’”

“And then the housewife turns Lenny Kravitz upside down and uses his afro as a mop.”

Her laughter was loud, but went decrescendo until it was under her control. “I have to get going now, see you.” She returned to the front door of the store and, glancing back at Isaiah, pushed the door open, jingling the bell again as she exited. He watched her until he could no longer see her through the window.

Then, he saw that she had left a handful of menus from Mikhail’s Coffeehouse on the counter, which said that she would be performing there right after Def-Mute Tangerine Buchanan and Solstice. His first impulse was to grab them and catch up with her, but he thought better of it, and put them in his pocket.

A dark blue Pontiac Firebird was parked in front of Isaiah’s house when he arrived home from work that evening. As he unlocked the front door, Isaiah could smell steak frying, and he heard laughter. Isaiah pulled off his jacket as he walked into the dining room and laid it down on a chair at the table, then lifted it back up when he saw that it was already occupied by the pages of the Washington Post. He saw that the television was tuned to PBS, and saw Jim Lehrer’s face mouthing words silently beside a picture of a soldier, the word “IRAQ” below it, and at the bottom of the screen, the word “MUTE.”

As he entered the kitchen, he saw his father standing at the stove, one hand holding a fork, prodding three sizzling steaks on a frying pan, the other holding a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. He looked up at Isaiah, then glanced over to the refrigerator. Pulling out a beer like his father’s was his Uncle Jerome, a wheat-skinned man with short, shiny black dreads, wearing round glasses with clip-on shades, a shining black leather jacket, a white John Lennon T-shirt, jeans, and black cowboy boots. When he saw Isaiah, his lips curled back to reveal immaculate, white teeth.

“Hey, hey, big man!” he said, his voice slightly hoarse from years of cigarette smoke. “What’s going down?”

Isaiah wished he had just gone straight to his room. “Not much, Uncle Jerome,” he said. He endured his Uncle’s rubbing of the top of his head.

Jerome waltzed into the dining room and plopped down at the table. Isaiah’s father handed him a cup of ice and a can of soda. Isaiah followed him in and sat down in front of his Uncle, staring at his teeth, which were whitened by a bleaching agent specifically designed for smokers.

“Boy, you sure done got big since the last time I saw you,” said Jerome. “Kids sure are getting big these days. Ain’t they getting big, Sam?”

“Oh, he’s getting up there,” said Isaiah’s father.

“Sure is. Fact, I remember when you couldn’t quite reach up to my elbow, now I can’t get up to your shoulder.”

“How’s life on the road?” asked Isaiah.

“Oh, you know, it’s rough sometimes. I’d like to be able to say that it’s the journey, not the goal, but there’s only so much music you can make in a tour bus rolling down the interstate. What about you, big man? Your father told me your band’s broken up. What happened to that go-go band you were in?”

“You know,” said Isaiah. “Life got in the way, I guess.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean,” said Jerome. “Yeah, that’s why I had to pack it up and get out of Dodge, you know what I mean? So, what you doing with yourself now, Isaiah?”

“Tell him about your new band, Isaiah,” said his father, from the kitchen.

“Oh, you got you a new band?” asked Jerome. “You still playing that go-go music? I’ve been to some go-go shows in my day, boy, yes sir. That’s some good stuff. You still playing that?”

“Not right now,” said Isaiah. “I started up a rock band.”

“Oh, a rock band? All right, all right,” said Jerome. “So, what you guys play? Like Led Zeppelin? Or is it like punk rock, like The Ramones? What you play, boy, what you play?”

“It’s sort of a … progressive rock sound,” said Isaiah. “People call it ‘indie.’”

“Oh, okay, indie rock. I know what you mean. Like that boy—what’s that boy’s name, Sam? What’s that boy? Bo Bice, off American Idol. Is that what you play, big man?”

Isaiah took a sip of his cola. “Yeah. That’s it.”

“Oh, you ain’t serious, boy. He don’t want to talk to me, Sam. He’s mad ‘cause I left him. I didn’t finish your guitar lessons. Is that right, big man? You mad ‘cause I didn’t finish your guitar lessons?”

“Pretty much,” said Isaiah.

“You didn’t need no more help from me, big man. All you needed was for someone to unlock them big double doors and you could just walk right in and next thing you know you’d be sitting on the throne, with them girls wearing coconuts feeding you grapes and waving palm tree leaves over your head,” said Jerome.

“Thanks, Uncle Jerome,” said Isaiah.

“Your father tells me you still got that Fender I gave you,” said Jerome.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Jerome. “Maybe I didn’t finish your lessons, but there’s something else I can do for you. That guitar of yours is pretty old. Maybe I can get you a new one. How does that sound?”

His father came in with their steaks and laid them down before them. “A new guitar, Isaiah. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“I ain’t talking about giving you another hand-me-down, big man,” said Jerome. “The Blue Moon Experience has been selling out shows at the clubs all over the coast. I can get you your own bass guitar. A brand new one. You just let me know what store you like shopping at and we’ll drive out there and get it together. Or we’ll order one online. How about that?”

Isaiah put his glass of cola down. “Thanks, Uncle Jerome,” said Isaiah. “But I don’t need you to get me a new guitar.”

“You don’t?” asked Jerome. “Oh, come on, now, son. Don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad,” said Isaiah. “I just don’t need a new guitar right now.”

“Come on, now, big man. There’s gotta be something I can do for you. How about an amp. You don’t got no amp, right? I’ll get you an amp. It’s an early birthday present. How about that?”

“Think about what your Uncle is offering you, son,” his father said. He lifted the newspapers out of the chair and sat down with his own plate of steak.

“I know, Dad. It’s okay, really, you don’t have to, Uncle Jerome,” said Isaiah. “I’ve been working at this music shop in Chinatown. I’ve got an employee discount there. I can get my own.”

“All right, all right,” said Uncle Jerome, stroking his goatee. “Big man’s doing for himself, huh? Okay, how about this? You buy yourself a new guitar or an amp or whatever it is you want with your employee discount, and I’ll pay you back that amount. How about that?”

“No thanks, Uncle Jerome,” said Isaiah. “I just want to get one on my own. That’s all.”

Jerome nodded. “Okay. All right then, big man. If that’s how you want it. If you change your mind though, let me know. The offer’s always gonna be on the table. You can count on your old Uncle Jerome. Sam, you got some Worcestershire sauce for this?”

After dinner, Jerome went out to his car and brought back a leather case with a rosewood acoustic guitar. He sat down in the living room with Isaiah, and taught him to play a couple of old blues standards, while his father washed the dishes in the kitchen. The songs reminded Isaiah of the days when he would ride down to New Orleans for the summer with his mom and dad and see his mother’s father. He would sit on the warped wooden planks of his grandfather’s front porch, coloring in a Disney coloring book, while his grandfather would play a Nat King Cole record on the stereo in the living room, turn up the volume, and open a window, so that he could sit on the front porch, his bare feet in a tub of cool water, and lay back and close his eyes. Isaiah decided that even if his Uncle wrote smooth jazz, he still knew boiling blues when he heard it, and at least he could not fault him for that.

Isaiah watched his Uncle’s blue Pontiac Firebird peel off down the streetlamp-lit road from the window. He turned and walked towards the door to the basement and opened it, and began to descend the stairs to where his bass guitar was waiting for him.

“Isaiah.”

He went back upstairs and into the dining room, where his father was sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper. There was no bottle of beer anywhere in sight.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t ‘yeah’ me. Say, ‘Yes.’”

“Yes?”

“Sit down.”

Isaiah sat across from his father, and waited silently for him to finish the newspaper article he was reading. After a long, suffocating silence, his father laid his newspaper down on the table, and clasped his hands on top of it.

“You were very rude to your Uncle tonight,” his father said.

Isaiah looked at the floor.

“You were acting like your Uncle’s money was dirty or something. Like he sold drugs to kids and then used the money to buy them guns or something. Your Uncle makes an honest living making music that makes people happy. He’s blessed with a talent that not a lot of people got, and you’re lucky that he passed it on to you.

“He’s your mother’s brother, God rest her soul.

“If she saw how you talked to him she’d look at you with the same eyes she looked at her guilty clients with. The ones who had given bruises to their wives and claimed it as their right, but still expected a damn good defense from her, and she still gave it,” he said. “How can you possibly explain yourself?”

Isaiah cleared his throat and looked at his father. “I really am sorry,” said Isaiah. “I didn’t mean to disrespect him, Dad. But I already owe him so much and I have no intention of owing him anything else. I love him as my Uncle, but as a musician, there’s a line I just can’t cross to meet him. As a musician, he doesn’t pay what he owes. He doesn’t remember where he comes from, and so he doesn’t realize that where he’s going is a sterile laboratory where his every feeling, thought, and belief is concentrated into a chemical used to make sugary breakfast cereal. He doesn’t realize that his art is his soul and he’s turning it into a commodity. He’s not supposed to be making music for those who’d just enjoy hearing it, but for those willing to listen to him.”

“And just what makes you any different?” his father asked. “Don’t you owe something to your former band members? Shouldn’t you be carrying on in their names, playing the music they would like to hear instead of joining some random band with a bunch of white boys oblivious to the real world that you just met?”

“I do owe them something, and I am paying it back. I am not throwing away what I took from them, but keeping it with me. It is on my shoulders and I am balancing it. It goes where I go, and it doesn’t matter that where I’m going is to a rock band.”

“You honestly think it’s the same? That your rock music is anything as close to real as the go-go you used to play? Sure, I’ll admit, that there is less likelihood you’ll get caught in a gang-fight in an indie rock band than with a go-go band, and for that I am grateful. But you’d be safer in a blues band and with a jazz band, too.”

“What’s wrong with a rock band?” asked Isaiah. “Rock music is black music, too.”

“It was black music fifty years ago, son,” said his father. “It was a beautiful baby back then, but it was robbed from its cradle and raised to be the voice of immature hypocrites. It’s damaged goods now, and cannot be recognized for what it once was. That’s why today’s rock music is just meaningless noise. That’s why I am telling you to go back to the blues and jazz and build it back up from its foundation, if you really feel the need to make rock music.”

“But there’ve been black musicians keeping track of rock music, making sure it stayed meaningful and honest. They were always there, always accessible for anyone willing to look for them. They were doing it to express what was in them, not to shower anyone else in the thoughts they already have, not black people or white people.”

His father rose from his chair, walked over to Isaiah, and put his hand on his shoulder. “You say these things now, but I’m just worried you’ll find out that these pleasant ideas you believe in won’t be worth the trouble of trying to hold onto them.”

His father walked out of the dining room and took his newspaper upstairs with him. Isaiah picked up the remote and turned on the TV. The opening fanfare of The Daily Show was soon playing.

5, 6 …

Mikhail’s Coffeehouse was only a few blocks from The Tuning Fork, so Isaiah walked over after work. Through the window, he could see Def-Mute and Solstice sitting beside each other on identical barstools, Def-Mute on the keyboard, Solstice playing acoustic guitar, singing one of the blues songs Uncle Jerome had taught Isaiah the night before. As he walked in, Isaiah felt as though he had been transported to that alternate universe version of the 1960s that people always spoke of when they claimed to have fond memories of it. He found an empty seat on a sofa with a used and unkemptly refolded copy of the New York Times on it, and moved it onto the coffee table in front of him. He sat down and a waitress soon stopped by and asked him for his order, and he asked for an ice-blended mocha.

Isaiah watched the cherry-burned cuticles of Def-Mute’s fingers as they hopped from key to key, and Solstice’s heel bouncing up and down against the sole of her sandal. Solstice’s arm slashed back and forth over the strings, and Def-Mute’s shoulders curled up against his neck. Both of their eyes were closed, tighter on the high notes, but not because they miscarried. With her voice and guitar, Solstice’s soft song soon became a moaning melody that came from the motions of Def-Mute’s harmony.

He felt weight shifting into the seat beside him, and saw that it was Naima. She set a guitar case down by her feet and began to read the newspaper that Isaiah had put on the coffee table. The waitress came and she ordered a cup of chai. Then she lifted the newspaper and showed a page from the Arts section to Isaiah. There was a photograph of Ben Harper in concert, his chai-like brown skin invisible in the grayscale of the newsprint. His eyes were closed and his mouth wide open, veins pulsing on his hand as he strummed his guitar.

“Isn’t he dreamy?” she asked.

Isaiah sipped his ice-blended mocha. “Yes. Yes, he is,” he said, as he ran his finger down his almost-white face. “Matter of fact, I think I’m just turning gay for him ……………………………… now.”

“Damn right you are,” she said. “I’m going to play one of his songs tonight.”

“Didn’t he do that song, ‘Better Way?’” asked Isaiah. “I think I saw the video for that. Where he’s walking down the street, and all the people of the village follow him and clap their hands. Then, he’s sitting in a circle of burning guitars for some reason, not just one, as if to say to Jimi Hendrix, ‘Beat that Hendrix. Oh wait, you can’t. You’re dead.’ Yeah. Ben Harper. Megalomaniac.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she said. “That’s what Aidan said.”

Isaiah looked around the room, at the faces of all the people sitting and listening to Solstice and Def-Mute play. None of them looked familiar. When he looked at Naima again, she was staring down at the review of the Ben Harper concert, her eyes rolling over the words slowly, looking completely uninterested in them. She didn’t look familiar then, either.

“Where is Aidan?” he asked.

She folded up the newspaper. “He’s pretty busy tonight. I don’t think he can make it.”

Isaiah’s mouth opened, but he closed it again, stopping himself from saying what he was going to say next. He had approached the edge, and had to keep from falling over. She would notice the opportunism in it. Yet he knew he couldn’t say anything to save Aidan. Part of him, but not enough of him, wanted to see Aidan, who had introduced him to Bad Brains, be happy with her. So he decided that he was obliged to remain silent.

“I mean, he’s been to other my other performances. And there’ll be others. By the way, I listened to TV On The Radio the other day. It was good.”

“Yeah?” said Isaiah.

“I really liked that one song, the second track … ‘Staring At The Sun,” she said.

Your mouth is open wide …

“Are you sure about that?” he said.

“Why not?”

The lover is inside …

“It’s the first single,” he said. “Weren’t you the one who said that the first single was the radio-friendly one designed to make teenyboppers bob their pigtailed heads up and down to the beat or something like that?”

“Something like that,” she said. “But, technically, it’s the only single. It’s a good song, so why shouldn’t it be the single?”

And all the tumults done …

“Someone did their homework,” he said.

“Well, then, what do you think is the best song on the album?”

Colliding with the sign …

“Yeah, I guess I’d have to say the same,” he said. “It’s got good lyrics.”

You’re staring at the sun …

“Well, whatever, it’s a good song. Why not make it a single?” she asked. “I especially liked the backup vocalist who was singing under the chorus.”

You’re standing in the sea …

“Can’t believe you fell for that,” he said. “That’s, like, pop cliché number one.”

Your body’s over me …

“Aidan asked me to sing a hook on one of your songs,” she said.

Isaiah turned and looked at her in disbelief, expecting her to be giving him a daring one in return, but instead, she was looking at the picture of Ben Harper. “He did?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry,” she said. “I couldn’t say yes. Had a hard time saying no, though. I just kept saying ‘Are you sure you want me to sing a hook on one of your songs?’ in every way I could think of until he backed off. But, yeah …”

“Well,” said Isaiah. “I mean … I’m sure it’s not … I didn’t mean … What are you playing tonight? Besides the Ben Harper song?”

“A song by Iron and Wine, and a bunch that I wrote,” she said. She was still looking at the picture of Ben Harper, then glanced up at Isaiah, and when she saw he was looking at her, her eyes darted back down to Ben. She put on a grin.

He looked up and saw Def-Mute and Solstice bow, their hands clasped together, then Def-Mute approached the microphone and said, “And now, ladies and gentlemen. Put your hands together … for Naima!”

They stepped off stage as Naima climbed on, her own acoustic guitar in hand. She sat down in the chair that Solstice had been sitting in, tuned her strings, and began to play. She sang of memories of her old house before her family moved away. Of driving down the highway, looking for that one diner that served omelets with sautéed mushrooms by request. Of sitting in the school cafeteria, surrounded by people, alone. Of meeting confused young men and how in the process of trying to help give them clarity, she found it herself.

And after her set, she took her guitar offstage and began to pack up. Isaiah rose from his seat and walked over to her. When she turned and saw him, she smiled. “Hey,” she said. “What did you think?”

“I really liked that last one,” said Isaiah. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah. Just this past month. I felt like they were rushed, but … well, I guess people liked them,” she said.

Isaiah felt himself falling. He had gone over the edge. “Aidan really missed out.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“What exactly was he doing that kept him so busy?”

“Oh, he …” she said, looking at the handle of her leather case. “I don’t know, I think his Dad needed him to fix a shelf or something.”

“Is that what he said when you told him about tonight?”

She looked at him. “Actually,” she said. “I … don’t know if I remember telling him about tonight.”

“Why not?” he asked. “Didn’t you say you had new songs tonight?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’ll hear them eventually …”

“And why’d you tell Aidan you didn’t want to sing for us?”

“I remembered the day we were introduced,” she said. “You were recording the bass line of that song that the others had recorded earlier, the one I said had been a first single. You walked out of the room after that like your guitar had been snapped in two. It didn’t occur to me at first, but when Aidan asked me to sing, like, as a favor to him … I just … I don’t know … I thought of you and it looked like you were doing bass as a favor to them, as if you were just some random guy who showed up to collaborate and then disappear … he doesn’t think things through all the time.”
She was looking down at the handle of her case as he stepped towards her, and closed her eyes and raised them to him. He leaned in and kissed her, and she him. The sounds of chairs scraping against hardwood floors, porcelain cups clacking against porcelain saucers, and towels wiping tabletops all faded into silence. He stepped away, and saw her eyes slowly opening, her mouth slowly closing. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s okay,” she said.

“I don’t …” said Isaiah. “If it weren’t … if I had met you before I met the band …”

“I know,” she said. “Me too.”

He walked away, knowing that telling her not to tell anyone would only cut more deeply, back to where he had left his empty ice-blended mocha. He picked it up, and threw it away on his way out without looking at her.

Isaiah told his father he was going to a go-go performance, but did not mention that it would be at a 21 and over nightclub. His father stared at him for a minute, and told him to be back before midnight. He went to Fort Totten station and went downstairs to the Green Line platform, then took the southbound train to the Anacostia station in Southeast DC. After he descended the escalator and walked outside the gates, he pulled out his cell phone to try to locate Zeke, but then saw him standing by the pay phones. He reminded Zeke that the deal he had agreed to required only that they go visit a venue where live go-go music was performed, which entailed no guarantees about the quality of the go-go band, or the amount of time they would stay around.

Cool evening air swept over their faces and necks, drying the sweat from their day of work at The Tuning Fork. From the train station they walked through the neighborhood of enraged mutts imprisoned behind rusted chain-link fences, of furniture piled on the grass in front of row houses with yellow slips of paper taped to the front doors. At the corner, a bony woman with large, hollow-looking eyes asked Isaiah for spare change, who silently crossed the quiet, cracked street while the orange hand still glowed. He turned back and saw that Zeke’s eyes were still transfixed upon hers, so Isaiah stepped back into the middle of the street and pulled at Zeke’s elbow.

They were pulled towards the siren-like shockwave of bass that pulsed through the already ravaged architecture of the neighborhood. Soon, they saw the nightclub, a cube of bricks painted sky purple, its walls covered in posters advertising the acts taking the stage inside. Isaiah pulled out his cell phone, pressed a key, and put it to his ear.

“Tyrell,” Isaiah said. “Yeah. We’re outside … Cool.”

“You’re sure this guy will come through?”

“He will,” said Isaiah. He’d better. Isaiah remembered the night that he pulled Tyrell’s ass out of the fire, when the bassist, trumpeter, and drummer of his band, Juvenile Haul, had been pulled over by the cops on the way back from a music shop in Maryland where they had apparently made some suspicious purchases. Their part of the concert had been performed for Bethesda’s Finest, who had been skeptical that the three young men in the car could make sound with anything besides a microphone or a gun. Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor managed to call around and find suitable understudies from the cache of contacts they had amassed from playing all over the city, annexing venues in their many names. Isaiah himself had played bass for the first half of that night, and when the rest of Juvenile Haul arrived after being released, the replacements were not asked to step down, but were part of the extended family that night, doubling the core members, providing the audience with a true stereo experience.

Zeke tapped Isaiah on the shoulder and nodded towards the alley between the purple brick nightclub and an abandoned one-story Methodist church. Isaiah saw a stocky young man wearing glasses and a black T-shirt that read “STAFF” on the front, hanging out the side door to the club. He motioned for Isaiah and Zeke to come closer.

“What up, son?” asked Tyrell, as he clasped Isaiah’s hand.

“Not much,” said Isaiah. “This my man, Zeke. Zeke, this is Tyrell.”

“Hey, thanks a lot for this, man,” said Zeke.

“No doubt, man,” said Tyrell. “No way I could have forgotten Isaiah and his cavalry’s arrival, and the show we put on, both the initial tremors before the rest of the band arrived, and the mountains we all split together like John Henry’s twin hammers. I ought to be thanking you, man.” He handed Isaiah two rolled up black T-shirts like his own, and stepped back to let Isaiah and Zeke inside.

Isaiah and Zeke let Tyrell pat them down, and soon they were in the midst of the people near the front door, who danced slowly with their significant others, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, as if conserving their energy for a song to come later, though they didn’t know yet what song that was. Once he had pulled the shirt down over his chest, Isaiah could see, closer to the stage, where the line between the casual dancers and the mass of avid go-go fans began. The avid fans danced, but by bouncing slightly from side to side on their feet, not sliding their hips against their lovers. The avid fans kept their eyes on the stage, their fists pounding on air.

Isaiah stood near the back of the group at the front, nodding his head, bouncing to the beat that was standard in all go-go songs, with the drummer forming the founding beat, the conguero adding texture and expanding it, putting extra beats in between those required by the drum, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see Zeke making a spastic movement on every percussive sound that he heard. Isaiah tapped him on the shoulder and when he had his attention, shook his head at him.

Zeke waved his hand dismissively at him.

Isaiah held up one finger.

Zeke’s eyebrows turned up quizzically.

Isaiah’s hand relaxed into an open palm turned down levitating flat, parallel to the floor, that dipped to the side slowly, to and fro, to and fro.

Zeke followed along, his hips sliding from side to side.

Then Isaiah’s hand suddenly began to go to, to, fro, fro. To, to, fro, fro. To, to, fro, fro. To, to, fro, fro.

Zeke blinked and followed along, his feet joining in, taking short steps forward and back.

And Isaiah’s other hand appeared, doing the same movements as the first, but up and down.

And Zeke nodded his head, realizing that he could dance as slow or as fast as he pleased to the beat of go-go, as long as he did not grow so ambitious as to attempt to dance to every beat he heard. He had to attune his ear to picking from the drum slaps he heard and the ones he didn’t hear and form a sub-beat to dance to. And if he insisted upon fully extending himself across the gamut of the beat, he needed both hips, both legs, and both arms to dance. Each part of his body would have a different part of the beat to cover. But he soon discovered that although he managed to find a rhythm in this way, it was still only the women who managed to look not ridiculous, but enticing.

The club became more and more entropic as it filled up with people shaking and grinding, their shoulders and chests colliding, feet trampling each other. Zeke lost himself while Isaiah’s eyes focused, and his eyes darted around the room as he heard more voices in the audience shouting, but nowhere near in tune or on key. And then he saw, in the middle of the dance floor, the two angry men, their chests heaving, their red and blue bandannas ready to fall off, their eyes like slits, as if struggling like soon-to-be broken levees to hold back the small number of long, tortuous years in their lives from spilling out. And the two men in red and blue bandannas became six men in red and blue bandannas. They outnumbered the members of the band, whose fingers began to shudder on the strings and miss the keys, hands meekly spank the congas and loosen their grips on the drumsticks, the rapper not spitting but dribbling out rhymes, all knowing that the hated instrument would soon signal the end of their song and their show.

Isaiah grabbed Zeke’s shirt and pulled his ear close. “We’re going. Now.” Zeke looked at Isaiah incredulously. “I’m serious.” He pulled Zeke towards the side door they had entered from, forcing himself through the crowd either oblivious or watching in astonishment. They were outside just as they heard the shouts getting louder, and punches landing. They were followed by others who wanted to get away from the tightening atmosphere, and walked out of the alley. Isaiah saw a car full of men wearing red bandannas parked down the street. But then men with red bandannas ran out of the club and were followed by the blue bandannas, and then the car doors opened and the gunshots rang out. The crowd trampled over one another to get away from the noise. Isaiah was pushed and nearly crashed into the wall of the church, then turned around and saw Zeke on the ground, a series of boots and sneakers pounding on his back to get away from the club. Isaiah managed to pull him back onto his feet, wrap his arm around his neck and support him across the street to the bench of a bus stop. He lowered Zeke onto the bus bench and turned his head so he could see his face.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Can you walk?”

“I think so,” said Zeke. “Just need to … Just let me catch my breath.” He let out a string of fitful coughs, pouring them onto the ground, but did not vomit. Isaiah clapped him on the back. He soon got up and straightened himself out, and began to trudge back towards the subway. “What the fuck just happened?”

Isaiah glanced back at the club. People were still spilling out and running away, some wearing red bandannas, some with blue, some on their heads or around their necks, some covering their mouths. He heard footsteps running, shouting and screaming, car doors closing and peeling out. He heard no police sirens. “I don’t know,” he said.

He grabbed Zeke’s arm again, but Zeke pulled it away. “I’m fine, I’m okay,” said Zeke. “I don’t need your help.”

“Sure,” said Isaiah.

He could see the subway station in the distance, a crowd clamoring to get inside, rushing to the fare card dispensers, to the escalators that descended underground.

“You had fun though, right? It wasn’t for all that long but for those few precious minutes, you had become a part of it. You were just like anyone else in there, just another player in the band, your instruments your voice, your body, and your soul, and you played them all like a virtuoso, man. I saw you. I heard you.”

They reached the fare gates and Zeke put his card into the slot, then pulled it out when the gates opened for him. Isaiah told Zeke to wait up while he went to the fare card dispenser to refill his card. The lines were still long, and he saw Zeke climb onto the escalator and ride it down underground. Isaiah decided to use the exit-fare machines at Fort Totten and ran to catch up with him.

They climbed onto a crowded northbound train full of other boisterous people who had already gotten over the initial shock of the gunshot and begun comparing it to other shows they had been to that were interrupted by gang violence. Isaiah stood and held onto the vertical metal bar near the sideways seats for the senior citizens, and where Zeke had managed to find a seat. He reclined against the backrest, his head resting on the Metro system map.

They rode the train to Gallery Place-Chinatown, got off, and ascended the escalator to the Red Line platform. Isaiah walked Zeke over to a bench on the platform for the trains bound for Shady Grove and sat him down there. He sat down beside him.

“You okay, man?” asked Isaiah.

“I’m fine,” said Zeke. His eyes were focused now. He reached into his pockets and found nothing missing, and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He stared at the floor. “I’ll be all right. You go on ahead. Don’t worry about me.”

“Are you sure?” asked Isaiah.

Zeke nodded at the floor. Isaiah rose and walked back towards the escalator leading to the upper level, watching Zeke as he crossed to the other side and descended the escalator to the platform for the Red Line train to Glenmont. He sat down at the bench directly across from Zeke’s. He put his hand up, but Zeke did not respond, only pulled the black T-shirt off and tossed it in the trash. Soon, he heard the screeching of the brakes of the Red Line to Shady Grove as it came out of the tunnel and rolled to a stop in front of the platform. He could hear the conductor of the train on the intercom, connected to the announcement speakers out in the station informing the Metro customers that the train was, in fact, the Red Line to Shady Grove. When the train began to squeal its way out of the station, Isaiah saw that the bench across from him was empty.

Isaiah had managed to get home just five minutes after curfew, so he did not wake his father. He went to the bathroom and looked at his body in the mirror as the shower water warmed up. He saw nothing on his skin but minor cuts and scrapes on his hands.

When Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor were together, they had only heard of incidents where shots were fired nearby, and avoided the clubs with those reputations. They never had to wait for their parents to come to them with blurbs from the Metro In Brief section with the names of those clubs before booking their gigs. They had already heard those names. But they could not ignore them. They knew the names of the clubs because they had known the names of the bands that played them. They knew that for the band to continue, the time would eventually come when they would have to pick up the keys to their own cars and drive to the clubs that they had not driven to before, to play their sets before their 21-and-over audiences, collect their slightly more mature paychecks, and get out before anyone attempted to silence the music. But Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor’s set ended before it even became a viable choice between their lives in the hot days and their lives in the hot nights.

The heat was unbearable. Isaiah shuddered as he climbed into the shower and drenched himself in the cold water.

In the morning, Isaiah was drenched in the humid air as he carried his leather guitar case to the studio. He walked in the front door, and as he approached the heavy metal door, he could hear the muffled noise of the band playing one of their songs, not just turning machine heads, tapping drumsticks, or clacking keys. When he opened it, he saw the rest of The Lobbyists, and a thin young man with long, straight black hair, wearing a flannel collared shirt, unbuttoned, a black T-shirt underneath, and a pair of cutoff jeans. On his feet were green Chuck Taylor All-Stars. He turned, and in his hands was a red five-string Ibanez Ergodyne Bass, connected to the amp that was reserved for Isaiah.

“Hey,” said Isaiah.

“What’s up?” asked Cameron.

“Hey, Isaiah,” said Aidan. “This is Sean. He was the bassist for Burning Chrome. Sean, this is Isaiah.”

“Sup?” asked Sean.

“How’s it going?” asked Isaiah.

“I’m all right. I’ve just been jamming with these guys for a while, blistering my fingers in a vain effort to keep pace, shattering my knees from jumping in place, putting cricks in my neck from nodding my head, clearly drowning in the torrent that forces these sounds through these cords,” said Sean.

“Cool,” said Isaiah. “So … what’s going on?”

“He said he would be interested in joining the band, so we figured we’d let him come by and see what it was like to play with us,” said Cameron.

“Oh,” said Isaiah. “I see. That fast, huh? What, Zeke gets a few bruises and now—What, am I too dangerous to have around? Is that it?”

“Wait a minute, what are you talking about?” asked Aidan.

“Yeah, Isaiah, I haven’t told them about last night,” said Zeke.

“What happened last night?” asked Aidan.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Zeke. “Come on, Isaiah, we’ve been waiting for you. Hurry up and plug in.”

Isaiah looked around all four of their faces. He opened his mouth to speak, but squinted at them instead.

“What … did you think we were going to replace you or something?” asked Cameron. “Why would we do that? We all work great together.”

“Yeah. Dude, Sean is a fucking guitar god,” said Aidan. “I mean he’s good on bass and can do rhythm, too, but we were thinking maybe I’d give him lead and I’d do rhythm.”

“Yeah, but like we talked about, I’ve got a lot of other projects I’m working on,” said Sean.

“No problem, Sean. If it fits your schedule, it fits your schedule, whatever,” said Aidan. “Yeah, I mean, Isaiah … come on, man. Sean, show him what you got.”

Aidan handed Sean his guitar and held his bass for him. Sean began to scourge the strings slowly and the guitar lamented the sins of mankind for which it suffered. Then, it was reincarnated so that it could suffer again, and began to search for the middle path that would bring an end to the cycle of birth, life, and death. Sean espoused more teachings, which were recorded so as to command the wanderers to take root and obey them as they would laws. He then sent his guitar plagues, droughts, and famines, but it still continued to sing Sean’s praises even through all the torment it had been put through.

“See?” asked Aidan. “What did I tell you?”

Isaiah managed to close his mouth and form saliva again. “I just … I can’t … I … Fuck.”

“Exactly,” said Zeke. “Now, come on and let’s practice. We’ve got a gig in a few days.”

“We do?” asked Isaiah.

“Yeah. We’re opening for Q and Not U,” said Aidan. “They’re playing at the 9:30 Club, so we’re going on at 8:30. Get your shit out so we can get started.”

“Wait a minute,” said Isaiah. He thought of Naima, with her guitar, in Mikhail’s Coffeehouse. He remembered the gigs with his old band, and knew that he would never have had to tell them what he was about to tell Aidan, Cameron, and Zeke at that moment. Even though Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor had never had the opportunity to stand in front of any recording studio microphone, they would most certainly have stood together, their instruments before them like the shields of the Spartan phalanx, looking like out of many, one. But he knew it was something that he himself had needed to learn from Malik, Dante, and Victor, and took it upon himself to teach Aidan, Cameron, and Zeke. “Before we do, let me make one thing perfectly clear.

“From now on,” he said. “If we’re gonna be in a band together, we’re all going to be in it together. That means everyone knows about every recording session in advance. I don’t care how inspired you decide you are, how much adrenaline is rushing through you, or how much ink you’ve spilled in your notebook and it’s gotta overflow into a microphone ASAP. We record together. Like a band. Got it?”

Aidan threw his head back and howled while Cameron struggled to stifle his laughter, and Zeke’s laughter forced him to lay his head down on his drums and hold onto his cymbals for support. Isaiah turned to Sean and asked if he could see Aidan’s guitar. Then, he stooped down to the amp and quickly turned as many dials up to 11 as he could, stomped on two of the pedals and dragged his fingers across the strings, and throughout the room there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. They checked their ears for blood and looked at Isaiah as if he were a crazed dictator who refused to listen to reason.

“I’m fucking serious,” Isaiah said. He turned the knobs on the amp back down and handed back Aidan’s guitar while keeping his gaze fixed on their faces.

“Fine! Fine!” shouted Aidan. “I promise, we’ll … ow, goddamn … we’ll make sure everyone knows about every recording session. In advance.”

“You guys cool with that?” Isaiah asked.

“Sure,” said Cameron.

“Yes. Yes, it’s cool,” said Zeke.

“All right then,” said Isaiah. He set his leather case down beside Sean’s and pulled out his blue Fender. When he did, he noticed Sean leaning over and checking it out, then grabbing his own leather case and opening it up, showing him his own bed of paper towels.

“So do you use the quilted kind?” asked Sean.

Isaiah laughed.

5, 6, 7, 8 …

Isaiah remembered the eighth grade. He remembered going to his locker in the afternoon right before algebra and finding his combination lock undone, then opening the door and seeing nothing on the shelf where his CD player should have been. He saw that all of his textbooks were still there, and he silently cursed.

He saw the fat kid in the Tennessee Titans jersey walking down the street by the tall chain-link besides the basketball courts and parking lot, holding it between his chubby little fingers, once school had let out for the day. Isaiah knew that it belonged to him and not the fat kid because the earphones were not the ones that came with the CD player, but the earbuds he had bought from RadioShack. Isaiah followed the fat kid, crouching low to the ground, making sure his footsteps were as silent as possible.

Then, just as he was about to run up and pounce on the fat kid, three boys on bicycles rode up from behind him, chasing after the fat kid as well. The first held his arm out as he rode and hit the kid in the back of the head. The second stuck his leg out and tripped the kid as he struggled to regain his balance. The third put on the brakes, picked up Isaiah’s CD player then kept on riding, leaving the fat kid lying in the grass, staring at the clouds.

Isaiah grabbed him and pulled him up into a sitting position. The kid got up on his own, and when he saw who had helped him up, he stared at the ground as he pulled off his backpack and looked inside. He pulled out his notebook, and pulled out a folded up piece of notebook paper. He opened the notebook paper and Isaiah saw the CD that had been in his CD player. A recordable CD that read “Michael Bolton’s Greatest Hits” in permanent marker.

It was actually a mix CD of Jimi Hendrix classics that he had labeled so as to keep anyone from stealing it. At the time, he did not realize that at Paul Public Charter School, Hendrix was not particularly popular himself. But the fat kid agreed with Isaiah that he should have been.

So Isaiah held out his hand and said, “I’m Isaiah.”

And the fat kid took it and said, “I’m Victor.”

Then the two of them continued on their way, their hands squarely in the pose of the martial art known as air guitar, and they began to wail the last track on the mix CD.

“Well, I’m standing next to a mountain, Da der der …”

“I’ll chop it down with the edge of my hand, ha jer nyer, jana nana, jer chi-ji jer nyer …”

“Weeer na weeeer weee wah wah wah wauuuuu wa Wa Waaaaaww …”

Isaiah remembered as he walked, knowing that where he was going, he had to go himself, not moved by some unseen hand like a knight on a chessboard. He walked the three blocks straight from his house, past Rudolph Elementary School, across the street, and turned right past the convenience store and the barbershop that he had gone to as a child, that only his father could have taken him to, even when his mother was still alive. Across the street was a small house on the corner shrouded in tall shrubs and the branches of a willow tree. As he climbed the front stairs, he moved into the cool shadow of the plant life and the awning overhead, escaping the sun’s gaze, and rang the doorbell. The door opened, and standing at the door was a petite woman in a red muumuu, with a black, bowl-shaped wig on her head. She smiled upon recognizing him. “Hello there, Isaiah. How you doing?”

“I’m just fine, Mrs. Proctor,” he said. “How about you?”

“Oh, you know, my bones ain’t like they used to be, but you know, I’m just getting old,” she said. “You being good?”

“Yes, ma’am. I just started a job for the summer at a musical instrument store downtown.”

“Good, good. Well, come on in and take your shoes off,” she said. “Can I get you something to drink? Maybe some tea?”

“Tea’s fine,” said Isaiah. He took his shoes off and left them by the door. Mrs. Proctor shuffled into the kitchen. Isaiah walked into the living room and saw Victor, a big-boned young man sitting on the sofa in front of the television, with the makings of an afro on his head, wearing jean shorts and an almost tablecloth-sized football jersey. Victor looked at him, and Isaiah could see that his eyes were slightly wide with surprise, even through the tinted lenses of his glasses.

“Isaiah,” he said. “What brings you by, man?”

“Nothing, man,” said Isaiah. “Just felt like I had to come see you. How are you?”

“I’m cool, man. Come on in, sit down, sit down.”

He moved over to give Isaiah room, and lifted his legs, letting his feet rest on the coffee table. He reached down and scratched his leg. Then his finger reached into his sock, underneath the anklet of plastic and metal, with the steady red LED, and scratched his ankle. Nineteen days since he was let out of jail, Isaiah thought. The judge had decided that since it was his first offense of misdemeanor marijuana possession, he would only serve three months in prison, followed by three months of house arrest.

Isaiah pointed to the anklet. “Looks comfortable.”

“Oh yeah, yeah, it’s some ol’ bullshit,” said Victor. “Yo, house arrest don’t make no goddamn sense. I’m supposed to be here all day, my grandmamma watchin’ me, so I can’t smoke up no more. Like I can’t just get some other nigga to run an errand for me or something. It don’t make no sense.”

“Nah. None. None at all,” Isaiah agreed.

“I mean, not that I would ever, like, violate my grandmamma’s trust like that, ‘cause, you know she has cataracts and can’t tell a dime from a dollar, but I’m saying though, if a nigga wants himself some weed, a nigga will get himself some weed. By the way, you don’t got any on you, do you?”

“Sorry, man.”

“It’s cool, man. It’s cool,” said Victor. “So, yeah, man, I’ve just been chilling, you know? Not much else to do but let my muscles atrophy. What you been up to?”

“Well, work, mostly. I’m staff at The Tuning Fork downtown.”

“They got some good shit down there, man,” said Victor. “Yo, man, can you hook me up with some Handsome Boy Modeling School?”

“I got you,” said Isaiah. “Listen, Vic, there’s something else I wanted to tell you.”

“What’s up, man?”

“Well,” said Isaiah. “I just needed to let you know that I’m in an indie rock band now.”

“For real?” said Victor.

“Yes.”

Victor nodded. “Okay. Indie, huh? Okay. You guys got a name yet?”

“We’re The Lobbyists,” said Isaiah.

“Heh. I like that, I like that,” said Victor. “Damn, dog. That’s pretty tight.”

“You think it’s tight?” asked Isaiah.

“Hell yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know … maybe because it’s not go-go, hip-hop, funk, fusion, R&B, reggae, ska, dancehall, jazz, bebop, the blues, ragtime, gospel, or any other form of black music.”

“Rock is black music, too.”

“Exactly, that’s what I’m saying!”

Victor smirked. “You a funny dude, Isaiah. Don’t tell me you forgot that.”

Isaiah thought of Bloc Party, of TV On The Radio, of Bad Brains, of Ben Harper. He thought of Lenny Kravitz, of Eagle-Eye Cherry, the three black guys in Dave Matthews Band. He thought of his Uncle Jerome. He thought of Naima. He thought of his father. He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s been rough lately.

“But, wait … so you would actually listen to our band if you could,” said Isaiah.

“Why wouldn’t I want to listen to it?” asked Victor. “You know me, man. A DJ’s gotta be into all kinds of shit. I gotta travel far and wide across space and time to get my beats. I gotta take you on a journey across the globe, even when I’m stuck in one place—behind the turntables, and bring you back cuisine from a side you haven’t seen yet, put it on these black vinyl platters and serve that flavor in your ear.”

Isaiah sighed. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“Yeah. So if you want to play that Death Cab For Cutie shit go right on ahead,” said Victor.

“Goddamn it,” said Isaiah.

“So, Isaiah, be honest with me, there are some fine women on the indie scene aren’t there?” asked Victor.

“Sometimes, Vic,” said Isaiah.

“Make sure you get you one of them free verse-writing goth groupies that likes to cut her wrists not long-ways to actually kill herself, but sideways so she just gets some attention, and then you break her off some. Those nihilists fuck like the world’s coming to an end,” said Victor.

Isaiah turned away and bit his lip to keep his laughter in. Victor clapped him on the back. “Nah, man, I’m just playing. Don’t mess with them goth girls, seriously. They’re volatile.”

“Good looking out, Vic,” said Isaiah, shaking his head. He decided to stay for a few hours and watch TV with Victor. Until, of course, he tried to change the channel to public television, and Victor was forced to kick him out.

Isaiah sat on the floor of his bedroom, tying the steel wire to the machine head, and then plucked it to test it. He laid the guitar back into its paper towel-fortified leather case. Beside the leather case was a polystyrene foam bag that contained his new guitar, the refurbished, obsidian-black, five-string Ibanez Ergodyne Bass. The one that he had bought, with his employee discount at The Tuning Fork. He put his cords into its extra pockets, then picked the bag up and slung it over his shoulder. He reached over to his dresser and grabbed a handful of change and picks, then dropped them into his pocket.

He heard his father push open the already ajar bedroom door. “You’re not planning on lugging all that expensive equipment all the way to the subway, are you?”

Isaiah lifted the leather case. “I should be okay.”

“Come on, I’ll give you a ride.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Isaiah.

“Come on, I insist.”

“Fine.” He handed his father the leather case and followed him downstairs, and out to the minivan. Though it was late, the sky was still red with the burn marks from the sun that had set behind the elementary school that Isaiah had attended, across the street from their house. His father opened the back door of the van and loaded the instruments into it, while Isaiah climbed into the passenger seat and buckled in. His father was soon behind the wheel, driving toward Northwest DC, towards Georgetown.

“So you’re going to actually play for a live audience for the first time, instead of for a microphone in a ballet studio.”

“Yeah. It won’t be long until we will be able to press our EP. Probably a six-song one.”

“And of those six songs, how many will have your first initial and last name written beside them in the liner notes?”

“They all will. All our names will be there.”

“But your name will appear last.”

“Maybe … if they decide to put it in alphabetical order.”

“Yes,” said his father. “Alphabetical order.”

Isaiah looked up at the rear view mirror, seeing the thin wrinkles beneath his father’s eyes, which he knew had seen people and places, eyes that had searched for them, eyes that had been forced to watch. He could see that his eyes begged a question of Isaiah, that they were like floodgates, holding an answer back, for that answer could easily have drowned Isaiah when he had been younger.

So he asked his father. “Why wouldn’t they, Dad?”

“‘Why wouldn’t they?’ Why would they?” his father asked.

It was a tale Isaiah had heard his father tell many times before, and each time he told it, Isaiah could hear his father’s throat wearing away from the pangs of pushing it out, another layer more from the last time. Each time the story was slightly different. Sometimes his father was in a car, as he was now, but with his hands frozen to the wheel beneath a flashlight’s cold beams. Sometimes his father was wearing a suit, watching a hand lift his résumé up off a desk, turn it over, and lay it facedown. Or his father was in a dorm room, being introduced to his roommate’s parents who had flown from the other coast to visit, and being only able to describe them to his own parents on the phone later in the evening, while checking his watch to determine how much the call was costing them, calculating long he could wait before he had to hang up.

“You may or may not remember the days right after your mother died, when your eyes were still wide enough to stare in such wonder at the sun that could somehow hang above your head and with equal amazement at the ground that could somehow hold up your feet. You may or may not remember waking up one Saturday morning and finding me kneeling on my bedroom floor in front of your mother’s open closet door, with boxes all around me, and a writing pad in my hand. You may or may not remember asking to help, and then after I nodded, looking into the closet and finding several leather cases, opening one and finding my set of screwdrivers, wrenches, nuts and bolts, closing it up, and maybe deciding that all the leather cases in the closet, and maybe that all the leather cases in the entire world contained the same thing. So you didn’t know at the time what was really inside the one in the very back. Yes, your eyes were pretty wide then.

“I was probably just a bit younger than you when my mother first brought that particular leather case home to me. And like most little boys, when given a new toy, invariably, I was foolish enough to take it to school with me the next day. But it wasn’t that it was in danger of being confiscated by a sour-faced old hag all-too-eager to snap her pointer against the chalkboard or anything that got in its way. Or that the boy who had repeated the ninth grade for the ninth time, his body equal parts muscle and fat without any room for brains, would smash it against the ground and then beat his curly-haired chest. It was simply that it was not needed there. That it probably did not belong there in the first place.

“But I got on that long yellow bus that came all the way across the railroad tracks just to stop at my house, and took it to that classroom. That classroom looked a lot like yours, Isaiah. It was full of the exact same kind of people, except I was alone then. You and the other young brothers at your school probably don’t have to deal with this, because you have each other, at least, but I was alone then. But anyway, I went to that classroom and sat down in that chair and put that sheet music on that rostrum and waited. I waited for the teacher to raise the baton and conduct us, to turn towards my section and summon my talent. But he never called it out. I sat in fifth chair for four years, never moving an inch closer to the front, but trying desperately to make my music fill the whole room, all the while wondering how the hell I’d managed to let Satchmo down.

“So after that, the leather case went into that closet and never came out. I only vaguely remembered what it looked like until that day you first came home and told me that you had auditioned for this band and got in. After Newshour went off that night, while you were probably in your room at your computer with your headphones on listening to whatever it is you listen to, I reached into your mother’s closet and took it out again and played a few bars of the song that I think she liked, or knowing me, maybe just a song that I liked and therefore assumed that she liked—played that song on it, and you probably couldn’t hear. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even remember what instrument it was, ‘cause you probably wouldn’t even remember the first time you laid your wide little eyes on it.”

“Give me some credit, Dad. I knew it was your trumpet,” said Isaiah. “And the volume on my computer wasn’t that loud. You somehow managed to play the Swingless version of ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing.’ You should start practicing again.”

His father laughed. “I didn’t tell you that story so that you would give me advice, boy. Kids today think you’re all so goddamn smart …”

“Well, whatever. I’m sorry, Dad, but my guitar is not your trumpet,” said Isaiah. “Yes, the blood that boils in my fingertips on these frets is the same temperature as the blood that once boiled in yours on those valves. But I can never play the same songs as you. Yes, you may pass your music books and sheet music down to me, but the arrangement will be mine. Because I wasn’t there to hear you play when you first played it. The classroom and the teacher and the rostrum and the chair in my school are not the same as yours. The place your music comes from is not the same pain as the place that mine does. Maybe someday, when I’m out in the real world, and not in a school that pimps ‘diversity’ like it’s a bargain-priced whore, it will be. But there’s no point in trying to hide me from it now.”

“Well, just … oh, we’re here,” said his father. He pulled up in front of the entrance to the club. Isaiah got out of the car, and his father pressed the button on the dash that popped open the trunk. Isaiah pulled his guitars out himself and carried them towards the sidewalk. But he heard his father shout his name, and so turned back and leaned in through the passenger side window.

“Just keep in mind, son,” said his father. “That this is the band you joined, not the one you formed.”

“You’re wrong, Dad. I formed this band, too,” said Isaiah. “Because just as you were there wearing the nurse’s scrubs, your skin separated from mine only by the thin layer of latex covering your hands, when Mom first sang ‘God is salvation’ in my ears, I was there with Malik, Aidan, Dante, Cameron, Victor, Zeke. I was there when the first four of us shrugged our shoulders at how the emcees announced us and the last four of us decided for ourselves, ‘The Lobbyists.’ You can’t say I wasn’t there, Dad.”

His father nodded, then looked in the rearview when he heard a car honk its horn for him to move his car. He looked at Isaiah and said, “Okay, son. Okay. Check you later. You’re sure you didn’t leave anything in the car?”

“No, Dad.”

“Or at home?”

“No, Dad.”

“And you’ll call me as soon as you’re finished?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Did you already get yourself something to eat?”

“No, Dad. I’ll get something after; I need to make sound check.”

“Okay, son. Okay. You can go on ahead, now. I’m through with you.”

The minivan pulled back into traffic. Isaiah watched his father drive away, one hand out the window, waving apologetically at the car behind him, the fingers of his other hand turning the dial on the radio. As Isaiah carried his guitars in, he could hear the voice of the anchor reporting on the evening rebroadcast of NPR’s All Things Considered.

The Lobbyists were waiting for Isaiah in the backstage area. When they saw him running in they got up and offered to take his equipment, but he told them not to worry. Doubled over, he caught his breath, and pulled himself upright. He grabbed Zeke by the shoulders and said, “Listen up, guys. I have a story I have to tell you.

“Once upon a time, I was in a go-go band. We were Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor. We didn’t have a whole lot of backing funds, but we did have parents who were willing to drive us almost every where we needed to go. The band also had a lot of names, mainly because we could not remember which name it was that they all had agreed upon when they first started, but also because we defied being pinned down by a single name, just as we defied being pinned down by any one style. Go-go is a mixer that goes with R&B, with hip-hop, with reggae, with the blues, and you could play the keyboard, the organ, the saxophone, the lead guitar, but the beat is at the core, so you need a drum kit and the congas. And the fact of the matter is, once this music is in earshot, you just have to get up and dance, there’s no weaseling out of it. Go-go is a heartless bitch that will grind the bones in your feet to dust and make you beg her to do it. That’s just how it is. Now, if we’re going to go out there, and I’m going to come back and not be ashamed of myself, then we need to make every last one of those people out there hate us for only giving them one taste and then walking away. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Aidan.

“Okay,” said Cameron.

“Okay,” said Zeke.

“Okay,” said Isaiah. “Okay. Good. I’m done. Now, who wants to give the next speech?”

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