“Requiem,” a short story by Jeanine DeHoney, was an entrant in our recently concluded 42nd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
“Midnight Duet,” by Jenny Armitage
Requiem For Ishmael
There had to be hundreds of people standing in the rain, waiting to get into Misty’s Supper Club on Lenox Avenue for my brother Ishmael’s memorial. I swallowed the lump of grief in the back of my throat and surveyed the crowd, fans and protégé’s of his music, as varied as a pot of jambalaya.
Some people recognized me from seeing me at one of his shows when he was in New York and nodded or waved. He always introduced me after each set he played, pulling me onstage no matter how many times I told him not to, that I just wanted to sit at a table in the rear and soak it all in, the music and how it seemed he gave Misty’s patrons a little slice of Heaven.
A few people handed me a red rose as I stood under Misty’s canopy, waiting to go inside. Ray, Misty’s owner, had ordered flowers for people to take home as a memento after the service but they were nearly gone. Like me, he didn’t expect the lines to be two locks long and spill out into the streets of Harlem like a traffic jam.
The whole scene took my breath away. Although it was nothing new that Ishmael would draw such attention, even in death. I just never imagined in this magnitude.
I was seven years old when he was born. Just an ordinary trip to the supermarket or an outing to the park would have little old ladies peeking inside his stroller, telling my mother what a cute baby he was. As if on cue, Ishmael would show his toothless smile and the deep dimple on the left side of his plump brown face, and they’d rave about him even more. I never felt slighted by the lack of attention I got in his presence — I was just delighted to have another sibling, someone I could grow up with in the same household so I wouldn’t be so alone.
Our father had left by then, before Ishmael began to crawl. Packed his clothes in a puke green duffel bag he had from when he was in the army, along with his saxophone in its red velvet lined case, and left. Left as my mother begged him not to. Left with Ishmael screaming at the top of his lungs as if someone stuck his bottom with a safety pin. Left with me staring straight at him, my hands balling into tight fists, wishing I had the nerve to punch him as hard as I hit Derek Till, who sat next to me in school and who kept trying to trip me whenever I walked past his desk until I socked him.
I knew as soon as I heard our door lock with his key that we would never see him again. When she realized she now had no husband and we no father, my mother melted into a muddle of anguish on our worn tan colored linoleum, the linoleum that my father was always promising to replace. I extracted Ishmael from her arms and took him into my room and lay across my bed with him to quiet him down.
My mother started drinking heavily after that. She never went back to her social work job that she had before Ishmael was born, and we ended up going on public assistance. There was no other family to step in and help us, to ensure we were fed and clean and safe, so I became the one who did, the one who took care of Ishmael when our mother was drinking.
Ishmael and I became like ghosts to her. She gave me a key so I could let myself in and out. I’d rush home from school to Ishmael to make sure he was okay, my fingers crossed that there was no accident or she hadn’t fallen asleep with the stove on or tried to bathe him and he hit his head on our porcelain tub.
Our childhood seemed to pass quickly. Ishmael started school and I signed the permission trips and report cards and made excuses why my mother couldn’t attend PTA meetings when I ran into the principal or his teachers. Our mother managed to get through the day but not without drinking the gin she’d send a neighbor’s husband to buy from the liquor store.
Ishmael wasn’t like the other boys in our neighborhood either as he grew into this tall, lanky, handsome teenager who was the spitting image of our father. You’d never find him ripping and roaring through the streets or in the park shooting hoops or leaning into a girl too closely as they stood outside our building.
He said he wanted to play the saxophone, so I forged my mother’s signature and enrolled him in a music program being offered at the local community center in our neighborhood. It’s funny how even when a person hasn’t been around you for most of your life, if he shares your DNA, your connection with that person can still be as deep as the Cerulean Sea.
He was becoming our father even though, unlike me, he didn’t remember him nor ever heard him play. He never saw his ritual; setting up his music stand in our living room near the open window before carefully taking his saxophone in his hand to play so “his melodies could drip like molasses over the rooftops and streets of our Brooklyn neighborhood and sweeten the people so they’ll act right and stop hurting each other.”
I believed him, that his music had some mystic powers that could change people, stop the arguing I heard on the streets below, get rid of the gangs and allow us to stay at the park when the sun set.
Once he left though a skunk’s scent hovered over us, wafted over the rooftop of our building and drifted into the windows of our tenth floor apartment. But I was determined to make sure Ishmael tasted a bit more sweetness than I had as I grew up faster than any child should have had to.
When he brought home the saxophone the community center lent him, I made him practice for two to three hours a day instead of the one hour he tried to get away with. He went from being hard on the ears and screechy to having a rich, lush tone.
Sometimes while he practiced our mother would leave the bedroom that had become her hiding place and sway to his melodies as if she was remembering that once upon a time love between her and my father.
When Ishmael would finish playing she’d saunter up to him and take hold of his face, still plump although he was razor thin. She’d map it with her fingers from his forehead to his chin and then plant a kiss on his cheeks before dancing back to that abysmal place she was mentally buried in.
Ishmael eventually got a scholarship to LaGuardia High School, and I — after college and a few years of trying to find my way and failing miserably in the love department — began teaching at the same school Ishmael and I attended as children.
Ishmael’s stature grew faster than we ever imagined. He played as a sideman with several jazz legends and was a headliner in venues all through Europe and Brazil. It was in Brazil where he met Marie, a beautiful artist who he quickly asked to marry. She began traveling with him and created paintings of his shows.
When he played at the famed Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City I told my mother she was going to see him. She’d never been to any of his shows but I felt she had to go to this one because it would be her last chance to see him play in front of a crowd.
She died six months later from cirrhosis of the liver. Ishmael played a saxophone rendition of Oscar Peterson’s “Requiem” at her funeral. Later he told me that once when he was listening to his live album A Night In Vienna, she came into his room and sat on the edge of his bed and said it was both beautiful and sad. It was how he thought of her and he knew he would play it for her one day.
It was Marie who called me from the hospital to tell me he was sick. I hadn’t seen him in a while because he had been out of the country, but now he was back in New York City and was at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
“The doctors don’t give him long,” Marie said. “The cancer came back. He’s in room B301. Hurry.”
I held on to the phone after she hung up.
She sounded brave, perhaps because Ishmael made her promise she would be when he told her he had cancer and when it came back.
“Why didn’t he tell me,” I wondered. I was the one who raised him. I should have known.
I got dressed and got into my car and drove to the hospital. The rain was pouring down that night also. I found a parking spot and walked inside the hospital. I felt numb as I pressed for the elevator and took it to the third floor.
When I walked into Ishmael’s room I bit my lip to keep my tears at bay.
“Ishmael,” I said softly after Marie hugged me and then left the room.
“Hey, glad you’re here sis,” he said.
“How are you?” I asked, not knowing what else to say that made sense.
“I’m fine as you can see,” he said, trying to laugh but coughing instead.
I gave him a cup of water and held it as he took a few sips. He squeezed my hand. It was what I used to do with him when he was a little boy and I wanted him to know that everything would be okay.
“Ishmael, are you scared?” I asked.
“No, not anymore. My years on this earth were short but good. I lived my life playing the music I loved for the people I loved and that was all that mattered. Fear gets sucker-punched when you have no regrets,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to put your life on hold again to take care of me. You did that from the time you were a little girl. Too much blood was extracted from your veins already.”
“Ishmael I’m going to miss you baby brother.”
“Gonna miss you too,” he said.
“I bet thousands will be standing in front of Misty’s to say goodbye to you when that day comes.”
“Only if it doesn’t rain like today,” he said and closed his eyes.
Marie came back in the room and we sat with him through the night, me telling her funny stories about him, until he took his last breath.
After a private funeral with his closest friends we planned a memorial to be held the following weekend at Misty’s. It was decided Marie would sell her paintings there and the money raised would be donated to the music program at the community center he attended in our old neighborhood.
So here we were. Standing in the pouring rain for my baby brother Ishmael. Marie and I and hundreds of his fans.
As we got ready to go inside, I felt a tap on my shoulders. I turned around to stare into the face of our father — older, greyer, wrinkled with lines that had more to do with his sins than his age.
I wanted to pretend I didn’t know him. I wanted to pummel him with my fists that I clenched so tightly as a little girl so many years ago. But Marie enfolded my hand with both of hers as if she knew more of Ishmael’s heart requests than I did. Her eyes beckoned me to release the storm inside of me and trust her.
So I did. All three of us slowly walked inside as the crowd chanted “Ishmael,” and as if on cue, as if Ishmael had planned it that way also, Oscar Peterson’s “Requiem” began playing on Misty’s sound system. And just like it was for our mother, it was more beautiful than sad.
Jeanine DeHoney fell in love with writing and jazz at a young age thanks to listening sessions with her late father James Rushing, who was a saxophonist in his younger days. Her writing has appeared in several anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Chicken Soup For The African American Woman’s Soul, Essence, Timbuktu, Literary Mama, Metro Fiction, Muthu Magazine, My Brown Baby, Underwater NYC, Wow-Women on Writing-The Muffin’s Friday Speak Out, and Beautiful Black. She was also the 2013 finalist of the Brooklyn Art and Film Festival’s Nonfiction Contest, in which she wrote about her father and jazz. In 2014, she was winner of The Brooklyn Art and Film Festival’s Nonfiction Contest. Ms.DeHoney is also a contributing writer to Dream Teen Magazine, a magazine that celebrates the accomplishments of notable teens.