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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

A Lonely Note

Kevin Stevens
Little Island
A Lonely Note by Kevin Stevens


From Chapter 1

‘Hey, Freak – still on hunger strike?’ The question came from a cluster of kids at the entrance to the lunchroom. Though it wasn't really a question. Nasty laughter followed. Muttering. Tariq kept his head down. He walked up the foyer steps, past the trophy case, and underneath the flags of nation, state and school. He moved through the double doors beside the vice-principal's office. When they closed behind him it was like coming up for air after a long dive.

He got his clarinet case from his locker and went to the empty band room. He took a seat near the back and assembled his instrument. Pieced the joints and the bell together, carefully fitted the mouthpiece, moistened the reed and clamped it in place. He set up his music stand and played some scales. The routines soothed him, but the ugly nickname rang in his ears.

He had recognised the voice. Brad Jorgensen. A muscular kid in faded jeans and a torn sweatshirt who lived on the west side. He had a tattoo of a lightning bolt on his neck. Gold earring, heavy stubble, a sneer on his full lips. In gym class on the first day back at school, two weeks ago, Mr Thiel had asked Tariq how to pronounce his name. Someone at the rear of the roll call ranks cried out, 'Rhymes with freak.' Since then Brad had whispered the word in passing, shouted it in the street. He seemed to enjoy its sound. Already it had stuck. And other names. Twice on his way home Tariq had been harassed by Brad's friends, who threw rocks at him from the vacant lot beside the Dairy Queen and called him 'raghead' and 'camel jockey'.

After he had warmed up, Tariq practised the opening of Rhapsody in Blue. The band teacher, Mr Broquist, had scheduled the piece for the Thanksgiving concert, and Tariq had worked on the opening for ten days. But he couldn't get the glissando right. Instead of rising in celebration, it came out as one long, lonely note.

During Ramadan, Tariq was allowed to spend lunchtime in the band room. The principal had offered an empty classroom for prayer, but he and Yusef, the only other Muslim in the school, preferred to practise or study. Yusef was a senior who took advanced placement courses in physics and chemistry and had been accepted to the University of Chicago. He rarely spoke to Tariq, perhaps because his parents were Shias from Bahrain. His father was in the Muslim Brotherhood and his mother wore a burqa. He bristled when teachers assumed that he and Tariq were friends.

The door opened and Tariq went stiff with fear. But it was Rachel.

'Hey' she said. 'This a private party?' 'You're not supposed to be here.' 'So sue me.'

She walked in and sat down. Dressed as usual in black leggings and a denim skirt and a man's striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Lots of plastic jewellery and curly dark hair spilling over her oversized glasses.

'Don't let me cramp your style,' she said.

He rested the clarinet crosswise on its case. 'It's no use. I'll never get it right.' 'Gershwin?' 'Yeah.'

'It's because he's Jewish. You're culturally disadvantaged.' 'Ha ha.'

Rachel was in most of his classes. She was a whiz at math but loved words. She was in the honours English programme, edited the school paper and wrote poetry She also studied Hebrew on Wednesday afternoons at Temple Beth El.

He looked away. This always happened: she sought him out, joked with him, flirted. He could tell. He knew. And then he would clam up.

'Play that tune for me,' she finally said.

'We have history'

'Not for ten minutes. Go on. Play'

The only time he thought he could really open up to her was when he played choubi. She listened to bands like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, but something about Iraqi folk music made her eyes go sexy.

He played 'Oh Girl, Stand Up', which his uncle had transcribed for him. Rachel loved the title and the music. And he loved that she loved it. The wild melody and the buzz of the reed against his lip made the clarinet feel like something alive in his hands. After a few seconds she stood up and danced in front of him, throwing her hair back, shaking her hips like a belly dancer, lifting and waving her arms so that her orange and yellow bracelets slid nearly to her elbows. Embarrassed to look at her body, he focused on her feet, clad in black ballet flats with small gold bows. They glided across the polished wooden floor in time with the rhythm.

'God, those notes,' she said when he was finished. 'Where do they come from?'

The music was familiar to him. He had heard it all his life. It was her dancing that made it exotic. That made him feel like a snake charmer.

'So how come I can't do the Rhapsody gliss?' 'You'll get it. Don't worry.'

A picture formed in his mind. A picture that often came to him. In it, Rachel lay beside him in bed, gazing at him with the same hooded look she had when she listened to him play One of her hands lay on his bare chest.

He opened the instrument case and began to disassemble the clarinet.

Are you OK?' she said.

'I'm fine.'

She watched him place the pieces in their felt-lined pockets. His hands shook. Not so much, but enough so she could tell. 'Is it that asshole Brad?'

He said nothing. She took her glasses off and wiped the lenses with the hem of her shirt. The excitement of her dance had faded. But she was still smiling.

The class bell cut across his silence. From the hallways came sounds of yelling, laughter, locker doors banging.

'Back to the grind,' she said at last. 'History class. Are you coming?'

'You go ahead.'

She lingered, shrugged and left.