“Voice Lessons,” A Short Fiction Story

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By Sonia C., written in 2006 for Master’s writing class

“Wave your cell phones in the air…let me see you! Yea! That’s what I’m talking about!” Jake shouted into the microphone. Instantly he saw dozens of blue lights appear in the audience. Not quite the same as lighters, he thought, but times had changed. Too many bands were still shouting for lighters when no one carried them anymore. It didn’t matter anyway; it still had the desired effect. He could see all the people packed into the club. Their eyes were on him. He leaned into the mike again, “Are you having a good time tonight?”

The audience shouted, whistled, and hooted in response. He smiled, waved his hand in the air, closed his eyes, and listened. He basked in the attention, drinking it like a cool ice tea. These people loved him. Several girls on the dance floor swayed to the music, casting sultry eyes his way; he wondered what else they would do if he asked.

He struggled to see beyond the first few rows, but the spotlights blocked anything else from his view. The few guys that he could see looked up at him with a wistful envy. Jake was ready to play all night.

The band had just put on a stunningly accurate performance of Earth Wind and Fire…now, for the second set, they had returned to do a tribute to the Doobie Brothers. Not only were the music styles totally different, but so were the voices of the original lead singers.

Jake began to sing lead again, only this time with an uncanny likeness to Michael McDonald. For the first few songs, they would watch him, trying to figure out if he was really singing. Later, they would gather around the autograph table and say, “Man, you really threw me a curve ball when you came out singing with a totally different voice. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I mean that’s amazing. That’s a real gift.”

He had heard that so many times before. Everyone was always telling him how great the band was and how talented he was. It was true, he had mastered several different voices, and it made for great dance music. The band was doing well, but he wasn’t so sure it was a great gift to be able to mimic famous people’s singing voices. Maybe if he were a comedian. But at this point in life, all it had gotten him was the lead singer in a 70’s tribute band.

After the concert, he stopped Billy backstage. Although Jake was the “face” of the band, Billy was the leader. Billy was about fifteen years older than Jake, married with three kids. He had started the band a few years ago, carefully assembling strong, versatile talent.

“Billy, can we talk a minute?” Jake said.

“Sure. What’s going on?” Billy said, running his hand through his graying black hair.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about the band,” Jake said. “I’d like to create some of our own songs and see what happens. We’ve got some really great talent, you know.”

“You’re right, we’ve got great talent,” Billy said. “But I’ve been around this biz a long time. Do you have any idea what it’s like to play songs that no one knows or wants to hear?”

Jake nodded reluctantly; he visualized a pissed off audience, sitting stiffly with their arms crossed.

“Right now, our audiences love us because they love the music we’re playing,” Billy continued with his lecture. “And if we start playing our own music—however good it is—we won’t be getting the gigs we’re getting or making the money we’re making. And I need the money.”

Billy looked Jake straight in the eyes. “Besides that, who has time to write songs? We all have jobs!”

“Yeah, I know,” Jake said. “But how big can a tribute band get? Wouldn’t it be great to have all those people singing our songs someday?”

“It would be nice. But I’m ok with what we’re doing. I like the music, and it’s fun. It’s still performing.” Billy looked past Jake at the door. “I’ve gotta go. My wife’s expecting me.”

Jake nodded, glanced at Billy’s eyes, and then stared at the floor. “Ok. See you later.”

Jake kicked a wad of duct tape someone had dropped earlier during set-up. So much for that, he thought in frustration.

The next day, Jake was still upset. He half-heartedly got ready for the annual family barbeque. Normally, he looked forward to spending the day outdoors, eating grilled hamburgers, playing volleyball with his cousins, and shooting the breeze with the old folks.

But he felt cranky and unsocial; he didn’t want to do or say anything. He just wanted to stay at home and mope.

However, Jake knew he couldn’t do that to Grandma. The barbeque was her unofficial birthday party every year. She never wanted a party for herself; instead, she wanted her family to be together. So family had a picnic and brought along her gifts, even though she always insisted that they weren’t necessary. “All I want is to be with each of you,” she’d say.

At the park, Jake put on a fake smile and forced himself to walk around the party, hugging his cousins and making small talk with aunts and uncles. Grandma was surrounded with people vying for her attention, so he just walked by and patted her shoulder. She turned and waved,
“Hey, Jake! Glad to see you.”

Jake meandered around the barbeque, lost in his own thoughts. He took a few bites out of a hamburger, but he had no appetite. Finally, he settled on a park bench and watched the kids play on the playground. He didn’t know what to do; he felt deflated. How would he ever get out of this rut?

He didn’t know how long he was sitting there when someone tapped his shoulder. “Is this seat taken?” Grandma said, her voice soft and comforting. She was draped in a floral-printed tee shirt and navy blue slacks.

Jake shook his head. “No, it’s all yours.”

“Thanks.” She sat down on the bench. “How’re you doing? Anything new and exciting for my favorite rock star?”

“I’m ok. It’s just been a long week, Grandma.”

“That so?”

“Yeah. I talked to Billy last night about doing some original songs, but he thought it was a waste of time. Now I feel like I’m back to square one. It just really bums me out.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah, he didn’t really even listen to me. I thought I could count on the band to help, but I guess not. Anyway, sorry for not being much fun.”

“That’s ok,” she said, throwing her arm over his shoulders. She gave him a quick squeeze.

“But I’m glad to hear that you’re been making some progress on your music. God has given you a special gift. He’ll show you what to do with it.”

The next weekend it was the same thing again. Jake went through the motions. Sing, play guitar, sing some more. He barely even noticed the audience.

After the show, he pulled out his cell phone to see what time it was. 1:00 a.m. He had a few missed calls, some from friends and a few from his mother. When he checked on the time, he was surprised to see that his mother’s last call had been 11:00 p.m. That was pretty late for her, but he was sure she’d be asleep by now. He wondered what was going on. Oh well, he thought, he’d call her tomorrow after we woke up.

Early the next morning he was jolted awake by the phone ringing. Jake rolled over and picked up the phone.

“Jake?” It was his mother.

“Wha?” The word barely made it out. Jake’s brain was still foggy.

“Grandma’s in the hospital. She had a stroke last night and she’s in a coma. They don’t know if she’s going to make it.” Her voice cracked as she struggled to finish the sentence.

Jake sat up, fully awake. “Oh, no.” He blinked quickly, trying to process her words. He pictured Grandma’s plump face—brown eyes framed by slate gray hair—laughing and telling stories when he’d saw her last weekend. She hadn’t looked sick or tired. This was the last thing he expected.

After a few seconds, he said, “I can’t believe it.”

“It’s a shock. But we’re believing that she’s going to be ok. She’s gonna wake up and get better.” She spoke forcefully, like she was still trying to convince herself. “I tried calling last night, but you must have been busy with the concert. I didn’t want to leave a voicemail.”

“What can we do? How can we help wake her up?”

“Waiting is all we can do, as far as I know. But I’m going to read to her and talk to her and play some music. The doctors say she might be able to hear.”

She paused. “Grandma’s in Room 203 at Turner Memorial. That’s where I’ll be if you need me. Visiting hours are until nine.”

When he hung up the phone, he lay back in the bed, staring at the ceiling. He felt numb. How can this be happening to Grandma? It didn’t seem real. But he knew that it was.

Would this be it? He kept thinking about the things that Grandma would miss if she died: his wedding, the birth of his children, and of course, the music he was going to create.

Grandma had always encouraged him to pursue the impossible, and she had always supported him. They had always been close, he and Grandma, ever since he was a small boy. After his parents got divorced, Grandma watched him after school so his mom could work. She helped him with his homework, played cards with him, and watched “comics” with him. But most of all, she listened with rapt attention to anything he wanted to tell her. He grew up showing her everything: pictures he drew, songs he learned to sing, instruments he attempted to play, magazine articles he thought were cool. Everything.

When he got older, she invited him over for dinner to keep in touch. At first, it would be difficult to find things to talk about. But she’d just smile at him, ask how things were going, and wait for him to answer. Usually, he’d get started telling Grandma stories about his half-brother and sister or his students’ antics at school. As the high school band teacher, he never ran out of funny stories. Then Grandma would give him an update on his cousins—Katie had a boyfriend, Justin was gaining weight, Chris snuck out of the house and got caught, and so on. It was always fun, and although she never put anyone down, he always left the house feeling good about himself.

He looked at the guitar leaning in the corner of his room. He got up and grabbed a worn notebook, where he kept his scribbles and ideas for songs. He’d made a lot of progress in the last few months. He wished he had told Grandma how much her encouragement had helped.

He remembered the pivotal conversation they’d had about five months ago. He was over at Grandma’s. Dinner was over, and he was staring at his half-eaten plate of mashed potatoes and fried chicken—his favorite.

“How’s your music coming along?” Grandma asked.

“Ok, I guess. The band is doing very well; we’ve got gigs every weekend, and our rate is going up every month.”

She peered at him inquisitively. “That’s good,” she said slowly. “What else is going on? You seem lost in your thoughts today.”

“Well, I’ve been trying to write my own music, but to tell you the truth, Grandma, it’s been really hard. I don’t know where to begin. I spend all of my time singing like other people. I don’t know what my voice even sounds like.”

“Hmm…that’s a problem, for sure. Goodness knows I wouldn’t know anything about it,” she said smiling at the thought. “You know how well I sing! Well enough to get the neighborhood dogs excited.” She looked at him, and her tone softened. “Don’t give up so easy. You’ve got a wonderful voice inside of you. It’s there. You just need to take enough time to find it.”

“But what’s the point? I can’t make a living with it. And no one cares anyway.”

“Well, I care and you care. Why not give it a try? No one else may ever care besides you and I, but isn’t that enough? You’ve got a gift, and you know that I love hearing your voice.

Maybe you could bring joy to others too. If nothing else, then at least you’ll know that you tried. Either way, you can move on with life.”

He’d taken her advice to heart. Since then, he had dutifully sat down with his guitar and notebook. He wrote what was on his mind, converted that into lyrics, and then developed a melody to accompany it. But he still struggled with the singing part; he kept slipping into the familiar rhythms of other men’s voices. It was frustrating, but he remembered how Ray Charles had a similar problem when he first started because he could only sing like Nat King Cole. Ray had gotten over it. So he figured he would too, if he kept working at it.

Jake walked to the corner and picked up his guitar.

He arrived at the hospital at 8:00 p.m. Jake was hoping that everyone else was gone. He wanted time alone with Grandma.

He walked down the empty hallway, watching the shiny white floor pass under his feet. He found Room 203.

Inside, Grandma looked like she was sleeping on a cloud—white bed, white sheets, white blanket, and white pillows. He was relieved to see that her cheeks and lips had color. All in all, she looked pretty good, except that her hair was a mess. She’d be upset if she saw that hair, he thought. Jake walked over to her, kissed her cheek, and tried to fix her hair. He leaned close to her ear and whispered, “I’m here, Grandma. It’s Jake. Why don’t you wake up and say hi?”

She didn’t respond.

Jake sat down in the chair next to her and took his guitar slowly out of the case. He touched her arm. “Grandma, this is for you. I hope you can hear me.”

He looked at the ground and took a deep breath.

When he began to sing, it was a voice no one had ever heard before. It was his own.

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