Jake didn't plan on cutting English. His feet just took one step inside Mintzer's door, said I don't think so, turned around, and kept on going. So then why is he still running? He's blocks from school already. It's unlikely Ms. Mintzer even noticed him come in, never mind saw him walk out. At first he thought he'd stay out only till the end of English and slip back for seventh and eighth periods-- computer science, with Eugene, then study hall. Now he's thinking, home.
Of course, his dad might be there. And even though, if anyone would understand, it would be Jake's dad, his dad is sure to point out that it's somewhat dumb to read the book, write the report -- which he knows Jake did -- and then bury it in his binder till it's so late Jake's lucky if he gets a C-minus. It might be dumb, but it's been working: you hold on to something till the teacher has given up on seeing it, is sick to death of listening to oral reports, and you don't have to present. Till yesterday when Ms. Mintzer walked around collecting book reports and he sat there with his head down, and his heart pounding, and the report in his binder, and she stood by his desk, and he didn't say anything, and she said, "Jake, I'm waiting," and he didn't say anything, and she said, "Jake, your book report please. You do have it, don't you?" and he said nothing, and she said, "You know, Jake, that's four you've turned in late now. Jake, you had all of winter break to work on it. Jake, we need to talk," and he said, Easy for you to say.
Or would have, if he could have.
He's almost at the subway station before he realizes he's not running because he's freaked. He's running because he's out of there and he can breathe, and breathing feels good. He thinks about running all the way home. But when he goes down into the subway and hears the singing, he is so glad he didn't.
It's not just his daring Mintzer escape. Or that his mood always lifts when he hears music in the subway. Jake's never heard a voice like this before. It carries all the way down the platform, yet it seems effortless: "Hey, Jude, don't make it bad . . ." As he gets nearer he hears a guitar behind her, and little kid voices. When he's close enough to see, he's even more amazed. He was sure it was a grown woman. It's a kid, a girl his age, in jeans and a too-big denim jacket and this funky-looking feather thing. She's singing with a man in a cruddy motorcycle jacket and two little boys with mittens hanging from their sleeves on bongos and a tambourine. There's a guitar case open in front of them for money.
Jake finds a spot over by the wall and when the song ends, he claps. A homeless man claps. A woman drops a dollar bill in the guitar case.
"Thank you," the dad says. "Thank you so much." He has to be the dad. He looks just like her -- small and thin, with pointy features and curly, reddish hair. His hair's as long as hers but it's in a ponytail. The back of his head is bald. "God bless you," he says. "Appreciate the support."
The girl begins to sing again, alone this time, without even the guitar. "Me and Bobby McGee." Jake likes the way she eases into it, as if she's singing to herself, just letting the rest of the world listen in. She sings till the Number 1 local rattles to a stop. Then she picks up a bottle of water, takes a drink, and passes it to the little guys.
He was hoping she'd go back to "Bobby McGee" when the train pulls out. But her dad says something to her, she nods, and the dad picks up his guitar, and plays the intro to "I Will Always Love You," which Jake doesn't like. The way her voice soars up though, clear and sweet, but not that wobbly, warbly, whiny sweet . . .
Jake moves a few feet closer, eases his backpack off and leans against a pillar.
"Mmmph!" A man standing near him shakes his head. "That little girl can sing! You've got some voice, honey," he tells her, stepping up and throwing a dollar into the guitar case.
The dad nods and thanks him.
"I haven't seen you here before," a woman tells her. "I hope I'll see you here again."
"Oh, you will," the dad says. "You surely will."
Other people walk up and speak to them, too. It's always the dad who answers. The girl just stands there and sings, sometimes singing the songs straight, the dad singing harmony or not, other times taking off from what he's doing on the guitar, playing with the melody or the rhythm, adding swoops and dips and riffs. Jake stays through more "Hey, Judes", more "I Will Always Love Yous", more "Amazing Grace."
A couple of times he thinks he sees the girl glancing at him, but she looks away fast. The little boys, meanwhile, have had enough of this. The bigger one hops off his plastic crate and gets a bag of Cheez Doodles from their shopping cart. The one in the stroller keeps dropping his tambourine and climbing out to get it and the dad has to keep putting him back in, which makes the boy cry. The dad gives him a pacifier. The boy throws it on the ground. A woman picks it up.
"Make sure you wash that before he puts it in his mouth again," she tells the dad.
"Don't worry, ma'am," he says. "See, it's goin' right here in my pocket."
"Passy!" The boy cries even louder. The woman nods and walks away without giving them any money.
The dad's smile fades. "Have a nice day," he calls after her. "Appreciate the support. God bless you."
Through all of this, the girl just sings. What could that feel like, Jake wonders, to stand in front of strangers and open your mouth and have sounds like that come out? To open your mouth and feel no fear? It's how he would sing, if he had a voice. A real voice, that is. Not just inside his head.
Lucky Stars, copyright 2005