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“Riffs,” in What A Song Can Do: 12 Riffs on the Power of Music


There is a smell when someone is sick. It’s always the same, no matter where you are, no matter when it is, no matter what the illness. It’s sweet. Too sweet. Like a diabetic’s urine.
I knew it smelled like that in my parents’ bedroom, but it had always smelled like that, so I never noticed it anymore, not even when I dipped the stick into the urine sample Mom handed me and selected the right insulin dose. She used to give herself her own shots, when she could see. Now I chose the amount, fitted the vial onto the hypodermic, and plunged it through her skin, into her thigh.
“O.K., Mom.” I threw out the stick and dumped the sample down the toilet.
“Have a good day, Lee.”
They’d named me Nathan so they could practice the “th” sound. There is no such sound in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew, the languages they knew best from growing up Jewish in Poland, before the Nazis came. Still, they almost always called me by my middle name, Lee.
“See you later.” I kissed her cheek and waved good-bye to Dad, who was calling clients from the kitchen phone.
The sun’s glare reflected off the old Chevy in our driveway. Mornings can be blinding in L.A., especially after the darkness in my house. I banged my books against the car’s rear as if it were a horse’s rump. Nothing could get me down today. Not even a dead car.
We’d won last night, me and the Wombats. We placed first in the 1968 Battle of the School Bands and we were going to play in the all-district concert at the Hollywood Bowl this Friday night. Even Dad was impressed. My brother promised he’d help me start the Chevy so I could drive us all there in style. Or at least, in a car.
I made it through the school day, doodling guitars on my papers. When Mr. Kovner asked me to discuss the imagery of dawn at the opening of the Odyssey, all I could talk about was Hendrix’s guitar riff in “Castles Made of Sand.” The class cracked up. Mr. Kovner didn’t say anything. I thought he must have been pretty angry at me until I caught a glimpse of his grading sheet and saw an A+ next to my name for class participation.
Things were going so well, the blanket of silence at home didn’t even bother me that afternoon. There was a note; Mom had gone out with the lady from the Braille Institute. Dad was visiting clients. And Stan ... well, Stan didn’t live there anymore.
I was slathering mayonnaise on a piece of Wonder Bread – being alone isn’t quite so lonely with a bologna sandwich in your hand – when the call came. ...

Twelve writers, including Joseph Bruchac and Ron Koertge, contribute short stories, each with a core theme of music. The authors use a variety of writing styles to explore a range of musical genres, from classical to rock to marching band ... [A] few pieces (e.g., David Levithan's title story, Ann Manheimer's "Riffs") are both strong and touching.

[Horn Book]