By Angela Carlton
Music saved her. While her father was strung-out, sleeping the days away, it was music that saved her, sharp melodies, those catchy little lyrics that landed inside a song. It lifted her. Sometimes he’d take five pills, six, as many as ten a day for the pain. Her father, Daddy Ted, was always full of pain. She was named after the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Her parents both had a passion for music, before, way before, things ended. For her mother had passed away one evening quietly in bed.
There was something crisp, clear about Fitzgerald’s voice, the way she oozed from the stereo speakers with such grace. Ella Jane was born during a muggy summer, a sultry one that seemed to play on and on the way a live jazz tune can do.
Prince’s “Purple Rain” sailed out from the speakers now as Ella Jane poured the sticky Coca Cola into plastic Elvis cups for herself and her father. Soon, she would have to walk to the store to buy bread again, for the edges of the loaf had turned green. Outside her duplex, a train roared down the track. Inside, it gave her a tiny thrill. She loved the rush of the wheels, the clatter, and the urgency behind it. It had a destination, that train, a place to go.
She sang on with the radio, taking the lead in her fiery way, from that place, deep inside, that held her mother’s loss. She found two ice cubes and dropped each in the Cola to chill it, the way her father liked. In the silence, she stared at the caricature of a young Elvis. Glaring with her pale, blue eyes, she watched the ice float inside the flimsy cup. She listened to the sound of the old refrigerator running, gurgling like it might be on its last leg. At this exact time tomorrow, Ella Jane would be 17 years old.
She could hear her father coughing now. Daddy Ted was shuffling about on dirty sheets. She had already done the laundry twice this week using bar soap. But what was the point really? Her father seemed destined to wallow about with his shuffling and coughing, flat sounds that filled the empty spaces. Over time, Ella Jane had just become weary. She wilted.
The cramped duplex had two tiny rooms and one “Jazz Room” with the keyboard against a wall and one futon, the “too-tight box” gave you the feeling of black noise from a dream you couldn’t get out of. Somebody needed to come out of it. Eventually, you wake up.
The next morning at sunrise, Ella Jane grabbed the fat envelope with her entire cash savings and walked down to the Gulf for more soda, peanut butter, and bread. Afterwards, she picked wildflowers from the yard, yellow ones, to brighten things and laid them on the kitchen table beside the loaf bread for her father. She would leave her goodbye note beside the flowers, and sign it with one purple, lopsided heart.
Folding her letter, she thought about her father’s career. Once, a music critic had written “electrifying, phenomenal keyboard player.” And, dammit, it was true. Daddy Ted was the best until the pills, those stupid pills! Yes, soon he would rise, like a creature from a black cave, for cola, toast, the SSI check he collected in the mail or the pills, the damn pills.
She left quietly with one knapsack, her puny life crammed inside, tucked away. She thought about this day, what it meant, thought about what she wanted most, and the answer was nothing. She wanted out. Ella Jane would not sit in that duplex another day much less an hour and witness her father rot before her eyes, shrivel and fade like her mother. She needed a new beginning, a private hope for tomorrow.
Prince played on in her head. She kept moving. Her steps were light, but her head throbbed. She kept moving-moving until she saw the train. Up ahead, finally, she spotted the silver train, glossy and shining like a brand new nickel in the sun. She picked a seat, in back, by the window, and thought about her cousin Dylan, the DJ. He had written to her for months about music spots and a few of the record shops with all those rows and rows of slick vinyl, the place she would run too, this far-away town where the lights and the throb of the streets shine and never fade.
It was the beginning, a new summer in Atlanta. The grass and the pines were so alive, a deep cucumber green. Swallowing hard, she could hear that thump-thump-thump, the music of her own heart. Tears filled her eyes, as she touched the cool glass, her window of lush scenery.
And she didn’t look back.
Angela Carlton lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and two daughters. She has been published in EWR, Every Day Fiction, Camroc Press Review, Pindeldyboz and Pedestal Magazine. In addition, she won the Reader’s Choice award with Pedestal Magazine in 2006. Her story “The Beach Cottage” can be found in The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and “The Man Named Ray” can be found in The Best of Every Day Fiction 2009. In 2012, her story “Wishing” won the 53-Word Story contest.