By Mike Lee
Kayleigh learned the bagpipes and played around town for tips while struggling through a partial scholarship at NYU. Wanting autonomy from parents who decided co-dependency and emotional domination over their children was the reason.
Today she cut her hair but kept the bangs.
When the last snip hit the floor at the salon, nothing mattered but the permanence of the now.
She sprinted up the metal steps, clacking in her black kitten heels she pulled out of the trash on East 11th Street. Although the hem of her black pencil skirt threatened to split in the excitement, Kayleigh felt finally unbridled from her past.
While Mom, Dad, living out their dysfunction at the split-level tomb, remained in the Bronx, along with the Our Lady icons and the brother she avoided unless she had to, this was her time. Kayleigh had broken free and went off to hang out at Washington Square to watch the singers and the stoners and enjoy the last of the autumn sun’s warmth before Winter and the end of the semester struck like an unwatched train.
She planned to stay in the apartment during the winter break but attend Christmas Day in Yonkers. This was required because she always needed to test her emotional distance rather than getting presents and performing family rituals.
Kayleigh passed a window near the corner. She touched her hair, brushing back the cowlick, considering maybe it was too short. Kayleigh was self-conscious of her ears sticking out. After touching her hair, moving brunette bangs about, shaking her head, and nixing the thought of a kitchen sink henna dye job, Kayleigh loved the look. She felt finally a person, not somebody’s daughter. Who that person remains is a process until a conclusion. The haircut was just part of the beginning of another stage in that self-transformation.
The day was cloudless, with a light wind warm enough to open her gray trench coat. Unfortunately, the dye was fading; and needs to be hemmed. She figured safety pins and more shoplifted badges would cover it.
She started bagpipes in seventh grade. It was the first Catholic school with an extensive music program. It was underwritten by a grant from an alumnus who had a minor yet respected career playing experimental jazz on the West Coast.
Kayleigh saw him play at Town Hall several years later, backing Chico Hamilton.
“You’re the bagpiper!” He shouted at Kayleigh when she was backstage. He hugged her. I got to see you twice at Our Lady. You got sharp shoulders and strong lungs. But you won’t make money except at funerals and Bronx weddings.”
“But damn,” he added.
“Never quit. Don’t you ever. Your play like a mindrocker.”
He pointed at her heart.
“That’s what matters.”
Kayleigh cried as he held her in his arms. She couldn’t tell him she planned on quitting.
Her parents and neighbors were so annoyed at her practice, she had to wander to the park early in the morning to practice.
So, she did not quit.
Instead, performed at St. Pat’s functions and funerals for firemen and police. Also, for a construction engineer who died falling off a scaffold at the Pan Am building.
She performed the usual: Danny Boy and Amazing Grace. But for that funeral, she learned Wonderful Land.
Wonderful Land was tough to play. This was a hit song in the UK by a rock-and-roll instrumental group called The Shadows. Kayleigh practiced replicating the melody and the guitar tremolo for hours, but she learned enough to make the song recognizable.
As she stood playing the song on the hillside away from the crowd gathered at the funeral, Kayleigh watched the widow, bent over, her head buried in hands, sobbing.
He was a city employee, a building engineer only doing his job, killing him.
During early mornings in Greenwich Village, Kayleigh practiced in Sheridan Square. No one seemed to mind. Sometimes the early risers stopped to listen and dropped money into her Bolero hat for tips. The experience convinced Kayleigh to play on Saturdays alternating at Union Square and outside the front entrance of Grand Central Station. The cash in the Bolero kept her in laundry, cappuccinos with oak milk, and dry cleaning the tartan skirt she wore when busking.
The skirt pattern had the red, brown, and green colors of County Cavan, Kayleigh’s ancestral home.
Whenever she slipped it on, she’d remember that legacy is to be admired. Unfortunately, though, the family is another matter.
“There’s a piper by the gate, of which ‘tis her fate,” Denny said. “Now she’s cut off all her hair to psyche them out at Union Square.”
Kayleigh laughed and placed her notebook beside her on the concrete. “You left out ‘Mom’s a drunk and my brother a junkie, yet nothing rhymes for Dad.’ ”
“Well, as you say, you don’t pick family. But you do have choices later,” Denny said. “Nice haircut, by the way. Really brings out the sparkle in your eyes.”
Denny was her remaining friend from the Yonkers years. A missed opportunity since the middle school prom, the two circled and failed to cross paths at the right time.
And he has another girlfriend.
Denny sat next to her. He smelled of expensive cologne.
Kayleigh supposed the new girlfriend had money.
“So, how are you? I heard you were going to try out for that band.”
Kayleigh straightened her shoulders. “I want to try something group-oriented, and it’s just a matter of finding my spot to fit in while the beat goes crashing along the way. So yeah—good.”
Kayleigh fussed with her hair. She was getting used to feeling the weather on her neck.
“I like that,” said Denny. “The beat goes crashing. That resonates.”
He paused. “A bagpiper in a punk band?”
“It works. I have sharp shoulders and strong lungs,” Kayleigh said, smitten, sad, and annoyed at once, staring.
* * *
Mike Lee is a writer and editor and photographer working at a trade union in New York City. His work is published and forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Ghost Parachute, The Quarantine Review, and many others. His book, The Northern Line is available on Amazon.