A Small Price to Pay For Yo-Yo Ma

Stan McGreevy was a legend in Santa Pulmo. For over forty years, he had been one of the most popular teachers at Santa Pulmo High, where he taught music and directed the school band. Twenty-three of his students went on to enjoy significant musical careers, including the drummer for Stone Temple Pilots, five members of internationally renowned orchestras, backup singers for Paul Anka and Weird Al Yankovic, and a cast member of Jersey Boys. In 1999, the Santa Pulmo High Marching Band, under Mr. McGreevy’s leadership, was named best in the nation, and played at the Rose Bowl. The plumed shako that Mr. McGreevy wore that day while acting as drum major held a prime place in the school trophy case.

Mr. McGreevy could be demanding; his face in crimson agony as he guided cacophonous students through difficult Debussy and Vivaldi passages. However, he managed to temper musical passion with compassion and wisdom, the teacher kids turned to when they sought advice, or needed to unload distressing secrets, counseling teenagers on subjects ranging from abortion to tattoo removal. When Carl Taggert announced he was gay, and was promptly ejected from his house, he took up residence in Mr. McGreevy’s garage while he finished high school. When Lanny Williams’ father lost his job, Stan pulled a few strings to get him hired in the high school maintenance department.

Jessie Burdett had particular affection for the man. In 1984, during her senior year of high school, he organized a concert in the park to raise funds to send her to Los Angeles for an audition for Star Search. Jessie had dreams of one day performing as the opening act for her idol, Cyndi Lauper, and had prepared a stirring rendition of “Time After Time”, which earned her a slot on the show. Jessie sang her heart out, but lost to an impish twelve-year-old doing a disturbingly sexy interpretation of Madonna’s “Material Girl”. Still, Ed McMahon took Jessie to lunch, and she met Rosie O’Donnell and Sawyer Brown. Even though she ultimately abandoned her musical dreams to open a bookstore in Santa Pulmo, she credited Mr. McGreevy with making one of her most cherished memories a reality.

So the previous February, when Mr. McGreevy suffered a massive stroke while conducting Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”, the community came together in support. Mrs. McGreevy had passed away the previous year, and the only option was to house Mr. McGreevy in Moonlight Cove. Money was raised to upgrade him to a private suite, and former students became frequent visitors to their old mentor. Unfortunately, it was hard to gauge Mr. McGreevy’s reaction, his face frozen by the malady into a Muncian scowl.

All contact to the outside world was cut off when the corona disaster struck Moonlight Cove, killing many of the residents and isolating the rest. Friends were terrified for Mr. McGreevy, but he somehow managed to avoid contracting the virus, instead relegated to solitary confinement.

Jessie Burdett came up with the idea for the concert. Forced by the pandemic to close her bookstore, she had nothing but time on her hands, and was feeling an existential need to perform community service. She contacted several friends that had comprised their high school band, Jessie and the J Girls, to suggest they put the group back together. With Jessie singing lead, Deb Weekly on guitar, Jill Taylor on drums, and Pam Standley on bass, the group attempted to rekindle rock magic while rehearsing at a safe distance in Deb’s backyard. Even the ladies would admit their recreations of Pat Benatar and Bangles classics left a lot to be desired, but they figured it might bring a little pleasure to Mr. McGreevy and the Moonlight Cove residents, so on a Saturday afternoon they set up on the lawn, ten feet apart, in front of Mr. McGreevy’s room.

The residents initially looked confused and annoyed as Jessie and the band belted out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, and “Love is a Battlefield”, but warmed when they got to “Manic Monday” and “Hazy Shade of Winter”. It was difficult to judge if Mr. McGreevy enjoyed the performance, though he continued to stare out his window for the entire hour.

Word of the concert spread through the community, and Jessie received a call from an old classmate, Robert Cook. Robert and Jessie had been in band together, and Robert now taught musical theory at Santa Pulma State University. “I’m thinking of putting together a string quartet to play for Mr. McGreevy and the residents. We’ll safely distance. We can even wear masks, since none of us will be belting out ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’,” he joked.

“Wonderful idea,” Jessie said. She knew that Mr. McGreevy was much more a fan of Bach than The Bangles.

That weekend she sat on the hood of her car in the Moonlight Cove parking lot, listening to Robert and the group perform Shubert’s “Death and the Maiden” on the lawn. Mr. McGreevy’s window was open, and he stared at the musicians, his head shaking back and forth.

The performances were so successful that they decided to make them a regular Saturday event. The Santa Pulmo Explorer did a cover story on the event, which was picked up by the newswires—a rare bit of good news. “It’s incredible,” Jose, the manager of the retirement home exclaimed to the reporter. “It gives residents hope and something to look forward to.”

Jessie was acknowledged as the founder of the Moonlight Cove concerts, as they were now called, and a couple weeks later she received a strange email.

Read about the great work you are doing for Moonlight Cove. I’ll be passing through town, and would be glad to give a short performance. All my best, Yo-Yo Ma.

Jessie assumed it was some kind of joke. She checked the email address: YYMa@gmail.com. Is it possible, she wondered? She forwarded it to Robert, asking if this could possibly be real.

Unfortunately, I am not personally acquainted with Mr. Ma. Seems dubious, but it can’t hurt to explore.

Assuming it was some kind of financial scam—he would probably ask she forward money to some account—Jessie replied, Thanks so much for your offer, and we would love to have you perform, but we don’t have a budget to host celebrity talent.

You misunderstand, YYMa@gmail.com replied. No need for compensation. I’d be happy to stop by Saturday and play for a few minutes. My only request is small cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I enjoy a cold one on weekend afternoons.

Yo-Yo Ma was willing to come to Santa Pulma and play a concert at an old folk’s home in exchange for a six-pack of PBR? It made no sense. When she discussed it with Robert, he suggested they extend the invitation. “What have we got to lose? I’m curious to see who shows up.”

YYMa@gmail.com told Jessie to expect him promptly at three. Don’t forget the beer, he reminded her.

Robert and Jessie kept the visitor secret, afraid of the embarrassment if it turned out to be a hoax. On Saturday a small crowd gathered at Moonlight Cove, expecting the usual concert. By regulation, they were not supposed to leave their cars, but a few people crawled on the roofs of their vehicles, while others just opened all their windows.

The Moonlight Cove residents pulled chairs to their windows, anxiously awaiting the afternoon entertainment. Robert had his group ready to play, assuming there was no way in hell Yo-Yo Ma would show up.

Jessie and Robert, standing apart on the lawn, watched a dented Jeep pull in. A sixty-something masked Asian man, dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with I LISTEN TO DEAD PEOPLE, walked towards them. A young woman with purple-streaked hair, face covered with a sun buff, texting while she walked, followed behind. “Are you Jessie,” he yelled.

Jessie turned to Robert, throwing a “is it possible it’s him” look, Robert shaking his head with an “I don’t know” gesture.

Jessie yelled a greeting, and the man stopped ten feet away, and bowed in what had become the fashionable greeting during corona.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Yo-Yo. Want me to play right there?” he pointed at a stool set in the center of the lawn.

Jessie nodded in amazement. “Uh, yes. Thanks so much for coming.”

“Did you bring the beer?”

Jessie pointed at the small cooler sitting a few feet away.

“Wonderful,” the man replied, clapping his hands as if she had bestowed a wonderful gift. “It’s a perfect day for music and beer, isn’t it?” His eyes curling in what she assumed was a smile. The purple-haired woman walked forward, pulled a disinfectant wipe out of her purse, cleaned the handle, removed a beer, wiped the top before popping it, and handed it to the man before opening one for herself. They pulled up their masks to take sips.

“Will play for beer,” the man laughed. “Ever see a homeless guy with a sign like that?”

Jessie smiled and nodded, still unsure what was happening.

“Might be a good idea to give them the beer,” he said. “Can I borrow a cello?”

“You don’t want to play your own instrument?” Robert said in amazement.

“I don’t feel right about carrying Petunia around in that old thing,” the man motioned at the Jeep. “We’re camping. It’s tough on an instrument.”

Robert yelled at one of the orchestra members, who brought over a cello and set it next to the stool. The woman pulled out another wipe, cleansed the stool and neck of the instrument, and nodded at the man before she returned to the Jeep.

“I was thinking Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major,” he said. “Maybe end with a little ‘Here and Heaven’ to mix it up a bit. Kind of my greatest hits. OK?”

Jessie and Robert nodded.

From the minute the music started, the crowd leaned forward, realizing they were experiencing something special. Robert closed his eyes, head back, drinking in the music. At one point, he looked at Jessie and mouthed, “Oh my god.”

He played for forty-five minutes, rising to thunderous applause, the Moonlight Cove residents screaming “bravo” out their windows. Mr. McGreevy’s head bobbed up and down, as he happily grunted “Yo-Yo, Yo-Yo.”

The man bowed and waved, hustling back towards Jessie and Robert.

“Incredible,” Jessie said, “Thank you so much.” Robert seemed too awestruck to say anything.

“Happy to do it,” he said. “Thanks for the beer,” he said, leaning down to pick up the cooler. “Sorry, but we need to run,” he waved at the purple-haired girl standing in the parking lot, and hustled towards the vehicle. The girl came towards Jessie and Robert, stopping back a few feet.

“Hate to ask, but would you guys happen to have a few bucks for gas?”

Jessie and Robert exchanged confused glances, and Robert pulled out his wallet. “I have forty,” he said, setting the bills on the grass and backing up.

“Perfect,” she said.

They watched them tear out of the parking lot, as Robert followed Jessie six feet back to her car. “So it really was him?” Robert said. “What do you think? I can’t believe it. Yo-Yo-fucking-Ma.”

Jessie noticed her car door was ajar, and looked inside. The glove box had been rifled, contents strewn all over the seats and floor. “I think Yo-Yo’s girlfriend stole my phone and four bucks’ worth of quarters.”

This is a reprint of work originally published in Montana Mouthful.

Timothy O’Leary is the author of Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face – And Other Tales of Men in Pain, and Warriors, Workers, Whiners & Weasels. His fiction and essays have appeared in dozens of publications and anthologies. He won the Aestas Short Story Contest, has received multiple Pushcart nominations, and has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers Contest, the Mississippi Review Prize, the Mark Twain Prize, the Lascaux Prize, and many others. More information can be found at https://timothyolearylit.com.

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