Yellow Flag

Yellow Flag
Robert Lipsyte

For my crew chief,

Ruth Katcher

Contents

One

He was coming off the last turn, racing three wide…

Two

“Imagine Mr. G naked and then try to eat your pizza,”…

Three

Just before he climbed into the car for the parade…

Four

Once the race began, Kyle swallowed down the resentment he…

Five

Gary and Ruff came out of the pits and worked…

Six

The girl with the red braid was even better-looking up…

Seven

The airplane seat was so soft, Kyle would have fallen…

Eight

As usual Kyle slept through most of church with his…

Nine

The doctor came out of the examining room in golf…

Ten

He thought he'd be glad to have Kris home even…

Eleven

At practice on Wednesday Mr. G was floating out of his…

Twelve

Dad asked Kyle to take Friday off from school and…

Thirteen

Kyle got his first look at the new paint job…

Fourteen

He stayed up in the grandstand for a while, enjoying…

Fifteen

He had never gotten this kind of attention before, not…

Sixteen

He sensed the freeze right away as he walked into…

Seventeen

In the moment before the green flag dropped, he felt…

Eighteen

He downshifted to second gear and braked hard into the…

Nineteen

By the time they were racing again under a green…

Twenty

Billy was collapsed in one of the two reclining chairs…

Twenty-One

“Thought you bought it,” Todd said at lunch Monday. Kyle…

Twenty-Two

They watched the race on the big screen in Sir Walter's…

Twenty-Three

Kyle could hear Mom and Dad arguing downstairs in the…

Twenty-Four

Mr. G called him out of class, a first. Kyle felt…

Twenty-Five

Goshen Raceway needed a paint job. For starters. The metal…

Twenty-Six

Jackman showed up for dessert. Kyle was glad to see…

Twenty-Seven

He woke up remembering that he hadn't called Nicole, but…

Twenty-Eight

They worked on the new setup the rest of the…

Twenty-Nine

The crew went nuts when the red, green, and deep-blue…

Thirty

He was excited but he wasn't jittery, channeling the energy…

Thirty-One

Standing with Kris on Grandpa's enormous wraparound porch, Kyle remembered…

Thirty-Two

It was Mom's idea to bring Hildebrand Racing caps, T-shirts,…

Thirty-Three

He woke up thinking it was going to be a…

Thirty-Four

Fresh coats of white and deep-blue paint glistened in the…

Thirty-Five

Shooting the commercial was almost as boring as sitting through…

Thirty-Six

By the time he got to Nicole's house, it was…

Thirty-Seven

When he got to the race shop at eleven on…

Thirty-Eight

He drove into the Goshen High parking lot without a…

Thirty-Nine

Sir Walter was waiting for him on the porch, sitting in…

 

He was coming off the last turn, racing three wide for the finish, Dad on his left, Kris on his right, trapped between them. Through the roar of the engines he heard the metallic shriek of their doors scraping. Uncle Kale's voice came through the headphones: “Gas it, Kylie, get out of there.”

Kyle thought, If we cross the finish line together, I will never get out of this car. I will be stuck in here forever.

Even as he dreamed, he knew it was a dream, the old one, the yellow caution flag dream, the early warning dream. Something's going to happen today.

He forced himself awake the way he always did, braking hard, letting Dad and Kris pass him to the
checkered flag. He was unstuck, free.

But he was nowhere.

He woke up sweating.

Be careful today.

 

Kyle wasn't surprised at breakfast when Dad said, “We could use you tomorrow.”

He felt the orange juice come back up faster than it went down, pure acid. “Got a trumpet lesson. Then the quintet's going to Charlotte for a master class.”

Dad's long face looked tired. He sounded apologetic. “I need you. Billy went to Atlanta for some heart tests.”

Mom said, “You can reschedule your lesson.” Kyle thought that was her way of saying, I'm not on your side this time.

“I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important,” said Dad. “The new sponsors'll be there. Kris comes in top ten, we can make this deal.”

The orange acid went back down and pooled in Kyle's stomach. Dad didn't have to say how bad Hildebrand Racing needed to make this deal.

Mom said, “I think you should do it.” As if she were pleading with him to make the right choice.

That made it worse, Kyle thought, putting it all on me, as if I really had a choice. It was a con job. Pleading had never been the Hildebrand way. Great-grandpa
Fred ordered Grandpa Walter into the car, and then Walter ordered Dad into the car. Dad had never had to order Kris, who had jumped in when he was four years old. Never could get him out. Only reason I escaped.

“Need you up on the spotters' stand,” said Dad. “Kris'll listen to you.”

Yeah, right. Kris'll listen to me. And still push the pedal through the floor.

What could he say? “What time?”

“Knew I could count on you.” Dad smiled. “We can drive out together after school.”

No way. Miss rehearsal tonight and get stuck tomorrow three hours from home without my own car. “I'll go in the morning. Be there by nine.”

Dad hesitated, but Mom said, “I'll make sure you're up.” So she was half on his side.

 

Fridays in spring crept on forever at Goshen High. All day Kyle felt like he had one foot mashing the gas, the other standing on the brake. His motor was running hot while his wheels spun in the groove. Sweat ran down his back. He felt numb and horny and sleepy and jittery. He sleepwalked from English to history to geometry. He heard himself answer a question in environmental science, but it might as well have been someone else. Teachers droned on, trying not to let their eyes
flick toward the windows, where the thickening yellow light banged against the glass, calling them outside. Kyle's eyes were stuck on the glass.

He didn't remember what he ate for lunch or who sat with him at the band table.

He didn't wake up until he tightened the thumbscrew on his music stand in the band practice room. He always woke up for practice. But he also started thinking about tomorrow. It wasn't fair. Racing is Kris's life, not mine. I've got other things to do.

“So why don't gorillas play trumpet?” He hadn't noticed Nicole sit down next to him. As usual, she was all in black. The little round face with big dark eyes peeked out of a cloud of curly black hair. She answered her own question. “Gorillas don't play trumpet because they're too sensitive.”

“You know how French horn players say hello?” said Kyle. “They say, ‘Hi, I played that piece in kindergarten.'” He liked trash talking with her, even the dumb old jokes.

She laughed. A big, unself-conscious sound. Behind her back some kids called it her New York honk, but he liked it better than the constipated simper that usually passed for laughs in Goshen.

“What's the difference between a trumpet player and a terrorist?” asked Jesse, lowering the twin pillows of
his gargantuan butt onto his chair with a fat plop. “Terrorists have sympathizers.”

Nicole laughed louder and Kyle felt a twinge of jealousy.

Mr. G bounced into the room in his plaid pajama pants and throwback Skechers, wearing yet another T-shirt from an obscure band. Molly's Brain Fart. Jesse and Nicole had made up a band name for him—Terminal Hip. He loved it, said he was going to have T-shirts made.

“Let's perpetrate some sound,” he shouted.

They warmed up with Ravel's “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” a beautiful piece they had played at the Charlotte Classical Festival last month. Kyle and the other trumpet, Todd, led them into the melody with quick bright sounds that opened doors for Del's tenor trombone. Mr. G nodded and pointed his baton, and they were surrounded by the warm, rich tones of Nicole's French horn and Jesse's tuba.

Kyle felt good for the first time all day. He felt safe and sure inside the music, working together with friends. He felt…complete.

As usual, it was over too quickly. Mr. G rapped his baton on a metal stand. “Okay, before we get serious, some business. One, who's driving tomorrow besides me?”

For a moment, Kyle was confused. Kris is driving tomorrow, in the Relco 250 at Monroe Speedway, and I'm going to be spotting for him on the roof.

“I can't make it,” said Kyle.

“You are joking,” said Mr. G. “You know how hard it was to get a high school quintet into a Brooklyn Brass master class?”

“I'm really sorry, but…”

“This better be good,” said Mr. G. “You're having brain surgery.”

It's a long story you wouldn't understand, smart-ass. My family needs me to help close a deal that will keep Hildebrand Racing alive. Pay my way to college. Pay for music lessons. Maybe you understand that. “I have to be at the track.”

Mr. G's face got hard. “We've talked about this before, Kyle. The quintet's a commitment. You're on this team or you're not.”

Del said, “It's not like we're going to play tomorrow.” His family had raced; he understood.

Mr. G rolled his eyes. “Sooner or later you're going to have to make a decision, Kyle.”

He let it hang in the air like a sour note. Kyle imagined telling Dad that he couldn't make the race.

No way.

Or telling Mr. G to go stick the baton.

Maybe later.

Kyle looked down and fussed with his spit valve. He felt a light punch on his arm. When he turned, Nicole was nodding at him. He wasn't totally sure what it meant, but he decided she was on his side.

“Imagine Mr. G naked and then try to eat your pizza,” said Jesse, dramatically waving the hand that wasn't clutching pizza.

Nicole honked, and Jesse tapped his finger and thumb together in mocking applause for himself before returning to nibble delicately at his slice.

Kyle tore off a piece of his slice with his front teeth. It was past eleven
P.M
. They'd been jamming for more than three hours in Del's rec room. Have to go home soon and get some sleep, but he hadn't wanted to break up the session. On their own, they played more jazz than classical.

“Just for argument's sake,” said Todd, “maybe Mr. G has a point about making a commitment.”

Here we go again, thought Kyle, feeling the cheese go down like a golf ball. Todd's always wanted to get rid of me, maybe to go with just one trumpet or maybe because he wanted a clear shot at Nicole.

Everybody got quiet, suddenly into their pizza. Del started refilling glasses with Chianti. Kyle shook his head. He wanted another glass of wine, but he couldn't be less than sharp tomorrow on the roof. Kris would need his eyes up there. Kyle looked at the posters on Del's rec room walls, old-timey NASCAR stars—Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Red Hoyt, who had been killed at Talladega in the same wreck in which Dad got hurt ten years ago. Hoyt had been a friend of Grandpa's.

Grandpa's poster was in the place of honor over the mantelpiece. He had signed it in his beautiful script:
Keep your eyes on the road ahead, Sir Walter Hildebrand, No. 12
. It was his famous slogan. People chanted it at him.
Keep your eyes on the road ahead.

“Look.” Todd wasn't done. “I'm not saying Mr. G was right, just that we all depend on each other here.”

“Getting late,” said Del. “You wanna play or bull-shit?”

“Kyle's got to think about his priorities,” said Todd. My new number-one priority, thought Kyle, is to shove your trumpet down your throat.

“I saw that flick,” said Jesse. “William Holden in
Golden Boy
. He had to choose between boxing and the violin.”

“What did he choose?” asked Nicole, playing Jesse's straight man.

“I think he played between rounds,” said Jesse, breaking himself up.

“I'm trying to make a point,” said Todd.

“For argument's sake?” said Nicole sarcastically.

“C'mon,” said Del. “Give Kyle a break. Family business.”

“I saw that one, too,” said Jesse.
“The Godfather.”

“Okay, okay,” said Todd. He switched gears and mimicked Mr. G. “Let's perpetrate some sound.”

They played for another half hour, mostly Dizzy Gillespie, but they were lame. They quit before midnight. Del waved them out, said he would clean up. On the way Kyle said thanks to Del, who looked away. He would understand what I was going through, thought Kyle, but we've never gotten that close. Shy guy.

Outside, Todd said to Nicole, “Come on over, do some duets. I'll drive you home.”

“Kyle's my ride,” she said.

On the way back, Kyle slipped in a New York Trumpet Ensemble CD, as much to keep from talking as to break up the music in his head. Nicole popped
it out. “Todd wasn't all wrong.”

“So why you here?”

“Didn't feel like duetting him.” She honked. “Want to come in? Nobody's home.”

He felt warmth spreading downward. They'd started talking during the football marching band season when she'd first arrived in Goshen. Her parents were both new professors at the state college. Kyle had been hanging with her since the quintet got going again after football, but they hadn't taken the next step, becoming an official couple or even hooking up. “Got to be up at four thirty.”

“I'll let you go home by then.” He couldn't read her, never could. Was she teasing or being direct? Any other girl in school, he'd be hard and panting.

“Really got to go.”

“Like what's the big deal tomorrow? It's your brother who's driving, right?”

“His regular spotter can't make the race.” When he saw she didn't know what he was talking about, he said, “It's a team effort. Like the quintet.”

“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes. “Good luck tomorrow.” The kiss was quick, but it was directly on his lips and felt real. A first. Maybe because she knew it wasn't going to lead anywhere. She grabbed her horn case and jumped out of the Camaro.

Driving back, he wondered why he hadn't gone in for a while. She was hot. Too hot? He wondered if he had enough experience for a New York girl. He liked her being different, but he wished she knew enough about racing to understand why he had to go.

When he pulled into his driveway, the house windows were wide open and Chopin poured out. When family was in the house or when she was demonstrating technique for her piano students, Mom played precisely, just enough energy to punch out the notes. When she thought she was alone, she let it rip, dropping notes all over the place but finding the romantic passion in the heart of the piece. Kind of typical, Kyle thought. Asses were tight in the Hildebrand family. The only place you were supposed to show emotion was on the track. The piano was her track.

The music spilling out of the house seemed to puddle around the Camaro, then flow up Hildebrand Hill, past Uncle Kale's house, dark except for the light in the bedroom where Aunt Susan was watching TV. Uncle Kale was probably in his motel room near Monroe Speedway right now, going over his notes and charts with Dad. Maybe even with Kris, if they had trapped him before he went out with Jackman and the boys.

The music streamed up toward the top of the hill and surrounded Grandpa Walter's big house, dark the night
before a race except for the lights on the enormous wraparound porch.

Kyle remembered racing Kris on it around the house, by foot, on tricycles, scooters, bicycles, Rollerblades, skateboards, screaming as they bumped over loose slats and into each other, weaving around chairs, tables, gliders, dogs, people, watching the world around Hildebrand Hill whiz by, the dark Buckline Mountains stabbing a cloudless pale sky, then Lake Goshen shimmering blue, the green meadows dotted with Sir Walter's beef cattle and then the town itself, compact, white, boxy except for the church steeples and the control tower at the scrubby little airport alongside Goshen Raceway, new and gleaming in those days, and then the Buckline range again, a panoramic strip that reeled on and on until a grown-up made them stop or Kris, finally bored, hip-checked Kyle off the porch, down the stairs into Grandma Karen's flowers.

Grandma Karen had passed away and nobody was keeping up her flower beds. Goshen Raceway's grandstand was sagging and splintery and desperately needed a paint job. Grandpa would be in Monroe tonight with the new sponsors, charming them into spending enough millions to put Hildebrand Racing back in the big time.

Mom finished the Chopin and took a break. They
hadn't played together in a while. There wasn't that much music for trumpet and piano, but they sometimes managed to have fun improvising. Kyle waited until Mom was back at the piano again before he slipped out of the car. In the driveway lights he checked for oil under the car. Got to remember to stop for oil on the way to the track tomorrow. Better get over to the shop someday soon and fix the leak.

He tiptoed over the gravel until he was on grass. He let himself in the back door. The Labs, Rudy and Rozz, met him in the kitchen. He had to gently knee them away so he could get a soda out of the fridge and go upstairs.

There were new e-mails on his laptop. He wondered if Nicole was messaging him. She wrote a lot softer than she talked. Not going to read e-mail tonight. He kicked off his shoes and flopped on the bed. The dogs jumped up beside him. He laid his head on Rudy's flank. I'll rest a minute, he thought. Then maybe I'll check the e-mail. The faces on his wall, Miles and Dizzy and Wynton and Louis, and Philip Smith from when he came to play in Charlotte, were out of focus, like they were sleepy, too. They disappeared.

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