Joe Strummer illustration by Elly Dallas @tenderspeck

Toni and Joe by Michelle Cruz Gonzales

Aug 17, 2021

Toni knew she was made from the stars, but her teachers told her to get her head out of the clouds.

“That music you listen to and those fringe ideas will get you nowhere,” said the math teacher, Mr. Dillard.

He said her ideas were dangerous and impractical.

Mr. Whitehead, the school principal, said it was a phase. Like Mr. Dillard, he thought all kids should want what he wanted. Instead of math, Mr. Whitehead pushed sports and cheerleading; home economics and wood shop to others. He pushed Future Farmers of America, and the crown jewel of the school year, homecoming. It was true Toni cared about music. What she didn’t understand was why the school principal cared more about homecoming than graduation. If only she didn’t live in Bakersfield, the sweaty butt crack of California where nothing ever happened unless she made it happen herself.

Joe took out his guitar and strummed a few chords. He reached up and turned the tuning peg of the low E—then launched into one his own songs, his hand chopping up and down over the strings. His dark pompadour glimmered in the light. It was the hair she liked most on him. She thought about the last photograph she had seen of Joe in Rolling Stone Magazine. He had a mohawk. The photo was from a shoot done to promote Combat Rock. Toni didn’t know when those photos were taken or how his hair had grown so long since then. Photographs, and time, and light were funny that way.

Toni had gotten permission to hang around the band room and play the drums after school. No one knew about Joe. Toni didn’t tell anyone about him because she didn’t think they would believe it. She didn’t tell anyone she was starting her own band either.

Joe stopped playing when he finished the chorus of the song.

“It’s not hard, you know. If I can do it, anyone can.” He smiled a crooked smile.

Toni noticed the tip of his nose bent to one side.

“I’m going to play the drums.”

“Drums, eh?” Joe nodded his head.

“Yeah, some of the guys don’t think I can do it because I’m a girl.”

“You’re not going to listen to them are you?”

“No,” Toni said, twirling a drumstick in the air. She’d been practicing that move for a while.

Walking home from the bus stop after school, Toni thought about what Joe said. She didn’t tell him she changed her mind about guitar because she thought drums would be easier, that bar chords hurt her hands, that she was afraid of guitar. Maybe he knew all that already.

Toni’s real name was Antonia. Her mom was called Lupe; her dad, Lazaro. She had a brother and sister too, but Toni was the weird one. Her mom wanted her to stop spending so much time reading music magazines and join the debate club, so she could put her argumentative skills to good use. Toni said she’d think about it.

Toni’s after school activity was marching band. She had been in the school band since third grade. She played the clarinet. Only nerds played the clarinet, nerds and girls. Toni didn’t mind being a nerd, or a girl, and she was good at clarinet. She had made it to first chair, but she decided to play in the drum line for marching band season because it was stupid how people thought certain instruments were for girls and others for boys. Two of the guys in the drum line, Kevin and Tom, taught her to play the snare, how to chop, how to make precise rim shots, and how to diddle, and paradiddle. They thought it was cool a girl wanted to play in the drum line. Now she was teaching herself to play the whole set.

Drums were loud, so people were always looking in to see who was playing them in the band room after school. One day, a group of football players walked past after practice and saw her playing. They stopped. A guy still wearing his shoulder pads started shouting and banging on the window.

“Look, it’s Sheila E.!” He pressed his face close to the glass so she could see him looking at her.

Toni got up from behind the drum set, walked to the window, reached up, looked the guy right in the eye, and dropped the shade.

She shook her head. Sheila E.

Sheila E. was the only woman anyone knew who played drums. What about Karen Carpenter, or Cindy Blackman, or Sandy West? Toni liked Sheila E. but she wasn’t trying to be her. Sheila E. played Latin beats in stilettos with Prince. Toni didn’t want to learn Latin beats because that’s what everyone expected and Toni hated that. After Carla down the street (the muchacha with the flat belly who wore neon-colored half shirts) got pregnant the year before, some people thought Toni and her sister, who was just a year younger, might get pregnant too, like getting pregnant was contagious. Mr. Whitehead, the school principal looked the Latin girls up and down, staring at their bellies, especially the ones who didn’t get such good grades, or the ones who weren’t in afterschool activities, like her childhood friend, Ana Maria. But Ana Maria had an afterschool activity. She cleaned houses with her mom.

Joe was in Toni’s room when she got home. She smelled his pomade in a rush when she opened her bedroom door. She shut it fast behind her so no one would see.

“You again?” he said.

His top lip disappeared a bit when he smiled.

Toni had a history assignment to work on, so Joe picked up her acoustic guitar and sat back down on the edge of her bed. While Toni read a few paragraphs about the Monroe Doctrine and answered a series of multiple-choice questions, Joe played every song on her favorite record. Toni couldn’t help singing along when he got to her favorite part.

Is it true, rich men

She sang Mick’s part and Joe sang back up.

lead a sad life

“That’s good, that’s good.” Joe nodded his head.

that’s what they say

Toni continued to sing.

From day to day

Joe came in on backup on the chorus

I’m not down.

“That’s good, that’s good.” Joe said again and then he played the bridge.

When they finished, Toni told Joe what she had learned about the Monroe Doctrine.

“It just seems like we didn’t want you Brits coming over her anymore. We wanted to be the only ones stealing land in the Western Hemisphere.”

“The Monroe Doctrine is how this land we’re on now was nicked from your ancestors, from Mexico,” Joe said.

“Yeah, but, the Native kids in Indian club would say it was theirs before it belonged to Mexico.”

“Or they were just here, living off the land, not trying to claim it.”

Toni nodded her head. “Too bad none of that matters for the test. My teacher just wants the facts.”

Joe laughed a hearty laugh. “The facts, eh?”

Toni eyed the bedroom door, wondering if she was making too much noise.

“The truth, the almighty universal, the one truth,” he continued, “well that doesn’t exist.”

Toni looked back down at her history book and furrowed her brow. She didn’t really know what Joe meant, but she was sure she wouldn’t find it in that book.

On her way to school the next morning, Toni caught herself humming the tune to “Spanish Bombs.” It was that song and others like it, “London Calling” and “Washington Bullets” and “Somebody Got Murdered” that she liked the most, songs that weren’t played on the radio because they were really about something. It occurred to her right then that “Spanish Bombs” was a history lesson about the Spanish Civil War. Joe sure knew his history. And she liked it when he sang, “Oh please leave the ventana open,” but the other part of the song, the part in Spanish sounded wrong and those embarrassing gritos at the end of “Washington Bullets.”

Toni spoke English and Spanish, but she didn’t speak Spanish at school, not even with her Spanish-speaking friends, even when they expected her to. Her best friend Raquel couldn’t speak Spanish at all. Raquel was Mexican on her dad’s side, but she lived with her mom and her grandma. Raquel’s dad, Vicente, lived in Arizona where Raquel would visit every summer for a whole month. When she was there, she called Toni every week and they would sometimes talk for a whole hour. Toni would pull the phone with its long, curly cord around the doorframe out of the kitchen and into her room where she sat on the floor and talked to Raquel until Toni’s mom reminded her she had chores to do. Toni’s parents couldn’t afford once-a-week, long distance calls, so Raquel called her and told her about shopping at the Tempe mall, and the cute guy who lived across the street.

“He bleaches his hair. I can tell by his roots. I think he’s a skate punk.”

“How old?”

“Older than us, eighteen, nineteen.”

“Go talk to him.”

“It’s too hot. Nobody goes out during the day.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, my dad parks his air-conditioned Seville in the garage, closes the door, and walks into his air-conditioned house.

Toni thought it sounded kinda boring.

Then her mom told her to get off the phone and wash the dishes. Raquel said her dad didn’t make her do chores.

“It’s just because he feels guilty for seeing me only once a year,” she said before they hung up.

It was Raquel who got Toni interested in music other than what was on the radio or the songs they played in band. Still, she hadn’t told Raquel about Joe. She thought maybe Raquel knew already, that she saw him too. Her guitar playing certainly had gotten very good very fast. Soon they’d be writing their own songs. They weren’t going to sing in Spanish, though. They didn’t think that would be cool at all, even if Joe did it.

The next week after staying longer than she meant to in the band room working out a difficult beat, Joe appeared out of nowhere.

“You speak Spanish, no?”

Toni didn’t look up. She just nodded her head. It sounded funny, the way he said, “No?” at the end of the sentence with his English accent.

“I’ve never heard it,” he continued.

Toni tapped the bass drum, “Never heard what?”

“Never heard you say a single word in your own language.”

Toni tilted her head and looked at Joe, “I actually have two languages.”

Joe nodded, “Eh?”

Toni leaned back on the drum stool and put her hand on her hip, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Why do you sing in Spanish?”

Joe leaned back and let out a laugh that echoed around the room, ricocheted off the hollow toms, and through the bell of the tuba standing nearby.

Toni stared at Joe, all eyes .

“Fair enough, eh?” Joe said, once he pulled himself together and stopped laughing. “But since you answered my question with a pregunta, I’m going to ask you one.”

“Okay,” Toni said shifting on the drum stool.

“You don’t like our Spanish?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? What kind of answer is that?”

Toni looked down at her snare drum. “I do and I don’t.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve only ever had groups on the Spanish station sing in Spanish.”

Joe nodded his head and strummed the chorus to “Spanish Bombs.”

“It’s how I knew we could be friends, but…”

“But?”

“But it doesn’t always sound right.”

For a second he looked hurt, then he gripped the neck of his guitar before it slid from his lap as he doubled forward and laughed again, only harder this time.

“Sounds like a bunch of English blokes, singing in Spanish, doesn’t it?”

Toni smiled. She hadn’t thought of it quite that way. She just new it didn’t sound right.

“Now, back to my pregunta. Why don’t I ever hear you speak it?”

She didn’t really know. She looked out the window over Joe’s head, searching for the answer.

“It’s just, well, I only speak it at home. The only ones who speak it at school don’t speak English that well. I guess it’s a way to show that I do, that I speak English well. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter that I speak Spanish.”

He cocked his head. “Eh?”

“Well, it’s what people expect. They see me, and they expect me to speak it—and I do—which people find confusing because I don’t act the way they expect someone who speaks Spanish to act. It’s like it would be better if I didn’t speak it at all. Then there’s you guys singing in Spanish, doing whatever you want.” Toni felt her face flush red and hot this time.

Joe had stopped playing the guitar.

She thought about the first time she heard Joe on the radio, the way it felt like he was trying to tell her something.

“It’s just confusing,” she added.

“You’re right.” Joe nodded his head.

“Maybe, I shouldn’t have…” Toni tapped on the bass drum.

“No, we-about-to-be-rockin-now.”

Joe righted his guitar on his lap.

A film of hazy evening light from the window filled the room and Joe strummed a few unfamiliar minor chords and launched into several measures before stopping. Toni didn’t recognize the song, but she joined in on drums, her eyes on Joe’s hands for the chord changes.

Then he stopped and looked up. Each note of his final chord stretched out and faded away into tiny fibers. Stardust swirled him, making it difficult for Toni to see.

 She realized right then that one day he would be gone.

She tried to move, to get up from the drum set and go to him. She wanted to be sure he understood how she felt about all of it even when she didn’t understand it herself, but her legs were rubber and her vision blurred. She blinked and blinked again. Joe was fading away before her eyes.

“All those feelings, that place in between,” she thought she heard him say, “You could write loads of songs about that.”

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