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A friend at high school is the last thing Dale wants-which is why it may be what he most needs.
Part comedy, part grief narrative, In the Key of Dale is a disarming coming-of-age novel about a queer teen music prodigy who discovers pieces of himself in places he never thought to look.
Sixteen-year-old Dale Cardigan is a loner who's managed to make himself completely invisible at his all-boys high school. He doesn't fit with his classmates (whom he gives nicknames in his head), his stepbrother (whom nobody at school knows he's related to), or even his mother (who never quite sees how gifted a musician Dale might be)-but they don't fit with him, either. And he's fine with that. To him, high school and home are stages to endure until his real life can finally begin.
Somewhat against his will, he befriends his classmate Rusty, who gets a rare look at Dale's complex life outside school, but their friendship is made awkward when Dale is uncertain whether his growing attraction to Rusty is one-sided. Still, it's to Rusty that Dale turns when he stumbles upon a family secret that shakes everything he thought he knew.
An epistolary novel written in the form of letters to his late father, In the Key of Dale is a beguiling, pitch-perfect book about growing up, fitting in, and finding a way out of grief and loneliness toward the melodic light of adulthood.
Ages 14 and up.
Read an Excerpt
Monday, February 28
I read a book once about a character who kept “writing it out” in a diary, and when I rolled over and saw that it was three in the morning and I still hadn’t fallen asleep, I figured I had nothing to lose if I started “typing it out” on my laptop. I tried a few different ways to do that, but none of them worked, so I decided to write you a letter instead. Writing to you makes sense since it’s sort of because of you that I need someone to talk to. And even though you can’t read this letter, I’m fine with that because right now I need to talk to someone who won’t talk back.
It’s been seven years since you died. I was nine then, or as I liked to say in those days, nine-and-three-quarters. I’m sixteen now, about to turn seventeen. You probably wouldn’t recognize me, or Ma, or anything about our lives if you could rise from the grave and see us. I’m not sure I’d recognize you either, in spite of photos and the memories I play in my head sometimes.
Maybe you know, or maybe you’re beyond knowing, that since last summer I’ve been perfecting six super-complicated pieces—including a Chopin étude that I seriously thought was going to cause one of my fingers to snap off—in order to get ready for my piano performance exam at the Royal Conservatory. And maybe you know already that the harder I worked, the more Ma drove me crazy. Whenever she’d complain about having to hear the same pieces over and over, I’d plug my earphones into the electric piano. Then she’d grumble that wearing earphones so much would wreck my hearing, or she’d sneak up behind me while I was trying to concentrate and startle me by putting her hands on my shoulders. At one point I moved the piano so I could sit with my back to the wall, but she was annoyed that I’d done this alone because apparently I could have hurt myself. And every time the exam came up at the dinner table, she’d look at me with a smile that was lacking in kindness—all mouth and no eyes.
But my hard work paid off, and yesterday morning Ma and I drove to the city for my exam. And I passed! OK—fine—I did really well, and the judges said nice things about my technique and my expression. One of them even took me aside and said I had a great career ahead of me, which totally made my day—I just wish Ma had heard it. As we walked out of the building and down the city streets I played that compliment over again in my head, and I was just so proud and happy. All I wanted at that moment was to continue feeling good about myself for a little while and daydream about the future.
Then Ma ruined it, with her usual two-pronged approach. First she told me she was glad all this was over so that now I could devote more time to my schoolwork. I let that one roll off me since my grades are fine, but once we were in the car and I asked her what she wanted in terms of driving-away music, she unleashed Part 2. “Honey, I want to talk about what happened the other night,” she said, followed by pointed silence.
We’d barely left the parking garage at that point, but already the air inside the car started to crackle. I adjusted my seat belt to stop it from choking me and craned my head toward the window to watch the sky. This is what she does: she brings up a topic of conversation, then waits for me to jump in.
Except this time I didn’t rise to the bait. I didn’t even sigh to show her I was annoyed. I guess I was hoping that if I didn’t react to what she’d said, my mind might not absorb it and I could continue to enjoy the good feelings from my exam. But my head kept sinking no matter how much I fought it, even as I tried to pretend I was somewhere else. I sensed that going over this with Ma wouldn’t solve anything since clearly it hadn’t the first time we’d had this conversation, and I knew fully well that that wasn’t really what she wanted to talk about.
What happened is this: Ma walked into the kitchen one evening last week when it was my turn to load up the dishwasher and overheard me singing along to a pop song—I won’t write down which one because you wouldn’t know it anyway and because I don’t want to admit to you that I knew all the words. The point is the song was a love ballad between a man and a woman, and I was singing the woman’s part, an octave lower. And Ma just wouldn’t let it go. She even followed me from room to room as I tried to get away from her. I told her the truth: that most pop duets are written for a male tenor and a female alto, and I can’t sing the tenor line because I’m a baritone—my voice is too low. Singing the alto part an octave lower put it in my range—I wasn’t trying to sing a love song with another man and I don’t see myself as a woman. And yes, I was sure.
None of this seemed to make any sense to her the first time we went through it—she knows nothing about music except whether or not she finds it pretty—so she kept staring at me with this look of expectation on her face, like a new episode of her favourite TV show was about to start. And then in the car, when I turned to look at her, she glanced away from the road and I saw that expression again.
I knew what she was fishing for, so I said nothing.
It drives Ma crazy when I stop answering her, although that’s not the only reason I do it. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to say nothing when you know full well that speaking is just going to make things worse. Ever since I told her my theory that Bach had written his Toccata in F-sharp minor as a way to spite future piano students from beyond the grave and she told me I was being dramatic, I’ve tried so hard not to give her any reason to say that to me again.
I selected a love duet on my iPod in which the tenor is practically a eunuch, but she shut it off before the vocal line started. So we drove in silence while I played some peppy music in my head to pass the time.
Soon the signs for Guelph came up as we headed west on the highway, and suddenly I remembered.
“Ma,” I said, sitting up straight again, “since we’re driving past Guelph, could we stop at the cemetery on the way home?”
When Ma didn’t reply, I turned in her direction and saw the look in her eyes like she was no longer seeing the road, and I felt my eyebrows skew together, but then she seemed to shake herself out of it.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “It’s been a long day—I’m really tired. Why don’t you go next weekend? You have your driver’s license now—you can borrow the car.”
“But we’re driving right by it and the anniversary of his death is today,” I said. I thought I was being logical. I mean, hey, I could have pointed out that if Ma thought she was tired she might try imagining what today had been like for the one who’d had to get up and be evaluated by a panel of judges after a year and a half of work, but I didn’t.
Ma said nothing, so I stared out the window and tried to think of something else. But soon enough my eyes filled with tears and streamed down my face while I pretended not to notice. This hadn’t happened since maybe a few years after you died. I don’t know if it counts as crying—it’s like my eyes are faucets and I’ve walked away without making sure the taps are fully closed. But it’s awful because I can’t seem to do anything to stop it.
I kept watching the scenery whiz by as I thought about all kinds of things I could have said but didn’t, and I figured that was the end of that. But soon I felt the car lurch into the right lane and sensed that we were heading up the overpass to Highway 6, at which point Ma drove us north toward Guelph. She said nothing, and I said nothing, and eventually Ma turned into the main entrance of the cemetery and parked. “I’ll give you ten minutes,” she said in a tone I didn’t recognize.
I got out of the car. The sun was still shining but the wind had picked up, so I bundled up and marched through the pedestrian gate and down the gravel path. Even though I hadn’t been to the cemetery in a couple of years, I figured it was just a matter of time before I recognized some landmarks that would guide me straight to your grave.
Except I didn’t. I stood at an intersection and didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what to do. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the day of your funeral, but when I felt my heartbeat climb up my throat I shook the memory away. I still don’t understand how this happened—it’s true that I’ve visited you only once or twice since we moved away from Guelph after Ma married Helmut, but I used to bike here all the time.
“Where the hell are you, Pa?” I called out, but of course you didn’t answer me.
But then, in the silence that followed, a bird flew over my shoulder and landed on a gravestone nearby. I know dick-all about flora or fauna, so the only thing I can tell you about this bird was that it was bright red, except for a black patch around its beak, but that’s what made it so noticeable against the grey landscape. It danced and hopped and looked at me, its head bobbing this way and that like it was keeping its guard up for predators.
So I stood there, breathed, and watched for clues. In the distance, a truck backing up made this beeping noise in the key of E.
After a while the bird flew away and landed on another grave in the distance, but by that point I figured my ten minutes were up, so I retraced my steps and headed back to the car, which Ma had kept running. I thought about pointing out how bad that was for the environment, but instead I thanked her for stopping, put my seat belt back on, and found some instrumental music on my iPod that hopefully Ma wouldn’t object to. She asked me no follow-up questions, which was just as well, because I never would have admitted to her that I hadn’t been able to find your grave. So we drove home in silence, all my questions trapped inside my head
I don’t know if it would horrify you to learn that Ma got married again, but she did three years ago. I like Helmut—he doesn’t try to be my dad or anything, and he loves to cook, so there’s always something interesting on the table. He teaches sociolinguistics at the university—I have no idea what that means either.
Helmut has a son who’s a couple of months younger than I am. His name is Gonzales, but he’s always been known as Gonzo—my theory is he chose that nickname when he was little because kids were calling him Speedy, but I’ve never asked him about it. There’s not much more to say about him. We’re not exactly friends. Helmut and his ex-wife have joint custody of him, so Gonzo lives a week with us and a week with his mother. I’ve seen Iliana only from a distance, but she seems nice.
Once we got home there was a bit of time before supper, so I went downstairs to my room. As soon as I’d closed the door at the top of the stairs I overheard Helmut ask Ma how the day had gone, so I sat on the steps and figured this didn’t really count as eavesdropping since she clearly wanted me to overhear her.
Here’s her laundry list of complaints. First, I was sullen. I was moody (I forget if she used the term “pouting” or just implied it). I wouldn’t open up to her. All of which Helmut brushed aside as me being a typical teenager. But then I was also manipulative: I used tears and guilt about your death to get what I wanted even after she’d said no. I had no respect for boundaries or for her feelings. She told Helmut nothing about the exam—not even if I’d passed. And when we sat down to dinner, Ma made a point of changing the subject, which meant she bulldozed me about my grades and the state of my bedroom while I pushed food around my plate. Which was too bad, because Helmut had made all my favourites, including this glazed chicken that’s practically a sympathy of flavours.
After supper I texted Jordana because I really needed someone to talk to. You’d remember Jordana, Pa. We’ve stayed friends the whole time she’s been at Julliard, but she’s hard to pin down sometimes. Whenever I write something like Hey, we should chat sometime, all I get in response is Definitely—sometime. And when I ask her point-blank if she’s free to chat, often I don’t hear from her until days later, if at all. As I was getting ready for bed I heard my phone buzz and grabbed it with the hope that Jordana had texted me back, but it was a notification that my phone was going to die unless I plugged it in.
I don’t know. This is probably pointless. I’m writing a letter that can’t ever be delivered—I’m pretty sure that’s called a dead letter, which is fitting—because I don’t have anyone else to talk to. I mean, I remember getting along with you when I was little, and I have some nice memories of time we spent together, playing music. But would I be talking to you like this if you were alive? Or would you be like Ma and Helmut, nagging me about my homework instead of saying you’re proud of me for acing my performance exam?
Anyway, it’s almost four o’clock in the morning and my eyes hurt from the glare of the screen, so I’ll hide this file in my system preferences folder and hope I can get some sleep.
Your loving son,