The Death of Sonny by Lisa Cooper Ellison

Finalist, 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

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abstract photo of concert stage with smoke swirling in green light

“Without smoke, you can’t see the light.”

My husband Alex said this to me while explaining why professional tours use fog machines in their light shows. The particles reflect the light so we can see the beam’s path. Without the particles, the beauty is lost.

I already knew about smoke and beauty. As kids, my brothers and I had been firebugs who created blazes in the abandoned brickyard near our house. Some fires were taller than we were. Heat waves shimmered in the smoky boundary between fresh air and flame, creating an ethereal blur we called the place between worlds. Sometimes we jumped through those flames hoping to boundary hop into this magical kingdom of particles and light.

Sitting in the band’s touring van as we waited for our new driver, Mario, I was once again surrounded by smoke. It was March 5, 1997, halfway through the European leg of Biohazard’s Mata Leão tour. Alex’s band was Biohazard’s opener. I’d joined the tour a week ago, half-hoping to find myself. Today was the band’s day off. We’d spent the early afternoon wandering through Innsbruck, a small city high in the Austrian Alps. At 3:30 p.m., we boarded the van and prepared to leave for Prague. Mario was supposed to arrive at four. It was now five-thirty.

He was late, even by rock-n-roll standards.

To kill time in the idling van, band members lit one cigarette after another. Someone might have cracked a window for me, the asthmatic and only nonsmoker, but it’s just as likely they didn’t. As the temperature dropped, warmth was our first priority.

By the time Mario arrived, a thick wave of smoke undulated above our heads. In another lifetime, this trip would have been an epic adventure, but twenty-seven days earlier my brother Joe had died by suicide. As Mario adjusted the driver’s seat in preparation for our departure, a single thought swirled through my head: my brother is dead. Not coming back. Gone. Part of me wanted to hop through the place between worlds and join him. It was a thought I tried to bury as Biohazard’s singer, Evan, and his wife joined us.

All that smoke billowing around the cabin gave them a rock-n-roll-worthy entrance.

“What’s up, motherfuckers?” Evan said then grinned.

Typically, Evan rode with his bandmates in their full-sized tour bus, but his wife was heading back to the states. Biohazard’s tour manager had arranged for the couple to ride with us to Prague so she could catch her plane. For them, it was a small favor. For us, a rare treat.

We started the six-hour drive to Prague at nightfall. Someone turned on The Godfather, the van’s only movie. Viewing this 1970s mob saga about the Corleone family had become a nightly ritual. By this point, I knew all the major scenes and famous lines. The band loved it, but the whining trumpet featured in the movie’s soundtrack rang against my bones. Every gunshot brought me back to the one place I wanted to avoid: Joe’s final hours.

During the movie’s opening credits, Evan suggested Alex and I play another game of spades with him and his wife. Three days ago, we’d played until five in the morning, talking smack and trading hard-life tales. Evan had been the one person on this tour who’d offered his condolences while looking me in the eye. He sang nightly about urban warfare and kids who were no longer around. Of all the people we’d met, he seemed to get what I was going through. His biggest advice during our previous game: bury that shit down.

I’d been burying shit down for years. Grinding my teeth when my parents announced their divorce eight months after my tenth birthday. Swallowing hard when two years later Mom returned from rehab and promised us a new life. Hunching my back as I carried my belongings away from home at seventeen. Pinching my skin while telling my boss everything was okay after learning of my brother’s first suicide attempt — exactly three years to the day before his death. Biting my lip as the words don’t go stuck in my throat when Alex left for this tour.

But now everything was bubbling back up.

In our heavy metal world, it was common knowledge that feelings were for pussies and black-out drunks. Better to channel them into thrashing guitar riffs or wind-milling fists inside a mosh pit. Once, at a tattoo convention, I’d watched two guys suspend themselves from hooks buried in their skin. Even when their flesh rose to sharp points, they never flinched. While my friends thought this was crazy, they also thought those were some cool dudes.

In the presence of fame, cool is king. Cool opens doors and creates connections. Cool takes an amateur band and makes them into professionals.  At the time, nothing was cooler than a heavily tattooed rock star who’d sold millions of records inviting you to play cards. I’d spent years studying cool: what it was and how to harness it. So far, it seemed like the keys to cool in this music scene included shred-worthy musical talent, insane behavior, and toughness. And for some women, unapologetic, magnetic sexuality. I was twenty-two but looked twelve. A band wife with scraggly hair and thick glasses — a woman whose brother was dead. I only had one card to play: bury that shit down. And I wanted to, for the sake of the rock star riding with us.

Alex pushed beer and water bottles off the touring van’s sticky table. I sat with my back to the television, hoping to focus on the game.

Evan shuffled the cards and said, “Yo, I got my eyes on you two. Remember, don’t fuck with the spades.”

We laughed and flipped him the bird.

During the first few hands, I fixated on the slap of cards against the table, the number of tricks I was supposed to make. Then I heard Jack Woltz’s voice on the television. In The Godfather, Woltz is the movie producer who refuses the Corleone family’s casting request. Don Corleone wants his godson to play a starring role in Woltz’s upcoming movie. When Woltz says no, Corleone’s men smile and everyone shakes hands. The next morning, Woltz wakes up to a blood-soaked bed. Peeling back the covers, he finds his prize horse’s head, severed, one eye staring back at him. Horse’s head, like Horseheads, my hometown, the setting of my family’s disaster. Hearing Woltz’s screams, I hunched over. My eyes watered.

“Yo, just focus on the game,” Evan said. “Bury that shit down.”

I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s fucking play.” Part of me still wanted to be cool, but another part thought, Evan you have no fucking clue.

I stared at my cards, unsure who’s turn it was or how many rounds we’d played. Then the soundtrack’s trumpet surrounded me like a shiver. The death of Sonny, the Godfather’s beloved son, approached. Billed as one of the most brutal death scenes of that time, Sonny was shot no less than a hundred times by a rival mob gang. Tommy guns fired and fired. Sonny writhed on screen, his body whipping forward and back. When he finally fell, blood gushed from his mouth. On the ground, he was shot some more.

We continued to play as the scene approached. I pinched my legs and thought no, no, no, you can be cool. Bury that shit down. Do it for the rock star on the bus. But trauma never takes no for an answer. Behind me, Sonny’s baby cried. The wife answered the phone. When Sonny slammed it down, she said, “Sonny what’s the matter?” I already knew the answer: in a minute and thirty-four seconds, Sonny would be dead. I clenched my jaw, dropped my cards, and turned around—the scene an irresistible punishment.

Sonny drove to the gate.

“Look away,” Evan said. “It’s over, Lisa. You gotta bury that shit down.” It wasn’t clear if he wanted me to turn around for my sake or if he feared his own deep dark well.

Still facing the television screen, I froze.

The car at the gate backed into Sonny’s car.

“Yo, just look away,” Evan said it a little louder then smacked the table.

My stomach roiled. My throat closed.

Sonny said, “Son of a bitch.”

“Look away!” Evan yelled. He grabbed my hand as if he was trying to pull me from the depths of grief. But I had mentally hopped into that place between worlds and joined my brother as we waited for Sonny to cross over.

Alex probably grabbed my hand or put his arm around me, hoping to turn me away. He might have said, “I’ve got you. It’s going to be okay.” But in my memory, his role in this scene is as thin as the smoke hovering above us.

Evan continued to yell. “Look away! Look away!” The part of me that watched all of this as if my life were a movie, knew two things: I would never be cool and tomorrow night I’d watch Sonny die again.

What happened next was a blur. I know the bus kept moving. The television might have been turned off. I have vague memories of physical pain, probably my fingernails scratching skin. Someone might have said sorry and carried me to bed. Or we might have kept playing as if this trip were a scene in a movie and we waited for the director to yell cut. Either way, when I woke the next morning, Evan and his wife were gone.


Before leaving Innsbruck, Biohazard’s roadies told us Prague was the best place to stock up on smokes.

While the band set up their gear, Mario stripped to a pair of blue speedos we called nut-huggers then crawled into his bunk. In the seat just below Mario’s bed, I dressed in Joe’s Marlboro hoodie and awaited Alex’s return. The red sweatshirt with the Marlboro patch had cost Joe several hundred Marlboro miles. As I fingered the sweatshirt’s rough material, a spiral of grief, guilt, and Evan’s words — look away — pressed into my skin. What would it mean if I looked away? What if I never could?

When soundcheck ended, we searched for the cigarette stands Biohazard’s roadies had mentioned. The weather was just as cold as Innsbruck and the buildings just as ornate, but the city had a dim quality to it. The shadows were longer. People hid their eyes as they passed us. Their shoulders slumped. When they made eye contact, I recognized a familiar sadness in their tight-set jaws. A sadness that mirrored my own.

Three miles from the venue we found the cigarette stands. The singer for Alex’s band was already there. He held a plastic bag filled with five-dollar cartons of Camels. “Dude, these prices are ridiculous!” he said.

Alex had quit smoking six months before the tour, but he said maintaining a smoke-free lifestyle was impossible on the road. As he waited in line, I studied the stand’s display of Marlboros — soft and hard packs in black, red, green, and gold. All cheap and plentiful. Joe’s version of heaven.

“Buy one for me,” I said to Alex. “Marlboro red, hard pack.”

“Really?” He wrinkled his nose. It was a legitimate question. As a lifelong asthmatic, I’d never let anyone smoke in our house and barely tolerated the van’s smoky interior.

“Just do it and don’t ask,” I said.

While the guys were interviewed during the break between dinner and show, I left the building. Twilight purpled the sky. A single light outside the venue’s back-stage door cast away the darkness. I sat on the van’s steps and lit a cigarette then sucked the smoke into my mouth but not my lungs — letting fate decide if I would live and enjoy the show or if my lungs would seize in some kind of asthmatic bliss that dropped me into the place between worlds. The cigarette’s cherry glowed. Smoke tingled my tongue and inner cheeks. When I exhaled into that single stream of light it was as if I could see Joe’s ghost.

Meet the Contributor

lisa cooper ellisonLisa Cooper Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She teaches courses in memoir and creative nonfiction, as well as experiential classes in writing about forgiveness, trauma, and grief. Her work has been published in The New Guard Review, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. Her memoir Lucky Me is about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her cope with her brother’s suicide.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Engineering at Cambridge

  8 comments for “The Death of Sonny by Lisa Cooper Ellison

  1. What an amazingly gorgeous story. What a great ride in a foreign land, (beyond Kansas) I could visualize every scene. So sorry about what you endured due to your brother’s choice. (((BIG HUGS))) to you.

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