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We're introduced to the unnamed narrator in the opening lines of the story as he explains how he read a story in the newspaper about someone he knew. We don't know who this is yet, or what the story is about, but it affects the narrator so deeply that he sees the story "in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and body of the people" (1).
At first the narrator doesn't want to believe what he's read, and he tries to convince himself that the story isn't true. But deep down he knows that it is, and this scares him. This is when we hear Sonny's name the first time, when the narrator says that, he was scared, scared for Sonny" (2).
The narrator reads the story on his way to a high school, and we find out that he's an algebra teacher. All day long as he teaches his classes, the story about Sonny sticks with him and creates a "great block of ice" (2) in his stomach that won't go away. At times the narrator feels like the ice is melting, but when he remembers "some specific thing Sonny had once done or said" (2), the icy feeling comes back. So, even though we don't know who Sonny is yet, or what's happened to him, we can at least tell that he and the narrator have some history.
The narrator thinks back to when Sonny was the age of the students in his algebra classes, and he remembers his "bright and open" face (3), his "wonderfully direct brown eyes" (3), and his "great gentleness and privacy" (3). As he wonders what Sonny's face is like now, we learn what the newspaper story is about: Sonny, the narrator's younger brother, has been arrested for selling and using heroin.
Apparently the narrator had suspected that Sonny was dabbling in drugs, but he tried to ignore his suspicions. He told himself that "Sonny was wild, but he wasn't crazy. And he'd always been a good boy" (4), even though he was raised in a tough Harlem neighborhood.
The narrator always thought Sonny had so much potential and promise, and he didn't want to think about the possibility of all of that going to waste. As he stands in front of his class, he realizes that any one of these high school boys might be shooting up heroin in the bathroom during break. He's pretty sure Sonny was about their age the first time he used heroin.
The day is pretty rough for the narrator and it drags on forever. When classes finally let out, he decides he should probably get home and talk to his wife, Isabel, about Sonny. By the time he leaves, the school is almost empty. But he sees a young man who looks so much like Sonny that he starts to call out to his brother until he realizes that it's an old friend of Sonny's (someone the narrator never really liked). Apparently this guy is always high and always asking for money, and even though he's an adult now, he still hangs around the school.
In an instant, the narrator goes from not liking this guy to really hating him (maybe because he makes him think of Sonny). The guy (whose name we never learn) sort of skulks over to the narrator and asks him if he's heard the news about Sonny.
The two chat for a little bit, but the narrator wants to go home (and away from this guy), so he tries to make some excuse about needing to get to the subway. The guy doesn't get the hint and tags along with the narrator.
He asks the narrator what he plans to do about Sonny, and the narrator tells him he can't really do anything. We learn that he hasn't seen his brother in over a year and he hasn't decided that he wants to do anything for Sonny. (This sounds pretty harsh, but maybe the narrator is still trying to process the news about his brother.)
Sonny's friend tells the narrator that he's kind of surprised by Sonny's arrest. He always thought Sonny "was too smart to get hung" (21) on drugs (just like the narrator). Then he tells the narrator that he thinks he might have had something to do with Sonny's drug habit.
This revelation interests the narrator, so he finally stops to really listen to the guy. It seems Sonny's friend never gave him any drugs, but when he was high at school one day, Sonny asked him how it felt to shoot heroin. He told him that "it felt great" (27), so he thinks he may have unintentionally encouraged Sonny to try drugs.
The narrator quickly decides that he doesn't want to hear this – he doesn't want to know what might have started Sonny's habit and he doesn't want to know what it's like to do hard drugs. But he does want to know what might happen to Sonny at this point, so he asks Sonny's friend. The answer doesn't make him feel much better.
The guy tells the narrator that Sonny will most likely be released and will get sent to rehab. Then they'll tell him he's cured and send him on his way, and he'll just start using drugs again. He tells the narrator that this will be "rough on old Sonny" (41) (it's almost like he wants to make sure the narrator realizes this). As the two get ready to go their separate ways, he asks the narrator for some money. (Actually, he pretends he's forgotten his money at home, but this is a trick he always pulls.)
The narrator gives him five bucks and goes down to the subway to catch his ride home.
The story jumps ahead at this point and the narrator tells us that he didn't contact Sonny or send him anything in jail for quite awhile. But then the narrator's little daughter dies, so he writes Sonny to let him know. (We'll get more details on the daughter's death later in the story.)
Sonny writes back, and the narrator says that the letter "made him feel like a bastard" (47). Sonny's letter is pretty heart-wrenching. He tells the narrator that he doesn't know how he ended up in the position he's in. He says he's glad their parents are dead so they don't have to live with the shame and pain of having a son who's addicted to drugs. He apologizes to the narrator for any pain he's caused him and he says he'd "rather blow his brains out" (51) than have to live through this experience again.
We also learn from this letter that Sonny is a musician (this will become pretty important later on), and he doesn't want his brother to think that being a musician is what has led to his becoming a drug addict. He asks the narrator if he'll meet him when he gets back to New York (after jail and rehab) and tells him how sorry he is about the narrator's little girl, Gracie.
After receiving this letter, the narrator starts keeping in touch with Sonny. He picks him up when he gets back to the city. When they first see each other, the narrator suddenly remembers a lot of things about his brother that he had forgotten up to this point, and he starts "to wonder about Sonny, about the life Sonny lived" (52).
The two men haven't seen each other for a long, long time, and they have a lot they want to say. But it's also really awkward because they don't really know how to pick up where they left off.
They catch a cab and the narrator asks Sonny if he still wants to go to India one day. It seems that in his younger days, Sonny read a lot about Indian culture and meditation, and he used to want to visit India. Sonny laughs at the memory and says that Harlem "is Indian enough for him" (66).
As they make their way to their narrator's apartment, Sonny asks if they can drive by the park (we think he means Central Park) since it's been such a long time since he's seen New York. As they do this, the narrator notes the gradual change between the well-kept and elegant surroundings of the park and the "vivid, killing streets of their childhood" (72) in Harlem.
The narrator starts thinking about the young men who live on these streets and about how most of them won't ever escape. The narrator lives in a housing project like the one he and Sonny grew up in, and for a moment he starts to worry that he's bringing Sonny back to a place he doesn't want to be.
Their first dinner together is a little awkward. Sonny's oldest nephew remembers his uncle, and his youngest nephew seems to really like him. The narrator's wife Isabel seems to have an easy rapport with Sonny. She makes him laugh, doesn't avoid any subject of conversation, and "gets Sonny past his first, faint stiffness" (77).
The narrator doesn't feel at ease the way Isabel does. He catches himself "watching Sonny for signs" (77) of drug use. He doesn't do this to be judgmental; he explains that he's "trying to find out something about his brother" (77) and that all he really wants is for Sonny to "tell him he was safe" (77).
This idea of safety reminds the narrator of his and Sonny's father, who always said there was no such thing as a safe place. We learn that he died when Sonny was just 15.
The narrator recalls a few more details about his father and the relationship he had with Sonny. Sonny "was the apple of his father's eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always fighting with Sonny" (79). Even though their father was "big and rough and loud-talking" (79) while Sonny was quiet and introverted, the narrator tells us that they were very much alike because "they both had that same privacy" (79).
The narrator also starts to remember their mother, who tried to explain this sense of privacy to the narrator just after their father passed away. He has these mixed-up memories about Sunday afternoons when all of the adults from church and their family would sit in the living room and talk about their hard lives. They would momentarily forget about the kids who were falling asleep on the couch or in their parents' laps and would talk until it got dark outside. Then one of them would realize how late it was and would turn the light on. They would stop talking in front of the kids because they didn't want them to "know too much too soon" (82).
The narrator remembers the very last time he saw his mother alive: she told him to make sure to look out for Sonny after she's gone.
The narrator initially brushed this idea aside since he didn't think anything would happen to her or Sonny. But then she told him about their father's brother (an uncle they never knew they had), who died when he was young and whose death haunted their father for the rest of his life.
The story about the brother's death is really, really horrible. He and their father are out drinking one night, and the uncle (who was a musician like Sonny) has his guitar slung around his shoulder. As they stumble home, the brother has to go to the bathroom, so he finds a tree down the hill from where they're walking and starts to relieve himself. All of a sudden, their father hears a car coming. He races down the hill just in time to see the "car . . . full of white men" (96) aim for his brother.
The narrator's mother thinks they just meant to scare the uncle, but they were drunk and he was drunk and didn't jump out of the way in time. He screamed as they ran over him, and the narrator's father heard the guitar get smashed to bits and the men in the car yelling as they kept driving. When he finally got to his brother, he "weren't nothing but blood and pulp" (96).
The narrator's mother tells him that their father was never the same after this, and that part of him suspected every white man of being the one who ran his brother over. She never let her husband tell the narrator and Sonny about this, but she said their big, tough dad often cried on her shoulder when he thought about his brother.
She explains that she's not telling the narrator about all of this to make him sad or scared, or to cause him to hate or suspect white men the way his father did. She's "telling him this because he got a brother. And the world ain't changed" (100).
After hearing this, the narrator promises that he won't ever let anything happen to Sonny. His mother explains that he can't stop bad things from happening to his brother; she just wants to make sure that he'll be there for Sonny if something does happen.
Two days after this conversation, the narrator marries Isabel. He sort of forgets this talk until he comes home from the military to attend his mother's funeral. After the funeral, he and Sonny are alone and the narrator "tries to find out something about him" (108). He asks Sonny what he plans to do with his life, and this is the first time the narrator hears that Sonny wants to be a musician.
Sonny tells the narrator that he wants to play piano, and the narrator slips into big-brother mode. He worries that Sonny won't be able to make a living as a musician. Sonny is upset that the narrator can't understand his passion for music.
The narrator senses Sonny's anger, so he tries to relate to his younger brother on some level. He asks him what kind of musician he wants to be, assuming it's something "respectable" like a concert pianist. This makes Sonny laugh, which sort of frustrates the narrator because he feels like he's being laughed at.
Now it's Sonny's turn to try to make amends, so he explains to the narrator that he wants to be a jazz musician. This really freaks the narrator out, in part because he "had always put jazz musicians in a class . . . called 'good-time' people" (122).
The narrator's first reaction is to ask Sonny, "'Are you serious'" (123), to which Sonny replies, "'Hell, yes, I'm serious'" (124). Sonny all of a sudden looks "more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt" (125), and the narrator realizes that he's put his foot in his mouth. He tries to shift the tone of the conversation, so he asks Sonny if he wants to play music like Louis Armstrong (this seems like the only jazz musician he can think of). Sonny says Armstrong's music is "crap" (127), and that he wants to play like Charlie Parker instead.
The narrator is lost (he's never heard of Charlie Parker), and although he thinks this is simply a phase Sonny is going through, it still worries him a little. He pushes Sonny a little more and asks him if he knows how much time it will take for him to learn this music.
Sonny tells him he's willing to spend as much time as it takes, and the narrator starts to see something different in his little brother. He's never seen him this upset, but when Sonny tries to explain that all he really wants to do in life is be a jazz musician, the narrator can't help but say that sometimes people don't get to do what they want.
Sonny quickly cuts him off and says that people should be able to do whatever makes them happy. They keep going around in circles, so the narrator tries to change the subject. He reminds Sonny that he has to graduate from high school, and since both of their parents are dead and the narrator is away in the military, it's been decided that Sonny should move in with Isabel and her parents.
This isn't ideal for anyone, especially Sonny. He doesn't want to move in with Isabel, he doesn't want to stay in school, and more than anything, he doesn't want to stay in Harlem. He drops a big surprise on the narrator when he declares that he wants to join the army.
The narrator is shocked, angry, and scared for his brother: "You must be crazy. You goddamn fool, what the hell do you want to go and join the army for?" (154). Sonny tells him again that it's the only way he sees of getting out of Harlem. Desperate, the narrator tries to reason with Sonny in terms that might appeal to him, so he asks him how he plans to study music if he's in the military.
Sonny replies that he'll be able to study on the G.I. Bill when he gets back, but the narrator reminds him that he might not come back at all. He pleads with Sonny to stay home and at least finish high school. He even promises to help him become a musician when he gets back home, as long as Sonny stays in school and lives with Isabel and her family.
Sonny is angry; he feels his brother isn't listening to him or considering what he wants for his own life. But he finally agrees to move in with Isabel, and he's slightly pleased when the narrator reminds him that they have a piano he can practice on whenever he likes.
The next time we see Sonny is when he's living in Isabel's house, and boy does he take full advantage of that piano. He practices day and night, playing the same notes over and over. When he buys a record player, he listens to a song and then goes to the piano and practices the song bit by bit until he has it down pat.
Eventually, this constant playing starts to get to Isabel and her parents, and she tells the narrator that living with Sonny "wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with a sound" (168). It's not that Sonny is rude or unpleasant, but he just sort of retreats into himself when he's playing the piano, and "there wasn't any way to reach him" (168).
Isabel and her family find themselves in an awkward position. Sonny isn't really a kid, but he's not really an adult yet either. They know he has nowhere else to go, so they don't want to kick him out. And they don't even want to tell him to stop playing the piano "because even they sensed . . . that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life" (169).
But things eventually boil over when they learn that Sonny hasn't been going to school. After a lot of pressing, Sonny finally admits that he's been hanging out in Greenwich Village, "with musicians, and other characters, in a white girl's apartment" (170).
This scares Isabel's mother and she finally lets loose on Sonny. She screams at him and accuses him of being ungrateful for all of the sacrifices they've been making for him.
Sonny is deeply affected by this (so much so that he doesn't play the piano at all for the rest of the day). When Isabel gets home she starts crying, and this gets to Sonny more than anything. Isabel tells the narrator that "she just watched Sonny's face" (171) and that "She could tell, by watching him . . . that they penetrated his cloud, they had reached him" (171). Sonny starts to realize that he's become a burden, something he never wanted to be.
For the next few days, Sonny doesn't play the piano. Then one day Isabel is in his room and sees that his records are gone. She realizes that Sonny has left. Nobody knows what's happened to him until he sends the narrator a postcard from Greece telling him that he's joined the navy.
The narrator and Sonny don't see each other for a long time after this, and when they finally do they just end up fighting. The narrator doesn't like what Sonny has become, "the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time" (173). He doesn't like the people he hangs out with, and "his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led" (173).
After one particularly horrible argument, the two don't see each other for months. Eventually the narrator decides to look for Sonny and finds him at an apartment in Greenwich Village. There are a ton of people in Sonny's room and Sonny won't get up from his bed to talk to the narrator alone. They start arguing again and the narrator tells Sonny that "he might just as well be dead as live the way he's living" (174). Sonny tells the narrator that's fine with him, that he was dead as far as his brother was concerned (173). He shoves the narrator out of his apartment. As the narrator is going down the stairs he hears someone laughing at him. He starts to cry.
The story jumps ahead to when the narrator first learns of Sonny's problems with the law. That same autumn is when the narrator's daughter dies (her name is Grace). He tells us the details of her death and they are heart-breaking.
Grace was only two when she died from polio, and the narrator tells us that "she suffered" (175). It all started with what seemed like an innocent fever, and Grace seemed to feel better after a few days, so the narrator and Isabel thought she was OK. But one day, when Isabel was in the kitchen, she heard Grace fall down and go silent. The narrator tells us that, "When Isabel . . . heard that thump and then that silence, something happened in her to make her afraid" (175).
When Isabel found Grace on the living room floor, she was "all twisted up" and "she couldn't get her breath" (175). When she finally screamed, "it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she'd ever heard in her life" (175). The narrator tells us that Isabel "still hears it sometimes in her dreams" and that she "will sometimes wake up with a low, moaning, strangled sound" (175)
It's Grace's death that prompts the narrator to finally contact Sonny (he writes him on the day of Grace's funeral). He says "his trouble made Sonny's real" (175).
The story jumps ahead again to roughly two weeks after Sonny has moved in with the narrator and his family. It's Saturday and the narrator is home alone. He wants to search Sonny's room but also kind of doesn't, since he's a little scared of what he'll find. As he's going back and forth in his mind about what to do, he starts to stare out the window at the street below.
An interesting scene unfolds on the street. Some people are holding a religious revival and people are stopping to watch. The narrator tells us that, "The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother" (178). They're singing, holding their Bibles, and playing the tambourine.
The one man is "testifying" (178) (sort of preaching and talking about his own religious experiences), and the women are singing and collecting donations from the crowd.
Even though the narrator grew up watching these sidewalk revivals, he sees something new in this one. He realizes that the woman in the revival isn't that different from "the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo's nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal" (179). The women seem to recognize that they're not that different from each other, and the narrator thinks this is why they call each other "Sister" (1179).
The narrator watches the crowd as they listen to the music from the revival and he thinks that "the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them" (179) and to sort of carry them away from their bleak lives for just a moment. As he looks at a few specific people in the crowd, he suddenly sees Sonny standing there, carrying a notebook that "made him look . . . almost like a schoolboy" (179)
Sonny smiles at the revival members, throws a few coins in the collection plate, then walks up to the apartment where he joins the narrator at the window. He mentions that the woman has "a warm voice" (183), and as he and the narrator sit down on the sofa he invites the narrator to a club to hear him play that night.
The narrator "sensed . . . that he couldn't say no" (189), so he agrees to go. The two men watch the revival wind down and then Sonny starts to open up to his brother a bit.
He starts to talk about using heroin and tells that narrator that the woman singing at the revival "reminded him for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes – when it's in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And – and sure" (195). Sonny avoids looking at the narrator while he's saying all this, but he keeps talking.
He tells the narrator that heroin also makes him feel "in control" (195). The narrator asks angrily if he needs heroin to be able to play music. Sonny tries to explain to his brother that he needs heroin, "not so much to play. It's to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level. . . . In order to keep from shaking to pieces" (201).
The narrator starts to ask more questions. He gets on Sonny's case about his addict friends, but he stops himself after realizing that "Sonny was doing his best to talk" (203). Sonny keeps trying to explain things to his brother, like why certain people get hooked on drugs, and why some musicians he plays with have to get high in order to function. He tells the narrator that some of them want to do drugs.
The narrator asks Sonny if he wants to do drugs, but Sonny doesn't really answer this question. Instead, he tells the narrator that when he was listening to the woman sing at the revival he couldn't stop thinking about "how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that" (205). The narrator responds that there really isn't any way around suffering, and Sonny agrees, but he also replies that, "that's never stopped anyone from trying" (207).
At this moment the narrator realizes that things will never be the same between him and Sonny. It's not so much the drugs, or the fact that Sonny has been arrested. It's that the narrator wasn't there for Sonny when he needed him most, that he "had held silence – so long! – when Sonny had needed human speech to help him" (207).
The two brothers keep talking about suffering, and about the possibility of escaping it. The narrator feels that people should "just . . . take it" (208) since there's no way to get away from it, but this angers Sonny, who declares, "But nobody just takes it. . . . Everybody tries not to" (209). He accuses the narrator of having a problem with people who try to deal with suffering in ways that are different from his, but the narrator angrily declares that he doesn't care about other people. All he cares about is Sonny and the fact that he doesn't "want to see him – die – trying not to suffer" (210).
Sonny tells the narrator that he won't die "any faster than anybody else" (211), and while this isn't exactly what the narrator wants to hear, he can see that Sonny at least isn't trying to die. Even so, there is more the narrator wants to say, "about will power and how life could be – well, beautiful" (213). And he wants to let Sonny know that he'll never abandon him again. But he's afraid it won't sound genuine, so instead he "makes the promise to himself and prays that he will keep it" (214).
Sonny keeps trying to explain to the narrator what was going on inside him that led him to drugs. He tells him about the loneliness of walking the streets, his inability to escape his surroundings, the "storm inside" (215). And when there's nothing left to do, that's when he plays his music. He tells the narrator that there are times when a person will do "anything to play, even cut your mother's throat. . . . or your brother's. . . . Or your own'" (216).
He realizes how this final statement must sound, so he tells the narrator that he doesn't need to worry about him because he thinks he's finally OK (or at least he will be). But he also says that he'll never be able to forget "where he's been. And what he's been" (217).
When the narrator asks Sonny point blank what exactly he has been, Sonny struggles to explain. He talks about not feeling part of the world around him, about hurting other people and himself, about the storm coming out of him when he played music. He talks about when he hit rock bottom and how he was disgusted by his own smell. And he tells the narrator that he doesn't know when their mother passed away, but that he had to get away from Harlem in order to get away from drugs.
Sonny keeps talking, and he tells the narrator that when he got back to Harlem, nothing had really changed. He was a little older, but he was still the same person when it came down to it. And he reminds both himself and the narrator that "'It can come again'" (218). (By "it," we think he means drugs, but also all the things that led him to drugs in the first place.)
The narrator finally seems to understand, at least a little. Sonny tells him, "'I had to try to tell you'" (220), and the narrator finally seems to get it.
As this conversation comes to a close, Sonny looks at the narrator with no smile and says, "You're my brother" (222), as if to remind the narrator that they're family, and the narrator replies, "Yes, . . . yes I understand that" (224).
Later that night Sonny and the narrator head to a nightclub, and as soon as they enter people come up to greet Sonny. It's dark in the club and the narrator hears a deep voice say, "'Hello, boy'" (225) to Sonny before he sees who the voice belongs to. But then "an enormous black man, much older than Sonny or the narrator, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny's shoulder" (225). He tells Sonny that he's "been sitting right here . . . waiting for him" (225), and soon other people in the club start to notice that Sonny has returned.
Sonny introduces this man (whose name is Creole) to his brother, and Creole tells the narrator that he's glad to meet him in a way that makes the narrator realize "that he was glad to meet him there, for Sonny's sake" (228).
Soon another musician comes up and starts sharing stories about Sonny, and before long the narrator realizes that everyone there knows his brother and that he is "in Sonny's world" now (229).
It's almost time for Sonny and the other musicians to play, so Creole seats the narrator at a table by himself. The musicians, including Sonny, hang out below the bandstand, just outside the spotlight, and the narrator gets the feeling that they're all "being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly: that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame" (230).
Slowly the musicians make their way to their instruments, and "Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to the piano" (230). A woman announces Sonny's name to the crowd, and they clap. Sonny, "being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched . . . that he could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and bowed at the waist" (230).
Creole goes to his instrument (the bass fiddle), another man grabs a horn, there's someone on drums, and Sonny is at the piano. The narrator senses a change in the atmosphere. It gets quiet and the lights turn blue, and the "room began . . . to tighten" (231). The musicians all look different, too. The narrator sees Creole look at all of the musicians, "as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he – jumped and struck the fiddle. And there they were" (231).
As the narrator listens to the music, he begins to think about the difference between a musician and his audience. The audience hears "personal, private, vanishing evocations" (232), but he thinks the musician must hear something different. He thinks that the "man who creates the music . . . is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air" (232). (This sounds a lot like what Sonny was trying to explain earlier, doesn't it?)
The narrator watches Sonny closely and sees in his face that "he was working hard, but he wasn't with it' (232). And he also senses that the rest of the musicians are sort of waiting for Sonny to find his stride but also "pushing him along" (232) at the same time.
He switches his attention to Creole and realizes that he's the one in charge. Creole is the one "who held them all back. He had them on a short rein" (232). Creole is listening to all of the musicians, but he's really listening to Sonny. The narrator describes it as Creole "having a dialogue with Sonny' (232) through the music, and he senses that Creole wants Sonny to "leave the shoreline and strike out for deep water" (1232). In other words, Creole wants Sonny to stop playing it so safe and to really let himself go. He wants him to see that "deep water and drowning were not the same thing" (232).
The narrator senses that Creole has some experience with this and that he's trying to show Sonny that it's safe to lose himself in his music for a little while. But Sonny's struggling a bit. He hasn't played in a while, he's still a recovering drug addict, and he's unsure of himself. His playing is stilted and unsure, and he sort of fights his way through the first set.
As soon as the first set is finished, Creole gets them started on the next with a song called "Am I Blue." And all of a sudden, Sonny's playing changes. All of the musicians come together, like they're a family, and the narrator describes it as a conversation of sorts among the instruments.
Sonny's playing is so good now that it sounds like he's "found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano" (235). And for just a moment, Sonny and the other musicians are all happy.
But Creole is quick to "remind them that what they were playing was the blues" (236) and something in his playing forces the other musicians to change theirs.
As this happens, the other musicians "all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played" (238). And as the narrator watches and listens to his brother, he sees Sonny "make the song his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament" (238).
But something else happens to the narrator, too. Sonny's music makes him think of their parents, of the dead uncle he never knew he had, and of his little girl, Grace. He starts to cry.
All of a sudden the music stops and "Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning" (239). The narrator flags down one of the waitresses and orders drinks for the musicians. She brings a Scotch and milk for Sonny and puts it on the piano, but he doesn't seem to see it (at least that's what the narrator thinks). But as they're getting ready to start playing, Sonny drinks a little, looks at the narrator, nods at him, and puts the glass back on the piano. Making a reference to a passage from the Old Testament, the narrator thinks to himself that the glass "glowed and shook above his brother's head like the very cup of trembling" (239).