Summer  2005

Pat Hackbarth


Pat Hackbarth This marks an author's first online publication Pat Hackbarth is a professional French horn player in New York. She has published stories in Silver Rose Anthology (Silver Rose Press, 2002), The Georgia Review, The North American Review, The Nebraska Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, and Literal Latte, and is a recipient of the Silver Rose Award from the ART Foundation. In 2004 she was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She is currently seeking publication of one novel and working on another.
Old Scores    

The trombone is in the cellar closet with the gas meter, long buried behind the chemistry set and the ant farm turned ghost town and the tuxedo that hasn't fit him since high school, other disused parts of him that see daylight only when the meter gets read, but that wander fitfully through his dreams at night.

The dust sets him coughing when he blows it into the air, and there are cobwebs weaving the trombone case to the wall. One latch sticks too, but he triumphs over all these adversities and gets the case open. And there it is, brass on velvet, almost like visiting a dear and perfectly preserved friend in the casket, except that this one is still alive. Sort of.

It isn't easy to get the slide moving. He sprinkles it with water from the laundry tub, then tries the mouthpiece against his lips. After so many years it feels like sticking his face in a jelly jar. He takes a deep breath, sputters like a lawnmower after a long winter, and finally produces a deep, lugubrious wail. He works the slide, tries to make his way up the scale. Toward the top it begins to sound like a chainsaw, so he works his way back down, then decides—why not?—to try "Moonlight Serenade." In the dim basement a rhythm section seems to pulse behind him, a revolving mirrored globe spangles the walls, and in his mind some of the kids stop dancing and watch him, forgetting how recently they snubbed him in gym class, until the door at the top of the stairs opens and Cheryl calls down through the corridor of light, "For God's sake, Norman, what is that racket?"

He stops. "For your information, it's 'Moonlight Serenade.'"

"Now you're playing 'Moonlight Serenade'?" She sighs. "You'd better put a sock in it when Tal gets here."

This isn't Norman's plan, but he says, "What the heck kind of a name is Tal, anyway? Boys used to have regular names." Like Joey and Dennis and Skinny and Sam, he thinks. Joey was the honcho. The boys imitated his slouchy walk, his slang-infested speech; the girls followed him with their eyes. Norman practiced in the medicine cabinet mirror until he got the shoulders right, but it felt like borrowed finery. Dennis was Joey's dimwitted sidekick, whose antics always got a laugh, even the really stupid ones, like drinking his milk with the straw up his nose. Skinny could play the guitar, or said he could, and already had his driver's license. Sam didn't seem to have much to offer but a thick shock of blond-streaked hair; everyone called him Surfer Sam. Norman tried to dissect their popularity like the worm in biology class, with results that were no more satisfying.

But that night at the school dance, they stood near the stage in their rented tuxes, with their girlfriends hanging on their arms, and he played "One O'clock Jump" and "Caravan;" he pumped out the bass notes on "In the Mood," and they cheered for him, or at any rate they cheered, and that night, he thought, they were his friends.

Cheryl has left the cellar door ajar and through it he hears his daughter's frantic moan: "My hair is crooked! Look at it!" and Cheryl's soothing voice. Nicole is going to the high school homecoming dance, her first real date. Norman tries to imagine her swaying around the gym with the other kids, holding her own, something he'd never managed at her age. His relief had been boundless when his school dance band was asked to play at their own Harvest Ball, some thirty years ago now. The older kids mostly had dates, so the younger ones played, the younger ones and Norman. The band director was big on Classics of the Swing Era (you could hear the capital letters when he spoke the words), so the band played tunes their fellow students identified tentatively as early rock and roll, and they were a hit.

On the following Monday when Norman passed Joey and his gang in the hall, Joey called out, "Hey, there goes Glenn Miller!" "Who?" said Dennis. Norman wondered which was more startling, that Dennis hadn't heard of Glenn Miller or that Joey had. But he basked in the afterglow of Joey's remark, thinking he'd finally found the thing that would work for him, until after lunch, when he went to his locker for his math book. "Hey, I see one," came Joey's voice down the hall behind him. "Thanks, man, we've been looking for the trash." They stashed the remains of their takeout lunch in Norman's locker one by one, squashed milkshake cups, a Styrofoam burger box with strings of lettuce and onion dangling from the crack, leftover fries doused with ketchup that splashed on Norman's gym clothes. He tried frantically to think of something to say that would cement the notion that this was a good-humored joke; but when Sam surveyed the mess with distaste and stuffed his pizza crust in his own pocket without a glance at him, Norman knew it wasn't. The boys took their swagger with them on down the hall, leaving Norman to wonder what had changed since this morning.

Cheryl has bought Nicole a new dress, a tortuous-looking affair that is even narrower than she is, which Norman sees for the first time when he arrives in the kitchen, trombone in hand. Side by side his daughter and wife resemble a broomstick and a dustpan. He decides not to point this out, but realizes anything else he says will be wrong too, and he's been reminded of that enough times already, so he settles for "That's your dress?"

"No," she says, "it's a lampshade. What are you doing with that?"

"This?" He looks at the trombone, moves the slide a little, wonders how to explain what he's doing with it. He can't imagine how she'll get through this evening, how he would have. Bad enough that her hair is already escaping its moorings, that her hands don't seem to belong anywhere, that her matchstick legs keep going for far too long before they finally meet up with her feet. How will she figure out how to act around boys, when their requirements are so mysterious, when she hasn't got a trombone or a pair of tap shoes or a tennis racket to give herself some credibility? He's seen them from a distance, the boys in her school, at Christmas assemblies and spring musicals, with their too loud voices and their elaborate social rituals, their incomprehensible self-confidence. And now one of them is coming to his house, to pass judgment on the way he lives. He always knew this would happen.

Tal is at the door already, in a blinding white dinner jacket. It sets off the color of his hair, a shade of orange that Norman thinks is not quite a proper shade for hair, though Tal looks pleased enough with it. The sleeves of the jacket are too long and narrow and seem to restrain Tal's arms. Norman begins to hope he never finds his way out of it.

Tal shakes hands and casts about for something to say, his eyes alighting on the obvious. "Trombone, huh? Is that, like, your hobby or something?"

Norman recognizes the expression, the lopsided widening of the mouth that isn't exactly a smile. He hears the damnation in the word "hobby"; he suspects Tal is imagining him licking stamps and pinning up butterflies, that he doesn't know the trombone isn't like that. "Well," he says, "as a matter of fact," and he launches into the tale of his Harvest Ball, ignoring distress signals from Cheryl and muted horror from Nicole. "Here's one of the tunes we played," he says, delighted that he doesn't have to hint around for an invitation, and he careens into "Sophisticated Lady," or some approximation of it, finding more of the notes than he misses anyway. Tal doesn't seem to know quite what to say.

"Norman," Cheryl says, her small eyes darting back and forth between them, the earrings she's put on for the occasion tinkling. "They don't want to hear it. It's medieval history."

"Come on, Cheryl, this stuff is popular again."

"Not with them, it isn't."

"How about this one," he says, and offers them "Cherokee," wishing he had the rest of the band there to give it the full effect. Nicole is rolling her eyes and Tal is beginning to lose his smile, and then Cheryl is hustling them out the door with hurried farewells and reminders, and Norman suddenly realizes that his only daughter is now in the hands of a stiff-armed hipster whose notions of what is cool are as unfathomable as her interest in him. He stands in the window and watches them go, sees them talking, laughing about something, imagines he's asking her what it's like having a dad who plays the trombone.

They make a good team, he thinks, he and the trombone. For thirty years he has gotten to work on time, kept the grass cut, the tires balanced. When he crosses paths in the hardware store with his no longer young peers, they flip each other a casual wave. He's done well. But tonight when the need arose, his horn was there in the closet, waiting for him. You couldn't ask much more of a friend than that.



Pat Hackbarth: Fiction
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 29The Cortland Review