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
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
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
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
"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