Looking out I see my maple draped with toilet paper. There’s a lawn gnome hanging from one limb by something metal bent like a noose. Lyle squats beside me cooing, teething on his bungee leash tied to the upright piano (he likes to scurry off and plug his curious hands into various unattended nooks). I think maybe the local teenage gang S.I.V. did this. I recently saw those initials vertical on a lamppost at the playground, a phallus spray painted on the twisty slide with a misspelled curse veined across the shaft and promptly shielded Lyle’s innocent toddler eyes. I wonder how the gang jettisoned the toilet paper over the highest branches. Where does a gang get a tall tall ladder like that? Nobody can throw that high. Only that schmuck Tony Duda could maybe ever do that.
In high school Duda was the stud varsity quarterback. I was the elite trombonist nobody. Duda triple pump-faked Fowler’s secondary at States while we marched and performed the alma mater with cunning tenacity in glorified foil sombreros, etc. We called ourselves The Space Racers, which added flatulent hipness. Duda and his lineman were versatile student athletes. We were swirlied, wedgied, wet willied, noogied, nut tapped, Indian burned, Charley horsed, spitballed and purple nurpled. Duda once pantsed me in the cafeteria and exposed my briefs portraying Elvis Presley’s snarling mug across the rear. The briefs were on clearance. Money was tight in my family. My parents were loving and uneducated. I didn’t have confident leg hair yet. I started wearing two belts. Boxers left me discombobulated.
Then one Friday under the stadium lights a botched option left Duda with a shattered kneecap. The only time I ever witnessed him truly adolescent was in gym class after the cast came off his emaciated pale leg and he struck out in kickball and we all laughed. I sometimes see him limping around, checking tire pressure at the Polish auto garage or smoking outside The Bowl-O-Drome® with his flaccid ex-linemen, reminiscing and high fiving; their high school rings haughty and topaz under the neon lights. I’ve wanted to tell him off for years. But when I think about doing it I impulsively clutch my pants and shake. So instead I attended Dartmouth on scholarship and graduated with a Bachelors in music. Maybe I’ll teach when things turn around. For now I’m making ends meet, erecting laborious overtures on my sleek trombone at Canal Fest each summer, trying to serenade away the Sorry Skivvied Rockabilly Me.
Looking closer I see the lawn gnome’s hanging by a bent trombone slide.
I take out the old high school yearbook and open it to the marching band photo. I locate Abe Fitts: the still-pudgy tuba player. Just last week someone left a rusty tuba on his porch with a dead skunk jammed inside. Then I locate Nick Fillmore: the still-nervous snare drummer with a fear of clipping his fingernails. Two days ago he found a tapered drumstick pierced through one of his car tires. Now me with the trombone slide noose.
Part of me wonders if S.I.V. actually did this.
On the opposite page is the football team photo: The Mighty Sputniks of New Hartford. The kicker furtively blasts a middle finger. Some thicker kid I don’t recognize makes a sexual gesture at the laughing receiver beside him. Duda’s in the center flexing his cocky biceps. I look back at the marching band photo. I see my gangly frame. There’s Ron Swift: the gothic cymbalist. And there’s Nolan Barker with a finger in his nose up to the knuckle. I feel as if the photo’s somehow fraudulent with Nolan, ruined. Then I catch a glimpse of Tess smiling her large braced teeth. I almost recall the scent of peppermint when the doorbell rings. I quickly shut the yearbook and let in Granny Kruger: my sweet cataracted sitter. I put away the yearbook and get ready for work. Then I hug Lyle and blow Tess a kiss goodbye. She’s the middle of five copper urns on the mantel, sandwiched between both pairs of our parents.
I work in a drafty cubicle soliciting cancer insurance over the phone. Today one guy asks me do I have a soul? I ask him what that has to do with protecting his savings from an unanticipated malignant brain tumor for only ten dollars a week? He says it has everything to do with it. Then he calls me a Gaylord and hangs up. I think about what he said. Not about being a Gaylord but about having a soul. How do I really know if I do?
I look at my framed picture of Tess: fetal Lyle in her bulging gut, a proud motherly rouge polished over her puffy cheeks. I see how straight her teeth turned out. If I look closer I think I see parts of me stuck in there.
Tess and I were high school sweeties. She was the metal-mouthed majorette. She flossed three times a day. I can still recall the peppermint smell of her fingertips. The touch of her eyelashes like promises on my face. Later we shared the mutual pain of becoming adult orphans; my father being the last to die: a heart attack, discovered in his recliner with bright television colors playing off the leathery crests and troughs of his face. His body went into The Kiln and the thermostat was cranked way up. He came out like everybody else: like a pile of smoked cigarettes and ceramic shards.
The Kiln’s what we used to call the crematorium. Toughs played tonsil hockey and guzzled beer in the back alley. I heard Duda lost his virginity back there to Dance Team captain Miranda Stevens. In gym she used to put her legs behind her head and walk on her hands. My gym shorts were denim to avoid the embarrassment of visibly popped boners. So were Coach Fitzpatrick’s. He gave me an “A” even though I couldn’t climb the rope. I couldn’t climb the rope because of the boners. I bet the “A” was for the reciprocated denim. I lost my virginity in a dark cinderblock dormitory on some abused mattress with Tess under the covers, nervous-breathed, unsure hands navigating dumbly.
I’ve considered storing the copper urns in The Kiln warehouse for a small annual fee but I have plans to spread the ashes. And I’m not there yet. I’m still trying to get used to the strange silences of my house. The flow of the carpet underneath my bare feet. The way things smell less feminine. I never take off my wedding band. I still set Tess’ plate at dinner.
Every couple weeks I pay Granny Kruger overtime while I congregate at the firehouse for noncompetitive Bingo with old high school band members like Abe Fitts and Nick Fillmore, Sarah Shoe: the tomboyish trumpeter and Tanya Mabeline: the morally loose saxophonist. I don’t see Thom Gaff: the sexually confused flutist who runs the local hardware store. But I do see Nolan Barker: the wheezing volunteer firefighter, Space Racer poser. While we rehearsed Nolan would sit in the bleachers with his sousaphone, groping the brass thing as if he were trying to negotiate a brassiere. I only participated in one swirlie in my life and it was Nolan’s. I think Thom held Nolan upside down. I manned the stall door. Abe and Nick contributed the taunting. Nolan gurgled romantically. We all felt important and empty in that pubescent way. Nolan’s retainer accidentally got flushed. Our perversely thin band teacher Mr. Mangini awarded Nolan a varsity band letter out of pity. Right now that letter’s poorly sewn to his denim jacket, falsely complimenting his topaz school ring, one finger over from his wedding band. Someone actually married and took Nolan’s virginity. But not anymore. No one’s ever seen her. He’s never talked about her. Must’ve been from before he moved back here. Maybe she was imaginary and he manifested her into actual flesh. Maybe she vanished back into thin air.
We play and chat. B-4. G-17. O-28. Etc.
At one point Nolan interjects maybe we should have a jam session for old time’s sake? He walks toward his sousaphone in the corner, dented and mangled with an almost instrumental scoliosis. As he turns I hit him in the back of the head with a rubber fireman’s boot. He twists his ankle and stumbles. We all laugh. Nolan’s face gets red and varicosed and he howls with laughter through grit teeth. His eye does a twitchy thing.
After that we call it a night.
On the walk home I start thinking about my soul. What might it look like? Pale wisps of cigarette smoke? Do souls appear in Technicolor? On cold nights I imagine my foggy breath as escaping soul. I remember after Lyle’s complicated birth the doctor’s flat apologetic face in the tepid antiseptic hospital lighting. Since then my torso’s felt like a breezy subway tunnel. I think of Lyle: his mother’s large eyes and angular forehead; my blonde hair, like corncob threads; Tess’ parents in his ears; my father’s stubborn tendencies in a nostril; my mother’s dignity in a freckle on his cheek. Rest all their souls.
I hold my breath to save what’s left of me as church bells clamor in the distance.
The next day I remember I need electrical outlet safety covers because Lyle’s rapidly outgrowing his bungee leash. I stop by Thom Gaff’s hardware store but it’s closed. Thom never misses work. He won The Perfect Attendance award every year in high school. A few impatient roofers peek through the dark windows and shrug their shoulders. I decide to swing by Thom’s to make sure he’s OK. But when I do I see his lawn littered with flashing sirens and curious camera crews and gossipy neighbors. An obese cop yellow-tapes off an area on the lawn as a long black bag gets carried out of Thom’s house. The long black bag’s almost zipped up entirely but can’t be because a silver flute’s sticking straight up out of it.
The news reported suspicious pry bar marks on Thom’s back door. But no fingerprints. No evidence. No witnesses. Thom’s portly androgynous housekeeper wept and said Thom played his flute in his sleep. Maybe he fell down the stairs? How he/she knew about Thom’s nocturnal performances wasn’t elaborated on. He/she was suspected and questioned then released because he/she had a key to the house and wouldn’t need a pry bar to enter. He/she’s the one who found Thom at the bottom of his staircase with his flute through his gut.
I decide to call in sick and spend the day with Lyle. I occupy our attention with rattling shiny objects. I fly us around the living room like an airplane. I entertain us with soft melodies on my trombone. I read us an insurance brochure to instigate naptime. I wipe Lyle’s drool. I wipe my eyes. He yawns, flipping his wrists at the mobile of plastic shapes above his crib. I yawn, flipping my wrist, turning pages of photo albums with a lump in my throat, accompanied only by the nervous click of my furnace’s electronic ignition.
I think of the click of The Kiln’s electronic ignition.
I think of Tess, her starry teeth. I make individual wishes.
And I think, Poor Thom Gaff. Poor innocent harmless genuine Gaff.
And I wonder who’d do such a thing?
At dinner I set two plates. I wonder if I should put food on the other, hers. Maybe I’ll drape one of her blouses over the chair. I tap my fingers, consider putting some dental floss by the water glass when I notice a flash of topaz in my periphery. I look to the window and see a small circle of fog between two handprints. I rush to the window and see a shadow hobble. It jukes right, as if muscle-memoried, between some neighboring hedges and disappears.
I instinctively clutch my pants and shake.
At the next Bingo gathering we burn a candle for Thom Gaff. Called Bingo numbers echo up into the large hollow firehouse, off the brick surfaces and laminated CPR instruction posters and boxy cherry trucks with the tall tall ladders on top. During one game Sarah lightly touches Thom’s candle and runs out sobbing. She and Thom had shared backyards as children, first sandbox kisses. I even notice Tanya’s one mascaraed eye. The unmascaraed eye is actually prettier. Between Bingo numbers we recall the times Thom won the Perfect Attendance award. How he was grounded for having a Bikini Quarterly® and a Mucho Muscles® magazine under his mattress. The odd way he parted his hair. How he played his brand new silver flute at graduation, improving us all with a touching solo rendition of the alma mater.
Then I remember that silver flute sticking straight up out of the long black bag; Technicolor soul trickling out the end of the flute like a smoke stack, playing one suspended flat note as it rises from the instrument.
And then Nolan screeches Bingo! and fist pumps.
We’re all Bingoed out after that.
As we pack up Nolan again suggests having a jam session and starts tenderly marching in place. He still knows the routines he never had to memorize. I recognize certain moves and long for the Astroturf under my coordinated feet, the warmth of my peach-fuzzed upper lip under the stadium lights, stealing glimpses of Tess and her reflective barbed mouth, maneuvering her baton with delicate balanced twirls. As if she twirled my heart.
Then Nolan hobbles up to me. He wheezes, struggles under the weight of his sousaphone. He smells like a medicinal lozenge.
“I think you should apologize for throwing the boot,” he says. “That’s not something you do to a fellow Space Racer.”
“But you’re not a Space Racer,” I say.
He points to the varsity band letter sewn to his denim jacket.
I roll my eyes.
“I think you should apologize,” he says again and drops his sousaphone.
I ask why should I apologize?
“We’ve both lost something. We share that.”
I don’t get it. Everybody’s ready to leave, watching. It’s so quiet I think I hear Thom’s candle burning. And I don’t understand how Nolan doesn’t get it. How many hints do we have to drop? How many swirlies before the light goes on? How many boots to the head before some sense gets knocked in? What a LameWad. Why should I apologize?
“Like you share my pain?” I say, almost hysterical. Choked up.
Nothing’s changed. We share nothing.
I tell him he’s still Nolan The Nerdo.
“And you’re still Elvis The Pelvis!” he shrieks back. His face gets red and varicosed as he giggles and starts gyrating his hips and swinging his bent knees rhythmically. He moves his outstretched arms and snarls his upper lip. That Graceland Lip. That Hound Dog Lip. That Jailhouse Rock Lip I’ve been trying to abandon with my trombone overtures at Canal Fest each summer, getting progressively louder and more intricate and desperate. I hear Abe and Nick catch themselves mid-chuckle. My veins hurt. I tremble.
Nolan stops. One eye does a twitchy thing. When he bends to pick up his sousaphone I see it: the elastic band just above his khaki waistline. My heart pounds, my knuckles whiten. I don’t even consider it. I just grab that elastic band and yank.
Nolan yelps. Abe’s jaw drops. Both Tanya’s mascaraed and unmascaraed eyes go wide. Nick puts a hand to his forehead, uncut fingernails grinning like unlucky horseshoes.
I yank until the elastic band rips. Then I let go.
I head home as sickles of frost form on blemished patches of grass. I notice pieces of soul flit from my mouth and disappear up into the purpled night, ignoring the almost turned feeling of my heart, convincing myself it’s an OK thing.
I pass the hardware store under new management. I think of Thom and the intruder, the flute jabbed through Thom’s sleepwalking gut, collapsing at the bottom of the stairs blinking until his irises blanched, the last exhale, and the flute playing that one suspended flat note.
I pass The Bowl-O-Drome®. Outside mechanics huddle and smoke, hunched like calloused strips of jerky with last names like Sawicki and Kowalczyk and Majewski. Former linemen who found geometric ways of stuffing me in my locker.
And among them’s Duda, dragging from his cigarette as the mechanics high five and belch and bellow.
Then one lumpy mechanic makes a stabbing motion with his hand.
Duda flicks the cigarette butt away and his topaz high school ring winks at me. The lumpy mechanic admiringly slaps his back.
I think, No way no way no way. I clutch my belt, shake.
Then the mechanics disperse and I duck behind a parked car. I think I hear gravel crunch behind me but there’s just a scrap of paper tumbling. Duda limps his way behind The Bowl-O-Drome® toward the thick stand of sycamores and gully stream; beyond that his trailer park where beatniks mutilate geese, bonfires dance like virginal succubae, and bastard children clutch wiffleball bats, crouching in the weedy undergrowth and flickering fiery cattails.
I think about calling the cops. But the squad consists of old wrestling jocks that Duda traded towel snaps with. They’d finger their cauliflowered ears and belly a chant of Elvis The Pelvis before they pressed any charges on my accusation.
It occurs to me this is still the world I live in: one big popularity contest.
It’s one big high school. One big Mighty Sputnik.
So I need proof. Evidence.
I put up my hoodie hood and carefully trail Duda over the small gully stream bridge and through the Sycamores to the trailer park. Most trailers are dark and look like tuna fish cans. One individual with clownish hands fumbles with paper beside his open kitchen window. In the distance a shirtless fink stands over a campfire and urinates on it.
Duda struggles up his porch. I take a couple hubcaps in the weeds beside his trailer and quietly stack them to get up to a window. Dead lights have broken filaments resting inside the bulbs, like black flies. A ceiling fan blade’s missing. Nudey mags and crushed beer cans scour the chipped dated stereo speakers. The peeling wallpaper’s yellowed and floral. I search for a pry bar but don’t see one. Then Duda enters frailly with his limp and oily hands and muscles I see now are just enlarged ropes tied off at the ends of each bone. I even spot a receding hairline. He switches on the television and an infomercial appears promoting a pedicure device, I think. It’s hard to tell. The closed captioning’s all jumbled and wrong.
I keep low. My fingers start to numb and the overzealous crickets tattle. I hear some weedy undergrowth rustle behind me but only see the glow of a nearby bug zapper. The occasional brilliant blue flicker. Then I turn back to the window and see Duda in a chair with a beer and a plastic recorder.
The infomercial might be promoting a vegetable peeler. Duda closes his eyes and places the instrument to his lips and I hear its muffled and molested squawks. His fingers move carefully and incorrectly over the sound holes. His salt and peppered face implodes with each cracked pitch. I imagine wisps of soul rising out the uncovered sound holes. An audience member demonstrates the ease of peeling feet or pedicuring vegetables.
This time I think I hear a wheeze behind me and I turn. Nothing.
Then I hear one loud shriek from the recorder and turn to see Duda staring right at me.
I lean back and the hubcaps come clanking out from under me.
I get up and run. I hear Duda’s front door swing open. When I make it to the Sycamores I glance back to see a flashlight bobbing toward me. My lungs ache, my arms push away branch after branch. The flashlight beam cuts through the darkness. I run harder. I run so hard my hoodie hood flies off. I feel the cold knife right through my still gangly frame. I’m pretty much all heart and bones, and I wonder if that’s all I’ve become. And I think, What the hell was I thinking? What am I doing out here?
I get to the gully stream bridge. As I cross it something hits the side of my face, maybe a spiraling football, and I stumble and fall. My head cracks into a stump.
I shut my eyes.
I open my eyes.
There’s mud beneath me and a leafy canopy above. There’s a gap in the foliage where stars twinkle and grumpy clouds lazily drift by. My forehead stings and my gut nauseously gurgles. I’m not quite sure what happened. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. The last thing I remember clearly is flying my son Lyle around the living room.
Then there are flashes. Me, running. The hardware store under new management; I think I need something there. Lyle gnawing on his bungee leash. Nolan Barker yelping, Bingo! A lumpy mechanic making a vigorous stabbing motion. Thom Gaff with a flute through his gut. Tony Duda playing a plastic recorder the color of bone.
Then a shadowy figure appears above me, huffing and puffing. I want to ask where I am. My head throbs. I want to ask for help until I see a very intelligent-looking pry bar in the shadowy hand. For some reason I recall Thom Gaff’s portly androgynous housekeeper. Then I see the pry bar rise over the shadowy head.
“Wait,” I say. I think about the ashes on my mantel:
I wanted to spread my mother in the Oregon mountains of her childhood.
I wanted to spread my father in the Atlantic so he could travel the world.
I wanted to spread my in-laws over their family’s hick Vermont farmland.
And I wanted to spread Tess, the love of my life, with me over the old high school football Astroturf where we once marched. I wanted us both spread in the end zone so we could observe the world from the perspective of someone who has triumphed.
A gentle rain falls, thrumming the leafy canopy like one thousand fetal hearts beating.
“I have a son,” I plead, “Lyle.” I repeat his name. “Lyle Lyle Lyle.”
The shadowy figure chuckles, wheezes. I get a familiar whiff of medicinal lozenge.
I cover my face. A tear escapes, expectedly.
Then parts of the trees and the shadowy figure momentarily illuminate. I notice a flash of topaz on a shadowy finger and recall handprints on my kitchen windowpane. I have the urge to clutch my pants but resist. I turn to see a flashlight bobbing over the gully stream bridge. Then I turn and the shadowy figure’s gone. Through the trees I see the shadowy figure hobble. It jukes through The Bowl-O-Drome® alley and disappears.
Another shadowy figure limps up. Erratic fat raindrops interrupt the flashlight’s beam. I rub my face. I feel seasick from the slosh of mud beneath me. The second shadowy figure catches his breath and wants to know what I was doing by his window.
“I don’t remember,” I say. There was someone else, I tell the second shadowy figure. Someone else with the pry bar. I thought I was going to die. Reunite with Tess too soon. My head burns. I ask the second shadowy figure if he’s going to hurt me.
He says, No. But if this were years ago he’d have pounded me for sure.
There’s a moment when the dry arthritic limbs of older trees moan.
“I think something hit me,” I say, still rubbing my face.
The flashlight investigates the surrounding woods. Raindrops taste like regrets. Through spread fingers I observe a cloud in the shape of a duck. A plane way way way up blinks as it inches across the patch of sky wedged into the leafy canopy. Then the flashlight illuminates a rubber fireman’s boot tilted against a Sycamore.
I experience a familiar and almost turned feeling of my heart.
A tear arpeggios its way down my cheek.
“I want to go home to my son,” I say.
The second shadowy figure turns the flashlight back on me and tells me I’m bleeding. He squats and I recognize Tony Duda. He removes an oily mechanics rag and presses it to my head and the pressure feels nice so I don’t protest.
“Can you stand?” Duda asks.
I try but the woods start spinning and my legs crumple beneath me. Duda catches me and sets me across his lap and reapplies the rag to my forehead. He says I might have a concussion. I look into the deep hazel welts of his eyes and see a softness there I never noticed. I’m surprised by the stringiness of his muscles. A gust coils through the trees and in this drizzle and fettered darkness, my mouth filling with raindrops, I feel Duda shiver, hear him groan as he adjusts his bad leg underneath me, feel the humility of the screws in his kneecap, the smell of alcohol in his foggy breath, the sadness, and I don’t feel the urge to clutch my pants.
“Who was the someone else?” Duda asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Why did the someone else have a pry bar?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know much do you?”
“I remember things. Running and the sound of your recorder,” I say.
“You picked a hell of a thing to remember,” Duda says. “I never played an instrument before. I just mess with it. Some kid played his flute at my high school graduation years ago and it made me want to try something new like that.”
Another breeze whistles around us. The hairs on my arms stand. As a child I believed this meant lightning was about to strike. Duda hugs me closer. Our foggy breaths rise and compare suffering. We are enveloped by the night. Birds cackle in the leafy canopy. Something scurries in the weeds. A frog in the gully stream belches obscenely.
“You just need to work on your breathing techniques,” I say.
“You play the recorder?”
Somewhere birds begin to argue like immigrant neighbors. Duda pauses.
“Do I know you?”
“You once pantsed me in the cafeteria,” I say. “I’m remembered for that.”
There’s another pause. The birds hush and eavesdrop.
Duda shakes his head, grimaces. “That was a long time ago,” he says softly.
I can feel the goose bumps on his stringy arms rise.
“It was,” I agree. And it occurs to me I’m Elvis The Pelvis. No matter what. But Elvis The Pelvis could be matured, determined from heartache, someone capable of forgiveness, a good father, etc. But as I look to the tilted rubber fireman’s boot I think of Nolan Barker and see I’m still the Elvis The Pelvis involved with his swirlie years ago, and I recall his recent adult wedgie. I was his Duda. Below the surface humiliation, the juvenility, Nolan had had too much faith in humanity, in the kindness of another’s heart. That’s why he practiced from the bleachers. Learned the marches. Kept coming back to Bingo. And I killed that faith. Like Duda had once done to me. I once had Nolan’s faith in humanity. Now we share the fact we don’t share it. I’m guilty of that. Me, a supposed grown man. Canal Fest overtures or not. I’m both the same and a different Sorry Skivvied Rockabilly Me.
And not the things I want to be. The things I thought I was.
Would Tess be proud of this?, I wonder.
I want that faith back. I want a lot of things back.
A few pigeons flock out of the breezy subway tunnel in my torso.
“People remember me too,” Duda says. “I’m the guy who triple pump-faked Fowler’s secondary at States,” and Duda makes the violent stabbing motion of the lumpy mechanic. “Or I’m the guy who hertz donuted him or called her fat and made her cry or stuffed him into a locker or cheated on her or pantsed you.” Duda shakes his head. “But that’s not me.”
“I feel so dizzy,” I say. “I’m not me either.”
We listen to the subtle percussion of the rain around us for a while.
Then Duda says, “Listen. I’ve got an idea. How do you want to be remembered? I’ll remember you that way if you remember me the way I want to be remembered. What do you say? It’s a start at least. Please remember me—” Duda says and trails off, thinking. And I wonder how I’d like to be remembered. I hope when it’s time to put me in The Kiln and crank the thermostat way up Lyle will be happily married, mustached, a father, maybe a cunning pianist, and I’ll occasionally be spoken of at his dinner table between bites; or in the nursing home where my surviving band members, even Nolan Barker, sit with their tremoling meandering spines, and they’ll speak of me between shaky hands raised for Bingo; or even by a balding gentleman thankful he bought a cancer policy from me as his wife lies even balder in the hospital, the musical notations of her organs and bones transparent through her paper flesh, and he’ll speak of me through clasped hands. And I hope they someday speak of me as a man who did his best, fessed up and undid wrongs done, helped others when he could, forgave, loved accordingly, justly, a kind Technicolor soul. And my heart trumpets for that someday.
That someday is not yet. But I’m hopeful.
Then Duda decides. He asks me to please remember him in the moment he was involved in the pettiness and cruelty of the world. The moment when he felt like he really belonged to something. Remember him as the boy who struck out in kickball. And it’s a start.
So I shut my eyes tight, and I do.