One More Time to Get It Right
It’s a Saturday afternoon in May, but instead of enjoying the beautiful springtime weather, you stand in front of the attic steps holding your trumpet. You put it up to your lips—something you’ve done many times over the last few decades, but this time you have a different reason for playing. The instrument feels heavier than usual, and your hands shake as you try to hold it steady. You play a few notes. Duh-duuuh-duh-DUUUH-DUH—that last note didn’t sound right. You play that musical phrase again but end it a half-step lower. No, that’s not it. A whole step? Not right either. How about higher? Nope. Maybe the first four notes are wrong, too, so you try modulating the key a few times, only to convince yourself that it was right the first time. You lower your instrument into your lap and lift your head toward the attic, waiting for Marie—who would have been twenty-one years old had she lived—to hum that tune again.
* * *
You stare at the two stacks of cardboard boxes with “Toys” written in black marker on the sides and laugh. When you and your family first moved into this house, Marie wanted the attic to be her bedroom. It became her play area instead. Her toys used to be strewn all over this floor. Not much has changed: The ghost of Marie is still using it as her play area, and her toys are still here, but now they’re packed neatly. You pull one of the boxes down and open it. Inside, dozens of dolls lie next to a toy Volkswagen Beetle. You close the box and place it by your feet before opening another. Julia’s head pops through the opening on the floor. “What are you doing?” You mumble something before she says, “Honey, it’s time to get rid of Marie’s old toys.” You take a deep breath and shake your head.
* * *
You play those five notes again and again until your lips get swollen and your cheeks burn. You stop to listen. Barely audible underneath the buzzing lawnmowers and humming motors coming in through the open windows is that voice. Marie’s trying to sing to you again, but you can barely make out that last note. You close the windows in the room, cut off the breeze. She has vanished again. You wait. The air turns warm and stale, but you refuse to re-open the windows. You don’t know how long you sit there—thirty, forty-five minutes?—but she doesn’t come back.
* * *
The bang from the hallway wakes you up. It’s 6:30 a.m. on your first day of being a stay-at-home dad. You climb the steps to the attic and peek into eight-year-old Marie’s play area. She squeezes all her dolls into the toy Beetle. You sit in front of her. At first, she gives you a strange look. She’s not used to having daddy home during the day. But then you pick up one of the dolls unable to fit in the car and say in a shrill voice, “Wait for me! Wait for me!” She laughs. You skip breakfast and play with the dolls and the car for hours. After lunch, she sits on her bed, and you hold your trumpet. “Play something,” she says. You play a series of old riffs from the days when you led a jazz band. One particular five-note riff makes her beam, the one that goes, Duh-duuuh-duh-DUUUH-DUH! “Again, again!” she cries. So you repeat it. She keeps requesting it, and you keep playing it. You want to play something else, but you indulge her whim anyway because she’s not going to be that young forever.
* * *
You put down the brush you’re using to paint the walls in Marie’s room to see what’s happening outside. A man grabs the cardboard boxes you left in the front yard and puts them in a truck parked in your driveway. The side of the truck reads, “HAS YOUR CHILD OUTGROWN THOSE TOYS? DONATE THEM! WE PICK UP!” You watch until he removes all the boxes and leave. Then you look at the paintbrush, the bristles facing down. Droplets of white paint fall like tears and splatter your shoes.
* * *
Surrounded by the red velvet lining of its case, the trumpet’s brass body catches the light from the sun. A gentle breeze blows in from the living room window. It’s another beautiful Saturday afternoon in May, yet you sit on the couch, staring at your instrument. That phrase keeps coming back. You pull the instrument out of its case and head back to the attic. You can only hear your breathing as you anxiously await her singing. You stare at the darkness covering the attic ceiling. Then she sings. This time, it’s loud and clear. That last note—the one that’s been so elusive—slips into your ears, excites you. You place the trumpet at your mouth and play the whole tune for her. Your fingers dance over the buttons clicking against the valves. You blow that final note. It’s a short one, but even after you lower the trumpet, it echoes in your mind. You wipe your instrument, close up the attic, and open the window. The springtime breeze against your face hasn’t felt this good in a long time.
By Christopher Iacono
- Christopher Iacono lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son. You can learn more about him and his works at cuckoobirds.org & you can find him over on his twitter page.