As published in Raven Chronicles Journal Vol. 24, “Home,” now available at Amazon and most booksellers:
Ole Buttermilk Sky. He didn’t need the music; it had been Marv’s Scarves’ trademark song. Not written for the trombone, but a great tune. He closed his eyes, tried the first few bars. Amazing. Sitting on a park bench, the morning sun rejuvenating his withered face, eyes closed, a tune he hadn’t played for what, fifty years? “Ole buttermilk sky, I’m keepin’ my eye peeled on you.” Halfway through, he peeled an eye to the April sky.
A kid was watching him.
A schwartze, maybe only fifteen, but strapping, as tall as Marvin and twenty pounds heavier. Standing a few yards away. Contemplating his next move, probably. Just as Marvin had tried to tell Dora might happen.
Dora and Max came to live with him when Rachel died, and a lot of his belongings went to the attic to make room for a new young family, adding to two generations’ clutter already up there. The young couple’s joining him, just as he and Rachel had moved in with his widowed Mama, carried on a tradition.
If he’d known the neighborhood was going to change so much in ten years, he would have sold the house and helped them buy something in the suburbs with a space for him. Who has a crystal ball?
He found the trombone this morning. His attic trip was occasioned by the arrival of a second child, reducing his private space to what Grandpa had built as a guest room. It had a bath, and was big enough for his furniture, but lacked a floor lamp for his La-Z-Boy. There had to be lamps up there, relics of redecorations.
That simple errand turned into a nostalgic hour rummaging and reminiscing among the detritus of his childhood and marriage in a space redolent of ancient leather, paper, and dust. And there was the trombone, in a dented case, folding music stand tied to it with rotting string. A few sheets of music were inside.
Swing music was still popular when he was in high school after the war. With the longest arms in his class, he was recruited to learn trombone for the orchestra. By senior year he had his own pickup band, Marv’s Scarves because they wore red bandanas, playing at bar mitzvahs and even grownups’ parties. He developed a style emulating a left-handed Negro star named Slide Hampton.
Which showed that he had nothing against African-Americans, as they liked to be called now. He had Negro combat buddies in Korea, and plenty of customers of his hardware store over the years, although none happened to become personal friends. Nice people, if you got to know them – and picked the ones you got to know. Like anybody else.
The neighborhood had by now been abandoned by the Jews and Catholics who coexisted here comfortably for decades. The newcomers seemed good people who got up and went to work every morning and were pleasant when he met them on his walks; Dora and Max knew some of them. The other side of the park, though, was taken over by people who’d been cocooned in housing projects and emerged without having learned to be good neighbors. Half doing drugs. Well, not half, and not all from projects, but enough that you couldn’t be sure who was who.
He brought a lamp down to his room and took the trombone to the kitchen. It was tarnished, but a few minutes with the cleaner Dora used for copper pots made it glow. Back then everyone lubricated with Pond’s cold cream spritzed with water; the slide was sticky with gunk. He took it apart and washed it as best he could without a flannel snake. He didn’t have to ask Dora for cold cream — if women even used that any more — because there was a dropper bottle in the case. Superslick, the faded label said. It came on the market about when he gave up the trombone and went to college. It still worked fine.
He took the trombone to his room and tried a scale. Immediately Dora was at his door. “Papa!” she hissed. “The baby’s asleep!”
He sometimes found it hard to believe this handsome blonde woman was his daughter, except that she looked so much like Rachel, especially at angry moments when a scowl puckered her eyebrows and her eyes blazed. “It’s my old trombone. I played it in high school.”
“Fine, just not in the house. Why don’t you go across to the park?”
“The park? I can’t play my trombone there!
“Why not? It’s nice weather.”
“What are you, meshugenah? It’s an antique. Some narkotnik’er could grab it.”
She eyed the trombone. “It may be old, Papa, but that doesn’t make it valuable.”
“It’s brass. Even the metal is worth something. They steal metal these days.”
“Papa, it’s nine a.m. No one’s there. Only mamas with babies.”
When he reluctantly came across the street, he had to admit Dora was right. Not a yungerman in sight.
For a neighborhood park, it was big, three blocks long and two wide. He chose a bench facing the grassy expanse where he’d played baseball, growing up. Nowadays straight ahead was a cricket pitch for the West Indians. Soccer nets up to his left. To his right, a basketball court where kids in baggy shorts and designer sneakers played rough after-school sport. His only company now, though, were two pre-school kinder playing on a slide and swings fifty yards away while their mamas chatted and rocked baby carriages. They looked up when he played the first notes, then went back to gossiping.
He looked over his shoulder. The park trees just planted when Grandpa built the house had grown into a wide forest margin, oaks and maples budding out, white birches incandescent against a punctuation of dark green pines. He could make out the house, but Dora wouldn’t see him even if she were trying.
The kid, unsmiling, had a round dark-chocolate face and close-cropped hair with a part shaved into it. Marvin’s white hair was long, so thin that parting it would be pointless, and it would offer no buffer against a crack on the noggin. The kid wore glasses. Not sunglasses, not designer-chic, just ordinary horn-rims. Maybe thought that made him look studious. Marvin weighed whether grabbing the glasses in a struggle would help. He abandoned the thought. If this kid was a ganif, let him just snatch the trombone and run. Make it easy for him, not get hurt.
Giving a non-committal nod, he made himself close his eyes and play Ole Buttermilk Sky all the way through, finishing with a little slide tremolo. He looked up again. Still there.
“Hey, mister. Can I try blowing your horn?”
Sure. Hand over the instrument he’d just rediscovered, maybe a collector’s piece for all he knew, and find himself chasing a tsenerling, a teenager who wanted to sell it for a fix or whatever? Hollering “Stop, thief!” to an empty park? He’d said “mister” politely, looked innocent enough, and hadn’t snatched the trombone when Marvin played with his eyes closed. Still, you never knew these days.
“It’s a trombone, young feller,” he said. “One of the rules is you never play on someone else’s mouthpiece.” That was true. In high school, they’d used their own mouthpieces when trading instruments. Avoiding each other’s colds, but making adolescent jokes about clap. And that was before AIDS. Can you catch AIDS from spit? He couldn’t remember.
He took the funnel-shaped mouthpiece from the top of the slide and held it up for emphasis, “Sorry, I don’t have a spare.” He put it back in, heavy white metal against the thin brass of the instrument, put his lips to it, and forced himself to get into the music again. He cast his mind back, reaching for a Tommy Dorsey tune: Sentimental Journey.
He dared to close his eyes again to make the notes come, trying to hold the trombone loosely enough that he wouldn’t suffer a broken finger if the kid snatched it this time. From the recesses of his old head he found the music and snatches of words: “Sentimental journey home. Packed my bags, got my reservation.”
The kid was still there. “That’s nice, mister. You mind if I listen some more?” He sat down uninvited on an adjoining bench that half-faced Marvin, closer but less menacing than standing. He wore khakis and a white shirt, open-collared, maybe a school uniform.
“Sure.” As though he had a choice. “It’s old-time music, though.”
“I know,” the kid said. “I have a CD: The Big Band Era.”
So he tried a few more, Tuxedo Junction and Chattanooga Choo-Choo. His lips were sore, but he finished with Stars and Stripes Forever, John Phillip Sousa, with that blazing descending line on the trombone: bam de-bam de-bam de-bam de-bam-bam-bam-bam and into the melody. It was like he’d played it only yesterday.
The kid actually applauded. “So where can I get a mouthpiece?”
“At a music store. I’m not sure you can find one around here any more. I’ve got to go along now.” That sounded abrupt. He didn’t want to sound scared. “What’s your name?”
“Elijah, sir. Elijah Williams.”
The ‘sir’ was reassuring. “I’m Marvin. Marvin Stein.” That was safe enough; the house and telephone were in Max and Dora’s names.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Stein. If I get a mouthpiece, can I try your trombone?”
He didn’t want to make promises; Elijah might come back next time with his friends. “Sure. If we happen to meet again.” That sounded too brusque. “You can probably get an inexpensive plastic one that’s almost as good as the metal.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Stein. I’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
“Well, I may be too. No promises, okay?” He took the trombone apart and put it away, aware of Elijah’s rapt attention. As he stood, the kid got up too and reached out to offer a handshake that Marvin could hardly avoid. “Thank you, sir. Hope to see you again.”
Sure he was being watched as he threaded through the trees, he turned left when he got to the street, and walked all the way around the block before going into the house.
“Hi, Papa.” Dora had the baby on her hip. “How did it go? You weren’t long.”
“The lips are a little tender. It was good. I still know how to play.”
“And no one bothered you, right?”
“A teen-ager came to watch, but he seemed okay. I wondered why he wasn’t in school.”
“We’re on split sessions this year. Overcrowding.” Dora was on maternity leave from teaching, and Max taught too. “The state made them close one ancient school as unsafe. Did you get his name?”
“He said Elijah Williams. I walked around the block, coming home, so he wouldn’t see where we live.”
“Papa, you’re too much! I don’t remember that name. We’ll ask Max tonight.”
“No, I don’t know him,” Max said at dinner. “It’s a big city. He sounds okay to me, though. You can’t live in fear, papa.”
That hurt. Marvin liked to show it was still his neighborhood, so most days he walked six blocks to see if he would make a minyan at the storefront temple, but he avoided the other side of the park, and always left his wallet home.
“Why don’t you give him a lesson?” Max said.
“Good idea, papa,” Dora said. “You could be good for him.”
“Be a mensch,” Max said.
“It could be a mitzvah,” Dora said.
He wasn’t sure. Still, after dinner he went back to the attic and found a few yellowed sheets of beginner’s music. He woke next morning determined to give it a try. To be honest, although he loved reading to little Effie, sitting in his lap, he’d wished the new baby would be a grandson.
Elijah was waiting, triumphantly holding up a metal mouthpiece. “The music teacher loaned it to me.”
“Good morning, Elijah. Why didn’t she lend you the whole trombone?”
“It’s ruined, Mr. Stein. In the band bus coming back from a football game, somebody sat on it. A big guy. She said I might as well use the mouthpiece, because nobody’s going to use the rest of it ever again.”
Marvin put his trombone together. “How did your parents come to name you, Elijah?”
“My mother, sir. My father is . . . not living with us. She sang the hymn, ‘Elijah won’t you blow your horn’ with the church choir, and liked the name. I told her about you last night. She likes the idea of me blowing a trombone.”
“Playing, Elijah.” He had the music stand set up with the beginner’s sheet music. “Do you read music?”
“No, sir. I sing in the choir, but I learn by listening. I’d like to read music, though.”
“Maybe you should learn that at school. For now, forget the sheet music. Here.” He demonstrated how to hold the trombone, the looped horn resting on his shoulder, and showed the slide positions. “You have to play by ear, anyway. No keys; you make the notes with the slide.” He took the mouthpiece out. “And with your lips.” He held it to his lips and played a scale.
Elijah’s eyes widened. “That’s neat, Mr. Stein. You don’t even need the horn.”
A warning light went off in the back of Marvin’s head. He didn’t need the horn?
He brushed the thought back. “That’s just to show that your lips make a difference.” He handed Elijah the trombone. “Go ahead, put your mouthpiece in. See if you can make a high note and a low note without moving the slide.”
It sounded like a sick foghorn, but Elijah got it. Marvin showed him how to use the slide to make notes all the way up one octave. Then up another register. He had a good ear. Marvin couldn’t remember his own first lesson, but Elijah seemed more of a natural than he’d been.
“What was it you were playing yesterday, Mr. Stein?”
“Ole Buttermilk Sky. Hoagy Carmichael.” He put his own mouthpiece back in and played it all the way through, then handed the trombone over. “I’ll sing it and you play.” His voice was as croaky as an old crow, though. He took the trombone back, put in his mouthpiece, played the first passage and handed it back. They went back and forth like that through the whole piece, he cawing the words and playing a few bars, then swapping mouthpieces, Elijah finally playing it all the way through.
The kid really could learn by ear. Marvin applauded.
Elijah grinned and looked embarrassed. “That was fun, Mr. Stein. But I have to get to school soon. Can we do it again?”
A moment’s hesitation. But why not? “Of course.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, though. We’re Seventh Day Adventists. Could we do it Sunday morning?”
Imagine, they had the same Sabbath. “Sunday morning would be perfect. About ten o’clock?”
“Thank you. I can hardly wait.” Elijah put his mouthpiece in his pocket and went off whistling Hoagy’s tune.
Sunday dawned a beautiful day. Even though Dora always fixed a big breakfast, they were finished by nine. He should have suggested earlier. He fussed with the newspaper, unable to concentrate. It was still before ten when he set out across the street. Elijah was there.
“Good morning, Mr. Stein. Guess what? The music teacher got me started on reading music, and gave me some to take home. My mother coached me after church yesterday. Did you bring some sheet music?”
Marvin had been refreshing his memory with the brittle old pages, but hadn’t seen any point in bringing them. “No. I will tomorrow. Do you want to try a new tune by ear?”
So they did Glenn Miller’s Tuxedo Junction. In half an hour Elijah had not only learned the notes but had the rhythm, too. The park was slow to fill up on a Sunday morning, so they went on to try Tommy Dorsey’s All The Things You Are.
“I think you have real talent, Elijah. Does your mother work, besides singing in the church choir?”
“Oh, yes, sir. She’s a para.”
Marvin had an idea what paras did in school; Dora and Max talked about them. “A paraprofessional.”
“Is she home now?”
“I think so. In fact, she may be peeking out the window, trying to see us.”
Through the thin foliage across the great lawn were faded red brick buildings, three-story walk-ups. A good mother might worry whether her son was being hustled by a dirty old man. “I used to have a hardware store over there. It had a lead strip over the doorway with pictures of tools beaten into it.”
“I know it exactly!” Elijah said. “That was you?”
“The lead strip is still there?”
“Yes, sir, but it’s a cellphone store now. Mama says the man does drugs on the side; she won’t let me go in there.”
“How about we walk over there?”
“Now, Mr. Stein?”
“Why not? I’d like to meet your mother. Tell her she’s been a good mother and has a talented boy.”
Elijah fairly beamed, but then his face clouded. “It’s not a very good neighborhood, Mr. Stein.”
“I know that. I don’t mind.”
“On Sunday morning especially. There are men sleeping on the street, hung over or strung out.”
“I’ve seen drunks before, Elijah.”
“Maybe you should take the trombone home first, sir. It would be terrible if some druggie snatched it.”
“Don’t worry. You carry it. Let’s go.”