The Clarinet. Fiction Honorable Mention. Fall 2020.

by Barry Kitterman

The Clarinet

I was having some doubts, minor ones, nothing I want to talk about yet. I used to think as I got older, I’d forget the bad times and the sad times. Nobody died or wished they died, just normal things, girls I once knew, easy money I didn’t make. I never joined the Navy. I am sixty now, or sixty-one, I’m not sure, but I’m a writer: I could figure it out.

When I went to see my old man it wasn’t so I could talk to him about any of this. It was early summer, and we took a seat on a bench outdoors so the sun could warm us up. We don’t go downtown anymore. He’ll be ninety on his next birthday, I’m sure about that. My father doesn’t talk much. I talk a lot, but around the old guy I try to keep quiet.

“Did you ever?” I said.

“Ever what?” he said. “Ask your question.”

“I don’t know . . . wish things had gone different somehow? Ever feel like you missed a chance?”

“Good lord,” said my father. His voice is soft as an old hat. He used to be tall. He’s shrinking away, all except his shoe size. His hands. “Probably,” he said. “You live this long, some kind of thing will keep you awake at night.”

I tried to imagine what he could be talking about.

“You mean Mom?” I said.

“I don’t regret a moment of my marriage,” he said.

He was with my mother more than fifty years. She died in the bedroom he still sleeps in, and it comforts him to sleep in that room. I can’t argue with it. I’m not his age yet; I wouldn’t know.
Now he had me wondering. He’s lived so long I don’t know the half of it. Before the war he did a lot of crazy things, but after those years as a soldier he wanted a quiet life with his cigarettes and a newspaper in the evenings, a little television.

“Tell me again how you left home,” I said.

“That,” he said. “I don’t think about it much.”

I wanted to ask, was he sure? Maybe it’s what woke him up at night.

“Nothing there,” he said. Like he knew what I was thinking.

But I get him to remember it for me, how he was sitting by a stove in the middle of the schoolroom holding a book in his hands, a morning more than seventy years ago, when he realized it was time. He had to go. A feeling like snow sliding off the roof, that’s how he put it. He felt excitement, but it was a sadness at the same time. The high school seniors were reading Hamlet because it was spring, and even if he wasn’t a senior, they needed him for the play. Don’t get the wrong idea, he said. Don’t picture one of those one-room schoolhouses. We had three rooms, counting the closet, and running water if you went out to the yard and opened the tap.

This was a new school, but it wasn’t a big place, and the juniors and seniors sat on one side of the room in the back. Actually, there were only three seniors, three girls, each of them thinking at different times they were in love with him. He didn’t see that happening. Love meant getting married and working with a girl’s father on a tired place that needed more than what one person could do to get it back on its feet.

Whenever the teacher asked him to read with the older girls, he had to take the part of Hamlet or Hamlet’s uncle, or sometimes he could be Ophelia’s brother, the one who wanted to kill Hamlet. Hamlet’s problem was he couldn’t make up his mind to do a thing. My father’s name was Arthur, and indecision was not going to be his problem. He was going to make up his mind and he was going to do a thing, even if it was the wrong thing in the end. No regrets, no revisions. And that morning next to the stove, he realized if they waited a few weeks before they got out the same Hamlet play to read again, he wasn’t going to be there. The part of Hamlet could be somebody else’s part.

That schoolhouse was cold in the winter, the way the air came in around the windows. Sometimes the windows iced up and stayed that way for a day. The older boys chopped firewood and brought it inside to keep the place warm. He didn’t mind chopping wood. He went in early and took his turn with the maul until he was sweating under his coat, then carried the wood by the armfuls and stacked it close enough so it would dry out a little before the teacher, Miss Weaver, added a log to the stove. When he was done, he went inside and took off his coat and waited for the sweat on his shirt to dry. Normally, he let the younger children sit up close to the stove. He remembered how cold the room felt when he was seven or eight and trying to master the times table or memorize a poem like the one by Longfellow about the spreading chestnut tree. The heat from a wood fire will dry you in a hurry. When his shirt was warm, he moved away from the stove and took up Hamlet, ready to say his part.

“We were always reading that play,” he said. “To be or not to be. I got tired of that question.”

His teacher wasn’t happy to see him go. She counted on him for the firewood, and he kept the smaller kids from fighting in the schoolyard. He just had to take those little boys by the arm and squeeze them hard and they stopped their foolishness. I remember he did that to me when I was little. He didn’t need to do it more than once.

His grandfather didn’t want him to go either. As long as my father could remember, he’d lived with his grandparents. His mother and his sisters did too, his own father long gone, just a memory. The last ten years had been hard on farms in the county. When men went to town, some still in horse drawn wagons, they wore mended overalls, thin in the knees. Those overalls, they were the same thing young girls wanted to wear thirty years later, thinking they were stylish. My father liked to say, stylishness was a thing a person could regret. Most young people didn’t understand how badly they needed to regret it.

He thought maybe he could have done a better job of explaining himself to his mother. When he went to work for a man on the edge of town, then went to another farm two counties over, then got in a car one morning with some older boys and drove away from Minnesota completely, she worried about him for a year or so. He supposed she worried about him longer than that.

Funny, he told me, how he used to stop those fights among the little boys, then he went into the Army and made fighting his business. If he regretted anything, it was the war; he wished he’d never been part of it, weeks and months of it he wished he’d never seen. The fighting was often in the distance, shooting at things that moved in the distance. Hurrying on foot from one place to another and then shooting at something new. He didn’t like it when they were asked to move up and they saw the dead bodies of the people he might have been the one to shoot. Some of the others found it interesting, the way the bodies fell, the placement of the bullet holes.

It took time though, years before he felt a full measure of regret. After the war was over, he learned to take care of himself again and not just wait for someone to tell him what to do: eat dinner now, get dressed now, run after that truck now. He had his own family and his regular life, a job at the junior high. He tried to make it an easy life.

What interrupted his ease, a Japanese family moved to the town we were living in. My father was the custodian at the junior high, and he was helping out at back-to-school night, not really doing a whole lot, just there in case something needed to be cleaned up. Sometimes a kid came to back-to-school night and got excited and made a mess that had to be taken care of, the custodian’s job. The night the Japanese family came to school, the Shimanos, he remembered their name, those children were dressed neat and clean. It made him worry for a moment what his own kids must look like as they wandered from the car into the building (his building) with their mother (his wife).

He wouldn’t follow us through the building on back-to-school night. He left that to our mother. We were not embarrassed by our father the custodian; we liked to think his job was important, that he had to be on duty and couldn’t just walk through the too-familiar building all lit up on a night when everyone in town turned out to meet the same teachers from the year before. He saw the Japanese father and mother with their children and he knew they weren’t the people he shot at with his rifle during the war. These Shimano people had lived in the US from the day they were born. They’d spent time at one of the camps. Still, they were small and dark, the same race as the people he shot at. The mother spoke politely to the teachers. From the things pinned on the wall in the classrooms, the Shimano girl was one of the top students in her grade. That night he felt a sorrow, maybe not the first time, for all the days he shot his rifle at Japanese men during the war. That was a regret. No way around it.

But you learned to deal with it, he said. You had to, or you’d end up in a bad way. He knew two men who sat in their separate cars parked in their separate garages, separate engines running, until they found some peace. And several other men who drove their cars off the road, not by accident. Nobody to his memory ever shot himself, but it might have happened and he’d forgotten about it. You had to compartmentalize that part of your life if you wanted to go ahead and live. You walked away from that part and you didn’t think about it, not every day you didn’t. When you did think about those years, it was as if you had a new life now and you were a different person way back when it all happened. It was a choice you made, the way you looked at the war.

He talks about the rest of his life like it was a history book. After the war everything was changing, speeding up, but he felt no real sorrow when he considered those years. He got married and he worked. Being a custodian, he wasn’t in charge of any money, he didn’t buy the paint or the cleaning tools, he just used what was presented to him. They tried to get him to take responsibility for the buying, but he wouldn’t do it. He took responsibility for the work itself, and the work got done to a high standard.

He didn’t involve himself in all the stuff of life, the music or the clothes, and his kids didn’t get too involved in it. He didn’t ask us if we took the drugs people talked about all the time. He didn’t ask if we slept with our boyfriends or girlfriends. We were kind enough to keep him in the dark about things that would upset him.

For forty years he cleaned the school. He also voted. Usually for the wrong person, or at least for the loser. He didn’t see the country the same way most people did. He voted for a person who promised not to do anything too terrible, who wouldn’t make the kind of big mistakes a country had to suffer through for a long time afterward. A whole country could be filled with sorrow. He didn’t want to see that. I remember the night President Johnson came on the television and said we’d been attacked in Vietnam. We were going to fight back. It was war, though the president didn’t call it war. My father sat in front of the television a long time without speaking. He had a cigarette in his fingers but he couldn’t make himself light it. I thought he was staring at the television, but then I realized he was staring at a place on the wall where shadows from the TV flickered off the paint.

When the century turned, he let his youngest daughter talk him into stockpiling canned goods and bottles of water because her church told her the system was likely to collapse on the night the calendar went from 1999 to 2000. He didn’t think it would collapse, but he went along with his daughter, and maybe he regretted so much going-along. He soon enough hated those tins of corn and beans in his garage. He didn’t like to eat canned vegetables when there were fresh vegetables a person could buy or even grow himself. He’d worked for years over the soil in his garden, and the part of California where we lived, there was a long growing season.

“I took good care of that garden,” he said to me.

“You did,” I said.

“I used a little Sevin to keep the bugs down.”

The cases of vegetables sat in his garage until the cans showed some rust, and then he gave them all away.

“I never told your sisters. So they wouldn’t fight. And that meant, guess what – no regrets.”

When he retired from his job at the middle school, they gave him a dinner at the Chinese restaurant, and he didn’t make a speech or carry on. He just said thank you, sincerely, for helping me support my family all these years and giving me work that had dignity. He must have gone over those comments again and again in his mind, and they came out okay, and everybody clapped for him and my mother wiped a tear from her eyes so he knew he’d done it right. He pretended he didn’t see one of his grandsons drink half a glass of beer left in a fat man’s cup. He didn’t feel bad about retiring. Some people left their job in a fit, couldn’t retire without making a scene. It made my father sad to see a man act that way.

When my mother died, he did things right again. He wasn’t sitting in a bar somewhere or walking around at the shopping mall buying clothes or tools he didn’t need. He was right there in the bedroom and he held her hand, and two of his children were in the room with him, the ones who could get home in time, and he didn’t make the others feel bad about it. He grew terribly sad watching her go, but my mother never wanted to end up bedfast, and the days she lay in bed were all he cared to see of that.

He asked us to keep the funeral simple. We found a minister, and the minister was new and didn’t know my mother very well, but that was okay. It was a day we got through somehow without any family members making a scene, no meltdowns from the grandchildren. My father grieved silently and thoroughly, and he talked things over with his doctor who gave him some medicine against depression which he took for a year and then stopped. He came out of it.

We are here on this earth like objects tossed up on the sand one morning and washed back out to sea in the afternoon. That’s what he thought mostly. He had a mild feeling he should have spent more time at the coast. But even that feeling was easily replaced by memories of working in his garden or walking in the evening with his wife.

“One thing,” he said. “I never told you this.”

So there was something, a story he’d been hanging onto all these years. When he went to bed at eight, when he woke up at four in the morning, was this what played through his mind? I felt uneasy in my stomach, thinking he was going to share it with me. I wanted to get up and leave, I wanted to run out into the road.

“You think you can hear this?” he said.

I told him I could, but I had to get a glass of water first. I brought one out for him too. He looked at it like I’d handed him some kind of foreign food.

“I thought you might be thirsty,” I said.

“I’m off water,” he said.

“You’re what?”

“I’m kidding,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor?”

“Is this a funny story?”

“You tell me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s funny anymore.”

The story he tells me, he is ten years old, and he has come to school for the first day of the fifth grade. It’s a warm day, and all the windows are open at the schoolhouse. It lets in flies, but nobody cares. They’ve had a long and hot summer, and the breeze from outside feels good. When they recite the times table the sound will go out the open window, and he knows if a grown man walks past the school at that hour, the man will think he is hearing what he’s supposed to hear from a schoolroom window. When his teacher says the numbers, my father will repeat them in a clear voice with his class. He knows the numbers now, has studied all summer to get caught up with the others on the one task that eluded him last year. Spelling is easy and he is a great reader of books. This is years before he will be called on to read from Hamlet, but he already knows who William Shakespeare is, and he has read the important parts of the Bible, and he doesn’t doubt what the Bible says is true because he doesn’t doubt what his teacher Miss Weaver says is true. Why would she lie to him? He loves Miss Weaver a little bit, but he understands that she is older than he is. He doubts she will still be available when he gets old enough to go places with a girl.

He is excited for this first day of school, has been thinking about it most of the summer doing his chores around his grandfather’s place or helping wash up after meals. He is wearing a new shirt, a green one, soft already because his mother has washed it three times before he wears it. She knows he doesn’t like a scratchy shirt. He is wearing new pants too and has rolled them up twice so they don’t drag in the dirt. They are loose around the waist, and he has a good belt that cinches them tight. The pants will last him this school year and hopefully another year if he remembers to change out of them when he gets home.

He is waiting for the last hour of the day when Miss Weaver will have them put their books away and tidy up their shared desks and she will make them sit quietly and stop fidgeting for one long minute. She likes to take a small straight pin from her desk and drop it on the floor and ask them if this time they are able to hear the pin drop. Most of the time he does hear it. He likes the small tinkling sound the pin makes when it falls on a polished wooden floor. He likes Miss Weaver, who is more than someone who can teach arithmetic and reading and social studies. She can get out the paints and she can show them photos of places far away that she has been to or somebody she knows has been to. But even more than that, in the last hour before they go home, Miss Weaver has music.

He enjoyed singing last year, although he was even more conscious then about the grown man who might walk by the school’s open windows on a warm day. Miss Weaver had to urge him and the others to sing out. She taught them the words and made them laugh and pretty soon they were singing freely, On Top of Old Smoky and Barnacle Bill and The Erie Canal. She showed them pictures of the Erie Canal. My father liked to think about that place when he sang the song, the way the mules pulled the barges.

This year is better. He is in the fifth grade, and the fifth-graders get to graduate from singing to playing actual instruments. He knows the one he wants. The other boys in class are asking for the trumpet or the saxophone, and the boys who can’t sing a tune will get to pound on the drums. He has the music in his head. He can hear it and he can repeat it later, which is a little like magic. The final day of class last June, he asked Miss Weaver to save him a clarinet. He remembers the way she smiled and said she would, and he doesn’t have a reason to think she will forget.

He sits through the long first day of class. He does some complicated sums. He’s taught himself a way to add big numbers by tapping his pencil on each 3 or each 4 or each 7 in a particular place as he totals up the numbers. He isn’t sure you’re supposed to do it, the tapping, but the answers come out right if he does it that way. Miss Weaver lets him put his books away and she sends him out to the yard to fill a basin of water and she asks all the children to wash their hands before she will let them touch the instruments tucked safely away in their cases. A few boys have said they don’t want to be in the band. They have scowled at the idea of practicing every day. They are sent to a corner of the room with books they are supposed to read or at least pretend to read, and mostly they keep quiet.

“Let’s begin,” Miss Weaver says.

Her face turns a light shade of red, like she has spent most of her summer outdoors. Miss Weaver looks at each girl and boy as if she can divine something deep inside them before she decides which instrument will suit them best. My father is afraid when she looks at him that she will make a mistake, and he says the word clarinet to himself hard as she looks into his eyes. It makes her smile, but she hands him the brown scuffed case.

“This was Harry Thompson’s last year,” she says. Harry Thompson was one of the big boys, gone from school now. My father isn’t sure if Harry graduated or if he just stopped coming. Either way, his absence frees up a clarinet.

“Thank you,” says my father. He holds the case in his lap and doesn’t open it until Miss Weaver has passed out all the instruments to all the children. Some of the girls are upset. Most of them want to play the flute and Miss Weaver only has two flutes to pass out.

“I don’t know,” she says. She looks sad too and one of the girls cries a little. “We’ll see what we can do,” says Miss Weaver.

Two sisters say they will share a flute.

“You’re good children,” says Miss Weaver.

She lets them take their instruments out of the cases and put the pieces together. Before they blow into their reeds and mouthpieces, she has them take everything apart again, which is easy for a trumpet player, just pull the silver mouthpiece out and throw it back in the case. It’s different with a clarinet. A clarinet has five pieces and you have to get them back in the case in the right order, each piece in its proper slot. The mouthpiece requires a reed, and Miss Weaver gives my father a brand new one, which is a great relief when he thinks about Harry Thompson’s large and crooked smile. She shows my father how to fix the reed onto the mouthpiece.

“It’s bamboo,” she says. She whispers the word, ignoring everyone else in the room. “Something like bamboo,” she says.

One of the boys blows hard into a trombone, and Miss Weaver scolds him, then laughs and lets all the boys and girls put their instruments together again and blow as hard as they want. My father doesn’t blow hard at first. He wants the clarinet to sound like someone’s voice, not like a bird screaming in the South American jungle.

“It was like that thing that happens before an orchestra starts to play,” says my father. “When everyone plays their own note. It was just like that.” Miss Weaver has to stand in the middle of the room and wave her hands to make them all stop.

“It’s time to go home,” she says.

The boys with their trumpets and the girls with their flutes look like they don’t want the day to be over.

“You can take your instruments with you if you want,” says Miss Weaver. “Just be careful. Will you be careful?”

She smiles as my father puts his clarinet away.

“I still remember the cloth inside that case,” he tells me. “It was dark red and as soft as velvet. It smelled a little old, but it didn’t smell bad. It smelled like a museum.”

He sits with the case in his lap for a long time, until he hears a car horn outside. Most of the other kids, not yet weighed down by coats or scarves, are already at the door, and he remembers his uncle Eddie has promised to give him a ride home. The door to the schoolroom is open and he can see his uncle out in the Ford. Eddie is his mother’s youngest brother, a character. His uncle grins and taps the car’s horn again, trying to catch Miss Weaver’s attention. He thinks he sounds musical, like a kid in the band.

My father closes the case to the clarinet and heads for the door, slowly at first, the thing he carries is so valuable. Then he can’t help himself and he runs for the car, taking the steps two at a time. When the case falls open he is almost to the bottom step, and he wonders later how the pieces could fly backwards the way they did, the mouthpiece and the barrel, the upper joint and the lower joint. The bell lands on the grass, but the other pieces land on the steps, and even before he kneels to gather them up he knows in his heart the damage has been done.

“Oh, Arthur,” says Miss Weaver, standing over him. The tears in her eyes match the tears in a boy’s eyes. Uncle Eddie stops grinning. He stares straight out the front window of the Ford.

“We can fix it,” says the boy, my father. “I’ll pay,” he says, though he has no money. “We can send it someplace.”

Miss Weaver bites her lip doubtfully. “Where would we send it?” she says.

“Isn’t there another clarinet,” he asks, “to hold me over?” By the look on her face, he sees that she has given him the last one.

“Maybe someone else will leave school,” she says. She whispers these words too, knowing they are terrible.

The year my father is in the fifth grade, none of the big kids quit school, except for Bud Walker who never learned how to read. He doesn’t play the clarinet. They won’t let Bud near the drums. Miss Weaver sends the broken clarinet to a man in the next town, a blacksmith. She has sometimes gone to the man’s church. The blacksmith says he will send away for the parts.

As the school year wears on, my father’s heart closes up a little each afternoon when the instruments come out of their cases. The band learns to play Aura Lee and a faster song that features the wood block. My father goes to the corner of the room with the other boys and reads and tries not to think about the music. He can pick out the clarinet part, and he knows how it is supposed to sound. He knows it better than the Rosewater twins, Robert and Rachel, who both have played clarinet for a year already. When the weather turns cold, my father offers to chop wood during music period. Miss Weaver says he can, her eyes sad when she says it. When spring comes, they don’t need to light the stove again, and he goes back to the reading corner. There’s an extra copy of Hamlet. He tries to read it for a day or two, then sets it aside.

The last week of school, a Thursday evening, the band plays a concert and my father stays home and looks through a magazine that has small black and white pictures of cars in the back. With a pencil he draws circles around the cars he plans to own. The next afternoon, Miss Weaver calls him aside as the others head outdoors to play. He has become friends with the boys in the reading corner. They are planning to throw a baseball back and forth, to play burnout. It’s a game where you throw the ball as hard as you can, daring the boy on the other end to stand in place and catch it without flinching. When the ball comes your way, if you don’t catch it, the ball strikes you in the chest or even the face, and it makes you forget about anything else that might be bothering you.

“Look,” says Miss Weaver. She’s holding his clarinet case or a case that resembles it.

“Go ahead,” she says. She urges him to lift the latch.

“You don’t have to feel bad,” she says. “This one’s as good as new.”

He hasn’t looked at me the whole time he is telling this story, but he looks at me now. His eyes were blue when he was younger. They’ve grown nearly white, all the color washed away by his years. I hear the sound of cars going past on the street. Somewhere, blocks away, children are laughing.

“I never raised the lid,” he says.

“Why?” I ask him. It all happened a long time ago. I wasn’t born then but my heart is aching for him. I feel sorrow like never before.

“Too much time had passed,” says my father. “A year of my life had gone by. I was eleven, too old to learn the clarinet.”

“No,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Oh, yes.”

Barry Kitterman is the author of a The Baker’s Boy, novel, and a collection of stories, From the San Joaquin. He has been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, and at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and he has received grants from the Tennessee Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts. He teaches writing at Austin Peay State University where he is the fiction editor of Zone 3 Magazine.

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