When I Heard About the Trombone
I’m not the kind of guy who goes looking for trouble, but when I heard about the trombone, I knew I had to do something. People had been talking about it the night before at the bar. I could hear them as I chalked my pool cue and lined up my shot. It was all trombone this and trombone that, even though everyone pretended like they hadn’t been talking about it. They drank their beers and laughed like they didn’t know a thing about the trombone. But I knew. I knew what had happened and why and who was responsible. I could see their guilty little faces as plainly as I could hear a trombone playing in my head.
I left the bar and drove to Freddy’s apartment. It was late, but I could hear the TV turned up loud the way Rita, Freddy’s girlfriend, always liked it—so Rita was there. When I knocked, someone muted the TV. I heard whispered arguments, furniture being moved, and what sounded like a chair crashing to the floor. Freddy’s face, behind the security chain, was pale, puffy, and mottled with stubble.
“Try shaving,” I said, but before Freddy could say anything, Rita pushed him aside and pointed a finger at me. “Stay out of our lives!” she screamed. “We don’t know anything about it! Stop bothering us!” She was wearing an ugly pink bathrobe that seemed recently stained with slide oil. Through the aperture of the chained door, I could see a trombone case hastily stuffed beneath the coffee table.
“That empty?” I said, and gestured toward it.
Rita slammed the door in my face. “Get out!”
“Yeah,” I heard Freddy say, “and don’t go bothering Aloysius, either!” and then I heard Rita punch Freddy and Freddy say, “What? What did I say?”
Aloysius. Of course.
When I found Aloysius’s house, his mother was in the kitchen fixing him his warm milk, the way she sometimes did after a long night of trombone practice. Steam rose from a heated saucepan. Aloysius’s mother invited me to sit at the table, where stacks of what looked like sheet music had been hurriedly flipped facedown. “Junk mail?” I said.
His mother handed me a trembling mug of milk and said, “Oh, just this and that.”
“Familiar tune,” I said.
Upstairs, I found Aloysius in his bedroom, feigning sleep, although he’d neglected to turn off his desk lamp, bright enough for me to see the mouthpiece he’d pathetically tried to hide beneath his bed. I palmed the mouthpiece and punched him in the arm. “Ouch!” he said. His breath was lousy with warm milk. “Listen, I don’t know what Freddy told you, but—“
“Save it,” I said. Aloysius was wearing his headgear, his forehead freckled with acne cream. His eyes were dark seeds. “Tell me,” I said.
“Did my mom give you milk?” Aloysius said, but I grabbed him by the headgear and began to twist. “All right! All right!” he hissed. “Jeez! It was Tito, okay? Are you happy? Tito did it. God!” He made little whimpering noises. “You don’t have to be such a bully all the time.”
I stood from the bed. “Most days,” I said, “I think I’m the nicest guy I know.”
It was the early morning when I got to Tito’s place, but the door was unlocked like always. Tito was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, his pet ferret, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, wrapped around his shoulders like a poorly knotted scarf. “Sit, Sussie!” Tito said when the ferret lunged for me. “Can’t you see our hero has arrived?” The ferret nipped at my shoes and made a noise like sausage frying. “You’ll have to forgive Sussie,” Tito said. “We are not used to visitors, are we, Sussie?” Tito pulled Sussie back with the thin rope tied around his neck—his whole body was a neck, really—and hooked the rope to a zip-line strung across the ceiling. The ferret darted down the hallway, the line whirring in his wake.
“Now, where were we?” Tito asked.
“About the trombone,” I said.
“Ah,” Tito said. “Yes, about the trombone.” He reached beside the La-Z-Boy and raised the trombone to his lap. Its tubing had been newly polished; the bell glistened and shone. “Do you know what I asked Sussie this morning?” Tito said. He worked the slide, warming up. “I asked him what he had done for his country lately.” Tito laughed his tuneless laugh. “Now, isn’t that a funny thing to ask? But a good question, nonetheless, I think. Even though I’ve since wondered how I would answer. That’s what I was thinking about when you came in. How I would answer.” Tito looked at me. “How would you answer?”
I reached in my pocket, grabbed the mouthpiece, and tossed it to Tito all in one motion. He caught it with his repulsively large hand. “Perhaps one last song?” Tito asked. “For Sussie?”
I considered this. “OK,” I said. “One last song.”
Tito inserted the mouthpiece, raised the trombone to his lips and played. Sussie ran the length of the house, through the rooms and up and down the hallways, in what was surely a dance.
Anthony Varallo is the author of This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books). Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse.