Ralphie’s Clarinet

Robert McKean

Mrs. Gleason she noticed. Dolores Gleason was hard not to notice. The blue bouffant through which shone the bony hemisphere of her scalp, the three-pronged aluminum cane she pumped with the precision of a drum major, the little bronchial explosions the woman periodically issued. But Audrey was so deeply embroiled with Mr. Del Greco, who had jumbled the figures in his checkbook, that she didn’t notice the other woman until she stepped out of Mrs. Gleason’s shadow, appeared in front of the counter, and passed the note over.

An altogether pathetic sort of person, the woman was short, swarthy, furtive. Her face was crabbed and puckered as a wild apple. One eye, haloed in raw pink, roved sightlessly. She was wearing a long coat, sun-bleached purple beneath the dirt, even though it was too early in the season for a winter coat. From the folds of the fabric seeped a piercing odor––perfume, sweat—no, no, something more astringent than that, something Audrey wasn’t sure of and didn’t want to identify.

But of this she was sure: The woman was funny.

Audrey, although new to her job, had had basic teller training,
plus another half day of in-service when they threw that tennis
ball around and talked about their families. And if Mazi––steady,
imperturbable Mazi Claprood, the flesh of her arms quaking like
Jell-O but her fingers amazingly deft with the stacks of bills,
a teller and nothing but a teller for thirty-one years––had
been there, instead of picking up her car, there was no question
Audrey would have done the right thing. Definitely, if Mr. Hamm
had been in his office (and it had been he who broke the
first rule, leaving her here alone), she would have followed the
instructions drilled into her. If there was an incident,
she was to comply with the perpetrator’s demands.

She knew that. She just didn’t do it. “No,” she
said, pushing the nearly illegible note back across the counter.
“We can’t accept that kind of thing here.”

The woman pointed at the note peevishly and pushed it forward again.
The note was scrawled on a page torn from a tablet. Audrey had read
it. She didn’t need to read it again. Having gotten this far
beyond the script, the vessels that fed her heart constricting,
she looked the disturbed woman in her one sound eye and sent the
note back a final time.

No,” she repeated, “I just told you––that
won’t do.” She forced herself to look over at Mrs. Gleason,
rolling her shoulders under her coat like a prizefighter, and announced
as authoritatively as she could, “Next!”

The perpetrator, caught between Audrey’s implacability and
the formidable presence of Mrs. Gleason, sidled up the counter,
clutching her rejected note. Even then, with the bones in her hands
giving forth strange little pangs and her skin dampening to such
a degree that Mrs. Gleason’s check adhered to her palm, Audrey
did not push the alarm. She recorded Mrs. Gleason’s deposit
and made direct eye contact with her next customer. The woman, at
some point, drifted away––what else was she going to
do? But even when Mr. Hamm returned from the mall, Audrey waited.
It wasn’t until Mazi settled in, mooshing her hemorrhoid pillow
beneath her, that Audrey closed her window and walked back to Mr.
Hamm’s office to report that there had been an attempted robbery
at his bank.

Mr. Hamm, recently promoted branch manager, was, as expected, aghast.
“You pushed the note back? Audrey, she could have been carrying
a weapon!”

It was Friday afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. Hamm’s romantic sea
cruise vacation started in forty-five minutes, plus or minus depending
whether Audrey and Mazi balanced, and, by God, they had known for
a month they had better well balance this particular Friday. Audrey
recalled the nauseating odor lifting off the woman, and, for the
first time, she permitted the icy fear that had been circling her
heart to invade that organ.

What if she did have a gun?

“Oh, Audrey, look at the position you’ve put us in!”
Mr. Hamm rubbed his bald spot inquisitively, tenderly. “What’re
we supposed to do? Call the police, get the main office involved,
draw up an incident report, put you on unpaid leave, draw up that
report, and cancel my vacation––or, pretend
this didn’t happen and endanger both our careers? And that’s
our choice, you understand, that’s it!”

What Mr. Hamm neglected to add, but hung unspoken between them,
was that every one of those reports would have to include the fact
that he had left her alone. No one ever was to be left
alone in the bank. “There wasn’t a robbery,” Audrey
reminded him. “Just a very feeble attempt.”

“It makes no difference,” he snapped, “and you
know that. That’s why we have policies, rules, drills.”
Mr. Hamm warmed to his anger. “So when an emergency arises,
we know what to do automatically. Do you think we do all that for
fun? To entertain ourselves? Tell me, Audrey, is this job something
you really need?”

Audrey detested this tone, the sarcastic voice ignorant
parents inflict on their children. It had always struck her as significant
that, despite Mr. Hamm’s protestations when they threw the
tennis ball of how he cherished his family, the photographs of his
wife and twin girls faced out, toward the customer’s chair.
She wouldn’t have said anything, knowing his excitable temperament,
but, by that same training, she felt duty-bound to report the incident.
Whether that was a mistake she didn’t know, but she did know
enough to let Mr. Hamm have his rant.

“Maybe you don’t need to work,” he continued.
“You’re independently wealthy?”

They were not independently wealthy. In fact, ever since
Ted had been furloughed from the steelworks, Audrey had become the
family’s sole breadwinner. Recently, he had taken up with
a fellow to sell potatoes by the side of the road. The enterprise
couldn’t have been more humiliating. When her parents found
out, they were scandalized. What’s come over him?
her mother wanted to know. Has he lost his senses? her
father weighed in.

It had been a difficult year. And Audrey took pride in the initiative
she had shown by getting a job, her first real job. At thirty-seven,
that had not been easy. But no one had warned her the work world
would be full of children parading around dressed as adults. “I
do need this job, Mr. Hamm,” she said when her boss’s
tantrum seemed to have run its course. “I’m sorry, I
am.”

Satisfied presumably, Mr. Hamm got up to close his door. “Does
Mazi know?”

Audrey shook her head. “I didn’t say anything.”

“And no one else was in the bank?”

“Mrs. Gleason was here, and so was Mr. Del Greco.”

Mr. Hamm threw up his hands. “Audrey, she could have done
them harm! The Gleasons have been with the bank for decades! Dolores’
father fitted me for my first pair of shoes! I didn’t know
there were other customers here! You didn’t say that! Oh,
this is just a mess!”

“They didn’t notice,” Audrey hastened to reassure
him. “Mrs. Gleason would have been quacking like a duck if
she’d realized what was going on, you know her, and Mr. Del
Greco, he’s lucky to find his way to the counter. They didn’t
see anything.”

Mr. Hamm smoothed his bald spot again. “You’re absolutely
positive? How could you not notice an attempted bank robbery? It
defies reason.”

“She was . . .” Audrey searched for words, “.
. . like a street person, kind of strange and foggy. I’m sure
she looked like someone trying to cash a check without ID. I said,
no, we can’t accept that, and went on to the next customer,
like you would, you know?”

Through the manager’s office of the Crocker Farm branch of
the Ganaego Savings & Loan, the heartache of Mr. Hamm’s
sigh fell softly. “All right,” he croaked, “we’ll
overlook this breach––this time. But I’m
going to say this once, once and once only: If there’s one
more slip, the tiniest deviation from policy, you are going to be
without a position, you hear me?”

Along with her new job, Audrey had inherited the task of doing the
family’s bills. If Mr. Hamm wanted, he could dismiss her on
the spot. “I understand,” she said.

• •

If you were going to rob a bank, Audrey
was thinking as she turned into the Oak Grove Music School, why
would you wear a purple coat?

This past week the weather had turned, and now, all day, a drizzle
as sharp as needles had been falling. Rivulets sluiced unchecked
down her windshield, beneath the wipers of the foreign car that
earned her, in Ganaego, hard stares. Clearly, the woman last Friday
had had emotional problems. She was to be pitied, not taken seriously.
But she had nearly cost Audrey her job, and that you had to take
seriously. Landing the teller position had been a stroke of luck.
She––if not Ted––had realized this past
year, as inconceivable as it once would have seemed, the steel mill
was on the verge of collapse. Shutdown was in the air. You could
feel it. Ted’s layoff was permanent. He was never going to
be called back. Why wouldn’t he face up to that? Night after
night, Audrey lay awake, gripped by foreboding and despair. You
could lose your house, your place in the community. She read about
the foreclosures in the paper. People at food pantries going through
the dented cans of soup. You could be flung out in the snow on your
hands and knees, and no one would care!

Bronze oak leaves were strewn across the music school porch; one
or two clung to the screen door, as though craving admittance. Audrey
was apprehensive about the conversation that awaited her and, once
inside, paused before the staircase to organize her thoughts. Upstairs,
from the honeycomb of practice rooms came the now-familiar medley
of squeaks, squawks, and aimless plinks. How atrocious it sounded,
she thought fondly, but from all this off-key tootling and sour
wheezing eventually came real music. And the thought that Ralphie,
their youngest, might someday be a musician stirred her, in an otherwise
bleak time, with an unaccountable passion.

Where had the notion to take up the clarinet come from? Not from
them. Neither she nor Ted was musical. Ted claimed he got the idea
from television. She thought it was something his big brother said.
Wherever he got it, he deserved credit for trying. How many nine-year-olds
could you name who had demonstrated even this much ambition? Music
was hard, a lot harder than it looked. Perplexed but delighted,
they bought him a clarinet with money they couldn’t spare
and enrolled him in this private music school because the public
schools did not accept children into the music program until they
were in the fourth grade. They fashioned a special place for him
in the rec room and sighed with parental pride (these moments,
if Audrey was at home, they shared) when, from the basement, began
rising––such tender, brave sounds!––tentative
chirps, snorks, bleats.

And then, as suddenly as those precious notes began, they ceased.
He was only a child, Audrey chided herself. His interests bloomed
and faded overnight. One minute he announced he was going to be
a doctor, the next a space ranger. Before he hit on what he wanted
to do with himself in life, he’d have scores of enthusiasms.
Nonetheless, it wounded her deeply. Both she and Ted admitted they
had made mistakes with Teddy. Fifteen, not even sixteen, last spring
he had run off with the irresponsible Gromeka girl. For two weeks
the house was plunged in crisis, then, dear God, he called. Ted
brought the boy home, no more than skin and bones, lice in his hair,
full of shame and misery for having been jilted and abandoned by
his girl. With Ralphie, they were determined to do better.

Stealing herself for the inevitable, she stood outside Mr. Weiner’s
room until Ralphie opened the door and slipped out, eyes lowered,
lips quivering. In that moment, Audrey felt her son’s failure
as poignantly as if it were her own. Impulsively, she hugged her
child, her baby, embarrassing him only further. Had their intense
family focus made it even more difficult? Maybe they shouldn’t
have fixed the special place in the rec room?

“Why don’t you go sit in the car,” Audrey told
him. Her eyes lingered on his strong little fingers clutching his
clarinet case. “Mommy will be along in a few minutes.”

She glanced up to see Mr. Weiner gazing down. Having seen his fill,
apparently, the old man teetered back into his studio. Rocking on
his thick-soled shoes, he lunged for the bookcase, then a chair.
He rounded the piano and settled his weight on the bench, looking
as if he were profoundly sorry he’d ever left that spot in
the first place.

Holding her pocketbook before her, Audrey followed him. This rumpled
old man, she thought, is a saint. His whole life he’s devoted
to teaching others, mostly children, to make music. She had sat
in on Ralphie’s first two lessons. She marveled at how the
old man’s gnarled and spotted hands moved so sinuously over
the ebony shaft of his clarinet, producing such exquisite sounds.
Humbled, she was more than humbled by his resolution, by the vast
reach of a long life given over to a single pursuit. At the same
time, though, she knew Mr. Weiner unnecessarily frightened Ralphie
with his stern rebukes.

“It’s too soon for the boy,” Mr. Weiner declared.
“He wants maturity.”

Audrey was afraid the conversation would go this way. “Maybe,”
she ventured, “if we helped him a little more? There’re
kids here even younger than him.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Weiner dismissed her suggestion.
“Bring him back in a year.”

“Do you think . . .” Audrey struggled to find a diplomatic
way to phrase this “ . . . he might do better with another
teacher?”

“He wants maturity!” Mr. Weiner thundered. “He
doesn’t practice!” The old man thumped the piano with
the flat of his hand. “You cannot learn to play unless you
practice!”

“I’m sorry,” Audrey said. “I didn’t
mean—”

“Sometimes,” Mr. Weiner said, breaking in, “the
gift takes a while to manifest itself.” Like a magician pulling
an endless scarf from his sleeve, he tugged a long handkerchief
from his pocket and blew his nose. “Be patient. People nowadays
have no patience. Maybe the school will refund your unused tuition.
About that, you will have to talk with the people in the office.
That’s what I have no patience for,” he harrumphed,
“people in offices!”

On her way downstairs, Audrey saw the woman. Lurid coat, face contorted,
hair sticking out from beneath a pillbox hat that had revolved off-center,
she was tussling with a boy about Ralphie’s age. The boy,
straining to free himself, swore at her. She yanked on his arm,
hissed something unintelligible, and, that moment, looked up. Before
Audrey could avert her head, their eyes met, and there leaped between
them a mutual recognition. Taking advantage of the woman’s
inattention, the boy pried himself free. He clattered past Audrey,
escaping into a practice room. The woman, furious as an animal,
dashed after him. Audrey could no longer see them, but she heard
somebody being hit. Forcing herself to step up to the door, she
peered in. The boy was holding his arms over his head, while the
woman struck at him with a large book.

Stop it!” Audrey ordered her. “What’s
the matter with you?”

The woman turned on her. “This is none of your business!”

“This is a public place,” Audrey said. Blood drained
from her face. “If you want to discipline him, do it at home.”

For the second time now, she understood she had overstepped the
bounds. She stared at the woman’s sightless eye, wallowing
in its radiant pink socket, then at the infuriated seeing one. “I
don’t know what the problem is,” she continued. “If
he’s done something wrong, he should be punished. But not
by hitting him. And,” she reemphasized, having no idea why
she felt so righteous about this, “not in a public place.”

“He stole money,” the woman said.

The irony was almost too great to resist. “Well, he shouldn’t
be doing that,” Audrey said, suppressing the compulsion to
laugh. “That’s wrong.”

The woman seized the cuff of Audrey’s jacket, startling her.
“Don’t think I don’t know who you are. I can see
right through this disguise, Eleanor. You’re losing your touch.”

The woman tossed the book on a harpsichord, producing within a small
murmurous complaint. She shoved the boy past Audrey––that
revolting smell!––and out of the room. Audrey, once
she was alone, her terrors given license, reached for the book,
for no other reason than to give herself a task, to return it to
the shelves, then began flipping through it. Her hands were cool
and trembly; the bones issued those strange little pangs. The book,
for children, was a biography of Mozart, lots of pastel drawings
of a little boy sitting primly at a clavichord, poring over music
scores. What would anyone living now, she thought,
know about Mozart the boy?
Wasn’t he the one with the
horrid father? Who could know––even their neighbors!––what
went on inside the Mozart household? What preposterous things people
wrote! Audrey jammed the book on a shelf, shook herself, and crossed
the hall and went into the school office. Behind the counter, extracting
staples from a stack of handouts, was Sara Kennedy.

“Did you hear that?”

“I hear a lot that I don’t hear,” Sara said, “if
that’s what you mean.”

“Who is that? She was hitting her boy with a book.”

Sara considered Audrey’s question. “You don’t
mean the lovely Mrs. Zurlo? All I can say is good-bye and good riddance.
We can only let them get so far behind before we have to put our
foot down.” She nodded at a battered clarinet case on the
counter. “That, they haven’t paid any rental fees on
since last year, not a penny.”

“She called me Eleanor.”

Sara glanced at Audrey quizzically. “You OK?”

Audrey forced herself to smile. “I feel so sorry for the boy.”

“Well, that part is a shame,” Sara agreed. “Mr.
Weiner refuses to have anything to do with her, but he likes the
boy, and he’s pretty stingy with his praise.”

Audrey remembered Ralphie alone outside. “I think I know the
answer to my question,” she said, trying to hurry the conversation,
“but is there any refund for unused lessons?”

“Only up until four weeks into the semester.”

“But Mr. Weiner says Ralphie’s not ready. He said I
should ask for a refund.”

Sara compressed her lips. “God bless Jacob,” she muttered.
“There is no refund, and he knows that, but we can
move Ralphie, if you like. No one else teaches clarinet, but I know
that Betty has a few holes in her schedule. She’s piano.”

Audrey shook her head. “I don’t think so. Mr. Weiner’s
probably right about that––he’s not ready.”
She considered her next words, rejected the impulse, then voiced
them anyway. “Could we transfer Ralphie’s unused lessons
to another boy?”

Sara set down, rather crossly, the clamp she was using. “Why
is it,” she complained, “that people can’t do
even the simplest things you ask? I specifically told Bunny
not to staple these!” She adopted an official tone. “School
policy,” she repeated, “is to refund tuitions up until
four weeks into the semester, less a nonrefundable administrative
fee, and, no, of course, they can’t be transferred. If we
started doing that, we’d be out of business in a week.”

“I know it’s unusual,” Audrey pressed, “but
these are unusual times. And why would that hurt the school?”

Sara reached for the ringing phone. “If your boy’s thinking
of dropping out,” she said acidly, “you’re welcome
to advertise his clarinet on the bulletin board. That’s why
we always recommend that parents rent their children’s
first instruments.”

The following week Ralphie announced for his school project he intended
to construct a Van de Graaff generator. Neither Audrey nor Ted had
ever heard of such a thing. When they discovered a Van de Graaff
generator was a metal sphere as wide as a refrigerator that produced
two-feet arcs of electricity, they put an immediate stop to those
plans. Ted, recalling something from a science class, suggested
they use a lemon to generate a weak electrical current. Audrey,
filled with visions of her son electrocuting himself, was still
dubious, but Ted assured her it was perfectly safe, and he and Ralphie
went shopping for a suitable lemon.

The Hamms were home. Except for a bumpy return flight that upset
the maternal Hamm tummy, the cruise had been a spectacular success.
By way of several sly remarks and what appeared to be an unlikely
Caribbean swagger in Mr. Hamm’s step across their tiny lobby,
Audrey and Mazi were led to understand that aboard ship a certain
marital rejuvenation had taken place. And for that, the two coworkers,
exchanging glances, were grateful. Bank life would be easier, because
of the Hamms’ restored felicity.

Later that morning, Mr. Hamm leaned over Audrey’s shoulder.
“Any problems with that nutcake while I was away?”

“I haven’t seen her,” Audrey lied.

• •

The place was a pigsty, and Audrey was on a tear.

Bad enough that even with a full-time job she still had to shop
and cook, was she expected to do the cleaning, too? Was this a hotel
people checked in and out of? Were they waiting for the maid to
show up? Was there no one besides her who grasped the basic concepts
of putting things on hangers, washing and drying dishes, running
the vacuum, dusting?

Dusting? Had anyone here even heard of dusting?

Ted, Jr., uncharacteristically out of bed before noon on a Saturday
and sorry for it, was the first to catch her ire. “I want,”
Audrey demanded, “all the summer stuff, the lawn chairs, the
table, the umbrella, everything, put away. Next, the windows need
washed and the storm windows slid down. When you’re done with
that, broom down the cobwebs in the basement. While you’re
at it, you might as well empty the dehumidifier and push it under
the stairs.”

The boy sulked. “Mom, I had plans.”

“If you apply yourself,” Audrey reassured him (why,
she pondered, do young men always play with their navels?), “you
can get everything done by noon. What are the chances that any
of your buddies will be up before noon? And you’re not going
anywhere anyway, young man, and you know this, until we’ve
talked about your homework. If you’re thinking of resting
on your laurels, straight Cs aren’t going to cut
it.”

Ted, sleeping late––sleeping off too much wine, Audrey
feared, noticing with alarm the empty bottle beside the garbage—caught
it next. Heaven knows, she was trying to be sympathetic. She understood
that her husband’s confidence, despite his usual bluster,
was fragile and, this year, had been all but shattered. Twenty-three
years of seniority, a responsible salaried job, technician in a
metallurgical laboratory––gone in a flash. Son of a
hopeless dipsomaniac, Ted had always taken pride in not following
in his father’s footsteps. Now, on top of everything else,
he had begun to drink. Not like his father, not week-long binges,
but still, any amount of Ted’s drinking made Audrey anxious.

This morning, however, she was without pity. “Either you rake
the leaves,” she threatened, “or I’m calling a
service.”

Irritable before he’d had his coffee, Ted cupped his forehead
in his hand to ease his headache. He was a lean, intense man with
dark hair that came to a sharp widow’s peak. In that regard,
he took after his mother, who was French, rather than his German
father. Unlike his mother, though, who was sunny, a tad daffy, Ted
usually wore a slightly belligerent expression. “I was waiting
until they were all down,” he grumbled.

“Well, don’t I have good news for you,” Audrey
informed him. “The last leaf just fell ten minutes ago.”

Hair tied in a bandanna, Audrey started on the second floor with
her dust rags and her Pledge. From time to time, she glanced out
to watch both the Teds in her life working below her in the yard.
Especially, she fretted over the younger one. She remembered clutching
Teddy on the doorstep when Ted brought him home, weeping so uncontrollably
she started to cough, whooping for air. She was convinced that she
had lost him, that he had been murdered, his body thrown in a ditch.
Those two weeks he was away, she didn’t believe the separation
from your own flesh and blood could grieve you so much.

The boy was taller, more manly, more handsome. Was that a good thing?
Don’t be silly––of course, it was! But Teddy had
a propensity to skim the surface, and that concerned Audrey. He
appeared to be taking reasonably well to the special educational
program at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart she had bitterly fought
Ted over, but, even so, she suffered because she despaired that
they had lost some essential portion of Teddy’s trust. He
was sullen and resentful, excessively so. He seemed to have gone
underground. Anguished, she stole glances at her son, showered this
morning by a luxuriant autumnal sunlight, fighting the umbrella,
wrestling the chaise lounge into the garage, taking no pleasure
in the tasks, no pleasure in the day. Inside, he went at the windows
just as bellicosely, yanking down the storm panes, ramming up the
screens. She heard him swearing under his breath, swearing steadily,
savagely, the way a disgruntled middle-aged man swears.

On the windows he left great brown smears.

During one of her trips to the basement, Audrey spotted Ralphie’s
clarinet on the floor and carried it upstairs. Ralphie’s assignments
had been to redd up his room, collect the scattered pieces of the
new space station model he was building, hang up his clothes, and
clean the hamster’s cage. When she checked in on him, he had
done almost nothing, but was paging through an old Montgomery Ward
catalog. Ralphie liked to cut out pictures of toys, sometimes even
tools and appliances––chrome machines that polished
shoes, jigsaws, gooseneck lamps––that he felt he positively
had to have. Beside him already lay a sizable pile of clippings.

“We should make a decision on your clarinet,” she said.
He absolutely would need to clean the hamster’s cage. “It
shouldn’t just be left lying around.”

About his failed endeavor, Ralphie was still sensitive. It was the
most public thing he had ever attempted. Moisture collected along
the bottom rims of his eyes, and he turned away. Audrey reached
out to him, drawing her boy in. “It’s OK, darling,”
she murmured. “You gave it your level best. We can just put
it up. Maybe you’ll want to try it again next year?”

“Don’t want it,” he said.

“Do you want me to take it back?”

He nodded, his hair against her cheek.

When Ted, later that evening, fumbled with the lamp, Audrey, pretending
to be asleep, pretended to wake. Into the bedroom he brought the
smell of beer. His hands, even his wrists, were brown with dirt
from the potatoes. “We need,” she said, “to keep
sending out your resumé.” Her father had been a machinist
in the Welded Tube. Her grandparents were from Lithuania. They were
peasants. People who sank their hands in dirt. She wasn’t
embarrassed by a workman’s hands. But to see her husband’s
darkened skin tonight provoked her. “We’ll go through
the paper tomorrow. I’ll type the letters.”

“I don’t need your help going through the want ads,”
Ted said. “I’ll tell you right now what’ll be
there. Three lab techs––all in hospitals, two more in
clinics, two more after that in medical offices. I can show them
how to test their steel for purity.”

“What about the job-retraining program at the community college?”

“I––will––go—through––the––ads,”
Ted said, “don’t worry.”

There were deceits in all marriages, places that had hardened over.
Don’t tell her there weren’t. And this––her
husband’s depression, no, his unwillingness to do anything
about it––was one of those places. “I put the
clarinet up,” she said, changing the subject. “He’s
not using it.”

“That’s not my fault,” Ted said.

“I didn’t say it was, Ted.”

“He lost interest in it––little kids’ll
do that.”

“But you were home, here,” Audrey cried, unable
to stop herself. “You could have encouraged him more! Kept
him practicing, helped him! He is a little boy––he
needs direction, encouragement! You let him down!”

His foot snagged in his pajamas, Ted did a slow reel about the room.
“What the hell do I know about music?”

The day that had started so promising, the busy cleaning, the crisp
sheets and fragrant towels, had turned to ashes. Ted thrashed in
the covers for a few minutes, his back to her, then fell asleep.
Sometimes, when Audrey couldn’t sleep, she would go downstairs
and work the crossword puzzle. Sometimes, a little warm milk would
help. Tonight, she went to the hall closet and lifted down the clarinet
case. In the darkness of her home, she held it against her breast.

Then she put it out on the kitchen counter to take back to the store
Monday.

• •

For two weeks now, the clarinet had been riding
around in the backseat of her car like a small, mute passenger she
didn’t know what to do with. The instrument was worth half
of what they paid for it. The manager at Shea’s had made that
clear when they bought it. Even so, the money was far from insignificant.
But what haunted Audrey and kept her from returning the clarinet
was the memory of the boy, arms arched over his head, while his
mother rained down on him blow after blow. He was a short, sinewy
little boy with pointy elbows. His hair was cut short on his perfectly
round skull so that his head resembled a spherical bristly brush.
He wore shorts and an ill-fitting sports jacket, although the jacket
seemed wrong. Something an older boy would wear. Was it
a sports jacket? No matter, what the scene represented was abuse,
not discipline, and, worse, it signified more terrible things going
on behind closed doors.

But every time she tried to concoct some indirect scheme of getting
the clarinet in the boy’s hands, she shrank before the idea’s
peculiarity. Some days she actually talked to the clarinet back
there. What, she asked it, am I going to do with you?
I mean, what would I think––let alone an unbalanced
person––if a stranger knocked on my door and offered
me a clarinet? And if they can’t afford lessons, what use
is a clarinet anyway?

What brought the decision to a head had nothing to do with the clarinet
or the boy. At lunch today, Audrey accidentally drove down a patch
of Sutton Post Road she had been avoiding. Late afternoons, to her
intense displeasure, after folding up their cart, Ted and his partner
had taken to sitting in a bar, through dinner into evening. And
now, coming past the potato stand suddenly and seeing Ted standing
behind the makeshift cart of rotting potatoes––like
a common tramp!––filled Audrey with a violent rage.
When she got back to the bank, she slammed through Mr. Hamm’s
desk searching for the telephone directory. Even for Ganaego, Zurlo
was an unusual name, and she had no trouble finding what she wanted.
On Chestnut Lane in Rose Township resided the single Zurlo in the
entire Ganaego Valley, George B. Zurlo.

The drive, as it turned out, was longer than she expected. Chestnut
Lane, not as bucolic as its name implied, wound past the public
dump, then crossed by a basin where a swamp had risen and killed
a stand of trees. The trunks, clothed in withered vines and shaggy
with flaking bark, stood rotting in the slimy water, weighing on
Audrey’s spirits. Long ago, her father would take the family
on meandering Sunday drives. Audrey and her mother would dare him
to turn down the smallest, least promising roads, trying to get
him to a place where he’d have to admit to being lost. Those
plots nearly always failed, since Jonas Zobarskas possessed an unerring
sense of direction. Occasionally, though, they would tumble down
through a country hollow where the road took a sudden swerve and
they would see, spread before them, an entire flank of a hill littered
with disemboweled cars, old school buses up to their doors in brambles,
upside down iceboxes, moldering sofas. Not a junkyard, not a business,
as bad as that might be, but somebody’s personal, lifelong
blight on the landscape. Sometimes, amid these hodgepodges of scrap
would stand unfinished houses, weathered shells sheathed in peeling
tarpaper.

Such places threw Audrey into a deep despondency: the weedy yards,
the toddlers in undershirts and no diapers, the sense of hardscrabble
lives lived out in unrelenting anxiety. She understood that happiness
was not the God-given possession of the middle class, no more than
despair the inescapable burden of the poor. Nevertheless, she felt
that. And the deeper she drove into the country tonight, straining
to read the names on the mailboxes, the smaller and meaner the houses
became and the more her fortitude, like a rope under increasing
pressure, threatened to snap. Then, to her dismay, what she immediately
guessed, as she noodled around a bend and saw a hillside given over
to rusty automotive debris, was that this would turn out to be––and
indeed was––the home of George B. Zurlo and family.

At that moment, Audrey’s courage did, in fact, waver.

What had seemed an improvident but praiseworthy undertaking now
seemed inexplicable, even bizarre, a well-intentioned but dreadful
mistake. But nobody ever promised that doing good would be easy.
Her mother, a devout Catholic, would vouch for that, and Audrey—deciding
that this clarinet was all she had to offer the boy, and, as such,
she had no right not to offer it––squeezed the steering
wheel with both hands and navigated her car into the rutted drive.
If the child’s father pawned the instrument and drank up the
money, she resolved, so be it.

The next debate was whether to walk down to the garage and deal
with Mr. Zurlo or knock on the door and deal with the woman. Audrey
chose the former and made her way down the slope. The building,
even from a distance, smelled of grease and corrosion. Within, she
could hear a radio, the banging of metal on metal, then voices,
the voices of men in a garage, bellowing like steers. In her business
suit and heels she felt very vulnerable. The frilly blouse made
it all the worse. She had also brought her purse––rather
than make a show of locking her car––and with that and
the clarinet case she felt even more uncomfortable.

Hello!” she shouted. “Hello there!”

The voices paused, then resumed, as though their owners collectively
decided it had been only their imaginations. Should she shout again?
She did not want to go in there! Besides the grease and dirt, she
just did not want to go inside. Granted, what she had in mind was
unusual, but it could be explained quite well outside in a moment
or two. She had her speech worked out. She had been––very
nearly constantly the whole drive out––practicing it.

“Is anybody home?”

This time the voices ceased definitively, and a boy about Ted, Jr.’s
age emerged, wiping his hands on a red rag no less greasy than his
hands. He wore a T-shirt with the cuffs rolled up to show his muscles.
On his arm he had a tattoo. Audrey was outraged. What was a boy
his age doing with a tattoo? He squinted at her as if he were nearsighted.
“What you got in there, lady––a gun?”

“It’s a clarinet,” Audrey said, thrown off balance
by the drift of the boy’s imagination. “Doesn’t
one of your brothers play a clarinet?”

And now, suddenly, when the boy looked baffled, on the verge of
hostility, it came to her that maybe she had misheard Sara––it
never occurred to her to question that! Involuntarily, she took
a step back. “Perhaps I’ve made a mistake,” she
said. “I was looking for a little boy whose mother is named
Mrs. Zurlo, I think. He plays the clarinet. He goes—or used
to go––to the music school in Oak Grove.”

“You from that school? Whadda you want with us?”

From behind a truck out stepped a man dressed in pin-striped overalls
long browned by oil and grease. He too was wiping his hands on a
red rag. Not a big man, he had dark, sparse hair that fell across
his forehead and failed to cover an ugly scab along his temple.
Like the boy, he squinted when he spoke. “We paid you what
we owed. We don’t owe nothing more on that boy.”

“I’m not from the school,” Audrey said. “My
son was a student there, too, but then he dropped out. He wasn’t
ready, you see? Mr. Weiner wants me to bring him back in a year,
but, knowing Ralphie, I don’t think he’s ever going
to go back to it.” This had nothing to do with her speech!
What could these people possibly care about Ralphie’s commitment
to the clarinet? She struggled to find her way back to her prepared
speech. “Here,” she said, at last, holding out the clarinet
and feeling very stupid, “I don’t care if you sell it
or not––it’s worth a hundred dollars at Shea’s.”
She was not to tell them that! She had made a strict agreement
with herself to keep the price of the instrument out of the conversation.
“I can’t help with his lessons, but I can help with
his instrument, see?”

Mr. Zurlo did not take the case. “We didn’t ask for
no clarinet.”

“I know you didn’t ask for it, Mr. Zurlo,” Audrey
said. “It’s just something your boy might use and our
boy doesn’t want to use.”

That sentence happened to be from her speech. Why it had picked
this particular moment to come sailing back into her mind, Audrey
had no idea.

“We don’t need nobody’s charity,” Mr. Zurlo
said.

“It isn’t charity,” Audrey insisted.

“I think it’s stolen, Pop,” the boy said.

“Shaddup,” he snapped. He turned on his son. “What’re
you standing around here for anyway? If I need your help, I’ll
holler.” After the boy left––his shoulders, precisely
as Teddy’s would, expressing his towering disdain––Mr.
Zurlo stared at Audrey, deliberating. “You come in the house,
explain this,” he said. “I ain’t saying no, and
I ain’t saying yes. Come inside and we’ll talk.”

Anything but that! Audrey held out the clarinet case again.
“Can’t I just give this to you?”

“Look,” Mr. Zurlo said, provoked, “you want to
get back in your car and drive the hell off my property, that’s
fine with me!” He reached out very swiftly, before Audrey
could react, not taking the clarinet case but grabbing her wrist,
not hard but firm. “You haven’t even tol’ me your
name. You seem to know mine.”

“Audrey,” she said, frightened by his grasp. “Audrey
Bachelor.”

“Well, you come inside, Audrey,” Mr. Zurlo said, releasing
her. “We’ll ask Buster and his mother. I still don’t
understand why you want to give us something that belongs to you.”

The house was two-story, not blackened planks covered in tarpaper,
but certainly a long time had elapsed since the clapboards had seen
a coat of paint. Mr. Zurlo went up a few steps, Audrey reluctantly
trailing, then in a side door. Once inside, Audrey heard cats mewing,
smelled the pungent odor, and recognized its source: cat urine.
She wasn’t allergic to cats, but she was skittish around them.
Mr. Zurlo led her down a short hallway, and they emerged into one
vast room, the entire first floor. Never had Audrey seen such a
remarkable thing––a house without rooms! Down two sides
stretched long clothing racks, like in a store, with everybody’s
clothes hanging in plain sight. Scattered about were card tables
heaped with boxes of donuts and cupcakes and cookies, while other,
more substantial, tables held those enormous cans of green beans
and jars of mayonnaise you saw in the back shelves of grocery stores.
In a corner she saw three colossal crates of toilet paper, and lying
over the few pieces of living room furniture in the center were
sheets, blankets, quilts, and pillows, everything furry with cat
hair.

Surely, Audrey thought, they don’t all sleep
down here, with the cats?

Appalled by the sprawling disorder throughout the large room, Audrey
turned, and close by her elbow suddenly was the woman’s face,
shriveled and brown as a berry.

“Coca-Cola,” she said. “I was thinking of Coca-Cola
just as you drove up. You can put ice cream in Coca-Cola, did you
know that?”

“Audrey here,” Mr. Zurlo said, “wants to give
Buster a clarinet worth a hundret dollars, no strings attached.
That’s right, ain’t it?” He turned to Audrey.
“No strings?”

Audrey nodded. “It’s something we can’t use,”
she said, finding this indeed the only line her brain preserved
from her speech, “and maybe your son can.”

Mr. Zurlo gathered up an armload of blankets from an overstuffed
chair, disturbing a cat nestled within, then indicated Audrey was
to sit there. He left the room without a word. Audrey held both
her purse and the clarinet on her lap. She had been too self-conscious
to examine the chair before she sat. This was her only good business
suit. If anything happened to it, she’d die. It was white
linen. It cost one hundred and eighteen dollars at Kaufmann’s.
And where had Mr. Zurlo gone? Mrs. Zurlo, not bothering to take
up the blankets on the sofa across from Audrey, simply plopped down.

“You ever have Coca-Cola with ice cream?”

“No,” Audrey said.

“Eleanor used to like it. You can use a spoon or wait until
it melts. You want some? I’ll never send him back to that
school, never! They were mean to him!”

Mr. Zurlo reappeared, the little boy walking before him. The child
had a terribly anxious expression, as if he was convinced he was
about to be charged with some wrongdoing.

“Eleanor,” Mr. Zurlo said, “you’re thinking
of a root beer float, not Coca-Cola.”

Audrey, feeling the ground go out from under her, gaped at the woman.

Coca-Cola,” Mrs. Zurlo insisted.

“Well, then I don’t want it,” Mr. Zurlo laughed.
“And I’m sure Audrey doesn’t either.”

“Motors,” the woman spat out, “that’s all
you care about.” She turned her head and, with her one functioning
eye, stared at Audrey. “Ask him how many motors he owns. Go
ahead, ask him! Trucks, cars, lawn mowers, motorcycles––if
it don’t have a motor, he’s not interested!”

Mr. Zurlo snorted good-naturedly. Despite her distress, Audrey couldn’t
help but notice that ever since he had come inside Mr. Zurlo seemed
more sociable. He urged forward the little boy. “You talk
to Audrey about what she’s fixing to do,” he said. “As
long as there’s no strings, I don’t care one way or
the other.”

The boy was wearing shorts and the herringbone sports jacket Audrey
remembered. The jacket, nearly as dimmed with age as his father’s
overalls, was way too long for him. His hair was trimmed exactly
as she remembered. With his somewhat old-fashioned clothes, his
sharp nose, his dark suspicious eyes, and the deep furrows across
his forehead you would expect in a much older person, he seemed
an unusual sort of boy. Audrey held the clarinet case out to him,
begging him to take it so she could go.

The boy accepted the instrument. His father slid a straight-back
chair behind him, and he sat without looking, so preoccupied was
he with opening the case. “Does it have a reed?”

Audrey nodded. “Everything should be there.”

The boy lifted the clarinet free of its bed of crimson plush. “Is
it a good reed?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Audrey said. “I don’t
know much about them.”

“It’s not broken in good,” the boy said. It was
unclear whether he meant the reed or the instrument itself. “That’s
obvious.”

“I’m sorry.”

Once he had the clarinet assembled, the boy brought the instrument
to his lips, moistened the mouthpiece, and began to play. What piece
he had chosen, Audrey couldn’t tell you. And, to be honest,
the music wasn’t ravishing, not like the gorgeous, self-assured
sounds Mr. Weiner drew from his clarinet. But it was real music
the boy was making, not bleats, not squawks. Even if she knew nothing
about music, Audrey knew that much. Notes took shape, tumbling over
one another, filling the huge open space of the disorderly room.
More than the music, however, it was the little boy himself who
captured her attention. How dirty he was! You’d need
to soak him in a hot tub for three hours, Audrey thought, and even
then you might not get all the grime off him. But little boys were
like that. Ralphie was no different. What was different about this
boy was the depth of his self-absorption. Eyes closed, face scrunched,
he bent his bristly head over the clarinet, while his miniature
fingers went determinedly at the keys. His thin bare legs bounced,
the toes of his heavy shoes absently scuffed the floor, and one
of his socks, the elastic given out, slipped down his fleshless
calf, loosely rimming his ankle. Watching him, his single-minded
involvement in his playing, Audrey knew, even if she was murdered
right here on the spot, she had done the right thing.

When he finished, she asked him, “What was that?”

“Just a sonatina,” the boy said.

• •

Audrey pulled into the T&V Supermarket parking
lot. She had decided to buy the family a treat, some Neapolitan
ice cream. But what she really wanted was an excuse to sit in the
dark for a moment with the doors locked. As she had stepped out
of the Zurlos’ house into the fresh air, Mrs. Zurlo, clapping
her hands at a private joke, craned herself over the porch railing
like a schoolgirl to whisper in Audrey’s ear.

“With a hundred dollars you could buy yourself a pretty good
gun, wouldn’t you say?”

So spooked was Audrey she took a wrong turn and drove back around
the swamp, this time on the far side. The boles of the drowned trees,
black and ghastly, glimmered in the moonlight. She heard strange
ululating sounds, shrieks, howls. She was terrified she’d
end up back at the Zurlos. It was all too reminiscent of nightmares
she’d had as a child. But the road unexpectedly intersected
the state route, and she pressed the accelerator, skidded on the
crumbling macadam, gained the highway, and fled toward Ganaego.

She could still feel Mr. Zurlo’s grip on her wrist. Tomorrow,
she vowed, either Ted got himself cleaned up and enrolled in that
job-retraining program, or he was going to move out.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter