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Authors: David Nickle

Slide trombone

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SLIDE TROMBONEDAVID NICKLE

ChiZine Publications

COPYRIGHT

“Slide Trombone” © 2012 by David NickleAll rights reserved.

Published by ChiZine Publications

This short story was originally published inMonstrous Affectionsby David Nickle, first published in print form in 2009, and in an ePub edition in 2009, by ChiZine Publications.

Original ePub edition (inMonstrous Affections) October 2009 ISBN: 9781926851792.

This ePub edition November 2012 ISBN: 978-1-77148-053-6.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

CHIZINE PUBLICATIONSToronto, Canadawww.chizinepub.com[email protected]

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Slide Trombone

About the Author

More Dark Fiction from ChiZine Publications

SLIDE TROMBONE

We were cuing up tape for another run at “Black Mountain Side” when Steve set down his sticks, got up, answered the door-chime. Cool lake air wafted in through the empty doorway and blew the funk of weed and beer and slide lube from living room clear to kitchen. Steve couldn’t see who was there. Then he knelt down, and not looking back, reported:

“It’s a fish.”

Lake trout. About six pounds. Scales the same colour as the clouds, which were just a shade lighter than the lake itself, which was near black. There would be rain soon. Steve cocked his head, nodded, and turned back to us.

“He wants us to keep it down.”

Water roared a dull crescendo into the old claw-footed tub in the washroom, and that was the only sound until Vincent, the bass player, clicked a long barbecue lighter alive and held it trembling to the bowl of his bong.

“Fish don’t care for Jimmy?”

That from Dave, his guitar propped up by the trombone stand: Jimmy being Page. Vincent coughed and squinted over his burbling bong; Dave got up and came over to the door.

“Not saying.” Steve. The fish writhed on the little concrete stoop, gills grasping at the air. “But it’s not unreasonable. We’ve been going all day.”

Dave nodded. “Better put him back in the lake.” He reached down nervously with thumb and forefinger, tried to snatch the flopping tail once, and again. From the washroom, the trombonist objected.

Vincent motioned to the cracked-open door. “Tub’s almost full.” Steve pushed Dave’s hand out of the way and grabbed the fish around the middle. It was lake-slick, hard to hold at first, but being off the stoop seemed to calm it and carrying got easier. We all followed Steve and the trout to the bath, watched as he lowered the fish to the surface of the water and let him slide in. Water splashed onto the linoleum floor. Dave turned the faucet off, which the trombonist had left to run.

“Fish will be okay.” Steve shook the water off his hands and wiped them dry on his jeans. He went back to the drum kit, picked up his sticks, remembered what the fish said, put them back. “Better keep it down,” he said to us, and we agreed.

We sat back. Passed the bong around. Sounds of the bowed guitar solo from “Dazed and Confused,” transcribed for trombone, wafted in from the dock. Water splashed in the tub. Steve apologized, got up to shut the door on the music, the view: golden slide on a middle-finger tilt to the clouds’ bulging black gut. Definitely rain.

“Have to talk about him.” Vincent. Thumb cocked to the doorway. The dock.

The trombonist.

We all agreed that we did — opportunity not having arisen for two days now: from the time Steve pulled the van into the mall parking lot and we all waited as Dave found a spot in the trailer for the trombone case . . . from then to the beer and grocery run on arrival, the jam. Not a moment. So first order of business, now the fish was safe away and the trombone stand empty, was to put it to Steve:

“Where’d you meet him?”

“Back at the Rook?”

Steve shook his head. The Rook was a club downtown we played at, from time to time, back in the day. Steve sometimes still hung there. The Rook wasn’t it. “Met him the same time you all did. When we pulled into the lot.”

“How’d you know to go there, then?”

“You seemed pretty sure of where you were going. You know he was going to be there?”

That one left Steve short. Steve guessed he did know he was going to be there, standing under the floodlit entrance at the south end of mall, the hockey bag with his stuff propped next to the long black trombone case, which stood upright on the bell. Question suggested Steve had got a phone call or a note to set time and place, and Steve couldn’t say that he had.

Finally: “Neither of you seemed surprised when the time came. Dave, you helped him load up. Looked like you two were catching up on old times.”

“Point, there. What’d you talk about, Dave?”

“It’s a mystery.”

“Quit fucking around. We don’t have a lot of time here.”

Dave hadn’t been fucking around. Mystery is what it was. “Talked about a lot of things. Can’t say exactly.” Wasn’t good enough, and Dave knew it. He frowned and thought a moment. “Asked him if he was still using the valve trombone, or’d gone slide.” Which we all knew was a strange thing to ask, given Dave had met him the same time we did and had no idea what type horn he used to play. “Slide, he said. Same as always. He asked me . . .” Bong went to Dave. “Mmm. Asked me if I wanted it.”

“The trombone?”

“No. Something else. Didn’t say what. But something else.”

Bong went to Vincent, then Steve. Thunder came and went. Dave got up, came back with beer. Took the bong. We thought about that question: Did Dave want it? From that: Did we want it? Was it worth having? Rain started up.

“So who is he?” Vincent. “We never had a trombone back in the day. I rememberthatmuch.”

“Our music doesn’t lend itself to trombone.”

“You wouldn’t think.”

“And yet.”

We grew thoughtful. On the one hand, we remembered how it was: band class and bands didn’t mix. Dave had made that clear from Day One, as we hunched in the dull October light, greying our grey cafeteria lunches further. Dave wouldn’t even tolerate a lead singer — and if one of us pointed out Robert Plant by way of argument, well we could just fuck off. Steve and his axe, Steve and the microphone. Same thing. And for band class?

“Point of this is not formal training. Point is, you got to feel the music — that’s how Jimmy does it. That’s how we do it.” Plenty of trombonists in band class. And who needed them?

On the other hand . . .

“I helped him load his trombone into the trailer.” Dave, perplexed. “I know.”

“What do you want?”

“What?”

“Far as what the trombonist asked if you wanted it. What, exactly?”

Vincent.

Always got the Friday fish and chips. Wispy moustache over baby-smooth chin. That and the belly fat and the greasy black hair not quite straight inoculated him against the attention of the big-haired girls — Sue, Maryann, Sue’s friend . . . who? . . . the big-haired girls who followed us set to set, tried to keep up, talk about the way the music moved, finally reduced to regurgitating tag-lines from Creem critiques and just nodding, kneeling on the floor while Dave told them how truly full of shit they were, showed them what he meant on air guitar.

“I don’t know what I want.”

Dave, who’d stopped being such an asshole long back.

Steve cracked a beer. “Sure you do. You want the music. Always have.”

Dave thought he should tell the rest of us how full of shitwewere on that count. But we looked at him that way we did. He nodded.

Rain like applause on the roof. Water splashed in the washroom. We all sat quiet, not wanting to upset the fish any more than it was. Figuring the storm would sendhimback inside soon anyhow, rainwater dribbling a line from spit valve back to the kitchen chair he’d occupied all day, before the door chimed.

“Speaking of the fish.”

“Trout.”

“Trout. You’re sure he thinks we’re too loud?”

“Asked us to keep it down.”

“Askedyouto keep it down. Not likeweheard anything.”

“You saying I made it up, Vince?”

“Not saying that at all. But I got to wonder: that fish tell you to keep it down the same way you knew to stop at the mall before we left town?”

“You see what he’s saying?”

“What we’re getting at?”

What we were getting at was this: perhaps Steve had heard directions from Vincent’s house to the south entrance of the mall as a faint whisper in his ear, in a language that he had not heard since the womb, or even prior that.

“I see.” Steve stepped into the washroom. Shut the door. Set his beer down on the sink. Looked down at the trout, which hung near the drain, still as death.

Steve, alone in the washroom. Sucked a deep breath. Looked at his hands, thicker now than then, white little lines along the creases . . . Thought about how they once held one of the big-hair girls — Sue’s friend, the one with the red hair and the freckles on her shoulders. Her name wouldn’t come to him. But her face — wide mouth, cheekbones sharp . . . eyes that looked at him, seemed toseehim . . .

Not the one he’d married.

That one now: she never saw us — playing, we mean. Steve could barely summon her face; when he did, it was obliterated by hot lights, the smell of old beer and cigarettes. Steve took a long breath. Blinked. Thought:

I used to be . . .

Steve regarded the trout, lowered his finger to touch the surface of the water. Trout twitched its tail, swung suddenly around to back of tub. And she came to him.

Her.

A day ago, standing in the driveway, left foot jittering in its flip-flop, arms crossed, as Steve hitched the trailer to the back of the van. Hot summer wind blew piss-yellow air from the highway, coloured by the afternoon rush. Her brow creased; not angry, not exactly.

“We have to get on the road.”

Might have said more; but too much had been said already. And he knew it. She thought he smoked too much; thought this was a bad time to go off.

Night before: she boiled it down for him as they lay together.

“You’re disappearing.”

“Stare into the abyss,” he said softly, staring that night at the square of silver the street lamp made on the ceiling. Staring.

Listening.

Humming along.

“Don’t go,” she said. Fingers fluttered at his chest.

That day: She shook her head, threw up her hands. Went back inside.

This day: Trout splashed. Agitated, in clean bathwater.

Dying.

Rain hit on the roof. Wind blew across the open window like it was the top of a beer bottle. That was it: we kept ourselves quiet. “Dazed and Confused” was long done. Steve took a breath. Swallowed his beer in two big gulps.

There was a wide plastic bucket under the sink. Steve took the bucket, lowered it into the tub so it filled with water. Trout swam into it. Steve lifted it out with both arms.

“Trout didn’t mean be quiet.” Steve, on his way to the front door. “Meant what it said.”

Vincent: “Keep it down?”

“Keep what down?” Dave.

“Same thing trombonist askedyouabout. Not the music, either. More.” Steve, outside now. “But it’s too fuckin’ late.”

The rain soaked us fast under storm-black sky. Squinting, hand sheltering eyes, it was hard to see where the lake started.

We made for the dock, empty now. Walked out to the end of it. Dave had been right: should have taken fish back to the lake right away. Claw-footed bathtub was no place for a six-pound lake trout. Dave helped Steve lower the bucket to the water, dip it below the surface. Splashed. Trout jumped out, scales breaking surface in a broad arch. Lightning flashed, dazzlingly close. Trout corkscrewed deep into the black.

“Be free!” Vincent, arms up in the air. Steve, lowering himself to sit on the soaking dock. Dave, standing, half-finished beer in his right hand, held shoulder height; left hand, absently noodling the strings of his invisible axe; head bobbing to the rhythm of an inaudible drummer.

The rain was cold and hard but not unpleasant. Not on any of us. Vincent reminded us of the St. Patrick’s Day set, back at the Rook, that year. Dave wrapped tight in blue spandex culled from the ladies’ section of the Goodwill. Wailing out “Misty Mountain Hop” like we owned it. Steve smiled, blinked away the water running down his forehead, pasting thinning hair into his eyes. Looked out at the water, black stipple frosted with misted rain. He flipped over the bucket, started tapping. Vincent, pointing back at the house. Door wide open. Light spilling out. Three gentle strums across the worn strings on Dave’s acoustic, warming up for a run on “Black Mountain Side.”

“The tape?”

Dave shook his head. “Missed that bridge last time. Off my game. Listen.”

A shadow moved across the door. “Black Mountain Side” took shape. “He’s in there.” Vincent. Started back.

Not just him. Another lightning flash. Close — thunder right away. There was Dave, hunched over the guitar. Fingers in their intricate dance. Head bobbing. Behind him: Steve. Tap-tapping on the wood block. Head bobbing in time with Dave. Vincent was there too. But hard to see him through the door. Didn’t matter: the noodling acoustic of “Black Mountain Side” doesn’t have much to do for a bass player. Less still for a trombonist.

He stepped outside. Just a step. Onto the stoop. Palm cupped outward to catch some rain, horn resting on his shoulder so the slide caught even more, making little round jewels on the golden finish, running tributaries ’round the bell, feeding the torrent running off the bottom to the trombonist’s toe.

“I was wrong,” said Steve, and Vincent frowned and thought and said, “Yeah,” in slow drawl, and Dave asked Steve, “What?”

And he shrugged horn from shoulder, set mouthpiece to lip, and he blew that long, sad note, and Dave saw what we were talking about:

Black plywood stage underfoot, lights hot as noon, air humid with beer-fume and lung-smoke. Us.

“You were wrong about the Rook.”

“Yeah.”

And we looked at each other through the thick air of the Rook on that night, and Dave turned to the microphone, and swung fingers over string, barely touching, and that note — that same long note — it rose up behind him, behind everything, and Steve thought:Stare into the abyss. The abyss stares back.

Sing to it. It might just join in.

Rain came harder again. No end to the lake now. No start, either. And trombone fell from lips. But the song remained.

And so we slipped through it, a flash of scale in the deepening dark, while Steve and Dave and even Vincent finished the Side, and the deep and incongruous moan of the trombone carried us back.

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