tuba on sidewalk
[ This image is in the public domain. ]

Let’s pretend for a minute that my parents were musicians. And imagine the time when Mom only played the washboard, and only on the weekends. When the long apple tree shadows came for her, she scooted her vinyl lawn chair in retreat with the setting sun, and with her long broken fingernails she scratch – scratch – scratched that washboard like a sweet itch.

Dad was the same with his glockenspiel. They harmonized nicely, my parents, reclined side-by-side in their vinyl nests. Every so often my dad traded his mallet for a golf club and scoured the lawn for crab apples to smash over the fence, and when he sat back down with apple skin splatter on his forehead he tink – tink – tinked those glockenspiel bars like ice cubes in a glass.

Next year mom traded her washboard for a violin, and the violin for a cello the year after. Dad also needed a change: a snappy snare drum he later replaced with a worn-out pump organ. You’d think the cello and organ would blend better than they did, but their show was more duel than duet and now began on Thursdays.

One time I drove the family car over a bump and an A flat leaked out from beneath my seat. My friend on the passenger side said, “Dude, did your dad stash his pump organ under there?” I cranked the radio, but when I turned up a cobblestone road we both heard a long F sharp followed by a run of staccato Cs. It traded E flats and and Bs until I turned off the road and the damn organ rolled out from under my seat and then under my feet until I heel-kicked it back under.

Most of my friends’ parents weren’t musicians. I wanted to spend more time with my new high school friend, Stephanie, who I never invited over because by then my folks were rehearsing all the time. But when I went to her house and found her dad playing a pump organ in front of the TV, I felt close to her in ways only organist dads soloing on TV glow-lit stages can make their children feel. That night I went to bed thinking about taking up an instrument, the sax maybe, and when I got the hang of it could play it for Steph down by the crooked creek, and then maybe she’d give it a try.

My girlfriend Melanie wouldn’t have liked that. I liked Melanie. I liked Steph and Melanie, but Melanie didn’t like Steph any more than she liked me liking Steph, or any more than she liked my parents, which wasn’t much. See, Melanie’s folks never played a note in their lives so she didn’t understand musicians. Like that time we were fooling around on my living room couch and she arched her back and yelped and reached behind her and pulled out the cello mom stashed between the cushions that was poking her in the back, and said, “What are you crying about?”

I went off to college and returned for the holidays to find that Dad wasn’t around as much, but stuck with the organ when he was, and Mom moved on to the trumpet. At night she’d blow her horn, and blow the ornaments off the Christmas tree and blow the pictures from the walls, and when the house fell quiet and nothing was left of the fire but a red glow beneath a black iron grate, she’d blow the flames back to life until the smoke carried the silence up the long blackened chimney up into the longer, blacker night.

I graduated and moved away, but after my dad told me Mom took up the tuba I moved back. My apartment was across town but I could hear her bleating at night. bom – BOM bom – BOM bom – BOM. Same two notes, over and over, slow but strong enough to crest the mountain and skim the river between us, bounce down my street and through my open window, slip into my bed and crawl beneath the pillow I held over my ears.

I dialed her up one morning. Ring – ring – ring – ring – ring – Ring – Ring – RING. When I got there, mom’s tuba lay on the floor, adorned by the fallen leaves of her ficus. “Mom, you here?”

“Down here, honey.”

I went to the basement steps but turned when I heard her say, “I’m in here.” I checked the hall closets. “No, come back to the living room.” I saw the tuba wobbling on the carpet.

“Jesus, Mom, what are you doing in there?”

“I’m stuck. Can you see my hand?”

Barely. I reached in up to my shoulder, gripped her arm and pulled her out, and remembered to water the ficus before I left.

Twenty-six hours later. Ring – ring – ring – ring – Ring – Ring – RING – RING – Ring – Ring – ring.

An hour later a doctor emerged and said sorry and a nurse led me to the operating room where it lay. A brass conch shell split down the middle and peeled open.