If ever there was a day for an invitation not to arrive, that day would have been the day of my grandmother’s funeral. At least, that’s what I thought then.
“Why can’t I go?” my fourteen-year-old cousin Carrie complained after my mother opened the envelope and announced to the assembled masses—gathered in our living room to mournfully eat sliced egg sandwiches and dutifully look like seven days of rain—that I had been invited to audition for the position of first clarinet in the Colchester City Youth Orchestra. My mother’s twin sister, Carolyn (“with a Y,” she’d insist) turned her head like a barn owl assessing the scene—gauging the reaction of her precious Carrie, expressing displeasure at her sister for raising this news at this time, and shooting me the ‘you are not doing this without her’ look that had plagued me for all of my then thirteen-plus years.
Classic. Life in Littleton.
My family settled in Littleton in the nineteen-sixty-who-gives-a-shits when my grandparents, after emigrating from Europe, drove east from their point of entry in search of a better life. My grandfather bought a foreign car, a Renault, because people in the old country said no one should trust a North American car. The trusted Renault blew a wheel bearing as the couple traversed the mountains north of Littleton, forcing them to stay in the sleepy former mill town with its indolent population of forty-five thousand. Trying to fix an import in the middle of nowhere caused another bearing to blow—this one in my grandfather’s brain. Rather than await delivery of a part before moseying on down to Colchester City or, heaven forbid, the glorious coast beyond, my grandparents decided to divest themselves of the Renault and give up on life. They stayed in Littleton.
Littleton is just big enough to make one comfortable enough to make one want to stay or, put another way, to keep one from ever wanting to escape. They say of religion that the devil will dole out little bits in the hopes that believers will keep from getting the real thing. If that is true of life, then the same is true of Littleton. I call it Littleshitzen.
Littleshitzen is also big enough to have a large high school, large enough to have sports teams, a school band and the full panoply of teenage toxicity that one would expect in a bedroom community of haves and have-nots. We were the have-nots. Jason “Have-not” Halverson. That’s me. I even have my own joke: ‘How does Jason tie up his football cleats?’ ‘Half knots.’ I never played football. Whether it was because I was too small, not aggressive enough, not circumcised (another joy of European parentage, curiously serving as a form of acceptance in Littleshitzen), or because I wore glasses, football really wasn’t my thing.
I excelled at music. I wanted to play the saxophone. But our high school music instructor made those desirous of pursuing the lure of the luscious tones of the saxophone first learn the clarinet. He, with his bright purple nose and a flugelhorn that smelled of camouflaging mouthwash, often slurred that it was all about ‘embouchure’: “The way muscles form around the reed and the mouthpiece. Muscle memory. Plus, it’s easier to learn proper fingering on a clarinet. Master the clarinet? You can master the saxophone.”
I know this to be bullshit now. But, like the man that sold my grandfather a new car in lieu of a car part, at the time this was ingenious. Nobody but nobody—not in Littleshitzen anyway—would have touched the clarinet otherwise. My cousin Carrie was assigned the French horn, until she dropped one. She was swiftly moved to the less-expensive trombone. I’m surprised anyone was able to hear my clarinet over her horn’s groaning.
Very little of my life has transpired outside the shadow of my cousin Carrie.
My grandparents had two boys, born less than a year apart. In Littleshitzen, they called them Irish twins. (We weren’t Irish.) When the youngest of the boys was two years old, the real twins came along—Catherine (with an I) and Carolyn (with a Y). Catherine, my mother, and her sister married two local high school studs who showed good potential for never wanting to leave town. My Dad sells insurance for the General Indemnity Company. (The family, writ large, calls it the ‘Generous Indemnity Company’ as, given the decent salary and benefits, they view us as rich. I think we are just getting by because my dad spends more time with Carolyn’s husband and his brothers-in-law than he does looking for clients.) Carolyn’s husband is the manager of the local auto parts store with a sideline (surprise, surprise) of selling used cars on the weekend. Together, the two men are the trivia champions at the local pub, where Carolyn is the undisputed karaoke title-holder. My mother can sing too. She passed the music gene down to her only child. In Carolyn’s case, the cell line stops with her.
Carrie is otherwise just like her mother: incapable of having an unexpressed thought; incapable of having an original thought; concerned about what others are doing and thinking; consumed with telling you what they think you want to hear (as opposed to anything resembling the truth); a person who sees, in the success of others, failure in themselves; one who sees Littleshitzen and its epic sagas as the epicenter of the earth—and any attempt to escape as the equivalent of an existential threat.
Carrie hated my clarinet—my harmless, Littleshitzen High School standard issue clarinet, complete with the initials that Anne Susan Schumacher carved into it (thinking it was hers to keep)—a useless husk until I breathed life into it.
The clarinet was my beacon of hope. Late in my freshman year, I was moved into a specialized stream for music students, enabling me to catch the attention of the Colchester City Youth Orchestra’s conductor.
“Why can’t you just be happy for Jason?” my mother asked Carolyn behind the paper-thin kitchen door, the kind that swung back and forth wildly at family events—the type of frenetic activity that could, in Littleshitzen, be mistaken for progress.
“He has to take Carrie,” Carolyn responded. “They are besties. He will perform better with her there.”
And just like that, with my mother worn down over the battle of who was going to sit with whom in what cars on the way to the cemetery to bury a woman who finally had the good sense to get out of town, it was settled.
The audition piece was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony where, in the middle of the second movement, there is a solo that introduces a moment of transfiguration as the clarinet is permitted to rise above the fray of the orchestra. I had transferred copious notes onto the sheet music in the hope that my performance would transform the meaningless array of black lines and dots on the musical score into a meaningful and deeply personal (and desperate) story.
On the day in question, my father drove me, Carrie, and my mother to the Colchester City Auditorium. My clarinet case, personal music stand, and leather music satchel did not leave my side, except when I rushed to the bathroom, when I left them with Carrie. After I was escorted to the warm-up area, I discovered my sheet music was missing.
Carrie insists it was my fault—the sheet music mustn’t have been there to begin with. I have a hard time with that story, even though the family accepts it, because the paper has never again surfaced. That, plus the fact that I have never seen Carrie as happy as the time I nervously took the stage to confront the maestro with the full orchestra behind him, gives me reason to doubt.
I played with neither music stand nor music. My music teacher was right: embouchure and muscle memory matter. The notations I’d made—those that were likely sitting soaked in a trash bin in the women’s washroom—weren’t needed; they were indelibly etched on my psyche. I was one with the music. The paper would have held me back. I flew free. When the orchestra broke for the solo, I played not only it, but I cheekily injected the playful opening lines from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—to crazy applause from the orchestra members—before returning to the central piece, at which time the orchestra rejoined me and we brought the music home. Rhapsody in Blue was fitting given the look on Carrie’s face. I got the part.
“Why can’t I play like that?” Carrie said in the backseat of the car as we headed home on unfailing bearings.
“Because you suck,” is what I wanted to say. Instead, I said: “Nobody listens to the clarinet.”
“Not in Littleton anyway.”
True that. Then and there I also committed to using a full knot to secure my satchel.
P.S. I also play the saxophone.
Andy is a Welsh-born Canadian, raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is an intellectual property litigation lawyer practising in Toronto, and escaping to Gravenhurst as much as he can. He fills his spare time with the pursuit of his love of short story writing, particularly those that are prompt-based and contest-driven.