The Lonely Horn Player

Movie version here

Earl’s big moment had finally arrived. Around him the 60 members of the Ambleside Community Orchestra filled the high school gymnasium with the sounds of The Planets, a majestic symphony familiar from a dozen movie soundtracks.

They had rehearsed for months and at last, here they were, in the first public performance of their season, approaching the part where Venus rises majestically to prominence against the galactic background. The moment was to be heralded by the clear call of Earl’s brand new French horn.

Earl quivered like a race horse as he waited for the deft tick from the baton of Conductor Ralph, accompanied by that warm, conspiratorial look that said, “your turn, pal.”

He would’t admit it, but Earl fell in love with Ralph every time their eyes locked across the field of violins and wind instruments. He longed to be worthy of the maestro’s attention. So every day for weeks he had retreated to his garage to focus on his lonely goal: building his embouchure into a muscular purse of vibrating lips that would bring forth the mythical, soaring voice he heard in his mind.

A French horn is a treacherous instrument. Its spaghetti tangle of pipes and valves resembles the human digestive tract and its output can be disconcertingly similar. Even professionals have produced fart noises at climactic moments. Earl lived in fear of fart noises. He would have sacrificed his beloved cocker spaniel Sally to ward them off. But Earl was a modern man and his superstitions were different: he polished the brassy surface of his horn to a subdued glow and lubricated its valves and slides with the finest oils. The fingers of his right hand touched the instrument only at the ivory inlaid keys. His other hand was wrapped in a silk cloth so that his skin would not contaminate the lustrous surface. Before the concert he had carefully breathed into the instrument, blowing long, lubricious chords and scales for more than an hour.

And now he was ready: his horn glowed with warmth, his lips formed their rictus grin and his lungs were full to bursting. At last the baton made its momentary dip and the eyes of Ralph fell upon his willing servant.

Earl blew.

The audience gasped. Earl, wriggling with pleasure, knew he had produced that profound, elusive sound that is the holy grail of French horn players everywhere.

But nobody heard it. Earl’s worthy toot had been drowned out by a crash of wood and metal from behind. Borne aloft by his success Earl kept blowing, shaping his sounds into a sonic portrait of  Venus’ stately progress. But conductor Ralph had stopped moving. He remained frozen in place, arms outstretched. For a long, lonely moment, Earl’s sound was the only musical voice in the gym.

There was no doubt the woman was dead. The chalk white form of Bessie Anderson, cellist emeritus and the orchestra’s longest serving member, lay among the wreckage of her hand-built cello and a tangle of wires an cables leading to a theatre spotlight, oddly gigantic on the stage floor. A pool of blood had formed around Bessie’s white hair. Earl could not comprehend such dissonance.

Glenn, second clarinetist and retired physician, crouched over Bessie’s still form. He held hand on her wrist the other at her throat as other players rushed into a protective huddle around her, some looking fearfully up. After a moment Glenn rose to his feet and stood, head bowed, hands folded in front, as if to pay homage to Bessie’s half-century of service.

Then the voice of authority: “don’t touch anything! Move away from her folks, in case anything else falls. Anybody got a cell phone? This is a crime scene. Call the cops.” Bob, the tuba player, worked as a security guard for extra  money and liked nothing more than taking control and swaggering around feeling important. Other members, egos less involved in the incident, humbly gave way.

They were not a sentimental lot.  After their initial shock, they were angry and annoyed at the perfidious spotlight for ending their concert. Bessie had been respected, if not liked. Who could replace her? Eyes fell upon young Stephen, the student cellist, who nervously fluttered his hands over his tie. He avoided their eyes, looking at the backstage rafters above. Was that a face he saw up there? The light was dim but there seemed to be a young woman wearing glasses looking back at him. He widened his eyes in concentration but the phantom thing, pale as a ghost, moved away.

It was Ralph who sent the audience home as paramedics loaded Bessie onto a stretcher and cops secured the scene with yellow crime scene tape. “We’re sorry,” he said, mounting his podium. “Bessie was with us for a long time. We can’t continue.”

The news had travelled fast, first via Facebook, then radio. By the time Earl got home, his mother knew better than to ask how the concert had gone. Earl settled down at the kitchen table. He was a mediocre horn player confronted with a solo that was beyond him. He’d worked furiously, turning himself into a machine hoping rote learning and muscle memory could substitute for years of training. When the moment finally came he had stretched himself to the limit and achieved a form of greatness. His thoughts were selfish and bleak: “When will I ever play like that again?”

Earl had never expected to join an orchestra. As a youth he thought rock musicians were dope-addled dreamers murdering music with electric guitars. He had better things to do. But the next 10 years had been less than kind. Earl had been good at his job at the local Belch Fire car dealership, but his career stalled after he became assistant manager of the parts department. He’d blamed it on his lack of education, his disappointed mother, the economy. But the personnel manager had laid the blame at Earl’s feet at his annual performance review: “people don’t like you. You’re a hard guy to deal with. You can always find problems and reasons why things won’t work. They call you Mr. Can’t Do.”

The man had gone on, revelling in his role as a counselling psychologist. “We all need to feel like we belong to some greater whole and that our contributions are valued. Some of us get that satisfaction from work, but you don’t have to. You need to find something to do with a group of other people. Maybe join a softball team.”

Earl had been angry but had to admit the guy was right. He spent the weekend in a funk, pretending to clean the garage in order to be alone. The solution clobbered him over the head in the form of a cardboard box that tumbled from a high shelf. Inside, along with some yellowed sheet music was an instrument case containing his old high school mellophone. A mellophone looks like a backwards French horn. It’s easy to hold and is designed to be played in marching bands. It had sat on that shelf since Earl had dropped out of his high school orchestra.

Earl hauled the mass of pipes and valves out of the case and put the mouthpiece to his lips. Cautiously he blew and was rewarded with a wavering tone. It brought back memories of Nellie Whosis, a dreamy and clumsy girl who joined the orchestra at mid term.  True to form she kicked over her stand and spilled music on the floor right next to Earl. Their eyes had met as he bent down to help and he saw how vulnerable she looked without her glasses. It made him feel confident and he gladly shared his meagre musical expertise. They became a pair, practicing together in free periods. Earl was proud. Nellie wore her glasses as little as possible, using her eyes mostly to peer up at him, adoring and befuddled.

He had been on the point of asking her out just after their year-end concert but his nerve had failed him. He spent the long, hot summer practicing in the garage, imagining how he’d impress her. When school resumed next fall he rushed to their music class and sat in his old chair waiting. But her seat remained empty. Dreamy Nellie had gotten a bit careless with her boyfriend, according to the grapevine. A tragedy, because her parents were religious fundamentalists and insisted that nature take its course.

And here he was 10 years later still thinking of her. If he blew carefully he found he could coax a warm, mournful sound from the instrument. Earl practiced half-remembered tunes and scales until his lips were sore and thought of Nellie.

The garage became his refuge at the end of every work day. Practicing soothed the unsettled feelings he brought home from the office. He took lessons and improved rapidly as his old skill returned. After two months he felt ready to join the orchestra. He wasn’t a good player but he loved being part of the harmony and poured his heart into the Irish lullabies, Christmas medleys and watered-down overtures arranged for community bands. He imagined Nellie in the audience.

Nellie had never forgotten Earl either, nor how he’d acted the day she dropped her music that day in band class. He was the only student who didn’t laugh. Instead he bent down to help her and even held out her glasses. She didn’t put them on. She liked Earl’s face the way it was, a blurred tadpole head with bulging eyes, an out-of-focus Kodachrome snapshot from a time when colours were bright and optimistic. In some ways her vision had improved. She could see the loneliness on Earl’s face and the despair common to some people when they begin to realize they’ll never fit in. She smiled. Earl smiled back.

They practiced together. She enjoyed watching him play and giggled at the expressiveness his eyes took on when he blew long tones. “You look happy. I think B flat is your favourite note!”

“Well I can’t exactly smile with my mouth,” he replied. “It’s too busy playing.”

Such was the inexpert banter between them. The senior high prom was coming up. She had dreaded it but wondered what it would be like if Earl asked her to go. Would her mother let her? Would she be allowed to buy a new dress? Would Earl ever ask? She batted her eyes at him endlessly but he seemed oblivious. She wondered if she should ask him herself.

Tod, the sneering high school bad boy with the flat, predatory stare, saved her the trouble. He asked her to hang out with his friends, some of them in their twenties with jobs, cars and money. She was terrified and thrilled. Her high school status soared. She thought she was in love. Such an old story. She hadn’t seen him for years. Not since before Jake was born. Nellie tried not to think about Todd.

Remember what you are grateful for. That was the advice in the Christian magazines of Nellie’s youth. She tried to be grateful to Bessie for giving her a housekeeping job when she needed the money and not the seething anger she felt under her frequent tongue-lashings. Bessie was an old-school teacher given to biting criticisms and slaps with a ruler or her baton. Nellie had fallen victim for not putting pie forks in separate compartments in the silverware drawer. “You stupid, stupid girl!” she shouted, slapping her hands. In Nellie’s apartment all utensils were jammed in a single drawer.

Nellie had slunk out when her duties were done, angry and humiliated. She saw an envelope on the floor near the mail slot. She scooped it up to put it on the hall table but crumpled it out of spite and jammed it into her pocket. She opened it at home. It was a bank statement, just like the ones they had studied in her high school business class years ago. If she read it correctly Bessie was a millionaire several times over.

In the garage, Earl was thinking about his recent meeting with Nellie. He knew she lived with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment in a seedy part of town, worked in the mini mart nearby and kept house for Bessie. She had a playful skip in her step when walking her little boy to school but never appeared with a husband.

One sunny Saturday morning he parked at the Mini Mart parking lot, his stomach in a knot. Would she remember him?

He sucked in his little pot belly and entered the store, blinking his eyes in the gloom. When his vision returned he saw Nellie, behind the cash counter, looking straight at him. “Earl?” she said, a tentative smile on her face. “How are you! It’s been years!”

Earl’s heart turned over. He tried to remember  the lines he’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror. Instead he gasped “Nellie! Oh Nellie! Where were you?”

Nellie removed her glasses, enjoying Earl’s transition from anxious middle-aged man to blurry tadpole bathed in Kodachrome. Again she saw loneliness and despair but this time the hope that his musical dalliance would lead somewhere. She knew exactly what Earl was talking about.

“I had to leave school. I had to get married. Sorry.”

Earl approached the counter. “I’ve got something to show you.” He pulled a brochure from his pocket.  “Look! Do you recognize this?”

She put her glasses on to look at the picture. “Of course, Earl!”

“I’m going to buy it! You can have my old mellophone. We can play together! Will you play with me?”

“Oh! Earl!”

“I can teach you. Remember how I used to teach you? I’m in the orchestra! You could join! We had such a great time!”

Nellie’s calculating look had returned with the glasses. “I can’t. I gotta take care of my kids. There’s hardly enough money for food let alone a sitter. And my eldest is going to want hockey gear.”  Nellie continued with a list of domestic wants and needs. Earl watched her face, his heart sinking as she spoke. She had the same dour expression his mother had when challenged by the family finances.

And she would do well, he saw, just like his mother. In ten years she’d have  money in the bank, a college degree and a good job. She’d be making mortgage payments and dating a new man. A solid, practical guy with a promising future. Much more likeable than Earl.

“That’s alright. I understand.” He folded the brochure and put it back in his pocket.

“Good luck, nice to see you.”

“You too.” He walked to the door, feeling smaller with every step. What a dreamer! How could he have thought Nellie would be interested in him? And how could he have bought that French horn already? It had cost $2000 and all sales were final. How would he explain that to his mother? Damn it, Nellie!

Nellie loved to sketch on a drawing pad in the evenings after she’d put little Jake to bed. She’d started with girlish cartoons but had become more serious. She’d heard that if you could draw your own hand, you were a good artist. She tried but it never looked right. She found a website with drawings by the old masters. She could sense how they’d solved the problems of knuckles and joints, not by copying but by understanding how they worked. She looked at her hands and threw her eyes out of focus as painters do to catch the general shape of their subject. She took off her glasses and watched her hands at work. She grabbed a spoon, held a coffee cup, typed on her laptop, signed her name.

Her hands were long and slender. She wondered about Earl’s hands. Would they be strong and skillful? She had humiliated him in the store, prattling on about her financial realities. At least he had a dream, and he wanted to share it. She remembered the expression in Earl’s eyes when he’d played long tone exercises, how his hands looked large and capable over the valves of the horn. She’d loved to watch, pretending he was playing just for her. Perhaps she could attend one of his concerts. They’d be playing The Planets in a few weeks.

Back in the garage Earl was trying his new horn. His eyes widened as he slowly climbed the C Major scale, watching the electronic tuner, ears cocked for the metronome. He loved the long breathing exercises. They helped him take his mind off work and Nellie. What did it matter if he messed up that solo in their performance next week? She wouldn’t be there and she was the main reason he practiced. Maybe he should tell Ralph he was sick, quit the band and go back to watching TV in the evenings with his mom. He reached the top of the scale and started back down. C, B, A… he shaped his sounds to the tuner and reached for that eloquent hollow echoing sound. No, he’d stay with it. Do his best and keep working. To hell with Nellie.

Nellie stared at the pool of blood she had drawn around Bessie’s white hair. She shouldn’t be thinking this way. It was almost like killing an effigy. An effigy with a million dollars in the bank. She took her glasses off again and stared at the walls, lost in thought.

She jumped. There was a knock at the door. She pulled it open a crack. There was a small well-dressed man standing dimly lit in the hallway. “Nellie Whosis? I’m sorry to disturb you, but I wonder if I can discuss a proposition with you.”

Bessie’s body had been delivered to the funeral home. The mortician had been able to conceal the head wound. With fresh make-up she looked as if she was about to wake from a lovely nap. She was wheeled into visitation room.

She remained alone until mid afternoon. An assistant noticed a neatly-dressed man in a brown raincoat sitting in a chair, staring directly at Bessie. At the end of her shift she briefed her replacement. “There’s a man in Ms Anderson’s room. He’s been there quite a while. Perhaps you could get him to sign the guest book when he leaves. It would be nice to know at least one person who is sorry she is gone.”

She read the entry next morning. It was long, eloquent and completely devoid of feeling. People I funeral homes are used to the heartfelt, handwritten farewells of real friends and relatives. This man felt nothing.

Nellie asked her mother to babysit Jake one night next week. “I’ll make Jake his favourite dinner and you can watch Netflix. I know the show he likes. I’m going to dinner and a movie with the girls,” she said. “I’ll be back by about 10.”

Her mother came over on the way home from work and settled into Nellie’s recliner. Nellie left the building and walked towards her old high school, crossed the parking lot and entered the back door by the gym, the stairs still covered with cigarette butts. There was a hole in her stomach. She’d spent hours here with Todd. The door was open. She walked quickly towards the gym, listening for sounds of activity. Some of the students might know her from the mini Mart and one or two teachers might even remember her, but she had to take the risk.

Only a few members of the orchestra attended the memorial service at the funeral chapel. Nellie, arriving late, took a seat at the back. The funeral home supplied professional mourners and a non-denominational minister who talked about the preciousness of life and the obligation to celebrate and remember those who had passed on. “I am told Ms Andersen was a respected member of our local orchestra,” he said. “It is heartening to see several members of the orchestra in attendance.”

“We have among us a dear friend of Bessie would like to play a memorial hymn.”

Heads turned as the small neatly-dressed man rose from the back row and carried a cello case to the altar. Without preamble, he began to play, drawing a single long note from his bow. He appeared to be improvising a portrait, angry, tearful, delicate and beautiful. It went on and on.

The man was obviously a professional. Earl was spellbound. He wondered if this man had a garage or some other place to escape from the real world. Maybe he a lousy day job and a crush on somebody who didn’t care. Maybe that’s why he got so good, because he had lots of time to practice and not think about her. The music went on an on and on. The light shone through the stained glass windows illuminating the cellist in bright Kodachrome. Earl felt a hand on his shoulder. Nellie!

Together they watched the cellist and listened to the sounds he made.

At last, he finished. He stood to address his audience: “it is always a pleasure to play in the company of amateurs. Do you know the meaning of the word? It means lover. And that you are!

“You may not have noticed but I have spent the last few days mingling with some of you and trying to hear your conversations. I hope you don’t mind. It seemed to be a good way to get reacquainted with my mother. I’m sure she was grateful for your kindness.”

He put the cello back in its case, flicked a half salute at the audience and left.

Earl looked around. Nellie was gone.

The man was waiting for Nellie at the corner. They walked together. “Gotta say I was a bit worried about Bessie, old girl. I thought you’d never live up to your part of the bargain.”

“I keep my promises, you creep. And I’m going to make sure you keep yours. I’m gonna stick like to you like glue until the will’s probated and I get half like we bargained.”

“Don’t worry Nellie,” I’ll keep my promise. But the Philharmonic is going to Romania next week. Part of a European tour. Won’t be back for a few months.”

“Sorry, bigshot, you’re not going. You’re so upset at your mother’s death that you’re going to quit the philharmonic and play cello with your lovely amateurs right here. And I’m going to sit right next to you because Earl’s going to teach me French horn.”

“And how do you think you’re going to make me do that?”

“See this?” she held out her cell phone. “That’s a picture of the spotlight that killed Bessie. Remember how we worked it out in my apartment? See those fingerprints on that bit of chrome there? They’re yours. I took them off that bottle of beer you had at my place. Used a bit of Silly Putty my kid plays with. It proves you’re the one who went up on the catwalk over the stage, not me. You dropped that spotlight right on her head. You murdered your mother for the money!

“So now what are you gonna do? Stay here until the will’s probated and give me half or let me call the cops?”

The next performance of the Ambleside Orchestra featured the star cellist and bereaved son of Bessie Andersen, playing  on the same stage where she had died. The critics were kind— his performance was disappointing— but they had a better story in the stirring performances of two French horn players, both obviously amateurs in the real sense of the word.

Bessie would have been proud.

1 thought on “The Lonely Horn Player

  1. Having finished it, I definitely think there’s something here, but my experience as I was reading it was unfortunately one of confusion – owing, I think, to POVs shifting without warning as well as shifts in time that meant I was never quite sure what was happening when.

    From what I’m getting, nearly everything between the incident at the concert and the memorial at the end is actually flashback, is that correct? And this was another issue for me: it felt like not much really happened. The middle bits felt more like explanations of the beginning and end rather than actual story. Or more importantly – again, thinking as I type here – as I was reading it, as far as I knew, it was all disconnected from the concert incident, so I was wondering why you were spending time on it and what the point of the incident was if you were just going to talk about Earl’s unrequited crush.

    I don’t know – it’s not that it’s a fundamentally wrong approach, and as I said I do think there’s something here worth digging into – but as it is, it doesn’t end up clicking for me.

    I think in extending the story (as you said you were considering), I’d look to expand the present timeline (the one beginning at the concert and ending around the memorial); have more things happen, Earl and others reacting to the event. And perhaps see if you can change some of the flashback scenes to take place within that main timeline, either getting the same/similar information across in a different way or merely allude to past events.

    I’d also make shifts in POV and time/place more clear and perhaps consider whether you really need multiple POVs. They can be difficult to manage (not least in short fiction), as it gives readers less time to bond with each character and can confuse who the story is about. Here, for example, it reads to me like it starts off as Earl’s story and ends up as Nellie’s. I only get a vague resolution to Earl’s story (in the implication that he and Nellie will become lovers).

    Minor observations
    • When you first mentioned Earl’s longing for Ralph’s attention, I half expected a love story down that vein. Not necessarily a bad thing, but probably worth mentioning that that’s how I read it.
    • I was amused by Nellie’s enjoyment of the blurred version of Earl’s face but couldn’t help but think it also reads a bit like a backhanded compliment.
    • The last line doesn’t really land for me. Why would Bessie have been proud?

Leave a Comment