Hank’s Tuba T.

Alex Miller Copyright 1992 Billy Barr first meets Henry when Henry’s family moves in next door. They stand at the busstop together regarding each other but not speaking. Billy: I’m a nerd, a woosy and a geek. I wonder what you are. Henry: I hate moving. I hate going to new schools. My Froot of the Looms have given me a wedgie. I’m a Froot Loop. I had Froot Loops for breakfast. I’m turning into a Froot Loop, that’s what mom says. Billy: This kid is not going to believe how tough fifth grade is in this school. The bus pulls up and the only bench left is the one nobody wants, right behind the bus driver. Billy and Henry sit down in. Billy clutches his new Space Dude lunch box (liverwurst and bologna on white with ketchup, Ziplock bag of Fritos, Ring Ding and Henry thinks about the money he has in his pocket — his mom can’t cook. Henry: Is making a sandwich cooking? You just moved here, says Billy. Henry just looks at him. You just moved here, right? Henry nods. You just moved here and this is your first day at school, right? Henry nods. Bet you’re scared. Nothing from Henry. I’m Billy Barr. They shake hands. I’m Henry. The voice is squeaky. Henry? Henry what? Ain’t you got a last name? Billy: He’s got a stupid last name. He’s going to get beat up a lot. Maybe I’ll beat him up. The bus pulls up in front of the school and Henry and Billy disembark. Henry leans against a wall and Billy watches, amazed, as Henry throws up. The god David Jarnowski comes up. Gross! Who’s your pal, Barr? I don’t know him, honest. He was just sitting next to me on the bus. David’s minions are in tow. Henry is too weak, too gross at the moment, so they turn to Billy. One of them takes his lunch box, opens it, and yells yuk liverwurst and bologna! Do you know what’s in this stuff Barr? David waves the sandwich in front of Billy. It’s poison, Billy, poison! He throws the sandwich away and cuffs Billy in the head. Don’t eat this stuff around me. Billy: I told mom to give me veggie stuff. She wouldn’t listen. I am appalled that anyone could eat a dead animal. David. Billy: Your mom said that. You’re just saying what your mom said. They’re veggie terrorists! I’m going to call this David Jarnowski’s mother and… He’s on his knees, begging mode. No mom! Please? He’s tired of peanut butter and jelly, but it’s vegetarian. Poor Henry had a corn dog from the cafeteria and the David gang squeezes him until he throws it up. Henry throws up a lot. Mom and dad never seem to throw up. Why do kids do it all the time?

I’m a wreck. Henry to Billy. Another parent phrase. No kid would say that. I can’t eat meat, but my mom won’t make me a veggy lunch and all’s they serve at the cafeteria is sloppy joes and corn dogs and and hamburgers and hot dogs and meat, meat, meat! Now nobody will eat meat and the principal has ordered the cafeteria people to cook only veggy stuff. David has won. The man from the music room comes today. He has a violin. He talks about music and how it was time to take lessons. He plays the violin and it looks weird how the thing scrunches against his chin. He looks at Henry. You have thick lips. You could play tuba. Henry blinks and gulps. The music man hands out forms to take home. $75 for music lessons! What the hell are my tax dollars paying for? Billy, let’s wait until you’re a little older. I think you’re too young to play an instrument. God knows I’ve done okay without playing anything. Aint’ that right dear? Two days later, Henry is struggling onto the bus with an enormous case. What, what’s that? asks Billy It’s a tuba. I’m taking it home to practice. Mr. Fredrickson calls me Hank. I have big lips. David Jarnowski’s dad plays the tuba in a polka band. He’s in, the little bastard. He’s in! I’m a vegetarian and where’s my tuba? Billy Barr is still too young to play. He helps Hank carry the tuba each morning and looks with wonder at the sheets of music with the strange symbols. What does that one mean? I don’t know says Hank. It means that I push this thing and blow this way. It’s a note. A note. Billy mouths the word. David Jarnowski has not taken up an instrument because, he says he’s tone deaf. But he helps Hank carry his tuba whenever possible. My dad’s tuba is 150 years old and his dad got it from his dad. It’s from Poland. It’s a legacy. A legacy. Well, a legacy is er, well, Billy, it’s a thing that’s been around for a while, really old. A generation thing. Well, a generation, that’s uh, well, I’m one generation and you’re another. My father was a generation and your kids will be another. Ain’t that right, dear? Legacies in our family, eh? Well, uh, no. I can’t think of anything off hand but… hey, you know the way when you blow your nose it sounds just like when I blow my nose? Yeah? Well, that’s a legacy. It’s in the genes, b’god. That’s what it is. My daddy made the same goddmaned noise when he blew his beak, b’god. It’s gym class. Dodgeball. Billy has been duly pummelled and is sitting on the bleachers. David Jarnowski is next to him. It’s one of those rare occasions when he’s gotten out, too.

I want you to make sure that Hen… Hank plays that tuba. I want you to make sure he don’t quit. My dad says that people are always taking up instruments when they’re kids and then giving up. He looks around and talks quiet. Don’t let him stop. If you do that, I’ll be your friend. He slaps Billy lightly on the cheek and walks away, calmly surveying the game in progress, the gym: his domain. He’s out of the game, but he’s still in it somehow. Billy watches Hank lugging the tuba up the block. It’s Saturday, not a tuba-lugging day. We had a concert. I forgot some of my parts. I screwed up. I forgot the notes. Hank is crying. Billy has opened the case like he often does. He’s pushing the levers, looking at the music on the pages, wondering about the mystery of this big brass thing. Billy: Don’t cry. You’re a musician. Don’t cry, Hank. You’re a musician. You’re a great musician. David Jarnowski says… To hell with David Jarnowski. Sniffles. I’m tired of lugging this stupid tuba around. The girls think I’m a fag or something. Billy: Do they? No, they don’t Hank. I wish, I wish I could play the tuba. Silence. Snifflings. A minute or two, maybe less. Really?Yes, really. My dad says I’m too young. He won’t let me play. Sniffles. But you can play, Hank. You can play for both of us. You have to. Hank and his tuba, you’ll be famous! It’s dodgeball and David Jarnowski is picking off members of the other team with killer precision.How does he throw the ball that fast? Their team is taking it hard and only he and David are left. How does he catch those fast balls like that? Billy runs up to grab a ball near the middle line and trips. Fatty Tendralillo has a small punisher ball and winds up to deliver the killing blow. David has no more balls left but with a yell he tackles Fatty. The gym teacher comes over. That’s a foul, Jarnowski. Thinks a bit. But Fatty deserved it. The gym teacher loves David. The gym teacher hates every one of us. The gym teacher loves David. I love David. Who said that? David says, unexpectdedly, dodge ball should be banned. It’s too vicious. It brings out the worst in us. It brings out the hunter. Billy Barr, I’m worried about Hank. I don’t think he likes his tuba anymore. I’ve tried. I don’t think he wants to play anymore and, pat on shoulder, I know it’s not your fault. I know you’ve tried. But I have a plan. Oktoberfest? You want to go to Oktoberfest? That’s for grownups, Billy. That’s beer and more beer. You uh, you wouldn’t fit in. I uh, I forbid it. So your dad wouldn’t let you go? You snuck out the window? Good man, Billy, good man. Don’t worry, I told Hank to be here or else I’d tell everyone he’s a fag. Hank is waiting, jittering, by the beer tent. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s

supposed to do. You see that Hank, old sport? That’s the band. You see that guy with the tuba? That’s my dad. The band starts to play. David’s dad blows tuba and cavorts. The band goes through a string of favorites, the crowd is moving in unison, holding up beer steins, singing along. The band takes a break and David squirms through the crowd up to his dad with Billy and Hank in tow. Look says David. People are around Mr. Jarnowski, offering him beers, slapping him on the back. Look, they love him because he can do something they can’t. He can play tuba, Hank. Hank? The polka band gets up on the stage for another set. David has maneuvered Hank up to the stage and David’s father is announcing the young newcomer on the scene. Hank has already thrown up twice and had a sip of beer. He’ll be okay. The crowd stands around, looking expectantly at Hank, who they can hardly see behind the tuba. All eyes on Hank, smiling. They want him to do well. The band begins to play and Hank starts blowing and moving levers like he really knows what he’s doing. David’s dad stands right next to Hank, tuba poised near his lips to cover in case Hank screws up. But he doesn’t. The song ends and the crowd goes wild. Hank feels the applause ripple through his body. David feels the applause, Billy feels the applause. David hugs Billy. Hank, David and Billy walk from the Oktoberfest and David is telling Hank what a hit he made. He’s telling Billy he should be Hank’s agent. Three small men and a piece of brass make their way home, feeling full, taller than they are. Hank stops to throw up only once and they part with high-fives. Billy climbs in his window and falls asleep, wondering if he could handle an accordion.

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