Band is Weird

Adapted from In Janesville by Jo Ann Beard

Band is Weird

We’ve both been in band for as long as we can remember—fourth grade for me, third for her—but we’re in ninth grade now, and neither of us has risen through the ranks at all. Instead we’ve each maintained a spot somewhere in the middle of our respective rows, neither first chair nor last. Felicia plays clarinet, an instrument my mother wanted me to play because Old Milly had one in her attic, but I couldn’t play an instrument with a reed—anything soaked with spit made me gag. Also, the clarinet’s case was too heavy; the flute was the only instrument I could carry to school when I was nine.

I like the way the clarinet sounds, like a clear cellophane ribbon unfurling, better than the flute, which has a narrow, harassed sound. I do enjoy the flute itself, the beautiful silveriness of it and the fact that it goes against your lip instead of inside it, the brown leather case with the velvet-lined depressions where the separate pieces are laid to rest, the flexible stick with a wooden handle that you wrap a rag around and run through the tubes to clean them. Altogether, band is a pleasant experience—Mr. Wilton, the teacher, pays attention only to the first-chair musicians and the percussionists, a gang of unruly thick-waisted boys wielding drumsticks, gongs, and triangles. Everyone else comes under the category of Others and gets to follow.

“Percussionists will listen and will count,” he says to the ceiling, arms raised. “Miss Chambers: tenderly. Mr. McVicken: crisply. Mr. Waddell: lilting. Others: follow.” He closes his eyes and begins pawing at the air, and suddenly the sound of “Greensleeves” is rising up and wheezing around us as we labor along. I like to play hunched over, with one elbow resting on a knee, the flute pointed down at the floor. Not everyone gets into marching band, and we have no idea why we were chosen.

“You two are the long and short of it,” Wilton said one day after the bell rang and people were shuffling out of his cluttered room, trying not to knock things over. Later that day he posted a list for marching band and our names were on it. Even though Wilton is well known for his high-strung personality and depressing body malfunctions — platter-size armpit rings, foam collected at the corners of his mouth, dandruff—he’s right now our favorite teacher.

The annual Zanesville parade is always in mid-October and always has a Halloween theme. It’s a hectic, gargantuan affair, 15 blocks of Elm Avenue devoted to it and people standing 10 deep all along the way. This time, instead of watching from the sidelines, we’ll be marching in formation, behind the majorettes and in front of the football players and the floats.

“I can’t play and walk at the same time,” I confess to Felicia.

“Ha, me neither,” she says.

Wilton’s wife is there in the John Deere Junior High School parking lot, helping people fasten their top coat buttons and referring to Wilton as Jim. She’s blond, friendly, and pregnant, wearing a big black wool tent and a pair of nurse’s shoes. When we walk up, she tries to give us each a plume, sorting through a flat decaying box to find two that aren’t bald.

“No, thanks,” Felicia says, alarmed.

“Jim?” the wife calls, pointing at us.

Wilton shakes his head and she smiles warmly. “You’re fine just how you are,” she says.

It feels very strange being in the dark with people from school when it isn’t schooltime. Wearing the uniforms has pried us all loose from our normal selves and we’re wandering around disoriented. Some people are randomly blowing into their instruments, creating an angular, cacophonous noise that is causing my heart to pound.

“People, people, people,” Wilton calls tonelessly from the bumper of a pickup truck.

“Please, people. People, please.”

Off to the side, things are quieter. The float looks like a giant sheet cake on wheels. All those Kleenexes stuffed into all those holes. A skeleton is working on a special effect while a witch hands him tools. They have the overcheerful, pious look of involved parents, trying to make a cauldron belch smoke.

The cheerleaders are their usual glossy selves, wearing letter sweaters over turtlenecks, short pleated skirts, and leg-colored tights. They stretch and mill around, talking to one another while absentmindedly doing the semaphore signals that go along with their cheers. Two of them move off the gravel into the grass and spot each other doing backflips.

The football team has momentarily turned its attention from the cheerleaders to the band’s majorettes, who just took off their coats, unveiling sequined leotards, fringed wrist cuffs, and white ankle boots. They are all ninth graders, like the rest of us, but the whole corps seems to have developed quite graphically overnight: they look middle-aged and lewd, parts of them drifting out of the packed leotards.

“Band people!”

From a distance Wilton seems small compared to his wife, and he keeps losing his balance and having to jump down from the bumper. Felicia is standing in a cluster of clarinets, but so far I don’t see any flutes, just an ocean of ill-fitting wool.

Everyone I look at seems to be scratching their neck.

In the same way people can resemble their dogs, the flutes are a thin and tremulous bunch, led by Larue Varrick, a pale, cautious girl with red-rimmed eyes.

I join them, somewhere in the middle, with the woodwinds right behind us. Felicia reaches over and taps my shoulder.

“This coat is itching me,” she says.

The cheerleaders and the football players are waiting for the band to take shape so they can get into formation behind us. They’re standing around, some with arms folded, some with hands on hips, watching the proceedings bemusedly, the same way grown-ups might stand in a doorway and watch a cartoon.

“What’s wrong?” Felicia asks me.

The giant kid on tuba straggles up, his pants dragging, and stops to apply Chap Stick to the bottom half of his face, chin and all. Two cheerleaders gape at him and then abruptly turn their backs to compose themselves. When they turn back they’re poker faced, deliberately not looking at each other. Suddenly I’m flooded with the same feeling of humiliation that I get when someone from school accidentally sees me with my parents.

“What?” Felicia says curiously. In the hat, she looks as tall as the Empire State Building. I can feel my ears standing out like tabs on either side of my head.

I hadn’t realized before, but now I do: We’ve made a terrible mistake. Band is weird. I’d like to be the kind of person who can do something weird and not become weird because of it, but that’s out of reach for me—I am what I do at this point, and if I do this I’m done for. Once I march in their parade, I will be in it forever, uniform or not.

Felicia, unaware, has gone back to her spot. She’s been stationed in the very middle like a tent pole, and I’m on an end, where everyone in Zanesville can get a good look.

Help.

Drum roll.

Help.

Cymbals.

With that, Wilton sweeps his arms upward and then downward, sending the band shuffling forward, out of the parking lot and into the street, toward Elm Avenue and the IGA parking lot, where the rest of the parade is forming.

Right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left. The neighborhood looks haunted, with wet leaves clumped in the gutters and streetlamps creating cones of light high in the air. At the corner, instruments are lifted to lips and blown into, and a big misshapen sound comes forth. The song of the weirdos. Somewhere behind us, cheerleaders and football players follow along wryly.

As doom descends, panic rises, and a vampire motors past in a golf cart, smiling with plastic teeth. In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade instead of during it.

“In retrospect, we never should have been in band in the first place,” Felicia says. “I was only doing it because you said to.”

“You played the clarinet when I met you!”

I say indignantly.

“Remember I said, ‘I play the clarinot’?” she reminds me.

“Remember I said, ‘My playing is flutile’?” I reply.

“That’s when we first knew each other was funny,” she says dispiritedly.

We’re carrying our instruments and our hats.

We tried to take the jackets off to be less conspicuous, but it was too cold. So we’re a block off Elm Avenue, where there are no elms and where the parade is roaring along at one mile an hour, thousands of people lining the route, just as we feared. A car swishes past us and pulls up at the curb, and a man gets out balancing a pizza box and a six-pack of pop.

“The parade’s thattaway,” he says cordially.

“We know,” Felicia answers.

He stares at us for a moment, resting the pop against his hip.

“Which school is that uniform?” he asks.

“John Deere,” I say.

“I went to Walt Whitman way back when,” he says. “Worst years of my life—just kidding.”

Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays. She has taught nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence since 2000.