Saturday, 31 December 2011

Trombonhomie (1994)

This story was published in Psychotrope #3 in 1995; and then also in my first chapbook, Romance with Capsicum, later in the same year. It was influenced by the short stories of Donald Barthelme, a writer who profoundly changed my perception of what was possible and desirable in short fiction. I still consider 'Trombonhomie' to be among the best examples of my early work.

When my neighbour plays the amplified trombone it means another sleepless night. But I don't sleep anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't sleep because my neighbour plays the amplified trombone.
         I also play the amplified trombone. I play the amplified trombone to annoy my neighbour for keeping me awake. I slide the notes like fish through my windows, beyond the trees, higher than the rising moon. I play blue notes and purple passages and make the house shudder.
         I once considered killing my neighbour. But I knew what this would entail. I would have to pack a bag with provisions and sling it over my shoulder. My other shoulder would be in a sling. My sling would be at my belt, my stones in a pocket. Journeys last longer than pockets; stones longer than journeys.
         So I would leave with a pebble-smooth chin and before I was close it would be as prickly as a pear. My neighbour lives far away. That is why I play an amplified trombone to annoy him. If I played an ordinary trombone he would not be annoyed. He would probably fall asleep and then I would have no reason to play any sort of trombone. And I am getting good now. I need the practice.
         At any rate, if I ever reached his house I would look very foolish. I would have to knock on his door and say, "excuse me, but your amplified trombone is keeping me awake," and he would look me up and down with his sombre eyes (but no, really, what would his eyes look like? The eyes of an amplified trombone player are always sad, must be) and his reply would be, "I'm awfully sorry, but I play the amplified trombone because my neighbour does," and I would say, "I am that neighbour," and he would shake his head and answer, "by your appearance you come from the lands of the west and my neighbour lives in the east," and I would say, "you mean your other neighbour?" and he would nod and I would bow a retreat and be unable to knock on his door a second time.
         And then he would return to his amplified trombone playing with renewed vigour. And I would have to feel a sort of sympathy for him. And reaching into my pocket to cast away my stones, I would find that they had already escaped through a hole.
         So I would have to look beyond the immediate problem. I would have to consider killing his other neighbour, the one that lives in the east. There would be no other option. What other option would there be? So I would pack a bag with provisions and sling it over my shoulder, etc. I would whistle a callow tune and fill my pocket with fresh stones. Not the pocket with a hole in it, but my other pocket.
         And I would travel for many weeks, down dark and winding forest paths where monstrous orchids dipped their anaemic heads at my passing. And finally I would reach the house of my neighbour's other neighbour and I would knock loudly on the door and make a fool of myself again. I would say, "excuse me, but your amplified trombone is keeping my neighbour awake," and the figure who would appear would scratch a warty nose and reply, "but it was my neighbour who started it," and I would raise my hands in an exasperated gesture and say, "well he never mentioned that to me," and he would gaze at me doubtfully and remark, "you look to me as if you have just travelled through the forests of the west and my neighbour lives in the east," and then I would understand that he too was referring to his other neighbour.
         So I would have to bid him farewell, refusing his kind offer of a cup of blue-green tea, and go on my way in a kind of light-hearted despair. And this would go on and on (imagine, if you will, sixteen thousand similar encounters, variations without the theme) until I was sick and beyond redemption. And strange and subtle things would start to happen, so subtle that they would be almost unnoticeable. Language would begin to change, until I found myself in a completely alien country. But as I pressed further eastwards, it would come back into focus. And one day, I would eventually find a man whose neighbour did not play the amplified trombone and I would ask, "why is this the case?" and the man would explain, "he used to play, but he has not sounded a note for over a year now," and racing onwards to greet this man who had given up playing the amplified trombone, I would discover that it was myself.
         No, I don't want to take that course of action. I would rather stay at home and have to contend with my neighbour blowing those infernal lines on his amplified trombone. I would rather slide my notes like fish, pace my darkened room, anger my heart with coffee and cheap cigarettes. The rising moon rests like a steady flame on the wick of my bedside candle. I bury my head under the pillow; a premature burial because I am still breathing, crying out for release. If I could connect an amplifier to the moon as it changed gear over the horizon, I would have a celestial revenge indeed. But I do not possess the necessary skills.
         One evening, while we are both playing for all we are worth, a curious thing happens. Our widely diverging melodies form a compelling harmony. The time lag has been taken into account, his preference for atonality also. But suddenly we are playing together, an unearthly counterpoint, a music whose sum is far greater than its parts. For the first time, we have made a sort of contact with each other; it is as if we are sitting in the same room, at the same inglenook, warming our boots before the fire, tapping the stems of our Churchwarden pipes against our teeth; the hearth of our hearts. For the first time, I bless the technology that can amplify trombones.
         Our duet continues throughout the night. The wind rises up from the distant sea and the clouds scud across the milky sky, entangling themselves in the branches of the highest trees. The grass picks up our refrain, each slippery blade an Aeolian harp. I no longer hate my neighbour; I almost love him instead and resolve to make the arduous journey to his home as a gesture of friendship. But there is little need. Why make a gesture of friendship to the man or woman you are already embracing?
         When the moon sinks down over the opposite horizon, and the sun spreads its orange nets once more, we end with a remote and beautiful chord. I sink exhausted back onto my bed and sleep the sleep of the satiated. I know that I will never be able to play another note on the amplified trombone. I will have to dismantle my instrument and create something new from the brassy tubes. All this applies in equal measure to my neighbour. So what will we make from our throaty monsters? How will we pick over the trombones of civilisation?
         When my neighbour plays the amplified triangle it means another sleepless night. But I don't sleep anyway, so perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't sleep because my neighbour plays the amplified triangle.


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