[This is a 600 word piece I wrote for an NPR short fiction contest –Jim]
Some people swore that the house was haunted. I tried to explain that no, it’s just my grandfather, the forlorn trombonist, but that only got me strange looks in the small southern town where he lives. I like to think that I was able to convince someone of the lack of supernatural pedigree behind the long, mournful honks that floated out of the house, but a small town is the perfect incubator for a good rumor.
To be fair, it is the perfect town for a ghost story, with its huge live oaks lining the main street, Spanish moss hanging from their branches. Surely any ghost in search of a home would regard such an avenue with a nod and a hearty “I’ll take it!” In this particular case, however, there were none. Still, the rumor lived on.
I started visiting Grandpa more regularly when he became more than his second wife could handle. Grandmother passed when I was young, and he’d been remarried for thirty years. His wife’s call surprised me in a heat-shimmering parking lot earlier in the summer, and when I answered she told the tale.
He’d gotten too old to mow the grass or perform minor maintenance on the house, and she was concerned that their home was falling into disrepair. He forgot to turn off the shower occasionally, and would happily leave the water running all day if she didn’t check on it. He’d stopped keeping a garden, and he’d long since given up fishing for fear that he’d fall out of the boat and drown. Hell, he probably hadn’t fired a gun in a squirrel’s direction in ten years. In short, my Grandpa was outliving, one by one, the activities and duties of which he was, in my mind, constructed, and it was painful to realize.
I couldn’t help thinking that if Grandpa was getting too old to be the man I’d like to be, then some frightening conclusions could be made about my own time. Aren’t I 36 this year, and still single? And wasn’t my dad still in his twenties when he had me?
And what about Grandpa’s direct influence? Who would teach people in our family to drive? Who would catch and eat river fish? Can anyone rely upon squirrels to shoot and fry themselves? I despaired some for Grandpa, and for myself.
For his part, Grandpa was cheerful as ever. My sister, her kids and I visited him every few months and called him weekly, and he never let on that any of these matters were concerning him. He talked about the weather (hot). He asked about my work (slow). He confirmed that he was indeed still playing the trombone.
What he didn’t say, though I learned it from his wife, was that he was no longer peppily playing the brass band music he’d been honking out of his trombone since he’d been in the service in World War 2. In fact, he’d taken to blowing long, somber notes out of the thing, almost tunelessly. She hadn’t the heart to tell him to stop, since he’d had to let go of so many of the things he loved to do, but she admitted that she’d heard the rumors.
She mused that I might pick up some brass band music before my next visit, so I brought along a selection of DVDs for him to watch. I accidentally left behind among these, however, one of my favorite heavy metal DVDs.
Nothing was ever the same again after that.