Vol. 1, No. 3: Slobberknockers & Buttonhooks

Vol. 1, No. 3: Slobberknockers & Buttonhooks photo

Vol. 1, No. 3: Slobberknockers & Buttonhooks

After the Game LJ Pemberton

The smallest sousaphone player in the marching band sat on the top row of the stadium with the rest of her section. Next to her, the guys played games on their phones between songs and cut up, making fun of the football players slipping and sliding in the mud below. In the stands, at least, they had blankets to wrap around their shivering bodies. Tucked into their pockets and gloves and held against their torsos were their mouthpieces, kept warm for the next song.

She had started with trombone in seventh grade. Then, in eighth grade, her teacher had said they needed a tuba—here’s a book, here’s a music stand—and, during class, put her in a practice room to teach herself. She did, successfully, and then moved.

The high school band director at her new school was incredulous. We never get a tuba, he said, always a clarinet or flute, sometimes a trumpet, but never a tuba. The other sousaphone players in the marching band were strong and girthy guys with sex on their mouths and zits on their cheeks. They mocked her, asked her if she was wet when it rained during practice, asked her if she needed help picking up her instrument. She hated them, but she knew the music by heart and she liked the weight of the brass on her shoulder. The thundering sound of her instrument she liked most of all.

On the field below, the first string had come and gone with three injuries in the first half. The smallest sousaphone player perked up when number 36 was called for the offense. Running back—tall and distractable. She’d met him after school three weeks before when they both showed up for a theater audition and didn’t know anyone in the drama club. It said open auditions on the flyer, he said, and she had replied she was there for the same reason.

Number 36 called himself Adam from the stage. He did a monologue from Henry IV and passably seemed to understood what he was saying. She did a bit as the Stage Manager from Our Town. After the audition, they waited as the other kids were fetched by stay-at-home moms. Finding themselves alone, they decided to walk over behind the baseball fields, now left unkempt. She told him people called her Shorty, but her name was Michelle.

Alright MISS Shorty, he said, and no one had called her that before. She laughed, and he held her hand. They walked, talked about their classes, their friends. He was a year ahead of her. She had heard of some of his friends, but the two of them were as good as strangers, though less so by the minute. We’ve got a couple away games coming up, he said, and that’s when she said, I know, I’ll be there—I’m in the band, and he paused a moment about this new fact, wondering if it was okay for a guy like him to be holding hands with a girl like her, and then he decided it was fine. Behind the backstop they kissed a while. Then her mom called, said she was parked in front of the school, and they ran back together, their blood hot and fast in their strides.

He waved goodbye.

They didn’t get the part, any of the parts, in the play. But they hung out again. And again.

Now he was dodging, running as far as he could down the field. The quarterback threw and he wasn’t clear, but he still caught the ball, then went down hard. A cornerback on the other team, who had been praying for his chance, hit him midair and knocked his breath away. Second down. The band director rose his baton and the smallest sousaphone player lifted her instrument over her head and rested it on her shoulder, and they played Hang on Sloopy for the fifth time. 

On the field, the other team called time out. The band played on, with a brassy and trombone-heavy rendition of Eye of the Tiger. Cheerleaders down front shook their pom poms at the stands, while the drummers banged on their snares. Soon, a call and response—we got spirit yes we do—

The players lined up on the field, then: snap! And the play—number 36 was down again, but there was a hand-off to the center and number 47 was running between the hashes, down the middle, flying, it seemed, towards the endzone. Defensive tackles couldn’t keep up. Folks in the stands were on their feet. They screamed! He was leaving the world behind.

Touchdownnnnnnnn!!!! said the announcer and number 47 spiked the ball and turned to welcome his teammates’ affection. There was triumph—for some. At the 40 yard line, number 36 was still down. Michelle had kept her eye on him while she played, kept her eye on him while she turned left, right, and then leaned back and pantomimed her way through the music.

Two coaches were out there now, on their knees, a clipboard thrown on the ground. If anyone, in the stands, could have heard their conversation, they would have heard the first coach say, Adam buddy, where’s it hurt?, and they would have heard Adam reply, It doesn’t, coach—that’s the problem.

Michelle was walking. In five minutes she was already down the stands, the sousaphone still around her. Her bandmates were watching, and then the band director, and he was trying to tell her something, but she wasn’t listening. She made it to the fence and took off the instrument and set it carefully on the ground. She scaled the waist high chain links in her uniform and walked across the track past the cheerleaders, walked onto the snowy field, ignored the benchwarmers and the assistant coaches, and continued, out of notice of the referees who were huddled by the endzone deciding what to do next.

She walked right up to number 36 and got on her knees and held his hand. One of the coaches grabbed her, tried to move her away then, but Adam used his strength to tell them no, and she fell back on the ground and there were grass stains on her knees, and he said, My parents aren’t here, and she laughed and said, Mine either, and then medics were coming, and he said, I’ll text you from the hospital, and he was gone.

The game resumed, and she walked back to her instrument, and lifted it over her head and put it on her shoulders, and then she walked up the stadium steps and completed the songs that she was expected to play. And when the band put their instruments again into their cases and filed onto the buses to return to their school, she leaned her temple against the cold glass of the bus window and watched the passing traffic on the drive home.

It was later, after her parents were asleep, that she received a text from him that said—it’s spinal spasms, they said. i should be able to walk again soon. and she replied, holy fuck, that’s scary, but I’m glad you’re gonna be okay. and he said, yeah, and he said, my parents are here now, and she said, good.

He quit before the next game.

The next time she saw him, she said, I’ll miss seeing you play. They were eating frosties in the Wendy’s parking lot. You only saw me once, he said. No, I saw you the other times too—I just didn’t know it was you.

Even that time I ran forty yards against Temple High?

Even then.

They finished but didn’t want to go home yet, so they drove and parked behind the practice field. It was Tuesday night—no one was there. They kissed, better than the first time, got to know the taste of each other, how it was earthy and sweet and good. She knew she wouldn’t be a sousaphone player someday, the way he wasn’t a football player anymore.

In the future he would come over with his wife and kids at Christmas. By then, he would be a programmer. She would be a graphic designer. They would send the kids to the basement to play while the adults caught up, drinking spiked eggnog. Her husband would put on a playlist of holiday favorites and they would talk about when Adam’s eldest had been kicker in the pee wee league, when Michelle’s son had discovered a litter of kittens in a nearby mineshaft. They had moved back home because it was cheaper than heading to the big city where everyone else, it seemed, had gone.

Adam would say, Oh my god, are we townies? and Michelle would laugh.

Oops? she would say.

But for now, she was still in the band. And he had just quit the team. For now, they could be half-cooked, full tilt, and not sure about what came next.