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The No-Talent Kid

It was autumn, and the leaves outside Lincoln High School were turning the same rusty color as the bare brick walls in the band-rehearsal room. George M. Helmholtz, head of the music department and director of the band, was ringed by folding chairs and instrument cases; and on each chair sat a very young man, nervously prepared to blow through something, or, in the case of the percussion section, to hit something, the instant Mr. Helmholtz lowered his white baton.

Mr. Helmholtz, a man of forty, who believed that his great belly was a sign of health, strength and dignity, smiled angelically, as though he were about to release the most exquisite sounds ever heard by men. Down came his baton.

“Blooooomp!” went the big sousaphones.

“Blat! Blat!” echoed the French horns, and the plodding, shrieking, querulous waltz was begun.

Mr. Helmholtz’s expression did not change as the brasses lost their places, as the woodwinds’ nerve failed and they became inaudible rather than have their mistakes heard, as the percussion section shifted into a rhythm pattern belonging to a march they knew and liked better.

“A-a-a-a-ta-ta , a-a-a-a-a-a, ta-ta-ta-ta!” sang Mr. Helmholtz in a loud tenor, singing the first-cornet part when the first cornetist, florid and perspiring, gave up and slouched in his chair, his instrument in his lap.

“Saxophones, let me hear you,” called Mr. Helmholtz. “Good!”

This was the C Band, and, for the C Band, the performance was good; it couldn’t have been more polished for the fifth session of the school year. Most of the youngsters were just starting out as bandsmen, and in the years ahead of them they would acquire artistry enough to move into the B Band, which met in the next hour. And finally the best of them would gain positions in the pride of the city, the Lincoln High School Ten Square Band.

The football team lost half its games and the basketball team lost two-thirds of its, but the band, in the ten years Mr. Helmholtz had been running it, had been second to none until last June. It had been first in the state to use flag twirlers, the first to use choral as well as instrumental numbers, the first to use triple-tonguing extensively, the first to march in breathtaking double time, the first to put a light in its bass drum. Lincoln High School awarded letter sweaters to the members of the A Band, and the sweaters were deeply respected—and properly so. The band had won every statewide high-school band competition in the last ten years—every one save the one in June.

As the members of the C Band dropped out of the waltz, one by one, as though mustard gas were coming out of the ventilators, Mr. Helmholtz continued to smile and wave his baton for the survivors, and to brood inwardly over the defeat his band had sustained in June, when Johnstown High School had won with a secret weapon, a bass drum seven feet in diameter. The judges, who were not musicians but politicians, had had eyes and ears for nothing but this eighth wonder of the world, and since then Mr. Helmholtz had thought of little else. But the school budget was already lopsided with band expenses. When the school board had given him the last special appropriation he’d begged so desperately—money to wire the plumes of the bandsmen’s hats with flashlight bulbs and batteries for night games—the board had made him swear like a habitual drunkard that, so help him God, this was the last time.

Only two members of the C Band were playing now, a clarinetist and a snare drummer, both playing loudly, proudly, confidently, and all wrong. Mr. Helmholtz, coming out of his wistful dream of a bass drum bigger than the one that had beaten him, administered the coup de grace to the waltz by clattering his stick against his music stand. “All righty, all righty,” he said cheerily, and he nodded his congratulations to the two who had persevered to the bitter end.

Walter Plummer, the clarinetist, nodded back soberly, like a concert soloist receiving an ovation led by the director of a symphony orchestra. He was small, but with a thick chest developed in summers spent at the bottom of swimming pools, and he could hold a note longer than anyone in the A Band, much longer, but that was all he could do. He drew back his tired, reddened lips, showing the two large front teeth that gave him the look of a squirrel, adjusted his reed, limbered his fingers, and awaited the next challenge to his virtuosity.

This would be Plummer’s third year in the C Band, Mr. Helmholtz thought, with a mixture of pity and fear. Nothing, apparently, could shake Plummer’s determination to earn the right to wear one of the sacred letters of the A Band, so far, terribly far away.

Mr. Helmholtz had tried to tell Plummer how misplaced his ambitions were, to recommend other fields for his great lungs and enthusiasm, where pitch would be unimportant. But Plummer was blindly in love, not with music, but with the letter sweaters, and, being as tone deaf as boiled cabbage, he could detect nothing in his own playing to be discouraged about.

“Remember, now,” said Mr. Helmholtz to the C Band, “Friday is challenge day, so be on your toes. The chairs you have now were assigned arbitrarily. On challenge day it’ll be up to you to prove which chair you deserve.” He avoided the narrowed, confident eyes of Plummer, who had taken the first clarinetist’s chair without consulting the seating plan posted on the bulletin board. Challenge day occurred every two weeks, and on that day any bandsman could challenge anyone ahead of him to a contest for his position, with Mr. Helmholtz as utterly dispassionate judge.

Plummer’s hand was raised, its fingers snapping urgently.

“Yes, Plummer?” said Mr. Helmholtz, smiling bleakly. He had come to dread challenge days because of Plummer, and had come to think of it as Plummer’s day. Plummer never challenged anybody in the C Band or even in the B Band, but stormed the organization at the very top, challenging, as was unfortunately the privilege of all, only members of the A Band. The waste of the A Band’s time was troubling enough, but infinitely more painful for Mr. Helmholtz were Plummer’s looks of stunned disbelief when he heard Mr. Helmholtz’s decision that he hadn’t outplayed the men he’d challenged. And Mr. Helmholtz was thus rebuked not just on challenge days, but every day, just before supper, when Plummer delivered the evening paper. “Something about challenge day, Plummer?” said Mr. Helmholtz uneasily.

“Mr. Helmholtz,” said Plummer coolly, “I’d like to come to A Band session that day.”

“All right—if you feel up to it.” Plummer always felt up to it, and it would have been more of a surprise if Plummer had announced that he wouldn’t be at the A Band session.

“I’d like to challenge Flammer.”

The rustling of sheet music and clicking of instrument-case latches stopped. Flammer was the first clarinetist in the A Band, a genius that not even members of the A Band would have had the gall to challenge.

Mr. Helmholtz cleared his throat. “I admire your spirit, Plummer, but isn’t that rather ambitious for the first of the year? Perhaps you should start out with, say, challenging Ed Delaney.” Delaney held down the last chair in the B Band.

“You don’t understand,” said Plummer patiently. “You haven’t noticed I have a new clarinet.”

“H’m’m? Oh—well, so you do.”

Plummer stroked the satin-black barrel of the instrument as though it were like King Arthur’s sword, giving magical powers to whoever possessed it. “It’s as good as Flammer’s,” said Plummer. “Better, even.”

There was a warning in his voice, telling Mr. Helmholtz that the days of discrimination were over, that nobody in his right mind would dare to hold back a man with an instrument like this.

“Um,” said Mr. Helmholtz. “Well, we’ll see, we’ll see.”

After practice, he was forced into close quarters with Plummer again in the crowded hallway. Plummer was talking darkly to a wide-eyed freshman bandsman.

“Know why the band lost to Johnstown High last June?” asked Plummer, seemingly ignorant of the fact that he was back to back with Mr. Helmholtz. “Because,” said Plummer triumphantly, “they stopped running the band on the merit system. Keep your eyes open on Friday.”

Mr. George M. Helmholtz lived in a world of music, and even the throbbing of his headaches came to him musically, if painfully, as the deep-throated boom of a cart-borne bass drum seven feet in diameter. It was late afternoon on the first challenge day of the new school year. He was sitting in his living room, his eyes covered, awaiting another sort of thump—the impact of the evening paper, hurled against the clapboard of the front of the house by Walter Plummer.

As Mr. Helmholtz was telling himself that he would rather not have his newspaper on challenge day, since Plummer came with it, the paper was delivered with a crash that would have done credit to a siege gun.

“Plummer!” he cried furiously, shaken.

“Yes, sir?” said Plummer solicitously from the sidewalk.

Mr. Helmholtz shuffled to the door in his carpet slippers. “Please, my boy,” he said plaintively, “can’t we be friends?”

“Sure—why not?” said Plummer, shrugging.

“Let bygones be bygones, is what I say.” He gave a bitter imitation of an amiable chuckle. “Water over the dam. It’s been two hours now since the knife was stuck in me and twisted.”

Mr. Helmholtz sighed. “Have you got a moment? It’s time we had a talk, my boy.”

Plummer kicked down the standard on his bicycle, hid his papers under shrubbery, and walked in sullenly. Mr. Helmholtz gestured at the most comfortable chair in the room, the one in which he’d been sitting, but Plummer chose instead to sit on the edge of a hard one with a straight back.

Mr. Helmholtz, forming careful sentences in his mind before speaking, opened his newspaper, and laid it open on the coffee table.

“My boy,” he said at last, “God made all kinds of people: some who can run fast, some who can write wonderful stories, some who can paint pictures, some who can sell anything, some who can make beautiful music. But He didn’t make anybody who could do everything well. Part of the growing-up process is finding out what we can do well and what we can’t do well.” He patted Plummer’s shoulder gently. “The last part, finding out what we can’t do, is what hurts most about growing up. But everybody has to face it, and then go in search of his true self.”

Plummer’s head was sinking lower and lower on his chest and Mr. Helmholtz hastily pointed out a silver lining. “For instance, Flammer could never run a business like a paper route, keeping records, getting new customers. He hasn’t that kind of a mind, and couldn’t do that sort of thing if his life depended on it.”

“You’ve got a point,” said Plummer, looking up suddenly with unexpected brightness. “A guy’s got to be awful one-sided to be as good at one thing as Flammer is. I think it’s more worthwhile to try to be better rounded. No, Flammer beat me fair and square today, and I don’t want you to think I’m a bad sport about that. It isn’t that that gets me.”

“That’s very mature of you,” said Mr. Helmholtz. “But what I was trying to point out to you was that we’ve all got weak points, and—”

Plummer charitably waved him to silence, “You don’t have to explain to me, Mr. Helmholtz. With a job as big as you’ve got, it’d be a miracle if you did the whole thing right.”

“Now, hold on, Plummer!” said Mr. Helmholtz.

“All I’m asking is that you look at it from my point of view,” said Plummer. “No sooner’d I come back from challenging A Band material, no sooner’d I come back from playing my heart out, than you turned those C Band kids loose on me. You and I know we were just giving ‘em the feel of challenge days, and that I was all played out. But did you tell them that? Heck, no, you didn’t, Mr. Helmholtz; and those kids all think they can play better than me. That’s all I’m sore about, Mr. Helmholtz. They think it means something, me in the last chair of the C Band.”

“Plummer,” said Mr. Helmholtz evenly, “I have been trying to tell you something as kindly as possible, but apparently the only way to get it across to you is to tell it to you straight.”

“Go ahead and quash criticism,” said Plummer, standing.

“Quash?”

“Quash,” said Plummer with finality. He headed for the door. “I’m probably ruining any chances for getting into the A Band by speaking out like this, Mr. Helmholtz, but frankly, it’s incidents like what happened to me today that lost you the band competition last June.”

“It was a seven-foot bass drum!”

“Well, get one for Lincoln High and see how you make out then.”

“I’d give my right arm for one!” said Mr.  Helmholtz, forgetting the point at issue and remembering his all-consuming dream.

Plummer paused on the threshold. “One like the Knights of Kandahar use in their parades?”

“That’s the ticket!” Mr. Helmholtz imagined the Knights of Kandahar’s huge drum, the showpiece of every local parade. He tried to think of it with the Lincoln High School Black Panther painted on it. “Yes, sir!” When he returned to earth, Plummer was on his bicycle.

Mr. Helmholtz started to shout after Plummer, to bring him back and tell him bluntly that he didn’t have the remotest chance of getting out of C Band ever; that he would never be able to understand that the mission of a band wasn’t simply to make noises, but to make special kinds of noises. But Plummer was off and away.

Temporarily relieved until next challenge day, Mr. Helmholtz sat down to enjoy his paper, to read that the treasurer of the Knights of Kandahar, a respected citizen, had disappeared with the organization’s funds, leaving behind and unpaid the knight’s bills for the past year and a half. “We’ll pay a hundred cents on the dollar, if we have to sell everything but the Sacred Mace,” the Sublime Chamberlain of the Inner Shrine was on record as saying.

Mr. Helmholtz didn’t know any of the people involved, and he yawned and turned to the funnies. He gasped suddenly, turned to the front page again, looked up a number in the phone book, and dialed feverishly.

“Zum-zum-zum-zum,” went the busy signal in his ear. He dropped the telephone clattering into its cradle. Hundreds of people, he thought, must be trying to get in touch with the Sublime Chamberlain of the Inner Shrine of the Knights of Kandahar at this moment. He looked up at his flaking ceiling in prayer. But none of them, he prayed, were after a bargain in a cart-borne bass drum.

He dialed again and again, always getting the busy signal, and walked out on his porch to relieve some of the tension building up in him. He would be the only one bidding on the drum, he told himself, and he could name his own price. Good Lord! If he offered fifty dollars for it, he could probably have it! He’d put up his own money, and get the school to pay him back in three years, when the plumes with the electric lights in them were paid for in full.

He lit a cigarette, and laughed like a department store Santa Claus at this magnificent stroke of fortune. As he exhaled happily, his gaze dropped from heaven to his lawn, and he saw Plummer’s undelivered newspapers lying beneath the shrubbery.

He went inside and called the Sublime Chamberlain again, with the same results. To make the time go, and to do a Christian good turn, he called Plummer’s home to let him know where the papers were mislaid. But the Plummers’ line was busy too.

He dialed alternately the Plummers’ number and the Sublime Chamberlain’s number for fifteen minutes before getting a ringing signal.

“Yes?” said Mrs. Plummer.

“This is Mr. Helmholtz, Mrs. Plummer. Is Walter there?”

“He was here a minute ago, telephoning, but he just went out of here like a shot!”

“Looking for his papers? He left them under my spiraea.”

“He did? Heavens, I have no idea where he was going. He didn’t say anything about his papers, but I thought I overheard something about selling his clarinet.” She sighed and then laughed nervously. “Having money of their own makes them awfully independent. He never tells me anything.”

“Well, you tell him I think maybe it’s for the best, his selling his clarinet. And tell him where his papers are.”

It was unexpected good news that Plummer had at last seen the light about his musical career, and Mr. Helmholtz now called the Sublime Chamberlain’s home again for more good news. He got through this time, but was momentarily disappointed to learn that the man had just left on some sort of lodge business.

For years Mr. Helmholtz had managed to smile and keep his wits about him in C Band practice sessions. But on the day after his fruitless efforts to find out anything about the Knights of Kandahar’s bass drum, his defenses were down, and the poisonous music penetrated to the roots of his soul.

“No, no, no!” he cried in pain, and he threw his white baton against the brick wall. The springy stick bounded off the bricks and fell into an empty folding chair at the rear of the clarinet section–Plummer’s empty chair.

As Mr. Helmholtz, red-faced and apologetic, retrieved the baton, he found himself unexpectedly moved by the symbol of the empty chair. No one else, he realized, no matter how untalented, could ever fill the last chair in the organization as well as Plummer had. He looked up to find many of the bandsmen contemplating the chair with him, as though they, too, sensed that something great, in a fantastic way, had disappeared, and that life would be a good bit duller on account of it.

During the ten minutes between the C Band and B Band sessions, Mr. Helmholtz hurried to his office and again tried to get in touch with the Sublime Chamberlain of the Knights of Kandahar, and was again told what he’d been told substantially several times during the night before and again in the morning:

“Lord knows where he’s off to now. He was in for just a second, but went right out again. I gave him your name, so I expect he’ll call you when he gets a minute. You’re the drum gentleman, aren’t you?”

“That’s right—the drum gentleman.”

The buzzers in the hall were sounding, marking the beginning of another class period. Mr. Helmholtz wanted to stay by the phone until he’d caught the Sublime Chamberlain and closed the deal, but the B Band was waiting—and after that it would be the A Band.

An inspiration came to him. He called Western Union, and sent a telegram to the man, offering fifty dollars for the drum, and requesting a reply collect.

But no reply came during B Band practice. Nor had one come by the halfway point of the A Band session. The bandsmen, a sensitive, high-strung lot, knew immediately that their director was on edge about something, and the rehearsal went badly. Mr. Helmholtz was growing so nervous about the drum that he stopped a march in the middle because of a small noise coming from the large double doors at one end of the room, where someone out-of-doors was apparently working on the lock.

“All right, all right, let’s wait until the racket dies down so we can hear ourselves,” he said.

At that moment, a student messenger handed him a telegram. Mr. Helmholtz beamed, tore open the envelope, and read: DRUM SOLD STOP COULD YOU USE A STUFFED CAMEL ON WHEELS STOP.

The wooden doors opened with a shriek of rusty hinges, and a snappy autumn gust showered the band with leaves. Plummer stood in the great opening, winded and perspiring, harnessed to a drum on wheels that could have contained a dozen youngsters his size.

“I know this isn’t challenge day,” said Plummer, “but I thought you might make an exception in my case.”

He walked in with splendid dignity, the huge apparatus grumbling along behind him.

Mr. Helmholtz rushed to meet him, and crushed Plummer’s right hand between both of his. “Plummer, boy! You got it for us! Good boy! I’II pay you whatever you paid for it,” he cried, and in his joy he added rashly, “and a nice little profit besides. Good boy!”

Plummer laughed modestly. “Sell it?” he said. “Heck fire, I’ll give it to you when I graduate,” he said grandly. “All I want to do is play it in the A Band while I’m here.”

“But, Plummer,” said Mr. Helmholtz uneasily, “you don’t know anything about drums.”

“I’ll practice hard,” said Plummer reassuringly. He started to back his instrument into an aisle between the tubas and the trombones—like a man backing a trailer truck into a narrow alley—backing it toward the percussion section, where the amazed musicians were hastily making room.

“Now, just a minute,” said Mr. Helmholtz, chuckling as though Plummer were joking, and knowing full well he wasn’t. “There’s more to drum playing than just lambasting the thing whenever you take a notion to, you know. It takes years to be a drummer.”

“Well,” said Plummer cheerfully, “the quicker I get at it, the quicker I’ll get good.”

“What I meant was that I’m afraid you won’t be quite ready for the A Band for a little while.”

Plummer stopped his backing.

“How long?” he asked suspiciously.

“Oh, sometime in your senior year, perhaps. Meanwhile, you could let the band have your drum to use until you’re ready.”

Mr. Helmholtz’s skin began to itch all over as Plummer stared at him coldly, appraisingly. “Until hell freezes over?” Plummer said at last.

Mr. Helmholtz sighed resignedly.

“I’m afraid that’s about right.” He shook his head sadly. “It’s what I tried to tell you yesterday afternoon: nobody can do everything well, and we’ve all got to face up to our limitations. You’re a fine boy, Plummer, but you’ll never be a musician—not in a million years. The only thing to do is what we all have to do now and then: smile, shrug, and say ‘Well, that’s just one of those things that’s not for me.’ ”

Tears formed on the rims of Plummer’s eyes, but went no farther. He walked slowly toward the doorway, with the drum tagging after him. He paused on the doorsill for one more wistful look at the A Band that would never have a chair for him. He smiled feebly and shrugged. “Some people have eight-foot drums,” he said kindly, “and others don’t, and that’s just the way life is. You’re a fine man, Mr. Helmholtz, but you’ll never get this drum in a million years, because I’m going to give it to my mother for a coffee table.”

“Plummer!” cried Mr. Helmholtz. His plaintive voice was drowned out by the rumble and rattle of the big drum as it followed its small master down the school’s concrete driveway.

Mr. Helmholtz ran after him with a floundering, foot-slapping gait. Plummer and his drum had stopped at an intersection to wait for a light to change, and Mr. Helmholtz caught him there, and seized his arm. “We’ve got to have that drum,” he panted. “How much do you want?”

“Smile,” said Plummer. “Shrug! That’s what I did.” Plummer did it again. “See? So I can’t get into the A Band, so you can’t have the drum. Who cares? All part of the growing-up process.”

“The situations aren’t the same!” said Mr. Helmholtz furiously. “Not at all the same!”

“You’re right,” said Plummer, without a smile. “I’m growing up, and you’re not.”

The light changed, and Plummer left Mr. Helmholtz on the corner, stunned.

Mr. Helmholtz had to run after him again. “Plummer,” he said sweetly, “you’ll never be able to play it well.”

“Rub it in,” said Plummer, bitterly.

“But you’re doing a beautiful job of pulling it, and if we got it, I don’t think we’d ever be able to find anybody who could do it as well.”

Plummer stopped, backed and turned the instrument on the narrow sidewalk with speed and hairbreadth precision, and headed back for Lincoln High School, skipping once to get in step with Mr. Helmholtz.

As they approached the school they both loved, they met and passed a group of youngsters from the C Band, who carried unscarred instrument cases and spoke self-consciously of music.

“Got a good bunch of kids coming up this year,” said Plummer judiciously. “All they need’s a little seasoning.”

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  • Love Vonnegut, never read this until today. It made me sad and smile. A perfect slice of life. I was pulling for Plummer!