Henry was in the middle of the third chorus of “Avalon” when the doorbell rang. He sighed and took his absent wife’s name in vain. He placed the clarinet back in its blue velvet case and turned off the stereo. He opened the door and muttered, “This had better be good.”
The young man was thin and fidgety with oiled black hair, a gray polyester three-piece suit that looked silver in the mid-morning sunlight, and a small brown cloth bow-tie. Beside him on the stoop was a large blue suitcase. It was like he was coming for a visit.
“Good morning, sir,” the young man said. He smiled widely, revealing a slight overbite. “Is your wife at home?”
“No, she’s not,” Henry said sullenly. He was embarrassed to be caught in his dirty white tank top with his suspenders hanging down the length of his pants legs. He’d also neglected to shave that morning.
“Could I inquire when she will be or where she is at?”
“She volunteers at Saint Michael’s Parish on Mondays and Wednesdays,” Henry said before he could stop himself. He squinted at the boy. “Why?”
“Well, seeing as she’s gone,” the boy went on, “maybe I could speak with you for a moment.”
“I don’t think so. I’m kind of busy.” He nodded at the suitcase. “Whatever it is you’ve got in there, I’m sure I don’t want to buy.”
The young man looked down at the blue suitcase with a puzzled expression, as if it belonged to somebody else. Then he lifted his hands to shoulder level, palms up, then dropped them to his sides again. “There’s nothing in there, actually.”
“What in the world are you selling, then?”
“Suitcases, sir. Royal Victoria. Hard-shell case. The very best.”
Henry scratched his elbow. “Of all the stupid things. Well, I’m not interested. My wife won’t be either.”
“Handy if you’re planning a trip somewhere.”
“Nobody’s planning a trip around here. Not now, not in the foreseeable future.”
The salesman’s smile dipped, then rose again. “These fellows are rugged. See?” He picked up the suitcase by the handle then dropped it from about six inches above the ground. It hit the cement and wobbled, but didn’t fall over. “And you can put your dry-cleaning in it, and it won’t wrinkle. It has a special device inside. Want to see?”
But the young man was already crouched down, unsnapping the trigger-latches. The blue suitcase yawned open on the stoop, revealing frilly aqua fringework and a stiff divider with a hanger attached. Otherwise, the suitcase was empty, a chasm of blue. “Let’s say you’re on your way to a funeral or a wedding somewhere cross-country and you have a special suit you want to keep ready-to-wear. No problem.” He looked up at Henry earnestly, his brow creased in concentration. Tiny beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip. He dipped his head again. Henry looked into the depths of the boy’s swirling black cowlick. “You hang one end of the suit over this Johnson here,” and the young man pointed at the hanger, “and slip the other end under the divider and then around this Jenkins here,” and indicated the wire. “Get it? That way, when you arrive at your point of destination, your suit’s as good as new. It doesn’t even need ironing. Pretty clever, huh?”
“Maybe. But like I told you, we don’t need any suitcases. I don’t even own a suit. Sorry. I’ve got to get back to practicing now.” He started to close the door.
The salesman’s face lit up. “Say, was that you making that music in there? It sounded just like a record playing. I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Henry couldn’t help but smile at the compliment. “Yeah, that was me. Well, me along with a Benny Goodman record. I play clarinet, just like Benny did. Only not like the King of Swing, of course.” He gave a modest chuckle.
“Hey, you’re pretty good. You fooled me.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Thanks.”
“I even know that tune. That tune’s real familiar. That’s called,” and he snapped his fingers twice, “‘Avalon,’ that’s it. Am I correct?”
“That’s right,” Henry said. “Benny Goodman, 1935. Say, you’re sharp.” He frowned uncertainly. “But you’re too young to know that.”
The salesman looked greatly offended. “What’re you saying, mister? I grew up listening to that music. My grandpop loved Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, all those good old guys. He had a Victrola and a stack of ’78s, the whole works. We played them every night. We didn’t even own a TV. My grandmom taught me the jitterbug. We used to dance around the kitchen. What do you mean I don’t know that music?”
“Now you have to understand,” Henry said. They were in the living room. Henry’s clarinet was poised in his hands. The young man was over by the stereo. It was his job to start the LP. “I’ve never played in front of anyone before. Except my wife, and she’s sort of got a tin ear. I’m a little nervous.”
“Don’t be. You’ll do great,” the young man said. “Here goes.” And he dropped the needle.
That night Margery found the suitcase on a shelf in the upstairs bedroom closet. It frightened her at first, its largeness, its blueness. But she recovered quickly. “Planning a trip?” she said. Her voice was heavy with sarcasm.
“Maybe I am,” Henry said, without looking up from the book he was reading. It was Joseph Conrad’s Tales of Land and Sea. He was lying in bed in his pajamas. His tongue and the roof of his mouth ached pleasantly from playing all afternoon and into the night, long after the salesman had left him. “Maybe I’ll just take me a little vacation to the South Seas.”