Xylophone will be released in December. Although it isn't precisely a holiday story, it ends shortly before Christmas, and its underlying theme of hope and redemption is definitely appropriate for the season.
One character is a somewhat gender-fluid exotic dancer who moonlights -- or "sunlights" -- as a clarinet player in a polka band. The other is a seemingly bland insurance salesman who takes his grandmother out dancing every weekend. Both men have a history of childhood sexual abuse they've yet to fully share with anyone, much less come to terms with.
Here's an excerpt:
Dare’s new part-time job came with a new part-time family, and on Sunday morning they assembled beneath a scrubbed blue sky at a veritable shrine to families. The Wilbur H. Zandt Memorial Pavilion—open to the elements, save for its broad roof—stood on a low, grassy rise ringed by trees about to burn with October color. The simple structure looked welcoming. It seemed to invite holiday picnics and class reunions, anniversary celebrations and civic fundraising events.
Ancestors weren’t excluded from the festivities. The ghost guests even had their own viewing gallery. At the western edge of the pavilion’s grounds, in a small clearing, stood graying, lichen-patched gravestones—a humble country cemetery. Dare glimpsed it as he steered his car up a service drive to the only fully-enclosed portion of the pavilion.
One of his band mates, Max Kirchner, had already parked and was pulling his encased bass guitar out of the back seat.
“This must be the kitchen, huh?” Dare called through his open window.
Max waved, nodded, and headed inside. The other boys were already here.
There were no dressing rooms at this venue. There were no toadies to deliver finger food or groupies to deliver adoration. Hell, there wasn’t even a box office. A makeshift ticket booth was stationed at the opposite end of the structure, and the only deterrent to gate crashers was a string of triangular plastic flags, the kind that often adorned car dealerships, wrapped around the pavilion’s exterior like a belt.
Dare figured it was sufficient. The attendees were probably as honest as Abe Lincoln and not much inclined to crawl under or climb over any kind of barrier.
He opened the rear door, got a noseful of lardy kitchen odor, an earful of laconic male voices. The guys greeted him, asked if he was ready, told him not to be nervous, offered him coffee or soda.
“I’m good,” he said, which pretty much answered everything. He glanced down at his legs and grimaced. “Except for these pants.”
“What, too tight?” asked Junior, the band’s drummer.
Bob, their leader, cruised past Dare and squeezed his shoulder. “Just remove a coupla pairs of those socks you got stuffed in the crotch and you’ll be fine.”
“The damn things are red,” Dare said, staring after him. He ignored the socks comment, even though it had made him blush.
Bob stopped, turned, and clapped his hands to his face in much the same way Trixie had done last night, except his fingernails remained securely in place. “Well, I’ll be damned. They are!” He rolled his eyes and kept walking.
“At least they match your face,” Max said with a chuckle.
“Shit,” Dare muttered. “I’m just glad I didn’t get pulled over on the way here.”
In addition to the red pants, he was also wearing a white shirt (couldn’t gripe too much about that) and a navy blue tie patterned with white stars and squiggles. It looked like a twelve-year-old’s silk-screening project.
“Quit worrying about your co-toor and come see what I got,” Bob said over his shoulder.
Dare finished with his preparations and ambled over. “Nice,” he said. “Shiny.”
He eyed Bob’s new accordion. Arrogantly, it leered back at him, its mottled carapace gleaming, its scrolled grilles bracketing the keyboard like elaborate tribal scars. Red, white, and blue balls, or maybe bubbles, decorated the edges of its folded bellows.
Bob Chmielewski was nothing if not patriotic. And flashy. The B-flat clarinet Dare gripped in one hand looked like an anorexic phantom hovering near a Mardi Gras king. Hard to believe the squeezebox and licorice stick were distant relatives, if only by virtue of their reeds.
So this was what Bob’s trip out east had yielded. From the moment Dare had auditioned for the band, its leader had been grumble-bragging about having to travel “halfway across the damn country” to pick up his new “box.”
“I thought it was made in Italy,” Dare said as Bob lightly, randomly pressed the bass buttons.
“You bet. In Castelfidardo.” Bob pronounced the name like an American Midwesterner who’d only heard Italian spoken by waiters and comedians. Which was exactly what he was.
At their backs, Max, Junior, and Ernie noodled around as they leaned against one of the kitchen’s long, stainless steel counters. Ernie’s banjo shook out a few bars of “Hoop Dee Doo.”
The other four men in the group were anywhere from twenty-five to forty years older than Dare and a whole lot straighter. More wholesome, too. Sporting beer bellies and the rosy cheeks of the good life, they were all husbands and fathers and grandfathers. If they suspected something other than age, weight, wives, and progeny set them apart from their clarinetist, they never let on. Not overtly, anyway.
They were good shits, all of them. From bodacious Bob to gentle, taciturn Ernie, from clueless Junior to the sharper and smarter Max, they were salt of the earth.
Dare felt at ease with these guys. Not a one of them, he knew instinctively, would ever be the perpetrator of an Incident.
Bob hoisted the accordion from its case and slipped its straps over his hammy shoulders. When he glanced at Dare, his look went grouchy. “Straighten your tie, kid.”
Dare straightened his tie—at least, he did the best he could without a mirror and with a hand full of clarinet. “If it was made in Italy, then why does it say ‘Lucille’?” He mentally played with the pronunciation. Maybe it was Loo-chee-lay, emphasis on the second syllable.
“’Cause that’s what I named her.”
Dare was stunned. “You can’t name your accordion Lucille! That name is reserved for B. B. King’s guitars!”
“Ask me if I care,” Bob said with a touch of huffiness. “For your information, Lucille was the name of my sainted music teacher.”
Dare helplessly extended a hand toward the glittering cursive that extended above the keyboard. “But—”
“But nothing. Do you have any idea what I paid for this baby? Not to mention I had to drive out to friggin’ New Jersey to get it.” Juggling his shoulders, Bob adjusted the accordion’s position and undid the bellows clips. Softly, Lucille wheezed in relief. “I’ll call it The Queen’s Poontang if I want to.”
“Which queen?” Junior asked from behind them. He seemed genuinely curious.
“I don’t give a crap,” Bob said impatiently. “Just pick one.”
Dare was tempted to say Freddy Mercury, but he knew the subsequent explanation wouldn’t be worth the time or effort. Besides, Freddy never had a poontang.
“I’d say the Queen of Kiss My Ass.” Grinning, Max strolled past Dare and laid a hand on his back. He leaned forward and murmured, “I agree with you about the name.”
“I mean, really,” Dare murmured back, and immediately wondered if he’d sounded too gay. He wasn’t sure what tipped off older straight guys to homosexuality, except blatantly flaming behavior, but it was always hard to see yourself as others saw you.
There was no indication Max possessed even rudimentary gaydar. Thank goodness.
Of course Dare hadn’t mentioned his orientation when he’d auditioned—it was completely irrelevant—but he feared being found out. This band and its audiences exemplified small-town conservatism. And he needed, even wanted this job too much to lose it.
Dare turned his attention to his own instrument, slipping the mouthpiece between his lips and licking the reed, idly dancing his fingers over the keys to make sure none of the pads was sticking. He’d had to replace a few—the original leather ones tended to dry out and shrink over time, which impaired their effectiveness in covering the tone holes—and elastic silicone pads were still new to him. They slapped into place nice and tightly.
Crowd noise from the pavilion continued modestly to swell and make its way into the kitchen. Butterflies awoke in Dare’s stomach. He told himself to relax. This wasn’t exactly a sold-out concert at Shea Stadium, and the people here would be more focused on each song’s beat than on the band’s musicianship.
Bob flipped his wrist and checked his watch. “Any minute now.”
The three other band members gathered near one of the kitchen’s two doors. “Mad Max” Kirchner loosely held the neck of his bass guitar. Ernie Novak had a forearm slung casually over his banjo. Junior Schoenfeld’s drum set was already set up on stage, along with Bob’s glockenspiel. And Daren Webster Boothe, gender-defying performer at the Sugar Bowl and newest member of Bouncin’ Bob’s Polka Doodles, clutched his nameless clarinet in one sweaty hand.
At least he wasn’t thinking about Incidents and Situations and Issues. Today he was a whole new person—not homosexual or intersexual or any kind of sexual. He wore no jewelry. His rakish hair, its highlights washed down the shower drain, was neatly combed, his face bore a faint shadow of stubble but not a lick of makeup, and his body was concealed by the same dorky outfit the four older dudes around him were wearing.
Today he was an ordinary-looking guy in an ordinary little band, an unremarkable cog in a small but noisy piece of machinery, and he would do his best to keep the apparatus running smoothly.
From the other side of the wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the pavilion, a man’s voice boomed through a microphone, “Are you ready to polka?”
The crowd didn’t exactly roar in response, but they clapped with what Dare interpreted as enthusiasm. A few whistles even cut through the applause. (Old guys, Dare had noticed in his twenty-six years on earth, prided themselves on the strength and shrillness of their whistles. He’d never figured out the technique.)
The band jauntily emerged from the kitchen and climbed the stairs that led up to the stage, where three music stands, spaced carefully in front of Junior’s drums, awaited them. Bob didn’t need a music stand. Every note of every song was etched indelibly in his brain.
More clapping rolled their way. As Dare gazed over the sea of aging faces and immovable hair, Bouncin’ Bob threw up his arms.
The band members shouted in concert, “Polka doodle-doooooo!”