The old lady stood so close I felt her hot breath on my neck. Her cramped apartment was filled to overflowing: moving boxes stacked on end, brass floor lamps, glass table lamps, old books, gilt-edged picture frames leaning against the walls.
“Ma’am, could you give me a little breathing space here?” I tipped the overstuffed chair against the wall so I could get a better view of the gaping rip in the black fabric on the bottom. She moved back a little, but her dog scurried forward and settled right at my heels.
The woman spoke to her dog, “Go away, Ulysses. Go on, move back.” The dog did not budge.
“Young man, I am just trying to make certain you do a good job. Those moving men dropped my chair all the way down the stairs. Down the stairs!” The woman took a step forward and poked her sausage-like finger in my face. She spoke in a high pitched fake English accent.
“Back, please, ma’am. I can’t do good work if you don’t give me a little room.” I took a curved needle out of my tool box and threaded it.
“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’! I hate when people ma’am me to death. Makes me feel like they’re up to something. My name is Mrs. Harrison Carter Fielding III. Who are you?”
I hated to tell her. She was the kind of person who would be delighted to use my name against me in the future. “Barone. John Barone.” I started stitching, hoping to get out of her apartment as quickly as possible.
Sweat began to stream down my back. “A. C. on?” I asked her. She lived in one of those run-down apartment buildings filled with old people just a step away from nursing homes. The rooms in these places were always too hot or too cold.
“I haven’t the slightest idea how to turn on the air conditioner. I just moved here, you know. That evil toad of a landlord hasn’t helped me at all. Iranian, I think, or maybe Italian. Back at the big house, I had a hired man to take care of everything.”
“You probably need to adjust that thermostat. It’s in the hallway, over by the front door.” I resisted the urge to go turn on the system. Later she might claim that I somehow damaged her unit.
Mrs. Fielding glanced in the direction of the hallway, but didn’t budge. Instead, she bent down to pet Ulysses who lay slobbering at her feet. They looked very much alike. I know everybody says this about dogs and their masters, but in this case it was true: small nose, round eyes glazed over with a white film, yellow hollow hanging jowls, and chins that jutted out.
Mrs. Fielding slowly straightened up, then asked, “Mr. Barone, tell me if this is true. My neighbor Mrs. Lewis says your moving company recruits its workers from the parking lot down at the Preston Diner. She says half of them are drunk and sleep under the trees, waiting for a job.”
The neighbor knew what she was talking about. Each morning, first thing, a crew boss from the company went down to the diner and picked up guys for the day. Most were sleeping off a drunk from the night before. My job was to go out and fix the disasters these “moving professionals” created. Some were easy, like sewing up a tear in the bottom of a chair. Some were impossible, like piecing together an antique vase. My personal opinion was that if the company bothered to hire moving professionals, they could save themselves a bundle of money. Of course, then I would be out of a job.
“Well, Mrs. Fielding, that’s a question for the company manager, don’t you think?”
The old woman glared at me, then walked over to a pile of books. She picked up a thick volume with colorful pictures on the dust jacket. “Look here. I own an autographed copy of Gone With the Wind. What do you think of that?”
I didn’t answer her. “Do you read, Mr. Barone?”
“Yes.” In fact, I read constantly. The manager of the moving company let me keep books that customers forgot in storage or intentionally left at their old houses. I wondered if Mrs. Fielding would be impressed with my signed copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or my first edition Of Mice and Men. You wouldn’t believe what people leave behind.
Of course, I had other books, too. The ones my parents had passed on to me. My father’s Milton’s Complete Poems had illustrations that scared me to death as a kid. My mother had simpler and lighter tastes, volumes of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a collection of stories by O. Henry.
Sometimes, the guys down at the moving company would ask why I never went to college. Good question. I did well in school. I assumed I would go to college. But in my junior year of high school, my mother got sick. I worked after school and Saturdays to make ends meet. By the time she died, four years later, I had lost interest in college. I figured all I really wanted to do was read good books. I could do that at home for free.
I knotted the last stitch and put the chair down on the floor. “Well that’s it. This chair is as good as new.”
“You know as well as I that this chair is not as good as new! It’s been tossed down a flight of stairs and now there is a line of ugly stitching across the bottom.” Apparently, I couldn’t fool Mrs. Fielding.
“Sorry. Could you sign this sheet for me, please?” I tried to hand her a pen and clipboard, but she kept her hands at her hips.
“If I sign the paper, does it mean I approve the work you did?”
“No, it means I was here and I did the job. Just read it.”
She gazed at me with suspicion. “I have to get my reading glasses.” She inched off down the hallway, probably toward her bedroom. I looked around the living room. I had never seen so much junk stuffed into such a small space, everything in floor to ceiling piles. Some of the items had price tags attached. Maybe she was holding an estate sale.
A large black case caught my eye. I considered opening it. If Mrs. Fielding’s bedroom were anything like her living room, she could be gone a few years.
I pulled the case away from the wall and unsnapped the latches. A gorgeous silver tuba lay on plush purple lining. The instrument seemed to be in perfect shape, not a scratch or a dent on the thing. I tried the valves. They slipped up and down, smooth as could be.
My father played the tuba, seems like a million years ago now. During the week, he taught band at the local high school: trumpet, alto sax, clarinet, trombone. You name it. No strings, though. On Friday evenings during the summer, he played tuba in the municipal orchestra.
Concerts were held at the band shell in Walnut Hill Park. My mother and I always sat right up front, on a scratchy wool blanket. She would bring a picnic supper in a canvas sack: a big jar of lemonade, thick homemade bread, black olives drenched in oil and sprinkled with hot pepper, roasted chestnuts wrapped in a white cotton handkerchief, chicken cutlets in waxed paper. As I thought about those cutlets, my mouth watered. I could almost taste the garlic, cheese, and parsley.
We’d eat and watch the sun set over the spire of the Catholic church downtown. As it got darker, the sound of the crickets competed with the musicians. I always listened for Pa’s tuba, steady and sturdy. He seemed to hold the orchestra together.
After a while, I would drift off to sleep. Eventually, I’d find myself in the back seat of our old green Dodge, the tuba case for a pillow and the blanket thrown over my shoulders.
My father died when I was six. My mother moved in with my grandmother and began working at a bakery. She must have sold the tuba. I know money was tight.
I lifted this tuba out of the case. I loved the bulkiness of the instrument—a nice hunk of metal. It felt substantial, not like a piccolo or a violin. I liked the way you had to wrap your arms around the tuba in order to play. I put my lips against the huge mouthpiece and blew. Out came a low sputtering noise.
Mrs. Fielding and the dog scurried back into the living room in a flash. “What do you think you are doing? You may not touch my belongings!” Ulysses growled and then broke into a gagging cough.
“I notice you have price tags on everything. Is this tuba for sale?” I decided changing the subject was my best course of action.
She harrumphed at me and pointed her little chin straight into the air. “It belonged to Harrison’s great-uncle Milton. He played it in the army band. World War I, of course. Then, he came home and died. Consumption. Nobody has touched it since.”
I jerked the tuba away from my lips. How long could TB germs last? Certainly not 80 or 90 years. I placed the tuba in the case. “I don’t see a tag. How much do you want for it?”
Mrs. Fielding ignored my question. She settled into the chair I had just fixed and called her dog, “Ulysses, come here, sweety pie.” The dog unsuccessfully tried to climb into her lap. Mrs. Fielding adjusted her reading glasses, then examined my invoice word-by-word. Here was a woman with plenty of time on her hands.
Finally, she signed the paper. Then, she looked up and asked, “Do you play the tuba?”
“No. My father played the tuba.” I didn’t want to turn this into a long conversation. I had three more calls to make before supper time.
Mrs. Fielding laughed. “What would your neighbors think if you started playing the tuba?”
“I live in a small house on lots of land, near the edge of town. My closest neighbors are deer and owls.” When my mother died, I used the life insurance money as a down payment on some land. Over the past eight years, I had built myself a home: stick by stick and brick by brick.
The house was tiny, its north face snug into a hillside. Large windows covered the other three sides of the house. I think of each one as a picture frame. From the living room, I can see Remington Ridge surrounded by blue hills. From the kitchen, I look at a stand of gnarled oaks tangled with underbrush—a bird haven. From my bed room, I see the path that drops off straight down to the pond.
This conversation was going nowhere. I started to put my needle and spool of thread back into my kit.
“What about your wife? Your children?”
“No wife. No kids.” No prospects, either. I never seem to meet anyone I’m interested in dating. I snapped my tool case shut and stood to leave.
“So you are completely alone?” Mrs. Fielding dragged out the word “completely” as she lifted Ulysses to her lap and scratched him behind the ears.
I gave the old lady a sour look. She smiled, “Ah, you don’t want to talk about it. I understand. I can’t bear to talk about Harrison, I miss him so. You are all alone. Just like me.”
Mrs. Fielding stared off into space, thinking of who knows what. “Do you like dogs, Mr. Barone?”
“I don’t dislike them. Never had one. Look. I’ve got places to go. Do you want to sell this tuba or not?” I hoped I could bully her into a decision.
“I guess I’m not exactly all alone. I have one niece. Lydia. The vulture. She forced me to move from the big house, is insisting that I have an estate sale. “Convert your assets to cash,” she keeps harping. She has no sense of family history. No feeling for the past.”
The whole time Mrs. Fielding spoke, she stroked Ulysses. On her right hand, Mrs. Fielding wore a large diamond, surrounded by many smaller diamonds, all set in platinum. On her left hand, she wore a huge green emerald. Both looked so heavy, I wondered how the woman could lift her hands at all. I pictured that vulture Lydia trying to yank the rings from Mrs. Fielding’s fat fingers.
“Lydia works for Sotheby’s. Jets back and forth to London. Whenever that woman looks at my belongings, all she sees is dollar signs. Harrison made a terrible mistake with her.”
“What do you mean?” I didn’t want to keep talking, but I was curious.
“She’s Harrison’s last living relative. He structured the estate so that she gets every penny when I die. You know what my wretched niece calls this sweet puppy? She calls him “Useless”.” Mrs. Fielding sighed, then gestured toward the black case.
“Take another look at the tuba, Mr. Barone. Make sure you really want it.” Ulysses carefully climbed down from Mrs. Fielding’s lap. The dog sniffed around my shoes and ankles as I opened the case again.
“Lovely, isn’t it? Untouched for decades.” Mrs. Fielding seemed to be teasing me. I thought about giving her one good tap on the head with my upholstery hammer. Who would care other than Ulysses? The niece might even reward me. No one would miss the tuba.
“I am truly sorry that you are alone in life. So young, too. I also have thought about taking up a musical instrument to fill the empty hours. But, I guess I am too old for that.”
The smell of the tuba—was it the case? The metal? Something reminded me of my father, brought me straight back to him. I have a hard time recalling his voice, picturing his face. The only face I can bring to mind is their wedding photograph, the one my mother kept on her bureau until the day she died. That, of course, is a memory of an image of his face, not his face.
But this smell? What was it? I remember after those concerts, he carried the tuba case in one hand, and cradled me over his shoulder with the other. Sometimes, even if I hadn’t fallen asleep, I would pretend to be, so that he would carry me to the car. I felt so safe.
“Young man, you dazed! What are you thinking?”
I stood quickly. “I’m thinking about the three jobs left to do before I can eat supper tonight.”
Mrs. Fielding frowned. “The price tag is on the bottom of the case.”
I tipped the case and read, “$2,500. 00.” I had about fifteen hundred dollars in my savings account. Mrs. Fielding may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. “Any room for negotiation?”
“That is a bargain. The appraiser said I could easily get $3,000 for it in Boston or New York City. I don’t want to be bothered. Twenty-five hundred, that is the price.”
“You wouldn’t think of accepting any less?”
“Of course not.” She pinched her lips together, then brushed a bit of lint from the arm of her chair.
I picked up my tool kit. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“You wouldn’t now, would you?” Mrs. Fielding stared at me for a minute. “Please excuse me if I don’t show you to the door.”
“Thanks. I’m sure I can find it myself.” I worked my way through the piles of junk, making sure I didn’t scratch or dent anything.
Over the next few months, I thought about Mrs. Fielding and that tuba from time to time. Then, one gray November afternoon, a truck pulled up in front of my house. A man came to my door, “You John Barone? Got this letter and these here boxes for you.”
I hardly stepped out the door before the man jumped back on his truck and zoomed down my long driveway. I opened the larger of the two boxes first. I found the tuba inside. The smaller boxes had holes across the top and I could hear whimpering within. Inside sat Ulysses in a small cage. I opened the letter:
Dr. Mr. Barone,
You seem to be a man who could use some company. So, here is Ulysses—the very best friend I have ever had.
I inadvertently started a small fire in the kitchen of my apartment two days ago. Now that miscreant Lydia and the greasy landlord say I am incapable of living independently. Lydia is moving me to a nursing home next week. No dogs allowed there, of course.
I wouldn’t trust Lydia with a gold fish, let alone Ulysses. So, please take him, Mr. Barone. Let him roam those lovely fields around your house.
Also, you may have the tuba. Lydia will never know the difference. It seems to mean so much to you.
Mrs. Harrison Carter Fielding, III
Enclosed you will find ten pages of instructions on the proper care of Ulysses.
The only “roaming” Ulysses ever did was from his dog bed to his dog dish. As it turned out, though, I didn’t mind having him around. Every night I came home to a creature who was happy to see me. That wasn’t so bad.
Right after Mrs. Fielding sent the tuba, I started taking lessons from one of my dad’s old music buddies. After a year of instruction, my playing is not spectacular, but it’s adequate. I play second chair in the town band. My strength is this: when a difficult measure comes along, I know how to play quietly.
A week ago, I noticed Mrs. Fielding’s obituary in our town paper. The article went on for columns, listing committees she had chaired, charities she had supported, exotic places she had traveled. The last line read, “and she leaves to cherish her memory her niece Lydia Peacham Fielding and a special companion, Ulysses Fielding.”
The next Sunday afternoon, in the cool of the evening, I put Uly sses on the back of my truck and slid the tuba next to him. Then, I headed out to the town cemetery where Mrs. Fielding had been buried. We walked up a small hill past the stones that marked my parents’ graves then further on toward the center of the graveyard. A large area was roped off, dedicated to Harrison Fielding III, his parents, grandparents and all their various offspring. Ulysses lay panting in the shadow of the largest monument, exhausted by the short climb.
I leaned against Mrs. Fielding III’s monument and began playing a tune I’d made up myself:
Requiem in B flat Major, for One Tuba.