Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Clarinetist and the Cult Leader

BY MALLORY JONES

by Mallory Jones

“More gradually this time, like you’re keeling over,” Mr. Jeffries shouted into the megaphone over the diminishing notes of the trumpets. “This is a slow and painful death.”

I watched out of the corner of my eye as the other clarinet players sank slowly to the wet ground of the football field and followed them, laying my body to rest across the forty yard line. I felt cold mud seeping into my jeans and against my shoulder blades. We had almost reached the end of our four­-hour Thursday evening rehearsal, and either my acting skills were improving or I was no longer faking my collapse.

Carefully, I held my clarinet to my chest so it wouldn’t touch the ground, and peeked around at the trumpeters behind me, who had fallen on top of each other in a hamster pile in order to keep warm. Cold, skinny flautists were laid out frozen and still ahead of me. Soon, the low brass players sounded their last mournful notes and joined the rest of us on the ground. The conductor put down her baton and glanced skyward to Mr. Jeffries’ cherry­-picker perch for more direction.

“Top of the show,” he declared, and we pulled each other up off the ground with less energy than ever. We grumbled as we found our places, but though I was tired, I was having much more fun than I’d have admitted to anyone.

***

It was my sophomore year of high school when the whole band had to lie down and feign death in the football field at the end of our marching show about the Civil War. “This year, we’re doing a tragedy,” Mr. Jeffries explained, dubbing the show “Hues of Blue and Grey.” We abbreviated it as HOBAG, pronounced “ho­-bag.” That year he coached us on what to say if we were individually approached by reporters at football games about the controversial nature of the show. “Don’t comment on the show’s meaning or what you think it means, or whatever,” he said. “Just tell them to contact Greg Jeffries. Direct them straight to me.”

***

It’s been over a decade since I started high school, but I clearly remember an incident that took place the week before my first all­-state band audition. I paid a visit to the music wing during homeroom to ask Mr. Jeffries if he could fix a bent key on my clarinet. The empty band room was so intimidating to me then, a sea of chairs and timpani drums. As Jeffries tried and failed to fix the key, he warned me that it was already hard enough to make the all-­state band when there are “already a hundred kids there who are better than you,” and that I was “screwed without a working clarinet.”

“And that,” he said as I packed up my clarinet into its purple zip case, “is just life.” Mr. Jeffries said all kinds of things.

***

The Mason High School band rehearsal room was full of trophies, but mostly meaningless ones. It seems that people will give a high school band a trophy for practically no reason. The ACC Contender sign, however, was significant to us. That sign represented the annual marching band championship competition, the Superbowl of student marching bands of the Eastern seaboard. This championship was our ultimate goal. It was why we spent every Saturday from September to November on a school bus, headed for the shows and competitions where we got these trophies, or often didn’t. If other students in the high school knew anything at all about the marching band, it was these two things: that our rehearsal room was a mausoleum of trophies, and that we were weird.

Marching band is embarrassing enough on its own. Most students at Mason High School opted not to join, sparing themselves from the hideous uniforms and and the public playing of embarrassing, non­sexy musical instruments at football games in front of their peers. At my school, we were sort of a marching band/outdoor school musical hybrid, which made it even worse. Jeffries wanted us to stand out at competitions, with elaborate painted backdrops and synchronized dance moves. Though we ‘toned it down’ for the Friday night halftime shows, the whole entire school knew about what we did. Often during our lunchtime rehearsals, the marching band went outside to practice in the “backyard” between the building and the football field. One got to the backyard through the emergency exit door outside the music wing. There were picnic tables nearby where students ate lunch. Perhaps out of compassion, most people pretended not to see us.

***

I see now, how marching band combined some of my greatest fears. Sunburn, exercise, public embarrassment, and boys. The fact that the better musicians at school were members drove me to join. This is how I found myself at marching camp at the end of every summer, in humid Maryland August. Ten­-hour days in the sun, and I had a sunscreen allergy. One volunteering mom was a nurse and she brought in zinc oxide ointment, a chalky white paste which she smeared all over my face and ears and neck, twenty minutes in advance of going out to the field. It was an embarrassing necessity, but I’d embarrassed myself in front of other band members many times.

Our town was small enough that all of the students knew each other from preschool, and it was easy for our parents to always know where we were. My parents were heavily involved with band, and came along on all of the weekend trips. My father even helped build the large wooden backdrops we wheeled onto the field to rest behind us during the performances. Every year, some of the parents repainted the backdrops to match the theme of whatever our newest show was. My freshman year it was “Impressions of Mount Olympus,” the next year, HOBAG, the next, something to do with Looney Tunes. My senior year, there wasn’t much of a theme. The backdrops were simply covered in black paint and used for students to ‘hide’ behind until the show began. We emerged from behind the backdrops as if we were surprising the audience with our existence. At home football games, it probably worked.

***

The band was close­-knit to the extent that other students referred to us as a cult. We all loved this, of course, and someone ordered black t­-shirts for the entire band emblazoned with the word “CULT.” We even hosted our own fake homecoming dance because Jeffries made us miss the official one every year for an out­-of-­state marching competition. This dance took place in the Barwick County Volunteer Fire Hall, decorated as sparsely as a funeral chapel would be, and everyone’s parents were there as chaperones. Kids complained about how boring it was compared to the real homecoming, but I loved it because it was small, and not actually at the high school, and all my friends were there.

***

Most of my friends in band were female, and fellow woodwind players. One Christmas several of those of us who were referred to in rehearsal as the “flutes/clarinets” decided to have our photo taken with Santa Claus at the local mall. We were there that Saturday buying formal dresses for the upcoming band gala. In anticipation, I had found a dress over the summer, but I still tagged along for the shopping day, not wanting to miss out. Spontaneously, we jumped in line, scraping up cash for the photo, which a girl in the group discreetly promised she would duplicate for all of us on her mom’s photo printer.

In the photo, we all seem loathe to touch mall Santa, orbiting around him in a wide circle. I stand in the right corner, tall after a growth spurt, wearing my puffy white marching jacket with my name embroidered on it in orange thread. “Mallory, Clarinet,” it says. I remember feeling legitimately proud of this jacket. All the girls in the photo wear either their marching band jackets or sweatshirts. After the resulting grainy photo was scanned and copied tenfold, a few of the girls brought a copy in to the music wing and gave it to Mr. Jeffries. I wasn’t there for this, but I can only imagine his subdued reaction, the wheels of snark turning behind his eyes. He pinned up the photo on the bulletin board next to his desk, and it stayed there for a while.

***

The doors of Jeffries’ office and the band room were a hard red-­orange shade, yet the lockers outside were more of a muted horseradish. Mason High School was painted full of mismatched interpretations of our school colors, an unfortunate orange and brown. There was always this hollow droning sound coming from the loudspeakers because Jeffries almost never remembered to shut them off, and the interference caused by the cell phones stashed illegally in our pockets and purses sounded off the speakers in rattling jolts. A time or two I cut the speakers off for Jeffries at the start of rehearsal, which he either did not notice or did not acknowledge.

***

I desperately wanted Mr. Jeffries and the other kids to recognize me as a musician with potential, which led to a lot of trying really hard. This didn’t exactly endear me to a lot of my classmates. However, I had some close friends in band who shared my goals to go to a conservatory of music, perform for a living, or become a music teacher. Throughout high school our Santa photo was taped to my bedroom mirror, a treasure. During homeroom these girls and I hid out together in the music wing, or as we nicknamed it, the “band cave.”

Other than those friends, I kept to myself in high school, obsessed with my musical ambitions the way other girls were obsessed with boys. I went to the kinds of parties that band kids have ­- featuring Cranium, cherry Coke, and the occasional G-­rated dance session. Once the clock struck nine at these parties, I began to plan my escape, mentally scheduling how much time I could spend later that night practicing my clarinet before my parents made me stop so they could go to bed.

***

There was an ancient upright piano in the band room. I took lessons for years, and sometimes I played at the end of class to show off as people left. I wanted to sound good at something ­- a clarinet, as played by a high school student, is typically squeaky and unimpressive -­ but nobody paid me any mind.

***

Students used to stick around after school on Thursdays and wait for evening rehearsal because they couldn’t get a ride back out at six. In the three hours between the dismissal bell and rehearsal, we pretty much had the music wing and neighboring cafeteria to ourselves. Even though I always had a ride to practice, when I was a sophomore I begged my mother to let me stay after school with the band. “I’ll be able to get all my homework done while I’m there,” I reassured her, and I’m sure she trusted me.

The empty school building seemed to hold so much promise for adventure, but those long afternoons never really met my expectations. I took the bus to school early in the mornings, making Thursdays long days. Usually the group pretended to do homework for about half an hour and then we played games: hide and seek, sardines, running and sliding across the hallway of the music wing on an old sweater we’d found. Sometimes I carved out a spot on a shelf in the instrument storage room for myself to take a nap before practice started.

***

I’d decided about two weeks into high school that I wanted to be the drum major (student conductor) of the marching band. Looking back, I don’t understand what on earth would motivate me to want to do that. It would have required me to don a men’s white tuxedo, including a tangerine­-colored bow tie and cummerbund, in front of the whole school at football games. I guess it seemed like fun. Drum majors went to drum major camp in the summer and got to run rehearsals. Seemingly, they got to run everything. When I wasn’t chosen to do it my senior year, I cried in front of the whole band. I am still touched that none of the other kids mocked me for it.

“People are two things,” Jeffries always said. “They are either proactive or reactive.” The fifth or sixth time I heard him say that, it was just to me in the music office, after he sat me down to talk about my drum major tantrum. He told me, “You tend to be reactive. That’s something you need to work on.” I nodded like I believed him and we moved right along down his list of spiels. I was sitting on the only part of the couch (a burnt orange relic from the seventies) that wasn’t covered in years’ worth of stacks of music theory homework. Those were never graded, I was pretty sure, and we received As by default.

***

I was a few inches taller than Jeffries. He was a close talker and I remember staring at the hair on the top of his head while he grumbled orders. I hadn’t decided if he was a megalomaniac or the guy from Mr. Holland’s Opus.

***

Jeffries felt the marching band had many enemies. I think that to him, it was our school against the other schools, the music boosters against the athletic boosters. It was Jeffries against the football coach, nagging for more practice time on the field, for better introductions by the announcers for the band’s performance. His complaints led to the marching band’s eventual banishment from rehearsing on the football field at all.

This was a dysfunctional way for him to lead a group of students, but I think we all found a way to relate to his perceived outsider-­status. That was the way I’d always felt during my time at Mason High School, so I embraced his conspiracy theories about insidious administrators and funding cuts. Once during my junior year, he canceled rehearsal and instead talked to us for two hours about how the local school board was plotting to eliminate music and arts from schools. “In two years our marching band will no longer travel,” he said. “Because no one will care, and we won’t have any money.”

Almost a decade later, and the school board of my hometown still hasn’t gotten around to destroying music, or any beauty in the world, or any marching bands. Jeffries did a pretty great job fulfilling his own prophecy, though; the year after I graduated, he discontinued the traveling marching band program completely.

***

Sometimes at the end of class Jeffries sat down at the drum set in the back of the rehearsal room and improvised a solo. Students circled around him to cheer. I got embarrassed when people enjoyed it so much. Suck­ups.

***

Jeffries was often absent ­- sick a lot, although sometimes he just had phone calls to make in the office. Because of this, I have seen the first 55 minutes of West Side Story, The Music Man, Drumline starring Nick Cannon, and a live taping of the Blue Man Group about thirty times each over my four years of high school. Everyone sat on the floor in the front of the room during videos, crowding around the abandoned conductor’s stand to stare at the television. The podium had a bumper sticker that read “Let’s Band Together.”

Once after one of these videos, the brass players were, for some unfathomable reason, throwing chairs around the room (the substitute teacher had long since lost control of the class) and I managed to get hit pretty hard in the face with a metal chair leg. I went late to US history with a bright red cheek and a Ziploc bag of ice.

***

During long rides home from competitions, all the students used to sing together, but only after it was dark enough that no one had to look at anyone else. I remember when we all sang The Beatles’ “Yesterday” on the bus late one night, quietly and without exuberance, as if we were old enough to have a yesterday to long for.

***

Once I asked Mr. Jeffries for advice about applying to college music programs, and this is what he told me. “Whatever you do, just don’t drop out of college to get married. Here’s how it happens. You meet some guy who wants to be an accountant and you get married, then you drop out and start working at the furniture store, as, I don’t know, a secretary, to pay for his education while he’s in accounting whatever school. Then you have some kids. Then you start to fight. Then one of you is going to leave the other. It’s true. It’s what always happens. And you’re going to be a secretary at the furniture store and you’re going to have these kids you’re dragging around to soccer and ballet and all of that garbage and basically you’re going to be stuck in a horrible situation. And you aren’t going to have a college degree. So just stay in school, whatever you do, or you’re trapped in the furniture store.”

***

Once I collaborated with a pianist who happened to know Mr. Jeffries back in the day. I heard stories from their time in college and all about his first wedding, in which my pianist was the maid of honor. I learned about the knee injury that cost Jeffries a sports scholarship and led him to choose to instead become a music teacher. And I learned about some sort of joke the two shared about lava from a geology seminar they had taken. “Lava!” They’d both shrieked when they told me about it, before bursting into laughter. The joke was lost on me. It was weird to think about Mr. Jeffries as a student, having friends, making fun of volcanoes for whatever reason.

We had our own in­-jokes. Some of my band friends and I started writing down Mr. Jeffries’ quips and speeches in a notebook. I transcribed his insults, his faint praise, his jokes, and his advice. There were quotes in the book I hadn’t heard myself, but legend held that he had indeed said them. The notebook may have seemed like mockery to an outsider, yet I know that when I contributed to it, it was partly out of ironic detachment and partly out of awe. His advice, though randomly dispensed at often inappropriate times, was ruthless in its truths. I made sure the book was in my possession when I graduated.

***

My senior year, Mr. Jeffries made me his student assistant. I think he intended it as a consolation prize for the drum major thing. This meant that I helped teach the freshman band course, though one afternoon I had some trouble fulfilling my duties. The freshmen had filed into the band room and I was supposed to teach their music theory lesson. It was late fall, still marching season. I was hiding in the music office, upset about a friend with whom I’d had a loud and disruptive argument at a band rehearsal earlier in the day.

Jeffries sought me out in the office, where I sat carefully on the couch next to the pile of ungraded papers. By then, I was one of his minions, picking up after him in the office and snickering with him at all of his predictable asides, calling the goofy, inattentive brass players the “brain trust” and complaining about a movie being played too loudly down the hall. I clearly wasn’t in a laughing mood that day, but Jeffries tried his best to motivate me.

“Crying again?” he asked. “Why are you upset? Because you think you’re friends with this girl? Ultimately, all your friends are going to do this exact same thing to you. They all stab you in the back. You wait and see. Stay in the office until you calm down. Then come out and teach the theory lesson.”

He was honestly wrong that time, but I was at the chalkboard teaching the lesson within a minute and a half, my strength bolstered somehow.

***

After class one day my senior year, Mr. Jeffries handed me a plastic grocery bag, tightly knotted shut. “Give this to your mother,” he said. “She’ll know what it’s for.”

Apparently it was a pair of his jeans, which he’d splattered with paint. My mom said he called to ask if she could wash out the stains for him, presumably since she was in charge of caring for the band uniforms.

***

I’d reached all my goals by graduation: I’d made all­-county band, all­-state band, received perfect scores at any juried music festival where I could possibly get them, and then earned spots in music programs at every single college where I’d applied. The hours of practicing and the private clarinet lessons with a teacher two towns away had paid off. In fact, I was planning to study education and become a music teacher. I was so very pleased with myself. Jeffries congratulated me when I told him, but I was disappointed he didn’t seem more interested in my news.

***

How much time did I spend in band class, in high school?

6 band classes in high school x 180 school days per year

means 1080 one-­hour band periods divided by the 24 hours in a day

= 45 days of my life spent in the band rehearsal room.

That excludes all extra marching band rehearsals, performances, concerts. The three hours a day I spent practicing clarinet by the end of high school. The long bus trips. The endless Thursday nights. So I think I could easily double those 45 days.

I called my mother to tell her my estimation. Because she’d helped out so much with band activities, I figured she’d probably spent as many hours as I had. She said I had too much time on my hands, and I wasn’t sure if she meant then or now.

***

I occasionally get to see those girls from marching band, the dance party, cherry­coke girls, the girls in the photo with Santa Claus. This winter, when we all returned to our hometown for the holidays, we made plans to recreate the Santa photo at the local mall. The photo was taken in 2004, so we planned for this to be a tenth anniversary photo. Since not everyone could return, we ultimately scrapped the idea, since the photo wouldn’t be a perfect recreation and we didn’t want to exclude anyone. Though I was one of the instigators of the idea behind the reunion photo, I felt somewhat relieved: in the past week, I’d tried to imagine us piling onto mall Santa’s lap, struggling to figure out how to efficiently split the cost of the photo order between the eight of us with credit cards while families waited behind us in line, their preschoolers anxious with wishes. I wondered if we would recreate the same circle around the bearded man in disguise: me at the far right hand, my best friend at my side. I wondered if I would deliver a copy of the photo to Jeffries’ office at our high school, where he still teaches.

Plan B was easier. Every bar in my rural Maryland hometown is an Irish pub, and we went to one of those. The wild variations in our drink orders were telling enough: the beer drinkers mocked the former flautist holding her appletini. I nursed my single glass of wine, feeling out of place at a pub. Yet there were eleven crowded into the booth, more of us than I even remembered. As we drank I sat close with these women, plates overlapping, remembering claustrophobic bus rides, shared sheet music on wobbly music stands. We did not reminisce: we rarely do when we reunite, because everything has already been remembered at prior gatherings, because our friendships have extended beyond the band room.

***

A few years ago, while I was in college, I went back to visit Jeffries.

That’s not entirely true. I was at Mason High School, but just to see the hallways and lockers again, and to say hello to other teachers I liked, ones who were easier to face. But as I walked into the building, the big entrance doors (a Kraft macaroni orange) swung open, and it was Jeffries, just as anyone would expect. I felt like I’d been caught.

By then I’d dropped out of a conservatory of music with what I felt was nothing but a hand injury to show for it. In the ultimate example of my ambition getting the best of me, I spent my first year of college overpracticing until I developed tendonitis and other overuse injuries in my hands, wrists, and arms. My injuries forced me to drop out of the music program and put my musical goals on an indefinite hold.

I knew my dad had told Jeffries everything there was to know about my life at school, probably while they were out eating nachos at a Chili’s or something. As weird as it may sound, the occasional hangout took place between Jeffries and some of the ‘band dads.’ I imagined a slightly grayer Jeffries whining about difficult students at one of these outings, my dad there as the faithful designated driver. I imagined my dad telling him about how I’d quit, how upset I’d been. Then I pictured Jeffries interrupting him, taking the opportunity to ramble about whatever it is he rambles about now.

He apologized about my bad news as we stood in the doorway, though when he brought up the subject of my injured hand, I felt like I was experiencing a full-­body cringe. I didn’t want him to mock me; I didn’t want him to feel sorry for me. My clarinet, furloughed to my bedroom closet, hadn’t been taken out of its case in years. Yet Mr. Jeffries’ opinion of me, as insulting or unwelcome as it often was, still mattered.

What I hadn’t anticipated was his next remark, said as he held open the door for me so I could enter Mason High School for the first time in years.

“You’ll be fine,” he said evenly. “You never needed music.”



Mallory Jones is a Jackson Fellow in Creative Writing at the Hollins University M.F.A. program, where she is writing a collection of essays. She is originally from Baltimore, Maryland.