The Eldest Sibling

Submitted into Contest #26 in response to: Write about a character who was raised in a musical family.... view prompt



Lucy was about to commit blasphemy. Or something near enough to it in the eyes of her family, though she wasn't doing anything wrong. Somehow, she still couldn't divorce herself of the idea that she was doing something illegal.

The trombone wasn't stolen. It wasn't the then twenty-year-old instrument she had started playing fifteen years ago, but for how dirty she felt standing in front of a pawn shop with it, it might as well have been.

That trombone had belonged to her father, and he had started her on it as soon as possible. She was the first of her siblings to pick up a brass instrument like him, and there had been something poetic about learning to play on the same instrument he had learned to play on. The glister had faded quickly as she realized the instrument would never be fully hers, even when it was. It was almost a relief, in high school, to get this trombone, one that didn't have as good as a heraldic history to it. Picking up her father's trombone was like picking up a family heirloom--there was a sense of forbiddance every time she did, and if she played for too long, he would come and take it out of her hands.

Music in general had always been weighted down with familial obligation. Dad composed music, played with a few orchestras, and even offered private lessons at a music shop twice a week. Theresa, Lucy's older sister, played the oboe and loved music so much she went on to major in it. All three of their younger siblings played instruments as well: Yulia on the flute, Mitchell on the baritone sax, and Peter on the trumpet. Mom didn't play an instrument anymore, but she still had her clarinet from when she did, and that was Mitchell's starting instrument.

None of them were standing outside a pawn shop. She didn't think any of them would even think of it. If they did, she doubted they would feel this guilty about it.

The thought was enough to get her through the door, but just barely.

Lucy didn't know much about pawn shops or what they normally took. Maybe it was normal that the walls looked like she had stepped into Beacock’s Music rather than Parker's Loan and Jewelry. Maybe this was just a prime location for people to unload unwanted instruments.

The case at her side was suddenly heavier than before, a gravity well she had willing carried here.

"Hi," said the man behind the counter. "Welcome to Parker's Loan and Jewelry. How can I help you?"

Lucy found she couldn't talk around the lump in her throat. She swallowed, trying to clear it out. "Um, I'm here to..." She lifted the case when the words wouldn't come.

"Right. If you'll just bring that over here?"

It was easier to move when someone else was telling her to do it. She walked mechanically over to the counter and set the case down on top of it. Her hand released its death grip on the handle more out of habit than anything else. The invisible specter of Music hovered at her shoulder, the true eldest sibling standing in judgment on her while the man swung the case around and opened it.

"Nice. You don't tend to see too many silver trombones," he remarked, lifting the pieces of the trombone out of its case to inspect them. He hummed a bit when the trigger stuck like it always did, and again when the slide wasn't as shiny as it probably could have been. "How old is it?"

"I'm not sure. I think we bought it used, but I've had it for almost ten years now."

The pawn shop owner whistled between his teeth. "It's nice when they hold up well, isn't it?"

Lucy nodded even as a new wave of guilt crashed over her. Ten years she had owned this trombone. Ten years, this trombone had been hers and she hadn't even considered giving it up. Now she was standing in front of a pawn shop counter and watching a stranger manhandle it. A little part of her wanted to throw up, a bigger part was screaming that this was a mistake. Then there was the voice that brought her here in the first place. That voice was full of relief and righteous fury. That voice spoke to the injured ego of the ten-year-old girl she'd been when her father's demonstration turned into a practice session, but not for her. She burned with guilt and revulsion for it, but part of her was desperate to have this small separation, this little bit of power over something she had lived under her whole life.

It didn't make her feel any better, though. There was nothing triumphant about seeking a loan and using an instrument she hadn't even picked up in over a year as collateral. The feeling in her gut was pure, unadulterated shame that she had come to this.

The man had continued to mutter to himself, half turning away to focus on something on his computer screen. He seemed totally unaware of her inner meltdown. Or he was tactful enough not to mention it. Either way, his attention was elsewhere.

She wanted to grab it and run away. No money had changed hands, the trombone was still hers. The last ten years of its history were written in her hands, and she didn't want to abandon that in a pawn shop—however briefly—no matter how much she needed money. 

Social conventions kept her rooted to the spot, clenching and unclenching her fists so she wouldn't reach for the trombone on instinct.

"I can offer you $110 for it. Standard interest rate is 20% a month for six months."

Lucy flinched. His attention was back on her, patient but insistent nonetheless. "I don't, um..." Words were failing her yet again and there was no easy motion or body language to convey what she was trying to say.

"It's okay if you don't want to do this. This is your decision. If you don't..." He put the pieces of her trombone back in the case, closed it, and slid it back across to her, handle first. "There. I'm not going to take it from you."

Lucy stared at the handle. She was lost, somehow set adrift by the most mundane phrase. It's okay if you don't want to do this.

"I think that would be best. Probably." She reached for the case. "Sorry."

"Happens more than you'd think," the man told her. "Some people want to shop around for a better loan, some people just don't want to give things up." He fixed her with a knowing look. "I could tell which one you were as soon as you walked in. Sorry I couldn't help."

Politeness demanded a nod, which she gave, though part of her bristled at the acknowledgement of how weak she was when it came to her trombone. Or to music in general. To look at her family, it was written in their DNA, inscribed in every fiber of her being, and she hated being shackled to that. She wanted to be more than her music, more than a vessel for it to enter the physical world, but selling her trombone wasn't going to do anything but accentuate this guilt.

She left the pawn shop and headed home, turning over the miracle of the man's words in her head. It's okay if you don't want to do this. No one had ever said that to her about music. She had spent her life choked by the unwritten rule that music was a part of her life and there was no way to escape it.

As the second child, Lucy knew all about living in another person's shadow. Theresa was always better than her, prettier than her, smarter than her. People remembered Theresa because she came first. If it wasn't her, Lucy was living in her father's shadow. She was Victor's daughter, so much like him she even played on his trombone. Or she was Wendy's daughter and didn't she look so much like her mom?

Music cast the longest shadow of all, stretching across at least four generations of her family and she was suffocating in the expectations of it. When she first broached the idea of putting her instrument aside, her grandmother had called it a waste of talent, argued that someone who could learn to play another instrument by listening to band teachers lecture about the proper fingerings had no business giving up music altogether. That discussion, and a few smaller ones to follow over time, had kept her playing for another six years. She pretended that the hours of intense frustration and anxiety were worth the moments of fun instead of killing her by inches. She pretended not to cheer every time rehearsal was cancelled. She pretended she actually wanted to be there when it wasn’t.

She didn't want to be in rehearsal, and there was something liberating about acknowledging it now, even in the privacy of her mind.

Once inside her apartment, Lucy pushed the trombone case into the back of her closet, where it wouldn't convict her every time she passed as it had while sitting beside the couch. It was never the trombone she hated, not really, but she never had the space she needed to play it on her terms.

As both a teacher and low brass musician, her father appeared whenever she tried to practice at home, which was why she had learned not to practice there. It's not really practice if you aren't the one playing the instrument. Every other time, she was part of a group, tied down by an unspoken contract she couldn't seem get out of, like a school band or a community orchestra. Music was the rope tied around her neck and they were using to pull her along. Putting the trombone aside for a while was the best way to cut that rope and let the memories of frustration and never being good enough for the people she wanted most to impress to wither away with time.

Maybe in a year or four, she would pick it up again without the strings of obligation and responsibility clinging like a spider's web. Until then, well, it wasn't the first angry ghost she had shoved into her closet, and it probably wouldn't be the last.

January 31, 2020 19:33

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