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The boy who hated girls.

George M. Helmholtz, head of the music department and director of the band of Lincoln High School, could sound like any musical instrument. He could shriek like a clarinet, mumble like a trombone, bawl like a trumpet. He could swell his big belly and roar like a sousaphone; he could purse his lips sweetly, close his eyes, and whistle like a piccolo.

At eight o'clock one Wednesday night, he was marching around the band-rehearsal room at the school, shrieking, mumbling, bawling, roaring, and whi"Semper Fidelis."

It was easy for Helmholtz to do. For almost half his 40 years, he'd been forming bands from the river of boys that flowed through the school. He'd sung along with them all. He'd sung so long and wished so hard for his bands that he dealt with life in terms of them alone.

Marching beside the lusty, pink bandmaster, his face white with awe and concentration, was a gangling 16-year-old named Bert. He had a big nose, and circles under his eyes. Bert marched flappingly, like a mother flamingo pretending to be injured, luring alligators from her nest.

"Rump-yump, tiddle-tiddle, rumpyump, burdle-burdle," sang Helmholtz. "Left, right, left, Bert! Elbows in, Bert!"

Helmholtz smiled at Bert queasily. "I think maybe there was some improvement there."

Bert nodded. "It's sure been a help to practice with you, Mr. Helmholtz." His voice was reedy, apologetic.

"As long as you're willing to work at it, so am I," said Helmholtz gamely. He was bewildered by the change that had come over Bert in the past week. Bert had seemed to lose two years, to become what he'd been in his freshman year: awkward, cowering ,lonely, dull.

"Bert," said Helmholtz, "are you sure you haven't had any injury, any sickness recently?" He knew Bert well, had given him trumpet lessons for two years. He had watched Bert grow into a proud, straight figure. The sudden collapse of the boy's spirit and coordination was beyond belief.

Childishly, Bert puffed out his cheeks as he thought hard. It was a mannerism Helmholtz had talked him out of long ago. Now he was doing it again. Bert let out the air. "Nope," he said.

"I've taught a thousand boys to march," said Helmholtz, "and you're the first one who ever forgot Maybe we ought to talk this over with the school nurse," said Helmholtz. A cheerful thought struck him"Unless this is girl trouble."

Bert raised one foot, then the other. "Nope," he said. "No trouble like that."

"Pretty little thing," said Helmholtz.

"Who?" said Bert. "That dewy little pink tulip I see you walking home with," said Helmholtz.

Bert curled his lip. "Ah-h-h-her," he said. "Charlotte." The subject plainly bored him.

Helmholtz shook Bert gently, as though hoping to jiggle a loose part into place. "Do you remember it at all-the feeling you used to have when you marched so well, before this relapse?"

"I think it's kind of coming back," said Bert.

"Coming up through the 'C' and 'B' bands, you learned to march fine," said Helmholtz. The two bands were training bands through which the hundred men of the Lincoln High School Ten Square Band all came.

"I dunno what the trouble is," said Bert, "unless it's all the excitement of getting in the Ten Square Band." He puffed his cheeks. "Maybe it's stopping my lessons with you."

When Bert had qualified for the Ten Square Band three months before, Helmholtz had turned him over to the best trumpet teacher in town, Larry Fink, for the final touches of grace and color.

"Say, Fink isn't giving you a hard time, is he?" said Helmholtz.

"Nope," said Bert. "He's a nice gentleman." He rolled his Mr. Helmholtz-if we could practice marching just a couple of more times, I think I'll be fine again."

"Gee, Bert," said Helmholtz, "I don't know when I can fit you in again. When you went to Fink, I took on another boy. It just so happened he was sick tonight. But next week--"

"Who is he?" said Bert. "Norton Shakely" said Helmholtz. "Little fellowkind of green around the gills. He's just like you were when you started out. No faith in himself. Doesn't think he'll ever make the Ten Square Band, but he will, he will."

"He will," echoed Bert emptily.

Helmholtz clapped Bert on the arm, to put some heart into him. "Chin up!" he sang. "Shoulders back! Go get your coat, and I'll take you home."

As Bert put on his coat, Helmholtz thought of the windows of Bert's homewindows as empty as dead men's eyes. Bert's father had wandered away years before-and his mother, seemingly, was seldom there. Helmholtz wondered if that was where the trouble was.

Helmholtz was depressed "Maybe we can stop somewhere and get a soda, and maybe play a little table tennis afterward in my basement," he said. "Unless you'd rather go see Charlotte or something," said Helmholtz.

"Are you kidding?" said Bert. The next morning, Helmholtz talked with Miss Peach, the school nurse. It was a symposium between two hearty, plump people, blooming with hygiene and common sense.

"By 'blacked out,' you mean Bert fainted?" said Miss Peach, with some concern.

"You didn't see him do it at the Whitestown game last Friday?" asked Helmholtz.

"I missed that game," said Miss Peach.

"It was right after we'd formed the block L, when we were marching down the field to form the pinwheel that turned into the Lincoln High panther and the Whitestown eagle," said Helmholtz. He chuckled, forgetting Bert, remembering the glories of the day.

"So what did Bert do?" said Miss Peach.

"He was marching along with the band, just as fine as you please," said Helmholtz. "And then, all of a sudden, he just drifted out of it. He wound up marching all by himself."

"What did it feellike, Bert?" said Miss Peach.

"Kind of like a dream at first," said Bert. "Real good, kind of. And then I woke up, and I was all alone." He gave a sickly smile. "And everybody was laughing at me."

"How's your appetite, Bert?" said Miss Peach.

"He polished off a soda and a hamburger last night," said Helmholtz.

"What about your coordination when you play games, Bert?" said Miss Peach.

"I'm not in sports," said Bert. "The trumpet takes about all the time I've got."

"Don't you and your father throw a ball sometimes?" said Miss Peach.

"I haven't got a father," said Bert. "He beat me at table tennis last night," said Helmholtz.

"All in all, it was quite a binge last night, wasn't it?" Miss Peach said.

"It's just what we used to do every Wednesday night," said Bert.

"It's what I do with all the boys I give lessons to," said Helmholtz. "All work and no play--"

Miss Peach cocked her You used to do it with Bert?"

"I take lessons from Mr. Fink now," said Bert.

"When a boy reaches the Ten Square Band," said Helmholtz, "he's beyond me, as far as individual lessons are concerned. I don't treat him like a bo an more. I treat him like a man. And he's an artist. Only an artist like Fink can teach him anything from there on."

"Ten Square Band," mused Miss Peach. "That's ten on a side-a hundred in all? All dressed alike, all marching like parts of a fine machine?"

"Like a block of postage stamps," said Helmholtz proudly.

"Uh-huh," said Miss Peach. "And all of them have had lessons from you?"

"Heavens, no," said Helmholtz. "I've only got time to give five boys individual lessons. "

"A lucky, lucky five," said Miss "For a little while."

The door of the office opened, and Stewart Haley, the assistant principal, came in.

In Haley's hand was a bill. "Well, Helmholtz," he said, "if I'd known you were going to be here, I'd have brought another interesting bill with me. Five war-surplus Signal Corps wire-laying reels, complete with pack frames? Does that ring a bell?"

"It does," said Helmholtz, unabashed.

Haley sat down on a white stool. "According to this bill," he said, "somebody in this grand institution has ordered and received two hundred yards of silver nylon ribbon, three inches wide-treated to glow in the dark." He gave a death's-head grin.

"It costs much less to make things glow in the dark than most people realize," said Helmholtz.

Haley stood. "So it was you!" Helmholtz laid his hand on Haley's shoulder, and looked him in the eye.

"Stewart," he said, "the question on everybody's lips is, 'How can the Ten Square Band possibly top its performance at the Westfield game last year?' "

"The big question is," said Haley, "'How can a high school with a modest budget like ours afford such a gorgeous, vainglorious, Cecil B. De Mille machine for making music?' And the answer is," said Haley, "We can't!' "

"Wait till you hear what we're goin to do with those reels and that ribbon!" said Helmholtz.

"Waiting," said Haley. "Waiting."

"Nowthen," said Helmholtz, "any band can form block letters. That's about the oldest stuff there is. As of this moment our band is the only band, as far as I know, equipped to write longhand."

In the muddled silence that followed, Bert, all but forgotten, spoke up. He had put his shirt back on. "Are you all through with me?" he said.

"You can go, Bert," said Miss Peach kindly. "I didn't find anything wrong with you. "

"'Bye," said Bert loudly, his hand on the doorknob. "'Bye, Mr. Helmholtz."

"So long," said Helmholtz absently. "Now what do you think of that?" he said to Haley.

Just outside the door, Bert bumped into Charlotte, the dewy pink tulip of a girl who often walked home with him.

"Bert," said Charlotte, "they told me you were down here. I thought you were hurt. Are you all right?"

Bert brushed past her without a word, leaning as though into a cold, wet gale.

"What do I think of the ribbon?" said Haley to Helmholtz. "I think this is where the spending spree of the Ten Square Band is finally stopped."

"That isn't the only kind of spree that's got to be stopped," said Miss Peach darkly.

"What do you mean by that?" said Helmholtz.

"I mean," said Miss Peach, "all this playing fast and loose with kids' emotions." She narrowed her eyes. "George, I've been watching you for years-watching you use every emotional trick in the book to make your kids march and play."

"I try to be friends," said Helmholtz genially.

"You try to be a lot more than that," said Miss Peach"Whatever a kid needs, you're it. Father, mother, sister, brother, God, slave, or dogyou're it. No wonder we've got the best band in the world. The only wonder is that what's happened with Bert hasn't happened a thousand times."

"What's eating Bert?" said Helmholtz.

"You won him," said Miss Peach. "That's what. Lock, stock and barrel-he's yours, all yours."

"Sure he likes me," said Helmholtz. "Hope he does, anyway."

"Will you please open your eyes, and see what you've done to Bert's life?" said Miss Peach tautly"Look what he did to get your attention, after you stuck him in the Ten Square Band, then sent him off to Mr. Fink, and forgot all about him. He was willing to have the whole world laugh at him, just to get you to look at him again."

"Growing up isn't supposed to be painless," said Helmholtz. "A baby's one thing, a child's another, and a man's another. Changing from one thing to the next is a plain mess." He opened his eyes wide. "If we don't know that, who does?"

"Growing up isn't supposed to be hell!" said Miss Peach.

Helmholtz was stunned by the word. "What do you want me to do?" he murmured wonderingly.

"It's none of my business," said Miss Peach. "It's a highly personal affair. That's the way you made it. That's the way you work. I'd think the least you could do would be to learn the difference between getting yourself tangled up in a boy and getting yourself tangled up in ribbon. You can cut the ribbon. You can't do that to a boy."

"About that ribbon--" said Haley.

"We'll pack it up and send it back," said Helmholtz. He didn't care about the ribbon any more. He walked out of the office, his ears flame red.

Guilt tightened its grip. In his desperation, Helmholtz telephoned his good friend Larry Fink, the trumpet teacher. He started the conversation with weary, worried snickering.

"What's the trouble this time, George?" said Fink.

"I dunno, I dunno, I dunno," said Helmholtz. "The school nurse just jumped all over me for being too nice to my boys. She says I get too involved."

"Oh?" said Fink. "Psychology's a wonderful science," said Helmholtz. "Without it, everybody'd still be making the same terrible mistake-bein nice to each other. We'd still be like cavemen '

"What brought this on?" said Fink.

"Bert," said Helmholtz. "Oh," said Fink significantly. "Well, that's sure a special case. Isn't something you come across every day."

"Shows how much you know about days around here," said Helmholtz.

"Well," said Fink, "judging ftom most of thekids you send on to me, they've got a little talent to keep'em going, after you kick 'em out of the nest. Bert hasn't got any. When a kid's got to face a fact like that, there's bound to be a certain amount of extra thrashing around."

"No talent?" said Helmholtz incredulously. "Bert took to music like a duck takes to water!"

"Like a camel takes to quicksand." "He went ftom the 'C' band to the Ten Square Band in two years flat!" said Helmholtz. "When I had him, he always had his lessons beautifully prepared."

. Fink was silent, "Well?" said Helmholtz. "I hate to--" Fink stopped. He cleared his throat. "George," he said, with mighty reluctance, "I hate to think of what it cost him to do it."

"Cost him?" said Helmholtz.

"Buckets of blood is all I can think of," said Fink. "He didn't have a second or an ounce of energy left over for anything else-not even that pretty little Charlotte, who waits outside while he takes his lesson. "

Helmholtz's flesh crept. He didn't have to ask why Bert had traded buckets of blood for music. He knew. Bert had done it to please him.

"See you around," said Helmholtz, and he hung up.

From the rehearsal room outside Helmhoftz's office came the cracks and slams of folding chairs being set up for the Ten Square Band. He was going to have to face Bert again, and he didn't know how to do it.

There was a faint knock on Helmholtz's door, and Helmholtz's conscience made him jump. "Yes?"

The door opened, and there stood young Charlotte-a little woman in mint condition.

"Mr. Helmholtz," she said, "I haven't got any class this next hour. Can I watch the band ?"

"Glad to have you." He went into the rehearsal room with her, and showed her where she could sit. He was so rattled about Bert that he thought nothing of it when he saw bandsmen measuring and cutting lenghts of silver ribbon from two great spools of the stuff. Other bandsmen stretched out the lengths on the floor, over newspapers by the wall, and spattered them with aluminum paint.

And then Bert came in. A wave of embarrassment swept over Helmholtz as he smiled glassily at the boy he'd won, the boy whose life he'd made a hell. Bert smiled back in grateful surprise and took his seat in the trumpet section.

"Hi, Bert," said Charlotte, brightly.

"Hi. How are you?" said Bert, not looking at her.

Helmholtz and Charlotte sighed at the same time. Helmholtz was thinking about the thousand other boys he'd been close to, trying to remember in detail how they'd behaved toward him. He could remember only that they'd all grown up. They'd gone away. They were always going away.

The bandsmen were all in their chairs now. Helmholtz banged his baton against his music stand"Let's start off with 'Lincoln's Foes Shall Wail Tonight,' " he said. "Everybody hear that? Fortissimo. Con brio. A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four!"

When the band played Helmholtz didn't sing. He forced himself to think of Bert as a boy he was to keep for a son, a boy he was to watch with special pride, a boy never to lose sight of, a boy of boys.

He screened out the rest of the band, and listened to Bert's trumpet alone. Bert was playing sloppily. At one point, Bert quit playing altogether, and looked around himself irritably.

For the second half of the hour, the band formed its famous ten square in the parking lot next to the rehearsal room.

Charlotte followed the band outside, and made herself inconspicuous.

"Shouldn't we get the ribbon and reels?" said the drum major to Helmholtz. "We've got it all cut up, and the paint dried right away. I just tested it." "That's all off," said Helmholtz,

his eyes on Bert"I promised Haley we'd send it all b for credit."

"Chopped up in fifty-foot lengths?" said the drum major. "Spattered with aluminum paint? You think they'll take it back?"

"All that's happened to the ribbon?" said Helmholtz.

"You told us to do it yesterday," said the drum major.

Helmholtz closed his eyes, and bit the back of his hand until the feeling of mild panic pased. "An honest misunderstanding," he said. "Go get it."

And while the wire-laying reels on the pack frames were being strapped to the backs of men in the rear rank, and lengths of ribbon were being wound on the reels, Helmholtz worked his way between ranks to Bert.

Helmholtz had to squeeze his bulk past many boys he cared about just as much. "Excuse me, Stanley," he said. "Wupps-sorry, Knox. I didn't break that reed, did I? . . . Bud, Robert . . . Wupps." He came to Bert. "Here's the young man I want to see!"

Heads turned curiously. Helmholtz had never waded into ranks before.

"How's it going with you, Bert?" said Helmholtz heartily.

Bert was startled. "All right, I guess."

"Sure glad to hear it," said Helmholtz. "Gee-I think and worry about you a lot. You'd be surprised."

"Huh," said Bert, increasingly restive.

"Yes-sir-ree," said Helmholtz. "After I took you home last night, I said to my wife, 'Fern-we ought to

have that boy to supper sometime.'

The bandsmen looked away, pretending to notice nothing.

"And I sat up half the night, trying to figure out what to do about your marching problem," said Helmholtz. The fulsome talk was making him squeamish. He hoped to God it was making Bert strong and happy.

"Gee, that's sure nice of you," said Bert. He had a hunted look.

Helmholtz called to the drum major, "Lop off about a yard of that ribbon, and pass it on in."

The yard of ribbon went from hand to hand, over many heads, to Helmholtz.

Mistrustfully, Bert watched it come. So did the rest of the band.

"Here we are," said Helmholtz. He looped one end of the ribbon around Bert's belt. "Now," he said, turning to the boy in front of Bert, "Hal, if you don't mind, I'm going to tie this other end to you. Then as long as Bert keeps his ribbon taut, his interval is bound to be perfect."

Gadgetry fascinated Helmholtz. He lapsed into a daydream of tying together the whole C band, the worst band in school.

Suddenly, Helmholtz sensed that something in the present wasn't quite right. As he started to tie the ribbon to Hal, he realized that Bert was no longer on the other end.

There was a boom like a cannon shot.

"There goes Bert," said the drum major, "slamming the rehearsal room door."

Helmholtz finally overtook Bert in the echoing vacancy of the band-rehearsal room. Bert was emptying his locker noisily, vengefully. Charlotte stood nearby, her blue eyes wide with pity and respect.

Bert faced Helmholtz with dread and fascination.

"Hi," said Helmholtz anxiously. "Going somewhere?"

"Why'd you have to do that to me?" said Bert in a choking voice. "How d'ya think that made me feel?"

"I just wanted to help, Bert," he said.

"Help?" said Bert, close to tears. "You helped me right out of the band. How can I ever face those guys again?"

"I-I don't know what to say, Bert," said Helmholtz wretc"I don't seem to be able to do anything right these days. I got so interested in that stupid ribbon, I just lost sight of everything else."

"I can't go back," said Bert. He teetered between childhood and manhood. "Can't go back." His eyes went soft, like the eyes of a cold, wet spaniel. "It's all over."

"They're a pretty broad-minded bunch," said Helmholtz. "I don't think they'll say anything. They'll forget it."

Even if they do," said Bert, "I won't." Childhood had become insufferable.

Bert offered his hand to Helmholtz slowly, and he kept his eyes down. "Good-bye, Mr. Helmholtz."

There was nothing final about the goodbye. It was a helpless, pleading good-bye, that begged for everything to start over again, to be just like the good old days.

Helmholtz hesitated, afraid of what he was and what he did. He glanced at the audience, Charlotte, feeling naked. He was amazed to find her radiant with perfect understanding.

Drawing strength from her, Helmholtz grabbed Bert's hand and shook it hard. "Good-bye, Bert," he said. "Maybe it's for the best. Maybe you'll find better things to do with your time-things closer to your talents, things that are more fun for you. "

He let go of Bert's limp hand. It hurt. It always hurt. Bert looked down at his hand in shock. Now he really was all alone.

He was alone for about ten seconds. "Let's get out of here, Charlotte," said Bert, as though they had come in together, and had never been far apart. "Thanks for everything, Mr. Helmholtz." There was everything in the thanks-irony, gratitude, frustration, and heaven knows what else.

"You're welcome," said Hehnholtz. Bert left, with Charlotte on his arm. His back was straight, his shoulders were back, his gut was in, and his eyes weren't very clear.

Helmholtz went back to his band-ten square, less one. Bert's face was already fading into the ranks of the manly-come and gone.

"Gentlemen," said Helmholtz to his band, "you are, to the best of my knowledge, the first band equipped to write in longhand. The ribbon is our ink. It will glow in the dark and twinkle in the sunlight. When we come out on the gridiron at the Westfield game, the first word we're going to write is 'hello.' "

It was always the next word after good-bye.

"Shall we see how it works?" said Helmholtz. "Band-'ten-hut! "

From a window three stories above, a small freshman, green around the gills, without a shred of confidence, watched and wondered and adored, and played with the catches on his trumpet case.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Vonnegut, Kurt
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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