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SLAPSTICK By William E Burleson

First published in 2011

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At 6:00 AM I went to the park across from the courthouse to wait and see what work would come in. Already the usual people had gathered, and by 7:30 there was quite a crowd. It was a dusty morning. Not good, since, being after Memorial Day, we all wore white tuxedos. As the morning wore on, some sat in what shade there was from the only tree in the square, some sat on their instrument cases, while others stood around in groups smoking cigarettes and passing the hair-of-the-dog. Townspeople went about their business, most simply ignoring us, others letting their scorn known through a stare or a spit in the dirt. I don’t know how I found my way to that town. Being an itinerant musician is a hard life, and one of these crummy little burgs is the same as the next. You go where there is work or at least the hope of work. No, that town was nothing special; I couldn’t even find a decent Latte. Finally, just before giving up hope, the trucks pulled up. Several sun-baked guards with shotguns jumped off and formed a perimeter as the boss, wearing a cowboy hat and reflective sunglasses, stood up in the back of a truck. “Okay, people, listen up!” He pulled out a piece of paper. “Tonight we’ll need piccolos, flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, trombones, timpani, harp, strings, snare and bass drum, triangle, wood block, and slapstick.” Slapstick! I was in luck. “I’ll take you, and you,” he pointed to people in the crowd, “you and you there, not you, but you.” The people picked piled with their instruments in the back of the wood-sided flatbed trucks. “And you,” he said, pointing at me. Yes! I hopped in the nearest truck. Unfortunately, I had to share it with a bass drum, cello, and a harp and I couldn’t even stretch my legs out. But I’m not complaining; at least I got picked. My instrument was the whip or, as we refer to it here in the United States, the slapstick. Percussionists like me are often skilled at several different instruments, and I sometimes played

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the gong, triangle, or wood block. But my specialty was the slapstick. It’s a very precise instrument and often misunderstood. Sometimes people underestimate how hard it is to play, that a one-eyed monkey could do it. But can a monkey read sheet music? Have you ever heard of a one-eyed monkey who owned a white tux? After we were all on the trucks, those left behind became angry. They started throwing things: bows, drum sticks, chin rests, and anything else they could get their hands on. The men with the shotguns needed to take charge, and one of them fired a shot in the air to restore calm. A typical morning, except this time I was in the truck and not in the crowd. We sped off. We drove for what seemed like forever through the flat, treeless countryside. Bouncing around in the back, I struck up a friendship with the timpanist. We passed a bottle of MD 20/20, and, when we weren’t picking on the cellist, we screamed our life stories over the wind. We had much in common: both in our mid-thirties, both from the east coast, and both passionate about our art. However, he had a family, a wife, and two baby girls to support back home in Connecticut. Me, I’ve always been a free agent. I figure this kind of gig is too hard, to unsteady, to bring kids into it. We went through some generic suburbs and exited into downtown of the medium-sized Middle-America city. Word circulated we were going to play with the city symphony. A symphony orchestra! Ever since I was a child hiding under the covers listening to National Public Radio, all I ever wanted to do was be a classical musician. It didn’t matter that my family didn’t support my ambitions. Both my parents were successful—my old man being a jewel thief and my mother a phone sex operator—and when I told them of my dream they couldn’t understand what had gotten into me. They wanted me to do something like design landmines or work in a French fry factory, something respectable. No, I took the hard way. Years

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of training and sacrifice, the long hours, the calloused hands. I HAD to play in a symphony orchestra. So many mornings, after sitting in the hot sun, all I could find was work on a Broadway play or, god forbid, a marching band. That was when I could get work at all. Now we were headed for the show. No more of that other stuff for me. This was my big chance. We arrived at the loading dock of the symphony hall, piled out of the trucks, and were herded into the green room. The air stank of stale cigarettes and liquor, and there weren’t enough cheap plastic chairs to go around. The timpanist and I had to push a couple of piccoloists out of their seats. If we were to stand when a piccolo sat, we would lose all respect in the room. That may sound harsh, but there’s a pecking order to classical music. For example, rarely do strings mix with woodwinds. In most towns, I have found the brass players are the silverbacks, and sometimes extort cash and favors from the more effeminate male violinists. The women violinists usually can only get by if they seek protection from a bassist or, on occasion, cellist. Most of the percussionists, since we are usually few in number, just keep to ourselves. The old, fat artistic director came in with a couple of men. “All right, all right, settle down. What do we have here?” He turned to his man on the left. “Is this the best we can do? Look at this rabble. Good god.” He spat tobacco on the floor. “Well, we’ll have to make do, I guess.” He pulled out a stack of scores and began handing them out. “Tonight we are going to play Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” I couldn’t believe my luck! This work by Maurice Ravel is THE signature piece for slapstickists. I’ve always wanted to play this with a symphony. In fact, listening to this work turned me to the slapstick. I had started with the triangle, but after hearing the bold, crisp tenor of this most daring of instruments, I knew my calling. And now, now I would get to play it.

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The boss continued around the room with the scores, “…And we’re looking for G major, although I’d guess most of you couldn’t find it with a flashlight. And you…” he said, handing me the music, “…have you ever played this before?” “Yes, sir,” I lied. “Fine. Don’t screw this up.”

The day dragged by. Some of the musicians practiced the music, creating a god-awful din in the room. I didn’t have to; I knew this work like the back of my hand. While I may not have played it with a symphony, I’ve performed it in my mind a thousand times. The timpanist and I played cards with a couple of other percussionists: an old snare drummer who had worked the circuit for many years, and a gong player, all fresh-faced and eager. Together we finished the timpanist’s MD20/20, and started on the old man’s flask. “Boys, after you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll know this ain’t bad,” the old snare drummer said. “Back in the fifties, we were lucky if there was a green room. We used to sit outside in the rain waiting to go on stage.” “You’ve been playing since the fifties?” the gong player asked. “You bet, son. I’ve even been to New York.” “New York! Really? You’ve been to the Big Show?” “That’s right. I played with the Metropolitan Opera.” “No kidding. What was it like?” The kid swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker. “Don’t be pulling his leg, old man,” I said. “I’m quite serious. It was the Tales of Hoffman.” “Now I know you’re shitting him.” I wondered if he actually had.

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“Listen, Ladies,” the timpanist said. “Are we playing cards or telling fairy tales?” The old man looked off, “Nineteen-fifty-five. I was a lot like our fresh-faced friend here, all full of testosterone and uppers and ready to take over the world. Now look at me, I’m an old man with a bad back, a broken eardrum, and carpal tunnel, and still on uppers.” We went back to our cards. After a while I noticed a young Asian woman watching me. When I looked up, she would look away. She was a violinist I had never seen before, quite pretty, long thick black hair, long, thin legs, well stacked, and just my type. That is, except for the goon at her side. Some big French horn player slobbered all over her, marking his territory. She had way too much class for that guy. What was she doing with him? I guess there isn’t much hope for a single woman in this business, and hooking up with a guy like that will keep the feral males away. Not just the musicians either, but a pretty woman would surely end up in the maestro’s dressing room if she didn’t have protection. Who can blame her; it’s a tough business. She kept looking over to me. Finally I made eye contact. She smiled. I smiled back. Dang, I didn’t want to fight a French horn player right then, not on the eve of my greatest performance. Still, I couldn’t resist flirting. We grew bolder. I raised an eyebrow, and she laughed. She winked, and I winked back. Maybe after the show, I thought, I can steal away with her to a catwalk or boiler room and see what’s up. But then the Neanderthal spotted what was going on. He looked at me, and looked back at her. He looked at me, now with rage in his eye, looked back at her, leapt to his feet, and raised his hand as if to backhand her into tomorrow. She ducked, and he yelled, “Bitch!” but stopped at merely threatening to hit her. Now the room fell silent. He looked across the room at me, and, knocking his French horn on the floor, ran toward me with murder in his eye. He was twice my size, and if that wasn’t bad enough, on his way he produced a switchblade from his pocket and

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deployed it for business. I grabbed my new friend’s gong and held it up like a shield. He ran into me with such force I fell backwards over chairs and stands with the gong, and him, on top of me. It all made a hellacious noise as we tumbled to the ground. He held the knife two inches from nose. “If I ever catch you messing with my woman again, I’m going to cut your liver out and feed it to you. Do you understand?” “Yeah, man, no problem.” He crawled off me and the gong. “Fucking percussionists. No respect.” He was back to his seat across the room before I allowed myself to peak out from behind the gong. I struggled out from underneath, amid fallen music stands and tipped over chairs. “My gong!” “Sorry bro.’” “Dude, I could have told you it’d be a bad idea to mess with his girl,” the timpanist said. “That’s Jean-Paul. He’s one serious son-of-a-bitch. Trust me on that one.” “Hey, I’m not doing nothin’,” I protested, trying to wipe Jean-Paul’s footprint off my white jacket. “We don’t need trouble here. Let’s do our jobs and go home,” the old man said. The old man was right: we were there to do a job, not fight over skirts. I tried to forget about the beautiful violinist and concentrated on the card game. That night was to be what I’ve always dreamed of: playing then Ravel with a symphony orchestra. I didn’t need any distractions. I needed that night.

Soon, we were given the call, and we filtered out onto the stage for the first time. The hall had seen better days with peeling paint and water stains on the ceiling. It was half-full with the

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usual cohort of old white people. As a percussionist, I got put in back with the gong player (who, despite his pleading, wasn’t allowed to introduce an improvised gong solo as part of the performance), snare drummer, timpanist, trianglist, and wood blocker. We settled in and practiced the music one last time (or, in my case, for the first time) as the audience took their seats. I was almost ready when I noticed the beautiful violinist looking at me again. She sat in the back row, farthest from the audience of all the violinists. I looked up and she smiled. I looked around for the French horn guy, but he sat all the way across the stage and couldn’t see her or me very well. I smiled back. She giggled. I winked. Oh, yeah, I thought, we’ll be checking out the catwalk after all. The concertmaster came on stage to applause and did her thing. My new girlfriend tuned up her violin until my blowing her a kiss happily distracted her. We fell silent, ready to start. Now, anyone familiar with Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, knows that it’s known for (besides being the signature piece of the slapstick) a featured piano solo. The soloist that night would be Gustave Üunteeräak, a quite flamboyant Swedish pianist with a great reputation. I hadn’t met him before, in fact, I never did meet him. Soloists don’t fraternize back in the green room with the proletariat. They eat caviar with the bosses and the conductor while the rest of us break into vending machines and eat Twinkies. Üunteeräak and the conductor, Harland Schicklgruber, entered to applause. Üunteeräak wore a red silk tux, his hair unnaturally perfect. He was older than I thought, and the Botox and hair dye weren’t helping. Schicklgruber was a bent old man well past his prime but still coasting along on his good name. Schicklgruber had come from Germany after the war, and would probably be retired if it weren’t for medical science injecting him with all kinds of concoctions

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before a show keeping him vertical. I guess he can deal with his addiction to massive amounts of various painkillers and other psychotropic drugs later. Schicklgruber and Üunteeräak took a while to weave their way through the orchestra since Schicklgruber moved about as fast as a Cadillac from Miami Beach, and Üunteeräak didn’t want to barge right past him. Instead, Üunteeräak struck up conversations with members of the orchestra to pass the time. The audience eventually tired of trying to politely applaud the conductor over and took to talking amongst themselves. Rather awkward, I would say. Finally, the concert master helped Schicklgruber up on the podium, and Üunteeräak settled in at the grand piano, and we were ready to go. One of the best parts of this Ravel work is it starts with the crack of the slapstick. That’s right: it all begins with me. This is one reason why it is THE signature piece for all slapstickists. Schicklgruber lifted his baton and I obliged by giving the slapstick a good, solid, meaty, and if I dare say so myself, perfect whack. Off we went. Üunteeräak was superb. He was not only technically brilliant, but also very theatrical. He rocked back and forth like Ray Charles on meth. His hands flew up in the air left and right in grand flourishes. Joining Üunteeräak on the piano bench was his husband, a waif of a guy a quarter his age, who, when not turning the page of the score, wiped the virtuoso’s brow with a black silk handkerchief. What a night! The music was beautiful. I had little, well, nothing to do but wait for halfway through the middle section, the adagio assai, when I would offer the high point to the whole piece with a dramatic use of my slapstick. In the meantime, I satisfied myself with enjoying the music and looking at my darling violinist. She hadn’t forgotten about me either, and would steal glances and smile whenever she could. In the back row and out of sight of the audience, I busied

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S L A P S T I C K 10

myself making pantomime motions about being in love. Getting on one knee as if I were proposing, holding my hand over my heart and swooning, that sort of thing. She approvingly giggled and attempted to act shy. As we came to the end of the allegramente, quite a few beats ahead of the conductor I might add, I noticed for the first time the French horn player staring at me. Not just staring, but also sending me a clear message with his eyes: “I’m going to kill you.” There was no mistaking it. He wasn’t kidding, either. He said with his body language, “I’m going to stuff you in a bass drum and beat you into tomorrow.” His very being told me he intended to put my head on the end of an oboe as a warning to other usurpers of his girl. This was not good. Meanwhile, she couldn’t see this going on at all since the viola section obscured her view of her boyfriend. So as we started the adagio assai, the Cro-Magnon never took his eyes off me even when he played. And that’s not easy to do when blowing a French horn. I tried to cool it, I really did. But the more I struggled not to look at her, the more she tried to get my attention. She winked, and I pretended not to see. She made a kissing face at me; I looked at the conductor. She licked her lips, and I pretended to adjust the music stand. Then she went too far. She was wearing high heels and a long white gown with a slit up the side, my side. When Üunteeräak played his solo, arms flinging, black hanky wiping, she reached down and slowly moved her dress to show me her beautiful thigh. Sliding her gown up ever so slowly, I, and only I—well, the triangle guy, the gong player, timpanist, and a few others in the orchestra, plus the about five patrons in the balcony who weren’t asleep—could see her entire, bare satin-skinned hip. She looked up at me and smiled. Right then, every possible emotion overwhelmed me. First of course was lust. Oh, yeah. Second: abject fear, since the French horn player saw me with my jaw hanging and, since I went commando that day, a righteous boner. Last was panic. Not because of

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my impending doom from the French horn dude, but because in all the distraction I had missed my cue. It all happened in the blink of an eye. I hadn’t missed it by more than a second, maybe. But a second is an eternity. Everyone knew I had missed it, and they were taken aback and seemed to hesitate. That was bad enough, but then for some inexplicable reason I let it go. I gave the slapstick the slap of the gods. Late. I know, obviously I should have just skipped it; there’s no turning back. But it was a reflex; when I realized my mistake of missing my cue, I let ‘er rip. Clearly this was the worse thing I could have done. It scared the conductor who dropped his baton (doubly surprising to me since I had thought he was deaf) and stumbled slightly. It threw Üunteeräak completely off and he accidentally caught his husband with a good, clean basketball elbow to the chin, knocking him out and onto the concertmaster’s lap, both of whom tumbled right into the first row of seats. Pandemonium broke out. People in the audience screamed, first at the husband and concertmaster sprawled over several old women in satin and tiaras, and then over the sight of the French horn guy crashing across the stage right through the woodwind section trying to reach me and give me the thrashing I had coming. Meanwhile, the conductor grabbed his chest in pain and crumpled to the floor. My beautiful violinist ran backstage to save herself; a very wise move, I might add. As the French horn guy bulled his way through chairs, music stands, and sprawling bodies to finally reach me, I tried to hide behind a harp. It didn’t work. I tried to fend him off with my slapstick, but that didn’t work either. I, of course, got the beating of my life. Not only from the French horn guy, but from just about everyone in the orchestra. Since they couldn’t have known or cared about his girlfriend, they probably assumed Frenchy was laying the beating on me for destroying the symphony and

S L A P S T I C K 12

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happily joined in. The gong guy, snare drummer, and timpanist were of no help even though they knew what was going on. I guess it’s every man for himself in the percussion section. The last thing I remember was being stuffed upside down in a kettledrum while the brass section beat me senseless with my own slapstick. The city symphony closed due to the timely death of its principal conductor and the numerous lawsuits filed against the orchestra by nearly everyone there that night and probably several who were not. It was said to be the worst concert riot since Santa Fe in 2002, when bedlam broke out after an oboe-ist was killed with the giant hammer at the end of Mahler’s Sixth. As for the girl, I never saw her again. I heard that after the French horn guy caught up to her, she told him to get lost, and she never wanted to speak to him again. Who knew it would be so easy for her to get rid of Frenchy. As it turns out, I heard she took up with Üunteeräak’s husband and they both ran away to Vienna. Apparently Üunteeräak’s husband went both ways. That big break I was hoping for? I should have been careful what I wished for, or at least have been more specific. My big break was my arm in three places, my nose, and about six teeth, not to mention my slapstick. THE END


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