Master Sergeant Grace Elizabeth Wilson balances her eleven-month-old daughter on one hip while she runs through a series of warm-up exercises on her bugle. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. Grace’s lip feels good—supple and stretched and strong—and she’s positive today’s ceremony will proceed as planned, despite the early spring chill.
Violet squirms in Grace’s arms. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. How many times has Grace played this exercise? Ten thousand, twenty thousand. Something like that. The sound of the horn doesn’t bother the baby—she’s used to it—but Violet is hungry and it’s past breakfast time.
“Where’s your grandma?” Grace has a red ring around her lips, one of the hazards of the bugle trade. She looks out the window just as an icicle drops from the garage roof and lands like a dagger in the snow-covered flowerbed. “She should have been here fifteen minutes ago.”
Violet, her head buried in Grace’s shoulder, responds with a kick and a muffled yell.
“Okay, okay. Applesauce it is.” Grace places her horn in the velvet-lined case sitting on the kitchen counter, sets Violet in her high chair, and grabs a jar of applesauce mixed with smashed carrots. Just as she opens it, she hears her mother’s car in the driveway. She turns to look, Violet snatches the spoon, and a glob of the golden orange goop plops onto Grace’s blue pants.
“Shit,” says Grace. The baby cries. And in walks Grandma.
“Why is it whenever I show up you’re cursin’ and the baby is bawlin’?”
“Sorry I’m so late, hon,” Grace’s mother says, her Texan accent bouncing off the kitchen walls. “The traffic was terrible cuz of a big old motorcade on the way out of the city. Must be a funeral at Arlington. Tied everything up. Is that the ceremony you’re playin’? Must be someone famous.”
“Shit,” says Grace again. She runs to the sink and scrubs at her pants with a dishcloth.
“Language, Grace!” Grandma, still wearing her coat, begins feeding Violet. Violet laughs.
“Can you see the stain?” says Grace.
“No, honey. It’s just a little wet spot. You look beautiful in that uniform. Or handsome. Or something.”
“I look official, Mother. Like I have a job to do.”
“Yes, you do. Official. That’s the word. I never get tired of seein’ you in uniform. Makes me proud. Reminds me of your daddy, bless his heart.”
“Even with the applesauce stain.”
“Even with. Have you lost weight?”
“Well. Your uniform is very slimming. I still need to lose a few pounds. I’ve given up pie and started bowling.”
“Ah. The anti-pie diet. That usually works.” Grace considers pulling her horn out of the case. She wants to continue her warm-ups, but, just as she reaches for her bugle, another car pulls into the driveway. It’s a light green sedan. A military driver, wearing a white hat and gloves, steps out of the car and waits. This is the hard part. The transition from mother to soldier. You’re in the army now.
Grace looks in the mirror. Invisible makeup, invisible emotions. Polished brass insignia, shined shoes, everything sparkling and new and crisp. There. Her hair is perfect for once, not a strand out of place and tucked neatly under her hat. She pulls on cotton gloves and kisses her mother goodbye. She kisses Violet goodbye, too, carefully avoiding the applesauce jar. They wave and smile at each other. Grace squares her shoulders, picks up her horn case, and steps into the soggy morning.
“Good morning, Sergeant.”
Demarco holds the door of the car for Grace. Before she slips inside she turns and looks through the kitchen window and waves again to her daughter. But Violet ignores her, choosing instead to stare at the spoon that feeds her.
“Where are we going, Demarco?” Grace asks. “Arlington?” She usually plays formal funeral services for military elites—VIPs who die of old age.
“Not today, Sergeant. Quite the opposite. We’re headed outside of Baltimore, to Woodpark Cemetery. Dicey area—close to the projects. It’s a mess there. Local government tore down some of the public housing—blew the buildings up, actually—and there’s a heap of rubble right next door to where those poor people live. Looks like a war zone.”
“The fallen soldier—did he come from the projects?”
“Yes. But the deceased is a woman. The mother of the deceased requested a female bugler. Operations is lucky you were available.”
The day thaws around them. Slush splatters the streets, trees drip, and tissue-thin layers of ice crunch under the wheels of the sedan as they cruise through Grace’s manicured neighborhood and onto the Beltway.
Grace’s stomach flips over. Playing “Taps” is part of her job, but this is the first time she’ll perform it at a young woman’s military funeral. Since she left New York City five years ago, Grace has been a ceremonial bugler for the United States Army. It’s how she makes her living. World War II veterans are dying off, and young soldiers continue to be slaughtered in Afghanistan or die long, slow deaths in the trauma units of military hospitals. Grace stays busy, busier than she was in Manhattan, where she had to do part-time office work to afford her music career.
Grace’s father had spent his entire career in the military, first in active duty in Vietnam, later as a chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, where Grace spent most of her childhood. She started playing the trumpet at age nine and began a parallel study of the bugle a few years later. Grace loved the bugle—the way the tones resonated, the subtle bounce of a major triad, the many moods created by so few notes.
Grace’s father died five and half years ago, at age sixty. His medical records claimed liver cancer killed him, but Grace thinks complications from exposure to dioxin—Agent Orange—might have been the unspoken culprit. A hobby trombonist, he encouraged her to pursue a music career. “Leave,” he used to say. “Go to New York. Make a name for yourself. Get out of Texas.” After a four-year stint in the classical music department of the University of North Texas, she did exactly that. Her father, already weak from liver disease, stood next to the car the day she moved from Denton, Texas, to Manhattan.
“Go, Grace, go!” he said through the open window.
It took a few years, but Grace eventually picked up some substitute work, mostly in Broadway pit orchestras. The contractors liked her confidence, she could sight-read anything, and she was usually available at the last minute. She was warming up to play a silly musical called Meet the Piggies when she found out her father had died. Not quite sure what else to do, she played the show and tried not to cry. At intermission she called the contractor and asked him to find another sub for the evening performance.
Grace stood next to her mother at the graveside in Texas and wept for the man who believed in her and her music. The color guard showed up, the flag was folded, and then, much to Grace’s shock, a real soldier with a fake bugle raised the horn to his lips and pretended to play “Taps.” The sound came from the bugle, but the bugle was a toy, a boom box in the shape of a real instrument. The mournful sound of “Taps” fooled just about everyone attending the burial, but it didn’t fool Grace. It broke her heart. Her father deserved better. The next day, when she inquired about the mime with the bugle, Grace found out the practice was commonplace—the United States Army didn’t have enough buglers to cover all the military funerals.
Grace left Texas, returned to Manhattan, drank too much and ate too little, slept with a handful of married men, started a genuine affair with one of them, and then auditioned for the United States Army Field Band. When they offered her the job, it seemed like a good fit. Why not? Health insurance, a steady music gig, the chance to perform with great musicians. She could play, she could march, she could handle boot camp and a rifle, if necessary. And, with her ceremonial bugle skills, she could play at funerals, sparing other families the agony of listening to a fucking toy horn.
“Taps.” Four notes. A major melody comprised of overtones. The saddest song in a long history of sad songs. Played graveside to honor those who have served. Performing “Taps” takes control and caution and confidence and compassion. Balance is key. Too much compassion, and the player loses control. Too much control, and she loses her sense of purpose. Too much confidence, and she’ll cuff the high note or curl the edges of the middle tones. Too much caution and she’ll run away from the grave, ashamed and weeping because she doesn’t want to be part of a system that sends young men and women to shoot guns and drive tanks and face fiery deaths on frozen hills when they should be home reading books and planning careers and listening to music and taking care of small children in high chairs.
Stop. Now. She cannot think of these things. She must focus on the task ahead. Grace pulls her mouthpiece from her case and blows through it, keeping her bottom lip warm and nimble. She’s happy she has remembered to take her beta blocker this morning. She cannot perform “Taps” without it. Her knees shake, her hands sweat, and she risks fainting. Fainting soldiers are not looked upon kindly by the ceremonial division of the U.S. Army.
“This might be hard today, Demarco.”
“I’m sure it’s never easy, Sergeant.”
“Did you read the report?”
“Yes. Read it early this morning. The soldier was twenty-two. Military nurse. Mother of a toddler.”
Focus. Now. Grace continues to push air through the mouthpiece as the March wind blows pieces of white plastic over the Beltway exit ramp.
“Nothing much left of her, from what I read in the report. IED hit her vehicle. God, look at this neighborhood, Sergeant. Terrible.”
The car passes an Army recruitment sign. Be all that you can be. It looks like an invitation to glory. Maybe the government should take guns away from soldiers and teach them how to play musical instruments. There’s an idea her father would have embraced.
After boot camp, Grace moved to Washington to begin her military music career. For several years she continued to see her married friend back in Manhattan. She cut things off with him when she discovered she was pregnant, or maybe he cut things off with her. Doesn’t much matter. Grace’s mother left Texas and rented an apartment nearby. She shows up almost every day to help with Violet. Grace’s double life as a musician and mother feels purposeful. Really, she should count her blessings.
Demarco drives through more urban sprawl. Fast food, fast cars, billboards that promise more of everything. More ice cream, more bang for the buck, more and better and bigger and beautiful. God saves and Jesus loves and thin is in and toys are us. Come on, sign up, and all of this is yours, yours, yours. Army strong, no mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first, today’s Army wants to join you, but don’t inhale any chemicals. Don’t get blown away by an improvised explosive device hidden in the middle of a dirt road, placed there to rip off your legs, blast gravel under your skin, make your brain rattle around in your skull like a marble in a tin can, and destroy a future you signed away because you couldn’t find a job or afford an education at home. This we’ll defend. Duty, honor, country.
Play the horn, Grace. Don’t think. Just play.
Anxiety curdles in her throat. The sedan rounds the corner and pulls through the gate. The slushy patch of gray-green cemetery plopped in the middle of the rubble-strewn subdivision seems glaring and artificial. This is not Arlington. It is a poor person’s graveyard. Grace stares at the faint applesauce stain on her pants leg. She cannot watch a mother bury her daughter. She cannot watch a child stand at her mother’s grave. She cannot. She just cannot. But she will, because this is her job and it pays for rent and food, and even though she’s a musician she’s also a single mother and a soldier. Like always, a compassionate soldier with a stern face will drape a lonely American flag over the coffin. Family and friends will gather, shiver, and hold hands. The color guard will stand to one side, regal, respectful, reverent. A pastor will whisper words of solace that sound empty because hearts stripped of trust can never be again be full. Stoic and calm, the edges smoothed by Inderal, Grace will stand at attention when the color guard folds the flag into an impossibly small triangle and hands it to the soldier’s mother. To those attending, the ceremony will mean everything and nothing. Grace will raise her bugle and play her notes and stand up straight and hope her lip stays strong even if everything inside her collapses and caves and crashes in receding waves of sorrow for someone she doesn’t know. Her bugle will shatter the silent spring with piercing streams of silver. Four notes will hold up the sky while they echo through the cemetery, layered like too many tears on a little girl’s cheek.
The car stops next to a tented area by an open grave.
“What is her name?” Grace asks.
“Who, Sergeant?” says Demarco.
“The soldier,” says Grace.
“Sorry, I’ve forgotten. It’s in the report back on my desk. Chaplain will brief you as soon as he arrives.”
“Thank you, Demarco. Do you mind if I get my horn out and play through some warm-ups in the car?”
“Not at all.” Demarco steps outside the vehicle. “We have ten minutes, Sergeant.” He closes the door.
The family of the dead soldier will hear real music this morning: real music played to honor a real woman who served her country. Grace places her bugle to her lips. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. If she does this enough times, she’ll be ready.
TAPS is excerpted from Manhattan Road Trip, Goldsby’s collection of short stories about working musicians. Reproduced with the permission of Bass Lion Publishing. Photo credit: The National Guard
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
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