Witty Title Pending
by Roz McClure

Everyone loves Charlie. Neil loves him because they've known each other since they were seven, and when Mr. Perry suggested that Jeffrey Dalton's son would be an appropriate playmate, Charlie grinned and told Neil that "my dad's a square, too." Knox loves him because Charlie's gone on three dates already this year, and he lets Knox borrow his highlighted copy of "Romantic Poetry of the 19th Century." Cameron loves him because Charlie does all the things Cameron wishes he weren't too afraid to do. His teachers love him because he's witty and remembers names and titles, and calls Schrodinger "Schrodinger" instead of "the dead-cat-box guy."

Todd doesn't understand why Charlie bothers with talking to him. As his roommate, Neil is Todd's unofficial outreach program, so it's not necessary for any of the other boys to pay attention to him any more than classes require.

Charlie does, though.


It's Todd's second day of classes and his first day of music. The music rooms are new additions, built in 1953. The walls are bare and beige, and the ceiling is flat and high. As Todd enters, he finds the boys lined up before the director's desk, stating their preference for instrumentals or vocals. Soon Todd finds himself at the front of the line, and cannot for the life of him remember which his brother took. He stammers, freezes, and feels hot breath on his neck. "Take instrumentals," Charlie whispers, "we'll do sax together. I need a stand partner since George graduated last year."

"Todd Anderson," the director says, pen poised.

Todd looks back at Charlie, who grins and nudges him with his elbow. "Instrumentals," Todd says.

The director looks up, surprised. "I thought your record said that you sang in the choir at Balincrest."

Instinctively, Todd again turns to Charlie, who frowns and shakes his head almost imperceptibly. "No, sir," Todd says, "I played the saxophone."

The director nods, says "These things do tend to mix themselves up. And we do need a saxophonist now that Stewart's graduated."

Todd says yes, he'd heard, and quickly slips to the back of the room, where he leans against the wall and slides to the floor. Charlie ambles over to him. "Fantastic," he says. "This'll be fun."

Todd looks up and nervously smiles. "I can't play the saxophone," he says.

"No sweat," Charlie says, crouching conspiratorially, "we can get Mr. Decker to sign us out of study hall so I can teach you the charts." He is tapped on the shoulder by Meeks, who smiles sheepishly at Todd. "Right, Latin time," Charlie says. He claps Todd on the shoulder and straightens, saying, "We'll take care of it, Todd, no sweat." He saunters off with Meeks. Todd can see the carton in his back pocket.


Adjacent to the two music rooms are four practice rooms, furnished with a piano, a bench, and just enough room for a slightly built boy to practice a piccolo uncomfortably. Two boys playing the saxophone would seem to be a physical impossibility, and yet Todd and Charlie are doing quite well. "No," Charlie says, "you want to have your hand like this"-he puts his hand over Todd's and moves it accordingly-"so you can get this valve, see?" Todd taps his finger on the key, memorizing. "It's uncomfortable at first, but once you get used to it, it makes doing sharps a hell of a lot easier."

Todd wonders what Charlie's language is like at home. He imagines the Dalton household as in awe of Charlie's every action, with a father who grunts approvingly and a mother who clasps her hands and exclaims, "Oh, how delightfully modern!" Todd would like to live in his fantasy Dalton household, moreso than in his fantasy Overstreet household and definitely moreso than in his fantasy Perry household, although he doesn't know if he prefers his fantasy Perry household to Todd's own.

The bell rings, and Charlie carefully packs his saxophone into its case and slings his bookbag over his shoulder. When he and Todd leave the tiny cubicle, they immediately run into Neil, who looks concerned. "Oh, the sax thing, right," he says when he sees their cases, and his forehead uncreases. "Practicing hard, huh?"

"Nah, we were screwing like rabbits," Charlie says, and winks lasciviously at Todd.

Todd can't help but laugh.


Todd is awakened that night at 12:08 by someone pinching him...down there. He bites back a yelp and jerks away, banging his crown on the headboard.

"Aw, fuck," he hears Charlie say, "wrong bed. Neil switched this year."

Todd squints into the near-darkness and reaches up to feel his head. He tries to regulate his breathing enough to ask "What's going on?" but all he manages is a raspy "Ngawha-go-ah?"

"Nothin'," Knox's voice says softly from the doorway, "go back to sleep."

"Sorry," Charlie adds, although he doesn't sound it. Todd can make out shapes now: Charlie is shaking Neil awake while Knox and Pitts are peering in from the hall.

Neil sits up, wipes his hair away from his face, and reaches for his slippers. "Forgot," he says.

"Well, come on then," Charlie says, "you've let us down already, let's hurry it up."

Neil sees that Todd is sitting up and asks, "Todd coming, too?"

"What?" Todd asks, and shrinks against the wall imperceptibly.

"First week of classes is done with," Charlie explains with a faintly knowledgeable smirk, "and now we gather for a smoke and congratulatory session."

"Oh," says Todd after a moment. "No thanks."

Neil begins to protest, but Todd flops down and pulls the covers over himself. Charlie herds Neil out and says to Todd-lump, "Next week." The door shuts softly.

He pinched me, Todd thinks.


The sax lessons continue in the tiny practice room. It's three weeks after the first day of class, and Todd is really starting to get the hang of it. Every time Mr. Decker would inquire as to when Mr. Dalton and Mr. Anderson would be gracing the band, Charlie would answer cheerfully, "Just teaching him the Welton way of things, sir. We want him to be prepared," and Mr. Decker would leave it at that.

The first time that happened, Todd said to Charlie, "That's the first time I've ever seen you play nice with a teacher." Charlie looked at him and briefly cocked an eyebrow.

"All for you, Todd."

Todd doubts it. No one has ever done anything all for him in his life.

Today, Charlie has decided that they're going to work on Todd's ombishure. Todd doesn't know what an ombishure is, but Charlie assures him that it's important. "It's got to do with the mouth," he says. "Tense, but no too tense. Imagine that your mouth is a garden hose, and the sound is the water. You don't want to squeeze it too tight, because then the sound doesn't go anywhere, and you don't want to be too loose, because then the sound goes everywhere. Pour it into the sax."

Todd moves his lips (his ombishure) into a "hose" position.

Charlie laughs. "Not like that," he says. "Keep them like they have been, just think hose."

Todd puts the sax to his (hose) (ombishure) lips and plays a B flat scale. "Hey," he says, surprised, "That does sound better."

"It's cleaner," Charlie says approvingly, "and smoother."

"Garden hose," Todd says.

"Garden hose."


Todd is awakened by Charlie poking him in the stomach. "Wrong bed," Todd says, and tries to roll over. Charlie firmly holds him down.

"Right bed," he says, "let's go."

Todd grudgingly sits up and blindly fumbles for his slippers, puts them on, and creeps quietly out of the room. The other boys are already in the hallway, and Neil grins cheerfully at Todd. "Right," Charlie says hushedly, "all aboard? On we go." The troupe walks silently past Charlie's room ("Sleeps like a log, Cameron does," says Charlie. "Wish he'd sleep like the dead, you know?") and up the stairs to the third floor.

"Where are we going?" Todd whispers to Neil.

"The third floor lavatory," Neil replies, "so that when it smells like cigarettes and cheap porn, Nolan'll think it's the seniors and not us."

"Although he already knows it's us, Charlie, thanks to someone's carton falling out of their bag during lunch," Meeks interjects.

Charlie turns on Meeks and says forcefully, "He has no evidence. Without evidence he has no knowledge and without knowledge he has nothing. Got it?"

"All I'm saying is that we have to be careful," Meeks says.

Todd is silent. If Charlie says Nolan has nothing, Nolan has nothing.


The meeting is less madly wanton than Todd has imagined. The boys slouch against the sinks and pipes, definitely avoiding the urinal wall. They discuss the teachers, who's doing better than whom and in which class, and inevitably the conversation turns to Mr. Keating, and whether it would be possible for him to teach every class of theirs, and perhaps if they kidnapped all of the other teachers in the building, Mr. Keating would be forced to take on these duties as a matter of course. Charlie slogs out his third cigarette and looks around the bathroom; it is taken as a signal and the boys stand, straighten their pajamas, and shuffle quietly out the door. Charlie is the last out, and he tosses the stub in the disposal.


The next day is a music day. Charlie has Todd play blues charts while watching his mouth carefully, making sure Todd is keeping up his ombishure. "Right, good," Charlie says, pleased and grinning. "Okay. Now play with some feeling, Todd, not like a goddamn machine. You've got it bad, and that ain't good."

Todd straightens his music and tries again. "No, no," Charlie says, "like this," and he reaches over and tilts Todd's head up, leans in and kisses him, murmuring "keep your ombishure" into his lips. Todd can't think; he tries to move his sax out of the way without dropping it. Charlie disengages and leans back. "Play."

Todd doesn't want to lose the feeling of Charlie's mouth on his and the faint taste of nicotine and cheap domestic beer. Charlie grins. "Come on. You've got it bad."

"And that ain't good," Todd says, and lifts the reed to his lips.

There will be other kisses.


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