October Brass by Nicholas Trandahl
Chester Niklasson was going to play music for his mother, as he did once or twice a month. It was a routine that the man of thirty had dutifully practiced for the last five years. Chester knew that his mother appreciated the deed, though she couldn’t really tell him so. It had been a long while since she’d been able to speak to him.
Born from a long line of tall powerful Swedes, on both his father’s and mother’s side, that had come to America in the form of his grandparents just after the Civil War, Chester was an oddity in his average height and slight stature. But his yellow-blond hair, his fair and ruddy-cheeked complexion, and his glacial blue eyes did indeed attest to the country of his ancestors and their proud northern blood. A further departure from his heritage was Chester’s career as a jazz musician, a trombonist for a jazz group in Pittsfield. That lively profession contrasted with the agricultural pursuits of his people, pursuits that also encompassed his parents and his two brothers.
It was the middle of October in 1925, and the woods of Western Massachusetts were colored in nature’s autumnal paint. The low hills and mountains of the Berkshires were shrouded richly in the bold warm notes of yellow and orange that were displayed garishly in the crisping foliage of the birches, oaks, and apple trees that covered the area. Little groves of evergreens shone a contrasting dark green here and there in the midst of all that fiery color. Quiet and bountiful farms were strewn around sleepy little New England communities that were tucked away among the dales and folds of the land. Winding dirt roads were laid across the countryside, connecting the towns to one another and to the farms like pale brown arteries that could be glimpsed through the trees.
It was midday and the sun, now more southerly than it was in summer, shone down brightly from a blue sky that was just barely blemished in puffy white clouds. And though the fall air that cloaked the Berkshires was crisp and cool, the sunshine held within its radiance a warmth of a sort. However, the fall coolness existed unchallenged beneath the deciduous autumnal foliage of the Massachusetts landscape, and it was shadowed beneath the leaves and among the grey and brown gnarled trunks of the trees with their rustling crowns of yellow, amber, and orange.
Shafts of dense sunlight, stained yellow as the glow passed through the autumn leaves and took some of their hue with it, descended down from overhead like pillars of luminescence. And it was one of these struggling shafts of sunlight that broke up the murkiness of the forest and painted a section of dry dirt road in warm balmy radiance. The light shone singularly upon the ambling figure of Chester Niklasson as the man trod upon the road towards his maternal destination.
In the crisp autumn shade, Chester wore his brown wool jacket over a white cotton shirt and a thin tie of light blue silk that he thought matched his eyes swimmingly, and the trombonist also wore tan trousers. His leather oxfords slapped softly upon the road as he walked. Suddenly a crisp gust of wind rose up and it made the foliage overhead chatter and rustle noisily and the breeze ushered numerous fallen leaves to race through the forest and upon the dirt road. Chester pulled the bill belonging to the driving cap of brown wool that crowned his handsome head further down over his brow lest it also get taken for a flight with the leaves that danced and whirled about him.
In Chester’s tight and weary grip was the item for which his profession was proclaimed. The grip held fast to the handle of a hard trombone case, and the long brass instrument was safe and secure within. It was Chester’s most important object, a holy relic to him.
When he’d left the farm in 1912 for Boston to work on a fishing boat at the passionate and impressionable age of seventeen, his parents had given him some money, and that monetary amount was no small amount for their frugal lifestyle in Berkshire County. He was their oldest son, and they loved him and worried for him in the way that good compassionate parents do.
When he’d reached Bean Town, Chester quickly encountered two things that would forever change his life. He went to a dance hall with a band that was playing fresh, loud music, and it was music that suddenly seized itself upon Chester’s mind and embossed upon his psyche a latent yearning for the music that plagued him for some time. And then later, after he got work as a deckhand on a small but trustworthy vessel, Chester saw the gleaming brass bell and slides of a brand new trombone in the window of a musical instrument store. Seemingly without thinking about what he was doing, as if he was destined to have it and was completely possessed of the desire and need to have a hand at making the lively tunes that he was so very drawn to, Chester entered that store and spent the majority of his parent’s money. He went back out onto the street with the pristine gleaming trombone in hand, safe and sound in a new case.
From that point forward, Chester’s work in the fishing industry upon the dark restlessness tides of the Atlantic served only to provide a living. Every free waking moment and thought became invested in music, in listening to the performances of other young musical groups and practicing his own music. When jazz seeped into America from New Orleans and entered Boston via New York City, Chester Niklasson fell helplessly in love. He knew that he was a thrall of jazz music when he heard the first of its loud, chaotic notes.
At that time the Great War pulled America’s legions of fighting men into it, and Chester was obliged to enlist and go with them. All he could think about in Europe, however, was his instrument and the music that he longed to play. He wanted the warfare to subside, if only so that he could return to his music. And when he’d returned to Boston at the end of the war, Chester had given up fishing for good and served as the trombonist for a handful of different jazz bands that were bringing their riotous cacophony into the jazz clubs of the city. The pay was less steady, but it provided sustenance for the young man, the likes of which was unobtainable elsewhere in his life. He was doing what he was meant to do and his mind, body and soul thrived on that realization. Chester was happy.
When Chester’s mother fell ill in the spring of 1920, Chester returned to the quiet, rural environs of his childhood. Once back in Western Massachusetts, he moved into a very small apartment in Pittsfield, near his family’s farm which was nestled cozily in a small valley a few miles to the northeast. His time in the five years since returning to Berkshire County consisted of playing in a local jazz band in town and walking up to the farm to enjoy the company of his family and play music for his mother.
It was to his family’s farmland that Chester currently drifted, ambling easily down the dirt road that wound its way from Pittsfield into a rural patch of forests, hills, and fields. Because that day was a day when Chester had to play trombone for his mother. She’d always loved the way he played, and she had been so proud that her son was a musician.
He passed many farms during his sojourn, but by early afternoon the road terminated at the Niklasson Farm. Chester beheld the familiar red barn that had always seemed so intimidating to him as a youth. Chester beheld the fallow fields of dirt, pumpkins, and dry cornstalks, and his cool, blue eyes wistfully took in the small white farmhouse that he grew up in.
Chester grunted as he secured a better grip on the handle of his oblong trombone case, and then the musician started striding down the two worn ruts that comprised the driveway leading up to the farm. As he walked, Chester saw his brother and his father in the fields working. He whistled loudly and shrilly in the crisp autumn air and waved at them with his free hand. They stopped their work and returned happy, weary waves back to him. The booming echo of his tall father’s swarthy voice reached Chester’s ears and it carried with it, “Will you be back for dinner, Chester?”
Chester cupped his hand to the side of his mouth and yelled back, “Sure will, Pappa! I’ll only be a couple hours or so! Set a plate out for me!”
The distant form of Chester’s father waved again in understanding, his bearded head nodding beneath the wide brim of his straw hat, and the three farmers got back to work in the fields. They knew why Chester was home, and they didn’t ask questions. He provided something for the family matriarch that they were unable to, and Chester’s father also knew that it was good for his son to play music for his mother. It was a therapy of sorts, of Chester.
The trombonist strode through the Niklasson property, through an aggressive gaggle of chickens that always seemed to cause him trouble with their distrustful antics, and beyond the farmhouse and the big barn Chester climbed up into the woods and hills to the north of the farm. The sun was sinking westward now, and its bright light was becoming swollen in richer amber tones that yellowed the brim of the world in hot yellows and oranges. The sun colored the western horizon in a way that made it look as though the autumn trees spilled their colors up into the sky to embrace the falling sun. Blemishes of neon pink and violet also soaked through the warm fiery colors when the setting sun kissed those feminine colors into the underside of the white clouds that studded the October sky.
Chester climbed up into the darkening woods and his instrument case made the going troublesome and exhausting. By the time that the man reached a rocky outcropping in the side of the forest hill upon which he climbed, the purple and blue eastern sky was salted in countless twinkling stars and the west was a riot of neon fire as the sun was finally pulled down to rest far beyond the western horizon. The outcropping faced southward, and as Chester, breathing heavily in exertion from the climb in which he’d just partaken, stood upon the lichen-speckled stone he could see the lights in the windows of the family farmhouse down below.
Chester lowered himself into a seated position upon the cool stone and he looked out over the countryside that he knew as a boy. Finally controlling his labored breathing, the trombonist unclasped the instrument case and opened it. The dark green felt interior, black in the twilight that heralded the night, held the serpentine brass figure of his trombone. Chester smiled at it as he always did whenever he opened the case, and then he rubbed his fingers over the cool slide and bell of the instrument. And then he withdrew it from the case. Holding the trombone in his hands, Chester watched as the hooked sliver of the crescent moon drifted up from the south, behind the distant glow of Pittsfield.
“Mamma, I’m here. How are you this evening?”
There was no answer. There was never any answer as Chester spoke to the twilight heavens above the Western Massachusetts countryside. After a crisp darkening moment slipped by, Chester continued, “My band has been working on some new music. This new stuff is the bee’s knees, Ma. It’s real swell. Do you wish to hear it?”
There was no answer to be heard from the glimmering stars, the rising crescent of the moon, nor from the murky warm glow of the vanished sun. But Chester Niklasson smiled warmly as though he had heard a response from his late mother, dead and buried since the autumn of 1920. He grinned and whispered, “Alright then.”
Then Chester licked his dry lips and rose the cool metallic mouthpiece to his lips. And he began to play.
Nicholas Trandahl is an author of poetry and fiction, currently residing in northeast Wyoming. He has two daughters and is engaged to be married. His passion for literature is fueled by his fondness for the literary works of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, James Salter, Raymond Carver, and Virginia Woolf. He was born in 1984.