By Marlene Olin
Barton Zuckerman was a fat kid. He was always red-faced and winded, looking like he’d just lost a fight. His black glasses were taped across the bridge of his nose. A Rorschach of acne blotched his face. The world's largest teeth were corralled with braces and when he spoke, he spit.
Junior high was a nightmare. In seventh grade he threw up in biology on the day they dissected a frog, instantly earning himself the nickname Barf. He was the last one picked for every team. At lunch, he was the empty table. While most kids looked forward to their thirteenth birthday, there was nothing he dreaded more. His parents were planning a big bar mitzvah. Together he and Elliot Rothstein had suffered through Hebrew school for five endless years.
The two were standing in the school hallway. As usual, the other kids cut them a wide swath.
“You promise you won’t laugh?” asked Barton.
His sister had eloped, depriving his mother of the dream wedding she had always fantasized about. Now she was pouring all her energies into a big bash for her son.
"I’m having a Dolphins bar mitzvah. A fricking Dolphins bar mitzvah."
The lockers gleamed like mirrors. Elliot watched the other kids watching them. “Does she know you’re not exactly an athlete, Barf?”
Barton shrugged his shoulders. He wasn’t worried about performing in the synagogue in front of two hundred people. He knew the prayer service cold and hummed tropes in the shower. What horrified him was the party his mother was planning for afterwards.
“She says there has to be a theme,” said Barton. “The party planner told her all the kids have themes.” Barton’s life was the tuba and fifth-period band. The tuba, he was told, did not work with the décor.
Months later the Kings Bay Country Club was transformed into Dolphin world. A life-size ice sculpture of Don Shula greeted the guests. The chopped liver was molded into the shape of a football and the meatballs were speared with little orange and turquoise flags. Mrs. Zuckerman’s favorite touch was the installation of a goalpost that the guests had to walk through to enter the ballroom. Barton was nowhere to be seen.
Elliot found him hiding near the urinals. “Barf, you can’t spend the whole night hiding on a toilet.”
Barton peeled open his lips and stared at his mouth in the bathroom mirror. They had taken off his braces for the weekend. A layer of junk food detritus had always clung to the metal like barnacles on a ship. He swiped his tongue along his teeth and couldn't believe the smoothness, the evenness, the nakedness of it all. It was as if someone had cut off a leg. Barton hated change. Monday couldn't come fast enough.
He closed his mouth and turned toward Elliot. “Can you give me a good reason why not?”
As soon as he emerged, he was whisked onto the dance floor. His mother had rented a dozen cheerleaders dressed in short skirts and tight tops. They grabbed him by the armpits, dragged him like a corpse, and propped him in a chair. Then they circled their wrists and screamed, “Hot! Hot! Hot!” in a veritable conga line of torture. It was the worst evening of Barton’s life.
Five years passed. Barton grew a foot taller and still weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. A week before his high school graduation his father cornered him in the kitchen.
“It’s time we had a talk, son.” He laid his hand on Barton's shoulder and ushered him into his study. This was the Jewish equivalent of being invited to meet the pope.
Barton had never been permitted in his father’s sanctuary before. Wall-to-wall bookshelves were dusted every week to give the impression of use. Chocolate-covered leather couches made an audible swoosh when you sat down. They were the only sofas in the house not covered in plastic.
Barton was terrified. He stood paralyzed with his hands by his side.
“Sit,” his father commanded. The dog whimpered and hid under the table. Barton sat.
He couldn’t remember the last time he and his father had been alone in a room. Herb Zuckerman was a successful stock broker and real estate developer. There was nothing in the world he loved more than his work. His father cleared his throat like he was revving an engine. Rhummmm.
“Barton, I want you to know that your mother and I are very proud of you. Five years ago at your bar mitzvah, you became a man.” He reached into his pocket, took out a set of car keys, and dangled them in front of his son’s face. “Today you are a mensch. Happy graduation.”
It took only a moment for both of them to realize that Herb’s gift didn’t produce the desired effect. So Mr. Zuckerman opted for the instant replay. This time he spoke a little slower and a little louder. “Today you’re a mensch. Happy graduation.” He shook the keys once more.
Barton was quieter than the dog, the rug, the plastic plants lining the window sills. Finally he stammered, “What’s going on? What are those keys for?”
“They’re for you. A fire-engine-red Mustang convertible. Sitting in the parking lot at Deel Ford.” Herb was so excited his cheeks flushed and his bald scalp turned pink.
“Thanks, Dad. I mean it’s a very generous gift. But do I really need a car in Ann Arbor?”
There was nothing Barton disliked more than disappointing people, yet he seemed to do it effortlessly.
“Are you kidding me?” His father started pacing. “Those University of Michigan co-eds will stand in line to date a guy with these kind of wheels.”
Barton felt like looking over his shoulder to see the person his father thought he was talking to. He was a stranger in his own home. His parents had no idea how many times he made the honor roll or how many colleges he had been accepted to. Life was a charade in which he was expected to play the role of popular teenager. It was a burden Barton was tired of, a burden he didn't feel he deserved.
“There's something else, Dad,” said Barton. “I was going to ask you if I could use my savings. It's a sousaphone for the marching band, Dad. The tuba's too big for the marching band.” He summoned all his courage and blurted out: “It’s a yellow brass by King, Dad.” Then he looked down and mumbled to his shoes. “It costs five thousand bucks.”
His father's eyes almost popped out of his head. Two bushy eyebrows flew up and nearly merged with his toupee. “Five thousand dollars for a musical instrument! That will sure set your social life on fire, Barton. You'll be a big man on campus with that!”
Barton’s stomach ached and his palms were sweaty. He felt like he was on trial. A trial with the facts stacked against him. A trial where the judge and jury hated the sight of him the minute he walked through the door.
"The sousaphone is basically the same as a tuba, only it’s smaller, more portable.”
His father sucked on a Lucky Strike. “If this is what you want, go ahead and buy it. I’ll return the fucking car.”
Barton had marched in the all-state band in twelfth grade and even participated in a Macy’s Day parade. But nothing had prepared him for college. The next four years were his idea of heaven.
They rehearsed five days a week and marched every Saturday. During football season he felt like a campus celebrity. Wearing their maize-and-navy uniforms, the marching band would walk from Hoover to Greene Street, picking up thousands of alumni and students along the way. Fists pounded the air. “Let’s go Blue! Let’s go Blue!” They'd enter the stadium from a tunnel in the middle, playing the fight song to choreographed steps.
Each week the announcer repeated the same words. “Ladies and gentlemen! Please welcome the Michigan marching band!” The drum major would lead the way, striding across the field with his plumed hat and his knees flexed up to his chest. When he reached the goalposts, the crowd would hold its collective breath as he slowly bent backwards and touched the feather on his hat to the ground. The moment it made contact the fans roared. In Michigan, tradition meant everything.
Barton adored his band friends, the long bus rides, the instant, effortless camaraderie. He even learned to enjoy football. But most of all he loved to play his sousaphone. He loved the way the instrument enfolded his body like a comforting hug. He loved the way his fingers danced on the brass valves, the feel of the mouthpiece on his lips.
He stayed in Ann Arbor to attend law school and then returned home to Miami. A whiz with numbers, Barton quickly found his niche as a tax attorney. His life fell into a familiar rhythm. He worked twelve-hour days and came home with only enough energy to warm up dinner or do the wash. His needs were few. An apartment. A card table. A mattress.
He lived for Sundays, the one day he refused to go to work. Sitting on a folding chair in his living room, he’d play his sousaphone for hours. Bach, Schubert, Strauss. During the week, people relied on Barton to find answers to their problems. Financial loopholes were his specialty. “Tie my money up in knots that no one can untangle,” they would say. But Barton knew that life got tangled on its own. When the world was filled with noise, the challenge was to find the simple tune.
Each week he met his old friend Elliot for dinner downtown and each week they had the same conversation. Elliot worked in investments, drove a Porsche, and wore thousand-dollar suits. He considered Barton his best friend and a frustrating challenge.
“Barf, are you doing anything other than working and pretending you’re still in the band?” he asked. “Look, I’m five foot six, ugly, and got laid twice last week. If I can get some action, anybody can.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” said Barton. “I meet women. I invite them over to the apartment. Then they never come back.”
“Barf, women only care about one thing: marriage potential. They look at you and see a schlub. For Chrissakes, buy some new clothes. Get rid of the tuba. And forget about that dump you live in. Own a fancy condo and, believe me, they’ll come back for a second date.”
Together they went shopping in Bal Harbour and spent a month of Barton’s salary on a new wardrobe. A realtor found him an oceanside condo on Collins and furnished it with ultra-suede and silk. Top of the line everything. Just like the magazines.
The next time they sat in a bar, two women pulled up alongside their stools. They looked Barton and Elliot up and down. When Elliot invited them for drinks at Barton’s new home, they didn’t hesitate. A beachfront address triggered a Pavlovian response.
“I like the brunette with the big tits,” said Elliot. “You take the blond.”
Her name was Cheryl. She was a dental hygienist and adored Barton’s apartment. She ran her hand along the stainless steel bar and checked out the signed lithographs on the walls. They sipped their wine on the balcony and scanned the ocean. Cheryl came back for a second date and then a third.
She snuggled with him on his three thousand dollar couch and asked him about his family and his childhood. “Tell me about your work,” she whispered in his ear. Barton didn’t consider his job particularly interesting, but Cheryl acted like no detail was too insignificant.
Soon she was making him take off his shoes by the door and cooking him low-fat dinners. They shopped for engagement rings and Cheryl started picking out his clothes. Cheryl demanded so much of Barton's time that he rarely saw Elliot anymore. Once a week she allowed him out for a drink.
“Okay, let me get this straight,” said Elliot. While one hand held a Scotch, the other was knuckle-deep in peanuts. “First you sunk twenty thousand dollars at Tiffany’s for a ring. And you paid retail, Barf! What kind of schmuck pays retail? Now you’re telling me that the wedding is going to be at the Ritz Carlton. The bride's supposed to pay for the wedding! Not the bridegroom! The bride!"
Elliot looked like he was going to hyperventilate. His hands swept the room. “Do you have any idea how much three hundred people is going to cost you?”
“It’s been planned,” Barton muttered. “It’s all been planned.”
There were huge silver candelabras on each table, white satin tablecloths and napkins, even an ice sculpture. Standing under an arched chuppah replete with lilies and baby’s breath, the newly married couple recited the ancient vows. A two-week honeymoon in Europe followed. Then Cheryl quit her job.
Like most couples, they developed a routine. Cheryl took care of the household and Barton earned the money. Sundays were scheduled days in advance. They went to the movies, shopped, or socialized.
Cheryl orchestrated every detail of their lives. What they ate, where they vacationed, who their friends would be. Almost everything worked out according to plan. There was only one snafu, one wrinkle in their relationship. Despite trying for months, they couldn’t get pregnant.
Soon they were paying thousands of dollars to a fertility specialist. Having sex became a chore. A short conversation became a test of wills. Did she really love him? Barton wondered. Or had Cheryl fallen in love with an oceanside condo? He stared at her bleached hair with its dark roots and the three-carat ring on her finger. Instead of being a day of rest, each Sunday felt like an obligation.
They both knew something was missing. Cheryl thought it was a child. Barton just felt empty. He told Cheryl he had to work late. He avoided coming home.
Then one day she searched the drawers in his desk and found the file she had dreaded finding. Barton had been paying rent for an apartment in Kendall. Cheryl thought herself a sensible person. She considered Barton's love as immutable as the sun. But hormones had made her irritable and worry had made her glum. Now she was seeing cracks in the foundation. She was sure Barton was having an affair and confronted him that night.
“Can you explain this?” She waved the papers in his face.
Suddenly he thrust forward his right foot, about-faced, and marched towards the front door.
Cheryl heard herself screaming. She had never screamed in her life. “Barton, don’t you walk out on me!” She chased her husband into the corridor, still clutching the receipts. The panic in her voice surprised them both. “Barton, please.” Begging now. She had never begged in her life. When he fled into the elevator she tried to grab his sleeve. Then he was gone.
Days passed and Barton never returned home. Cheryl sat in their condo and bargained with God. She’d give up everything for Barton if she had another chance. It wasn’t the furniture or the jewelry or the car that Cheryl loved, but the kind, slightly balding man who hummed Sousa in the shower, who always enjoyed the half-time shows more than the games. She ran her hand over her stomach. Barton was her family. She needed nothing more than Barton.
Cheryl hated driving in strange neighborhoods. It took all the strength she could muster to keep her foot on the gas pedal and press down. Strip shopping centers lined one street after another. There was a funeral home on every other block. Laundromats. Spindly palm trees. Half-dead flowers sat in white plastic tubs.
Finally she saw the sign Woodwind Apartments. She made her way through the hallway, past smells of garlic and the sounds of babies crying. When she found 10A, she stood outside the door and froze. Her pulse was pounding. Her hand fisted in mid-air. She was afraid that Barton wouldn’t answer and was terrified that he would.
Then she heard the oddest sound. Like a herd of elephants or a car backfiring or the world's largest person blowing his nose. She knocked louder and louder, but the louder she knocked, the louder the noise grew. The light fixtures blinked, the walls shook and her teeth rattled. Finally she tried the handle and opened the door. The sun was slitting through the curtains. A cone of light covered the floor. And there was Barton sitting on a folding chair with a big brass sousaphone on his lap.
Barton lifted his lips from the mouthpiece and smiled. Then he fingered the valves and began to play. Slowly Cheryl walked over and knelt on the floor. Laying her head upon his knee, all she could hear was the thump thump thumping of her heart.