Cello vs. Foot Lawyer
I must have been at Rupp’s house dozens of times, but the one I most clearly remember, Rupp was drinking a Pepsi on his bed when his little sister started screaming and crying.
Rupp rolled his eyes. He uncrinkled a Pizza Hut mint from its wrapper and dumped the fragments into his palm. “Man, it’s your turn. Can you see what’s wrong with her this time?” He tossed the pieces back.
“All right.” I pushed myself off the shag blue carpet, thinning in spots, which reminded me of our old Irish setter.
I traced the commotion to the bathroom. At the mirror, Veronica held her lips back at the corners and clenched her teeth as she inspected her mouth. Her teeth and gums were dark gray with nets of black. She started crying again.
I looked at the counter and knew what had happened but asked anyway.
“Where’s Aaron?” she demanded.
“In his room.”
She turned to leave but I didn’t get out of her way. “I doubt the ink is toxic. You should be fine.”
She started screaming and swatted me backward out of the bathroom. She slammed and locked the door. The water ran as I returned to Rupp’s room.
“Dude, a pen must have exploded in your sister’s mouth.”
Rupp chuckled. “At least she’s not learning to suck other things yet.”
“You should probably check on her. She just yelled at me.”
Rupp downed the rest of his Pepsi, pushed his sticks aside, and went to his dresser. He put down the can and picked up a toothpick.
He knocked on the bathroom door. “Veronica,” he said around the toothpick, “it’s me. What’s wrong?”
The door flew open. “Your friend’s dumb. I’m not going to die, am I?”
Rupp grinned. “No, but your mouth is so gross nobody will ever marry you.”
She burst into tears.
“I mean, did you swallow much of it?”
Veronica cried harder but shook her head furiously.
“All right,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
Veronica opened her mouth and pointed at her teeth. “But it’s still there!”
“How about baking soda?” I volunteered.
Rupp turned and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good idea. Console her till I’m back.”
Veronica sat on the toilet and crossed her arms and legs. The sink was a frothy slime of blue and gray. Neither she nor I spoke.
A few weeks later, Rupp went to his dad’s, like he had the three summers before, starting after sixth grade. Rupp would spend four weeks a summer with his dad—one alone, three with his sister, and then Veronica would have one week alone. I’m not sure why this arrangement, except it probably had some concept of quality time that merely meant more loneliness. It’s not like their dad took off an entire five weeks from his construction business.
Back from his dad’s house for junior year, Rupp lingered on the edge of the Turkey Hill parking lot as he finished a cigarette. It irked me that he had begun to smoke, as much from the stench as the senselessness of killing yourself early if you were good at something. Yet I never told him to quit.
“But that’s the point,” Rupp said. He paused to switch from his cigarette to inhaling through the straw into his soda. “In jazz, you have to kill the future because that’s the thing most holding you back. You can’t think about it. You have to play in the now. Jazz can’t make sense, you can’t be great, except in the present.”
I took a bite of blueberry fried pie. “I don’t know if I believe that even in jazz,” I said through the crumbs and goo. “But it definitely can’t work in drumline. It’s not just about you. The future—knowing what’s supposed to happen—is the entire thing that keeps us together. Even in your jazz band, the drummer keeps the time for everyone.”
Rupp waved a hand.
“No, seriously. That’s your job. And one drummer may be cool, but seven drums in total unison, doing the exact same thing—visually, musically, everything—that’s killer.”
Rupp dropped his cigarette butt and stepped on it. “You can’t tell me you went into percussion to be one of a million human metronomes. You went into it because you like to bang on shit and see how it sounds.”
“Yeah, and?” I shoved the rest of the pie into my mouth.
“My point is in jazz you really have to be there, really have to listen, because there is no external plan to fall back on.”
“So why are you still in marching band?”
Rupp smiled. “Because it’s fun enough.”
Rupp played drums for the school’s jazz band but I hadn’t really gotten it until I saw him practicing vibraphone backstage one day. He said he played both vibraphone and marimba in this jazz band with some guys from a nearby college that I’d never seen perform. He looked distant or stoned, self-absorbed, as concentrated longing flowed into the metal keys to surface as bright, churning mayhem and tiny, effervescent smiles between grimaces and smirks. If I had known or cared more about the genre, maybe I would have been moved to tears like our drum tech, who once claimed to have wept listening to this same Rupp who could routinely miss a lick or two not because he couldn’t play it but because he was too busy pushing his long, curly hair out of his eyes or scratching his wrist.
Rupp tapped me on the shoulder in homeroom after Columbus Day. “I just dropped acid in the parking lot,” he said. “Keep an eye on me.”
“Dipshit. For all of ten minutes?”
He grinned. “I’ll see you in band.”
I twisted my lips and faced front again. Concert band and homeroom were the only classes we had together any more. Sophomore year, when we’d both made it out of cymbals into tenors, we’d also had biology and English still. Ms. Gorham insisted that we know the name in Russian of the story we were reading, “Chelovek v futlarye,” which Rupp immediately made “Cello Vic vs. Foot Lawyer.” She never could eradicate the alternative title or her obvious disdain for Rupp.
I glanced over my shoulder during the Pledge of Allegiance. Rupp winked. Of course, he stood with his hand over his heart like everyone else, except the Wiccan girl beside me who claimed a religious exemption from God. She sat and played with her black thumbnails.
Rupp merged into the throng down the hallway after the bell. He had algebra II first period. I had a study hall in the opposite direction because it wasn’t gym or a chemistry lab day. I heard him coming before I saw him. He was hooting and grunting like an orangutan and flailing his hairy arms and whipping his hair back and forth. “Someone give the monkey a treat,” some guy said, and soon enough, an orange arced through the air like the most beautiful curve of oil paint on canvas. Rupp caught the orange and took a massive bite, skin and all. He shrieked in simian glee and tore down the hall. The teacher looked so bored that she couldn’t rouse herself even to ask who that was. I thought about asking to go to the bathroom to track Rupp down, but I realized I didn’t care. Or I did care, but I was mad, maybe also a little amused and envious but above all, I felt obligated to do something only because he had asked, not because I really had a part, and I resented that. I wanted a choice.
In band, Komerski, the drum captain, asked, “Ruhlmann, where’s Rupp?”
I shrugged. “Monkeying around for all I know.”
“His car’s in the lot,” Zippo said. He was co-caption, a tenor. “Was he in homeroom?”
“Yeah, but why’m I supposed to know where he is? Like I said, I don’t know.”
“Dude,” Komerski said, “don’t get your nutsack all twisted up about it. We’re just asking.”
“Yeah, and I’m just answering, again, that I don’t know where he went.”
Zippo, whose real name was Shane Hysik, had gotten the nickname freshman year when the pit leader said he looked like a Zippo lighter the way he flung his head back when he was frustrated at himself. His chin dropped the other way, like now, when he was frustrated at other people.
A cobweb between the wall and the drum cubby held a dried fly. The spider didn’t care or live long enough to have this snack. I wrapped the fragile threads around the back of my stick. I flicked the fly into the void over the floor.
“All right.” Komerski began clicking the tempo with his sticks. “ ‘That Old Black Magic,’ from the drum break.”
“Fucking pothead,” Zippo muttered.
I let my sticks go slack.
“Cut!” Komerski yelled. “Ruhlmann, what the hell? That was the shittiest attack since your momma hit on me last August. Again.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking from the top, not the solo. Fuck!” Someone had pelted me with a hacky sack.
“Never say sorry,” Troxler said.
I wanted to call him an asshole but kept my mouth shut. Besides, was Rupp really a pothead? There were so many things I no longer knew.
Rupp stood in my driveway when I got home. He must have walked. He was hugging himself and seemed shriveled and scared. I shook my head and our shoulders brushed as I walked past him. He grabbed my arm.
“Let me put my stuff down first,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
Rupp waited in the driveway. I finished a long drink of water, went out, and sat on the curb. He sat beside me.
“You didn’t look for me,” he said.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“They’ll bust me tomorrow for cutting.”
“Well, you did bolt in front of a teacher.”
“Don’t you want to know where I went?”
“Does it matter?”
Rupp leaned forward and adjusted the tongue of his sneaker. “It was a bad trip, man.”
“The monkey bit seemed fun enough.” I had to smile. “The orange was kind of genius.”
Rupp smiled but then the smile slid away like snow off a roof. “Yeah, but after that. I was barely going by then. I was just excited for the start. I want you there next time. You don’t have to drop anything, it’s just I think I could have a good trip if someone was there to guide me, like they did in the 60s.”
“I’m not your Sherpa. Like what, I’m just supposed to sit there for a few hours while you’re off in your own little world?”
“Maybe six or seven, just in case.”
“We could go to the woods, or my dad’s house. He’s dating this new chick, his secretary, and barely there, anyway. Come on, man. I’m done with the shit but I think I just need one good trip to erase the bad so I can call it quits.”
The mailman pulled up at the mailbox across the street.
“What if they’re all bad?” I asked.
“That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The odds are in my favor.”
Rupp held his hair back with his hands as if to put it into a top knot but just held it there. “Some stuff still sparkles now and then. Like that mailman just dragged a bunch of tiny blue stars behind him.” He let the hair drop.
I shook my head. “I don’t know, dude.”
“I went to that swampy-pond thing behind the cross country course after you saw me because I knew stuff was getting weird. There was this spider on the water, big and bright yellow, sort of shooting across the surface of the water. It jumped at this dragonfly, bright blue and shiny, and missed, and I knew sometimes the spider must hit its target. I mean, how else could it survive? I could suddenly hear everything real clear. The spider’s legs on the water, the trucks on the highway, the bell between periods, the leaves in the wind. All distinct, but all connected, like hearing a symphony and zeroing in on each instrument at the same time. The colors started to peel off things, like the dragonfly was melting, and then my skin was changing color, taking the colors from the air. I must have run across the water because I got wet and suddenly felt water on me everywhere, like I was drowning. And the spider was in my face. It had these big fucking nasty fangs, but that’s not what scared me. It’s that I was wet, and I couldn’t breathe, and the spider wasn’t biting me but just pushing me under the water. Fucking pushing me. It thought it was funny to see how scared I was of drowning. By the time I walked here, I realized I was all covered in shit—grass and twigs and dried water and stuff, and cold. I was cold. For a while, I thought maybe I had drowned, and that the walk was just heaven or something else.” Rupp’s gray eyes seemed even emptier than usual. “I can’t let that be my last one. I need a good trip to knock out the bad.”
The mailman passed in front of our shins.
“No,” I said.
“Wait till band’s over. Three more weeks, after championships, then I’ll sit with you. But I don’t want to see you drop it or know where it is or if you have more. Just tell me a time to be at your house and I’ll be there.”
“Fuck. You’d really do that for me?”
I shrugged. “Rigidity keeps us together. Remember?”
“Ah, thanks, man. I really dig it.”
Rupp and I had met in fourth grade, when I’d switched schools, and he followed me in the alphabet forever more. He prevented the class misfit from spitting on me because he’d made friends with everybody and simply asked the kid to hold off spitting until I had passed. He lived in the neighborhood close enough to be an occasional sight but not so close to be a regular playmate, at least not till later.
Black Friday, I walked from my car to Rupp’s dad’s, the mansion he’d built while living in a trailer home during the divorce. The dad was out for the day with Veronica and the girlfriend shopping then watching football while Veronica went to a friend’s or shopped more in the massive reflux that would overtake all America for at least twelve hours.
I had already decided I would become drum captain senior year. I would switch to snare for indoor to prepare. By tradition or rule, captains always played snare. Co-captains could do whatever they wanted. Maybe because the snares, as the largest section, stayed near the center of the drumline, and the captain stayed in the center of the snares so that everyone could listen inward. Captain might seem selfish, but it was also a chore always to be the one holding together the entire web.
I followed Rupp to his room where he had Gene Krupa playing on the stereo. Is that actually the now, I wondered, if it’s recorded? Rupp sat on his bed with a teddy bear, his drumsticks, and last year’s yearbook opened to the page with the hottest girl in our class, who happened to be dating Shaggy, a bass drummer, which brought even more renown to the drumline and both explained and exonerated Shaggy’s own lackluster musical ambition. “Happy things,” Rupp said, “for a happy trip.” He gave me a thumbs-up like an astronaut through a porthole.
I was sullen but noticed Rupp had positioned me in his recliner and had a can of A&W ready for me on the desk and a $20 bill clipped to a note with Domino’s phone number.
“Order whenever you’re hungry,” Rupp said, “or keep the money and eat my dad’s food.”
“Dude, this is stupid.”
Rupp put a finger to his lips. “Don’t put me in a bad mood going into this. The room’s already starting to get all weird and wavy.”
What if he started jerking off in front of me? What if he went psychotic and tried to strangle me? What if he died and his dad came home? None of it, so far, was happening, but he did laugh, seem goofier, start sweating.
“Ruhlmann, you look a little stressed over there. Why don’t you play some Nintendo, take your mind off things? Mind off things!” He chortled.
I raced things and crashed them, beat people to pulps, snatched coins and battled monsters. I wasn’t quite sure when Rupp had left the room.
“Damn it!” I threw down the controller and ran into the hallway. “Rupp? Rupp? Aaron? Dude, where’d you go?” I found him curled on the black leather sofa in the living room staring at the fireplace with his arms wrapped around a guitar. I instantly resented him for the fear I’d felt. I wanted to kick him. I glanced at my watch. We’d been at this shit for three hours. “Man, I’m going to order pizza.”
He pointed at me and laughed and made vague waving gestures near his ears and then laughed till tears gushed from his glassy eyes. He managed eventually to get off the couch and spread his arms. “Come on, Benny. Bring it in for a big hug.”
“When the pizza gets here, I’ll leave you half, but then I’m gone.”
“Who needs a big hug?” Rupp lumbered toward me.
I ducked under his arm.
“Wittle Benny doesn’t want a huggie-wuggie?”
I backed against the couch. “Man, you sound gay. Get away from me.” I felt the neck of the guitar behind me and picked it up. I had an image of swinging it but instead held it out to him. “Here. This really wants a hug instead.”
Rupp rubbed his cheek on the frets and nuzzled the tuning pegs. I grabbed the wrought iron tools by the fireplace and brought them with me into the kitchen. The fire, at least, was mostly ash, with only one log showing a dull, infernal red between charred squares. If I had the tools, I might hit Rupp with them. If he had the tools, he might hit me with them. If he didn’t have the tools, he might try to stoke the fire with his bare hands. I didn’t know when or if he had started it. I dialed the phone number.
“I’m going to climb onto the roof to look for the pizza man!” Rupp called.
“Bad idea! How about you go to your room instead?”
“I like my room.”
While ordering half meat lovers, half pepperoni, I stuck my head out of the kitchen long enough to see Rupp reach the foot of the stairs. I shoved the fire tools in the hallway coat closet and found Rupp upstairs in the bathtub. I took him by the arm. “Don’t even think about water,” I said. He complied.
The pizza came but I couldn’t leave yet. The stereo had cycled through all fives CDs, back to Gene Krupa. Rupp pulled his shirt over his head. His hands and hair poked out the top so that he looked like some gray carrot. He seemed to sway while I ate. I was exhausted and soaked in sweat and wouldn’t have been surprised if he didn’t have energy for anything else. I would give him one more hour then I was gone.
I played Excite Bike. Jumping off a massive hill, I heard him clearly say, “Thanks, Ruhlmann. You can probably go now.” He had returned his shirt to normal, his hands lightly drummed on his blanket, but a yawning blankness took the place of his face.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s wearing off. I can tell. But it was pretty good.”
Rage flooded me. “Good for you.”
In my car, I turned up “Man in the Box” till it hurt my ears. I slammed into reverse and launched down the driveway.
Why me? I wasn’t even really his friend. Why had I let myself do it, then? I couldn’t explain it. I hit the main road and stopped thinking.
Since Rupp had decided not to do indoor so that he had more time for jazz, I saw less of him the rest of the year. We sometimes did stuff in the neighborhood when he was at his mom’s, but not as much. I kept evading details, especially whether or not he was still using. Komerski, Shaggy, and Zippo graduated. I become drum captain. I terrified the freshmen for the good of the whole and tolerated Rupp’s self-chosen mediocrity as others had tolerated it before me. Rupp and I were back together in homeroom, but it still surprised me when he called me one Saturday in March and said, “Dude, I’m going to New York for a gig tonight. You should come with me.”
“Come on. I already told my dad I was going to your house tonight and that we would be hanging out till Sunday dinner.”
“It’s a professional gig. The real deal. I’m making it big time.”
“Good for you, but I’m not your guardian angel or your good luck charm.”
“But, Ruhlmann, you are. I have a picture of you on my dashboard right beside Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
I had to smile despite myself. “No, man.”
“I haven’t touched the shit since that last time.”
“How would I know?”
“You wouldn’t. Come on. It’ll be more fun if I don’t have to drive alone. If we leave now, we’ll be there by seven, seven-thirty.”
“What about your band?”
His voiced seemed less eager. “Nah, I’m filling in for someone. That’s why it’s such a big deal.”
I rubbed my eyebrow with my thumb. I had nothing else to say.
“When’d you become such a downer?” he said.
“When’d you become such a loser?”
“Fuck you, man.”
“Look, good luck with the gig, but watch out for spiders, right?”
He hung up.
Rupp, after all, was the one who said we didn’t go into drumming to keep other people together. We did it to bang out our own shit.
When news came that he’d died, I simply didn’t believe it. I assumed he had stayed in New York and was making it however he could and people made up stuff about him. I didn’t believe it until the principal announced it and my mom handed me the newspaper clipping that said the body of Aaron F. Rupp, Jr., 18, had been pulled from the Wyomissing River after his car had been found abandoned on the embankment by the bridge.
At the funeral, Veronica sat between her mom and her dad and his pregnant girlfriend, though maybe they were married by then. Veronica had hair like Rupp but longer and darker, and strands of it sometimes stuck to the tears on her face. She would brush them back, and her entire dress, gray and smooth as a raincloud, would sway. She was no longer a little girl.
I walked halfway toward her. She saw me after I’d stopped. I suddenly imagined all the family’s gums and teeth gray and black, rotting like corpses from the inside, and I was afraid my own mouth might be, too. I nodded at Veronica. She tried to nod back, but instead, her jaw quivered and she burst into a new round of tears. I felt weak when I walked away. Maybe she saw in me the killer.
We gathered in the parking lot. The old guys had come back and we didn’t mind that the underclassmen clung to us as if they had known the man.
Robbie lit a cigarette. He had been drum captain when Rupp and I were freshman. “Think he jumped?” he asked.
“That fucking preacher needs to get a new sermon,” Komerski said. “It was all one just say no to drugs, like that explained everything, like that was his entire life.”
“Could’ve fallen,” Zippo said. “It would’ve been dark. Lost his footing. Maybe he wanted to see how pretty the light was reflecting off the water.” Zippo pointed at me. “What about you, Ruhlmann? You were probably the last one to talk to him alive, at least of us.”
I shrugged. “It’s hard to say.”
“No fucking duh,” Komerski said. “You said he’d called you before he left.”
“Yeah. He sounded normal enough. You know how he is. Maybe he had a spider in his car or something.”
“So what?” Komerski said. “He launches out of his car into a river without looking because of some daddy long legs?”
Zippo tilted his head. “Like he was tripping again or having a flashback?”
“You and that fucking preacher,” Komerski said.
Robbie smiled and ejected a stream of smoke. “Maybe he got out to take a piss and someone shoved him and ran.”
I was too tense to laugh.
Rupp had died on his way back from New York, presumably after the gig. He had succeeded by his own terms; he had become totally jazz.
“Sometimes things are too hard and sometimes they aren’t hard enough,” some sophomore, Winfield, said. We shut him up with annoyed glances. He thought he’d be captain one day, but I doubted it. Who’d listen to him?
“Dude jumped,” Komerski said, “because he saw the bullshit that clings to everything.”
“Dude fell,” Zippo said, “because it’s hard to see in the dark.”
Robbie held his cigarette near his shoulder and blew smoke rings into the sky. Three feet across the pavement, the orange dot still seemed hot enough to burn holes in my chest.
“Maybe he stopped seeing the fun in running around school like a monkey,” I said. “Maybe he was tired of being the stable, rigid core. Maybe he couldn’t console Veronica when she blew that pen up in her mouth.”
Zippo squinted at me. “What crazy shit you talking about, Willis?”
Only Robbie seemed to know, and he laughed and he laughed while I sank further into my gut.
Mark Meier is a former public school teacher and environmental consultant. His published writing includes various stories, articles, plays, and textbook chapters. He currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a member of the Authors Guild.