“My Last Duchess,” by Hugh Burgess

Nov 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Generally speaking, my vintage trumpet, a Bach Stradivarius,  has been an obedient, often delightful, and even comforting companion.  She—no way around it, it’s a she—has never complained about being shut up in her case and ignored for days, or for being treated as carry-on luggage, or for resting bell down  on a stand that sticks up into her gut…  Just pick her up, jiggle her three valves, blow a few warm breathes into her mouth, and she’s ready to go.  It’s true that on occasion we’ve had our little spats, disagreements over, say, triple tonguing (which she hates) or sorting out  the low C sharp which stubbornly refuses to stay on pitch.  “It’s not me,” she says, “it’s you!” To which I respond by flushing her out with soapy water.  She spits and gurgles and does her best to get me soaking wet, but a good rub down with a silicon impregnated cloth  has always left her bright and perky again and changed her attitude.   Until recently, that is.  For some reason, she has developed a streak of whimsy and decided to annoy me by allowing her second valve to drag at key moments.

Playing some compositions with this handicap is more annoying than in others.  Mancini pieces, for instance, are full of long Darh notes followed by staccato Dit notes.  Both “Charade”  and “Peter Gunn” are built on passages that go Darh arh arh Dit!  or Darh arh arh arh Dit! Dit!  Let that passage require holding the second valve down and releasing it quickly for the Dit part, and these crisp notes ooze out like mashed potatoes.. Likewise with “Stars and Stripes Forever.”   This piece signals it is about to round the turn into the home stretch with two sharp bursts:  Dit Darh!  Dit Darh Dit!  The stuck valve version of this is DitDarrhrt. DitDarrtarh.  By the time you finish, your section mates are halfway through the famous downhill chromatic runs;  dee dee, dee dee, dee dee, dee dee, dee dee, duh!  Between breaths they lean forward and look at you, rather pointedly suggesting you stay out of this.  Not that they are unkind or unsympathetic.  Surreptitiously they offer you their favorite valve oil:  Blue Juice, Al Cass, Hetman Number 3. All to no avail.  These are all petroleum products and do little to restore your faith in Exxon. Later the band director suggests you try a synthetic lubricant, which you get by special order from your music store. It is sold by the ounce and costs more than French perfume and works about as well.  It’s actually made for wood instruments, which you learn by peeling off a label to find the secret message.  Music store personnel seem not to know this fact.

Two trips to the repair shop and several abortive tries at administering corrosive cleaning products—white vinegar, carbonator injector fluid, Brasso, Liquid Plumber — make little head way, although on average I now can get about twenty minutes of  quick response before the dreaded drag begins again.  Its opening gambit is a stutter step, then an up-drag-up movement that says: Dumb ass; thought you had me, didn’t you?

Although some rational explanations may apply—for instance, perhaps as I get older my spit has become dirtier and thicker and in the presence of metal forms a substance having the viscosity of chewing gum, or perhaps my breath heats the metal sufficiently to expand some little metallic burr which hides when I unscrew the valve to look inside,.  But no, I don’t think so.  Miss Stradivarius is out to embarrass me.  Every time I slur a note, I feel like a hang glider pilot who swings in for a landing on the beach with everybody watching and ends up in a somersault or—and this is worse—like that time in high school when, on the verge of a first kiss with a girl I really liked, she turned her head and I kissed her ear.

So I’m not going to win this one.  But I am going to get even.  I’m going to hang Ol’ Stucky up on the wall, with a sign that reads My Last Duchess.  We all know what happened to her.


Hugh Burgess is an amateur musician of no particular note.  He has a weakness for really bad puns and has recently joined a writers’ group at a local church in an effort to reach a higher cultural level. So far the results are mixed.

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