Aleyna Rentz | Fiction

The band director was tired. He did not understand why the students couldn’t play the piece correctly. The composer had written “with grave reverence” at the top of the score: fifty-five beats per minute. It was the tempo that tripped them up, a slow, limping adagio. These kids. They did not know how to be slow. They never limped except when they sought pity and attention. He once had a drum major who wore an ankle brace when nothing was wrong.

The clock on the back wall—strategically placed so anyone twisting around in their chair to check the time would be caught immediately and called out—read 8:20. Evening rehearsal was supposed to end at 8:30. The kids wanted dinner. He knew this. They never ate a snack beforehand like he suggested. Fruits and nuts, something hearty to hold you over. Why didn’t they listen?

He tapped his baton against the podium, calling the rushed music to a halt. “You in the back,” he said, his eyes narrowing in on two whispering brass players—one on trombone, the other on tuba. They didn’t come in until measure thirty, but it did not matter. Talking was not tolerated.

“Sorry,” they said, stiffening.

Standing at five feet five inches—but perennially hunched, which shaved off an inch or two—the band director knew he had to work hard to seem intimidating. He was around sixty; he had a face that sagged under the weight of years of sorrow. He was a known fixture of Madrid, Alabama, where he’d lived his entire life. Everyone said hello to him at Piggly Wiggly and the bank. Everyone knew his business, though it was proper etiquette to consider certain public information private. All the students knew his first wife had drowned. They never let on, but it had happened: the two of them had gone sailing without life jackets. A staunch Baptist, the band director could only accept his wife’s death by considering it a punishment for their arrogance.

This was twenty years ago, though, and he’d found new things to live for. He was head of the best marching band and student symphony in Southeastern Alabama. This was no small feat—high school bands meant something in Alabama. Here, it was possible to hear gorgeous renditions of Tchaikovsky and Strauss in towns with populations under 5,000. Madrid, Alabama was possibly more musically inclined than Madrid, Spain. The band director had taken groups to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade four times. One group had played in the Rose Garden. This was his life: band, church, family. He had a new wife, now old, and three children whom he’d had the pleasure of both rearing and teaching. Rumors circulated about a prodigal daughter from the first marriage, a black sheep. Teenagers were clumsy with secrets. He heard their delighted whispers. She’s a lesbian, they said. He disowned her and she lives in Maine, they said. It was strange, he often thought with anger, that his students could not distinguish comedy from tragedy.

“I have a question for you,” the band director said to the trombonist. “What is this piece about?”

The trombonist blinked stupidly. A class clown, he did everything stupidly, and for this his classmates loved him.

“Well?” the band director asked impatiently.

“I don’t know, sir,” he admitted at last.

“Someone read me the title.”

Nobody responded. Their silence confounded him. The title was on their music stands. They knew how to read, didn’t they?

“You,” he said, pointing to a girl in the front row. A flautist, timid but reliable. Though she was a senior, she barely looked older than twelve. She got to school at 7:00 each morning to tutor other students in math. Teachers adored her.

“‘They Led Him Away,’” she read in a small voice.

“‘They Led Him Away,’” he repeated, almost smiling. Often he found the smart kids irritating, too smug, but he was glad for her participation. “Who did they lead away?”

Seeing no hands in the air, he looked to the flautist again. “Jesus?” she said.

“That’s right. Jesus. And who’s leading him? What is this title referencing?” He felt a lecture brewing inside him, despite the clock reading 8:25. If anyone reached for their instrument case, he would hold them until 9:30. His parents had not spared the rod, and neither did he. As a boy, he’d been forced to pull his own switches from the dogwood tree in the front yard.

When nobody answered—not even the flautist, who must’ve known the answer but was red-faced with shyness—he sighed. “Do we know the story of the crucifixion?”

This was a rhetorical question. Of course they knew. Anyone who didn’t attend church on Sunday morning was deemed trashy at best, arrogant at worst. All schedules conceded to worship. In the month leading up to orchestra competition, evening band rehearsals took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Fridays would’ve been too cruel; on Wednesday, it was understood the students were at church youth group.

“We are supposed to be playing with ‘grave reverence,’ which we might redefine as ‘very serious respect.’” Grave reverence itself had crept into his speech. He was standing straighter now, though the students continued to slouch, bored. Well, he would make them sit up straight. He would make them never slouch again.

“Very serious respect,” he continued. “We give this every day when we bless our food before eating and say our prayers at night, do we not?” Everyone nodded mechanically. “We know how to give serious respect, yet y’all aren’t doing it. You’re rushing through this piece. You’re thinking of food. But when you play, you should picture the long hours Jesus hung on the cross. To play this right, you need to understand what crucifixion really is.”

He knew how they saw the crucifixion. Stained glass, gold necklaces, crude and irrelevant Medieval artwork. He resented the popularity of the Resurrection and the sanitizing of the Crucifixion. To make up for this defect of modern Christianity, he made sure to attend every annual Good Friday service held by The Madrid First Baptist Church, a somber affair that did not draw even half of the Easter crowd. The band director hadn’t missed one since a stomach bug laid him up in 1992. Some years, his daughters would sing a solo or play an instrument. The eldest, Cara, had once played a duet with him—he on piano, she on flute. Afterward, everyone had commended him on raising such a brilliant young woman. Never had he taught another flautist as talented as Cara, his first-born.

“Do not put that clarinet away,” the band director said, glaring at a girl in the second row. “We aren’t finished. I’m just getting started. Now, Jesus was not the first or last person to be crucified. Did you know that? People were always getting crucified in those times. It was capital punishment. It was public—the hope was that people watching would be dissuaded from committing the same crimes.”

“Yikes,” someone said, provoking several giggles.

The band director narrowed his eyes. “Yikes is right. Be glad y’all didn’t live back then, because you might’ve found yourselves strung up, too.” More giggles; abruptly, he switched tactics. “I’ve said this piece drags. It drags because the victim—here, Jesus—must drag his cross to the execution site. Crosses were made of wood, often 100 pounds or more, always taller than the man who would hang. The walk from the jail to the outskirts of the city would be long, excruciating. But first, before he dragged the cross, do you know what happened to him?”

“They whipped him!” the trombonist volunteered—the right answer, but his enthusiasm sounded sarcastic, mocking.

“They whipped him. With leather strips studded with metal. The metal would dig into the skin; it would need to be yanked back out. They did this until the muscle showed through his back. And only then did he carry his cross through town. This was not only to make him feel pain, but humiliation. People watched him the way we watch parades.”

The students made noises of disgust and surprise. Many of them were wide-eyed with the kind of morbid fascination inspired by true crime television shows, but the band director kept on, feeling they would be chastened soon enough. If they were hungry now, soon they wouldn’t be.

“Once the prisoner arrived at the execution site, the cross was laid down for him to be nailed to it. We often see Jesus’ wounds on his palms, but this is historically inaccurate.” He smiled in spite of himself; a good Baptist loved nothing more than to claim historical accuracy when talking about the Bible. It gave him a kind of authority certain educated men thought the religious lacked. “The nails were driven between the two bones below the wrist. Do you know why?”

“No,” one of the percussionists said in a deadpan voice. A girl in the trumpet section snorted and covered her mouth.

Everyone expected the flautist to answer. She always knew the answer. The looks she received from her bandmates in response to this question were both sarcastic and desolate. They wanted her to know this gory detail so they could hate her, but they also wanted her to know it so they could go home sooner. The band director thought it important to join in their contempt. He offered a hard, expectant gaze.

She quivered, her knuckles white around her silver flute. “I don’t know,” she said.

Satisfied, the band director continued, “The nails hit no major blood vessels, meaning the prisoner would not bleed out immediately and die. The nails did, however, hit major nerves, immobilizing the hands and making them spasm. The prisoner could do nothing to relieve the pain. Even worse, those two bones would be responsible for bearing the weight of his entire body.”

Certainly the students would empathize with this particular pain. They knew about wrists bearing weight. They had to hold their instruments at precise angles during halftime shows, lest they be condemned to run laps at the next practice. Cara had never let her flute drop below ninety degrees. Not once had the band director seen it happen.

“Who came up with this?” the trombonist asked. “Like, how did they figure out about the wrists and nerves?”

“Yeah,” the tuba player said. “Science didn’t even exist back then.”

A hand darted into the air—the flautist, now entirely white.

“May I please go to the restroom?” she asked. 

“Is it an emergency?” the band director asked.

After hesitating, she shook her head.

“Then you may wait. We won’t be here for much longer.”

These words seemed ominous, as if “here” meant more than just rehearsal. The director was pleased with the effect they had on the classroom, whose attention was now rapt. It was likely they only thought he was going to announce rehearsal’s end, but he chose to ignore this possibility. “Now,” he continued, “where was I? The wrists. Terrible, unimaginable pain. But the ankles! This is where it gets complicated. You,” he pointed to the flautist, “come stand on the conductor’s box.”

He stepped down to make room for her, ignoring the scattered sounds of amusement around him. Shaky and pale, the flautist had the look of someone who had forgotten to bring water to summer marching band practice. It was sixty-eight degrees in the classroom, though. She would be all right.

“Breathe deep,” he said, and she did. “Now, out,” and she exhaled. Good—she would not pass out if she had air going in and out. “Did you feel the muscles of your diaphragm getting pulled down? Do we all know what a diaphragm is?” Everyone nodded. “Exhale, and the diaphragm returns to its natural position. But pretend you’re nailed to a cross.” He reached behind the flautist and was relieved to find her arms pliant. He hoisted them up and slightly backwards so she mimicked the pose of a crucified man. The students gasped, but it seemed clear they were entertained by this spectacle—how wonderful to see the teacher’s pet humiliated—rather than chastened. “Now breathe again. What do you notice?” He let her go. “Don’t laugh,” he called out to the class. “Be quiet, or you’ll take turns up here.”

“It’s harder,” she said.

“A little louder?”

“It’s harder to breathe.”

“But you were able to do it.”

“I had to lift up on my toes,” she explained, but only because he was staring at her expectantly.

“Now, what does this have to do with ankles? Our Jesus here said she had to lift up on her toes to exhale. If your ankles are nailed to the cross, that becomes difficult, doesn’t it?” He paused. “The hanging man has a choice: to either exhale and tear at his pierced ankles’ flesh, or stay still and suffocate.”

Excited murmurs followed this revelation, and the band director felt despair stirring within him. His speech was having the wrong effect. Kids loved violence. They had no reverence for anything. Some of his homeroom students would not even stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. He’d raised his daughters to be respectful, and they had been, even Cara. She’d sat first chair in the high school band and finished all her homework and never touched a drop of alcohol. She was courteous, said yes sir and no ma’am. When had she changed? Her only teenage vice had been wasting hours hogging the landline, whispering with a girl she’d met at all-state orchestra one summer. Just a friend, she’d said when anyone asked.

Amidst this chatter, the flautist tried to return to her seat.

“Oh no,” the band director said. “You’re not finished yet.”

So she stayed up front, her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. The band director pitied her—he knew she was ranked number one in her class and would have to make a graduation speech in May. Better to be meek than unafraid, though. Fearlessness got you into all kinds of trouble. Cara had been fearless. Whenever she’d come home for college breaks, she had no qualms telling everyone how little they knew about the world. Did they know poverty was the result of structural racism? Did they know gender was a construct? Did they know religion was the opiate of the masses? She was thrilled to have knowledge, to show it off over Thanksgiving dinner. Well, Eve had knowledge, and look where it landed her. Look where it landed his daughter. She was in Maine. What was in Maine? Cara, who loved to run barefoot on the grass when she was little. Weren’t her feet cold?

It was 8:45. Outside the band room, parents sat in cars, waiting. They knew better than to barge into practice. Their kids were members of “The Pride of Houston County,” after all. If the parents knew how to show reverence, why didn’t their children?

The trombonist raised his hand. “My mama texted and says she’s outside.”

The band director tried to contain his rage. “Why do you have your cell phone at band practice?”

“Cause my mama said to keep it with me so she can text me when she gets here.” He had the audacity to glance at his phone again. “She said, ‘supper’s getting cold.’”

Reverence was a lost art, the band director thought with anguish as he went to the back of the classroom. He snatched the trombonist’s phone and put it in his shirt pocket.

“You’ll get it back when we’re finished.”

Despite the trombonist’s protests, the band director went back to the podium. His lesson was building toward a harrowing climax. Something magnetic was leading him there—God. Yes, it was God. “But back to the crucifixion. Once the prisoner is nailed to the cross, the cross is lifted from the ground and staked into the earth,” he said. “This also plays a role in the torture. When the cross is rammed into the dirt, it jounces the prisoner, sometimes dislocating his shoulders.”

A tiny squeak escaped from the flautist’s mouth. She was holding herself tightly.

“What, do you think I’m going to dislocate your shoulders to show the class how it’s done?” The band director laughed. “Surely y’all don’t consider me that cruel.”

But he was cruel. It was good to be cruel sometimes. It kept the students compliant. Otherwise, why not let her sit down? There was nothing left to demonstrate. Jesus had been hung. All that was left were the hours.

“The cross is now standing,” the band director said, feeling his way toward the end. “Our prisoner is covered in blood. Flies feast at his tattered flesh. Every breath is pain. He wants, more than anything, to die. But he cannot. He must wait.” He stopped talking and leaned against his podium, putting all his weight on his hands.

After several seconds of silence, the trombonist smacked his lips in frustration. “Man, just let us go home.”

Emboldened, the rest of the class voiced their agreement. Just as the band director was about to respond, the trombonist’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket, making him jump. His heart pounded in his chest. At one point in time, he thought he loved these kids. Didn’t he? Perhaps he hated them. It was hard to know the difference.

“Shut up,” he demanded, his voice raised. “Just shut up. All of you.” The protests gave way to silence. “We are going to sit here all night if we have to. We are going to wait like Jesus did.”

This was a lesson in slowness. It was no good to move fast. That’s what city folk did. After a marching band trip to New York, Cara had begun criticizing her hometown. “To think they call this Madrid,” she would say sarcastically. Where was the culture, she wanted to know, the interesting people? In Times Square, a mustached man in a Minnie Mouse costume charging five dollars for photos said he loved her shoes. They were beat-up Converse on which she’d scribbled the Orpheus in the Underworld score in Sharpie. People like that were her idea of interesting. The band director suspected he was losing Cara then but wasn’t certain until he visited her in college and met her roommate, an uppity city girl from Atlanta who wore her hair like a boy’s.

The flautist was clearly uncomfortable, shifting her weight from one foot to the other until the band director asked her to be still. “But don’t lock your knees,” he added when he noticed her legs were a little too straight. The clock ticked past 8:50, 8:55. Tears gathered in the corners of the flautist’s eyes. But he was not finished yet.

“Put your arms out,” he demanded. “You’re on the cross.” She’d never disobeyed a teacher before, and the band director knew she wouldn’t now. Slowly, she unwrapped her arms and held them out straight.

The band director thought of Cara, who refused to follow any direction unless it came from a conductor’s baton or her own head. He had trouble recalling her face. How long had it been now? Seven years, his nephew’s wedding. Cara had just turned twenty-six, was working an office job and playing jazz flute at nightclubs in Boston on the weekends. The wedding was one of the first the band director had attended that wasn’t in a church. It had become trendy to leave God out of the ceremony. People preferred beaches, botanical gardens. This wedding was held in the Florida Caverns, of all places, in a room filled with swirled stalagmites that looked like wedding cakes. It had been a favorite boyhood vacation spot for the groom, and for Cara, as well. She liked the damp darkness of it, the mystery. The cold walls flickered under weak yellow lamps as the preacher wed the bride and groom. The guest list was limited by the room’s size, so Cara sat only a few feet away from her father. She had brought a girl with her, though, had held her hand throughout the ceremony. In the blackness of the cave, the band director found it easy to pretend he hadn’t seen them at all.

At 8:59, he decided his point had been made. The flautist did not like to be the center of attention, so of course she could not help crying, thereby attracting even more attention. It surprised him that nobody laughed at her; instead, they watched her with pity in their eyes. Her shoulders shook and snot ran down her face. “You may sit back down,” he said to her. Offering her a tissue would’ve ruined everything. She was not the kind of girl to wipe her nose on her sleeve, so her face would remain sticky and disgusting—a testament, a warning. Once she’d returned to her chair, he lifted his baton. “Page one, please.”

Nobody dared groan or curse. They wet their reeds and prepared their embouchures. He hoped their stomachs felt both molten and hollow. “Think about what I’ve just told you and what you’ve just seen. You are not playing for me, for competition judges, or anyone else. You’re playing for God.” That was the problem with Cara, he thought. She only ever played for herself.

Tapping the podium, the band director counted them off. His lecture would work. He expected them to do with music what Caravaggio did with a paintbrush. He anticipated sound so precise it evoked the smell of torn flesh and wood shavings. He wanted their instruments to pronounce the dire words of the Book of Matthew. It would not be fair to expect anything less. Still, they rushed ahead of his slow baton. He cut them off.

“Go home,” he said wearily. “Get out of my sight.”

At these words, the quiet fear he’d cultivated immediately vanished. Rehearsal was over; he was just an old man. Hushed conversations arose as students dismantled and put away their instruments. The flute section cast sympathetic glances at their sniffling first chair flautist but did not speak to her. The sullen trombonist came to the podium and asked for his cell phone back. As he walked away, joined at the hip by two of his friends, the band director heard him say, “Fuckin’ thinks he can take my property.”

There was no getting through to them, no getting through to anybody. He wondered why Jesus had not simply run from the Garden of Gethsemane without looking back. Nobody really wanted to be saved, anyway. Let them burn in Hell. But this was heresy—a Christian shouldn’t think this way. Shame filled him; he would repent later. Every night before bed, he asked God for forgiveness. He knew himself: arrogant, long-winded, short-tempered. Hadn’t these vices gotten his wife taken away from him, his favorite daughter, too? Yet he still had so much. He often fell asleep practicing gratitude, listing in his head everything he was grateful for: morning coffee, classical radio, a long life. How lucky he was to love and be loved by a God of infinite mercy.