Little Emmy knew just what she was going to get old Pop Wilson for his birthday: a bright shiny trumpet, just like the one he always talked about having back when he lived in the city.
It was a long, sad story Pop loved to tell — his shiny trumpet and the cramped apartment and a young wife and two twin baby girls and not enough money to go around with so many mouths to feed.
Oh, yessir, with a few more years, he might have made a name for himself with that trumpet. He might have had a chance with that slick new sound he was inventing, but there wasn’t enough time.
He sold the trumpet to pay for the furniture and new dresses for his darling wife and those two baby girls whose eyes shone like newly minted pennies, and, yes, one of them grew up to be Emmy’s mother.
“And did you ever play again?” Emmy would ask.
“No-o, no, Emmy-darling,” Pop would say with a laugh, that deep kind hearted laugh that made you smile because it had so much life in it. His voice was as clear and thrilling as any trumpet when he belted out the hymns on Sunday in the very first pew.
Emmy was glad that Pop Wilson had returned from the city when he’d made enough money to buy back the family farm. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, certainly not in that concrete city filled to bursting with buildings, where all you’d see were skinny trees, and you couldn’t run barefoot through the fields after the harvest or pick fistfuls of wild berries.
But she did wish Pop hadn’t sold that trumpet. She wished she could have heard him play that magical music that Cousin Lenny, who was nearly as old as Pop, said could melt the iciest heart.
Emmy had seen a shiny trumpet in the window of Granny Flory’s store. She wasn’t really Emmy’s grandma, but everyone called her Granny Flory because no one knew how old she was with her long silver hair down to her waist.
She’d been living in the town for as long as anyone could remember. “Must have been alive at the start of creation,” Pop said. “Must have seen the sun when it first set in the sky and the sprouts of the forest trees before they all grew up into tall oaks.”
There in her shop she collected all kinds of old, mysterious, and wonderful things. And when you got a few shiny coins from your ma and pa for birthdays or other special occasions, you’d buy a stick of peppermint from Doc Thurber at the General Store, and then you’d run over to see what kind of treasure you could find at Granny Flory’s little ramshackle shop at the very end of the street in town.
It was crammed full with all kinds of fantastic things that you would have loved to have just come and looked at, but Granny Flory never let anyone browse. You had to have a few coins, and you had to buy something. “I ain’t keeping some kind of museum here,” she said. “Can’t be always having to watch you kids to make sure you don’t break something.”
So Emmy came into Granny Flory’s store on the afternoon of Pop Wilson’s 80th birthday, and she first opened her hand to show her the coins resting there. “Okay, baby girl,” said Granny Flory, “what do you want to buy?”
And Emmy pointed at that shiny trumpet that she knew would put the biggest smile on Pop’s face.
Granny Flory raised her wisps of eyebrows and said, “Listen here, child, you sure you don’t want to buy something else?”
Emmy shook her head no. She was always a little scared of Granny Flory. The old woman was so tall and thin and bony and severe in her starched calico dress. And Emmy never knew quite what to say when she was in the store besides “please” and “thank you”.
“Well, I don’t know if I can give it to you,” said Granny Flory. “I always say the things in the shop choose who buys them and not the other way round, but that there trumpet seems an awful big responsibility for a little girl. You sure you don’t want one of those pretty porcelain dolls instead?”
“It ain’t for me,” said Emmy with a quiver in her voice. “It’s a present for my Pop Wilson.”
At this, a strange smile stretched across Granny Flory’s face from one high cheekbone to the other. It seemed to Emmy almost a sad smile, but Granny Flory just said, “Of course. Why didn’t you say that at first? Now that’ll be a sight to see and a song to hear. I always said Pop Wilson couldn’t run from the music forever. It’s always been in the Wilson’s bones.”
And she took the shiny trumpet from the display in the window, wrapped it in crisp brown paper, tied the package with gold string, and gave it to Emmy, who knew the coins in her hand would be exactly the price of the trumpet. You never had to ask Granny Flory the price. Somehow you always knew what something would cost, and you’d come with the coins tightly held in your hand, and it was never a coin too many or a coin too few.
Emmy skipped all the way back to her house and went in through the side door to the kitchen where Ma and Auntie Cathy, in identical blue dresses, were busy making the biggest chocolate cake Emmy had ever seen. It was already nearly as tall as Emmy.
“When are we gonna’ give Pop his presents?” Emmy asked, staring at the cake wide-eyed.
“After dinner and after the cake eating,” Ma said. “You’ve been to enough parties to know that, Emmy girl.”
Emmy was about to ask if she could have a tiny taste of the cake, but Auntie Cathy shooed her out of the kitchen and onto the front porch where Pop Wilson and Cousin Lenny were rocking back and forth on their rocking chairs and smoking on their pipes.
“What are you hiding there, Emmy-darling?” asked Pop with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“You know just what it is,” said Emmy, wrapping her arms around the package.
“Yessir, I’m sure it’s the greatest present in the whole wide universe,” said Pop. “Maybe it’s a tonic that’ll take some of the ache out of my bones.”
“If you give me three guesses, I bet I’ll guess right away what it is,” said Lenny, and he slapped his knee and laughed as if it were the funniest joke in the world.
“I bet you won’t neither,” said Emmy. “It ain’t no tonic, and I ain’t going to give you or Pop any time to guess because you know it ain’t right to give a present before the present giving time.”
And before Cousin Lenny or Pop Wilson could reply, she ran off to the edge of the riverbed to wait until dinner. Her older brother Isaac was down there fishing and told her she could only stay if she was real quiet and maybe she’d catch sight of one of those bright blue jumping fish.
But Emmy sat so still that she soon fell asleep and dreamed of a cake as tall as a house and didn’t wake up until Isaac was shaking her because it was time for the party.
The house was bursting with people and laughing voices. Some stood by the windows and talked to those inside while others spilled out of the front door onto the porch or sat in clusters on the lawn under the shadows of the trees.
Everyone in Emmy’s family was there and nearly everyone from town, even Granny Flory and Doc Thurber. And there was enough food and cake so that everyone ate and ate and ate until they felt like their clothes had grown several sizes too small.
“And now the presents!” said Pop Wilson with just as much excitement as the littlest cousins who clapped their hands and danced in the grass despite the sleep in their eyes. The sky was black now but full of shimmering stars and a big fat moon that bathed the house and the lawn with yellowy-silver light.
All of the guests had brought presents. Even Doc Thurber had brought two whole jars stuffed with peppermint sticks. And though everyone said they couldn’t eat another thing, the jars were soon lying empty on the lawn. There was a new pipe for Pop Wilson and a new fishing pole and a new rocking chair and enough new shirts and overalls and suspenders and bowties to last a lifetime.
Emmy hid in the shadow of the apple tree so she could be the last one to give a present to Pop Wilson because the last present is always the most special one. And when everyone else had given their presents, and Pop had unwrapped them all, and then asked, “Is that all? Is that all?” Granny Flory pointed at Emmy and smiled her sad smile and said, “Just one more now.”
Emmy realized that her arms were tired from holding the trumpet for so long. It had seemed to grow heavier as the evening passed, and she felt relief that she could finally give it to Pop.
He and Lenny were still rocking in their rocking chairs with all the presents piled up on either side, and Lenny said, “Let me guess what it is now that there won’t be any harm done.”
“We don’t have no time for you and your guesses,” said Pop. “All these fine folk are tired and want to see what the last present will be.”
The crowd parted for Emmy to make her way up onto the porch, and she gave Pop the present, and he gave her a kiss on the forehead. And she could see his fingers trembling, like they had for many years now, as he untied the string. And then the string gave way, and the trumpet lay in his lap.
But a smile didn’t come to Pop’s face. No words came either. Even Lenny just stared and stared with his big eyes. And a whisper ran through the crowd as everyone asked, “What is it? What is it?”
Emmy felt afraid. “Did I do something wrong, Pop?” she asked. He looked at her, and she saw that he was afraid too, but the fear only lasted a few seconds before a smile finally came.
He patted her head and said, “Nossir, Emmy-darling. It’s the best gift in the whole wide universe, just like I guessed.”
And he held up the shiny trumpet that caught the glow of the moon so that everyone could see the gift.
A hush fell over the crowd, and again Emmy felt afraid. “What’s the matter with the present?” she asked. “I can take it back if it ain’t right.”
“You can’t take back a present, Emmy-darling, and I wouldn’t give it back, not even for all the coins in Granny Flory’s cash box,” said Pop, and he winked at Granny Flory.
He stood up slowly and rested on his cane. “Who wants to hear some music?” he asked.
There were murmurs from the crowd but no one seemed to know what to say, though some of the little children clapped their hands.
“I said, who wants to hear some music?” Pop bellowed, and his strong voice finally made the crowd break out into cheers.
They moved his rocking chair out onto the center of the lawn and everyone formed a circle around him. Ma brought him a blanket to cover his knees because a shiver of cold now ran through the air, and in the light of the stars Emmy saw that there were tears streaking Ma’s cheeks.
“You come and stand next to me,” Pop said to Emmy. And when she was by his rocking chair with her little hand resting on his shoulder, he raised the trumpet to his lips.
A long, steady note escaped from the trumpet. Emmy felt it run through her like an electric current before it wound its way up toward the moon.
Then more notes followed, short staccato notes, answering the first. They danced away across the lawn, across the heads of the partygoers who had begun to sway in rhythm with the music.
It was the most beautiful sound Emmy had ever heard. At least, that’s what she thought at first, but in truth she couldn’t describe it. She only knew that it seemed to pierce right through her, right through skin and bone, and envelop her heart in its warmth.
But then it changed and swung up and away — it was so deep and sure that it felt like it might tear up the trees by their roots.
She closed her eyes and she could feel it all around her, enfolding her like a cloud, like a wave, carrying her away, far, far away. She was there with Granny Flory watching when a newborn sun first set in the sky — it flamed orange and red and blinded her.
Then the music drifted through her fingers and she could not catch it. It was joyful and mournful at the same time, and it blew against her like the wind, carrying her forward again, and she was in a shabby apartment drenched with shadowy colors. And there was Pop Wilson, a very young Pop Wilson now, making music on his trumpet with two little baby girls sitting on his knees.
Framed by a window was a woman Emmy had never seen before, but the music told her it was Mama Wilson, who had died so long ago. She looked like a queen, dancing alone to the music, head held high, her long brown hair cascading across her shoulders in curls. The music wept for Mama Wilson, but the notes scattered against her eyes and lips, and the tear-choked music turned hopeful because the trumpet knew that Pop Wilson would see her soon.
And then Emmy saw scenes she could not understand — the music carried her so fast she was breathless. She saw a little girl, who looked like her, grow up into a woman, and her heart felt happy and sad and afraid all at the same time, but if she followed the music, she knew that she’d be safe and never lose her way.
The last note hung in the air, trembled. And then it softly died like the flame of a candle when you pinch the wick with your finger and the ribbon of smoke curls away.
Pop lowered the trumpet and rested it on his knee.
“That was for you, Emmy-darling,” he whispered to her. “It’s time for my voyage soon now, but the music will be in all your hearts and keep you kind and true.”
A soft rumble of cheers mixed with sobs rose from the crowd until Lenny began to sing. It was a song Emmy did not know, but all the old folks did, and their voices joined Lenny’s. Only Pop did not sing.
Though the words did not make sense to Emmy’s tired brain, they felt kind and reassuring and made the fear in her heart finally melt away.
Then Pop stood up from the rocking chair, and the crowd fell silent again. “I never realized how tired I was,” he said. His voice wasn’t quite as deep as before. “It’s time now for sleep, for us all.”
The crowd parted this time for Pop Wilson as he walked up the steps of the porch and into the house to his room.
Old Pop Wilson passed away on a Tuesday, two weeks after the birthday party. He’d slept and slept, a restful sleep, without any waking until his spirit had finally been ready for its voyage. There was a contented smile on his lips that made it almost impossible for anyone to cry.
Emmy asked her ma if she could have Pop’s trumpet. “Yes, Emmy girl, that’s what Pop would’ve wanted,” her ma said, taking it from the table by the bed and handing it to her.
Already the notes of Pop Wilson’s song had faded away like a dream, but as Emmy ran her fingers along the smooth brass of the instrument, she knew that one day she would make the trumpet sing too.
She could feel it deep in her bones, in the tips of her fingers — there were notes quivering there, waiting to be set free.
Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. If you enjoyed this story, sign up to her email newsletter for more stories, writing tips, and literary-minded articles.
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