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  • Mj Pettengill

Ballad of a Sandwich Girl: Unaccompanied


Angel, Moon, Solitude
Angel, Moon, Solitude

In that one, undefined moment, the transformation was inevitable. The truth that had been pressing in came forth from the shadows. My cornet, which I had previously thought of as inferior, was an instrument of astonishing depth.

It offers a warm surge of musical intensity, sweet and thick, like a river of chocolate, unlike the trumpet, known for fanfares that awaken your senses with its sharp, edgy brilliance. The cornet reaches down to my bones with its earthy tone, while the trumpet is meant for announcing royalty. Each has its own place in the music world—invisible to the eye, lending itself to the ear, and taking up residence in the soul. And as a trumpeter, knowing the difference is vital.

At midnight, I was to play my cornet at a Christmas Eve vigil for an Episcopal Church located close by. The icy rain pelted the crusty landscape, and the fog rising from the snow cast ghostly images in the night. Since it was Christmas, James let me put the heat on; the temperatures were in the thirties—unusually balmy. Not shivering, and knowing that my kids were warm was a big deal. I’m not crazy about winter rain. I used to be one of those White Christmas types, but it was actually cozy in our house because there was no bitter cold, a cause in itself for celebration.

James was sipping Bailey’s Irish Cream, smoking his pipe, and going up and down the stairs tending to his surprises. Sprawled out on the living room floor, surrounded by wrapping paper, tape, and tags, I wrapped presents. My favorite childhood Christmas music filled the room while I ate too many chocolate kisses. I did this up until about ten minutes before I was supposed to play.

“You’re cutting it too close,” James called after me as I dashed out into the chilling rain.

“I have plenty of time... see ya in a few!” The door slammed behind me, and I headed towards the church with my cornet in one hand and umbrella in the other. As a rule, I often cut it too close but was never late.

When I arrived, I went upstairs to the choir loft in the back, high above the nave. My eyes adjusted as I peered out into a sea of darkness with specks of candlelight everywhere. The stillness seemed to echo as I sat there, engulfed in the essence of unscented candle wax.

I tiptoed over to a bench and, among piles of music, set down my things. All sound was amplified—the clicking of the latches on my case bounced around the room, promising a considerable response to my actual music.

The organist watched me closely. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of his critical stare, doubting me, ready to pounce. I gave him a nod. Like a chameleon, he changed instantly, smiling when we made eye contact, yet returning to his look of wrinkled-up concern when I looked away when he thought that I couldn’t see.

He was in for a surprise. I loved that—the look on people’s faces when I began playing. He hadn’t actually heard me. The music director hired me, so there was a sort of suspicion. Fair enough.

I sat down and pulled my cornet out of its case, glad that I had warmed up earlier. I grabbed my little Christmas Carol Book and set it on the music stand, never bothering to look at it again. It was this thing, this kind of safety net that I threw out there. I didn’t need it, but on second thought, maybe I did.

I took a deep breath, followed by my first note, shattering the silence, startling me, startling them. I resisted the urge to cry. At first, the congregation shuffled, getting used to the sacred night music as it emerged from the darkness overhead. The element of surprise has its riches. Unaccompanied, I played for about thirty minutes.

The way the wooden ceiling was arched indicated the possibility of extraordinary acoustics. My own sound inspired me. Like the room, my playing was expansive. The more that the music spilled out from the golden bell of my cornet, the more of a need I had to play. The purity of sound overwhelmed me as each note cascaded from high above the sanctuary.

At first, I could only see vague outlines of the people below. Then it was just my cornet and me. Everyone and everything became one with the music.

After the half-hour passed, I quietly slipped on my coat and packed up my gear. The organist did not take his eyes off of me. He kept nodding in an almost nervous manner before reaching out to me.

I shook his ice-cold hand as the priest’s voice carried on in the background. He kept my hand in his grasp too long before handing me an envelope. I smiled and mouthed, “Merry Christmas” before sneaking down the stairs and out the back door.

Once again, I stepped into the fog and drizzle; only I didn’t care about the umbrella this time. I walked away while the congregation was singing, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Peppered with droplets of rain, I could barely see the soft circles of candlelight through the hazy, stained-glass windows. But it was just enough to carry with me.


Excerpt: Ballad of a Sandwich Girl (Memoir Unpublished) (Image, Creative Commons)