Five Days in May
By Ric Ward
Helen stared out from the back seat of the Chevy Malibu as the small, Kentucky town crawled by in the misty morning fog. She warily traded glances and raised eyebrows with her sister Ellie across the seat from her. This was nothing like Toronto. Quaint buildings. White clapboard houses. A church, it seemed, on every corner where there wasn’t a gas station. At this time of day, even the courthouse square was empty, except for the statues of confederate soldiers standing guard atop their concrete pedestals.
In only a few minutes, they were already on the other side of town, pulling up to the high school where they’d spend much of the next five days. Helen, Ellie and their fellow high school orchestra members had arrived the night before after a long, tiring bus ride from Canada. They were in Kentucky to learn about music and culture from students they didn’t know in a place they’d never once thought about visiting.
“Here we are!” Kara proclaimed loudly from the front seat. The nerdy high school senior with short blond hair and glasses had been randomly picked to be Helen and Ellie’s host for their stay.
“How can she be so awake?” Ellie mouthed silently to Helen. After all, they’d been up past midnight talking and gossiping and telling stories. Kara told them about growing up in Glasgow and about the kids at school. Helen and Ellie talked about how they loved the excitement of Toronto and how their parents settled there after moving from their native Greece.
Kara asked about Helen’s long, coal black, wavy hair. After all, it stretched almost three feet of her scant five-foot, two-inch frame.
Helen and Ellie wondered about the eerie noises outside amidst the otherwise dark, deafening silence – croaking frogs, crickets and a lone dog howling in the distance.
The two sisters were best friends and each other’s biggest supporter. Helen was the shy, quiet one. Ellie was more gregarious -- perhaps that comes with being older and taller. Both stunningly beautiful, their Greek heritage evident in their smooth, tanned complexion and striking features.
As the car slowed at the front of the school, Kara chattered about her classes, her friends and her good grades (and reminded them, again, she would be valedictorian). The school was relatively new and modern. Inside the main lobby of the academic building was a large, floor to ceiling, tile mural of the school’s mascot, a Scottish terrier, known as the Scottie dog, and the school coat of arms. The hallways were lined with lockers, painted blue. “This being Glasgow, we’re known as the Scotties,” Kara explained.
As Helen and Ellie followed Kara to her classes, they felt like the new kids in school. Not knowing anyone. Not knowing where to go. Everything strange and new. But it would only be for a few days. How hard could it be, eh? The final period of the day was band. The large terraced rehearsal room was even more crowded than the night before when they first arrived. For some of the band members -- those not hosting students -- it was their first time seeing the Canadian visitors. And in the daylight, there was a new feeling of sizing each other up and getting to know each other. Helen sat with her violinist friends, Ellie in the viola section. Kara was on the other side of the room with the clarinet section. A low roar of conversation, nervous laughter and band members warming up and tuning their instruments filled the room.
The tall and lanky band director, Charlie Wolf, walked to the podium and raised his hands to quiet the crowd.
"Welcome again!" he said in a charming, drill sergeant kind of way. "I hope all of you had a great first day at Glasgow High. You had a chance to see the school, experience the classes a bit and I hope the students here had a chance to hear from you.
"I know that you don't have a marching band in your school, so I thought we would play a couple things for your today to give you a feel of what we do. Band, pull out 'Stars and Stripes."
The band members thumbed through their folders and pulled out the sheet music for the famous Sousa march "Stars and Stripes Forever" and set it on their music stands.
"Even though we usually do concert band material in the spring," Charlie addressed the Canadian visitors, "we are well known for what we do as a marching band, so the first thing we'd like to play is a march, written by the famous composer John Philip Sousa. You may have heard this song before -- especially around the Fourth of July of other patriotic events here in the states."
Charlie raised his baton and counted off... "One... two... one two three four...” The band performed a rousing rendition of the famous march and filled the band room with patriotic fervor much louder than the orchestra instruments could ever play. The orchestra members looked on with curiosity and amazement. Ellie and the violas were seated in front of the trombone section. Helen and the violins were seated near the flutes. Helen noticed a thin boy with long, wavy blond hair at the back of the room playing percussion. Wearing a blue flannel shirt and jeans, he reminded her of the hippies she would sometimes see on Yonge Street or on Bloor near the University of Toronto, but younger, cleaner and cuter. She found her gaze returning to him as he played a set of three drums. Something inside her stirred. She thought it might be her imagination, but it sure seemed like he was looking at her, too.
As the song ended, orchestra members stood and applauded. A wide smile came to Helen’s face as she looked up toward the drummers. He smiled too. Was he looking at her? Surely it wasn't just her imagination.
"What are those drums called?" she whispered to the flutist sitting next to her, discreetly pointing in the blond-haired boy’s direction.
"Oh, those are called timp-toms," the flutist whispered back. "Chase is a really good drummer."
"Yeah, Chase Baker. He's the drum section leader. He could really be big someday. He's really talented."
"School song!" Charlie blurted out and raised his baton. On cue, the band immediately started playing another march-like song, this one less militaristic, more fun. The trombones swayed in rhythm, moving their instruments like dancers behind a soul singer. The trumpets followed suit. The drummers bobbed their heads. The excitement and the volume crescendoed to a climax. Again, the orchestra stood and applauded.
"That was our school fight song -- what we play at football games, basketball games, pep rallies... you name it. And, of course, we have to let you hear a bit of the drum section playing one of their famous cadences... Chase?" Charlie said, looking up at the drummers, on the top row of terraces.
Chase clicked his drumsticks and counted loudly "One! Two! Three! Four!" and the drummers started into a funky, Latin sounding marching cadence. The infectious Santana-like rhythms led some of the band members to stand and dance in place. The apprehension and nervousness of the orchestra members melted away and smiles filled the faces of the Canadians and the Kentuckians.
When the drummers stopped, applause and cheers filled the band room. Helen caught herself staring at Chase. Chase couldn't take his eyes off Helen.
Charlie returned to the podium. "That's a sample of what we do," he said. “I believe tomorrow we'll get a sample of what the orchestra does." The orchestra members looked at each other nervously. Charlie glanced at the clock on the wall. "There's still a few minutes before the bell rings, so put your instruments away and spend the rest of the period talking… quietly… among yourselves. But stay here in the band room and don't get carried away!"
Helen was shy, but found the courage to speak with the young musicians around her. Mostly small talk. Almost everyone asked about her hair. How long was it? How long did it take to grow it? Has she ever cut it? How long does it take to dry?
Some looked beyond her hair and commented on how beautiful she was. She was embarrassed. "Thank you," she found herself saying. Often. She kept one eye on the drummers. On Chase. He was talking with some of the percussionists in the orchestra. Every so often she caught him looking her way. At least she thought he was. He looked away when she saw him. He began to walk slowly in her direction, talking with more orchestra members. Then he stopped. He was looking again. Helen looked away quickly. He started walking again. He was getting closer. Her insides fluttered. Her nerves sent a chill over her. Her thoughts raced. Is he coming to talk to me? Does he know I'm here? Do I look alright? Here he comes. He's coming my way. He's looking at me. Is it obvious I'm looking at him? Should I look away?
Chase got closer as he walked with another drummer toward the middle of the room. His eyes met Helen’s. He was getting closer. He was still looking at her. She was looking at him. The butterflies inside her took flight. Here he comes.
"Hi," he said quietly with a small smile as he passed by.
"Hi," Helen answered. And just like that, he walked on.
Helen’s thoughts spun a mile a minute. He talked to me. He noticed me. Do I look okay? Did he want to say more? Am I too young? Was he just being nice? Did he really notice me? Should I say something more to him?
Chase and his drummer friend started talking with someone a few feet away. Helen tried to overhear what they were saying. She tried to watch him out of the corner of her eye. Chase glanced back at Helen. Helen turned her head away quickly -- on the one hand, not wanting him to know she was watching him, on the other hand, wanting exactly that.
"What's her name?" she heard him ask one of the orchestra percussionists standing beside him.
"The one with the long hair."
"Oh, that's Helen. Helen Sarantos. She's in grade eleven, I believe. Her sister Ellie is in grade twelve. Helen plays violin and Ellie plays viola."
"Neat," Chase answered.
Chase glanced at her while talking. Helen watched him and turned her head. He finally turned in her direction. He started to walk toward her again.
She saw him coming. She tried to hide her nervousness. What would he say? What would she say? She suddenly felt a huge lump in her throat. The butterflies jumped. A trace of sweat appeared on her brow. He got closer. She looked right at him. He looked right at her.
The bell rang. Loudly.
"You're excused!" Charlie barked. "See you tomorrow!"
Kara rushed to Helen's side. "Let's go! Free for another day!" Kara led Helen and Ellie quickly toward the door. Helen looked around to see Chase standing alone, watching her as she walked away. She didn't know what to do. She kept walking with Kara and Ellie. And she kept glancing back.
"So what do you think? Kara asked them.
"I thought it was cool," Ellie said. "It's interesting to see another school. We've gone to the basically the same schools all our lives."
"The band is really good," Helen chimed in. "That was fun." She looked back toward Chase.
"Thanks. Yeah, the band is pretty fun -- a lot of cool kids in there and we do a lot of interesting things and go on a lot of band trips."
"That drummer is really cute," Helen said.
"Who?" Kara asked.
"The one with long hair. I think his name is Chase."
"Oh. Chase," Kara said. "Yeah, he's OK. He is a good drummer and a nice guy."
"Would you date him?" Helen asked her.
"He’s never asked me. Maybe I would."
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
“No. I don’t believe so.”
"Why are you asking about him?” Ellie asked her.
"I don't know. He just seems really nice and really cute."
Ellie gave her that big sister look.
"You want to go to McDonald's?" Kara asked the girls.
"Sure," Ellie answered as Helen glanced back again at Chase.
Kara's mother was waiting in the parking lot. They climbed in the car and drove away. Helen looked back toward the band room.
McDonald's was busy, of course. It seems all the kids flock there right after school. In the drive-thru line, Helen watched as car after car drove past, circling the restaurant. Some stopped and parked. Most drove 'round and 'round. She wondered if Chase would be there. She wondered what kind of car he drove but was afraid to ask -- she may have opened up too much already, she feared, asking Kara about him. She thought she saw him. She pressed her face to the glass as the car got closer. Nope. Not him.
"I thought we might run over to Mammoth Cave," Kara's mom said, waiting for their burgers and fries.