Prison Music

Every now and then, the prison band would put on concerts. They dressed in scrounged not-quite-uniforms, a motley parade of black and navy and great shining buttons. The men in the band were big and bluff, puffed up behind their trombones and tubas, too broad and belligerent to be given much guff for it.

The band was a gang, of sorts, an oddly tenacious tradition. The prison garden had been uprooted and paved, the dogs-for-prisoners scheme stopped, but the band remained, unchallenged, to blow out their careful versions of Elvis and Johnny Cash through second-hand brass.

Officer Lane, like most of the guards, had a fondness for the band. He’d try to schedule shifts so he could watch them play, even practice now and then. It had only been a fondness, though, before the new prisoner had joined: the one who played the triangle, which everyone else before him had left dusty in its box. Lane had penciled a shift in for every practice, since then.

There was something sad about him, bony-thin, a head shorter than the rest, standing stubbornly upright as he sounded out his awkward tinkling rhythms. To see him jostled and elbowed by the others, hear him laughed at, keeping up his narrow smile all the while. Sad and strange, as hypnotic as an accident. It didn’t sit right with Lane, this small thing; he’d seen a hundred bones broken, but this niggled like a thorn.

The band usually practiced before lunch; one day, Lane had a word with the guards who’d escort the prisoners to their meal, and stayed behind. It wasn’t hard to part the thin man from the herd. He always tended to linger until last, hovering over the boxes where the instruments were stored. He was packing away when Lane came in, about to go.

“Wait a moment,“ he said, holding up his hand. “You, wait. I want to talk to you.”

He paused in his motions, still half holding on to his triangle. “Is there a problem, officer?”

Lane shook his head. “No. No problem. I just want to have a word.”

They waited a moment, for the last of the others to file out of the band room. Lane leaned in closer. “Why are you here?”

He blinked with lizard slowness. “Here, in prison, or...”

“Here, in the band. With that.“ He flicked at the triangle. “They give you so much grief for it. You really enjoy it?”

“Yes. I suppose I do.”

“It’s not even a proper instrument.“ Lane thought he’d gone too far, blurting that out, but the man laughed.

“There’s a sound it makes. Like nothing else.“ He gestured to the keys clipped to Lane’s belt. “You should try striking a key against it.”

“Why?“ Lane backed up a half-step, cautious. Not that he couldn’t have laid him on his back, if he tried, but it paid to be careful. Not that he couldn’t have laid him on his back, if he tried, but it paid to be careful.

He smiled, and made no attempt to grab for the keys. “It sounds the best.“ He held out the triangle. “Here. Try it.”

One brow raised, Lane accepted the little instrument, and pulled the ring of keys away from his belt; it was attached on an elastic loop. He held out the triangle, like he’d seen the thin man do, and struck it twice with a large steel key. It rang out, louder than he’d expected, a clear and strange note, echoing in the almost-empty room.

“Ah.“ The thin man smiled, closed his eyes. “You see. That’s the sound.”

Officer Lane handed the triangle over quickly. It seemed to still be ringing, down in his bones. “You don’t tell anyone I did that, all right?”

“Of course not.“ He half-saluted, tipping an invisible hat, and left, following the other prisoners to lunch.

Lane watched him go.

He only noticed a few months later that he’d stopped watching the band; his shifts hadn’t lined up right, something would come up at home. If anyone would have asked, he’d have shrugged, said he had better things to do. Lied.

That night he took his house key and struck it against a lamp post, a kettle, a pipe in his bathroom. It sounded nothing like he remembered. He’d have to try again.


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