A small but still capacity crowd had gathered in the Cyril Theatre in Hopewell that evening to hear The Garbage Fries. It was perhaps a recognition of how far the group’s star had fallen since its late-1990s heyday that it has been booked into such a small venue. Then again, it could just as easily have been a savvy agent who could claim that The Garbage Fries were still playing to packed houses, even if said houses could barely hold 2000 people on a good day.

Most of the audience were students who appreciated The Garbage Fries for its retro and ironic appeal thanks to their prominent inclusion in once-contemporary movies that were now seen as adorably dated. The lead singer and lyricist of the Fries, Julida Patil Veblen, had decorated countless adolescent boys’ sanctums and fantasies and been a fashion icon for their female compatriots as well. There were not-insubstantial members of those original, older fanbases in attendance.

The Hopewell show would have been like any other, a mix of old hits carefully calibrated to appeal to both the ironic and the sincere devotees–Julida was a smart cookie, even if her star had long since faded. But as the evening wore on, a problem quickly emerged.

The Garbage Fries never arrived, and their tour bus hadn’t been seen since departing from a show nearly two days before.

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“Well, yes and no,” said Gutierrez. “We have a compliment of Marines, it’s true, but all the officers were killed or wounded in the blast. All that’s left is members of the band.”

“So what’s the problem?” McPherson said. “Every Marine a rifleman, right?”

“You don’t understand. These band members were on loan from The President’s Own. They’re recruited from concert halls, not barracks; they’re literally the only Marines with no basic training and are never posted to combat.”

McPherson’s face flushed with shock. “You mean to tell me,” he said, “that the only thing between the Secretary and those rampaging hordes are 25 of the only Marines who don’t know how to hold a gun?”

“Rifle,” Gutierrez corrected testily. “And I am personally confident that, trained or not, they will do their duty to the best of their ability.”

“I hope you’re right,” McPherson muttered, looking at the rubble and ruin choking the street. “I certainly hope they wind up playing us a march rather than a dirge.”

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Geraldine thrust out her hand. “Bring me The Marshmallow.”

An electric wave rippled through the assembled percussionists. The Marshmallow! It had the ring of a holy relic to it. Deerton High could barely afford toilet paper, let alone fine instruments for its marching and concert bands; whatever funds bubbled up tended to be allocated for new sports uniforms in the vague hope that they could lead the team to a position higher than 38th out of 40 in the division. The last band allocation, five years ago, has mostly gone toward renegotiating the terms of instrument rentals, but $100 had been earmarked for percussion, and out of that had come eight new drum heads and The Marshmallow.

Nejm removed The Marshmallow from its protective drawer and placed it reverently in Geraldine’s outstretched mitt. A genuine Ludwig-brand bass drum mallet, it had the appearance of a fresh ‘mallow on an abnormally thick spit, prime for roasting. The first thump of the drum resounded throughout the room, and impressed both factions of drummers into silence. The Classicists never ceased to be amazed at how much fuller and more mature The Marshmallow’s sound was compared to the usual instrument (an old mismatched timpani mallet with a head of duct tape and paper towels), while the Rockers–for whom a bass was something to be kicked until its head broke–imagined what decibels The Marshmallow could accomplish if affixed to a drum set.

Geraldine nodded curtly. The Marshmallow had its intended effect.

They were playing this beautiful waltz when we first met.

I don’t even know how we were invited to that cotillion, full as it was of glitz and glamor and last names tracing back to the Mayflower. But we were, and both standing aloof, when the live instruments struck up the tune. The next thing I knew, we were together, lost among the beautiful melody and motion of the moment.

Even after the original, volcanic “us” became the prosaic, everyday “we,” I still think of the waltz when I see you. But I never did learn what it was called, even though I can still hum it to this day, and often do.

I’ve hummed the bars I can remember to the few musically inclined people I’ve met on my travels, always to the shaking of heads and the shrugging of shoulders. Over time, the trail grew fainter as the day to day took its toll on what had once been. Sometimes I think that the impromptu waltzes that sometimes break out in the kitchen, untrained voices substituting for clarinet and string, are the one thing that we can still share unadulterated by the pettiness that so often creeps into our lives.

So when I heard those lilting strains drifting out of the old State and across the street, I had to investigate. I had to know, though sometimes I now wish I had continued on my afternoon walk.

Ever mindful of the story, told early and often, of her parents meeting in an ENGL 250 class, Susie had attempted to duplicate that magic in her own relationships. And, in the three subsequent years of frustration and heartbreak, she had noticed a few strange trends.

Like blueberries. Three of the last four men she’d dated had been fierce blueberry fans to the point of all but ordering them on pizza. Then there was the strange case of band–it seemed like every one of them was a current or former band member. And not “band” in the sense of “rock band” either, but full-on brass bands in high school, college, or beyond.

There was Chaz, for instance, a trumpet player for the Marching Emus, who was always sucking on a blueberry Dum-Dum. He’d left Susie for an old flame, sending a “Dear Joan” via text message. Then there was Gus, former clarinet section leader in high school and fierce patron of the blueberry muffins at Schneider’s Bakery. He’d decided that Pin Chakrabongse, the Thai girl in the textile arts program and a regular patron of the Intercultural Beauty Pageant held every summer, was a better match despite her loose command of English.

It got to the point where, when a potential suitor ordered blueberry pancakes at IHOP or began fingering along with the college fight song, Susie would, with weary resignation, begin looking for a way out.

This was too grievous an insult to bear. The Marching Wildcats stood for a moment, stunned, until big Jacob Yotz held his sousaphone aloft and uttered a guttural cry before heaving it at the ground. The crowd and the players froze, watching silently as Yotz pried a piece of piping from the mangled instrument at his feet and charged forward, screaming.

The tubas followed him, and then the trombones, the trumpets, and the entire band. The percussionists threw aside their heavy drums, brandishing their sticks as the Marching Wildcats erupted into hoots and hollers and charged. They plowed into the enemy, cutting a swath through them as the Battle of the Band was joined.