HOBBIES by Robbie Herbst

HOBBIES by Robbie Herbst

It began with this letter:

Dear Duncan,

I’ve been observing the recent developments with great interest. You’ve been on my mind – will you be ready when the time comes? 

Fondly,

Therese

This was in my mailbox when I got home, no return address on the envelope. My name, in truth, was not Duncan, although Duncan was a plausible misspelling. I could not remember any Therese I had ever spoken to, but my memory was not particularly trustworthy on these sorts of things. The name only recalled a local celebrity, a woman I’d seen on TV. But I was hardly the type of man to correspond with a woman with her own makeup team. After reading the letter, I burned it in the kitchen sink so my wife wouldn’t see. Afterward, I felt ashamed and wondered why I always jumped to such extremes.

Surely, Therese was mistaken. I’d always been a hands-on guy. I had two children, neither of whom I neglected. Jackson was learning the clarinet, and I agreed to learn bassoon so we could play woodwind duets. With my help, Jenny, after many frustrated months, had finally managed to ride her bike. When I got home in the evenings, I’d stand in the street while she biked in circles around me, shouting all the words that she’d learned that day. “Disembowelment!” she’d say. “Braggadocio!” And on top of this, my wife and I still found time to cook Korean food together and go for swims at the Y in matching caps.

That night, I woke at two in the morning, my heart pounding, no idea where or who I was. Gradually, the details returned, and I thought of Therese. Perhaps I was missing something. 

At work, I was a project manager. My team was contracted to optimize the supply of green pigment for a company that dyed textiles. In the afternoon after Therese’s letter, a drowsy nausea settled in my gut. I nudged the folder on my web browser labeled “Global Demise.” I meandered Wikipedia, clicked through rising sea levels, China’s cyber war arsenal, the timetable of Coronal Mass Ejections, survival statistics in the coming nuclear winter, etc., etc. I went to the page for Therese (disambiguation) and I worked my way down. There was an island, a film, a philosopher, an opera, several nuns. I wondered where my Therese would rank in this list.

I snapped out of my reverie, closed my web browser. There was much to do. 

At home, my wife and I made tteokbokki, our fifth batch. The key was to control the level of starchiness. If the consistency is just right, our cookbook said, you will never want to eat anything else. I stirred the pot, releasing steam as if it were a magic potion. My wife watched me from atop the kitchen island. Jenny did a lap, pausing to shout “starch!” Upstairs, Jackson played a B flat minor scale. 

“Thought for a thought?” my wife said.

“Sure. You first.”

“I’m wondering if Jackson has started masturbating yet,” she said.

“You could ask him.”

“I did. He feigned ignorance.” 

“Smart man,” I said.

“Is it wrong for a mother to want to know what’s going on with her son?”

“No. How could that be wrong?” I said. “But didn’t we agree the kids should be independent? Should learn by trial and, more importantly, error?”

“Hmmm,” she said, “I guess you’re right. OK, now you.” 

“Well, I’m wondering how long we could eat tteokbokki in a survival situation.” 

“Like before we got sick of it?”

“No, like before we got tteokbokki poisoning.”

“No such thing,” she said.

“Death by starch.” I said.

“Masturbating!” Jenny shouted in the other room. 

“I doubt it!” my wife shouted back. 

The tteokbokki was better that night, but we agreed that it was still too watery, the spiciness not yet balanced. There was no rush to get it perfect, my wife reassured me. She said the same thing later during sex. 

No rush…..no rush…..no rush………she whispered in my ear, as close as two people could be.

*

I mean the bassoon? Seriously? The duvet was sweltering, so I threw it off. The air-conditioned air puckered my naked legs. Between the hour of 2:15, and 3:15, I thought of better uses for such a ridiculous instrument. I could use that thing as a weapon if things really got dire. Driving the bocal into some thief’s neck as I guarded the family stockpile of clean water. My wife snored and turned toward me, draping a heavy arm across my chest. Through the window, the moon ticked like a clock.

Around 4:00, it hit me. 

You moron, the reed knife. Stab ‘em in the back, below the kidney.

*

It began because I wasn’t doing enough, that’s when it began. Work, family, the bassoon – each great in turn, but great doesn’t mean sufficient. What might Therese say? That an island isn’t a philosopher, and a nun isn’t an opera? She’d say that it’s not enough for a man to create a life; he must sustain it. Protect it. Sufficiency means safety. It means contingencies. It means insurance. 

And so my thoughts ran as I drove to the gun store. 

“You know what they say about a gun in the first act,” the gun salesman said. 

“Why would you say that?” I said.

He shrugged. “Sometimes eggheads like you need a little humor to get you going.”

“And how do you know we’re still in the first act?”

“OK, OK, I see your point. But what is it that you want?”

Happiness. Sex. Safety. Korean food. Sex. A good embouchure. “What exactly is a Glock?” I said. 

*

At home, I deposited the gun, stored neatly in a safe, in my office, and I locked the door. My wife stood in the hallway, considering these developments with her arms folded. 

“You should probably get some lessons,” she said. 

“Glockenspiel!” Jenny said. 

“Not percussion lessons, Jenny,” my wife said.

“Percussion?” Jenny said.

“I’m busy with the bassoon as it is,” I said.

“You think you’ll be able to manage all of this?” my wife said.

“It seems like I have to.”

And yet my schedule opened up, as if by some hocus pocus. Hours, whole afternoons existed solely for trips to the range and lessons with Ronald – a highly reviewed instructor and, if you’d believe it, local guide on Yelp. He corrected my form, helped me with the grip. Later, over beers, he asked me about my situation. 

“My what?”

“Your situation, you know, at home.”

“Are you hitting on me?”

“Ha ha ha.”

“Seriously, I have no idea what that means.”

“Your situation,” Ronald said. “Home security. Contingency plans. How are you going to protect your family when shit goes down?”

“That’s what I thought the gun was for.”

Ronald shook his head. “A Glock can’t be your first option. Can’t be your only option. It’s not going to feed you. It’s not going to heat your home.” 

I finished my beverage. 

“You came to the right guy,” Ronald said.

“Ronald, what do you know about the bassoon?” I said.

“Not much.” He shook his head. “More of a euphonium guy myself.”

“I can’t get the damn embouchure.”

*

I took a three-day retreat.  For $200, I built an A-frame shelter, scavenged for Morel mushrooms, snared rabbits. When I came back Sunday night, mangy and unshaven, my wife laughed, “You’re a different person!” Then she leaned in and whispered, “Don’t shower. Meet me upstairs.” 

During the week, I’d do my breaststroke and watch House Hunters on DVR and rehearse with Jackson. We’d chosen a date for a little recital – just friends and family – in the living room. I began watching the show 11th Hour in the evenings, a roundtable in which four hosts debated current events. One of them – a small, vicious woman – was named Teresa. It didn’t seem possible that Teresa was my Therese, I thought, as she advocated a tactical missile strike on a developing country. 

On Thursdays, I’d sit up on my computer, reading about the New Madrid fault line. I’d call Ronald in the small hours of the morning, and he’d answer within three rings. “Tell me about respirators,” I’d say. “Tell me about fire starters. Tell me about home generators.” I made lists of skills I had and skills I needed. I made lists of my family’s weaknesses. It would really help if Jackson could hit that growth spurt, put a little muscle on him. I ordered some protein powder. It was good that Jenny could ride a bike. Maybe she’d find some way to put that to use. 

I signed up for a class on wilderness first aid. I signed up for a webinar on building your own radio from parts. I watched Krav Maga videos. I fell asleep around 3:30 and woke up at 7, my laptop’s keyboard imprinted on my face. 

One weekend, Ronald took me to his family compound, and for two frigid days I learned to skin and tan elk hides alongside a motley assortment of cousins. I returned with blood in my hair and under my nails. My wife rushed me to the mudroom and, kneeling, unzipped my bloody pants, whispering, “dirty, dirty, dirty.” 

*

Another letter:

Oh Duncan,

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I must say your preparations have been insufficient. Do you not know what is at stake? Perhaps I should have said more, and sooner. I try not to blame you, but you’ve dawdled terribly. You’ve wasted so much time already.

Concernedly,

Therese 

I resolved to show this one to my wife, but between the mailbox and the bedroom, I burned it, too. I dropped a fistful of flames into the bathroom sink, then ran for a sponge and some cleaner to remove the smolders and the ash. 

“What’s that smell?” my wife yelled.

“Just testing out different lighters!” I called back. 

When I’d finished cleaning, I pecked at my phone with my left hand. Enroll. Purchase. Enroll, my phone said.  

*

Jackson learned “Für Elise” and Jenny joined a little girls’ biker gang. My wife burned the bungeoppang after she came to the garage to watch me build a Faraday cage and promptly mounted me inside of it. “If we got struck by lightning, we wouldn’t even know,” she whispered. Outside, a false spring was waking the birds and clearing the sky like a preamble for something. 

Our boss paid for my team to go to a rodeo after a successful quarter. We dressed all in green – Karen wore green Chuck Taylors, Mike wore a green cravat, Rico wore a green felt vest. I wore a green watch band, and they scolded me because that used a different sort of pigment than the one whose supply we had successfully optimized. I chuckled as I watched the cowboys strut below. Really, I was thinking that I hadn’t yet learned to braid rope. And then I started thinking about what my wife would do with a thick cord woven by my own rough and calloused hands. “I have to go,” I said. 

In the parking lot, I was searching the homesteaders forums when the air raid sirens went off. Raaaaunch, Raaaaunch, Raaaaaaaaunch, the sirens said. The colors of the parked cars turned neon and shimmering, and a strange tingling went over my skin. I bolted to my car, dialed my wife. “Meet me in the bunker,” I said, “bring the kids.” 

Forget the kids,” she whispered. 

It turned out to just be a drill. When we reemerged an hour later, we found a horde of grimy children in our kitchen. 

“Who are these?” I asked.

“My gang,” Jenny said.  

“We’re all hunkering down here,” Jackson said. He had on an old army helmet which kept falling over his eyes. “Jenny’s handing out rations while I get the ham radio working.” 

“What about the bunker?” I asked.

“What bunker?” they said. 

“I built it last month. It’s where me and your mom were.”

“And you didn’t come get us?”

“It was just a drill,” I said.

They mulled this over. Then Jenny shouted, “just a drill, girls!” and the biker gang started to clear out, grumbling, kicking things over. One of them spat on the floor. 

“It’s sort of a rough crowd,” Jenny said. “But they’re family.”

Ride together, die together,” Jenny said. 

I understood. Nothing quite as important as friendship in this life. I took the family out for ice cream, but Jenny got a little tipsy on rum-raisin and I had to carry her out of the shop. 

My friends were important, too. Ronald had enough canned food to feed eight people for three years. Ronald had built a series of tunnels underneath his property, and he offered to show me the basics of suburban tunnel construction. Ronald taught me archery over the course of six weekends. “The key is to forget there is a difference between arm and bow,” I explained to my wife. She didn’t say anything but twanged my bowstring. “Twang,” the bow whispered, and I understood. 

I wrote letters to Therese that I could not send. One read:

Dear Therese,

Is this better?

Yours,

Duncan (sic)

Another:

Dear Therese,

Just who the hell do you think you are? You don’t know my business. You don’t know what I’m capable of.

What are you really? A nun? An island? A philosopher? Perhaps you are several nuns? 

On T.V. the other night, you said our culture was crumbling. You said we’ve stopped raising our children correctly. What can I do about Jenny, who will only dress in studded leather and swears like an old man? 

Is end nigh? Are efforts futile?

Apologies for fragments. Must practice bassoon.

Warmly,

Duncan

(sic)

My house was in disarray, but my wife refused to clean it. Since the drill, she passed hours at a time in our backyard, pacing between the gladioli and singing in her thin, clear soprano. I didn’t have time, myself. I was too busy charting the low hills behind our subdivision. I hung maps – road, topographic, utility – in my office. I considered a map of the state and one of the county, deposited them behind a spinning globe that wasn’t really part of all of this. I just liked how it looked. I rested my bow against the wall and my arrows in a pile outside the door. I bought a pallet of mason jars for canning, but the canning machine was slow to arrive, and the jars sat empty in the living room. There were leftover sacks of concrete from the bunker – those lived in the kitchen. My wife ignored all of this; she just made batch after batch of tteokbokki and sang Mozart arias. Meanwhile, the recital was days away and I needed to practice.  

Things were getting mixed up. I spent an unprofitable afternoon canning kimchi made with, instead of gochugaru, number seven red dye. I had a recurring dream in which invaders were storming the bunker, but my firearm wouldn’t shoot bullets, only honking F sharps. I gave a PowerPoint on gutting a wild boar at work. Karen had questions about meat gambrel supply chains. Rico had questions about search engine optimization.

My boss told me to take a week or two. I was getting all wound up. Not a good idea to manage a team with all this nervous energy. He asked if I remembered the Reiki workshop we did. 

“Of course I do,” I said.

“No need to shout,” he said. 

“Oh god, oh god,” I said.

“Deep breaths,” he said, “just relax. It will be OK if you relax.”

At home, I didn’t relax. I took three deep breaths followed by ten shallow breaths. I cleaned my guns, eight of them. They lay, deconstructed and gleaming, on rags in the basement. Jenny came down to admire them. She picked up the Glock, pointed it sideways, mimed shooting someone. I took it from her, and she called me a punk. I gave her some pointers on form and then let her try aiming it again.  I showed her how to whittle a bassoon reed. I showed her how to make a duck call. For the rest of the day, she biked around in the street, pretending to be a duck. “My torso is still, but my legs work furiously!” She shouted, then did her duck call. “She must have read that somewhere,” I said to my wife. My wife sang an aria – the Queen of the Night – but couldn’t hit the high C.

I took my bassoon with me to hang out with Ronald and his cousins. “It’s good practice to play for you all,” I said. “You all make me a little nervous!” Most of them were armed. 

“Don’t mess up!” Ronald said.

“Ha ha. Ha ha,” I said. 

I played a Weissenborn etude. 

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” a cousin said.

“Sounds like a duck,” another said. 

“I cracked a few notes,” I said, “what’s the big deal? The rest of it sounded good.”

“Sounds like a duck,” Ronald confirmed.

“Well, I’m supposed to flick the thumb keys,” I said, “but it’s difficult.”

“I’m sure it is,” Ronald said. 

“There are eight thumb keys,” I said.

“Hey, no need to get upset,” Ronald said.

“Eight,” I said.

“Easy, man,” the cousins said. 

“It takes a light touch. It takes subtlety,” I said. “Eight keys, just for one thumb.”

“You don’t have a light touch,” Ronald said. “Your touch is a bit heavy.”

“Let me try that,” the cousins said. I handed them the bassoon. They were all naturals. 

“It’s like shooting a gun,” one said.

“It’s like tanning a hide,” another said.

“It’s like making love,” a third said.

I grabbed my bassoon back, stowed it in its case. I had much to do. 

*

It began the morning of the recital. Jackson was in his room, practicing long, stagnant tones. My ear drums fluttered as the notes made paper cuts in the air. An E flat emerged from behind the toaster. A few minutes later, a low G dropped through the air vents. My wife stormed into the kitchen. 

“What are these?” she sang in recitative. In her hand she clutched several notes from Therese. 

“Those are letters from Therese.”

Who is she?”

“I’m not sure.”

How can you not be sure? She says she loves you and she’s waiting for you.”

“She’s nuts!”

And whyyyyy does she call yoouuu Duuuuuuuncan!”

“Can you cut it out with the opera? Can we just have a real conversation?”

What do you mean?”

“The singing. I mean, you have the pipes for it, don’t get me wrong, but can we just talk normally, please?”

I’m not singing. Do you think I’m singing?”

But before I could respond she launched into a lengthy aria about love and duplicity. I couldn’t quite place it, but my best guess was Don Giovanni. Upstairs, Jackson was double and triple tonguing. From the basement, I heard a loud quack

When I went to investigate, it was Jenny, my bassoon in her lap. She blew hard into the mouthpiece, quacking away. All around her, her gang was smoking and playing dice. A few of them were holding my guns. 

“Whoa!” I said. “Whoa!”

“It’s OK, Dad,” Jenny said. “Katie R. is an artist with a semi-automatic.”

I went around and collected my guns, put them back in the safe. 

“Why is the gang here?” I asked.

“For the recital.”

The girls had some kind, gruff words for me, but at the mention of the recital, an awful nervousness loosed in my gut like a rabid bat.

“I’ll be in my bedroom, practicing,” I said, and I grabbed my bassoon and my reed case and my gun safe and I carried them all upstairs. 

I turned on the metronome. I varied my articulation, staccato and marcato and leggiero. I flicked my overburdened left thumb from key to key. Downstairs, I heard the guests arriving. Karen and Rico had shown up – those lovebirds. Ronald and his cousins followed. I smelled the tangy jerky they had brought for the reception. My eyes wandered onto a stack of letters on the bedside table. I stopped and went to read them. 

Dear Duncan,

Not enough, not enough.

Love, 

Therese

 

Dear Duncan,

It’s a matter of hours now. Are you ready? Have you made your preparations?

Tenderly,

Therese

 

Dear Duncan,

Dear, dear Duncan. Dear, dear, dear, dear Duncan.

Dearly,

Therese

There was a knock on the door, and Jackson came in. He was wearing a crisp Oxford shirt, pleated pants, a little bow-tie. “I thought we should do a little rehearsal, Dad,” he said. He sat down on the bed, and he laid the music next to him.

“Maybe a unison scale, just to tune?” he said.

We played a C scale, slowly, allowing the sounds to mix like textile dye. It was a nice blend – the lush velvet of the bassoon, the plaintive clarinet. I felt my heart slowing. I looked at my son, his smooth, almost-pubescent face. I watched him hear my pitch, adjust high or low. I saw how he listened, how he adapted when necessary. I would have to amend his list. These skills were soon to become valuable. 

When the air raid sirens rang out again, we didn’t stop. They pulsated through the room, drowning us out. We fortified our breath support. We played the descending scale, and with each note change we stopped to consider the new harmony. An air raid siren was an excellent resource to tune to. It was even possible to make music with the aid of an air raid siren. 

When we finished the scale, we returned downstairs. The audience had taken their seats, but they seemed unsure what to do.

“To the bunker, everyone,” I said.

“There’s room for all of us,” I said.

“We’ll do the concert down there,” I said.

“Apocalyptic,” Jenny said.

Scherzo,” my wife sang. 

We did the concert in the bunker, where the sirens were a distant whine punctuated by deep tremors out of the ground. It was a little cramped, but we made it work. The cousins had carried the folding chairs, my work team had carried the food for the reception, and the girls had grabbed whatever coloring books and jigsaw puzzles they could get their hands on. Jackson and I played a Beethoven duet. We played a Bartók folk song. We played a piece of Jackson’s own composition. 

“Bravo,” shouted a cousin.

“Splendid,” Karen cried. 

We bowed and stowed our instruments in their cases.

“You did great, Dad,” Jackson said. 

“Phew,” I said. “Phew! I feel like I can finally breathe.”

The tremors grew deeper. The bunker was large enough for all of us. I’d stocked the rear wall with canned beans, dehydrated hummus, quarts of tteokbokki. We had enough water to last for a few months. All around, everyone was getting to know each other. The gang met the cousins. Jenny met Rico. My wife met Ronald. I heard bird calls and strains of Mozart and colorful swear words. Almost everyone was packing, but no fights broke out. In the back, I spotted a small woman with her back to me. She was talking with Jackson, and she seemed to angle herself so I couldn’t see her face. I smiled. Funny how things get so mixed up. How worlds collide. There’d be plenty of time to sort all of this out. It was just now beginning, after all. 


Robbie Herbst is a writer and violinist based in Chicago. His work has been published at Gulf Coast, Necessary Fiction, RHINO Poetry, and other publications. He is a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and he enjoys the company of his dog, Reba, who is a very good girl. You can read more fiction at robbieherbst.com.

Art by Bri Chapman

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