TUNNEL VISION, a short story by Hank Quense
A long time ago, (in the last century) I wrote and sold a bunch of short stories. They were collected and published by a small publishing house as Tunnel Vision. It’s filled with stories about knight-accountants, warrior-chefs, aliens visiting Manhattan, befuddled wizards
Long out of print, I started reading them again and was surprised at how well they had aged. Pasted here is the title short story. Tunnel Vision refers to the filters we all have that determines how we interpret events.
I’m thinking of republishing the collection. What do you think? Is this worth-while?
Maestro Allegro, the Dean of Musicology and conductor of the Urban Symphonic Marching Jazz Band entered the university’s auditorium for a faculty meeting. Traditionally, the musicology staff sat left of center while the physicists sat on the right. The two faculties of the Frank Sinatra University of Musicology and High Energy Physics rarely mingled and never agreed on any issue except that a comatose Chief Administrator was a joy to work with. Allegro walked towards the front row and spotted Dean Clifford Webley, the head of the physics department and Allegro’s detested opposite number. Fifty-ish, tall and heavy-set with a florid complexion, Webley looked at him and turned away without acknowledgment.
The university, located in Sinatra’s place of birth, Hoboken, NJ, was the town’s only institution dedicated equally to Arts and Science. For Allegro, the real purpose of the Science school was to bring in government grant money. The more grant money that came in, the less funding restraints he faced.
He took the seat reserved for him by the other musicology teachers just as two porters pushed a hospital bed onto the stage under the supervision of a young, buxom nurse. The bed contained Chief Administrator Buchler, now in his second year of a coma. With the bed in place, the unpopular Administrative Assistant, Jon Gunthrie, stepped up to the podium.
“I regret to inform you,” Gunthrie paused to clear his throat, “that cost-cutting measures must be implemented.”
Allegro started. Funding cuts! The last time Gunthrie cut funding, he gave himself a raise. Allegro raised his right arm in the air, and, when he brought it down, his staff moaned in B-flat, their signal of negation. Gunthrie winced at the flatulent noise while the physicists applauded the protest and giggled at Gunthrie’s discomfort.
Gunthrie regained his composure and glared at Allegro. Before the man could speak again, the faculty collectively sucked in its breath. “He moved his arm,” a professor screamed while pointing to the bed. Buchler’s eyes were open and he glared at the faculty. Gunthrie moved swiftly to the bed, grabbed the oxygen mask and clapped it against the man’s face. “Please, sir,” Gunthrie said. “Compose yourself. Don’t try to talk.”
Buchler smacked the other’s arm, displacing the mask. “Back,” he croaked. “Back, you spawn of Satan.” The old man coughed twice and said, “I have an announcement.” He paused to take a hit of oxygen. “At the end of the semester, I shall resign in order to pursue a hobby of rock-climbing.” He looked at the nurse, reached up with a trembling arm and squeezed her right boob. His arm fell back on the bed and he relapsed into a coma. With a smile on his face.
The nurse blushed charmingly.
Pandemonium broke out among the faculty.
Gunthrie yelled for order.
The physics faculty gathered around Webley and shook his hand or patted him on the back, as if Webley had been just installed as the new Chief Administrator. Webley looked to be in shock.
Allegro’s mouth felt like he had eaten a ball of cotton. He ignored the questions of his staff and left the auditorium. He had much to contemplate. These events imperiled his beloved band.
Allegro stared across the Hudson River, deep in thought. Hoboken, located between the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and across the river from Manhattan, featured a glorious view of the city. In the clear, spring twilight, the glass towers reflected the setting sun and the entire skyline glowed with orange light. Overhead, squadrons of strident seagulls wheeled and swooped in their search for nasty tidbits. His nostrils quivered from the acrid stench of the diesel exhaust that belched from the ferry boats. Dead fish and salt water provided additional layers of pungent smells.
Allegro focused on Dean Webley. Once, they had been friends, but their friendship had floundered on Webley’s insistence that Allegro add Sousa marches to the band’s repertoire. Sousa indeed! A classic example of talent that relied on out-dated instruments. Made of brass! Webley wallowed in the over-rated music of Beethoven and Mozart and others of that ilk and he often insulted the band, calling it an unfiltered noise source in need of a good silencer.
Webley often commented on how he loved dealing with politicians and bureaucrats, and Allegro had to admit the man was unsurpassed at it. His High Energy Physics Laboratory was exceptionally well-funded and attracted the best graduate students in the world. This success gave Webley an irritating air of arrogance. As if mere science could ever be superior to musical arts!
Allegro nodded to a passing member of the band, one of several reed ensemble synthesizers. This one had trouble telling the oboe passages from the bassoon passages and usually played the wrong one.
If Webley received the Administrator’s post, the paper-pushing job would take so much time he would be forced to give up grant-hunting. That didn’t bode well for the Musicology Department. With Webley’s department almost completely funded by grants, Allegro received the lion’s share of the other funding
In front of him stood the High Energy Physics Lab building, a converted warehouse with old-fashioned, multi-paned windows that opened. Allegro recalled the recent campus blather caused by the installation of a plasma ion transmogrifier or some such nonsense. Reputedly, the device would allow research in new concepts in science.
Through the open windows, Allegro heard the yells of grad students.
“Throw the switch! Let’s see what happens.”
A beer can flew through a window and landed in one of the few patches of grass on the mostly concrete campus.
Allegro ignored the students and evaluated the situation. Webley’s promotion would signify massive changes in Allegro’s aspirations. Reduced funding would delay the performance of his greatest work. Indeed, Webley could even force the band out of existence through fiscal pressure.
This shift could spell the end to all of Allegro’s grand achievements. Like someone about to die, his lifelong titanic struggles passed before his eyes. The manual labor as a stage hand. The constant urging of his mother. The torment of playing an instrument under another conductor. The pain of rejection as orchestra after orchestra refused to play his compositions. Finally, the success of his Symphonia Urbana in Seventeen Movements. Only to hear it inadequately performed by close-minded conductors who substituted traditional instruments for the ones specified in the score. He hungered to play it the correct way.
To reach his present position and then have it threatened by a poltroon like Webley was not to be borne. Allegro squared his narrow shoulders and stuck out his scrawny chest. He would not give up without a fight. He would do everything in his power to prevent Webley from becoming the Chief Administrator.
It was one thing to swear to fight, but what could he do to prevent the man from advancing? He took stock of his weapons. Pettifoggery always worked wonders. He could count on duplicity when the going got tough. Finally, he knew Webley hated confrontation. When faced with opposition, Webley lost his composure and acted precipitously. This last character flaw may be Allegro’s ultimate weapon in his campaign to prevent the rise of the recreant.
Allegro felt somewhat relieved now that he had plan. To demonstrate his defiance, he shook his fist at the High Energy Lab. The street lights dimmed an instant before the building disappeared. An entire three-story structure had winked out of existence! Leaving only a large hole in the ground and a whiff of ozone to mark the spot! While Allegro stared open-mouthed, the building reappeared, shaking and creaking as it refilled the foundation hole.
“Awright!!” someone in the building yelled.
“Let’s do it again!”
“Gimme another beer!”
He shook his head in wonder at the stupidity of the grad students. And Webley. He would never understand why Webley let the students play in the lab after classes.
Allegro, exasperated by the lack of talent displayed during his audition, sat in the rehearsal hall, a large bare room that formerly served as an apparel manufacturing plant. Heavy drapes hung over the windows to block the traffic noises from Hoboken’s busy streets. The drapes also gave the room a menacing aspect that made visitors reluctant to stray too close to the corners.
His band needed a new Fender-Bender percussionist and he had just listened to a dozen students fail a simple test. He shook his head in amazement. All the students had to do was bang together two pieces of metal and plastic. One piece came from a front panel from a 2023 Ford Hover Utility Vehicle and the other from a 2024 Chevy Personal Transporter.
A woman entered the hall and walked up to Allegro and said, “Ms. Dunlap would like to see you,” she said. “Right away.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Allegro smiled. His plan was working. Dunlap was a university trustee.
While on his way to meet Dunlap, Allegro suppressed his feelings about the inadequacies of the candidates. To compensate for the students’ lack of talent, he wanted to sprinkle the band with a few professional musicians disguised as students. He would need better funding to do that, but then the world would finally hear his signature work performed as he had composed it, not as the shiftless conductors of several major orchestras had mis-interpreted it.
Allegro entered Dunlap’s office
“Good afternoon, Dean,” she said. “I appreciate you coming to see me because I’m quite perplexed by this memo.” She was a pleasant-looking woman in her early fifties. As always, she wore a skirt and a sweater topped with a string of pearls.
Allegro sat down and smiled at her. The memo detailed a new regulation. Sent to all of Webley’s staff, it implied that he, Allegro, had the authority to dictate to Webley’s staff. He hoped Webley would go ballistic over the implication and cause an incident.
“I hadn’t realized the University had a problem with intruders.” Dunlap raised an eyebrow.
“An occasional vagrant wanders around, but that’s all.”
Dunlap started and waved a copy of the memo. “Then what brought this about? Why are you insisting everyone wear an ID badge,” she glanced down at the memo, “I quote, ‘to preclude an invasion of unauthorized intruders,’.”
“You’ll have to explain that comment.” She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms.
“Of course.” Allegro smiled to himself. Dunlap led the conversation as if she followed a script written by himself. “Leaders steer their organizations in the direction of their vision. Part of my vision is to maintain the safety and security of the campus as it currently is. When I ponder the future, I foresee a flood of unauthorized people drifting around the campus and no one will be able to tell them from the staff and students.”
Dunlap gaped at him.
“Consequently, I eliminated the problem before it became into existence. That, Ms. Dunlap, is what leaders do. They obliterate the roadblocks that impede the route to their vision.”
Dunlap looked down and examined the memo. Allegro gloated. This discussion should put a crimp in Webley’s promotion by demonstrating Webley’s lack of leadership.
Dunlap gave Allegro a smile that made him leery. She should be looking pensive, thinking about Webley’s character flaw.
“Well, this certainly is an unexpected bonus.”
The back of Allegro’s neck tingled. What was wrong with the woman? Couldn’t she see the obvious?
“When I show this memo to the selection committee and explain your reasoning, I’m sure your name will be added to the short list of nominees for the job of Chief Administrator.”
“Wh . . at!”
“Leadership is one of the key qualities we are searching for.”
“But . . . I won’t be able to fill the post and still conduct my musicians.” Bafflement clouded his mind.
“True. You’ll have to turn over the band to someone else. The Administrator’s job will be a full-time position.”
Allegro stood up and left the office without saying good-bye. How could this happen to him?
Outside the building, he took several deep breaths to clear his mind then sorted through the confusion. With the promotion, he could funnel as much funding as necessary to the Urban Symphonic Marching Jazz Band. There would be money to hire professional musicians. But what good would it do him? The band was his soul and his soul was the band.
How could he turn down a prestigious promotion? His mother always urged him to rise as high as possible. But to forfeit his musical dreams for mere advancement? She would rise out of her coffin and box his ears if she knew what he was thinking.
How could he not compose new music for the band? How could he not transcribe songs for the plethora of new instruments the band used? How could he not conduct the band?
And worst of all, how could he give up his dream of conducting the Symphonia Urbana as he wrote it? He needed to develop only one more new instrument. He was so close! He shook his head in wonderment. How could Dunlap mess up his plan? While he might have illustrated the lack of leadership in Webley, he was caught in a trap. He didn’t want Webley to get the promotion but neither did he want it himself.
He pledged himself to fight in the name and spirit of his ancestors. He was a tenth generation maestro, and he wouldn’t allow Webley and Dunlap to strip him of his aspirations. The original maestro had struggled to eke out a living. He traveled the length and breadth of Tuscany with his string quartet serenading the vineyards in order to make the grapes sweeter. Well, Maestro del Vino —as they called him — never gave up and neither would Maestro Allegro, del Vino’s progeny.
He returned the wave of a band member, the pneumatic drill player, a position requiring more brawn than musical aptitude.
The decision to remain as Dean of Musicology made him feel better until the Lab building disappeared once more. It’s reappearance unsettled him. Accompanied by the sounds of tortured steel and grinding cinder blocks, the building materialized further to the north. Towards his rehearsal hall! Rubble surrounded the building like the bow wave of a moving ship. Loose dirt and rocks filled the original foundation hole.
Since the founding of the university, the sidewalk he stood on constituted the boundary between the turfs of the Physics and Musicology Departments. The lab building now straddled the sidewalk. Standing in front of him was unmistakable evidence of Webley’s pernicious intentions.
Webley had invaded the Musicology grounds! War had been declared!
Allegro looked around and saw a band member, a string instrument keyboardist. He called her over. “We have an emergency,” he said. “I want everyone in uniform within the hour. We’ll assemble outside the rehearsal hall.” He waved a hand at her. “Call everyone on their cell phones! Go!”
He glared at the lab building. He would respond to Webley con bravura. Amateur warriors though they were, his musicians would repulse the invaders. The effrontery of Webley would be answered with gusto blended with grace and artistry.
Allegro felt his heart swell with pride as the Urban Symphonic Marching Jazz Band formed up. Their uniforms —his own design —sparkled in the light of the afternoon sun, especially the gold lamé trousers. So did the white silk shirts, blue cravats and black cut-aways. They all wore black shakos with a golden feather. Except for the pneumatic driller who, by state law, had to wear a hard hat. Allegro had written to everyone in the state government but so far had been unable to get the half-witted bureaucrats to issue an exemption for the man, even though the hat ruined the visual impression of the band.
He shot the sleeves of his uniform and climbed into his hover-podium. Not for him the traditional wooden podium used by the Philistines of classical music. His podium, made of stainless steel with brass fittings and crammed with electronics, sparkled in the sunlight. He caressed the handrails. The cold metallic touch invigorated him.
Allegro tapped his baton. “Your attention please. In a few minutes, we will begin a march that will go down in the annals of history. Today, we strike a blow against despots. Today, we will assert our will against those who seek dominion through foul means –”
He pointed to the young lady with a raised hand.
“Is this gonna take long? I have to be at my hairdresser in an hour.”
“Our beloved campus is under attack.” Allegro’s voice quivered with emotion. “How dare you suggest a time limit on our activities? The enemy has no such limits. They toil day and night in their nefarious laboratory.”
The young woman shrugged.
“Here is my plan. I refuse to make a dastardly sneak attack against the foe — that is his tactic, not mine. We will circle the campus once in order to alert everyone of our presence.” Especially Dunlap. He ground his teeth as another hand shot up. “Yes?”
“Who’s this enemy you keep talkin’ about?”
Shocked to his core by the ignorance of the band, he pointed his baton towards the lab building. “There is the menace.”
“Hey,” the musician said. “When did they move the buildin’?”
“Enough chit-chat. On the circuit of the campus, we will play my transcription of When the Saint’s Go Marching In. That always gets the crowd’s attention. After we return here, we will wheel into the attack and march straight at the lab building. As we advance, we will play the stirring Frank Sinatra University Fight Song, as composed by yours truly. At the building, I will present my non-negotiable ultimatum to the forces of mischief.”
Allegro pushed the button to power up the hover-podium and spun the control ball. The podium turned to face the direction of march. A built-in monitor displayed images captured by the rearward facing video camera. The monitor and two side-view mirrors allowed him to direct the musicians while he maneuvered the podium.
He filled his lungs with a deep breath, exhaled and shouted, “To victory!”
Allegro wheeled his podium into the street on the north side of the campus. His musicians pumped out the notes of the classic jazz song as revised for an urban setting. The pneumatic driller set the tempo with frequent blasts of staccato disharmony. The keyboard-controlled string instruments played sweetly, a reed synthesizer played a passage on an oboe instead of a bassoon. Allegro glanced in a mirror at the offender, but she ignored his look of disgust. On every eighth beat, the sirenist imitated the whoop of a police car pulling over a traffic violator.
Allegro maneuvered the band toward Washington Street, the western boundary of the campus, while checking his image in a side-view mirror. At the intersection, he boldly pointed his baton to the left and drove against the heavy traffic while he signaled the band members to change to rout step. Horns blared, drivers cursed and brakes screeched as the drivers joined the band in celebrating urban life. The temporary fender-bender percussionist poorly imitated the sounds of several minor accidents caused by the podium weaving through traffic. He coughed from the miasmic cloud of fumes. The musicians followed, making their way around cars and between trucks while dodging empty coffee cups and other missiles tossed by the high-spirited drivers. Sour notes told Allegro of an accurate throw.
A block to the south, he made another left turn onto a side street on the science side of the campus. He marked time on the podium while the band extricated itself from traffic and from several altercations with irksome truck drivers. He waved the members back into formation. By now, the people who lived in the tenements on three sides of the one-block-square campus hung out their windows watching the show.
“Lookin’ good,” one woman shouted.
Others whistled encouragement.
“Pipe down! I can’t hear my soaps,” a crone yelled.
Allegro shook his head in consternation. How could the hag prefer an insipid, taped TV show to a live, stimulating concert held right beneath her window?
Nearing the original empty vacant grounds of the lab building, a score of physics students watched the parade. Exactly what he wanted. That group would spread the word and soon the entire campus would have their eyes on his forces of liberation.
Two more lefts brought him back to his starting position.
He rotated the podium to face the musicians, slipped it into neutral and ended the tune. “After that brave and bracing march, we must now confront the beast in its lair.” With a flourish, he indicated the lab building with his baton. “Strike up the band,” he ordered and switched the podium into gear.
The opening notes of the Frank Sinatra University Fight Song always made his heart beat fast. He had composed the jubilation of car horns and crashing metal parts before he realize the tiny university didn’t field a team in any sport.
He noted the many physics students milling about the lab building. Were they aware of his plans? Had the enemy infiltrated the band with spies? Did Webley have a counter-confrontation planned?
He braked the podium when he reached the boundary walkway, now mostly rubble. Allegro spotted Webley wearing Bermuda shorts, black knee-high socks and white sneakers to complement his white dress shirt, without a tie.
“No one invited you and your noise makers.” Webley glared at Allegro. “Begone!”
“This is a counter-invasion, not a social call.” Allegro stepped down from the podium. “Remove this building immediately or you will suffer the consequences of your actions.”
The physics students watched the developing confrontation with amused smiles. The band members played an urbanized rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to encourage their leader.
“Or what? You insufferable fusspot.”
“Or I’ll deliver a sound thrashing.” Allegro bounced on his toes to make himself taller than his five-four height. “And then, I shall force you to move this building.”
“Hah!” Webley assumed a pugilistic stance and threw air punches in Allegro’s direction.
Allegro pushed his baton forward like an epee and shouted, “En guarde!” He regretted the need to misuse the baton this way because it was a cherished artifact, hundreds of years old. Maestro del Vino had personally selected the oak twig and, to show his versatility, removed the bark with his very own hands. Since then, the baton had passed from generation to generation.
The physics students shouted and whistled encouragement to Webley.
The band switched to the New Orleans funeral classic, Just a Closer Walk With Thee, playing it as a dirge led by an electronic bagpipe squealing in harmonic discord. Allegro grimaced at the implied insult to his bellicose abilities.
“What are you doing!” Dunlap charged out of the Administration building. “Are you two out of your minds?”
Allegro smirked at the rhetorical question. Webley would soon be disqualified for the promotion, and so would he.
Dunlap stopped and stared at the lab building. She looked around the campus and finally said to Webley, “What is this thing doing here? Who authorized you to move it?”
“I guess my grad students did it.”
“All the maps of the campus have to be revised if this stays here. Restore it immediately! And the Physics Department budget pays for the sidewalk repairs.”
Allegro felt a tentacle of doubt flick through his mind. Webley didn’t authorize the building movement?
“I’ll look into it after I thrash this noisy twerp.” Webley air-jabbed with his left hand and moved towards Allegro who waved the tip of his baton-epee in small circles. Dunlap jumped between the two. Both moved to avoid her and closed on each other.
“How dare you fight in front of the students?” Dunlap slapped Webley’s face, grabbed Allegro’s baton and broke it over her knee. She dashed the pieces to the ground. “I’m removing both your names from the list of candidates.” She spun on a heel and marched off toward her office.
Allegro, in shock over the wanton destruction of his family heirloom, looked at its remains and wondered if super glue or duct tape offered any hope. At least the baton had been sacrificed in a good cause. Webley’s ambitions had been crushed. He looked at his arch-enemy, who mouthed “Thank God!” at Dunlap’s retreating back.
Dizziness washed over Allegro. He steadied himself by grabbing the podium with his left hand. “You’re glad?”
“I don’t want that paper-pushing job.” Webley waved his hand in disparagement.
“I want to match wits with the bureaucrats and bring back the grant money. I want to run experiments and play around in the lab. I can’t do that if I’m the Chief Administrator. I wouldn’t have time.”
“I didn’t want it either. I want to compose music and direct my band.”
“I’ll be damned.” Webley laughed. “We still have something in common.” He held out his hand. “We should join forces against whoever gets the position. Then we can prevent the new Administrator from dividing and conquering.”
Allegro fought to overcome his confusion. Webley thought the same way he did. They really were similar. And instead of stabbing the man in the back, Allegro’s actions had actually helped him. He shook hands with Webley while his brain regained equilibrium.
“Say.” Allegro smiled at Webley. “Maybe your students can help me out with a problem.”
“Which is?” Webley looked quizzical.
“I’m trying to develop an instrument that will duplicate the sounds of broken mufflers. Everything from a motorbike to a garbage truck. I need help with it.”
“You want me,” Webley wiggled his eyebrows, “to help you make more noise?”
Allegro sighed. It was a valiant try, but doomed from the start. Webley wasn’t going to change because of a handshake.
“I’ll help but only if you put three or four Sousa marches in the band’s repertoire.”
Allegro gasped. Sousa! The pinnacle of ancient classic triteness. The very type of music he had avoided all his adult life. But the muffler instrument was the missing piece required to faithfully perform his Symphonia Urbana. “I’ll transcribe two Sousa marches and no more.”
“Done!” Webley held out his hand again. “I’ll put some grad students on the muffler development as soon as they move the lab building back where it belongs.”
A physics student reached both hands into a trash can and brought out four bottles of beer, holding them by the necks. “Beer’s cold. Who wants one?”
“We’re having a party to celebrate our latest grant.” Webley placed a hand on Allegro’s shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s get a beer.”
For vacations, Hank and Pat usually visit distant parts of the galaxy. Occasionally, they also time-travel.
Besides writing novels, Hank lectures on fiction writing, publishing and book marketing. He is most proud of his talk showing grammar school kids how to create a short story. He used these lectures to create an advanced ebook with embedded videos to coach the students on how to create characters, plots and settings. The target audience is 4th to 7th graders. The book’s title is Fiction Writing Workshop for Kids.
Hank’s Amazon PageCreating a Story
How to Self-publish and Market a Book
It’s a funny story, Hank. I would pull it out and publish it again. The world is short on “funny”.
Thanks, Joylene. I think I’m going to do that