The Thirteenth Drummer


Jim Wisneski

The triangle.  A strange intersection in the main part of my small town, where five roads somehow crossed each other with only one set of traffic lights.
     This was the place where every Christmas the town put up their annual Christmas tree, where Santa Claus came to town on a horse and buggy, and where hot chocolate and Christmas carols were shared with holiday smiles and handshakes. 
              The triangle was that, a triangle.  A grassy section that in summer boasted a water fountain, in fall had an empty cylinder where the water had been replaced by litter and left over lo mein noodles from the Chinese restaurant across street, and in winter became the base that held the tree. 
              During the “first night” festivities, it was a tradition for the town to sing the traditional 12 Days of Christmas song.  To spectators it was fun to see children dressed up as three French hens or four calling birds or five gold rings.  Most of it was designed for younger children with the exception of twelve drummers drumming.  This was because twelve snare drummers were needed for when the song ended; the twelve drummers in a beautiful unison would hold a snare roll while the townspeople counted down from ten to light the annual tree. 
              Being thirteen, this would be my last Christmas as a middle school student and my last chance to gain a spot in the snare roll. 
              This was a big event – a picture was taken that would be used in the local papers, the town newsletter, and many small businesses would have the picture posted all year round. 
              I spent the entire summer practicing the snare drum.  While others were setting up water balloon fights and chasing the ice cream truck down the street like a dog after a bone, I was huddled in my room perfecting the art of creating the snare roll.  I practiced by balancing drumsticks between my thumbs and middle fingers while my ring fingers ever so slightly tapped the sticks oppositely to create a roll. 
              By the end of summer I could hold a roll for four seconds.  It beat my previous record of zero but still wasn’t good enough for the ten count, not to mention the time before the count while the chosen speaker got the crowd excited for the big moment of seeing a large Douglas fir illuminated.
              “Let’s hear that roll,” my Dad would say poking his head in my bedroom.  His neck tie would be half undone.  His eyes would be worn out, deep pockets formed under his eyes.  It was funny to me because the second I started hammering on the snare drum, his eyes became normal, almost twinkling.  I knew it was because he was in a band when he was a teenager and had hoped the same fate for me. 
              “Sounds perfect,” he would always say.
              The twelve drummers’ part was such a big deal for the town that there was an actual tryout.  It was always held in the second avenue Laundromat.  Mr. and Mrs. Chen would move the washers and dryers for three hours on the last Saturday in November to hold the tryouts. 
              I spent Thanksgiving pounding the drum.  I could now roll for almost twenty seconds, which to me was more than enough time for the part.  My fingers had blistered, busted, and healed three times already.  In the center of the snare the once perfect white head was now worn out. 
              My mother offered a second helping of pumpkin cheesecake, my favorite holiday treat, but I declined.  Too full of a belly and I wouldn’t be able to stand holding the snare drum properly.
              That was the other hard part, standing.  I had perfected, or at least what I felt was perfection, the sitting and playing part.  Standing though was almost like learning the entire snare drum over.  But I did it.  No way was I going to let my father down.  He even joined me on numerous nights.  It was a refreshing sight for me to see my father sitting on the edge of the bed and not lecturing me about a bad grade or looking at the girls part of health class book or why I wasn’t allowed to have a crossbow.
              When the big day came, I was ready.  I woke up at ten, early for a Saturday, to prepare.  I wore my lucky jeans, my favorite t-shirt, the black one, and my lucky shoes.  Well, I only had one pair of shoes, but they had seen me through three bullies, an attempted river jump, and last Halloween when it snowed a foot. 
              I asked my father for privacy during the tryout, which he said he would respect.  I knew he parked around the back of the building and listened anyway, but I felt better standing with mostly people I didn’t know.  The line stretched down the block to Larry’s Hardware.  I sat on a hundred pound bag of salt, stuck my drumsticks in my socks, and rested my snare on my lap.  I looked at it as if it was a book containing the meaning of life.  By the time it was my turn to audition, I could have played the snare with my mind.  That would have been a shoe in for the part, but I decided I should use the drumsticks just in case my new mental powers failed.
              I was given about a minute to play my snare.  Freestyle too.  Anything I wanted to play.  Once my minute was up, a bell would be rung and I’d have to complete a drum roll.  Was it my best drumming audition?  I wasn’t sure, because it was my first.  I felt it went well, but the judges were stone faced.  I was almost confident that if I was able to pull off playing drums with my mind they still would have been stone faced.  The one thing that did lift me a bit was the sound of my father cheering from behind the Laundromat. 
             Monday the list was posted around town and in school.  Like I said, it was a big deal.  The list at school didn’t have my name on it.  I figured it was a typo and they had forgotten (even though there were twelve names on the list).  After school, I spent a full two hours looking around town at all the sheets.  They all said the same thing – I wasn’t one of the twelve drummers.  When I came home, the look on my parents face suggested they had read the list somewhere around town.  That night, my favorite dinner, meatloaf, was nothing more but an over cooked hamburger and the pile of corn in the corner of the plate was nothing but little, yellow pebbles.
            Christmas wouldn’t be ruined, just different.  I still focused on the list for that year – the toys, the games, the goodies, but no clothes.  My father, however, was taking it hard.  His tie wasn’t straight, his eyes looked confused, and the usual whistling of Christmas songs non stop faded to silence.  Then the night of the tree lighting came and my father didn’t want to go.  The free hot chocolate and adults’ only eggnog that Mr. Peters brought in a thermos each year gave my father enough strength to pull himself together and go.  I knew that not so deep down he was hoping to sip from the eggnog while watching me drum.
            During the first half hour of listening to the band play, I picked out what I felt were miscues and wrong hits in the drumming section.  It made me feel better until I realized Christmas wasn’t about picking on third graders for their mistakes.  Maybe if I had taken up drumming at their age, I’d be good enough to play for the Christmas lighting.  That thought hurt.  Then when I saw my father wave off a cup of eggnog from Mr. Peters, I needed to take action.
            Our mayor gave his yearly speech of prosperity and togetherness while I crept around a small set of bleachers.  The mayor started the song. . . “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me. . .”
            I walked slowly looking for the section of drummers.
            By the time “five golden rings” was chanted the first time, I grew nervous.  By the time “eleven pipers piping” rang out across town, my hands were sweating and I was waiting for my cue.  Then it came – “twelve drummers drumming. . .”
            The song countdown continued and I grabbed a spare snare drum, some sticks, and jumped up on the bleaches at the far end.  It took everyone a few seconds to realize what was happening, but they kept singing.  I watched, as people’s eye grew wide, they looked at each other with half smiles wondering if they were counting right.  My father saw me and at first shook his head. 
            Too late now, I thought and stood there proud.
            “And a partridge in a pear tree. . ”
            And in perfect unison, I and the other twelve drummers held a perfect snare roll as the crowd counted down.  I saw my father smile.  He grabbed the thermos out of Mr. Peter’s hands and drank from it with joy.  Then the tree was lit and I jumped down from the bleachers and walked up to my father.  I wished him a Merry Christmas and got a free hot chocolate.
            I felt the moment was over, but the town didn’t.  From that night forward every small business and townsperson had the article from the newspaper with my picture above the caption:  THE THIRTEENTH DRUMMER.  My father bought four copies of the paper and had it laminated to preserve my achievement.  And if that wasn’t enough, the town now holds tryouts for thirteen drummers for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  For me, I never tried out again for any musical gathering – my fifteen minutes in the spotlight were well lived. 

BIO:  Jim is the mastermind behind the 12 Days of 2009 project along with countless short stories, novellas, and novels. He also writes music – lots of it – and some of it can be heard at 1album1month. His projects other than the 12 Days project include his album(s), Soft Whispers Magazine, his A Line at a Time weekly project, and of course participating in #fridayflash. He doesn’t sleep, drinks lots of coffee, and listens to lots of Guns n’ Roses. His main site to keep track of all this fun stuff is Writers ‘n Writers on Blogspot.



  1. 1

    This was such a heartwarming story! The young man certainly gave his father the best Christmas present ever.

    Thank you, Jim, for your wonderful tale and for the opportunity to join you and the others in this very creative writing endeavor. It’s been fun, rewarding, and inspirational!


    Here’s to more in 2010.

  2. 2

    I can’t believe it’s over, Jim.
    I loved your story and what your MC did to make his Dad proud. I love how writing in first person pulls the reader in. It sure hung on to me. Trying to please another is what gives our lives meaning.

    The best to you and yours this Holiday Season.
    Merry Christmas!

  3. 3
    Laura Eno Says:

    Heartwarming story, Jim, and what an accomplishment bringing together these 24 stories! Thank you for doing this and letting me be a part of it. Bravo and Merry Christmas.

  4. 5

    Such a perfect conclusion to #12 Days, Jim. Nice character development in short space, and most importantly it played on my heart’s strings.

    Thank you so much for hosting #12 Days and showcasing all of our work. You are a real gem. 😉

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