Threadbare

Two weeks ago today, someone turned in one of our copies of Allegiant. I checked it in and, as expected, saw that it was on hold for another student. I printed out the hold notice, then got one of our narrow sticky notes and wrote the student’s last name and the date on it. I remember thinking, as I sometimes do (because I’m a nerd about names) that I liked the look and feel of this student’s name as I wrote it down. Just had a pleasant combination of consonants. Like I said: nerd.

I then looked up the student’s class schedule, found out where she was at that moment, and wrote the room number on the hold notice. I handed it to one of our student library aides to be delivered. Later that day, the student came to the library, got her book off the holds shelf, and checked it out.

We check out Allegiant a lot. It’s the recently-published finale to a very popular trilogy; the movie based on the first book is still in theaters. So I don’t remember, honestly, if my memory of this transaction was for this student, or for someone else checking out the book, or how many different kids I said the exact same thing to. To some girl at about the right time — perhaps to this girl — I smiled as I handed her the book, made a comment about how she must be excited to finally get it, and then recommended that she have some kleenex handy as she read it.

This particular copy of Allegiant was due today. The girl with the satisfying last name is dead. She was hit by a car while riding her bicycle on Easter evening and died last night.

When you work in the schools, you end up knowing an awful lot of people — especially in a smallish community like ours, where you have a pretty decent chance of recognizing any name you see on the news. A lot of educators develop the habit of half-consciously scanning arrest records and news stories for familiar names. Our student’s name hasn’t been released by the media, but when I saw that evening that there had been a bike-car accident involving a 13-year-old, and saw the location, I knew that this was almost certainly one of our kids. The following day that would be confirmed. I’d learn that she was one of my husband’s students. Other devastating details came to light. For two days we held out hope, and then we learned that it was over. Queued up the emergency phone tree at about 9 pm. Spread the word. Picked out a blue outfit to wear in her honor because it was her favorite color.

As far as I really know, the entirety of my relationship with this little girl was that I processed a hold for her, and I put her picture and name in the yearbook. She was a fairly regular library patron, based on her circulation history, but not one of the ones who interacted a lot with me.

Still, I feel heartbroken. It feels deeply personal to me. I don’t know how (or if) people avoid thinking about all of the connections. My head and heart are full of her parents, her siblings, her friends who I see red-eyed in the halls at school today, her teachers who are trying to seem strong. I am thinking about the driver. I am thinking about the adolescence and adulthood she won’t have, about her infancy and all her family’s hopes and dreams for her. I’m thinking about the book and wondering if she finished reading it, whether it will come back to the library, what I should do with it if it does. I’m thinking that is a stupid thing to be thinking about.

Although it is a vastly different situation, I’m thinking about my student M—-, who died on May 12 of last year. She was upset about a break-up and ended up throwing herself under a train. I was on maternity leave and all I could think was whether things might have been different if I’d been at school that week instead of at home with my own baby. M—- and I had been relatively close; I’d been her English teacher for a few years, and had tried to help her with some bullying/bad friend issues in the past. Given the dynamics of the failed relationship, I probably would have been one of the first people she would have come to talk to if I’d been there. I’m reliving my feelings of guilt and regret.

I’m thinking about the baby I held, hugging him close to me as M—-‘s name hit the news, and my solar plexus, that day. I know one day soon I’ll have to let my little boy get on his bicycle and ride out of my arm’s reach, out of my sight. I’ll have to trust that he’ll be safe, that he won’t trust a crosswalk with his life, that he won’t ever let a broken heart stop beating. It’s hard to fathom having the strength to let go on a day like today.

I’m thinking about how my coworkers must be reliving the loss of another student, just a kid, who took his own life last year. Loss is tied to loss. Our principal reminded us this morning that this week’s tragedy might stir up pain from unrelated events, that we should look out for our colleagues even if they didn’t personally know the deceased. It was a good thing to say. I didn’t know how hard this would hit me. It is good to remember that in all of the different reactions people have to something like this, none are likely to be unique.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.” C. S. Lewis wrote that in A Grief Observed, following his wife’s death. It seems like a perfect description of today. He goes on to describe a sort of juxtaposed need for isolation and company, wanting others to be nearby but finding conversation too much to bear: “If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” It’s true that I want to hide under my desk with a box of kleenex, but simultaneously I want to walk, want to be in the back of a room where other people are talking. I want to be sleeping or perhaps just staring at a wall, but I also want to be doing something, anything, to feel like I am in some way helping. I feel wrapped up, muffled, in Lewis’s invisible blanket of sadness. It isn’t a warm blanket, but it is well-worn and widely shared.

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Ninety Minutes of Parenthood: An Idyll

It is nine o’clock at night. I’d really love to be asleep or, lacking that, curling up with my book in a hot bubble bath for a few minutes. But my husband, who is blessed with the responsibility of teaching 160 twelve-year-olds about Ancient Rome in the morning, is busy preparing an activity, and my eleven-month-old son is unhappy. He’s been a little fussy all day, but now that it is time for bed he’s weepy and can’t be distracted. He is fed, dry, warm, pajamaed, but still miserable. I’ve walked him, bounced him, nursed him, read to him, but still he cries.

I’m lying with him on my bed. The door to the master bathroom is open, and the light is on. My baby keeps pulling away from me to stare at or reach toward that glowing block of light. Sometimes when he’s in a foul mood he can be mollified by presenting him to Mirror Baby, so I pick him up and step toward the bathroom.

As we cross the threshold the tears stop. I can see in the mirror that his eyes are red and swollen, but now he’s grinning. The only problem is, he’s not looking at Mirror Baby. Instead, he’s looking past the mirror to the far end of the bathroom — at what, I’m not sure.

I bounce and talk to him for a few minutes, and when it seems that the storm has passed, take a step out of the bathroom. Instantly he is sobbing again, tears flowing, writhing and reaching past me back into the bathroom. I’m mystified. I offer him music, milk — nothing. He is inconsolable.

So I step back into the bathroom. Peace descends. He smiles. And yet once again Mirror Baby is shunned in favor of… the bathtub?

I look at the tub, then at my blotchy-faced baby boy. He is smiling and babbling as he reaches with one arm toward the tub, his eyes darting between it and one of his bath toys that has fallen to the floor and been forgotten.

“It’s nine o’clock,” I tell him, in case he cares. “Do you really want a bath? This much?

And heaven forgive me, but I’m weighing my desire to make him happy with my lack of desire to set up a bath, get him ready, supervise and bathe him, and clean up afterward. Surely he doesn’t really mean it. Surely we could put this off until tomorrow after work, when I’m not so tired, when I still have my contacts in, when I’m not already dressed and ready for bed.

I try persuading him. “You’re in your pajamas. We just changed your diaper. We’d have to redo all of it. And you hate being dried off. It’s cold in here, do you really want to get all wet?”

“Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit,” he replies, beaming and waving at the shower curtain.

So much for logic.

“Just so you know,” I tell him, “if you really want a bath, you’re going to have to wait in your bed until I get it ready. And you’re not going to like that.” To prove my point, I step out of the bathroom and toward his room. He immediately stretches himself out to his full length, locks every joint in his body, and wails until he can’t catch his breath. I steel myself and deposit my opinionated baby in his crib. He is red up to the edge of his mussed blond curls; even the wet whites of his eyes are bright pink. I can hear him bawling as I pull out the baby bath, set it up in the big tub, and begin running the water. I add some bubbles and his toys, get the temperature right, and set his despised towel on the toilet. Then I take the precaution of removing my pajama pants and placing my own towel close at hand.

When I return to his room, he looks up at me with the face of the hopeful betrayed.

I smile. “Okay then. You wanted a bath; a bath it is.”

He reaches up, and I lift him from his bed. His delight is radiating off him until I stop at the foot of the bed to remove his pajamas and diaper, at which point he realizes that he has reached a new low, that nothing else in his life has ever been so cruel as this moment, that he is this close to paradise and being denied once again, and it takes me three times as long as it ought to undress him because he won’t bend his knees or stop howling.

Finally he’s naked, and I scoop him up and carry him into the bathroom as quickly as I can. The second my bare feet hit the tile, the crying stops. His face is streaked with tears, but it is the face of perfect joy. I kneel down next to the bathtub and he pulls away from me, trying — for all that he can’t yet stand or walk unsupported — to climb over the side of the tub to get in. “Hold your horses,” I scold, get a better grip on him, and lift him into the water.

He smiles, sighs, reaches down under the water to assure himself that his new favorite toy (yes, that toy) is still where he left it, then digs through the bubbles until he finds his bath book. It’s about eight plastic pages long, each with a smiling cartoon dinosaur doing various dinosaurish things, and is one of my son’s most treasured possessions. He recognizes somehow that it is upside-down and rotates it, then opens to the page with the pink pterodactyl. He leans back in the bubbles, turns a page, and coos happily. Like mother, like son: looks like I wasn’t the only one who wanted a bath and a book tonight.

After he finishes reading and I’ve scrubbed everything from the neck down, he switches the book for a cube-shaped squirt toy. This is another favorite. He submerges it between his legs, squishing it with both hands, then raises it just above the water level so that he can see where the hole is. He’ll turn the toy around and around until the hole is aligned correctly, then squirts himself in the belly with it over and over, repeating the process several times. While he is looking down, I take the opportunity to wash his hair. As I’m rinsing his hair, he looks up at the wrong moment and gets a cupful of water to the face. For a moment it looks like his enchantment with the bath has come to a rapid end, but I pat his eyes dry and he returns to his toys.

He’s all clean now, but there is still water in the tub, which means that bathtime isn’t over. His facial expression changes from glee to grim determination, and I scoot back as far as I can from the side of the tub as the Great Kicking begins. He kicks and kicks with a singleness of purpose that seems a little bizarre on his sweet baby face. The sudsy water flies, first jumping just a few inches within the baby bath, and then leaping in great two-foot-tall tsunamis out of his bath, sloshing over the side of the big tub and onto the linoleum. I keep one hand on his back (he’s really rocking now and would kick himself right over if I didn’t) while mopping up water with the other. My glasses are spotted with water; my hair is wet. Only experience and finely honed powers of anticipation keep my shirt from getting drenched, but it soon begins to feel a little damp, too.

Splash! Splash! Splash! The only thing that makes him pause is when he manages to splash himself in the face; he doesn’t like that, but it isn’t enough to dissuade him. When the water hits him between the eyes, he stops and glowers a bit at his feet, as if to tell them not to do that again, and then returns to the task at hand. The water level in the baby bath drops rapidly. Almost no bubbles remain. One of his bath toys has been completely evicted, carried away in the wake of a particularly enthusiastic kick. “Yeeeeeeee!” he yells at one point, telling the faucet who’s boss, his excited voice echoing off the tile and no doubt waking the neighbors.

I’m trying to dry off my glasses enough to see as he splashes a big one right into my face. He laughs, amply avenged for the hair-rinsing incident.

Before long, he is victorious over the bath. The water is all but gone, kicked out of the baby bath and down the drain or into the bath mat. His skin is getting chilly and his hair is plastered down against his scalp, straight as a pin for the few minutes until it dries. I get his towel into position and apologize to him preemptively; he truly hates being toweled off. He is still smiling as I lift him out of the tub and into his towel, but I’ve no sooner wrapped it around him than he is looking me in the eyes, indignant, yelling.

“It’s hard to look suitably angry when you’re wrapped in a ducky towel,” I tell him, drying him off as quickly as possible. He complains at top volume as I re-diaper him, to the point that his daddy comes upstairs to see why I’m pulling off all the baby’s toenails. By some miracle of parental tag-teaming we get him back into his pajamas as he twists and turns. I forgo brushing his hair in favor of offering him some milk, figuring that crazy hair in the morning is a price we’re all happy to pay.

The milk does the trick. My exhausted boy snuggles into the crook of my arm and drinks his fill. I shift him out of my arms and onto the bed just long enough to set the bottle down, and he immediately rolls over onto his stomach and is fast asleep. When I carry him into his room at 10:30 and lay him down in his crib, he doesn’t stir and will sleep peacefully until morning.

Stands With a Fist

There is a lot of good literature and art out there, but I think the real test of how great something is is whether you don’t immediately love it, but find that it wriggles into your brain and takes on new life there, growing connections from it to other things in your mind and in doing so, illuminating them. By that measure, the best thing I’ve read/seen recently is this comic by a Canadian schoolteacher who anonymously web-publishes under the name Lunarbaboon:

"Dress" by Lunarbaboon

 

I don’t know if this cartoon is based on the artist’s real life, or was inspired by this news story, or whether it just came out of his imagination.

What I do know, though, is that I love it, because I love that dad’s love for his son, but more importantly because I understand why he is clenching his fist in the last panel. Not because he’s angry at the taunting boys, or because he’s embarrassed — but because he’s ashamed of the first four panels.

I’ve never been really great at the whole “friend” thing. That may be an understatement. I was way too bossy as a child, and am too hermit-like as an adult. And in the middle, as a teenager and young adult? I was entertaining. I was smart and full of energy, and I loved my friends, and loved making them laugh — and as anyone knows, the easiest jokes are those made at someone else’s expense. So I poked and teased at my friends. Everyone had a great time. After all, the things I teased my friends about were patently ridiculous, right? So it was harmless, as harmless as someone teasing me about having green hair or being a great athlete.

My very best friend got the worst of it. Stupid jokes and pranks. Things that were calculated to make him blush because he did it so beautifully. Things that goofed on his masculinity. Things that I thought he found funny, too, until a few years passed and it turned out that none of it had been funny, because I had been hitting far too close to home and — completely obliviously, but still inexcusably — adding to a chorus of bullying that he suffered from people who weren’t his friends. I realized that while I had thought of him as my best friend, I had been his worst friend.

The thing is, when he wasn’t around, I was his staunchest defender. For example, I remember vividly a day in a senior class when I overheard some boys I didn’t even know making fun of him, and I made a big scene. But what good is someone who has your back while they’re stabbing you in the front?

So yeah. It has probably been ten years since I last pulled any of that crap on my friend, but I’m still haunted by it. I’ve apologized, and he’s told me that it’s okay, but something like a fist clenches inside me whenever something reminds me of the “hilarious” things I said or did back when I was a dumb adolescent attention-seeker. I work in secondary schools, so trust me — something reminds me a lot. It’s a vastly different world now than when I was in secondary school; even teaching in very conservative areas, I’ve had many openly gay and bisexual students. Still, I regularly see and hear things that make me cringe — and more often than not, it’s a “friend” (or worse, a teacher) instead of a bully who does it.

Depending on what study you believe, between 4-10% of Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I taught for five years with 120-200 students each year, which means that I’ve been an important adult in the life of between 32 and 80 LGBT teenagers (not including whatever ambiguous relationship I now have as a middle school librarian). And even though things are better for young LGBT people now, compared to when I was growing up, it certainly isn’t easy. Hell, is middle school easy for anyone? Tack on doubts or fears about sexual orientation, and you’re talking about a hellish few years.

Now, wearing a skirt isn’t exactly going to be an earth-shaking gesture for me. There’s precious little on a visual level that a female educator can do that compares to a dad in a dress. But every day I feel like I’m readying myself to put on that metaphorical skirt. I work in a field and in a part of the country where you don’t exactly feel at ease about acknowledging the existence of non-hetero orientation around kids, much less starting up a GSA, but I try to do what I can to be an actual friend for the kiddos I work with when they need one. I can’t afford to lose my job (and it’s dreadful to think that’s even a possibility, but any of my friends who work in public education know it is) but I’d like to think that if called upon, I’d be standing on the right side of the line. I know I’ve tried to be there on the smaller occasions when the occasion presented itself. Little things. Quietly ordering and distributing rainbow armbands. Doing presentations on literature with LGBTQ protagonists and putting those titles on the shelves of my classroom library… working towards getting them on the shelves of a school library… gently working to shift the perspective of colleagues who have seen the world move too fast for them to keep up. Smiling and “loving on” the kids who may not know it yet but who are pulling a strong 5-6 on the Kinsey scale. Thinking once, twice, three times before making that joke or that remark. Moving quickly and firmly to correct students when they are less thoughtful.

A lot can change in a decade or so. You get older, often taller, usually wider, and sometimes — if you’re lucky enough to have your eyes pried open — wiser. Although, now that I say “wiser,” I hate that word in this context. After all, it was being a wise-ass that causes me my shame.

Instead, I am reminded of my favorite moment in my favorite movie:

For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant. I recommend being kind, open-hearted, loving. I recommend thinking about how your words or actions might be hurting someone you love before you inflict them, rather than years later. And yes; you may quote me.

 

Stargazing: A Meander

orionA couple of years ago, we moved out of the city, pretty close to the neighborhood I lived in through high school and college. I suppose, when I was a teenager/young adult, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking around outside at 5 in the morning. Now that I’m a growed-up, with growed-up responsibilities like a career and a dog with active bodily functions (but an unfenced yard) I find myself standing outside in the darkest part of the night fairly often — and I marvel at the brightness and clarity of the stars out there. On a clear night, you can fairly easily discern the color of stars, or whether they are pulsars, or whether they’re actually a sneaky planet or satellite instead of a true star.

When I walk out my front door in the early morning, I step right into Orion. It’s my favorite constellation, for no better reason than it’s very visible in this part of the world, and I find it very easy to pick out. I always had trouble finding the Big Dipper, but I could always lock on to Orion.

I used to think that Orion only appeared in our night sky during the winter, but lately I’ve discovered that isn’t really true. I’m not sure where I got that idea. Is it a geographical thing? I grew up in Colorado and then moved to Idaho; maybe that was true of the former? Around here, you can find Orion somewhere in the sky pretty much year-round, although he is definitely at his most glorious in the winter… especially at 5 AM.

I love the name of it. Orion. It bridges that gap between exotic and approachable just perfectly: Not an English word, but not uncomfortably foreign. For some period of time, I imagined naming a child Orion. Instead, I married a man named Ryan — can you imagine the confusion of a household with those two names in it? (Not as bad, I guess, as houses with a Senior and a Junior in it.) It makes me think about the names I loved, before I got too close to the reality of actually having to apply one to a real child. Orion. Anjuli, after the character in The Far Pavilions. Opal. Piers. My imagined adulthood was more adventuresome, I think, than strictly necessary. That’s the danger of reading too many books, I suppose; one grows up expecting camel caravans.

This morning, the moon was right in the middle of the constellation just above and to the side of Orion’s right arm. I looked it up. Gemini, with the moon right between the twins’ bodies. If they were lovers instead of twins, the moon might have been their baby. How’s that for a Friday thought? Celestial incest!

I taught myself about Orion when I was a high schooler. I remember my amusement when I learned that his right shoulder was Betelgeuse, more popularly known among the kid set as Beetlejuice. The star in the center of his belt is Alnilam, a name that enchanted me and filled my head with romantic science fiction daydreams. Alnilam — doesn’t it just sound like something out of a story populated with elves and laser guns? I plotted stories about a lieutenant (another word that always charmed me) in a space corps from a planet orbiting Alnilam, having death-defying adventures in the time-honored tradition of Star Wars fanfic. Gorgeous space opera cheese. Never wrote any of it down, though. Not sure why. Probably so I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by it in my older, “wiser” days.

Orion’s left ankle is named Rigel, another name that made it on to my “I might name a child that some day!” list only to be stricken down by hypothetical child’s actual father’s name. Instead, I gave that name to a stuffed moose. It was a good compromise, I think. Although someone probably ought to name their child Rigel. [Checking online… Rigel doesn’t hit the charts as a first name but is the 29,761st most common surname in the US. Orion, on the other hand, is practically Jennifer in comparison; 171 babies, out of every million, were named Orion in 2010.]

Orion is pictured with a sword — made of Iota Orionis, the Orion Nebula, and a third star whose name I can’t recall — hanging from his belt. Years of teaching Shakespeare with a naughty twinkle in my eye makes me question whether it was originally intended to be a sword at all. After all, if in Shakespeare a sword is rarely just a sword (“I woo’d thee with my sword!”) would the ancient astronomers have shied away from delineating The Hunter’s figurative sword? Heck, the central star in the “sword” is the Orion Nebula — a cloud of stardust from which life exudes!

I bet when you started reading this post, you didn’t think you’d be reading about incest and… swords. That’s the thing about DYHJ.  I like to keep you guessing.

Joyful Noise [Unfinished]

Mostly I remember the sound, a violence, so many decibels and from so many directions that I didn’t hear it so much as feel it, thumping in my chest like a second heart, shaking me apart like a secondary nervous system. A roar, like a behemoth awakened to devour the world. I remember the sound, and I remember how it felt to stand there in its epicenter, drawn up straight in the face of cacophony, exhilaration pulsing through me. Straight and tall like a soldier, chin up and eyes narrowed with pride, defiant and ready to fly.

I remember seeing shadows, white and blue, at the edges of my peripheral vision, others alongside me, armed with gleaming metals.

I remember glancing to the side – with eyes only, my head locked at attention – in time to see the huge countdown clock tick down to exactly twenty-one minutes.

I remember holding on to Martin, white-knuckled… a split second of panic as my rational self doubted whether I’d remember which way to move when the whistle sounded… the visceral shock as muscle memory took over and, summoned, pivoted my body into unlikely angles, propelled me down the forty-yard line toward the riotous thousands, one faceless cog in a thundering machine.

* * *

August, the last year of the twentieth century. It is going to be hot, perhaps dangerously so, but it is not yet 8 A.M. and I am in the shade of a cave made of concrete: the underbelly of Bronco Stadium, home of the Smurf Turf. I’m on the unfashionable side, lined with moldy abandoned racquetball courts that have long since been carpeted in avocado and rust and turned into leak storage rooms – the unfashionable side, where they forewent the expense of urinals and instead went with a chipped, stained trough for the fellows. (There’s no mirror in the ladies room, but at least it has stalls that usually have doors.) The damp coolness of the nearby river has soaked into the concrete and is seeping through the thin fabric of my shorts into my butt cheeks. I know how hot it will be by afternoon, so I don’t complain about the chill.

Leaning against a cobwebby pillar, I take in the familiar orange signs and the striated ceiling. I’m under the student seats, the ones closest to the touchdown cannon and farthest from the better concession stands. The ground is polka-dotted with dark stains from gum and what I would like to pretend wasn’t chew. Grime is chiseled into the painted concrete and brickwork, and litter is trapped under the forgotten deltas of gravel behind the great curving staircases to the upper deck. It is an unlovely, echoing, cavernous place. My tennis shoes are newly broken in, tied snugly around my feet, and already blackened in places. My nose is full of the smell of summer and the beach – NO-AD sunscreen from the big cerulean bottle, 40 spf because I’m a British Isles-complected redhead with a dead grandfather. I am 400 miles from the ocean, in my favorite place in the entire world, about to do something that I would take less for granted if I could now speak across time and tell my nineteen year old self to appreciate it as much as it is worth.

* * *

A saxophone reed is made of bamboo, cut thin at one end and thinner at the other. It is the color of honey, and when you put it on your tongue it tastes slightly sweet, or perhaps a little salty – umami, I suppose, if you ask the Food Network. That’s if it’s new; if the reed is well-used, it will taste like the Kool-aid we shouldn’t have been drinking while playing, or of chapstick, or, eventually, like paper, like nothing at all. The reeds are porous, so that we can see light through them when we hold them up to the sun. We can squish bubbles of saliva through it with our tongues, which we do frequently with the made-up authority of believing that it will moisten the fibers more thoroughly than a simple soaking.

There are two schools of sax players. Ours are the reed suckers, not soakers; we stand around like smokers, laughing and gesticulating with slivers of wood bobbing in the corners of our mouths. Some of us cheat at reed-breaking, which is an Old West-sounding term for taking a stiff new reed and wearing down the hard fibers so that they vibrate and respond to your command. The correct way to do this is gradually, deliberately – long hours of sustained low notes – or through the use of tools and technical precision better suited to clarinet players (that is, using a reed knife to gently shave the reed’s surface down). The correct way to go about things, we’ve been told, is to purchase a $20 box of reeds and meticulously go through them, discarding the bulk of them in our hunt for the ideal tongue for our horn. This is what the clarinet players do, what the “serious” musicians do. But us? We’re no fusty licorice-stick playing parlor-dwellers. We’re tough, we’re sax wranglers, the sort who would rather learn the trumpet part by ear than memorize the less exciting sax part by rote, and so we hold down the reeds with our tongues and use our front bottom teeth to ravage them, whittling and scouring the surface, crushing the fine fibers, cutting the work of reed-breaking – and likely the reeds’ lifespans – down to practically nothing. It feels good, like an animal barring its fangs.

* * *

Line the reed up perfectly on the mouthpiece, centered side to side with a symmetrical millimeter or two or black rubber showing past the tip. Strap on the little brass buckle, called a ligature, and tighten it around the reed just so – you know how much is the perfect amount without even thinking about it. If it is the year 2000, you have been doing this practically every day for the past nine years. It is as automatic to you as putting on glasses, tying a shoe, buttoning a shirt. By this point, Martin – that’s what you call your horn, because it’s a 1930s Martin alto saxophone, which means the name is engraved an inch tall on the bell – has already been hanging around your neck, a familiarly unbalanced dead weight suspended by a padded length of orange webbing. You have a nicer neck strap called a Neotech, so branded because it is made of Neoprene and some sort of stretchy cord that better distributes the not insignificant weight on your neck and shoulders. (For years after you stop playing, you will have upper-back trouble with Martin’s name all over it.) You could use the Neotech, but marching is a military sort of thing, and there is no room, in your mind, for stretch and slack in your ensemble. Not, of course, that an orange neck strap is precisely uniform… but at least when you tighten it to a precise degree you know that it will stay there. Currently the strap is adjusted so that the sax body makes a perfect elbow rest; you are leaning, in effect, on yourself, in some physics-exalting counterbalance.

Ah, Martin. Perhaps your first love, that. You have told a story about deciding to play saxophone after hearing a busker wail plaintive blues riffs over an indigo-dark Breckenridge alley, but that was afterward, after you’d already committed yourself, inspired by Dick Parry sax breaks, a passing comment by your grandmother, and – most pivotally – a Sesame Street segment where they went into a factory and showed sheets of brass being shaped into saxophone bodies, complete with honking sound effects. You will find that two-minute video clip online, nearly thirty years after it first aired, and spend half an hour digging through archival websites to solve the mystery of how you  have such a clear memory of watching it if you were only two at the time. (It turns out that they reused the Saxophone Factory clip in an episode a month before your ninth birthday.)

Martin came from under-bed storage in a Denver guest room where he’d rested for years after the death of his most recent partner, until your parents went to a yard sale and joked that what they were really looking for was a saxophone, only to be overheard by the widow who, until that moment, had forgotten Martin even existed. She’d pulled out the caramel case and popped the dark brass latches, revealing Martin reclined in a bed of plush ruby velvet, worn smooth around the edges, and rich with the smell of oils, old leather, disintegrating papers. He’d been lying there for several years, and had been an antique long before you were born. Like cheese or wine, a good musical instrument can ripen and richen with age; once the mildewed leather pads had been replaced, and the musty case aired out, Martin turned out to be a real find, a real treasure. Three hundred bucks, and about that again in initial repairs. Priceless. Of course, that had been the summer after fifth grade, and it would be some time before you could convince Martin to sing with any voice other than that of an outraged goose.

Years later, the curve of Martin’s body at the thumb rest, where the right thumb acts as a fulcrum, fits to your palm as if custom built. The arch of the bell tucks perfectly into the crook of your arm. Of course, it is you who grew around Martin, and not the other way around. Your fingers have learned to slip instantly into the hollowed spots in the mother-of-pearl button keys; your left pinky curls around the low B-flat key as it always has, even though it is technically incorrect and has carved a crease into the digit. Your right index finger rocks up to the palm keys and bounces on them like a racer bouncing on tiptoe before the starting gun, hearing the friendly click of machinery as levers respond to your touch. In a way, you have been assimilated: half flesh, half brass. It will be years before you first hear the term “steampunk,” but surely it was invented by a diehard saxophonist.