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.