In my town, the high school kids who were over extra-curricularized during the middle 60’s often found themselves poised in developing their amateur careers in music. This included voice, percussion, woodwinds, and in the case of my brother and me, brass instrument playing. My brother had a full sized trumpet that he had studied since the 5th grade. I naturally wanted to do the same, but I wanted a cornet, the instrument my music teacher called the “Sorta-Trumpet.” Both horns were beautiful, golden trophies of craftsmanship…..easily the most attractive objects we owned.
My brother was a superb player. He performed to the delight of scores of church folks, picking the notes with care and gently nudging the sweet qualities of blond sound. I was a bad student, faking my ability to read music into the high school years. All my friends in the various bands we enjoyed were rather accomplished. They were forgiving towards me in a knowing, affectionate way, owing to my ability to play by ear, with some skill, after I had heard the notes read once. My brother would deliver his obligatory barrage of shaming and insults, then play my assigned passages, coaching me to persist in my stumbling efforts. From my bullying, but dutiful brother, I came to know how music, acquired by any and all means could liberate the mind, and take us to a fonder realm.
George, my best friend, played the tenor saxophone. We held our precious instruments in high regard.
These were very expensive horns. The commitment of many hours of labor in the summer months could produce no more than a first payment in most cases, with our parents reluctantly taking up the slack, and repeating a silent oath to see us kids through to greatness in the musical arts. The musical instrument, in any shape and form was sacred,……..so we were shocked when George found someone had poured buckshot into the bell of his Sax.
A bully might pour the pellets into the bell, leave it at that, and get his yucks with the admiring tribes of barbarian jock-strap types. That would have been simple, but the shit-head shook up the horn a little, making the minute balls move into smaller areas of the instrument. It took a musical instrument repairman several hours to extract all the tiny lead spheres. We persuaded ourselves to laugh about it, but I felt a bit of consternation and suspicion from George. It didn’t seem to ease his mind when I told him I could not have done anything so stupid.
We collided during a Marching Band concert, and when I looked at the large dent left on the rim of my coronet, my disbelief and hurt was ignored by George, leaving us with one more thing in a long series of unresolved best-friend issues. We both still clung to the good feelings of friendship established over the short years of grade school, with shared stories of our feats and competing heroics binding us together. It was still a somewhat dubious connection, our contending fictions demanding an audience,……… and a firm reckoning.
There were moments of bliss in our friendship during the remaining years in high school. In May of our senior year, I found a neatly signed and sealed envelope from George, tucked into my coronet case, I stuffed it into the case compartment, and tried to forget it was there. I was afraid to open it on the chance I would find a note whose content would, in a sense, demand and demonstrate steps toward taking responsibility for actions committed in the name of fun, or for impressing older kids. George had an advanced understanding of the nature of friendship, but he also possessed an offbeat sense of humor, sometimes morphing into absurdity. His intellect scared me a little.
During a particularly important day in May of our senior year, we found ourselves at a music conference. George and I hung together; the whole point of the conference was to advance our music skills in playing with large groups from other schools. Of course we knew the point was to get as many girls’ phone numbers as possible.
Later that morning I ripped my pants through the crotch. It was one of those rendings that fills the day with sorrow. I had no replacement pants, and nothing to hide the gaping, underwear-revealing fissure that would set the tone in securing my moniker as “Ultra-Geek”, or as my brother so eloquently labeled me, “Turd-brain beyond all reason.”
George assessed my sorry situation, and then ripped his pants, down the crotch, from front to back.
“Now we can both be embarrassed!”
“What the fuck?.....why did you do that?” I felt a riddling shock wave roll up the middle of my back.
“Friends do this kind of thing for each other.”
He meant it. And he wore the rent proudly. Unlike him, I shifted my focus on finding places to hide my shame. As I thought about it later, his act was supremely brave. It was an act that one sees once or twice in a lifetime.
Later in the month, we graduated.
The cheerless waste in the times of my middle years in college were exacerbated by continual poverty, with a need to always have a girlfriend to buoy my self esteem. I was a smartass, which insured that I could inject a high degree of loathing into any fraternal organization.
I was never asked to join anything: “Too weird, … “geeky perhaps”, “sort of smart with strange ideas.” The assessments would eke out with every Neanderthal revelation sent my way through shouts and taunts, as I passed by groups of brutish, simian specimens of over caffeinated, campus louts.
With poverty came a kind of soft-scamming. I would borrow in good faith, promising to replace for value “to the dollar” any thing given to me, with art work. This was played out quickly, leaving a trail of former friends and lovers. It was hard work being a colorful Jerk.
Demands for paying expenses were weighty, and I began to sell some of my possessions. I remember a month in 1974 when I visited the Wichita Pawn and Loan 12 times. They guys were wary of me at first, but three trades into my transactions, they began to jump up and meet me at the door. They knew I was good for one more shotgun with case, a vintage radio, or an old musical instrument. I hated myself after each exchange, especially after I had sold my high school ring. The weight of the loss was not especially strong until I overheard the pawnbroker casually talking about how he would “knock out that goddamn stone before he quit for the night.”
There was a certain freeing feeling with my de-acquisitions; the shotguns from my high school years were a strong source of anxiety as long as they remained in my crappy apartment. I never kept any shells. Things had been so desperate for me through the years of my study, that I didn’t trust myself around guns. In the fever of my 20 something drunken rages, the kind that made most of my friends excuse themselves in distracted retreats, there were mortal boundaries I no longer feared. This was a strangely surreal, but desperate state.
I pawned my cornet, and I tried to temper the desolation, by convincing myself I had not played it since high school.
The great light of redemption came with my acceptance to Grad School in Chicago. In 1979, the year I graduated with a Master’s the scene was changing. Opportunities could abound for those who worked hard, with a mind for bringing ideas to full fruition. I found a channel for the energy I had sorely misused in the early days.
For some artists, the building of a career that garners attention and admiration from peer and critics may never happen. In the case of my efforts and production, the accolades came…..in waves. Like most addictive drugs, the adoration from sources that hold your curiosity, such as ultra-rich folks, are strong, affecting and fleeting. Much like the intense interest a wide-eyed interviewer shows……. until the job is done.
It was easy to see the toll taken by a lifestyle of constant stimulation. I wanted to leave the city of Chicago…I took a job in Bloomington. Not too far for a jaunt or two every few weeks. The year was 2000.
My mother was very happy to see us in a smaller urban community. I began to re-discover the joy of family, and the unusual lack of stress in having my responsibilities shifted to a slower culture.
Over the next few years I happily visited Mom and Dad, having fewer miles to drive, and equipped with a whole range of common subjects to share when we were together.
Mom would ask me often, for many years:
“Gare, do you still have that horn you used to play? I thought those horns were the most beautiful things! Do you still play?”
I would tactfully change the focus of the conversation.
“ Oh, it’s in a good place. May I have more chicken and noodles?”
Most of the days in Bloomington were fairer than a majority of the days we had spent in Chicago. It really was like a dream, and someone had told me earlier about existence being a plethora of realities, with our consciousness choosing the course of least suffering. I often felt my life in this beautiful “Garden City” was a dream, and I did not want to wake up.
The best antique shop in the state of Illinois is in Bloomington. Asahel Gridley Antiques is the destination of dealers, collectors and curious shoppers across the region. I visited the store one day and I found an old brass cornet, very close to the one I had owned many years before. I thought I might take up the practice of playing, even though my lip was softer than crap, and I had no inclination to play, other than a need to make an activity around which I could form conversation. I bought it for eighty-five dollars.
The horn had a conventional mouthpiece, the one that came standard on a “student cornet” like this one. I looked into the box underneath the worn velvet flocking. The material had been smashed flat with years of use and exposure to moisture and what I assumed to be creative, teenage abuse.
I saw a soiled, white envelope. I pulled it out and held it to the light. On the face of the envelope it read:
GARY (supreme asshole).
“This is very odd.” I thought. It was a view into another reality. I opened the envelope. The note was written in pencil. It read:
“You fucker! I am trying to decide whether or not to dump your ass. My dad said you’re not worth the trouble as a ‘sometimes friend.’ You know about Dad. He knows people’s secrets. He had you figured out when we were in 4th grade. It took me eight years to turn him around; then you pull this stunt. You know me. I would never, ever, in a million years do that to you. My horn don’t play the same, and I blame you and your pansy-ass shit. What’re you gonna do now, you fucker?
PS tell your mom and dad hi for me, but don’t tell them what an asshole you are Wanna see a movie this week? Mom said she’d drive us to the Orpheum.
When I tried to stop my hands from shaking, I realized I had been holding my breath. There was the washy, soft-focus delirium flooding the room where the coronet case lay open, giving up collections of scruffy, chambered ghosts. I felt a little faint.
I lifted the coronet and looked at the dent in the bell, remembering a collision, the ensuing indifference and loathing. There was a piece of sheet music. I pulled it out, spread it open and read some pencil scratchings in the margins:
“Good one G, how about that buckshot? Heh, heh! Mitch.”
In all that I could have imagined in those times, I could not envision an instrument moving through a period of thirty plus years and six hundred miles to find me in a medium sized, midwestern city. I picked up the coronet and put the mouthpiece to my lips. There was a small, metallic rustling. It seemed to be near the valves, but it was hard to tell. I shook it.
When I turned it with the bell down, a couple of leaden balls fell to the floor. They hit with a “spat!” then rolled away, making a creasing sound until they rested against the edge of my shoe.
I knew in those seconds, the care with which George sought the bitter edge of my attention was not brought into proper light, until our two realms had intersected. It finally happened in the fog of middle-life. He was the best friend of the most worthy collaborators; I felt myself saturated with shrewdness, tempered by the kindness of his far off camaraderie. I guess the return-prank was the only way he could find to thoughtfully sustain our friendship. It hadn’t occurred to him I wouldn’t get it for another 30 years.
A few months later I was visiting Mom in Kansas. We were out driving one afternoon when she turned on the radio. The station was broadcasting a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo. We listened. It was fine. Mom looked my way and asked,
“Honey, do you still have your horn? Do you ever play it?”
“Yeah Mom,……I finally found it, and it sounds so very fine…….”