Sax Player's Story by Amber: That's Why They Call It The Blues

portrait by Linn

 

James had never been more alert than at this moment, following Miss Kendrick down the strange path of tunnels. The favor she had asked of him seemed simple enough. Though she told him it was a special case, just how special was something that James couldn't begin to imagine. With each step they took, he realized that this would be no ordinary task. The fact that he'd been sworn to secrecy made him even more anxious. If it had been anyone but Miss Kendrick, he was sure he would turn away running for home by now. He could see the significance of this matter in her eyes when she asked for his help. At his 19 years, the fact that she would consider him for this position was more than flattering, and he was honored to do anything to repay her for the kindness she had shown him through the years.

Miss Kendrick had known what a salvation music had been for him. Life at home was less than desirable, and the more he could stay lost in his music, the happier he was. All he knew about his future student was that he was different, lonely and hurting. Being the son of an abusive father, those three words were nothing but familiar to James. If he was given the chance to show the kindness that Miss Kendrick had shown him, he'd be more than eager to oblige.

As he considered this and her trust, he found himself a little more at ease following this strange path. Surrendering to his faith in his companion, James allowed himself to relax a little and really observe his surroundings. His heart kept with the rhythm of the sound of clanging pipes and the sound his shoes made as they scuffed against the sandy floors. None of Miss Kendrick's attempts of explanation could have born the idea of this place on his mind. This was another world. It wasn't the harsh, unsafe, despairing conditions that one was used to seeing with a homeless community. This place, even with its cool air, was warm and enchanting. All the faces he had seen passing by were warm and friendly. Perhaps they seemed a bit worn, but these weren't desperate people. It was ironic that he had  to remind himself that somewhere in these tunnels was a lonely boy in need of his help. After meeting Father, James could easily see how he and Miss Kendrick had become friends. Every trace of uneasiness in him had passed now. After all, what could there be to fear in a place lead by such a gentle man? He knew now he was among friends. By the tone of the older man, James could see that it was now his turn to prove his trustworthiness. The man's face looked tired and worried as he began to explain the condition of James' student. This made James insistent with his promise to honor and respect their secret. The necessity of it was plain: If a place as wondrous and breathtaking as the world Below was known by anyone Above, the tunnels would be flooded with people, and the peace of this place would be shattered. Little did he know that his student was the most precious secret of all.

James found himself waiting outside a chamber with Miss Kendrick, listening intently to the conversation being held inside. The voice he heard in response to Father was enchanting. It reminded him of the smooth, soulful tones he loved so much about his saxophone. What was most apparent to him, however, was the sadness that hung in the air as he spoke. Hearing that familiar tone made him more determined than ever to fulfill his promise. As they were being called into the chamber, James let his gaze wander around the room. The first thing to capture his eyes and heart was the colorful jukebox standing in a corner. Then he took note of the elegant stained glass window that framed the large bed. It was funny how fitting it seemed in such an unexpected place. The variety of knickknacks in the room showed proof of an insatiable curiosity for the world. Everything about this chamber made James smile. When he finally looked over toward the table, he saw Father standing next to a very sad figure slumped over in his chair. It took him a moment to realize exactly what he was seeing. The uniqueness was obvious. However, it was disturbing to James how sadness proved to be the more dominant trait in his perception. Father placed a hand on Vincent's shoulder as introductions were made encouragingly by him and Miss Kendrick. Vincent had been minimally polite in the exchange, and James had excused him understandingly.

In an effort to break the tension, James removed his case from his shoulder and carefully walked over to stand in front of Vincent.

"So … Are you ready to start? Would you like to take a look at my saxophone?" he asked with a smile.

Vincent eyed the case curiously, his voice raised with interest.

"I've never seen a saxophone up close before."

"Well, here, I'll show it to you," James said excited as he pulled the instrument out of the case. Vincent gazed at the shiny instrument in wonder. James knew the look well, and was more than delighted. "I can really teach you if you like."

"You really think so? I wouldn't want to be any trouble."

"It's no trouble at all. This is what I live for," James responded sincerely.

Father and Miss Kendrick exchanged a hopeful glance and silently made their way out of the room leaving the boys to bond.

 

Vincent proved to be an excellent student. He was eager to learn and caught on quickly when it came to reading the notes and understanding technicalities of sheet music. Their only problem seemed to be with the technicalities of the instrument itself. Vincent could locate the keys of the saxophone just fine. His posture and his hold were nearly perfect. But the difficulty for him was in the mouthpiece. The form of Vincent’s unique mouth made it difficult to produce the proper sound. Once he was able to learn how to properly position the reed on the instrument, his mouth just couldn’t quite sit right around it. He cracked nearly five reeds biting down too hard to try and make a tighter seal with his upper lip. The slight curve of the top side of the mouthpiece only accentuated the cleft in his lip even more. It was incredibly uncomfortable for him. Vincent’s anxiety grew with every reed that broke, though James tried to reassure him that his other students cracked just as many, if not more. However, Vincent felt guilty at what he considered a waste of material and generosity.

One day, as he proceeded to try producing a quality sound without biting down on the reed, Vincent instead drew out a dreadful screech. James instinctively brought up his hands to block out the offensive noise. Vincent’s mortified look made James feel worse for him. Just then, Mitch happened to be passing by the chamber. The smirk on his face was enough to annoy James, but his comments made him just plain angry.

“Hey, Vincent! What are you doing in here? Strangling a goose?”

Mitch’s laughter was interrupted as James turned him around and pushed him out of the chamber. “Get outta here! This is a private lesson.”

A look of defeat came over Vincent as he set the instrument aside with a sad sigh. He eyed it with a terrible longing. For Vincent, this would be just one more thing he had come to love that would become another restriction upon his life.

James couldn’t stand to see  him this upset. “Hey, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Vincent went over to his shelf and started to brush his fingers along the miniature carousel that had been given to  him long ago. “Three years ago, my friends went up to the park to ride the carousel. I was the only one who couldn’t go. Some of them avoided me, afraid I would feel bad if they told me what I was missing. Others thought it was their duty to describe every detail. Devin didn’t do either of those things. He found a way to sneak me in after dark.”

James gave him a small smile. “Who’s Devin?”

A fresh look of sadness came over him. “My brother. My best friend. He got into a lot of trouble that night. We almost got caught. I told myself it was just a carousel. It was nothing to feel so sad about. But it wasn’t just a carousel.”

James looked at him with understanding. “It’s not just a saxophone either, is it?”

Vincent looked at him for a moment before he continued. “Now, Devin isn’t here. He’s gone, and he wasn’t the only one to leave. So many of them will leave, and I can’t go with them. I really can’t do anything. I’ll never be normal. I’ll never do anything. I’ll never even be able to love someone.”

James was more than shaken. His heart ached for Vincent. “If anyone could love, you could. You’ve got that kind of heart. To love someone is a good thing. There’s no reason you can’t do that.”

“Yes there is,” he answered quickly. “I hurt people.”

“What do you mean, Vincent? Tell me. You can trust me,” James reassured him.

“Lisa. I hurt her,” he said as his voice broke and tears ran down his face.

“How, Vincent? It’s all right.” James kept his voice soothing as he gently rubbed Vincent’s shoulder.

“I couldn’t let her go. I was holding her, and it was like I couldn’t even hear her telling me to let her go. I couldn’t feel her pushing away from me. I just held on tighter, and…” his breath caught in his throat. Suddenly, he realized he had said so much more than he meant to. What would James think of him now? He would leave like all the others. Wildly, his eyes flitted back and forth with panic. He had to run away before he saw the look of horror he was sure was on James’ face.

James quickly seated Vincent next to him on the side of the bed and braced him there. “Vincent, calm down! Things like that happen all the time. It doesn’t make you terrible. It doesn’t mean you can’t love someone. Vincent, you don’t have any control over love. It just happens to you. Sure, it can be scary. It makes you do all kinds of things! It’s not always like that, though. Everyone goes through something like this sometime. I’m sure she’s just fine.”

“She was bleeding!” The terror in Vincent’s voice as he yelled startled James. He moved quickly to catch him as Vincent fell against him sobbing. “My hands! They hurt her! I scratched her!”

James took a moment to process all he had said before he began to calm him once again. “Vincent, listen to me. Did she need stitches?’’ Vincent could only shake his head.

“Okay, did she yell at you and tell you she hated you?” Again, Vincent only shook his head. “Then it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. Vincent, it sounds like she’s fine. It was just a misunderstanding. Everyone gets caught up in the heat of the moment. It happens to absolutely everyone! Trust me!”

“But she’s gone!” The devastated look in Vincent’s eyes struck James to the core.

“Where did she go,” he asked.

“She went Above to study dance. She wants to be a ballet dancer. She dances so beautifully,” he said with adoration.

James smiled. “Vincent, that doesn’t sound like it had anything at all to do with what happened with you. You want her to dance and be happy, right?”

Vincent nodded. “Of course I do.”

“Then stop worrying. Everyone has to follow their own path. It’s hard to say goodbye to the people we love. It’s just one of those painful necessities of life. As for the rest of it, everybody has their limits. Do you know I can’t play the drums? Do you see this scar on my forehead? I popped myself square in the face with a stick. Mama said I’d never play the drums again, because I’d end up putting my eye out.”

He nudged Vincent, watching with satisfaction as the corner of his mouth raised in half a smile. “I’ll never know what it’s like to have a father who loves me,” James said more seriously as he raised his sleeve to reveal a bruise. Vincent gave him his attention more sincerely.

“My mother will never know what it means to be with the man she truly loves. She could never tell him back when she had the chance, all because of the color of her skin. I know a lot about the word ‘never.’ The thing is, you can’t give ‘never’ a whole lot of attention. If you do, he’ll take your whole life away. There’s a problem with the phrase, ‘Never say never,’ though. You can’t forget him. You need him to appreciate all the things you do have. I’ll teach you a prayer my Mama taught me long ago. If you say it enough, it helps.”

James held Vincent’s hand as he closed his eyes, ready to recite his prayer. Vincent watched him closely, listening with his whole heart, desperate for anything that would give him peace. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change. Grant me the courage to change the things that I can. Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.”

Vincent’s eyes filled with tears as he bowed his head to pray the prayer with James again. When they were through, James looked at him with an idea. “What’s one of your favorite things to do? What makes you feel good?”

Vincent smiled and thought for a moment. “I love to read. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately.”

James’ face lit up. “That’s perfect! I have a great idea! There’s a place Above where I like to go sometimes. They read poetry and play music. I’ll show you how they do it. Grab your book and start reading it out loud.”

Vincent was inspired by James’ enthusiasm. He quickly snatched up his copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and began to read. James listened closely and started to play the saxophone along with him. The experience was exhilarating. It was as if the poems were being translated into music. Never had he heard the saxophone sound so sweet. They spent hours lost in the music and the words. Father found himself enthralled by it when he had come to call them for dinner. The three stayed there in the chamber for hours. When it was time for James to go home that day, Father placed a hand on his shoulder.

“James, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for Vincent. I am truly grateful. You’re a wonderful young man, and if there’s anything we can ever do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.”

James’ heart swelled with pride. “It’s an honor, sir.”

***

Catherine wiped the tears from her eyes and sighed as she listened to James’ story. It was all very clear to her now why he meant so much to Vincent. When she got the message from Below that James was in the hospital, she immediately went to check on him to ease Vincent’s mind. He was supposed to meet Catherine earlier in the day for a note exchange outside of her office building. When he didn’t show up, everyone began to worry. Staying much longer than she had intended, Catherine continued to listen as James described how he had eventually taught Vincent to play a different instrument. There was a particular piece he had been longing to play. Once Vincent had mastered it, their lessons became less frequent. Vincent moved on to help teach some classes Below, help with repairs, and assume other responsibilities within the community. James went on to open his own music shop where he would sell instruments and give lessons. However, he remained a precious helper to the world Below.

The time Catherine had spent in the hospital that night had been well worth it. Any opportunity she had of gaining just one more piece of Vincent was worth anything. She smiled up at James as she handed him something to drink. “Thank you so much for sharing this with me.”

James smiled and nodded knowingly. “Anytime. I’m glad he has you.”

Catherine saw every bit of meaning he held in his eyes with that statement and her heart fluttered.

***

Catherine could hardly wait to see Vincent. The sentry told her it would be a while before his return because a group of them had gone to fix a pipe burst. With that, she decided to wait for him in his chamber. As she sat on his bed, she looked around the room remembering the story James had told her. Suddenly, a small black case sitting in the corner caught her eye. Funny that she had never seemed to notice it before. Vincent kept so many interesting objects in his chamber that she liked to think of it as his own personal Louvre. It would take her days of exploration to fully appreciate every item within it. Carefully, she picked it up and opened it. Her heart raced with joy as her fingers ran gently across the instrument. The act seemed so intimate with the knowledge she now held. It was another piece of him that she would cherish and revisit often in her mind; the significance of this object in his life.

Vincent watched her for a moment from the entry. Seeing what she held in her hands brought a wave of memories over him. It was a bit unsettling, but it didn’t take him very long to recover.  When he began to walk toward her, she heard his footsteps behind her and turned to him. Her eyes gleamed with love for him, and in a whisper, she delivered a sacred request.

“Will you play for me?”

He stared at the instrument for a long moment. It had been a long while since he had played, even longer since he had played in front of anyone. From everything he had felt in the bond since she had visited James, he knew she had been told the story. The love she sent to him now through their bond and in her eyes made it impossible for him to decline. He took the object into his hands, and tilted his head into position. When Catherine looked at him with his cheek resting against the violin, she drew in a deep breath. How many times had she seen his beautiful head tilt softly to the side when he spoke to her! It was a movement so characteristic of him, yet she found the sight of him this way even more dear and beautiful. Vincent slowly dragged the bow across the strings, stealing from it a bittersweet sound. The music fed her soul as he played. Her breath became heavier and her body became lighter. The piece he was playing was familiar to her, perhaps from one of her many trips to the ballet. As he found himself reaching the last notes, the melancholy tones drew out the most painful memories in his heart. A single tear ran down his cheek as if he had drawn it out with the last note. Her eyes were misty as she embraced this new part of him.

“I haven’t played that in years,” he said softly. There was a tinge of sorrow in his voice.

“I’m glad I got to hear it. Thank you for playing it for me. Thank you for sharing this with me. You play so beautifully.”

His eyes filled with love and gratitude for her. “I’m glad you know.”

Catherine buried herself into his arms and breathed him in until her lungs were full. This was what she lived for. Each discovery of him was the most precious gift on Earth.

***

When James finally recovered from the accident, he was more than happy to  aid Vincent in another delivery. Catherine was pleasantly surprised when she saw him walk into the office.

“James! It’s so good to see you! How are you feeling?”

He welcomed her embrace. “I’m all better now, and reporting for duty,” he said as he presented her with an envelope.

“From Vincent,” she asked quietly.

James smiled and nodded. “I have to run. I have a new student coming in an hour.”

Catherine smiled back at him. “Don’t forget to look both ways!”

James laughed. “I won’t!

The excitement she felt as she watched him walk away was almost more than she could contain. So much had happened, and it was all with the promise of beautiful things to come. When she returned to her desk, she carefully opened the envelope. Reaching in, she pulled out a single red rose. After breathing in it’s delicate scent, she brought it to her lips with a smile and retrieved the papers that were with it. Catherine was surprised to find herself holding sheet music. It was the words written at the top of the page in that familiar handwriting that made her gasp.

Catherine 

Composed by: V

With tears in her eyes, Catherine’s heart beat wildly as she read the note pinned to the pages.

Until tonight…

Always,

V

 

 

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