Head Up, Chin Down Straight

Bob can play a number of instruments, none of them well.

He likes his guitar, an Ovation with a sensual, curving back. The guitar is useful because he can play it anywhere, in his room, in the living room if his father isn’t around, on the front step. Its sound can be quiet, non-confrontational. He finds it adequate most of the time, particularly since he’s expanded his repertoire of chords, but depressingly predictable. Everyone plays acoustic guitar, and its sound is nearly always the same. Only a few, very talented people can coax a new and interesting sound out of an acoustic guitar, and Bob knows he is not one of them.

Every Tuesday at 2:30, Bob rents a dingy rehearsal room at the conservatory where he plays, violently and incongruously, an elegant grand piano. At 3:30, he stops, stretches his fingers, runs his hand, lingeringly, along the top and down the side of the piano. He closes his fingers around the strong delicate legs of the piano, thanks it silently for its stoic performance under his coarse and amateur hands.

Once in awhile, he even drags out his father’s old accordion and attempts a puffy, mournful polka. The accordion is supposed to be a cheerful instrument, the catalyst of parties and dances. But in Bob’s thin, inexpert arms, the squeezebox emits only aged wheezing, doleful burps and farts. He ends by pulling it off his chest, shoving it back in its case in disgust.

Recently, Bob has been learning to play the clarinet, and thinks he may have found his instrument. He picked one up, cheap, from a guy he knows. The guy, named Archie because of his bright orange flattop, needed the money, had to unload the clarinet, an Artley 58S with a few standard accessories. Archie wanted $300.00; Bob dickered him down to $150.00. Bob had the advantage. He didn’t yet know that he needed a clarinet. He handled the instrument carefully, pressed the keys, and squinted into its bell, as though he knew what he was doing. Archie was pissed off, but desperate.

“One-fifty, Bob? You know what this thing costs new?”

Bob continued to examine the instrument under Archie’s nervous gaze.

“Eight-fifty, easy,” Archie told him, with emphasis.

Bob answered him calmly. “It’s not new.”

Archie shook his head, in pain. “You don’t know shit, Bob. That’s seasoned grenadilla, buddy, not that that means anything to you. And the case and shoulder strap are included.”

Archie took the clarinet back from Bob, and put it lovingly in its hard case. He insisted on carrying it to the bank machine where Bob withdrew cash from his carefully hoarded stock, gave some to Archie. As Archie folded the bills into his wallet, Bob had a sudden, intense pang of remorse, a sense of great folly. But before Bob could articulate his resistance, Archie put the clarinet gently into his arms, urged Bob to take good care of it. Bob found himself hugging his new charge closely, promising careful stewardship.

Bob tells himself now that he had good instincts, that he recognized a quality instrument when he saw one. But, really, he knows that for once in his life he got lucky. With the clarinet safely stowed under his bed, he started his research. He asked around, used the Internet at the library, checked his sources. He tracked down the necessary information about his new instrument, a B flat soprano, with wooden upper and lower joints and composition bell and barrel. Archie had been gentle with the clarinet. Its pads were and remain clean and whole; the instrument’s body is uncracked. It has a stock mouthpiece, which is okay but not great. Bob plans, eventually, to replace it with a Vandoren or a Gigliotti. He knows now he should have checked the sound, asked Archie to play it for him right there in the street. He’s slightly ashamed of this omission, but cuts himself some slack. He’s learned a lot since then.

Satisfied with this knowledge and pleased with the deal, Bob set about learning to play. He took some CDs of clarinet music out of the library, made himself a couple of tapes, Mozart’s Concerto K622, played by Karl Leister, Jonathan Cohler’s “Moonflowers, Baby!” just because he liked the name. At the conservatory’s store, he bought two books of sheet music for beginners, one classical and folk, the other a selection of Cole Porter songs. He ordered an instructional video, throwing away $9.95 American, plus shipping, on its extravagant and unjustified claims. The waste of money sickens him still.

Sitting on his bed, he cleaned the clarinet thoroughly, especially the mouthpiece, admiring the sheen of the wood, the fine grain of the composite materials. He bought some new reeds for it, Vandoren No. 2 and 1/2, a beginner’s reed. He selected and installed his reed with care, bending it slightly to feel its resistance, cautiously sliding it into the mouthpiece.

Abandoning the video and its incomprehensible orders, Bob started taking lessons, once a week, with a reluctant old black guy named Frank. He found Frank through a mutual friend, a fellow former druggie named Phil, who plays the saxophone, even gets paid to do it sometimes. Phil gave Bob an address and a warning: Frank wasn’t too friendly, but he’d take on students now and then, to make some cash, pay his rent. And Frank knew what he was talking about when it came to the clarinet. He’d left St. Louis during the war, Phil explained, winding up in Toronto. He played all over the city in his prime, before old age and laziness grounded him in a rooming house in Cabbagetown.

“Which war?” Bob asked, interested.

Phil looked at him incredulously. “The Boer War, Bob!” he said sarcastically. “C’mon! Think it through, man.” Bob shrugged.

Phil looked Bob over for a full minute. “I don’t know about this. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea, you and Frank.”

Bob waved his hand. “No, no. It’ll be okay. I’m cool. It’s cool. I was just joking about the war.”

Phil narrowed his eyes at Bob. “Frank’s the real thing, Bob. So don’t embarrass yourself – or me.”

Bob snorted. “Whatever.”

“Don’t tell him I sent you.” Phil laughed as though this were a joke, and slapped Bob on his jean-jacketed back, forcing a cough out of Bob’s narrow chest.

The next day, Bob took the subway to Castle Frank, then walked to Carlton and Parliament. He knocked on the front door of Frank’s rooming house. While he waited, Bob looked up at Frank’s house, which seemed about to fall over, leaning back and away from the stripped and prettified houses on either side. Its pitted brick surface was painted a depressing shade of maroon, the colour of dried blood. The screenless screen door in front of Bob had been heavily abused, its base torn open by a boot, its mechanical guts bulging from its side. Standing there, Bob thought, with patient recognition and no anger, that his fate was to be aligned with the inhabitants of such falling-down domiciles. He knew, now, at the age of 42, that the course of his life would never take him into the shining front halls and clean living rooms of its gentrified neighbours.

When Frank stuck his head out of an upstairs window, flakes of mustard yellow paint drifted from the frame. Head silted with lead-laden dust, Frank looked down at Bob’s skinny form on the stoop below.

“What you want?” he shouted.

“Are you Frank?”

Frank nodded.

“I want you to teach me to play the clarinet.” Bob held up the instrument in its case. “Phil said you could teach me.”

Frank said nothing.

“I’ll pay you. Once a week. I’ll pay you $20.00 for an hour.”

Frank pulled his head inside the window, and slammed it shut.

After ten minutes, Bob turned around and walked back down the path. When he reached the sidewalk, the window slapped open.

“Come back next Tuesday, 1:00 o’clock. And don’t be early ‘cause I’ll be havin’ my lunch.” Frank’s furious voice pelted across the scrubby yard toward Bob.

“Great!” Bob yelled. “I’ll be here. Don’t worry!”

Frank’s head was gone again

During his first lesson in Frank’s smelly little room, Bob tried to get Frank to talk about the clarinet. He asked Frank for an assessment of the Artley 58S. He showed Frank the wood, took the mouthpiece off and blew into it. Frank would not hold the clarinet, but looked at closely while Bob tilted it this way and that. “It’s a good instrument.” he said, finally. Bob asked him about the mouthpiece, inquired about appropriate reeds. Frank waited for Bob to finish speaking, and let a long silence elapse. “It’s a good instrument.” he said again. Bob told Frank about the 9,000-year-old flute found in China, still playable, carved from the wing bone of a crane. Frank shook his head, in amazement, retort, reprimand? Bob could not tell.

When Bob plays, Frank looks out the window, wincing occasionally, offering pained correction. After each lesson, Bob shakes Frank’s hand, thanking him for his guidance. Frank looks at a spot above and to the right of Bob’s head while Bob speaks, then gazes at the palm of his released hand for several seconds, as though bemused by a foreign ritual.

Bob has made a discovery. He loves the clarinet. Frank’s indifference, even his contempt, can’t diminish Bob’s enthusiasm for this instrument. He revels in the fruity, round notes, the soft clack of the keys, glimpses the ultimate possibilities, the future of this music.

And Bob believes that he has promise. He feels it. His technique isn’t bad, and it’s getting better. He stands up straight, lifts the clarinet easily with his right hand, places his lips on it with care. His embouchure is firm, but gentle. He no longer squeaks, or not very often. He keeps his head up, his chin down flat, taking Frank’s sighs and pained creaking on the two protuberances at the front of his cranium, the hardest, most resilient part of his skull.

Breathing is Bob’s downfall; his wind is bad, the cumulative effect of 29 years of smoking. He started when he was 13. Nauseated but determined, he worked his way up to a pack a day by 16, then a pack and a half. He has a permanent, deep yellow stain on his right hand. When he started traveling, started taking junk with his crazy brother, Bob didn’t smoke as much. For a few years, he was too stoned, too stupid to smoke without setting himself on fire. When he quit junk, cleaned up, Bob started smoking again. He felt a terrible need. He was grey and ugly anyway. He felt like shit. After a couple of years, he started to cut back. He ritualized, smoked outside, started to box once a week, grew lighter on his feet. But his lungs are permanently damaged.

Now, Bob smokes six cigarettes per day. He smokes his first Player’s Light when he wakes up in the morning at 6:45 a.m. He smokes one after his workout, at 10:30 a.m. He smokes one after lunch, at 12:45 p.m. He smokes one at 3:30 p.m., taking a break from whatever he’s doing at that time, which can be any number of things, getting his dad settled in for a nap after Coronation Street, finishing his practice session at the conservatory, lying on his bed reconstructing the past. He smokes one, of course, after dinner, between 6:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., depending on how long it takes his father to painstakingly spoon dinner into his hole. Then he has his final, elegiac smoke at 9:15 p.m. He holds each cigarette tightly between the first fingers of his right hand, pinching the filter to intensify his inhalation. He’d like to eat the stream of smoke flowing into his mouth, devour it as it scalds his tongue and throat. Instead, he has to settle for sucking the goodness out of them, burning them right down to the filters.

If he’s at home, Bob dips his finished butt in the glass of water which he carries outside with him for this purpose. He grips the soggy filter between his thumb and index finger, and flicks the spent joy into a pile of sand to the right of the back steps. Once a month, he clears away the fouled sand, replaces it with fresh. If Bob is out, he’s more careful with his butts, uses an ashtray in a socially anonymous way. In non-smoking venues, he smokes on the sidewalk or in the back alley, and is careful to step on his finished cigarette. Each one is ground slowly under his heel, a contained black whorl on the pavement, flecked with filter stained brown.

Bob works on his wind, does breathing exercises. He practices the clarinet every day now, works hard, is making some progress. Twice a week, he performs at open stages, downtown. At one of these, Tuesday nights at a small, well-established affair in an overheated church basement, Bob plays on the church piano, a dowdy brown upright, or his guitar. Occasionally, he sings. But at the second, Friday nights at a café on College, Bob is more adventurous. The performers are younger, less folksy. He feels the urge to experiment.

His best performance took place on a humid summer night earlier this year. Inspired by the sweaty, huggy, muggy atmosphere of the room, the shouting poets, the unusually extended music, he pulled out his copy of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Knopf, 1995, translated from the German by John E. Woods. Bob lifted his mechanical pencil from the chest pocket of his white dress shirt, clicked it once, and lightly marked an appropriate passage. He detached the body of his clarinet from its mouthpiece and held it in his hand until his name was called.

Bob walked calmly to the front of the room. He stood on the slightly raised stage in the corner amid other people’s equipment and tangled wire and surveyed the audience in silence for a solid minute. When people began to move restlessly, exude a satisfactory level of discomfort, Bob lifted the clarinet’s mouthpiece and blew loudly, a resounding duck’s call. He held The Magic Mountain in front of him and opened it to the marked section, a paragraph describing Hans Castorp’s reflections on anatomy, physiology and biology. Bob cleared his throat. In his flat, somewhat monotonous voice, he read:

What was life, really? It was warmth, the warmth produced by instability attempting to preserve form, a fever of matter that accompanies the ceaseless dissolution and renewal of protein molecules, themselves transient in their complex and intricate construction. It was the existence of what, in actuality, has no inherent ability to exist, but only balances with sweet, painful precariousness on one point of existence in the midst of this feverish, interwoven process of decay and repair. It was not matter, it was not spirit. It was something in between the two, a phenomenon borne by matter, like a rainbow above a waterfall, like a flame.
Bob paused, worked up some saliva in his mouth. He imagined that he had a cigarette, right then, and a glass of very cold water. A few people in the audience clapped, hopefully. Bob skipped over several lines and began to read again:

Out of overcompensation for its own instability, yet governed by its own inherent laws of formation, a bloated concoction of water, protein, salt, and fats – what we call flesh – ran riot, unfolded, and took shape, achieving form, ideality, beauty and yet while all the while was the quintessence of sensuality and desire. This form and this beauty were not derived from the spirit, as in works of poetry and music, nor derived from some neural material both consumed by spirit and innocently embodying it, as is the case with the form and beauty of the visual arts.
Bob paused again, briefly. He began to read again, gradually raising his voice and finishing Mann’s twisting paragraph in a raspy yell:

Rather, they were derived from and perfected by substances awakened to lust via means unknown, by decomposing and composing organic matter itself by reeking flesh.
Bob took a deep breath, quieting his irritated lungs. He waited, weighing the pressure of silence in the room. He blew another squawk on the mouthpiece of the clarinet, then bowed, deeply and sweepingly, raising the novel into the air. The audience clapped, uncertainly. Confused laughter rose from one corner of the room. Bob walked, with conscious modesty, back to his table. Even before he could play it properly, the clarinet had been put to good use.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.