It was my senior year of high school, and my peers were already taking their SATs.
“I’m going to Brown; I just got in,” Ally said. My sister had wanted to go to the Ivy League since she was in 6th grade. She was one of those annoying people who know what they want to do with their lives. She had everything planned out; I only felt sorry for her future husband because he would be one of those betatized men who would watch her four kids while she went shopping. She wasn’t going to have them—that would destroy her figure. No; she was already looking for surrogates. Anyway, this story isn’t about her, but it’s about what happened to me spring of 06′ when everybody was making plans for college. I loved music, but I was horrible in the band. My mother was a single mom and we didn’t have much money, so I had inherited her father’s clarinet. It wasn’t my instrument of choice, but it was the only one we had. They say playing a musical instrument will make you stronger in math, but I was failing Algebra and when I got my SAT scores back, I could kiss my dreams of the Ivy League goodbye, along with the State schools. I was headed for community college.
I guess status and success don’t really matter, if a person loves what they do; and I loved music, though I wasn’t very good. My uncle picked me up from school on occasion. He was a good catholic, and since my father was absent, he stepped in as an occasional role model. “Why the hell do you want to play a musical instrument anyway?” He asked. “I guess if you ever become homeless you can play on the street.” I think I glared at him. He had a lot of money, but when I asked him if he would buy me a new clarinet, he said, “It’s not the instrument that makes the musician, but it’s the musician that makes the instrument.” How did he know? He was an accountant and his idea of good music was The Riders in the Sky. There were cracks in my clarinet, so no matter how well I played, it always squeaked. It was getting so bad, that I kept getting looks from my band teacher. “We don’t have a replacement clarinet for you, and you’re throwing-off the other instruments. If you can’t get a new one, you’ll have to leave.” This was coming from the lady who went out of her way to recruit anyone. I guess, I was on the bottom of the heap. I told my uncle about getting kicked out of band. “Uncle Keith, I’m 3rd chair; there’s not a fourth, and when the music stops, I won’t have a seat.”
“That was clever; did you come up with that on your own?”
“Are you going to help me out, or not?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what. You bring up your math grade to a C+, and I’ll buy you an instrument.”
He meant it, so I worked hard. And the harder I worked, the more I was convinced I had a learning disability, but I managed to pull-off a C, right before the final exam results. I knew I failed, but that wouldn’t affect my grade for another two weeks, so I showed my uncle my C for spring quarter.
“That’s not a C+,” He said.
“Come on, I worked hard.”
“In life, there are winners and losers; I’m trying to teach you how to be a winner. I guess I’ll make an exception this time, but if you can’t make the grade in the real world, you’ll be playing on the street.”
I nodded and affirmed what he said, so he consented to take me to the music shop.
“I thought we were going to the Orchestra Outlet on 4th,” I said.
“You’re spoiled! That place is for suckers. This here is where the best deals are made.”
“It’s a pawn shop,” I said.
“I know. Let me teach you how to make a buck on the street.” We went inside. There was a glass display case at the front counter, filled with guns resting on red velvet. A Jewish man who looked like a Rabbi stood behind the cash register. He had a thick beard and silver spectacles. He wore a black gown that went down to the floor, but nothing mesmerized me like his rings. They were gold. He had one on each finger, with emeralds and rubies at their center.
“Good morning, sir. Can I interest you in an item for home defense?”
“Yeah. Let me look at that Glock. The Russian and Mexican gangs are waging war on the outskirts of my neighborhood. If the Somalians get involved, it might turn into a blood bath. One can never be too careful. The problem is, they all have automatic weapons.” My uncle was 5’5”, and had served in Vietnam; the look of pity that some people have had been erased on his face in the war.
“Perhaps, body armor?” The cashier asked.
“No offense, but I don’t believe in buying second hand body armor. Anyway, the best defense is a good offense,” my uncle said.
While they were negotiating business, I had a look at the musical instruments. There were a lot of violins, French horns, trumpets, and saxophones, but not a clarinet. When I returned to the front counter, my uncle was spinning the cylinder on a six-shooter.
“.357 Magnum; that will stop anyone in their tracks—only requires one shot, but you got six.” They were so excited about the prospect of shooting someone. I guess that’s the result of continuous war; my uncle never left his, and the Rabbi had served in the Israeli military. He was very pro Ronald Reagan. Before we left, I thought I would ask him if he had any merchandise in the back.
“You don’t have a clarinet, do you?” I asked.
“You know what, I do have something like that. He vanished for a moment, and came back carrying an enormous box. I was surprised he could lift it. It weighed at least 50 pounds. “The rope and music book come with it; there are three songs, each of increasing difficulty; you will be surprised what happens if you play well.” He handed it to me, and when I took it, I knew I had something special.
“You see,” my uncle said. “A pawn shop is where kings go to shop.” I put the box in the back of his Acura SUV and he drove me home. When we got there, a man in a cheap suit was talking to my mom.
“I’m sorry; we have to do it! You haven’t been making regular payments.”
“What’s wrong mom?” She was crying.
“Our home is going-up for foreclosure,” she said.
“Georgina, I can help you out,” my uncle offered.
“Keith, I can’t pay you back, and besides, any help you can offer would be temporary. We won’t be able to make the payments. It’s better if we rent.”
“Well, if you need a place to stay, just give your sister a call.” My uncle turned to me. “Jason, let’s play golf next Saturday. I want to talk to you about colleges. Accounting is a fine career.” I thanked him, and he drove off. The prospect of making a living with numbers made me nauseous. I carried the box up to my room, and took the clarinet out. It was dusty, but when I wiped it off with my t-shirt, I admired the midnight wood and silver keys. I almost blew on it, but then I remembered it was second hand, which also meant second mouth, and I didn’t want to get a musician’s cooties. I wiped it off with alcohol and started playing. I wasn’t very good.
“Can you take that outside?” My mom yelled. I knew she was under stress, so I didn’t argue. And besides, it was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I looked inside the box and pulled out the music. There was a rope in there too, at least 50 feet long.
“What the?” I said. “Why does this come with a rope? Maybe it’s for when a musician fails, and he has to make a living on the street, and then he gets depressed.”
I could read sight music okay and I opened the book to the three pieces. The easiest was River Dance. The Intermediate piece was called The Sultan Saxophone. And the third was Hard. It would take me years to perfect. It was even difficult to read the notation. The title was called Triumph of the Spanish Armada. I just left the rope in the box and started playing the River Dance. I made several mistakes and the clarinet squeaked. It sounded like a dying mouse. Knock that off!” My neighbor shouted. Fred was over 80. He lost his wife last year, so he was even grumpier—hard to believe. “At least learn how to play better!” He yelled.
“I’ll have to practice to get better; that means I’ll have to make a few mistakes,” I said.
“Well, play slower so you don’t make as many!”
“Why don’t you turn your hearing aid down!” I yelled.
He waved his hands at me, like he couldn’t be bothered, and went back into his house to watch jeopardy.
It was actually a good suggestion; so, I decided to play slower, and sure enough, I made less mistakes. A cloud floated over our house, like it was responding to the music. The sky was completely clear and baby blue, except for that enormous cloud getting lower and lower in the sky. It felt like rain, but that was impossible. It was nearly 80 degrees. A fog started to envelop my back yard, and I kept playing. That’s when it happened. The rope in the box, peaked over the side and rose into the sky. I gasped, and then it fell back inside. It couldn’t be, I thought. I’ll only know if I keep playing. So, I continued to play the Irish dancing music, and the rope reached out of the box, and this time, it shot into the sky. I could barely see the sheet music. The whole yard was shrouded in mist. I got to the end of the piece where there was a refrain, and when I stopped playing there was an echo in the air that repeated the song as I had played it. When you aren’t good, it’s horrible to hear yourself; it’s kinda like listening to your own voice on a recording; you realize you don’t sound like a talk-radio host, and more like the annoying geek that asks for lunch money. How did the rope rise? I wondered. And why did it rise? What was the purpose of it? I grabbed hold and pulled. It didn’t give. So, I pocketed the clarinet and climbed. It was surprisingly easy. I’d tried the same thing in gym class with significantly less success. The rope was anti-gravity. My body weighed less when I was on the rope. And pretty soon, I was climbing into the cloud. I couldn’t see, but there was a light shining in the distance, like the sun was trying to burn the fog away. I followed it and tripped on a pillar of stone.
“What is this?” The fog cleared and I was lying at the base of a ruined castle. A much newer and sturdier looking one stood in the distance. There were green hills extending all the way to the moat, but before I could get there, a voice spoke.
“Where?” I asked.
This belongs to the leprechauns.”
“I looked behind me. The rope was tied around the pillar and I could see where it hung in the crevasse.
“Show your face,” I said.
“I want to speak to someone in charge.”
“Our King is very busy.”
“Well, is there a second in command who can make decisions?”
“I am he.” A little prince walked around the pillar of stone. He wore a purple cape with a golden crown, studded with red rubies. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m just wondering why I’m here.”
“Well, you could have only gotten here with magic, and powerful magic at that. Do you hear that music playing?” I did; it was the River Dance. “You got here by music,” the prince said. “Why don’t you come play in our orchestra.”
“I’m not very good.”
“Don’t worry, if you play with us, you’ll get better. I followed him into the castle where 200 little men were practicing musical scales. The prince motioned that I should take a seat as 1st clarinet, and then he started conducting. He gave me a cue and I did the solo. I don’t know how long we were playing but I noticed I was getting a heck of a lot better. When we finished, it was time for me to go.
“Come back anytime,” the little prince said. I waved and climbed back down the rope into my back yard. When my feet hit the ground, the rope fell out of the sky.
At school the next day, my playing had improved so much that my teacher passed me by 2nd chair and I became the first. “You’ve got natural talent,” she said. ” And you got a new instrument. Let me have a look.” She fingered the notes, examining the wood. “I’ve never seen anything like this. The keys are pure silver; that’s why it’s so heavy. I don’t know the maker. It’s a Spanish name. Cortez.”
I didn’t care who the maker was. I was playing much better, and I couldn’t wait to try out the next piece. I wanted to see where it would take me. It took all my newly acquired skill to play The Sultan Saxophone. When I did, the wind changed directions and began to blow hard. Sand whipped into my face like I was being blasted by an industrial sand-blaster. The music was Middle Eastern, and a wall of sand, like an enormous tornado touched down on the lawn. The grass was eaten away, along with the oak tree. I was getting blasted too. And I went up the rope into the eye of the storm. I saw a circle of light that I followed until my head popped out of a well in the desert. Sand was dispersing like the four winds and a castle rested among the dunes not a hundred yards away. I walked towards it for shelter. Another sandstorm was coming, but before I could knock on the door, I was struck from behind. I woke in an opulent bed chamber where a sultan stared at me through greedy eyes. I was already in chains.
“Where do you come from?” He asked.
“From another world.”
“And where is that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I was taken here by magic. I came out of yonder well.”
“Oh, we don’t let the heathen drink from our pure water. For that, you will be thrown into a pit of vipers. Take him away.”
I was carried to a room and tossed down the stairs into a pit. There were thousands of snakes, molting and slithering towards me. I noticed the adjoining room was filled with jewels. It made sense. You could throw your prisoners into the treasure room and they would never be able to spend it. The stone floor was littered with numerous skeletons. Vipers were slithering out of the eye sockets, coming towards me. The slaves closed the doors, waiting for me to die. I didn’t have time to think. Then I remembered my clarinet. I started playing, but I could only squeak. It sounded like a dying mouse, and the snakes came even closer. They knew that sound. Then I hit the tune, just right, and they parted, like the red sea. I had charmed them. Then I walked into the treasure room, playing, and filling my pockets with rubies, emeralds, and gold coins. I was so heavy; I could barely walk. I tried the adjoining door, and it opened into the desert. There was the well I had climbed out of. I stopped playing, and started walking toward home, but before I took another step, I felt pain on my heel. An insidious Asp had bitten me. I only had a handful of minutes before I would be paralyzed and my heart would stop beating. The faster I walked, the faster the venom worked into my veins. I reached the well, and rather than climbing down, I just dropped. I hit the lawn like I had landed on a pillow. I took off my pants and shirt, and stashed the treasure behind the oak tree. My skin was turning purple.
“Mom, take me to the emergency room,” I gasped. Then I feinted.
When I woke up, the toxicologist was looking into my eyes. I haven’t seen viper venom in a long time. “You haven’t visited any zoos lately?” She asked.
I shook my head. I was just happy to be alive.
“Honey, how did this happen?” My mother asked.
“I can’t explain myself now,” I said. “But maybe later.”
When I was released from the hospital, I collected the gold and jewels and put them into a safety deposit box at the nearest bank. I decided to go to school the next day, despite nearly having died. When I got there, they were having tryouts for Julliard. Some scouts were listening to promising students.
“Do you mind if I try-out?” I asked my teacher.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “But don’t expect that you’ll get in. You have to be able to play at a really high level.”
I was nervous. My fingers were sweaty, but I didn’t have anything to lose. When it came time for me to play, I decided on The Sultan Saxophone. When I finished, the judges all clapped. “That was a one-of-a-kind composition. I don’t believe it has ever been played before. We’re assuming you composed it yourself?”
“And modest too; you’ve got a seat at Julliard. You should major in performing and composing arts.”
I was speechless. That summer, I packed my bags, paid off the house, anonymously, and began living in the dorm. I was making rapid progress as a performer, and already had three job offers, even though I didn’t need a job. I was a multi-millionaire. Still, the prospect of the last song was always at the back of my mind. I wondered what would happen if I played Triumph of the Spanish Armada.
I got the piece out, one ambitious afternoon, flexed my lips, and gave it my best try. By this time, I could read the notes, but the rhythm and melody were impossible. The blending of sounds was a battle of magnificent proportions. Outside the dormitory, on the front lawn, the rope started to rise.
“How does he do that?” A co-ed asked. Her jaw dropped, and I was getting unwanted attention, but it started to rain, and then it poured, and everybody ran inside, except me. I knew what was happening. There was so much water falling that it was difficult to breathe, and then a whirlpool began churning around me, and I climbed the rope into an ocean in the sky. I emerged, coughing up sea water, and grabbed hold of a wooden deck in the bowels of a ship.
It occurred to me; how foolish I was. My future was set, thanks to the clarinet, but I had to push it. Curiosity got the better of me, and I prayed that I had nine lives or at least three. I could hear talking above deck. It sounded like Spanish. I knew a little from high school, so I could just barely make-out the conversation. The ship was going to sink in the storm. There was a foul wind and a queer song disrupting the tempest. I was about to climb on deck, when a hand grabbed me from behind.
“We’ve got a stowaway on board.”
“Don’t be stupid. We’ve been at sea for over six months.”
“Well, check the captain’s log; you’ve never seen a boy like this before.” I was dressed in a polo shirt and cargo shorts. I stood out from the sunburnt faces and groggy eyes.
A man who commanded respect, stepped towards me. “Boy, where do you come from?” He asked in a Spanish accent.
“I have traveled here by magic,” I said. “Possibly, I was carried by the storm. You can still hear the music playing.”
“Two Corvettes chased us into this hurricane. Either save us, or we toss you overboard as the Jonah you are.”
I knew sailors were superstitious, and the captain wasn’t the exception. The only thing I knew how to do was play, and that’s what I did. The storm ceased and the clouds parted.
“Hurray!” The sailors shouted.
“You are who you say you are. I am Cortez.” He shook my hand which was against all seaman’s etiquette, but I was a musician, and I guess that counts for something.
Two cannon balls flew across our stern.
A third corvette was headed directly towards us. There was nowhere to run.
“We’re doomed!” A sailor shouted. I started playing again, and the sails did strange things. They were filling with music and our ship launched into the sky. Soon we were above the clouds.
“Any chance I can have my old clarinet back?” Cortez asked.
“You don’t mind if I borrow it for a while?”
“I guess that’s okay. Just be sure to give it back. It’s on loan, remember? Play the song anytime and the rope will drop from heaven.”
“Ai Ai, Captain!” I saluted, and then I dropped out of the bottom of his ship, landing face up in the dormitory lawn, completely soaked.
“How did you do that?” One of my roommates asked.
“Music,” I said.