Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Jazzercise Is a Language is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2018.
In his debut collection Oil and Candle, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague writes, “if you must have the blood, you must also take my plantain chips and my unfortunate life.” The vulnerability and rawness the audience demands of the speaker must also be accompanied by wholeness — a self complete with all its various facets: glittering and good, but desperate and frustrated too.
Ojeda-Sague grabs what is unflattering and holds it up to the light for closer examination. In some instances he zooms in on the link between otherness and the body, probing traditions of metaphorical cleansing and actual cleanliness: “I think of the / women dipping themselves into / tubs full of / prescribed cleansing / getting the toxins out of their body / and into their panties / and putting their panties where they know they won’t see them again …”
He tugs at the tangled threads of the power of ritual and its inevitable commodification in capitalist America. “As I hear about the 17th killing I am very anxious about the ability of a ½ oz bottle to cleanse the network so I think I have really failed this time.” He delves into the inner workings of Santeria: the abrecaminos candles and the prayers, the headless chickens and the sage smudging. He doesn’t simply ask questions but dares to challenge this latticework of beliefs. “I wonder if there is a ritual to stop killing and I think there is not.”
When the speaker of Oil and Candle continually opts in and out of such complex systems, it is for reasons tangible and understandable: “my abuela brought us / up Catholic and I stopped / believing in that when / prayers didn’t turn / my friend gay and / didn’t stop anybody’s / cancer in my family / of which there is a lot.” If an abrecaminos candle seemed to get you “a few gigs,” you may naturally want to continue using it. And when its manufacturers instruct you to just trash it when you were expecting a more dignified disposal, you may have some questions. How big is this faith? Is it not worthy of ceremony? Does it have the capacity to protect? Is this candle even recyclable?
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Oil and Candle reminds us that sometimes we walk with our beliefs on wobbly ground. But we are given permission to set up camp on the fence, to straddle tradition and abandon, to feel satisfied from a ritual but ultimately deem another one “useless.” Oil and Candle is a critical embrace of the poetry scene, inherited traditions, messy identities and the mess of life itself.
Vernita Hall serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories.
Vernita Hall sends the reader on a tour without a tour guide in her chapbook, The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, winner of the 2016 Moonstone Chapbook Contest.
The hitchhiking robot is tossed into Philly neighborhoods, parks, historic venues and cavernous churches with even bigger histories. We are presented with “voices of the immortal dead, whispering their myriad stories”to serve as a map along the way.
We follow these whispers like trails — some marked with careful footsteps, others like stomps. Hall employs a series of voices, like the precise and deliberate speaker of “Shadow Man.” “Were you [Thomas Jefferson] bound instead to your pursuit of happiness, / savoring your fine wines, / your little mounts, / Monticello and mulatto Sally Hemmings?”
Then, there is the emphatic and refreshingly audacious voice of the speaker of “What Goes Around.” “So what if he was president He still a skank … Some father figure / When a cherry got busted wasn’t ‘bout no tree —”
Despite this lightning-like codeswitching, Hall’s tone maintains perfect pitch with instances of captivating imagery. Her intelligent use of local color takes a literal turn in the ekphrastic and meditative piece on a painting by Jerry Pinkney. This poem, “Seeing Red,” offers a blend of blood, communism, Red Sea, red sun and Rutgers Scarlet. Such stirring images are punctuated with rhythm and thoughtful use of sound in “In Pandora’s Box” where hope is “viral as saliva from a flea riding vermin bareback craving a crevice crack the dark.”
Although many of the voices in The HitchhikingRobot are keen with criticism, Hall’s wit is just as sharp as she implements timely comic relief with WEB Du Bois as Thor and Harriet Tubman as Nightcrawler at her historical rendition of Comic-Con. And the fate of the titular hitchhiking robot at the hands of Dell E. Terious and Ms. Terious reads like an article from The Onion in verse — one that ends with the perfect punch: “And that’s the way it is.”
But interspersed between these jovial moments are Ozymandian reflections on posterity and its worth. Hall ruminates on the both conscious sacrifices and uncontrollable conditions that send identities spiraling — some for mere survival, some for fame. In “To Charles Mason,” she writes in the voice of Ben Franklin: “After one has quit the scene it is perhaps desirous to suppose that history might underline some contribution of merit, or durability, that some of one’s words might bet by-lined in some corner of the universe … But one should not grow proud upon it. The Supreme takes amiss an excess of pomposity.”
In The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, Vernita Hall demonstrates that sometimes a good reputation can outlive its corporeal bounds, but this isn’t always the case. Fame can get lost in the coffin when history decides it’s no longer valuable. Other times, fame comes back as a bad ghost, an ugly twin that lives on and on, haunting cities and nations, flaunting infamy and a full set of sharp teeth.
Let me begin by stating outright that I believe it is not easy to write poems about the environment and endangered species, such as the elephant, the white rhino, and the blue whale, without veering into the country called “preaching.” I have tried some myself, and I have not succeeded.
In her debut chapbook of poems, Flesh Enough, Darla Himeles’s first poem, “They’ll Say the Blue Whale’s Tongue Weighed As Much As an Elephant,” begins: “Someday your daughter / will voice this fact / and ask / what an elephant was like.” To begin the poem with the premise that elephants no longer exist and we need to find words to describe them to children, quite frankly, forced this reader to stop and ask herself, “How would I do it?”
Himeles uses quotidian objects to describe lost creatures—words like “couch cushions,” “sunbaked tires,” and “Volkswagen.” She also manages to show her readers all of those crazy things a parent might do to help a child feel, smell, and see a thing now gone, such as running “with palm leaves” and rocking “the arc of your body / over couch cushions / to show how rescuers grunted / CPR.”
Himeles uses powerful restraint when interweaving the everyday with unspeakable destruction and the endangerment of both animals and humanity.
In her poem “Redolence,” Himeles again uses smell and scent to approach extermination:
Is redolence passed?
Those who never slept
under an almond tree’s branch
might not catch almond blossoms
on a breeze—
even if their grandmothers dreamt
by the Dead Sea.
I, too, born beyond Babylon—
who never knew bitter almond
crept through the vents
as my ancestors showered in gas—
might not taste almond’s breath
sour-sweet in a morning kiss.
Never directly addressing the Holocaust, Himeles instead uses smell, memory, and the possibility of inherited olfaction to move from a daughter asking how elephants smell in her first poem of the book to the smells of her ancestry, both sweet almond blossoms and the bitter almond odor of the Nazi’s hydrogen cyanide.
In her love poem for her wife Betsy, C&D Canal, August 2008, Himeles’s language is somewhat lusher, mirroring the earth’s landscape and its creatures and, of course, love, but it is never intrusive. Using couplets this time, Himeles again speaks to and weaves together the past and the present, as in these lines:
I’d wed you tomorrow, or next summer. For you,
ancient sea creatures slap long-vanished flesh
against dusty shins, squid legs flutter like blackgum
leaves in autumn fog. As light quakes the chestnuts free
of your eye, the soft rattle of Delaware’s cephalopod dead
kisses my palm—our bodies hold this Late Cretaceous love song.
It is this ability to weave, like a family quilt, love and grief, both personal and social, with well-researched facts, that makes this book so remarkable. For instance, in her poem “Fuchsia,” Himeles begins:
Whole years lumber sometimes
encircled by armed guards
like the last male northern white
rhino, until the thick knees
buckle and the beast bows
to beige earth.
followed immediately by the lines:
silence breathes heavy
between siblings. She tells me
she never took out the trash
those years Mom worked three jobs
and I went east.
Himeles ends this poem referring to the rhino and to time spent with her sister:
no longer is horned; nothing left
to harvest. Those years bowed
to the earth. We pluck fuchsia
blossoms we never knew grew here,
scatter smashed petals down the walk.
There is something achingly beautiful and haunting created by weaving together the poached rhinos and siblings struggling to make sense of their old life in an apartment. The use of repetition, as with “bows” and “bowed,” links the species, rhino and human. The sibilance of “silence,” “breathes,” and “siblings,” followed by the thick-hided consonant-laced “scatter,” “smashed,” and “petals,” caused this reader to become part of the poem, its weighty breath, and its recognition of loss. Everything is fragile and vulnerable and needs to be cared for.
Himeles has pulled off a remarkable feat; she has wedded fine language and the music of poetry with the horrors of history and tragedy of extinction. For this, I am grateful.
second period Biology, I felt a quick tug. Pete had snagged
my arm but he shouldn’t have been there, everyone knew
he never missed History on the other side
of the school—yet there he was, waiting.
In his hand: a tape.
There was a power, once, in tapes.
Battered, worn, outer shell scratched, faded, yet the word
Megadeth remained, clear as day. He held it out to me. I preferred
not to be rude, to a friend. But,
you know, Megadeth.
I wasn’t really looking to listen to regular death, so
this was a little much.
you gotta hear this.
The right to be angry is the most American thing anyone can claim.
Everything else is born from that. It is the very reason we want our guns
or speech protected. More than
a flag, more than a song, this
is what brings us together, what makes us one.
Check the stage, I declare a new age
Get down for the Prophets of Rage.
Pete thrust that tape into my hands and
I could see those little tabs at the top
had been pierced, ruptured,
What is it?
He only shook his head,
and just like that, he was gone.
Clear the way for the Prophets of Rage.
In the summer of 1990, three members of 2 Live Crew were pulled
off stage and arrested as they played at a sex club.
Officially, they were charged with obscenity for music performed at a sex club.
That may be the greatest sentence I will ever write.
When I finally got around to homework that evening, I threw Pete’s
tape on, figuring if I’m already doing algebra,
ain’t no tape gonna make it any worse.
No work got done that night.
It Takes A Nation Of Millions to hold us back.
The music was like bug repellant for parents, a screeching whine
that repeated, endlessly, effortlessly, the loop
was the meaning, the meaning was in the loop. I mean, the album started
with a goddamn air-raid siren, a warning, a call
and response that flicked something buried
within cultural DNA.
It’s like that, I’m like Nat leave me the hell alone
If you don’t think I’m a brother—check the chromosomes.
It is an inconvenient truth
that free speech can be attacked on all sides, when a right-wing Florida DA
locked arms with a Democratic soon-to-be Vice President’s wife
to lock up some Black dudes
for singing about butts. The surreality of
strange bedfellows goes both ways, however,
and in July 1990 2 Live Crew released Banned in the USA, notable
as the first album to come equipped
with a parental advisory sticker.
You have to understand, the title track
drove white people in Jersey fucking insane.
I played Pete’s tape, flipped it,
played it, the loop was the meaning,
the meaning was hidden in the loop.
(Stereo, stereo) describes my scenario.
You see, this was Bruce,
the Poet of the Parkway, the god whose words united
Wall Street commuters with Meadowlands tailgaters,
who traced a sacred lineage from Dylan all the way back
to Whitman, but better, more real
than either of them could hope to be.
A man of the people.
And we all knew which people.
My friends and I basked in the outrage of all those who
screamed their love for Jersey Jesus, and
shrieked their horror that some no talent Blacks
had taken sacred tracks
and turned them into some weird anti-American defense
of perversion. Finally, we thought, the music of the people
who refused to hire us,
who labeled me Zebra or half-breed,
who didn’t bother to hide their disbelief when we aced math tests,
who assumed we cheated when we bested their kid’s SAT scores,
for once the music of the people
who hated everything about us
would be used to speak for us.
Kurt Loder, MTV News,
interrupting Yo! MTV Raps! to report on the controversy,
read a statement from
The Boss himself:
Anyone who doesn’t support
2 Live Crew’s use of “Born in the USA”
obviously never listened to
the lyrics of my song, anyway.
In those days, MTV still played music,
the time allotted to hip hop was over,
they went straight to the video,
Born in the USA.
And for the very first time,
my friends and I
Martin Wiley writes: “I was a long-time poet and spoken word artist, but for the past few years had labeled myself as a “recovering poet.” My seven year old daughter’s love of words has dragged me, mostly happily, off the wagon. After receiving my MFA from Rutgers-Camden, I remain in Philadelphia, teaching at community college, working as an activist, being a dad and husband, and finding time, when possible, to write.”
Alexander Long’s third book of poems, Still Life, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2011. He’s also published four chapbooks, the most recent being The Widening Spell (Q Avenue Press, 2016). Work appears & is forthcoming in AGNI, American Poetry Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Blackbird, Callaloo, From the Fishouse, Miramar, New Letters, Philadelphia Stories, & The Southern Review, among others.
Ed Granger lives and was raised in Lancaster County, where he consequently learned early the proper way to pass a buggy. He works for a healthcare non-profit and is a half-time dad. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily,The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Seminary Ridge Review, Loch Raven Review, The Delmarva Review, and other journals.
I knew Kip Winger and Motley Crue were getting blow jobs
even though I didn’t know what blow jobs were.
When I first heard the phrase, I thought of hair dryers,
the robot helmet-looking chairs inside
my mom’s beauty parlor. Where the viejas called
MTV “mierda,” but I couldn’t get enough. Heavy
metal was my favorite, backstage footage in black
and white, so it had to be real. Rockers who
looked like girls surrounded by more girls.
Indistinguishable. Make-up from the neck up.
But the girl Girls. Girls big-boobed and Aqua Netted
blondes with toasted brown skin, lined up, hobbled like bruised
peaches in halter tops, raising rail thin,
downy haired arms in bangle bracelet
unison. Yelling Woooooo at the camera,
like it was all they knew how to say.
When Poison played live on Headbanger’s
Ball, one of these girls lifted her “Open
Up and Say Ahhh…” t-shirt, exposing white
breasts. Bounced awake my insides. The camera
caught it. Just a flash, but long enough.
Long enough to hum electric in my mind’s eye
buzzing red as the Coca-Cola light in our drug store’s window.
And I wanted to touch a boob.
I decided one night, sweaty under Batman bedspread.
I wanted to touch one so bad. Even though my Cuban
grandfather called me a “fag” when I couldn’t catch
a football while he was watching. I wanted to
touch a boob. But I couldn’t play
the recorder, let alone guitar. And I didn’t have
money to buy a puffy ruffled pirate shirt or
spandex. Nor the thigh width required for
tight leather pants. No hair to style up and out.
To tease. Mine was low and tight, combed over and
back with Abuelo’s long black comb, licked fresh and
unsheathed from his back pocket. When he was done
my hair resembled Batista’s gelled helmet, not the
curly chaos of Guevara’s guerrillas.
The 90s came to solve all our problems.
Those pansy ass glam bands. Fuck them
said 1992, ripping Jon Bon Jovi and
Warrant off my wall. Nevermind,
said 1992, in a ringer ree, naked baby cassette in hand,
throwing away Hysteria and all those used GNR Illusions.
Said 1992, “No one gives a fuck.” Not Nirvana,
nor Mudhoney nor Fugazi. Tool. And Pearl Jam pissed off
Ticketmaster and nobody wanted seals clubbed.
Or wars started. Or New Kids. Or videos.
And the cool girls wore overalls.
And Abuelo’s closet was filled with all the flannel
I needed. And I walked to high school washed in
pre-soaked Old Spice and Pall Malls. My thighs the perfect
width for denim.
That fall, Billy Mirabelli got a blow job in his bathroom
while we watched Gremlins on HBO.
His mother worked the dinner shift at Ground Round,
so his house was where that kind of shit went down.
Drugs. Sex. Billy went into the bathroom like a virgin,
came out like a prayer. Hoping to be a man.
I studied his gaze. He still looked like the rest of us,
except dazed. Not older, as I’d suspected,
from the way my brother talked about the girls
who stood on Boulevard East, their pink lipstick
and yellow teeth. Their frayed, waxy bodies a
parable. Their jeans ripped down an entire thigh.
Our girls only ripped at the knee. The
denim threads, taut, like Venetian blinds.
Wigwam socks rolled calf-high. Our girls wore
beige lipstick and never smiled. Never talked.
Always bored. Like the girl who blew Billy–
she didn’t say a word, looked straight ahead while
Phoebe Cates described her dead Santa dad,
his neck snapped in bottled-up chimney.
Crumpled forward in soot.
I stared at the blowjob girl in spite of myself.
Though I knew enough to try not to. Her cheeks shiny
as fruit skin, reflecting the dancing yellows and
blacks of the movie. The gremlin death cries. The water
and bright lights. The eating after midnight.
Something in Billy’s eyes told me not to envy him,
his new blowjob life. Not to trust the other boys
when they clapped him on the back
raising rail-thin, downy-haired arms
in high-five unison, yelling Woooooo
at each other, like it was all they knew how to say.
Joe Costal begins listening to Christmas music right after Halloween, but not one second earlier. His writing has most recently appeared in The Maine Review, Ponder Review and Pif Magazine. His poetry will appear in the forthcoming anthology Challenges for the Delusional Part 2 by Diode Editions. Joe is an Assistant Editor at Barrelhouse. He writes and podcasts about books, music and movies for Quirk Publishers in Philadelphia and Jersey Ghouls. Joe teaches writing at Stockton University at the Jersey Shore, where he lives with his four children. His writing has earned awards and distinction from Grub Street, Painted Bride, Rider University’s Hispanic Writers Workshop & Wesleyan University.
Say you’re twenty-one and throw a party where you are house-sitting, a big row-house in a once opulent neighborhood, and you’ve danced with him, Russell, who is twenty-nine, and when he tries to get into your pants you let him, and say you never hear the stories about how Russell is really into girls your age, a lot of them, as told by Jimmy, who your close friend dated briefly to escape her abortion-guy, and well, say you go with Russell to Chicago, and get used to the temperatures, so when your older sister gets married and moves out there the two of you stay close, like when you shared a room growing up, and she let you listen to Abbey Road over and over, and have the top bunk, and a little later she sent you out to find out about birth control when you needed it, at some point, and then in Chicago, Russell’s oil paint smell and fluid, army-brat-Texan accent wears off on you, and his diamondo-pattern dada-vests, and, let’s face it, his luck, and in the summer, say you and your sister, who’s pining for a change of her own, go to Italy for a whole month, which feels new, beginning to end, keeping the window box begonias alive, cutting off your parents, drinking chianti, and both of you can see and hear ghosts, but only the ones whose stories ring true, and you name your daughter Penny Lane
Valerie Fox writes: “My recent chapbook, Insomniatic [poems], was published by PS Books. Previously I published The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and The Glass Book (Texture Press). I have published work in Painted Bride Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Ping Pong, Hanging Loose, Apiary, Juked, Cordite Poetry Review, qarrtsiluni, Sentence and other journals. I live in central New Jersey and teach at Drexel University.”
Yeah, not just fingers, but hands,
shoulders, torso, limbs, Good Golly,
Miss Molly, everything swings up and over
the ivories, blasting away the past
with the lit stick of boogie-woogie
and blues rolled up in rock that explodes
from his lipsticked lips crackling with Slippin’ and Slidin’ and Tutti Frutti
like they own the joint,
‘cause they do. Nah, nothing
little ‘bout his lungs wailing Long Tall Sally, nothing
little ‘bout that pompadoured dude
blowing the lid off the fifties.
Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 11 collections of poetry including Wives’ Tales (Seven Kitchens Press), True, False, None of the Above (Poiema Poetry Series and Illumination Book Award Medalist), Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize), and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award). In addition, Marjorie is the co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (PSU Press 2005), the author of four children’s books, and Inside Out: Poems on Writing Poems. Marjorie lives with her husband and two children in Williamsport, PA. For more information and reviews, please see www.marjoriemaddox.com
At first, when I heard the crackly voice over the PA calling my name, I thought I might be hallucinating. Over the last thirty days, I’d flown to Boston, to Cincinnati, to New York; I’d explained to dubious airport officials that a French horn was a musical instrument and that no, my conical wooden mute was not for cheerleading. I was starting to hear my audition pieces in car alarms and the inflections of people’s voices.
The day before the ten-minute audition that would determine the rest of my life, I wanted to go straight home from school, listen to a few Beethoven symphonies, and eat a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Instead, I was called to the principal’s office.
The stares and giggles of my classmates alerted me that the scratchy PA voice was real. “Iris Clark,” it repeated, “please report to the principal’s office. Iris Clark. Please report now.”
I sighed and shuffled toward the office, jealous of everyone else bolting for sunny freedom beyond the school’s doors. Even a few minutes’ delay felt like a terrible imposition after a full day of imprisonment.
Mrs. LaFolle was waiting for me. She was wearing a navy blazer and a sheer ivory blouse with a tie at the neck. Her brittle smile looked like it might crack and drop off her face.
“Hello, Iris,” she said, folding her hands primly on her desk.
“What is it?”
I dreaded what she would say. Although I’d done nothing wrong, she had hated me ever since I missed the National Honor Society induction for a Youth Philharmonic rehearsal.
“Well, Iris.” She shuffled some papers and pretended to study them. “It appears that you’ve missed nine days of school so far. Tomorrow will be your tenth absence.”
“Yeah, I’m auditioning for music schools. My mom called. Didn’t you get her message?”
Mrs. LaFolle looked at me over her glasses. “If any student has ten unexcused absences, that student automatically gets five points docked from their average in each class.”
I inched forward to the sharp edge of my chair, clenching my fists in my lap. “But this is for college. My mom called. How is that unexcused?”
“If it’s an optional activity,” Mrs. LaFolle said, “it’s not excused.”
“Auditions are not optional. Not for schools like Juilliard and Eastman.”
“It’s simply my duty to inform you of the consequences,” Mrs. LaFolle said serenely. It was clear from her tone that she didn’t know what Juilliard was, nor did she care to learn.
I felt like an empty glass that had been filled with hot lava. If I sat in that office for one more second, molten rage would come spilling out my eyeballs.
“If you dock my grades for this,” I said, standing up and heading for the door, “My parents are going to sue.”
I drove home faster than I should have, blasting the angry part of Beethoven’s Fifth as loud as my speakers would go. My car hurtled down the curves of the narrow road, past the organic dairy farm and the golf course, past the driveways and mailboxes and chemically-enhanced lawns. I hated this little town, hated it, hated it. I wanted desperately to leave. I couldn’t stand its provincial inhabitants, its five churches, its tiny library that never had the books I wanted. Its bland adults were flattened mediocrities: helicopter moms, doughy dads, teachers who’d gone to Norton High and come right back to reign over students asleep at sticky desks. I vowed never to succumb. I would never be downtrodden and pale. I would always be like Beethoven, steeped in art, shaking my fist at the thundering sky.
It was outrageous and unfair that Mrs. LaFolle should occupy any sliver of my mind. But I thought of her disdainful face as I vomited my lunch in the music building bathroom, just one hour before my audition. As I retched, I held back my own hair, trying not to splatter my audition blouse. Once my stomach was empty, I stared at the toilet in dismay. I felt sorry for the delicious lunch I’d eaten a little while ago. Mom had taken me to a cafe with blue gingham tablecloths and the menu written on chalkboard. The seared sirloin steak, mashed potatoes, and brownie should have been the perfect thing to eat before the taxing task of playing the horn. Now their service had been rendered vain.
I stood up, feeling cold. There was a damp patch on my back where I’d been sweating. My throat ached and my teeth were coated in sour residue. I felt weak and shaky. I didn’t know how I’d lift my horn in this state, especially not to perform difficult music in front of strangers.
I checked my phone. There were still thirty minutes before the audition—just enough time to wolf a granola bar and brush my teeth. It would be rushed, but that was better than playing on an empty stomach.
I exited the bathroom stall and spotted Juliet Jaeger, my ex-best friend, standing at the sink. I’d hoped to get through audition season without seeing her—a foolish hope, given that we both played horn.
Juliet’s back was to me. I darted my eyes toward the door, wondering if I could escape without confrontation. But it was too late. By the way she adjusted the mess of curls hanging down her back, with a little too much of a theatrical touch, I could tell she’d heard me.
I moved to leave, but she spun around. She was wearing tight black pants, heels, and a black long sleeve blouse with a strip of sheer fabric at the top. Her hair was messy yet alluring, and she had put on dark, smudgy makeup around her eyes. She gave me a sinister smile.
“You didn’t strike me as a purger.”
I stiffened at her insinuation. “I ate something bad.” Immediately I hated that I felt the need to explain to her.
She laughed. “Right.”
I decided not to let her affect my behavior. I marched up to the sink next to hers and washed my hands, resisting the urge to rinse my mouth. As I turned to go, my eyes snagged on her growing smirk. She was staring at my chest.
I looked down and saw that, despite my efforts, some vomit had spattered on the front of my audition blouse. Not bothering to dry my hands, I strode out of the bathroom, pretending that I still had some claim to dignity.
The horn auditions were held in a small classroom. The student desks had been pushed to one side. The blackboards had musical staves printed on their surface, ghosts of semi-erased notes floating amidst the lines. A few bookshelves held tattered theory texts and busts of famous composers.
The horn teacher sat in a chair on one side of the room, one lanky leg crossed over the other. He smiled at me as I moved toward the chair in the center of the room. It was a plastic scooped chair with a dip in the center, the kind I hated. It would be impossible to sit flat in it like I needed to.
“Hello, Iris,” the teacher said. “Play some notes, empty your slides. Get comfortable.”
I lowered myself into the chair, perching uncomfortably on the edge. I worked my valves a few times, all four of them in quick succession. Although it had never happened, I was terrified that one of my valves might stick during an audition. I lifted my horn and played a few notes. There was a slight, disconcerting echo in the room.
“Okay, why don’t you play a couple of scales?”
“Choose your favorites. Major and minor.”
I hesitated, wondering if this was a trick question. Most teachers specified the scales you should play. I could pick easy scales in a comfortable range, but that might make me seem like a slacker. On the other hand, it was probably best not to reveal my weakness by venturing into the upper register.
I chose to start with D-flat major. The two-octave range of this scale lay in the safe low to middle register, but he’d be impressed with a scale that had five flats. I also preferred this scale for reasons intuitive and mysterious. I couldn’t quite explain it, but D-flat major had always appealed to me.
I took a breath and dropped my jaw, letting a mellow D-flat emerge, round and low. I slid up and down the scale with ease.
“Great,” the teacher said. “How about minor?”
I chose to play C-sharp minor, knowing the four sharps would impress him.
He smiled at my selection. “It’s unusual to hear the parallel minor. Most people go with relative.”
I hoped that would make him remember me.
“What did you bring for your solo?”
“Haydn’s Second Concerto. First and second movements”
“Interesting. Let’s hear it.” He adjusted his chair and sat back, as though settling in at the movie theater.
I flipped to my photocopied music. The Haydn concerto was a show piece for low horn, featuring a section with fast, tricky jumps between the upper-middle and pedal registers. Keeping my horn in my lap for a few seconds, I mentally rehearsed the first few measures, planning the tempo and mood. Prepared, I lifted my horn and felt a surge of dizziness. Hunger and weakness returned in a wave, washing away the small confident foothold I’d gained with my scales. I rested my horn on my leg, looked down, and shook my head.
“Are you all right?” the teacher asked.
“Um,” I said, trying to resist the nausea rising in my throat. “I’ve been sort of sick lately.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He looked like he was trying to keep a neutral expression. I hoped he hadn’t decided that I couldn’t manage the pressure of being a performing musician.
Determined to prove that I could handle it, I launched into the Haydn. Usually I navigated the short, skipping notes with aplomb, but my nervousness made me rush. I started too fast and missed nearly half the notes. I blinked at my music, surprised that it had betrayed me so unexpectedly.
“Why don’t you try that again?” the teacher said, not unkindly. “Take your time with the tempo.”
I started over, trying to follow his direction, remembering that Suzanne said some teachers liked to test you for instructability. But I over-compensated, taking it too slow and running out of breath too soon. I had to breathe at a spot I wasn’t used to and missed several notes as a result.
“Don’t rush into playing after a breath,” he said. “You’re the soloist.”
I kept failing, and he kept stopping me. The audition extended like a horrible dream. When it finally ended, I felt a rush of vertigo as I left the room. I reached for the door frame to steady myself. I thought of Bruce, who’d call me a wuss for how easily I’d been thrown by a little physical discomfort. I thought of Kintaro, who’d find not an ounce of music in my performance. I thought of Mom, who’d paid for years of music lessons. It was $65 a week for an hour-long lesson with Suzanne. It was $2,450 for Youth Philharmonic, plus $ 1500 for camp and $3,775 for this summer’s tour to Germany. That didn’t include the $75 to apply to each music school, the travel, the hotels, the various sundry costs—tuner, metronome, mutes, mouthpieces, valve oil, slide grease, snake. She had paid all this money, driven all these miles only for me to prove my mediocrity. My throat tightened and my eyes felt hot. I cried rarely, but I recognized this as the perilous prelude to tears. I moved quickly down the hall, determined that no one should witness my humiliation.
As I exited the music building with Mom, I saw that it was snowing hard and fast. Already there was a thick white inch on the ground, with more snow whirling down like some cosmic down blanket had ripped open. When we got in the car, flakes coated the windshield so quickly the wipers could barely clear a path for Mom to see. We came to a turn and Mom edged forward cautiously, but without effect. Our car slipped toward the intersection with steady, silent intent. Mom didn’t speak, only gripped the wheel so hard her knuckle bones stood out white against her skin. Another car waited on the other side. I had time to look at the driver’s face: a man in his sixties, with dignified white hair and thick eyebrows. He watched us with a touching look of concern, and for a moment my heart felt quiet as we slid with slick grace toward his vehicle. What did it matter, really, who got into Eastman and who didn’t, when it all came down to this: ice, two cars, a deadly slip on the road? A thought whispered in the corner of my mind: maybe it was better for things to go like this, while I still had indeterminate promise. Better than to keep going and prove myself wrong. Then friction snared our tires, and we moved in the right direction once more.
Emily Eckart is the author of Pale Hearts, a story collection. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Nature, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She studied music at Harvard University. Read more of her work at www.emilyeckart.com.