A Wall Of Sound
By Laura Madeline Wiseman
We started dating in September. I was in my thirties and teaching music at a high school, something which I enjoyed. High school students have a vibrant energy about them; their desperation seeps into whatever they concentrate on. My first-chair trumpeter plays solos like his life is the sound he makes pushing out over the heads of a crowd.
Unlike most high school teachers, band directors are not required to teach endless hour after endless hour of uncaring students. They are given a couple periods in the mornings and afternoons and required to donate their weekends and weeknights for the sake of producing music as a distraction in between sport events. I've been here in this large school for several years. The small band is mostly a collection of misfits who have found the only thing they have in common is their ability to vibrate.
She has been reading the Bible for increased time periods since we met. At first I thought it was her habit to close the day with a few words for her subconscious to mediate on. I know nothing of the Bible except for what popular culture has taught me. Though I've held one and cracked the spine, the long columns of words made no sense to me and I slipped it back into the rack of the pew in a long-ago wedding.
I met her at a marching band competition. After I'd said farewell to the band on the bus microphone, the nights fading around the students, I climbed off to find my car. Most everyone had left, but there were a few stragglers like myself going back into the empty arena for one last look. The aftereffects of adrenaline hummed lightly in the air as I observed the striped white grass glow and bugs, like flying dots, bouncing into and out of the stadium lights. From above, the field resembled a chessboard. When I marched on it, I smelled fear and trampled grass. Each step on the field must be calculated and without excessive gesturing. Perhaps I needed to rethink how I taught marching. This season had been a lesson in spot-to-spot memorization of succeeding eight steps. But maybe I should teach them to move in formation, a giant arc of a sail crescendoing towards a goal.
And then I saw her there, backlit and walking toward me, her face coming from shadow to light as she matched my steps and introduced herself.
“I'm Magdalene Cross, but people call me Maggie,” she said.
“I'm the band director of Washington High School in Iowa City. The name is Lionel Strumman.”
“I remember the name, but not the performance,” she said, to my chagrin.
“Why are you here? Are you a Mom?” I said, thinking perhaps Cross was the name of some freshmen flutist or junior high French horn player to be.
“No. This is my stadium,” she said.
“Isn't it owned by the school that sponsored the band competition?”
“No. Rolling Hills is a charter school. I'm just a community member who wanted to invest in something she saw of value.”
“Third person,” I said.
“You spoke in third person.”
“I guess I think of myself in that way. I've got the stadium because I always wanted to see my name in lights and, now that I have, I think of my name as an entity, not of myself. But a name never really reveals who we are, so it is separate.” She pointed towards the peeling banner that ran around the announcer's box high above the seats. Her name was in purple and white.
I asked for a number which I'm sure she thought was a come on, but, really, I was more interested in establishing connections. A stadium-owner was certainly someone to have on your side. As I lifted a finger in goodbye, she said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Raising her arms she turned a small circle as if holding flags like wings and I thought she was hearing her own music or the staccato buzz of the field lights.
She showed up at the next home football game and handed me discreetly a cup of hot chocolate.
“It's windy tonight. Nice to see you. Are you thinking about your name in lights twice?” I said.
“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.” She paused and then said, “How do you combat the force of weather on the field? And no, I'm not looking to see my name anymore.”
“You cannot fight it. The sound is haunting as winter comes, especially under the early set of the sun. Do you want to grab dinner after this?”
She nodded and left me alone until the end of the night, lest my students suspect an affair.
She seemed to move into my life in progressions following the change of seasons. First the weather got colder. Leaves began to fall and crinkled happily beneath the shoes. It rained, iced, snowed and the world was blanketed in a day under a white comforter. Maggie made everything new, even the way she occasionally read passages from the Bible to me after I could no longer squint at future formations for the field. I had become accustomed to finding sleep over my work, like a manic hoping to bring fame to the marching band at a school that did not care. It could be done. There were stories like myths of band directors transforming a school by the echoes of music. I had aspirations of a three-hundred-piece marching band complete with assistant directors and a minion of people who specialized in creating beauty and music on blades of grass.
To distract me from my messiah, she said, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?”
“A universal truth of the individual perception of reality?”
She laughed like the high notes of a xylophone.
She had strawberry colored hair and soft green eyes that were almost hazel in sunlight. She was soft, but not plump, and had been through a string of relationships each more successful than the one prior, but none amounting to what I assumed was her hope of family. These were not my aspirations, for I still felt young and in need of success before I could settle down with my arm around one woman. But I was not naïve enough to admit to my own folly and instead I let her bring in her drawer full of clothes, her organic foods to my fridge, her Bible, and a toothbrush the same shade as her hair.
“Why do you read it?” I said. Her eyes flickered to mine over the edge of her myopic glasses. I knew she could not see me in any detail. There was a comfort in knowing I was only a blur.
“I've always wanted to be more religious,” she said. “What is written here is a roadmap to lead a good life. I think it's important to follow the tenants laid out by God. Don't you believe in God?”
This was the dozenth time she's asked me this question and always I avoided it by seeking her advice on some minor marching band detail that I had no intention of enacting. But this time I thought I was ready for her question.
“No,” I said. “I do not believe that God is in the pages of that book. If there is a God, I think God is in a fermata of a symphony, that pregnant soundless pause that makes your breath catch.”
“No. That is not right.”
“Who is to say what is not right. I think God is in the forward military march to the crowd, a roaring tremor.”
“I'm so thankful than marching band season is over, even though you spend all your nights playing popular tunes for the basketball team. You have to be a Christian to understand God.”
I left it at that, sensing perhaps that, as quickly as she has come, she would disappear from my life. I was never raised to hold onto God or church ideologies. My parents were under the impression one should love life and what one does with it. That was religion enough for them.
As the men's basketball game approaches halftime, my drum majors usher in the other students from where they hide during the game when they are not interested in watching shot after shot of gangly men in squeaky shoes. Though I have in earlier years demanded they stay to play between timeouts, they seem to enjoy clustering in the halls to play cards, eat concessions and talk. I try to be less demanding than I am during marching season.
I lift my horn to play Louis Louis. The drama major counts out as she clacks her drumsticks together, “one, two, three, four” and kicks the song into motion. The students having memorized not by assignment but by routine the music, a wall of sound issues forth from their horns. Fingers move up and down clarinets, hands slide back and forth on the trombones, the tubas oscillate their shiny circular domes catching the lights, and the drums vibrate through my limbs moving me to whole new level of understanding. Music is in my legs and heart, the fast simple beat of the song, the baselines eddying around me as I pour out the music squealing from my silver trumpet polished new. At these moments I am a god myself.
I invited Maggie to the basketball games to hear us play, because the feel was different from marching band. There was a less hectic pace about it and yet the energy was higher and more forceful. Where movement has faded off, sound took over.
“No, I'd rather stay in and start on Revelation. Listen to this: his voice was like the sound of many waters.”
I fell almost obliged to argue with her, to convince her to come at least for my own vanity. “You don't have to sit with me. You would be free to roam where you want. If anyone asks, you could pretend you are a parent of some nameless high school student. You could even bring your Bible.”
“Are you saying you wouldn't want to be seen with me?”
“No, I actually was saying it the other way around.”
“I just want to read my book.”
As another school year ended, the band's final performance was pomp and circumstance at the senior graduation. Five hours and four hundred graduates later, there was nothing more to practice except the next year’s music. I began to hear the faint ticking of Dingels on concrete, feathers shimmying in the wind.
On the last few days of class, I let the students play some of the music for the following fall, quickly collecting the sheets again so none would be lost. I gave them a goodbye speech and I let them go. I had two months to myself to spend in leisure, but also prepare for band and color guard camp that began two weeks before school resumed.
Maggie and I spent less and less time together. Her clothes started disappearing from my drawer. She stopped making meals and when asked, suggested we go out to eat. When I had slept next to her in the winter nearly every day of the week, it was now only once a week or twice. I wondered if I was just another failed romance, unable to compete with her name in lights. It's like we were a moth chasing the illumination over a stadium at night. The closer we got, the more frantic the hum became, the more dangerous. She protected herself between each spiral with the binding of her Bible, spouting quotations like: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Of course, I had no recourse to these words for they were nothing to me, like grace notes to one who cannot read music. Eventually, she just stop coming over altogether. And because she had come in as slowly as she left, I hardly noticed her absence until several weeks after our last phone call, over a month since our last meal, and twice that since we shared a bed.
Band camp was the next day and I hastily aired out the band room, organized folders of music, and wondered how many freshmen would move our band to a greater number on the field. When I had started at this school of three thousand, there were forty-five band members plus six color guard. By the third year, I had increased the group to sixty, then eighty. Then the growth tapered off for a couple years, increasing by two or three with each fall. I collected air in deep breaths and then exhaled it in a slow steady stream. I was nervous, yet straining toward an allegro trill where I'd visualized bodies turning one-hundred-eighty to face with horns to the box. I hoped that the morrow would bring one hundred bodies to fill each half circle row by row and then yard line by yard line on the field.
I figured the more sound I could get on the field, the higher the quantity and the better the performance—much as Maggie must have thought that if she just kept reading line after line of the Bible, she could eventually find the goodness in herself to bring the goodness out of some man. I was not the one.
The next morning at 7 a.m. sharp, to start them in the habit of breaking their day with band as they would for the next five months, bodies filed in, friends reunited and opened up their cases, the smell of wax and cork, polish and dust mixing with the growing heat of the humid room. Year round, the band room exuded the scent of instruments and autumn leaves. But the first day always made the smell poignant as if it too were warming up. I pretended not to notice the short shorts and tight shirts on the girls and the jockeying for attention of the boys in the latest styles of sports shoes and T-shirts. Sounds crept into the room. The hollow sound of neglected clarinets. The deep belch of the tube. The quiver of the snare. At approximately 7:07 a.m., I stepped up to the podium and raised my arms clicking lightly with the baton on the music stand. The upperclassmen looked up expectantly and the younger students followed suit. I had one hundred three sets of eyes.
“We'll begin with a C scale. Play your open notes. Take deep breaths and push each exhale through your horn. This is to warm up the room and warm up your embouchure.” For several minutes deep throaty sounds commenced. I stopped, “We'll go through our set of songs.” Each song sounded like a train wreck, but still I could tell many of the upperclassmen had practiced over the summer, sneaking off with their contraband copies of the fall set list. The younger students took their instruments from their mouth and stared wide-eyed at the notes before them and at the others fingering without the slightest hesitation. I dismissed them to the practice field.
Outside my microphone crackled to life. “Section leaders, once you passed out the charts, move each person to their spot in the first formation.” Each formation was spaced between eight meters of music. Before I released them to the next shape, I fixed what the section leaders could not. “Brass you're too close to the thirty. You're supposed to be on the twenty. Drum line check your positions please. Color guard keep your poles vertical.”
As the sun sweltered and moved to noon, I announced the break for lunch and the students headed back to the band room with more energy than they demonstrated during the last two hours of practice. Inside, a drum major placed a CD of popular music in the player which filtered through several sets of speakers. Like when playing on the field and when playing in the auditorium, the sound enveloped everything and filled the empty places within. Maggie Cross used her verses and I, and presumably my students, used music. Wherever you went—the practice room, my office, the equipment closet, outside on the stoop in front of the double doors, in the hall on the marble steps—the sound penetrated every cell. It bounced and reverberated, it echoed and skyrocketed. It was more than love, it was more than life. Music was breathed in and then exhaled out, a pulsating force in the world.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is an award-winning writer teaching in the southwest. Her works have appeared in 13 th Moon, The Comstock Review, Fiction International, Poetry Motel, Driftwood, Familiar, Spire Magazine, Colere, Clare, Flyway Literature Review, Nebula, and other publications. She is the Literary Editor for IntheFray.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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