A single note — high, a pure glint, the shine on the tip of a needle. Still, held. Then, in a purple shower bubbling downward with a slight leftward twist then glancing, springy with the hunger of a racing bullet upward again. A pause. Then, sidewinding chromatic flares, leapfrogging to the earth. A hanging, swaying trill, and then skyward, indigo against the in- side of itself, a pickup twist and then another crown- ing note, slight and cold and shivering, like a star.
The room lay frozen as in a diorama, the staggered bodies of the audience like pinned velvet be- neath the violet hues of the stage lights. There, in the middle of the black box stage at its center he stood, hunched and gargoyle-like, his hat rendering the gentle dip of his thin chest in umbra. His long, darting fingers climbed up and down the keys of his saxophone with a somnambulant confidence. He would sway, brushed left to right and right to left by and alongside the pouring sound of his horn. Every once in a while, the rim of a stage light beam would edge over his face, revealing gaunt and hanging cheeks around long, low lips, pulsing ever so slightly as tongue flicks kicked strings of notes into the air.
Lonely Rex played, and Seth Afterly-Williams listened with his eyes shut, mouth slightly open, lips dry.
The liquid licks of the horn washed around the room minute after minute. Seth’s body swayed side to side, as if buoyed and lilting up with the lean- ing swells of the tide. Eventually, the figure on stage paused, poised on a final note that tapered into nothingness. He remained motionless. Then, his horn hands went slack and he nodded to the crowd and tipped his hat in a single rolling motion.
The spell slid off Seth, and he blinked to clear it from his eyes, then looked around as if checking to 46 see if anyone saw him. The other viewers chatted to each other sleepily, unpeeling from their chairs and receding from the theatre. He stared at the ground in front of him. He couldn’t feel his feet, and they seemed to him almost foreign objects. He wiggled his toes and rediscovered they were his.
Rex murmured a brief thanks to the crowd and slowly melted into the shadows of backstage. Seth watched him go, following his disapparition into stage left. He motivated the blood in his legs, stood, and eked out of the aisle, tailing onto the end of the exit procession. Seth’s eyes aimed in the general direction of his shoes. Had anyone noticed him they would have found his gaze empty and his thoughts clearly elsewhere.
Seth retreated down the back hallway. Its LEDs shone stark and barbarous after the mood glow of the auditorium, but he was at least alone. The linoleum reflected the blue light, and he almost felt like he was walking on water as he approached the closet. Seth pulled his keychain from his pocket, cycling automatically to the thick bronze one. As he pushed it into the closet door, he felt the sweat that had begun to coat his hands. He pulled open the door. There sat his mop, his bucket: his plebeian anchorage. The bucket’s plastic wheels growled anxiously as he trawled it free from the closet and he began to push it down the hall. He passed heavy oak doors on either side. One read “File Room,” and another “Lounge.” He continued roll- ing the bucket. “Practice Rooms 1–4” appeared on his left. He peered in. The lights were off.
Seth felt his breathing intensify. He wiped the sweat from his hands on his pants and looked both ways down the hall. He shook his head, and he continued down the hall towards the restrooms.
From the privacy of the privy, Seth heard the stage crew chortling to each other as they passed down the hall. He heard no mention of Rex. He wiggled his hands into loose plastic gloves and then plucked stray tufts of toilet paper off the floor. He swirled his mop in a couple quick and tight circles, and then jabbed it back in the bucket. He opened the door a crack, and then he looked out.
The doors to the backstage loading area slammed shut at the end of the hall and he saw through their window the three members of the stage crew light cigarettes. He waited. One laughed about something and spat a thick glob onto the pavement. They walked away.
Seth Afterly-Williams prowled down the hall, back the way he came. He couldn’t feel his legs. He could barely feel his bucket buh-dum duh-dum buh-dumming its way over those waxen linoleum tiles.
There they waited, on his right. “Practice Rooms 1–4.” He tried the door. It wiggled a centimeter, and stiffened. Seth forced a sharp exhale. He looked over his left shoulder. He looked over his right. He retried his keys, pawing for the skinny silver one. He clicked it into the lock and twisted. The door opened. Seth tip-toed through the door, dragging his bucket behind him. Its murky waters sloshed slightly. He examined the four doors before him. “Practice Room #1,” “Practice Room #2,” Practice Room #3,” and “Practice Room #4.” No light emanated from any of them.
He tried #1. The door opened, and a light flickered on automatically. A keyboard, drum kit, and a couple amps had been pushed against the wall, like some wave had lifted them there and dropped away into nothing. Seth eyed the shelves against the wall, but he only saw a guitar case. He returned to the hallway.
He tried #2. A light flickered on automatically. A single chair sat in the middle of the room. The shelves sat empty — all except the bottom one. Seth stepped forward atop the balls of his feet. He could hear his breathing, tight and rapid. There, lying on its side, sat a leather saxophone case. Its black face had worn itself brown, fragmenting and cracking into a scaled pattern in most places, peeling away entirely in others. He wound himself up low to look at it closer. He twisted a label which dangled from the case’s handle, smearing it with sweat. The label read only one word: “Rex.”
With clammy hands he unlatched one buckle on the leather case. The very light above seemed to throb, but Seth checked himself. It must have just been his heart, which thrashed against his ribcage. He could feel it pulsing in his temples as he unhooped the arm of the second buckle. Then he lifted the case open.
There sat the saxophone. The lacquer chipped in places, mostly gone around the bell. The pearls of the keys did not glow in the light. Seth panted. He tried to swallow, but he found he could not. He took the neck strap from the case. Slowly, ceremonially, he lowered it over his head. He dug next to the body of the horn and found its mouthpiece, and a reed, and a ligature. He put the reed in his mouth to dampen it and screwed the neckpiece onto the body of the saxophone.
Seth could not imagine himself in this moment. His thoughts had evaporated, and he was here, holding it. He slid the cork slowly, lovingly into the base of the mouthpiece. With automatic motion, he clipped the body of the sax onto the neck strap.
He held it. In his hands, he held it. Seth’s fore- arms held sparks in them, it seemed. He put his mouth around the horn, and formed the embouchure, barely covering his lower teeth with his lip as he relaxed his cheeks and blew.
The saxophone hummed. It was thick and warm and vibrant. Seth blew more, and the single note continued. He spun his fingers in a quick scale. Yes, it was real. He was here.
He began to improvise. The horn filled the room so that there was almost no room for air. Seth could hear the saxophone, but he could not hear him- self playing it. He ripped lick after lick. Sweat built on his brow. His head rang. His vision started to go black. He roiled in the chair and heaved in some breaths. The room warped its way back to normalcy.
Seth looked at the saxophone. Ice filled his belly. He looked out the door of the practice room. There was nobody there. He looked back at the sax, emitted a small animal moan, and disassembled it, slotting its constituent pieces back in the case, which he latched shut. He squeezed the case handle in his right hand and lifted it. He could not hesitate. A salty stickiness had soaked through Seth’s shirt around the armpits, but he could not notice. He turned the light off behind him and crept from the practice room. Grabbing the bucket in his left hand and holding the saxophone in his right, he hustled into the hallway. He fumbled for his keys, staring at them jiggle in his hand as he feverishly jangled for the correct one. He found it, and rattled it into the lock, twisting the door locked and shut behind him. He put his keys away, picked up the saxophone, and turned toward the door.
But there was someone there.
20 feet away from him stood a tall, bent figure.
From under his hat he looked at Seth with yellow eyes, eyes that did not blink and did not move from him. Seth was pinned once more — once more by Lonely Rex.
They stared. Seth could not move. He could not feel. He could not think. The hand of time seemed to elasticize, and forever passed in seconds.
Then Rex snorted, sharp and low. “Keep it,” he said.
Seth ran. He turned, pedaling his feet over one another. The edge of the saxophone case tipped the bucket over, and thick brown water gurgled all over the linoleum tiles. He left it. Seth ran the opposite direction, and twisted around the corner into the main audience corridor, now abandoned beyond the wall’s soft lamplight. He smashed his body into the front double doors and tore into the parking lot, heaving for air. His truck sat in the front space. He fumbled once more for his keys, unlocking his car and tossing the saxophone in the passenger seat. With a rumble, his car shivered to life. He cranked into reverse, and turned out of the parking lot.
As the road crawled below him, he drove. Seconds turned into minutes, and Seth began to feel real again. Every few moments, he would steal a glance away from the road to see his treasure again. It sat there, in his car, in his control. He licked his dry lips.
As Seth reached the bridge to the next town, his truck became the only vehicle on the stretch of road. Waters dark and detail-less as ink indicated the bay below. To distract himself, he tweaked the radio knob to bring some sound beyond his breathing and the road.
From the first station, his regular station, it hit him. A pouring sound, a geyser of music tumbling forth from the Jazz station. A saxophone unleashed, wailing like a widowed mother.
Even through the stereo, that sound felt Seth. He had become totemized, dissociated, two-dimensional. It soared, high and soft and feathery in the range of an arching near-human tenor, tenuring ten- sion in Seth’s neck and back and shoulders as it rippled through his body in a deliberate, ecstatic crawl. Seth felt his temperature soar, and his stomach became hot. His arms and legs quaked, and the headlights of his truck wavered side to side on the highway. With a yank, he pulled it to the side of the road and screeched to a halt.
A sound began in Seth’s throat. Then he threw open the car door, with its radio still singing, still bending the very air into a vastly more lovely shape. He grabbed the saxophone from next to him. The sound in his throat built. He yelled, feeling his larynx nearly peel itself inside his throat, and he staggered to the bridge railing. With a brutish heave, he tossed the instrument over the edge. In less than a second it was gone. Not even a splash reached him.
Seth Afterly-Williams stared into the oblivion. He could feel his fingertips, like every neuron was blinking. He limped to his truck and climbed into the driver seat. He thought his mouth tasted like blood. Shakily, he reached for the radio, and then he turned to silence.