PITCH DARK SAX
Late in Grad. School I often went fishing alone. It was taboo for an art major to fish or hunt, not very hippie cool. A geology grad student friend got me interested in it again. I had forgotten how much fun catching a fish was. When he phd’d I went alone, which I liked a lot. Flyfishing for bluegill & bass with tiny poppers, or bits of deer hair called muddler minnows. I liked to fish until it was pitch dark in the strip mine pits near Columbia, MO.
The abandoned water filled pits seemed to go on and on. Some were ice blue with acid green bottoms, nothing lived in them. Some were like normal farm ponds, brown and rich in moss and life. Some were perfectly clear like a small northern Saskatchewan lake. I preferred the clear ponds best, the fish could see you as well as you saw them, so they were the toughest to fish, with cliff like stone banks along deep blue green water. The surface was often mirror like in the hot midafternoon sun. You could fish in the sky and the clouds, with only your line to break the illusion.
One summer evening when it didn’t get truly dark until after nine, I had walked back to the farthest pond from where the dirt road ended. When it was time to head home, it was tough to see until I finally couldn’t see anymore at all. I sat down and waited for the moon. Coyotes must have picked up my scent, their howling yipping calls getting ever closer. I realized I still had sunglasses on, laughed outloud at myself & I took them off. My eyes finally finished adjusting to the starlight about five minutes later, and I could see star shadows in the tall grass.
The dirt path was gray-blue in the black grass of starlight and I easily found my way, the coyotes keeping about a hundred feet off downwind to my left, trailing me. I could hear them trotting in the tall grass, sniffing & snuffling, randomly one or another would start to howl, they all would pick up the chorus, amazingly loud and close in the night. I wasn’t afraid of them, though I would have been if it were wolves, at the time I was confident of my ability to scare off a few coyotes, who are terrified of humans anyhow. An hour of walking on a blue gray rope, trailed and shadowed by the pack was getting old, as the hazy trail lazily twisted through blackness. I saw the Big Pond in the moonrise. It was actually a decent sized lake and my car was on the other side, I knew I was finally close to home. I decided to night-fish in the full moonlight near the Big Ponds’ spillway down the path in front of me. The coyotes had lost interest in me having jumped a rabbit, and it the darkness I heard it sqeal when caught.
As I made my first cast I heard a saxophone cautiuosly warming up across the lake. The coyotes heard it too and tried to respond then as the sax warmed to the task, were silent. I thought maybe I had finally lost my mind when it began playing a long slow lonely riff, cut with slashing jerks and hips, whirling round the main theme of lonely sound echoing souls not yet lost forever, sliding across the lake to no one but God and the night. It was the most perfect music I have ever heard. As if Bird and Coltrane and Davis had joined up with Howlin’ Wolf, George & Ringo, all fit together pouring through that one lonely pitch dark sax. The angry chainsaw roaring whine & coughing rythm cutting through space, sending out sharp clean chips of time in a spray. Now bridged with sad notes of a crossbreed song. The loon & whipoorwill mix softly singing in the galaxy’s pale clear light. Finally the steel chain rythm comes tremorring barking hawking screaming sobbing smiling wishfully sighing lovingly back now without any fear, anger spent, spitefullness gone, peaceful yet strong… quietly defiant of the darkness but not, yes not, the night.
When it was over, the black silence was broken as I heard the musician, the artist, the unknown master clear their throat, I sat wanting to speak, unable, the car door slammed, I watched as the lonely lights drove off, and I was thankful for a truly magic moment. Only then did I realize my line was still in the water from that first moonrise cast. I reeled in, walked round to my old clunker, then drove home exhilarated and exhausted for a few hours sleep before the start of a my last semester of class. Now I was ready, for I understood what art was, what it could, and should be. Though I was unaware then, that it would take me most of a lifetime time to visualize that sound. And that I would never fully succeed.
Copyright F.A.Alsbach 2007
In Cub Scouts, I think we were about eight, we carved cars for the Pinewood Derby. At that time we each got a small plain rectangular block of balsa wood, four wheels, and a maximum weight for the finished car. We were supposed to make them ourselves with our dads guiding us. My Dad helped a little by showing me what to do. “Just so you don’t cut your fingers off.” I was remarkably clumsy even for a young boy. Some fathers helped a little more, and some took the thing over. (This was 1966, WAY back when almost all kids actually had fathers who lived at home.)
Corky McCoy did his all by himself. Corky was a sickly little boy, clumsy, frail, meek, and usually nice. Corky’s parents were old. They even had gray hair! He had a brother who was about six years older than us. Corky’s brother was big, strong, handsome, cool, angry and smart. We almost never saw Corky’s brother. When you did, if you had any sense at all, you were quiet till he passed. A couple of years later a guy his age made a mean crack about Corky during a weeklong campout. (Corky was still blowing bubbles with just his face bent down in the water, trying to learn to swim while the rest of us were getting ready to swim the mile. The Eagle Scout who was teaching him was the most patient big kid any of us ever knew.) Anyway this big jerkwad shot off his mouth at the worst possible time, Corky’s brother spun and flicked a knife which flashed in the sun then stuck in a tree just above that big bare-chested jerkoffs head. I saw it happen. No one ever, never, ever made another wise crack about Corky while his brother was within a hundred miles. Corky’s brother just walked on into his tent. Fortunately no one was stupid enough to tell. As far as I know the knife just stayed there, in the tree.
On the day we were to bring our cars, Corky was so excited that he got there early and set his out first for everyone to see. His frail shaky hands had done their best work ever. His red car was roughly carved and hardly sanded. The paint was crudely applied and lumpy. The wheels were crooked and the numbers, though a decal, were stuck on the rough surface in a sort of balled up and the uncrinkled lump. Corky was fairly electric with pride, just bouncing in place, breathing hard through his teeth, his eyes smiling wide under his huge thick glasses. I was hiding my car by the side of my leg till I could just kinda slide it in with everyone elses.
Gradually the other kids brought in their cars and set them out. I slipped my on the table in the crowd. The parents and kids divided up to shoot the breeze until everyone got there. My friend Jeff Nanney & I, both small nervous clumsy misfits, tried to be invisible by staying on the periphery, we were thankful for Corky because he kept some of the mean kids attention off of us. Of course Jeff could always outrun them, but I was too slow and uncoordinated to outrun anyone then. At first Corky was still so excited about actually having made something that he didn’t notice the difference between the other cars and his. His parents had managed to shield the best cars from him with their bodies for a while. Then the dads who actually did all the work brought in their perfect cars, shiny and sleek, like miniature hotrods with sharp details. They drug their boys along behind on an invisible leash, feeling mean and shamefaced.
Corky started catching on, especially after the untamed secret cruelties of little boys began to express it self. “Hey did you see Corky McCoy’s car?” “Oh my God, its so terrible.” “What an idiot.” Ghaaad McCoy.” “He’s so stupid, he’s even dumber than you are AAAzzzbach!!” “Huh! Where’s your stupid car?” “Why did he even show up?” Everyone was still milling around checking out the cars. Mine was just average, a fact that makes me proud of my carpenter Dad to this very day. Corky started turning pink and paper white. Then he was quietly crying. Then they were gone. The strange wobbly red car just sat there alone, it was still there when we left. I guess Corky’s brother came & got it. (Because it was gone at the next meeting.) Corky was there, so was his silently radioactive big brother. I wished to myself that I had a big brother. But I would have to learn to fight on my own, which eventually, I did.
The thing is, after 42 years I still remember Corky’s car. Sometimes I remember it exactly. Then I can turn it on a pedestal in my mind. I have no idea what any other car looked like, even my own. But his car is an icon branded on my mind. His car had the raw yet sophisticated power of an ancient mask, a thirty eight thousand year old cave painting, a Rodin maquette, a late Captive by Michelangelo, a Van Gogh self portrait, I could go on and on…
I think about that car often when I paint. It haunts me. I hope someday that I make something simple and pure that burns into your mind like that.
© Floyd Anthony Alsbach 2007,
all rights reserved by the artist.