The Wooden Saxophone

By Leonid Storch

ight after they moved, she converted him into a couch. And not just an ordinary, “rooms-to-go” type of couch but rather, a decorative, full-sized one, equipped with a double set of cushions and bolsters. She said that buying new furniture was not an option at this time: The relocation wasn’t cheap and they had to save money in any way possible. The process was fairly simple. She began by browsing the internet for several days, ordering upholstery fabric, a do-it-yourself kit, a webbing stretcher, a staple lifter and a pair of duckbill pliers. She personally built the box frame and even made a small storage space underneath where you could put old puzzle books and fashion magazines. Her whistling – simple and melodic – filled the room as she stuffed him with wool, springs, and other components that were “good for his health.” Finally, she upholstered him and when that was done, she placed a dressing mirror nearby so that he could take a good look at her creation.

“The colors look very modern,” was her approving conclusion. “She’s right,” were his thoughts. Indeed, not only the colors but he, in his entirety, looked entirely sophisticated and modern. Particularly with those puzzle books inside of him. To show appreciation, he squeaked, “Excellent job, you’re really good with your hands, sweetie.”

You see, at first he had tried to resist, claiming back problems that wouldn’t allow him to keep standing straight. With her usual combination of patience and tact, she had reasoned with him: “Honey, whining doesn’t suit you. I realize this is quite new to you and appreciate your hesitation but if you won’t do it for me, then do it for your children. Please? After all, it’s only temporary. And as for your back problems, well . . . there’s nothing one of my massages can’t fix.” Her fingers then ably danced over his spine, a carcass of a couch-to-be.

“She’s right,” he realized. “Family is a big responsibility after all, and sometimes you ought to make small sacrifices for the greater good. Besides, she always had a better feel for interior design. Must be a woman’s thing.”

From then on, all of them spent more time together. The kids were happy; they’d jump on him with a relish, clutching their Cheetos and cherry cokes. The glare of the Nintendo lit their eyes. Leaning on the pillows, she would read Good Housekeeping, her favorite. The clipped Sunday-paper coupons would fall to the floor, one by one.

*  *  *

Saturday morning brought the in-laws, who were tremendously excited the moment they stepped into the living room.

“Great idea, darling,” they said, while patting him on his upholstered, pistachio back. “He suits the floor and the rug so naturally.”

Turning to him they added, “Must be quite an experience, but you’re keeping so straight and firm . . . really comfortable to sit on.”

Treating everyone with coffee and homemade apple-pie (baking was yet another of her talents), she started to share the details of her daring project: “You know, finding the right fabric wasn’t easy. Of course I always wanted nubuck leather, preferably black. That’s what the Millers have. I don’t need to tell you how elegant it would look in my living room, but the price was a problem. Until we’re back on our feet, we have to be realistic about our spending. House Beautiful recommends acetate: affordable, durable, easy to clean, but not sunlight-resistant. See, he’s very sensitive to the sun. Takes him five minutes to get a sunburn. And it’s not just his skin – he’s a sensitive and delicate person as a whole. I’m trying very hard to help him overcome all of this, aren’t I, honey?”

He smiled thankfully. She was such a sweetheart.

“So,” she continued, “I ended up buying a nice cotton-blend fabric, chez tropical. Of course, I had to put some stain-resistant finish on him: He can’t rush to shower every time the kids eat pizza. The fabric is kind of sturdy, but that’s exactly what he needs to resolve his hypersensitivity issues. Right?”

He creaked in affirmation. The in-laws nodded understandingly.

*  *  *

Shortly, as soon as things settled down a little, she bought a silk Victorian coach, the kind she’d always wanted. It was carved with twin lion heads and inlaid with marquetry. Two fine walnut armchairs with brass casters on the legs complemented it – the perfect antique set.

“What did I tell you?” she said. “This was all temporary. Now that we have found a replacement for you, you don’t have to be a couch anymore. But, you know, we still might need a table.”

He sighed a bit – there wasn’t much he could do. Letting her down was out of the question. He was too big for a coffee or cocktail table but didn’t really match the size of a standard dinner table.

“No one is perfect!” she noted, diligently sanding his back and screwing the brackets into it.

Putting polyurethane, buff-colored lacquer on his legs, she explained that since he had brown hair, the lacquer had to be light, to create a contrast. The acrid odor was nauseous, but the lacquer coating insulated him, which certainly constituted a plus, given the winter cold. More importantly, his entire structure had become so remarkably simple that the frustrating health problems bothering him for years were gone at once, as if they never existed. Again, he inwardly thanked her for being so caring and shrewd. “What would I do without her?” he thought.

Cherishingly, she covered him with an embroidered white tablecloth and topped it with a frosted crystal vase. Putting a bouquet of silk roses in the vase, she said, “Darling, I beg you, be careful, this is a seven hundred dollar piece and very fragile.”

When the kids saw him, they were very excited. “Awesome!” was the cry that started the race of plastic cars down his perfectly polished back.

“Stop it,” she stepped in. “You’ll scratch your father.”

*  *  *

Memorial Day demanded they invite a lot of people, mainly her new co-workers from the hospital and also a few neighbors. Most of the invitees were of course Americans, for some reason they tended to have as little contact with their fellow Russians as possible.

“I’ll make a Russian-style buffet. After all, you yourself are sort оf buffed, eh?!” She laughed.  He quivered. Sacrificing for the sake of your own family is understandable, but doing it for strangers is totally different.

She frowned. “You are simply afraid of commitment, aren’t you? Don’t you think it’s hard for me too? But I’m doing my best to help us adjust to a new life and I thought that I could count on your support. This party means so much to me, for my job, and I’m sure it will prove beneficial to you, too.”

Still he resisted, saying that everything had its limits, He used to be a professional musician after all, a sax player in the Silver Jazz band.

Shrugging, she would smile at him. “You’re such a kid. Isn’t there enough jazz in your life now? The house, the mortgage, the property taxes, the children . . . me? It’s called reality, dear. Don’t take me wrong, I like good music as much as the next person, and I’m sure the guests would love to hear you play. So, why don’t you do a piece right before dessert?”

He didn’t even remember the last time he’d held a sax. He had looked for it once, turning both the basement and the garage upside down but finding nothing. Hearing her arguments over and over again, looking at her contorted lips, the sharp line of worry between her eyebrows, he regretted his stubbornness.

“To heck with jazz bands,” he thought. “Life is life, and I have to concentrate on priorities.”

That night she gave a personal tour around the house to each guest. Showing the bedrooms with Venetian stucco walls and the bathrooms floored with honed Saturnia marble, she basked in the compliments of her refined taste and artistic skills. The living room was found particularly impressive.

“What a wonderful dinner table,” exclaimed her boss, a short, bald, Danny Devito, only with less color and a duller appearance. “Is this your husband?”

Towering formidably over him was the boss’ wife, a much older, lankier creature, with a protruding chin. She also approved, “What an original solution! You are very creative.”

Everyone was admiring the food, and it was indeed delicious. She had not taken culinary courses at the community college for nothing. With a variety of dishes on top of him, he particularly favored the roasted salmon filet and avocado salad with a white wine caper sauce, the rotisserie chicken with Portobello mushrooms in a crepe, the fresh spinach, roasted with pecans and green bell peppers, and of course her special veal cutlets. The trick there was stuffing them with ground almonds and diced Kalamata olives. There were also some traditional Russian dishes: caviar-stuffed bliny and beef pelmeni.

In keeping with her belief that plasticware was indicative of bad taste, she set the table with classy porcelain plates, decorative, wonderfully colored bowls, elegant wine glasses, and silverware.

“You’re lucky to have a wife like that – so refined and caring,” her boss told him and, lowering his voice to a whisper added, “As for my old lady, she never cooks anything but instant noodles.”

*  *  *

One of the guests, a man of middle age, came up to him. His voice rang with familiarity as he spoke, “Listen, I’ve been wondering, is that really you, or not?”

He looked at the guy suspiciously, “Excuse me, do I know you?”

The guy slammed on a fist on his lacquered surface:

“I bet you do, man. I bet you do. We both gigged in the Silver Jazz Band. Bob Volsky. I tickled the ivories, remember?”

“Bobby . . . I’ll be damned! How the hell did you get here?”

“I’m staying with friends down the street. They said they were gonna visit some Russian neighbors tonight and brought me with them. Oh, man, I never thought it would be you.”

“Yeah, great to see you. Wait, where are your glasses? Didn’t you wear glasses before?”

“I did. Now I have contacts.” Bob paused, as if hesitating: “Let me ask you something, what happened to . . . uh, why are you . . . like this?”

He didn’t know how to answer. The question was a bit tactless.

“What do you mean ‘like this?’ My wife just asked me to help her – there’s nothing wrong with that. But enough about me, how have you been, bro’? Tell me everything.”

And Bob told him everything:  That he had came to the States with his own band for a five-city tour, that tomorrow they’re flying out to New Orleans for a jazz festival, and that he had already released three CDs of his music in Moscow.

“Look, man,” said Bob, “What are you doing here . . . like this? Come over to Mother Russia, at least for the summer. The guys would love to have you back. You were one hell of a musician. Golden sax! We’ll hit the road, make it to the Baltic coast and gig together. We’ll have fun, man, like in the old good days. Whatdya say, huh?”

He said nothing. Instead, he sighed. A deep sigh – so deep that Riedel wine glasses clanked together, spilling unfinished burgundy over his back. And here she came, saying that today was his lucky day – one of the neighbors happened to have a brass instrument at home, either a trumpet, or a trombone or whatever, and that the neighbor would be delighted to bring it over if he would play a little something for the guests.

“I was sure you would, honey. I’m sure you won’t disappoint me.”

But somehow it didn’t feel right.

“Might I remind you, what I used to play is called sax, not a trumpet, not a kazoo, and not a whatever. You should’ve known that by now. But it doesn’t matter. Tonight I’m not playing anything.”

Her voice, usually calm, yet confident, began to tremble: “Please don’t start, don’t embarrass me in front of our guests. A little performance, that’s all I ask. Can’t you just blow this thing for me?”

But he didn’t care: “I said no. And I mean it. Just do me a favor, leave me alone.”

And then he stamped, with all his force – a solid redwood leg upon the floor.

Behold, silence reigned in the house – deep and grim.

And those who were in the house froze in horror. In fear, they stood as stone.

The silence was broken by his mother-in-law: “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be personal, but your husband has just broken the new marble tile. Look at this huge crack.”

Her reply: “Mom, you shouldn’t get nervous, you have a heart condition,” and bending over the table, she whispered in his ear, “I’ll deal with you later.”

The party was hopelessly spoiled. He noticed that Bob, his face pale and confused, left the house without even saying good-bye. Soon the others started to leave too.

As her boss got ready to leave, she handed him a plastic food container with some avocado salad and caviar-stuffed bliny.  Effusively thanking the boss for coming, she was smiling and asking him to visit again.

After everyone was gone, she began to clean up the kitchen and living room, as if everything was the same. But he knew: Something terrible, perhaps, irreparable, had happened between them.

It was then that he stood up, on his two feet. Abruptly he whipped the tablecloth off his back. An endless cascade of plates, bowls, pitchers, jars, glasses, cups, mugs, knives, spoons – all tumbled with a clanking, reverberating sound. Grey beef from the pelmeni underneath the chairs; slices of green bell peppers floating in virgin-white, cholesterol-free cream sauce; and pink pieces of roasted salmon filet scattered all over. This was the palette of an abstract artist. The picture was complimented by a stream of Bloody Mary floating away to the exit.

She and his mother-in-law were both petrified. Father-in-law, an expression of mourning and grief on his face, was following the stream of Bloody Mary with his eyes. The children looked out from their room. But he wasn’t paying attention to anyone, he walked through the mess of color, leaving greasy footsteps to the basement. He needed to be alone.

*  *  *

They hadn’t been speaking. For days he camped in the basement, watching TV and drinking beer. He searched for old audiocassettes of his performances, he went through carton after carton, but found nothing except for two cracked forty-fives of Glenn Miller.

Soon his self-inflicted estrangement began to weigh on him.

“We have two children,” he thought, “and it’s not just the children that matter. She was doing all of this for the good of the family. And Bob . . . Things were ok before he dropped in from nowhere. Like he couldn’t stay in Moscow!”

She was the first one to break the ice.

“I understand,” she said. “You come from an artistic, a very different background, and what you’re going through now must be difficult. But marriage is something you constantly have to work on, and sometimes people have to compromise to save it. I’m willing, are you?”

Compromise? Of course. Why didn’t it occur to him earlier? With his hypersensitivity he was always going from one extreme to another.

“You miss being in the entertainment industry? Fine. We need a good entertainment center, this way everyone will be happy.”

And she was right. He was so glad to return to family life. To celebrate the reconcilement, she baked an apple pie and cooked his favorite veal cutlets, the ones stuffed with ground almonds and Kalamata olives.

From then on, he was standing in the family room against the wall, sharing a beautiful view with the silk Victorian couch. She hinged CD and DVD holders on his side, slightly above the hips. She pulled wires through his ears, connecting the player with shoulders-mounted speakers, and screwed light bulbs into his ocular cavities – green into right, red into left. It was fun to watch them twinkling in the dark.

His chest was rebuilt into bookshelves, where she placed several photo albums and a fabulous souvenir, a miniature, wooden saxophone mounted on a granite stand. No bigger than a twelve ounce bottle of Budweiser, the sax looked absolutely real. She bought it especially for him on sale in Macy’s, so that he’d feel more comfortable.

 

___

Leonid Storch (Leonard Storchevoy) immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently teaches English in Bangkok, Thailand. He has an M.A. in Chinese Studies and a J.D. Degree. His publication list includes three books (all in Russian) and a number of essays, poems, and fiction that appeared in Russian-American magazines and European newspapers.  He writes both in Russian and English.


Comments are closed.