In our little town of soot and sulfur
the Maestro was known as a gentleman
of the old school, soft-spoken, refined.
Even my mother approved, handing him
on Saturday afternoons, the money
she scrimped, that I might profit as much
in manners as in music, blatting
my horrible cornet cadenzas
into the parlor’s fractured air.
How patiently he listened, what pains
he took, urging my labors toward song!
What he loved, above all, was Mozart
and the soaring voices of bel canto.
I wanted only to be Harry James,
my famous embouchure lifting
the first fat notes of “Sleepy Lagoon
into the ballrooms ad balconies of heaven.
It all came tumbling down the night
the sheriff’s spotlight found the Maestro
lurking in bushes by a bedroom window—
thus ending, so it seemed, a rash
of unsolved neighborhood complaints.
Little survived his shame: lessons,
his standing in the town, the strains
of Mozart drifting from his house—
gone, and then he was gone.
It would be years before I, too,
could leave that dying town to find
my way in the world. Yet even now
I think of him and recall those hours
on Saturday afternoons when he sat
beside me and sang into my ear
measures I could not hear for myself,
and from this distance now, in praise,
I purse my lips, as he taught me, and blow
a silent triple-tongue staccato,
into an imaginary silver mouthpiece
of a horn once held by Harry James,
filling the sunlit rooms of Memory
with the pure, incorruptible dream of music.