Vancouver
4 min

A pitiful squeak

When the sax tortures

Credit: Xtra West files

Ah, autumn. There’s the thing with the leaves, of course, but so much more. Every sunny day is relished, lest it slip through lazy fingers and land in the endless puddles to come. The air stiffens the ins of the nostrils and the root vegetables warm the belly. The coffee line-ups are shorter, and contain fewer college students. Guys with hairy backs put on jackets.



It’s not so much the end of summer I mourn as the coming of winter, and fall is a second chance, a chance to wear sweaters, a more nippley reason to go play outside.



I was sitting on my back porch reading the newspaper and admiring the passionfruit vine that has taken over the whole deck on the ground floor and mostly swallowed my back stairs. Last year it was half as spectacular and only squeezed out two sour samples of its fruit, but this year it has outdone itself. The handrail groans with the weight of them, pregnant and orange and pendulous, full of crimson seeds with an undeniably sexy odour.



The neighbours’ cat was lazily curling himself around the fence post, and the old lady next door was hanging out the wash. A three o’clock sun tempted me to take my outside shirt off, but an October breeze begged to differ.



It was Thanksgiving Day and you could smell everyone’s suppers all the way down the alley. I myself had maple syrup yams in the oven, for the potluck later.



That’s when he started up again. The guy. The guy with the tenor sax up the block a bit. He’s been at it a couple of months now. He’s dedicated, I’ll give him that much. I’ve come to call him the Incredibly Untalented One, though, because honk and squeal and belch faithfully once or twice a week for a couple of hours as he does, he doesn’t seem to be improving much. Other than volume. He can play much louder now than he could in July.



The worst part is, I can sort of hear what he’s doing wrong, because I’ve played the saxophone since I was 11, at times with some proficiency. My sole foray into college was two years studying music, majoring on the alto. So I can hear that his embouchure is all wrong, that he’s biting down too hard and has too stiff of a reed for a beginner.



At first I considered hiking down the alley and across the street and giving him a few pointers, in a neighbourly way, but decided against it, thinking he might find it rude or intrusive, or I might squash the delicate blossoming of his creative flower, and now it’s too late. I’ve been listening to him for months, and I know I can’t help him.



He has gotten louder, and worse. In fact, his practice sessions are now so decidedly unmusical that I almost think it’s not melody he is attempting at all, but more like therapy, an unfortunately amplified primal scream, or auditory revenge on his girlfriend, who, understandably, makes him practice outside on the porch.



I tried to ignore him for the first 20 minutes or so, but when the German shepherd two doors down began to howl in protest and my husky proceeded to whine and pace, I started to get annoyed. He was honking the same potent bass note over and over again, pausing only to squeak and scribble high notes like a cat landing on the piano. He wasn’t practicing anything. He was torturing the whole neighbourhood, innocent people who were trapped at home with a turkey in the oven and company on the way.



“Knock it off!” I screamed, already feeling guilty for not supporting him as an artist, and for yelling on a holiday. The old lady next door applauded from behind the sheet she had just hung out. The starlings in the cedar tree next door fell silent. The cat froze on the lawn and looked guilty.



The guy just skipped three beats and crescendoed, somehow louder, the same note over and over again, bracketed on both ends with scronks. I stood up and put down my newspaper. I was about to march down the alley and try a more constructive method of conversation than screaming from my porch, but the skinny guy from the four-plex two houses down was already on his way. I watched him cross the street, and trample across Untalented Man’s noticeably unmown lawn.



I couldn’t hear their exchange, but I can fill in the blanks well enough because not 40 seconds later, Skinny Guy came peeling back down the alley and into his yard, followed closely by Untalented, sans saxophone, in full sprint. He was built like the big bad wolf crossed with the brick shithouse. He charged up to Skinny like a musk ox, and skidded to a stop inches from his face.



They stood there like that for a little too long, then Skinny Guy unbelievably but quite butchly took a drag from his smoke and blew it into Untalented’s face. I jumped up to run to Skinny’s aid, or at least to help peel him from the pickets of his own fence, but oddly, Untalented whirled on one boot-heel and marched back to his house.



Halfway down my stairs and whipped up on adrenaline, I called after him, “We’re not asking you to stop, we’re asking you to get better.” I paused. “Fuckhead,” I added, in solidarity with Skinny.



Untalented slammed his screen door shut, his saxophone abandoned on his deck chair.



Skinny took another drag from his smoke with a shaky hand and shrugged at me, crushing the butt with his toe. I noticed he was wearing flip-flops and was even more impressed with his fortitude.



I sat back down with my newspaper. The starlings started back up, and a perfect arrowhead of geese honked over us.



Go figure. Usually assholes start off on the electric guitar.