The Images That Remain

by Jennifer McGaha

Before I was old enough to know that I was actually a bluegrass fan, I fell in love with a saxophone player named Franc. With a “c.” It was 1981, and I was a freshman in the Brevard High School marching band. Franc was a senior, and he was going to be famous one day. I didn’t know that back then, but he did. Franc was a rather nerdy kid, skinny and pale with light brown hair and gray-blue eyes, but he had talent, and I had a thing for talent.

Here is my first memory of Franc: it was Friday night, at the close of the halftime show. The wind section moved in sync to form a blue semicircle, and then Franc emerged on the 50-yard line. He stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, his saxophone resting against the gold buttons of his jacket. The sky beyond was black. The stadium lights hummed and cast an odd glow on the field. Bending his knees and leaning back so far his hat fell to the ground, Franc pressed his lips to his mouthpiece and began to play “In a Sentimental Mood.” Franc was a natural performer, passionate and powerful. His white-gloved fingers caressed the keys, each graceful note rising above the field and swimming in the foggy light. When he finished playing, the entire stadium stood and cheered.

After the game, the musty instrument room was packed with kids reaching over and under each other to retrieve instrument cases from the shelves—a game of Twister with wind instruments. I took off my hat, shook out my long hair, and waited for the crowd to disperse. Then I stood on my tiptoes to retrieve my clarinet case. Wedging the instrument between my knees, I unscrewed the midsection, then the mouthpiece. Spit flew across my legs. I wiped my pants with the back of my sleeve, then unscrewed the reed and inspected it. Tiny flecks of mold dotted the underside. I placed the clarinet into its velvet case, and, just as I slid the case back on the shelf, Franc strode in. He tossed off his royal blue uniform jacket and leaned against a shelf.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked.

“Okay,” I said. “You sounded great.”

“Thanks.”

He dismantled his sax in one fluid movement.

“If you’ll hang on a sec, I’ll walk you out,” he said.

I looked at my white Nikes. The edges were stained lime green.

“Okay,” I said.

I leaned against the cool, concrete wall in the hallway until he appeared—wearing sunglasses, white t-shirt, and blue polyester pants. He slipped an arm over my shoulders.

“Jailbait!” his friends taunted him as we walked out.

He laughed and pulled me closer to him, squeezing my face against his musky shirt. A few weeks later, our football team made the conference playoffs, and the band rode on a chartered bus to Shelby, North Carolina. Late that night, on the way home, Franc and I pulled our jackets over our heads and leaning back our seats, we kissed, the taste of hot chocolate fresh on our tongues.

Thirty years have passed since that night, yet I still remember the salty sweet of the chocolate, the thick exhaust fumes rising through the open windows, the rumbling of the tires against the pavement, the muffled chatter of teenagers, the cool jacket buttons pressing against my cheek. And there is another night I remember just as clearly. Franc and I had been dating for a few months when Carolyn, the first chair percussionist, had a party for the band.

“I’ll be right back,” Franc told me as soon as we arrived at her house.

I sat on the creamy carpet while Carolyn arranged a tray of Kraft cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers on the coffee table. Carolyn had long, sleek, black hair and graceful, delicate hands. She slipped a stack of napkins next to the cheese tray, glided away to answer the doorbell when it rang, then drifted back with a set of wine glasses. Arnie, a teacher at the high school, popped open a bottle of pink Zinfandel.

“A toast!” he called, reaching his full glass high into the air. “To all of you!”

Arnie was in his mid-twenties, skinny and small-boned, with wiry brown hair that stuck out all over his head. Rumor had it that he was sleeping with the first chair flute player. She curled next to him on the sofa, and every few minutes she leaned forward and giggled into her knees, her long blonde hair falling over her shoulders and brushing his cheek.

Franc’s best friend, Ron, eased onto the carpet beside me and stretched out his legs. He playfully knocked my bare feet with his argyle socks. I smiled and fidgeted with the alligator on my shirt. Ron was the first chair clarinet and a brilliant scholar who would one day become a renowned public policy expert. First, though, he would begin tutoring me in algebra on Sunday afternoons, and one day, when we were finished with a particularly challenging problem, he would kiss me—not a passionate kiss, just a soft, wet one.

“You are smart,” he would tell me, though my algebra average was 52. “You just don’t yet know that you are.”

“Would you like some wine?” Ron asked me now.

“Sure,” I said.

Christy, a petite blonde flutist, was perched sideways on the sofa arm. She called across the room to Franc, and he idled over to her. He wore an un-tucked white polo, jeans, and sunglasses. A wineglass rested between his smooth forefingers. When he leaned into Christy and said something in her ear, she tossed back her head and laughed. Her bright blue eyes were highlighted with sparkly blue eye shadow and midnight blue mascara, so that when she closed and reopened her eyes it was like a wave was cresting, deep black-blue cresting into an azure peak, and then fading into indigo. Over her head, Franc caught my eye.

For a brief moment, I thought I saw something there, and then it was gone. Ron crossed his legs, took a sip of his Zinfandel, and with his free hand brushed Ritz cracker crumbs from my pants.

In early spring, after Franc and I had been dating about six months, the band had a picnic and square dance at Sherwood Forest, a gated golfing community just outside town. The dance was in an open-air structure designed to look like a barn. It smelled of damp pine. While the band played “Orange Blossom Special,” Franc and I do-si-doed and wheeled around and promenaded. Then, he pulled me aside and leaned against one of the wooden rails. His face was flushed and shining. He loosened the bandana around his neck and wrapped his fingers through the belt loop of my French cut jeans.

“So do you want get some air?” he asked.

We left through the side of the barn and walked hand-in-hand through the cool evening air. As the sun dipped behind the ridge above us, the sky fractured crimson and fuchsia. By the time we reached Franc’s Honda Civic, it was dark. Fat rain droplets hit the maple leaves, and then splattered onto the hood, forming flat, silver pools. A fiddle squealed in the distance, and then came a low growl, a rising, rumbling chorus of heels clattering against the barn floor.

“Let’s take a drive,” Franc said.

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the main road, but just before we reached the highway he turned. The dirt road dead-ended at a mountain laurel thicket. Franc cut the engine and cracked the driver’s side window. Delicate blossoms swayed in the breeze like folded doilies, and the soft, sweet scent of laurel filled the car. And then the car lights went out.

Now, all these years later, the precise details of that evening have been obscured and altered by time, but here are the images that remain: the cold hard vinyl seats; Franc’s hard, scruffy cheek against my own. The ping of his jeans unsnapping. My long damp hair clinging to my face. The cloying scent of misty rain.

The next morning, in Introduction to Physical Science class, I passed a note to my best friend, Angela.

“We did it,” I wrote.

Down the table, she leaned forward and raised one dark, delicate eyebrow.

Like that night in Franc’s Honda, my memories of those last few weeks of school are reduced to a series of sounds and still pictures: a long, white prom dress with tiny flowers on the skirt and a low neck that showed off my suntanned chest; Franc in a tux with a narrow tie that hung awkwardly to one side of his neck, like a noose; Franc and me eating rib-eyes, medium rare, and drinking Cabernet at Stephen’s Pub in Asheville; Franc’s hand sliding beneath a gray cashmere sweater I had borrowed from mother and sprayed with Love’s Baby Soft perfume; Franc and me on the leather sofa in his dad’s apartment, Franc’s father at work, Dizzy Gillespie searing through the loudspeakers at our heads, the crinkly leather sticking to my bare back.

Then, at the end of May, just before graduation, all the school bands—jazz and concert and special orchestras—gave a combined final performance in the high school auditorium. I took my seat with the concert band, fifth clarinet from the right, and arranged my music on my stand. The lights were hot, and for a few moments, I saw only green spots in the audience. Finally, my eyes adjusted, and I could see the band director. As he raised his baton, I crossed my ankles, raised my clarinet to my lips, and with the dip of the conductor’s wrist, we began Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Moments later, the conductor drew two graceful semicircles in the air. Our performance was over, and I went to the back of the packed auditorium. Finally, after all the other bands had played, Franc stood alone on stage.

He wore khakis, a white button-down, a skinny black tie, and a maroon Members Only jacket. His saxophone rested against his hip as he waited to be introduced. Then, he nodded to the audience, lifted the sax to his lips, and crooned “What I Did For Love.” He closed his eyes, his narrow hips swaying to the beat, his head rocking gently back and forth. The stage lights reflected off his saxophone and bounced above his head, and though I was listening, I was also remembering.

“I can’t do this,” I had said to Ron the night he had kissed me over an open algebra book.

“Why not?” Ron asked.

“Because I’m in love with Franc,” I said.

Ron’s lips parted. He kept them there for a moment, open but silent, and then he closed them. He cocked his head to one side, then reached out and touched my arm.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, moving his hand.

Franc hit a high note. It shot through the auditorium and shook the air. A brief pause, and a dip, lower, softer, and suddenly I saw Christy again, her blonde head thrown back, Franc’s bent knee leaning in toward hers, his cool even eyes meeting mine. And I knew.

When Franc finished playing, he paused dramatically, his mouth still closed around his mouthpiece, his head bent dramatically forward. And when he rose and opened his eyes, the audience members jumped to their feet. I hugged my knees into my chest, and I sobbed until the curtains closed and the auditorium cleared.

That August, Franc left for Appalachian State University to study music performance. At first, he still called me occasionally, on holidays or whenever he happened to be in town for a weekend, but eventually he stopped calling altogether, and I tore down the pinups of Sean Cassidy and Leif Garrett from my bedroom wall and tossed out all my back issues of Tiger Beat. For weeks on end, I lay languid in my bare room, writing sentimental poetry and listening to Eric Carmen records.

“All by myself… Don’t wanna live all by myself anymore,” Eric sang, and I thought he could see directly into my soul.

Finally, I emerged from my room, but I wasn’t quite the same. Many of my good friends had graduated with Franc, and I felt isolated. Formerly a good student, I was now unable to concentrate on academics. My grades dropped dramatically, and I became restless, rebellious, and insecure. I begged my parents to let me leave high school, and finally, after my sophomore year, they agreed to let me graduate at the end of my junior year and begin college a year early. Appalachian was the obvious choice. It was close by, and it didn’t require the math credits I was missing. I began school there just after my seventeenth birthday, and one night late in October, my phone rang.

“Hey,” Franc said.

I sucked in a deep breath.

“I heard you were here,” he continued, “and I was just wondering if you might want to come over to my apartment for dinner tonight.”

I was homesick and lonely, and I had just traded my meal card to buy five fifths of liquor, a bag of pot, and a gram of cocaine. And so I said yes. It was snowing when he picked me up at my dorm—heavy, wet flakes that settled on the sleeves of his leather jacket. Back at his apartment, we sat at the bar in his kitchen and ate sweet and sour chicken and jasmine rice with chopsticks.

“How have you been?” I asked.

“Good,” he said, his gaze fixed somewhere over my head.

“Do you ever talk to Ron?”

“Every now and then,” he said.

Franc tilted his head to one side, the one closest to the stereo, and made rapid, clicking noises with his tongue. Then he jiggled one leg up and down and drummed his fingertips across his thigh. His rapid movements had an odd, hypnotic effect on me, so that soon I too heard my voice folding and collapsing into the sultry strains of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.” A little while later, Franc took me back to my dorm.

That was the last I saw of Franc until about a year ago. I was reading the local newspaper when I noticed an article on the bottom of the front page: “Local Musician Joins Marshall Tucker Band.” The article was continued on the back of section A. I flipped the paper over, and there he was—long, flowing shirt with pastel swirls across the chest and sleeves, sweaty hair falling into his closed eyes. He had a mustache, and a hint of a beard, and he gripped a microphone with both hands, his lips parted, a row of wide teeth above his wet tongue. His saxophone hung loose around his neck and rested in the crook of his rainbow-sherbet-colored arm.

I stared at the picture for a long time, struggling to recognize the boy-man I used to know. Then I held the paper up and turned it so that the fluorescent kitchen lights caught the glint of the saxophone, and in its reflection I saw a fourteen-year-old girl riding home from a band picnic:

It is almost midnight when we pull out of the dirt road, back onto the highway. Franc steers with his left hand, his right hand resting high on my thigh. Just before we turn into my driveway, I pull the rearview mirror toward me and roll my shirtsleeve across the cold glass to clear the fog. My eyes are burnished brown. I wet my forefinger and wipe the jet-black mascara from above my cheekbone. Then I spread my fingers wide, like combs, and run them through my chestnut hair.

Jennifer McGaha is a native of western North Carolina. She writes both nonfiction and creative nonfiction. She also teaches part-time at Brevard College and is creative nonfiction editor for The Pisgah Review.

About The Images That Remain—“The Images That Remain” is a piece from my growing collection of literary nonfiction.

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