Lil Johnny Brown was never the first child to be picked for teams at school. He was not a very popular kisser. Heck, even the Mathletes were a little wary of the four-foot-two, chunky, pink child with a mosaic of acne you could read your horoscope in. But lil Johnny Brown had a secret.
No, not really. It was too enormous to be a secret.
He was the best sousaphone player in the world.
Now, some of you might be wondering, how might I, too, play the sousaphone? Or where might one acquire such an instrument? Or oh, is that that thing that I thought was a tuba but it’s, like, twice the size of something that a single human body should be able to support and I’m pretty sure the neighbour’s dog disappeared down there somewhere and--
Yes, Virginia. That is a sousaphone.
When lil Johnny Brown walked the halls of his high school, children stared. He shone like the sun. Brass looped over his shoulder and across his chest like the bandoleer of St. Michael. Its enormous bell thrust up over him like an elephant’s trunk, unexpected when you’re late to Physics and it slams into—
Yes. He was majestic.
Its complicated valves curled over his chest like polished intestines, and to accommodate its bulk and still manage his books, he pulled one of those fashionable wheely-backpacks (the idea of disassembling the instrument was too troubling). He wore his sunglasses inside, and his heart thrilled each time the hall cleared to let him through.
He wore it in Math class. He said the curve of its neck helped him with Trigonometry.
He wore it in English. Just spelling ‘sousaphone’ correctly helped him pass his mid-term.
He wore it in swimming. Only once.
At home, his parents could not be more baffled. Their son? A prodigy? A world-champion? Matilda shook her head with wonder at lil Johnny, the brass genius. Each night she begged him to play ‘Blue Monk’ or ‘Bayou Betty’ while she mopped the floor, and her husband Earl provided the trombone parts once he was done with the dishes. It had been that way since Johnny had first begun to learn. Besides, Tilly, herself, had been a mean scat singer in her wanton youth, and so the Brown house was hopping every night, without fail, from 6pm to 8pm. Then it was mostly quiet so Johnny could go to bed and Earl could watch the news.
It had all come to a head six months ago, when the St. Barabas’ School Marching Band was invited to participate in a European showcase in Düsseldorf, Germany with a selection of other teenage ensembles from around the world. Now the Browns didn’t have a lot of money (Tilly famously pawned her great-grandmother’s Prohibition-era, pearl-handled revolver to buy Johnny’s instrument) but seventeen bake-sales later, there they were, waving Johnny goodbye at Templetown Airport and praying to God his bag met the weight restrictions. What happened later was told to them by lil Johnny himself, in a collect call, all with the rapid-fire disbelief of someone who’d just achieved greatness and still couldn’t quite believe it.
The music festival that year had been bigger than ever, with brass bands from as far abroad as South Korea, Chile, Nigeria, and even Cleveland appearing on the bright banner beside Stage 4. The children were buzzing. For many, this would be their first time on an international stage.
Johnny’s stomach hurt so bad he thought he might pass out. He’d twisted the corner of his sheet music into a sweaty, torn nubbin as he looked around the bubbling sea of competition. He’d have to guess what that high note in the fourteenth measure was, but he couldn’t help himself. His mouth was so dry it tasted like something had died in it.
‘Mr. Richardson!’ he jammed his hand up into the air like a white flag. ‘Mr. Richardson!’
The much-aggrieved Marco Richardson was flipping through his clipboard with the intensity of a surgeon when he finally saw Johnny’s hand.
‘Brown, what is it? I told you we’ll all pee afterwards--’
‘Can I get a drink of water? Please please?’ Johnny felt his cheeks burning. Some of the other kids, with their gelled bangs and loose ties, seemed to be laughing in his direction. Mr. Richardson, a famously-parched man, himself, frowned into his mustache.
‘Stars and garters, John, didn’t you bring your thermos with you?’ he shouted over the din and flailed his army-grade water bottle around over the students’ heads. ‘Good gravy, get, just get moving, we’re onstage in fifteen—no, twelve minutes! You hear?!’
But Johnny was already moving. In an ocean of teenage band geeks, even with his sousaphone, which at that point in his young life had been only a tragic passion, he didn’t stand out. The seas did not part for Johnny Brown.
But as he humphed and pushed and sidled his way around the Chinese team, looking for a snack vendor or a coffee stand, he saw a side entrance with a handmade sign that said Toilette in glorious red letters. A light went off in his head and he dove, as much as one can while wearing a thirty-five pound instrument, through the curtain.
It was dark in the passage, and little off-shoots lead out from the velour tunnel with signs like ‘Bühne 5’ and ‘Klo außer Betrieb’, which sounded magical but didn’t mean much to Johnny. All he wanted was a sink, all he wanted was a sip of something cold, his mouth felt filled with sand—
He came out the other end of the tunnel, not having seen any more useful signs, and for a moment all he could do was stand still as stone, blinking in the bright light.
It was only then that he realized why the lights were bright.
And why the crowd looked so expectant.
And why the announcer was riffling through his cards and muttering in German, cheeks red.
‘And our last contestant is!’ he announced and jammed the microphone into the liminal space between the silver valves and Johnny’s chin.
‘J-Johnny Brown,’ he managed to say, still not comprehending.
‘Junny Braun!’ the announcer repeated and the hundreds of faceless people thundered their applause.
Before Johnny could think of what to say, all the things he needed to ask, the announcer was already across the stage in the far wings. The only other person still onstage sat at an enormous piano, watching Johnny expectantly. He adjusted the placement of his dark hands on the keys.
‘Go ahead, kid,’ he whispered, and gave Johnny a small smile. ‘Play your piece.’
Johnny’s whole body felt like that time he’d tried to swim. A droplet of sweat trickled slowly from his forehead, down the soft skin in front of his left ear. The room was filled with eyes.
He looked down at the mouthpiece of his instrument as if it were the first time he’d ever really looked at it. And after what felt like a hundred heartbeats, he pressed his lips against it, and he began to play.
At first, when all he saw were the white walls of panic, his fingers flew fast over the piece his classmates were surely about to play on another stage not far away. And as the notes left the ringing beauty of the bell on his shoulder, and shivered out over the crowd, his neck began to straighten. His shoulders began to drop back to their normal posture. His feet stood hip-width apart, and his mouth actually didn’t seem so dry. The pianist joined in with a friendly improv, lifting up the little bits that wavered as Johnny played.
And an image of his parents, soap suds and brass in the kitchen, and smiles stretched from pearl earring to striped tie, faded into view. Without even knowing, a little smile began to prick at the corners of his mouth.
The music changed, then. It grew and blossomed into a stream of coloured light, that flickered over the crowd like an unbottled aurora. The deep booming voice of his instrument sang his story – of a little boy, not much liked, who had a love for music that had been passed down from each of his parents with full hearts. It painted into blues and greys the Friday nights when he waited expectant, but the phone sat silent, in scarlets and aubergines of the weeknights spent battering his way through his scales and the punishment of memorizing a new song, in the faintest, tentative, hopeful yellows of his first recitals, of his first parade, of stepping off the plane and knowing he’d get to play, here. He drew his brush across every heart in that enormous room, and some objective part of his mind saw him, standing like Orpheus and shining like a star, fingers blazing across the stops, and the pianist, forgetting himself, too, playing with wild, joyous abandon behind him. When Johnny finally stopped, his cheeks were wet, and his breath came heavy.
The announcer ran back into view and said some things that Johnny couldn’t take in, and then hushed him off the stage and into the soft, dark folds of stage left, where he could see, now, about a dozen other brass players seated, waiting. They were too tall, he thought, and then he realized they were probably all in college. Their eyes contained fury in multitudes.
‘And now, the winner of this year’s International Brass Soloist Competition is--’
The students all leaned forward.
The crowd roared and the boy beside him threw his euphonium to the ground with a muttered curse in Korean. Others were shouting, gesticulating, and staff were rushing in.
‘He wasn’t even on the list!’ one girl shouted, pulling at her dark, curly hair.
‘He’s an accident!’ one boy just kept shouting. His blue eyes rolled. ‘An accident!’
The announcer said something for a second time, and the crowd cheered again. The pianist was stepping off-stage, done for the night, and saw Johnny standing there. The boy looked like a sweaty, pink statue, and he stood like the eye of the storm that raged around him.
‘Hey, Johnny?’ the pianist said. He deflected an offensive blow from a trombone that was arching towards Johnny’s head and leaned down. ‘Kid, didn’t you hear?
Johnny looked into his eyes.
‘Yeah!’ the man laughed. ‘You killed it out there. Go on, get your prize--’
Johnny nodded and felt the first flickerings of life tingle in his toes. ‘My prize--’
The pianist gently guided him back towards the stage and when Johnny stepped out into the sun, he stepped out to the cheers of--
BRAUN! BRAUN! BRAUN! BRAUN!
‘There you are!’ Mr. Richardson shrieked, though Johnny could only just hear him over the cheers. ‘John Lorenzo Brown you get down off that stage this instant and get your brass back to the St. Barabases!’ A vein was ticking on the side of his head. He managed to launch his gangly limbs into the stage and heaved Johnny towards the stairs.
‘Wait! Wait!’ the announcer cried. He placed an enormous bouquet, nearly as luscious and full as the beaming bell of the boy’s instrument, in Johnny’s arms. And around his neck, a gold medal.
The rest of the trip was a blur for Johnny. Even the phone call home felt like it took place under water, and it was only when he saw his parents standing on the other side of the gate back in the safety of his hometown did his breath catch in his throat.
‘Momma,’ he said. ‘Dad.’ Everyone’s eyes were shimmering and their cheeks were red. ‘I-I won. I won!’
It had been hard to console the rest of the St. Barabas’ School Marching Band (they lost to the Russian team, whose flautist also had a gold medal), but the trip had been, needless to say, a successful one for the Browns.
And so school life had changed greatly for Johnny, and the Browns’ nightly concerts continued, with even more gusto, now that their world champion was home. A couple of colleges had already called, and one of them was even from out-of-state. And while Tilly and Earl resolved more than ever to make sure their son completed every bit of his school work, they never minded if he said he had to do a bit extra sousaphone practice.
‘Just to stay on point,’ he’d say, ‘you know. For next year.’