It wears a patina of thousands of fingers, a mahogany faded to lemon yellow. It towers, at 6 feet tall, over the 11- through 13-year-olds who plucked its strings and made it sing.
It stands second in a row of five double basses, with fuller, more masculine voices than the cellos on the other end. They share a block wall in a Madison Middle School classroom.
Someone broke the tip of its ornamental scroll, perhaps the wear of love like a velveteen rabbit. The fingerboard is maple-stained black. Its face is thinly layered with birch, poplar and maple with a veneer of spruce. On top shine seven coats of lacquer.
It was made in August 1985 in an Illinois factory, Engelhardt-Link. A school could get it for $1,200 to $1,500, said Tom Link, who owns the factory. This one went to Brandon High School, then the Hillsborough County School District's sole magnet for stringed instruments. The program grew, and now orchestras are at nearly every high school and middle school, a state and national rarity.
Like wine, Link said, a bass sounds better with age.
"As long as it's played, it could last forever," he said.
But what if it just sits?
• • •
Stephanie Montes taught orchestra at Madison Middle School two years ago. She told Jeremi Brito the bass was the heartbeat of the orchestra.
"You have to keep perfect rhythm," she said to him. "If you speed up or slow down, the whole orchestra follows."
Jeremi was 13, but could pass for 15, Montes said. He was really smart and liked jazz. He signed the form that he would be responsible and paid the yearly rent of $42.80 for the bass with the lemon yellow tint.
Playing it came naturally.
• • •
Early one Sunday morning at the end of the school year in 2011, Jeremi and his older sister Kiara answered their door to find two men, one with a gun. The teens were shot in their living room.
Montes couldn't believe the text messages her students sent that morning. On Monday, they made cards that Montes left at the hospital in Jeremi's room, where he died that day.
His friends then heard about Jeremi's unusual home life. He drove his mother's BMW and had marijuana in his bedroom. The men who had shot him came to buy drugs from his sister.
The orchestra kids wrote messages to Jeremi with marker on the sides of his bass. It felt like their heartbeat had stopped.
• • •
Over time, many schools gain memorials. They mark history for the school. They help with healing.
Even after people leave and new ones arrive, memorials are part of a school's story, said Madison principal Joe Brown, who came to Madison after Jeremi.
At McLane Middle in Brandon, Brown remembers a cast of a handshake, one white hand grasping one black that was placed during desegregation, when he was a student.
Last year, Brown hired a new orchestra teacher and showed him the bass.
This year's new class of about 300 sixth-graders will cycle through Kevin Frye's orchestra classroom for 18 days. On the last day, they get to try a bass. Next year, they can pick: culinary arts and Spanish or orchestra. This year, 60 seventh- and eighth-graders come for stringed instrument lessons every day.
When they ask about the bass, why no one plays it and who wrote on it, Frye tells them about Jeremi. These kids can handle it, he said.
Sometimes they read the notes on the sides.
So sorry your life got cut in half.
I will always miss you like my big brother.
My homie. RIP
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.