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The Guitar Man

     They called him the Guitar Man.  “Git-Tar,” he often drawled to himself, late at night.  They never called him by his Christian name; most didn’t even know it.  The Guitar Man’s comin’ to town.  Did you hear the Guitar Man last night?  Boy, I wish I could play like the Guitar Man!  He’d gotten used to it; given enough time, a man could get used to anything.  He’d learned that lesson in a broken down shack in a forgotten corner of town; learned it again behind cold gray walls and barred windows; and again in an empty bed, staring night after night at a ceiling fan.  He didn’t gain his knowledge from no books; didn’t ever read no books, didn’t ever have need for ‘em.  Not even music books.  The music was in his heart—always had been, always would be.  Couldn’t put love on a piece of paper; you could only capture it in a melody, one note at a time.

      He knew it would be his last performance; felt it that morning as he arose from his bed, joints aching, head pounding.  Took a shot of whiskey to silence the noise; it burned on its way down.  Never burned before; that’s how he knew.  When a man can’t take his liquor, he needs to stop drinking.  And there was only one reason the Guitar Man would stop drinking—if he was to be meeting his Savior ‘fore right too long.

      He sat on the edge of his bed a moment, pondering.  Heaven was a dancehall; he’d discovered that years ago.  There would be good-lookin’ women on the dance floor, lost in the music, shimmying in the glare of the subdued lights, swaying back and forth, back and forth, left to right and right to left.  Their hands would move gracefully; their hips elegant and tasteful, devilish yet chaste, a combination that would drive men to their knees.  The music would flow through them; they would feel it in their souls, and their souls would respond in kind, just as they were meant to.  Music was a language; it was the universal language of the angels.  There were a lucky few who understood how to mold the words, who could imitate the rise and fall of the syllables and stresses.

      The Guitar Man was one of the Chosen.  He had long ago thanked the Good Lord for the gift.

      Heaven was a dancehall where the liquor flowed.  The amber currents went down smooth; they caressed, they consoled, they nourished.  A man drank to the rhythm of the jukebox; a beer for a quarter note, a shot for an eighth, a double shot and a prayer for a sixteenth.  Pool cues cracked against polished eight balls; clinking glasses timed the minutes.  And, if you were lucky, the Astros were on the television.

      There would be no spotlight, though.  That’s what always bugged him when he played—how he was the only one lit.  Music was a conversation—the singer sang, the audience responded, and the singer sang some more.  It was only the man on the stage who got the credit; but there was no way in Heaven or Hell the man could be on the stage unless there was a man off the stage listening.  Music was a conversation; and if you’re talkin’ to yourself, then you’re just plain crazy.

      He slowly lifted his balding head, feeling the gentle rush from the ceiling fan above.  There was a mirror on the wall; like every morning before, he forced himself to look into it.  For the first time in years, he met his own gaze staring back.  He wasn’t sure if he liked what he saw.  Maybe.  Just maybe, there was something in there this time, something behind the half-hidden tears that told him he was going to be okay.

      It had been a long time.

***

      As he sat down in front of the microphone, he waited for the Thrill to come.  It took its sweet time, now.  In older days, younger days, he would feel it even before he took the stage; he would feel it just thinking about the song, the guitar strings, the women, the booze.  He would drink, first; maybe a little, maybe a lot.  Maybe he would fuck.  Something to take the edge off—the Thrill had been that strong, then.  It had been so powerful it could overwhelm him, if he’d let it.

      But these latter days, the Thrill wasn't so easy to find.  It still came, alright; it always did, never fail.  But instead of lightning, it was a train; a slow, steady train that built up speed as it progressed.  He could be halfway through a performance before the Thrill kicked into overdrive; and, always, it left him as soon as he exited the stage.  Didn’t use to—no, he’d spent a lot of hazy nights fightin' off the Thrill, using every weapon the devil threw into his hands.  Lost a marriage that way.  Wound up in jail that way.

      He ran through his first riff—a simple number he had derived years ago from the Pentatonic scale, nothing outstanding, but it was still a crowd pleaser—almost without thought; his eyes were closed, his lips drawn tight, the outside world kept at bay.  He was in the song.  That first note, that brief F#, opened the door to a world he had discovered at the age of eight, sitting on his grandfather’s back steps.  A beaten up hand-me-down, the strings dirty and frayed almost beyond recognition.  A subdued sunburst finish; dust caked the pick guard, scratches marred the body.  His grandfather had handed it to him gently, as though afraid it would shatter.

      “Here you go, son.  Now play it for me.”

      And he had; just one note—an open E; the instrument had looked so frail, he hadn’t wanted to risk breaking a string.  It was enough.  His grandfather had smiled and cackled in that intimidating way of his, as if saying: Son, you play this here guitar, and you play it well, or you’ll get a whoopin’.  He had obeyed; all the rest of that day, through dinner, on the back porch, he played.  He came away with more mosquito bites than a boy could count, and raw fingers that couldn’t even hold a cup of milk the next day, but he had his music.  He had his song.

      His fingers hadn’t danced, back then, so much as they’d stumbled. Tonight, though...tonight they blazed across the neck, bending and stretching, forming a G chord without hesitation, following with a C that came on instinct.  His right fingers plucked as his left waltzed.  His feet kept the time; he alternated between them—his feet didn’t concern him, he wasn’t even aware of them.  His voice wasn’t what it used to be, but that didn’t matter.  This was the blues, mister; this wasn’t music for choirboys.

                                                        They told me long ago

                                                        Ain’t no way to get back home

      His throat felt constricted; nothing new, always did.  He had never felt comfortable singing; it wasn’t what he was meant to do. But it had to be done; he was the Guitar Man, but a guitar alone couldn’t hold an audience like this.  You needed lyrics to match the notes; you needed words along with the melody.  Otherwise, the song, the blues, was only half complete.

                                                        They told me long ago

                                                        All a man can do is roam

      His lyrics came to him in dreams, usually.  The melody was a conscious thing, a waking thing; Picasso never painted no picture in his sleep.

                                                        Well I’m goin’ home this evenin’

                                                        And no more shall I be alone

      She’d left him for his friend; isn’t that the way it always went down?  Stabbed in the back twice—by his lover and his buddy.  That was what the blues was about—betrayal.  Betrayal of the heart, betrayal of the soul.  Whiskey helped.  Cigarette smoke, hanging thick in the air, helped.  Many a sleepless night was due to the blues, to the music that arose from distrust and misuse.  He knew it; he had lived it, he had made a living from it.  Not much of a living; a tip jar, a smile, a word of praise.  But a living nonetheless, and one he was grateful for.

                                                        Now I wonder through this darkness

                                                        Not a light can I see

                                                        Alone here in the darkness

                                                        Without a light for which to see

                                                        Oh I can feel the devil’s fire

                                                        Oh brother do you hear my plea

      He didn’t remember the exact moment he’d found the Lord again; it had come in some dim lit bathroom, huddled beneath a sink, with vomit on his shirt and a bottle in his hand.  Of that he was certain.  He’d been drunk; but that was a safe assumption, he’d spent that period of his life inside a whiskey bottle.  Still did, you could say; once you moved in, you didn’t ever move out, not entirely.  He’d never gone to an AA meeting; he’d never gone to a church service. But somewhere along the way he’d put the bottle down more often and started reading his Bible again.  The pages were tattered and torn, tarnished through years of neglect.  There were stains on the words of Moses; Revelations was a patch-work tale of damnation and redemption.  A good portion of Genesis was missing entirely.

      Blues was religion; the guitar was his altar.  It was high-brow thinking, something he hadn’t dared to contemplate in his youth; but age afforded him some slack, granted him permission to think outside the golden box he had tried to craft for himself.  Blues was religion; it was his way of preaching, of singing praise.  Even if he sang of murder and despair, he was speaking the Lord’s tongue, and God was listening.

***

      He lay down in his bed that night, the guitar cradled in his arms.  He stared up at the ceiling fan again, counting the blades as they whooshed past: one, two, three, four, five, six…four blades, only four blades, but they flowed together, melted into a blur of images that, if you viewed it just right, became one solid spinning blade, one single current of motion and wind and everything that music was supposed to be.

      One note at a time.  That’s how you played the song.  But sometimes, yes sometimes, if you were lucky, you would get a chord.

      He strummed.  C chord.  Slow, thoughtful.

      “And now…”

      D chord.  A little quicker than he should have, but everyone was too caught up in the song to notice.

      “I’m a goin’…”

      A pause.  Then, the slowest yet, a G chord.

      “Home…”

      He smiled.  It didn’t matter how many teeth he’d lost in barroom fights; it didn’t matter how wrinkled his face had become; it didn’t matter how his eyes weren’t quite as penetrating as they had once been.  No.  He was the Guitar Man; all that mattered now was how he played, and boy, could he play.  Yes, son, and you would do well to remember it ‘til the day you meet the Lord: the Guitar Man knew how to play.


Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University.  He spends his time reading, writing, and trying
very hard to ignore the responsibilities of the academic lifestyle.
 




About a year ago I went through a Robert Johnson phase.  I've long had an on-off relationship with blues music; something kicked in one day, however, and I bought a collection claiming to be the "complete works" of Robert Johnson.  I listened to the songs several times through, and then began writing songs based around them. 
 
I then decided: why not write a short fiction piece about the blues? I'd written fiction since I could remember, but had given it up about four years previous in favor of songwriting.  Thanks to some
undergraduate-level college courses, I'd recently begun writing prose again, and figured it would be best to honor Robert Johnson and his music by doing it in a style I was comfortable with: prose.

I'll admit: I based the Guitar Man off of caricatures.  However, I grew attached to the old man, his faults and foibles and virtues.  I began to think, if I can have half of his peace of mind at his age, if
I see only a fraction of what he's seen, I'll consider it a good life
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