Joe loved The Guitar. He named it, scratching it into the back in jagged letters he thought looked sort of metal. It was an electric, cheap but durable, modeled after an old telecaster.
Joe played it every day, sometimes for hours. He played with headphones on through his parent’s fights and through a tiny amp he could clip to his belt when his father wasn’t home. Sometimes his father didn’t come home for days on end. Sometimes Joe wished he wouldn’t come home at all.
One day, while Joe was playing his guitar on the living room couch, his father came home with a friend. They were drunk and smelled it. Joe tried to slip into the bedroom he shared with his little brother, but his father’s companion laid a bleary eye on the guitar and exclaimed, “Is that a telecaster? Give it here.”
With a look from his father, Joe passed The Guitar over.
The man noodled around for a bit, then broke into a rousing rendition of “The Weight” by The Band. He played more songs, by Neil Young, and Dylan and somebody called Nick Drake. He even let Joe play “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” from the Clash and said, “The Kid ain’t half bad!” before taking the guitar back and ripping into “Rocky Raccoon”.
Throughout the night his father sang along, and his mother smiled, and his little brother fell asleep in her arms.
When Joe woke up the next morning his father’s friend was gone. So was The Guitar.
The man didn’t hold onto The Guitar for long. Just until the pawn shop opened. He traded it in for 20 dollars cash which he promptly spent on meth and never gave The Guitar another thought.
It sat in the pawn shop for 7- or 8-months collecting dust. Every few weeks somebody would ask to take a look at it, strum a few chords and put it back.
Then one day Caroline came in.
Caroline was in a band. “A TOURING band,” she defiantly told her relatives whenever they asked, “What are you up to these days? Are you still doing that music thing?”
Caroline loved checking out local shops for weird or obscure musical instruments while on the road. Her bandmates had begun to worry it had become a compulsion as her acquisitions took up more van space than the drum kit.
Caroline asked to see The Guitar under the doubtful gaze of the shop’s proprietor. She tuned it by ear, then tore through the first verse of an original, leaving the owner speechless. She grinned. Shocking prejudiced old men was half the fun.
Caroline liked the sound. The owner wanted $150. Caroline payed $95 and took The Guitar on the road.
The van was cramped, smelled of weed and ass, and stalled if anyone dared take it above 57 miles per hour, but there was always music.
Cool music, from bands most people had never heard of, blared from scratchy speakers, then, when the tape deck started eating tapes, from a portable little rectangle that ran off lithium and seemed to contain every song ever written.
But even lithium batteries can’t last forever and at some point, during the drive from one gig to the next, instruments would come out. Usually a harmonica or a ukulele, but every once in a while, if Caroline had an idea for a riff she’d haul out The Guitar, do her best not to smack her bandmates in the face with its neck, and pick at it for hours.
She liked writing with it.
On stage she preferred her Gibson, though on nights when a venue’s sound guy wasn’t too much of a dick, she’d hook The Guitar up too, because there were a few songs that “just sounded better” through its cheap pickups.
One night at a bar show in a flyspeck town on the easternmost edge of Colorado, Caroline got really drunk after a show. The bar let bands drink for free and it was her birthday. She hooked up with a pretty boy who’d danced through their entire set and bought a t-shirt and CD after. The next morning the band finally tracked her down at his place and set off down the road, already two hours late.
It wasn’t until later at a bar in Topeka that Caroline realized she’d left The Guitar back at the Elk Head in Colorado.
The Elk Head
The Elk Head’s sound guy didn’t find The Guitar backstage until three days later while prepping for the weekly open mic. He had an idea The Guitar belonged to a blond girl from one of the bands Friday night, but gun to his head, he couldn’t remember which one, so he didn’t try to reach out. Besides, he wasn’t paid enough to track down a band that was probably six states away already.
So, he left The Guitar backstage.
That night, Open Mic Night, was pretty typical. Musicians and the odd weirdo poet or comedian from the neighboring towns popped up from the audience when their names were called and did their best to entertain everybody else who was waiting for their own turn.
Most were pretty good. A few were bad.
Around 11:30 the sound guy called a name, but nobody got on stage. He called it again, and an embarrassed young man who probably wasn’t old enough to be in the place shuffled back to the sound booth.
“I wanted to play a song I wrote, but nobody will loan me their guitar,” he mumbled.
“Why didn’t you bring your own?”,the sound guy asked.
The kid’s ears turned crimson,
“I just have my dad’s guitar at home,” he said. “He won’t let me take it out.”
The bartender though it was more likely he wouldn’t let him take it to a bar he wasn’t old enough to be in, but it wasn’t his job to card people, so he just said, “There’s one in the back. You might need to tune it.”
It took the kid longer than most other performer’s sets to get The Guitar in tune, and when he finally managed it, the performance was lackluster, to say the least, but the crowd clapped politely and he did better when he returned the next week.
The Guitar stayed at the bar for several years as a last resort for the spontaneous and ill prepared.
Drunks spilled beer on it, even puked on it once or twice, but whenever a practiced hand cupped its neck, The Guitar always held its tune.
At least until, after half a decade, one of the drunks fell off his stool halfway through a barely recognizable rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and snapped the headstock right off.
Sam cringed when he heard The Guitar’s neck snap.
Sam liked guitars.
He liked going to open mic night, though he rarely participated. He was half decent at half a dozen instruments, but his real passion was making them. Sam was a luthier.
After the bartender got the drunk a ride home and the sound guy cleaned up the stage, the next act finally went up, a comedian, who tried and failed to riff about the previous act.
When the comic began whining about the audience not laughing at his hilarious jokes, Sam tuned him out and approached the sound booth.
“I can fix that guitar.”
The sound guy turned a disgusted gaze from the comic to Sam and gave a snort, “I’m not paying to get that piece of junk fixed.”
“Can I have it then?”
“Knock yourself out,” The sound guy shrugged. “But I already chucked it, so you’ll have to dig through the dumpster.”
The dumpster was only half full, so Sam had to hoist himself over the grimy side to fish out The Guitar. It was covered in sticky beer and chili fries from the burger spot next door, and by the time he managed to pull it from the refuse, so was Sam, but he smiled.
“Don’t worry little buddy. I can fix you.”
Sam took the guitar to the workshop he’d built behind the house he shared with his wife. It smelled of saw dust and varnish. Instruments in various stages of completion littered the shelves and worktables. A few finished products hung from hooks on the eastern wall waiting to be shipped to buyers who’d found Sam’s business on the internet.
Sam set The Guitar on a worktable and unstrung it before wiping it down with a wet cloth. While scrubbing beer and years of misuse off the back, he saw The Guitar’s name scratched into the wood in jagged letters.
Usually Sam hated when somebody defaced an instrument, but he smiled. Someone had loved The Guitar, had given it a name. It hadn’t spent all its years getting battered and broken by rowdy bar patrons.
The next morning, he got to work on repairing The Guitar. He removed and cleaned the knobs and pick-ups. While grimy, he was pleased to see rust had yet to set in. Then he sanded down the splintered wood and cut joints into the neck and headstock before choosing a piece of maple wood and cutting a pair of teeth in them to match with the joints. He added glue then fit the pieces together, gripping them in a vice to keep them tight. Then he went to bed.
The next morning Sam checked to see if the glue held, then sanded down the block until it matched the curvature of the pieces it held together.
Then Sam reassembled the pickups and knobs, applied new strings and tuned The Guitar by ear.
Sam knew it would never hold a tune quite as well as it once had but he thought he’d done a damned fine job.
Sam kept The Guitar in his workshop and on occasion, if he needed a break, he’d play a song or two. Sometimes he’d take The Guitar back to open mic night and play a song or two there. His wife loved watching him play.
One day Sam heard a new song on the radio, a sweet song about a boy losing his guitar, a guitar with the same name as his. He wondered if it was a true story. He wondered if somehow, they were the same guitar.
A few weeks later Sam heard the musician was playing in Denver.
“Excuse me sir, there’s somebody here to see you.”
Joe blinked his eyes open, surprised he’d been asleep, though he was used to waking up in strange places.
Where… Colorado, he remembered. I’m on a couch in the dressing room of the…
The name of the club escaped him.
He waved his arm at the stage manager to let his visitor in, then stood, stretched and rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes.
Joe felt exhausted.
Three months sleeping in the back of a bus. Three months of singing his heart out every single night in one small club after another. Three months of talking to new people every day.
Joe’s mentor, a guy who’d seen some success, who’d gone to bat for him with the record label said he would look back on these early days as the best of his career. It had been fun at first, people coming to a show to see him specifically, singing his own songs, well, the one song, back to him, but Joe was beginning to feel frayed.
The stage manager was back, holding the door for a man in his late fifties carrying a thin guitar case.
“You’re on in 5,” the stage manager said and gave a pointed look to the back of the man’s head, a wordless question.
Joe gave a nod; the man didn’t seem like much of a threat. “Thanks man.”
“Hi,” the man said. “My name’s Sam Valdez, I’m sorry to barge in here like this.”
“I’m Joe,” Joe said. “It’s fine. Are you a fan or…?”
“No…” Sam said. “That is, I do like your music, bought the CD and everything, but I wouldn’t come back here and bother you just to say so. I found something a couple years back. I think it might be yours.”
He searched for a place to set down the case before settling on a magazine covered coffee table.
“I wasn’t sure if I should come,” he said unlatching the case. “It seemed so far-fetched, but my wife talked me into it.”
He opened the case and Joe’s mouth fell open.
It was his guitar.
He knew it before he picked it up. He knew it before he inspected its back and saw the name he’d scratched into the wood almost a decade before.
“How’d you get this?”
Sam shrugged, “It was the house guitar at a bar out east, but I read somewhere you’re from Illinois.
“Yeah, Chicago,” Joe couldn’t take his eyes off it. “May I.”
“Of course! It’s yours.”
Joe slung the guitar strap over his shoulder. It was leather, not the nylon one he’d used, but it felt right.
He strummed for a bit, a simple three chord progression and closed his eyes.
Joe’s eyes blinked open. The stage manager was back at the door.
“Right,” Joe said. “On my way.”
He took a step towards the door and then remembered the guitar. He turned back to Sam and started to remove it.
Sam held up a hand. “It’s yours. There’s no way I could take it back.”
Joe didn’t know what to say, so he said, “Thank you,” and shook Sam’s hand.
“Knock ‘em dead kid.”
Joe smiled and made his way to the stage.
The crowd cheered.
Joe smiled again.
“Thanks guys, this song is about my first guitar. It’s called Beauty.”
Thanks for reading The Guitar! If you enjoyed it hit that like button and leave a comment. If you’d like to check out more of my weird stories and musings about life, the universe, and the meaning of existence, then subscribe to mindful of madness. You can also find me on twitter @drewjokeringram or on Instagram @andrewingram88. Thanks, my self-esteem depends on you.