Jeff Richards

COOL GUITAR

I’m gonna sell the bitch’s car

And buy myself a cool guitar.

—J. J. Sutherland

 
 
I drop by U Street Liquor to pick up a case of beer and a fifth of whiskey.

“I seen you play gigs around town,” says the twerp behind the counter, beaming at me. “You’re first-class. When you gonna play again?”

“Never.” I put the case on the counter. Ask for Jack Daniel’s.

“Maybe what you need is a new piece.” He pulls a 1968 Lake Placid Blue Fender Stratocaster from beneath the counter. No amp. No cords. A few nicks on the scratch plate. A worn spot where the strap rubbed against the wood. Otherwise mint condition.

“Cool guitar, yes,” he giggles. “Used to belong to my brother. You can have it for two thousand.”

“No thanks,” I say, but to tell the truth the Strat stops my heart. Right out of the Jimi Hendrix era. I could imagine him playing “Red House” or “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. But what can I do? I’m poor. I pay the twerp for the booze.

He says, “Hey, maybe next time.”

“Yeah. Sure.” I lug the stuff down the street.

I stash the case under the sink, in the dump the bitch and I share. Put a few in the freezer to cool. Relax in front of the TV sucking on the bottle of Jack.

“You shouldn’t drink so much,” she whines at me.

I take off my work clothes and throw them on the floor. Put on a pair of shorts.

“You’re such a slob.”

I come home early a week later to find Ed, the ex-boyfriend, a law student at G.W., in the kitchen patting her on the shoulder. He sneaks by on occasion, even though they haven’t been together since she pulled up at my door three years ago in the red Honda Accord her parents gave her when she turned eighteen. Ed tells Miranda that she’s a good person. That she deserves much better than a rat like me. She’s leaning her head against the kitchen table, sobbing. Sees me. Jumps up.

“Why, hi there, Ed,” I intone in a friendly voice as I raise my fists and hunch over in a fighter’s stance. “Trying to screw my girlfriend behind my back.”

I take a few lazy swings in his direction that he easily dodges. He backs up against a chair. Trips. Staggers to the opposite side of the table. “Don’t you touch me? Don’t you touch me,” he whines in a voice not that much different than Miranda’s.

“What are you going to do, sue me?” I cackle as I flush him out. I chase him around the TV a couple of times and out the front door.

I stand on the front stoop, shake my fist, and laugh at the retreating figure.

“You bastard,” she growls at me as I slump down in front of the TV with my beer and Jack chaser. She is right. I am a bastard.

I have an attitude. The world is rotten. It’s dealt me a bad hand. My mom ran away. My dad raised me. He’s an ex-Marine, Vietnam era, though the closest he got to Vietnam was Camp Pendleton. He believes in duty. He rode my ass all the way through elementary and junior high. I smoked my first joint in sixth grade. By freshman year, I smoked regularly, both joints and butts, and boozed to excess. I hated school. I skipped often. I was suspended twice. I ran away six times.

“What’s the matter, son, is that you’re angry because the teachers make you do things and I make you do things,” said Dad, getting up close to me like a drill sergeant. “You don’t think there is anything worth doing, other than your own pleasure.”

My pleasure is the blues. They have infected me ever since Jimi and Cream entered my consciousness. Like “Strange Brew” led me to Albert King doing “Crosscut Saw.” And Cream and Jeff Beck led me to Howlin’ Wolf, once I figured out who Chester Burnett was. Ever since I was thirteen and traded my portable typewriter for a beat-up Japanese guitar, I’ve been in a band. And that’s why I’m upset that her ex lurks around like a vulture.

I knock on the bedroom door after I have my fill of liquor and TV. I beg Miranda to let me in.

“I’m not going to after the way you treated Ed,” she says. “You know he wasn’t going to screw me. He’s my friend. I can have friends, can’t I?”

“Sure, baby, but your friends gotta not call me a rat.” I lean against the door. “I love you.”

“You don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d stop drinking. Go back to your music.”

That’s what attracted her to me in the first place. She saw me play at a gig and fell in love—hook, line, and sinker.

“Please let me in, darling. Lover,” I whisper through the locked door. “All I want to do is hold you in my arms.”

“Sure. I’ll bet.” But her resolve breaks down as it always does. The door swings open slowly and I stagger in. I collapse on the bed and fall asleep.

In the morning she fixes breakfast. Ham. Eggs. Grits. Biscuit. One cup of coffee after another. We sit at the card table watching the morning news. Train wreck. Fire. Hostage situation. Afghan War. I squeeze her hand. “You look beautiful this morning.”

She’s in a terry-cloth bathrobe that falls open slightly. I see her cleavage. “Thank you,” she says. “Why don’t you call in sick today?”

“Sure. Yeah.” She and I are on the same wavelength. I call George the chef. I am the evening prep guy. He says he’d cover for me, but only one night. Why don’t I tell him to fuck off, I wonder. Why don’t I get back to my guitar? Like Miranda wants. Like I want. Deep down. But then I think about the guitar legends. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Buddy Guy. Even Danny Gatton. The best guitarist you never heard of. How can I compete with those virtuosos who can squeeze all the juice out of every note, like the guitar is the human voice in all its variations, whereas what you get from me is the dull roar of the ocean breaking against the shore one monosyllabic wave after another. I am afraid that after ten years, I’d still be getting those dull roars and I’d be playing to empty houses and then I’d end up in the gutter.

I am sitting on the bed after I call Chef George thinking about the morning news. Hostage taking. Fire. Train wreck. Me. I quit playing the guitar six months ago. The gigs dried up, though Barry, my bass, is as enthusiastic as ever. He’s threatening to hire a new lead. How rotten the world is. But then in walks Miranda the Beautiful from the bathroom without a stitch of clothes on. I forget everything but the sight of her.

We make love all day with the same wild abandon we made love three years ago when she came to my doorstep. In the evening when the sun sets below the house at the far end of the alley and I hear the car horns blaring on U Street, Miranda tries to cheer me up by reading liner notes. Smokin’ Joe Kubek lived in a school bus located in a junkyard in Dallas. Stevie Ray Vaughn never graduated from high school. Howlin’ Wolf grew up on a plantation in Mississippi. You know he wasn’t the owner’s son. Buddy Guy’s career was held back by Leonard Chess of Chess Records because he thought Buddy’s novel style was “motherfucking noise.”

One time, about five years ago, I was backstage at a club in Toledo knocking off a few licks and Buddy Guy waltzed in. He stood around a few minutes, looked thoughtful and said, “Hey, kid, you’re not half-bad.” I about died and went to heaven.

But today I’m not falling for Miranda’s sanctimonious shit. “You’re no different than these guys,” she assures me. “They had their setbacks, but that didn’t stop them. They pulled themselves together. So can you.”

“Sure, babe,” I say, though I’m thinking what a clown. She doesn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground. I roll off the bed. Jump in my clothes.

“I’m going out.”

“Why?” she asks in her whiny voice.

“Booze.”

I wander down the street, feeling like I’d been let out of a cage.

I punch in the door at U Street Liquor. The same twerp sneers at me.

“Another Rolling Rock.”

“No, a pint of Jack Daniel’s.” I sneer back.

He reaches behind the counter and pulls up the 1968 Lake Placid Blue Fender Stratocaster. “Seventeen-fifty. I need to unload this baby, or my brother will kill me.”

I look at the Strat lying there, all shiny blue like a gift from the Muse, a complex instrument that I can squeeze any sound out of. I sigh.

“Give me the Jack.”

When I reach home after swigging half the pint from a brown paper bag, I am so surly that when Miranda complains I’d been drinking again, I raise my hand to slap her.

She backs up. Starts crying. Runs in the bedroom and slams the door. I hear the lock click.

I settle down in the easy chair, turn on the TV, curse a blue streak, nurse the rest of the bottle, and fall asleep.

The next evening when I arrive home, Miranda’s filling out a job application for Starbucks.

I drag a Rolling Rock out of the fridge, collapse in the easy chair, and watch her. She seems so determined leaning over the paper writing carefully in her pinched tiny scribble.

“They promised me the job,” she says, looking up and turning toward me. “It’s part-time. What I plan to do is sign up for a few courses at G.W. Then enroll full time next fall.”

I snicker. She’s almost in as deep a funk as I am.

“You’re a lazy slob,” she says in a determined tone. Not her usual whine. Tears come to her eyes. “That’s why I’m doing this. No one is holding me back.”

“Now, wait a minute, baby.” I put down the brew. I feel this sudden wave of fear in my heart, like this woman means business.

“You drink too much. You don’t care about your music anymore. You sit here watching television and throwing your clothes all over the place.”

“I care about the music,” I say. “I care about the music. I’m working hard at that stupid restaurant.”

I tell her about the Lake Placid Stratocaster. “If I had an instrument like that, I’d play it every day and then I’d get good like you wouldn’t believe.”

She laughs but the tears are still in her eyes. “The instrument doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s who’s playing it.”

I feel like snapping her neck off, but instead I run away for a couple of days. I’m going to break her resolve. I hang out at Barry’s apartment until he’s sick of my whining about Miranda.

When I return to my place, I can’t get in. Miranda changed the lock. I wait on the front steps until she pulls up in the Honda Accord. She opens the door. Inside by the TV are about five boxes, my suitcases, guitar case, and amps.

“What’s the idea?” I ask her. “You kicking me out of my own apartment?”

“It’s either you or me,” she says, her jaw set. “I want to make a new life.”

“Hey, baby,” I plead. I remind her of the good times we had together, the gigs out of town when I took her with me. Once in Virginia Beach, we sipped margaritas on the beach. I licked salt out of her belly button. I remind her of all the shows we went to. The great guitarists. I told her I was seriously going to get back into my music and I meant it. When I was over at Barry’s, we attended a Sonny Landreth concert at the Birchmere. We went backstage where we met Sonny’s bass. He said it took him twenty years to become part of a quality band and that now he was enjoying the fruits of his labors.

“The one who wins,” he said, “is the one who’s left standing.”

“I’m beginning to think that’s my problem,” I tell Miranda. “I need to knuckle down. Work. Have more patience. Things will fall into place.”

I try to drag her back to our bedroom but she resists.

“I don’t love you anymore,” she says, tossing me the keys to the Honda. “Here, you borrow my car and take your stuff to Barry’s. You’ll thank me in the end.”

I grab the keys and flop down in the easy chair in front of the television. I cover my face with my hands and would’ve broken out in tears if it hadn’t all of a sudden come to me. What I am going to do.

“Okay. Okay. Maybe you’re right,” I say, finally, looking up. “Maybe I’ll thank you in the end. I don’t know.”

I push myself out of the easy chair for the last time, my heart racing at warp speed, and my mind full of rage at her obvious rejection. I am so full of conflicting emotions that I can hardly breath as I stagger outside. Toss my possessions in the back of her car. Head back in. Miranda’s back to her Starbucks application. Ignoring me, though the way she scrunches up her body in a defensive posture, I know she’s afraid.

I walk right past her without a motion in her direction, head into our bedroom, and lock the door. Cackle under my breath. Pull down the portable file in the closet. Take out the vehicle title. Stuff it in my pocket. Open the door.

“Goodbye, Miranda” I say as I amble past her to the door to our apartment. She doesn’t utter a word, though I know she’s sad.

The next morning I sell Miranda’s Honda Accord. Saunter down to U Street Liquor and buy the Lake Placid Blue Fender Stratocaster for twelve hundred dollars. I run my hand down the frets, touch the dials, and work the arm up and down.

“This better work,” I warn the twerp. “Or I’m gonna come back and break your arms and legs.”

I take the guitar to Barry’s place where I hook it up to the amps and play the old songs. “Detroit Iron.” “Burford’s Bop.” The sound rich. Bell-like tones. Barry wanders in the room.

“You’re playing again,” he gushes. “Hot shit.”

“Goddamn right,” I say, slapping the guitar. “I’m playing again, but this time I’m not going to quit. This is it, man. We’re going to play three hundred gigs a year, all over the country, so everyone will know who we are. Two or three years down the road, you’ll see, we’ll be under contract.”

“We’ll be heroes,” says Barry with equal enthusiasm.

“Damn right.” We laugh like a couple of maniacs, me thinking about Miranda and how right she is. I am a big fucking miraculous bastard, and I don’t care because my daddy’s right. There isn’t nothing worth doing other than my own pleasure.

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