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Timothy G. Huguenin
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guit1.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2015

A Man's Guitar

 

by Timothy G. Huguenin

 

Every guitar has got its own personality. Some have a bright sound, others are more mellow. Some take a darker tone. There's a journey to knowing a guitar, and it ain't very much unlike getting to know a dear friend, or even a lover. I reckon I'd say it like this: in a way, a man's guitar has got a soul, and as a man plays it and becomes more acquainted with his instrument, that soul becomes intertwined with his own.

My family comes from West Virginia, deep in the heart of those ancient, soulful Appalachian mountains. There's a magic to them hills, as anyone who's been there is like to tell you. A few who know it may also tell you that a very special part of this magic can only be mined from there by the skillful rolling of a banjo, or the plucking of a mountain dulcimer, or the picking of an acoustic guitar. Folks all got their favorites, I reckon, but I've always been drawn to guitars, myself.

A few years back I got an unexpected call from some lawyer who told me my uncle had died. I was to meet him at Uncle Stewie's old farm up in Frankford and claim what was left to me. I drove out after lunch and met ol' slicktown lawyer on the old front porch where my Mama's brother would smoke his pipe every sunrise before minding the cows and horses.

"Allow me to introduce myself," he said to me as shook my hand. I smelled stale peppermints when he talked. "My name is Charles Lilly. I represent the deceased, Stewart Cochran. I presume you are Mr. Cochran's nephew?"

"Guilty as charged, Charlie," I said. "Folks call me Frankie."

"It's a pleasure to meet you. Shall we go inside?" He motioned to the door with his briefcase.

The few memories I have of that small old farmhouse came back to me as the lawyer and I stepped into the living room: sitting on the living room rug as a kid, listening to Uncle Stewie tell stories from that rocking chair in the corner; running through the field with Molly, his old border collie; and, the most special of all, watching Uncle Stewie singing and picking old bluegrass tunes on his guitar with my Mama on her fiddle, laughing as she tried to keep up with her baby brother.

"Well, Chuck," I said, "what do I need to see?"

The lawyer looked a little surprised. "This is it," he said. "Everything. The house, the farm. Whatever is in here. All yours."

"Wow," I said. "Are you serious?"

"I assumed you would have known. He left it all to you, so I thought you two were close."

"To tell you the truth, Chuck, I hardly knew my Uncle Stewie at all. Mama stopped bringing me to his house a long time ago, when I was real young. Don't know why. I didn't even know he passed away until you called."

"Indeed. Well. I have a few papers for you to sign, and then I'll leave you to your business."

He pulled a manila folder out of his briefcase and circled certain areas on the papers inside. He handed it to me.

"Sign here, and here, and here," he said.

I did, and he took the documents back and put them into his briefcase.

"Well, that's it." He opened the door to leave.

"Hey, Charlie," I said before he stepped outside.

"Yes?"

"How did my uncle die?"

He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid your uncle was not well, mentally," he said. "Suicide. He, um, strangled himself." With that, he left.

I stood there, stunned. Not like, emotional or anything, not really. Sure, I had some feel-good memories about Uncle Stew, but like I'd told ol' Slicktown, I never really knew the guy. I was surprised more than anything--surprised that a man I barely knew would leave me all he owned.

It was too much to think about then. I decided I'd do a quick search through the house and then settle this all up later. I didn't need a farmdidn't want a farmbut the man was blood to me, after all, so I figured maybe I'd find some memento in here to remember him by and then I'd think about selling the place later when I could sort out my head.

There wasn't much to see, truthfully. Apparently, Uncle Stewie had lived a pretty simple life, and he'd never had a family of his own. I'd about seen the entire house when I opened a closet door. Something wooden was poking out from behind a bunch of precariously stacked boxes.

Uncle Stewie's old guitar!

I moved the boxes out of my way. A few of them fell open as I was pulling the guitar out of the corner, and loads of cash spilled out.

Well, I might be taking home more than just this ol' guitar, I thought.

But this was better than money. This was what I'd been looking for, the one thing that actually represented one of the few memories I held of this mysterious, estranged uncle of mine. I hadn't realized it until then, but this very guitar and the man that had left it behind were probably the reason I'd had such a lifelong fascination with the instrument. I rubbed the dust off of the guitar with my elbow and inspected it.

My fuzzy childhood memories didn't do justice to what I saw before me now. It was a 1951 Martin D-28. The five strings it still had were a bit rusty, but it was in mint condition otherwise. As a little kid, I'd never cared what Uncle Stew had been playing. But as an adult, and being a guitar aficionado besides, I knew then that this guitar was worth a pretty pennysomewhere around at least eight thousand dollars, I'd reckon. Even if it weren't for the sentimental value, this instrument was very special.

But even then I didn't realize how special it really was.

I put the guitar into my car, along with a few boxes of that cash Uncle Stewie had squirreled away, and I drove back to my apartment in Mount Hope. The first thing I did when I got home was to restring it and try it out.

The first chord I struck with that thing sent chills up and down my spine. The tone was true and crisp. I'd never heard a better-sounding guitar before, and I'd have to say I still ain't heard one since.

I played well into the night. I knew I needed to put it away and get some sleep, but I was glued to the thing. Some people hold their guitars when they play; others are held by them. I woke up the next morning with the guitar in my hands, still clutching the fret board with a half-formed chord on my fingers.

The next day was the same, and the next, and the next. I'd play for countless hours without stopping to eat or use the bathroom or answer the phone. And it's not like I didn't want to do those things. I would get so hungry that I was near to fainting, and I would think, Just one more song, then I'll stop for lunch. But I would keep going, without rest or water. A few times I actually collapsed on my living room floor, the spell barely broken by my dehydration. One of those times, I began to play faster and faster, my fingers flying over the fret board with unearthly speed and dexterity. I was playing at a level of talent that I knew was not my own. The music kept getting faster and more complex. I began to think that maybe it wasn't me who was playing the guitar, but instead it was the guitar who was playing me. I became afraid and tried to stop, but my body wouldn't listen to my brainor it was trying to listen, but it wasn't able to follow the instructions, like an owner calling his dog to him while a stranger pulls it away on a leash.

Despite this and other similar episodes, I still always came back to the Martin for more. The concerns I once had melted away, and I gave myself over in abandon to the instrument's control. When we played together, I felt a part of something big, something beautiful. The 1951 Martin D-28 had me tight in its grasp, and I hadn't any wish of it letting me go.

I began to have dreams in which the guitar spoke to me. It would begin to play itself. And you know how it works in dreams: I didn't hear it say any words, exactly, but I still understood what it was telling me through its chords and scales. It told me things like, We are finally together; now that we have found each other, nothing else matters, and, Just give in; let my music take you away from this pointless world. I knew that they weren't just no silly dreams, neither. Playing with the D-28 had created some sorta psychic connection that let it talk to me this way.

I rarely left my apartment for anything but work and the basic necessities, and I soon stopped going to work altogether. I knew that eventually them boxes of cash I'd brought home from the farmhouse would run dry, but until then I didn't care as long as I could spend more time with the Martin. Friends called, but I always came up some sort of excuse to get out of their weekend plans. I had to be available to heed the call of the D-28. Nothing else would fill me.

Nothing, that is, until I met Anne.

I'd finally been able to let up from the Martin enough to make a quick Walmart snack run. I was in a rush and accidentally bumped into this girl, spilling her basket of groceries all over the floor. I knelt down to fix what I'd done, and when I looked up, lo and behold, I swear sweet Mary herself couldn't have looked more heavenly than did that face smiling down at me.

"I, um...I'm uher, sorry about that," I stammered.

"It's alright," she said. "Thanks for helping me. My name's Anne, by the way."

"Sure. I mean, um, I'm Frankie." I stood up, but I couldn't take my eyes off of her face. Those dimples in her smile were making my head spin.

"Listen," she said.

I was listening.

"You could get a picture, if you just want to look. Or you could get my number and maybe we could go out sometime."

Then she winked at me, and I melted right there in the aisle with my carton of pistachio ice cream.

Thinking back, I don't know what she'd seen in me then, since I must have looked like a zombie or somethingI was skinny, I hadn't been sleeping, I hadn't bathed. It was almost like when she looked at me, she saw what I could be, rather than what I was. She was special like that. And, to top it all off, boy could she sing!

One night we were out on a late drive through wooded mountain backroads, and she asked me if I liked to sing.

"Not even in the shower," I said. "I tried it once, and my dog ran away." She laughed at my joke, even though it wasn't funny. "I play some guitar, though. What about you?"

"I love to sing. Maybe we should go on the road together."

"Well, now, maybebut I ain't heard how you sound."

She leaned over and fiddled with the radio until she found a song she knew. She started off sorta quiet, but when she saw how much I was enjoying it all, her voice rose strong and clear, and I drove harder, shifting low to take the curves as the narrow street wound its way up the mountainside, all the while her sweet voice ringing out, Carrie Underwood and Allison Krauss singing background on the radio. That night and all other nights following, it never mattered where we were headed or what we found at the end of the road. All I needed was to hear her singing next to me.

Her love knocked me out of the guitar's spell enough that I began to take a little more care of myself. As a result, I played the guitar lessthough I couldn't quite give it up altogether. I could never play for her, though. I was too scared that she'd see how I got when I played that ol' Martin.

As you can imagine, the D-28 wasn't happy about being second to anyone, especially one with such lovely melodies of her own. Martin began to say things in my dreams about how I was a fool and how this girl was wasting my time. Besides, Martin would say, She's sure to dump you, sooner or later. But I'll be with you forever.

Something in me wanted to listen, but then seeing Anne again and hearing her silver voice on one of those starry car rides would strengthen my resolve.

Anne was supposed to come over for dinner one evening. It was gonna be the first time she'd ever actually been to my place, and I was pretty excited. I wanted it to be real special, you know? So I went out and bought some fresh stuff to cook. When I got home, I opened the door and rushed impatiently into the living room, but my foot caught on something, sending my bag of tomatoes and peppers and all flying and my body careening down toward my hardwood living room floor.

As I fell, I saw that I'd tripped over Martinbut he wasn't in his normal place in the corner. Before I hit the ground, I tried to remember why and when I'd moved him. Then my head smacked the floor, and I lost consciousness.

I reckon it ain't normal to dream when you get knocked out, but so I did. It was like there was a camera panning across a woman on the floor, beginning at a pale pair of feet and legs and slowly moving up the body. As the angle changed, I began to recognize the personit was Anne, I thought. But when the camera finally focused on what should have been her face, a 1951 Martin D-28 appeared in place of her head.

I woke up, totally freaked out and wondering how long I'd been gone. It was dark outside. I looked at the clockAnne should have been here hours ago. I tried to call her, but she didn't pick up. I got a sick feeling in my stomach.

I grabbed my keys and sped toward her house. Police lights flashed behind me, and I pulled over, but the cop kept going on past. I breathed a sigh of relief and kept driving (a little more carefully now). It wasn't until I turned onto her street and saw more flashing lights that I realized where the cop had been going in such a rush.

The police were already setting up a perimeter. I ran up to one of them.

"What's all the fuss about, officer?" I asked.

"Please, step away from the crime scene," he said, pushing me back. "There's been a homicide. I'm afraid I can't give you any more information right now."

I walked away from him, trying to look calm. Once I went around the side of the house I made a break for her back door under the cover of the shadows. I fumbled with the doorknob.

 For a moment, it stuck, and I was afraid it was locked, but then the latch released, and the door swung open.

CSI people were all over the house. I heard someone yell, "Get this guy outta here!" and a few other things about contaminating the crime scene, but I didn't really notice any of it. My eyes were locked on Anne.

Cold, lifeless Anne.

Her face was blue, and her eyes were still open, bloodshot. She'd been strangled.

Before the men carried me out, I noticed that around her neck was a guitar string, tightly, cruelly twisted.

I wasted no time. I drove straight home, tossed Martin in the back of my car along with a pile of wood, drove out to Grandview Park, and I had me a big ol' bonfire. It wasn't easy, though, I tell you what. I almost decided to play one last song, just one, before I chucked him into the flames, and you and I both can figure how things would have ended if I'd done that. But then I thought of Anne, her face all blue, choked out by the steel wire. And I thought of her as she'd been before, smiling bright, and in my mind I heard her singing with that angelic voice of hers, sweet and silver like moonbeam music. As she sang to me, I smashed that Martin to pieces and threw every last bit into the fire, and I watched it burn until there weren't nothing left but ashes and five black guitar strings.

The years since that night, years of brokenness and healing, have been long and weary. Even though I've come a long way in accepting the past, I still ain't forgotten it. I can't. I still see Anne and hear her sing to me in my dreams, once in a while.

But she ain't the only one that serenades me in the night. You see, it was like I was saying: a man's guitar has got a soul. And as a man becomes more acquainted with his instrument, that soul becomes intertwined with his own.






Timothy G. Huguenin was raised in the mountains of West Virginia, where he spent most of his childhood running around in the woods and making up stories. Though his body can now be found in Wyoming, his soul still haunts those dark Appalachian hills. You can learn more about him and his writing at http://tghuguenin.wordpress.com.

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