Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Songs for Better Living

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The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.

“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”

My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.

“Give it to me.”

“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”

“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”

Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.

“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”

I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.

“Okay, Danny, my turn!”

I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.

He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.

I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.

At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.

As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.

We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.

I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.

“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.

Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.

******

I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.

Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.

I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.

“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.

I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”

“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.

One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.

Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.

“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”

“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.

I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.

There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.

“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.

I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.

I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.

“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.

“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.

I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.

“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”

“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”

“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?

“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”

The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.

Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.

I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”

The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.

And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.

******

This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.

This time I had nothing to prove, right?

Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.

I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.

I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.

Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.

My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.

The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.

Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.

“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.

“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”

They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.

He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.

“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.

“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“

“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”

Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.

“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.

“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.

“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”

“Always? I did?”

“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”

“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”

One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.

“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.

I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.

I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.

“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”

Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”

“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”

“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.

We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.

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