My Own Private Hell
I go to Hottenanny down at the old health clinic across the river. This is where all the mountain musicians come out of the woodwork for a night and sit around in a circle passing songs back and forth in a jam session. It takes guts to go but I know most of the people there so I am less nervous. This means that my fingers won’t tremble when I play, but I’ll still be quite the amateur in their presence.
Kieran is there, and Mel’s brother Quinn, and then my friend Cassandra shows up. I carefully unlock my guitar case and pull out Dad’s pride and joy, the Martin he won in a raffle back in Oregon. It is a $3,000 guitar – something my family could never afford to spend on an instrument. There are all kinds of things that make it sparkle, but I know very little about what they are and why. All I know is that when I play it, the sound waltzes with unending charm throughout the body of the guitar, sing-songing for measures and out-sounding just about any other guitar out there. The pulse of the sound vibrates so much that I can feel it vibrating in my leg and chest (where the guitar rests against my body) when I play.
Immediately Kieran and Quinn are reeled in.
“Oooh, oh. Whatch’ya got there Katey? Looks like a Martin but…”
“It’s a D-35,” I say quietly in the dim light. He raises his eyebrows and turns his head to the side a little bit.
“Whoa, whoa. What year?”
And that is it. They are set off with oohs and ahhhs and whadidyas and howdidyas and holymoleys and then Quinn says,
“Hey, turn it around, let me see the back.”
I hesitate, then let out a long slow breath that holds the weight of a flashback. Three weeks ago at a craft school jam session, I brought the Martin and my banjo along with me to play. Seeing as how there were already seven guitars, I pulled out my banjo to join in and kept the Martin in its case, safely at my feet. But as is my nature during jam sessions, I became overly focused on my fingers – what they were doing, how they were moving, if I was on pitch – and unbeknownst to me someone had picked up the Martin case and set it on top of an electric heater that was turned on. Within a few minutes there was a crisp smell and my friend lept to the guitar case, which was hot to the touch, and yanked it off the heater. Now 1/3 of the finish on the Martin is foggy white and will never be the same again.
“It’s been through a recent trauma,” I say, spinning the Martin around to show them the elegant three paneled back and accompanying stain. They grimace, grumble, mumble, frown, ache with sympathy for the instrument as a mother would for her child. I quickly turn it back around and try to change the subject. The event was so heartbreaking that I haven’t even been able to write about it since that night – let alone really tell anyone except my Dad (who still has not looked at the Martin, preferring to preserve the pristine image of its majestic body in his mind’s eye). As well-meaning as Kieran and Quinn are, I do not want to go into the finer details of the trauma and try to redirect conversation.
They press on, I reveal a little and lead into a Bob Dylan song that safely gets us off the topic of the damaged Martin.
But as more and more musicians arrive, the guitar is noticed time and time again for its fame and beauty. And time and time again I am asked to turn it over and show people the back. And time and time again I have to repeat little snippets of the story. This slowly begins to wear on my, like sandpaper on the skin, and my confidence in playing trickles out. At one point I am almost in tears, though no one notices it through the dim light.
There I was, surrounded by unfathomably talented musicians, with a guitar that had been damaged irreversibly under my care and that I couldn’t even do justice to with my own playing and that I didn’t even know all the ins and outs of. My heart sank with disappointment about the finish on the guitar, about people’s obsession with the blemish, and about how sore I still am over the whole deal.
Quinn played it for a little while, pointing out all its features and complimenting it. Then Hal played it, panting at the sight of it almost. I closed my eyes and listened to the solos that he brought out of it with such ease, one might think he was born playin’. Then others from across the circle began to notice the guitar, and the story was relayed again.
“Katey’s got the fancy guitar tonight,” Quinn says gently, nodding in my direction because I am up next to lead a song. Honestly, his intention is to be endearing.
I decid to pass on the lead but some of the others press on, all well-meaning of course, and seem determined to get me to lead.
“I lead a few before you arrived,” I disclaim, tears welling up, still trying to hide them.
Two women from across the circle chimed in, “Surely you can play us one song.”
For a moment I want to shout, “I’m ovulating, motherfuckers! Leave me alone!” but I don’t.
I shake my head no. “I just can’t right now, I’m not feeling it. All I can play is pre-recorded folk anyway,” I say softly. Pre-recorded folk is a term I use intentionally to withdraw attention from myself. The other musicians in the room can solo like no other, the kind of solos where legs get to stompin’ and lips start curling and strings start breakin’ and chairs creak under the weight of a passionate musician who’s blastin’ off into some divine interplay between the body and the mind, the mind and the instrument, the breath and the heart. Pre-recorded folk is, to say the least, the polar opposite of what these men can do with their guitars.
Kieran spoke up and I was relieved. Then Steve, who was sitting to my right, started to ask me about “Hey what happened to the back of your Martin? What are they talkin’ about?” and I just looked at him and said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He was so gentle and sweet, felt hat tipped slightly up to reveal a soft man of a face and rosy cheeks. He nodded, catching my drift, and I was in the clear.
Not long after, everyone exits to get high and I take this as my cue to depart. In the state I’m in, one hit and I could be cryin’ like orphan Annie to get that guitar back to the way it used to be, and to get me gone, to bed, to sleep, to an easier way, to a stronger heart, to faster fingers, to peace of mind, to, to, to…