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…

Showing 2 comments
  • Bryony

    Oh, Katey, I am sorry to hear about the guitar! That was painful to read. My ex-boyfriend was a guitar player (proudly owning 9 guitars he couldn’t afford), so I can imagine the pain of that incident.

    I lost your e-mail address…wanted to tell you about a Paulus Berensohn poetry/bookmaking workshop next Sat (18) at Mars Hill…

    I hope you are well.

  • Morris McClellan

    Hey There Katey,
    I didn’t know you were a player. How neat. I have a story to tell you. I have two brothers, and the middle brother and I, being the baby, were both pulled into folk music by the burning interest of the eldest. At one point, our grandfather bought Mike, the eldest, a magnificent 1951 Martin D-28. Oy, what a fine instrument. Grampa told Mike that it was a “family” instrument, which meant it was to be shared among the three of us brothers. I wasn’t even thinking about being a player of music in those days. I wanted to play centerfield. As I got into my teens, I did start playing. The middle brother, Bill, and I tended to go through bluegrass and blues standards as we waited for mom to call us for dinner. My first instruments were both made by Harmony, saved from the junk piles of instruments by my brothhers for me. One was finished with spar varnish and house paint. It was great if one was playing in rain storms. Neither of these instruments were particularly tunable. It’s amazing that I continued playing, but I did, and I developed a belief that I was unable to tune. Then, one day, totally unexpectedly, while living in LA in a one room apartment, my brother Mike knocked on my door. In his hand was a hard shell case, and in that hard shell case was the family D-28. He declared it was my time to take care of it. I was floored. It was in short order that I discovered that there was nothing wrong with my tuning skills; I had just never had an instrument that could be tuned.

    This instrument had a kind of magic about it that protected it. It had been stolen from me once, but returned. I had managed to catch the thief’s accomplice and poored out to him how important the instrument was to me and my family. Evidently, he passed this emotional plea on to his friend, and the instrument was found at the back door of the cloub from which it had been stolen. The following morning I received a call with the amazing and happy news.

    I’ll fast forward to a few years later, when I had surrendered the D-28 on to Bill, and had a perfectly playable instrument that was of Asian manufacture imported by Guild. The fact was, that it was not as good as a Martin. I wanted a Martin, and became fixated on the idea. Somehow, I came into a little money, and went to San Francisco to check out the pawn shops. I found a D-18, a very nice instrument, that the proprietor had to bring out from the back room. That should have been my first clue. Then as I tried to write out a check, I ruined three checks. That should have been my second clue. I made the last check work, and acquired the instrument. Two days later, the family D-28 was stolen from my brother Bill.

    I’ve always felt responsible for dissolving the protection that existed on our D-28 by not paying attention to the clues that I was buying a stolen instrument when I bought that D-18. Is that crazy? I don’t know. But I’m over that now. I still regret it, and feel badly, but what can one do but accept life and try to learn from it?

    Remember, the damage to your D-35 is cosmetic. It still plays beautifully, and no one looking at the front will ever know. If it ever gets stolen, it will be instantly recogniseable. Mourn the loss of its perfect beauty, but be grateful it is still in your possession, and that it plays clean and pretty. I say a prayer for you that self-forgiveness comes quickly.

    Love, Marisa’s Dad, Mo

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