What Does the Character Really Want?
Across this strange human life, my throat has latched onto various items and held them as if to make fleeting friendships. Pretzels, crackers, aspirin and vitamins often spend the day stuck to the side of my esophageal wall, clinging like ancient cliff-dwelling autochthons. Once, there was a sushi bone in Seattle that stayed put for a week. I was voted to back of the van, quarantined due to a new array of exaggerated facial expressions. A rasping dinosaur bark that drove everyone to their headphones. In the dull television light of a Red Roof Inn, I coughed up the bone after a show outside Detroit. A thin wispy-white twig in the palm of my hand.
So when I say, “Let me clear my throat,” I sincerely believe in every last word.
This tangent I’m living might’ve all started when my sister and her first husband gave me an Alvarez twelve string. A twangy, wide-mouthed high school birthday gift. I fell head-over-heels in love and became totally disinterested in the same afternoon.
Even though I was a practiced teenage dissident, the prophecy stamped in my head told me that I was not worthy of wrangling beauty.
Songwriters were gods. Whereas I was destined to be the manager of sleepy Circle K in a dusty corner of Arizona. At night, watering a six-by-six patch of grass behind my trailer and talking to the stars. Microwave a pizza and drift off to the snow of black and white television. I was supposed to disappear in a puff of smoke.
But I’m no good at following fate. Me and that guitar, we became disgruntled partners. Archetypes of irascible roommates, waking up in each other’s underwear. The kind of couple that keeps deafeningly quiet over morning coffee. Mourning coffee for contemptuous comminglers. Absolute adoration and hatred in every shared look. The life of surrender, of unkempt beards and forgetting to restring the rusted strands.
At rest, the guitar would inspire oily guilt. Leaning in the corner, bored out of its mind. Waiting up late in Providence, in Burlington while I was absent, wasting time or committing minor crimes. Coming home, I could still see the shine and curvy shape in the darkness, slack-jawed and lonely.
I adapted in a desert island manner. The instrument was a coffee table when I didn’t have a bed frame. It was a coatrack when the winters were unforgiving, a custodian of towels in the summer. A bedmate when the creaks would supernaturally speak.
We survived. I drank a cheap malt liquor called Laser alone at night. Lasered, and staring into the mother-of-pearl inlay on the fretboard. I wished for my alternate life in Arizona, carefully restocking the bubble gum display at the Circle K.
I have missed so many memories I haven’t experienced.
The land of the living was a shadowy planet back in those days. There were no words or ways to run from continuously broken hearts. And I was beaten by love from the start. Do you remember Collette? The hamster wheel of humiliation picked up speed at that eighth-grade dance. Before there was a shot at reinvention or resurrection, there was just the cold stare of a wavy-haired girl who didn’t care. I waited for my mom to pick me up outside, underneath the floodlights, below the jagged shapes of pine trees. My back to the front doors, the music bleeding into the parking lot, swallowing me with the echo and decay. I swore that would be the last time I’d ever allow water to spring out of my eyes in front of human beings.
It wasn’t over. That was just the start. Gangly body, drama department haircut, a closet full of cardigans. High school didn’t do much to help. (I wonder if it ever helps.)
The only thing I had to hold onto was that annoying guitar. Since it was out of tune and a million (twelve) strings, I adjusted it to the notes that I admired the most. A dime-store dulcimer. I held on at night, strumming its face until it started to speak.
And then I began to disappear. Undercover with no allegiance. Gone.
The surface of the water is still. And then bubbles. And then small waves of rings. And then awake.
If I was going to do this, I wanted the display to be modest. The most unostentatious neon that a nickel could buy.
“Songs,” glowing up above a slippery basement entrance. Moss growing out of the broken concrete steps, the over-painted rails, shaky and leading down, downward.
The bell attached to the doorbell rings and the scene is set. Tight shelves, musty book musk, trembling book lust. Slow-moving, trepidatious characters begin to relax and go deep into the trance of reading titles, as they let go of Midgard and shed their earthly weight. A bespeckled clerk sleepily looks up and and asks, “How can I help you?”
The real question is what do you want. What do you want?
A dogless woman with puppy pins stuck in her purse, on the edge of tears.
A pink-faced thirty-year-old man, looking out of place in his new suit, discernibly second-guessing his new career.
The cop hates being a cop. He hates the word cop. Even without his uniform he’s a cop. He used to be invited to his neighbor’s oddly magical above-ground pool. He misses committing small crimes and fitting in with the rest of the world.
A twelve-year-old girl is trailed by saxophone, dragged by a thin black nylon strap. It slams every descending step. A wounded soldier, a cross to bear. The cracked-plastic carrying case is soundless coffin holding onto some splintered parental dream.
It is a wrestling match to be honest! Here’s to blamelessly saying it out loud and freeze-tag-stopping everyone in their tracks!
I do not want pyrotechnics or spandex or millions of dollars. I do not want clothes that cost as much as a car. Or a car that costs as much as a house.
I want to play music for a living. I merely want to write. (Confession: I’ve dreamt of sailboats and mountaintop cabins. Of umbrella-enhanced drinks that appear in my hand before I think of thirst. There has been a degree of toplessness in a smattering of these daydreams. I sincerely apologize.)
It’s not something that deserve automatically. I’m not a shredder. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve ruined many a jam session with my sarcastic harmonica. Virtuosity has too many syllables for me to sing.
Because it’s not really about music. It’s about connection. It’s about the love that sees around the corner.
Because I know what it’s like to put on an ill-fitting suit and pretend to be a good kid while meeting the next step-parent-to-be. Sunday afternoons, with cool drinks and forced conversations. Overheating on a wraparound porch. The pressure to stay positive when the lemonade has turned warm. When it’s just a half-empty sludge of citrus-flavored drink, mostly sugary gravel at the bottom of a finger-smudged glass.
As much as we try to pretend it isn’t true, I know you know it, too.
Dingy rectangular windows shine dim light down onto the scene: This is fine, right here. Boxed in by books and ragged guitars, a perfect americano is still steaming. With all the missteps and miscues, I did what I wanted with my life and that’s all she wrote.