It all started about five years ago when I received a call from a colleague of mine. We’d done a bit of work together, planning a new major for the college where we teach, and we’d been compensated for this work with a small bonus to our travel-and-research accounts. My colleague was calling to alert me to the fact – something he’d only then discovered – that if these funds weren’t spent by the end of that very day, they’d be forfeited and returned to the college.
I gathered up all the work-related receipts I could find, but when I totaled them up, I still had $177 dollars left. And so I did the only thing I could think to do, the only reasonable thing a person in my situation could do. I went down to my local Guitar Center, and I flagged down a salesman. I told him I had $177 to spend before midnight that night, and I asked him if he’d be willing to part with a Martin Backpacker for precisely amount, tax and case included.
The Martin Backpacker is a small broom-shaped guitar that’s light enough to be carried out into the woods on a backpacking trip, if you were so inclined. It’s also, according to the Martin catalog, the first guitar ever sent into outer space.
The sales dude told me he’d be delighted to sell me the guitar for that price, and he went into the back to get one.
Now, this made me extraordinarily happy for two reasons.
First, though I’d been playing since I was nine, I hadn’t gotten a new guitar since I was 14. I’d been playing less and less over the years, and I was unprepared for the sense of a renewed love affair a new instrument brings with it.
Secondly, I retained in my memory a sharply etched image of my father, leaning the great bulk of his body against the counter of Harrod’s Music Shop in Lubbock, Texas, bargaining with Clyde, the manager there, over the blue electric Fender Mustang he was buying to replace the clunky Fender acoustic he’d originally brought home for me when I’d mentioned to him that I thought I might like to learn how to play.
Big and cumbersome, this acoustic guitar was too difficult for me to play. The neck was thick and beefy, and the strings were so high, you could have hung laundry from them.
As a kid, I was mortified by my father’s bargaining. Everywhere else, when you bought something, you paid what they asked for it. Dad was a businessman, he was a merchant, and he understood about mark-up. Still, I was afraid he might offend Clyde, that this back-and-forthing of theirs might end in a stalemate or, worse, an argument – Dad had an eruptive, unpredictable temper – and I’d lose not only the guitar, but Clyde’s affection, which would mean having to go elsewhere for my lessons. My teacher at Harrod’s was a lanky hippie iconoclast named Spider Johnson. He was an important, liberating presence in my young life, and I didn’t want to lose contact with him.
I worried as well that all this haggling might seem too Jewish for Clyde or for Mr. Harrod, the patrician owner of the shop. The founding conductor of the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Harrod saw to the violins, while Clyde handled the guitars.
But Clyde, it turned out, was happy for the sale. As was the guy at Guitar Center. As was I. I’m sure it had more to do with my father than with the money, but the forty or so bucks the Guitar Center guy was willing to knock off the Backpacker left me feeling inordinately potent as a man.
I brought the little Martin home, and for my birthday, Barbara, my wife, bought me a couple of songbooks containing hits from the 1920s and ‘30s. I loved nothing better than to sit at our kitchen table late into the night, playing my little broom-shaped guitar and singing songs like “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” and “California, Here I Come!”
My father was hospitalized a year or so after I bought the little Backpacker. He was living in Oklahoma City at the time with his second wife – my mother had died years before – and my brother and sisters and I each received a call, telling us we’d better get up there to see him.
No one expected him to leave the hospital. His kidneys were shot, and he had a cascading host of other medical issues. “His organs are just plumb worn out,” his nephrologist told me.
As soon as we’d all arrived, in fact, Dad went into a coma. At one point, there was even a Code Blue. The machines in his ICU room started whirring. The staff rushed in and pulled the curtains. The hospital chaplain even showed up, a fretful-looking woman in a boxy skirt-set.
“May I sit with you?” she asked each of us in turn, inflecting the verb somehow with overtones of Christian sodality.
“No thanks,” we each said.
She seemed relieved. Clutching her files to her chest, she sat down and disappeared when no one was looking.
As for the rest of us, we braced ourselves and waited for our father to die.
But our father didn’t die.
Contrary to all expectations, he came out of his coma. Well enough to leave the ICU eventually, he was furloughed to an ordinary hospital room, and though he would spend nearly 60 days as an in-patient, he was ultimately released.
During those 60 days, whenever I came to visit him, I bought the little Backpacker along.
We didn’t have a lot of common interests, my father and I. Our conversations were often difficult and halting. But music was something we both loved, and I’d sit by his bed and play for him. It helped to pass the hours for both of us, and the odd-shaped guitar proved a useful conversation piece with the nurses.
I don’t know what was going on in my father’s marriage, but when he left the hospital, he was no longer welcome at home.
He ended up in Dallas, living in Mrs. Rudd’s condominium.
Mrs. Rudd was my Uncle Richard’s mother-in-law. Too frail at 90-something to travel from her home in Wichita, she no longer used the place, and my father moved in in a quiet, if no less flagrant violation of the condo board’s rules, which forbade any and all forms of subletting.
I continued bringing the little Martin along whenever I visited – it was so light and easy to pack – and on one occasion, we all sat together as a family in Mrs. Rudd’s living room, while my brother-in-law Alan and I took turns on the guitar. Dad joined in, singing old cowboy and Sammy songs. He seemed to enjoy himself, and one day, he told me he thought maybe he’d buy himself a guitar, take a few lessons. Why not? He was retired and living alone with a pair of alternating caregivers. He had the time, and he asked me for advice on what to buy.
I was quite proud of him, proud that at the age of 76, he was up for something new.
“And if, for some reason, I can’t learn it,” he said, “I’ll give it to you and you’ll keep it.”
The next time I was in Dallas, we all sat around in Mrs. Rudd’s living room again, singing and playing, and when I took a turn on my father’s new guitar, I remember thinking, Whoa! This is a beautiful instrument! Curvier than most guitars, it was shaped like a figure-eight with the upper bouts, the shoulders, as wide and round as the lower bouts, the hips; and the top, sides and back were all a matching, handsome, dark nutty brown.
“That’s a dreadnaught guitar,” my friend Elbein told me when I described it to him later. “Big and round?” he said.
I nodded. He seemed to know what he was talking about.
“Those’re called dreadnaughts, yeah,” he said. “After the battleships, because they’re so big and round, you have to play them standing up.”
“Yeah, well, whatever,” I said. “It’s just a beautiful instrument, and whether my father gives it to me or it comes down to me years later, I might just hang it on a wall as a symbol of my father’s will, you know, to keep learning and moving forward, and also because it’s just so damned beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guitar quite like that before.”
As it turned out, Dad’s arthritis was too bad for him to pursue the guitar in earnest, and one day, when my daughter Arianna and I were in Dallas, he said to me, “Joseph, take that guitar. I’m never going to learn it.”
“Really, Dad?” I said.
“Take it, take it!”
“Because it’s just so beautiful, Dad. It’s really such a beautiful guitar. Are you sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure.”
Still, I was torn.
On the one hand, I hated to see him giving up on it. But on the other, I was thrilled to have the guitar. Either way, he was adamant, and when we said our goodbyes, Arianna carried the guitar out of Mrs. Rudd’s condo, while I went to get the car. By the time I’d driven back to the porte-cochere, she had taken it out of its case and was standing on one foot, balancing it on a raised leg, strumming a few chords.
I pulled up and looked at the guitar, and I thought, Hey, that’s not my father’s guitar! It wasn’t the guitar I remembered, the one shaped like an infinity sign with the nutty brown color. In fact, there was nothing special about this guitar at all.
It was nothing but a cheap blonde Alvarez!
“Hey, Dad,” I said that night at dinner, “that’s not the original guitar you bought, is it?”
I was sitting next to him, and I couldn’t help asking him the question. He didn’t quite seem to understand it, though, which wasn’t surprising. The room was noisy, I was sitting on his bad side, and what I was asking him was utterly nonsensical.
“I mean, you didn’t buy two guitars, did you?”
“Well, but then, I mean, what happened to the first guitar?”
“That is the first guitar,” he said.
Maybe my brother-in-law stole it. This was my next thought. Maybe he swapped it out for the Alvarez when he thought no one was looking.
There were only two problems with this, of course. First, Alan would never have done such a thing; he was too honest; and second, if he had, he’d never have gotten away with it; eventually, I’d see the guitar at his house.
This was all very problematical for me.
Mostly because my sisters have always insisted, especially when it comes to family history, that my grasp upon reality is – how to put this kindly? – less than firm, that, for me, memory and imagination are like two rivers that converge, that I tend to misremember things or, more probably, make them up.
Even I will admit that the two of them seemed to have grown up in an entirely different household from mine. They were born 18 months apart and because they’re close not only in age but in temperament, their versions of our family history are apt to match up, a fact I always attributed to a good dose of denial on their parts.
For the first time, though, I began to wonder if my sisters hadn’t been right all along. I mean, if I could dream a guitar up out of thin air, what else, over the years, had I imagined?
The mystery of where this imaginary guitar came from persisted literally for years, until sometime after my father’s death, when the realization struck me with absolute clarity: the first guitar my father had bought me, that clunky, nearly unplayable Fender acoustic – the one with strings so high you could have hung laundry from them – had been figure-eight in shape with a handsome nutty-brown color. I’d forgotten all about that guitar, and now I realized, in a mental move that was laughably Freudian, filled with wish-fulfillment and dreamlike distortions, I’d substituted the first guitar my father had given me with the last guitar he’d ever give me, hoping in this way, I suppose, to reverse time and keep him alive.
It didn’t work, of course, but with a part of my inheritance, I bought a beautiful handmade acoustic arch top guitar, which I named Fig, partly because the figures in its maple back look like the inside of a fig, but also because Fig stands for F.ather’s I.maginary G.uitar.
And these days, it’s with Fig that I sit up late into the night at my kitchen table, singing those great old songs from the 1920s and the 1930s, songs like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Button Up Your Overcoat (You Belong To Me).”