My son is finally asleep. I tell my wife I’m going out to play for a while. We need the money, and I need the music to take my mind off my day. I’m already dreading getting up the next day and doing the battle all over again.
“Okay, be safe. Let me know when you get there,” she says.
Creeping toward the front door in the dark, I step on what feels like a caltrop.
“You okay?” my wife asks, hearing me cursing under my breath.
“Yeah. It’s that ninja turtle toy again. I’ve told him too many times to keep it off the floor,” I say.
She says something as I’m leaving, probably trying to calm me down, while I carry the toy in one hand and my guitar case in the other. I throw the toy into the trash bin and slam the lid. Problem finally solved. It’s not like I didn’t warn him a hundred times.
I’m still fuming when I reach the subway. I make my way down the line until I find a car that’s nearly empty. I drop into my seat and carefully set my guitar in the seat next to me, then take out my phone and start getting caught up on the posts my wife has tagged me in on the various social media platforms we use.
“You play?” I hear someone ask.
“Sorry, not setup yet,” I say without looking up.
He sits across from me and lays something on his lap.
“Do you take requests?” he asks.
“I do when I’m setup,” I say, hoping he will get the hint this time but not counting on it. I brace myself for the follow-up when he either asks me to play something that’s been played to death or something that’s so difficult that even the person who wrote it took a thousand takes to get it right on the record.
“Do you know the song Seven Nation Army?” he asks.
Going with played to death, I see. But maybe I can talk my way out of it. I look up from my phone and get my first good look at him. He looks like hell. He’s wearing the kind of suit that a lawyer might wear, but his hair is a mess and he’s a few days late shaving. I can’t tell if it’s just my imagination, but I swear I can smell an aura of whiskey.
“That song really sounds better when I have my effects pedals, to be honest, and all I have with me is the acoustic here,” I tell him. It isn’t a lie.
“That’s fine with me,” he says.
I sigh to myself and decide to just get this over with. It’s obvious that I’m not going to be able to concentrate on my phone while he’s here anyway. I may as well start warming up.
In the original song, the guitar was pitched down an octave during the verse to make it sound like a bass. Without any of my pedals, I have to come up with another way to differentiate between the verse and chorus riffs. I decide to give a slight palming to the notes and play it higher than it should be. I did warn him that it wouldn’t sound as good.
“Can you do another? If it’s not too much trouble,” he asks as soon as I wrap up.
“Do you know Smoke On The Water?”
I start right into it, remembering sitting on my bed practicing along to the first sharpie scrawled CD I burned.
“I’m sorry, can you—” he starts.
“What?” I ask, stopping.
“Can you play a simple version?” he asks, then adds, “the way you might teach a student.”
The song is so simple already that I can’t believe someone would want to hear an even simpler version, but I go along with it. I glance at the guitar case next to him and think he may be trying to get some free lessons. Oh well, I’ve gotta pass the time somehow.
It’s another song that every beginner guitar player learns, and it’s probably been since I was just learning that I played it last. Still, I’ve heard it enough to fake my way through a simplified version convincingly enough. After two verses, I cut the song short with an improvised guitar outro.
As I wrap up, I notice that his eyes are wet and his lip is quivering. I’ve never had that reaction to that song, but to each his own, I guess.
“Do you think you have time for one more?” he asks.
“I think I can do one more,” I say, knowing my stop is coming up soon.
“I can’t remember the artist, but it’s something about Never Never Land.”
“Enter Sandman, by Metallica?” I ask. Another one that every guitarist learns in their first year.
He shakes his head and says, “Sorry, I’m not sure. I’ll recognize it from the first few notes.”
I pluck the first five notes, and he nods enthusiastically. “That’s the one,” he says as I keep it going.
“And—” he interrupts me again, “do you think you could add some mistakes?”
“Mistakes?” I ask.
“Like someone who is still learning and has trouble with the fingering.”
I can honestly say I’ve never had someone ask me that. I nod my head and start again. Having spent some time teaching, I’ve heard about every mistake a person could make in that song. I deaden a note here, fall out of rhythm a little there, and play a quick wrong chord before going back to the right ones. I’m surprised that it takes more concentration than if I were to just let muscle memory take over.
I see a tear streak down his cheek before the song is over. He wipes it away, embarrassed. I would have never taken that to be a song that would get someone emotional.
When I finish, he nods his head for a few seconds and says a quiet “thank you”.
“Sure, no problem,” I say. I can see he’s struggling to keep himself together, so I try to distract him. “Have you been playing long?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I don’t play,” he manages.
“Oh. You taking up the hobby?” I ask and point to his guitar case.
“I’m on my way to a pawn shop to get rid of it. Can’t bear to look at it anymore,” he says.
My curiosity gets the better of me, and I ask, “Can I see it?”
He nods, then slides the case onto his lap with the hinges on his side. He undoes the latches, then turns his head away and lifts the lid.
Inside I see an Epiphone Flying V. The original black finish is barely visible under the wall of stickers covering it. Some are band stickers, like Metallica and Deep Purple, of course. Then there’s some other expected ones, like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath.
I can’t think of any reason why he wouldn’t want to look at the guitar, until I see the Pokemon sticker. I look closer and see a Minecraft sticker in the corner and a Harry Potter lightning bolt on the head. That’s when I realize it isn’t his guitar; it’s a child’s guitar.
He slams the lid closed and latches the case shut.
“It’s funny, I used to always get on him for playing it when I was reading or trying to watch TV. I’d give anything to hear it again,” he says.
The train stops. I look at the sign and see that it’s my stop.
I know I’ll never be a famous musician. But tonight, sitting in this empty train car with a man who has been broken by life in the harshest way possible, I might be able to make my years of practice worth something more than wadded-up singles and handfuls of loose change.
“What song can I play for you?” I ask. I text my wife and tell her I’ll be late.
For the next few hours, I play every song he requests as amazingly poorly as I can manage. People wander into the train car, hear the beautiful mess that I’m playing, and opt for another car while we go on with our private concert in peace. His son had good taste. I bet I would have liked him.
Between songs, we chat a little. He tells me more about his son, and I tell him about mine. We finally part ways some time after midnight.
Before going back inside my house, I stop at the trash bin and pull out my son’s toy. I take it inside, clean it off in the sink, and set it neatly on the shelf in his room.
My wife comes into the room while I’m still watching him sleep.
“You okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“I thought you were done with that toy.”
“I think I was being too harsh. It’s one of his favorites.”
I kiss him on the forehead before going to bed, and while I lie in the darkness waiting to fall asleep, I think about how I can’t wait for tomorrow.