On the day before his daughter was set to leave for art school, Joseph Kaufman sat in his study, staring intently at his old steel-string acoustic guitar. The one he’d had for eighteen years, and had tried to play exactly twice.
The first time was the day little Alice Kaufman was born. The late-stage delivery had been a particularly long one, commencing at around 11PM the previous night, and not finishing until 2:53 in the morning. He felt like a zombie by the time it was over, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine how Tracey felt, but time ceased to exist for both of them the first moment they laid eyes on their daughter. Fatigue was a friend they’d both get to know very well in the following months, but at that moment, it wasn’t even a passing acquaintance. They were wide awake for the first few hours of baby Ally’s existence on planet earth, but when she finally drifted off to sleep, the adrenaline ran out, and Joe and Tracey were out like lights.
When Joe woke up that afternoon, in the chair beside his wife’s hospital bed, she and Ally were still fast asleep, and he decided to run some errands. As he walked out of the hospital, the world seemed surreal, dreamlike. Somehow, everything felt different. He was looking at life through a brand new filter. Every thought he had seemed to be prefaced with: I’m a father now. It made him feel both eternally wise and supremely unprepared. It was a phenomenon he would later refer to as “Dad Brain.”
It was on that day, while high on life (or stoned on Dad Brain), that Joe Kaufman, twenty-seven year old accountant without a single musical bone in his body, made the spontaneous decision to stop at the local music store and buy an acoustic guitar.
He got what they called a “Starter Pack” that included everything you needed to play. “Guaranteed to make you a rock star,” or some shit like that, they had told him. On the drive home his mind raced with delusions of grandeur. Of learning Tracey’s favorite song to surprise her when she came home. Of singing his daughter to sleep, and teaching her to play with him when she was older. Of starting a band with his coworkers. Of being the cool dad.
But when he got home, his fantasies were abruptly humbled by a startling realization: Playing guitar is really. Freaking. HARD.
It took him at least ten minutes just to get the thing in tune. That is, assuming he was even doing it right. He flipped open the book that came in the pack and followed the instructions: Hold the electronic tuner up to the guitar, pluck each string, and turn the knobs until the line was dead center. Except, it was never dead center, not for more than a nano-second anyway. Every time he got it right on, it immediately drifted to one side or the other. Stupid thing is probably defective, he thought to himself. Eventually he decided he probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway, so he flipped to the next page: Basic chords.
The diagram for “C Major” looked like an intricate game of tic-tac-toe. His brain eventually worked out what the lines and dots meant, and he placed his fingers in what were, as far as he could tell, the proper positions. Then, brimming with excitement to hear the first musical sound ever produced by his own two hands, he dragged the little plastic triangle across five of the six strings. He expected to hear a beautiful, warm, soaring guitar chord, but it came out more like ding plink! plink! ding plink! Only two of the strings even produced a tone, and it wasn’t a nice tone. Confused, he released the strings with the intention of checking the diagram and trying again, but was struck by the feeling that each of his fingertips had been stung by a bee. Turns out, pushing down on bare metal wire hurts a lot! He set the guitar down and ran to the sink, soothing his fingers under some cold water, and decided this was a battle for another day. He then grabbed a few things for Tracey, and headed back to the hospital.
He told himself on the way back that he would spend a little time each day with that guitar. He told himself a lot of things in his first few weeks of fatherhood. He told himself he wouldn’t let the house get messy, no matter how tired child care made him. He told himself he wouldn’t make stupid jokes like Hi Hungry, I’m Dad! when Ally got old enough to complain. He would later blame all of these lies on Dad Brain. He even told himself that day that he would stop drinking, which he eventually did, but not for another thirteen years. When Tracey came home and saw the guitar in the corner, Dad Brain made her lofty promises of serenades and romance, but a few weeks later, they both had silently agreed that it was a glorified decoration.
The second time he tried to play it was about eight years later, a few months after Tracey had passed away from a brain tumor. That was when his drinking got really bad. He was sitting there at the kitchen table, a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker in front of him and a half-full tumbler in his hand, just watching the hours go by, when he spotted the guitar in the corner and was struck by the sudden urge to play it. Ally was on the floor in the living room, drawing pictures with her crayons when she watched him cross the room, pick up the guitar and the old instruction book, and take it back to the kitchen.
Ally’s counselor had said activity was the best thing for her, to keep her mind occupied. She had mentioned that her favorite class in school was art class, so on the day of her mother’s funeral, Joseph bought her the biggest set of crayons he could find and a giant stack of construction paper. She barely said a word of thanks, she barely said much of anything at that time, but she drew pictures almost every day with those crayons. And when she saw her father pick up that guitar, the one that she thought was only for looks, she started on her first masterpiece.
Joe was surprised by how quickly his fingers were able to find the C Major chord again. His fingertips stung a bit less, probably because of the alcohol, but either way that was a plus. He hadn’t bothered tuning it, and was sure the pitches weren’t even close to right, but he didn’t care. He flipped open the book, and decided to add a second chord to his repertoire, this time G Major. That one was actually a little easier. His fingers weren’t scrunched so close together, and the strings rang out just a little bit better. Then he tried switching back and forth between the two chords, and was abruptly reminded that he was not yet a rock star.
Those lying shits, He thought to himself, vaguely remembering the sales pitch at the music store all those years ago, and he chuckled. Rock stars on TV could switch between chords instantly, but it took him at least ten seconds to move each of his fingers, one by one, to the new locations. One...two....three...strum! One...two...three...strum! Back and forth, back and forth. Eight years prior, he had given up after a single strum, but that day he had had somewhere to be. This time, he had nothing to do but make sure Ally was fed, and then drink himself to sleep. So he sat there, listlessly plucking at the two chords, until he was interrupted.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look!” A very excited Ally was suddenly shoving a piece of yellow construction paper in his face.
Startled, Joe leaned the guitar against the table and took the paper from her, asking, “What is it, honey?”
“It’s you!” She yelled. “It’s you and your gee-tar!” She eagerly watched his face, grinning, wanting to see his reaction to the drawing. He was arrested by her expression, the first moment of genuine joy she’d had since before Tracey died, and he was afraid if he looked away it would be gone forever, and he’d never see his daughter smile again. But finally, he looked down at the paper, and sure enough, it contained what appeared to be a horribly disproportionate man made of blue crayon, playing a weirdly shaped guitar.
It was not much more than a stick figure. The head was a circle with spikes for hair and small dots for eyes. His right arm, the strumming arm, was impossibly massive, and the guitar was basically just a brown blob with a stem jutting out to the side. His left arm was a thin line going straight from his shoulder to the neck of the guitar, and his legs were little rectangles with hooked claws for feet. In the bottom right corner was a much smaller figure: a head sitting on top of a pink triangle, a little girl’s dress no doubt, with stick arms and legs.
“See!” Little Ally pointed vigorously at each piece of the picture. “There’s you! There’s your gee-tar! There’s me! And there’s your wicksy bottle!” He hadn’t even noticed it at first, but as he followed her finger across the page, it stopped on a tall cylinder, which was half colored in with brown crayon. He felt deeply ashamed. He didn’t even think an eight-year-old had any conception of what wicksy was. That was the day he learned that children see. They might not entirely understand what they’re seeing, but they see. She was an observant little girl, and she saw his addiction.
Then his eyes landed on an image at the top of the page. Another stick figure, with white blobs that appeared to be wings, and a yellow circle over its head. “What’s that one, baby?” He asked, but he already knew.
“That’s mommy, watching us from heaven.” She said.
It took all of Joe’s strength not to completely break down in that moment. That’s mommy in heaven watching you play the gee-tar you promised to serenade her with and drink wicksy in front of your daughter until you can’t stand up straight every night.
Fighting back tears, he wrestled out the words: “That’s great, honey!”
Her smile widened. That smile was everything. It would later prove to be the only thing that inspired him to forgive himself for all of his broken promises over the years.
“Can we put it on the fridge?!” She asked excitedly.
“Yeah, of course, baby!” He replied. “Why don’t you go work on another one while I put it up?”
“Okay!” She yelled, and returned to her crayons and her stack of construction paper. Just like that, her mourning period was over. It wasn’t the end of her grief, but kids don’t experience grief that same way that adults, or even teenagers do. It comes back and rears its ugly head every so often, but it doesn’t leer at them from the shadows every second of every day. It doesn’t cripple them, it doesn’t stifle their creativity, it doesn’t drive them into a wicksy bottle. Kids have a way of bouncing back, and in the case of his daughter, Joe was both jealous and eternally grateful. She was basically back to normal after that, minus a few rough days here and there. Joe acted like he was back to normal, for her sake, but it was years before he felt normal again.
He allowed the tears to flow as he turned his back on the living room, and pinned the drawing to the fridge with a magnet. He then placed the guitar back in its corner in the living room, this time making no promises to pick it back up again. The last thing he remembered about that day was downing the rest of the wicksy in his tumbler, and returning the bottle to the cabinet for the night. It wasn’t the end of his drinking, but it was the first time he deeply regretted it. On the day he did finally make the decision to quit five years later, that drawing was still pinned to the fridge, and he believed it was what gave him the strength.
At some point over the next ten years, the guitar had moved from the living room into the study, the walls of which had become populated by Alice Kaufman originals. Her artwork had progressed from childishly inept, to surprisingly decent, to downright incredible. Joe’s favorite was a portrait of him that she had drawn as a Father’s Day present. He looked handsome in it, much better than he believed he looked in real life. It reminded him of the beauty she saw in him. It reminded him that even though they fought, even though she was growing up and was leaving home, even though he made mistakes, that she still saw more in him than a no good worthless temporarily-sober drunk. The portrait did more to keep him sober than the five year AA chip he kept in the top drawer of his desk.
It was while looking at that portrait, and thinking about Ally’s imminent departure, that he felt inspired to pick up that guitar and play it for the third time. His fingers quickly found the two chords he knew, and started switching between them, still slow as ever. One… two… three… strum! One… two… three… strum! His fingers began to sting almost immediately, but he was determined to fight through it this time.
“Hey! You’re playing your guitar!” Ally was standing in the open doorway. She had grown into a beautiful young woman. She had Tracey’s blue eyes, and her lovely smile, but she had Joe’s nose and dark hair. She looked both surprised and excited to see him playing.
Joe smiled and shrugged. “Yea, tryin’ to anyway! I’m about to be an empty nester so I guess I better take up some kind of hobby.”
“Well it’s about time!” She replied. “I’ve been wondering my whole life if you were ever gonna learn to play that thing!” Her tone was teasing but encouraging.
“Ha! Well, we can’t all be as talented as you,” he teased back, gesturing toward her art all over the walls. “I still have no idea where you get it from.”
“Are you kidding?” She was genuinely incredulous. “You have a short memory, don’t you dad? Getting a little senile in your old age?”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Joe feigned offense but was amused in spite of himself.
Ally grinned and rolled her eyes. “I’ll be right back.” Then she was gone. Joe heard her feet clomp clomp clomping down the hallway, then down the stairs, and then he heard the loud thwap! of a piece of paper being yanked off of a surface. Then she clomp clomp clomped back up to the study and thrust a yellow piece of construction paper in his face for the second time.
“Don’t you remember this?”
He was again looking at the horribly disfigured blue guitar player, the little stick girl with the triangular pink dress, the cylindrical wicksy bottle, and the angel looking down on it all.
“I drew like a hundred of these back then. At least. All just as horrible. You told me we couldn’t put all of them on the fridge because they would make this one jealous.” Joe had no memory of saying that, but he did vaguely recall panicking at the idea of replacing that picture. It had meant more to him than she could know. “I didn’t actually get good at drawing until like Junior High. And even then, I hated most of my own work. It took me a long time to stop being self-conscious about it. You know what they say, that one ancient city wasn’t built in a day.”
The old picture had Joe on the verge of tears yet again, but Ally’s last sentence snapped him out of it. “That one ancient city? You mean Rome?! Gee it’s a good thing you’re not a history major…” He admired her more than he could describe, but he rarely missed an opportunity to give her shit. It was just one of those dad things. The last lingering remnants of his old friend Dad Brain.
“Oh shut up!” She snapped back playfully. “My point is, it takes practice! Just keep playing, Daddy, you’ll get it!” She leaned over and kissed him sweetly on the cheek, and then ran back to her room to finish packing.
Joe looked at the picture a few moments longer, then set it aside and began plucking at the guitar again. Now he had no wife to serenade, no infant to sing to sleep, no one to play for but himself. And if he was being honest, he didn’t think that sounded too bad.
After twenty minutes or so, he placed the guitar back on its stand, but he made himself a promise to pick it up the next day, and the next, and the next after that. This time, he meant to keep that promise.