I even slept with my prized guitar in my hands.
How much I loved it.
But while I was in the shower Dan Riccard snuck into my room and took my guitar, so I pursued across town, thinking he’d be on his porch playing it, but he was not.
Roommate said, “Gone to Chicago.”
I wrote down the address and got on a bus but when I knocked on that Chicago door, a tall woman in a purple hat handed me a note.
Note said: ‘Tell all wimpy happy-on-the-farm pursuant parties I’m bye bye … shadow-style slipped into blooming dusk, everywhere and nowhere, me and this sweet six string.’
“To where?” I asked the tall woman.
She studied the note. “Hmmm. Is Bye Bye a town in Tennessee?”
I burst into the house. Searched all the rooms till I knew it was true: he wasn’t there. In the bathroom, tucked between two magazines, I found a letter from the government addressed to Dan that read: welcome to the army!
“He’s taken my guitar to the jungle!”
I journeyed backwards to Louisville. Where my girl, Evie, the sweetest singer you ever heard, said, “Forget the guitar. Get another guitar.”
Shook my head, “Need that one. My grandfather carved that guitar himself from a tree that his grandfather had planted. The tree got struck by lightning every time it rained but did not fall, Evie. Stood there proud and tall, till he chopped it down.”
“How we gonna make music?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but just shook my head.
She said to me as the screen door slapped shut, “Nothing belongs to nobody, and I’m slipping through your hands.”
That night I shaved my head and in the morning when the sun was popping over the corn, I went and joined the army too. Not to kill. Or to prove a point for God and country.
Just to find my guitar.
Day One at training:
“Anybody seen a big-eyed Kentucky boy pass through here with a maple body acoustic?”
Day Two at training:
“He’s an ugly guy, big goofy strawberry for a nose, hateful eyes.”
“He never liked my music. He was always trying to get me to stop, to do other stupid stuff.”
Day Thirty at training:
“He couldn’t pick guitar for anything, you’d know who I’m looking for, bad picker, torture listening to him.”
Day Sixty, on the boat over in crashing tempest of a storm:
“He’s got a dent on his forehead from where we smashed into a tractor, trying to jump it, this was when he was riding on my handlebars, when we was kids, when we was daredevils.”
No luck. No one knew his whereabouts.
So I sunk deeper into death. And in just a week of horror bush kill life, I was all like: “LOOK AT ME—BIG BADASS SOLDIER!” I screamed into tiger wet drip drop rain-all-the-time jungle.
And while on patrol, machine gun slung low, I thought about the C chord. How easy it was to place the fingers, how anyone could do it. Cavemen could.
I thought about D minor, the pinky, ring, middle and pointer, the sweet dissonance of it, as I was tossing grenades over roofs, D minor no big deal.
I burned a thatched hut village and visualized a F# barre chord.
In all foxholes and caves I yelled for Dan Riccard.
At leave, in all the depots I asked for Dan Riccard, at whore houses and in bars with rotted floors.
Stars and stripes superiors and staff sergeant world wide had not heard of him.
I drew Dan Riccard’s face at Da Nang, beach called My Khe, with a bloody palm. Waves pummeling the surface of my eroded earth.
I dreamt of the B major, hovering in a ping-pong waterfall.
And one night, being woken by someone strumming, exotically, I climbed up from my bed in the palm fronds and crawled through big thick mud, to peer out at our own enemy sitting in the middle of a downpour, playing a song.
I raised my rifle.
But could not fire.
The song was too sweet. Though I do not know its name.
I crawled back and went to bed.
The next morning there were explosions all around. And planes that dropped fire bombs on us wrongly. Our own damn planes.
I leapt into a river and the rapids took me away farther still from my life on the farm.
I too became a shadow on the edge of the villages. I hid. I did not travel in daylight. I stowed away on a ship leaving the war. Feeling no remorse.
I was in a Dutch motel, having lost all trace of Dan Riccard. He used to rattle on about Amsterdam and red lights, but I couldn’t find him here, and I had knocked on every red window. I looked out of my motel window, down onto the lamp-lit streets, and felt defeated. I had nowhere to go next.
A note slipped under the door.
“I’ve taken your guitar to the top of Mt. Everest, it’s always been a dream of mine.”
I ran out into the hallway, I ran down into the street. There were no people. Just emptiness.
The Sherpa mountaineers tried to talk me out of the climb. They said I did not have the proper training. They said the air would be thin and that I needed $20,000 to help me get up. The lead Sherpa said, “Get another guitar.”
I said, “My grandfather carved that guitar himself from a tree that his grandfather had planted. The tree got struck by lightning every time it rained but did not fall, Tenzing. That tree stood there proud and tall, till he chopped it down.”
I handed over my life savings. Which included the deed to my share of the farm, and one Wednesday morning we began to climb.
Thursday I felt ice vein and ice heart and chatter teeth.
Friday my left hand, my chord hand, crystallized.
Saturday it froze some more.
Sunday it was black.
On Monday morning I woke up with my hand gone and a fever spread over me. Tenzing passed me my hand. He’d cut it off to save my life.
Still we kept climbing.
Some of them turned back. I kept going. Most of them turned back. I climbed higher. One-handed but still going.
When I got to the top of the mountain, wouldn’t you know, Dan Riccard had left me a drawing in the snow. Two circles.
One with a smile. One with a frown.
I guess I was supposed to choose.
I journeyed down the mountain. And then the harder journey: home.
The farm was quiet. To my surprise no one came and took it away from me, even though it didn’t belong to me any longer.
I cut crop circles in the corn for thirteen years.
Evie came to visit me once and said, “Do you play anymore?”
I help up my stump.
A black car came the next spring. The driver had a beard and a black hat and didn’t look like he was from around here. Who is anymore?
He stepped out of the car and asked my name, and I said “Yessir, that’s me.”
He said, “I’m sorry, boy. Dan Riccard has left the Earth.”
“So he’s taken my guitar to Mars? That what you’re saying?”
“No. He’s passed away.”
“Now I feel bad. We were fighting. He was my best friend. We came up together.”
“Why were you fighting?”
“I don’t remember.”
The driver opened up the trunk and there was my guitar.
We were quiet for a while.
Contemplating life. And contemplating death. A song bird sang sorrowfully in a tree on the other side of the property. A tree I’d planted years ago but lightning wouldn’t strike.
The driver sighed and said, “It’s such a pretty guitar.”
Well, don’t you know, I picked the guitar up.
I held it high up in the air, admiring all sides of it. How it shone in the sun.
Then I smashed the guitar against my tractor. It burst into wooden shrapnel and strings flying everywhere like metal whips.
The driver jumped. Looked at me. Got in his car and made a wave of dust as he sped away.
There was a photo inside it that fell into the mud. A faded polaroid. The photo lay there in the splintered wood and the wet slop.
I picked it up with my aching fingers. And brushed all the crud off it.
Me and my friend. I was playing the guitar. He was sitting there next to me. How it usually was.
The back of the photo had a note that: “All you was gonna do was sit there. Ever and ever and ever.”
I slipped the photo into my back pocket.
Looking at my missing hand, I felt it make a phantom G chord.
I felt the hand moving down the demolished neck of the vaporized guitar.
I felt the hand switch to an A7 chord.
And I, I strum.
Bud Smith reads