I used to hear my father playing guitar early in the morning. The sound could barely carry itself from behind his door and across the hall, but if I was quiet and concentrated hard enough I could just make out what he was playing. Simple stuff, mostly—open chords in Spanish tuning, scales around his forefinger and thumb, everything muted with his wrist and palm. Sometimes it was songs that I could recognize, but more often he seemed to be playing just for the sake of it, just to have the notes keep him company. I’d try to listen as long as I could before falling back asleep. When I woke up I’d go into his room and the guitar would be locked in its case behind the easy chair. He would smile to me and say nothing of it.
My father never slept. He never seemed comfortable with the idea of rest, and he had nightmares, anyway. He would sometimes describe to me seeing his dead grandparents on the foot of his bed, urging him to remember them and Christ and to see things through no matter what. I was never sure if these were dreams of his or things he’d really seen, but either way he certainly believed in them. Another time he told me that when he was in the Air Force one of his jobs was to use chainsaws to cut into the cockpits of downed planes, but that every time he had to do it the pilots were already dead. He was full of stories like this, little things of magic and loss, but it hurt him so much to talk about them. I always wanted to learn more about my father, but it was so painful to hear him tell it.
Most of the guitars my father owned in his life were pretty bad. There were only a few that he really liked, and even then it could be hard to motivate himself to play. The most difficult thing for him was being left-handed, and trying to find ways to deal with a world that mostly forgot left-handed people existed. He learned very quickly how to fabricate a nut and how to adjust for intonation, how to touch the strings just the right way, even on cheap pieces of shit from the Sears catalogue. No matter what guitar he was playing, he always sounded like himself. The guitars seemed like they wanted him to play them, as if they were old friends excited to meet again.
My father climbed ladders for a living. He spent most days pulling fiber optic cable from rotten ceilings, most of the time getting it stuck in his arms on the way down. He was always mottled by a thousand little cuts and bruises stretching from his calloused hands all the way up to his biceps. When I would rest my hands on his shoulders, they seemed as hard as stone. Nothing ever softened them, even weeks in a hospital bed or years away from tear-down weight. When I was a child, I imagined him as the strongest person in the world. It was hard, for both of us, to see him grow weak, to accept that he no longer had the strength he once did. One day he needed my help to put on his socks. His massive body lay in front of me totally immobile. I could barely see him breathing from under the sheets.
My father liked the Beatles, the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Elton John. He had a lot of patience for the noises I enjoyed, because he liked to learn about new things even if he didn’t like them. He would always try to understand things on his own terms. For instance, Throbbing Gristle to him were punk, because they clearly hated music and everything else, but the Stooges were not, because Iggy Pop just wanted to be loved. He could be very funny that way. Mostly he related things to the blues, or to folk music. Those were the magical things in his life. I think he liked the idea of people learning things for themselves, getting the most out of what they’d been given. He liked to hear real emotion in people’s playing, no matter what they were trying to do. I think he understood music to be a technology of the emotions, a means through which people could communicate feelings that they otherwise had no way to express. There was a lot my father needed to say but didn’t have words for. There was so much joy and misery in his playing, all running together until they were totally indistinguishable. No matter what, he would smile when he played the guitar, softly, just to himself.
The other night I thought I heard him playing, something close to “Easy Rider Blues.” I thought I could recognize the sound of his humming and his fingertips tapping on the pickguard. I was so happy to hear him again, I had so much to finally tell him. The sounds were coming from just outside my bedroom. I ran to my door but when I opened it there was nobody there, just some echoes fading into morning light.