Guitar player on grunge backgroundI met him once, a long time ago, on the road out of town with his old jacket and his guitar. Of course, they were banned then (guitars were, not jackets), but for some reason it didn’t alarm me.

I asked him in passing if he intended to walk all the way to Mobile. He didn’t hear me, so I repeated myself. The road was full of the blue trucks laden with their supplies, and I thought it was only a matter of time before one of them stopped him. But he seemed so unconcerned, like he had a plan or he just didn’t care.

Ordinarily I would never have done something like this—I had work that day, and besides, he was a complete stranger to me!—but I turned around and began to follow him. He didn’t say anything and he kept walking along as before, so I assumed he didn’t mind.

Every time we passed a sentry, he gave a friendly nod or a “hello.” Sometimes he even raised his guitar in greeting. I was astounded! Like everyone I grumbled about the new laws that seemed to be perpetually forming.A bit of grumbling was inevitable when we all sat down every Monday and the news came out about this new law or that, but such flagrant disregard for the law was something I had never seen before. And the way the sentries did nothing to stop him—it was like the laws I had been hearing weren’t laws at all, I had just been reading the wrong newspapers or talking to the wrong people, or maybe in other cities the policies were more liberal and it was just my poor little town where we all felt so oppressed.

After a while, I got up the courage to ask him about his past.

“I was born in a town to the West. But I left home a long time ago to come to New York.” he said, smiling wryly.

“Decided I didn’t wanna be a lawyer or a diplomat, so playing guitar for a living seemed like the only other best option at the time. Made it pretty big there, got my name
on some posters, but then it kinda got old so I’ve just been sorta ramblin’ around since then.”

Strange, I thought. He spoke like someone from a provincial city like me, but where could he have picked up that way of speaking?

“Anyway, I haven’t looked back since then, or at least I try my best.” He smiled. I saw that his teeth looked okay.

It slowly began to dawn on me that he was a revolutionary. I had heard the word before, or course, and it had always brought to mind dirty, evil men, without homes, playing cards and whoring because there was something in them that hated order. But now here was a true revolutionary in front of me, and I didn’t feel that he was evil at all. There was a kind of power in him, undeniably, but I didn’t feel that it was an evil power.

==

I suddenly remembered the face of a man that I had seen when I was a child. He had been in the public square handing out pamphlets. This was around before the first revolution, when there were still many voices jostling for position. Nothing was consolidated yet.

I saw that man again, though this time, the policeman was helping him into a car. Another policeman was folding up his little table. My parents hurried me along, but I saw the man’s face as he was being helped into the car. He didn’t resist. He looked in my eyes for just a moment, and that face, for some reason, is something I have remembered ever since. I remember thinking he seemed kind and just. His face was one of the earliest things I can remember putting together with that word. I don’t know what party he was associated with, and he might genuinely have been an antisocial element, but he still seemed just.

==

We arrived in Mobile that night. On the way, my companion informed me that he had arranged to play in a bar, and that they “would probably” let him stay the night
in one of the rooms there. By that point I realized it was getting too late to walk back home and sleep, but I was strangely unconcerned with where I would stay.

We got to the bar and he started to set up to play. This consisted of taking his guitar out of its case and affixing some kind of metal contraption to it up on its neck. He also took out some shabby pieces of paper from a compartment in the case and put them up on a music stand. The bar was an old place with dirty glasses, and the bartender had a giant beard and tattoos and looked unfriendly. The bar was crowded and noisy when my companion started to play.

He sat up on a stool at the front of the room and strummed the guitar once as if to test it, and then he started playing. As I mentioned, the bar was noisy with all the usual things you would see in those days: arm wrestling, men playing cards and dice with their daggers under the table, perhaps there was dancing, I don’t remember now. But as he started playing it gradually fell quiet. By the last song, once people could hear the words, there was no noise in the bar at all. He sang of justice, freedom, and peace, and it was like the people were hearing the words for the first time. All the chaos in the room stopped. I still remember the face of the bartender. He didn’t take his eyes off the stage for the last few songs (and it is a mark of how rapt the whole bar was that no one tried to steal any drinks from behind the counter). All the toughness had gone out of his face. He looked like he was remembering some tender childhood memory—perhaps something of the parades or the evenings spent in the public gardens that everyone of a certain age must still remember. In any case, good memories originating from before the start of the evil regime.

He finished the last song abruptly and ducked off the stage to weave through the ecstatic limbs of the crowd. I thought he had gone through some back exit, but then I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the singer wink and jerk his head as he slipped through the door.

We took the alley behind the bar, and we had walked halfway up a road leading past a church, quite bright in the moonlight, before he would let me talk to him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, once we were safely up on the hill. “I don’t know what kind of agents could have been lurking in that bar.” He produced a flask of whiskey from his guitar case and offered me some; I don’t usually drink but this time I accepted. As we talked, I realized that he wasn’t as optimistic in person as in his songs. When I asked him about the Constitution, he said, “It could help, who knows.” I asked him about the unions and he said something to the same effect, but when I kept pestering him (as he seemed like someone, even at that time, whose voice mattered, who could make a difference), he got angry and asked me how he was supposed to know.

We could see the lights of Mobile down below. I turned down his offer to smoke a cigarette. I usually find them disgusting, but the smoke in the cold night drifting from his mouth to the sky seemed somehow right. I kept asking questions. I was desperate to know more about him. I asked him when he left home, and he said five years ago, he thought. I asked him where his family lived and he said he forgot. I asked him about his schooling.

“I felt like I wasn’t learning anything necessary after the fifth grade, really.”

And women.

“Well, you must have seen the way they were all looking at me in there.”

And religion.

“That’s a personal matter, really, isn’t it?”

He seemed to be sure of himself in every way that I was not. Where my words got lost and stumbled around in the underbrush and the shadows, his were amplified by the moonlight and the cold and remained, for a while. They hung over the lights of the town below us.

Then something strange happened. I had asked him some question about what he planned to do in the future, especially if the laws became more strictly enforced. When he responded I detected a slight snag in his voice. I must have sensed that I could exploit this hesitation to get more out of him, and I started to ask about his family again.

“You truly don’t remember the city of your family’s residence?” I said.

“Are you calling me a liar?” he said with a laugh, but again I heard the slight crack in the bell.

“I just don’t see how it’s possible to forget the name of your home.”

He thought for a while. “Well, you forget a lot of things, man. Do you remember what you ate for breakfast this morning?”

I didn’t say anything. I imagined I could feel the heat of his embarrassment coming through the midnight air.

“Don’t you miss them?” I said. “And weren’t there friends you left behind? Don’t you miss them too?”

He didn’t say anything. I turned to him, feeling triumphant, like I had somehow beaten him, and saw that there were tears in his eyes. Suddenly robbed of all his self-confidence, he looked like an unkempt child. He sat completely still. I don’t think he realized I was looking at him.

Embarrassed, I stumbled off in the dark, saying I had to relieve myself— which I did, but that’s beside the point.

By this time, owing to the whiskey, I was absurdly drunk. As I made my way through the undergrowth I expected to hear sobs coming from the hillside. Although it took me a long time to find a suitable place and such,and so I was gone a long time, I couldn’t hear a sound except for the wind. Confused, I made my way over to the place where I thought I had left him.

A cloud went over the moon and it became dark. I stumbled around pitifully in the shadows for a long time, trying to avoid getting tangled up in the brush, when at last I came upon something solid.

I realized that it was the door to the church we had passed. I had a fleeting last hope that he had decided to sleep there. It seemed fantastically romantic—our voices echoing off the vaulted ceilings, telling stories until we fell asleep.

but when I pushed the door it didn’t move. It wasn’t locked. It was more immovable than that somehow, like the entire church had been filled in with concrete, or it had been made out of a solid block of stone and the doors were just for show. I left the church after a while and wandered through the dark again, but I never found him; and I spent that night on the floor of the forest, alone.

Anyway, that’s how I met him. I’m sorry it’s such a dismal scene, but it’s the truth—and I think it paints quite a different picture to the man that we have all come to know and revere since then.

—————

0Ed King is a recent graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Colorado and is now working as a computer programmer in Boulder. He was born in England and moved to Colorado in 2001. He has since become used to and even fond of Colorado’s snow, sudden shifts in weather, and many varieties of Subaru. Ed King is the founder of A Thousand and One Stories, a website designed to collect stories from indie authors of all varieties. Visit Ed King’s website at thousandonestories.com.