37. Guitar Lessons

Part 1 of a series of the same name.

WHEN WE WERE JUST a couple of kids growing up in the suburbs, our parents bought us guitars one Christmas after much pestering and promised my brother Cal and I we'd start lessons after New Year. A week or so later, my father drove us in the snow to the nearby home of a gloomy Chilean refugee called Jorge. When Jorge played classical guitar he was transfigured, but when it came to teaching he was mostly spiteful and mean. I think he may have been a little unhinged - there was a little transistor radio somewhere in one of the other rooms of the house, tuned in to a local Mexican radio station that only ever played corridas. That radio was always on, even during lessons. To this day, when I'm driving around from state to state for work and scanning the radio dials, whenever I come across one of those Mexican stations I can't help but feel lonely and sad. Jorge made us play scales endlessly, and lost his temper when it was clear we hadn't been practising as much as he thought we should. I lost interest almost straight away - I don't think I even made it past the winter - but somehow by brother Cal persevered. Even then the gulf between us was becoming unbridgeable. He played his scales through the winter, then through the year, through his adolescence and through music school, and into and out of a series of bands that were successful enough to keep him travelling but never quite big enough to make him any money. As for me, I went into the army and studied psychology at community college. Eventually I became a recruiter, travelling from high school to high school across the tri-state area, trying to convince high school kids to join the military while we were losing two wars. When our father died, Cal quit the band he was in and opened a music store in a suburban shopping mall near a highway junction that I travelled every now and then for work. It sold guitars, mostly Chinese-made cheapies but up high out of reach he kept a few American-made six- and twelve-strings. Conversations between Cal and I would last about five minutes. After all, watching what you say can be exhausting. Even so, I always managed to say something to upset him. Sometimes if the conversation ended too quickly or if we hadn't yet finished the coffees and donuts I brought with me I'd ask Cal to play me something on one of his nice guitars. He had one guitar in particular, a six-string. It cost thousands. When he strummed those six strings, I'd swear I heard nine strings, ten strings, maybe more - it was a thing of beauty. Cal told me it was something about the acoustics - all those sounds mixing together and making new sounds. That's why it was so expensive, he said. Then he would strum more more, adding a few doodles here and there, and then there would be another awkward silence, and one of us would clear his throat and shift uneasily in his chair, and Cal would say, Well... Or else it would be me who said, Well... And the two bachelor brothers would stand and exchange polite farewells and shake hands and I'd walk out into the parking lot and get in my Taurus and turn on the radio and drive in the darkness back to a distant suburban apartment.