“An Un-played Instrument” – a story by Terry Sanville

March 22nd, 2024

 

 

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“An Un-played Instrument” was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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photo via PxHere/CC0 Public Domain

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An Un-played Instrument

by Terry Sanville

 

Floyd grabbed his cane and stepped out of his air-conditioned car into the late August heat. The afternoon sun warmed his stiff joints. It felt good. From the Honda’s back seat he pulled a battered guitar case, locked the car and shambled down Monterey Street to Premier Music Store. Its front door stood closed against blasts of hot Santa Ana winds.

…..Inside, guitars, banjos, violins, mandolins, and basses papered the walls and hung like stalactites from the ceiling joists. He tried gazing upward but the arthritis in his neck kept him from getting a good look.

…..“Well look what the cat dragged in,” Butch the shop owner said. “Haven’t seen you since—”

…..“Before the pandemic. Yeah, it’s been a long stretch. How’s business?”

…..“Getting better. And I’ve got some great axes to show you, if you’re interested?”

…..“Not today. So, is Steve in the shop?”

…..Butch stared at Floyd for a long moment before answering. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but Steve died almost two years ago.”

…..Floyd set his guitar down and slumped onto a stool in front of the counter. “What . . . what the hell happened?”

…..“You knew he had asthma and a bad ticker. When Covid hit and before any of the vaccines were out he caught it bad. After only three days he was on the vent and lasted not even a day after that.”

…..“I hadn’t heard. Christ, he’s been fixing my guitars since the ’70s. He was my friend. I can’t afford to lose the few I have left.”

…..“He was a master luthier, that’s for sure. Could fix ’em and build ’em.”

…..They fell silent. Floyd stared off into space, his lips trembling, eyes blinking back tears. Before the pandemic he and Steve used to go out to lunch every few months and talk about music, what new material they’d heard, and how much they enjoyed playing at the blues jams that seemed to be popping up everywhere.

…..He and Steve had graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1958, ready to hit the jazz scene in New York City. But times were tough and Floyd returned to the West Coast while Steve kicked around the eastern seaboard from Bar Harbor to Miami. Floyd settled in Los Angeles, got married, and did reasonably well as a studio musician. Steve was no virtuoso and found himself back in LA working in a music store repairing guitars and other stringed instruments. But he became good at it, really good, the guy to go to for excellent work, the guy that rock stars sought out.

…..“So what have you got in that case?” Butch asked, breaking the silence. “Need something fixed?”

…..“It’s my ’34 Epiphone Deluxe Masterbilt.”

…..“Well, I hired a young guy that’s really good. If you need something repaired I can—”

…..“No, nothing like that. I was gonna give this guitar to Steve.”

…..“You were what? You’ve had that thing since . . .”

…..“Yes, I know. But . . . but I can’t play any more.” Floyd held up his hands in front of him, the fingers stiff with arthritis. “My left hand can’t fret the strings, and my right can’t hold a pick.”

…..“Geez, Floyd, I’m so sorry. It must have come on quick.”

…..“Yeah, the last five years. All I can do now is play my harmonicas. I’m actually getting pretty good. My wind is still strong.”

…..Butch shook his head. “Yeah, but you could play anything, Floyd. Even gave those Spanish guitarists a run for their money.”

…..Floyd smiled. “Yeah . . . I could, couldn’t I.”

…..The silence built again. Floyd got lost in his memories of studio and club dates, his stint with a big band working for NBC, and college gigs with Steve.

,,,,,“So what are you gonna do with the Epiphone?” Butch asked. “I can put it on the wall and get an excellent price for you. I’ll only take fifteen percent.”

…..“No. I’ve got to find it a good home with someone who will appreciate such a fine instrument . . . not use it as some damn wall decoration. You know . . . an un-played instrument is . . . is the saddest thing.”

…..Butch nodded. “Well, when you need new harps, I sell them too. Got a great sounding selection at good prices.”

…..“I’m sure, I’m sure. But I gotta go, Butch. You take care.”

…..Floyd grasped his guitar and moved toward the door, not wanting to think about the hard world of retail.

…..Butch called after him, “Yeah, and ah . . . I’m sorry about Steve.”

…..“So am I.”

 

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The bell jingled as Floyd left the music store. Heat radiated off the sidewalk and tarmac. He fanned himself with his battered porkpie hat, removed his sports coat and loosened his tie – a uniform he’d worn since the late ’50s. Ducking into the shade next to the stores and shops facing the street he shuffled along and turned into Bull’s Tavern, its roof-mounted HVAC system roaring. All the stools at the bar stood vacant, except for one filled by an old alkey, her head down on the counter, snoring, the contents of her purse strewn before her.

…..In the saloon’s back corner, two musicians arranged their amplifiers and microphone stands on a tiny stage bordered by a postage-stamp dance floor. The bass player messed with the tone controls of their PA while the guitarist positioned his array of effects pedals. Floyd sat at the bar, ordered a scotch rocks, and watched them work. The guitarist removed his axe from its case and polished it with a soft yellow cloth.

…..Floyd downed his drink and approached the young man. “That’s some guitar you got there.”

…..“Thanks. It was my father’s.”

…..“A late seventies Les Paul Artisan, right?”

…..“Yeah, a walnut ’77 with the original three humbuckers.”

…..“You can play anything on that thing. But I never liked them much; too damn heavy.”

…..The young man grinned. “You got that right. Are you a player?”

…..“Was. Studio work mostly. Jazz.”

…..“What do you have there?” The guitarist pointed to the battered case Floyd leaned against.

…..“A ’34 Epiphone Deluxe Masterbilt.”

…..“Really? Can I see it?”

…..Floyd pulled up a chair, unpacked his guitar and passed it to the young man. “Be careful. She doesn’t like a rough hand.”

…..The guitarist fingered the strings, played a few notes and chords, all garden-variety stuff, and handed it back. “Yeah, she’s beautiful. My Pop told me these old archtops were great for playing chords in jazz bands – even before they had electrics.”

…..“Do you play any jazz?” Floyd asked.

…..“Nah, mostly country and rock with a little folk and blues thrown in.”

…..“Can you read?”

…..“You mean music?”

…..Floyd nodded.

…..“No.”

…..Floyd sighed. “Sooner or later you’ll want to learn. You can get farther.”

…..“You mean in the music business?” The guitarist grinned. “Playing bar gigs is how I’m paying my way through college. I’m pre-med.”

…..Floyd smiled. “When I need a doctor, I’ll come see you.”

…..The young man plugged in his Les Paul and blasted a few bars of high-volume notes, making Floyd wince.

…..“Have a great happy hour. Don’t sell that guitar. When the time is right you’ll want to play it.”

…..“I hear ya, man.”

…..Floyd stood, waved to the bartender and pushed through the padded saloon door into the blinding afternoon light.

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The sun cast long sad shadows across the mostly deserted street. Floyd headed toward the small park shaded by huge California sycamores, their plate-sized leaves rattling in the wind. Years before he’d haul the Epiphone and his music to that park and practice reading charts, forcing himself to play up-tempo so that his hands found the right chords and notes, without error and almost without looking.

…..But today, an old black man with a grizzled white beard slouched on the same park bench, dozing. A beater guitar lay across his lap. The upended baseball cap that rested between his feet contained a few measly coins. Floyd smiled to himself, grabbed a fistful of change from his pocket and dropped it into the hat. A quiet tinkle sounded. The old man stirred.

…..“What . . . what you doin’? Tryin’ to rip me off?”

…..“Relax, Jessie. I’m just enjoying the heat.”

…..Jessie stared up at Floyd with clouded eyes and grinned. “That you Floyd with that fancy git-tar of yours?”

…..“Yeah, Jess. Glad to see you made it through the pandemic. How’s the street been treating you?”

…..“Can’t complain, can’t complain. But my finances ain’t recovered none.”

…..“You’ve got to learn more than those three songs you play. Folks will give you more.”

…..“You crazy, man. Most folks only hear me once, and it’s all new ta them. Besides I ain’t been well . . . don’ know how much longer. How you been?”

…..“I’m doing okay . . . but I can’t play anymore, my hands are crippled up.”

…..Jessie gave him a gap-toothed grin. “I can hardly play myself. But this here git-tar’s my buddy, my companion. I can just sit here holdin’ it and folks will drop coins in the hat.”

…..“Good for you.”

…..“If I had a fancy git-tar like yours, I’d learn somethin’ new. But then the cops prob’ly bust me for stealin’ it . . . or I’d get mugged.”

…..“You can still play a little blues in E can’t you?”

…..“Sure, sure. But not many wanna hear that stuff.”

…..“I do.”

…..Floyd lowered himself onto the bench next to Jessie and slipped a harmonica from his jacket pocket. “Just play for a while.”

…..“Don’ know if I’m in tune.”

…..“Here’s an E, tune to it.”

…..Jessie struggled to get the cheap guitar in tune then started to play, slowly, clumsily, his hands moving with a strange palsy. Floyd tapped his foot and played along, sucking in deep breaths to blow a fast series of eight notes then bending the last one to hit the dominant seventh. They played until sweat trickled into Floyd’s eyes. He stopped, retrieved a handkerchief from his sport coat and wiped his forehead.

…..“Now, if we were down home, somewheres in the delta, we’d be playin’ juke joints and such,” Jessie said.

…..“Yeah, big bucks to be made there.”

…..They both laughed. Jessie fingered the paper bag at his side and tilted back his bottle of Cisco Red.

…..“You wanna hit?” he offered.

…..“No, I still have to see some people this afternoon.”

…..“So if you can’t play, why you carrying around that git-tar?”

…..“Good question. I just need to find the right person to give it to.”

…..“You givin’ it away? That’s crazy, man. You should sell that sucker and buy me some more Cisco Red.”

…..“Go back to sleep, Jessie. You’re dreaming.”

…..“Yeah, suppose I am.”

…..Floyd rose from the bench groaning and retraced his route. He opened all four doors of the Honda to air it out before climbing in. He left wrist throbbed with pain from hauling the heavy guitar case. He turned on the car radio to a jazz station and listened for awhile as the air conditioning cooled the interior, trying to decide his next stop on an odyssey that might last as long as Homer’s.

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Floyd muscled the Honda into a tight parking spot next to the music building. He’d taught Chord Theory and Improvisation at the State University for years and enjoyed being immersed in youth for at least a few hours a week. But the pandemic had ended all that. Afterward, the University gave his spot to a tenured professor who had never played jazz anywhere but in her living room and couldn’t sing a scat line if her life depended on it. He tried not to feel bitter about it, deciding it was probably his age and disability that got him released. But he missed it, especially after his beloved wife passed and he lost his in-house audience, except maybe for his cat, Mongo.

…..Even during the summer, the University seemed packed with kids, eager to get out in the world or just biding their time until some get-rich-quick proposition came along that let them retire at thirty.

…..Inside the AC-cooled music building, the highly polished hallway looked like light gray ice. Along one side of the corridor, music of many genres sounded from a dozen or so practice studios. Floyd crept past each one, sneaking peeks through the tiny wire-glass windows in their doors: dorky-looking guys pounded out classical pieces on upright pianos; trumpet players blasted away, their string of notes repeated over and over but never sounding fluid; an Asian girl sawed on a cello; a trio of mop-haired geeks banged on guitars. Floyd wondered if they were studying for a bachelor’s degree in grunge.

…..Near the end of the hall a young woman, well-built, wearing shorts and a halter top, her long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, sat at a piano and stared at what looked like a jazz chart. She clutched a Gibson ES-175 and fingered a series of notes that sounded familiar to Floyd. Without warning, she turned and stared at him. He fled down the hall.

…..“Hey mister, what are you looking for?” she called after him from the opened doorway.

…..Floyd turned and grinned sheepishly. “I was just passing through and thought I heard a line from—”

…..A Night in Tunisia, one of my favorite Dizzy tunes. I’ve been trying to get the melody line down smoothly. But the intervals are really challenging.”

…..“You don’t look like someone that—”

…..A frown darkened her face. “What? I look like some bimbo that should be thrashing a Fender and singing some dim-witted pop tune?” She turned to go in.

…..“No, no. It’s just that the last time I saw someone perform that piece, he was a black trumpeter with a bent horn in a club on 52nd Street.”

…..The woman stopped and turned. “You actually heard Dizzy Gillespie?” Her eyes widened.

…..“Yes.”

…..“I’d kill to hear him. My name’s Lydia, by the way.”

…..“I’m . . . I’m Floyd Baxter. I used to teach here, but they let me go.”

…..“Sorry to hear that. So, what’s in the case?”

…..“My last guitar.”

…..“Why is it your last?”

…..For a young woman she seemed to be forward, aggressive, kept Floyd off-balance, like some jazz tune written in five-fourths time.

…..“I can’t play any more.”

…..“Why’s that?”

…..Floyd held up his left hand with its frozen fingers.

…..“What? That’s supposed to mean something?” The girl studied his trembling hand.

…..“I can’t fret the notes anymore. Bad arthritis.”

…..“That sucks.” She sighed, motioned him inside the room and sat on the piano bench. She grabbed her Gibson from the guitar stand. “So what am I doing wrong?” She stared at the sheet music and the opening notes to A Night in Tunisia.

…..“Nothing. You just need to practice, develop the muscle memory for the notes . . . and relax.”

…..“Yeah, I know. I just get frustrated sometimes.” She stared up at him and grinned. “Sit down and stay awhile. So, should I know who you are?”

…..Floyd sat on a folding chair. “Hardly. I was mostly a studio musician or played clubs that have long since gone dark.”

…..“Yeah, I get that. But why are you hauling around that guitar?”

…..“That’s a good question.”

…..“Can I see it?”

…..“Okay.”

…..Lydia unfastened the four latches and laid the case’s lid back. A breath caught in her throat. “Can I pick it up?” she asked.

…..“Sure, just be careful.”

…..She cradled the huge archtop in her lap and stared. “This thing looks new.”

…..“Hardly. It’s a ’34.”

…..“Where’d you find it?”

…..“Boston. A friend of mine used it at the Berklee College of Music. But he went into building guitars and repairing them and didn’t play much after the change.”

…..“Can I play it? I’ll be careful.”

…..“Sure, go ahead.”

…..Floyd leaned back and listened as Lydia moved up and down the guitar’s neck, playing fast arpeggios and intricate chord progressions, hardly missing a note. She stared at the sheet music for A Night in Tunisia and banged out the melody line as if she’d been practicing it for years.

…..“The guitar already knows that tune,” Floyd said and laughed.

…..“Yes, evidently she does.”

…..Lydia continued playing for half an hour: her own arrangements of jazz standards with some fusion tunes thrown in.

…..“How long have you been playing?” Floyd asked.

…..“About six years. Before that I studied piano, so I can sight-read really well.”

…..“Good for you.”

…..Lydia stopped playing, wiped the Epiphone down with a yellow cloth and set it back in its case. “She’s beautiful, has that jazz sound that you don’t hear often anymore.”

…..“You’re right there. And I have an old DeArmond pickup that I clip on and play through a tiny tube amplifier.”

…..“Sweet.”

…..The two musicians sat and stared at the guitar. The silence built, finally broken by Lydia.

…..“So you say you can’t play anymore. How bad is it?”

…..“I’ve got carpal tunnel in both wrists and wear braces. Some of the finger joints are frozen. My right hand isn’t quite as bad. But it hurts like hell when I try.”

…..“Doesn’t sound good. So . . . so what are you going to do with the guitar?”

…..“I was going to give it away to a deserving person. Maybe that’s you. You know, an un-played instrument is a sad thing.”

…..Lydia nodded. “But what about you?” she asked.

…..“What do you mean?”

…..“You’re old, probably been playing for seventy years. What are you going to do?”

…..“I can play my harmonicas.”

…..“That’s a start.”

…..“Yeah.”

…..“Will the harmonicas be enough?”

…..“Probably not.”

…..Lydia smiled. “I’ve got an idea. Do you play the blues?”

…..“Every jazz musician worth their salt plays the blues.”

…..“Good.”

…..She retrieved the Epiphone and began turning the tuners, changing the strings’ pitch. “You ever play open-D tuning?”

…..“No, jazz is too complicated to fuss around with changing all the chord positions.”

…..“Well, let’s try this.” Lydia finished tweaking the tuners and laid the guitar across her lap. She retrieved a steel slide from her knapsack and began to play a slow blues piece, moving the slide up and down the neck.

…..“Damn, that sounds good,” Floyd said, grinning. “I’ve seen players use slides before but I’ve never tried it.”

….“Well, it’ll feel clumsy at first. But you won’t have to bend your wrists much or press down on the strings. But you’ve got to position the slide perfectly to get the right note. Here, you try.”

…..Floyd laid the Epiphone across his legs, grasped the slide and moved it over the strings. A sweet mournful sound poured from its f-holes. But everything felt odd and out of place. Lydia showed him how to properly hold the slide and how to use his fingers to dampen the strings to control the reverb. He stumbled along for half an hour until someone knocked on the door and told them that Lydia’s time using the practice room was up.

…..Floyd packed up his guitar and stood. Lydia grinned and gave him a hug. “See, the instruments, both you and that Epiphone, can still be played. Have fun, Blues Boy Floyd.”

…..“Thanks, Lydia, for the lesson and for . . . for giving me joy for whatever time I’ve got.”

…..“You’re welcome.”

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On clear days, neighborhood residents could find Floyd Baxter sitting on a park bench with his guitar, a harmonica clasped in a rack around his neck. He played blues tunes, some fast, some slow. Sometimes an old black man would sing along with him, a pork piehat on the ground at their feet collecting coins and the occasional greenback as they played.

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Terry  Sanville  lives  in  San  Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, and novels. His short stories have been accepted more than 500 times by journals, magazines, and anthologies including The American Writers Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated three times for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist.   This illustration of Terry was created by his late friend John Barnard.

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Click here to read “The Old Casino,” J.B. Marlow’s winning story in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

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