ALL GOOD THINGS, YOU KNOW?
And there it lay – an ancient, battered guitar case, stretched across the backseat like a sleeping lover. Chipped green paint, dents and scratches, a few old decals. Faded. It remained still as Martha drove down the highway. She watched the snow vibrate in the sky. It drifted, shaking free from soundless clouds, flaking down onto the windshield and evaporating on contact. Martha held the steering wheel beneath gnarled, white knuckles, wrinkled. Every now and then she’d raise a finger up to curl a lock of gray hair out of her eye. It was a gesture she had gotten used to.
The endless concrete of the road passed by with a dull drone, Martha adjusting her glasses and changing lanes with one smooth motion. She glanced at a crumpled up scrap of paper in her fist, the hastily penciled scribbles shining in the afternoon light. She scrunched up her face, making her wrinkles deepen further into creases as she moved a hand to the radio, flicking it on with a click. The music slid free from the speakers, the lyrics reverberating in her ears, resonating in her chest.
Every now and then she’d change stations. Songs that she had once loved. Songs that once meant different things to her. Everything was music and change and forgettings and rememberings. As she drove, she listened.
–Daft Punk, “Touch”
Martha and her daughter Rose sat together on the couch as the orchestra rose, climbing higher, higher still. And then, silence. Martha got goosebumps for the first time in many years, listening to that silence. She looked at the CD case lying on the coffee table. Amidst the glare cast by a setting sun through windowpane, she caught her reflection – far off.
“Happy Birthday, Mom,” Rose said, turning the volume down on the stereo as the next song began.
“Where did you hear it?” Martha replied, looking at the LED on the front of the stereo as it ticked onward.
“The album came out earlier this year,” she said, picking up the case and turning it over in her hands, “I heard it and I thought you might like it. Or you might not, but that’s the risk you take with gift giving.”
Martha smiled and said, “Even if I didn’t like it, I’d appreciate it. I’m always interested in the ways music changes.” She accepted the case from Rose’s hands and looked at the cover. “I started listening to them. Electronic music in general. Your father doesn’t care for it, though. He’s still living in 1979,” she said with a grin. “He still can barely accept disco.”
Rose nodded, laughing. and asked, “Are you still playing?”
“Occasionally,” her mother said, “Here and there.”
“I meant seriously.”
“Oh honey, I think it’s a little late for that,” Martha laughed, “And besides. Who’d pay to see an old woman anyway?”
“But you always talked about it. You always did.”
“It was just a dream, once. Life didn’t turn out that way, but I don’t have any regrets,” Martha said. She looked at the floor and then repeated, “I don’t have any regrets.”
Wafting smells – basil and garlic – drifted from the kitchen where Tom prepared dinner . And together they smelled those scents, spending the next few minutes in silence. They listened to each other’s silences.
–Pink Floyd, “Time”
She had never picked up a guitar before, but as the radio played, she knew that she had to. Hearing those notes melt and vibrate. Like they were on a different planet. She had come to the flea market looking for lost treasure. She was fond of postcards. And music. And it was the music that drove her.
Standing barefoot in fresh cut grass, she locked her eyes on the guitar. The long tables formed aisles that seemed to stretch on forever. The busy buzz of conversations, droning on between scores of people, became white noise as she reached forward and touched the strings. She knew it was right when she pulled her hand back and smelled the steel on her fingers.
The owner of this particular table, a woman in a Pink Floyd t-shirt and a brown dress, turned the volume on the radio down and said, “Interested? Got it for my son for his birthday, but he barely touched it.”
Martha curled her hand around the neck, hefting the body up. The guitar was light in her hands, surprisingly light. Hollow and empty – hers to fill. “Yes,” she responded, not looking at the woman, but instead at her own reflection in the finish. She lowered a fingernail to the fat string and plucked it, watching it wobble. It was out of tune, but it didn’t matter. She already forked the money over, running her fingers along the body, across the contours and the smooth face.
“You a musician?” the woman asked.
“Hopefully,” Martha said with a smile, pulling her hair out of her face. Later that night, she played until her untrained, uncalloused fingers bled.
–Bruce Springsteen “Born To Run”
Tom was the piano player in a garage band, until the garage band graduated into a bar band. The bar band wanted to keep going. They wanted to graduate again, but the bar band hit the bar a little too hard sometimes. The bar band didn’t really have that many good songs of their own. The bar band had a lead singer who was at best inoffensive, usually after a few shots. At worst he was unlistenable, usually after a few more shots. But they had fun, the bar band, and when Martha watched them play a passable cover of a Springsteen song, she applauded and nodded her head in approval.
After the show, she went up to them and said hello. Tom was the only one that could still see straight. He had a mop of brown hair and a pair of stupid blue eyes. Earnest and stupid, she’d call them. He’d smile and blush. He was susceptible to teasing in the same way that others were ticklish. They shared drinks with each other. They chatted about favorite bands and records. Tom was a Sgt. Pepper man. Martha rolled her eyes and declared Abbey Road her favorite.
She went to the parking lot and grabbed her guitar to play a few songs of her own. Her slender, calloused fingers danced on the rosewood fretboard, her soft voice barely audible over the twanging strings as she played Dylan and Zeppelin. Tom clapped for her and joined on the piano, leaving a smoldering cigarette hanging over the edge, its ash drifting to the floor like snow.
Afterwards they went to her car and held each other. She rubbed her hands on his chest and kissed him on the neck. He held her hands in his own, rubbing his thumbs against her palms. They listened to the radio until the battery died, spending the rest of the night in the parking lot looking at stars, listening to the absence of night.
–Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Universally Speaking”
Rose walked into the dining room as Martha was tuning up. Slightly off, a slight turn, and then: perfect. She barely registered her daughter entering the room, her eyes so focused in the dull, chipped wood of the guitar’s headstock.
“Hi Mom,” Rose said, dropping her bag onto the floor and sitting at the dining table. She grabbed a sketchbook from her bag and pulled a pencil from her hair, flipping to a new page and starting to scribble.
“Oh, sorry honey. If it bothers you I can go do something else,” she replies, looking up and smiling. She was always happy to watch Rose draw. And she was getting much better at it, too.
“No, it’s okay Mom. I like hearing you play,” Rose said, not looking up.
Martha strummed her fingers across those old steel strings, the delightful twang sending little clouds of dust into the air, the vibrations echoing through the body, through her body. She plucked some familiar chords and smirked. It was like running into an old friend. Memories of songs swirled in her head. A riff here. A lick there. Is that how that went? Did that begin like that, or was that the middle part? Fragments of space, spliced together.
“Your father and I used to play that song all the time,” she said, remembering the riff to a Beatles tune.
“Back in the day,” she said.
“Were you guys good?”
“No,” Martha said with a chuckle, “I mean. We were okay. Don’t tell this to your father, but I was much better than he was. But-” She stopped, suddenly struggling for words. “It’s hard sometimes.” And suddenly she thought back to all those moments. The thrill of standing on stage. The boozy air. The cheers. She frowned. It all felt so far away, now. That was a different woman who had stolen her face and her guitar. She never seemed to notice the half-hearted drunken clapping, or the screams to play a song that people actually knew rather than one of her own creations. So many nights spent sleeping in cars, cricks in the neck. And yet.
“Getting out of that life was good,” she said, nodding, looking at Rose and smiling. Rose stopped drawing and looked at her mother. Martha continued playing, feeling her way through a melody that was familiar. Some new song she heard on the radio, probably.
–A-ha, “Take on Me”
The ring felt strange on her finger, even after all of these years. Every second, it seemed liked it would slip off She would constantly push it back up to the base of her finger like it wasn’t a part of her –a nervous habit, really. She’d have to take it off to play guitar anyway. When she slid her left hand across the frets, the ring would bump and grind into the wood. Sour the notes.
“Can you not play so loud? Don’t wanna wake Rose,” Tom said, walking over to the crib to look in on the baby.
“Sorry,” she said, letting the guitar slide down into her lap, her hands resting on the strings. “Look at this music video. Isn’t it cool?”
Tom nodded, not looking. He only smiled and reached down to stroke the soft blankets. She turned back to the TV, sinking into the couch a bit, struggling to relax. Tom walked away from the crib to the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water. He took a seat on the piano bench, leaning against the upright as he sipped. “TV’s got that line again,” he muttered.
Right through the center of the screen ran a dead, black line that distorted the image around it. Martha groaned, but neither of them rose to fix it, to give it a good kick, to move the antenna, to change the channel. It was a line that they had gotten used to. And every time one of them fixed it, it would inevitably pop back up. Neither of them said anything anymore. Tom finished his water. Martha pushed her ring back up her finger.
–Foo Fighters, “Everlong”
“Do you ever wonder?” Tom asked, his arm around Martha’s shoulder, TV droning on.
Martha looked up at him, her head on his shoulder, feet up on the ottoman. They’d rearranged the room, but it just wasn’t the same without the piano. Even after a decade, she felt the empty space.
She stared into his eyes. Rose was upstairs, asleep. Except she wouldn’t be asleep. She’d be busily drawing, light from a single incandescent bulb heating the room and making her sweat. If Martha went up to check on her, the sound of footsteps would see Rose frantically turning off the light, diving into bed. Hell, Martha had found Rose asleep at her desk a few times already.
“Sometimes,” Martha said, holding his hand.
“It’s not a good life to live. Long drives. Late nights. No time for friends or family,” he said, shaking his head, “Even the ones that make it big go on those long tours. Playing the same songs every night. And then you end up ODing in the bathroom.”
Tom had a smirk on his face, but Martha frowned. Once she may have argued. “Yeah,” she said, “might be fun for a while. People hearing you. Liking your work. Knowing it. It’s validating. And we had some pretty good songs of our own, back then.”
“You were always the songwriter, Martha,” Tom said, “I just played what you told me too. Besides, unless you make it, musicians don’t exactly have much money.”
“It’s not about the money.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, stopping, thinking, “But people gotta eat.”
Martha nodded. Part of her still didn’t want to believe it. Part of her still didn’t.
–Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
Martha threw her guitar case into the backseat, smiling at Tom as she fell, exhausted and sweaty into the passenger seat. He climbed into the driver’s seat and leaned over to kiss her. Their lips met for a second before he turned the ignition and the car sputtered to life.
“Good show!” he exclaimed, smiling ear to ear.
“It was a good show,” she echoed, pulling down the visor and smoothing out her hair in the mirror. The head lights split the night open as they left the parking lot, gravel crunching beneath the car’s tires. Faded yellow lines ran underneath them as they shot through the cloudy, misty night. No natural light aided them, from star or moon. It was pleasing to be so alone. It was pleasing to share the alone-ness with another.
Martha turned and looked at the side of his face. Youthful and alive.
“I love you, Martha,” he said.
She reached across the stick shift and put her hand on his, squeezing his palm. Somehow it seemed more appropriate that saying those three little words back.
“But I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up,” he sighed, turning back to the road.
Martha nodded, understanding. They had talked about it before. Nothing was happening. They weren’t going anywhere. One bar to the next. People would clap. Once there was a standing ovation, but that was it. They put in the work, but they just weren’t that good. Martha understood.
“I know,” she said, remembering not having heat the last month.
“Just a few years. We can save up a little money, practice, write some new material, and then get back on track.”
She slumped in her seat. The radio kept playing. It always kept playing.
–R.E.M. “Losing my Religion”
It was a bank teller at first. Then a secretary for a few different places. Then a librarian. A bunch of jobs that never meant anything or lasted long. They were just things that she did. Things that she did and got paid to do while Tom was in between jobs, just like her.
They struggled to pay the bills, which forced Tom to sell the piano. He hadn’t played it in years, but somehow, it devastated her. It was how they met, music. She had always understood him in terms of music. And now there was just an empty space in the living room.
After putting Rose to bed one night, playing a song for her on the guitar, Martha came into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, looking over at Tom. He sat up against the headboard. The radio was on, but neither really listened. He just kept staring at the ceiling. She just kept staring at him.
They fought that night. Or she wanted to fight, but he just sat there, silent, knowing. She hated him for his sensibility, for his willingness to give up. People had beat the odds before. Maybe they could have. Maybe she could have made it on her own, without Tom, did he ever think about that? Maybe he was the one holding her back? Maybe she had really good songs to write and stories to tell, and now no one would hear them.
But she knew better. She knew that she still loved him, and that he was a part of her, just like the music. And so was their daughter. And things were so complicated now.
They lay in bed later, Tom’s arm wrapped around her to pull her close. She lay her head against his chest and listened to his breathing. His heartbeat.
–The Beatles, “Don’t Let Me Down”
The record store was filled with heat and haze. It was the worst time for vinyl, the summer. Records that sat too long in the sun would warp and run like tar. Martha eyed the spinning record, nodding her head and tapping her foot to the rhythm. Goosebumps. She opened her eyes, fingers already digging into her pocket and pulling the allowance money out. Clattering coins rolled across the glass counter as she smoothed out a few crumpled bills, handing them to the owner with an eager smile.
“You actually gonna buy something this time?” he asked, snickering sweetly as he accepted her money and pulled the record off the turntable. He returned it to its slip cover and slid it across the counter into her hands. She rested her fingers on it, feeling its pulse.
“Thank you!” she said, picking it up and studying the cover, “I’ve never bought a record before. I wanted to make sure it was the right one.”
“You picked a good one. Although, I think they’re gonna break up.”
“Why do you say that?” she replied, her heart sinking.
With a shrug, the man said, “I don’t know. I just do. All good things, you know?”
He sighs and shuffles to the record player, leaning heavily on his cane. He puts another record on and lets it spin, the needle biting into the grooves as music fills the air once again. Martha listens for a second, leaving before she succumbs and buys a second one.
The gig was just a coffee shop, but as Martha got out of her car, guitar case in hand, snow falling around her, she could barely contain her excitement. She entered, looking at the people huddled inside, the lonely buzz of conversation drifted about like the smell of coffee.
As she approached the stage, her stage, she pulled her phone out of her pocket. There was a text from Tom: Good Luck! Simple and direct. She smirked, remembering how long it took her to teach him how to use his new cell phone. How he had kissed her before she left. A smile. She returned the phone to her pocket, wood creaking and groaning beneath her. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and opened her guitar case, lifting it and tuning it with a gentle hand.
Her fingers met the strings like a caress, and a few seconds passed before she plucked, before she filled the silence with her presence, before she pulled herself out of herself and seemed to lift, before she shut her eyes and began to sing, before her trembling voice formed words she had long since forgotten, long since committed to memory. And the air was full of her.