“The thrill has gone away from me. Although I’ll still live on, but so lonely I’ll be.” -BB King
The nurse knocked on the room and entered. “Hey Pablo. Still holding up?”
The patient lay still on his bed and kept his eyes closed. “Unfortunately.”
She smiled. “Don’t say that.”
He didn’t reply.
“The hospital chaplain is here,” she said. “Says he wants to see you.”
He opened his eyes and turned to her. “The chaplain?”
“He knows I’m dying, doesn’t he.”
“He just says he wants to see you.”
“Well, it’s nice to know there’s still someone left who wants to see me.”
“Aw now. Don’t talk like that, Pablo.”
He turned his head back and then closed his eyes and kept silent.
“Do I let him in?” she said.
The nurse went back out and Pablo inclined his bed with the control. The priest entered. Pablo turned to look at him and the expectation in his eyes died out, the small flame of hope extinguished like a match lit in the wind. Of course the priest wouldn’t recognize who he was. Who he had been. The priest was too young, in his late twenties at most.
The priest made toward the side of the bed and looked down at the patient.
“Hello, Pablo. I just wanted to drop by and see how you’re doing.”
“Wait. How do you know my name?” The flame lit again.
“The nurse told me.”
The priest looked around the hospital room. Unlike the other rooms he was used to visiting, this was bare. No get-well soon cards, no flowers. The whitewash walls of the room didn’t help either. Bare like a cell, except he was no criminal and this wasn’t a punishment. At least it wasn’t meant to be. Poor soul.
Pablo must have noticed him looking. “I don’t get visitors,” he said.
“A privilege to be the first, then.”
“The first is here with me.”
He motioned with his head to the side of his bed. Leaning on a wall near the corner was an electric guitar. The body was originally black but the paint had been scratched and worn out revealing the wood underneath the lacquer. Like inveterate scars from some long-forgotten war.
“That yours?” asked the priest.
“Yeah. Only friend I have left. We’ve been through a lot together.”
“You’re a musician?”
He smirked. “If you were about twenty years older you’d know who you’re talking to, kid.”
“Sorry. I’m not very knowledgeable.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Everyone’s forgotten by now.”
He looked away and they were silent for a while until the priest said, “It’s an honor to be with a celebrity.”
“Well. More like a former celebrity. A former almost-celebrity. Or even a frustrated blues guitarist. To be more accurate.”
“Long story. Don’t you have other patients to visit?”
“I have time.” The priest pulled a chair toward the bed and then sat down and smiled at him.
“Well I’m not going anywhere either. So.”
The priest laughed and then waited. Pablo sighed. “Alright,” he said.
I picked up the guitar in high school in the 80’s after I heard Little Wing (“Hendrix.” said the priest and he “Yeah. Hendrix.”) and it was instant love, you could say. My parents, may they rest in peace, gave me this guitar here, Lenny, and it was love at first sight. I spent about seven hours a day locked in my room practicing my guitar just listening to records over and over again trying to imitate them on the guitar exactly as I heard them. I remember how proud I was when a friend taught me the intro to Stairway to Heaven (“Led Zeppelin” and “yeah, Led Zepp”) and then I figured how to play the solo all by myself. Just listening to the song over and over again and then finding out where to play the note on the neck.
After some months I found out how to solo myself and write my own songs. And in those hours alone in my room I just got lost in another world. A world that I created myself, see. When I got immersed in my own music it was like I was in heaven. Or at the very least it was like I had escaped from my own mundane existence, where I could forget about my troubles, my problems.
Then I got to college and I started hanging out with other musicians. Started getting my own gigs too, playing solo sets in bars, making covers of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Hendrix and such. Playing my own songs as well. Started making a name for myself too. People compared me to Clapton, Robert Cray. BB King even. Owners started to invite me and pay me to play in their bars, because my set attracted a good number of the college folk.
I started to earn a good amount of money too and I tell you, it was the life. I mean I was doing what I loved, I was creating, and people connected with what I was creating for them, and I was earning enough money to support myself.
I’m sure you’d understand that because of this I started to neglect my studies. I mean, I was playing in bars almost every night and I’d arrive late for my morning classes and in my free time I was writing songs and practicing with the band. My mind wasn’t in my studies anymore. That sort of thing, you know? (“Yeah yeah I get you”)
So you can imagine that when a record label offered me a deal, I took it. It was a no-brainer. I dropped out of the university. I mean felt that I was practically solved. My parents were against it. That’s how they are you know? They told me it wasn’t practical, that it was a big risk. We even had a fight about it. But I didn’t listen to them. I wish I did looking back now, but back then I didn’t. It seemed like such a no-brainer, see.
But that’s not the worst of my regrets. Back then I was seeing a girl. Lisa, her name was. I met her in one of my classes in the university — back when I still attended them, I mean — and not long after we started to go out. Oh, she was a catch. Smart, pretty. A serious girl. No nonsense. She wasn’t a musician, see.
Thing is, when I got the record label I got stupid. Hubris got to my head and I lost sight of everyone around me. My parents, my family, my friends. And Lisa. It was all about the music now and being the best and being famous. I mean I look at it now and it seems really stupid you know? Famous for what? Best for what? But back then I didn’t see that. (“It seems like stupidity only in hindsight, as they say” and “Right. Exactly.”)
So get this. Some months after I got the deal, Lisa and I had been together a little less than two years, and I started to see her as a…I don’t know. An impediment. I mean to say I started to see the time I spent with her as time I could spend honing my craft. It’s not that I didn’t like her anymore. I just thought I could be spending my time to be more productive. In short time with her started to be like time wasted. Pretty screwed up, huh? (“I’ve seen worse.”)
So one day — in a date, of all places — about the same time I decided to drop out of the university, I told her that we had to break up. I probably said some other nonsense like it hurts me to do it too, that it was not her fault it was mine. I didn’t tell her explicitly that it was about the music. I didn’t want to, though looking back now I don’t exactly know why. An unconscious sense of shame, maybe.
Man, I remember how she cried. I remember it too well. Too well. I didn’t know what to do, so you know what I did, jerk that I was? I just walked out on her. Yup. Just walked out. Last time I ever saw her. It still breaks me whenever I think about it.
Anyway years pass and it’s about the 90’s and I’ve started recording some music (“Any good?” and “Yeah I’d say so ha ha”) and selling them and I start getting my own gigs. The sales weren’t that great, looking back at it now, but I guess by then my ego was so inflated and I was so immersed in my own crowd — you know, the producers, the band members, the groupies — that I was aloof.
I was just so concentrated on being the best. Like all my hours I’d spend practicing riffs on the guitar, experimenting new sounds, recording in the studio. I worked like a dog. I know that this will surprise you, but I never got into drugs. Nor booze. I just wanted to be the best there was, see. I saw that those things were going to be distractions. Probably the only wise decision I’ve ever taken.
Well then. I was out on one tour — my biggest tour. This was about ’93 — and I get a call from my brother telling me that my parents had passed away. Car accident.
I remember my hand going limp and the phone dropping and then crying hysteric in my hotel room. I was just devastated. The last conversation we had was that fight about quitting college, see.
The thing was I was in Tokyo at the time. And I thought I shouldn’t cancel the gig — I thought I would never get another opportunity like this. So I didn’t cancel it. I pushed through. And. Yeah. So. (“Tissue?” and “No no I’m all good.”)
I missed their funeral. Yup. My siblings haven’t talked to me ever since, either. I don’t hold it against them. I practically disowned myself by not going to my own parents’ funeral.
Not long after, reality hit me. My records weren’t selling and it turns out most people didn’t really like the blues anymore. It was the 90’s, and people were getting more into acts like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine. (“Alternative” and “Right. Alternative. The golden age of alternative rock”) I mean later on you’d see a blues revival with guys like John Mayer and Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi but then those guys were anomalies. The exceptions to the rule.
I wouldn’t have admitted it back then but looking back it may have also been because I lacked talent. I mean, I didn’t have the stuff to be able to pivot my style to suit the taste of the people. I may have been a really good guitar player, but only a good blues guitar player. Not many people liked what I was playing and hence not many people bought my records, simply put. But back then I was disgusted. I thought that people just had bad taste and they didn’t know good music when they heard it. How’s that for hubris, huh?
As you’d expect, I started getting less invitations to gigs. I sort of got out of the loop. People from the music scene started to shun me. No one asked for my autograph or steal glances at me anymore when I walked out in public. Pretty soon the producers started not to answer my phone calls and I didn’t get my contract extended.
I guess at this point you realize that these people weren’t really appreciating you as a… how should I say it. They weren’t appreciating you as a person. You become a sort of concept or, I don’t know, image based on the music that you made and your worth is based solely on that and how popular you are. (“A social status” and “Well, yeah. Sort of”) In short you’re not valued as the person that you are. You get valued for doing instead of being. And when people no longer like what you do, they just forget you. Throw you away, even.
Of course, I didn’t see that at the time. To me, that was the only value that there was — the doing — and I was working so hard on building it that I invested all my effort and self-worth into that. And you forget about the people who had valued you for the being in the first place. My parents. My friends. Lisa.
And then when you remember, it’s too late. And you find yourself all alone.
Kind of funny, isn’t it? Not too long ago I moved to a bare apartment. I had to. I didn’t have much money left. All I had now was Lenny (“The guitar” and “Yeah.”) and I wasn’t going to sell him, not after all we’ve been through.
I lived alone. I tried to give guitar lessons to get by — guitar was the only thing I was good at, see — but I guess my students found me tiresome. Ego can be a pretty isolating thing. I tried writing some new songs too, but I just couldn’t anymore. I mean, how could you, after living through all that failure?
And then I get diagnosed with cancer, and now here you have me. Terminally ill, with days left to live. Forgotten and abandoned by everyone. Pretty funny isn’t it? You spend your whole life chasing something and then it all just crumbles away, completely beyond your control.
Well. There you have it. A real-life tragedy if I’ve ever seen one.
“That reminds me of a Russian saying,” the priest said. “Man plans and God laughs.”
“They say that, huh? That’s a good one. Well he can laugh all he wants. Nice to know I still serve for something.”
The priest stood up and took the guitar from the side of the bed.
“Can you still play?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t. They’ll get mad. And my fingers are weak.”
“Well. Okay. Maybe a little.”
“How about a tune?”
“Alright. Quick. While the nurse isn’t here.”
The priest had to support the body of the guitar with his hand so that it wouldn’t weigh too much on the patient. There was a sort of sad comicality in seeing him with the instrument. With the stone-bald head and frail figure and all the tubes on him he looked like some cheap insentient wooden marionette who with the drawing of cords by an invincible hand and external music was made to appear rather unconvincingly as though it were playing the guitar.
Since it wasn’t plugged the sounds of the strings were muted. Nonetheless the priest heard how notes seemed to weep, the bends of the strings like a sort of beautiful, tragic wailing, effluvia of the guitar player’s soul. Pablo closed his eyes and then bobbed his head, immersed in his own music. As if somehow aware that that would be the last song he would ever play.
The priest whistled. “I’ll be.” He put the guitar back on the side of the bed.
“Thanks for letting me play, father. I needed that.”
Pablo had turned silent. The priest turned to look and saw that he was weeping.
“What’s wrong?” the priest asked.
“It’s all over for me,” he said in between sobs. “All over. A wasted life.”
“That’s not true.”
“I mean look. I can’t even hold my own guitar anymore.”
“Just imagine what comes after this. I’m sure God is so eager right now to have you so you can play guitar for him. He’s the one fan who never left you, you know? He’s always been there, listening, even when everyone else forgot.”
“I’d want to believe it.”
“Then believe it. Don’t lose hope now. Think about how happy you’ll be. You’ll be playing with BB and SRV and all the best guitar players in history and God will be there watching with all the angels and all the good people. It will be the best crowd, I’d imagine. And your parents will be there too, the first time they’ll ever see you play in a concert.”
Pablo wiped his eyes. “You think so?”
“It’s no dogma. But I am willing to bet on it.”
“I’ll have to make a confession, don’t I? To get to play in heaven I mean.”
“It would make things easier.”
Pablo closed his eyes and remained silent. Then he said: “Okay.”
The priest drew the chair up to him. He heard his confession and administered the final rites. He held out a crucifix to the patient and he kissed it.
Pablo reclined the bed back to his original position. He had his eyes closed and he his arms were crossed over him and a subtle, peaceful smile lingered on his lips.
“I hope He appreciates the blues,” he said, without opening his eyes.
“Hearing how you played it, I’m sure He will.”
“BB King,” he chuckled. “I always wanted to jam with him.”
After some minutes the priest noticed that the patient had fallen asleep. He stood up and gave him a silent blessing and he left the room, closing the door gently.
I wrote this meaning it to be an entry for a publication for a music themed magazine. Let’s see, I still might be able to submit it.
I wrote it with the idea that probably some of the best musicians are in heaven right now jamming along with God. It’s not a very doctrinal thought but I’m sure there’s some truth to it right?
I also wrote this story just having read The Great Gatsby. I was impressed with the idea of someone investing all of his life in some ambition and then getting disappointed. I think all of us have that tendency.