In my garage again, staring through a heap of mostly empty cardboard boxes, summer heat roasting sweat out of my forehead. Buried under there is the faded black top of Uncle Ken’s guitar case. The plan here is to dig in and get at the innards of the case. Excavate that acoustic dreadnaught. Twist on six new glistening bronze veins. Hang it on my bedroom wall. Honor Ken by displaying his guitar.
Uncle Ken died two years ago just after his Christmas visit down here to San Diego. Up in Spokane he had two ex-wives and eight step-kids. Down here, he had us. Blood family; his mom and my mom (his older sister).
He was the big brother I never had.
He lived three lives at once. A carefree, divorcee up in Spokane, partying and banging babes half his age. His biannual visit to us, assuring blood family that he was doing just fine. And the secret life he kept to himself, pain and isolation we never saw.
Ken, 5’9” and pushing 340 pounds. His big round face and that brilliant smile just made you want to confide in him, laugh with him. He always had stories, unbelievable tales too strange to be fiction. Robert Palmer asked him onstage to play rhythm for a set of “Simply Irresistible.” This happened at a small bar up in Spokane. He was on the short list of Evil Knievel’s trusted friends. Yeah, the guy that jumped the Grand Canyon.
The guitar is all low-cost, cheap laminate wood. It’s painted with a sunburst pattern – canary yellow around the hole, radiating to Tropicana orange, blending to Coke can red, fading black at the edges.
Christ, my clenching hands bite at me like good dogs gone bad and toothy.
Think about Ken hard and he’s working song-magic out of that guitar. Stubby fingers of his fleshy left hand twisting into miracles up against the frets. How the hell don’t his thick pads just mash the strings mute against the fret board? Physics be damned! He plays and sings. Its like that guitar is a talisman. See the color of the guitar, tucked down in there under the thick fatty folds of his right arm, winking like a Costa Rican sunset as he belts out “Margaritaville.”
Grandma had been sending him money for the past year. I got the details from my mom while Ken was still alive. While we were just gossiping about his problems. My mom bitches to me about this money sent, and I feel for her because I have a younger sister.
Here, a random SAT equation is answered: Ken is to my mom as I am to my sister.
My mom doesn’t see that connection. We never see the obvious correlations. History repeating itself.
We are all in denial all the time.
Mom learned after he died that Ken had been diagnosed with cancer a year ago. He could have started treatment, had sections of his insides carved out and re-routed to bags that would hang on his belt. He kept all this to himself. The secret of his dying.
Ken’s last words to me were lies. “I’m gonna beat this,” he coughed through the phone.
“Yes, you will.” I lied, crying.
He had the bad kind of cancer. Progress, right? Now there’s good cancer and bad cancer. Talk to just a few people and you’ll learn the difference.
What cancer does is it turns your inside parts to black jelly, takes the good data in your cells and just scrambles the code.
We are all just code waiting to be scrambled.
Mom called me from his apartment: “Oh, Michael. His place is so bad. The bathroom’s the worst. There’s stuff all over and on the toilet bowl.” Ken’s insides condensed to dark lies, coughed up and left in stark, drooling streaks on the porcelain.
Back in the garage I shut off the light, move back into the house empty-handed. Sweating not from the heat, but from the swell of emotion. I could live with the guitar hanging in effigy on the wall. But I can’t cope with the act of the hanging – the forgiveness represented by the act.
Ken’s guitar will be there next month, buried still, when I come out again to disinter the burst of sunshine. To bring it inside with my family, shower Ken’s passion on the wall.
Now I am just bringing in clenched fists, the foul taste of shame in my mouth for hating him.
Mike Frounfelter co-authored the holocaust testimonial “NO PLACE TO RUN”, published in 2000.
Many of his short stories were published in small press mags in the 80’s and 90’s.
He is currently working on his new novel, “MINOR THREAT.”