((Hey there everyone, I posted some things here way, way, way back, and I’d like to star putting up stuff here again. Some of you may know me from FTT, where I’m a more frequent poster. Anyway, here’s a piece I did back in December, it was my first real first-person story, so it may be a little rough around the edges.))
I never knew where Arnie Reed lived, heck I didn’t even know his name until the day he died, only that he moved to the town of Wilsborough Michigan when I was only a boy. Wishing that Summer would come around again and end my time in sixth grade, not a month after the school year had began. I was walking home as I usually did when I heard a tune that would become so familiar to me I could play it in my sleep. Not a very catchy tune, but a rather simple guitar riff which ran slowly and began repeating itself after a few minutes.
Another thing I never knew about Arnie Reed was whether or not he was actually a good guitarist, considering he only ever played the one tune. However, whether he could play well or not, he clearly liked what he did. I never saw him without a smile on his face, even when the other residents in town spat at him or kicked over his change can.
Arnie would just wipe off the spit when the cycling tune ended, and keep on playing again.
Every day I saw Arnie, sometimes with a person listening to him play, sometimes he would perform for an empty street. Always the same song, always with a smile on his face. Usually staring at the clouds in the sky, his back to the sun. He didn’t even glance at me for weeks after I first saw him, despite walking not ten feet from him every day. When he finally did acknowledge me with those eyes, I panicked and ran home.
I felt guilty about it for days, and when I finally apologized to him on my daily walk home, he just kept on smiling and nodded. I nodded in return, and that would be our greeting for months.
With that riff never changing.
Near the end of the school year, which oddly enough managed to pass agonizingly slow but at the same time in the blink of an eye, I finally worked up the courage to speak to Arnie Reed, and was a bit taken aback by his voice. The riff he played never had words attached to it, I actually thought he was dumb. Whatever voice I expected him to have though, it certainly wasn’t the soft raspiness that greeted me when he opened his mouth. A direct contrast to my somewhat high voice cracking with puberty.
“So, uh, where do you come from?”
Of course I immediately berated myself for the question, believing out of the hundreds of things I could have asked that was the most stupid of the lot.
Again I berated myself for not having anything to follow up with, and was getting ready to leave when an idea struck me.
“Did people like you better there?”
Oh the ignorance of children.
“I suppose if that were the case I’d still be out East, eh?”
“Oh, okay. See you tomorrow.”
I felt incredibly guilty about the exchange. And didn’t try talking to him again for another week. After which the first thing out of my mouth was an apology.
Arnie just nodded and smiled.
After school ended for the Summer I didn’t see Arnie much. I didn’t think my parents would approve of me going to see the middle aged man. Everyone thought he was homeless, I still don’t know to this day if it was true. Perhaps a home in his eyes was different from a home in ours.
In any case, I spent most of the Summer making memories with my friends that would be forgotten In the years to come. That, and with great irony wishing that school would come around again.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
The few times I did see that blues guitarist he was playing the same old tune, with the same old smile, giving me that same old nod which I returned in the same old fashion.
And then I started middle school.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but one day in late Fall when walking home, instead of giving my usual nod to Arnie and passing on by, I sat down next to him.
We didn’t talk, I didn’t smile, and he didn’t look at me.
The tune carried on.
Eventually he cleared his throat and took a drink from a paper bag-wrapped bottle at his side. Much like his smile, the bag was always there, but I’d never seen him drink from it before then.
I remember thinking it was alcohol, and I knew that he knew that was what I thought, and he chuckled after he was finished quenching his thirst.
He paused for a minute and looked at me, a twinkle in his eye. I felt like I needed to say something, but before I could think of anything he nodded his head and started playing his tune again. That same, looping riff.
I didn’t get home until sunset, and had to face the anger of both my parents. I played the roll of the ignorant child and promised to always tell them where I would be.
I made sure when I sat down by Arnie the next day that I left soon after.
And so passed my seventh grade year.
Wilsborough wasn’t so small that everybody knew everybody, or even a tenth of everybody, but it wasn’t long before word got to my parents of my visits with Arnie. My father sat me down and gave a long lecture of the dangers of sitting down with a stranger. While my mother went outside for a long while. I knew she was going to have a talk with Arnie. Probably as one sided as my father’s lecture with me.
I didn’t get any punishment, and they didn’t even forbid me from seeing old Arnie. However, they started taking me to church every Sunday.
When I told Arnie that last detail, the blues guitarist just chuckled and nodded his head.
I tapped my foot to that riff the rest of the afternoon.
Over the years I began to take note of the people passing by to listen to Arnie. There were the snobs who turned their nose at him. Arnie’s smile never faltered in spite of them, even the vicious ones who would spit. I always wanted to defend him when it happened, but a sideways glance from Arnie kept me still.
Aside from them, there were the sympathetic ones. Never stopping to listen to that repeating riff, but always placing money at Arnie’s feet. I never saw old Arnie spent it, but I never saw him with money either. I assumed he just ate while I was away.
The worst of the people who walked by were those who would smile smugly to themselves and nod to Arnie. Proud that they could recognize and show their respect to someone who played the blues. Music that they could never understand even if they listened to it every day.
I guess I really didn’t like any of the people who walked by Arnie, but at least the charitable ones pretended to be happy like Arnie was.
It took me years, but I eventually figured out that his smile really was genuine.
I had been curious for a long while, and finally when I was a sophomore I asked Arnie to teach me how to play his song.
The guitarist looked to me, gave a nod, and finished up the tune which I had heard hundreds of times over before carefully handing me his guitar. I didn’t know enough about it to know what company made it, only that it was an acoustic, and heavier than I thought.
I had watched his hands many times before, and tried to replicate the movements as best I could. However, as I learned that day trying to play the guitar with zero experience is very hard.
I quickly grew frustrated with my inability, and my attempts at playing became more and more frantic. Finally, I couldn’t help it and swore out loud. Arnie threw back his head and laughed at that.
It would take quite awhile of practicing before I learned that tune perfectly.
“So old Arnie, are you ever going to keep heading West?”
“That’s up to the town, kid.”
“If it were up to the town you’d have been gone a long time ago.”
“Every town needs the Blues, and if I go the Blues go with me. It’s a matter of need.”
As I grew older, Arnie and I began talking more and more. His answers were always simple, like his tune. I always thought that it suited him perfectly. The conversations were never too deep. I didn’t ask about his past, he never asked about my life, though I usually told him anyway.
As I aged though, I began hanging out with Arnie less and less. I had friends my age to run around with, girls to chase, and eventually college to focus on. It seemed that every time I saw Arnie again he was older. I never said anything, he never stopped smiling.
And his riff never changed.
When Arnie came to Wilsburough he was old. Not quite great-grandfather old, but certainly middle aged.
One day I went to visit him and he wasn’t there anymore. The only days Arnie wasn’t sitting at his usual spot playing his tune were the days it rained. The old guitarist even played when he was obviously sick.
I asked around town, but there wasn’t another blues player that had wandered in. Which only left one other option.
Turns out, it was cancer that did him in.
The funeral service was quiet. I brought my girlfriend along, who was none too happy to be there. It cost me quite a chunk of change, but I bought old Arnie a good casket. I couldn’t bear to see the old guitarist without a smile on his face, so the casket remained closed.
A priest said a few words I don’t remember, then I said a few words on the spot that I don’t remember. The sympathizers who gave Arnie so much change while listening to him so little all nodded their heads solemnly.
At the end of the service I was handed his guitar, it was then that I learned old Arnies name, or at least learned the name that I gave to him.
Scratched into the back of the guitar were a handful of words, with so much significance.
And immediately underneath that;
Life in Wilsborough moved on after Arnie died. He was the talk of the town for a little while, people who had never cared a bit about him noticed he was gone.
My girlfriend and I broke up, my college education payed off with a boring job in accounting for a local firm, and my mother passed away.
Eventually, I began growing older myself. Twenty years old turned to thirty, thirty to forty. All the while, Arnie’s guitar sat in a corner, gathering dust with a quiet retirement. Every few years I replaced the rusting strings, but other than that, I left it untouched.
However, in time a feeling that had been bothering me since Arnie’s death finally became clear. Wilsborough was missing something, and in my heart I knew what it was.
And so now I’m walking to the spot I’ve sat at a thousand times before, with the guitar I’ve seen played a thousand times. Past the houses I’ve traveled beside a thousand times, and adding a thousand more steps to the immeasurable number I’ve taken going to that one spot.
After I sit on that ground that is so familiar to me, I begin playing that tune that belonged to Arnie Reed so many years ago. It takes a few moments for my fingers to remember the motions, but afterward, it becomes the most natural thing in the world.
And I play.
Soon, a smile begins creeping across my face as the music begins washing over me. And a woman walking in the streets stops for a moment to listen, and a smile creeps across her face too, as she recognizes the tune.
And whatever plans she had crossing the street in front of me were put on hold, as she took a seat at my side, and listened to that riff which only stops when the guitarist needs to take a pause.
Every town needs the blues.
And every person someone to share them with.
((Well, I hope you enjoyed that. If you’d like to see more from me, leave a comment. I’d like to start posting stuff here much more frequently.))