Every Friday my father’s voice, drunk
on plum Slivovitz, rose from our basement
through the heating vent on my bedroom floor,
not a Blue Jay’s warble–a deeper velvet
vibrato, like the color of his eyes.
Careful not to step on a crack
that would give me away,
I’d creep down, peek over the café
swinging saloon doors.
Alternating three minor chords,
he’d strum his guitar, lips pursed,
angelic as an adult Hummel figurine,
hold each note until each word released
from the luscious center, stretched
like taffy into a Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Across from him, my mother, shoulders back–
black turtle-necked, black stocking-ed legs
crossed and wrapped around a bar stool–
poured herself another half glass
of Schwartze Katz wine,
the small insignia plastic black cat
dangling from the bottle’s neck.
She’d lean toward him, cautiously,
as if he were a wren that could
be easily frightened away.
She’d plead please play
the sad song again — the one
about the village girl who, to flout her mother’s warning,
slipped into night to meet her moody lover,
but not before first inspecting
her reflection in the family’s well.
Pushing her hair away from her face
to check the curve of her cheek,
she leaned over too far, fell in,
and no one heard her cries,
and no one wept in chorus.
Once, I was caught spying on them–
envying their adult fun earned crossing
the ocean from Kiev to New York,
then down long back roads to Ohio–
I was supposed to be asleep
and out of their way.
But I wanted to hear my father’s voice,
see my mother fall in love with him again
as he carefully plucked the strings
that now look rusted, tainted,
medieval–as if they could slice
through thick bread or a hard wheel of cheese,
or could send an arrow flying.
They could cut fingers, too,
if the player didn’t know how to press them
properly, fingertips angled just right,
nails evenly trimmed.
I was sent immediately to bed. No second
goodnight, no quick cup of water.
In the Scituate Music Shop,
a young guitarist-salesman holds Father’s guitar up
to the window. He says the neck is warped.
The strings are shot from human sweat–
not enough alcohol rubbed on them over the years.
I could replace the strings,
but they’d barely sound against the badly damaged frets.
He turns it upside down and shakes it
until my father’s Lucite pick
falls out like a tooth.
Silvertone: Sears and Roebuck, he mumbles. Catalogue ordered
in the 50’s. There were a lot of them back then.
It was not the guitar I imagined my father bartered
from gypsies and carried through harsh winters
with barely a shield to protect it,
the one he and my mother made love next to
for the first time, the guitar
propped on the bed next to them,
the large tear-shaped guard
and wooden bridges
I thought I was born of.
Instead, it’s 1959. My father sits near their bedroom window,
his black glasses perched at the end of his nose:
Doc Orlowsky of Brunswick
prudently studying each guitar,
imagining the weight of its wooden body
in his lap,
his left hand circled around the neck,
fingers poised, right arm resting heavily.
He decides on the one pictured slung over
the shoulder of a Midwest cowboy,
the guitar sturdy enough to take,
if need be, to a fall-out shelter.
The salesman continues to tilt the guitar
in every direction, shake it violently,
upside down, like an obstetrician, as if to make it cry
or to force whatever was still wedged or stubborn
out of the sound hole:
my mother’s shiny bobby pins loosened
from her hair – no, further:
Mother, herself, hanging
onto her wine glass,
Father reaching deep,
fingers stretched into a seventh chord,
to find his soul –
Not bad, he says,
for what they were.
I don’t know if he means the guitar
or my parents.
He twists the tuning pins with pliers
to see if, one last time, they might budge
then, resigned, lifts my father’s Silvertone over the glass
counter case. Handing it over to me,
it’s now as weightless as a stingy bouquet of carnations
presented at the end of a paltry recital.
Good luck, he says.
It’s so light I can barely carry it.