I felt bad for Jake’s family. Not only were they trying to bury a loved one, but they also had to listen to me annihilate that song. I plunked along, nervous and frazzled, missing strums and chords and a few times strings all together. But come on, I’d been playing for what, four days now? You get what you pay for.
My voice was bad. Hoarse, tearful, full of hurt and anger. More than once I peeked out, missed another string. Saw them wince. A couple nods of encouragement, some strained patience, others just resigned to grit and bear it. Because it was bad. Real bad.
And it was Jake’s fault. The bastard actually asked me to do it. Then he willed me his guitar. With more than just six finely tuned strings attached.
I remembered his words, not that I ever thought anything would come of it.
“You have to play at my funeral.”
“I can’t play. Wait, funeral?”
It was a rainy day. The middle of the week. We were sitting on the floor of my apartment. An old house cut up into four units with hissing radiators and drafty windows. But it had a great view of the river, and we used to get high and watch the water pass, content to just sit and drink and talk.
“How long have you been saying that?” he said to me, “why don’t you learn?”
His eyes sparked when he got excited. Lit up and cut through the haze of dope and drink. Jake had a charm that he wore like a necklace, a child-like exuberance that made you smile. Let him run out of dope though and the child became a monster.
“Here,” he continued. “Let me show you.” He hopped off the floor, showing me where to put my hands on the frets. I tried to follow but my fingers like wet noodles. Honestly, I was too stoned to sneeze. And what was up with the death talk?
“Why are we talking about your funeral?”
“We’re not,” he said, brushing me off. “We’re talking about you. And how you never get around to doing anything because we’re always so fucked up.”
“So you get my guitar, “he said, snatching the scraped up Gibson from my arms. But you have to play Knocking on Heaven’s door at my funeral.”
“I’m taking requests now, Jesus.”
“And you have to kick.”
I set the bottle down. I’d known Jake for what, six, seven years now. It had been so long that I’d forgotten how or where we’d because it felt like I’d always known him.
I laughed again. “Define, ‘kick.’”
Even under the influence of drugs I could tell he was serious. He strummed a chord. “If I go first, you have to kick the habit. Me too, if, well, you know.”
“If I go first? Habit? Where are you coming up with this shit? I thought we were going to have a good time.”
Now, facing his family, some of whom no doubt blamed me for his death, I flopped another chord because my hands shook from nerves and detox. I figured it was time to wrap things up. It wasn’t about me or my measly four days on the wagon, just like they weren’t thinking about my guitar playing. But still, it was pretty awful. My only saving grace was picturing Jake up there somewhere, laughing his ass off as I suffered through it.
When I finished there was polite applause. Misty gratitude on an otherwise perfect spring day. I turned back for a quick glimpse at the casket but couldn’t do it. So I took the guitar, walked past them and out to my car where I broke down without shame. Then I turned the key and headed for Cedar Baptist Church.
I had a meeting to attend.