By Lucas Zuehl
It’s August, and I am thinking of old friends. I count the house numbers, my shoulders sweating under the guitar case strapped to my back. Even in this Minnesotan neighborhood, which tries very hard to be an antithesis of the South, the wet air steers my thoughts to Nashville.
We shared two meals a day. We slept until noon. Caroline would spend days strumming her deep black Taylor guitar from her bed. I would fall asleep to the light chords and wake up to those strings still ringing. Henry would kneel on the carpet between our beds, writing stanzas in his pocket journal. I strung his lines into melodies. I left the window open so that the sparrows could sing with us. And then we made songs about them. We played our songs barefoot in the grass. We played strolling down the shore of the Cumberland River. We played in coffee shops where no one was getting coffee. We played in cramped bars where no one knew what we were saying.
I see the clouds, still the rain catches me out
I’m praying for a drought
We were in our early 20s, and the sun rose and set for us.
Until we had finished a gig one muggy night in spring. The crowd that night was really into it, and a few familiar faces sang along with our originals. I felt the cloudy image of my dreams come into focus.
“I have to tell you guys something,” Caroline said. She stopped under the light on the street corner, even though the walk sign was on. I recognized a water-stained poster from another local band peeling off the metal pole. “My mom isn’t getting better. I have to move back home and be with her.”
“Can’t she move here?” Henry asked.
She shook her head and explained how much she had thought this through. Her mom’s cancer was back. No one could predict what would happen to her. She had talked on the phone with her dad that morning—the decision was already made.
“You lived with your mom for eighteen years. Wasn’t that enough?” I said.
“That’s different, Faye, and you know that. That was me living with her. She needs to live with me now. I can’t be so selfish.”
A week later, her side of the room was empty except for the black guitar she had left on her mattress.
I still felt like she would come back; she’d change her mind or her mom would die quickly. But we could make it for the better. Henry taught me guitar. I realized friends didn’t look at each other the way we did. He moved into Caroline’s bed, though we soon ended up sharing my twin. I fell in love with running my hand through his wavy black hair, his breathy voice in my ear. He wrote me songs and I sang them back to him while he folded our clothes. We danced to Big Thief on the linoleum floor between the fridge and the TV. For five hours a day, I took calls at a phone company, and all the rest—gigs at night and morning walks and my dreams—I was with him. He was my obsession. He had pierced my life and filled it with his lyrics.
We drew our biggest crowd yet at a festival on the city’s outskirts. Hundreds of short-sleeved people holding tote bags and plastic cups swayed and smiled at our music. A wave of bliss drifted over me, and I didn’t think about how I looked, how my voice sounded, or even how well I could hide my guitar playing under Henry’s. After all the years alone, I could share something with this many people. I had dreamt of this since I was a little girl. We were all alive together, and I dissolved into the crowd.
Sound it out to this empty house, was it just like you had before?
Savior fell from an open mouth, could you want to be something more?
After a rainstorm, Henry and I walked to an abandoned bridge. The wet cracks in the pavement were dark like his veins. We sat with our legs hanging over the edge, in between tufts of grass, and I wondered how weeds could grow on something that’s not even connected to the ground.
“Do you think you were meant to do this?” he said.
“To sit on the edge of this bridge?” He didn’t smile back. The brown river below us swirled, and I sighed. “Yes. I mean, there’s nothing else.”
“Even though you couldn’t make it without me?”
I laughed, but his face stayed blank. A hole slowly opened inside my ribs.
He went on. “I got offered to play for a band in LA. I’m starting in a week or so.”
That was worse than I had expected. I had so many questions, but couldn’t make myself ask them.
“I thought . . . we’re doing so well, though.”
“Maybe for you.”
I gripped the rough corner of the pavement, watching the muscles in his face do nothing. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before you agreed to do it?”
He paused, his eyes empty. “I didn’t think you would care that much. You’re just not as into it as me. You don’t play an instrument, and you don’t write songs. You sell your mind to a company, taking the same calls from different worthless people over and over again. While you’re at work, I’m still writing. I’m doing things that matter.”
I didn’t recognize his voice. “Do you even know me? Everything I do is for us and this dream,” I said, the air choking me. “What have I been to you all this time, a pretty face to sing your fake, absurd lyrics up the octave?”
He hit me so suddenly it felt soft, like the wind. He hit me and I couldn’t breathe.
I took Caroline’s guitar and left on a train headed north that night.
That was last September.
For months I wanted to go back, or for him to come to me, even in a dream. I wanted to call him and ask how things were with the new band, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to know. I found a place with five other roommates in Minneapolis. I wrote songs about him and I got better at guitar. I practiced on the third-floor balcony, the only place I could be alone. But it was like starting back at zero. I played at open mics in restaurants, I played on the street in the freezing rain, I called bars and begged them to let me play in exchange for a discounted meal. Still no one offered me gigs. No one noticed me. October, November, and December passed, and a part-time secretary job wasn’t enough to cover the rent increase, so I took the night shift in a meat-packing factory a couple of blocks from my apartment. Five nights a week, I got into a white suit to lift raw hunks of beef onto scales and wrap them in plastic. I carried the smell of bleach home with me at 5 am, too tired to shower. On the weekends, I tried to perform or write or at least practice my songs, but I’d spend more time in bed, staring at the ceiling.
One day at work, I thrusted the stainless steel shear through my finger instead of the plastic wrap. The blade split through my latex glove, and my blood seeped into the red meat crevices, mixing with the cow’s blood. I bandaged it, but when I peeled it off the next morning my finger had swollen and turned white. I couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor. My walks to work were fleeting moments of relief when the lump would freeze and become numb. The next few days it stung so bad that my tears spilled down my suit and pooled up around my ankles. When my coworkers went on their break and I had the room to myself, I collapsed onto the metal floor. Machines rattled against the greasy tile. I clutched my pulsing hand, staring back up at the skinned cows hanging from the ceiling. I didn’t feel bad for them, even though I knew their pain. To get through the slicing and handling and packaging, I always had to tell myself that they were just beef, not cows.
I was just Faye, not a singer. This was real life.
I trudged through the dark, frozen months remembering and forgetting. After my finger healed enough to play again, I strummed the same chords over and over and couldn’t think of any new tunes or words. I floated to work and back.
In May, the office where I was a secretary offered me a marketing internship. It was my first real opportunity, but it was unpaid, so I had to take on more hours at the factory. Every morning I put on a skirt and blazer to make PowerPoints and sit in meetings, then changed into sweats to wear under my suit at the factory. Breathe in networking. Breathe out resumés. Spreadsheets. Promotional campaign designs in 32-size font—make sure it’s a sans serif; those are less threatening. Grab a drink at Velvet Pub with the other interns and complain about our supervisor. On the weekend, apply for jobs. Scroll through TikTok. Play the free version of Candy Crush and count it as productive because I can analyze the popup ads. No more time to waste singing songs for no one to hear. Henry was right.
The radiant early summer months rotted into August, and my bank account bottomed out. I turned to my only possession worth anything.
I stop at #162. This is the house. Potted plants hang from the top of the porch, draping vines onto woven chairs. I hope to God this woman isn’t buying my guitar to sit on a wall as house decor.
I knock on the door, and she comes out with a smile.
“Could I test it out before you go?” she says. I tell her yes, and watch her fumble with the latches on the case. She slips the guitar over her head, and I realize it’s been a year since I’ve seen this guitar in another’s hands. The scuff right below the neck isn’t visible at this angle.
She begins plucking and I see the sparrows outside my Nashville window. Warm memories of friends and carpet and journals and dancing and chords surround me. It’s gone now, I know, but for a moment I feel like I’m back.
Heat floods my cheeks, and I laugh. “Can you keep playing? I love this song.”
We sit next to each other on the porch and I sing along. The familiar words, the familiar place where those notes sit in my throat. I let the music out one more time.
Corduroy lines, black and silver lies
Show me the ending, show me while I sing
I know this is for the better, it’s just letting the lasts go. There was a last time I fed my pet fish. There was a last song I listened to on my iPod Shuffle. There was a last breakfast I made for Caroline. There was a last time Henry breathed in my open mouth. There was a last time my father tucked me in at night. There was a last time I cried in my mother’s lap. There was a last time I prayed to a blank bedroom wall. And there is now.