A short story by Madeline Walker
For four weeks, Brian Butler taught my husband how to play guitar on Zoom. I don’t know how my husband found Brian Butler, but when I came home one day from grocery shopping, Stan was enthusiastically tuning his old Checkmate guitar. He has dragged that guitar around all of our married life, yet it’s rarely been out of the case. It was good to see him plucking at the strings. Especially as I’ve been down lately. What with Covid and all. Since I met my husband in 1974, learning how to play guitar has been on his to-do list. Whenever we’re packing to move house—six times in 46 years—he takes the guitar out of the case, noodles around on it, lays it on the sofa or leans it up against the wall for a few days, even gets out some chord charts. Then as the packing boxes start to pile up, he quietly puts it back in its battered case and it gets moved to the next apartment or house.
I washed my hands after I unloaded all the groceries and threw away the disposable mask. After I shut off the water, I could hear him picking out a tune, faltering. Going into the living room, I asked him what’s up? and he said I found this great guy on the internet, name is Brian Butler. And? Well he’s going to teach me how to play, finally, on Zoom. We had just signed up for a Zoom account and my husband was eager to use it as often as possible to make the twenty bucks a month worthwhile. Okay, when do you start? Tonight at seven. But we always watch the Good Wife at 7. Well, can’t it wait a night? The Florricks aren’t going anywhere.
As 7 o’clock got close, I was curious about how the guitar lesson would go, but I knew my husband would be shy about it. He went into the basement with his laptop and the guitar, just before 7. I watched a cooking show instead of the Good Wife—Bobby Flay gloated over beating somebody at making waffles.
I assumed music lessons were half an hour. So I was surprised when 7:30 came and went. So then I watched a real estate show Love it or List it, where some terrible asbestos problem blew the budget. I’ve gotten the formula down pat now. Everything is going well with the reno’s then, Bam! There’s a crack in the foundation, asbestos in the kitchen, a dead rat behind the wall.
When my husband’s head bobbed up the basement stairs just after 8, I looked over and could see he was animated. He practically danced into the living room. How did it go? He’s great! Just great! This guy is fantastic! He had me playing a bunch of chords at the end of an hour. And he has some great ideas about life too.
I think my husband felt sheepish because he went into his study then and shut the door for a while. After about five minutes I called through the door, wanna catch a Good Wife? Just one episode? We have time before bed. Okay. And he came out and we didn’t discuss guitar lessons for the rest of the evening. For that matter, we never mentioned it the rest of the week.
I’ve been depressed lately. What is there to be cheerful about? I force myself to go to the grocery store so I will see another living person other than my husband. It’s hard to get out of bed. The birds who come to the feeders give me some pleasure, especially the Northern Flicker who has been making the rounds. That and coffee, snacks, television, and wine keep me going.
During the second lesson, I was nosy enough to go down and stand outside the closed door at the mid-way point. I could hear laughter and some guitar playing and then more laughter. I hadn’t laughed with my husband for weeks. No wonder he wanted to learn how to play guitar from Brian Butler. Brian Butler sounded fun. I went back upstairs and made microwave popcorn, poured a water glass full of red wine and watched the rest of Love it or List It.
The next week, my daughter called me to see how I was doing. She deals cards in Vegas, and she’s been calling me once a week since the Covid to see how I’m holding up.
“Mom, I found this dance therapy called Gaga, and I think you’d like it. There are classes online. You just move your body around, and it’s very liberating. I wish you’d try it—I see lots of older people doing it. I’ve been doing it myself, and I feel great.”
“Gaga, as in Lady Gaga?” I was proud of myself for knowing who that person is.
“No, it’s some Israeli guy that named the dance method after his first word when he was a baby.” She laughed. “That’s probably everybody’s first word. Either gaga or googoo. Was it mine?”
“No, yours was blackjack.” That was my attempt at a joke because from a very young age, my daughter said she wanted to be a card dealer in Vegas. But the joke fell flat. She kept on about the Gaga dance until I agreed to go get my iPad and look it up, try the streaming classes.
“Please try it out this week. It’ll cheer you up, Mama.” She called me Mama when she was feeling concerned about me. So I agreed to give it a try.
I didn’t actually have an intention to try anything new, but when my husband started to get ready for his lesson Tuesday after dinner, taking out the guitar and noodling around, I remembered the Gaga class. I didn’t tell him, but when he went down to do his lesson with Brian Butler, I opened my iPad and found the class, paid with PayPal, and got a glass of wine. Nobody could see me, I had my camera off and Stan wasn’t there. I could do what I wanted. So I see a bunch of people moving in strange ways, and the leader calls out to them, “Okay, be a feather, I want to see your feathers.”
Do you know what? I love being a feather. I could see myself loosening from the Northern Flicker’s wing and floating, twirling on a pillow of air, my downy bits fluffing in the wind. I shut my eyes and my quill lowered to the carpeted floor as I listened to the deep voice of the teacher encouraging me to be something other.
The week after that, Tuesday night, I got ready. I found the old djellaba I bought in 1977, folded in plastic and set on a high shelf in the closet. We both bought djellabas in the night market on that trip to Marrakesh—Stan’s is purple and mine is yellow. I rarely wear it, but it reminds me of a canary feather, so that night I poured a glass of wine, took off all my clothes and pulled the djellaba over my bare skin. I had bookmarked the class on my iPad so I got there quickly, paid my $12.50 drop-in fee, and soon I was dancing like a feather. Nobody could see me, but I could see a grid of young women, light on their feet, prancing about in their living rooms, shaking their manes. And one very old couple being frail feathers together.
The teacher was calling out instructions “let everything drop away….shake out your legs and your arms. . . what’s left? Just the core of you. Let your core lead you,” he called in a deep voice. “Follow your limbs. . . follow your fingertips…” I forgot about my wine, I was so busy following my fingertips around the house, then I followed them back to the iPad propped on the coffee table. Next, we were clouds floating and changing shape, and after that we turned into hollow seed pods, skipping along, carried by the changing wind. I was so busy being not myself that I didn’t hear Stan come up from the basement. He stood at the top of the basement stairs—I don’t know for how long—watching me. When I saw him from the corner of my eye, I got flustered and shut everything down.
You’re early tonight, I said, and he agreed. It was the last class and they finished a bit early. So I went quickly down the hall to our bedroom and changed out of the djellaba and put on my sweat pants and sweat shirt and we watched an episode of Good Wife. It’s funny, but we didn’t talk about what I’d been doing. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. I felt vaguely ashamed, as if I’d been doing something forbidden, ashamed of the way I’d followed every instruction of the Gaga teacher as if he were Franz Mesmer himself. Ashamed at how I had enjoyed my bare breasts and thighs rubbing against the old Moroccan cloth as I moved through the house, not even remembering that I had a self. It felt good, but bad.
That brings me to last night. After dinner, I loaded the dishwasher, and I was wiping down the counters when Stan called up to me from downstairs. Hey, Darlene, will you do me a favour? Put on your djellaba? And come down here? I have something I want to show you. A strange request, I thought, but I shrugged my shoulders and yelled down the stairs okay, Stan. After the other night, I’d draped the yellow djellaba over the chair in our room and it was still there. I let my clothes drop around me in a heap, and I slid the long garment over my body. I liked how my naked skin felt next to the cool, rough cotton.
I picked my way down the stairs, my bare feet caressed by the textured carpet. I stopped and really ground my feet into the nubbiness of that carpet, like I was scratching a deep itch on my soles. The swivel chair was positioned away from me, so I couldn’t see Stan’s face. When he turned around, I saw he was wearing his purple djellaba and he held his old Checkmate in his hands, poised, ready to play. I laughed out loud to see my husband in his djellaba. Beside him on the desk was his open MacBook and a man’s face was looking at me from the screen. This is Brian, Stan said, gesturing at the face, and the man, who had drooping moustaches and a sad face, waved at me. I could see now that he had a guitar in his hands, too, and he tapped the wood on his instrument, one, two three, then both Brian and Stan started to strum chords and sing.
“Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes / Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies. . . . ” So this was what Stan had been practicing all these weeks, behind closed doors! Our song from long ago. I started to sway and dance as I had for the last two Tuesday evenings, as if nobody was watching. My spine turned into seaweed, and I was floating in the North Atlantic Sea while Stan sang the old song in his cracked voice and Brian’s deeper, suppler voice came from the computer’s speaker as he watched me. I wasn’t ashamed anymore. I moved my arms and legs and my torso, following my body every which way it wanted to go to the music. “Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express / Wundtja know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express/ They’re taking me to Marrakesh. . . .” I started to sing with them, “All on board, that train, All on board that train…”
My husband got out of his chair and put his guitar down on the floor and then it was just Brian playing and singing as Stan followed my lead. We waved our arms and danced. We twirled around the basement room. Soon we were turning into seaweed under the ocean. Jellyfish spun around us, salty ballerinas, translucent yellowy orange with long fronds and frills. Then we became the jellyfish. When I moved my body, Stan mirrored me, and our fronds waved and sparked with electricity. I looked down at his pale slender feet gliding across the pocked tile, purple cloth draping his bony shins. We moved together, jellyfish mates under the long fluorescent light tubes, sinuous in our coloured dresses. The song was over, and we heard rustling coming from Stan’s computer, but we didn’t look over to see what Brian was doing. Now it was just the buzz of the tubes above us as we rocked in the deep. My husband’s crooked grin lit up the greenish underwater world.
Photos by Michael Carpenter