Electricity + Lust

Adam Koehler


It amplifies. You think of the word: Amplify. The store clerk—he has long curly hair and unfocused eyes that shift across items (guitars mostly, drum-heads, some brass) hanging from the walls while he speaks—had used the word in a sarcastic manner. How does an amplifier work? you had asked. What does it do?

It amplifies, he said.

You sigh in a manner that suggests no shit, of course, I already knew that, but you say nothing. You continue to pluck the strings of the guitar, one foot propped up on the amplifier, the sound coming through smooth and big and electric. He asks if you need help with anything else and you say no and he walks to another part of the store.

The store is a panorama of equipment dreamily hanging from the walls in a fashion that suggests such elegance that it is enough to make you think of the jet black gloss of a baby grand piano reflecting the black tie image of a professional pianist. A savant, you think—you don't know why. His reflection works the piano and his face is as focused and distant as the saddest song you have ever heard. You look around the store and you think: effortless.

Everything seems effortless here. The machinery and brilliance of instruments, encased in glass and hung all around you, characters in a free forming dream. Twelve string guitars, six string basses, stacks of drums, a corner decked out to the ceiling with amplifiers and sound systems. The names on the equipment float across your eyes like summer clouds: Pearl. Peavey. Epiphone. Zildjian.

You continue to pluck at the guitar, your eye line bouncing in rhythm across the items in the store. You see people doing their museum style stroll as they scan the instruments for something to buy. Some teenagers look at you and smirk at the sight: a middle-aged man plucking an expensive guitar, an amateur, a phony, dressed like a second rate salesman, washed out, sold out. You look away and notice that in the back of the store there is a window that looks onto a small recording studio. There is a man in the studio, looking down and constantly tucking his long black hair back behind his ears—it continuously falls across his face. And he tucks it back again. No one in the store seems to notice the studio, or, if they do, they aren't interested.

You are standing near a glass case inside which there are a number of pedals, effect pedals, pedals that produce sounds that are supposed to alter the sound of the guitar. You start to strum the guitar you are playing, no longer just plucking the strings. You are playing full out chords and the sound is rich and even and easy.

Some of the people in the store begin to notice you playing. Some nod their heads in a fashion that suggests both acknowledgement and time-keeping. Some do not notice. You think about the guitar lessons your ex-wife had insisted on, years ago, the awkwardness of admitting to the teacher that you were, yes, it is true, a thirty-eight year old man getting guitar lessons for the first time. He was a bald man, the teacher, a once-removed James Taylor. You think about the awkwardness of telling him that you had practiced, but not the music he had asked you to practice. You remember how that felt like disappointing your ex-wife more than your teacher. You think of how she waited for the hour downstairs every week while you were taking your lesson, sitting in a plastic chair, still married to you, reading. You think of her pausing over a paragraph, turning to look out the window for a moment, then returning to the book. This breaks your heart.

She reads novels now, mostly, sometimes Oprah picks, whatever her friends recommend. Her sister always tries to get her to read religious historical fiction, but she never does. Your ex-wife doesn't enjoy talking to her sister anymore. She was never interested in such books anyway, even before her second husband died, the one she married after you, after the guitar lessons, the handsome school teacher who embraced her after your failed marriage, after the brute force trauma of not being able to conceive, the infidelity that followed. It was too easy to connect the not-wanting-to-read-religious-historical-fiction to the fact that her husband had died. You are now the only one she talks to about her dead husband. Whenever she asks if you have kept up with the guitar lessons you lie and say of course.

She never asks to meet you in public. When you called the first time, after you heard the news, after your considerate co-worker showed you his obituary in the paper at work, after you had stared at the words that trailed behind his life in a sad string of flat characters that made you think that could have been me, that was me, another version of me, my god, when you called that first time you remember how the sound of her voice saying your name on the other end of the phone was the most comforting sound you had ever heard. She had allowed you to be there for her.

But she never goes out to meet you. The two of you always meet at your apartment, your living room. You were, of course, first nervous about the sexual promise, like a threat looming over the both of you, how comfortable it would have been, magnificent even: facing death by looking back towards and embracing the love that had come before it. But there is never more than a kiss on the lips at the door, a hug. She always looks beautiful when she comes over. As beautiful as you have ever seen her.

It's in her face, now weathered: it has become a worn-in version of the girl you married when you were twenty-three, she twenty-two. Since then she has survived her mother's death, her father's Alzheimer's, her sister's born-again aggression, her inability to conceive, her first husband's infidelity with, of all people, a co-worker of hers, a new job, a new husband who brought with him a new life and a quick diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, followed by a quicker death. They had been married for nine months. She's as beautiful as you have ever seen her. To her, you imagine, you are as intimate as a scar, a reminder that she has survived. She's as beautiful as you have ever seen her.

And she tells you about how she can't bring herself to talk to anyone, not even her dead husband's sister, a woman she admires greatly. His father called the other day, she says, and she made up an excuse not to talk to him, told him that she had a guest over, she would call back. She tells you that she has taken up carpentry of all things, she goes to a class once a week, a sort of community shop class, to make wooden tables, chairs, a headboard for a bed. She doesn't know why, but the class is the only other thing she looks forward to.

As she speaks, you think she has become an old woman. Now forty-two, you forty-three, each the only remnant of the other's youth, you think she really has, she has become an old woman.

You aren't playing any song in particular, just improvising chords, one after another; your fingers are doing the thinking. You think of the term muscle-memory, how your guitar teacher used it to describe how automatic things like scales should be. Like breathing, he had said. Like muscle-memory. Your fingers are breathing; your fingers are remembering.

The man behind the glass at the back of the store is playing a stand-up bass now. He no longer moves his hair when it falls from behind his ears. His body is moving in what you imagine is the rhythm of the music he is playing. His eyes are closed, but your eyes are open. You cannot hear anything he is playing. Your hands are full of a song that is improvised and automatic and filling the store.

Your fingers remember the strange lightness and emptiness of air as you showed your ex-wife the fingerings for the chords while in bed one dreamy now half-forgotten Sunday morning. You bent your fingers then pressed them against her sex, appropriately, but since you weren't holding a guitar, you had tried to explain, there was no way to tell if you were doing it correctly. Your ex-wife said that it felt correct to her. And the two of you sank into the bed together.

Afterwards, you had told her that your teacher was annoyed that you never practiced the music he gave you to practice, that he wanted you to play something you hadn't written yourself. Your ex-wife had laughed at this. She still laughs at moments that you don't entirely understand, like when, five years later, after her second husband has died, when you will tell her that you have become interested in how instruments work, how they bend and shape electricity and love and turn them into songs, that you are thinking of buying some equipment just to take it apart, she will laugh at this and ask you to play a song. And you will play, but you will think of how out-of-practice you sound, how you wish you sounded better. You will play a song that will have been writing for the past three years off and on (mostly off) and you will be thinking of how idiotic you must sound, an old man playing a guitar, now fat, mediocre, average, half-sad and lonely, and she will laugh when you are done and it will confuse you but it will be one of the most comforting sounds you will ever hear.

The man behind the glass is still playing. You watch for a while and then he stops and steps over to the area where you first saw him. He is looking down again, tucking his hair behind his ears. His hands move down and he seems to be adjusting controls on a board that you cannot see. His hands bring back a set of headphones; he slips them over his ears. These keep his hair from falling across his face. He is listening and nodding his head and turning nobs and watching something that you cannot see.

Your song has been passing through you for a while now, comets trailing behind it. You think about the amplifier, its wiring and machinery and electricity. Its magnetic speakers and space age dishes. It is an impossible combination of metal and wood and plastic and voltage and you watch the man behind the glass as he moves without sound, mute and alone, while your song amplifies all around you, people nodding, your chords strong and compliant and poetic, the effect is building, you feel it, it passes through you and you know that you are playing that song, that song you remember now, that song you played for your ex-wife, that song that your teacher said would never end.