Air Guitar by Jared Oliver Adams
by Jared Oliver Adams
Julia’s dad knew magic.
She found out a few weeks after her mom died. She was six and huddled in her mother’s closet, nestling amongst the hanging dresses that still smelled like Mom’s perfume. Dad came in and sat down in the doorway of the little closet, but Julia didn’t look at him. She was crying and didn’t want him to see.
“I think,” he said, “that sometimes words are too small and ordinary to say how you feel. That’s why we have music.” And with her face pressed into Mom’s favorite dress, a deep purple one that trailed to the carpeted floor, a guitar began a soft, mournful melody. The music was light, like when Mom used to flutter her eyelashes against Julia’s cheeks, but it was powerful at the same time, because when Julia remembered butterfly kisses, her tummy got this feeling like she would cry forever and ever. The music flowed into the closet, and Julia thought for a moment that maybe the dress she was clutching wasn’t actually empty at all, but her mother was inside it and hugging her back. She nuzzled it and sniffled and looked up at her father.
There was no guitar in his hands. His arms were held out as if he had an invisible instrument, his fingers plucking unseen strings with one hand and making chords on an imaginary fingerboard with the other. Julia found herself entranced by the movement of his fingers, by the sounds that tripped out of them.
The melody came to a stop on a single lonely note that trembled as it faded, and Julia let go of her mother’s dress and tumbled into her father’s arms, right through the invisible guitar.
* * * * *
It was almost two whole weeks before Julia went back to school, and when she did, Dad started a new tradition. When she got off the bus, he would be waiting for her with a cookie and a glass of milk, and after she finished her snack, they’d walk straight to Mama’s closet and have a concert. He always asked her what kind of day she had, and if she told him sad things, then his songs were sad, and if she told him happy things, his songs were happy. She asked him how he did it, but he just smiled and shrugged.
One day, Julia brought her friend Francy home to listen to one of Dad’s concerts. Francy’s Mom wrote a note for her to ride the bus with Julia, and when they got to Julia’s house, there was Dad with two cookies and two glasses of milk. Julia eagerly took Francy into the closet then and showed her how to nestle back into the dresses while Dad sat down. Francy looked over at Julia and smiled, her mouth missing several teeth, and Dad began.
It was a happy song today. The tune bounced along with little arpeggios shooting up from time to time. It was like a puppy romping through the grass and sending up little yelps when he got excited. Julia swayed to the music, closing her eyes and imagining the puppy. It had black spots and floppy ears and its paws were too big.
Francy pulled Julia’s sleeve and leaned over to whisper into her ear. “Why is your dad acting so weird?” she said. Julia looked up to see if anything was wrong, but her father was just playing, eyes down at his hands as they strummed the invisible strings.
“Just listen to the music,” Julia said. “It’s a concert, and you’re not supposed to talk at concerts.”
Francy sat back down, but then grabbed Julia’s sleeve a minute later. “When is he going to start the music?” Francy asked.
Julia laughed, but Francy was serious. “You can’t hear it?” said Julia.
“This is creepy,” Francy said. “I think I need to go home.” She left then, right in the middle of Dad’s puppy song. He had to stop playing and get out of the way so she could scramble out.
“Wait,” said Dad. “If you’re going home, let me drive you.” But Francy shook her head, eyes wide as she backed out of the room. When she got to the hallway, she sprinted off, and Julia heard the front door slam.
The next day at school, Francy wasn’t there, and when Julia got home there were policemen waiting for her. They asked her questions about Dad’s concerts and the closet and did he ever touch her in a bad way? She said no, he only gives hugs and kisses and piggy-back rides and stuff like that. She wanted to show the policeman the closet so he could smell Mama’s perfume, but when she brought him back there, she saw that two men were taking out all the dresses and putting them into bags. She ran to them and told them to stop, stop, but they didn’t.
They said it was evidence.
* * * * *
After the trial, Julia and her father moved. The judge said he was not guilty, but nobody in town believed him. Dad got fired from his job at the bank, and he said they had to move far away if he wanted to get another one, so they packed all their things into a big truck and drove south.
It took a long time to get to Tennessee, and the house there was tiny. It had only one bedroom, but it had a big living room, and Dad set up a kind of folding wall in it, so that Julia had a place all her own. He tacked all of Mom’s old dresses onto the wall too, so that sitting inside Julia’s room was kind of like sitting inside the closet back at their real home in Michigan.
For a while, Dad still played her a concert every day right when she got home, but after a couple of weeks, he got a job that meant he couldn’t get back until six o’ clock at night. Julia rode the bus to daycare now, and the concerts were moved to bedtime, when Dad would sit on the edge of her bed and play until she drifted off to sleep. Sometimes, with her eyes closed, she imagined she could see the notes swirling around her, each a different color.
Her partitioned space in the living room was right by the kitchen, and every morning, she woke to the soft clangs of Dad cooking breakfast. She would amble out to the rickety card table where they had their meals, and they would eat together and talk about any dreams they had. “I dreamed,” said Dad one morning, “that it was time for you to learn to play an instrument.”
Julia shot up out of her chair so fast that she sloshed apple juice out of her cup. “When I learn it,” she said, “then we can play music together!”
He swept an arm out and grabbed her into a hug. “Whenever we want,” he said, kissing her forehead.
They had to wait until Saturday to go to the music store, but when the time finally came, and they walked through the doors, Julia was overwhelmed by the sight. Instruments gleamed from the walls and covered the floors in uneven rows. Music drifted from unseen speakers, as if it was coming from the instruments themselves. She looked at pianos and violins and drum sets and, especially, guitars.
There were all types of guitars too: some painted fancy colors, some made entirely of sharp angles, and some with pictures of skulls or spiders on them. Julia pointed up to a wooden instrument with dark green paint that was worn off in places. It was how Dad’s invisible guitar would look if it wasn’t invisible. “Why don’t you get a real guitar, Daddy?” she asked.
He smiled and slid a hand along the curve of the guitar’s body. “Because I don’t know how to play the real guitar, Honey. I only know how to play the invisible one. You need to pick a different instrument though. It’ll sound more interesting when we play together if you pick something else.”
Julia cast around the cavernous store. There was so much to choose from. Some would be too big for the house, like the piano and the harp, and she knew her dad didn’t want her to have drums. She wandered over to a display of woodwind instruments. They were racked on the wall, and there at the top, right below a light, gleamed a beautiful one made entirely of gold. It had probably a hundred keys all up and down it and curved a little at the end. “Look at that one!” she said.
“That’s a saxophone,” said Father.
“Wow. It’s really rich, don’t you think?”
He reached over and mussed her hair. “You want it?”
“I can have one of the wooden ones, if it’s too much money,” said Julia.
Father laughed. “Thanks for the consideration,” he said, and called over one of the workers to take the saxophone down from its perch. Julia got to hold it while the man went into a back room to look for a case. The instrument was heavier than it looked, and she didn’t know where to put her fingers with all those keys, so she just hugged it carefully to her body with both arms.
“Thank you, Daddy,” she said, and he grinned down at her.
When they brought it home, Julia opened up the case and gazed at it, all broken down into its pieces. A few days later, she had her first lesson, and she learned how to put the saxophone together and put the reed on the mouthpiece. She made her first sound, too, a raucous squawk that made both her and her teacher laugh.
When she learned “Mary had a Little Lamb,” she gave her father a concert in her bedroom. He clapped and told her to take a bow. “Again, again,” he said, and this time, he played along with his invisible guitar. She played the notes of the song, and he played fast little notes all around hers so that the whole thing sounded grand and noble, like it was a song about a king instead of some stinky old sheep.
* * * * *
When Julia turned twelve and went into sixth grade, she auditioned for the Tennessee all-state band and made it. She was the only sixth-grader in the entire saxophone section, and she sat second chair. There were fourteen kids sitting below her. None of them liked her being there one bit.
Of course, Dad was in the audience for their concert. Sometimes when she was playing, she could have sworn she heard his guitar playing along.
As middle school went by, she got better and better at the saxophone. When she went back to the all-state band in seventh grade, she was first chair, and from then on, she was always first chair wherever she went. She entered solo competitions, too, and there, she got top marks as well, always playing music that her band director insisted was too hard.
Now at night time, Julia practiced, and Dad listened. Sometimes he played along with her. Sometimes he just closed his eyes and soaked it in like it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
One day, she was running through a particularly hard piece, the Glazunov concerto. She was learning it for a concerto competition with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and the whole thing had to be memorized. Dad started playing along halfway through the second development section, and she lost her place.
“Dad!” she said. “Stop it! You’re messing me up.”
“Oh,” he said, dropping his hands into his lap and looking down at them.
“It’s just a really hard part,” Julia explained. “I can’t have any distraction.”
“I understand,” said Father, and after that, he would never play along with her, even though, sometimes, Julia wished he would.
* * * * *
When Julia was a junior in high school, she started taking lessons with a professor at a nearby university, and when he heard her play, he stood right up out of his chair and declared that she needed to be in a quartet. “I’ve got three boys in my studio looking to start one, and you, honey, are that one. How’s that strike you?”
It struck her like a lightning bolt is what it did. A chance to play with college students! Ever since she’d started high school, it had been impossible to find other kids to play with who were as serious as she was, and now, here were three.
Dad drove her the two-and-a-half hours it took to get there, and Julia talked the whole way about possible venues for her new quartet and the competitions they would enter.
The saxophone teacher was waiting with the three other members of her new ensemble when they arrived. They were all so grown up, so put together, so cool. After introductions, the professor took them to a dark concert hall and flipped on the lights. “Got the space booked every Saturday ’til Thanksgiving, booked ’til two o’clock,” he said. “Anyone comes saying otherwise, you let me know.”
The professor settled down in a seat near the back to listen, and Julia, giddy with excitement, helped the college boys set up chairs and stands on the stage. Her own quartet! Her own hall!
She warmed up tentatively at first, but as the others started running scales and adjusting their instruments, she became more comfortable. Halfway through her B-minor scale, though, she stopped abruptly.
“What is he doing?” one of the college boys was saying. And he was pointing down into the front row of seats where Julia’s father was strumming his invisible guitar. Her father looked up and smiled, then strummed the guitar again. The sound was out of tune. He winced and then brought his hands up to the imaginary tuning pegs.
The college boys laughed.
“I thought I’d play along,” said Dad. He struck a brazen major chord to make his point.
The bari sax player in the group looked over at Julia and rolled his eyes. “Is that your dad?” he asked. The boys laughed, and Dad, encouraged, played faster and more flamboyantly. Julia’s face was on fire.
She caught Dad’s eye and gestured violently towards backstage. When he took the hint, she picked up her horn and stalked back there to meet him. The three boys were all laughing now, talking about how weird her dad was.
“You’re embarrassing me!” Julia hissed. “They probably already think I’m just a dumb high-schooler, and you go and do something like this?”
His smile faltered a bit. “I just thought you needed some…levity. You were all so serious up there. Anyway, they seemed to like it.”
“They were laughing at you, Dad. They can’t hear your stupid guitar. Nobody can. All you’re doing is making me look ridiculous.” Father wilted at her words, huddling in on himself. She felt a twinge of guilt and moderated her tone. “It’s just embarrassing, okay? I need to make a good impression on these guys.”
He nodded sadly. “I understand.”
“Alright,” she said. It sounded like a meaningless thing to say, but it was all she could think of. She walked back onto the stage, leaving her father in the shadowy back wing.
The college boys looked up at her as she sat down, like they expected her to say something. “Dads are weird,” she offered, rolling her eyes like the bari sax player had.
The boys laughed and agreed. “Yeah,” one said. “Nutso.”
“Useful for rides, though,” quipped Julia. The boys laughed, and she was glad they thought she was funny.
* * * * *
Dad never played for Julia after that, and she moved out two years later to go to college herself. She was granted a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, a talent award for music, and that year, she won four major solo prizes—three national and one international. People were starting to call her a prodigy.
Being so busy, though, it was hard to keep in touch with Dad. He called her at six o’ clock every evening without fail, but when she wasn’t practicing, she had to worry about classes, and she couldn’t just drop everything, could she? She felt bad about it, but sometimes a week or two would pass between their conversations. When he didn’t catch her, he left messages. “I’m proud of you sweetheart,” he’d say, or “keep up the good work.”
He came to see her for Thanksgiving, and they had a nice meal, but even though she went home for Christmas, she spent nearly the whole time preparing for her first college solo recital. With everyone talking about her, it had to be spectacular. “We’ll have summer,” she promised her father when she had to leave. But then, when summer came, there were rehearsals with her pianist and more contests to practice for, and she only stopped by the house in Tennessee for two days on her way to a music camp in North Carolina.
In the fall of Julia’s sophomore year, a position opened up in the President’s own Marine band. She traveled to the audition with several others from her school, mostly graduate and doctoral students. Much to their frustration, she won, and they did not.
It was a shocking turn of events for her. She’d won competitions, sure, but this was the real deal. It was a full time job playing the saxophone, one of the handful left in the country. The doctoral students who’d travelled with her had spent almost a decade in college just so they could have a shot at this job, and it was Julia whom the committee picked.
She called her father in a hyperventilating frenzy of excitement. “Dad,” she said, “I’ve done it! I got the job!” She cried happy tears, and she heard that he was crying, too.
“You’ll be so much closer!” he said.
She quit school and immediately moved to Washington, D.C. to take the job. This was the unspoken rule of music performance majors: you get a job, a full time, stable job, and you quit school. She thought D.C. would be less hectic than the university, but she found herself busier than ever. Dad came to her concerts when he could make the drive, but she usually only had time for a quick dinner afterwards. She would take him out to eat and always be surprised by how frail he seemed, how much weight he’d lost.
When they finished their meal, Dad always grabbed the check before she could, even though she intended to pay. He said the same thing every time he did it, “After a concert like that, I owe you.” He always commented on her uniform, too. “Mighty fine uniform,” he would say. “Mighty fine.”
In addition to her job with the band, Julia started up a studio near the base, where she taught private lessons. Some drove for over an hour to study with her, in spite of the fact that she was barely old enough to order a beer. She’d been featured in the Saxophone Association Magazine after winning her job, and she reached a point where she actually had to turn paying students away. It was every musician’s dream, twenty-one years old and making a living with her horn.
And then she got the call. Father was in the hospital. She was teaching at the time, and she stopped the lesson right there and drove straight to the airport. She managed to get a flight to Nashville within the hour.
When she arrived at the hospital, she found Dad in bed with an IV in his arm. He was sleeping, and the dark rings under his eyes stood out like coffee stains against his napkin-pale skin. He’d had a heart attack at work, according to the doctors, and they’d had to do an emergency double bypass. She thought about waking him, but he seemed so peaceful that she sat down in a chair instead and watched his slow breaths. His hair was full, but it gleamed silver. She couldn’t remember when it had changed. It used to be black.
She was flipping through channels on the muted T.V. when Father awoke. “Julia,” his voice crackled. “My little musician.” He reached out, and she tumbled into her father’s arms. When she broke off the embrace, he settled back into his pillow.
“Play me something, Darling,” he said, closing his eyes. “Something happy.”
“I don’t have my saxophone,” Julia said.
“Play me something,” he said again. He opened his eyes and held his empty hands out to her. “Use my guitar.” She humored him and reached for it.
Her hand touched wood. She ran a thumb down a fingerboard, and it clanged over strings. She reached out with her other hand and felt the curve of the guitar’s body. Julia smiled and pulled the thing back into her arms, cradled it, solid as a real instrument, yet completely invisible.
She strummed tentatively, and a lifeless chord fell out.
“No, no, daughter,” said Father. “Happy. You have to feel it—happy that you are here with me. Happy that we have each other. Happy that we always have and always will have each other. Happy like that.”
And suddenly, she was remembering that time in the closet after her mom died. She remembered how the music had washed over her and comforted her, and she wanted to do the same for her father. She found her fingers plucking strings, even though she’d never played a guitar before. She found her right hand craned on the invisible fingerboard, holding down the strings to make chords she didn’t know.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said, but she said it through the music. The music was minor and jagged and broken, like shards of glass in a wound, like the heartache of a breakup, like a daughter who hadn’t appreciated her father when he had given her every good thing in the world.
Then he was playing along, too, sitting up in his hospital bed. “No,” he said. “Happy.” And the notes he played filled the spaces between hers, made her melody whole, perfect, beautiful. It was a joyous sound now, filled with pain, yes, but joyous in spite of it and because of it.
Nurses walked by the half-open door without even slowing. They couldn’t hear the music.
But Julia could.
It was magic.
©Jared Oliver Adams