the Gibson L-5

by dm gillis

As a boy I knew that he was my father by the grim eyes I’d inherited, the mouth that remained a straight grave line at all occasions, and our close proximity in the house on Parker Street.

He was a man who calculated loss on a false scale, which never measured in his favour. As a result, he was inclined to despair. He reckoned the loss of my mother, five years before, by that scale, and lived his life evermore orbiting in an abode of desolation, separated from our physical one.

If I could describe him now, being what I have become at his behest so long ago, surrounded by Jazz, it would be as a winter ghost, played in the song of a throaty sax out of sight, a secret brush on snare, a piano limping like a hero, in spite of liquor and the rainforest rain most nights I can recall, oceans in the city, rumors of floods, the missing man in the room with its single small window, his eyes closed only in sleep.

Could he have been the miscalculation some claimed? Was he already, by the time I knew him, a field of his own sepia bones, the frets and inlays of his guitar, the one he played in bars for next to nothing, the one he chased into disappointment and delirium?

It was a Gibson L-5, the instrument that obsessed him and that he said was better than him. Its music was better than him, he claimed. These words emerging out of his setting of silence, then vanishing only to appear again.

More than once, he grieved over my broadening boyish and ready hands. And even then, I was dimly aware of a plot.

“Those are Jazz hands,” he said once, holding them in his own. Then looking at his, chipped red, black and blue and too early arthritic from his day job in a wrecking yard, which kept him from a latent greatness.

What happened occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1971. It had snowed the week before, at Christmas, and at the age of ten, I was still delighted with the mystical impossibility of it. It was Vancouver, after all, where green cursed the expectant child almost every 25th of December, and though there was a decorated tree in the living room, and gifts beneath it, it was the coming of the snow on Christmas Eve that made all of what was suggested by the holiday seem possible. Even today, it remains my most supernatural of Christmases.

The snow was still on the ground a week later, refreshed by flurries I preferred watching at night as they eddied through the vapour glimmer of streetlights, and laced white the trees on our street.

He disappeared, after saying at the quick breakfast I shared with him that morning, that the new year brought an obligation to change things, even if in a small way. The idea had weighed him down the second he said it, though it only represented a fondness for frail resolutions by most. Then he lightened, smiled and said, in some unknowable context —

“Your mother was fairer than Spring, and she still dances somewhere in the land of my heart.” Here he paused, as though it were a stanza break in a poem, then continued, “I get lost there every time I go, and haven’t found her yet, but I will. I’ll hear her singing and see her from a hill. There are hills in my heart, you know, left over from a time when they were mountains.”

Then he kissed me on my head, and was gone with his lunch pail. In a moment, I heard the sound of his black Ford as he backed out of the driveway.

I’d never seen the boy in him, because he was my father, but there’d once been mountains in his heart, now worn down to mere hills. Perhaps those peaks had been high and impassable when he was a boy. Now they were grassy and pleasant, and rolled away into an ashen evening distance. But maybe they were coal colour, and the only green was in a deep treed valley where my mother waited. Maybe it was his guitar she danced to.

What happened after that remained a mystery to me, until I made educated guesses later in my life.

He’d had a New Year’s Eve engagement in a club that night, but didn’t return after work to change. His one suit and thin tie remained in his closet, but the guitar was gone.

A few days later, they found his Ford parked out of place on the Campbell Avenue Pier, with the guitar in its case on the shotgun seat. There were two notes. One I was never allowed to read, and burned ceremonially by nameless aunts. When asked, one said she would identify him, but that she didn’t need to see him to know what had happened.

The other note was in an envelope with my name on it. It came to me with the Gibson L-5.

I leave you this guitar, it said, because it is the only material thing I ever loved. Play it, but do not obey it. You will grow and know more than me, but for all of that, you will be as frail and prone to surrender.

I placed the note in the guitar case, and sometimes read it before I take the stage.

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