Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From the Archives - Guitar Man


In 1986, I took a high school creative writing class. The teacher, Mr. Kroop, wore Jams and played whale music and didn’t do a lot of lecturing; instead, he gave out gobs of assignments. We seemed to have something due almost every day. One day he assigned us a character sketch. I think my effort came to more than that, in its primitive way.

Guitar man – February 3, 1986

Olga leaned back in her chair. It creaked, threatening to collapse. She belched loudly, and then slumped over the little built-in desk. She was in a meeting at an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she had been sent as part of her sentence for shoplifting at a Liquor Mart. Having smuggled in a flask of Jack Daniels, she was too inebriated to pay attention to the lecture that was being given. Plus, she spoke almost no English.

A bearded man came around passing out magic markers and big sheets of butcher paper. Olga assumed they were to write lists of some kind. Goals? Reasons to do better? Excuses? She wasn’t feeling inspired to write anything, and nobody would be able to decipher her Cyrillic characters anyway. So she just slumped at her desk, her cheek resting on her arm, watching the proceedings unfold sideways. The bearded man said something to her which she ignored. Then she happened to spy, on the wall, a framed picture of a man playing a guitar.

Something was weird about the picture. It was sideways. Of course, Olga’s head was turned on its side, so the picture ought to look sideways, she reasoned, but it just wasn’t right. It was, like, double-sideways. She sat up and looked at again, with her head straight. Now it was upside-down! She shook her head a bit as if to clear it. She looked again. Yes, she had been drinking, but not that much, and the picture was definitely upside-down. What was this, some kind of joke? Some kind of trick? Or a result of very haphazard janitorial service? Was this some visual aid, to be used in some group exercise, serving perhaps as some metaphor? Well, it didn’t matter. Not Olga’s problem. And then she remembered something she’d learned once in an art class, decades ago, back in the old country. Something about drawing upside down, and how it helped you draw what you see, not what you suppose something looks like. Olga realized that, with her butcher paper and marker, she was in a position to draw this right now. Upside-down.

She hadn’t drawn anything with a marker in ages (a spray can being her preferred medium), and she held it tightly in her fist like a toddler with a crayon. She drew rapidly, looking at the framed picture rather than her paper. Once in a while she glanced down and was thrilled to see her drawing taking shape and looking, actually, a bit like a work of art. Some of the lines kind of did their own thing, some petered out instead of joining anything up, and she noted with a frown that the guitar player’s right hand looked a little palsied, but all in all it wasn’t bad. Now if she could just not screw up the face! She focused on the lines and tried to forget what they were supposed to be leading up to. Halfway through finishing his head she couldn’t go on—there was too much goodness on the paper to risk screwing it all up. It had to be considered Done.

She turned the paper around so it was right-side-up and gazed upon her work. Had she really just drawn this? How much time had passed? She realized suddenly that the room around her was in motion, chairs scraping back as people stood up. Somebody was collecting the papers. No! Not hers! She started to roll it up but her fingers were fumbling. It was like she’d used up all her skill and had nothing else left for this task. She stood, stepped back, and tripped over her chair. Her arms flew back and she caught herself from falling, ending up in a crablike position. Her contraband whiskey bottle flew from the pocket of her baggy overcoat and spun across the floor. This caused massive commotion—with all the alcoholics in the room, that bottle was like blood in shark-infested waters. Olga lumbered off toward the exit as if in flight, embarrassed and ashamed to have her smuggling operation discovered. The door swung closed behind her, letting out a little sigh.

The bearded man shook his head and strode toward the abandoned whisky bottle, which was still half full. Nobody raced him for it, but all eyes were on it. Suddenly there was motion again at the double doors, a struggle from the other side, and they started to open together. Olga staggered through, a look of fierce determination on her face. The bearded man practically sprinted for the bottle, but to his surprise Olga marched right by him. There was a large sheet of curled paper near the chair she’d overturned, and she snatched it up, rolled it into a tight scroll, and—flashing a defiant and satisfied look—strode off, in her galumphing way, back out through the door.

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