I felt bad for Jake’s family. Not only were they trying to bury a loved one, but they also had to listen to me annihilate Knocking on Heaven’s Door. I plunked along, off key and frazzled, missing chords and verses and at times strings all together. But come on, I’d been playing for what, four days now? You get what you pay for.
My voice was hoarse and tearful, full of hurt and anger. More than once I ventured a peek to the crowd and missed another string. I saw them wince, a couple nods of encouragement, strained patience, most of them resigned to grit and bear it.
They probably blamed me. But it was Jake’s fault. The bastard actually asked me to do it. Then he willed me his guitar. With more than just six finely tuned strings attached.
I still remembered the conversation. At the time I never thought anything would come of it.
“You have to play at my funeral,” he’d said, blowing cigarette smoke to the ceiling.
“I can’t play. Wait, funeral?”
It was a rainy day. The middle of the week. We were sitting on the floor of my apartment. An old house cut up into four units with hissing radiators and drafty windows. But the place had a great view of the river, and we used to get high and watch the current pass, content to just sit and drink and talk.
“How long have you been saying that? I can’t play. Why don’t you learn?”
Jake’s eyes would sparkle when he got excited, glitter like the river in the sunlight. Sometimes enough to cut through the haze of dope and drink. He wore his charm like a necklace, this child-like exuberance that drew you in and made you smile.
But let him run out of dope and the child became a monster.
“Here,” he said, leaping off the floor. “Let me show you.”
He got his guitar, showed me where to put my fingers on the frets. I tried to follow but I was stoned, my hands like wet noodles. And I was still hung up on the death talk? What was that about?
Finally he took the guitar, made it look easy. I sipped my beer. “Why are we talking about your funeral?”
“We’re not,.” He clapped the guitar with his palm. “We’re talking about you. And how you never get around to doing anything because we’re always so fucked up.”
“So you get my guitar, “he said, his eyes climbing the neck of his scuffed Gibson. “And I’ll give you an easy one. You have to play Knocking on Heaven’s Door at my funeral.”
“I’m taking requests now, Jesus.”
“And you have to kick.”
I set the bottle down. I’d known Jake for six, seven years now. Long enough to foget how or where we’d met because it felt like I’d always known him.
I laughed again. “Define, ‘kick.’”
Even under the influence of drugs I knew he was serious. He strummed a chord, shrugged. “If I go first, you have to kick the habit. Me too, if, well, you know.” He cocked his head, let his tongue hang from his mouth.
“If I go first? Habit? Where are you coming up with this shit? I thought we were going to have a good time.”
Good times. Now, facing his family, some who probably blamed me for his death, I flopped another chord because my hands shook from nerves and detox. I figured it was time to wrap things up. It wasn’t about me or my measly four days on the wagon. They weren’t thinking about my guitar playing. Still, it was hard. Hardest thing I’d ever done. And pretty awful. My only saving grace was picturing Jake up there somewhere, laughing his ass off as I suffered through it.
A clumsy finish to polite applause. Misty gratitude on an otherwise perfect spring day. I started for the casket but couldn’t. I stumbled out to my car where I broke down, one of two promises fulfilled. Then I turned the key and drove to Cedar Baptist Church.
I had a meeting to attend.