My roommate Mikey and I dug up a guitar from the rec room closet, some thrift-store quality six-string, small-bodied with a laminate top.
“I dunno, Mikey—the D-string is missing the fucking tuning knob.”
Mikey, though, was a scrappy ex-Marine—youngish—with a knack for problem-solving. He was sleight of frame, half-Portuguese half-Mexican, and could’ve passed for a young Che Guevarra were it not for his battalion tats and ear gauges.
“We can figure this out. We need some music up in here.”
I tuned the guitar save for the D string, which buzzed noisily against the frets.
“Well, it’s not like we can go up to the nursing station and ask for a pair of pliers. Sharp objects and all. Imagine: can I get my Librium—oh, and a needle-nose?”
Mikey laughed, which was good. He was in for PTSD and suicidal ideation after a training exercise had laid him flat on the ground, shot by his buddy on accident.
(‘Where’d you get shot?’ I’d asked him. He pointed to the area above his right clavicle, where the neck meets the shoulder. I thought of the Angle of Luis, the imaginary line used in Jacobin times to guide the guillotine blade: where the bullet entered then left Mikey’s body was at the angle’s apex).
We searched the Day Room for something to MacGyver the guitar. Mikey, ever resourceful, settled on a ballpoint pen. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all, or in this case a pair of pliers. He unscrewed the butt of the pen and held it up for examination, fingering its clip.
(Mikey fell on the training field into a trench, his right arm useless and tangled in gear. With his left hand he wrested a field knife from its scabbard and hacked at the strap of his assault rifle while spewing blood from the mouth).
“Let’s try this,” and Mikey pinched the clip of the pen against the cap like an impotent set of tweezers and set to work on the D-string gearwork. We took turns with the makeshift pliers and bullied the D into tautness.
“Just a smidge more.” I played the D against the G.
“Perfect.” C chord, D, A, then G. All sounded good.
(“What’re you in for?” he’d asked.
“Substance,” I said simply, though the answer could’ve been more complicated. I’d been on ludestra, topomax, vraylar, escitalopram, aripiprazole, naltrexone, buboprion, benzodiazepines, trazadone, mirtazapine. Oh—and vodka. Call me Tennessee Williams, albeit a Tennessee Williams who hadn’t yet swallowed the cap).
Mikey handed me the guitar and I started playing ‘Autumn Leaves’, just funked up with lots of staccato.
“Righteous.” Mikey picked up the guitar case and started drumming out a backbeat. Me and my buddy, the young Che look-alike, our own makeshift happy band in the Day Room of Sharp Mesa Vista hospital.
Melissa joined in, Veronica too. Lyndon, the blind guy who had lost his vision in a rugby accident (and I never got to ask him if he still dreamt in color)—we all sang along and tapped out rhythms while waiting for meds, for nighttime snack, for discharge, for second chances—maybe third–, for homes halfway and otherwise, for whatever spirit to escape its shivery place inside of us and make us whole. We were altogether too loud considering the hour, but because we were laughing, the nurses let us be; and it was proof that, despite our could-be sadness, despite our private desperations, there was in that moment the greater capacity for pure, unbridled joy.
“That was awesome, Mikey.”
“Feels good, Bro.”
I’ve not looked back since leaving that hospital, but instead look for Mikey wherever I go, in the Rooms, in my recovery, so that I can continue growing a joy undiminished, to live, and in the return to living, perhaps sing.