Can you hear music from heaven?
Maybe, when you are still, quiet, and troubled?
Big John always wore his shirts with sleeves and necks unbuttoned. Colors were usually gray or blue to black. Sometimes they were solid, sometimes checkered. He really did not care.
He was bent at the neck like the world bore down on him even when he walked.
But truly, he liked his ears to be as close to his Martin Guitar as he could get them. There was a rich vibration that happened near the box where the strings were singing before the wood vibrated that he treasured. He thought, “sounds as good as a Stradivarius.”
If you saw his eyes, they were brown. Large frame on the man, but he gave an air of gentleness. The old straw cowboy hat was usually tilted down over his eyes. He just used it to cover his mop of hair. Hair that used to be brown, but had turned a bright silver.
The wrinkles on his face settled a lot around his mouth, because he seemingly smiled all the time. He never wore jewelry, rarely knew the time of day, because his time was free without obstructions. His old Roper boots were past due for the garbage, but he liked them, even springing every long once and then for a shine from old man Buckhead near the police station.
When he talked man to man, it was to Buckhead. Buckhead had a history with music, drugs, and alcohol, but gave them all up to find a peace of spirit, like a leaf on a stream. In regard to a history with music, Buckhead and Big John found common ground.
Big John had had the sometimes girlfriend, but the girls quickly found out they did not rate where it counted for them.
In his world, music was everything, while other things were just dressings or complications.
Time had been mostly kind to him, though he still drank a bottle of Jack a day, sometimes more. He was grateful his fingers still worked, so that E string and B Chord were not a problem for him, though the C# and E flat chord was frequently troublesome.
He used to sing a bit, in a gravely low voice.
But lately, it seemed to trigger a racking cough, so he mostly played.
Downtown, north side of the square, away from the Police station is where he would drop his cup, open his camping stool, and strum a bit.
Sometimes, he would hear coins. He knew what they were by the sound they made dropping into his cup, dimes, quarters. Sometimes, he got folding money, usually ones, with an infrequent fiver.
Two Christmases ago, he got a twenty. Bought extra Jack that day for his Christmas present.
He was on the street 7 days a week, as the flophouse on Bilford St. was 12.50 a week, and he needed to eat every now and then. Food was not all that important, anyway, not like his cigs and Jack.
Had a little dog, Petey, for a few years, who kept him company. Times were tough then. Hard to keep it all going as his income did not balance his outgoing.
Petey died one beautiful spring morning and Big John cried, quiet like.
If you were watching, you could see his shoulders move, but probably could not hear any sounds of his tears. He remembered crying when his mama died, too, but that was long ago.
The real point of his life as if there were not a soul left on the planet, he would still be there, seven days a week, playing. He lived to play.
One summer day, there was no breeze and the heat was hot enough for even a fly to sit still, finding the rarified air to hard to produce lift.
Big John had been strumming all morning, some country and western tunes, a few blues, and a few from him no one knew. Not one penny had dropped in his cup.
He felt, more than saw, someone stop in front of him. They did not move for three songs. No coins for his cup.
He finally looked up, and in front of him was a young boy, a mop of curly brown hair. From the baggy clothes and skinny frame, Big John guessed he and his family were homeless.
“Well now. Who might you be? Aren’t you just a little hot in that woolen sweater?” Big John asked.
The mop shook his head back and forth.
“Are you lost, son? I can take you to the kind policemen, they can help you find your folks.”
Again, the mop shook.
“Well, what is your name?” Big John asked.
One finger crept up to the boy’s lips and he bit it on the nail.
“Johnnie, my name is Johnnie!”
Big John reared back and beamed a smile at the boy.
“That is my name, too. But, they call me Big John. I am very proud to meet you, Johnnie.”
Johnnie reached down and touched the Marlins neck, gently, like you might touch a dog you did not know.
“You play real pretty, and that thing sounds so good,” Johnnie said. “Could you teach me to how?”
Big John seemed to take humor in this, as his smile got even bigger.
“Well boy, I could. But take it from this old man, that you are better off in school learning everything you can about life. Hell, you could be a lawyer, a brain surgeon, maybe have children of your own someday!”
Johnnie sucked on this thought for a bit while he chewed his finger and asked, “Why didn’t you do those things? You could have done something more. Right?”
Big John chuckled a bit and wondered about the boy. He seemed to be smarter than his age.
With his pick hand, he tilted his hat the opposite way to get a better look at the boy, staring into his brown eyes, and admiring his mop of hair. He also looked at his fingers, would they be long enough and strong enough to pick and strum?
They were short and square like his. Big John’s fingers weren’t meant for the strings, but he pressed them over the years to do more, to do better.
“Johnnie, I would not mind a bit to teach you some things, but I want you to promise that school is number one, and this box is way down the list. I want you to promise, to make friends and play. I want you to promise to work towards a good job, and absolutely promise not to be an old man hunkered on the street playing for yourself. If you can make those promises to you, I will teach you a few things on this Ax!”
Johnnie’s eyes were now bright with a beaming smile. He came over and threw his arms around Big John.
“Thank you so much, thank you, “ he said, now standing back. “I wish I could make those promises, I really do! But you see I can’t”
Big John looked puzzled and asked,” Why? Those are the things in life you should do.”
Johnnie said, “Well, it is too late for me, and it is too late for you. I came here to help you move on from this corner, to speak the truth about what you feel inside, the selfish wasted life you have led. And, you did. So, now, we can take your Ax and move you somewhere else where your fingers will not hurt, and the Jack from yesterday does not cover up what you did not do in your life, and you have some souls wanting you, instead of walking past you.”
Big John was really troubled now.
He said in defense, “But, I like my life! It is simple and I play all day long!”
Johnnie grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Look behind you!”
Big John turned around and saw himself lying still on the concrete.
Johnnie said, “Your life is over. You have never hurt anyone but yourself. You have given your music freely, never asked of anyone. We can’t make an exception for you. You were a good person, but not good enough. But, we have another place where you can enjoy yourself and enjoy other good people. If you like, we can find Petey, your dog for you.”
Big John asked, “Can I still play?”
Johnnie smiled, turned his head upwards and then back to Big John.
“Yes, you can play, but you have to make me a promise to learn something new, to look others in their eyes, to listen to what they say about their past lives, listen to their feelings. That means putting your guitar down sometimes.”
Now, it was Big John’s turn to think, fingers rubbing his jaw.
“Man, I don’t know. All I want to listen to is my music.”
“Well, if you don’t like my choice, there is a worse one for you, and you definitely will not play there, I promise. Ever. You will never hear another chord coming from your fingers, nor ever hear another song! Now, will you go with me?”
Big John thought he would fall down. Never? How could anyone be so cruel?
He looked back at himself still, curled in the heat, but likely cooling inside.
This was a lot to think about, being dead and all.
“Ok, I will make those promises and come with you, and yes, please find Petey for me?”
Later, near noon, the Pharmacist, Rose, was taking lunch, walking to the cafe she ate at most days.
She always walked past Big John, frequently dropping money into his cup. It was she that had dropped the twenty for his Christmas a few years back.
She found his body, color gone from his face, still with his hat pulled low. His guitar pick was there between thumb and finger, while his chord hand still clenched his beloved Martin.
She started to scream for help, but then she noticed the smile on his face. He seemed so peaceful, so at rest.
She pulled his camping stool out, so she could sit on it and face him.
Suddenly, she felt guilt like a cold blanket.
“I knew who you were, listened to you as much as I could, but you seemed so lost to everyone. I wanted to talk to you, but you would never look up. I always knew you were a nice man. I should have talked to you. I am sorry.”
Rose reached down to touch his cold hand, just a slight squeeze, before she stood up to walk to the police station, to report his death.
Tears had started down her face, when she felt, more than heard, Big John Strumming his guitar. She glanced back at him, saw that peaceful face, and felt better somehow.
“Just a memory, I guess,” Rose said to herself.
Now she was back on target to report it to the police, her pace quickened.
Big John would never have believed it, but his simple city funeral had quite a few folks present. The signature book now had 4 pages of well-wishers.
Apparently, many in the town liked having him play for them, even though he rarely talked. Some had even bought some flowers, a funeral spray and more.
“I remember one time, it was like hearing two people playing guitar, and not just one old white man,” J. F. Arman talking around the unlit cigar clamped in his mouth.
“I can still remember his voice. I liked to hear him sing, but a few years back he stopped, don’t know why!” Lillian Whitman replied.
“Did anyone ever record his music one of them iPhone things? Surely, someone did. Lets put an add in the paper and see.” Roy Betterman said.
The feeling the town had lost an important part of it seemed to be strong, sprinkled with a little guilt.
Rose went through the funeral feeling good, and could not explain why.
She took special note that old man Buckhead was sitting in the back by himself. She would stop and talk with him a bit after the service. He might know a bit more Big John than she did, since the two of them were seen talking from time to time.
She looked at that simple coffin, what was left of Big John and wish she could hear him play, again.
Of course, the town people felt Big John wanted that guitar in the box with him, so there it was. Someone said, “I bet it is still in tune.”
“Maybe another time. Maybe another place, I can hear him again” she thought to herself.
Just then, in her mind, more than her ears, she heard him play from far away.
She knew it was Big John, playing for her.
She felt the tears roll down her cheeks listening to Big John.
And, she smiled.