The Old Rocker by Manfred Gabriel

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The Old Rocker by Manfred Gabriel
Illustration by Sue Babcock

The rocking chair came via a local delivery service. The driver had Garret sign for it on a tablet with his finger after taking it out of the truck and setting it in the middle of the already crowded living room. Garret considered his birthday gift for a few moments before moving it near the front window, open to a summer breeze.

“Where’d that come from?” Tanya asked her father when she arrived that evening for his annual birthday dinner. She made a face that told Garret she didn’t approve. He wasn’t surprised. Its dark wood was worn away at the arms. The green chair pad was frayed as if by cat claws and had what looked like a large coffee stain in the middle. Dings and dents marred its legs and runners. Tanya lived about an hour away, in a tidy condo where nothing was ever out of place and all the furniture looked like it had just come off the showroom floor.

“I have no idea,” Garret said. “There was no note. I asked the delivery man but he didn’t seem to know much English.”

“You should call the company on Monday and ask. Maybe send it back.”

Garret laughed. “No way.” The chair creaked as he settled into it. He could feel the hard wood seat through the worn cushion. “An old rocker for an old rocker, get it?”

Tanya shook her head. Her father had made his living in studios and on stage, playing guitar for the Rolling Stones, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, and a hundred others long forgotten. He’d still be playing now if arthritis hadn’t made it hard to lift a coffee mug, let alone strum a Gibson.

His daughter sighed. “Where do you want to go to eat?”

“Where do you think?” he said.

“Come on Dad, don’t you want to go somewhere nice?”

“I’m the one turning seventy today. It’s nice enough for me.”

Tanya insisted on driving. Iggy’s Diner sat next to a gas station on Route 50. The gas station used to be a butcher shop, and before that a florist, and even though it had changed owners several times, Iggy’s had always been Iggy’s, with its gray cement block walls and red tin roof. It no longer had a drive-in, too expensive to pay car hops, and no one wanted to sit in their car and eat anyway, but it had an outside order window and plastic picnic tables. You could eat inside too, at booths with vinyl benches, if you didn’t mind the sticky floors and the charred meat smell that drifted from a grill slick with years of beef fat.   

It was unseasonably cool for August, so they decided to eat outside to Tanya’s apparent relief. “At least I won’t have to peel the grease from the bottom of my shoes when I get home,” she said.

They placed their orders at the window with a kid who didn’t look old enough to be out of high school, then waited under the eave for their number to be called. Several other people stood with them, college students mostly on their phones. The nearby university’s semester didn’t start for another couple of days, but upper classmen had already started to make their way into town. Now and then, one of the professors from the music department would reach out to Garret, ask him to guest lecture. He was no teacher, so these talks usually consisted of him regaling students with stories of the good old days. While he was talking, he often felt invigorated, being around music majors who knew their history well enough to be aware of even some of the more esoteric people he was talking about, often asking intriguing questions. Afterwards, though, he felt a bit sad and in need of a drink, to mourn the loss of many of those he’d played with, to mourn his own inability to play anymore.

Both Garret’s parents loved classical music but had almost no talent. They started Garret with violin lessons when he was six years old. He seemed a natural. They were almost despondent when he switched to guitar at the age of twelve, and not just any guitar, but rock guitar. He could appreciate Bach and Brahms, Vivaldi and Paganini, but he had no passion for them. He wanted to emulate the music he heard on the radio, on the 45’s he bought at the nearby record store, Hendrix and Santana and Page. He never got to be a star, of course, but he built a modest career not only playing the music he loved but recording ad jingles and TV theme songs. That time was long gone. Now, everything was digitized, and real music played by real musicians had little value.  

Their order was ready. They brought their food to the nearest picnic table. Garret took a large bite of a triple bacon burger, shoved an onion ring into his mouth before he even swallowed.

“You won’t live to seventy-one, eating like that,” Tanya said.

“Okay, Mom,” he replied, wiping some mustard from his grizzled chin. “Maybe you should try it. Look at those fries. You don’t even have any cheese on them.”

Tanya frowned at her basket. Plain fries and a Diet Coke were all she ordered. She was tall and skinny, so much so that people often thought she had an eating disorder, but one look at her mother, who now lived happily on the east coast with a new husband, and it was obvious it was all in the genes.

“At least I’m here,” Tanya said.

Garret nodded at that. Tanya had always been there, even when she was a little girl. Making sure he got up, was washed and dressed for his gigs. Throwing vomit-soaked sheets in the wash. Even calling and making excuses for him when he was too drunk to work.

“I miss your sister, too,” Garret replied.

They ate in silence after that, cars zipping past, more students coming and going up to the walk-up window, a few families ordering Iggy’s famous homemade ice-cream. Garret took the last bite of his burger. The summer was coming to an end, and the sun was just above the trees. “We should probably go back.”

Tanya shrugged. She’d finished her Diet Coke but her fries remained half-eaten. She tossed them into an overflowing garbage can as they got back into her car. 

“Thanks for taking me out for my birthday,” Garret said as they pulled up to the curb in front of his house.

“I’ll see you sometime,” Tanya replied, hands still on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead.

The porch light came on as he approached the front door, courtesy of a motion detector Tanya had him install a few years back. Inside, the living room was gray with the dying light. He went to switch on a lamp when he heard his new-old rocker creaking, saw Mo sitting there.

She wore plaid pants, black boots, a corduroy jacket over a flannel shirt, much too warm for even this unseasonably cool weather. She had cut her hair short since the last time Garret had seen her. He like it that way. “Happy Birthday, Old Man.”

He smiled at that. She always called him Old Man, even when she was a little girl and he was still young. He could barely make out her face in the dwindling light, blue eyes that had lost their twinkle, a dimple hidden in a face that had aged too quickly.

“You should say hi to your sister,” Garret said. Tanya’s car still sat on the curb, her silhouette visible in the driver’s seat.

Mo frowned. She ran a hand across the arm of the chair. “I see my gift arrived.”

Garret asked Mo if she wanted something to drink. She asked for water, lots of ice. He went to the kitchen, got the water for her, pulled out a non-alcoholic beer for himself. His sponsor told him more than once that it wasn’t a good idea, that it still had a small amount of alcohol. He didn’t care. He liked the taste even if it wasn’t the real stuff. As for the program, he didn’t think much of all the God mumbo-jumbo, even with Mo in the next room, non-living proof. Still, daily meetings gave him a place to be with people like him, people who understood, and it kept him sober for one more day.

He may not have cared what his sponsor thought, but he cared about what Mo thought. He wondered what she might say if he returned with a beer, real or not. He put the bottle back into the fridge, poured himself some water instead, no ice. When he returned to the living room, she took the glass from him, drank half of it in one swallow. 

“Must be hot down there,” he said.

“They don’t send you to hell for being sick. It’s not heaven, either. More like rehab for the dead.” She finished her water, held the empty glass for him. He went to refill it.

“You’re not just here for the chair, or water,” Garret said when he returned. “If there’s any way I can help you-”

She held up her hand. “Too late for me. Don’t worry, I’ve long since forgiven you. They have this strange form of therapy. Forces you to look deep inside. More anguish then pits of fire or being buried in lava up to your neck. Still, I came out of it, realized it wasn’t your fault.”

A hole formed in Garret’s stomach. No matter what she said, he knew if he had just been a better father it would have made all the difference. He could not save her, but she had saved him. That night in the emergency room, after the doctor had given him the news, he swore off drinking for good. He had the feeling that she was here to help him again, although he didn’t see how. He sat on the couch and set his own water on the table next to him. “If you’re not here for yourself, then why are you here?”

She continued rocking, looked out the window. Tanya hadn’t left yet. She sat in the driver’s seat, unmoving, her head hung low. “She acts like she has it all together. She doesn’t. She misses you.”

“I spend as much time with her as I can,” he replied.

“Time is not what she’s looking for. You still have that old guitar you used to play when we were little?”

“My playing days are over.” He held up his hand to display slightly bulging knuckles, a bent pinkie finger. 

“It’s supposed to hurt.”

He didn’t know how to respond to that. She stared at him until he finally got up, went down the hall to the extra bedroom that doubled as a music room. There were a couple of amps, an electronic keyboard he never learned to play well, and several guitars, a Gibson 335 and a Fender Telecaster among them, gathering dust. Tanya tried to convince him to sell the lot. “You could use the money and they aren’t doing you any good here,” she’d say. He’d agree just to appease her but knew he could never bring himself to part with them. 

The guitar Mo referred to was a Martin D12 35 12 String acoustic. It hung on the wall above a sagging sleeper sofa. He took it down, stopped, then chose an appropriate pick from a collection in an old ash tray on the dresser. He returned to the living room. Mo was gone. His heart sank. He looked out the window to see Tanya still sitting there, the orange glow of a cigarette near her lips. It took him aback. He hadn’t seen her smoke since she was a teenager.

He sat in the rocker, the guitar on his knee. He played a few chords, struggling to get his fingering just right, wincing with the pain, not only from arthritis, but from the sound of the instrument, horribly out of tune from misuse and the humidity of summer. He took some time to retune it by ear. At least he still had his hearing.

He plucked the strings, something like a song but completely made up. His fingers felt as if they were on fire. He played slowly, making sure he got the notes right, moving from one to another in the most efficient way possible to numb the pain.

When Tanya and Mo were young, he used to play for them at bedtime, sober or not. It wasn’t until they got older that they noticed the difference. His absent-minded playing soon developed into one of the songs they liked most, simple and sweet, helping them drift off to sleep.

Garret couldn’t recall the name of the song. He found himself becoming more forgetful as the years went by, whether from age or all the alcohol he had no way of knowing. His fingers remembered it, though. A song not suitable for radio because it had no lyrics, and yet it spoke to him all the same.

The music drifted out the window. A couple walking their dog stopped to listen and then moved on. He continued to play, keeping one eye on Tanya’s car. She still did not move. He wondered if she could hear him through closed car windows. He thought of playing louder, but that would ruin the tone of the song, strip it of its emotion, which was like light rain in spring. He considered going outside to play on his front step, but realized he needed to be in this chair, that it somehow allowed him to play again.

Finally, Tanya rolled down her passenger side window. She lifted her head, turned towards the house. Garret kept playing. She got out of the car and started walking towards him. Garret’s fingers still ached, a dull pain, manageable, but impossible to ignore.

BIO: Manfred Gabriel’s stories have appeared in over two dozen publications. He lives and writes in western Wisconsin, where he spends his days dealing with people and spends his nights writing to keep his sanity.