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The Blues Hobo

I met a man at a party once back in the early 1990s. He was at least thirty years older than I, if not forty. Everyone was at least a little drunk. I was drunker than he, although it was hard to tell if it was just the alcohol or if he held his face like that all the time.

evening street

We'd met in a blues club earlier that night, and later we were all outside in a stranger's yard, burning a fire and smoking weed. He asked me if I'd ever heard proper slide. I said "I think so." He said, "Then you haven't."

He grabbed an empty beer bottle, poured a bit of water into it, and made to hit the open lip of the bottle with the heel of his hand. "Oh! I've seen this before," I said. "This is how my ex made funnels to smoke hash." I had an ex who used to do that so we could funnel hash smoke from a pair knives off a stove element turned on high.

"No," he said. "I bet he broke the bottle off lower down. I'm breaking it off at the neck. That's a lot harder," and he clapped the palm of his hand against the bottle's lip. The lower bulb of the beer bottle popped off and rolled back into the bushes behind him, hitting a girl in the heel. She jumped and squealed.

"That's how you break a slide bottle," he said. He chuckled at me. I could tell he had sympathy for me, or pity. It was hard to tell. I felt like a child.

I asked him his name, but he wouldn't tell me what it was. He told me that, if you were smart, you never gave your real name to anyone but your parents, unless someone was going to stick with you throughout your life, and no one ever did that but yourself. He said your real name gave other people power over you. He sounded wise, but I figured he was a shyster. Most people I'd met who sounded wise were shysters.

He slid the disenfranchised bottle neck up over his finger and dragged it along the strings. They sang a little.

"This guitar's broke a bit. It's only got five strings. See? One, two, three, four, and five," he said, tapping each one as he counted them on the neck, "but I played a three string guitar and ate all winter one year, so I can do this," and then he played those five strings, and I felt a deep embarrassment about how I'd judged his class all night.

He'd been sitting quietly by the fire with rough teeth and an uneven scrub of hair around his mouth. I'd equated ugliness and poverty with a general lack of value, and he knew that. I wanted to flee from the shame of my judgement, but I remained planted in the soft, grey ash at the outskirts of the fire. There was nowhere to go.

I might have been affected by the weed and the beer, but I wept while he played, holding myself with my own arms. I was outside myself and covered in music while he ran that glass up and down those five strings. It was so exquisite, I almost felt I could murder him to make the pain of it end.

I imagined myself tackling him down off his aluminum lawn chair, throwing him back into the dirt, and maybe squeezing his neck. It looked thick, but I figured that my hands could still be effective if I pushed on him with my body weight. He looked rough enough that his heart might stop before I had to work too hard at killing him.

I saw myself for what I was then, or at least what I had been when I'd watched him from across the fire pit earlier that night. I was a drunk, entitled fuck who'd unjustly pitied a man with the power to beat my heart black and blue with a broken guitar. He smiled at my face while I cried mutely, and the party moved around us, back and forth, unaware of our mutual cruelty.
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