Bathed in red light, bodies move and pulse, arms swaying like sea-anemone-tentacles, washed by waves of electric guitar and drum beats pounding out “Zombie.” Center stage, Dolores O’Riordan plays her red electric guitar, the weight of that thing strapped to her, and she just rips it—just tears up that song, and it’s the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. And I want that. I know that a badass lives deep inside of me, but I must take baby steps first. I must learn to play the electric guitar. Then, I’ll buy myself a silver-sequined mini dress. That’s the badass dream.
Also, I have no job. I don’t have a Gibson ES 335 in cherry red, either. The moving expenses my husband and I paid to get from Ohio to the suburbs of Seattle for his job were the price of one Gibson ES 335. We’ll break even, but I should find some work too, to help out with some of the extras like room and board for a child we might have someday who plans on going to college.
But on the first day that I promise to find a job, I sleep in. Then, I take the bus to Seattle and find my way over to the Museum of Pop Culture because they have a kickass interactive rock and roll exhibit featuring Jimi Hendrix and electric guitars. I pay my $20 and head straight for the sound lab where there’s a vintage blue Fender Stratocaster strapped down to a music stand-podium with thief proof bolts and wires. In front of the guitar is a screen that plays bars of music and sequenced lights that correspond to the first few notes of “Louie Louie”—and I plan on staying here until I get it just right. Then, I can buy a guitar for real because that way, I will have earned it.
First, I have to get the fingers right, and this thing is a little heavier than I expected it to be. My right shoulder is starting to pinch. The guitar strings are hard wires, and my hand and fingers feel small. It takes a lot of effort on my part to hold the chords down and strum when I’m supposed to, and I can see that I will develop blisters if I keep this up. The voice on the screen says to use the light signals to join in on the guitar, but I can’t follow along. I can’t get the beats right. I stay five or ten minutes while people line up behind me: buses of school children wanting to take their turn, tourists on holiday. I have no choice but to step aside and watch as the children and tourists get the light sequences and the notes right on the first try. Once they leave, I take my turn and keep playing five to ten minutes at a time, sometimes twenty or thirty, all of the way until closing—and I still can’t catch on. But now, the baby-blue electric guitar feels so right in my hands, and I don’t want to let it go.
“Are you getting up this morning? To look for a job?” Craig asks when he finds me still asleep at 7 a.m. The Museum of Pop Culture doesn’t open until 10 a.m., and I don’t want to get there right away. I like to let the crowds thin a little.
“Yeah, I’ll get up. In an hour.”
“You really want to work downtown, in Seattle? Taking the bus each day could get to be a pain. You sure you don’t want to look for something around here?”
He never asks why I don’t just look for jobs online—why I would pound the pavement the old-fashioned way to look for “hiring” signs posted to storefronts. Fortunately, Craig is not the kind of man who makes me explain my process.
“I’ll be fine. Better than driving,” I say, and Craig turns out the light.
A few blocks before the bus drops me off, there’s a consignment shop, and I hear a couple of fashionably dressed teens talk about how this shop has all of the best clothes because the wealthy high-rise condo owners and CEOs all drop off their party dresses there, and I just have to go inside.
Back in a tiny closet of the store, I see sequined dresses. A sliver one catches my eye—the precise silver mini dress with the classic lines I’m after—for just $20. Sparkly strappy high, high heels are on sale for just $5. I ask the shopkeeper for a plastic bag and slip into the dressing room. Taking off my street clothes and dropping them into the plastic bag, I change into the dress and heels. When I get to the check-out counter, I ask the shopkeeper to remove the tags, and I hand her $25. Then, I stomp down the street all of the way to the Museum of Pop Culture, looking like a badass. I pick up that baby-blue electric guitar and it just feels right, and I know I’ll catch on this time, but I don’t. I still don’t get it even after four hours.
Solid months of taking the bus to Seattle, ducking into public restrooms to change into my sequined dress, and playing “Louie Louie” at the Museum of Pop Culture are still not paying off. Luckily, the front desk staff has been waiving my admission fee.
“She’s harmless,” I’ve heard them say to newer employees. “She just tries to play ‘Louie Louie’ for hours, but she doesn’t bother anyone.”
In fact, I might be drawing in more business by attracting crowds:
There she is—Guitar Girl—the one who can’t seem to play the first few notes of “Louie Louie.”
After a while, I recognize a few faces—people who come back to see if I’ve gotten the song right. I believe I’ve earned my free admission.
Crossing the street from where the bus drops me off, I see construction trucks and hear loud machinery coming from the direction of the Museum of Pop Culture. When I make it all of the way over there, I see a sign on the door: “Closed for remodeling. We will reopen in three months.” My heart sinks. I can feel that guitar in my hands, even when I’m away.
I look up to see a familiar face—one of the employees at the front desk.
“I knew you’d be here, and I thought you’d be disappointed, so I’ve got something for you.”
She’s carrying a guitar case and inside is the baby-blue electric guitar.
“We’re completely re-doing the exhibit, so we’re replacing this guitar with another one. You can have this one—you know—to practice on as much as you’d like. And we expect you to come back and play when we re-open.”
I throw my arms around her and take the guitar back to the tiny house that Craig and I share. I watch YouTube videos that try to teach me, in simple terms, how to play “Louie Louie.” Craig no longer asks me if I’m looking for a job. He’s figured out that I’ve found a hobby instead, but it’s not one I’m mastering any time soon.
To get out of the house, I take the bus to Pike Place Market and watch the famous fish toss. Crowds gather at the Pike Place Fish Market to watch the employs throw fish, and it occurs to me that I’ve never learned to clean or gut a fish, which are other badass skills I’d like to have in addition to playing the electric guitar. So, I buy a fish and take it home to watch videos on how to prepare it. And just like that, I learn to clean and gut a fish, which inspires me to keep learning “Louie Louie.” If I can gut a fish, I can kill a song.
A glint of sun from the hem of my silver-sparkled dress catches my eye, and I feel radiant. My high heels click, click, click on the pavement while the guitar case I’m carrying swings by my side. In a shopping bag, I’ve got a fish that I’ll take home to celebrate my victory. I truly feel like the badass I’ve always known I could be.
In front of the Museum of Pop Culture, the construction trucks are gone. A crowd has gathered because “Guitar Girl” is going to play the first few notes of “Louie Louie.” I’ve been practicing for months, and I’ve made progress. I can get the notes right about fifty percent of the time. I’m just hoping that I’m fifty percent right today.
The stage is set with speakers and everything I’ll need for a concert, and I’m ready for my debut. I close my eyes and think of Dolores O’Riordan, with her guitar strapped around her middle, and there’s no place I’d rather be. I start to strum, but the notes are wrong. The crowd is silent, but I try again—and again—and again—and then I stop. I don’t get one note right.
And then I remember the fish, and all of the things I’ve learned since I’ve moved. I unwrap the fish from its paper and throw it onto the ground, just left of center stage, but still in full view of the crowd, and I smash it with the guitar. Every bit of joy and recklessness and excitement—the savagery—bubbles up inside of me and rages—until I hear the notes crack open—all of them—with “Louie Loue” somewhere deep inside and fish guts in my hair.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio for over 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has been writing and publishing short stories in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies online and in print. Her stories have appeared in Maudlin House, Coffin Bell Literary Magazine, Open Minds Quarterly, Headstuff, Headway Quarterly, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flash Fiction Magazine, Riot Act, Goat’s Milk Magazine, Wretched Creations, and 3Moon Magazine. The Places We Haunt (Potter’s Grove Publishing) is her first short story collection, released June 30, 2020. Additionally, she serves as an adult beverage columnist for The Daily Drunk literary magazine, an editor and proof reader for Flash Fiction Magazine, and chronicles her attempts at cooking, crafts, and home repairs on her blog Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks. She can be found on Twitter: @ckennedyhola.