“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn,” was a six-word short story composed by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when placing a classified ad to sell two bass guitars and an amplifier.
Since my husband, Phil, died of cancer almost five years ago, I had been confronted with the instruments during my weekly laundry chores. After a death, there is an immediate culling and distribution of the possessions of the deceased, but often a holding back of things that have more complicated emotional ties.
Someone much wiser than I told me that I was finally ready for the next level of clearing out. It had been a long time since I had seen those instruments as anything other than a rebuke to my “to do” list intentions. In the new year, something about their presence began to haunt me, and it became important that I give them a new life.
It wasn’t until I had taken them out of their cases to photograph them that it dawned on me that one of the basses was around Phil’s neck the first time I laid eyes on him. He was playing with a not terribly good band of law school buddies, who decided they needed something more to sustain them than simply their outsize lawyerly salaries. I went to their first performance, across from the old CBGB as they were proud to tell you, with my best friend, Priscilla, whose brother played with the band and had gone to law school with Phil. She wanted me to meet Phil, because she had already predicted that he and I would fall in love.
I remember him clearly that night. He was tall and stoic, but a little wild looking, a true bassist. His friend and band-mate Harold recalled at the memorial service that Phil had forgotten much of what he was supposed to be playing from stage fright, but he looked so cool up there that it hardly mattered. His T-shirt was royal blue and had one of those plastic adapters for 45 r.p.m. singles printed in yellow on it. It impressed me as an incredibly cool statement of protest for the loss, recent at that time, of vinyl LPs.
Still, we didn’t speak much aside from introductions, and he wasn’t my physical type. I tend toward the more Anglo-European and he looked a bit like John Malkovich. Phil didn’t end up staying in law or in the band for much longer. It would be some time before I would see him again and even longer before we would exchange more than a couple of words. At a party several months later, he was so sarcastic when I made pleasantries that I resolved never to speak to him again.
One cold night in January, that would change. He and his friends were celebrating both Elvis Presley’s birthday and the engagement of two of their friends. Priscilla and I met the group at an Irish bar in the East 20s. This time, we would bond over music, film, our childhoods in New Jersey, inside jokes that only few people would understand. He asked for my number. On the following Tuesday, the official night for men to call women, he rang on schedule and we made plans to meet that Friday.
I had another first date that week, with a writer who played goalie on a hockey team with Tim Robbins, which is all I really remember about him. He was very nice and took me to a lovely dinner, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After six hours of nonstop conversation and laughter with Phil, we were inseparable and remained so up to the moment of his last breath. I will miss him until my last breath, but I’ve had enough time to realize that his possessions will never be stand-ins for him and have no more talismanic power than my memories. Although he had the guitars at our house for several years, I don’t remember him playing them again.
About a week ago, I ended up selling the three pieces to Crossroads Music through the kindhearted assistance of Zach Zunis, a Star sales rep, superior blues guitarist, and all-around awesome person. I hope they gain a few more remarkable memories during their useful existence.
I have tried to devise a six-word summary to capture what meaning or allusions these objects might have in the larger picture I have of Phil’s life, but haven’t been too successful. The best I have so far: Once played well, then never again.
Jennifer Landes is The Star’s arts editor.