Alex David Wright

She Practices Her Scales

A scented candle, jasmine. The fizz and click of the cable into the jack. With the gain down low the notes plume, bloom, sound in more than three dimensions. A slight hum, the escape of electricity, perhaps, or maybe it’s dirt — she doesn’t know how it works in a mechanical sense, but she knows it much more intimately.

She knows how to play.

She’s lucky. All of fourteen and this is the guitar she gets to use: a Gibson ES-335, and not a reissue — this, her father had said, was an original, from 1958, the year of the model’s debut. She has no reason to doubt him. The guitar’s neck is satin-smooth, worn with the care and skill of a million palms. The frets are dull and limned with grime; before she ever played this guitar it was like this, and she has never cleaned it, for to do so would be to wipe away the material vestiges of the past.

E. First finger. Hammered on, not picked, her fingers are callused like a wizened bluesman and so they snap onto the string, the note bulging out. Always an E; it’s the first note of every practice session. The pitch of the first and the last string. Alpha and Omega. There’s a beauty there, her father had said, in the way you come around full circle. The guitar is like that in many ways. It’s all patterns. You have to see the beauty amidst the chaos. That’s what artists do.

F#. Her ring finger sweeps in, hammering on, delaying the note just a little before she does so, allowing that E just a little more time, though perhaps it’s a measure of time perceptible only to her. This note is the fork in the road. The next must be either a minor or major third.

G. Minor. The major scale always felt as though it spoke to no-one. Its bright-eyed optimism was a brag, a bore, a boast of nothing. But the minor felt honest — it was the G that did it, that somehow coloured all the notes that came after it. The deterministic G.

A. On the next string, and she picks this time, striking slantwise to bring out a harmonic, a whisper of things unseen. Less is more — her father, again. Don’t showboat. Sometimes, you can play it straight. Clean. See?

B. The fifth. It resolves the tension. It always does. That’s music: tension and release, tension and release. On the days of tension, she realised, she learned more, but she would only realise this retroactively, in a later session, tracing her progress back the way tears trace their way down a face, leaving a glossy memory of themselves. On the days of release she felt clumsy; on smile was enough to make her fumble. Amateur.

C. Did you forget this was in the minor key? Remember? The sad sounding one? At least, that’s what people say. Well: the C is your reminder; it is resolutely not a C#, which would be condescending, frankly. And who wants to be condescended to? People with low standards.

D. D is a bad letter. It starts lots of bad words. Disappointment. Death. Daddy. Dunce. Despair. She grits her teeth. The final decision: keep this minor scale natural — just a major scale in drag, or flatten the seventh and reveal the truth?

Eb. Harmonic minor. The ultimate tension, the lead up, the waiting game …

She stays here, letting the note ring out, holding out for as long as she can before she resolves back to the tonic. The E. The alpha and omega. Seen like that, isn’t the guitar a symbol of endlessness?

She tells herself that the Eb is still ringing out, that it is not time to resolve to the tonic. Just a few more seconds, she thinks, as she waits for him to come. But he does not come.