I looped my blue guitar gig bag over my shoulder and went for an early morning walk around the lake—I’d learned to never leave my guitar unattended in my car. The gig bag was thickly padded, and I liked to sleep in the back of my car between my PA system and the gig bag. It was a snug fit, but it kept me from thinking about the empty space beside me.
I had arrived at this campground in upstate New York last night and I was bone-tired, having performed a string of shows across Massachusetts. I sat on a bench by the lake and watched the moon swim in the water. If my wife had been with me, she would have pointed out the planets, Venus and Mars, and offered me almonds and dark chocolate, which she’d carried when we were on these tours. Instead, I fingered the metal buttons on my jacket, which were parts of a WWII RAF pilot’s button compass. My wife had sewn them on my jacket, so in an emergency, I could always find her. It was our little joke because we had rarely been separated before she passed away. One button had a little post, and the other magnetized one could spin on the post and point north. Just the thing you might need if your Spitfire had been shot down over the French countryside.
In the morning I walked around the lake and watched the fog slowly burn off the water. Fish rose for midge in the shadows, as I followed a trail with no destination in mind. I came to a one-story clapboard building with Luncheonette painted on its side. Its green paint was faded and the dirt parking lot was empty except for the two vehicles pulled around towards the back.
I stepped inside and the screen door squeaked. I let the long spring gently slap the door closed behind me. It smelled of bacon and good coffee. There were no customers yet, just a waitress behind the counter and the cook pushing potatoes around on the grill. Two covered glass dishes were filled with blueberry muffins and cinnamon rolls. I took a stool at the far end of the counter.
“What can I get you, sweetie?” asked the waitress.
“Coffee, please. And some water, if you don’t mind.” I hadn’t tried to talk yet today, and my throat was scratchy from singing last night.
“That a guitar you’ve got there?” she asked, gesturing with her coffee pot at my gig bag.
“I’ve got a regular who plays guitar,” she said. I smiled at her. When you carry a guitar around people get friendly and love to ask about it or share guitar stories. She smiled back, then looked at her watch and said, “Have a cinnamon roll with that coffee and by the time you ask me for a second one, my regular will be here.“
I was halfway through my second cinnamon roll when in walked a middle-aged man with a guitar gig bag over one shoulder.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said. “You want the usual?”
“Yes, please, ma’am.” He gave me a friendly nod.
“He’s a guitar player too,” she said to him and wagged her coffee pot in my direction.
He sat next to me as she served his coffee.
“Arthur Blake,” he said, putting out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you.”
He wore a silver-grey suit that was worn shiny at the elbows and frayed at the ends of the sleeves, where some repairs in red stitching were visible. He wore a white shirt with a striped silk bowtie. In spite of his suit the effect was casual and easy-going.
“What kind of guitar?” he asked, motioning with his coffee cup.
“An old resonator.”
“No kidding. Dobro or National?”
“Sweet. I’m a Dobro man, myself,” he said, patting his gig bag.
“Very nice,” I said.
“Are you playing ‘round here?”
“No, my next gig is north of Chicago,” I said.
“Wow. That’s a long drive. Well, what is it they say about this business? You get paid to drive, you play for free.”
“I’m not sure we’re charging enough for all the driving,” I said. “Is that your stage name, or are you named after Blind Blake?”
“Oh, I get kidded about that a lot. My grandpa was an Arthur too. Name runs in the family. I guess it was popular down south. My family was originally from Florida, you know, the great migration north and all that. Grandpa worked in the brickyards along the Hudson in the 1930s. I guess if you’re going to be a blues player you might as well be named after one of the greats. I do love me some Blind Blake though.”
“Me too. What a guitarist. I played his Black Dog Blues at my show last night.”
“Well, maybe after breakfast we could play a little?”
“That would be nice.”
The waitress placed a heaping platter of bacon, eggs, and potatoes in front of Arthur.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie.”
We walked back to the campsite on a path that was covered in a thick layer of pine needles and smelled of old books. In spots where sunlight peeked through the conifers, mountain laurel bloomed. As we approached the campsite, lights were flashing on an emergency vehicle and voices crackled with radio static. There were emergency personnel around my car.
“I’m glad I took my guitar with me. Someone must have broken in,” I said. “Arthur, you can take this path down to the lake. I’ll meet you down there once I’ve sorted this out.”
“You sure?” said Arthur.
“No worries,” I said.
My car’s hatchback was open and I peeked inside. They had fitted an oxygen mask over a man’s face. His shirt was open and a defibrillator lay next to him. Then I saw he was lying between my PA speakers and a blue guitar gig bag. The hair pricked on the back of my neck. I tried to get someone’s attention, but they rushed around ignoring me. I walked down to the water where Arthur was sitting on a bench tuning up his Dobro. He smiled and said, “Everything cool?”
“Well. Can you give me a minute?”
I used my jackknife to cut the pale green threads holding my two compass buttons on. The little pieces of thread lay in my palm for a second before blowing off and landing on the water. I watched a bass rise and swallow them.
“It’s going to be okay,” said Arthur and he rested his hand on my shoulder.
I assembled the button compass on the bench between us, not registering Arthur’s words.
“How about we play, I’ll Be Home Soon?” he said.
“One of mine?” I said.
“Why not. Lead the way, maestro.”
“It was one of my wife’s favorites.”
“Indeed.” He leaned back and let me play the intro. Then he used his thumb and index finger to add a contrapuntal line under my singing.
Woke up early
Rolled out of bed
Got my six string and your smile in my head
And in the light of the early dawn
The air is cool when I turn the engine on
Oh, baby, I’m gonna be home soon
Arthur’s eyes were closed, lost in the music. At that instant I imagined I was actually playing with the Arthur Blake, the famous blues and ragtime player who died in Florida in 1927. His guitar thumped and twanged. Particles of dust floating on the surface of the lake began to oscillate and rose in the flaring sunlight like freed electrons. The hair on my arms stood up. The button compass began to spin—or was the compass holding steady and the ground spinning? I couldn’t tell. I grabbed the bench to steady myself. A siren faded into the distance.
Ernest Troost is an Emmy-winning film composer, and Kerrville New Folk winning songwriter. He is also a writer of essays and short stories when he is not composing music.