Orpheus Drops a Wad of Cash

by Terry Tierney

My guitar journey began in 1970 under the constellation of Lyra and the hypnotic strings of Orpheus, but no stars were visible that afternoon when I found a paperclip of folded bills in the Cleveland train station. A twenty on the outside – must be a fortune.

Several people saw me pick it up, so I mumbled something about taking the thick wad back to the ticket booth or lost and found. But after the witnesses dispersed, I pocketed the money and leapt into a waiting train just before the doors hummed shut. To me, the cash was a gift from Orpheus or some other god, my one chance to achieve a dream. Who would claim the unmarked bills stuffed in a paperclip anyway? The ticket seller most likely. I held off counting my treasure, straining to keep my face blank when one of the passengers from the platform praised me for my honesty. I thanked him and said I was home on leave from the Navy.

My awkward attempt to change the subject proved unnecessary when the train jerked forward with an ear-deadening squeal and drone, which sounded oddly familiar. I recalled singing hymns behind the ponderous church organ during my childhood, when the congregation scraped bottom like a chorus of the dead. Now my bottom was even lower. I knew some folk singers preferred the dirge scale because I sang along with the radio, so there was hope for me. Women loved guitar players and I loved music, a perfect match and a way to pluck away my endless nights in the barracks, though I’d have to find a place outside to avoid getting pummeled by my fellow inductees.

Jumping off at the next stop, where I remembered a music store, I ducked behind a wall to count my stash. For a man who never had a financial surplus after food, rent, and replacement underwear, pulling off the paperclip gave me the shakes. I counted sixty-four dollars, counted again, and a third time. One twenty, a ten, two fives, and the rest singles. Someone had wanted to appear richer than they were, and I had imagined a greater sum. But I was richer than I ever was, rich enough to buy a guitar.

The store manager escorted me around the Martins and Gibsons to a row of low-priced models. I settled on the cheapest, a Harmony, though it cost more than my paperclip windfall, forcing me to dig into the Navy travel advance I had squirreled away to buy weed. He threw in a laminated card with the music for “Oh, Susanna,” which I would never play. But I fingered simple chords that night and ever since, rubbing notes together and words with notes until they felt like a sexual embrace.

My girlfriend said I shied away from rhythm, but I tapped my feet well enough. Dancing was all in the body anyway, and the allure of music pulled me along, teasing me to learn tonal mathematics, so simple yet complex, and always beyond my reach. One day I unlocked the secret of double stops, the next day I forgot the melodic scale. I chased major and minor intervals through a labyrinth of sound, including the color spectrum of slides and bends. That winter, I carried my guitar on the flight back to the Navy base with marijuana and incense packed into its cardboard case to keep it safe. But the pickguard was too narrow for my insistent strums. I left deep scrapes on the wooden body, raising the scent of dry pine and lingering jasmine from the incense.

The Orphean aura never faded but I wondered if I looked back too soon, sending my nascent instrumental skills to Hades the way Orpheus condemned Eurydice. In later years, my guitar teacher said I could keep playing the same cowboy chords over and over, or I might try a little Brazilian jazz even if I failed. I did both. I mean, I kept playing and I often failed, though I usually managed to stay in tune. Now he tells me to train my ear, but my hearing aids make the notes sound tinny. Maybe that’s the way the riffs are supposed to sound. I’ll never know for sure, and Orpheus doesn’t care.


Terry Tierney is the author of The Poet’s Garage (Unsolicited Press, 2020) and the novels Lucky Ride (Unsolicited Press, 2021) and The Bridge on Beer River (Unsolicited Press, 2023). His poems and stories recently appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Remington Review, Reed Magazine, Ghost Parachute, Flash Fiction Magazine, Rust + Moth, Typishly, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Lake, and other publications. His second poetry book, Why Trees Stay Outside, will be published by Unsolicited Press in October 2024. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family, including two fluffy cats and an enthusiastic Golden Retriever.