The Guitar Player

The Guitar Player

 
By Melissa Tawn
 
A woman with a guitar ... and a secret.


 
 

Winston, Kansas, is a very small town, population less than 1000, in the middle of a prosperous agricultural area. It has three churches, of which the smallest by far is the Grace Church of Winston. The Grace Church is congregationalist in the traditional meaning of the word — it is owned and run by its congregation. It belongs to no national denomination or other organization. The members of the congregation hire the minister or appoint one from among them to serve as minister. The order and content of the service is determined by a vote of all of the congregants. At one point over a hundred families were active members of the church but membership has declined as people left organized religion and the country, and now it is considered a good day if twenty five people show up on Sunday morning.

For the past 45 years, the minister of Grace Church had been the kind and thoughtful Rev. Henry Martin. However, as he reached his 80th year he finally realized that caring for even this small congregation, and battling the fierce prairie winters, was getting too much for him and succumbed to the demands by his grandchildren that he move to a retirement community in Arizona. This left the congregation of Grace Church with the dilemma of finding a new minister. A search committee was appointed but, after a few months, came back empty handed. No minister was willing to take over such a small flock in such a small town, especially at the very small salary that they were able to offer him. There seemed to be no alternative, at least for the foreseeable future, but to appoint one of their own as spiritual leader of this tiny flock.

The consensus of the members of the congregation seemed, slowly, to converge on Miss Ellen Pryor as the best choice. Miss Pryor, a spinster in her late forties, moved to Winson some ten years earlier and had been a member of the congregation of Grace Church since the day she arrived. She worked as a (part-time) secretary in one of the local agricultural cooperatives, with her income supplemented by large monthly checks she received from New York. She owned a large house, paid for in cash, which she kept meticulously clean and surrounded with a beautiful flower garden. Though somewhat on the plump side, she was always well groomed and dressed in expensive clothes obviously purchased at the more upscale stores of Omaha or Kansas City. She was always ready to do volunteer work for the church, if necessary, and organized many of its social activities. The distinct traces of a Southern accent in her speech showed that she was not originally from these parts.

During the summer months, she would often sit on the veranda of her house, strumming her acoustic guitar and singing country music songs softly to herself. Indeed, that is precisely what she was doing when August Hawkins, chairman of the search committee, came over and formally offered her the position as church minister. Ellen declined, saying that she was not worthy of such a post, and would end up bringing shame to the church and its congregation. But August persisted, praising her lavishly and saying that she was exactly what the church needed.

“I cannot, Augie, I really cannot,” she replied, “for I have a terrible secret in my past, and should it come out, everything would be ruined.” “Nothing in your past could possibly ruin your present, Ellen,” replied August, “and we really need you.”

Ellen slowly strummed her guitar. “Let me tell you my story, Augie. It is about time I tell someone. I trust your discretion and friendship not to repeat it to anyone.”

“I was born in Northern Mississippi, the fifth of ten children.” We were what is known in those parts as “po’ white trash”, the poorest of the poor, the ones the people in the trailer parks looked down on. I was not born a girl, Augie, I was born a boy. Though it took me not many years to figure out that that was wrong and that I was one of God’s mistakes — I should have been a girl but was somehow shoved into the wrong body. Needless to say, I couldn’t talk about this to anyone, and just barely understood it myself. I had a miserable childhood.

“When you are on the butt end of the social scale, there are only two ways to escape: through sports or through music. I was always too weak and too meek to be good in sports, but I did have a good musical sense and a good voice. By the time I was 15, I was earning some money for the family by singing and playing country music in roadhouses and bars, and sometimes even on street corners. I was lucky. A talent scout happened to be in the audience during one of my better appearances, and he packed me off to Nashville for “polishing”. There I managed to survive — I won’t tell you how — and even cut a record, which turned out to be a hit on the radio and which led to a modest tour series in real concert halls. Again, I was lucky and was invited to appear on a television show in Knoxville, which was picked up by the network and broadcast over the US. I caught on. I was invited to New York to sing on one of the most popular television shows at the time, and — before I knew it — I was a star.

“Being a rock star has certain advantages. I wore my hair long at the time when men wore theirs in crew cuts. I wore close-fitting pants, colorful silk shirts, and sequin-spangled jackets which no ‘real man’ would be caught dead in. I plucked my eyebrows and lengthened my eyelashes. I danced with the gyrating motions of a teenage girl. But it was all a sham, and the emptiness in my soul only grew greater. I wanted to be the woman I am inside, not just have some of the mannerisms of one. I want to be one of the girls screaming in the audience, not the singer onstage at whom they are screaming.

“I tried, Augie, I really tried to overcome it. I even put my career on hold and joined the army in the hope of making myself into the ‘real man’ I was supposed to be. But it was no use. And so I resumed singing, becoming wealthier and wealthier on the outside, but emptier and emptier on the inside. It began to eat at me so much, that I could not perform any more.

“One of the advantages of being very rich, Augie, is that you can do quite a lot of things, including arrange your own death if necessary. I called together some of the various human barnacles who had attached themselves to me as my career developed, and together we worked out a plan. First of all, we set up a very discreet but quite large fund that would provide me with ample money for the rest of my life. Then, we arranged for visits to the best surgeons who not only reconfigured my private parts and enlarged my breasts, but also performed extensive plastic surgery on my face, so that I would never be recognized as who I was. When all of this was done, my death was announced, while I quietly disappeared and, after trying out several places, arrived here, where I have found peace and serenity.

“Please, Augie, do not ruin that.”

Ellen strummed her guitar, and sobbed.

NOTE: This story is fiction. Any resemblance to people (presumed) dead or (presumed) alive is (presumably) coincidental.

Notes:

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