By: Richard Jeter
"Can I see it?"
He gestures to the battered black case slung over my shoulder, its strap depriving my arm of more and more blood as this process drags on. It has not once occurred to me to put it down.
The request sounds innocent enough, but I hesitate. To the twenty-something salesman standing before me, a groomed mustache-goatee combo in an immaculately pressed pink shirt, it's nothing more than an object, a means to an end.
He will likely try to pick it up, to play a few insufferable modern pop folk chords on it, flashing back to frat parties and the doe-eyed girls he wouldn't keep around long enough for them to discover they were the only four chords he knew. And though he will not know it, those noises coming out of this instrument would amount to sacrilege.
"Sorry, it's expensive."
I lied. Kind of. Monetarily, it's worthless. The uneven fret board has always vibrated, but the unkind years now accompany even the simplest note with a choir of angry hornets. It is scuffed, the strings are rusted, the tuning pegs free-wheeling, yet even after I have finished here and driven off the lot, it will be most valuable thing I own.
He glances around the showroom before alighting back on me with an incredulous look. The implication is that he can be trusted with expensive; gleaming classics fill the space around us. This is a young man that hasn't been hurt enough to understand value beyond money. Maybe he'll be lucky enough, or dumb enough, to stay that way.
When I fail to respond, he simply shrugs, dismissively.
"Alright, well, I'm waiting on the closing papers, then we'll get you and your fancy guitar out of here."
With his commission nearly secured, his filter is thinning; 25% can only buy me so much civility.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflective shine of a side-view mirror, which, much like the salesman, is immaculately polished. I am...not.
Wearing the trappings of the last few months in the bags under my eyes and the uneven stubble on my cheeks, I qualify as little more than an undeserving blemish on its surface.
"Can I see it?"
My jaw clenches, legs tensing. I wheel around, with no intention of justifying myself to--
Pink shirt is across the showroom now, commiserating with less disheveled clientele. Not his voice. Then whose? Something about the phrase. Something about the question, careening inside my skull. Something familiar.
The nearest living soul is several yards away, a man in a Vietnam veteran's hat. He keys in on my sudden movement, glances up from his perusal of a vintage Camaro, gauges my facial expression with an oddly sympathetic look. Trauma recognizes trauma, but his sympathy only elicits an irrational anger in me, boiling up from deep within. Like at the funeral.
My eyes clench shut. I can't go back there. I have to go anywhere but there. Images, unbidden, float to the surface, mildly distorted by time like reflections on chrome.
The question clicks in to place. The missing piece in a puzzle I was trying desperately not to solve.
"Can I see it?"
"Of course!" the young man coalescing in sepia tone memory replies. The party disappears around them as he snaps open a new black hardshell guitar case and pulls out a functional, if not particularly well-made, acoustic guitar. The girl across from him squeals and reaches out her hands. Their fingers brush momentarily. It is the first time they have ever touched.
"Play something for me," she playfully demands, handing it back after a loving inspection.
The young man blushes, but acquiesces, fumbling over the first few chords of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" before admitting, equally fumblingly, that he has only had the instrument for a week.
"Here, let me then." With that, she slowly, reverently, lifted it from him, before utterly shaming him with a lilting, utterly mesmerizing version of Cohen's opus. No, not shamed. There had been no gloating, no grandstanding, only the sharing of something sacred and intimate. Vibrating fret board and all.
The final, quiet refrains soundtrack a cinematic segue to images of a wedding, the ever-present buzzing of the strings now an electric saw threatening to cut the last golden thread of my sanity. He...I reach to lift the veil, watching in horror as it splotches and fades from white to black at my touch.
"Sir? Sir?" It's pink shirt's manager. I don't know how many "Sirs" in I am. My thousand-yard stare has clearly prompted them to send in the big guns to wrap this up quickly.
"Hi! You're all set. If you'll just sign here, we can get you on your way!"
He says it cheerfully, but that is definitely his singular focus.
In the front lot, I carefully place the guitar case in the back seat of the Olympic White Cadillac. With a deep, shuddering breath, I click the snaps, producing a framed picture from a pocket inside the case, like a priest hoisting a reliquary.
A young man I barely recognize sits next to the most beautiful girl he would ever know, on the hood of an Olympic White Cadillac decorated with the accouterment of a vessel setting sail for a honeymoon. In its back seat, a black guitar case.
"Promise me something, Thomas," the voice comes unbidden once more.
"One day, after we've retired, let's make this trip again."
In my mind's eye, the sun is setting over the ocean from a pull off on the Pacific Coast Highway, her perfume flooding my senses, her head on my shoulder. Everything is right in the world.
I slide in to the hauntingly familiar white leather interior and buckle the frame in to the passenger seat. The engine roars to life, and I begin my long drive, following the sun, in to the west.