{ Guitar Strings }
Stephen Yeager

redheadIt was Wednesday, and I was killing time in the music store, waiting for my trumpet lesson as usual. The store was near my school but far from home, so my mother always took me straight from class, and I'd have an hour or so to kill before it started. To pass the time I used to browse through the store, flipping repeatedly through the same books of guitar solos cribbed from eighties hair bands, or going to the grocery store next door to buy candy and read the magazines. Usually, I'd just sit on a piano bench and do my homework. The old man behind the counter was friendly and probably bored with his job because he always tried to talk to me, and I'd have to listen enough to reply to his occasional questions even when I was trying to read. I don't remember what he talked about—my thirteen-year-old attention span fails me even now.
   That afternoon, the bell exploded as the door swung open, and she blew into that drab little strip mall music store like a bomb. The air around her shimmered with the visual equivalent of reverb, all tumultuous black hair and sunglasses and thighs, shoulders back and high with arms swinging, so undaunted that gravity itself no longer seemed inevitable. She must have been about seventeen. Without pausing, she took off her sunglasses, folded them with a click, and hung them off the neck of her T-shirt. She was the most beautiful woman I had seen since Mary, and at the time Mary was the only woman I had ever loved.
   Mary was sixteen when we met, and the lead singer of my brother's conceptual rock band. (My brother was going to be the bassist because he knew how to read music in bass clef from playing the baritone in middle school.) They would sit around his room, listen to music, and talk about who their influences would be. When she was over, I made up reasons to walk past his room, and once she had called me in and said that I could be their roadie. From then on I hung out with the band whenever they were at our house, mostly staring at Mary and laughing at everything she said. At the time, this was the sum total of my experience with women, and perhaps it's no surprise that I didn't even think about talking to the girl in the music store that Wednesday, remaining on my piano bench in the corner and pretending to read a magazine.
   I began to imagine a scenario in which she saw the cover of the magazine and came over to ask me if I liked music. Soon it would be clear that we both loved it for the same reasons—her experience and technical knowledge complementing the innocence and purity of my passion, and because of this bond and despite our age difference we would run off together, not caring what anyone thought, because the only things that mattered were the moment, the music, and each other. Meanwhile, I watched her admire the display of electric guitars, never seeing me or looking in my direction.
   Disappointed at first, I began to admire the guitars with her and was soon enthralled by the timelessness of their mute display, all possible music suppressed by their curves. I wondered how I had spent so many hours in this store but never noticed them before.
   The old man asked the girl if he could help her, an undertone of menace in his voice, and I wondered why she made him so upset. Was it only her youthful arrogance? Or did he recognize that her careless stance embodied more of the free spirit of music than anything he had produced or sold in a lifetime? She flipped her head back with a smile, no, as if she hadn't noticed his tone, or more likely as though she didn't care. She walked thoughtfully from one end of the display to the other, her steps keeping time with the smacking of her gum, and on her way back stopped in front of a candy apple red Fender. Usually when a customer paused in front of a guitar, the old man was quick to point out its virtues, halfway across the room to take it down off the rack before they even realized their feet had stopped moving. Now he only watched her, fingers drumming on the countertop, his body tensed as if ready to leap over the counter and stop her from doing something.I used to play a game when I was bored where I would stare at people to see how long it took for them to turn around or get nervous. It never took longer than a minute or two, no matter how far away from them I might be, but if this girl felt us watching she never acted like it. She stood in front of the guitar in silence for what felt like hours and I sat, discomfort from the piano bench seeping up my spine, while the old man said nothing.
   Eventually, the door clinked quietly open and someone else walked in, this skinny guy in faded corduroys with longish hair and bad posture. He went up to the counter and quietly asked for a set of guitar strings. The girl stopped chewing her gum and turned to stare at this unassuming figure, propped against the counter, his faded T-shirt membrane-thin from too many washes. He was probably in his early twenties, and I was shocked to see color rise in her cheeks, her hand automatically pushing hair back over an ear. At first I assumed she was checking this guy out and was briefly outraged—he was only an older version of me. Surely the man for her sat on his motorcycle like a mountain, emotions roiling inside like tornadoes dueling on a desert highway. Then I noticed one of her hands reach slowly behind her for the guitar.
   My piano bench was situated to the immediate left of the door, about ten feet away, in the approximate middle of the store. The girl stood about twenty feet immediately in front of the door and thirty from the register on the far wall. If I had known trigonometry at the time, I could have told you that the hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by me, the door, and the girl was the square root of five-hundred, or about twenty-two feet. The hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by the girl, the counter and the door (or the distance the store owner would have to travel to reach the door) could almost round up to an even twenty-five. Considering the round wire book displays and other impediments between the old man and herself, and barring the possibility he kept a gun under the counter or had some other method of stopping her, with enough of a head start she could probably make it.
   I glanced out the window and saw that an old hatchback parked out front still had its engine running. A shadowed teenage boy hunched over the wheel, fidgeting and glancing out the windows. It felt like there was no way they could get away with it, that the old man could see a license plate or the cops or someone should be able to stop them, but the longer I thought about it the more I wondered why I would say they couldn't do it when it would mean everything if they did. I looked back to the girl; she had turned to stare at me.
   A few months before this the guitarist in my brother's conceptual rock band told everyone that he did not get an amp for Christmas as he'd predicted, and it looked like the band would have to break up. I panicked, because I realized that if I didn't do something right then I would never see Mary again. When she got up to go get a soda, I got up, too. Walking down the stairs, I was conscious of nothing but her body, her skin under cut-off jeans and ripped fishnet stockings, plump shoulder blades cupped by the edges of her leopard print halter top, the wispy hair at the nape of her neck, naked beneath her ponytail. Even the awkward way she scampered down the stairs seemed somehow refined and ethereal, perfect and forbidden, the culmination of desire. By the time we stood in front of the fridge, I was at war with every instinct of self-preservation, and in a move of almost suicidal impulsiveness I touched her on the arm.
   I didn't know what to say but managed to mumble something about going out sometime, sounding ridiculous even to myself. Hearing myself as she watched me, her face carefully neutral, I couldn't believe I had found the nerve to say what I was saying, much less that I said it so poorly. My thoughts could only squeeze into words with difficulty and came out the other end dented and fragmented, a confused jumble devoid of the crystalline model of harmony to which I aspired. Eventually she interrupted me with silvery laughter that jangled harshly, although I don't think she meant it to, and told me that I was a sweet kid. She said that when I was a rock star she'd be my groupie. I didn't dare follow her back up the stairs, and was in the living room playing video games when she left. She called goodbye from the doorway; I didn't even turn around. It was the last time I saw her, until I ran into her tending bar not far from my parent's house ten years later. But by then everything was different.
   That Wednesday, I still interpreted her dismissal as conditional—she could only be my groupie if I was a rock and roll star. It was for this as much as any other reason that I wanted the girl to do it, take the guitar and jump into her boyfriend's car and never look back, so that wherever she went in her rootless musician's life of playing to half-empty bars and jamming with bums by the railroad tracks, every note, chord, and rhythm she could shake from that guitar would be mine too, born in the moment she knew that some thirteen-year-old kid in some lame suburb knew, in spite of everything they told him, what it was really all about, and she would carry that knowledge in her heart like hope until the road ran out and the dream was finally over, our battered guitar consigned to some small town pawnshop, waiting for some other kid with fifty dollars and a dream of his own for everything to start again.
   Of course, she didn't do it. When my eyes met hers she flicked her head immediately so that her hair fell in her face, and before the quiet guy had even finished paying for his strings, she slipped out of the store, arms held tight around her stomach as if she were ashamed.
   "Damn kids," the old man confided to the guitarist. "That girl comes in here probably once a week. If she wants a guitar she should save up and buy one and not waste my time."
   The guitarist nodded. He hadn't noticed a thing. I found out that he was a big musician on the local scene, and his band actually signed with a major label and released a single later that year that became reasonably successful. His presence in the store is the reason I usually end up telling this story.
   I never got very good at the trumpet. Once I went on to high school, I dropped band altogether for photography.

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