I’m serializing the first 10% of Smokin’ & Cryin’ here on my blog. It’s the story of a young American rock band set in the early 1970s. Please feel free to share this with your friends.
Overture is the first installment. This post is #7 in the series.
Chapter 3 – Black Beauty
Getting my first electric guitar was a head trip. We drove Arthur’s decrepit Dodge truck to Flint to see this old luthier, Mr. Handy, about getting the Gibson J200 pieced together. Maybe it was a lost cause, but we’d both learned to play on that guitar. We owed it something.
The shop was in a warehouse centered in a nest of railroad tracks. Stooped and wrinkled, Mr. Handy regarded me with filmy eyes behind wire-rimmed specs. A cinnamon stick jutted from the corner of his mouth. He broke into a smile hearing Arthur’s voice, and they embraced, laughing and patting each other’s backs.
Arthur went to get the shattered acoustic out of the truck bed, and I introduced myself as his brother.
He eyed me with suspicion. “Arthur has only half of a sibling. A sister,” he said. Like Lisa was cut straight down the middle.
I corrected myself. “Stepbrother. Yeah, she’s my half-sister, too.”
I snooped around while they puzzled over the pieces of the Gibson, following the train tracks set in the concrete floor. The long, narrow building went from dim to pitch dark. Shafts of sunlight leaked through the chinks in the brick walls. Rows of shelves were stacked with rectangular pine crates.
“The damage you can see is nothing compared to the damage you can’t see, but I think we can work with it,” I overheard him muttering to Arthur.
“While we’re here, we’re wondering if you have any top-quality axes available,” Arthur said.
“Holtzapple, you cheeky motherfuck. All my axes are top-quality.” He chortled and asked Arthur to help him take a crate down from a shelf.
The old man handed me a crowbar. “You do the honors.”
I pried the box open, pushed aside a mess of excelsior, popped the latches on the case and opened it. Inside lay a gorgeous white solid-body Gretsch, double-cut, with a tremolo and a raised gold pickguard engraved with a penguin. I was in love. But the old luthier put me to work opening another crate while Arthur strung the Gretsch. Next up was a road-weary Fender Strat, fiesta red fading to salmon. A knob was missing. It already had strings, so I plugged it into a nearby amp and tuned it.
“Play something,” Arthur said.
I strummed a few chords and fooled around with a ditty I called Purple Love Grass. The Strat played sweet as a candy kiss.
“Never underestimate the power of a well-loved Strat,” Mr. Handy said.
“How much?” I asked.
Arthur shot me a glare. The old man shook his head.
Arthur gave the Gretsch a go, tearing into Little Stranger, which blew me away. I’d shown it to him once, back on the Fourth of July, yet he remembered every note. “Sing,” he said.
“Little stranger/You may be a little stranger/But you’ll never be stranger than me,” I sang, bending the melody to match Arthur’s blues arrangement of a lullaby I’d written for Lisa when I was 12. Dad had insisted I correct the grammar to but you’ll never be stranger than I am. It sounded clumsy like that, so I didn’t sing it when he was around.
When I had my turn with the Gretsch White Penguin, I discovered it wasn’t as friendly as the faded Strat. I struggled to play Galactic Halo’s Thunder Cherry Cream, stopping when I spotted the funny look on the old luthier’s face. The Gretsch was superior but too much guitar for me.
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s the one,” I said. “Maybe I’ll get the Strat.”
“Are you crazy? It’s gorgeous. Give the Penguin half a chance. You’ll grow into it,” Arthur said.
“Don’t push him, Arthur. The heart knows how to choose.” He took the Gretsch from me and closed it into its case. He put away the Strat, too, and pried open another crate. This one held a Lake Placid blue Fender Jaguar, and Arthur was all over it. I didn’t bother asking for a turn, since the Jaguar was clearly Arthur’s first choice. He paid a wad of dough which the old man stuffed it into his apron pocket without counting.
“I guess I’ll take the Strat,” I said. “I mean, as long as the price is, err, well…” I trailed off, not wanting to break the unspoken rule again. I had $74 and change on me, the lawn-mowing money Bev had delivered along with my clothes.
“Something occurred to me while you were playing the penguin.” He wiped his hands on his apron and took off to the dark end of the building. “I’m sure she’s here somewhere.”
Arthur fawned over his Jaguar, a pick between his lips, his dishwater blond hair tucked behind his ears.
The old man returned with a crate balanced on his head. We helped him lower it onto the workbench. “This baby is calling out to you,” he said. “Can you feel it?”
All I felt was a vague premonition my wallet was about to get drained. When he showed me the instrument nestled in the pink velvet interior of its custom case, I broke into a sweat. I couldn’t afford an ax this sweet: a 1961 Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty with mother of pearl block inlays, gold hardware, three humbuckers, and a Bigsby tremolo tailpiece. I was dying. Compared to this, the Strat was a shoebox guitar with rubber band strings.
Arthur looked into the case and his hand flew to his heart. “Me.”
“You already bought yours,” I said.
“But. But my Les Paul.”
Sure, my dad had pawned his sunburst, but it wasn’t half the instrument this was.
The old luthier tuned the Black Beauty himself. No way could I afford it. No way. This was some kind of torture or test, I was sure of it. He set up a Big Muff and tenderly passed the guitar to me. I ran through Thunder Cherry Cream. The Les Paul practically played those heavy riffs itself, the neck slick as greased ice. I was heartsick.
“Can I please? I won’t buy it out from under you, I swear. Let me check it out, see how it compares to my old sunburst,” Arthur said.
Reluctantly, I handed it over. He cradled it, tracing its curves with his finger, fondling the machine heads. He whipped out a copper slide and laid into Statesboro Blues. My toes curled. Arthur was fifty times the guitarist I was. He followed with Dust My Broom. If this was a competition for best use of a 1961 Les Paul Black Beauty, he kicked my ass.
“Can I swap out the Jaguar and extra cash for this? Work out some sort of arrangement? We’ll find Robin something more his speed,” Arthur said.
“Ebony fretboard,” the old man said. “Swamp ash body.”
Arthur’s eyes grew misty and my silent estimation of the price inflated.
“Check the truss rod cover and you’ll have my answer,” Mr. Handy said.
Arthur peered at it. “Get out of town, man.” He showed it to me. The cover was the usual Gibson bell shape, but custom engraved with the letter R. Unreal. He handed the guitar back to me. “This beauty was meant to be yours, baby bro.”
“I can’t. I don’t have anywhere near that much bread.”
“Seventy-four dollars,” Mr. Handy said.
This was the exact amount I had in my wallet. And nowhere near what the Gibson should have sold for.
“Is it hot?” I asked.
“Oh God,” Arthur said. “I am so, so, so, sorry. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Please. Just ignore him. Ignore him completely. I’m sorry.”
The old man pressed a finger to his lips. “Calm. Young Robin has a point. I purchased it from the estate of a musician who suffered an untimely death. Perhaps the price is a bit low.” He faced me. “What else do you have to give?”
I turned the pockets of my cutoffs inside out: 26 cents, half a pack of clove gum, two picks, and, embarrassingly, Lisa’s Kiddle doll. She gazed at me with mischievous green eyes.
“Give me Sweet Pea, and we’ll call it a deal.”
How could he know the doll’s name? Or guess she was the most valuable thing in my possession? I clutched her in my fist and pressed it to my chest. “Sorry. No.”
“Don’t be such a dope,” Arthur said. “Fork the toy over.”
“Shh. Let him decide if the price I ask is fair,” the luthier said.
Arthur pressed his hands against his head like it might fly to pieces.
My choice was not between the Les Paul and the Kiddle, but between Arthur’s respect and my sentiment for Lisa. I gave the doll to Mr. Handy. He tucked her into the front pocket of his apron, leaving a hank of her hair sticking out.
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