The first time he saw it was when he was six and a half years old. It sat on a stand in the display window of the music store, glowing under the fluorescent lights. He watched the image of it blur as his breath condensed on the cold glass between them, and then fade as his father ushered him along down the sidewalk. Every day they walked past the music store, and every day he would rush ahead of his father and press his face against the glass to stare at it for the precious few seconds before his father caught up and pulled him along.
But one day, he arrived at the window, pressed his face against the glass, and frowned. Sitting on the stand in the display case was a different guitar, its glossy black finish smudged with fingerprints. And further into the store, a nametag-sporting, suit-clad young man who would have been more at home in an office than in a music store was moving the old guitar to the back corner of the store, placing it on a wall hanger behind a flashy silver V-shaped guitar.
Once again, his father caught up with him and pulled him along, not bothering to spare the window a glance. He still glanced into the store every day to make sure the guitar was still there at the back, but no longer did he rush ahead or stop to stare. It was nearly two months later when he didn't have to peer to the back to see it. It sat in an open case on the counter at the front, next to a short, chubby preteen who was handing the suit-clad employee a credit card.
He didn't have time to stop. His father was at his heels, ushering him along like he always did. He looked back just in time to see the lid of the case close on the guitar, that magical instrument that invaded his thoughts and his dreams, shutting him off from that world of bright lights and screaming crowds forever. At least, that was what he thought for the next ten years.
Peter shoved his hands deep into his pockets and started walking just a little bit faster, ignoring the snow that had soaked his hair and was falling into his shoes as he waded through the thick layer of it coating the sidewalk. When he realized he couldn't feel his face anymore, Peter looked around for an open store to duck into and warm up in. At that hour, most places were closed for the night, but Peter could see lights on up ahead.
Forcing his legs to move for just a little bit longer, Peter nearly ran into the pawn shop and leaned back against the door, rubbing his numb legs with numb hands and looking around. There was a bin full of CDs at the front and the wall to the right was covered in movies, but the shelves in the middle of the room were mostly empty.
Hey! You planning on buying something?
Peter looked around to see an overweight old man glaring at him from behind the counter. He managed a weak nod and headed for the shelves, pretending to inspect the old, rusted power tools and 50s radios on the shelves. By the time he made it to the end of the aisle, Peter was sure he could feel the old man staring at him through the shelves.
Finally warm enough that he could feel all his extremities, Peter looked up at the back wall and pretended to be interested in the guitars hanging there in a line. There were acoustics, twelve strings, basses, and Pete froze. There, hanging from the wall at the end of the line of guitars, was an Olympic white standard American Fender Stratocaster with a maple fret board, a baby blue pick guard, and the words Baby Blue scrawled across the front in the same colour.
It was the guitar that he'd spent a few seconds every day for months staring at when he was six years old. It was the guitar that had brought bright lights and screaming crowds to his thoughts and his dreams. Peter took one hesitant step forward and leaned over the glass counter between him and the guitar, drinking in every detail.
Watch the counter, I just cleaned it, the old man warned as he rose from his chair. You want to give her a test drive? the old man asked, pointing to the guitar.
Uh, sure, yeah, that'd be great, Peter replied hesitantly. The old man reverently took the guitar down out of its hanger and handed it to Peter, pointing at a nearby stool. Peter sat down, shifted the guitar into a comfortable position on his lap, and awkwardly set his hands on the strings. He'd played a guitar once before, in ninth grade when one of his friends had taught him three chords. Peter nervously strummed a few chords, his fingers tripping over each other every time they tried to change position.
She's only seven hundred dollars, the old man said.
Peter grimaced and pulled out his wallet. He had the pay check for $612 he'd just picked up and $80 in cash. I'm eight dollars short, he said, blushing a little.
The old man thought for a moment before nodding. Don't worry about it. And here, I'll throw in a case. I can't let you bring her out into the cold like that, the old man said as he hauled a large, rectangular hard shell case onto the counter.
Peter signed the back of his cheque and handed the old man the four twenties in his wallet. The old man helped him get the guitar into the case and handed it to him over the counter. Now you listen here, son. I ever catch you looking at her any other way than what you just did when you saw her hanging up there, I'm taking my case back, you hear?
Peter grinned and nodded. Yes, sir. Thank you very much.
The old man handed Peter a receipt which he stuffed into his coat pocket before waving and turning towards the door. His new guitar in hand, Peter pushed open the door and stepped back out into the cold.
Peter squinted while his eyes adjusted to the bright lights aimed directly at him. There was scattered applause from the bar patrons as he and his band stepped out onto the cramped stage. Peter looked at the band's singer and waited for him to nod before stepping on the distortion pedal and doing a dramatic slide all the way down the two bottom strings. He muted the strings while the drummer counted four beats. The entire band started their first song, a cover of Helter Skelter.
By the time they played through their entire set, Peter was soaked in sweat and his arms were aching, but the more enthused applause, cheers, and whistles from the now crowded bar brought a wide grin to his face. They weren't quite the same bright lights and screaming crowds that had filled his dreams as a child, but they had something no dream had. They were real.
Listen, Pete, I already told you this. I need your rent by Friday or you're out of here, the landlord said before slamming his door in Pete's face. Pete sullenly returned to his apartment, slamming the door behind him and punching it to emphasize his point. Shaking his sore hand, Pete looked around. He'd already sold most of his furniture to pay bills. There was only one thing left in his apartment worth enough to pay the rent by Friday.
Pete opened the case and ran his fingers over the strings, hearing them hum softly at his touch. He still played every once in a while. But never as often as he had before the band broke up. Never as often as he should have.
You should be with someone who'll play you like you deserve to be played, he whispered to the guitar. Closing the case, Pete threw on his coat and hauled it out of the corner, trying not to look at it as he left his apartment and headed down the street. He hesitated for a second at the door of the pawn shop, then went in.
Happy birthday, dad, Alice said with a smile as she slid a large box onto the table in front of her father.
Pete forced a smile and tore open the wrapping paper, tossing it aside as he stared at the gift on the table in front of him. It was a black guitar case, the Fender logo embossed in the corner.
Open it, Alice said, barely able to contain her excitement. Pete flipped open the latches and lifted the lid of the case. His breath caught in his throat and tears welled in his eyes. Running his fingers over the strings, he smiled a genuine smile as he listened to his Baby Blue sing to him.
Play something, grandpa!
Pete looked down at his granddaughter and shook his head. I don't remember how anymore. I'll have to get out some of my old sheet music today and start learning again, he lied. He may not have remembered anything, but he knew his fingers would.
Pete closed the case and set the guitar aside before helping his daughter clear the table and wash the dishes. The three of them watched a movie together before Pete headed for his bedroom and Alice and her daughter made their way to the guest room.
Pete waited until he could hear his daughter softly snoring before taking out his guitar and pulling it onto his lap. His fingers found their own places on the strings, and without knowing what he was doing began playing. When he finished, he looked up to see his granddaughter standing in his bedroom doorway.
He motioned for her to come over and she sat on the edge of the bed next to him, wrapping her small arms around him.
Will you teach me how to play, grandpa?
Pete nodded and shifted to show her a chord, smiling when he saw that she was curled against him, asleep.