Garrett Ray Harriman lives, writes, and plays saxophone in Colorado. His work has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Dali’s Lovechild, and 365 Tomorrows. You can read more of his writing on his website.
Pawn Quixote, another roadside museum of miscellany, stands open. It’s a still life of eye-level guns and stacks of electronics and a surplus of leather hats and belts. Somewhere unseen, a turntable scratches its bluesy hymn. The entire west wall, a dedicated guitar showcase, entices no one.
The kid enters carrying a handsome leather case underarm. Hoodie up, he catches himself in the convex eyes of markdown television sets, headphones fastening his neck, and turns away. Ahead, the owner waves him to the counter, framed by ceiling-high shelves of cassettes and CDs. They are alone.
“Afternoon.” The man extends a hand—long fingers, gray hair, bad tremor. “I’m Jack.”
The kid shakes it, winces. He matches Jack’s firmness, but the owner redoubles before letting go. “Caleb,” says the kid. “I’m here to sell a guitar.”
“So I’ve noticed.” Jack grins and grabs an old diner-style stool. “Put her up here and let’s have a look.”
Caleb obeys, slides the case across the glass. “Watch the handle,” he says. “It’s loose.”
Jack’s moves are delicate. He unclasps the case’s aged, tanned lid, opens it wide, takes a breath. Caleb meets his own exhausted reflection in the counter. The underlighting highlights his swollen fingers. He pockets his hands.
Things stay quiet as Jack examines the instrument. He tours it delicately, admires its fading faceplate, its twelve strings. He runs his palm across its deep-wooded grains. Tweaks its mother-of-pearl tuning pegs and finesses its warm, milky curves. It’s a pure, loved thing.
Jack’s voice comes mellow. “How old?”
Caleb thinks. “I don’t know. 1952? The receipt’s inside.”
Jack finds it, talcum-soft and faded. He raises his glasses to his nose. “Says property of Finneas Aimsworth.”
“Great Uncle Finn. Met him once, I think.”
Jack looks up. His specs slide down his nose. “You don’t play?”
“Bet you could.” Jack splays his wrinkled hands wide. “Used to myself. No calluses anymore, though. Plus these shakes—couldn’t finish a song if I tried.”
A brief, faded look takes Jack. “Yeah, it does. Least my boy still can. I mainly just listen now.” He hikes a finger behind him, to the wall, then to Caleb’s headphones. “Distracts me well enough.”
Caleb dodges Jack’s grin. The owner slouches. Flexes his fingers. “Tell me about Finn.”
“Finn?” Caleb sways a bit. “Uh, tall?”
“Tall, uh-huh.” Jack waits.
Caleb pinches his thighs through his jean pockets. “He died eight years ago.”
“Ever hear him play?”
“Did he play a lot?”
Caleb stiffens, stands taller. “What’s it matter?”
Jack sniffs, shrugs. “Could, actually. Extent of use, invisible cracks. If you know what you’re selling, I’ll know what I’m buying. Saves time all around.”
Caleb considers. A bus barrels by the window. He turns to look, misses it, turns back. “Played it pretty hard, I guess. Not at the end, though.”
Jack nods. “Anything else?”
“Uh, he . . . made furniture?”
“Furniture?” Jack plucks a string. Listens.
“Yeah, I think so.” Caleb’s surprised to remember this. The smallest ripple of interest expands across his face. “Something about an armoire, some heirloom . . .”
“Sounds like a man of many talents.”
“Still got the armoire?”
“Dad took it.” Caleb clears his throat. Takes a half-step back.
Jack plucks another string. It really is a cozy creature. An object meant to be touched. “Must’ve had strong hands, too.”
Caleb sighs; the ripple’s gone. “I don’t know, man.”
Jack lowers the guitar, shaking a bit. Starts typing into the store computer one key at a time. “Let me pull up the database. I think you’ve got something special here, Caleb. It’s in excellent shape, all things considered.”
“Cool, cool.” Caleb clenches and unclenches his hidden fists. Computer keys sing. How much music looms over this old, meager man? It’s a vast wall, and the blues keep coming, though not loud enough. The shouting match that spurred him out, the echoes of it, gnaw his ears raw.
Jack whistles, long and low. “Man had a hell of an eye.” He steps down from his stool and pivots the monitor. “Take a look.”
Caleb leans in. Jack points to a few sections of screen. “That’s what people are putting down for the case alone. That’s for the guitar, and there’s the combo.”
Caleb’s hands relax. They’re good numbers. Then, loudly, a prick of panic: Is this how it’s supposed to happen? Where’s the man’s business savvy, his guile? This feels too easy. There’s more, always.
“You’ve got something here, Caleb. I mean you’ve really got something.”
Ten fingers tighten. “If you say so.”
Jack angles back on his seat. “I tell you,” he says brightly, “if my boy were here right now, he’d sell his left foot to get his hands on this beauty. He’d probably even—”
“So how much?”
Jack pauses. Swivels his screen back around. “Listen. I can’t pay out anywhere near what this thing’s actually worth. The best I can do is try to sell it on a collector site. Could take a few weeks to verify a buyer, and I’d need a thirty percent commission.”
Caleb squints. He smells the diesel already, feels the bus ticket slide into his pants, praises the sterile cleanliness of some freeway motel room. Hot water rushes through his fingers from a bathroom faucet, soaking the blood from under his nails, down and away. He lies down on a bed, his headphones at full blare.
His eyes open. They’re steady. “It has to be today.”
Jack grunts. “I was afraid of that.” He gently revolves the case to face the kid and rests the guitar inside. “Sorry, Caleb. I think it’s best you try somewhere—”
“What about the case?”
“The case?” Jack considers the empty shell.
“Yeah. Just the case. Can you pay out for that?”
Jack plants one hand on his chin. The other runs down the case’s leather length. One caress and the honkey tonks and dives shiver up his arm. Another stroke revives hours of passionate practice, chords attempted and perfected in sparse, smoky rooms. It’s familiar, and distant, this preserved recognition of the world artists share.
His palsied hand finds the trick handle. It’s worn at the base, its screws stripped and weak. Probably doesn’t have long. There are fault lines where a self-taught man held fast for years. Some have unstitched, bloomed, revealing strands of cotton to the elements. It’s a damaged handle, certainly. But that shouldn’t blunt the price too bad.
“Sure, Caleb. I can do the case today.”
Caleb blinks fast. His raw hands fly from his pockets to shake Jack’s. “Oh my God, thank you. Thank you!” He reaches for his empty billfold when Jack’s hand snatches his wrist.
Caleb flinches. Jack’s fast, like Dad. When he grabs his mother. When he grabs him.
“Hey man, what’re you—”
“Why don’t you sell it online?”
Caleb balks. “What?”
“Why don’t you sell it yourself, Caleb?” Jack plots the cartography of Caleb’s hands. Bruises deep as lakes. H-A-R-D tattooed across knuckles. One thumbnail cracked, probably throbbing like hell. “Why did you come to a pawn shop? You don’t need me.”
Caleb forces his tongue against his teeth. Can’t meet Jack’s gaze. “No computer.”
“What about a school computer?”
“What about it?”
“At a friend’s house, then? The library?”
The kid whips his shoulders away. Buries his hands.
Jack stares him down. “I’ve seen you in here before, Caleb. A lot the past few weeks. And you always go right to that wall.” He points to the showcase by the window. Rows of guitars decorate the paneling—electric, acoustic, double-necked, steel.
Caleb’s sad eyes stray. He’s shaking. “The hell I have.”
Jack motions to several black hemispheres bugging from the ceiling. “Pick the angle, the day, and I’ll print you a portrait.” He grins weakly. “I notice things, Caleb. That’s mostly what this job is: noticing. You’ve been doing your research. Probably been to most of the shops in the neighborhood a couple times apiece. Hunting. Comparing. Am I right?”
Bitter silence. Jack’s record skips.
“But something’s happened. You can’t be picky anymore, can’t bide your time. Maybe you like the prices my guitars go for here. Thought I could pay out pretty fast before you go do whatever’s next.” He shrugs. “Or maybe you left in a hurry and I’m your last resort.”
Mumbles escape Caleb’s mouth.
“I said you don’t know shit.”
“That’s right,” Jack concedes, “I don’t. Don’t really need to, either. Stories don’t hold my interest anymore. Heard it all, front to back. But you haven’t—heard too many stories, that is. You’re just listening to your own at full volume, so it doesn’t seem like there’s any other way.”
Caleb grimaces. His pulse burns through his hands. “Don’t lecture me. Just say you won’t buy it.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No. You don’t have to.” Caleb thrusts a hand through Finn’s handle and starts to pull. Jack folds himself over the lid, a sixty-eight-year-old barricade.
“The hell’s wrong with you, man?” Caleb’s violent tugs test the case.
“I don’t believe you stole it,” Jack presses, “and I don’t believe you’re selling it just to help yourself. But I also don’t think you know this instrument’s story well enough to part with it as equals.”
“Equals?” Caleb’s chest pinches.
“Yes, equals. You’re scared. You’re reckless. That tells me there may be other options you haven’t considered. That you’re going for what seems necessary, but isn’t.” Jack’s eyes widen. “It concerns me.”
“I’ve thought about this, man.” Caleb’s voice rises. “I have.”
“Of course you have. You’ve thought about it from your point of view.”
Caleb’s lips curl back. “How else can I think about it?”
“What about Uncle Finn’s viewpoint?”
Caleb’s done; this man’s insane. He yanks until Jack’s glasses fall back to his chest. “Shut up! I’m going!”
“Where, Caleb?” Jack finally frowns. Concentrates on applying his weight. “Do you want me to say it? Is that why you’re here?” He snares Caleb’s free hand again. He squeezes it, shakes it, tighter and tighter.
Caleb shouts in pain. A nearly-broken finger snaps; the pain redefines. He snarls, clenches right back, harder than he thinks he ever has. “Stop it, man! Let me go!”
“That grip’s your grip. It’s his grip.” Jack bends toward the case. “Look at that handle, its stress lines. See how it’s frayed? See how it’s still here? Feel how hard he held on.”
Caleb heaves, starts to flail. The pain is crushing. Finn’s guitar thumps against its cage, a creature fit to burst. “I have to, man—you don’t understand—”
“Try to learn what made him strong. Think of everything he made, everything he did. How these twelve strings shaped him.”
“Let go!” The instrument, Caleb and Finn, sink away.
“Don’t do this, Caleb. Don’t sell his story short. Don’t end yours here.”
“You can hold on, too—”
“I said let—”
The handle rips off. Caleb soars backward into a rack of CRT monitors. Several fall and shatter, sending glass dancing. The guitar batters to the floor, ejects from its case, makes discordant wails. Jack rebounds against the CD wall. Hundreds of items cascade and shatter. He breaks from the stun in time to catch Caleb muscling his uncle’s legacy into its leather sheath.
The kid’s eyes shine with rage. His hands, naked and ugly and scarred, tremble. He hurls the severed handle over Jack’s snowy head.
“Notice this, you crazy asshole!” Caleb fires off a middle finger and knocks another TV off the shelf. It implodes as he wavers onto the sidewalk, arms laden with his uncle’s remains, running, running for the depot.
Slowly, Jack recuperates. Takes his time restocking the music. Takes some asprin. He palms Caleb’s tossed headphones, lobs them into a random bin, then finds a broom to sweep up TV entrails.
He returns the broom to the closet by the guitar wall. The nearest instrument, a six-string, glints darkly. Jack reaches out to pluck a note, to hold it a moment, to play. He touches the model’s empty belly. His fingers quiver; his wrist shakes. There’s no stillness left. And there’s pain now, after Caleb.
“Bet you played fierce, Finn.” Jack lowers his spent hand. “How’d you do it?”
Behind the counter, he stoops to recover the severed handle. It’s beside him, an obedient relic, while he types up a description for the collector site. He reads it over, massaging his aching digits. He might get a few hundred bucks for it. Maybe less. But someone should snag it eventually. Hold onto it to the last.
Someone’s got to.