By Robin Rhyner
I could have it all for only one-hundred seventy-five dollars. A Fender. It was black and white like a cartoon drawing of a guitar, a graphic designer’s crunchy concoction, an abstract painting of a woman–all rounded hips, narrow waist, and curvy shoulders. It would make me instantly cool. The lead guitarist–wild, sexy, powerful. And it was sitting in its stand on the floor, almost hidden behind the counter of my favorite book store. It was for sale.
Wendy sat on a stool behind the cash register with the phone to her ear. I could just barely hear her over the sound of my drooling as she asked the owner, Helen, about the specifics of the guitar.
“Well, it’s a year old,” she said after she hung up. “Helen’s selling it because she just bought another acoustic. You can have the guitar, the stand, and the amplifier for a hundred and seventy-five dollars.”
It was perfect. It must have been fate. The universe, I thought, wants me to have this guitar. This very beautiful, very hip, very sexy piece of art that would turn me into a brilliant musician had just plunked itself right down into my regular Saturday morning coffee shop and bookstore routine like the top note in a dominant seventh chord.
I had walked into the bookstore only five minutes earlier, with some vague idea of maybe looking to see if Helen had stocked any “teach-yourself-how-to-play-guitar” kinds of books. I knew that she played guitar. And I had been thinking about considering whether or not I might be interested in perhaps learning to play the guitar at some undetermined time in the possible future. After a quick look around, I went up to the counter and asked Wendy if they ever stocked any guitar books.
“Oh yeah. We usually do,” she said. “Except I just sold two to a guy earlier this morning.” She paused. “We do have this guitar, though.”
What? An actual guitar in the bookstore? Could I see it?
It was a love at first sight. In a mere moment I had moved from carrying a small thought in the blurry recess of my mind about owning some hazy idea of a guitar, to carrying a major blowtorch powered by pure lust for this particular and specific piece of equipment. And–I told myself–at a very reasonable price.
“You know,” said Wendy, “We bought a guitar just like this for our son last year. He loves it. It’s a great guitar to learn on. He and his dad play together.”
Now, I don’t know Wendy very well, but I do know that she rides a Harley to her job at the bookstore every weekend. So basically, she is living my fantasy. Which obviously makes her an excellent candidate for recommendations on electric guitars. When I retire from teaching third grade, I plan to play guitar in seedy bars with my band all night long, ride home on my Harley wearing black leathers, then spend my days in a bookstore getting employee discounts, drinking lattes, working on my novel, and recommending electric guitars to my cooler customers. But first, I would definitely need to buy this certainly superior, highly recommended instrument.
“Tracy!” I practically gurgled into the phone that evening. “I found a guitar!”
“I didn’t know you were looking for a guitar,” he said.
Well, I hadn’t been, really. But explaining my newly burning passion for an object I had first seen less than eight hours earlier was actually slightly less awkward than I would have imagined. I described its black-and-whiteness. Its general curviness. Its smooothness. I told him about my thirteen-year-old self, standing on my bed in front of a mirror, playing air guitar and lip-syncing with Joan Jett. “I love rock’n roll! Put another dime in the juke box, baby!” I even revealed my secret stash of Guns ‘n Roses and Bon Jovi CDs.
Tracy’s a true friend, I thought to myself later, He barely even chuckled when I told him I wanted to play just like Slash. “Huh,” he said after I explained the mysterious cosmic forces that had moved me to fall in love with a guitar. “Why don’t you at least let me ask Evans about it before you spend your money on it.”
Evans was Tracy’s friend who owned a music store and played guitar with some local groups. He knew what he was doing. Now, when one of my crazy dreams is about to see the clear light of day and be examined by someone who knows what he’s doing, I get a little anxious. A little nervous. This time, I heard the ugly twang of guitar strings snapping apart before I even hung up the phone.
Tracy called back the next day. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. The guitar I had seen, the Fender Starcaster (I’d written down the name), was some guitar Fender had made to be sold as part of cheap guitar packages at Costco with the goal of trying to entice beginners and get in on the market of inexpensive guitars that more people could afford. Apparently, this gorgeous instrument that had plucked at my heartstrings like a master fingerpicker had done exactly what it was meant to do. Lure in the novice.
Later that night, I googled “Costco Fender.” With seventy-six thousand nine hundred results. Not all of the reviews stank. But enough of them. My favorite–“crappy, but stays in tune.” And then there was the revealing, “looks like a Stratocaster, but not.” My beloved Fender Starcaster, meant to cast me into the image of a star, was not much more than a cheap knock-off of the respected Fender Stratocaster. The slightest rearrangement of letters and a major rearrangement of my dreams.
But some dreams are just a knock-off of someone else’s life. When Tracy and I drove to Evans’ music store that weekend, and Evans asked me what kind of guitar I wanted, how I was going to use it, I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about black leathers, seedy bars, or sexy bad girls with guitars and tattoos. Instead, I told him about my classroom, about my third grade students learning to sing “Row, row, row your boat” in a round, and about singing folk songs around a campfire.
The guitar sitting in my lap today is something of a surprise. Made of mahogany, maple, and rosewood. The back and sides are the color of milk chocolate, the fingerboard is a darker mocha, and the sounding board looks like stretched butterscotch taffy. The dots next to the frets are mother of pearl. I wrap my arms around its body, and it slips and slides on my legs, hard to hold. When I’m not playing it, I take it out of the case just to look. Sometimes I wonder about that other guitar, and that other life. But I don’t regret the decision I made. I was dreaming of someone else’s life, but I found my own life instead. I reached out for a Star(caster) and now I have the calluses on my fingers to prove it.