It was one of those teenage desires.
I had long walked in the 1950’s pattern my family had set for me: Be a nice girl. Smart, but not too smart. Neat and tidy. Clean, crisp haircut. Fresh perky smile. White bobby socks and Oxfords. White blouse and skirt. Beautiful curly handwriting. Polite, well-mannered, speak-only-when-spoken-to young lady.
One day in eighth grade I suddenly woke up from my state of unconsciousness and realised I bore no resemblance to any of my contemporaries. They were wearing their hair long, their skirts short. Knee-high socks and platform heels. Tight jeans with wide, flared bottoms. I was suddenly and profoundly embarrassed to the core.
I slowly began a metamorphosis. The next time Mom went clothes shopping I went with her. As she only patronised thrift stores, my sisters and I always opted out when she invited us on one of her sprees. We’d wear the clothes she bought, but we hated the damp, dirty shops they came from. Delighted to have company Mom agreed to buy a pair of jeans I found. “But not for school!” she firmly stated. I agreed, knowing that the purchase was the first hurdle. Besides, mom left for work before we left for school, and we got home before she did.
By the time I was in tenth grade I finally looked like a child of the seventies. Mom had given up trying to get me to wear what she’d selected and we’d come to a satisfactory truce. I could easily blend in with my peers, but I kept my outfits simple and tasteful. As long as I could find what I wanted at the secondhand outlet and we could afford it, she would purchase it for me.
But then, just before my sixteenth birthday, I discovered something I couldn’t live without. Every time I saw someone else with one, I nearly cried with envy. I mentioned it to Mom, suggesting that it would be a fine gift for a sweet sixteen. Mom chortled. “Unless we find it at Goodwill, there’s no way we can manage that!” I knew it. I knew it was true. We had such a difficult time making ends meet that I had started working weekends at the nearby McDonald’s to help bring in extra cash. “Besides,” she continued, “something worth having is worth waiting for. If you still want it in a year, well, maybe we can make a plan. But right now, it ain’t gonna happen.”
In my senior year I signed on to work on the school yearbook. The entire team was comprised of kids who’d been compiling the annuals since they were sophomores. When everyone had chosen the sections of the yearbook they wanted to assemble, I was left with the advertising chapter. This meant I had to visit local businesses and ask them to sponsor our yearbook. If they gave us $50 they’d get a quarter-page sized ad in the book. $100 got them a half-page and $200 for a full-page. We needed to raise a minimum of $2 000. Then, once I had the sponsors, I would liaise with them in terms of what they wanted to see in their ad. Some wanted photos, others just text. All of them had logos. This was back in the days when computers were the size of rooms and only NASA used them, so each layout was an arduous work of art created by hand.
After screwing up my courage with twenty mental “You can do this! You can do this!” phrases, I pulled open the door to McDonald’s and asked for the manager. As I thought, Mr Hansen (my weekend boss) was more than willing to take out a page. He signed the contract and we chatted about the basic layout of the ad. With that achievement behind me, I marched to the next little shop. And the next. And the next. No one else in the little mall seemed to value advertising in a high school yearbook. I took a deep breathe and soldiered on.
I entered the next shop without really bothering to look at what they sold. As soon as I glanced around I stopped dead in my tracks. The yearbook went out of my mind. The contract forms I held were forgotten. Here was the object of my desires. I walked across the room in a daze. There, hanging by their necks from pegs in the wall, was a row of beautifully crafted acoustic guitars. Their gorgeous wood grain lacquered to perfection, they seemed to call me. I reached out my hand to stroke one . . .
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” a deep voice behind me shook me out of my dream. I turned to look at the speaker, a man in his early thirties with dark shoulder-length hair and a moustache. He smiled. “Hi! I’m Skip. What can I do for you?”
“Um, I, uh,” for some stupid reason my brain didn’t seem to be linked to my tongue.
“Do you play,” Skip queried, gesturing to the guitars.
“Uh, no,” I replied. Then, suddenly finding my voice, “but I want to. I really want to learn.”
Skip put his hands on one of the guitars and lowered it down from its peg on the wall. “It’s a great instrument to learn. You can strum chords to accompany vocals or you can play classical. There are some serious pieces written for this baby!” As he spoke he drew the instrument to himself and sat down on a piano bench and began to play. I stood transfixed watching his fingers fly around the frets. The rich, mellow sound of this guitar was so soothing. The ache to own a guitar grew into a sharp pain.
Skip stopped playing. He smiled up at me and then rose to put the guitar back. NO! I wanted to shout. Please keep playing. Skip turned to me, looked at the papers in my hand and observed, “But you didn’t come here to listen to me play. What can I do for you?”
I explained to Skip about the yearbook and the sponsorship and asked if he’d be interested in taking out an ad. I expected him to brush me off, but he didn’t. He started by apologising. He’d just moved into the mall, rent was sky-high and he hadn’t made many sales. He’d love to take out a whole-page, but would it be okay if he just did a half-page? “Wow!” I exclaimed, having expected another sorry-no. “A half-page is fantastic!” I bubbled. “Are you sure, though? Will it be okay.”
Skip smiled and chortled. “Are you trying to talk me out of it?” he quipped.
“No, I mean, it’s a lot of money.”
“I can manage. And I’d like to do it. Who knows, maybe your entire senior class will come buy guitars!”
” Yeah, maybe!” I answered. Then I got a bit brave. “How much is that guitar you were playing?”
Skip went over and touched it again. “It isn’t one of our more expensive ones, but I like it because it has such a rich tone.” He took it down and handed it to me. I took it with great trepidation and reverence. “It’s an España. Made in Finland. Everybody is going for Yamahas and Ovations. But you’re paying for the name. This little España has class and half the price.”
He didn’t tell me how much it cost. I saw the tag. $300. $300! My heart sank and my eyes welled with tears. There was no way I could ever afford this treasure. I brought home $32.60 each week from McDonald’s. And $30 of that I gave to Mom. In the fifteen months I had been working there I managed to save $50. At that rate I would have to work five more years before I could even hope to have enough money to buy this guitar. I handed it back to Skip and tried to smile. “Thank you.” I said.
Four months went by. I’d managed to sell ten pages of advertising and was nearly finished with all the layouts. It was time to work on the divider page, the double-spread that would introduce the section of the yearbook. We’d decided to use a banner of photographs across each divider page, and my spread would be filled with pictures of students shopping at the establishments of the biggest supporters. I booked Alex the yearbook photographer (who also conveniently had a car) on a Friday and asked several of my friends to be at the various locations for a photo-shoot.
First up, McDonald’s. This was easy. Half of the student body went to the burger place after school anyway, so we got some nice shots of the manager and kids laughing and enjoying themselves. The next location was a car wash. We also had a blast here as we had several students drive their cars through the twirling foam cylinders coming out with bright cars and bright faces.
Near the end of the day as we were walking down the mall I asked Alex to stop with me at Skip’s Music. I hadn’t actually planned on putting Skip on the divider page, just the full-page sponsors. I’d been in the shop several time since our first meeting, the last time about a week before, to get his approval on the galley proof. Skip was always by himself in the shop. I thought maybe he couldn’t afford to hire anyone to help. Each time I went in I tried to avoid looking at the brilliant row of guitars, but the sweet España seemed to draw my attention like a fly to honey. It was no different this day. But to my horror, there was a space where the España usually hung.
Skip welcomed me with tremendous enthusiasm as he always did. I introduced him to Alex and told him that I wanted to put a picture of his shop on the divider page. “Wow! Well, what did you have in mind? Want an outside shot of the sign?”
“No, I’d like a picture of you playing guitar. Just like the first time I came in here. You and a guitar.”
“This ugly mug?” he joked, pointing to his face.
“Yeah,” I smiled. “That ugly mug. And I wanted you to be playing the España, but I see it’s gone.” I looked up at the huge gap. I thought that if I got a picture of Skip and the España that I could carry a piece of it with me, and maybe some day I could afford one of my own.
“Oh!” he said. “It isn’t gone. I’ve got it in the back room. Let me go get it.”
We took the picture, the warmth of Skip’s smile with the España in his hands made it the best pic on the divider page. I was pleased with the page and hoped Skip would be pleased too. One Friday afternoon in late May I took his complimentary copy of the yearbook to him. Again my eyes flew to the España the moment I came through the tinkling door.
“Hey, Skip! I brought you the final copy!” I told him as he came out from the back chewing on the other half of the sandwich in his hand. He held up a finger while he swallowed, put the rest of the sandwich on some papers on the counter and wiped his hands on his jeans.
“Let’s see it,” he intoned eagerly. He skipped the pages and pages of mug shots and pictures of spirit rallies and club photos and flipped straight to the back. He found the divider page for the advertising and grinned at himself. He pointed and said, “And the España!”
“Yup! And the España,” I repeated.
“Well, this deserves a celebration,” he said. “Stay there!” and he pushed me onto a piano bench and disappeared into the back with the yearbook. He reappeared a minute later with two cans of Coke. “Sorry,” he said as he handed me the one can, “no glasses. BUT,” he pulled something from his back pocket with a flourish, “I do have straws!” We laughed and talked and drank our celebratory Cokes. He asked about the next year and I told him that I was going to SF State on a scholarship to study to become a teacher. He told me that business had picked up and that it looked like he was going to make it, although his financial advisor (his brother-in-law) warned him that no small business ever broke even in the first three years.
Then he got very serious. “Loreen,” he began, “I want you to listen to me. I have been thinking about something since the first time I met you. I see the way you look at that España and I know you can’t afford it.” I started getting a bit of a panicked feeling in my stomach. “If I could I would give it to you. I really would!”
My eyes got misty. “Oh, wow, Skip . . .”
“Wait, let me finish. I’ve thought about it and I’ve thought about it, and I came up with a plan. What if you gave me what you could now, whatever, it doesn’t matter, and then paid me whatever you can over the next year or so?”
I didn’t know what to say. I think my mouth must have been open, but nothing was coming out.
“Please. I want you to have it, probably as much as you want it. It’d really make me happy to know where that little España is!”
I can’t remember any more of the details of that conversation. I must have agreed because I was walking out of the shop 30 minutes later with a guitar case (which Skip threw in for free) in my hands and tears streaming down my face.
I managed to pay off the España in ten months. My family helped by giving me monetary gifts at Christmas and for my birthday. I visited Skip every university break, bringing the España with me, and the two of us would sit and play together.
That was 38 years ago. I now live on the other side of the planet, teaching eager young children how to read, write and do ‘rithmatic. And I teach them how to sing. The España and I teach them how to sing.
For our final assignment, tell the tale of your most-prized possession.
If you’re up for a twist, go long — experiment with longform and push yourself to write more than usual.