All pawn shops smelled the same to Doug. The scent was a combination of mold, dust and lost hope. That last one was probably just in Doug’s mind, but the writer in him would swear it was a real thing.
The Southside Pawn Shop was new to him. He usually frequented shops in the more affluent parts of town. He rarely found anything of interest in the more “upscale” shops. He was hoping this trip to the city’s not-yet-gentrified section would yield some sort of Holy Grail of pawned items. Maybe a rare piece of jewelry or a valuable collectable he could buy for next-to-nothing and sell for big money
Along with the familiar smells of such an establishment, Doug noted that the place was really rundown. All the display cabinets and shelves were worn and discolored from years of neglect. He chuckled to himself that the dust in the place was probably the only thing holding everything together.
He browsed for several minutes before someone, most likely the owner, approached him.” Enjoying our collections?” the man with the long grey beard asked.
“You have a lot of different things,” Doug replied.
“Ah,” the man nodded, “the reply of someone who is unimpressed. No matter. I’m proud of our stock, but a little sad that it represents the lost hopes and dreams of the previous owners. Few people come back to reclaim their pawns in this part of town. I hope the money helped them in some way.”
“So, how long have you been open?”
“Long enough to know a trifler, a time waster. Please feel free to look around, I have things to attend to.” The man turned and walked to the back of the store,
A little put off by the man’s abrupt assessment of him and his attentions, Doug turned and looked at the collection of guitars and banjos hanging on the wall. Doug played a little and even wrote a few songs. He was far from a professional musician and songwriter, but it was something he did when there was nothing good on TV.
The instruments were pretty much the standard fare for a pawnshop. Most were off-brand copies of famous guitars. All of them looked like they had been well played. Their finishes were chipped and most of the strings were rusty.
At the end of the display was a red-bodied acoustic guitar. Doug looked at it closely and noticed that it wasn’t as worn as the other pawned instruments. In fact, it looked almost brand new. It had no brand name on the headstock, just an odd swirled design. The strings were not rusty and actually looked they had never been played. Doug called to the man at the back of the store.
“Hey, could I play this red guitar?”
“Why?” the man asked. “Don’t you know what a guitar sounds like?”
Surprised at the man’s snide reply, Doug continued, “I might want to buy it. But I have to hear it first.”
“Sorry, no free samples!” the man snapped.
“What do you mean? No one buys a guitar before they try it. I have to see if it plays well and if I like the sound,” Doug returned.
“It plays and sounds like a guitar. If you don’t understand that, it’s not the right thing for you. How about some rare Hummels or stuffed animals?”
“What the hell kind of operation are you running?” Don’t you want to sell this guitar?”
“Of course. It’s $30. That’s a firm price, no haggling!”
Doug paused to calm down. He knew that arguing with someone like this was pointless. Besides, for $30 it was a good deal, even if he just hung it on the wall. “I’ll take it!” He said to the man.
“Cash only and no returns,” the man replied. Doug took out a 20 and a 10 and handed them to the man who gently took down the guitar. “Play it in good health,” he said.
Doug took the guitar and nodded. He walked out of the store and hailed a cab. He tried to play it in the vehicle but the cabbie yelled, “This is not a concert hall. No music in the back! Thank you!” Doug put the guitar down and suffered through the Middle Eastern music that was blaring through the cab.
Once he was home, Doug leaned the guitar on the sofa in his apartment and got himself a beer. When he returned, he picked up the guitar and tried to tune it. The tuning pegs were jammed and would not turn. He even grabbed a pair of plyers from the kitchen and tried to force the high E string tuner, but to no avail.
“Son of a bitch!” he said aloud. “That’s why the old coot wouldn’t let me play this thing. It can’t be tuned. Ah well, it’ll look good hanging on the wall.” He brushed his fingers across the strings and heard the sound of a tuned guitar. He quickly confirmed that by playing a few chords. “Damn, it’s tuned. Won’t stay that way, but it’s perfect right now!”
Doug strummed a few more chords and then broke into the only song he knew by heart, Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. His voice wasn’t great but the guitar sounded great. When he finished, he strummed a few more chords. “Well, I’ll play it until it goes out-of-tune then I hang it on the wall. It’s a good-looking axe,” he thought.
Doug played the Dylan song a few more times and then headed out to grab a bite to eat. He again leaned the guitar against the sofa, making sure it was secure and wouldn’t fall. When he returned, he was shocked to see the guitar lying on the floor. It had obviously slipped from the sofa. He picked it up and carefully examined it. “No cracks, but it’s probably out of tune, now!” he thought.
He strummed the guitar and was again surprised that it was in perfect tune. He picked it up and went to play the Dylan song. This time his fingers went to chords he didn’t recognize. One new chord followed another. He was a little afraid. “Maybe I’m having a stroke?” he wondered.
Doug put the guitar down and walked around the room for a bit to make sure he wasn’t having any medical problems. Confident that he was healthy, he grabbed a pen and a notebook to write down the unusual chords he had fingered. He picked up the guitar and his fingers went to the same unusual chords. But when he went to draw a diagram of the chords he was fingering, he began to write some words. He stopped for a moment and then continued. His fingers were not only diagramming the chords but he was writing song lyrics below them.
It took a few minutes, but he eventually wrote out all the chords and words to a song. From the structure, Doug recognized it as a country tune.
“The old man stood in the pouring rain,
The dirt and wrinkles hid the pain…”
Doug played the whole song and wrote it down. “This is good, I think,” he said. The chords were complex forms of standard chords he knew, but the unusual fingerings made them sound incredible. And the lyrics were powerful, telling the story of people looking for hope.
After writing the song, Doug was exhausted. It had been a long day and he always hated traveling by cab. He put the guitar down and went to bed. The next morning, he called in sick to his employer and picked up the guitar again. He played through the song he wrote the night before and then, as many people who play the guitar do, he began do noodle on some random chords. His fingers again played chord shapes he had never used before. Hoping to recreate the process from last night, he picked up a piece his pen and notebook. This time he wrote a song about love and faith.
“It was a little country church,
With a great big congregation,
People came from near and far,
To join in celebration…”
Doug played the song after he wrote it. Again, he thought it was an excellent song. He picked up the guitar again and repeated the process. This day, he wrote ten songs using chords and fingerings he didn’t know. The guitar stayed in perfect tune. The songs ranged from touching ballads to boisterous uptempo country songs about good times.
“I have to do something with these songs,” he thought to himself. He had performed at a few open mics in the past, always playing his standby Dylan song. He never received much applause and was even booed a few times. Still, he thought playing a few of these new songs would yield a very different result.
Doug practiced for a few hours and headed out to a local bar for their open mic night. There were the usual open mic performers at the event, a couple of bad poets, endless singer/songwriters, someone playing solo Native American flute and a spate of ukulele minstrels. Doug was chosen to play after one of the ukulele acts. He walked up to the mic and began to play:
“Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door…”
That’s what came out, even though it wasn’t what he intended to play. He stopped and started a few times. The result was always the same – his poorly performed version on Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This time, the crowd was almost unanimous in its response. The stopping and starting was so annoying that the boos were deafening. Doug ran from the stage and went home.
Once there, he threw the guitar into his hardwood floor. The top cracked so badly that the neck snapped up, creating a clamshell effect. “Fuck this thing!” Doug shouted. Five beers and 10 hours sleep later, he awoke stiffly on the sofa. Adjusting his eyes to the daylight, he saw the guitar, right where he threw it. But the top was no longer cracked and the neck was back in place.
“What the fuck?” he said aloud. He picked up the guitar and brushed his fingers across the strings. It was still in perfect tune. His surprise caused him to drop the instrument. It hit the floor and fell onto the string side of the neck. He carefully picked it up and noticed that it the pristine red body had chipped. But just as soon as he picked it up, the chips repaired themselves. Doug fell back on the sofa, clutching the guitar.
“This is impossible?” he thought. Doug never believed in the supernatural or magic, but he was beginning to think that was the only explanation for the guitar. Surely the owner of the pawnshop would have some answers. And since Doug was a cash customer, he figured the man would be more forthcoming than he was at their first meeting.
When Doug got out of the cab at the address of the pawnshop, he was shocked to see a vacant lot where the shop had been. The trash in the lot and weathered condition of the fence looked like the lot had been there for some time.
“Wasn’t there a pawnshop here?” Doug asked an elderly passerby. “Yes, but that was about 50 years ago. I guess the guy couldn’t make a go of it. They tore it down but the people who were going to develop the property went broke so it’s been vacant ever since.”
Doug’s wide-eyed stare must have frightened the man because he just ran off. Doug hailed another cab and headed home.
Once there, he picked up the guitar and played through the songs he had written. Each song was performed perfectly. Doug sat back in the sofa and thought about what had happened. He knew it was something about the guitar, but wasn’t sure of what it was.
He took the guitar over to a friend’s apartment and asked him if he could play him some new songs. The friend agreed. Dong started to play and again –
“Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door…”
“I think Dylan wrote that one,” his friend said, laughing as he spoke. “I think he sang it better, too.”
Doug nervously laughed with his friend and said he was glad he liked the joke.
Once he got home, he played through the songs he had written. Again, there were no mistakes and all the songs were perfect.
“It must be this the guitar and something about this place,” Doug said to himself. “I can only play the new songs on this guitar here.” He had an idea.
It took most of his savings, but he hired a mobile recording studio, the same kind used to record celebrities live.
The sessions took several hours, but when he was finished, he had 11 perfect song demos. The man who owned the equipment said he knew a country music publisher and was so impressed with the songs he would be happy to forward the recordings to him.
Almost a month later, Doug received a call from the publisher who asked him to come down to his office. When Doug arrived, the published began to play one of the demos –
“Knock, knock knocking on Heaven’s door…” rumbled from the speakers in the office.
“11 bad versions of a Bob Dylan song?! Bad joke, now get the fuck out of my office!” Doug was shocked and insisted he and the recording engineer had listened to each demo and they were perfect. Doug argued for a few minutes before the publisher had him escorted from the building.
Once home, Doug confronted the guitar. “You miserable piece of shit! I’m sick of all this bullshit. Let’s see if you can repair yourself if I burn you down!” Doug grabbed a bottle of Isopropyl alcohol from his medicine cabinet and doused the instrument. He was so angry he didn’t notice that he had also been splashed with the inflammable liquid. When he lit a match to burn the guitar, both he and the instrument burst into flame.
The pain was unbearable, Doug began running frantically around his apartment, looking for something to smother the flame. He didn’t realize he was running directly toward the window. He and the guitar smashed through the window and plunged 8 stories to the sidewalk. Doug landed on the guitar, smashing the flaming instrument into many pieces. Mercifully, Doug died upon impact.
A few months later, a young man perusing a musty pawnshop inquired about an unusual red guitar. “Just a guitar,” the proprietor said. “Nothing special. It’s $30 if you want it. I understand the previous owner wrote some great songs on it. Just remember, there are no returns.”
© 2018 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.