Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chapter 10: Guitar

Magician's Merger

by Xenophon Hendrix

Chapter 10

Mary and I both ate bigger lunches than normal. When I got up from the table, my lower muscles were stiff, and I had to hobble around a bit before I loosened up enough to move freely. I'm going to have to teach this body some stretching exercises, thought Ursus.

"Hey, Mom, can I go over to that shopping center near the other corner of Cord and Wool?" It was nearby, but outside my official boundaries.

"What do want over there?"

"I want to look around that music store."

"For what?"

"I want to look at the guitars."

"I thought you'd given up on that idea."

"I tried, but it kept coming back."

She gave me an unreadable look and said, "Fine, go," in that tone of voice that led one to believe that she disapproved. As Ursus had advised, I ignored it and went to fetch the rest of my fortune. All together, I had three pounds, 55 cents.

As I came back out, Mary asked Mom, "May I go with him? It's OK with you, isn't it, Artie?"

Mom said, "Go," and I said, "Sure," so Mary and I got out our bikes. It wasn't a long walk, but bicycles used some different muscles from the ones we had used treasure hunting all morning.

The city of Packard had no downtown section; it just had businesses up and down the mile-apart roads, especially on and near the intersections. Hank's Music Emporium was near the southeast corner of Cord and Wool, so Mary and I had to cross both streets. We did so at the light.

A bell tinkled as we walked in. There were so many instruments packed in the store that it gave the illusion that the inside was bigger than the outside. I located the guitar section and went to it.

We'll buy an electric guitar later, thought Ursus. If we get an acoustic now, we don't have to buy an amplifier, and it's more portable. There wasn't any dissent from the rest of my minds. A fairly quick glance at the new acoustic guitars showed that anything in my price range was garbage, so we settled in at the used-guitar section.

"May I help you?" The man's nametag said "Hank Dunnington, Owner."

"I'm looking for an acoustic. Is it all right if I take them down and play them?"

"Yes, if you're careful. What price range are you looking in?"

"I don't have a lot. I'm trying to buy decent sound rather than a pretty finish."

I strummed and plucked a few of the guitars that I could afford while Ursus listened to their timbre and sustain.

"I might have something that fits what you're looking for," said Hank. He took down a battered looking old warrior and handed it to me. It was scratched all over, and the finish had been worn away in places. When I played it, though, I could notice the fuller tone compared to the others we had tried. It was ugly and old, but I immediately fell in love. The price tag said, "£3.50."

"I have exactly £3.55, not quite enough to cover the tax."

"Close enough," said the owner. We quickly concluded our transaction. "Here, I'll throw in a couple of picks. Do you need a bag?"

The guitar had been fitted with a strap. "No, I think I'll wear it home." I pocketed the receipt and the plectrums. "Thank you."

"If you're interested, we give lessons right here in the store, in back," he gestured in the direction. "The price isn't bad, a pound-and-a-half per half-hour, and we have teachers that can accommodate pretty much any schedule, or style of music."

"I'll keep that in mind, but for now, I want to see what I can do on my own."

"What about piano?" Mary asked.

"We have a couple of uprights back there for lessons, same price as guitar."

We said goodbye and headed out. Hank seemed like a good guy. I figured I would be a regular customer. I slung the guitar across my back, and we rode home with extreme caution.

We went in through the door to the garage, which we called the "back door" even though it went out the front side of the house. As soon Mom saw me she said, "That money must have been burning a hole in your pocket."

"I had to beat out the flames twice on the way over."


I fetched the guitar books from my room and headed downstairs. Mary followed. We pulled a couple of chairs over near the chord organ, and Ursus used the organ as a reference as he tuned the guitar.

"We should go fallen change hunting tomorrow, too," said Mary. "There are still quite a few nearby places that we haven't checked."

For maximum effectiveness, Ursus thought, our "voodoo portrait" should be replaced for every use of that spell, but the old one is probably good enough for a few uses of what we're doing with it. "Yes, let's do that," I agreed.

Mary watched me practice chord forms for a while, and then got up and wandered upstairs. Along with chords, I practiced picking and strumming with both fingers and a plectrum. It wasn't too long before the wire strings started cutting into my fingers.

They'll toughen up in one or two weeks, thought Ursus. For now, though, we should probably quit for a while, or we'll get them so sore that we can't practice tomorrow. You know, you are going to have to stop chewing on your fingernails.

I wonder if Kirsten would like to see my new guitar.

There's only one way to find out.

I put my guitar in the non-office, where Rich and Charlie were less likely to notice it. This would make us an outstanding bedroom, thought Ursus.

That it would, but I suspect that Mom and Dad would object.

Perhaps. Let us marshal our arguments and sleep on the problem a few times.

I went upstairs. Mom said, "Giving up already? We won't pay for lessons unless you promise to practice every day."

I held out my hand so she could see how red my fingers were. "I need to build up some calluses."

I almost didn't do it, but Ursus prodded me, so I looked up Kirsten's number and dialed. The only phone in the house was mounted on the kitchen wall, so there was no way that Mom could miss what was going on. I assumed my best phone manners. The person who answered the phone sounded like Mr. Kennedy. "Hello, Mr. Kennedy. This is Arthur Powyr. May I speak to Kirsten, please?" Mom didn't even try to hide that she was listening. Her eyebrows went up and she actually chuckled in the nearly silent way she had.

"Hello, Arthur," Mr. Kennedy said. "How are you today?"

"I'm good. How are you?"

"Fine, fine. I'll see if Kirsten is available."

When he put down the phone, I could hear a saxophone playing. A few moments later, it stopped, and then Kirsten came on. "Hi, Arthur. What did you want?"

"I bought a used guitar today. I was wondering if you wanted to see it?"

"I'd love to. When?"

"I could bring it over right now, if you want."

"That would be great."

"All right, I'll see you in ten minutes or so."

When I hung up, Mom said, "So, is Kirsten your girlfriend now?"

"I don't know."

"Mary said that you took her with you to the library."

"We did. We saw her outside on our way there."

"Kirsten's house isn't exactly on the way to the library, is it?"

"No, not exactly."

"I see."

"Can I go now?"

"Fine." She definitely was amused.

I went back downstairs to get the guitar and pedaled over to Kirsten's with more care than usual. Wiping out was too horrible to contemplate. Kirsten's backyard was adjacent to the schoolyard, so the ride was about a mile.

Kirsten answered the door when I rang. "Would you like to come inside, or would you rather sit on the porch?"

"Let's sit on the porch." It wasn't exactly a nice day, but I found her parents somewhat intimidating.

"Step inside while I put on my coat."

As I stood in the entrance, Mrs. Kennedy saw me. "Hello, Arthur."

"Hi, Mrs. Kennedy."

"Kirsten tells me that you're taking up the guitar."

"Yes, I just bought this used one a little while ago."

"Kirsten plays several instruments. I started teaching her the piano when she was quite young."

"She mentioned that to me."

Kirsten appeared wearing her coat. "We'll be on the front porch, Mom."

We sat on the glider chair, and I showed Kirsten my new-learned semi-ability with the E major, E minor, and A minor open chords. "My fingers are pretty sore right now."

I handed the guitar to her so she could look at it. She strummed and listened with musician's ears. "It's ugly, but it has a nice tone. I don't know much about guitar, though."

"I know you play the flute, saxophone, and piano. Anything else?"

"The organ, some. And I've messed around with the harmonica a bit. Maybe I'll make the guitar my next instrument, although I've been threatening my parents with getting a drum kit."

I smiled. "You don't have any brothers or sisters, do you?"

"No, it's just Mom, Dad, and I. I need to give them their gray hairs all by myself. What's it like coming from such a big family?"

"It's crowded, and privacy is hard to come by. We need to be pretty organized in the mornings when everyone is getting ready for school."

"You and Mary are really close in age. Is it like having a built-in friend?"

"It hasn't been, but we are getting along a lot better lately."

"Sometimes I wish I had a sister."

"I might be able to lend you mine. I'll check with Mary."

"That could be fun. She seems sweet natured."

"She is. If the two of you start hanging out, it will be like frosted fudge."

Kirsten laughed at that. "That line was so corny."

"It was, but I think you liked it anyway."

"No comment."

She handed me back the guitar, and I practiced my three chords a few more times, but my fingers really were tender, so I just held it on my lap after that.

"Once you learn some songs, we are going to have to jam," said Kirsten.

"I don't think you have any idea how much I would like that." We continued to chat a bit. After a while, I noticed that Kirsten's left hand was close to my right.

Take her hand, thought Ursus. She's inviting you.

You sure?

Seventy-five percent, at least.

So I took Kirsten's hand, and she smiled at me and squeezed back. We interlaced our fingers and just sat there chatting about music and this and that. My heart kept beating hard enough for me to feel, and I had butterflies in my stomach, and the rest of the afternoon passed so fast that I was genuinely surprised when Kirsten's mom stuck her head out the front door and said, "Kirsten, we're going out to eat, so you should come in and get ready." Was it really so late so soon?

Kirsten hadn't released my hand when the door opened, so I knew she didn't care if her mother saw. "OK," she said, and we got up. I was holding my guitar in my left hand, so Kirsten gave me a quick half hug and said, "Thanks for coming by, Artie. I think you'll enjoy being a musician." She went inside.

I rode home feeling elated and slightly scared. Ursus thought, she's an exceptionally nice girl. Let's be careful to treat her right.

I agree. I can't believe my good luck.

It's not luck so much as putting forth some effort. I know you don't believe it yet, but for a girl who appreciates brains and depth, you're a good catch. All you needed was some backbone.

I don't know, for a long time I've just felt unworthy of anything, and guilty about everything. It's the damnedest thing. I'll feel guilty when I can't think of anything that I've done wrong.

That, my young brain mate, is depression. It's an insidious disease that can sneak up on you and screw up your life.

What can I do about it?

I've already been working on it. Getting a good night's sleep helps some, and we've been getting that ever since I took up residence. Exercise helps, and we've been getting more of that, too. You haven't noticed it, but I've been steering our brain to pleasant thoughts when you start thinking negatively. A really big help, though, will be the magic. You've noticed how good holding manna feels.

Yes, but is it dangerous?

Manna isn't, but magic can be. You can kill yourself in innumerable gruesome ways if you get stupid or careless. Ursus recalled things about magic the rest of the way home so that all consciousnesses sharing our brain could learn about it, too.

When we approached the house, I saw Mike, Terry, and Danny sitting on their bikes at the end of the Prestor's driveway. At about the same time Mike asked, "Where have you been all day?" Danny asked, "What's this across your back?"

I stopped and answered Danny. "It's my new guitar. I bought it at Hank's Music Emporium today." They all crowded closer. I swung the guitar around front and showed off yet again my three imperfectly mastered chords.

Terry remarked, "I hope it was used."

"Of course, you don't think that even I could do this much damage in one afternoon, do you?"

"Well, there was that time you fell off the swing backwards and got pinned under the fence."

"Or how about the time you fell down the stairs carrying a turkey and broke your big toe?" added Mike.

"Or the time you tripped over the ball when we were playing kickball and hurt your arm?" piled on Danny.

I just looked at them, and they started to laugh. I had to join in; they had a point. "It's true that I'm not renowned for my grace."

"Let's see it," said Danny.

I handed it over and he strummed it a few times and then played the riff from a popular song. He didn't really know guitar, but he had picked up that particular bit somewhere. "Sounds pretty good."

He handed it off to Mike, who fiddled with it a bit. "Jeff left his electric behind when he went to California. I should learn how to play it." Jeff was his and Terry's older brother. As soon as he had finished grade twelve, he had packed up his van and headed west. They also had two older sisters, Janet and Colleen. Janet was away at University. Colleen was in grade ten.

"If you do learn, we can jam," I said. Mike handed the guitar to Terry, who did his own fiddling. After we talked for a couple of minutes, I looked at my watch. "It's getting close to supper time. I better get in." Terry gave me the guitar back, and I walked my bike into the garage and went in the house.

"I'm home, Mom. When's supper?"

"About ten minutes. You spent a long time with Kirsten." She was using her teasing voice.

"The time had the wings of a swallow."

"You are one weird-ass kid, you know that?"

"Indeed I do." I took my guitar downstairs and then washed my hands and helped set the table.

Supper was a mild ordeal, but I was in a better state of mind to handle it than the last time I ran the gauntlet. As I tucked into the macaroni and corned beef hash, Mom said, "Did you know that Arthur spent all afternoon with Kirsten Kennedy."

"It wasn't all afternoon. I went to the music store and then practiced the guitar some first."

"What guitar?" asked Dad. "And who's Kirsten Kennedy?"

"The guitar I bought at the music shop," I said.

At about the same time, Mom said, "Kirsten Kennedy is the prettiest girl in grade six. You know, the one he square danced with."

Dad actually didn't pay much attention to familial gossip. "You're starting a bit young, aren't you?"

"Yes, yes I am."

Rich started in a chorus of "Arthur's got a girlfriend."

He sat between Dad and Mary at an angle across the table from me. I leaned in closer to him and said in a loud voice, "You know something, runt, I think you might be right."

He didn't quite know what to do with that, and his chant petered out. Mary said, "She's really nice."

"Mary, Kirsten told me that she sometimes wished she had a sister. I told her that I'd check with you and see if I could lend her mine."

"What did she say to that?"

"She said you were sweet."

"Oh," she looked down at her plate. "That was kind of her."

When they all saw that I wasn't going to be baited, the topic changed to my guitar. "What's this about a guitar?" asked Dad.

"I bought a used guitar at the music shop."

"I thought you weren't interested in guitar."

"No, I was interested."

"Didn't you say you weren't interested last year when your mother and I talked to you about it?"

"I remember that event considerably differently."

"I'm really interested in playing the piano," said Mary.

With that, the focus of conversation left me. After supper, Rich and Charlie had to see the guitar. They soon grew bored and started a game of pool. I spent the rest of the evening reading guitar books while stopping to practice every once in a while for a few minutes at a time. I could see myself getting better at a rapid rate.

You did an all-around good job today, thought Ursus.

Yes I did, didn't I? You know, old man, we make a great team.

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