When it came down to rent or my guitar, that one was easy. So I might have to sleep in my car for a couple of days. No biggie.
Food versus the guitar…that was trickier. Ramen noodles and peanut butter were okay, but when I realized the cupboard was bare one day, that was the end of that.
I got paid for the job at the first of the year.
It was November 22.
I was fucked.
It was time to hit the pawnshop.
I’d been there plenty of times. Nick’s place was nice, for a pawnshop, and he seemed to be more honest than the other places in town. It was kind of fun just to see what people were selling, and I’d picked up a couple of presents for my sister when cash was tight.
Nick was the owner, and as far as I could tell the only employee; he was the only guy I’d even seen behind the counter, anyway. He smiled when he saw me, then frowned when he saw the guitar case. “I prefer to see you here as a purchaser.”
“Yeah, me too.” I lifted the case up and put it on the counter. “What can you give me?”
Nick was on the tall side, probably five-eleven, and had salt-and-pepper hair with a neatly trimmed beard to match. I’d always put him around fifty but couldn’t say for sure. He opened up the case and lifted the half-glasses he had on the cash register. “You’re sure about this?”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t. But I had to eat.
After the first of the year, work would pick up again; it always did. I wasn’t worried about me, exactly. I was mostly worried about the guitar. I’d grown up with it, and while I wasn’t convinced I’d grow up to be a folk singer any more, it was still a part of me.
It felt like he looked it over for years; I looked over the shop while he lifted it, and tried not to flinch when he passed his fingers over the strings. The shop was fuller than usual, and Nick had decorated for the holidays by hanging up a string of white lights and some faded glass balls.
“I can give you five hundred,” he said, when I was looking over a tray of sad, abandoned engagement rings. “That get you by?”
“Yeah,” I said. It would more than get me by, and made me glad I hadn’t hocked my Walkman too. I couldn’t have gotten much for it anyway; it was probably ten years old, and only played tapes. At least I’d still have some kind of music in my life.
“I’ll need five-fifteen to get it back,” he said, filling out a slip of paper. “You’ll have until January 12, and you can pay in installments, if you’d like.”
“My check comes in after the first of the year,” I said. “I’ll pay you as soon as I can.”
“I’m sure you will,” he said, looking up at me over his glasses. “This must be special to you, it’s been well maintained.”
“Had it since I was a kid,” I said. “Learned on it.”
“I’ll take good care of it, then,” he said.
I knew it was lame, but I had to go visit it. I tried to go every Thursday. I was still living on ramen noodles, but at least I was eating, and Nick was taking good care of it, as far as I could tell.
“You never named her?” he asked, the first week of December.
“Nah,” I said. “Seemed lame. Like naming my dick or something.”
“Mine’s named Jezebel,” he said, and I looked at him in shock for a moment. “My guitar,” he clarified, and I felt like an asshole.
“I didn’t realize you had one.”
“Mmm,” he said, as he opened up the drawer. “Fender Stratocaster.”
“You went electric.”
“Even before Dylan, I’m afraid,” he said, taking out a fat stack of receipts to sort through.
“Now you’re just teasing me.” He wasn’t that old. Twenty years on me, max.
“She’s red,” he said, as I left for the day.
“So what do you do, when you’re not visiting your guitar?”
“I tile,” I said. “Just started a new job but it’ll be a while before the money comes through.”
Nick nodded. “You must see some interesting things.”
“Yeah.” I felt rude just checking on the guitar, so I usually looked around at the shop some too. There were some hideous wedding rings in a tray under the counter.
“What are you working on now?”
“A pool,” I said. There was one ring with just one diamond in it that wasn’t too tacky. “That’s good money– big job, guy with money. Might start getting checks for that next week, so I can pay up quicker.”
“I’m glad,” Nick said. “You looking for someone special?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the rings. “No! God, no. I just always wonder…you know, what the story is behind them.”
“They’re a string of broken hearts,” Nick said, and his voice softened. “For the most part.”
“How’d you get into this, anyway?” I looked up at him. “You don’t seem the type.”
“Ah, you might say it’s a family business,” he said, reaching under the glass counter to adjust a ring in the display. “And I do…fill a need.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
“I’ll be glad to return your guitar, but I must confess I’ll miss the company.”
“I’ll stop by,” I said. “Promise.”
I walked into the store the Wednesday before Christmas and Nick wasn’t there. It was some younger guy, looked a little like Nick, but it clearly wasn’t him. A family was there, clearly tourists looking for some kind of deal. The youngest girl was leaning into the counter to show off her tits.
“So these girls had no money, and the father was afraid he’d have to sell them all off into prostitution, because he didn’t have a dowry.”
“Harsh,” she said. It was pretty clear she wasn’t really listening to him.
“So anyway, the night before the merchant is going to sell his eldest daughter, a bag of gold appears in the fireplace. And so they’re saved, and the daughter gets married off, and….”
The bell rang behind me; someone coming in. “Edward,” Nick said, closing the door behind him. His voice was warm. “It’s always a pleasure.”
“Won’t be long now,” I said.
“I’m glad. Pete, can I–”
Pete slid over and let Nick behind the counter. “Busy since you left,” he said, not taking his eyes off the teenage girl.
“I can see…Pete, where’s the guitar that was here?”
My heart stopped.
“The acoustic?” Pete didn’t turn his head.
“Yes, the one with the January date.”
“January?” Pete finally looked away from the blond. “There wasn’t any guitar with a January date.”
“You sold it,” Nick said. I’d never seen him angry before. “Pete, what the hell were you–”
“It’s been busy!” Pete protested. “I–”
Nick glared. “Edward,” he said, turning back to me. “My apologies. I’ll find it and return it as soon as I can.”
“I–” I didn’t see how he could. “It’s not your fault.” I felt like someone’d punched me in the gut anyway.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “As is Pete.”
“Yeah,” Pete said, diminishing under Nick’s glare. “I am. Look, can I–”
“You’ve done quite enough,” Nick snapped.
I worked like hell Thursday and Friday and tried not to think about my missing guitar. It was gone. I knew it, and I figured Nick probably knew it too.
Friday night was Christmas eve, and I spent ten bucks I was saving up for the guitar on a pair of earrings for my sister Ellen. She wouldn’t get them until after Christmas, but at least she’d get something. If my dad didn’t see the package first, anyway.
I put the rabbit ears up on the TV and managed to find a signal. MPBN was showing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so I watched that for a while. It started depressing me, so I went for a walk instead.
It was cold, but it wasn’t snowing, and the moon was getting bigger. There were some kids caroling on the street corner, and I smiled at them. I went to the 7-11 and got some hot cocoa mix; I might be eating shrimp flavored ramen for Christmas dinner, but at least I’d be eating it with hot cocoa.
I went to bed early and couldn’t sleep. Usually I’d play my guitar when I couldn’t sleep. Wasn’t an option that night.
I got up and looked out the window, and it still wasn’t snowing. The TV channels were all off for the night.
I thought about calling Ellen, but I figured she’d be asleep, and I didn’t want to hear Dad yelling.
I must’ve fallen asleep, because I woke up about ten on Christmas morning. Ellen had sent me a package, and I opened it up under the construction paper Christmas tree I’d made and taped to the window earlier in the week. It was a fleece scarf; the note she’d put in said she’d made it herself. It was fringed with knots on the end, and I could kind of tell they were hand-done, but it was sweet, and it’d be warm.
I took the risk and called.
I got lucky; Ellen answered. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you.”
I could hear her grabbing the phone and taking it into the bathroom; I remembered her doing it when I was back home. “Hey. How are you?”
“Good,” I lied. “How are you?”
“Okay,” she said. “I miss you.”
“Miss you too. I got your present; thanks, I can use it. It’s really cold out.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know. Home Ec was worth something, huh?”
“You did great. Hey, I only sent your present yesterday, but you should get it tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay!” she said. “Thanks. You know you didn’t have to do anything–”
“It’s cool,” I said. “I’m working. I got a pool I’m working on.”
“A pool? Really? Is it big?”
“Yeah, really big. I’m getting sick of the pattern. How’s school?”
“Good,” she said. “Still getting A’s, I promise.”
“Good.” I worried about her.
“The minute I graduate, I’m outta here,” she said. “We’ll be roommates.”
“Let me make some more money, first.”
“You got a year and a half.”
I laughed. “Yeah.” God, I missed her.
“You could get rich in that time! Stop laughing!”
“Don’t hold your breath, okay?”
“I miss you so much,” she said.
“I miss you too.”
“Ellen? Who are you talking to?” Dad’s voice.
“Gotta go,” she said. “Merry Christmas!”
“Yeah,” I said, and listened to the phone click in my ear. No sense in trying to wish him a Merry Christmas. I wasn’t even sure if he’d speak to me if I promised to go home to Jesus any more.
Miracle on 34th Street was on, so I watched that for a while.
They were in the courtroom when there was a knock at the door. The rent was paid up finally, so I doubted the landlord was stopping by…I got up and slid the bolt back.
“Merry Christmas,” Nick said over the chain. “I have a guitar you might be interested in seeing.”
It felt like it took forever for me to get the damn chain off.
It was my guitar. My guitar. I wanted to hug it. I did hug Nick.
“I told you I’d find it,” he said. “May I come in?”
My apartment was tiny, and crappy even by local standards. I had a couch that was pretty well falling apart, and a table, and two chairs that worked well enough if you slid cardboard under the short legs.
But Nick had my guitar.
“Yeah,” I said, “of course,” and let him in.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I got some Chinese food,” he said. “If you don’t have plans–”
I had plans. My plans were eating ramen and feeling sorry for myself. Nick’s plan sounded a lot better.
“That sounds great,” I said. He brought in two guitars– mine and another in a black case– and a huge paper bag that smelled like heaven. I was glad I’d at least done out the last of my dishes in the sink. “Is that Jezebel?”
“Indeed it is,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be pleased to meet you.”
“Um,” I said. Nick looked great. I had a t-shirt from Goodwill on, and some beat-up jeans; under his red leather coat, he had on a buttoned-up flannel shirt and some really nice-looking pants. I stopped looking at the pants. “Let me get out some plates.”
“I got Buddha’s delight, and General Tso’s chicken,” he said, putting the bag up on the table and getting the boxes out. “I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I got quite a bit….”
“You didn’t need to do this,” I said, putting my plates on the table. They were plastic, so at least they weren’t chipped. And they were red, which was kind of festive.
“I did,” he said. “Thank you for letting me in. Forks or chopsticks?”
“Either, I guess.” I had some forks, but they were pretty terrible.
Nick took out some plastic forks and cheap bamboo chopsticks, and I tried not to look relieved. “Are you a vegetarian? Because I’m afraid most of my tastes run to meat.”
“Not a vegetarian,” I said. “Meat’s fine by me.”
“Good,” he said, and there were even more boxes in the bag, and they were all stuffed full of food. I tried not to drool. I opened up the chopsticks, hoping it would slow me down so I wouldn’t look like too much of a pig. I hadn’t seen that much food in one place in months.
“You’re quite good with them,” Nick said, and I felt my face heat up.
“Thanks. So what are you doing all alone on Christmas?”
“Oh, my family’s quite far from here. Usually I help out at the Unitarian church, but…I wanted to do something different this year, and I was fortunate enough to find your guitar, so….”
“I appreciate it,” I said, and I appreciated his not asking what I was doing alone on Christmas, too. “You want a beer?” I had bought a six-pack over the weekend, and there were a few cans left. “Or I have orange juice…”
“Beer would be fine,” he said.
I washed up after we ate, and Nick found his way to my tiny TV. “This is ancient,” he said, sounding delighted. “You should have pawned this as a collector’s item.”
“Who would buy it?” I asked. It was black and white and might have been from the seventies. Ellen had snuck it out of the garage for me the night I left because she said everyone needed a TV.
“You’d be amazed at what people collect.” He looked back at me, and I realized he was asking if he could stay.
“I dunno what’s on,” I said. “But…it’s nice to have some company.”
He smiled and turned on the TV. “Oh, the picture’s quite nice.”
“Yeah, I think a color TV would suck, with the rabbit ears. I had to mess with it a little to get it to work but…” I watched him sit down, and wondered how close I could sit next to him. “Hey, I almost forgot, I have some hot cocoa. You want some?”
“That sounds delightful,” he said, smiling up at me and saving me, for at least a moment, from having to decide. I filled two of my mugs with water and stuck them in the microwave.
Okay, so I liked Nick. He was in good shape, good-looking, maybe a little old for me but not too old.
I hadn’t been with anybody since I left home.
I was so out of my league.
Nick got up from the couch and walked over. “You don’t owe me anything, you know.”
“I don’t– I–” I was screwing things up and I didn’t know how to stop. I turned from the microwave and faced him. He was a few inches taller than I was; six feet, maybe? He was hesitant. It was…pretty hot.
“I don’t want you to think….”
“I don’t,” I said. “I….” Kissing him was the safest course of action. Clearly.
So I did.
I don’t know if being older made Nick a better kisser, but something sure did; he pushed me back against the counter and I opened my mouth, letting his tongue in, opening my legs so I could rub my thigh against his. He tasted a little like peppermint, sweet and smooth, and I reached up with my left hand so I could pull him closer.
He slid his hands under my shirt, against my chest, and I moaned. I wanted him, more than I’d wanted anything or anyone for a long, long time. The microwave beeped and we both ignored it. I slid my right hand against his ass, pulled him as close as I could.
“Do you have….”
“No,” I said. “Shit. I don’t.”
“All right,” he said. He let go of me for a second, and then he was turning me around, pushing me up against the counter, unbuttoning my jeans.
It didn’t seem very safe, but I didn’t really want to protest, either. I could feel his erection pressing against my ass, hard, persistent, through the fabric of his pants. He unzipped my fly, slid his fingers in, and started jacking me off.
It felt good. His hand was warm and his skin felt rough against my cock; it’d been long enough that anything would feel good, but this was perfect, slow and controlled and smooth. He groaned and his cock pushed against my ass again.
I came, and splattered the front of the oven; that would be a bitch to clean. He kissed the back of my neck and I tried to remember how to breathe.
“Oh, God,” I said, turning around. “Thank you. Let me–”
“Mmm,” he said, pulling me into his arms. “I’m not as young as I used to be. Can I wait?”
Wait. God. Yes. “Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
I cleaned up the oven, he heated up the hot cocoa water again, and we sat and watched TV for a while. He put his arm around my waist, and I leaned into his shoulder, and it felt good. My apartment was crap, my life was a mess, and I was completely confused about what might happen next….
And I finally felt like I was home.
“Merry Christmas,” he murmured to me.
We went to the 7-11 and bought stuff; a carton of eggnog, two boxes of rubbers, some rice to add to the Chinese we still had left over.
When we got back to the apartment, Nick walked me into the bedroom and fucked me so hard I thought my shitty bed would break in two.
“Damn,” I said, “for an old guy you’re pretty energetic.”
“Very funny,” he said wryly. He stroked my leg, softly, just a hint of a tease.
“Will you stay?”
He pulled me into his arms. “Yes,” he said, “God, yes.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Merry Christmas, Ed.”