The Christmas Guitar
It may look like just an old flat top guitar with a cherry burst finish, nestled in green cellophane, in the window of a pawn shop. That may be what it looks like, but every musical instrument has a story. Some are celebrated, others are rarely told, and some seem to have more than one lifetime. As guitars go, this one was pretty special.
I know it wasn’t anything magical, or anything like that, but this Christmas, it made a huge difference in my life. My name is Taylor, and our story started on an old bus. I was hungry, tired, and hopeless. It was the first of December, and I didn’t care about where I was going.
My only friend was that old guitar. I strummed a few chords, and sang as the sounds from the road accompanied me. There was only a few people on the bus, but they were up front. The driver had told me he didn’t mind my playing, as long as I was quiet. You wouldn’t know it to look at me then, but I used to be somebody.
In fact, I was a college professor, even worse, I was president of a small college in Colorado. At least until the day I boarded the bus. I imagine a few people asked where I was, maybe even thought it odd, but it probably passed soon enough.
I had grabbed my first bus at the end of September, when everything went wrong. No one would recognize me now. The clean cut college president, now had a half healed broken leg, and a black beard with a little gray in it.
About dark, the bus pulled to a stop. I gingerly carried it as I hobbled out quickly. I walked from the bus stop, not really anxious to get somewhere.
About a mile later, me, it, and my partially healed leg were ready to stop walking. I sat down off the road to catch my breath. A semi stopped and asked me where I was going.
“Anywhere really.” I said, too tired to walk any more, I didn’t care where I went. “Ok, you can ride for a while.”
We rode for about twenty miles, and then he pulled off by a small diner. “Come on friend. I’m hungry, you look like you are, and I hate to eat alone.” I was too starved to argue.
We both had a roast beef sandwich and a cup of potato soup. The coffee was good, and the apple pie went with it well. I looked at this stranger with appreciation, and curiosity, and said thank you.
He smiled. “What you really want to say is why. Why ask someone you don’t know, toting a guitar, to ride? Let’s just say I’ve walked that same road a time or two, and I prefer to ride. My name’s Wes Atkins.”
“You can call me Taylor. I’m grateful to you. I wasn’t feeling up to going any further on foot. What can I do to repay you?” He smiled, paused, and looked out the window.
“You can tell me a story, and then sing a lady a song. After that we’re even. Sound ok?” I nodded, thinking I didn’t have anything to lose.
“What story do you want to hear?” He gave me a deadpan look, and I swallowed hard. “Why do you want to know that story?”
He laughed. “Now you’re stalling. Remember you agreed. Let’s have the story now, the song will come later.”
It took me a minute, but I sighed, and began a version of my story. “I was pretty successful, and had just got a promotion a few months ago. There was this project that I stuck my neck out for. It went badly, and I left. Now here I am.”
I figured he would get angry, since I had purposely left a lot out. He didn’t, just shook his head, drank his coffee, and headed for the door. I didn’t immediately follow, until he looked back. “You coming?”
I grabbed my guitar and followed. Then as he paid the bill, before walking out, he said. “You still owe me a song.”
We got back in the semi, and drove all night. The next morning he pulled in to a truck stop. “I’ve got to catch some shut eye. You should too. We’ve got a long road to go.”
Like I said, I didn’t care where I went, so I listened. My guess was he was a lonely old man, and liked the company. We rode for days, and he never once asked me about my past again.
We did talk about a lot of other things. Wes was pretty smart. He even knew a little Shakespeare. He had a way of drawing out my opinions on things.
He was easy to like, and we became friends. Wes talked about his wife, his kids, and his grandkids. One day he asked me if I ever had a girl of my own. I muttered something. I wasn’t even sure myself what I had said.
I know what I didn’t do. I didn’t go into any details, I wasn’t about too. Wes was nice, but that door was closed, and I would not reopen it, it was too painful. Instead I told happy stories, sang happy songs, and lied deeply to myself.
About a week into my trip, we crossed a line I didn’t care for. It was the Kansas state line. That meant we were one state away from the place I said I’d never go back too. Wes and I almost parted ways that morning.
He could tell I was edgy, but he didn’t push it. “If you have other plans I understand. I hate to finish the rest of the trip alone, but if you need to go, it’s ok. Of course, you still owe me a song for a lady.”
“About that, you never told me who the lady was, or what song to sing? I may not even know the words.” He didn’t respond to my excuses, Wes just waited. Finally, I gave in, sighed, and said I’d stay.
By that evening I had settled down, and things were back to normal. We pulled in to another truck stop, and everyone greeted him. He seemed to be almost a fixture to everyone there.
He smiled at me and explained. “I’ve spent a lot of my life in truck stops, especially this one. One winter’s night, it was pretty important.”
We both had a surprisingly good cup of coffee in our hands, and I was in a mood for a story that wasn’t about me, so I smiled and nodded. A storyteller doesn’t need a lot of encouragement.
“I was a young man, and we had just had our first a child about a month before. I hated leaving, but there were doctor bills to pay, and it was winter time. It had started out as a mild winter, but just about twenty miles from here, that changed in a hurry.”
“The first few miles it was mostly snow, when I was a little ways out, but the stop was in sight. I hit a patch of ice. Thankfully that day, there weren’t other crazy people on the road, just me. I tried every trick I knew, but she wasn’t about to stop.”
“This is usually the part of the story where people will tell you that they had tried everything else, and said a quick prayer, but son, I was praying all the way. I had never been a fan of pot holes, and I don’t particularly care for them today, but that day, I was mighty happy to hit one.”
“As near as we could figure later, the pavement there gave way about the time my tire hit it, breaking the ice above it. That one little break, gave me the few seconds I needed to regain control of the semi. I skidded to a stop, but it was a safe one.”
“I got out of that truck, never wanting to get back into one again. An for the next 24 hours I didn’t. I holed up here to frightened to leave. That’s how me and Pete there became friends. He owns it now, but he just worked there then.”
A storyteller isn’t finished when he pauses, he’s just waiting to see if you’re ready for more. Of course I was. Fear was something that I understood.
He poured a little more coffee from the carafe the waitress had left, and continued. “That next day, I called my Wife to tell her I was going to find another line of work. Before I did, I asked her how she was, and how the baby was.”
“She said Lil Bit hadn’t slept through the night, and she was afraid she had a touch of colic. It turned out to just be a cold, but I didn’t know it then. All I knew was my Wife was tired, and my baby was sick. I didn’t have time to look for something new, or better, at least not if it meant being unemployed.”
“I could find another job, but I couldn’t do it without the one I had. So I said goodbye to Pete, spoke another quick prayer, and got back on the truck, still scared to death. It took about a month before I got over it, and about three months before I could think about it without being scared.”
“It probably makes me sound like a coward, but it’s the way I felt. For the first few trips, I actually avoided this place. I didn’t like to be reminded of what almost happened, or how afraid I was.”
This time, I thought he’d never finish that last drink of coffee and go on. Finally I had to know. “What made you go back? There are other stops near here. Was the coffee that good, or are the other stop’s food that bad.”
He laughed. “Yes on both counts, but it wasn’t that. Stopping here made my route shorter, which meant less time a way on a trip. Which meant I got to spend more time with my family. Plus, I liked the people here.”
“People are important, and on the road, there are a lot of unfriendly faces. You learn to appreciate the welcoming ones. They aren’t always around.”
He seemed to sense that my edginess was on the verge of coming back, so he changed the subject. “I think I’ll call my Wife and check on her. You finish your pie, I’m going to head back to the truck and turn in.”
I finished it, and thought of what I had left behind. It wasn’t a Wife and kids. It was the promise of something that I felt I had let down. Everything I had tried, all my plans, had went south.
My intentions were to get as far from them as I could. Now it looked like we were headed back that way. That’s when it hit me, I had never asked Wes where we were going. I was going to when I got back to the truck, but he was already asleep.
So I figured it would keep until the morning, and tried to go to sleep myself. I tossed and turned a lot, but eventually made it. It would have been better if I hadn’t.
I had nightmares about all the people I had disappointed, and all the hopes that I had dashed. By four am, I was up, and I was heading towards the door of the truck. Wes spoke from behind me.
“I’m not going to stop you, or to tell you about running. You’ve probably heard it, and it would sound trivial, but I would like to ask you a question. If you’ll let me?”
I sighed like a pouting child, turned around, and told him to go ahead. He wasn’t interested in my attitude, he just ignored it.
“What do you think hurt the people you walked out on most, the thing you did, or the fact that you left?” He didn’t ask it in a judgmental way, but it stung. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. Memories of faces stopped me.
I just stood there a few minutes, and so did he. Finally I slumped into the passenger’s seat, and he started the rig. We went a few miles, then I started talking.
“How did you know I was running from something?” I smiled, only half way joking. “You weren’t tracking me were you?” He laughed, and shook his head.
“No son, I’m a Granddad. I’ve seen scared in three generations. In the mirror, in my kids, and in my Grandkids. I never saw it in my Dad, although he told me once how scared he had been in the army.”
“Matter of fact, he told me after he heard me telling a version of what had happened to me, minus the embarrassing parts. No, I didn’t know who you were at first.”
He said it with kind eyes, but I was trying to understand what he meant. “Please don’t tell me it’s already on the internet. I mean, probably the local paper, but not everywhere.”
“It might be, I don’t know. You don’t know me, and that’s fine, but I mentioned I’m a Dad and Grandad. A few days in, I got a call from my youngest daughter. She lives in a little town in Colorado, and she told me about what was going on there. I put two and two together, and wouldn’t you know, they still make four.”
I feigned anger. “So you thought you’d make it your business to take me back? It’s nobody’s business …”
His look stopped me. It wasn’t stern, but it had authority behind that smile. “I’m not taking you anywhere. She lives there, I live in a town near there. I’m going where I always said I was.”
“You can meet my Wife, and most of the family. If you want to meet the rest, you’ve got to travel that road. You see, the last few miles are always the hardest. A man needs the help with the first few hundred, but those last few, you’ve got to choose to go those for yourself.”
I just looked at him, and then out the window. The next morning, I wanted to talk, but wasn’t brave enough to try. He pulled off at another stop right across the Colorado line.
“I asked you to play a lady a song. The lady is in there, and she needs a good one. It might surprise you to know, you weren’t the reason for this trip. I’ve been retired for a year now, too old for this, but that lady in there, she needed help.”
“So I volunteered, me and my eighteen wheeled friends here, figured we could make one more trip together. We’ve made a lot, the three of us. My truck, my trailer, and me, but I gave them to my second youngest husband last year.”
“He’s going to be ok, but it will take a little while. A few months back, Andrew was in the local bank. He was going to make a deposit. The guy behind him was going to make a withdrawal, and not the right way.”
“Andrew could have just let the man rob the bank, but he didn’t. He stopped the man, and ended up with two bullets in him. The doctor said no work for six months to a year. They had sunk everything they had into the business, and I couldn’t let them fail. So, I volunteered to make this run for them.”
“He should be well enough to make the next trip, but they couldn’t miss this one. Abby is pretty down. She tells herself it’s going to be okay, but she doesn’t quite believe.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “How is a song going to make a difference? Wes, I like you, but things aren’t that easy. I can’t just waltz in there, sing a few words, and make it better. I don’t know if Sinatra could do that.”
For the first time, Wes got angry. “That’s the trouble with a lot of folks any more. They think because they don’t know everything, that nothing will work. Half the people who achieved great things in this world only knew one or two things, but they were sure of them.”
“Churchill was sure that he had to stop Hitler, even if he didn’t know how. Reagan was sure the wall had to come down, even if it looked impossible. It might interest you to know, it’s not about you, or the song itself, it’s about a promise.”
“I don’t have time to explain, I just need you to go in, and sing a song. One song, and then you can do whatever you want, but we made a deal. Can you honor a deal Mr College President? Can you do that?”
I still didn’t understand, but the last two sentences had hit a chord, and he knew it. I was so angry I fought back tears, at least I told myself it was anger. “What song?”
He sighed, calmed down, and said another something weird. “You pick it. Just make sure it’s a Christmas song, and even if you have to sing it twice, that it’s at least three minutes long.”
There wasn’t any question for me what I was going to play. It had been written with a guitar I believe, because the organ had been broken at the time. I only wondered if I could calm down enough to sing Silent Night the right way.
I knew how to play it, so I grabbed my old friend. When I walked in the stop, it wasn’t as nice as some we’d been in, but it was clean. There was a little stage sat up, with a stool, and a microphone.
Apparently they had been waiting for me. When I walked in with Wes I saw the resemblance as I crossed the floor to the stage. She had tears in her eyes. Her husband, who looked as angry as I had been, sat at a table with a cane.
I pulled a pick from my pocket, adjusted the mike, and started to sing. The clock above the window ticked away, and I was mentally counting the time. At about two minutes in, Wes walked over to Andrew, leaned down, and whispered something in his ear. All while placing something in his hand.
His eyes got very big, and he stared at Wes for a moment, then he broke. Through tears, he looked at his Wife, and struggled to stand. She started to rush to him, but Wes stopped her with a look.
He made it to his feet, and he and the cane made it to her. A gentle kiss, a hug, and two smiles. As the song ended, Wes poured us all some coffee, and started slicing the coconut cake that was in the glass case.
“Abby always loved coconut cake. It was her favorite, and still is. What did the doctor say Andrew?”
The man looked totally different somehow, kindness seems to take a few years off that anger puts on. “He says maybe three more months, but I’ll get there sir, I promise.”
Wes laughed. “I always knew you would. I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t have confidence in you. I did it because everyone, even a man, needs help sometimes. Me, Comet, and Cupid can still make the trip.”
I blinked. “Now I know I either need hearing aids, or to wake up. What did you say?”
Abby laughed. “When we were kids, I got the crazy idea that Dad was Santa Claus. Probably because he was the only one I had told about the gift that was marked “Santa” for my third birthday. Ever since then he joked that his semi was as fast as Comet, and the trailer always followed Comet, so that made her Cupid.”
“Dad made us a promise. That he would be back in time for the payment on the truck stop. We bought it, before all of this, as a backup to the truck. So Andrew wouldn’t have to spend too much time on the road.”
Andrew finished her story. “He said that he would be back, with the check, and a song, and some Christmas cheer. I didn’t believe any of it, but he did it. Him, that big red semi, and apparently a new friend.”
I laughed. “I think that makes me an elf. What do you say Santa?”
Wes never missed a thing. “Nope, too tall. Besides, you wouldn’t look good in green.” We talked with them for a few hours, and then Wes gathered his gear out of “Comet”, and said goodbye.
First to his family, and then, to “his team”. When we got in his old pickup I made a joke. “What this one’s name, Donner?”
HIs response, “No, Blitzen. We call the Cadillac Rudolph.” I just laughed. There was something he hadn’t explained, and I was curious. “Wes, why three minutes?”
He glanced at me. “How did you brake your leg?” I hung my head in shame, “Catching the first bus in September. I was late, and almost didn’t make it. It hurt, but not as bad as leaving people did.”
He nodded. “Your leg needed time to heal, just like the pain over what happened. You had to deal with it gradually, so did Andrew. He had to realize I wasn’t helping him out of pride or pity. He was angry that he couldn’t fix it, and had been short with himself, Abby, and everyone else.”
“At the right minute, I handed the check over that we picked up yesterday, and gave him a message. It did the trick, and no, the message was between him and me, but it reassured him that we respected and loved him, not just Abby.”
I thought a lot about it til we arrived at his house. Mrs. Atkins was a lovely woman, and so were the two twin boys, Eric and Michael. We all had dinner, and went to bed.
The next morning, it was snowing as we sat down to breakfast. “So tell me Mrs. Atkins, I know you have another daughter, what’s her name?” I thought she didn’t hear me at the time, so I repeated.
She motioned over her shoulder as she lifted the pancakes out of the pan. “Her picture is on the piano, it’s Katherine.” I had stood up when she said picture, and was halfway to the piano, when I stopped cold at the name.
I told myself it all made sense, but I still couldn’t believe it. Wes had just walked in with some firewood when he saw what was happening. I looked at her, then at him, and then started walking towards the door.
“Which direction are you heading? If you’re going East, you’ll need the guitar. If you’re going west, the memories will just get in your way.”
I just grinned as I held out my hand. “Keys please Mr. Claus?” He gave me a set, I grabbed the guitar, and followed the directions Mrs. Atkins told me quickly from the kitchen.
I pulled in to Wildwood Colorado thirty minutes later. The snow slowed me down. I passed what had been Gretsch college, and I headed to the local library where Katherine still worked. I didn’t know what would happen, and I expected anything.
The main desk was on one end of the library, I went in through the other door. My nerves were yelling at me that I was crazy, and I was afraid I’d botch any speech I tried. So I thought, maybe sisters do think and act like one person.
I found a chair, and started to play. This time, I thought, I have to make enough noise to get the attention of the head librarian. Go Tell It On The Mountain could be loud, so I started playing.
Anger was on her face as she turned the corner, and then realization. I didn’t expect a smile, and was just thankful there wasn’t a scowl. She let me finish the song, but didn’t clap, not that I expected it.
I stood up, and walked slowly towards her, hoping she wouldn’t turn away. My mind was racing for the words to say, and they weren’t coming. Finally, I went for pathetic. “How much for a library card?”
She looked at the guitar, then at me. “For the guitar seven dollars. For you a thousand.”
I whispered I’d be glad to pay it, but it might take a lifetime. She said something about was I sure I didn’t have a bus to catch. I deserved that.
“I can catch another bus if you want me too.” She looked at me with a mixture of emotions. “I never wanted you to leave, now, how can I be sure you’re going to stay?”
I took her hand. “I don’t travel away from home without my guitar. If I sell it, I’ll never leave.”
She looked at me like I was crazy, and I pulled her outside. “Where are we going?” I pointed to the pawn shop down the road, and she got in the car.
I pawned it, and tore up the ticket. The pawn shop guy just looked at me, as he placed it in the window. She looked at me. “This doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a start.”
“I told her that was all I needed, and kissed her. Today is Christmas Eve, and you probably still have a ton of questions. This is where you came in, and asked me why I was staring at that old guitar in the window.”
“You tell a good story stranger, but you left a lot out. What happened at the college? What made you leave her to start with?”
“The college was scheduled to close two years ago. I was a new professor at it. I had went to school there. It was a small college, and never had made a lot of money, but it was really in the hole. The board of trustees were ready to cut their losses and close it then.”
“I see, but you convinced them to let you try and save it. I take it things didn’t work out? Was that why you left?”
“It wasn’t just that the funds weren’t there, or that the college was going to close. I had convinced the faculty, and everyone involved to invest in the college’s future. I was so sure it would succeed, that I ignored all the signs that it couldn’t.”
“Katherine put her life savings into the place, and I had cost her that. There’s a businessman in town, a successful one, John Martin. He was in love with her too. I figured if I was out of the picture, he could provide for her where I couldn’t.”
“I sold everything I had, cashed in what little nest egg that I hadn’t already sunk into the college, and had my secretary parse it out to the people who had relied on me. She gave it to them, along with a letter of apology.”
“I took enough to get bus fare, and food, and left. I figured I would only be a painful reminder of a broken dream. I couldn’t bear that, so I left, hoping they’d forget I was ever here to start with.”
The little man in a green coat with smiling green eyes, and white hair looked at me. “Are you glad you’re back?” Then I showed him the ring.
“They’ve got an awful lot of neat things in that pawn shop. It’s a cheap engagement ring, but we’ll make it work. Until Andrew is healed up, I’m going to run the rig, and split the profits.”
“It will keep Katherine and I going, and them, and eventually, maybe we can reopen the college. Either way, we’ll get by, as long as we’re together.”
The man pointed at the window. “It looks like someone just bought your guitar young man. Are you okay with it being gone? It seems it’s quite an instrument.”
“Yeah, I’ll miss it, but it’s worth it. Sometimes you have to give up something, to get something even more valuable. Although I’ll always be grateful for that instrument.”
The man smiled and looked over my shoulder to someone behind me. “You said you’d never leave home without it. I can’t have my husband to be lying.”
It was Katherine, and there was a little green cellophane in her hand, along with something else. My fiancé almost dropped both when I held, and kissed her. She didn’t though, and from then on, I never let either of them go, her, or my Christmas Guitar.