My husband is serenading me with “Angel of Harlem.” I tell him how I love this unofficial ritual, this regular Sunday morning worship of the guitar in the Miller Kitchen, as it has come to be known. (On other Sundays, I have taped the two of us doing Springsteen’s “No Surrender” and the three of us playing Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.) “This is my prayer,” Marty says.
He can’t think of the words to the U2 song, so he improvises: “Snow fell on the avenue, I stepped in some doggy doo, got that shit all on my shoe, wiped it off on the carpet for you, angel, angel of Harlem.”
Marty’s good at that—that improvisation of lyrics. He’s as quick as anyone I know and smart, too, so I shouldn’t be surprised. I count on him to replace the words to our favorite songs the way I count on him to poke me and say, “Vanagon,” every time we drive by one on the road and to exclaim, “Oh, look! Some old whore left her workbench in the alley,” every time we pass a discarded mattress. (Don’t tell him you have a weak back; he’ll ask, “When’d you hurt it?” and answer, “Oh, about a week back.”)
My husband makes me laugh at loud—we make each other laugh out loud—so often, even when life is shit for both of us.
As it is right now.
He’s a teacher at a Catholic school, and I’m a stay-at-home writer with sporadic freelance gigs and 2/3 of a book advance already spent. The Archdiocese has announced the need to consolidate due to under-enrollment, so we’re shvitzing.
The worst part of our lives right now has nothing to do with the economy. It’s my weak back, which has been killing me since summer—way longer than a week back. After three painful cortisone shots, acupuncture, physical therapy, and various forms of hocus pocus, I’m having surgery next week. I can’t drive now or for a month after, and I can carry nothing heavier than a carton of milk. Afterward, I will be able to eat, sit in a recliner, and walk. I think I can go to the bathroom but am supposed to wipe using tongs. (Don’t ask.)
Marty works about ten hours a day, with six preps, all-day teaching, and after-school commitments. As sole driver, he also must take our daughter to her basketball practice, ballgames, guitar lessons, and show rehearsal. He must walk our two dogs, shop for groceries, and clean our house. I can still cook and do the dishes. I’ve also become an expert kvetcher, moaner, pill taker, and cryer. None of these things has enhanced my appearance, my talents, or my self-esteem, and they don’t pay.
So I am surprised by the random kindnesses my husband shows me: the impromptu back rubbing, the chocolate donut, the lustful winks. Sure, he’s bitching a bit, but I have to let him. It might be just as awful to be the able spouse of a temporarily disabled person.
Since I’ve been cooped up for so long—except for doctors’ appointments and Thanksgiving dinner—I decided to join Marty and Serena yesterday on a trek to the guitar store. Weekly fliers are so tempting to them; sales and giveaways and coupons litter our kitchen. This week’s includes a $29 distortion pedal and a free guitar with the purchase of a case of strings. While they were shopping, I could spend quality time with my dream guitar.
Guitar Center is set up with a big main room full of electric guitars and amps stacked high. Every time they go, my daughter falls in love with something new. This Saturday, it was a bitchin’ black Gretsch hollow-body electric, with dual f-holes and a shiny whammy bar, which my daughter grabbed and dragged around the store with her like a toddler drags his blankie. Behind the open main room are doors to the acoustic room, where the cheap and mid-price acoustics are kept. And all the way in the back is a small, climate-controlled room with the expensive, quality guitars—mostly Taylors and Martins. A few high-priced Gibsons, Takamines, and Breedloves hang there, too (there goes the neighborhood, some would say).
While my family was out front, I was in the back making time with “the one.” Even if you don’t play guitar, you know “the one.” It’s not exactly love at first sight; it’s more reasoned than that. It not only looks glorious (ebony fret board, mother-of-pearl inlays on the frets and around the sound hole, sexy cutaway style), but it feels good in my lap and sings like an angel. I’ve played nearly every guitar in that back room, and some are nice, yes. But none of them are the Gibson Songwriter Deluxe. I never set out to love this one. Gibson’s not known for sweet and ringy acoustic guitars.
Ethan waited on me, and I wanted to know if this model was one of the Gibsons on sale for $500 off. It was only 10% off, but he said, “Want me to see if I can do better?” I had no idea that this worked like a car dealership, but I was game. He returned with his offer: $1,900 out the door, tax included.
I was excited, doing head math, playing with the numbers. With credit, I could have a year, interest-free, to pay it off. I calculated. One hundred sixty a month. Some good tickly stuff coursed through my veins. But Marty was a party-pooper. Number one, he said, I don’t deserve it until I can make a Bm smoothly. Number two, we’re broke. Number three, how many guitars do we need? I’ve already got a decent Guild. And then, of course, there’s the impending surgery.
I pouted and closed the door to the climate-controlled room. While I was fondling the Gibson madly, Serena was running through her repertoire on a curly maple Ibanez, on which she’s had designs for about as long as I’ve loved the Gibson. She played snippets of “Crazy on You,” “Lola,” “Satisfaction,” “The Kids are Alright,” “Bus Stop,” “Surrender.” But she left in a snit when she learned she wouldn’t be taking it—or the Gretsch—home that day. A man stopped us to say what an incredible guitarist we have in Serena, so I blushed and gushed a bit, then went out to occupy her while Marty arranged to buy her that icky-sounding Ibanez.
I found Serena kicking the carpet sadly. Never mind that since April, she has gotten a classical Yamaha and a brand new Fender Showmaster, as well as having access to my acoustic Guild and Marty’s Strat. To keep her from chasing after her dad, I brought her the Gretsch and had her plug in and repeat her set list on the electric. I like to listen to her play, but I also like to watch people do a double take when they see that a kid—a girl kid—is at the helm.
When Marty came out, Serena became dejected once again. And I was moping, too, when we got in the car. Mostly I was tired. I hadn’t been out for this long in weeks. Marty said, “Well, you’re gonna be upset, but while I was buying the amp, someone bought your guitar.”
I knew he was lying. It had been there for months and months, and no one had touched it. Except for some string wear, it was pretty perfect.
“Here, you wanna see the receipt?” he asked me, tossing the folded up paper in my lap. Why would I want to see that? I knew the total. I had done all the math—a $69 bass amp for my nephew, a $249 Ibanez acoustic, and a box of strings for a hundred bucks, which included a free Silvertone acoustic (which sounds better than the cheap shit Ibanez!). I heard the crinkle of paper as Marty smoothed the receipt and stuck it in my lap while he drove. The first item on the list: Gibson, $1,900.
I cried my eyes out with joy. The tears just busted right out of my eyeballs. It was like the nicest, most unexpected thing.
So now we’re in the kitchen on Sunday morning, singing together, and he’s changing the words, and I’m laughing, thinking how much I still love him, a little surprised that after 26 years, we still have this good thing going on. I wonder, in my defective state, how much I deserve it and the guitar. Are they both too good for me?
I take Serena out with my mom to a craft fair and buy him a chocolate-covered caramel apple and a chocolate chip cookie. He goes out to buy some guitars for his girls. And when we return, it’s there on the dining room table. “Well, aren’t you gonna play it?” he asks. I was going to wait until Christmas. “What for? Play it!”
I know that trick. He just wants to play it himself, which he does, several times, while I cringe and reach out to protect it as if it’s a baby being held by an ogre. When he goes to work after dinner (which he does frequently, in addition to his other duties), I take out the guitar and pose with it for some goofy Flickr CD cover group. My daughter comes up from the basement while I’m adding the CD title. “Oh my god! You took a naked picture with your guitar already?” she asks, as if I’ve, like, done this before or something.
Today, while I am at the doctor’s office going over surgery instructions, I note that I can’t pick up anything, but I wonder whether things can be put in my lap—things like, say, a new Gibson Songwriter Deluxe. “Sure,” the nurse tells me. But, as has happened with other guitar-playing patients, I might get a spasm when I try to put my arm over it. Oh, the indignity!
I give the news to my husband when he comes home from work, exhausted enough to pass out in the chair next to me (which he does). “Guess I’ll take it back and get myself an SG, a Taylor DN3, and some more strings. I’d still have a couple hundred left.”
“Go ahead,” I tell him. “I don’t deserve it anyway.”
“OK, I’ll do that tonight,” he says. “I also need some hot Vietnamese chicks who can bend over.”
“That’s going on my blog,” I tell him.
“They can be Burmese,” he says. “Or Cambodian.”