Author: Alvira, Marco

Great Gifts and Guilt

The Orion constellation was almost straight overhead in the early autumn night sky. The blazing nebula of Orion’s sword, set in the crystalline black background, indicated that we were indeed in the wee hours of the morning. My fingers were feeling sawed off after seven hours of playing, yet I was looking for the one last jam that would finish my night. It didn’t take long to find one (there was a lot of exceptional picking at Hobb’s Grove that Saturday night). I stumbled onto a trio really tearing it up. What caught my attention, however, wasn’t the solid, rock bottom bass, not the fine mandolin, or even the deft licks of the flatpicker-- it was the gleaming inlaid pearl around the sound hole of a sweet, mature Taylor (that’s a guitar, to all you banjo players). Dan, the owner, shared that he had bought it fifteen years ago when he was in college in North Carolina. He found it in a music store in Granite Quarry, fell in love with it, and spent the next two months working odd jobs to pay it off. Now, that’s a true love story, and one I was ready to toast had there been a drink in my hand. It must be said, however, that claiming “ownership” of one’s first fine instrument is as inappropriate as claiming ownership over one’s spouse. The relationship between picker and his beloved guitar cannot be underestimated and only be measure in the language of passion and romance.

It was two Octobers ago that I held three beauties in my arms…all of them cousins. My wife quickly discovered the first two, and only discovered the third later. This was the day I owned three new Martins. Normally this would be occasion for joy, but I could only choose but one. I had never owned a new guitar before, so I was awkward and unsure, but ultimately followed my heart. This was also the day I ruined the greatest surprise that my wife could have offered to her guitar crazy husband. The sordid event started innocently enough. While playing hooky from work to go to my annual Tahoe trip with old college buddies, I stopped by the Fifth String in Sacramento. While I am a devoted husband and can easily ignore some of the greater vices in the Casinos, those curvaceous beauties in John’s store were just too much for me. Besides, hadn’t my wife told to go out and have a good time?

I entered the Fifth String that cool, golden, autumn morning, as they can only be experienced in the Central Valley after the indefatigable heat of the long summer. Though my wife had acknowledged that I needed new guitar suitable for the new affliction I had recently acquired, a chronic condition called bluegrass, it was not my intention to buy a new instrument. I really didn’t know a G-run from a G...well, I did know that my old Levin was too narrow for my pudgy finger in this fast paced musical genre. What started out as a quick visit turned into an entire morning of happy strumming at rosewood, mahogany, and pine boxes. With my birthday and Christmas coming up shortly, I rationalized that my wife would never begrudge me an early, combined gift...all rolled up into a nifty little D-15 mahogany flat top.

Not only would my wife not begrudge me the few dollars, little did I know that while I way on my way to Tahoe, she and my son were in a car and speeding off to San Jose. She was buying a guitar that she had seen me look at in a shop a few weeks on which she had already made a down payment. This little relevant detail was not brought to my awareness until I called home that evening from the deck of the cabin, puffing on a Cohiba, sipping an amber bock, and contently plucking away at my new prize, my cherished joy that would some day join the ranks of family heirlooms. My son answered the phone first, and spilling over with joy, I related the details of my acquisition. To my shocked dismay, his response, after a short pause, was a one word expletive, followed by, “Dad, you have to return it. Mom just bought you that D-16 in San Jose. We sat on the freeway for hours waiting for an accident to clear to get that guitar.” I asked him not to say a word, that I’d fix everything.

My sheep were in the dip now, and boy, that was one tortuous evening. Every beer was bitter; my friends took my money playing poker; and I just didn’t care. I was in a fix. The next morning, I called the Fifth String to discover that that they only have an exchange policy. There was no wiggle room. Solemnly, I called my wife, and as well as I could manage, tried to squeak out a cheerful greeting. She responded with a curt “hi” and was deadly silent. That rat kid of mine had sold me out! Wasting no time, I started to recount the events, knowing that, however innocent my actions, I was now a dirty, selfish lout in wife’s lovely eyes. I only got through about five words, anyway, before she started to tell of the nightmarish trip she had suffered to buy me the best present that she could ever give. I didn’t interrupt (though I attempted to stammer in a meek objection once, but her intensity vaporized my strangled syllables). I was impatient for the trip to finish. I only wanted to get this ordeal over with and behind us.

Bothering me more than the unavoidable wrath I’d soon confront, was the profound sense of guilt and shame for ruining a great act of love. Deep down was the disconcerting knot of remorse for denying my wife the great gift of giving. For that, anything I would face at home would come short of the penance that I truly deserved. In fact, I began to look forward to expunging of guilt through the bloodletting I would soon endure. Unfortunately, guilt was left on my shoulders, for my wife had thought things through, and as disappointed as she was, she understood that however reckless my action (I should have called before such a purchase anyway), it was absent of malfeasance.

For five days, I had two new Martins in my living room. Circumstances dictated that I would have to return the D-16 my wife had bought. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every moment with them, each having its own tone and character. Would it be too much to keep them both? Desire said yes, but the budget contradicted. On a very sad and long Saturday, I returned the D-16 and made the long haul to Sacramento.

“Sacramento? What for?” you might ask. “Wasn’t the Fifth String’s policy for exchanges only?” Well, it occurred to me that my wife had spent more money than my parsimonious nature would ever allow. At risk of looking the scoundrel to all who read this column, I decided to exchange the D-15 for a guitar that had really caught my eye, ear and heart. A guitar for which I longed, but had nary breathed a word. The guys at the store didn’t appear surprised to see me (they had already heard my story). For two hours, I plucked and strummed my way through John Green’s custom Martins, though I had already decided on the little sweat heart well beforehand. In the end, I left the store with the guitar that many of you have seen and heard. A deep toned songstress made of rosewood and Adirondack spruce. It is the first guitar that I have ever bought and love to play with every fiber of my being. It is a guitar that someday I hope to pass on to a grandson. It is a guitar with a history. And sometimes when I’m sitting in the living just playing away, my wife will pass by and say, “That’s the best gift that I never bought you.” Ouch.

Posted:  10/4/2009

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