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A vein throbs alarmingly on either side of his neck, and his bright red face looks swollen and ready to explode. His half-open mouth exposes a weather-beaten picket fence of teeth. His pupils, set in a sea of jaundiced cornea, are in their usual saucerlike, dilated state. He stands there at my front door looking straight at me. A look I was meant to feel in my chest.
If I didn't know better, I would've thought he was going to punch me. But that isn't his style. If he's not animated and tossing off aberrant asides involving Latino swim teams or women with black eyes, then he just looks spooked and mean.
Besides, we are friends -- for reasons unbeknownst to me, other than the fact that we share an affinity for beer and bad Indiana rock 'n' roll.
Friends, that is, until he tells me about my guitar.
This guy is my neighbor. For purposes of this column, we'll call him Dick. It is Tuesday, January 11, the day after my birthday. I don't know why, but that strikes me as funny.
"Come out here, man," he sputters in a voice recalling Kris Kristofferson on a bad day. "I got to tell you something. Somebody kicked in my back door and got your guitar."
I felt a rush. My hands clenched into fists unconsciously. I wanted to haul off and clock his addled biscuit.
Dick's house faces the street. Mine is one of six bungalows around the corner, fronting a courtyard. The street is a dispossessed dead end just east of downtown Phoenix, smack in the center of the Garfield neighborhood. To most outsiders, my street is ominous. A fear of gangs, guns, drugs, dark skin or whatever is often worn on the faces of friends who swing by. Most of my friends are white and live in Tempe or in some suburban setting.
For the most part, my neighbors are a lot of poor Latinos trying to get by. On Sunday mornings, little girls in white dresses stand in the dirt yards surrounded by chain-link fences. Their mothers scurry out of low Spanish stucco or brown cinderblock houses and hurry them into beat-up American cars or pickup trucks. There is always the Catholic church on Sundays.
The drug dealers who ruled the corner duplex were last seen huddled in the back seats of cop cars. They had pushed neighbors too hard, too fast. It was as if the dealers thought only they could hear their own gunfire.
I tell my friends I rarely lock my doors. Once, I lost my house keys and didn't lock my doors for almost three months. "Dude, you're crazy!" they would tell me, all wide-eyed.
None of my friends will be surprised to learn my guitar has been stolen.
Dick is in his late 30s. After a weeklong jag, he can look 65. He can stay awake longer than a whole convoy of cross-country truckers. Days and nights on end he would be up, strumming a guitar. He is just waiting around to be buried.
Dick got the eviction notice, a consequence of ditching the landlord for months in a row. And my landlord is one tolerant cat. He lives across the courtyard from me and puts up with my late-night parties and drinking.
At first, Dick was the coolest. He's charming. Every month he had a different girlfriend. And this of a character who favors a 1978 fashion ethic -- usually a tee shirt with an NFL logo emblazoned across the front, brown belt clinging to midlife girth, a pair of my-ass-is-dragging Levi's. Acid wash is still way down the road for Dick.
Like an idiot, I had lent Dick my guitar -- an acoustic Takamine -- on good faith. But I did so after numerous beers. And this was the second time. When last I lent it to him, he returned it with a quarter-inch frayed hole on the guitar's backside near the bottom. A perfect round hole with frayed edges. His now-ex-girlfriend told me it was a bullet hole. She said somebody had shot at Dick's house and the bullet went right through the front door and landed squarely in the body of my guitar.
That acoustic guitar was all I had. It was all I wanted, really.
Like Jules Shear, I always figured that if a song works on an acoustic guitar, then it works as a song. The rest of a song, its arrangement, instrumentation, is just icing.
And if all of this sounds like some pity-party piss-fest, it is. Christ, the guitar itself ain't worth diddly dollarwise -- $250, maybe, and that's without the bullet hole. There were problems with the thing. I had to stuff bits of toilet paper under the upper bridge so the thing would tune evenly. And some of the tuning pegs suffered the ill effects of spilled beer; they cracked, wheezed and refused to stay in place when tuned.
But when I played her, she felt like home. She was home. I wanted her with me when I met my maker.