I walked through the seediest part of the shop, nerves on the edge of a razor, head slung low, eyes darting about the place like a crazed hummingbird. I knew what I’d come for. What I needed. And it was the one thing I couldn’t find. A whole warehouse full of axes and not a 12-string in sight.
Here’s the problem with guitar stores: one guitar by itself is impressive. Three guitars are mesmerizing. But you fill a whole wall with unpainted wood grain acoustics, and you stop seeing them. Sure, you get the overall impression of lots of guitars, but you can’t see them individually any more. They become a shiny wooden wall with lots of big holes in it.
That’s how I missed the 12-strings.
You see, a man has needs. Sometimes just any girl can fill those needs, and the man is easily content. But sometimes ordinary girls won’t do. Sometimes a man needs something specific, something not just any girl can give him. And sometimes when he needs that something specific he can’t get just anywhere, he’ll get desperate. He’ll pay for it. Through the nose if he needs it enough. And I needed a 12-string. Needed it bad.
The peddler sidled up to me, a human virus with a cockeyed, rotten smile. A ratty little man whose very presence made me feel unclean. But he knew his job, and he had me pegged on sight. He asked me what I was looking for, knowing he’d have it, knowing I’d pay to get it. I hated him instantly. Hated him and required him.
“Twelve strings,” I spat, a breathy confession dripping with shame. And lust.
He smirked, then nodded his greasy head in the direction he walked. A seedy back room. I should have known. Among the girls there waiting to be sold, waiting to be touched by anyone willing to pay for the privilege, were the elusive 12-strings. Cold sweat poured off of me, my heart pounding. I was so close.
There were three of them, each twice the price of the last. I tried to play it cool, but my hands were shaking. I had never paid for it before. It showed. The vermin sneered his nasty leer as I picked up the cheapest one. I ran my fingers over her body, listening to how she responded, and I was disgusted. Her price was exactly how she felt and sounded. Cheap. So I went to the other end of the bell curve.
The priciest girl there was also the prettiest. It was a lot to pay for a sensual fix, but I was desperate. Surely she would be what I needed. But no. She looked pristine, but felt and sounded as cold and hollow as wind through a cave. She was beautiful and perfect and absolutely dead inside. And her little sister, one step down, was just as lifeless. My stomach sank. All of this for nothing. Then the rat man, knowingly grinning from ear to ear, motioned to his left.
“And, of course, we have this one.”
There on the floor, hidden among lesser six strings, was my last hope. She was good looking enough, but nothing too special. I had walked past her twice and never saw her. But she was smooth under my fingertips. She felt good on my lap, arms wrapped around her. I tickled her strings, waiting for the letdown, prepared for the heartbreak. But…
Oh. My. God.
Her voice shamed angels. I’d never heard anything like it. She could be loud but soulful. Gentle but undeniable. She was just what I needed. Better than I needed. Better than I deserved. The rat man knew. The trash he’d pointed me towards, both gilded and soiled, were never there for me to buy at all. He’d been playing me from the start. He knew who I was going to take home before I did.
“She’s an ’86,” he lied. “Only been with one man this whole time. And she sounds great, too. Almost… buttery.”
And he was right. That filthy, greasy son of a bitch, he was dead right. There is a creamy, silken sound to her, to the way she sings when I run my hands over her, when I touch her just so. Soft and giving. Like warm butter.
There were other men there, and a woman, all looking for a girl of their own. They approached me, asked me what sort of chords I was playing that sounded so mystical, so divine, like a song you’ve never heard before but somehow know every note. It was a simple four chord tune in G, nothing any beginning guitar student couldn’t play, but coming from her it sounded like a spell being cast. Something ancient and powerful with a life of its own.
“Just some very old chords,” I said, a half-truth meant to spare them the knowledge that they would never again hear that sound. Because it wasn’t the chords, and it wasn’t the song, and it sure as hell wasn’t me. It was her. It was the way she sang. She was the mythical whore with the heart of gold, the pearl cast before swine. My diamond in the rough. And I was taking her away from all of this.
I left the three of them there as I shoved a wad of crumpled bills into the rat man’s eager palm. One last unsavory act for her to witness. One last sin in exchange for her freedom. A small price to pay. I hope they find hidden angels of their own, I really do. Because I’ve found mine. And I took her home with me.
1991 Yamaha FG-420-12A
12 String Dreadnought
August 21, 1991
TOP: Spruce, Abalone sound hole rosette
BACK & SIDES: Nato (Eastern Mahogany)
NECK: Nato (Eastern Mahogany)
FRETBOARD: Bubinga (African Rosewood), Mother Of Pearl inlay
BRIDGE: unknown, presumably Richlite or similar synthetic compound
2021 Update: This is the song we played that day in the guitar shop. Those ancient chords still hypnotize me, and she still sings them just as sweet. If you’d like to learn a little about Ms. Butterfly’s eponym, you can read about that amazing woman right here.