It was a busy intersection, with traffic rushing through and three of the four corners bustling with commerce. On two of the corners stood grocery stores, shoppers swarming in with lists and hustling out with ingredients for holiday dinners and parties. On the third corner was a home improvement superstore, half of its big parking lot filled with cars, the other half brimming with Christmas trees and people. Huge, fluttering banners on the fence surrounding the lot proclaimed Guaranteed Lowest Prices & Biggest Selection. Brilliant lights were strung from tall poles, and atop the poles were speakers booming dance versions of holiday tunes.
On the fourth corner was a much smaller tree lot occupying a portion of the parking lot that had served half a dozen small shops, all of them shuttered and with For Lease signs in their windows. Approaching that corner, not in a car, but on a bicycle, were two men. The man pedaling was very large,not very happy looking, and had a guitar case slung across his back. The other, not nearly so large man, was unencumbered by any package, which was good as he was sitting on the handlebars, swaying side to side, swinging his feet back and forth and singing "All I Want for Christmas" at the top of his lungs.
The large man bobbed his head from side to side, trying to find the right counter rhythm to the smaller man's swaying, which was making it difficult for him to see ahead for more than a second at a time.
As they drew alongside the little tree lot, the man on the handlebars raised his voice even louder, in gleeful competition with the speakers across the street, but he was cut short when the front wheel of the bike hit a fragment of pine tree stump on the sidewalk, stopping the bike suddenly and sending him tumbling. He landed next to a beautiful noble fir. When he looked up he saw a young boy next to the tree. The boy was not looking at him, but rather at the large man, who had barely kept himself and the bicycle upright and who was now inspecting the guitar case, which had swung around in front of him.
"Jerry, you idiot!" the man growled. "You're lucky nothing happened to her." He gently eased the guitar case back behind him. "You can walk the rest of the way.' But when he tried to push off on the bike, he found that the front wheel was bent. "Gah!"
"Are you okay?" a woman was standing next to the boy, holding his hand and looking down at Jerry.
"Yeah, sure," said Jerry. He stood and inspected his light jacket, which was ripped near the elbow on both sleeves. He followed the gaze of the little boy. "Don't worry, he's harmless."
"I think he's looking at the guitar," said the boy's mother. The boy nodded slightly, his gaze fixed on the instrument case. "His father used to play." She looked back at a man who was holding a tree out for a young couple to inspect. They shook their heads and went back to their car.
"Hey, Ted," said Jerry, "how about a tune for the kid?"
"No, thank you," said Ted. "I've got a broken bike to carry all the way home, thanks to you." He lifted the front of the bike off the sidewalk and tried to spin the wheel, which wobbled and caught against the forks.
"I can fix that," said the father, who had come over to the fence.
"I don't want to bother you," said Ted.
"It's not like I've got anything else to do," the father said. He gave his wife a rueful smile.
"See?" said Jerry. "He said he can fix it."
"I heard him." Ted lifted the bike with one hand. "You're still not getting any more rides." He carried it inside the tree lot.
The father took a look at the wheel. "Make yourself comfortable," he said, nodding at some hay bales. Then he took the bike behind a trailer sitting at the back of the lot.
Ted sat, placing the guitar case across his lap. Jerry began wandering among the rows of trees.
"Don't you love the smell?" Jerry said, practically burying his face in a Fraser fir. He sneezed loudly.
"Idiot," muttered Ted, noticing too late that the little boy had come to sit next to him. "Not you," he said to the boy. The boy just stared at the guitar case. "You like guitars?" The boy nodded. "Me too. You want to see her?"
The boy's eyes widened. He didn't nod or say anything, but it was clear that he would very much like to see the guitar. Ted opened the case. The boy looked at the instrument, its honey- golden body and dark neck, intricate inlays on the fretboard and gold plated knobs and pickups.
"Play him something," called Jerry, still checking out the trees.
"I don't know any kid's tunes," said Ted.
"He likes Christmas songs," said the mother, who had come back with two mugs of coffee. Ted accepted one of the mugs, took a sip, then put the case on the ground in front of him and took out the guitar.
Ted strummed a couple of chord, then closed his eyes, as if to shut out the world, especially the canned music coming from across the street, and began to play "Silent Night". His huge hands, which seemed to be too thick, too clumsy of construction to negotiate the six closely spaced strings, moved over the fretboard with the grace and unpredictable but purposeful delicacy of butterflies touching down on a bank of flowers, extracting the sweetness of each blossoming note, then rising and touching down again and again.
The mother sat next to her son. He climbed on her lap and she wrapped her arms around him and began to sing. Although Ted made slight changes, added little embellishments with each repeat, she followed easily, holding her son, her own eyes closed as she sang.
As they began the last verse "Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love's pure light" the boy nudged his mother and she opened her eyes to see her husband standing there, the repaired bicycle at his side. The other sounds of the intersection had seemed to fade to almost nothing, a distant hum of activity. As Ted strummed the final chord Jerry's voice came from the rows of unsold trees.
"I don't know, how much do you think it should be?"
They all looked in Jerry's direction. He was standing at the end of a row, holding a tree out for an old man to inspect.
"It doesn't matter," said the old man. "I've got no money to buy a tree. I just heard the music and thought I would come have a look. Remember better times."
He turned and went back to the parking lot. But when he got to the old sedan, he opened the trunk, took out a battered guitar case and came back to Ted. "This belonged to my best friend. We got together every Christmas and played carols for the neighbors. Just strolling down the street, Sam on his guitar and me on my fiddle. Used to drive the wives crazy sometimes." He smiled for a moment. "Sam died three years ago. Lottie, that's his widow, gave his guitar to me. I'm ashamed to say I was going to sell it. But it looks like the music shop isn't here anymore." He stood there for a moment, as if studying Ted. "I'd like you to have it. It's got a lot of music left in it and the way you play I know it'll be in good hands."
He opened the case to reveal an old acoustic guitar, the soundboard almost worn through around the pickguard. "He called her Frankie," he said. "Never told anybody why, including me."
"Sarah's the jealous kind," said Ted, his arms enveloping the golden instrument on his lap. "But if Frankie's looking for a new home, you brought her to the right place." He nodded at the father. "Jerry, hold the bike."
Jerry took the bicycle and the old man handed the guitar to the father. He held it high, close to his ear, plucked a single string with his thumb and nodded. But he handed the guitar back to the old man.
"She's beautiful," he said. "But I can't give you anything for her."
"But if he's giving it away," said the mother.
"We don't take handouts," said the father.
"You weren't just going to give it to him," said Jerry. "Were you?"
"Ahh," said the old man. "Actually I―"
"Nah," said Jerry. "He was talking a trade. One guitar for one tree."
"My Marian would like a tree," said the old man. "And Frankie sure is tired of sitting in that case all the time."
"I don't know," said the father.
"We have a lovely noble right over there," said the mother. "It needs a home too."
"Then it's a deal," said the old man.
The father took the guitar once more. Ted played an open string and the father tuned the old guitar to the honey gold Sarah. Ted began to play "Silent Night " again and the father joined in, strumming chords tentatively at first, and then with more assurance. When he looked up briefly the old man was gone. But coming from the parking lot, by where the old sedan had been, came the sound of a violin, playing "Silent Night" along with the guitars. As if drawn in by the music, came cars into the parking lot; and out of the cars came people. Families and young couples and friends. And they gathered around the music and sang and then they bought trees. All of the trees on the lot.
Except the noble fir. It was already gone.