12-String

By Lee Harold

 

Let me tell you some bullshit. My buddy Taylor grew up with no parents. His uncle
who was really a cousin took guardianship after Taylor’s grandparents died a year apart
from the other. Taylor had space to sleep in but he never had a home.

The mom built a new family in Middle America. Richard, the uncle, lives in Riverside,
CA. While Taylor grew up with his dad’s parents, near Fife in Washington, his Dad split rent
with opiate addicts in downtown Auburn. King County court allowed custody between
discharge and conviction so Taylor grew up downtown. During one particular Auburn
summer, he met a girl named Amber who lived across the way. The way he described it, he
was DiCaprio and she a time-displaced Ruby Keeler, together two warm bodies sharing an
attic, dust glowing in gold sunlight under a cracked collapsing roof. Taylor played her guitar
while they smoked their fathers’ stuff. Soon after, Taylor turned thirteen and his dad lost
custody to his grandparents.


Taylor thereafter spent the school year in Washington and summers in Riverside. I
hadn’t met him yet, but my buddy Spencer had. He told me of a saxophone player whose dark
hair fell to the small of his back, who hunched rat-like and smiled with yellow teeth. A state-funded middle school art program gave Taylor a community.

I met Taylor in public high school through another arts program, high school theater.
Sophomore year there was something; I swear to god, we could each smell it on each other.
One morning I broke down. He held my head and I his shoulder. His hair smelled like
Spencer’s. We had an hour before school began so we stole away to the piano in a practice
room down the hall and swapped stories over chords.

We both loved our fathers because they had left us. Before high school he lived with
his dad but his dad hit him and dangled him from his throat against the kitchen wall until
one day Taylor was left alone. His larynx bounces when he speaks. Before high school I
curated a playlist for my dad’s funeral. My head dips as I fight the stutter he bequeathed me.

One thing Taylor and I could do, quite well I’ll add, was sing. That was easy. He caught
me at every chorus and I held him up at every verse. We supported each other those
mornings in the practice room. Taylor supports every person he knows like he plays rhythm
guitar: he makes space, adds fills, shifts his sound to accommodate their melody.


Since his dad’s release, Taylor tried to stay away from the downtown side of the Green
River. He had moved in with a mutual friend of his father and his uncle between freshman
and junior year. Amber stayed with her father in that old Auburn home and Taylor wasn’t
around as much to help her out. If he was there, Taylor told me, she’d be alright; she wouldn’t
hurt.

Later that year, Taylor went to Middle America to meet his birth mother. Back in the
dressing room he narrated images from the trip as he swiped through them on his phone.
His mother’s husband played guitar, too. The picture showed the man mid-strum while
Taylor played support on the keyboard behind him. The woman in the picture was Taylor
with bangs. Her second son looked like Taylor at ten. We enjoyed the pictures from his phone, but our attention was drawn to a mysterious trunk below the costume rack. Gifted to Taylor as a parting present from his mother that Christmas, the trunk contained a twelve-string
guitar. He looked up and, with a shrug, declared the guitar community property. 

We split off after months of playing guitar. I enroll at Santa Clara, Spencer at UW.
Taylor wouldn’t compromise. He auditioned on the 12-string and enrolled in Cornish College
of the Arts. Remember, this kid had no parents and no savings, so anything the government
wouldn’t grant he’d have to pay back. Taylor excelled.

We met for Christmas at Spencer’s frat — he had joined a frat — to catch up and jam
out. Taylor slayed. From drums to keyboard to bass to guitar he led the session. But he was
anxious, constricted. He said he was growing but he couldn’t write music, not there.

We walked up University Avenue. Oil streaks reflected neon light down the street. The
rain had turned to mist. I noticed by headlights how thin Taylor had become. Walking beside
me he said all people have no one to trust but themselves. We are ultimately alone. Other
people pretend but at the end of the day we are the only people who care for ourselves. Over
the sound of rain, I held his collarbone and agreed. I told him I cared for him and he didn’t
need me. There is nobody stronger. Spencer’s near, I tell Taylor. Twenty minutes any day, I
said, and I guarantee he’s with you.

Taylor dropped out of Cornish and took a quarter off to work, which culminated in a
transfer to Seattle Central for Zoology. He explained the change on the light rail a year later,
and I nodded; the animal kingdom amazes. Back at the frat where Spencer’d been crowned
Social Chair, I processed a stack of facts Taylor rattled off about the elephant shrew. Sengi
run cyclical trails and eat whatever steps inside. The trail is a trap, he told me

Stoned, we watched The Matrix.

Next day we trekked to Taylor’s home on Capitol Hill in preparation for La La Land.
He was open, engaging, earnest. He’d gained weight and spoke freely as we passed a pawn
shop on Pine.

I asked about his downtown apartment because I pay a bit for rent in Silicon Valley
and even more for school. With a job and two roommates Taylor said it’s alright. Not easy,
he breathed. Not easy, I echoed. But my school offers community events and Spencer’s got
frat community aid. I asked if he rations compulsively like me and he asked if I remembered
the 12-string. After paying a Cornish loan and losing his job piping cupcakes, Taylor had to
make rent. So he took stock of his room, picked up two guitars, and took a walk over to Pine
Street. I didn’t ask which two he took; I recognized them on the way to the theater.

That’s some bullshit — he had to sell two guitars! He had to sell his mother’s guitar.
The last thing he had of his mom he sold for rent. If I need rent, I have parents to beg, piggy-banks filled by suburban birthdays. I’d have sent money if he’d asked for help. His uncle
might have helped, too. Later I learned even Spencer never knew; Taylor didn’t tell anyone.

La La Land ended at four and Taylor got off at the Capitol Hill stop. Spencer and I
locked eyes in the light-rail. Inspiration and cohesion rarely intersect, but in that instance it
was understood that we had to help Taylor.

We would wait four minutes for our friend to walk ahead and then we’d dash to Pine.
The clerk would ask $500 for the guitar and the trunk. I would take Spencer’s card to a close
ATM, stack his savings with chapped fingers. Entering the Pawn Shop, Spencer and his slim
fingers would strum the solo to “Stairway” on a 12-string, astounding the clientele. I wouldbrag to the clerk as I passed him the cash that Spencer had once been accepted to Berklee
College of Music.

We would play the 12-string on the street, trade riffs and melody like we did in the
dressing room. Sound travels poorly from concrete to ear but we had always played more
for fun than for quality. The sun set when Taylor left the train, so we would sing in darkness
and strum away the cold.

Music brought us together in high school, a shared love of punk rock and blues riffs.
Powerful ballads and Jeff Buckley impressions tied us to the 12-string and home. When we
would return with his instrument saved, our best friend would act cool but rejoice internally.
We would play on gear from his roommates and drive late into the morning home to Auburn.

But that’s all bullshit because after Taylor left the light rail station, Spencer and I just
sat and imagined buying back the 12-string. We drove South from Greek Row and stopped
at the light on Pine. Capitol Loans was locked but through the window I saw the 12-string.
Spencer turned his head, dark but for the red light.

“I wish I could buy it for him,” he said, but he just returned from Whistler, Canada,
and I water down spaghetti sauce in Santa Clara, California, and Christmas approaches so
we drive on and wince when the radio plays “Stairway.”