By Scott Ragland
The college boys who live next door in the rental take off their shirts and play quarters on a ping pong table without a net. Mrs. Johnson sits watching from her front porch, the quarters flashing as they bounce and twirl up into the sunlit air, her dead boy’s 12-bar blues guitar spilling through the screen door, looped on auto-repeat.
“Don’t get drunk,” she shouts over.
A boy with corn-colored hair curling out from beneath a Carolina cap raises a can of beer in her direction.
“We’ll try not to,” he shouts back, then takes a drink.
She got his first guitar for his 10th birthday, a Gibson Squire with a practice amp thrown in for free. His teacher taught him to play her favorite hymns, “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and hits she grew up with on the radio, “Here Comes the Sun” and “The Tracks of My Tears.” She went with him to his lessons, carrying his guitar until he wanted to carry it himself. She’d sit in the corner and tap her foot to the rhythm of his fingers. She’d close her eyes and imagine the rhythm was the beat of her heart.
Mrs. Johnson starts to go inside, her hand on the knob to the screen door, but stops and turns. She goes down the porch steps, gripping the rail to steady herself, to where the guitar isn’t so loud and she can be heard without shouting.
“My boy went to the university,” she says, “and he was already in the neighborhood.”
The boy in the Carolina cap takes another drink.
“Good for him,” he says.
That first fall he rode his bike home on the weekends, his backpack filled with sonnets and sheet music, his dirty laundry stuffed in a pillowcase slung over his shoulder. She made his favorites for dinner, chicken parmesan, broiled scallops and coleslaw, strawberry shortcake for dessert. They’d sit at the kitchen table or on the back deck beneath the blaze of the Japanese maple when the weather was warm. She’d ask about his classes, if he’d met any nice girls. “Not yet,” he’d say. “You will,” she’d say. “You’re too good not to notice.” He’d smile and do the dishes.
The guitar starts again at the beginning.
“Who’s that?” the boy in the Carolina cap asks. “Eric Clapton? Buddy Guy?”
Mrs. Johnson smiles.
“Neither, but that’s nice of you to think so.”
She goes and sits back down. The boy fingers an imaginary guitar. She closes her eyes, hoping to hear a note for the first time.