Jan/Feb 1999  •   Fiction

The Contessa

by Jeff Farmer


I bought it at a yard sale. It was an archtop electric guitar with the name Contessa on its peghead in imitation pearl inlay. Its finish was a transparent yellow-red sunburst with exotic tints, like mango and passion fruit. I was pleased to discover, after I had taken care of a few minor repairs, that it played well: a nice little guitar, in spite of its cheap tuners and bolt-on neck (signs, usually, of an inferior instrument). I put an ad in the Trader:

Jazz guitar, archtop electric, Contessa label, made in Italy, with nice case.

At that time a functional guitar could be had for 75 bucks or so. For 250 dollars you could, with a little luck, buy a professional quality instrument. The Contessa was priced right in between.

I got a call the first day. "So, you're selling a Contessa," a man said. "What's that?" He seemed upset that I was selling something he had never heard of. He asked a few questions. When he was satisfied that I knew what I was talking about and that the Contessa was not, so to speak, an exceptional value, he told me that he collected certain rare instruments of Italian manufacture.

The next caller asked me to describe the guitar. He asked how it sounded.

"Not bad. I mean, it's not a great guitar, but it plays well and sounds pretty good," I said.

"Have you had a lot of calls?"

"I've had a few calls." There was a pause. "The ad hasn't been running very long," I offered.

A few days passed. He called again.

"Do you still have it?" he said. "Maybe I'll come look at it in a day or two."

A few days passed.

"Can I see it?" he said.

"Sure," I said. We agreed on a time. I began to give him directions.

"Wait a minute," he said.

"Hello," said a woman's voice. "Where are you?"



"Up the stairs on your left, one flight," I said into the intercom. I pushed the button to let them in.

I opened the door a crack. They were a long time coming up the stairs. There was a knock. I smiled and opened the door.

An old man was standing there. "Nice to meet you," he said. "I'm Harry."

Behind thick glasses his eyes moved slowly. He must have been well past his sixties, a thin, rather unsteady man with a neat mustache and nice head of white hair. His handshake was unassertive.

With him was a slender woman, alert, nicely dressed, a few years younger perhaps. I assumed she was Harry's wife.

"Here it is," I said. The guitar was in its open case resting on the arms of a chair.

Harry stood for a moment looking at the guitar. He picked it up. The Contessa was lighter than most guitars. Its lacquer finish was thin and glossy. He turned it this way and that.

"Nice," he said.

He was right. The Contessa made a good first impression.

I pulled a chair over for Harry. His wife sat on the sofa.

Harry sat down and began to play "Bye Bye Blackbird."

Across the room a TV bad guy was scrambling up flights of stairs. A TV detective was in determined pursuit. The chase emptied onto a roof. An old man in an undershirt was tending to his pigeons. The bellbottomed bad guy, in passing, knocked him down. (My lack of attention to Harry's playing implies no commentary. In fact, Harry played rather well.) The old man picked himself up and shook his fist at the tansuited detective running by. Someone ducked a clothesline, or was it silent gunfire?

The chase continued from rooftop to rooftop. Finally the bad guy, inspired, no doubt, by his hatred of law and order, pulled off a spectacular leap. The detective stopped and, with a pained expression, looked over a ledge. Cut to a long shot of the alley below. He cursed and backed up to get a running start. Long shot in slow motion.

"Not bad," Harry said. He turned the guitar around and squinted at it. "I might put a new pickup on it, though." I tried to imagine Harry holding an Exacto knife, trying to strip delicate leads. I tried to imagine him leaning over a smoking soldering iron. "I used to fix guitars. I have pickup I can use, a Gibson."

He played some more. "I might be able to use this on the job," he said, looking at his wife. She looked back.

"Yes, this just might do. I play with a band every Wednesday night," he said. "Right now, I'm playing without an amplifier. Have you ever tried asking a horn to play quiet? Nobody can hear the guitar. I have a good amplifier, a Fender. I've had it twenty years. I'm not going to sell it, though. Everybody asks."

He looked at his wife. "What do you think?"

"If you like it, let's get it," she said.

"She carries the amplifier," he explained. "She's my roadie." He looked at her again. "You don't mind?"

"It's up to you, dear."

Harry looked at me. "Well," he said. He looked at the guitar. "Will you sell it for one twenty?"

One hundred twenty was low. Still, I wanted to sell the thing. So what if the old guy got a good deal?

"Fair enough," I said. "It's a deal."

Harry looked at me. For the first time he seemed really to focus. Was he wondering if he should have offered less? Some people like to haggle. Maybe Harry was one of those people.

Harry put the guitar back in its case, jostling it. He reached slowly for his wallet. He counted out six bills. His wife watched.

"Thanks," I said. Harry closed and latched the case. "I hope you have fun with it."

"Thank you," he said. "I think with the new pickup it'll do nicely."

He reached for the case handle. I opened the door. "Come down and sit in with us some Wednesday night," he said.

"Thanks, I just might do that." I had his number written down somewhere.

His wife paused before following him to the landing.

"He plays with the senior citizens at the senior center," she said.



About half an hour from us in a former Mennonite village, now a suburb of ugly, expensive houses, there's a large open air flea market. My wife and I drove down one Monday morning.

I was looking for tools and musical instruments; my wife, for glassware, I guess, and old kitchen utensils.

It was late morning, and it was beginning to get hot. Some vendors had left already; others were leaving. My wife paused to look at something while I wandered ahead. Sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck was a man playing a guitar. It was Harry with the Contessa.

Another, younger man was minding the table. He was beginning to pack up his wares—if that's the right word for stuff men can't sell but refuse to throw away. As I walked up Harry looked at me, without recognition, I think. I was surprised to see him without his wife.

The Contessa wasn't really meant to be played in the open air. It was meant to be played through an amplifier. Its action was set low. It required a soft touch. Late at night in a small room.

I walked away and stood waiting for my wife. She walked past Harry's booth.

"Look," I said, "that old guy is playing my guitar."

"Where?" she said.