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Ari, Mimi and I went to the movies the next night. The line was long and when we finally got to the ticket booth, Ari started fishing through his pockets, trying to find enough coins to pay. He pulled out old LifeSavers, a bubble gum wrapper, a rusty AA battery, a button declaring him a Special Saver at the local drug store, and more shredded tissues than anyone should have to look at. I was tempted to whip open my wallet, slap a fifty dollar bill down, and pay for all three of us.
But I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be a kid with only a kid’s amount of money.
Then we went to the snack counter. Mimi ordered a large popcorn and a small soda. It was $6.50. She only had $6, so she had to have the guy take back the popcorn and get a medium. Meanwhile, I’m standing there with enough money in my pocket to buy snacks for the entire line. I wanted to be able to say to her, “Get whatever you want. It’s on me.” But I couldn’t. She turned down my offer of fifty cents but if she knew I had $100,000,000 I think she would have been OK with it.
The next day the three of us were in a bookstore because Mimi had to buy a copy of David Copperfield, part of the Read Books You Don’t Like program in school. We were browsing, and she was thumbing through a book about the history of comics and their relationship to the historical events of the time. It looked great but it cost $35 so Mimi wasn’t even thinking about buying it. But could I say, “Let’s get it and then look around for more books that seem interesting”? Nope. I couldn’t even buy her the hardcover version of David Copperfield even though Mimi always says how much she prefers hard covers to paperbacks.
I had been able to buy myself two tropical fish. That’s what my $100,000,000 had been good for so far.
It was driving me nuts.
At our next band rehearsal, we were still totally terrible. But occasionally we would accidentally hit the right note at the same time and it would sound good. There is something special about playing music together that I don’t think you can understand until you’ve done it. A sound comes out that needed three people to be heard, if only for one second.
That happened maybe twice. The rest of the time we played our instruments, made jokes, tried out different ways of arranging the songs, drank soda, and were silly.
And then while Ari was coming out of a big drum solo that sounded like someone had rolled a drum set down a stairway, Mimi started playing her bass guitar. After four measures, I was supposed to come in with my guitar. But just as Mimi was hitting the lowest note her guitar makes, the sound from her lousy amplifier went from really bad to not even being music. You know those noisemakers you blow through and they make a razzing noise? That’s what Mimi’s amplifier now sounded like. She tried playing high notes and the razzing sounded more duck-like. Since we knew of no bands that have been successful by playing the electric duck, we stopped and considered the possibilities.
“It doesn’t sound good,” I noted cleverly.
“It sounds way broken,” Ari said.
“Maybe it’s just a loose wire or something,” Mimi said hopefully, unplugging it from the wall. “Do you have a screw driver?”
“Give it a minute,” I said. “Sometimes electrical stuff stores electricity.”
“I’m just going to take off the front,” she said. Ari handed her a screwdriver. The front cover came off easily. “Well, that’s not good,” Mimi said, pointing to a large rip in the paper speaker.
“We could tape it,” Ari said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. But we tried anyway. Now the amplifier sounded like a duck with a cork in its bill.
“What are we going to do?” Mimi asked? “That was my brother’s amp.”
“Is he going to be angry?”
“No, he hasn’t played in years. He pretty much gave it to me. But I can’t afford to replace it.”
The magic words: “Can’t afford.” They were magic because they stopped people from doing things. But I had bigger magic. Much bigger.
“I may have money saved up…” I began.
Mimi looked at me sharply. “I thought you said you had about $50 a couple of weeks ago. Besides, I wouldn’t let you buy me a new amp. They cost hundreds of dollars.”
“Well,” said Ari, “I guess that’s the end of The Scutters.” He put his drumsticks down. “Too bad. We were getting really good.”
No, we weren’t, but why argue?
“Well, I was going to have to return my drum set soon anyway,” Ari said. His parents had rented it for him to try out.
“So,” said Mimi, “Let’s see. We have one drummer playing the air drums, one bass player playing the ripped-speaker amp, and one lead guitarist with a toy amplifier.” I was using an amp designed for little kids who wanted to pretend that they’re on the radio. “Quite the Top 40 group.” She packed her bass into its cardboard carrying case.
“Are you quitting?”
“I’m not quitting, but I can’t play if my amplifier sounds like the back end of a cow with indigestion.”
“Ewwww,” said Ari. “Once I was visiting a farm with my parents and…”
“Ok, Ari, we don’t have to hear about that,” said Mimi, who really had no one to blame but herself for bringing it up in the first place.
Mimi headed toward the door. “I guess I’ll go home and get ahead on my homework or something.”
“Can you wait a minute?” I asked.
“Sure. You want to ride with me?”
“No. I mean, I’m not sure. Can you just give me a minute to think?”
“Well, goll-lee!” Mimi said, surprised at the sharpness in my tone. Usually when people say, “Can you give me a minute to think?” what they actually mean is, “Back off! You’re rushing me.” But I actually wanted a minute to think.
It’s hard to think when your friends are watching you. How do you sit in a thinkful position? How do you stroke your beard if you don’t have one? I felt them looking at me, wondering what I was thinking about. Of course, mainly I was thinking about how hard it is to think when people are watching you try to think.
So I gave up thinking and instead decided.
“I’ll get you a new amplifier,” I said.
“With what? Fifty dollars? That’s very nice of you, Jake, but …”
“No, I’ll get you whatever amplifier you want.”
“Ok, I’d like a Fender 810 Pro cabinet with, oh, let’s see, a Fender Bassman 300 All Tube head.”
“That’ll run you, let’s see, that’s $1,000 and $1,100, a total of about $2,100.”
“Well, not entirely ok.”
“Aha,” Mimi said. “I didn’t think so!”
“But the money is ok.”
“The money is ok?”
“The money is ok.”
“So, what isn’t ok?” she asked.
“You can’t get anything too obvious.”
“A Fender 810 Pro with a Bassman 300 All Tube head is pretty obvious.”
“That’s the problem,” I said.
Ari interrupted. “Could you two please talk in longer sentences?”
“Yeah,” said Mimi, “and maybe you could explain what the heck you’re talking about.”
“Sit down, Mimi,” I said, patting the couch next to me. “Really, you want to be sitting for this.”
She didn’t look happy about being told what to do. But she sat down anyway. “I’m sitting. Go ahead.”
“I won the lottery.”
“Hey, that’s great!” said Ari.
“Congratulations,” Mimi said. “Do your parents know?”
“Nope. I haven’t told them.”
“You’re lying to them?”
“No, I just haven’t told them.”
“Interesting. So, how much did you win?” Mimi asked.
“A lot a lot?” asked Ari.
“More than a lot a lot.”
“How much more?” Mimi asked.
Mimi laughed once. Ari seemed to lose interest. He was assuming that I was teasing. “No, really,” she said.
“Uh huh. How much, Jake?”
“You’re right. It wasn’t $100,000,000. It was $111,000,000, but I gave $11,000,000 to Maddie because I promised her 10% if she’d keep it quiet.”
Mimi laughed harder. Ari looked angry. “Why don’t you just tell us?” he demanded.
“It’s true. I was the big winner.”
“You bought a ticket even though your father is the biggest anti-lottery guy in the state?” Mimi asked.
“You never buy tickets,” Ari pointed out.
“Not exactly.” And then I told them how by being a nice boy I’d been given a ticket by a lady who looked like a spaceship and how I was hiding it from my parents and how I’d bought two tropical fish.
“That’s great,” Mimi said, “but I don’t actually believe you.”
“Me neither,” I said. “I wake up every day and I check to see whether it’s still true. And it is.”
“Prove it,” Ari said. He didn’t like being teased.
“Buy something. Something big and expensive.”
“I can’t. I have to pay in cash because I don’t have a credit card. And I can’t buy anything that my parents can find out about because then they’ll know. And you guys can’t tell anyone!”
“Don’t worry,” said Mimi. “We don’t believe you enough to tell anyone.”
“But when you do believe me…”
“Then we both promise never to say a word. Don’t we, Ari?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess.”
“You can’t guess. You have to promise,” I said.
“All right. I promise not to tell anyone your fake secret. It’s not very nice, you know, Jake.”
“Sorry but it’s true. Tomorrow let’s go shopping for bass amps. And I’ll get me a new guitar.”
Ari looked hurt. “How about something for me?”
“That’s going to be tough. I can buy an amp for Mimi and a guitar for me because we’ll keep them here in your basement and your parents won’t notice or think anything of it. But if you were to come home with a brand new, fancy drum set, how would you explain it to your parents?”
“I found it?”
“We’ll have to try to think of something to buy you that your parents won’t notice.”
“Oh. Good! … Not that I believe you,” Ari said.
“No, of course not.”
The next day after school, the three of us went to the outskirts of town where there was a store that sold musical instruments. It was one of those stores that looked like it was owned by someone who really loved what they sold. New and used instruments were stacked everywhere: brass over here, woodwinds over there, keyboards in the back. A guy was playing some pretty great guitar in the big area lined with guitars of all sorts. He finished the line of music he was playing, put the guitar down, and said “Just looking or can I help you?”
This was the moment. Mimi and Ari had come along with me, playing it safe by pretending I was fooling them. But they also knew me well enough to know that I wouldn’t lead a salesperson along only to reveal at the end that we were really just wasting his time.
It should have been easy. After all, we were there to buy. I’d taken $5,000 out of the bank account. Fifty hundred dollar bills were in an envelope in my backpack. So, all I had to say was, “We’d like to buy an amp and a guitar.”
But I hesitated. I looked around. I cleared my throat. I said “um” a couple of times just to make it clear that I was still paying attention. I checked to see if my shoes needed tying.
“Make yourself at home,” the man said. “Try out anything you want.”
So we did. I took down an expensive electric guitar. “Let me plug that in for you,” the man said. “I know some stores tell kids not to touch. But it’s my store and playing music means touching an instrument just right. That’s what I always say. Here you go.” Not only did he plug the guitar into an amplifier, he turned it up loud. Very loud. So loud that even my lousy playing sounded good. Every note I played caused every other instrument in the place to vibrate at the same frequency. From alto saxes and bass drums to xylophones and zithers, they all were playing along with me. I wasn’t playing the guitar. I was playing a music store.
It was the best I’d ever played.
After the vibrating and echoing had ended, the store owner said, “Cool, isn’t it?” and I could only nod in reply.
“How about a bass amplifier,” Mimi prodded me.
“Ok,” I said. “Excuse me, but do you have any bass amplifiers?”
“Sure we do. New and used. Come over here. And take down one of those bass guitars so you can try them out.”
Mimi selected a cheap one. “I don’t want to scratch it and have to buy it,” she explained to me.
The man picked out a big old bass amp and plugged Mimi in. And he turned it up loud. Everything shook. If Mimi had found the right notes, she probably could have hopped the entire store over a couple of feet.
“That’s an old one,” the man said, “but I like it better than most of the new ones. Very rich, bass-y bass.”
Mimi nodded, overwhelmed. “It’s bass-y all right.”
“Try out some of the others if you want,” the man said.
“I love this one. It’s old and it’s beat up, but the sound is amazing.”
“Good,” I said. “Ari’s parents are less likely to notice a used one than if we came in with a new one. So, should we get it?”
“Yeah, sure,” Mimi said, not sure if she was serious or just playing along with a joke.
“Ok. And I’d like to get myself a guitar.”
“Sure,” Mimi said. “How about this one? It’s only …” she looked at the price tag, “$1,500.”
“Yeah, I like that one. But this one feels better,” I said, handing her a beautiful new guitar with a bright orange sunburst finish.
“And it’s only $1,250. What a bargain.”
“I think so, too. I’m going to get it.”
“Great. And I’ll buy you a flat pick for it. Just to keep up my end. What do they cost these days? Twenty-five cents? Heck, I’ll get you two.”
“Can I get these drumsticks?” Ari asked.
“Get a dozen of ‘em,” I said.
“Ok, big shot,” said Mimi. “Go up to the nice man and buy the guitar, the bass amp, and the half dozen drumsticks.”
“And the flat pick,” Ari said.
So I gathered my courage and went up to the man. “Excuse me, but we’d like to buy some stuff.”
“Sure,” he said. “What’ll it be?”
“Well, this is going to seem strange, but I was given a lot of money for a big event…”
“Like a birthday?” he suggested.
“Sort of. So, I have a whole bunch of cash, and I’d like to buy…” and then I just blurted it out: “This bass amp, this guitar and a dozen drumsticks.”
“And a flat pick,” said Ari.
“Have you seen the price tags?” the man asked.
“Yes. The guitar is $1,250 and the bass amp is $650. And the drumsticks are $5 each.” I reached into my backpack and took out twenty bills. “And this is our money.”
“Whoa!” the man said, surprised I actually had the cash.
“Oh my gosh!” Mimi said.
The man drummed his fingers on the counter. “Usually when a kid is given a bunch of money for his birthday or his bar mitzvah or whatever it was, and he wants to spend it on instruments, his parents come in with him,” he said.
“I’m sure,” I said. “But this is different. My parents would be fine with it.”
“I believe you, but I have to check with them.”
“Look at it from my point of view. I trust you. I like you. I watched how you treated each other. You’re good friends and that means you’re good kids.”
“But, I can’t take $2,000 from a kid who’s, what, 13 or 14 years old. Suppose it’s money his parents gave him for college. He brings his equipment home and I get an angry call from his parents. How dare I take that money from a kid? Didn’t I know better? I’ve got to give the money back, and I’m lucky if the parents don’t call the police on me. You understand?”
“Look, I feel terrible. I’d love for you to have the instruments. I’d love to make the money selling them to you. But I can’t. Not like this. Bring your parents in and we’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’m sorry but I’m sure.”
I must have looked as sad as I felt. I liked that guitar a lot, and I wanted Mimi to have her bass amp. The man saw how I was feeling and said, “I won’t sell the amp or the guitar to anyone until you come back. Any time in the next week. Ok? Then you can bring your mom or dad in…”
I wasn’t going to be bringing my parents in. “Thanks, but don’t bother.”
“Ok. Whatever you say. Sorry, kids.”
“Us, too. But thanks for letting us play. You have a very cool store.”
“Thanks. Come back again.”
As we were getting on our bikes, Mimi said to me, “That was hard. We believe you.”
“Yeah,” said Ari. “You won the lottery.”
“I only wish we could celebrate,” I said. And then we rode home to Ari’s garage, my cheap guitar, and Mimi’s broken amp.