I hope this does not seem self-indulgent. It is simply a short story about love.
When I was growing up, my parents would ask me what I wanted for Christmas. I only remember asking for two things. In third grade I asked for a trumpet, which I still blow, after I clean off the peanut butter streaks and dry slobber on the mouthpiece left by grandchildren. In twelfth grade I asked for the Duane Allman double anthology record album.
At that point my parents knew I was veering away from the values they hoped I would adopt. Their world excluded popular music, especially the drug-fueled psychedelic rock of the day. My world included it.
So when I noticed an album-shaped present under the tree, I assumed it would be George Beverly Shea singing Christmas songs or a Christian folk group that my parents thought I might tolerate. I would have received those albums in the spirit they were given—as polite and patient nudges to head back into the fold. But the album-shaped present was, of course, the double anthology album with Duane in all his rebellious hippiness on the cover. When I opened it, the entire story impressed itself on me in a moment.
The only places that sold such albums were “head shops” populated by people who looked like Duane Allman. The largest of these stores was a block away from where my mother worked at the YWCA in center city Philadelphia. I had been there many times.
I could see everything in detail. On her lunch hour she walked into that store, as stiff as could be, with blinders on to avoid seeing the many posters on the walls. No one like her—late forties, a bit overweight, devoid of all hipness—had ever been in that store. She knew that, as did every clerk and patron. She asked the person who seemed to be the cashier if they had the Duane Allman album. As he went to get it, she wondered if the smell in the store would do something evil to her so she kept her breathing to a minimum. The wait seemed interminable, and with each passing second, she became more confident that someone in the store would break out in reefer madness. The clerk came back with the album. My mom noticed the cover and wavered. Was she doing the right thing? Would this corrupt me even more? But this was for her son, so she would see it through to the end.
I don’t think anyone saw the tears in my eyes when I opened it. All I said was, “Did you buy this on Sansom Street?”
“Yes,” she said.
I couldn’t get out another word. The story itself was the present. The album was secondary.
But I don’t let the grandchildren touch it.