by Myles Abroad
You never know what you'll find browsing in a pawn shop.
Encore Mark Adcock
"Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
Empty and emotionally raw, Katherine heard the words whispering in the soft, stifling breeze; a prayer echoed as the earth enclosed her mother, three days before. A long-stemmed red rose, stark against the dark ploughed earth; a fleeting memory as her awareness drifted to the chaotic sounds surrounding her: of cars accelerating, tires screeching, horns honking and muffled shouts in a smorgasbord of accents. The ebb-and-flow of the city.
Realizing where her friend was leading, Katherine planted her feet and felt a sharp blow to her back. She grunted and stepped aside into the entryway of the store, as a feverish faced lady, sweating heavily under a mop of red hair, and struggling with a shopping bag scowled at her. "Hey, watch what you're doin'," the overheated woman hissed, rejoining the flow of shoppers on the busy sidewalk.
Rubbing her back, Katherine glared after the ignoramus, shouldering her way through the crowd in her short summer dress. She glanced at Eleanor when she squeezed her arm and spoke. "People are not the friendliest around here, Kat. You ok?"
Katherine wiped her wet brow. "Yea, I guess I shouldn't have stopped like that. I'm not used to the city."
Eleanor laughed, perspiration beading on her forehead and merging with freckles. "That's us, Kat, two small-town white girls on a day out in the big smoke." She rearranged the purse strap on her shoulder and swept her damp fringe from her eyes. "C'mon, let's go inside," she said nodding towards the shop door.
Katherine stared at the filthy store windows, imprisoned behind rusty iron bars, displaying gaudy junk; a garish neon sign, above the entrance, flashed its welcome. Uninvited memories resurfaced: a twelve-year old Katherine, hungry and ashamed, sat in their dilapidated Buick, outside a pawn shop, while her Mother hocked their meager possessions to put food on the table. Those early days after her Father left were bitter times, memories she forced back into the recesses of her mind. "I'm not going into a pawn shop, Ellen."
"Why not? It'll be fun." Katherine's wilting friend peeled the top of her tank top from her glistening chest, and let it snap back. "It's so hot. Besides, we got hours to kill before the concert starts. I should have paid more attention to the train timetable." She grabbed Katherine's hand. "Come on. There might be air conditioning."
Eleanor looked as though she was sizzling, but at least was wearing shorts, unlike Katherine's choice of jeans, sodden and chafing the backs of her knees. Katherine's reluctance wavered as she felt sweat trickle down her back, the promise of cooler air enticing.
Like a moth drawn to a bug zapper, she allowed Eleanor to drag her in, the door chiming as they entered. She shuddered and wrinkled her nose as cool air, tinged with a musty, moth-ball smell, enveloped her, then grinned when her friend gave her a furtive glance while pinching her nose. Thankfully, the store assistant had his own nostrils buried in a comic book, too absorbed in his literature to care about a customer's opinion of his fiefdom: a room cluttered with an eclectic plethora of treasures, valued possessions sacrificed in a time of need.
Walking along the aisles, Katherine felt a surge of gratitude for her friend. In the four years they shared the same office space, ever since graduating from high school, they had been close, but it was only in the last year when her mother was diagnosed with cancer that they had formed a tight bond. Eleanor had been incredibly supportive, positive and thoughtful, just as she was now. She reached out and took Eleanor's hand. "Thanks, Ellen, for the day out. It means a lot. "
Her face dimpled in a smile. "Well, I wanted to see Springsteen, too. It's not all about you, girl."
Katherine felt a tingling ripple through her body as she was swept up in a wave of excitement. Springsteen, live in concert! They had seen him once before and it was a night she would always remember: the music, the energy, the crowds and the atmosphere, a glorious feast of Rock 'n' Roll. "I still can't believe you got tickets. It was sold out months ago."
Eleanor winked. "I got my secrets, Kat."
"Yea, like Greg?" Katherine chimed in and laughed when Eleanor's face turned crimson.
Eleanor gasped. "Oh, please... The office geek. Why me?" she huffed, looking away. Instantly, her face brightened and she pulled Katherine over to a shelf. "Look, Kat, VHS players. I haven't seen one in years."
A few models sat on display, along with a collection of tapes. Eleanor was transfixed with her find as she flicked through the cassettes, scrutinizing the titles. Uninterested, Katherine abandoned her engrossed friend to her passion, and glanced around the hoard of ransomed items, valuables surrendered and forgotten. Against the far wall, she noticed a display of guitars, suspended from a rack; a soft, hushed voice, the faint melody of a chord drifted from them, luring her, begging her to cradle them.
She ran her hand from one to the other, a soft tuneless strum, feeling their story; some were new, but musically impaired, others exhausted, yet acoustically sound; each told a tale, all drawing her uniquely. Her hand hovered above one, the urge to hold it overwhelming her: an old scuffed up acoustic, its body, two-toned, fading from dark red to cream. The fret board was worn with use, black with a distinctive line of cream blending down its center, from neck to body. So familiar, akin to her father's guitar.
A melody of notes played in her head, a simple ballad.
"Hey little Kate, is that your Name?
Why do you cry with so much pain?"
A silly song, but hers, one her Father sang to her when she was upset. She shook her head as memories stirred: his blue eyes sparkling, his timbered voice lifting her spirits while he strummed on his old guitar.
She removed the guitar from its stand, and caressed its' body as she remembered sitting next to him as he played to her Mother. His voice trembled with tenderness, softy plucking a love ballad, the gentle hum of the steel strings as he slid his fingers along them, changing chords. At those moments, her Mother's eyes shone with adoration, a glimpse of what had once been a shared love.
"Oh, don't you know that we love you?
And don't you know how much we care?"
She sighed, ancient history, memories she hadn't thought of in years. About to return the guitar to its home, she noticed a deep gouge on the side of its body.
The hollow sound of his guitar's echoing cavity, the clang of its strings as it was thrown in anger.
She hesitated, and then turned it over.
With shaking hands, she leaned against a counter staring at the back of its body. In large block childish writing, 'KATEY' was scratched into the glossy finish: her name, her father's pet name for her.
He had shouted, but relented when tears poured down her cheek. Scooping her up, he cradled her on his knee. He laughed then, telling her his guitar was special now: it was autographed by his little girl.
"Girl, don't you to know what people say
There's silver in that cloudy grey"
She inhaled deeply, remembering his scent, a mix of cigarettes and cologne. After he left them, she would go to sleep at night hugging his old sweater just to smell him again.
She wiped her eyes when she noticed Eleanor watching her, and walked up to the counter, holding the guitar by its neck. Her friend smiled, and joined her.
"See? I bet you're glad now we came in here. I didn't know you played."
"Not anymore." She showed her the back of the instrument as tears welled up again. "It was my Dad's guitar. See-I scratched my name on it when I was a kid."
"Wow!" Eleanor looked into her eyes. "Are you ok? I never heard you talk about your Dad before."
Katherine shook her head. "No, he left us ten years ago. My Mom said it was 'cause he was a drunk."
" And once a problem's shared by you,
It is a problem bared by you."
Katherine turned when the sales clerk cleared his throat.
"Can I help you?" he said, rubbing a pudgy hand through a mop of thick, greasy black hair. He stood with his large gut resting on the counter, his T-shirt straining to maintain its stitching while advertising the ingredients of his last meal.
"I'll take this. You know who pawned it?"
He narrowed his eyes, and slid his hand through the neck of his shirt to scratch his shoulder. "No can do, missy-that'll be fifty bucks for the guitar."
She removed the price from her purse, hesitated, and then withdrew another note. Butterflies took wing in her belly as she slid his tariff across the counter, and waved a twenty dollar bill at him.
"Look, twenty says you'll tell me what I need to know." He eyed her with slitted eyes as he placed his well-earned money in the cash register. Katherine felt a sharp nudge in her side, and glanced at her friend long enough to see her mouth a silent, "What you doing?" She ignored Eleanor's reproof, and focused on the fat lump behind the counter, not daring to breathe.
He nodded his head. "Alright, he goes by Hank."
Like a punctured tire, Katherine let out her breath, her shoulders sagging as a foolish hope extinguished. She was so sure-Hank-never heard of him. She looked at Eleanor, and whispered, "It's not him, not my Dad."
Her friend stroked her back. "I'm sorry, Kat. Forget about it and let's get something to eat."
Katherine felt a slight tremor in the neck of the guitar, barely perceptible, a fast rhythmic strum. Whispered singing drifted through her mind, a man with glittering blue eyes, her father, strumming a fast medley, and laughing as he serenaded her.
"Hey, good lookin', what you got cookin..."
Hank-Hank Williams, her father's icon, always played his songs. A smile spread across her face as hope rekindled.
Her extortionist smirked as he reached for his bribe. Before he could take it, Katherine snatched it back. She heard Eleanor snort a nervous laugh, and gasp "Kat!"
He folded his arms across his chest, glowering; now the King of his empire, his fleshy, unshaved jowls dimpling into a frown. "What the hell?" he grunted.
"Not good enough, mister. You know where he lives?" Katherine said, in a firm voice that didn't betray her nerves.
The opportunist glanced at the prize in Katherine's grip, and licked his lips, possibly enticed by the stack of donuts it would buy. He sighed and leaned his arms on the table, a defeated man.
"He's a drunk, lives over in the rat trap on Fifth and Oak. Once in a while, he comes in with somethin' to sell. I was surprised he was gettin' rid of that. I see him regular, playin' on the streets. I ain't seen him in a while, though."
"How do we get there?"
"It ain't far." He pointed towards the entrance. "Take a left outside and Oak's three blocks down. Left on Oak, and Fifth's four blocks down. The building's on the corner, on the left." He straightened his lips into a semblance of a smile and held out his greasy palm
Katherine paid him, and left the shop, this time dragging Eleanor back out into the heat and city-summer-smells, a first-world mix of melting tar, exhaust fumes and fast food. She felt Eleanor tug on her arm and yell, "Wait a sec, Kat," but she pushed through the swarm of people, focused solely on her destination. As the crowds thinned out at an intersection, Katherine stopped when Eleanor dragged on her arm, passersby stepping around them, with stifled curses.
"Hold your horses, Kat, where you going?"
"Didn't you hear him, my dad lives on Fifth and Oak." Katherine pointed at the sign on the intersecting street." That's Oak Street, Fifth is only a few blocks down."
Eleanor's eyes rounded. "Your dad? I thought you said it wasn't him."
"I know, but he probably changed his name. I just know he would choose Hank." Hearing herself speak, pleading for understanding, her conviction began to slip. Was she going insane?
Eleanor smiled, and gripped her arm. "Just listen to yourself, hun. It was probably some guy called Hank that happened to own your dad's guitar," Eleanor soothed. "You just lost your mom. You're only setting yourself up for more hurt."
Katherine heard her friend, and knew she was right: the hollowness deep in her soul beckoned, grief welling within it. The image of a long-stemmed red rose, stark against the dark ploughed earth, flared in her mind's eye, then drifted. She dropped her head, a tear slipping down her cheek. "I'm all alone, Ellen."
Her friend wrapped her comforting arms around her. "I hear you... You still got me and I'm not going anywhere."
The guitar slipped from her hand, clanging on the ground. The strings resonated in a strange, but familiar, tone; strains of the same refrain rang in her ears.
"And when you feel there's no more rope,
Remember, girl, there's always hope."
Katherine pulled out of her comforter's embrace. Scrubbed her face and picked up the fallen instrument, renewed in her belief and determination. "I know it's him. I'm going to find him."
Eleanor studied her. "If-if you find him, then what?"
"I'll... I don't know, Ellen."
"He walked out on you guys years ago. After all you've gone through he doesn't deserve you. Forget about him."
"I just got to find him. I know it all sounds crazy, but I do."
Eleanor's face crinkled in laughter. "I've never seen you act this way before and what was that detective act in store? Just like Magnum PI. I couldn't believe you gave that creep twenty bucks, though."
Katherine smiled, pleased her tough act had impressed her admiring friend. "It worked, didn't it?" She laughed then. "You still watch those old shows?"
A dreamy smile spread across Eleanor's face. "You bet. I could never get tired of watching him."
"Does Greg know about your infatuation?" Katherine teased.
Katherine's expression dipped, and she put her hands on her hip. "You sure know how to ruin a moment, Kat."
Katherine laughed at her friend's mock annoyance, but her mirth evaporated when she glanced at the guitar. She searched Eleanor's face. "You coming?"
"What about Springsteen, Kat?" Eleanor said in a tone on the verge of begging.
"We have time to kill, Ellen. This shouldn't take too long," Katherine said, hoping she was right for her friend's sake, and for hers.
Eleanor sighed, and scanned the neighborhood. "You know we're in a seedy part of town, right?"
Katherine, obsessed with her thoughts, had been oblivious to her surroundings. Not now. Her eyes widened and she gathered her purse under her arm, staring down Oak Street, a street lined on both sides with aging four and five story brownstone buildings. Weeds flourished from cracks in the pavement, and boarded up windows stared down on the squalor, resembling patched eyes, preferring blindness. Trash drifted in the breeze to gather in the shelter of doorways and alleys, while men, in their two's and three's, lazed beside cars stranded on blocks. The air shimmered off the blacktop as cars drove past, the passengers encased and insulated from the sinister environs, just passing through, never stopping. A shiver ran up Katherine's spine.
Eleanor licked her lips. "Looks like a good place to get mugged, or worse... " Her words trailed off, echoing Katherine's thoughts. Eleanor hesitated, then shook her head. "Alright, if it means that much to you, but you'll owe me, big time."
"You got your mace you're always bragging about?" Katherine asked.
Eleanor rolled her eyes at her. "Yea, but it doesn't mean I'm looking to use it."
"I guess now would be a good time to take it out-just in case."
Eleanor removed her weapon, and gripped it in her hand. "Kat, we keep walking, looking straight ahead, and ignore everyone. Oh, and don't pull any stunts like you did in the pawn shop. Got it?"
Katherine smiled with what she hoped was reassurance, something she did not feel. "We'll be fine, Ellen, it's only a couple of blocks," she said as they turned down the gauntlet, the city noises fading into the background, while cars passed intermittently.
Residential noises, desperate in their poverty, drifted from open windows and doorways, a quiet murmur of voices interspersed with cackling laughter, the screams and shouts of rage as couples fought, the desperate weeping from the heartbroken. Most people they met stared through them, too subdued by life, or narcotics, or both to care about a couple of hicks wandering through their neighbourhood.
Katherine and Eleanor approached two shirtless men sitting on the hood of a car, speaking in hushed tones. The sweat on their black muscular torsos glistened and the gold chains they wore glinted in the sunlight. As they drew nearer, the men fell silent, staring, their dangerous eyes raking them. Katherine felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle, feeling like a piece of meat that may satisfy a twisted appetite. Looking straight ahead, they strode by, Katherine not daring to breathe until she knew they were of no interest to them.
On the opposite side of the street, three young toughs, in baggy clothes and reversed baseball caps, strutted their stuff swaggering to rap music, blaring from a ghetto blaster. As Katherine and Eleanor walked by, they whistled and yelled cat calls. Eleanor grabbed Katherine's hand when the thugs started to cross over to them, but to their relief, the rowdies were distracted by a wino who tried to roll his shopping cart through their turf. From the corner of her eye, Katherine glimpsed the poor man, in tattered clothes, stumbling around his cart, trying to rescue his worldly possessions from thieving and indifferent hands tossing his belongings, discarding them as though trash.
"Kat, if we get out of this, I'll never complain again about our boring job," Eleanor whispered.
By the time they arrived outside of a four story building on the corner of Fifth and Oak, Katherine's shoulders were in a knot. An old man sat on the entrance steps drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag. He wiped his bearded mouth with the back of a dirty hand. Katherine jumped when he called out to them.
"Hey, pretty things, what you doin' with Hank's guitar?"
Her heart pounding, Katherine started to walk up the steps, but stopped when Eleanor grabbed her arm. "Kat, I thought we agreed not to talk to anybody," she hissed, giving the geriatric a nervous glance.
"Ellen, relax. He seems to know my dad."
Eleanor looked over her shoulder at the group of hooligans still harassing the homeless soul. Thankfully, they had lost interest in them. Eleanor sighed; her shoulders dropping as she returned Katherine's stare and then nodded. "Alright, but I'm waiting right here."
Katherine climbed the steps, and knelt next to the man. "You know where he lives?"
He squinted up at her, and grinned a rotten-toothed-smile. "Why you want to know?"
Katherine leaned away from his foul breath. "I want to return his guitar."
He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb. "Third floor, room twelve. Maybe he'll start drinkin' again now that he's got his guitar back. He just preaches now."
Eleanor's face sagged when Katherine indicated they were to go into the building. "You got to be kidding me," she said, her horrified friend's bulging eyes.
Katherine followed her gaze and took in the dark brown building. It was grimy, the first floor windows boarded up, and streaked with scars left by smoke, a metal fire-escape zip-zagged up the front of the building, its' entrance gaping wide and dark.
"It's like a gateway to Hell," Eleanor whispered.
Katherine stepped down, and grabbed her reluctant friend's hand, those irritating butterflies beating their exhausted wings in her stomach again. "You watch too many movies, Ellen. It'll be fine," she said pulling her up the steps as the inebriated old man cackled.
Inside, the stone lobby was dark and cool but they were punched by the stink of urine, vomit and bleach. Katherine took shallow breaths as she crossed to the stairwell, while Eleanor gasped and coughed.
"Aw gross-this is disgusting. Do we really have to do this?" Katherine's disgusted friend moaned, but didn't stop. Instead Katherine felt her press in closer to her. In the gloom of sporadic and dim light bulbs, they climbed the stairs to the third floor and entered a long, corridor lit by flickering fluorescents and daylight filtering through a narrow window at the hall's end.
Standing outside the door with '12' stenciled on it, Katherine raised her fist to knock but hesitated, afraid of what lay beyond.
What if it's not him?
What if it is?
Eleanor stood so close, Katherine could feel her breathing heavily. "Yea, maybe this was a bad idea..." Eleanor began to whisper, then gasped when Katherine rapped on the door.
Katherine held her breath, and waited.
She breathed out slowly, and glanced at her friend.
"At least you tried, now let's get the hell out of here," Eleanor whispered.
About to walk away, Katherine heard shuffling on the other side of the door and a bolt slide. Eleanor stood at her shoulder with the mace ready as the door opened to a crack. In the gloom, a gaunt man stared back under a head of thinning grey hair. His face was lined and red, purple capillaries stood out on his cheeks, the mask of a man who had abused himself for a long time. She didn't know him.
His blue eyes glistened with tears; she knew those eyes. Her voice caught as her vision blurred with tears. "Dad?" she uttered, with a quivering voice.
Her father pulled the door open, revealing a slim man in loose fitting clothes, thinner than she remembered, emaciated. She noticed a tremor in his hands as they hung by his side. He leaned heavily on one leg, with his head slightly cocked, a posture only he could have. She was drawn to him, to care for him, to be there for him-for her. A hushed tune caressed her soul, blending with her song.
"While all that matters in this life,
Is that we share our woes and strife."
But she couldn't, was unable, unwilling, to reach out to him. In the silence that followed, sweat trickled down his forehead, seconds slowing into eons. "Katey... I... Please come in," he said, finding his voice; one she had wept to hear again.
Katherine hesitated with a glance at Eleanor. "Dad... this is Ellen."
"Mr.-Cummings-a pleasure to meet you," Eleanor said, then squeezed Katherine's arm, mouthing a silent, "Awkward!" followed by a loud, "I'll wait out here, Kat."
Eleanor glanced back towards the stairwell and licked her lips. "Don't worry about silly old me, I'll wait here-don't be long-please."
"Pound on the door if you need me," Katherine said as her brave friend adjusted her grip on her weapon of choice, and gave a sick-like smile.
Returning her friend's smile, Katherine followed her father into his tidy, but sparsely furnished apartment; an intimate mix of cigarettes and cologne hung in the air, drawing repressed feelings of love and loss. In the faint light, a television, muted, flashed the news in vibrant colors. Before her stood a man she loved, grew to resent, openly hated and then forgot; her Father, a broken man, and yet she yearned for a connection.
"Katey, I... "
"Mom died... "
He dropped his head, sighed, and then stared at her. "I know... "
"Why didn't you come to the funeral?" she burst out, a small hole in a dam trickling, foreboding more to come.
"I... I'm sorry... I didn't think I'd be welcome."
Katherine nodded-he was right. He wasn't welcome, not then. She released her strangling grip on the guitar, the strings imprinted in her palm, and let its body rest on the floor as she offered it to him.
"I got your guitar."
He nodded, but didn't move to take it. "Katey... I'm sorry. Sorry for not being there... "
"Why-why did you go?"
"Look... " He put up his hands, then dropped them. "I-I struggled-with drink. I was no good-for you, or your mom."
Tears spilled down her cheeks. "You were a drunk- just say it." Her father flinched, slapped by her words; part of her howled, seeing the pain her outburst caused him, but he had no right to decide that-none. Where was he when she cried for him at night, was bullied in school, and needed his advice on her first date? She had hoped he would show at her graduation, and then wept for his support when Mom got cancer. She opened her mouth to scream all her hurt, but rage caught in her throat.
"Katey... I'm sober. Three months now... That's why I got rid of the guitar-to break with the past."
She swiped at tears on her face. "It's too late... " She turned away, and leaned the guitar against the couch, then noticed, beside an open Bible, a picture lying face up on the coffee table. Behind the cracked glass, she and her mother smiled back at her, a photograph taken at the fair. It was a day she vividly remembered, a day as a family.
"This was a mistake," she whispered, overpowered with a need to flee as memories surged. Reeling, she stepped towards the door, bumping against the couch, and then froze when her father spoke, the ache in his tone poignant.
"I said goodbye to Irene-your Mother-the day after the funeral."
A flower had appeared on her Mother's grave: a long-stemmed red rose, stark against the dark ploughed earth.
"That was you-you left the rose," she said, turning to face him, a man she was beginning to understand, one tortured by their past, and plagued with guilt. The guitar clattered onto the floor with a jangle of notes that harmonized into her ditty as the refrain of the last stanza sighed.
"Because we need a second chance,
There's always time for one more dance."
She heard her Father's muffled voice. "Do you still believe in second chances, Katey?"
She gazed into his moist eyes, and let out a shuddering sob. "There's always time for another dance, Dad."