There were precisely 32 steps from the foot of their new apartment building to the crooked mat of suite 21b. Elizabeth and her mother had moved the third of January, meaning her thin, Californian fleece wouldn’t wear well in the brisk Massachusetts winter. The first thing Alice did, upon their arrival, while haphazardly flinging both suitcase, hatbox, and handbag onto the limp couch standing solitary in the room, was declare with zeal that a quick jaunt to the nearest second hard store was in order. Elizabeth loved her mother, to be sure, but Alice was peculiarly absurd in a way that made sticking to one state impossible. She made her home in people, not places.
So, while contemplating how best to start over, Elizabeth watched passively through the window as her mother hassled the wane, tired looking old man at the counter of Harley’s Repeats. She couldn’t remember a time in her life when anything came easy–Elizabeth never had much to say so people rarely lended the time to listen. Which didn’t bother her, she rather preferred the silence anyhow. Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth pushed the door open and walked in to the sound of the familiar chime of bells. Her mother didn’t spare a glance.
Content to wander aimlessly throughout the store until called for, Elizabeth traced with her eyes the cracks in the tiles on the floor. Spider-webbed cracks that splinted from aisle to aisle, sometimes skipping feet only to resume pace a few steps ahead. Elizabeth followed diligently one particularly long procession to the back wall of the store, where the crack seemed to scurry hurriedly under the stairs and disappear. Sitting patiently on the steps, Elizabeth observed a singular rusty bucket, filled almost to the brim with water, situated under a slowly leaking pipe. Drip. Drip. Drip. Rhythmic and unyielding. So much so that Elizabeth failed to notice the shriveled, grey man, glaring directly at her.
“You aren’t supposed to be back here, missy.” Jerking a wrinkly thumb in the vicinity of her head, the old man nods almost excessively.
Elizabeth looks up to see a sign reading EMPLOYEES ONLY, posted directly above her head. She narrows her eyes, slowly crossing her arms, “Well if you didn’t want people sittin’ here, then why don’t you have any chairs?”
The man chuckles lightly, his stormy countenance suddenly slipping away, “Well you got me there sweetheart, I’m too old to be tellin’ you young folks what to do anyhow.” With a shuffle he moves to settle down beside Elizabeth.
“How old are you anyways?” Elizabeth, jutted lip and hard eyes, challenges him with her stare.
“Didn’t your mama ever tell you askin’ an old person’s age is rude?”
Elizabeth’s eyes filter across the racks of clothing in front of her, over which she can barely see the frizzy top of her mother’s golden hair. “Mama’s never been one to hold her tongue.”
The old man hums, almost in consent, and then falls silent.
“What’s the bucket for?” Elizabeth asks, shifting her focus to the slowly filling pail under the stairs.
The man’s leathery face upturns in a small smile, “You know I could’ve fixed that pipe months ago, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
“Why’s that, mister?”
“Oh I don’t know–familiarity? The comfort of its routine? Something simple about rhythm? I can’t really put a name on it.” He sighs, letting Elizabeth think about what he’d said.
“Don’t you got any music you would rather listen to?” Her head is tilted, attentively awaiting his answer.
“It is a sort of music, in its own way. “
“It reminds me of home–of metal roofs and the rain, of times when life was simpler.” The old man trails off, staring at nothing particular, looking still, though, like he would prefer to say more.
“Oh,” muses Elizabeth, “you mean sorta like the sound our washing machine used to make back in California–we lost a quarter in it one time so it clinked and clanked every time it ran.”
“Exactly like that.”
Elizabeth then took a moment to evaluate the man that sat passively beside her- he was tall, yet unassuming, neatly dressed, but in the most simple way, and most importantly he was tired, not in appearance or stature, but in his countenance. Tired in the way that a man is apathetic to grief, after so long a time spent suffering. Elizabeth recognized that same tiredness in her mother. After a moment, the hollowed out man lifted his head to speak.
“You know what an idiom is kiddo?”
“Yessir–mama’s always tellin’ me that she’s never quite seen eye to eye with the world. That’s what you talkin’ about?”
The man was nodding along to Elizabeth’s response, “You got it missy, though I’m partial to the words music to my ears. Seems mighty fittin’ if you ask me.”
“So…” Elizabeth said slowly, “what you’re sayin’ is that it’s things like tin roofs, washing machines, and rattling AC units that really matter, the tiny details that we don’t think about. About makin’ music out of things that the world don’t care for?
“Maybe, maybe not. You know you’re pretty smart kiddo, I hope your mama’s looking out for you.”
Elizabeth humed in silent agreement. She sure hoped so. At this point Alice had called out for her daughter that they were leaving, and with a begrudging sigh Elizabeth hopped up off of the stairs and turned to look at the old man beside her. “Well, gee, mister, it’s sure been nice talkin’ to you. I hope you make it back home someday.”
He smiled sympathetically, “Thank you, Elizabeth, I hope that you find what you are looking for.”
Elizabeth, already walking away, was shaking her head, thoroughly confused by both his words and the fact that she had never mentioned her name. She rejoined her mother on the dimly lit stoop in front of the store, and together the two braved the journey through the deep night back to their apartment. After some time, Alice enquiries as to what Elizabeth had found so entirely engorossing about the back of the store that she had to call her name twice before she came outside. And after Elizabeth’s short recollection of the last half hour Alice was left to wonder.
“How strange darling, I could’ve sworn Mr. Harley complained of how difficult it is to find good help these days, and that as of now he was barely managing the store on his own.” At this point in her narrative Elizabeth had begun to reflect on the parting words of the old man, while Alice continued on. “Now I’m not saying you’re imagining things sweetheart, but there’s no reason for us to think Mr. Harley would lie.”
“How peculiar,” whispered Elizabeth, who was already lost deeply in thought about things real and unreal, true and untrue, and lastly, maybe most tragically, the mysteries of music, of detail, and of beauty.
“Most peculiar indeed.”
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