My older brother broke our portable radio just last week when he went swimming in the lake with some friends and heard our local disc jockey introduce the new Elvis Presley record. He rushed to turn up the volume but knocked the little radio into the water instead. The radio sank straight to the bottom. I watched it disappear from my spot on the grassy shore. He didn’t know I was watching; I always snuck out to follow him and his friends so that I could listen to the music too.
When he got home, he told Nana that a couple of schoolboys stole the radio out of his hands and tossed it around like a football but one of them let go and it shattered on the ground. And it hadn’t been his fault, no ma’am. I hated when he lied like that, but Nana was deathly afraid of water, so I was grateful that he did. If he had told her the truth, she would imagine us drowning like that radio and never let us go swimming again. In the summer months, swimming was all we had.
Nana called me onto the porch and told me to head into town. We needed to save up for a new radio and Nana thought I needed a job to keep busy, with me nearing my thirteenth birthday and all. I wished she would send my brother in my place, since he was the one who broke the radio, but Nana insisted it be me. I think she thought it about time I grew up a bit. He had studying to do, she said, and duties to tend to as the man of the house. “If you go now boy, you’ll make it back before dark.” I felt real skinny whenever she called him a man one second and said I was a boy the next.
Dust covered the trail into town and I kicked up a storm with every step. Now, more than ever, I wished for some music to keep me company. Even before he broke it, my brother would hog the radio and take it with him on all his solo adventures. He commanded the music at home since our parents were long gone and Nana was indifferent about anything but the nightly news.
I passed by the lake and imagined our little radio, nestled between some rocks and algae in its depths, still playing music. If I listened hard enough I thought maybe I would hear a melody in the bubbles that came up to the surface, but the air was full with the lazy hum of summer and nothing else. Music always felt like it was a little out of reach for me.
The air drooped with humidity and heat. A drop of sweat crawled from my hairline to my temple before dropping off my chin and onto the dry ground, where it immediately dried up. I could see in the distance the outlines of Main Street, hazy from the curtain of dust that hung in the air, and my mouth grew dry with the expectation of having to walk further. Nana told me to ask for work at the grocery store. They would pay me a dime a day to bag produce. The soles of my feet ached. I could feel my big toe, poking out of a hole in my sock, rubbing unpleasantly against the leather of my shoe. I did not want to bag groceries. The boredom would kill me, that is if the heat didn't get to me first.
Then, like an oasis, a solitary shop appeared on the side of the road from behind a cluster of scrawny trees. I had probably seen it a thousand times but it seemed like the kind of place you forget the second your eyes travel elsewhere. More a shack than a building, the store was no bigger than the bedroom my brother and I shared at home, and far less remarkable. A wood plank nailed above the door read Lewis’ Tackle Shop. It hung slightly off-kilter.
A hint of curiosity stirred in the pit of my stomach. I was tired, thirsty, and hot. Nana never stopped at this store, even though it was much closer to home, and instead preferred to take my brother and I shopping for fishing gear at the shiny Fishing Emporium on Main and Jefferson. She would only walk us into town on our birthdays, and only if we begged. At the shop, we would stare at the display case and not buy a thing, feeding our hearts with fantasy instead. I loved the idea of holding that fishing pole, something in my hand capable of conjuring a living thing from the depths. An instrument in creation.
I could make a quick stop and then head on to the grocery store. Nana wouldn’t know.
I heard the distant hum of music coming from inside and that seemed to make my mind up for me.
The ding of an overhead bell signaled my arrival as I pushed open the door. A wave of cool air hit my face and I sighed in relief. On a shelf, a small electric-powered fan blew a soothing breeze straight at me. I was surprised the store even had electricity, but I supposed that since most of Main St did, there was no reason for it not to.
A portable radio rested on the front counter, by an ashtray full of cigarette butts, but it wasn’t turned on. The music was coming from the back room. I enjoyed Elvis Presley like my brother, but this felt like all the quieter bits between his singing, held out until the emotion was almost too much to bear. The air quivered with strings of sound. Someone was singing over the chords, a breathy melody that reached inside my chest and tapped at my ribs as if to say, let me in. Hypnotized, I drifted towards the music, resting my elbows up on the counter so I could hear better. I could do nothing but listen. In my stupor, my arm slipped and I knocked a tin full of fishing hooks onto the floor. The clang broke the spell.
“Who’s making all that racket?” a husky voice called from behind the store. The music was gone. I jolted upright as if I had been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I stammered and began scooping up the fishing hooks. One dug into my palm and latched on. I let out a yelp.
The back door swung open and in walked Lewis, only I’d never heard of Lewis being a woman’s name. Her face was round and fleshy, bright red from being outside, and there were wrinkles on the outer corners of her eyes that made me think she smiled a lot. But she definitely wasn’t smiling at me.
“You make this mess?” she muttered, moving to grab a broom from the corner of the shop. With expertly ease, she swept the fishing hooks onto the pan and returned them to their rightful tin. It was then that she noticed the hook embedded in my palm, already getting puffy and turning a grisly shade of purple.
“What have you done to yourself? Let me take a look at that.” She reached for my hand and bent in close enough so I could feel her breath on my fingers. Without hesitating, she jerked the hook out of my hand. A drop of blood oozed from the hole left behind.
“Feel better?” she asked.
I nodded, and then remembering my manners, muttered a quick thank you.
“You’re welcome,” she said. Finally, she smiled. It lit up her whole face and I couldn’t help but smile back. Seeing her grin at me, I recognized her. She was always hanging around the lake, fishing, with a paper fan in hand to fight the heat. That same fan lay on the counter now and she retrieved it, beating it hard towards her face. The furious red of her cheeks cooled to a light pink.
“What brought you to my shop?”
I stared at my hands. “I was heading into town to ask for a job but then I heard music, and I wanted to listen so I came inside. I’m sorry for spilling all the hooks -”
“You like music then?”
“I thought it was coming from the radio,” I admitted.
“Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever heard one,” she responded. “It’s just me and my guitar, playing for the wind.”
“I’m Peter,” I blurted out.
“Nice to meet you, Peter. My name’s Marge Lewis.” She looked me over, scanning my face as if searching for an answer to a question she hadn’t asked. I looked away. My face blushed deep red. She held up a finger, ordering me to wait, and headed outside. A second later she came back, guitar in hand.
The instrument glinted in the hazy light of the store. The deep mauve of the wood was cared for and polished. The color reminded me of the wine Nana drank on special occasions. Sometimes she would let us wet our lips with drink to get a better taste for what we couldn’t have.
I had the sudden urge to run out the door.
“Do you want to hold it?” Marge asked.
Instinctively, I shook my head.
She frowned. “I can teach you how to play like me.”
“Nana sent me into town to get a job -”
“Fine, you can help out in the store when there’s a customer and if business is slow I’ll give you lessons.”
My chest ached with longing. But deeper, in the pit of my stomach, I could feel fear swelling. I was afraid of reaching out and touching the guitar. The pain in my palm rang out and I hid my hands behind my back.
Marge, kind eyes and all patience, rested the guitar on the counter between us. “Tell me what’s on your mind, son.”
No one had called me son before. Before I could help myself, I was blurting out the contents of my soul. Telling her all about how the radio sank to the bottom of the lake just like Mama. About how she used to sing us the most beautiful lullabies and that was all the music I needed when I was little. But now I was yearning for more and that felt like betrayal. About the looks Nana gave me across the dinner table as if she had tasted something sour. About my brother being the man of the house and how that made me nothing at all.
Marge listened and listened until I was spent. I brought my hand up to my face and realized my cheeks were sticky with tears.
After a moment of silence, she spoke. “Give me your hands.”
With no energy to resist, I rested both of them, palms up, on top of the guitar. She held them gently.
“Fishing hook made a nasty little hole there. Might leave a mark. But you can still wiggle your fingers can’t you?”
“That mark will hurt until one day it don’t, and when the day comes that it don’t, you’ll want to remember what it felt like when it did. It’s a little curse we humans have. Wanting to forget and then wishing we could remember.”
She took my right hand and rested it on top of the guitar strings. She gave it a little strum. “This is how we can remember.”
The strings vibrated beneath my fingertips. I could feel the beat of my heart pulsing in my hand, begging to begin.