Jane pointed. “Where did that come from?”
Molly followed her mother’s gaze to the milk glass picture frame standing atop a shelf beneath the window. It captured the sunlight and seemed to glow.
But Jane didn’t see the frame. She only saw the black and white photo of her teenaged self, arm in arm with a handsome kid in uniform.
Molly answered carefully. “I found it in a box of old frames at the thrift store. Who’s the guy?”
Her mother moved toward the picture. “It needs to go into the trash. Now.”
Molly grabbed it and held it close. “I bought it. You can’t take it.”
“What if Jim sees it?”
“He doesn’t care about my stuff. And anyway, he never comes in here. He’s not allowed.”
“I come in here and I don’t want to see it.”
Molly examined the picture. It was only a snapshot but the lighting gave it a quality of old Hollywood glamour headshots.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Molly said.
“A nobody. Just trouble,” Jane answered.
Molly prodded, “Did you always like guys in uniform? This guy... Jim…” Jane’s husband, Jim, was a cop.
Her mother shot back, “No, I did not ‘always like guys in uniform’… That guy was a wild man. If vines were hanging from trees, he’d be swinging from them.”
Molly raised her eyebrows. “Woooie-hooie! Like Tarzan, eh?”
“More like Cheetah, if you ask me. Put it away. Or I will.”
Molly returned it to the shelf. “You’ll never see it again.”
Jane moved toward the door.
“Mom?” Jane turned impatiently. “Is he my Dad?”
A complex of emotions passed over Jane’s face. “No, honey. I barely knew him in high school. I don’t remember that picture being taken. Don’t even remember his name.”
“He looks nice.”
“Well, you don’t know, do you? Don’t pester me with questions.”
“I tell you, Moll. If he were your Dad, I would understand why you are such a brat. But he isn’t, so I don’t.”
Jane turned away. “Don’t get me started.” She walked out, shutting the door behind her.
Molly looked at the picture. Every week this old guy with a beard carried a box of knick-knacks and junk into the thrift store to donate or sell.
Sorting and pricing the stuff people brought in, fell to Molly. And then, of course, shelving it all.
Molly found it hard to believe the old guy and the kid in the photo were the same person. The beard aged him compared to her mother. Or, not that he looked so much older, but seemed more abused.
Her mother looked plenty old to Molly. But it was more Jane’s hard attitude settling into her face than the accumulated years that affected her.
This guy looked wrung out. His shirts hung on him like they’d outgrown him. Thinking back, she recognized the remnants of military bearing. He walked with dignity. But he carried a wounded quality too like something had gone missing.
That day he came in with a big box of old frames, he looked right at Molly and spoke with weight to his words. “There’s some good stuff in this one. Might find something in here you want to keep.”
Molly wondered why he hadn’t shown her the picture then. She figured he left it up to her. If attentive, she would find a treasure. That’s cool. He didn’t want to force it on her. But he knew.
The picture startled her at first glance. Initially, Molly mistook the girl in the picture for herself. But the guy? Then she realized it had to be her mother.
Molly hoped she wouldn’t end up looking the way Jane looked now. Her mother used to be pretty. What happened?
She knew it wasn’t Jim’s fault. He arrived late on the scene. But he didn’t help. Not Jim, nor anyone would squeeze Molly into her mother’s mold.
The other night Jim confronted Molly over what he heard in a café. His dinner with a fellow officer got interrupted when these boys started a commotion. Jim said he heard them talking about Molly in ‘unflattering terms’.
Based on that, Jim accused her of being a drug-addled slut. This even shocked her mother. But Jane didn’t defend Molly.
Molly said, “I can’t account for gossip, Jim. But if I were your boss, I’d expect harder evidence than a bunch of drunk kids spouting off. What about some credit that I wasn’t with them?”
Jim backed off. But he said, “Molly, I don’t care who your mother is. If I catch you breaking the law, you’ll answer to the law.” He hit the counter. “You’re fifteen. You don’t have the rights of an adult.”
Jim always got the last word in, regardless.
Next time the old guy came into the store, Molly almost missed him. Her boss had her sorting through a slew of CDs that people brought in. But the old guy came to her. He pointed at the CDs.
“You ever see any old copies of ‘Heartbreak Mountain’?”
“Brokeback Mountain? That would be in sound…”
“No, no, no… It’s a latter-day bluegrass group, ‘Heartbreak Mountain’. I played with them. They were good before dissipation sunk them. Too many train wrecks.”
Molly shook her head. “Oh, I want to thank you for that picture. Who are you? That’s you with my Mom? What’s your name?”
“Whoa, girl. Too many questions.”
Molly looked down. “Oh… sorry.”
“I mean, you’re working. Is it cool to stand around chatting up the customers?”
“Oh, right. But I have a break. Can I buy you a coffee next door?”
“No, you may not. But if you’ll let me buy you one…” Molly brightened. “Everyone calls me Smith.”
Molly offered her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Smith.”
Coffee became a regular event for them. Molly and Smith talked for almost an hour that day. Smith said he played guitar, occasional session work and weddings when invited. He started busking straight out of the Marines. He did whatever he needed to pay the bills, but mainly played music – paid or not.
“I recognized you the first time I came in,” Smith said. “You look so much like Jane, I did a double-take. I’m cleaning up, so I thought I’d pass that old picture on to you if you wanted it. Sorry about the crack in the glass.”
“I thought it was me at first. Mom doesn’t have a lot of pictures around, especially from way back. And she doesn’t talk much. But she said you are trouble. Are you trouble?”
Smith swallowed a chuckle. “Well, back then you could say I was full of a lot of… uhm, vinegar. I’ve moderated myself considerably since. I know not to step on other’s solos and if I borrow a lick, I’m generous in return.”
Molly looked confused by this answer.
Smith elaborated. “I liked her and we went out once or twice, but it never took. I didn’t hurt her though.”
Molly bit her lip. She had to ask. “Mom says no, but...”
“You’re not my father, are you?”
Smith laughed. “No, honey, ‘fraid not. I doubt I even got a kiss from her. But you can’t blame me for trying.” He furrowed his brow. “You don’t know your Daddy, then?”
“She doesn’t say much about anything. All I know is ‘long time gone’.”
Meeting for coffee became a regular event for Molly and Smith. In Smith’s terms, they resonated. Molly loved hearing about her mother. Smith couldn’t help but talk about music. Molly told Smith she loves passing time with him.
He got serious. “Don’t pass precious time with anyone, Molly. Keeping time is what it’s all about. Build solid memories. They’ll sustain you when times get hard.”
One day, Smith brought a guitar along. He noodled a bit and played some intricate riffs that held her spellbound. The notes poured out so fast, Molly couldn’t believe Smith was playing alone.
“Do you teach? How much do you charge?”
“You can’t afford it, Molly. Either accept it as a gift or walk on.”
He shared a few things about the guitar. “Imagine this is the universe in miniature. This little cosmos amplifies all the vibrations moving through it. All that light and sound from the stars bounces off each other and keeps on moving outward.”
Molly tried to follow.
Smith played a chord. “Take a simple chord. It’s like the seed of a melody. All the notes of a song scrunch up together in that one chord. String them out like a vine over twelve bars of time and the melody emerges.”
“The chord holds all the notes of the song?”
“It could. A bunch of them anyway. Think of a chord as a family unit. Harmony prevails when all the strings or notes are in tune with each other. Harmonious notes resonate. They lift everyone up.”
“But discord enters when a note or two is out of tune. A sour note drags everything down. It has its purposes in counterpoint, but over time it depletes. It neutralizes all the positive vibes.”
“Smith, are you talking about music or… life?”
“Same thing, Molly. You’re old enough to understand I’m talking about both. Music is the highest form of communication. It’s God’s voice resonating from heaven.” He grinned. “Watch this…”
Smith tuned the guitar using the harmonics of one string resonating with another. This mystified Molly.
“It’s over your head now, but don’t worry, you’ll get it.” He handed the guitar to Molly. “Here...”
A boy from Molly’s class approached. He ignored Smith. “Hey, Moll, are you going to the rave this weekend?”
Molly looked uncomfortable. Smith interjected, “Your mother ever teach you manners, boy? You have business with my kid? Show some respect. We’re in the middle of something.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were just some guy. You’re Molly’s father?”
“I didn’t say I’m her father. I said she’s my kid.”
The boy backed away, confused. “Sorry, Molly. See you ‘round.” He walked away shaking his head.
Molly smiled nervously. “I hope you know the rumor you just started. I’m your kid?”
Smith shut his eyes. “Student… I meant we were having a class. I should have said you’re my student.”
“I can’t wait ‘til my Mom hears I’m your kid.”
Smith laughed at himself. “In music that is known as a ‘clam’.”
“Anyway, I’m your ‘kid’ now, aren’t I?”
They laughed. Smith whispered, “A little secret for you… Basically, everyone chooses their family.”
Molly smiled. Smith nodded toward the guitar she held. “That’s yours, you know.”
“No, Smith. I can’t.”
“I’ve got a dozen of them. Keep it. Call it ‘permanent loan’ if you want. But you have to practice!”
Adding guitar lessons to her work and school took effort. But somehow it all worked for the best. Molly’s grades improved. And the mood at home got better too.
Mastering chords was a stretch for Molly. She applied herself.
One day they were noodling through a song. Lost in the process, Molly became aware Smith had stopped playing, she looked up to meet his gaze.
Smith said, “You were singing.”
“No. I don’t sing. Never have.”
“But you were. And beautifully. Don’t stop.”
Molly never sang. She didn’t even know how to begin.
“I don’t know how.”
Smith smiled at her. “You’ll figure it out.” He went back to his riff. In a minute, he looked up again. “Jane had a voice. I thought you might too.”
“Are you talking about my mother? She never sings.”
“She did then.” Smith returned to his guitar.
Molly asked, “Do you sing?”
“Like gravel on fine china,” he answered. Then he started coughing and couldn’t stop.
A few weeks later, Smith invited Molly to hear him play with his band at a wedding gig.
“It’s up at my house. Here’s the address. Oh, and you’re singing with us. Don’t worry. Just one song. Here’s the music.” He handed her a paper. “Oh, and tell Jane and Jim to come if they want. It’ll be fun.”
This was too much. Fun with Jane and Jim? “Smith! I can’t sing. I never sang before. How can I sing in front of a crowd? You want me to ruin the wedding?”
Smith smiled. “My dear, you can sing notes your fingers never dreamed of. Practice. Don’t think too much about it.” Smith started strumming the intro. “Let’s go through it.”
Molly couldn’t see the music through her tears. How is this happening?
She sang. And after a few passes, she gained some confidence.
Smith grinned. “That wasn’t so bad. And don’t forget, you’ll have back up. Cheryl, my girlfriend will pick up the harmony at the hook.”
Smith had a girlfriend?
Molly entered the kitchen, home from her job. Her mother started on Molly before she set her purse down.
“What’s this I hear about you and that man? I told you to stay away from that degenerate.”
“He’s teaching me to play, Mom. And that’s all. He’s just a guy.”
“I’ll tell you who to hang with. Why do you oppose me at every turn?”
Jim stepped into the doorway from the living room. Jane looked to him for support.
“It’s okay, Jane.”
Both Molly’s and Jane’s mouths dropped.
“I asked around. Everyone knows Smith. He’s well respected. And that says a lot for a musician.”
Jane fell into a chair and stared.
Molly couldn’t help but smile. Jim nodded at her.
“So, Mom. Smith invited the three of us to a wedding at his house.”
That brought Jane to attention. “That man is getting married? He’s too old for such stuff.”
Molly said, “Do what you want. I’m going. I hear there will be cake.”
Jane rolled her eyes.
A few days later, Molly looked up from her homework. She heard something and went to investigate.
Molly found Jane singing to herself while doing the dishes. Molly had never heard her sound so happy.
Molly took a chance and picked up the harmony. Jane stopped and turned to see Molly, who continued. Jane smiled and began again. They laughed together.
But then Jim entered and Jane stopped short. Jim tried to encourage them but the moment had passed. Jim shook his head and left.
Jane gave Molly a look. “Have you finished your homework?”
Molly returned to her room.
On the morning of the wedding, Molly got a ride up the hill to Smith’s house. He met her at the gate down the long drive. The house had a veranda where the musicians jammed until the festivities began.
Molly took it all in. “You really do live up a hill. This is beautiful.”
“And easier to defend.”
Smith introduced Molly to Cheryl. Everything about Smith and Cheryl felt comfortable.
Cheryl said, “Smith says you have good pipes.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m…”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, Molly, but Smith doesn’t flatter. If he says you can sing…” They nodded.
“Got it. Thanks.”
“Let’s go over the break.”
Cheryl rehearsed the harmonies with Molly and they had fun.
Smith’s group played for the wedding and mixed it up at the reception held on Smith’s front lawn. Molly sat nearby, enjoying the music.
When Smith nodded to her, Molly ascended the steps to join the band. She turned as Smith introduced her to the crowd. The valley opened before her.
Molly saw Jim watching from the back of the crowd. He waved and smiled. No sign of Jane.
No pressure. She only had to sing. It was all a blur from that point forward.
Afterward, Molly didn’t remember singing. She heard applause, even from the musicians. Everyone seemed happy. Cheryl couldn’t stop smiling. She said, “Let’s sing again, soon.”
Smith said, “You killed it.” And that was a good thing.
Jim drove Molly home. When they got there, Jane remained in her room.
The next morning, when Molly entered the kitchen, Jane sat drinking coffee.
Jane said, “Well you did it. Now you can get away from that man.”
“What’s your deal, Mom?”
“Don’t you get it? I don’t want you hurt.”
“He’s not hurting me.”
“He will. I know what he’s doing.”
“What’s he doing? He’s teaching me.”
Jane let go. “Don’t you know he’s dying?”
In a flash, Molly understood his coughing. And giving his things away.
Molly couldn’t speak.
Jane tried to comfort her. “Baby, I know... You care about him and then he’ll be gone. You need to pull away.”
Molly pulled away from Jane. “You’re wrong, Mom. You want me to keep my emotions stored away, like you. I should only bring them out to show for special occasions? Like that pin you wear every Christmas?”
Jane let Molly leave. She didn’t want to argue.
Smith met Molly for coffee by the thrift store a few more times. They played together but things were different. Molly couldn’t talk about what Jane told her. But she could see it now.
Smith knew she knew. Nothing she could say. Words wouldn’t do a thing. They could play music together. And so they did.
The day Smith didn’t show, Molly knew why.
Cheryl came into the store. She held Molly and they cried together.
Molly sang at Smith’s funeral. Everyone was there.