Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Guitar Story

I had to figure out a way to change Momma’s mind, but how? I wouldn’t say she was smarter than me, but she somehow always seemed to know what I was trying to do. Still, I had to try – kids didn’t come out of The Fink’s house alive.
“Momma, you and Daddy can’t go out tonight. You have to stay home.”
From inside her walk-in closet, I heard her reply, “Why not, Sweetheart?”
“Um, because... um, Daddy said the car was making funny noises, remember?”
“Jeffrey, that was two weeks ago. The car is fine. Have you seen my black shoes?”
I threw myself across her bed. “No. And I don’t feel good. I think I’m sick.”
“Oh dear. I’ll have to get you to bed right away then, and maybe I should call Steven’s mom and tell her you won’t be able to come over tomorrow.”
Well that didn’t go the way I had hoped. “No, it’s okay. I’m feeling better now.” I heard a thump coming from the closet.
“I’m glad to hear it, dear.”
I rolled over into a sitting position and let my feet hang over the edge. I sat there, thinking about what to do, listening to the sound of hangers scraping over the bar and boxes being shifted around. I sighed. I had to tell her the truth, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me.
“Momma, you can’t go out. You can’t send me to The – to Mrs. Fink’s house. She’ll cut me up and feed me to her cats!”
“Jeffrey Morgan!” Her head momentarily emerged from the closet to glare at me. “You know better than to talk about people like that.”
“Honest, Momma, Chris told me. She’s got a hundred cats and she–”
“That’s enough, Jeffrey. Mrs. Fink is a very nice woman.”
“Then why did she bury her husband alive?”
“Chris said–”
“I don’t care what Chris said. You keep that kind of talk up and you’re losing you’re TV privileges for a week. Mr. Fink died in a car accident years ago, and Mrs. Fink would never hurt anyone. I want you to be nice while you’re over there.”
“What about Becky?” I asked.
She sighed; it was always a sure sign she was getting annoyed with the conversation and wasn’t going to give in. “I’ve told you twice already. She’s out of town this week, and Daddy and I have to go to this dinner with his boss.” She finally exited the closet and looked down at me. I guess I looked pretty pitiful because she tousled my hair and sat down next to me on the bed.
“Look at me, Sweetie,” she said. “I love you. Do you think I’d let something bad happen to you if I could stop it?”
I shook my head. She gave me a kiss on the top of my head before asking, “Then why do you think I’d let a murderer baby-sit you?”
I thought about this for a while before coming up with an answer. “Maybe she put a curse on you?”
“Oh Jeffrey. I don’t think anyone could ever rival your imagination. You’ll be fine tonight. Now, go get your bag and pick out which books and toys you want to take with you. We need to leave in twenty minutes.”

As we drove to The Fink’s house, I sat staring out the window, planning my strategy for survival. It was raining – I took that as a bad sign. I had always imagined that the front of cars were faces, the headlights being eyes. Tonight, every face I saw was evil looking or sad. I took that as a bad sign too. I decided that if I didn’t bother the lady, maybe she wouldn’t bother me. It seemed like a long shot, but it was the only thing I could do. I resolved that’d I’d just sit quietly and not say one word... until I needed to start screaming for help.

My mom knocked on the door and I stood behind her, holding onto her coat. When the door opened, I was surprised that the hinges didn’t squeak and no fog came out of the doorway. Momma motioned for me to go in first, but I shook my head. She sighed, gave an apologetic glance towards The Fink, and led me inside. The house looked normal enough, like any other house I’d been in, but I figured she kept it like that so company wouldn’t be suspicious. The chains and knives and torture machines were probably in the basement.

I sat down and tried to make myself as small as possible against the arm of the couch. I studied The Fink as she and Momma talked about some stuff. No one really knew how old she was, but I’d heard anywhere from 45 to 127. She had a large scar down the left side of her face and a second one across her forehead; they met at a corner right beneath her hairline. Chris said it was from where she had once peeled back the skin of her face to frighten a child, but I didn’t really believe him. Why would someone only peel half their face off instead of taking it completely off? Steven said it was where her husband had hit her with the shovel while trying to fight her off. I figured that made more sense.

Momma came over to say goodbye. “Be good, Jeffrey. I love you and you’ll be fine, I promise. Daddy will be here around ten to pick you up.” She gave me a hug, but when she tried to stand up, I kept hanging on. I felt a little silly – I wasn’t one of those sissy momma’s boy types, but I just couldn’t let go. She removed my arms from around her waist, kissed my cheek, gave me a wink, and walked out the door. I wondered if that was the last time I’d ever see her.

The Fink, who’d been standing in the doorway of the room, came in and sat down in a chair across from me. She looked almost as nervous as I was, and I wondered why.
“Hi Jeffrey.”
I looked at her.
“How are you doing tonight?”
I shrugged. It struck me that her voice was quite normal. I’d never heard her speak before, but I always imagined it would be kind of low and growly-like or squeaky like the witch on the Wizard of Oz. She spoke again.
“Is there anything particular you’d like to do tonight?”
I shrugged and looked down at my tennis shoes.
“Alright then. Your mother said you brought some toys and books? You’re also more than welcome to watch TV. I’m afraid I really don’t know much about little boys; I had two girls.” She sat down on an old rocking chair, picked up some sort of needlework thing, and began humming as she worked. I looked hard at the needles. There didn’t seem to be any blood on them, but she could’ve washed it off. They seemed like a perfect weapon for murdering innocent little children. Just then, something furry ran across my leg. I screamed and jumped up on the back of the couch. The Fink’s needles froze as she looked up in shock, first at me, then down to a small, grey cat rubbing its head on the corner of the couch, and then back at me.
“I’m sorry, Jeffrey. Are you afraid of cats? I can put him in the basement if you’d like.”
The basement! I knew it wouldn’t take long before she tried to get me down there. Well, she wasn’t going to be opening the door on my account. I shook my head no and reached down to pet the cat to let her know it didn’t bother me. I wondered if all the other cats were in the basement too.

We sat in silence for a while before she put down her knitting. She looked at me. I had taken one of my books out of my bag, but it was lying unopened on my lap. I couldn’t afford to be distracted – that’s when she would make her move. She spoke again. I don’t know why that made me jump a bit, but it did.
“Well, I’m a bit parched. Would you like something to eat or drink?”
I shook my head hard and fast. Even if I had known what parched meant, there was no way I was eating or drinking anything this woman had. She’d probably drug it or use it to turn me into a frog... or a cat! Maybe that’s how she got all those cats.
“Okay, I’m going to get a glass of water. I’ll be right back.” She left the room with a backward glance at me. When she walked, one leg was dragged along, never leaving the ground and she hunched over a lot. That proved she was a witch; normal people didn’t walk like that.

I sat on the couch and wondered how long she’d drag this out. I preferred that she just get it over with and kill me now. I glanced to the right and there, leaning up against the corner, was an open guitar case with an old, worn guitar sitting inside. I don’t know why, because I’d always wanted to be a drummer, but something about this guitar caught my attention. I stood up and listened for any signs that The Fink might be returning. I didn’t hear anything, so I walked over to the guitar for a closer look. The case was ragged and parts of the brown cardboard were showing through under the black covering, but there were stickers covering a lot of it and there were some pictures stuck to the inside. The guitar looked like it was a hundred years old. It had scratches and dings all over it. It looked like it belonged in the trashcan instead of showcased in a living room. I was certain that it wouldn’t even work anymore, but nevertheless, I reached out and ran my finger across the strings. A perfect sound came out of it, followed by my name. I jumped backwards in fear and ran right into the legs of The Fink.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, Jeffrey.”
I never thought I’d be relieved to see her, but since a talking guitar was more than I could handle, I was glad to know it was her who’d called my name.
“I see you discovered Jenny’s guitar. You know, there’s a novel written on that guitar.”
“What?” I hadn’t meant to say anything, but I’d seen the guitar and the only writing on it was a few words and a name scrawled in the corner.
“Every sticker, scratch, and mark on that instrument tells Jenny’s story. Would you like to hear it?”
I shrugged. Maybe telling the story would keep her too busy to feed me to her cats. She picked up the guitar and case and carried it over to the couch and sat down. I think she expected me to sit down next to her, but I chose the chair instead. The Fink held the guitar on her lap and plucked a few strings. The music sounded familiar, but I didn’t know what song it was. Then she began the story.

“Well, back in the late 1950’s, this guitar belonged to Miss Jenny Garson. She was a singer and her dream was to the play the Grand Ole Opry. Do you know what the Grand Ole Opry is, Jeffrey?”
I shook my head.
“It’s where the best of country music sing. It’s very old and it was a great honor to be asked to play at the Grand Ole Opry. People like Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagner play there. Jenny was a waitress and she saved up all her tips for a year until she had enough to buy this guitar. When she got home, she took a piece of duct tape and wrote her name on it and then she stuck it inside the sound hole. You see? It’s a bit faded, but you can still read it.”
I leaned forward in the chair to see the name. I could make out most of it, but the last few letters were pretty light.
“Well, Jenny lived in Texas and the Grand Ole Opry was in Tennessee so she had to keep waitressing to earn some more money, but she played this guitar every free moment she had. You can tell by how worn and scratched the fingerboard and neck are. She played a lot of the Carter Family – there’s some of their sheet music in this pocket. If you like, I’ll play you some of their records later so you know what they sound like. Well, one day, while she was working at the diner, this rich man came in and sat at one of her tables. He started sweet-talking her and asked her to dinner. She was a cautious girl so she told him no, but he kept coming in every day and sitting at her table. If her tables were full, he’d wait for someone to leave. He wouldn’t sit in anyone else’s section. And every day, he’d ask her to dinner. Well, after a few weeks of this, she was flattered and finally said yes. So they had dinner and, after that, he began courting her. She thought he was very nice and he treated her proper, but she couldn’t really say she loved him very much, not the way her folks had loved each other when they were alive. Still, when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. I guess she figured that he’d take good care of her and, since no one else was asking for her hand, she might as well marry him. You see this picture? That’s them at Niagara Falls on their honeymoon. She’s torn his head out of the photo, but I’ll explain that later.

“Well things were alright for a while except she had to put her dreams of the Opry on hold because he didn’t like country music, and he said he didn’t want to go to Nashville. But they traveled a lot, and she got to see all sorts of places. She’d buy stickers of where they went and put them on her guitar case. There’s a sticker here from the Grand Canyon and from New York. She’s also got them from Virginia and California too. They were mostly business trips and she spent a lot of time waiting for him in the hotel, but she didn’t really mind. She’d just take out her guitar and start singing and playing. She started writing some songs of her own, too. They’re in a folder here in the pocket, next to the sheet music. Each song she wrote got a little better and some of the ones here in the back are actually quite good. I’ll play some of them for you when I’m done with the story... if you’re interested.

“Unfortunately, after a couple of years, things took a turn for the bad. He lost a lot of money in his business and he began to get angry and mean. He yelled at her a lot, and she was scared of him. You see this big gash in the back of the case? Well, one night, she was playing her music and he got mad at her so he picked this up and threw it down the stairs. When she went after it, he grabbed her arm and shoved her against the wall. He told her he didn’t ever want to hear that guitar again. That night, she got a suitcase full of clothes, all the money she could find, and her guitar, and she left. She went down to the bus station and bought herself a ticket. See here? She saved the stub and it says Nashville, Tennessee on the midnight bus. I’m not sure why she saved the ticket, but I guess it was a turning point in her life, and she wanted a memento of it. Anyhow, you can see now why she tore his head out of the picture. Now, would you mind getting me some more water? The kitchen’s right down the hall there.”

I was a bit surprised at the abrupt change in the story, but I nodded my head and got up to venture down the hall. It was dark, and I kept glancing over my shoulder to see if this was a trap and she was sneaking up on me. So far, she seemed nice, but I figured that’s what she wanted me to think. As I got closer to the kitchen, the light over the stove cast a glow on some pictures hanging on the wall. I stopped and looked up at a serious looking man standing behind a younger-looking Fink, sitting in a chair. She looked pretty, and she didn’t have the scars on her face. Another picture was a little girl holding a different guitar, playing and singing. Was this another kid that she had told the same story to? I wondered what happened to her... if her bones would ever be dug up by a wandering dog in the back yard. I had just started thinking if her mother would be sad or relived to discover what had happened to her little girl when I heard The Fink’s voice calling my name. I looked up to see her walking towards me. She held something in her hand; in the darkness, it looked like a knife. I began to shake and stutter as I took backward steps away from her.
“Pl-please, d-don’t–”
“You left the glass in the living room. Are you alright?” She walked into the light and then I noticed she was simply holding the glass in her hand, not a knife.
I nodded, blushing, and looked up at the girl in the picture. I wasn’t positive, but I thought I saw her laugh at me. Following my gaze, she looked at the pictures and smiled.
“That’s my daughter, Michelle. She was a natural talent with music, but she wasn’t really interested in it. She was interested in math and science. She was valedictorian in high school.” The Fink turned around to face the other wall. “That’s my other daughter, Megan.” She pointed to a picture of a slightly older girl, sitting on a swing and smiling at the camera. “She was a natural talent with boys; she always had at least one trailing after her. She was always real kind and sweet, though.”
“What happened to them?” I knew they were dead, but I couldn’t help asking.
“Megan’s married and lives with her husband in Colorado. Michelle works in some big, fancy office in New York. I don’t get to see them very often, but they’re happy, and that’s what’s important.”
I frowned. Of course she wouldn’t tell me if they were dead; she wouldn’t admit to killing them. I looked up at The Fink; she was smiling at the pictures. Well, maybe they weren’t dead. There was no way for me to really be certain.

When we got back to the living room, I took a seat on the other end of the couch. I could see better from there.
“Okay then, where was I? She’d just gotten on the bus to Nashville, right?”
I nodded when she looked at me.
“Okay. Well, when she got to Nashville, she didn’t know what to do. She’d always dreamed of being on the Opry, but she had no idea how to go about making that happen. And, she’d used a lot of her money on the bus fare. Since the only thing she knew how to do was waitress, she started asking for a job at every restaurant she could find. The first couple of days she didn’t have any luck. At this point, she was getting really worried because she could only afford one more night in the motel before she’d have to sleep on the street, and she hadn’t had anything to eat in almost two days. Well, she passed by a church and, without really knowing why, she went inside and sat down in one of the pews. It was a beautiful church with a huge stained glass picture of Jesus sitting with some lambs and sheep. She was in awe of that window. She didn’t have the time to waste, but she probably sat there for forty minutes, just staring at it and asking Jesus to give her a hand because she was scared. When she left, she took one of their tithe envelopes with their name and address on it and stuck in here inside the guitar case. She planned to send them some money after she got famous. Well, Jesus must have been listening because that very afternoon, she found a waitress job at an old club. And, if that wasn’t good enough, another woman who worked there said she was looking for a roommate and that Jenny could stay with her pretty cheap. See, here’s another sticker. This one’s the club where she worked.

“Now, this club had a stage where young, aspiring musicians could come sing, and Jenny thought that was the best part of her job because she could hear them while she was working and, on slow nights, the manager would let her get up there and do a few songs herself. People seemed to like her and one person even wrote her a letter on a napkin. It’s right here; see, it says, ‘Young lady, you sing real pretty. Keep it up.’ One night, after a couple years, a woman came in to sing, and Jenny was blown away. The woman just had a beautiful voice. When she was finished with her set, the woman came over and asked for something to drink, and Jenny started talking to her. Well, she found out that this woman was going to be playing at the Grand Ole Opry the following night. Well! You can imagine how excited that made Jenny! She told this woman how it was her dream to play at the Opry. The woman said, ‘Well, honey, us girl-singers have to stick together. Let’s hear what you got.’ The manager said okay and, even though she was real nervous, Jenny got up on stage and played and sang her heart out. After she was done, the woman smiled and said, ‘I shouldn’t encourage you because you’re going to be some tough competition, but I think you’ve got what it takes.’ As you can imagine, Jenny was overjoyed. Since this was the first person she’d ever met who was playing at the Opry, she asked the woman to sign her guitar. Now, look close here, can you read what that says?”
I scooted down the couch to get closer and looked at the writing in the corner of the guitar. “Um, it says, ‘You’ll make it there. Patsy Cline.’”
“Yep! Patsy Cline, can you believe it?”
I must have given her a blank stare because she just shook her head and said, “Never mind, I’ll play you some of her records, too. So after another year or so, Jenny got remarried, and this time she knew she was in love with the man. This picture is of them looking out the back window of the car on their wedding day. See the ‘Just Married’ sign there? She didn’t do anymore traveling and there’s not much added to the guitar or case after that. So that’s pretty much the end of the story.”
She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I was just about to thank her and tell her that I’d never seen a cooler guitar, but before I could, a cat sauntered into the room and jumped up on the couch. I looked closely; it was the same one I had seen earlier, which got me thinking. I wasn’t so sure there were any others, but I need to know.
“Mrs. Fink, where are the rest of your cats?”
“Oh they’re in the basement. I just fed them a young boy this morning so they’re not too hungry right now.”
My eyes grew big and I was about ready to jump up from the couch and run when she started laughing.
“Jeffrey, this is the only cat I have, but don’t think I don’t know what people say about me.”
I felt really ashamed right then. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, so I focused on the flower pattern covering the couch. She put her hand on my shoulder. I looked up and she winked at me.
“When I was growing up, ‘The Dragon Lady’ lived at the end of the street. She had pet rats the size of alligators in her basement, and they only ate human flesh.”
I was relieved she wasn’t mad at me, but I still didn’t want to face her right away. I looked over at the guitar again and noticed something she hadn’t mentioned. I pointed to it and asked, “What about that Grand Ole Opry sticker? Does that mean she got to play there?”
“Oh goodness! I didn’t mention that? Well, she never did play at the Opry. She went and saw the show one time though, and that’s when she got the sticker. I can’t believe I forgot to mention it because, well, that’s where she met her husband. He was in the seat next to her in the balcony. Both their ticket stubs are in here somewhere. They’re little, and they tend to fall down in this pocket so they’re hard to find. Oh! And here’s the baby bracelets, too.”
Mrs. Fink held out two pink little bracelets so I could read the names: Barnett, Amy and Barnett, Kristen. “That’s why singing at the Opry wasn’t so important to her anymore. She was very happy with her life and was content. Her husband loved to listen to her sing in the evenings, and she played lullabies for her babies so she had the best audience she could ever dream of.”
“Mrs. Fink, how did you meet her? And how come you have her guitar?”
“Well, I never actually did meet Jenny. I bought this guitar in a pawnshop a few years ago. See, I was in a car accident, and I had a lot of rehabilitation to go through, and I didn’t want to leave the house much, so I bought this and a couple of books, and I taught myself to play. I just kind of pieced together her story based on what was here in the case. I filled in the gaps using my imagination. Sometimes though, when I’m playing this guitar, I can feel Jenny here with me. I think she’s glad someone else is playing it now.”

By the time Daddy arrived to pick me up, Mrs. Fink and I were singing along with “Crazy” and munching on the best chocolate chip cookies I’d ever tasted. Daddy smiled as he helped me get my coat and bag.
“It looks like you had a good time?” he asked.
“Uh-huh. Maybe Mrs. Fink can watch me again the next time you and Momma go out?”
“We’ll have to see if Mrs. Fink is up to that. You can be quite a handful sometimes.”
Mrs. Fink tousled my hair and replied, “Well, I’d love to have you over anytime. We’ve got a lot more records to listen to.”

On the way home, I mentioned to Daddy that I wanted to learn to play the guitar.
“You do, huh?
“Yeah, can I get one?”
“Hmm. Maybe we can borrow one and get you a couple lessons. If you still like it and want to keep learning, then we can go to the music store and get you one.
“No, Daddy. I really want one from a pawnshop – one that’s kind of beat up and stuff.” Daddy just looked at me as if I was crazy.

The next day, Chris and Steven were shocked to see me still alive. They wanted to know everything about the “Witch’s Lair,” as they called it.
“Did you see all the cats? How many were there?
“There was only one.” I could see disappointment in their eyes, and I got the distinct impression I’d really let them down. I sighed, then continued, “Well, only one that I saw, but I heard all sorts of scratching and clawing and chewing sounds coming from the basement, so I think that’s where the rest of them were.”
Chris smiled. “I knew it! How’d you keep her from feeding you to them?”
“It wasn’t easy. There were a coupla times I didn’t think I was going to make it...”

Mrs. Fink became my regular baby-sitter after that. We’d come up with crazy stories to tell Chris and Steve about how I escaped unscathed. She taught me a love for music and storytelling, and she taught me how to play the guitar. When I finally got my guitar from the pawnshop, it didn’t have as many clues to its former life as Jenny Garson’s, but Mrs. Fink and I still managed to come up with some pretty good stories.

As time passed, she got older, smaller, and weaker. I cried the night she asked me to play and sing at her funeral. When the time came, I choked up a bit the last verse of “Amazing Grace,” but I’d never been more honored in my life. She left me Jenny’s guitar in her will. It has a place of honor in my living room, but there’s one new item inside the case – a photo of me and Mrs. Fink. We’re sitting on the porch, holding our guitars, and singing some song. I don’t remember which one but probably a Dolly Parton one since those were her favorites.

Some day, when my son gets old enough to ask about the guitar, I’ll have two stories to tell him – one about Jenny Garson, and one about me and The Fink.

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