The woman from another lifetime had sent him the surprise she’d hinted at. He waited before unwrapping the cardboard package until he had walked back to the high-rise co-op, an interminable distance from the Post Office on East Broadway. In the package was a recording of Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marlene.” He held the disc so the sun shone on the Deutsche Grammofon label, marveled at the shiny shellac, and felt as satisfied as he had been in months.
From the corner of his eye he saw the girl from the 16th floor watching expectantly, waiting to be recognized. She nodded and he slid over on the park bench so she could sit down.
“It’s a present that I got in the mail just now,” he said. “A pretty old recording. It brings back some memories, I tell you.”
“Don’t look like music,” the girl said defiantly.”
He had met the girl — young lady, really, since she was 13 or 14 and spoke very politely — in the courtyard of their high-rise. Her name was Tewanna, an odd one like so many that mothers now made up. They would chat in the afternoon when she came home from school, sitting on a bench in the area where chains kept you from stepping on the grass, drinking in the last puddle of sunshine slipping between the buildings that formed themselves like a fortress around the park.
“Well, Tewanna, before you transferred songs from the Internet to your iPod....”
“Actually, Lester,” she said, instead of calling him Mr. Coolidge, “actually, I download music into my cell. See?” She held up the small telephone and a tune came out. More like a screech with heavy thumping drums, but no melody.
“Before downloading there were compact discs, and before that there were cassettes, and before that there were eight-track cartridge systems.” He thought momentarily of the years he’d worked with editors on their typewritten copy and seen the beautiful ideas go from Linotype to digitized typography, from letterpress to offset. His tool — his only instrument — had always been the Eberhard-Faber No. 2 pencil.
She giggled. “And before that stuff, what?”
“Records — mostly 33-1/3 rpm records, but also 45s. And this, Tewanna, is a 78. It’s fragile, so please don’t drop it,” he said handing it to her. The touch of the shellac offered sensory input, just like the words and music it contained.
“What’dya do with it?”
“Play it on a turntable. A record player. But, unfortunately, I need to go uptown to get a needle for my turntable. When I get back I’ll be happy to play it for you.”
She hopped off the bench and danced her way off toward the building entrance. She made him remember when there had been girls who danced, who drank too much and were loud with the lust for life. There had been his wife, Justine, too. They had been a couple for over forty years.
As he fumbled his Metro card into the turnstile to get the F train, he thought of the woman who sent him the present. Gretchen still lived in Germany, near Essen. They continued to write to each other, but their letter-writing now was more fitful than faithful. It had been in 1945 — over seventy years ago — that he said goodbye to Gretchen. The Americans came through with their tanks and were terribly surprised to see him emerge from a doorway wearing the remains of his RAF pilot’s uniform. He had hidden in a barn under Gretchen’s protection for three months. She cured him of both his physical wounds and his adolescent aches.
They returned him home to England and he continued his education. He visited New York on a lark in 1951 and remained, never going back to see Gretchen, never again touching her blonde hair or running his fingertips over her cheek. He had only her letters to remind him of what might have been. Married to Justine, he watched Gretchen’s life parallel his, with a husband, childless too, and now a widow. But she had remembered their strongest association, Marlene Dietrich’s song, and sent the record to remind him of it. Resting in a billet just behind the line / Even tho’ we’re parted your lips are close to mine.
At the music store on 42nd Street in Times Square he found Raoul, the young Puerto Rican who had helped him in the past.
“Hey, man, you lookin’ good with that coat and necktie and all dolled up. Whatcha got today?”
“I have a recording, Raoul, but I need a needle.” Lester rather enjoyed Raoul’s joviality.
“Needle for what?”
“For my phonograph. A phonograph needle.” Lester took the Dietrich record out of his briefcase and showed him. In his mind, the words and tune echoed back over the decades. Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate / Darling I remember the way you used to wait.
“Wow, that’s priceless, man. Like an antique or something!”
“Not really, but it’s about sixty years old.”
“Mind my askin’, how old’re you?”
“Eighty-seven in July. Moving on, but I have my health. Now, about the needle?”
“Dunno what to say, old timer. We don’t even have any turntables.”
“Where can I find one?”
“Maybe an antique store or something. Or, try Jimmy’s Music Heaven on West 46th. By the river. He sells that kinda stuff. He’s not an old guy like you, but he appreciates old stuff.”
The walk and damp air refreshed him, and Raoul’s parting shout to Be cool was a breeze that lifted his spirits. But so many people out today! He had to shoulder his way through the crowds. Midtown New York had been his turf once, with clients at several publishing houses and some of the biggest Fortune 500 corporations. When it was time to issue financial statements and reports, they called Lester for proofreading. They trusted his precise markup, he returned the corrected galleys and manuscripts when promised, and he was economical during a time of profligacy. Three generations of business editors listened when he spoke, either because of his accent honed at Oxford or the fact that he was never wrong when it came to the English language.
The Music Heaven shop a block from the Hudson River had a wooden front and a dusty window, and that alone perked Lester up. The smell of well-aged things made him feel even brighter as he walked under the jingling bell. And, glory be, there were records on shelves, and cassette tapes and sheet music!
“Hello,” he said to the man behind the counter. “A friend of mine at the big music store on 42nd and Broadway said you might be able to help me. I need a needle for a turntable. A good needle, actually. Diamond if you have it, sapphire if you don’t have diamond.”
“Yep, you’re in the right place. That a record?”
Lester pulled the Dietrich out of the briefcase. “Deutsche Grammofon recording of Lili Marlene on a 78. Fairly early recording.”
“Jeez, I’ll say. And, the needle. It’ll have to be sapphire. That’s all I can get.”
“It’ll do.” This is going to be a good day, Lester thought, anticipating his return home, installing the needle, putting the record in place, listening to Marlene and remembering Gretchen who had succored him until the Allies came. Time would come for roll call / Time for us to part / Darling, I’d caress you and press you to my heart.
“This is the little gem, pal. We got probably the only ones you’ll find in New York. It’ll be seventy-five dollars.”
“Seventy-five! Isn’t that a bit much?”
“This needle came from China. Only place in the world that makes them. How many people ask for phonograph needles?” The fellow laughed.
Slightly irritated at the man seeing irony in his situation, Lester reached into his wallet and drew out a fifty and two twenties, masking his contempt and dropping them on the counter.
“What do you think it is?” Lester said, his temper beginning to rise. “Money!”
“We don’t take cash. Boss’s orders. In this part of town you can get killed for cash. Credit cards only.”
“I don’t have any credit cards. I pay cash. At the drugstore and the supermarket.”
“Well, you look honest, I’ll take a check then.”
“I don’t have a checking account. I stopped trusting those bank pirates some time ago. Look, take the ninety dollars and call it even. Just let me have the needle.”
“What, it’s okay if the crack heads come in here. Kill me for your cash?”
“I’ll give you a hundred. A hundred dollars!”
“Get out of here. Boss doesn’t take cash. Come back with a credit card or a traveler’s check or a money order!”
“A hundred and twenty.” His dream of Gretchen and making the past come alive again through the music was making his heart beat faster, too fast, and the doctor had warned him. “I have a wallet full of money! Doesn’t anybody take money nowadays?”
“Yeah, the same people who play phonograph records. Now go on, and take your money with you.”
He left, embarrassed by the corkscrew smile on his face and mocked by the jangling bell over the door. A wallet full of money and a handful of memories. Wait until he wrote to Gretchen. She’d laugh at how sentimental he’d gotten. Wie eins, Lili Marlene.
He sat down on a doorstep to catch his breath, suspicious that this might be the moment his heart was going to go unsprung like the mechanical wristwatches in his bureau that no longer worked. He was getting dangerously disturbed, all because of an unreasonable search for an anachronistic phonograph needle. No one today required phonograph needles! He was a fool to think anyone needed him either. It would be risible if it weren’t so sad — an old man rummaging around to find a tiny metal pin for a defunct machine while life flickered away. His search parameters had been all wrong.
As he wiped his face with his handkerchief, he questioned where all the clients had gone, the ones who had relied on him. Was his only friend a 13-year-old child in a playground? Had it been a mistake not to have found another wife or girlfriend after Justine died? There was only Gretchen, who was a widow.
He stood up, slowly, making sure he had his balance, and tucked the bag under his arm. He would take a taxi home, God damn it, and he’d telephone Gretchen. He’d tell her that he was coming to visit next week — to see her and to buy a phonograph needle.
# # #
Bio: Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries.
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