Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends around the world. To celebrate, here’s a short story to read after you’ve had a good dinner and made memories with friends and family.
HE PLAYED ON
2012 Copyright Barbara Celeste McCloskey
For the past 30 years Henry’s life had been beige like his favorite Lazyboy chair. A heart attack before he was 50 took him out of the work force, then several surgeries and piles of medication left him to be a man out of sync. Specialists told him he’d die a young man. But like an old reliable Timex, Henry’s heart just kept on ticking.
Today promised to be just another day. He watched the news on television, had breakfast, showered, and got prepared to check on “his” birds. He shuffled to the front closet, grabbed his plaid flannel jacket and his favorite red cap. He checked his appearance in hallway mirror, smoothed his curly gray hair with his wrinkled hand and cocked the hat to the side, just the way his wife, Mary, had liked it for over 50 years. He put on his jacket, opened the back door, and took a deep breath. The air smelled like freshly washed laundry.
He walked to the bird feeder in the corner of the yard. It was full. Good. The neighborhood squirrels had a taste for the gourmet birdseed before the birds had a chance, so he engineered a plastic shield to keep the pesky gray critters away. Henry continued his backyard reconnaissance, checking the rain gauge and the two other bird feeders. Now that it was spring, he wanted to make sure he did everything he could to bring the bright red cardinals to his yard. He loved their songs. He ended his surveillance by pulling a few weeds along the low hedge that separated his yard from his young neighbor Mike’s yard. Mike had put out his trash early and something caught Henry’s eye. The old man leaned over the hedge for a better look, but from this vantage point, couldn’t tell what the object was. He cursed his new trifocals.
Henry unlatched the gate and went into the alley to take a better look at the item which captured his curiosity. He lifted a cardboard box off the object, and revealed an old record player. Not a Victrola, but a relic from the 60s that had a turntable with a speed selector that said 78-45-33. Henry’s eyes widened. He realized right away that this machine could play his thick, black 78 records he had been rescuing from Mary’s cleaning binges for the past 40 years.
As he checked out the record player, Henry figured all the machine needed was a little Tender Loving Care, a new needle, some WD40 oil. Henry figured that before long, the sweet sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller would fill his house again. He picked up the machine and hummed “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” as he shuffled home.
Mary gasped as she heard him struggling in the back hall. She dropped the handle of the vacuum cleaner as fear rose in her throat. What was it this time? His heart? Could he breathe? Had he hurt himself again? Her mind raced to the worst-case scenario like it had for too many years. When she opened the sliding door that separated the kitchen from the back hall, she found him breathing hard with his arms wrapped around an old record player.
“Are you all right? She said with panic in her voice.
“Of course I’m all right . . . Will you quit . . . worrying about me?” He took one big breath and tried to calm himself.
When she saw he was all right, she asked. “More junk? What are you going to do this time?”
He grinned at her. “This isn’t junk! I’m going to fix it up and put it in the den.”
Mary put her hands on her hips. “Well, I don’t care what you do, but it’s not coming upstairs. I keep trying to get rid of junk, and you keep bringing more home.”
“Aw honey, have a heart. If I can get it working, I can play my records again. They don’t make music like they used to. Don’t you remember how we loved those old songs?” His eyes sparkled. “Look,” he went on trying to convince her, “It’s got an 8-track and a radio! It’s a classic.” He gave her a boyish grin, “Like me.”
Henry set the record player on the kitchen table and took Mary in his arms. He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “Remember when we danced to Glenn Miller in that Waukegan ballroom on New Year’s Eve? I was home from the service and you were my blind date?”
“I remember.” She said softly and suddenly was swept away to the night she fell in love to the sounds “Moonlight Serenade.” “We really cut a mean rug, didn’t we?” She brushed his cheek with a soft kiss. “You’re such a charmer, but the machine still stays in the basement—with your other treasures.”
“Oh, all right.” He gave her an impish smile, “You’ll change your mind after I fix her up.”
She smiled at him. “Don’t hold your breath.” Mary picked up the handle to her vacuum and went back to her chores.
When Henry saw Mike later that afternoon, he had no objections when Henry asked to keep the record player. In fact, Mike said he had some old speakers in the attic Henry could have.
Later that week, Mike carried the two dusty, oak-trimmed speakers over to Henry’s house. “Here they are, my friend. Where’s the record player? I’ll hook them up for you.”
“In the basement.” He gave his wife a cocker spaniel look, “Mary won’t let me bring it upstairs. She says its junk.”
“Well, sometimes wives just don’t understand us.” The young man gave Henry a slap on the back and a sympathizing smile.
Henry led the way to his workshop. The record player sat on his work bench, looking new after a good cleaning and a couple of coats of “Pledge.” Henry turned the “On” knob, and the turntable spun around like it had just come out of the box. His chest puffed as Mike complimented his work. Mike plugged the speakers into the port in the back of the machine, and when he did, he noticed a metal plate that said what kind of needle was required. “Henry, did you see this?”
“See what?” The old man bent down to look where Mike was pointing.
“This plate here. It says the record player needs a J9 needle.”
“No kidding? How did I miss that?” Henry scratched his head.
Mike said with enthusiasm. “Let’s go into town and buy one.”
“OK!” Henry turned off the machine and the two of them climbed up the basement stairs.
A couple of hours later, Henry came home from his excursion with Mike. Mary wondered what had taken so long.
“Sorry I’m so late, honey, but we stopped at the coffee shop, and you know, I got to chewin’ the fat with the guys and before you knew it. . .” his voice trailed off as he put his coat in its place in the closet.
“Yeah, yeah. Did you find a needle for that thing?”
“Sure.” He proudly showed her a small package wrapped in plastic.
“He had to go home.”
“Oh.” Mary answered.
“Do you think I need Mike to babysit me to put a simple needle in a record player? Boy, that’s confidence! You do remember I built two houses with my bare hands! I get no respect!” Henry raised his wrinkled hands to the ceiling.
Mary looked at the needle. “Are you sure you got the right one? It looks so different from the ones our kids had in their record players.”
Henry grabbed the needle back, “Of course it’s the right one. Do you think I’m stupid? This record player is more sophisticated than the ones our kids had.” He turned to go downstairs. “You wait and see. In a few minutes, you’ll owe me a dance.” He winked at her.
About an hour later, Henry came upstairs muttering, “I wish I had the instruction manual.”
Mary stayed silent as she hide behind her latest romance novel.
Henry thought out loud in a vow voice. “This should be easy. Why in the hell can’t I get it to work?” Henry turned over the strange-looking needle in the palm of his hand. “It’s such a goofy looking thing.”
Mary put her book down and stared at her perplexed husband. “After dinner things will look different.” She consoled.
Henry relented. “Yeah, maybe I’ll take a nap and get a vision or something.” He put the needle on the coffee table and lay down on the plaid living room couch. He closed his eyes, folded his arms across his chest and sighed. If worse came to worse, he’d have to swallow is pride and call Mike.
After supper that night, Henry went to the basement to try again. He walked around the machine a couple of times, checked all the connections, lifted the arm and scratched his head. Then, he saw it. He grabbed a tiny screw driver.
Mary was finishing the dinner dishes when she heard strains of Glenn Miller’s clarinet crooning “Moonlight Serenade.” She dropped the dish rag, grabbed a towel, and muttered, “Well for crying out loud, he really did it!” She rushed downstairs and found Henry standing by his beloved toy grinning like a teenager.
“Mary, listen.” He glowed. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Her eyes were brighter than they had been in years as she listened to the needle scratch out the old melody that held so many memories.“It’s wonderful!” Tears welled in her eyes.
He moved closer and took her hand, “May I have this dance?”
She dropped her eyes like a shy high school girl and said softly, “I’d love to.”
He twirled her round, pulled her against his body and held her tight. She giggled. He put his cheek on her cheek, and slowly the familiar steps moved their feet. Memories long forgotten flooded back. The moment was too precious to speak. They glided across their painted basement floor, and their love burned like it had for over 50 years.
But before the needle made it to the end of the thick 78, Henry’s chest tightened. His breath grew short. His eyes locked with the only woman he ever loved. He still thought she was so beautiful. Then he stopped dancing, took a deep breath, and his music played on.