Jake holds the heirloom flute, snugly ensconced in its black leather case, all wrapped up in a burlap shopping-bag, clutched under his left arm and gazes absently out the streetcar window. It's come to this. Shit.
What the hell happened? Business was great in the Eighties. Except for that recession early on. Could easily make a thousand dollars in a weekend. And then. What? Its not like I don't want to work but where did it all go? Feel just like a call-girl; waiting for the phone to ring. Completely at other's whim and behest. I pop out of the house continually to get a pack of cigarettes, or whatever, because - because, a watched answering machine's message light just won't blink. Everyone knows that.
He feels a not unpleasant lightheadedness overtake him as he stands to get off at the next stop. Can't be a spiritual epiphany; no, must be low blood-sugar. No breakfast this morning. And those ephemeral, timely touches of angelic intervention he had not felt for years. Those overheard, out-of-context utterances, but perfect for one's own life context. The very familiar stranger's admonitions that, when heeded, sent one's life on a good path.
A good life.
No, no angelic interventions in a long time.
Yes, definitely low blood-sugar.
Jake steps onto the curb.
On an overturned dark-green milk-carton case, huddling in shivers in a navy-blue parka, amidst her possessions arranged flush to take up as little space as possible, sat - Jake was not sure. A woman in her mid thirties; her rather pretty, wind-rouged face framed by black wispy curls. She sat with her back against a store wall looking down the street, east along Queen Street, looking - perhaps for a ride.
All the promises ever made sat old in her eyes.
Her eyes did not have the rheumy glint of the junky.
The eyes did not have the startled defiance of the mentally confused, nor the sad bewilderment of the recently dispossessed. What was she waiting for? She didn't look quite ready to belong there yet.
I'll bet she hasn't had breakfast today either.
Jake has only to walk a short distance. Do it purposefully. Like going to the dentist.
The outside of the store looks the same as it had back a few decades ago when a pair of binoculars could fetch twenty dollars. The inside, though, has changed. Business is good. Where once a single body would greet, appraise and pay, all done over a glass counter - today there are three salesmen, five appraisers and a manager.
The inside of the store is different from what Jake remembers. One has to take a number? He takes a number. Number 67. And waits for the next available appraiser.
The flute is good. I'll try for a hundred.
At the nearest urinal-wings-like privacy stall an elderly couple is, heads together, checking out the interest charges tally dating back two years. What to pawn to pay the charges to someday be able to get something out?
At the furthest stall, a young mother reaches into a shopping bag at her feet, gingerly removes a figurine, then picks away the packing material from the statuette and delicately places it on the counter alongside three others. She smiles at her appraiser and reaches for the next one in the bag. She has taken off her three-quarter length suede coat and draped it over the counter. It is, after all, polite.
"I really love these. Aren't they beautiful?" The appraiser takes his time in answering. He smiles at her.
All Jake can hear is, ". . . not my cup of tea."
His answer does not faze her. In the way of desperate women everywhere, she smiles and continues to offer up herself and her children to her would-be protector.
"Aren't they beautiful?" And continues to unpack.
Jake's appraiser arrives, "What'cha got?", places both hands on the counter and stares at the black-leather case.
"I was wondering how much I could get for this flute?"
"How much do you want to borrow against it?"
"I was hoping, say. . . around a hundred...?"
The appraiser picks up the case and heads toward the back of the store. "Be right back."
The elderly couple is still trying to figure out how much they owe and when they might be able to get some of their possessions back.
The young mother continues to proffer her little children but by now her smiles and studied unpacking are more to mask her swelling desperation. The tears are harder to hold back. She smiles and smiles and unpacks.
"Can't use it"
Jake's appraiser is back. "It's of no use to us. Don't want the flute."
This is not what Jake expected. He hesitates and tries to remember the steps to this dance. It's been more than twenty years. Am I not supposed to get a counter offer? I can only lend you fifty for this?
"What's wrong with it?"
"Well, it's not signed and the mouthpiece doesn't fit." Said in a tone dripping with reproach. A reproving parent's disappointment with a lying child.
Not signed? It's a flute for Christ's sake and it works just fine. Did this morning when I put the three pieces together and tried it out. Does he think I made this myself? I'm trying to pass off a counterfeit flute? What are the steps to this dance? I'm rusty.
Jake was looking at his eyes for a clue. Who leads? Am I supposed to..? Then Jake saw it. In the eyes. Those hungry unctuous undertaker's eyes. He needs to feed off my desperation. No, it's more than that, he sees desperation every day. He wants to see the moment. He's watching me, my face. He wants to witness the moment of breaking, watch resignation wash over me, see a little bit of the light go out in my eyes . If only I'd ask.. How much can you give me?..Ten?..Twenty? If I feed him I know the dance will pick up again, he'll smile and say.. I can let you have fifty.
Out on the street again, Jake buttons up his coat, walks down to the corner to wait for a streetcar. It arrives right away. He gets on, sits down and gazes absently out the window. She still sits with her back against a store wall looking down the street, east along Queen Street.
She didn't look quite ready to belong there yet.