Monday, January 25, 2010

The Music of the Soul

Over the next few days, I am going to run parts of a story I have written.  If you are a faithful reader, you will be rewarded with the conclusion on Thursday.  I actually told this story to my boys when they were quite young.  The details have changed a bit, but the basic gist of the story is the same.  Family means everything.
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There are five items on the McGregor’s fireplace mantle: a brass lantern from Grandma Shaw’s attic, a family photo taken on a recent canoeing trip, a placard with the inscription, “give thanks – joy is all around”, and an intricately carved wooden box with a tiny golden lock.  Prior to the summer of 2008, the mantle was empty.

The McGregor's story starts in June.  Summer vacation is just beginning and the three boys of the McGregor family are involved in various activities.  John, age 15, manages a morning paper route, mows lawns for the neighbors, works on his basketball jump shot and supervises his younger brothers.  Michael, the 13 year old, helps John bag newspapers every morning, walks neighborhood dogs in the afternoon and works from the list on the refrigerator.  Painting the basement and garage have been ongoing tasks to fill free time.  Henry, age 11, wakes early each day to get a head start on his drawing and reading.  His artistic creations are a source of begrudging admiration and amusement to his two brothers.  Being 11, his chores are focused on the home front:  feeding Murphy the cat, Sammy the dog and Boris the hamster, unloading the dishwasher and starting the daily laundry.  To his parents’ dismay, he often gets distracted and spends time daydreaming instead of following his assigned list.  Because the boys’ parents, Tony and Tina, both work the day shift and are gone until 4:00 p.m., the boys are under strict orders to get things done.  John is technically in charge of the brood, but Grandma Shaw lives next door and checks in often. She also runs the boys to the library and team practices.  It is an ordered life with little room for error.  Everyone has a schedule that is marked on a giant dry erase board in the kitchen. 
Tony is a veteran Columbus cop and is assigned to the toughest beat in the city.  Gangs, drive-by shootings, homelessness and domestic violence are his constant companions.  The lines on his 40 year old face betray the stress.  He is determined to raise upstanding sons who stay on the right side of the law.  His motto, 'It only counts if you do it right', is ingrained in their young minds.

Tina works as a surgical nurse at Riverview Hospital. She assists on everything from repairing torn knee cartilage to removing tumors and ruptured appendixes.   She needs a steely focus and a detached clinical attitude to face the complex challenges presented in the operating room.  Her colleagues are terrific, but the days are long and the stressors ever present.  She works hard so her boys can one day make their college dreams a reality. The boys’ report cards are closely reviewed every semester for any signs of trouble.  ‘No slackers in this family’ is her patented response to whining and excuses.  

Tony and Tina love their children and provide for them with a focused intensity.  As parents, they can not be faulted, but Grandma Shaw notices the mounting pressure and occasionally overhears raised voices that spill onto the quiet street - undone chores are not met with pleasantries.  The night before, Henry was in the doghouse for forgetting to start the laundry.  That is why Grandma appears on Saturday morning and suggests the family take a drive in the country.  The paper has a feature article about the county fair promising arts and crafts, rides, food, prize-winning 4H animals and fun for all.  She offers to stay behind and feed the menagerie, do some laundry, dust the house and have some dinner ready when they return.  She even gives each of the boys a ten dollar bill to spend at the fair.  With the offer hanging in the air, Henry shouts for joy, “Time’s a wastin’. Let’s go!”  His enthusiasm carries the day and they all bundle into the van and set off.  Henry takes his sketch pad in case he sees any interesting animals or people along the way, and the rest of them settle in for the 30 mile drive to the fair.

Once they leave the city limits, the mood in the car lifts.  John notices a doe and her fawn in a forested area.  Michael looks up at the brilliant blue sky and points out the cloud shaped like an elephant.  Henry sees the fair approaching in the distance and whoops for joy.   Tony and Tina are absorbed in their own thoughts but smile at the boys’ obvious enjoyment.

Tony parks in the expansive gravel lot and tells the boys they can head off together but instructs them to meet back at the main entrance at noon so they can eat lunch together.  Tony and Tina head for the arts and crafts barn and the boys make a beeline for the rides.

John tells the guys, “Let’s stick together.  Henry, don’t get lost; we don’t want mom and dad freaking out about where you are.”  Henry nods dutifully and shadows his brothers the rest of the afternoon.  They scream with tremulous glee on the Ring of Fire, Full Tilt, Cliff Hangar and Avalanche.  They try to out burp each other after guzzling their root beer sodas and hoot with pride when John sinks the clown in the dunking booth.  With $10 left between them, they realize they have just twenty minutes to find their folks back at the entrance. 

As they meander through the potpourri of cotton candy vendors and bratwurst stands, Henry suddenly stops dead in his tracks and points to a neon sign blinking behind the taffy booth.  Forgetting the admonition to stay close, he runs pell-mell toward the psychedelic display.  The lights are revolving and tumbling in riotous glory.  Unicorns, rainbows and gnomes make fleeting appearances amid the blinking display.  It is a feast for the eyes, particularly for an eleven year old boy with a fertile imagination.  John and Michael are forced to follow their younger brother as his small shape disappears between the food stands.  When they finally catch up to him, they find Henry staring in awe at the fabulous neon sign.  A wizened old man wearing a black beret and a rumpled suit peers at the boys from his perch on a stool at the back of the booth.  He doesn’t initially speak, but waits patiently for their inevitable questions.  Henry blurts out, “What do you sell?” 

The elderly man rises slowly from his stool, brushes back his long silver hair, and walks to the empty counter where he plants his hands.  He slowly leans forward for a closer look at the boys.  Taking in their curious faces, he says with a voice barely above a whisper, “Well, young man, I only sell what people need, and I only need what people can give.”  


  1. I'm glad I figured out what "after the jump" meant so I could find the story. I look forward to learning what happens next!

  2. Ooh! I like the air of mystery at the beginning and you definitely picked an intriguing place to end!

    And thanks for reminding me how much I love Simon and Garfunkel - I listened to them this weekend after reading your post. :)

  3. Ok - I'm in! - can't wait to read the rest! Great place to leave us intrigued!