Time's maybe up, but I couldn't resist putting in my half hour--well, 45 minutes--on this. Fact Fiction is a super way of jump-starting ideas, J'star!
A Wallet Full of Money
Lester Coolidge was as satisfied as he had been in months, perhaps years. The woman he had known in his other lifetime more than half a century ago had sent him the package she promised. In it was a vinyl disc, a recording of Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene.
“What’s it do?” the girl from the 16th floor asked him. “Don’t look like music.”
He had met the girl—young lady, really, since she was about 13 and spoke very politely—in the courtyard of their buildings. Melia was her name, an odd one like so many that mothers nowadays made up in their fevered dreams of pregnancy. They talked every afternoon when she came home from school, sitting there on the benches in the area where chains kept you from stepping on the grass, drinking in the last puddle of sunshine that slipped through the buildings that formed themselves around the park like a fortress.
“Well, Melia, before Internet downloads to your iPods....”
“Actually, Lester,” she said, using his first name as most youngsters did, “actually, I dump music into my cell. See?” She held the small telephone up and a tune came out. More like a screech with heavy thumping drums, but no melody.
“Before dumping from the ‘net there were compact discs, and before that there were cassettes, and before that there were eight-track cartridge systems.”
She laughed. “And before that, what?”
“Records—mostly 33 and a third rpm records, but also 45s. And this, young Melia, is a 78. It’s fragile, so please don’t drop it!”
“What’dya do with it?”
“Play it on a turntable. A record player. I’m on my way uptown now to get a needle for my turntable. When I get back I’ll be happy to play it for you.”
As he put his Metrocard into the turnstile to get on the F train, he thought of the woman who sent him the present. Gretchen still lived in Germany, near Essen, and they wrote to each other faithfully every two weeks. It was in 1945—almost sixty years ago—when he said goodbye to Gretchen. The American troops came through with their tanks and were terribly surprised to see him emerge from a doorway in the remains of his pilot’s uniform. They returned him to England, his home. While he had come to America on a lark, and remained, he never went back to see Gretchen, never again touched her blonde hair or ran his fingertips over her cheek. They had only the letters and calls to remind them of what might have been. But she remembered the strongest association, Marlene Dietrich’s song, and sent him 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 / You wait where that lantern softly gleams / Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams / My Lili of the lamplight / My own Lili Marlene.
At the music store on 42nd Street in Times Square he found Raoul, the young Puerto Rican who helped him in the past.
“Hey, man, whatcha got today?”
“I have a record, Raoul, but I need a needle.”
“Needle for what?”
“For my phonograph. A phonograph needle.” Lester took the Dietriech record out of the bag and showed him. In his mind, he could remember the words and tune. Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate / Darling I remember the way you used to wait.
“Wow, that’s a priceless item, man. Like an antique or something!”
“Not really, but it’s about sixty years old.”
“How old’re you?”
“Eighty in July. Moving on, but I have my health. Now, about the needle?”
“I dunno what to say, old timer. We don’ have any record players even.”
“Where can I find one?”
“Maybe an antique store or something. Or, go over to Jimmy’s Music Heaven on West 46th. He sells that kinda stuff. Records and stuff. He’s an old guy too.
The walk and fresh air did Lester good and lifted his sprits as each step brought him closer to his goal. But so many people out today! He had to shoulder his way through the crowds. Where had they all come from?
The shop had a wooden front and a dusty window, and that alone perked him up. The smell of old things made him 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 bag. “Deutsche Gramofon recording of Lili Marlene on a 78. Fairly uncommon recording.”
“Jeez, I’ll say. And, the needle. It’ll have to be sapphire. That’s all I can get. They come from China.”
“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 hidden him for three months before 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 / And there 'neath that far off lantern light / I'd hold you tight / We'd kiss good-night / My Lili of the lamplight / My own Lili Marlene.
“This is the little gem, my friend. We got probably the only ones you’ll find in New York. It’ll be seventy-five dollars plus tax.”
“Seventy-five! Isn’t that a bit much?”
“This needle came from China. The only place in the world that makes them. How many people ask for phonograph needles?”
Irritated at the fatuous argument, Lester reached into his wallet and drew out a fifty and two twenties, dropping them on the counter.
“What do you think it is?” Lester said, his temper beginning to rise. “Money!”
“We don’t take cash. What do you take us for? Over in this part of town you can get killed for cash. Credit cards only.”
“I don’t have any credit cards. I only pay cash. At the drugstore or the supermarket.”
“Well, you look honest, I’ll take a check then.”
“I don’t have a checking account. Never believed in banks. Look, take the ninety dollars and call it even. Just let me have the needle.”
“What, and it’s okay if the first junkie who comes in here kills me for your cash?”
“I’ll give you a hundred. A hundred dollars!”
“Get out of here. I don’t need your money. Come back with a credit card!”
“Two hundred.” His dream of Gretchen and hearing 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 owner said, “the same people who play phonograph records. Now beat it and take your money with you.”
He left with a corkscrew smile on his face. A wallet full of money and a pocket full of memories. Wait until he wrote about this to Gretchen. She'd laugh at how sentimental he'd gotten.