by Barry Graham
She got a little bit emotional when she saw him kiss the guitar before putting it in its case. It was a jokey, theatrical gesture meant to make her laugh, but she saw a seriousness behind it.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “We could take some of my jewellery.”
“It’s okay.” He fastened the case shut. “It’s fine. I’ll get it back next month.”
“I don’t like to see you without it.”
He laughed. “I hardly play it anyway.”
They left the apartment, him carrying the guitar case with one hand and holding her hand with the other. She felt glad that he had insisted. Her jewellery had belonged to her mother, and she’d have felt uneasy being parted from it, even if for only a month.
He sensed her relief and was pleased by it. The morning was cold, but the buildings sat bright and solid under a clear sky. They decided to walk rather than take the bus.
“I love being poor,” she said.
“Me too. Keeps you humble.”
“Well, at least we’ve got the one thing money can’t buy.”
As they walked into town they saw the old man again. They saw him a lot, all over the city, but mostly in their neighbourhood. They thought he probably lived there too.
He was deformed. He could have been anywhere between sixty and seventy-five, but age wasn’t his problem. His head was bent so far down it was difficult to see his face. He walked with tiny, jerky baby-steps, straining to raise his head enough to see where he was going.
They passed by him quickly. They squeezed each other’s hands.
“We don’t have much to complain about,” he said.
“No, we don’t.”
The pawn shop was in a district populated by lawyers, neo-hippies and would-be bohemians. It seemed like a strange location for such a business. They could only assume that there were enough artsy deadbeats getting into debt to keep it going.
He asked for $50 on the guitar. He got $45.
“Yay! We can eat!” she said, jumping up and down on the sidewalk.
“Now that we’re wealthy, do you want to go get some coffee?”
“Yeah!” she said, still doing her little dance. She remained hyper as they walked to a cafe. As long as they could eat and pay the rent, nothing bothered her much.
They’d gone to the cafe a few times in the past. It was a strange place; no matter what time you arrived, the customers were always the same. Not the same type of people, but the same people. It was still morning, but the usual seven or eight people sat scattered around two tables. There were no other customers.
“Do they live here or something?” he whispered.
“Maybe they stay here all night as well. Just get stacked up with the chairs when the place closes.”
They got a pot of coffee and sat at a table.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“Yeah, fine. Why?”
“You’re not bothered about your guitar?”
He shook his head. “I thought that as soon as I didn’t have it I’d feel like playing it, but I don’t. I’m fine.”
“We’ll get it back as soon as we get paid.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”
Suddenly, they both laughed.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. She nodded. The cafe was depressing him. It was those people, who arrived when it opened and stayed until it closed. It had a desperate air, a smell of nothing happening. It was getting to her as well.
The next day was Sunday. It was also Valentine’s Day. They had been together for a year and ten days.
She woke at nine-thirty, tried and failed to go back to sleep, and got up at ten. He didn’t stir. Their body clocks were never in sync. She was made for mornings. However late she went to bed, she could never sleep through the morning, though she might pass out in the afternoon. He considered having to rise before noon to be a violation of human rights.
She put on jeans and a sweatshirt and went to the living room. It was cold. She lit the gas heater and sat in front of it while the kettle boiled. She made coffee and drank it. Then she ran to the store across the road and bought a newspaper.
At noon she finished reading it. She went into the bedroom. He was still asleep. She woke him. He wasn’t enthusiastic about being awake.
“I mean this,” she said. “If you don’t open your eyes and talk to me, I’m going to put on the Ramones and crank it right up. . .”
He opened his eyes and glowered at her.
“Good boy,” she said. “Just to let you know, I’m going to the supermarket. I don’t suppose you feel like coming?”
He flipped her off.
“That’s what I thought. Okay, I’ll see you in about an hour.” She bent over and kissed him.
It took her ten minutes to walk to the supermarket. She wandered around the aisles, filling her basket with eggs, flour, fruit, vegetables, bread, milk and tea. She noticed a display of flowers and plants, and went to look at it.
Some of the flowers were nice. There were red ones, wrapped in plastic, five to a bunch. Though they were red, they weren’t roses. She wasn’t sure what kind of flowers they were, but she liked them and they weren’t too expensive. She bought a bunch.
As she paid at the checkout, she wondered if he’d still be asleep when she got home. She imagined laying the flowers on the pillow beside his head, along with the card she’d made for him the night before.
When she left the store it was raining. Walking along the street, she saw the old man ahead of her. From behind, it looked like he had no head, it was bent so far towards his chest. He was hurrying to get out of the rain, but his steps were as slow as a toddler’s. She thought about how he walked all over the city.
He was shivering. His old coat couldn’t keep the rain out. She caught up with him, feeling shy and stupid. “Excuse me — ”
He strained his neck to look up at her. “Uh-huh?”
She pulled a flower from the bunch. “Can I give you a flower for Valentine’s Day?”
He smiled. “Oh, is it Valentine’s Day?” In spite of the grey stubble on his face and the drool that trickled from the corners of his mouth, his voice was soft, his manner almost courtly.
“Yeah,” she said. “Can I give you a flower?”
“Yes, please. If you want to.”
She held out the flower. He took it in a hand stained with nicotine. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
They smiled at each other in the pouring rain.
He was up when she arrived home. As she unlocked the door she could smell toast and coffee. She looked at the four flowers in her hand, and thought about his guitar in the pawn and the rain outside. She smiled.