Breaking Melancholy’s Mourning

Unstrung

 Artie Rane shuffled down Lake Avenue, the old pistol’s weight anchoring him within the edges of the sidewalk. He’d turned his denim collar high against blasts of surplus winter, and his thumb jacked the hammer inside his coat pocket. 

Each pull of the unguarded trigger advanced the five-chamber cylinder, ending its predictable journey with a muted snap. 

A wobbly candy wrapper scraped into view, hopping along the deserted sidewalk. 

Its jerky dance captivated Artie’s youthful optimism. He tracked the coils and loops.

The chill spring wind kicked the crumpled piece of trash higher toward the freedom of flight. 

Artie drew and aimed the small gun, its scuffed hexagonal barrel appearing beefier in the dull light. He lined the sight and squeezed the trigger. “Pow!” he said in perfect time with the audible click of the hammer. 

The wrapper fell, nearly touching the ground before a second gust boosted it skyward, past foot-tall, arched letters proclaiming Bruntt’s Pawn in faded Irish-green. 

An image jumped from behind the shop’s front window, ending Artie’s impromptu Wild West show.

Tucked into shadow and reflection, a guitar beckoned from a wall peg. 

Straining to see through the fractional curves of light, Artie’s heart thumped against his ribcage. He stuffed the pistol away and stumbled inside. 

The odor of age, like his grandmother’s bedroom, greeted Artie behind the door. He barely heard the clamor of cowbell over his head as he zeroed in on the guitar. His fingers played a silent melody on the tattered seam of his jeans’ pocket. 

Muted fluorescence gave the instrument a heavenly glow. A handmade, 1950’s Gibson J-45 with a sunburst top. Rounded shoulders and voluptuous hips shaped for the Blues. A frolicsome ‘50’s pick guard draped beneath her sound hole like a handmade scarf. 

His fingers tapped faster, the weight of his father’s pistol swallowed by the music in his head. 

Artie’s own guitar collected dust beneath his bed since the funeral. His dad got it for twenty bucks at a garage sale. The fingerboard action had become increasingly stiff over those two weeks before the ground swallowed his father. Memories of playing the cheap old thing on the shoreline of the New River flashed like paparazzi fragments. Artie sitting on the bank, ending a tune with some fancy new run he’d learned. His dad standing in the shallows of the river, casting, declaring “Boy, you know a man’s soul.” Their laughter rolling over the water and scaring the fish. Artie launching into another song.

They’d covered that pleasure with a shovelful of dirt last week.

“Help you?” said a voice from the belly of the store.

Artie’s body twitched. He peeked into the sprawl.

A slight and leathery man with bourbon colored teeth approached through the rubble.

Drawing his arms into the sleeves of the denim jacket, Artie grabbed the frayed cuffs with his fingertips. “I’m okay.” His attention returned to the Gibson.

The intruder halted four feet away. “You like guitars?”

“My dad loved this kind.” The warmth in Artie’s heart nudged a smile to the surface. “‘Real curves,’ he liked to say.” 

The old guy chuckled in a raspy, controlled manner.

“Played in, too,” Artie said under his breath. Even in the impoverished light he could identify her road worth in the wear above the exuberant pickguard, the faded cracks in her finish, and the polished indentations between frets. 

A slow, staccato rhythm began next to him. The weathered old man had crossed his arms and was rocking gently on his hips. 

The cadence matched Artie’s internal meter, generating a magnetic pull between his core and the instrument. An invisible wave of adoration formed in the air, splashing up against the lower bout, riding along the ebony fingerboard and tenderly licking the stately headstock. 

“She’s a ‘beaut,” the old man said.

Artie nodded. “Queen of her kind.” 

Simple inlaid mother of pearl fret dots accentuated her sophistication. The memorized scent of guitar wood filled that empty space within Artie’s chest. His dad’s love for vintage J-45s was resurrected in a breath. 

The intruder cleared his throat.

Its gravelly sound snapped Artie back. There was no way he could afford this guitar. The one his dad had shown him at Morton’s Olde String Shoppe in Charlottesville cost two grand.

Artie waited for the interloper to speak again.

The old man never faltered— a flesh-covered, bourbon-toothed metronome’s arm at sixty beats per minute.

After some thirty beats, Artie asked without looking, “You’re Bruntt?”

The swaying stopped mid-note. The owner took two steps closer. “Best one I got.”

“How much?” Artie asked. Wasted breath. He might as well ask if Bruntt repaired old guns.

Bruntt folded his arms. “’Spensive.”

Artie gripped his cuffs tighter. “How much?”

The metronome began again. Back and forth went the old man, in and out went Artie’s life force. Three ticks. Four. If he could only touch it, just once, for his dad…. Artie worked a few more threads out of the denim.

The old man said, “Five fifty.”

“Excuse me?” Artie’s voice ricocheted off the distant back wall. He’d turned fully on the shopkeeper and was staring openly. Quickly crossing his arms, he placed a hand under his chin the way he remembered his father doing, when Artie was ten and his dad still sold cars at Dr. Knowles Used Car Lot. He tried a milder tone, “Excuse me?” 

“Told you. Expensive. Five hundred fifty dollars.” The old man flashed his yellow smile, plucked a box of Winston’s from his breast pocket, shook one loose, and poked it between his thin lips. “No less.” His brushed-chrome lighter chinked open. The blue and yellow flame leaped onto the cigarette tip. 

A tendril of smoke curled upward from the orange glow, a reminder of one still mountain morning beside a gurgling river, his dad bent over a frying pan filled with fresh-caught whitefish. 

The smoldering tobacco smell burned Artie’s heart. 

“Five hundred and fifty dollars,” Artie murmured, retracting his hands into the frazzled cuffs of his jacket, pinching the material with his fingers. His current funds left him at least four hundred short. The heartburn moved down, into his gut, devouring his hope. 

“It’s a good one. Just beat up some,” the man said after blowing an expanding cloud of death at Artie’s head.

Artie pressed a denim-sheathed fist against his lips. He held his breath.

“Don’t feel right about asking more,” Bruntt continued, chuckling. “Woman brought it yesterday. Said her dead husband, he neglects her for it.”

“Neglected? For a guitar?” Artie looked at the shop owner’s boot toes. His broken heart wanted to shove that burning cigarette into Bruntt’s mouth where it would do less harm.

“She almost gives it to me. To spite him.” The old man shook his head. “But she needs money for a trip to Acapulco or something.” He coughed a small cough. “Women. They eat your heart.” Bruntt sucked on the cigarette, the wrinkles near his eyes deepening to chocolate brush strokes.

Artie licked his lips. He turned toward the J-45— a reawakening of his father’s vision. The answer to his musical drought. His salvation. He had to find a way.

“Four hundred,” Artie said, the weight of his words sending them straight to the floor. Stupid. He’d still be two hundred and fifty dollars short. The cigarette’s acrid odor made tears in his squinting eyes.

“Four hundred fifty. Or I don’t make no money.”

“Let me play it,” Artie blurted.

Bruntt blew smoke at the guitar. “Okay.”

They twisted through the junk single file, Artie ducking the pawnbroker’s smog trail. 

Bruntt’s tobacco stained hand recklessly lifted the guitar from its peg, its long ash brushing the derelict J-45. 

Artie sucked polluted air. It lodged in his windpipe and he coughed two pitiful hacks— a dying sound like his father made those last few days. 

The cigarette ember bumped the guitar’s patinated finish as the old man swung the guitar around. 

Artie stumbled backwards. He recovered quickly and stepped forward, wiping his palms on his jacket. 

The instrument settled into his hands, butt balanced in his right palm, the neck cradled in his left. 

Its lightness surprised him. His feet nearly left the floor. He lifted her, touching his nose to the strings above the sound hole. He breathed deeply. 

Her antique, crafted wood scent cut through the cigarette’s stench.

Settling onto the edge of a gray metal desk behind him, Artie pulled the dark Mahogany into his tummy. The instrument rested nicely on his hip bone. He scooped a piece of tortoise shell from his jacket pocket— a broken chip he’d stolen from his grandmother’s antique hand mirror and filed into a pick. 

Artie stroked the neck with his left hand, rotating the homemade plectrum in the fingers of his right. Then he grabbed an E-minor chord and strummed the discolored strings. 

She made a soulful, sweet growl. 

Artie’s skin resonated. Surprisingly, she was nearly in tune. He tweaked the G-string to pitch, touched off a few harmonics. And realized he was grinning.

After the diagnosis, his dad preferred bluesy, melancholy tunes. Artie chose “Amazing Grace.” The song had grown more appealing with every pound of weight his father lost. 

The first bars engulfed the room with an expedient sadness, pulling the odd potpourri of battered junk and sparkling new products into poignant expectation. Ringing open notes interwove with closed position riffs, crying bends, hopeful slides. 

Her neck responded graciously. 

Artie closed his eyes. He could picture his father, swaying and tearful.  

Every note resounded with the voice of an individual angel singing a portion of Artie’s love for his dad. The Gospel-blues rhythm brought a feeling of religious freedom, of taking flight, swinging among the clouds, dancing with birds, and floating gently back to ground.

Artie opened his eyes. A salty burn softened his vision. 

The final chord weaved among battered stereos, assorted kitchen utensils, and scuffed rifle butts. 

The shopkeeper’s lengthy cigarette ash had grown into his jaundiced fingers. His discolored upper teeth peeked out from his gaping mouth.

“Can you hold it for a couple of days?” Artie asked.

Bruntt remained motionless, silent, his timing spring unwound.

Dread crept into Artie’s gut. Would the old man back out? Or raise the price? He couldn’t raise the price! Artie refused the thought.

“Damn!” the old man exploded, flinging the burnt stub to the floor. He flapped his cigarette hand and stomped one foot in a frenetic, lop-angled dance. 

Artie looked on with wide eyes. A gurgle of glee tickled his throat. He clenched his jaw tight and clamped down on the burst of outright laughter in his belly.

Bruntt stomped one last time sending a shimmy up his wounded side and jammed his hands deep into his pockets. “Twenty dollars,” he said, opening his lips just enough to let the words pass. “I’ll hold it for a week.” 

 “I won’t need a week.” Artie eased the Gibson back into its wall hook. He jerked his wallet from thread-bare blue jeans and slipped out the twenty. “Just a couple of days.”

Bruntt grabbed the bill with his uninjured hand. “You play real good.” He let his mouth relax a little, almost smiling.

“Thanks,” Artie said, already moving toward the exit. Gripping the doorknob, he turned for a last glimpse. 

All the goodies in the room, including the shining new stereo amplifier on the shelf beneath it, floated reverently around the guitar.

His stomach lurched. Inside his jacket pocket he found the pistol he’d forgotten. What was he thinking? In a dozen months he couldn’t scrape up two hundred and fifty bucks. He stood there, thumbing the pistol’s hammer and staring at the guitar. He must find a way to get this guitar. For his dad. His dad had loved Gibson’s vintage J-45. 

Artie yanked the door open and stepped into a stinging gust of leftover winter.

This concludes the first half of “Unstrung”

You can find this story in Breaking Melancholy’s Mourning, a two-story anthology of short fiction. Free on all platforms.

 

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Suspenseful Short Fiction Examining the Dangers of Living.

Artie Rane stumbles through the mean streets in search of the dream he buried with his father. When his grief leads him to an answer in the form of a vintage guitar, nothing can stop his pursuit… engaging in theft, facing down police, even threat of death itself fail to detour his quest. Is there any force that can set Artie on the right path? – Suspense in a coming of age story.

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