Breaking Melancholy's Mourning
A Short Anthology of Crime
Two coming-of-age short stories filled with suspense and mystery.
Suspense in a coming of age story. Artie Rane stumbles through the mean streets searching for the dream he buried with his father. When he happens upon a vintage guitar he knows will meet this need, 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?
A story of love that bridges both time and the law. A taciturn young man hitches a ride into the Shenandoah Valley carrying his grief in a military duffle. Can he bury his secret in a mountain meadow without detection?
Bluegrass ballads of lost love and murder echo in the hills around him.
Excerpt: Learning New Songs
The first time I heard “Jerusalem Ridge,” I was in the passenger seat of Denny Sterling’s Chevy S-10 halfway to Charlottesville, Virginia. My date was wrapped in a tarp in the truck’s bed behind us. Denny’s spicy aftershave filled the cab. He alternated his attention between sharing roadside vistas and playing air guitar imitations of this Rice-guy’s flatpicking version of the song.
I smiled at the perfect landscapes and fantasized about the peaceful life Kate and I could have led.
“Should have made her come along,” Denny said.
I glanced at him past the corner of my eye, spooked by his psychic timing. “She had to do something for her mother. Wanted to tell you she was sorry about missing this trip.” My better self wished for such a conversation.
“You’ll love it,” Denny assured me. “Everybody loves a good Bluegrass jam.”
“Sure,” I said. “Eternal love, let’s take a walk, honey, and I’ll drown you in the beautiful Ohio river. Tom Dooley, how ‘bout a trip to the gallows for your over zealous lust? What’s it Caruso likes to say? All the ‘no-good-lowdown-hoedown’ of a nice family gathering.”
“Military morons!” Denny scowled, mentally reliving the hundred or so daily jabs from our co-workers in the Sheet-metal shop. “Call me obsessed! They don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.” He shook his head dejectedly. “Bluegrass is roots music. Ain’t no other music didn’t start right,” he thumped the dash above the on-board radio, “here.”
I envisioned two chickens dressed in coveralls squabbling the finer points of modern music, cackling “Roots music, roots music” and “kill your lover, kill your lover.” A newspaper floated by with the headline, Beatles Macabre Beginnings. It made me chuckle.
“Go ahead, laugh. You’ll see.”
As much as I disliked Denny’s constant fervor, seeing his hangdog stirred a tingle in my chest. And it reminded me that my current circumstance made a pretty good argument that death proves eternal love.
“Well, thanks for inviting us anyway.” A lame attempt, but cheerful jest was hard to muster on this trip.
When Kate told me about her baby, I’d decided maybe a trip to the mountains would be an agreeable change. Get to see some settled folks that didn’t have issues. Find out if the mountains of western Virginia would be a good place to raise a kid or two. I told Denny we’d go along before I realized Kate had planned another trip. Now I was stuck in this adventure to the end, just like those Bluegrass-song characters. Kate’s hand-written note felt two-inches thick in my hip pocket.
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.”