by Esther Suson
[This is a half-fiction story I wrote “about two years ago”, according to Figment.com.].
“What will we do next?” I asked Sue, who had her guitar slung over her shoulder in its black case.
“Get me a new guitar string.”
Five minutes to go.
I wondered why we’d done this one week ago, made a bet with fate that if nothing, not so much as a measly guitar string, was bought before 5 o’clock pm on Thursday we’d do what everyone’d told us to do before we’d even started: shut up shop and go into multi-level marketing or all that that people seemed to be excited about nowadays–definitely they weren’t excited about Jeff and I placing our capital in our own little Keys&Strings, a piano and guitar shop that ended up as a small island store in Pablo Mall.
“I don’t think there’s any music store here,” I told Sue, “or we would have seen it. Let’s go home.”
“Let’s ask a guard,” she replied, and headed for one.
Four minutes to go.
Sure, Pablo Mall wasn’t as lofty as Ravenna’s or Vittorino’s, but the rent was cheap. Which was, incidentally, one of our problems–with so many empty stalls and mostly the island stores thriving, not too many people would be walking around looking for a guitar or a piano, and with our nearly-hidden state near one of the side exits, it wasn’t too likely anyone would see us even if they were looking for one. We’d played before on the pianos and guitars, to make sure we were heard, but although every other island store could belt out whatever music it wished for some reason we were asked to stop.
“When they said ‘music store’ they meant CD store,” I giggled as we stopped in front of the main door, outside of which was a store blaring Christian music and flanked by posters of David Archuleta. “There’s probably really none, let’s go home.”
“Let’s ask a guard,” was Sue’s stubborn answer, and she proceeded to do so.
Three minutes to go.
It was chilling, how fast and yet how slow sixty seconds could go. I didn’t want to look at the tiny lemon-yellow alarm clock we had on the glass shelf, but somehow I couldn’t keep my eyes away. I’d thought we were ready, Jeff and I had already taken out the canvas and unfolded it on the floor, and our bags were packed and zipped up, ready for us to walk away any time. We’d already arranged with a ratty second-hand store to buy the guitars and pianos, take them off our hands so we could start anew–well, that’s what people told us, but I felt like we’d die for good after handing them over. A stall crammed with high-quality guitars, pianos, maybe even violins in one of those high-end malls, that’s what we’d wanted, and we’d stuck it two years before accepting that we could barely make enough to pay the rent.
“When he said left, which ‘left’ did he mean?” I wondered.
“Let’s try this one,” Sue suggested, and we made the turn.
Two minutes to go.
I caught myself holding my breath a little, waiting a little. Surely one of those people passing would need something, even a bit of tuning, even just directions to somewhere and then by some ridiculous miracle we’d sell something. Surely there was one person in this sleepy mall, one student, child, anyone, who needed something from Keys&Strings. Surely we wouldn’t be closing, that day, surely someone would come, surely this would all be a bad dream in a moment; and just as surely I was fooling myself, like I had two years ago, believing this would work.
“When the guard said ‘dulo‘, he meant ‘end’, right?” I wondered. “But there’s nothing there, that’s the side exit and there’s nothing there…”
One minute to go.
Jeff picked up his backpack and put it on. I smiled at him, and he smiled back, but behind it was the worry that was also gnawing at my mind: where would he go? He hadn’t finished college, and when I’d come to where he’d been crashing on my couch, as usual, and asked if he’d help me with the business he’d said yes without hesitation. To be absolutely fair, he was the best business partner anyone could have, without even a hint of complaint whenever things got slow, or even slightly desperate. He’d stuck with me, stuck with the business, but both of us knew that more than half of it was because he had nowhere else to go. I did, my family would take me back anyway, but he couldn’t. I wanted to tell him to go already, leave the closing-up to me, and then I never wanted to see him again.
“Where is it?” Sue asked, walking ahead of me.
I grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. “I think they meant that,” I whispered, nodding to a tiny island stall that had three pianos, four guitars, near-empty shelves and looked half-closed. “And you walked right past it.”
“Oh,” she said, and turned towards it.
Four seconds. Three. Two…
“Excuse me,” a girl’s voice said, it’s intonation clear and sweet in perfect English. I looked up at two girls, in T-shirts and long shorts, dark-skinned, alike enough to be recognized as sisters, the older with short hair, the younger with a guitar in a black case slung over her right shoulder. I liked her at once. “Ano ‘yan po (may I help you)?” I asked.
They asked if I had any guitar first strings, and I glanced at the cases where we kept the single strings, mentally cursed myself for hoping and fate for mocking, and apologized, saying we only had sets left. Then I offered to put in the string for her. The girls looked at each other, and I glanced at Jeff, who hooked his thumbs in the backpack-straps and watched me.
“I’ll text Mom,” the younger one said, pulling out a cellphone.
” ‘Li lang (please wait),” the older said apologetically, with a smile. I was relieved to hear her speak Tagalog.
” ‘Di siya marunong mag-Tagalog (she doesn’t know how to speak Tagalog)?” I asked, gesturing to the younger.
” ‘Di masyado (not too much),” the older grinned.
“Pero naiintindihan niya (but she understands it).”
“Oo naman (of course),” the older laughed.
The younger finished texting, and then the girls put their heads together and conferred while I stood there, hands in my pockets, waiting for them to leave so we could close up and pay that month’s rent, then pack up the instruments and bring them to Mang Perez’s to exchange them for cash. At that idea I could feel my nose prickling–for better or worse, my heart was tied to music and I felt like we’d give up living after the sale. I knew Jeff felt the same, though he’d never say as much. He seemed to think I should always be cheered up, like now, he was muttering all the mainstream songs we’d never hear again once we’d left the mall behind–“Oppa Gangnam Style” being his pet peeve. I had to smile at last, but it took all my last strength.
“Yung set nalang (we’ll take the set).”
Jeff laughed, a short, involuntary sound of wonder. I turned back to the girls, who simply looked up at me and waited. I couldn’t very well throw my arms around them and squeeze them, so I settled for taking out the packet of strings. I’m not sure but that my hands were shaking, I was almost waiting for them to change their minds, waiting as hard as I’d waited for salvation barely two minutes ago. I accepted the guitar, pulled it lightly out of its case. The broken string was wrapped around the end–I unwrapped it, then replaced the first string. Then I began to tune every string. Someone, not any of the girls, asked me if I sold any of the strings and I absent-mindedly replied that we only had sets, and then returned my full attention to the guitar. I’m not sure what happened to them, this guitar had to be pitch perfect and I would make it so. After tuning it, I played a few chords, resonated with the richness of the sound, and then handed the guitar back to the younger. Then I turned to look at Jeff, who looked back, and then lowered his backpack down beside mine and re-folded the canvas.
“ ‘Eto na po (here it is),” the older said, giving me two hundred pesos. I looked at it blankly, laughed at my own forgetfulness, and then gave her twenty pesos change. They left after thanking us. We couldn’t very well thank them back without making fools of ourselves, so we just smiled and didn’t stop even after they’d left.
Three-hundred and sixty-five days to go.