Hardtimes
Chapter 5

Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac

Burl stood next to the fountain watching the young woman play her guitar. So far no one had complained about her, but it was just a matter of time. There was always somebody who would find something wrong with anything. Jesus could walk through the mall and there would be some folks who would say he looked too old and others would complain that he looked too young. They would all complain that he was too scruffy – beard and robe and all that. In this case, someone would find a song objectionable and raise a stink.

She finished her song and passed a hat around the crowd that had gathered to listen to her. Burl waited for the hat to return to the young woman before stepping up to her. She spotted him and turned away as if she didn’t notice him.

“Have you got permission to be busking?” Burl asked.

“I’m just trying to get a little money for food,” the woman complained.

Burl held up his hands and said, “Whoa there! I just asked a question. Have you got permission to be busking?”

“No,” the woman said.

“Let’s go over to the office and get you permission,” Burl said.

“You’re going to bust me,” the woman said.

“No, I won’t. You’ll be back out here playing your guitar and singing your heart out in ten minutes. If we get you permission, you won’t have to leave when someone complains,” Burl said.

“What if I don’t get permission?” the young woman asked.

She had been chased out of a lot of places in her short career as a busker. She considered herself to be a wandering minstrel. It was a lost art in a world of ipods and shock videos. A lot of folks believed that wandering minstrels, buskers, and sidewalk artists were actually thieves. That usually left them getting chased off by law enforcement types.

“Are you kidding? With the way you play, they’ll be inviting you back,” Burl said.

“How do you know?” the young woman asked.

“I listened to your last set. That was real nice. Not many people sing those old ballads anymore,” Burl said. “It’s a nice change from that rap stuff.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Hey, Burl!” Denise said while rolling past on her wheelchair.

“I see you’re keeping busy today, Denise,” Burl said.

“Always,” Denise said. She coasted for a second to wave at him.

The young woman asked, “Who was that?”

“That’s Denise. She’s got a business delivering food and coffee to the people who work in the stores,” Burl answered.

After clearing out the money in her guitar case, she carefully packed her guitar. It was easy to see that she treated the guitar like a real treasure. Once the guitar was safe, she emptied the money out of her hat. It was a pretty good haul for a mall for the short time she had been there. At least she would be able to get something to eat.

“Okay. Take me to your leader,” she said resigned that her gig in the mall was at an end.

Burl headed towards the office without checking to see if she followed. She walked beside him deciding to let this little drama play itself out.

“I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I’m Burl.”

“Was your mother a Burl Ives fan?” she asked.

“Yes,” Burl answered. “I wish she had named me after Clint Eastwood. I’d be a whole lot handsomer.”

The young woman laughed taken by surprise by his self-depreciating sense of humor. If she was going to get thrown out of a mall, it was best if it was done by a nice guy.

“What’s your name?” Burl asked.

“Laura Lane.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Laura,” Burl said.

“Come on and make a superman joke,” Laura said.

“I’m not that witty,” Burl said.

Laura said, “Everyone makes a superman joke.”

“Not me. I don’t make fun of people,” Burl said. “It’s a tough enough world without someone making it worse. I do my best to make it a better world.”

“Its a shame that more people don’t feel that way,” Laura said.

Burl said, “I agree. We’re here.”

He held open the office door. Laura sighed and entered the office.

“Mrs. Paramo,” Burl said. Shelly, the other woman who worked in the mall, swapped weekends with Mrs. Paramo.

“What can I do for you, Burl?” the elderly woman asked.

“This is Laura Lane. She needs permission to play her guitar in the mall,” Burl said.

“Another busker?” Mrs. Paramo asked.

“Yes,” Burl said. “She sings ballads and folk music.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a wandering minstrel,” Laura said.

“I don’t see any problems so long as you stay away from religious music and bad language,” Mrs. Paramo said.

She rummaged around through a desk drawer. She pulled out a stack of pink papers. After dating it, she said, “Here you go. Just put this by your guitar case so people know that you’re allowed to play here.”

Shocked, Laura picked up the form. “What is this?”

“That’s a performance permit.” Mrs. Paramo said, “We have lots of entertainers coming into the mall for various reasons. There’s a gym that has a group in for a morning exercise session every once in a while. Some of the stores have attractions to bring in customers. We just like to keep track of who is here.”

“That’s nice,” Laura said.

“I’ll take her back to the fountain,” Burl said.

“The garden bench next to the food court has better acoustics and higher traffic,” Mrs. Paramo said.

“That’s true. I guess she can set up there,” Burl said.

“Thank you,” Laura said surprised by the suggestion on how to improve her take.

Burl opened the door and let Laura out. Mrs. Paramo said, “Hey, Burl. She’s good looking. I bet she’d go to dinner with you.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll keep that in mind,” Burl said.

He led Laura to the food court and pointed out the area Mrs. Paramo had recommended. Laura looked around thinking it would give her wide visibility. Almost all of the traffic to and from the food court would pass by there. Now that she wasn’t worried about getting chased out of the mall, she was more than willing to attract as much attention as possible.

“Thanks, Burl. You’re a nice guy,” Laura said.

“I’ll come around and make sure you aren’t having any problems,” Burl said.

“Like what?” Laura asked.

Burl said, “Someone trying to lift some money out of your case.”

“That happens,” Laura said.

She once had a guy grab sixty dollars out of her guitar case. There had been three twenty dollar bills in it. It was nearly a third of her take for the day. She had been left in the position where she could chase him and leave the rest of her money behind or let him go while protecting her earnings. It was frustrating.

Burl said, “You know. I’ve always liked the song Red River Valley.”

Laura picked up her guitar and double checked its tune. She sang,

“From this valley they say you are going.

We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,

For they say you are taking the sunshine

That has brightened our pathway a while.

Burt dropped a ten in the open guitar case and headed away to finish his rounds. It was nice when things worked out to the benefit of everyone involved.

He hadn’t taken more than ten steps away when Denise rolled up. She slowed to keep pace with him.

Denise said, “She’s a cutie.”

“She’s a good musician,” Burl said.

“She’s cute,” Denise said.

“And she’s cute,” Burl admitted.

“Ask her out for dinner,” Denise said.

Burl said, “Nah. She’s probably got a guy waiting for her somewhere.”

“If you don’t, I will,” Denise said.

“Go ahead. I’m sure she’ll enjoy having dinner with you,” Burl said.

“You know what I mean,” Denise said. She rolled ahead of him with a couple of thrusts of her hands on the wheels of her chair.

Burl called out, “Bye!”

“Stupid man can’t ask a girl out,” Denise mumbled.

Fortunately, Burl did not hear the comment. He was headed into the Halloween Costume Store to talk to the store owner. Max Whitwell was a real piece of work. He rented the space from August through December. For a month the store sold back to school supplies. From the middle of September through the end of October the store sold Halloween items including costumes, decor, and candy. From the beginning of November to the end of December he sold christmas decor. He completely redecorated the store with each change in stock and changed the name of the store.

“Hello, Max. It looks like business is good,” Burl said while glancing around the store.

“It could be better. I’m worried about Christmas,” Max said.

“Everyone in the mall is concerned about that,” Burl said.

He figured if anyone had a feeling for how the holiday sales were going, it would be Max. The man usually pushed twice the sales through his store of any other store in the mall. He saved nearly two thirds of the annual rent for a store. He hired a rather large crew, but it was necessary for the volume of traffic the store generated.

“Back to school sales were acceptable and a little above last year, but not as good as two years ago. It worries me a bit since I don’t think fewer kids are heading back to school this year. Halloween is just holding its own and we’ll probably reach last year’s level. I hope people are saving up to spend a bit on Christmas. I can’t take a year worse than last year,” Max said.

“You did well last year compared to everyone else,” Burl said.

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