Hardtimes
Chapter 6

Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac

Indian summer had arrived and it looked like the weather was going to be glorious. The nights were chilly, but the days were nice. The really cold weather would be coming in a couple of weeks. Until then, people were taking advantage of the warm temperatures. Leaves needed to be raked, storm windows had to be put in place, and other little errands in preparation of winter had to be performed.

Laura looked over the roof of her station wagon at the old house. Burl had been a perfect gentleman. She appreciated the long hot shower, the comfortable bed, and filling breakfast. She sighed thinking that it had been one of the nicest nights she’d had in a long time.

The conversation over dinner and at the house afterwards had been fascinating. A lot of the songs she sang dated back to civil war times. Their discussion about the background of the songs had lasted until late in the night. She knew some of the specific details concerning the origins of the songs, but he was able to provide the cultural and historical background that made her knowledge even more interesting.

“Who are you?”

Surprised by the chilly tone of voice in which the question was asked, Laura spun around to find she was face to face with a very attractive woman. She wondered if this was a girlfriend of Burl. Based in the comments of the people at the mall, the last thing she expected was a confrontation with another woman.

“I’m Laura.”

“What are you doing here, Laura?”

“I’m getting ready to go to work,” Laura answered noticing the chill had not left the woman’s voice.

“I hope you were nice to him.”

“Who are you?” Laura asked.

“I’m his neighbor, Kat.”

“Well, retract your claws Kat. We had a very pleasant evening,” Laura said adding a little frost to her voice. “Not that it is any of your business.”

“Burl is a nice guy. We worry about him,” Kat said.

She wasn’t ready to accept for a minute that a young attractive woman like Laura would have anything to do with Burl without having an ulterior motive. She hoped that Burl had taken steps to protect his valuables.

“He is a nice guy,” Laura said.

“Will you be back?” Kat asked.

“He invited me to stay tonight,” Laura answered.

Kat said, “Don’t lead him on. Don’t hurt him.”

Laura was surprised by how many people were watching over Burl. It seemed to her like everyone she met gave her the same warning to treat him nicely. In addition to the people at the mall, the waitress at the seafood restaurant had taken advantage of her trip to the ladies’ room to give her a warning to be nice to Burl. It seemed like everyone knew Burl.

“I won’t,” Laura said. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get to work.”

“Fine,” Kat said.

Laura stopped by the office at the mall to pick up a permit to busk. Before searching for the forms, Mrs. Paramo asked about dinner. She visibly relaxed upon hearing that it had been a nice evening. The form magically appeared along with some advice about where to set up for the day. Laura was pretty sure that a negative report concerning the dinner date would have resulted in not getting a permit to work in the mall.

She was still setting up when Denise rolled over to talk. Denise asked, “How did it go with Burl last night?”

“It went well. I had a very nice evening with him,” Laura answered.

“You know, if I wasn’t seventeen and crippled, I would be all over him,” Denise said.

“Really?” Laura asked surprised by the comment, but believing she meant it.

If one was able to overlook the absence of legs below the knees, Denise was a cute girl. She also had a friendly outgoing personality. The age difference, although significant now, wouldn’t be a big deal in a couple of years. Denise was just waiting for the day when she could make her move on him.

“He helped me when I came here hoping to get a minimum wage job. Because of Burl talking to folks, I run my own business and make a lot more than minimum wage. I’m going to college after I get out of high school. I know that I’ll be able to do this no matter where I go to school. Its not many people who can set you up with a job that you like and can take with you no matter where you go,” Denise said.

“That’s true,” Laura said.

“Burl suggested it and then he helped make it happen. I can’t thank him enough,” Denise said.

She had been one miserable teenager before getting this job. At a time when other girls her age were out dating, boys were not interested in a girl with no legs. When others were getting jobs, she was stuck in physical therapy learning how to deal with the simplest of everyday tasks. Her mother had tried to keep her from looking for a job afraid that the rejections she was sure Denise would get would further crush the young woman’s spirit.

She had been sitting near this very spot feeling depressed from store owner after store owner telling her that they couldn’t use her when Burl entered her life. He took one look at her and suggested the delivery business. Thirty minutes later, she was in business. He had gotten permission from mall management and printed up a brochure with the help of the folks at the office supply store. He had then introduced her to everyone in the mall.

Denise said, “One day Mrs. Temple got really sick, and she was running her store alone. Burl took the day off and watched the store for her, while she went home. The mall would have fined her if she had closed up the store for the day. He used a day of his vacation to help her out.”

“That’s remarkable,” Laura said.

“That’s Burl.”

Holding her hand about five feet from the ground, Laura asked, “Mrs. Temple wouldn’t happen to be an elderly woman about so tall?”

“That’s her,” Denise said.

“She gave me fifty dollars to take Burl to dinner,” Laura said.

Denise said, “That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Wow.”

Denise said, “I better get to work. My boss is an asshole.”

“So is mine,” Laura said with a grin.

Throughout the day, people who worked in the mall stopped by to see how Burl’s date had gone. Unused to that kind of attention, it was getting embarrassing. There was this unspoken question about whether or not Burl had gotten laid. She pitied the poor girl who started dating Burl with serious intent.

Mrs. Temple sat down on the bench beside Laura waiting for the young woman to finish her song and pass the hat. Laura gave her pitch to get people to donate a little money for the pleasure of getting a little pleasure from a live performance.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Mrs. Temple,” Laura asked.

“I wanted to hear how your dinner went,” Mrs. Temple said.

Laura dug in her pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. She held it out for Mrs. Temple. “I didn’t need this. Burl paid.”

“I thought he would,” Mrs. Temple said. “Keep the money.”

“You gave it to me to pay for dinner,” Laura said.

Mrs. Temple said, “I know Burl. I knew he wouldn’t let you pay. He’s old fashioned.”

“I’m planning on leaving tomorrow,” Laura said.

“Really? Why?”

“I’ve got to head to where it is warmer. I usually sleep in my car. I would freeze to death living up here,” Laura said.

“I guess that makes sense,” Mrs. Paramo said. She sighed. “I really hoped you might be the one for him.”

“I’m a wandering minstrel. That makes having a relationship with a man a little difficult,” Laura said.

“You aren’t a very good one,” Mrs. Paramo said.

“How can you say that?” Laura asked shocked by the observation.

“Wandering minstrels were part musicians, part storyteller, and part news reporter. I’ve heard you play music, but I haven’t heard you tell a single story or say a word about how things are where you were last. You are supposed to share news about how things are elsewhere,” Mrs. Paramo said. “You’re a traveling musician, not a minstrel.”

“You’re right,” Laura said finding that she couldn’t argue the point.

Mrs. Paramo said, “I better get back to the store before Denise has to ring up a customer. She can’t reach the cash register.”

“That would be a problem,” Laura said.

“Of course, I have that problem too. At least I can stand on a box,” Mrs. Paramo said.

Laura laughed until she realized that the elderly woman was serious. “Sorry.”

“No problem,” the diminutive woman said. “We all have little setbacks in life. You can’t avoid them. I figure they’re there so that we can get tough enough to deal with the big stuff.”

Laura watched her return to the store thinking that Burl had a lot of people who took a serious interest in his life. She also gave thought to the comment that she wasn’t a very good wandering minstrel. She wondered what kinds of stories she could tell between songs. In the modern age of twenty-four hour news coverage and polished Hollywood entertainment she wondered what she could do.

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