She was so frail and tiny that I was afraid to breathe for fear of blowing her over . . . and yet, there was something about this little old lady that said she would endure.
Maybe it was the way she moved her hands, obviously in time to the music playing on the stereo I was testing before placing it on the floor for sale.
It was one of those days when the sky threatened to rain. About three in the afternoon, it lived up to its threat. I’d put a compact disc of ’40s music into a CD player moments before this little old lady struggled through the door.
“I’m not here for anything. Just getting out of the rain,” she said, smiling, straining to keep from catching herself in the closing door.
Well, at least she’s honest, I thought.
I could tell she wasn’t interested in anything in my pawnshop. The rain had forced her in and she was trying to make the best of it.
She had bright eyes. I noticed she moved with the music despite her age. In fact, she fairly floated. When she glanced my way, I could see a young girl looking back. They were absolutely alive. Occasionally, it looked as if she were singing.
Her bright dress and firecracker eyes brightened what had been a dull day and a dreary afternoon. It warmed me having her in the shop.
She wasn’t bothering me, and I tried not to bother her. I kept busy. I worked quietly since she seemed to so enjoy the music. It was about this time that Glenn Miller’s Sentimental Journey came on. I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye, and looked up. My little old lady was standing stock still, her hand over her mouth, obviously fighting back tears.
“Ma’am . . . everything alright, Ma’am?” I asked, moving almost on tiptoe toward her.
“Yes . . . yes,” she said faintly, dabbing her eyes with a tissue that appeared in her hand as if by magic. She told me here name was Marion, and added, “It’s that music, you see,” in a quavering voice.
No, I didn’t see, exactly, except that deep within, I know everyone has a few favorite pieces that touch them. I figured that’s what she meant.
Without prompting, she added, “I knew Glenn Miller. I worked with him, briefly. But I knew him.”
“Is that right,” I said. It was half statement, half question. Over the years, I’ve learned to be judicious of whom I ask questions, especially of people in pawnshops. Sometimes, you get the most unbelievable concoction of claptrap, bullshit and balderdash. Yet somehow, I didn’t think this is what I would get from this sprightly but withered little old lady wrapped in a bright floral dress that was obviously the smallest size available. Still, it fit like skin on a bloodhound. There wasn’t anything unkempt about her. She was simply disappearing into old age.
I didn’t try to stop her. I didn’t want to. True, or false, I wanted to hear her story. I wanted to know how a sweet-faced little old lady named Marion got to know Glenn Miller well enough to bring tears to her eyes nearly 50 years after his death.
“I was very young, then,” she began, and I could see her traveling back through time.
“I was in high school. It was in the late twenties or early thirties. I don’t remember the year, exactly. I was in a band. Now let’s see, The Melody Makers, I believe it was . . . yes. That’s it . . . ,” she said, her voice going thin every once in awhile as the trail in her mind went from hot to cold and back again.
The band was made up of high school students from Denver, and quite by chance, she said, they were booked to play New Year’s Eve at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver. Marion was a vocalist.
The Brown Palace was one of Denver’s finest hotels when it opened in 1892. To this day, it is kept as nearly as possible in its original manner. Once it’s eight stories stood tall against Denver’s skyline, but today it squats almost out of sight among the 20- to 30-story buildings that surround it.
The Melody Makers traveled in a bus, Marion said. They arrived at the hotel’s Tremont Street entrance with their leader and manager at the wheel.
“It was cold, too,” she said, drawing up her shoulders at the memory. She paused as if to speak, but her mind had taken her back. She was seeing it all over again. I didn’t want to intrude. And then she laughed out loud as she recaptured the scene, and brought it back to the present.
“We pulled up to the door,” she chuckled, “right behind this wreck of a car. One side of the car was caved in. It had a flat tire. The lining was hanging loose, and one window was permanently gone.– missing. Inside was the most dejected, skinny young man I’d ever seen.”
“For some reason, our leader went over to talk to him,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
He was a musician, but he was so broke he had hocked his horn to get enough money to get his car running again. “He had a girlfriend in Fort Morgan. He was trying to get there to see her, as I recall” said Marion, squinting, trying to see back across the years.
She couldn’t remember whether The Melody Makers were short a musician that night, or whether their leader just took pity on the spindly horn player. “He took him to the hock shop, bailed out his horn, got his suit pressed, got him a room for the night, and helped him change the tire on his car,” she smiled.
But, getting his pay for a one-night stand with the Melody Makers wasn’t that easy. The group had to vote whether he got the job.
“He really needed a job, and asked our leader if he could play with us. Well, by then, riding all over town with him, getting to know him . . . he really was a likable young man . . . we just naturally said ‘yes.'”
“Of course — just to be sure — he had to audition,” Marion smiled.
“He played at least one solo that night . . . maybe more . . . I can’t remember now. But I do remember Delphine, another member of the group. She and I would sing duo sometimes, and at midnight, this big gong started going off, and we sang Auld Lang Syne. Everyone in the band played, we sang, and all the dancers stopped dancing and joined in . . . ” she trailed off again, going back to that night, the noise, the fun, and the young people singing and playing.
“You know, when people join together to make music,” she said in her thin little voice, “something happens. It’s as though all of your hearts are beating together. Somehow you become one. You share something . . . something that will belong only to you forever.”
We had spent enough time talking that the CD came around to Miller’s Sentimental Journey. Again it caught her almost as it had earlier.
She smiled, mostly to herself, and went away for awhile, transported by the music. She looked younger. I was sure that in her mind, at that moment, she was a young girl again, standing in the midst of young people making music on a cold winter night in a grand old hotel at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and that one of them was a thin young man playing his horn, and that in their hearts all of them were keeping the same beat and smiling inside, certain that the world held for them nothing but treasure yet to be claimed.
So, the CD played, and my tiny guest swung her head and shoulders in time to the music, and near the end of the piece, she held up her hand, as though seeing someone she remembered . . . as though touching someone . . . as though saying good-by.