I wrote this story for Ed Ward’s show ‘Stories, Stories, Bring Your Stories’.
Jim was using a q-tip to dust the valves on a saxophone when the bell above his door jangled. He hurried to his feet, slipping the q-tip in his pocket as he did so, and was dismayed to see that it was only Bea Wolford, who ran the beauty parlor next door.
Bea’s eyes glittered with big news. She put a plump hand to her breast and caught her breath.
“Good morning, Bea.” Jim resumed carefully dusting the saxophone. Each instrument was dusted once a week, but they still managed to collect so much.
“Jim… the new store opened this morning.” Bea spoke slowly, as if presenting a prize on a game show.
Jim shrugged. The FairLawn strip mall had 18 spaces, and only 6 were occupied. Tenants came and went so quickly that Jim often didn’t realize they had ever been open.
“You should come see it.”
Bea was somehow frowning and sort of smiling at the same time, which intrigued Jim enough to follow her outside. He figured it was probably another store that sold racy undergarments.
The FairLawn strip mall was shaped like a large L, and the new store was on the short end. Jim stared at the new plastic banner flapping over the doorway. PIED PIPER MUSIC GRAND OPENING. A glittering blue drum set sat in the window, and a man was tying balloons to the parking signs out front.
Bea put a huge, soft arm around Jim’s shoulders.
“I can’t believe it,” she murmured.
The man across the way turned and noticed them staring, and threw a little wave. Bea waved back enthusiastically, but Jim was struck numb. He turned and headed back toward his shop, looking up at the well-weathered sign he had painted by hand twelve years ago: McCormick Music Supply.
Bea was following close behind.
“Do you think he’s Chinese?” She whispered.
Jim ignored her and went inside. He walked to the back of his store and slumped into his squeaky old chair and sat for a moment, rubbing his face with his hands. Then he jerked open a desk drawer and took out a handful of business cards. He searched through them until he found what he was looking for and then picked up the phone and dialed. As it rang Jim pinched tufts of his beard and twisted them back and forth.
“First Realty,” said a pleasant woman’s voice.
“Chad Pemberton, please.”
“One moment, can I tell him who’s calling?”
There was a click and some very faint hold music. Jim had only met Chad once, two years ago, when he had taken over the strip mall. He could picture Chad in his big Chicago office, with his dyed blonde hair.
“Hello, Jim. I can guess what this call is about.”
“It’s about the new business in space 18,” Jim nearly shouted.
“That… was my guess. I’m sorry, but you know how hard it is to fill spaces out there.”
“I am barely getting by as it is. And you let another music store in?”
“This could be good for you. Bring some competition. People who visit their shop will see yours, too.”
“Everyone in town already knows I’m here.”
“Hey, Jim, I have another call coming in. Can I give you a call back in a few?”
Jim said yes and meekly hung up. He walked back to the front of his store and looked out past the assortment of trombones, trumpets and saxophones in his window.
A car was parked in front of the new music store. Two boys jumped out of the back and ran to the window, pointing at the drum set. Their mother got out and escorted them inside. Jim clenched his fists. He looked over at the two drum sets he offered. Neither was glittery, but they were solid little kits. One had a natural wood finish and the other was red. He walked over and hit one of the cymbals with his knuckle.
Jim closed up 30 minutes early, unable to bear looking at the new store any longer. It gnawed at his guts, and he was unable to leave his post by the window. The new store had received 6 visitors, which was what Jim might average in a good week.
When he got home he went straight to the kitchen and pulled a beer from the vegetable drawer where he liked to stack them. His wife Meredith was in the dining room, working on a crossword.
“Hey hon, how was work?”
Jim stood silent, sipping his beer.
“Hon?” She got up and looked into the kitchen. “Oh, for a second I worried it wasn’t you!”
“New store opened up in the mall today. Music supply.”
Meredith’s mouth fell open. “No.”
“Did you call the realty company?”
“You better believe it. Got that high roller Chad Pemberton on the phone and read him the riot act.”
Meredith put her arms around him.
“I think this is the final nail,” Jim said sadly.
“Don’t talk like that. You’ve hung on for so long. Maybe the Lord is testing you, like Job.”
Jim finished his beer and went for another.
“I could pick up more hours at the library.”
“No, no, don’t do that. You’re right. This is just a test. I’ve been there for twelve years. This is my turf.”
He sat down at the table with a pad of paper and a pencil and began to think.
The next day he stopped at a florist on his way to work and picked up 6 helium balloons. He tied them around the parking signs out front and then stepped back. They obscured the display windows somewhat, but they were eye-catching. The florist had been low on regular balloons, so two of the balloons were silver mylar and proudly announced: IT’S A BOY!
Jim went inside and turned on the lights and then pulled his list of ideas from his breast pocket. There was only one word written on it, and he crossed it out.
He tried to keep with his regular routine of dusting the instruments and rotating them around, but every chance he got he was back at the window, staring hungrily at the new shop. They had more balloons, but Jim had the two square silver ones, which he thought gave him an advantage.
Meredith came in just before noon to bring him the pot roast sandwich he had forgotten at home.
“Love the balloons!”
“Yep, two can play the balloon game.”
They shared the sandwich and drank cans of root beer in silence, surrounded by instruments. The moment Jim was finished he went to the window. A van was parked in front of the PIED PIPER.
“Does everyone in town hate me?”
Jim had asked the window, but Meredith answered.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She joined him and looked at the new store. “That is a great name, though.”
Jim looked down at her.
“What? Sorry, hon but it is.”
“It tells you nothing about the owner. I’m proud to put my name on my shop. You shop here, you know you’re dealing with a McCormick.”
“Maybe you should go over and introduce yourself. It can’t be healthy to just stand here all day like a peeping tom.”
Jim nodded. “Not a bad idea.”
“I have to get back to the library, see you at 6.” Meredith gave him a peck on the cheek and left, playfully batting the balloons down.
Jim put a ‘back in 15 minutes’ sign up and headed over to the Pied Piper. When he reached the door he had second thoughts, but didn’t want to be seen chickening out. He walked in hesitantly, as if entering a bear’s cave.
The air inside was cool, and smelled like spicy fried chicken. An asian woman was standing in the back, unpacking a guitar. She called out without looking up, “Welcome!”
Jim walked slowly through the store, comparing brands and prices with his own store. He was relieved to find that most items were being offered for as much or more than his own stock. At least he wasn’t being undercut.
He was kneeling by an oboe when the woman finally noticed him.
“Hello, looking for anything in particular?”
She stared at him closely. “You run the store across the parking lot?”
Jim’s face flushed red and he nodded.
The woman came over and offered her hand. “Annie.”
He shook her hand limply. “Jim.”
They stood for a moment in an awkward quiet, with only the sound of the ventilation fan clattering in the back.
Jim finally spoke to break the tension.
“These Selmer oboes are pretty nice. Probably the best oboe in that price bracket.”
Annie nodded gamely. “Not much demand for oboes, though. Everyone wants the guitars now.”
“Well, I better get back to my shop.”
“Nice meeting you.”
“You, too,” Jim choked out.
Back inside his store, Jim took out an order sheet and his catalogs and filled out an order for ten new electric guitars. He didn’t really have the money for them, but felt confident that they would sell themselves.
He heard the sound of children yelling outside and looked up to see a cluster of children looking in his window at the instruments. The balloons were working! He gestured for the kids to come inside but the parents shooed them onward.
Jim went to the window and watched the large family make their way down the row of vacant stores, then across the parking lot and inside the Pied Piper.
“I’ve been here for twelve years,” Jim yelled at his reflection.
That night at dinner Jim picked at his food but made his way quickly through three beers. Meredith tried several attempts at pleasant conversation, but Jim just responded tersely into his plate. Finally, as she was clearing her dishes, Meredith snapped at him:
“You’re letting this business ruin you.”
“What am I supposed to do? I put up balloons!”
“The Jim McCormick I married wouldn’t let this affect him. You just do what you do best.”
“I am!” Jim spluttered. “I offer clean, quality instruments at affordable prices!”
Meredith looked at him sadly, which made him feel even worse. She went downstairs to watch television, leaving Jim to his cold hamburger and beer burps.
The next day Jim was sulking inside his store, hungover, when Chad Pemberton walked in, all smiles and handshakes.
“What brings you all the way down here?”
“I thought I would check in with everyone. I haven’t been down here in too long. How’s business?”
Jim’s jaw tensed. “Slow.”
Chad nodded, and it would have been the same response if the news had been good.
“Say, Jim, I need you to take down those balloons out front. We need the parking signs clear.”
“What about their balloons?”
Chad sighed. “It’s their grand opening, Jim. They’ll take them down soon.”
“How about I take mine down when they do?”
“I need you to do it today. What if everyone starts putting balloons up? It’ll look like a goddamn carnival out here.”
“Good, that might bring some people.”
Chad ran his finger over a bass guitar’s strings. “I used to play bass, in high school.”
“That’s a great guitar right there. And I could knock off ten per cent, for you.”
Chad smiled sadly. “I don’t have time to play guitar anymore, Jim. I gotta make the rounds. Get those balloons down for me.”
Jim waited stubbornly for an hour and then went outside to take down the balloons. He was just bringing them all inside when a blue minivan pulled up. A woman and her two little girls got out and followed him inside.
“Welcome,” said Jim, smoothing out his rumpled shirt.
“Can I have a balloon?” Asked the youngest girl.
“You can have all of them.” Jim handed them over. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“Well, I wanted to enroll Tabby in a music class, and wanted to shop around. Do you have any clarinets?”
“Do I? Right this way.” Jim was invigorated. Things were finally turning around. “These are the three I usually stock, but I can order anything you’re looking for. This might be her size.” He pointed to a little brown Yamaha.
The woman picked it up and turned it over in her hands. She traced a line with her index finger through the film of dust.
Jim laughed nervously. “I’m a bit behind on my housekeeping, but I can get that ready for Carnegie Hall in five minutes.”
The woman and her daughters continued to browse for a few minutes, but it was painfully clear that they wouldn’t be buying anything. Jim followed behind, offering information and pricing options, but they soon left. To Jim’s relief they piled into their minivan to head home.
But then, to his disbelief, they simply drove diagonally across the parking lot to the Pied Piper. Jim leaned against his door, staring and waiting. In fifteen minutes they emerged, the oldest girl proudly holding a long rectangular box under her arm.
Jim closed a full hour early and walked a half mile down the street to the Chili’s. He sat at the bar and drank a frozen margarita, and then another. When he ordered his third, the bartender, a young woman who did not look 21 herself, cautioned him:
“These are stronger than they taste. They’ll sneak up on you.”
“That’s fine by me.” Jim excused himself and went to the payphone by the restrooms. He called home and got the answering machine, as expected.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m going to stay late and work on some new strategies.” Jim hoped his voice wasn’t slurring as badly as he suspected.
Jim finished off the third margarita, and decided to downshift, since the bartender seemed likely to cut him off any minute. He ordered a beer and sipped it, thinking over his options. There was only one solution left.
He paid his tab and left, making it a point to tell the bartender several times that he was taking a cab home.
He walked to the nearby Save-Mor and bought a can of lighter fluid, and then walked back to the FairLawn strip mall. It was now nearly seven, and all the stores were closed. Jim shambled across the parking lot and unlocked his door.
He flipped open the cap on the lighter fluid and paused. All the instruments sat there, admonishing him. Why punish us? they asked. Jim nodded with half-lidded eyes. It wasn’t fair that he should have to burn down his own store. He had been there forever. McCormick’s Music Supply was a fixture in the FairLawn strip mall.
Weaving and tottering he walked through his store and out the back door, still carrying the lighter fluid. He locked his back door and then crept around the back of the strip mall toward the Pied Piper. There was no one around to see him but he still ducked and weaved from shadow to shadow, just in case.
As he suspected, the back of the Pied Piper was just like his unit, with a door and a small window roughly seven feet off the ground. He pushed a nearby dumpster under the window and then climbed up, slipping and sliding in his slick-soled wingtips.
The window pushed open easily, and Jim dropped the lighter fluid inside and then climbed in, barely able to fit his shoulders and gut through the narrow rectangle. He fell to the floor on his side, grunting in pain. It took him a moment to regain his feet, and he felt like the frozen margaritas might come back up at any moment.
Had he been more careful, or perhaps more sober, he would have taken note of the small white motion sensor fixed above the door, which was now blinking red. Jim opened the lighter fluid and without hesitating began to douse the instruments and carpet. He drained the entire can, reeling from the fumes, and took out the matches he had swiped from Chili’s.
Suddenly the alarm blared, startling him terribly. He hadn’t given any thought that they might use an alarm system. Crime was nearly unheard of in the FairLawn strip mall.
Some people are so untrusting, thought Jim, and he struck a match. He tossed it toward the floor, and the carpet ignited even before the match hit. The fire rushed through the store like a dragon’s breath, and Jim fell back, terrified. The heat rippled around him, searing his nostrils.
Jim hurried to the rear of the store and realized the window was too high for him to reach. He looked around in a panic and saw the only chair in the store ablaze, popping with sparks as the synthetic padding burned.
His eyes were watering from the heat and smoke and it was hard to see. The back door was locked with a deadbolt that required a key, which meant his only hope was the front door.
Shielding his eyes with his arm he ran through the flames, screaming from pain. The front of the store was full of smoke, and the fire was spreading quickly around him. Jim found the front door by touch, and was crushed to feel the deadbolt where his own door had a simple knob lock.
He spied the sparkling blue drum kit through the swirling smoke. He picked up the entire kit and heaved it forward against the window. The glass cracked everywhere, but held. He picked it up again and threw his body behind it and this time the glass exploded outward, with Jim and the drums spilling out on the sidewalk.
Sirens were converging on the parking lot, and Jim’s vision was still blurry. He lay amid the shards of glass, watching the reflection of approaching lights on the glittering blue drum kit.
When I shared this story with my wife she said it was ‘very sad’, which surprised me. I suppose what happens to the main character is very sad, but he is an oaf, and certainly the most unlikeable character in the story. I didn’t intend this to be a parable about success when I wrote it, I just wanted to write about a hapless loser who runs a music store, but afterward I realized in many ways Jim’s life is a metaphor for my own comedy career. I spend so much time concentrating on other people’s successes, when I should just be sticking to what I do best.
There will always be someone better at what you do. Instead of playing catch-up, just work on what you do best, and be happy.