Today's Reading

He presented her with a flat, light package that Eleanor knew would be a record. Probably one she already owned. She guarded against disappointment and tore the paper. Guys and Dolls.

"Saw it in Green Bay last month." He was so proud; she felt embarrassment for him. "This is the one you wanted, isn't it?"

She had hoped for My Fair Lady. Her parents understood only so much about musicals and failed to grasp any differentiation. At first Eleanor had accepted this, but lately she felt as if it was a willful decision not to learn more and engage.

After breakfast, Eleanor took the truck into town to Miltenberg's Music. Owned and curated by her friend Pat Miltenberg, it was the only music shop for miles around.

Eleanor had first visited when she was nine. Her mother was getting her hair done and Eleanor grew fidgety. Armed with a nickel for candy, Eleanor passed Miltenberg's. Aisles of records were lined up like rows of corn. The shop owner was behind the desk, penciling notes in a ledger, squinting despite his small glasses. The place smelled dusty. Her footsteps were swallowed by the cardboard record sleeves and sheet music. Her parents put on a record of Christmas carols a few times each December, and apart from the occasional pop tune, Eleanor didn't even know there were other kinds of music.

She read the cards stuck between the records: Opera, Classical, Jazz, Popular Music, Hymns, Show Tunes. She flipped the records one by one, awed by the colorful cardboard sleeves, amazed there was enough music to fill an entire store.

"Can I help you find something?"

Eleanor pulled her hands to her sides when the owner approached. "I'm only looking."

He was graying and plump, a larger man than the farmworkers she was used to, and wore a pilled blue sweater with corduroy pants light at the knees. He smelled of tobacco and something sweet and herbal. Though he was middle-aged, he gave off the energy of someone even older. Eleanor was told to be quiet in the company of adults, but he crouched to meet her eyes. "That's all right, dear. What kind of music do you like?"

Eleanor beheld all the rows of records, quivering.

"My name is Pat." He shook her hand like she was a grown-up. "Let's find out what you like."

Eleanor followed as he browsed different genres, debating for long moments before selecting which record to present. No one had ever taken her so seriously.

When he was searching Irish Ballads, she spoke up. "Sometimes I sing in church. I like that a lot."

"No doubt you do." He pulled his glasses down. His nose was round, spongy with pores. "I have an idea." He led her back to the show tunes and picked through a stack. He freed one from its sleeve, pulled the needle off a turning record, and set the new one to spin.

Eleanor swayed on her feet, unsure of herself. She mimicked Pat's posture: leaned against the counter, ankles crossed, eyes closed.

Then the music came through. The moment it hit the air, Eleanor straightened her back, skin turning bumpy. It was a brassy sound, modern, spirited but sincere, with humor and vulnerability. Her body reacted instantly—it was like eating a sweet, or petting the new spring kittens. She didn't need time to decipher her feelings. The pleasure was instant and right.

"What's this?"

"'They Can't Take That Away from Me' by George and Ira Gershwin." Pat must have seen how her eyes brightened. He began to gesture, his voice growing more animated. "Pair of brothers who got their start in Tin Pan Alley—do you know where that is?"

Pat told her about the writers in New York, collaborating in tiny apartments. He told her about vendors selling frankfurters on the street and how thousands of people lived on top of each other in buildings taller than church steeples. Writers and musicians lived there, but also students, fashion designers, finance moguls, chefs, and people who enjoyed living someplace where interesting things happened every moment. He'd been there once, years earlier. "I loved it," he said. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened. "But it wasn't for me." Eleanor imagined Tin Pan Alley as a factory, with actresses going down the assembly line, men switching out their lyrics as they passed. Pat said it was more human than that. New York was the place to be if you loved musicals. Lyricists partnered with composers until they found a match, writing for stage works filled with drama and dance. People built relationships, and out of them, the art was born. Each word, each note, each harmony was as deliberate as a surgical stitch. Eleanor had seen just one musical on television—The Wizard of Oz. By the time her mother found her later that afternoon, Pat had gifted her three records and awakened her to a whole world of music and stories.
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