A Stolen Memory

It was barely noon on an unassuming Tuesday, under a bright January sky, one warring with both sapphire and translucent clouds, in front of a store where passersby failed to notice that a moment was within their reach if they’d only pause, appreciate, and listen.

Almost no one took notice. Each hurried past, taking sideways glances at the older busker with his guitar cradled in his hands, the case propped open on the ground adjacent to the bench on which he perched.

Entering the store with my attention diverted, I didn’t pause. The musician was silent upon my entrance. My mind swirled with the details of what might interest me.

As I exited the store with my cart, the air filled with chords and a broken voice singing simple words. It’s hard to mimic the simplicity of a simple melody, especially when the voice accompanying it has walked countless miles and endured unimaginable heartache. We all recognize such voices. While we might appreciate the songbirds who sing effortlessly, it is difficult to deafen our ears to a voice that adds gravel to what most of us find in our hearts.

I walked the long parking lot, almost to the outer perimeter abutting the access road. The busker’s voice receded to a whisper behind me. I threw my scant purchases into the car and walked back. Giving the musician time to finish his song, I handed him $20 and asked if he knew any Merle Haggard. He sheepishly said he didn’t, which surprised me. Merle’s voice accompanying his would have been akin to walking into an old country church to find the place filled to the rafters with song, the kind any voice could join without embarrassment.

I told him, “Surprise me.” And he did.

I walked around the column and wall behind him and leaned against it as he played. It wasn’t Merle. But it was more. As the song ended, he tentatively leaned around and said, here’s one I wrote called “Ball and Chain.”

As people entered and exited the storefront, as they drove by and looked in our direction, the older man sang his song. And then another, one probably chosen because of my initial request.

As he played “Horse With No Name,” I realized I never thought of the song that way before. As sometimes happens, I heard the song for the first time through the man’s voice. As the chords diminished and the strings went quiet, I walked over and handed him another $20. “God bless you,” he told me, making eye contact. I could tell he genuinely meant it. “God bless you, too,” I told him – and not reflexively, either.

Though you might not understand why, I confess that there were tears in my eyes as I pivoted and walked away.

A took a piece of the sapphire sky with me as I left, tucked away as a memory I know I will retain. I looked across the expanse of the parking lot and saw the man singing another song. He probably wondered who I am and what my story might be. I’m a man with no name – but a lot of moments and memories.

After this afternoon, I have another.

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