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Birds and Beauty Marks

Clara wrinkled her nose. She hadn’t smelled that strong of incense since undergrad. It might have been off-putting, as she was still six feet from the entrance, but something about the rose and jasmine welcomed her. She checked her phone again, yes, this was the place. Sign was faded but the numbers matched.

Clara pulled the door, a bell twinkled, and a cloud of incense escaped. She coughed.

“Sorry,” chirped a voice toward the back. “I let it burn a little too long today... Cho hates it when I open the doors, but it’s bad for business for me too.” The voice’s volume was increasingly softer, as it seemed the last bit was more for herself, not the shy grad student quickly slinking toward the nearest wall. 

Clara blinked and half genuine, half pretended to examine the cluttered shelves. Faberge eggs, costume rings, nautical ropes. The usual antiques. She looked at a basket at her feet. Jackpot. 

Yellowed and browned sheet music with the crooner’s photo or scenic inking on the cover. Each encased in plastic, edges in some state of torn, and a white sticker price on the corner. 95 cents. Who carries cents anymore?  Clara thought, immensely grateful, though, that the music was within her student loan budget. 

And there it was. 

She slowly pulled up the clear plastic package, as if she were encroaching on a scared wounded wren, ready to flee at the slightest twitch. She stared, mouth unconsciously open. “My Shining Hour” by Harold Arlen. The cover featured Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie, smiling, carefree, proud and unphased by the world war going on around them. They starred in the movie that featured this song, The Skies the Limit. They'd starred in the movie that featured this song, The Skies the Limit, and were much more popular than the unknown chanteuse who premiered it. Clara had spent hundreds of hours looking for this online. Ebay and other sellers were asking the same hundreds of dollars for their copy. She couldn’t afford to fork over a month’s worth of groceries, but she also couldn’t complete her thesis without its crux. 

“It’s a good song,” a small woman said, next to her. 

Clara yelped and dropped the stack of music. 

“Sorry, so sorry,” Clara said, bending to the floor. 

“My fault entirely,” said the older woman. Clara realized this was the owner of the bird-like voice from before and the owner of the store. “I have a tendency of sneaking around, myself.” Clara blushed at that, and sheepishly pushed up her glasses. “I’d bend over to help, but I’m actually much older than I look.”

Clara looked up and the woman’s eyes twinkled. Clearly, and elegantly, she looked very much her age. Clara couldn’t help but smile at this disarming woman, who gently smiled back. Clara noticed a small beauty mark, placed ever so delicately at her right cheek. Good for you, Clara thought, I want to be like that when I’m older.

She followed her back to the register. Clara took a wide berth around the display with the remaining incense as the old woman adjusted this and that en route. More a habit than necessary, but Clara did notice the items- a sequined shrug on a mannequin, a folded scarf, a pipe.

At the register Clara found a few quarters in her purse- change from a vending machine lunch. 

“All for today?” She chimed. 

“Yes, thank you.” Clara replied. 

Then, “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking for this piece of music for, like, literally, months. And, in such good condition, you know people ask for a LOT more money for this and frankly I was about to pay it since my dissertation is due in a few weeks and Dr. Geeting is saying that I need to start thinking of another thesis and defer but I’ve been dreaming of this topic for literally years-” Clara stopped wide eyed. “I’m so sorry. I’ve clearly been by myself for too long.” 

“Me too,” the woman said, “well, aside from my small chats with Mr. Cho”. 

They smiled. The woman scratched her cheek. The beauty mark didn’t move, it was real, Clara noticed. 

“Would you like to hear the original recording?” The woman asked.

“Are you kidding? You have it?!” Clara was turning into a 13 year old again, sitting in a dated living room, listening to her Nana’s LPs.

“Yes. Two shakes, dear.” She turned to the back room and came back with a 45 featuring a beautiful woman with dark hair. Clara recognized the photo from her research. The same picture was on the back of the sheet music. 

The woman placed the record on one of the gramophones for sale and a string orchestra began playing. Clara was  shaking with delight. This was the first time someone was going to play this recording in over 80 years. Reddit is going to lose their minds, she thought. 

Then the most beautiful, bright, clear soprano began singing. As if Jeanette MacDonald and Beverly Sills had a talent-child. Goosebumps on goosebumps, Clara noticed the cover of the LP again. The woman pictured had the same beauty mark. Clara looked up at the frail owner in front of her. She was looking down, eyes shining. 

“Mm-” Clara’s voice caught. She had to clear her throat. “May I, um, may I… buy you lunch?” Clara was impressed with her boldness and grateful for the impulse. 

The woman popped back into this decade. “Why yes! I’d love that,” she chimed. Of course, the same voice. “Not Mr.Cho’s though, he’s had enough of my incense and stories.”

Clara burst out with a little too loud laugh. She stood up taller, and reached out to shake the delicate hand of this long lost songbird, as she readied to leave.

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