For the month of February, I will be posting to my blog excerpts from my young person's novel "Norma's Revenge" as I work on character development. Your comments, critiques, and suggestions are welcome. Today, Victor Victrola.
Chapter Seven – The Discovery
“Aria. Kitty, kitty, kitty.” Luci paused as she listened for any sign of the feline. Tentatively, she groped in front of her as her eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness. The only light was the natural light behind her and it only lit a narrow strip, most of it blocked by her own body. “Kitty, kitty, kitty . . .” Luci could hear Aria purring in the distance , but there was no indication that she was making any attempt to make her way to Luci or the entrance. Luci’s hands felt dusty and grimy as she patted the rough hewn and age encrusted floorboards as she attempted to get her bearings. As she made her way, Luci turned toward the sound of Aria purring and left the bit of light from the doorway and found herself once again in darkness. “Perhaps I should go get a flashlight, or ask for help,” Luci thought to herself.
Luci tilted her head toward the sound and then heard the soft thud of paws landing on a solid surface. Aria must have jumped on something. Instead of looking to the floorboards, Luci glanced up and could see the glint of light reflecting off of what looked like a light pull hanging from the ceiling rafters. As she stood up, soft, whispering threadlike tendrils of cobwebs brushed her face and stuck to her lips. With her mouth spluttering and her arms franticly waving in all directions, her imagination went into high gear. “Spiders!” She bolted toward the square of light, tumbled out of the secret entrance, and lay panting splayed out on her bedroom floor. Upon sitting up, she did a more careful inspection of her hair and determined that she had come into contact with cobwebs rather than spider webs. Wiping all the dusty traces away from her face, Luci took a deep breath and tried to regain her composure. She sat staring at the entrance once again, hoping that Aria would quickly appear and put an end to all this nonsense.
No such luck. Luci entered the darkness once again and traced her steps back to where she believed she saw the light pull. This time she raised her arms in the air and batted into the darkness to ensure that cobwebs or spider webs, she would not have another collision. She stood on her tiptoes and reached into the darkness. Her fingers closed upon what felt like a string with a bell-shaped metal tip. She pulled gently and was encircled in the soft glow of light as a single bare bulb was illuminated. As she scanned her surroundings, she saw a mostly empty, dust-covered room with insulation puffing out between the rafters and the short sidewalls. She took a few steps deeper into the attic. Empty wooden fruit crates were stacked to the left, and she could see where mice had nibbled at the corners of the cardboard labels that were affixed to each crate end. Luci quickly turned her attention to search for signs of Aria. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a black silhouette with two gleaming green eyes staring back at her primly positioned atop a small wooden cabinet. As Luci approached, Aria folded her paws underneath her and settled down onto her stomach assuming a more comfortable position. Next to the cabinet were several wooden crates that were filled with what at first glance looked like magazines or files of paper. She could feel Aria’s eyes following her almost as if she was a potential animal of prey. Luci glanced in Aria’s direction and caught an agitated flick of her silky black tail. Luci knelt down to examine the crates more closely and discovered the crates didn’t hold magazines or papers at all. As she pulled out one of the slim cardboard sleeves, a cloud of dust billowed and filled her nostrils and throat with so much grit that she gasped and coughed in protest.
Looking down, she found that under the dust was an extensive collection of old record albums. Some looked very old, bound in brown cardboard sleeves, and others looked like they were almost new in their commercial album jackets. Choosing one, Luci slipped the large flat disk out of the jacket and stared at its shiny black surface with all of its almost imperceptible raised rings that encircle the circumference of the album. The language on the jacket was not English. She carefully slipped the record back into its sleeve and examined the wooden cabinet that Aria was making her throne. On one side was a small circular opening, inlaid with a grooved brass fitting. It was clear that the opening was made to accept an attachment at that point. At the back of the cabinet was another unusual opening, a much larger circular opening. Luci nudged Aria hoping that she would jump off the top of the cabinet. Aria slowly arched her back into a stretch, gave Luci a disgruntled look, and jumped to the floor, leaving a cloud of dust behind her. Luci tried to lift the cabinet’s hinged top, hoping that it would be unlocked, but it held fast. Standing there, Luci felt Aria weaving herself between her legs, purring and distracting her from her current frustration. Before Luci could pick Aria up, her cat took a facile leap and bounded out of the entry way into Luci’s bedroom. Luci ignored her cat’s most recent departure and turned back to the curiosity that had captured her current attention. With only one dust-covered light source, the room was dim and still had an unsettling feeling. Luci tested her strength and found that she could lift the wooden cabinet even though it was awkward. She carried it for several steps, set it down, gathered her strength, and repeated the process until she had maneuvered it to the attic opening. Setting it down, she squeezed between the cabinet and the attic access door and stepped into her bedroom. Aria safely observed the escapades from her favorite spot of comfort, the end of Luci’s bed.
Luci reached into the opening and carefully lifted the cabinet out of the darkness of the attic and into the light. The wood looked even older and dustier in the light than it did in its original hiding place. Using all of her strength, she set the cabinet on the floor and slid it across the carpet to the opposite wall. If only she had the key, she could discover what lay inside. Luci wondered if perhaps she had missed something in the attic, so once again she made her way into the room of darkness. She peered into every corner looking for something she may have missed, but nothing but grime, insulation, and mouse droppings lined the small attic space. Pulled back to the crates of albums, Luci tried to lift one, but could not even begin to lift the heavy crate. It was as immovable as the boxes of books she had tried to lift when they moved in just a few months earlier.
“Think, think.” Luci always talked to herself when she was in need of a good idea. Suddenly she realized how she could move the crates of albums, without divulging her secret to outside sources, namely her parents. “An armful at a time, that’ll do it.” So Luci began taking armful of record albums out of the crates and carried them into her room. She had the empty bookshelf space and she lined up the albums handful by handful, until she had transported the entire collection from out of the attic and into her room. Luci was not sure what fed her fascination with the albums, except that the multiple foreign languages set up a great mystery for her to explore. As she looked at her hands, almost black with the dirt and dust, she also noticed one of the record jackets not in alignment with the others. She pulled it out to see what the obstruction was and to her excitement found a black velvet pouch taped between the record jackets. Luci carefully untied the velvet pouch and into her hand fell a brass skeleton key. She could not believe her good fortune. Luci knew immediately what the key was for.
Aria’s ears perked as she heard a car door slam. Luci glanced at the clock and knew that her father was home from work. She had lost all track of time during her exploration of the attic. Quickly, she crawled back into the attic space, reached for the light pull and immersed herself again in total darkness. Using her hands, and following the source of natural light, she crawled to the attic door, made her way out, and closed the wood panel door behind her. She still had the key in her hand, when Malcolm came bounding through her door, abruptly coming to a halt as he took a look at Luci.
“My, my, the first day of school must have taken more out of you than I thought. You’re starting to go gray already!” Luci looked at him quizzically and then caught her reflection in the mirror mounted on her closet doors. Her hair was covered in dust and she had streaks of grit across her cheeks. She resembled a disheveled vagabond.
“Uh, I was cleaning my closet.”
“I hope it got clean, because you certainly didn’t.”
“Yeah.” Luci was not sure why she felt the need to keep the attic space a secret and she hesitated before telling her dad about her recent discovery. “But I found something interesting in the process.” She walked over to the wooden cabinet brushing the remaining dust with the palm of her hand. “What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. Looks like a cabinet.”
“That much even I could tell. It’s locked, but I found the key.” She opened her other hand and revealed the brass key she had just recovered from the record jacket.
“Well, let’s see what’s inside.” Malcolm took the key from her and placed it in the keyhole in the front of the cabinet. He wiggled it back and forth.
“Why isn’t it opening?” Luci was feeling impatient.
“I’m not sure. It’s old. It doesn’t seem like it has been used in a quite awhile. The mechanism could be rusted, or stuck. Maybe a bit of WD-40 would loosen it up. You wait here and I’ll run down to the garage and see what I can find.”
Luci waited as Malcolm made his way to the garage. He had taken the key with him. When he returned he had a small aerosol can with a long straw-like nozzle, a work rag, and a glint of hope in his eye.
“Just a squirt or two in here . . .” He pressed the top of the nozzle as he fed the straw appendage into the keyhole. He then placed the soft work rag down, squirted a small amount of oil on it and rubbed it onto the skeleton key. “Now let’s see if we can unlock the secret held inside this cabinet.” He inserted the key, wiggled it back and forth again, and finally felt the key turn in his hand. “Just like butter, smooth and creamy.” Luci rushed over and peered over his shoulder as he lifted the cabinet lid open.
At first Luci, was unsure of what she was looking at. Looking down into the cabinet, she could see a round, green felt platform, looking almost like a plate with a small metal pin protruding from the center. A bulky metal arm was attached near the center back, and a series of dials and levers were to the left. Carefully bound by leather in the top of the cabinet lid was an L-shaped metal crank with a finely molded wooden handle.
“It’s an old phonograph player, a Victrola I think.” Malcolm carefully unlashed the crank and removed both items from the cabinet lid.
“What’s a phonograph player?”
Malcolm looked at Luci in disbelief. He realized that during his daughter’s lifetime, she had only experienced music in digital form, either on compact discs or in a computer library. The vinyl records of his youth were an archaic, little-known technology to her generation and this machine took several more generational steps back.
“Phonographs played records, much like a compact disc player plays CDs.” As he was talking, he inserted the crank into the side mounting and locked it into place. “These early phonographs operated by a spring-based mechanism. You used the crank to wind it up, like this . . .” He turned the crank until the resistance would not allow the crank to turn any further. “. . . and then you released a lever, let me see, let’s try this one . . .” Malcolm released a lever near the green felt plate inside the cabinet, and magically the platform began to turn. “And this is what is called the turntable. It begins to turn and if you had a record you would raise this arm, and place the needle on the record.” Malcolm raised the metal arm to the right of the turntable and peered at it closely. “That is if you had a needle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this phonograph seems to be missing its needle. The needle is what reads the tiny bumps and ridges on the record and translates it into vibrations, which then get amplified via a horn hidden behind these levers here.” Malcolm turned a knob and the levers opened and closed.
“So where do you find a needle?”
Malcolm and Luci were interrupted by a call to the dinner table. Catherine was not pleased to see Luci in her current state of filthiness, yet she was used to this kind of transformation. Over dinner, Malcolm and Luci talked excitedly about the phonograph player and were determined to search the machine itself for clues to its heritage and to explore sources on the internet as well.
“It’s a school night, so Luci definitely needs a bath and . . . do you have any homework?”
“No, Mom. There’s just a bunch of paperwork to be filled out by you guys.”
“Lovely. Homework for parents.” Catherine cleared the dinner dishes away and sent Luci upstairs to take a bath and wash the cobwebs out of her hair. When Luci finished her bath, she found that Malcolm had vacuumed out the phonograph, had inspected it for model number and other identifying attributes, and had scanned the Internet for further information.
“Looks like it was made sometime between 1927 and 1928 by the Victor Victrola company. It was considered a portable model, hence the removable crank, but one of the first of its kind, which you can tell from the variable speed control. The spring mechanism and turntable seem to be in working condition, but as for the rest, we won’t be able to tell without a needle and a record.” Luci glanced to the part of her bookshelf where she had painstakingly placed the record albums, and carefully pulled the jacket at the end out that had concealed the brass key.
“I’ve got some records.” She brought the album to Malcolm and he studied it. Carefully he slid the record out, held it up to the light as observed it.
“Pretty good shape, its not warped and I don’t see any noticeable imperfections.” He slid the album back into the jacket and turned to thumb through the rest of the collection. “It looks like whoever these belonged to was an opera lover.”
“Opera? What’s opera?”
“I’m no expert, but it is somewhat like theater. The difference is that they tell the story by singing, rather than by the spoken word. I believe it came into being around the 17th century in Italy. The singers have to be able to project their voices without the use of microphones.” Malcolm slid the record back into the bookshelf. “Well, there’s nothing like a blast from the past to stimulate a few brain cells! But, it’s past your bed time and your mother will be up in a minute and I promised I’d have you in bed and excited about your second day of school.” At the sound of feet on the stairs, Luci sprang across the room slipped into her bed and assumed a retiring pose. She stifled a giggle as Catherine entered the room. Malcolm looked at Catherine seriously. “What took you? Luci is almost asleep. You just about missed your goodnight kiss.” He slipped out of the door with a quick wink to Luci.
Catherine took a step into the room and walked over to Luci’s desk and opened her school binder. She saw the Imagination Pact in the front and read it through. “Hey, this Imagination Pact is unusual. How do you like Mr. Davis?”
Luci thought maybe she could pretend to be asleep and avoid the conversation all together, but she knew that her mom would only hold her questions until the next opportunity and they would multiply during the incubation period. She feigned a yawn and tried to stay as sleepily as possible, “Fine.” It did the trick and she felt a soft kiss on her cheek as her mother stepped out of the room and turned on the hallway light. Luci heard her mother descend the stairway. She lifted her head and saw Aria once again perched atop the closed phonograph cabinet. Aria narrowed her eyes in contentment and with the sound of her purr, Luci drifted to sleep.