Footprints

Charles

Degelman

 

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American Postcards





Harmonica

1949







Gus rocked in time to the music, rump bouncing against the back of a comfortable, squeak-sprung easy chair. He pushed a harmonica across tiny teeth, accompanying a blues singer over the pops and scratches of a rapidly revolving 78-rpm record. The harmonica’s reedy, discordant moan caught the rhythm, modality, and feel of the music and bounced it back to singer and guitar. Gus wore a striped jersey, baggy blue corduroys, and brown oxfords. Soft cheeks, nose, and chin —soft-rounded at age four — glowed beneath a thatch of blond-brown hair. Dark eyes revealed amazement and delight, unscarred by any perceptions that might follow.

As he played, Gus stared at the album propped open against the bookcase. A Negro man in a white shirt, his back turned to the viewer, stood in the ruins of a burnt-out prairie home. Charred planks and timbers reached toward the night sky. They reminded Gus of witch fingers, those of Baba Yaga, the crone in Russian folk tales that his father read. A tower of chimney was the only structure left standing in the painting. On the mantelpiece, a clock stood intact save for the heat-shattered glass face. Across a sea of prairie grass, a passenger train shone silver in the moonlight, windows radiating warmth into a dark night. In the foreground, the back-turned man embraced a guitar, black strap diagonally bisecting a white-shirted back. The lonely man, the dark night, the unreachable warmth and movement of the train all cried loneliness, abandonment, and missed chances. Desolation was lost on Gus. He made music with the man in the picture.

*

Months earlier, Gus’s family had moved into a new federal housing project in an ancient Boston neighborhood. Red-bricked, thick-walled, and sensible, the modules stood in ordered contrast to the crumbling wood-framed dwellings that surrounded the projects. Gus’s new home hunkered at the foot of a rounded hill where colonial citizens once withstood redcoat assaults. Now, its sacrosanct bronze plaques, statues, and cannons suffered attack from a burgeoning phalanx of young families. In good weather, hordes of  post-war kids swarmed up the hillside and onto the obsolete battlefield, its ancient malevolence disarmed by freshly laid footpaths, sand boxes, pipe-framed swings, park benches, and water fountains with spigots that Gus could reach without being lifted by his mother.

Inside the projects, blue steel railings bracketed the stairways and blue fire doors barricaded each apartment. Everything was shiny and new, and there was a cared-for air to the place. A man in green coveralls, Patrick sewn onto one breast pocket in red thread, kept the hallway floors polished and smelling of wax. Patrick had a dent in his balding head. “A war wound,” Gus’s father called it. There were plenty of kids around, even after they dragged Gus’s big sister off to first grade. Gus took charge of the situation whenever she left. He had his mom to himself and Billy O’Brien and the two Guerrier kids would come up and play. Gus owned an indestructible set of building blocks; he and the other boys built forts or stacked the blocks end-to-end in big, wobbling piles until they clattered to the floor.

*

Gus knew it was Saturday. His sister didn’t go to school and the neighbor kids didn’t go to church. Not a school day. Not a Sunday. Saturday. He finished shredding the tobacco from a white paper cylinders nested in a pack of his father’s Pall Malls. He crawled onto a chair to claim the second pack off the bureau. From his elevated position, he could see his father standing on the sidewalk below, foot perched on a black sedan bumper. Gus’s father engineered at an electronics company in Boston. During the war, he had developed underwater listening devices for the navy. A scientist, yes, a professional who prided himself on his well-informed political prowess and working-class sensibility. During the Depression, he had joined the Communist Party out of idealism and hope for social justice in a troubled world. After World War II, his left-wing fervor unabated, he loved talking politics to the people who lived in the projects. Now, he was doing just that, chattering at a big man with red hair. To Gus, the man’s red head looked small and his shoes looked big, the way they do in the funny papers.

The red-haired man nodded his small head.

His father took his foot off the car bumper. He gave the red-haired man a slap on the back.

The red-haired man laughed and stuck his thumb in the air.

Gus’s father laughed and stuck his thumb in the air. Then he walked away.

The red-haired man stopped laughing. He looked at Gus’s father, then looked up at the sky and rapidly touched his forehead, heart, and each shoulder.

Gus’s friend, Joey Guerrier, made the same sign when he got scared. “Keeps the devil away,” he said. Gus didn’t know from the devil. His family didn’t nail crucifixes to the bedroom walls or hang honey-toned portraits of Jesus in the living room. He hadn’t heard the word “evil” at home, didn’t think much about good or evil, but an imaginary shadow passed over Gus, making him shudder. The devil sign felt wrong: The tall man had just made the devil sign at his father and his father didn’t even know it.

*

That night, the kitchen bulged with visitors. They leaned against counters or crowded around the table, drinking beer and wine and talking about the world over platefuls of spaghetti and salad. Afterward they smoked cigarettes and stubbed out the butts in the leftover juices on their dinner plates. Ladies came as well. They smelled delicious and wore trousers or dresses covered with splashy flowers. They smoked and drank and talked right along with the men, but Gus was most fascinated by the big fellows in tall, pleated pants and suspenders, men who wore hats in the house, men who needed a shave and spoke with foreign accents.

Gus’s sister liked to hover in the kitchen when people came to visit. She was already seven. She would sit on one big man’s lap after another and listen to the conversation, her wide-open eyes moving from one speaker to another.

While he watched his sister, Gus’s mother told the visitors about the shredded cigarettes. “He loves to take things apart,” she explained, as if he was not there.

“And records,” Gus’s father said. “Give that boy a Rachmaninoff concerto and I swear…better than any critic…he will reduce it to fragments.”

The men laughed and groaned. “The waste, the waste,” they said.

The ladies all sucked in their breaths. One said “Oh John, give the boy a break.”

Gus’s sister, sitting on a big man’s lap, shook her finger at Gus and said “naughty, naughty.” Then she kissed the top of his head the way a grownup would.

Gus drifted away from the laughter and smoke to the shelter of the living room. A favorite place, warmed by clanking radiators and illuminated by the light of shaded lamps, the living room was crammed books and records in shelves, easy for a four-year-old to explore. Paintings, photos, and sketches covered the walls.

“I’m sorry I made people laugh at you.” His mother turned on the phonograph. “But you made a big mess and wasted a lot of cigarettes.”

“You already said that.”

“You’re right. It was just between you and me. I shouldn’t have told them anything.” She handed him the harmonica and kissed him. “Pick out a record.”

Gus pulled out an album and chose one of the records. He handed it gingerly to his mother. “No more broken ones.”  

“No more broken ones,” his mother repeated. “Good.” She placed the fragile graphite disc on the turntable. “There,” she said and set the needle in the groove. “Josh White sings the blues. Just right for a man with a harmonica.” She lifted him onto the easy chair, kissed him and rejoined the clamor in the kitchen.

The Josh White record played itself out in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Conversation, thick with voices, continued in the kitchen. Its task complete, the phonograph needle hissed in the final record groove, putting out its own ragged syncopation. His mother did not reappear. Gus kept playing, bending the tune to his mind.

*

Long after the visitors had gone, after the kitchen was cleaned, after the family turned out the lights, after all had fallen asleep, a wicked racket shattered Gus’s dream. Men pounded fists on the front door, the bangs echoing hollow in the apartment. Slurred voices pierced the blue fire door. “Open up in there, yuh god-damned communist.”

“Get yer fuckin’ commie ass out here, yuh friggin’ red bastahd,”

Gus heard his mother’s voice, worried tones, ends of phrases floating upward.

“Mom…” Gus’s sister called out, fear in her voice. “What’s happening?”

“It’s nothing, dear,” his mother called down the hallway. “Go back to sleep.” Her voice shook a little, as it did when she sang her songs.

“Go on home now.” His father’s voice sounded low and smooth, as if he was reading the funny papers to Gus and his sister. “You had your party. We all like to tie one on once in a while.”

“Come on out. Show yer face, yuh friggin’ commie coward.” The voice sounded angry, frustrated. More pounding, louder.

“Go on home,” his father warned. “You’re not going to want to remember this tomorrow.”

Laughter. “Remember this, ya friggin’ anarchist.” A pause, a giggle. “Piss on you.”

“Yeah. Piss on you, ya friggin’ fuckin’ anarchist.” Rumbles of laughter rolled away outside. Silence crept back into the apartment.

Gus crouched under the blankets, listening to his sister’s quick, shallow breathing. Who were these men? Why did they pound on the door so loud? Were they his father’s friends? Was one of them the red-haired man who made the devil sign? Why were they so angry? What were those names they shouted? What happened if the door broke?

He heard the hiss and murmur of his parents’ whispering voices. His father climbed out of bed and walked down the hallway. He rattled the doorknob and relocked the deadbolt. The footsteps padded back to the bedroom.

No one came to see Gus and his sister. Nothing relieved the blackness of the chamber. Eyes wide open, he lay awake, heart pounding..

*

Months later, a fleet of zeppelins passed over the projects. Relics of the war, they flew in formation on some indecipherable maneuver. Their slow-moving shadows crept across the bare trees and the snow-patched ground. Steady, fanlike, the whirring of propellers fluttered, the beating wings of a swarm of mechanical insects. Their bloated carcasses floated low in the sky, shutting out the sun. Gus covered his eyes and ears and ran for his mother’s legs. She laughed sweetly and embraced him, uttering words of comfort. He took no comfort from the shelter of her body. No comfort in her words. No comfort at all.

That night, Gus sat on the floor, peering into the painting on the cover of the Josh White album. He heard the wind that rippled the long grass. He heard the sound of the train clacking across the prairie. He felt the dark blue night surround the man in the picture and separate him from the glowing train, the warm train, the clacking, clattering train, the safe train, the train that pulled its passengers wherever they wanted to go.


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