The place smells like wet roadkill.
Maybe it’s just nerves, man. The realization I’ve completely lost the remainder of my sense. Or more likely, it’s the result of dozens of bodies crammed together in a two-car garage. The always-changing stench of human contact.
The harmonica duels kick off in one hour. My steel is in my pocket like the others. I keep a hand in constant flutter over the denim rim, protecting it the way I do my wallet in crowded cityscapes. I’m trying to listen to our speaker, a pasty dude in a do-rag attempting to make himself heard as he waves from atop a stepladder. In reality, I can’t connect a word he’s saying to any sort of meaning. Those nerves again.
What am I doing here? I mean, I’m in the company of serious musicians, lifelong harpists who pull off ear-quaking riffs like child’s play. Compared to them, I’m a fraud. A sad case. Especially considering the hard facts: a month ago I could barely play When the Saints Go Marching In. No lies – that was my only song, and I could scarcely wheeze through it. Just picture a third-grader hammering out his first piano lessons.
Granted, I’ve improved. Got a handful of charts now. None of them perfect, but at least they’re recognizable. Still, what a pathetic–
“Screw this. I’m leaving.” I start to push through the crowd, my eyes focused on that small door leading outside. I don’t get far before a thin hand wraps around my wrist.
“Where you going?”
Oh, good night. It’s her. My pink-haired companion. The tattooed siren who talked me into this mess.
Yeah, she’s a harmonica groupie. I’ve made peace with it, so the stigma doesn’t really affect me. When she offers me her lips or speaks in moonlit whispers, that sense of shame barely flits through my mind.
You’ve probably seen the groupies before. People call them ‘Monicas. Harp Hags. Lotta other names. As a unit, they seem to be uniformly pale. Almost vampiric. Minimum of fifteen tats. Faces full of metal. In other words, the gal mom’s dying to meet.
I met her at a blues night. Band called the Something Something Experience. I was suffering through the Peart wannabe’s ten-minute drum solo. “Nice jam,” she says.
I stare at the half-melted cubes in my drink. “I dunno. Kinda boring.”
Next second she’s brushing my teeth with her lips. Her eyes cannibalize my face. She starts spewing stuff that doesn’t make sense. Comparing Johnny Cash to Gandhi. Howlin’ Wolf to Pythagoras. Whole sentences about the history of the universe. Tells me she’s a fan of life. And musicians. Next morning I take up harmonica.
Her eyes (dark purple with imperfectly-applied shadow) brush against my nose. “Hello?” I shake my head. “Sorry. Zoned out for a sec.”
“Um, yeah. I can’t compete with these guys.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re the worst one here.” “Thanks.”
The stepladder dude clears his throat. Annoying, but it gets my attention. “And now,” he chokes, “if you’ll follow me, let’s get this mother started!”
Garage doors grind upwards. The stink lessens. Meanwhile, my companion lets out a “woo-hoo!” and pulls the shoes off her feet. Pumps her fists in the air. When all that cool air rushes in, she runs and jumps on some other guy’s shoulders. For a brief second during her midair leap, her tramp stamp becomes visible (an inked Buddy Holly, smiling and adjusting his glasses on her spine). Then they’re off, piggybacking to wherever.
Jealousy doesn’t even set in. Maybe she bruised his lungs. Maybe he can’t play now.
Maybe I’ll only get second-to-last place.
As a group, we leave the guy’s driveway. Sidewalk is noisy – must be sixty or more of us. He said something about the duels taking place in the old high school, so I assume that’s where we’re headed. Not sure why we’re taking the long route there, but whatever. It’s a nice night, after all. Blue outside, just beginning to turn dark.
Instead of cutting across the street where there’s a crosswalk and everything, the guy in charge leads our mob beside the road and into the grassy ditch. We walk half a mile or so, until this culvert stares out at us. Dark and wet-looking.
We pass through it in groups of three or four. I enter beside ‘Monica and her new boy toy, almost feeling the moisture from the stone walls. The tunnel goes under the short stretch of highway, so it’s only fifteen or so feet. Gets creepy in the middle where the light doesn’t reach. The guy beside me steps in something that splashes. “You’re gross!” she yells.
I laugh and join the rest of the harpists out in the open air. We stroll in silence until we reach the side entrance of the campus. In less than a minute, the whole assembly stands before the small cafeteria doors. I was expecting to see signs set up for the event, or at least a few people here. But no one else is in the parking lot. The school is dark.
When a platinum blonde ‘Monica pulls some bobby pins from her purse and goes to work on the door, I realize this ain’t an official event. We’re breaking in. I really hope the campus cop isn’t working tonight, because this would be kinda hard to explain.
Finally, someone opens the door from inside. It’s a skinny dude dressed completely in gray, even down to the belt and spray-painted sneakers. “Come on, guys. Found an open window by the offices.”
The ‘Monica throws her bobby pins on the concrete in disgust. “I was gonna open it eventually!”
Once inside, I wind toward the gymnasium. I’d say about half the folks here are out-of- towners. Myself, I went to school here, and have no trouble finding my way even in darkness. Still, I’m not prepared for what I see.
All the lights are on, making the basketball court almost glow. Those high windows are blacked out somehow. And along the walls are these great, ten-foot-high posters. Dylan on the far wall. John Popper behind me. Adler above one set of bleachers, Steven Tyler above the other.
I’m sitting in the bleachers now. Pinky is sandwiched between me and the other guy. “Good luck,” she whispers into my ear. I don’t know, man, but her voice just isn’t seductive anymore. Not even a little alluring. Kind of grating.
“Uh huh. Thanks.”
The dude from the garage is behind a podium on the half-court line. There he goes, raising his hands again. Seriously, this kid seems to spend all his time trying to get everyone’s attention. Finally he gives up and pulls out his steel. Goes through a sucking motion with his lips, then snaps the little podium mike closer to his mouth.
Kid breaks into a jazzy rendition of an old Hank Williams song. My eyelids pop. For reals? Who knew that brat was packing this kind of talent? I mean, I’m convinced I’m hearing steel guitar, upright bass, and moaning vocals all at once…and the guy is just standing there, harp with no accompaniment.
When he’s done, people try to clap but he doesn’t let them. “Let’s get started,” he says.
“We decided to begin with something on the lighter side this year. Harpathoners, are you
I see a trio of dudes in gym shorts and tee shirts stretching at one end of the gym. After a countdown, podium guy blows a sharp note and they take off running. But not normal jogging. As they pass by our bleachers, they lift their harmonicas and start blasting. I think they’re trying to play the Star-Spangled Banner, but the music is too jumpy and disjointed to tell.
Everyone is laughing. Come on, they look like fools out there. Running circles around the gym, pumping the air with one arm, using the other to balance their harps and attempt to play something resembling a song. By the end of the third lap, it’s a blare that doesn’t sound like anything from this world.
Reminds me of joggling. You know, that juggling/jogging hybrid some moron invented. Two things that should never interfere, conveniently brought together in a competition. At least the harpathon is over now.
That guy dressed in gray, he’s at the podium now. Giving some kind of spoken word performance. Dude has a silver hat on, and he’s leaned forward so no one can see his face.
He shouts something about Allen Ginsberg, then plays a couple bars from Greensleeves. His act continues…unfortunately.
“The harpist is Harold Lloyd,” he says. “Hanging off that building, man, nothing but the hand of the clock, brother, between you and the sidewalks! Every one of us is Chaplin, bro, faces painted, wearing clothes that don’t exactly fit. Shuffling around, yeah. Black and white life, amen. Buster Keaton is our cousin. Fighting against the wind, my friends, unconcerned when everything crashes around us. Play on!”
He takes his own advice and hums a few notes of Dixie. Salutes his hat, resumes his talkage. At one point he says we’re all clones of Jean Harlow; this is directly before he launches into a spiel about Lon Chaney and the changing face of the harmonica. I have yet to see the connection between my steel and a bunch of movie stars from a hundred years ago. But my ‘Monica is humming under her breath, eyes fixated on the speaker. “He gets it,” she mumbles. “He knows.”
The guy leaps atop the podium and busts out a rapid-fire barrage of profanity. Finally someone hauls the idiot from the stage. After a few moments of awkwardness, do-rag announces the duel proper is underway. It’s a one-at-a-time ordeal, with each harpist making his way to the mike as his name is called.
I draw the number thirty-five. About four or five from the end. My ‘Monica is giddy, sitting on my lap and smiling. Doesn’t ease the tension. Or the feeling that I’m royally screwed.
I’m forced to watch musician after musician. Amazing riffs all around. Not one mistake. Four or five guys do old Dylan tunes, another three or so do some Billy Joel covers. I catch two Neil Youngs. One particular heavyset gent squeals an amazing Minnie the Moocher.
The list goes on. Every duelist is awesome. Every man finishes with a flourish, cases his steel, and returns to the audience. My time is coming, I know it. I keep hoping for a natural disaster or power outage or something. Maybe the police discovered us and they’ll kick in the doors before I can go on stage.
Please, don’t make me embarrass myself. This is pitiful!
My breath comes in blows and draws. My bleacher seat burns. Sweat rolls down my elbows. After this guy, I’m up. I’ll have to march out there, freaking slop through an ABC piece and hear everyone laugh. And this guy couldn’t be better. Screaming through some old jazz number I don’t recognize. A bunch of people in the audience do, though. Clapping their hands, stomping the seats, you name it. He’s getting into it as well, fluttering his free hand and letting that wah-wah echo across the auditorium.
My name is called. My throat clenches as I step up to the mike. The guy asks me what I’ll be playing, and I shrug. Man, is it always this bright behind podiums?
Every song is wiped from memory. I place the steel to my lips, hum a chord, and close my eyes. When the Saints Go Marching In starts issuing from my harp. Shakily. Weak notes. A little flat.
Suddenly, in spite of the brightness and the crowd and the sweat in my eyes, I see her stand up. My ‘Monica. She wiggles her body, starts doing the wave. My song grows louder. I hit the notes I know by heart, and really start to play. Forte, man! Monica is singing now.
Hands in the air, she launches into a gritty first verse of This Land is Your Land.
Yeah, she’s totally singing the wrong song. But as her voice increases in volume, others join in. I keep struggling through Saints, and before I can believe it, half the crowd is swaying, singing along with her.
I let the song die out with a couple runs up and down my steel, then pocket it and hop off the small stage. “Good job, man,” garage kid says.
In the stands, my ‘Monica is waiting for me. A few of the harpists stop to give me back- slaps or high fives before I can reach her. Finally I’m standing in front of her.
The next guy is already playing an old Robert Johnson piece, but she isn’t listening. “That was great,” she says. “I didn’t even know you could play that song!”
I shrug. “Me neither.”
I decide not to be embarrassed about my performance. The fact I mangled a song so horribly that it was mistaken for an entirely different number. It’s definitely the weakest of the night. No doubt there.
But somehow she turned it into a crowd pleaser. Good ol’ Monica.
We leave the gymnasium together. She doesn’t seem interested in seeing the remaining performances. Her pink hair brushes against my eyeballs, and I think I love her.
She wraps her hands around my shoulders, kissing my ear. “Incredible night. Just magic. Let’s go look at the stars in the sky. When we have kids, they’re gonna be like Fred Astaire and Charlotte Brontë. You know that, right?”
Yes, I know. Whatever you say, my pierced angel. We step into the night air, hugging and laughing.
The breeze smells epic.
Justin Short lives in Missouri. His fiction has previously appeared in online zines such as Perihelion and Mad Scientist Journal.