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The tangy taste of metal filled Jarod’s mouth as he tongued the comb. Jarod’s hand fluttered over the harmonica as the first note – a call for attention – cut into the babble of a late spring Saturday afternoon in Central Park. His smile was hidden behind his hands, so he had to smile through his whole body. His torso rocked back, bent elbows pointing to the trees overhead as he drew out the note. Somehow Jarod could not stand still playing the harmonica. Breaking into a tune, he bowed his legs, thumping the wooden heels of his cowboy boots hollowly against the flagstones. He bought those boots and a silver-buckled belt to go with his new music in New Orleans.
Jarod loved the liberation of music. He could express everything he felt through it and no one would think the outpouring inappropriate. It wasn’t hard to choose an instrument when he decided to puzzle out music. The harmonica had a throaty jubilation that fit. He loved that he had to taste the instrument to play it – the texture as good as ice cream, but in a different way. His experience of flavor was so narrow in the Centre, he savored each new sensation across his tastebuds – smooth and cold and sweet, or tangy and metallic. He loved the graininess of pears and the stringiness of asparagus. Freud would say he had stopped development at the oral stage, fixated like an infant on experiencing the world by ingesting each part of it, and given the course of his childhood, Freud would be right.
Jarod bought books first, of course. A library of books – The History of Bluegrass, Country for Dummies, Learn Harmonica in Twenty Days, Advanced Harmonica, Musical Improvisation for Beginners. Sheet music too. It took a few days to adjust his lips and hands to the right shape to hold the instrument so it could sing. He played the music he had, but his performance always seemed flat next to the recordings he collected.
So Jarod went to New Orleans to seek out a teacher. Mr. Dunbar seemed just the right type for the job. Jarod saw him sitting on a collapsable stool on the sidewalk, harmonica to his lips. An old fedora, frayed a bit at the rim, its creases flattened by use as a pan-handlers pot, held a few coins on the cobblestones beside him. Jarod stayed across the street for a long time, leaning crossarmed under an awning, and listened. The old black man’s face creased like a bellows as he played out his tune. There was talent there, Jarod knew, but more than that. There was soul. A sharpness life had added even to the elation. Jarod had to learn that. He had to learn how to make the music speak from his heart, not the sheet music.
He may not have the years of Mr. Dunbar, but in his short time outside of the Centre Jarod had felt enough loss to play the blues. But the blues were for another time when the sun wasn’t so bright on the flagstones.
He took a break at the end of his tune and smiled out at the crowd, the intermittent applause giving him a goofy grin. In front of him was an elderly couple, dancing when the music played. At the edge of the shade was another couple, barely out of high school, standing in the fringes of the crowd, not quite ready to commit, even to something as trivial as a street performance. On the benches were a few executives, pretending to ignore him, but he could tell by the tilt of their heads that they were listening.
He raised the harmonica to his lips again and paused. There was a young mother in the crowd, her hand resting gently on the shoulder of her daughter. The child was not quite ten, with brown hair and bangs. Her face had an aching familiarity to it, and through the haze that filled his eyes, Jarod could imagine Miss Parker standing there with her mother in the days before a gunshot ripped that child apart. Now was the time for the blues.
Jarod finished his wailing lament and took a bow. A few stragglers came forward to toss their pocket’s worth of change into his doffed hat. He turned back to the child, and saw her mother pressing a bill into her hand and urging her forward. She approached shyly, almost coyly averting her eyes from the musician. Jarod crouched to meet her. She dropped the bill into the hat – a twenty, Jarod noted – but lingered for a moment. “Do you like the harmonica?”
The girl nodded mutely and met Jarod’s eyes for the first time. “Why don’t you try it?” He extended the tiny instrument to her.
Looking back at her mother for approval, and seeing an encouraging smile, she put the harmonica to her lips and blew. It sounded like something halfway between a car horn and a dying cat. Jarod laughed, and the girl did too. “C’mon. Let’s go meet Daddy,” the mother placed her hand on her daughter’s head and began to draw her away. The girl handed back the toy instrument, and for a moment Jarod held her delicate hand in his.
“Thank you,” the mother said to Jarod, then turned away.
Jarod stayed in his crouch watching the backs of the girl’s knees as she skipped away toward her home. He felt he’d been kneeling here his whole life, watching that child run away.