Sampson, Skipworth, Slonecker, Small, Smiley. Smiley, Grover T. There are still four people ahead of me on the list, I’ve got awhile to wait. The s’s, we’re way the hell down there so we gotta hear everybody before our turn comes around. At first I thought I was miserable, but after the thirty-fourth audition (Claire Beth Fibral, who said God told her she could play the flute), I decided it was poor old Miss Neville who was having a rough go of it. She calls out a name on the list and hands over a piece of sheet music, asking if they can make any sense of it, most everybody says no. Then she asks them if there is anything in particular they think they could play. This is where she makes her big mistake, if you ask me; just cram something in their hands and talk about it later. Every kid says they’s just sure they can play the so and so. The girls all say they can play the flute, the boys say the bass. They is all lying.
Some group of old white men decided all little colored children should play musical instruments, that it would keep their minds off breaking out store windows or sitting in front of the Five and Dime looking uppity. That’s why we’re all here now, Miss Neville says that’s legislating. I think they must have legislated this one up in spring, when it was cool outside and music sounded real pretty. But this here’s August and even the flies are looking for a house with the fan on. It’s Miss Neville who’s got to decide who’s gonna play what. She’s gotta listen to every kid in Central Valley Junior High blow or bang or strum on something before she can assign them a place in the school orchestra. Ain’t no telling how long she’s been the music teacher here, most everybody’s got a story or a guess. Harvey Rachlin says his older sister was in Miss Neville’s orchestra when she went here, and his sister is a grown-up woman now, with a baby and everything. Some people say that Miss Neville stays at school all the time, that they let her sleep under the piano or something. I can’t figure her out; I crawled up on the bleachers to watch her for awhile and she looked like she was listening to all of them. You can tell by her face that she thinks every kid that comes up might really be able to play. Then when she really hears them her face gets kinda sick, like they were all hitting her in the stomach. I would think that going through an audition once would be more than any regular person could suffer, I don’t know what it would be like year after year.
They’ve got the whole school mashed into this one basketball gym. The ninth graders get folding chairs, which they make a very big deal of. The rest of us get bleachers or the floor. I got this nice little spot between the door and the risers where nobody can step on me. From where I’m sitting the whole world is knees and ankles, not one person in there who cares a rip about keeping his socks pulled up or his shoe laces tied. You never think about feet until you’re down there with them. Miss Neville calls out a name and then I see a pair shuffle onto stage and wait a minute, then shuffle back to their place, which has almost always been snatched up.
I don’t want nothing to do with their spitty old instruments. No way am I gonna spend four years sucking on some piccolo that somebody sucked on before me. It had been my intention to keep Roy Luther out of school, sorta separating my class time from my free time, but this is an emergency.
Me and Roy Luther hooked up when I was six years old, so we’ve been together a little more than half of my natural lifetime. My daddy, Mr. Nigel T. Smiley, runs the numbers where he works in the bakery making fancy doughnuts. He used to let a couple of us kids sit in the back room with his business friends, we made the place look honest. One day I was hanging out on a cherry crate playing with this special aggie that had been my birthday present. This man comes over and says that it was a real fine marble, that he’d never seen a shooter quite like it. I say, Yessir. He says he’d like to have that marble for his little boy. I didn’t look up, I was scared he was gonna take it. He says, wouldn’t I like to bet him something for that aggie? He pulls out this silver bar, the size of three Havana cigars. Then I look up, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“We’ll shoot us out some craps, boy.” The man says to me,
“I win, I take your marble home to my boy; you win, you get to keep this here harmonica.”
Man, I’ll tell you I wanted that thing. I didn’t know what it was or how to use it, only that I’d die right then and there if I didn’t get it. I nodded my head. The man dips one of his fingers into a tiny pocket on his vest. He must have just been eating Cracker Jacks or something cause when he pulled it out there were two dice hanging on it. The other guys, mostly soldiers that hung out during the day started coming around, checking out the action and laughing at me cause I’m the sucker. Just then, a big metal door smashes open and Papa walks in from the front room. Kids used to tease me about my father being white, cause he was always plastered with flour. Nobody ever said anything to him about it.
“What you doing with my boy?”
“Just a friendly game of craps, Nigel. Your little shark here’s hot after my harmonica.” He shook up the dice to show he meant business.
Papa looked down at me. “You gambling with this man?”
I was pretty little then, I just nodded my head yes. One giant, floury hand come swinging down through the air and clept me right above the ear. I went sailing off my cherry crate and slammed back against some drums of cooking oil. What everybody says about seeing stars ain’t true. I saw big, furry spiders.
“How many times I got to tell you kids? You never, ever gamble with a man without letting me check out the dice. Jesus you is a fool.” Papa plucked the pair of spotted cubes out of the other fella’s hand and rattled them around. “Loaded.” He shook them in my face, “Loaded!” I thought he was gonna hit me again, but he walked into the other room and got a fresh pair. Everybody knew Papa used clean dice. He gave the new set to the man. “Now you talk about gambling with my son.”
The man shook his head like a little black bunny rabbit. “Just joking with you, Nigel, just trying to teach the boy here a lesson, hee hee. He can keep his dirty old marble.”
“You gamble with my boy. Mister.” Papa picked me up with one hand and shook me like a sneaker with a rock inside. “You let the man roll first, Grover.”
His roll came up two specks. Papa says Snake Eyes. I gathered up the dice and threw them out again. A howl went up. A two and a five, sweet, sweet seven. Roy Luther must have been the man’s name, because it was engraved on the side of my “Hohner Marine Band.” I thought it had a good, solid sound to it. I knew right away this was going to be my special thing. All the other kids in my family got something special. There’s the oldest and the youngest, and the twins that get all their clothes to look alike and get their picture taken a lot, and my brother Wilson who has his very own fish, and Delilah who twirls in the marching band, and Albert who skipped two whole grades just for being smart. Up till now I never had a thing that made me me. I’d walk into a room and Mama would call me two dozen names before she could place who I was. That first night I was sitting there staring at Roy Luther when the twins come up and try to take him away. Mama tells them to scat, “That’s Grover’s thing,” she told them, “Leave it be.” I slept with Roy Luther between my head and shoulder, so I’d be sure to wake up if someone tried to make off with him. Me and Albert share a bed, he thinks it’s him I don’t trust, but I couldn’t let it go. Albert slept facing the wall after that.
There was a good three years I didn’t have too many friends.
My brothers and sisters told other kids they didn’t know me, even Mama made me stay a good piece behind her when we went out. My thing wasn’t so much being a harmonica player as it was being a bad harmonica player. I played all the time, grinding up and down that same old scale any place I could catch my breath, in the bathtub, under the dinner table. I was as bad as Original Sin. It was like learning to talk all over again, except this time there was no one to listen to. My hands didn’t know anything about playing harmonicas, they knew about marbles and baseballs, and my mouth was a gum-chewing mouth. There wasn’t no music in that mouth when things staned out.
Back then, I took Roy Luther to school. Every five minutes or so a new sound would come into my head and I would raise my hand, asking if I could visit the washroom or get a drink of water. If the teacher said yes I would dart outside and try blocking up a different set of holes, blowing harder or softer than the day before to see how it sounded. Somebody’d always rat on me and Roy Luther would spend the rest of the day sitting in the principal’s desk drawer.
I got used to the way it was always cold, tasting part like a tin can and part like the old Lifesavers and ticket stubs I kept in my pocket. As much as I loved the sound, I loved just putting it in my mouth, letting it hit against a filling in my tooth and running a shock clear through my eyes. It got to where I couldn’t walk through a door without someone saying “Grover, go way!” I’d shinny up into the sugar maple and stay there. First the birds all flew away, then after awhile they got used to me, I even learned a few of their songs. One morning I was playing outside the kitchen window before breakfast, I heard Mama say, “Listen to the nightingale, will you? Glory but that ain’t God’s finest bird.”
And that’s when things started turning around.
I sat under the front porch and played a fire engine and my little brother ran outside, hooping and hollering for everybody to come watch the fire. Then he spent the whole day looking for one. I sat in the alley behind the white grocery store and played “What’U I Do?” so soft you could barely hear it, and just about everybody that walked out of the store was humming that song without knowing why.
It was like one day I was the stink bug somebody stepped on and the next day I was a fistful of wisteria. Mama stopped sending me outside all the time. I could play the things she heard in church on Sunday. When the radio went out I was the chief source of entertainment in the family. I got to sit in the red leather chair and blow my brains out till I got dizzy or my tongue went thick; once I got going I could feel the vibrations go past my jaw and head for my stomach. The whole family spread out at my feet, except for Papa, who would listen from the other room. On those days it could rain ice or be a hundred and five in the shade and everybody was happy. I could play the popular stuff and make them dance till they fell down. I could play the blues and break them in half.
Suddenly nobody remembered that I’d ever been bad. Now folks say, “Grover! Hey, Grover T, that sounds real fine, come play in my store,” or, “Hey son, come sit in my diner where it’s cool.” Like we was all best friends or something. Mr. Thompson used to say I wasn’t even to think about walking down the street where his soda fountain was; now he calls me over all the time, tells me I’m good for business. I go, he gives me free lemon cokes.
After school I went to the community library and tried to teach myself how to read music. The place had two or three books called “How To.” I’d sit there for hours looking at the henscratches, trying to make sense of it all. Finally I figured out that each line was two spaces on the harmonica, and that the black spots were where my fingers should go and how long I should leave them there. I’d run down to the bathroom with the book inside my sweater and give it all a try. The guy who stacked the books caught me a few times, said I was a real stupid kid, then he’d show me how to do it. He said he had a girl once who played the harmonica, said that’s why he dumped her. You play a long time and your lips go funny on you he told me.
On Fridays, Papa had me come down to the business to play while the men waited to find out who won the races. It seemed to calm them down a whole lot. They all wanted to hear the new Benny Goodman stuff, everybody liked swing. A bunch of their sweeties waltzed in and said I was awfully good. One of them said I was cute as hell, and I was only ten back then. Everybody made a circle around me and started laughing and clapping their hands. Papa told me to get him a cigarette from the front room. One of the women held my arm, told me to stay put, that she had plenty of smokes. Papa looked down at me, way down, like I wasn’t any bigger than a lizard. He said go get him a cigarette. I did. He told me to light it so I did that too. He said he was glad to see I could do something useful for a change. The one with the peach-colored dress that swung way down in the back, the one who said I was cute, asked couldn’t they have another song, maybe “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer”? I looked up at Papa, he liked that song a lot. But he said it was a fool’s song, that it was a good one for me cause any fool could play the harmonica. Then he ripped Roy Luther out of my hands. I felt all dizzy, like I couldn’t breathe. He might as well have ripped off my face. All of the sudden I remembered I wasn’t nobody, just another little nobody colored kid at the bottom of the barrel. Then I heard him blow. Lord, you’da thought they was killing a cow, slowly. His hands were so big and dry they couldn’t move to change the scale. Nobody laughed, he wasn’t the kind of person you’d laugh at. He didn’t say a word, just gave Roy Luther back to me and left. After that, we didn’t talk too much about music.