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That Old Harmonica
John Macayeal Released Oct 23, 2012

Usually when an email came from Technical Services -- aka the tech guy -- he’d delete it automatically. Things were slow that day so he clicked on it just for something to do. Instead of gobbledygook about a new upgrade to some mysterious acronym, he read:

“I feel funny about doing this but I’m sending this spam to help out my aunt, really my great-aunt. She’s having a sale this Saturday morning and without getting maudlin I’d really appreciate it if people would show up for it. She’s not selling junk either. She’s collected a lot of good stuff over the years without really trying. So if you got nothing to do this Saturday morning, I’d really appreciate it if you could come by and give her a chance. Here’s the address -- 21 Acacia Blvd.

"Sorry again about the spam.”

He didn’t know why but he jotted down the address on the packet of Prevacid he always carried in his front pocket.

That Saturday morning he found himself wakeful and tense. He got up and grabbed the ever-decreasing paper from his porch.

The headline said something about a prison hospital that cost millions but sat vacant. So what else was new. Then he remembered the sale announced in the tech guy’s spam. He was still on the same packet of Prevacid so he had the address.

He was glad to see a good turnout. So many cars were parked on both sides of Acacia he had to pull into an alley for a space. He spotted the tech guy holding up what looked to be a Hummel figure and discussing it with a surprisingly young and glamorous woman.

An elderly woman with close-cropped hair sat behind a table stacked with books. She immediately greeted him and said, “We have some coffee on the porch.”

“Oh, I’m fine. You have a lot of books here.”

“I kept telling myself I’d read them, but I never did. They’re mostly my husband’s.”

“I hope this isn’t too much of a sacrifice for him.”

“He passed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Hey, thanks for coming,” the tech guy said approaching and offering his hand. “Dave, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. You know I’m embarrassed to say but I don’t I think I’ve ever formally met you.”

“I don’t think anyone has. It’s Jerry.”

“Well, pleased to meet you, Jerry.”

“There’s some good books here. I haven’t read any of them, but from what I know from Uncle Walt they’re all good reads.”

A title caught his eye: “The Day The Swans Flew Away.” There was something oddly intriguing about its banality. He picked it up.

“Uncle Walt self-published that.”

“Oh.”

Now he had to show interest. He opened it and found a hollowed-out square with a harmonica ensconced.

“What?” Jerry shouted. “That old harmonica?”

“That harmonica,” his aunt shouted. She reached over and grabbed the open book with both hands and tore it away from Dave. Her face reddened as she stared at it. Then she grabbed the harmonica and threw it on the sidewalk.

“All these years he still had it,” she said with a sigh.

Dave wanted to know more. How could a mere plaything of a musical instrument have excited such drama? He hovered over the woman hoping she might volunteer an explanation.

Instead she just said, “Get that thing away from me. Get it out of my sight.”

Feeling responsible for the mishap, he went over and picked it up.

“Should I just throw it away? It’s probably worth something.”

“Just get it away from me.”

He put it in his pocket.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t know. It’s all right.”

Now he felt obliged to buy something. He randomly picked out some books, gave her a ten, and left.

It was a long shot, but what did he have to lose? He pulled into the ample space of the last record store’s parking lot. The Internet was killing places like this. He kept telling himself he needed to patronize it just out of a sense of community spirit, but he never bothered to. Now at least he had a reason for pulling in.

Inside he found the kind of guy who was getting correspondingly trounced by the Internet. He knew that someday soon the stereotype of the record-store clerk who knows music from Buddy Holly to Mahler would be as antique as the Pony Express rider.

A woman his age was asking, “I’m trying to find the Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton Christmas album.”

The clerk didn’t laugh as he would have during less desperate times.

“I think we may have that.”

The clerk took her to a stack of CD's and sure enough they did.

After the woman paid he turned to Dave.

“I’m just wondering if you may have something by a guy who played the harmonica named Walt. He was from here, so I thought…”

“Yeah. You must mean Walt Holeshowsky. Yeah, he played the harmonica and he recorded one album at a studio here.”

“I guess you wouldn’t have it.”

“I think we may.”

After Dave paid for it, he said, “This place is amazing.”

“Thanks.”

He held the LP in both hands and looked at the picture on the cover. It looked like the tech guy dressed up for a movie taking place in the 60s.

“Walt Holeshowsky was good at what he did. You’ll like that.”

“Oh, wait, I don’t think I have a record player anymore.”

“I can sell you one.”

“I never thought I’d buy a record player again.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll give it to you.”

“How about if I play it here? You seem to know this stuff and I’m curious about this guy. There was a little incident just now.”

The clerk had been busying himself sorting flyers and other odds and ends, but now he stopped the makework and focused directly on him.

“I was just at a yard sale and I opened up this book. It was called 'The Day The Swans Flew Away.'”

“Yeah, that was his only song to get some radio play.”

“It was? Well, in this case there was a book with that title, but when I opened it up it was hollowed out and a harmonica was hidden in it. So I showed it to the woman giving the sale and it seemed to push a button in her. She just grabbed it from me and threw it down and told me to get it out of her sight. It was this harmonica.”

The clerk took it from him and turned it over and examined it.

“This is probably the harmonica you’ll hear on his record. What you said to me sounds right -- for some reason he just gave it up. No one knows why, but there were rumors. One went that his wife felt jealous of it or she at least feared that she would lose him to one of his admirers, but for whatever reason he gave it up in the prime of his career.”

“Amazing. Now do you want to listen to it?”

The clerk put it on. No one came in the store so they could give it their full, undistracted attention. If anyone had come in they might not have noticed.

“This is an amazing album.”

“You got a real steal. I bet you could sell that harmonica for some good money.”

“No, I can’t do that.”

“Then you could learn to play it yourself maybe.”

“Me sounding as good as that?”

“Who knows?”

Just as he left he wanted to say, “You know, what a jerk I was never bothering until just this morning to learn the tech guy’s name,” but he didn’t.

Instead he said for leave-taking, “Hey, I’ll be coming back here more often. This place is awesome.”

“I appreciate that, but we’re closing this Wednesday at three.”

“Oh, wow, I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“It’s all right. Thanks for coming today.”

“Thanks for your expertise.”

“Oh, don’t forget your record player. You’ll need something to play that on.”

After driving a few blocks, he realized he hadn't bothered to ask for the clerk's -- probably the owner's -- name. That was rude. He promised himself to head back there at least once before Wednesday at three to make up for that slight.

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