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Short Story: Harps
Words: Patrick Michael Clark
Image: Samantha Dade
I was fifteen when I decided to spend New Year’s Eve with my friend Ross and his family from up Magee’s Creek.
The usual public festivities took place in downtown Ellis when a giant pear made of paper would be dropped from a third-floor window on a line while a fuse burned and a crowd cheered. A Dave Matthews cover band would most likely play. Of course this was unacceptable and we tried to get as far away as possible.
We drove up from Ellis across the muddy Oussawack River into the pockets of strip malls and drab suburbs on the county side. The radio filled the car with cellos as we passed thickets of frostbitten woods along the heights. Ross had a thing for cellos.
The Ford was rattling as my companion drove into one of the larger developments. The low sun was a sickly winter yellow against the cloud-covered horizon, seen between the two-story houses. It was all without warmth and without motion.
“I need to stop for a minute and say hey to Claire,” Ross said as we went up the main street of the giant mass of houses. I had never met Claire.
The house was at the end of one of the two-dozen or so cul-de-sacs. I was thankful I never had to learn my way around that neighborhood that sat on the top of a small hill with a cluster of short pines behind it. Ross parked and we walked up the yard. I buttoned my jacket.
It was a circus in the house. About twenty older students from the Senior High School were lounging in the front room. I didn’t know any of them. Ross wandered around to see his friends and I was left looking at the bookshelf in the corner.
The bookcase had few books, mostly what looked like gifts from old relatives. A heavy copy of Milton, Vanity Fair, Steinbeck, and the King James Bible. Most of the shelves were covered in trinkets and photographs in frames, among them a golden Chinese cat made of plastic that moved its arm up and down. A small knot of people were shooting twenty-sided dice on the floor nearby, there was a larger group at the dining table with cards.
It turned out that Claire, who I never actually saw that evening, was the sister of someone I somewhat knew. Her brother Jake was two years ahead of me in school and we had met through the local music scene. I small-talked for a few minutes, enough to notice a case of Marine Corps Band harps sitting on a side table. They had been one of his Christmas presents a week before.
“You can try them out if you want,” Jake said.
The harps were gorgeous, each key a different color around the edges. I had only picked up playing a few months ago and had bought a cheap C and a G from one of the music shops in town. I had made a habit of carrying them around when I could for practice. I had those very ones in the pockets of my jacket, one on each hip like revolvers, maybe thinking that it would make the crusty bluegrass shop clerk proud.
After the room had quieted a bit and the next hand had been dealt I went over to Jake. He was looming over the people seated at the table, a presence that saw everything coming and going below him
“They’re nice harps,” I said casually.
We talked a bit more and I mentioned I played as well.
“You any good?” he asked.
I put my hands into my pockets and felt the cold metal of the C and the G. All the time we talked I was holding them feeling every edge and every groove. Then the spark.
“We should battle,” I said. There was a pause. He laughed a bit.
“Really?” he said nasally.
“Why the hell not? Ring in the new year.”
By now the entire room had turned to watch us. The soft glow of the lamps became as hot as stage lights.
“You wanna borrow one of mine?” Jake said picking up the case.
“I’ve got my own.”
I drew the C from my pocket and blew up the scales to clean whatever dust was there.
A girl from the card game had been named the judge and Jake took one of his from the case. A ten-dollar harp looks shoddy in the face of an entire solfege of Marine Corps Bands but the die had been cast. There would be no retreat.
I put my lips to the harp, rested my palms against the edges, and played. A quick three or four notes, then another set, and another. My mind racing and my mouth becoming drier and drier as the seconds raced past.
It was over. It had gone smoothly. No flats in the wrong places. The tin organ had done its job. I looked up, and after we made eye contact, I nodded.
A sharp and clean line of sound crashed into the house as my opponent tore away at his harp. He played at least four times longer than whatever I managed to plunk out and had the calmness of an engineer at the helm of his locomotive. There may have even been a conductor at the city rail yard looking northward, hearing the far-off whistle from the dining room.
It was over. There was silence. The room was hot.
Ross found me and said he was leaving. I quickly followed him to the car and we drove up Magee’s Creek through the crooked back roads and white oak woods.
#Unreal #CreativeWriting #ShortStory #Harp #MarineCorpsBand #HistoricalFiction #NewYearsEve #Holidays
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