I can’t believe your grandmother gave you that damn harmonica. The whole drive home, you were breathing in and out of that thing, making sounds that left your father in fits. We had to stop for a potty break, and I picked you up and gave you a little perch on a rest stop picnic table and explained.
“It’s like flying a plane. The really important part, sweetie, is getting off the ground, and then you just have to get the thing landed again, right?” Your eyes were wide.
“If you start here,” I showed you just where to find the ‘C’, “and always bring it back to the beginning at the end, it will sound like music.”
Which of course sounds insane, and your response was to watch me very closely and move your mouth like a fish. And in a minute we were back in the car and you weren’t playing. I kept glancing in the rear view mirror, trying to figure you out, and you just looked thoughtful.
We were getting off the interstate when I heard you say my name. We were getting a light drizzle, but I turned off the wipers to be able to hear you better.
“Just like a story, right Mommy?”
Took me a minute to put it together but “Yes,” I told you, “it’s just like a story. Get the plane off the ground, take it somewhere, and get it on the runway again. A song is kind of like a story. Good thinking, dude.”
“Do they come from the same place, Mommy? Songs and stories?” you asked. I lied and said I didn’t know.
And now it’s the middle of the night and I guess I’m not surprised to hear the sound of the harmonica coming in over the air conditioner’s white noise. I stand with my head resting against the door frame for a minute, trying to maintain that delicate balance with my footing that keeps the squeaky floorboards from giving me away.
The sounds I’m hearing are impossible.
Short little bursts of melody. Nothing crazy-complex or anything. But repeated. New melodies coming to rest on top of the old. Counterpoint and harmony. The sound of two, and then four, and then a dozen first graders noodling on a harmonica at once.
Am I dreaming? Have I lost my mind? The surface tension between not wanting to disturb you and my own breathless, panicked curiosity breaks, and I turn the knob and lean in. Always, the fear with this maneuver at this time of night is that the light will be on and you’ll be bouncing off the walls in non-sleep. But the lights are not on. For a moment, I struggle to see you. There’s too much motion.
Pieces of construction paper are flying around the room. The pages are intricately laced with words, your signature backward ‘B’ evidenced everywhere (the teachers all tell us not to worry about this until you’re seven), but my brain can’t quite grasp the words, because of the motion and the madness of it all. The pages are doing a dance in the air.
I spot you. You’re wearing those jammies, the ones I secretly hate, and your hair is whipping around your face. Impossibly, improbably, you are standing over the wicker clothes hamper, pulled to the center of the floor from its usual place in the corner behind the door. There’s something inside, and the something is lighting up your face, both giving you an expression of joy and casting a fiery orange light there. The harmonica drops from your hand. The music is all around, like a chorus of crickets.
“They do come from the same place, Mommy. And it’s wonderful.”
Your motion is quick—decisive. I leap from the doorway as soon as I catch that it’s happening.
There is a FOOSH sound as the air is sucked out of the room for an instant. Construction paper and stuffed animals rain down on me. And then I am standing over an empty hamper. My ears have popped and my eyes begin to water. I peer down into the rectangular space.
You did it.
I’d never been able to do it again, but you’ve done it. Of course you have. My heart nearly bursts, and I’m crying. I do what there is to do. I sit down on the floor in your room—criss-cross applesauce—and fan the pages out in front of me.
I begin to read.