The Harmonica

by Michelle Ong

Vivian smoothed down the pleats of her red and white checkered dress and held a bunched up white apron in her hand. Thick strands of auburn hair fell out of the neatly twisted bun at the back of her head. Slightly flushed, she threw the apron into the empty wicker basket beside her closet door and rifled through the row of neatly pressed dresses hanging at the back corner of the closet. Thumbing between a scarlet and midnight blue one, she finally retrieved the latter and quickly unzipped her checkered dress and slipped into it. Sliding her small feet into navy blue leather slippers, she reassembled her hair into a ponytail and quickly swiped on colored lip gloss before exiting her bedroom.

“You ready for the dance, yet?” her older sister Francine asked.

“C’mon already, I wanna get there before Leigh does,” Vivian said.

She glanced over Francine’s pink frock and kissed her mom goodbye before running to the pick-up truck waiting outside.

Her dad grunted when he saw them. “Ready, you two?” he asked as they climbed in. He turned the truck around in the wide gravel driveway and then right onto the repaved country road.

Vivian drummed her fingers on her knees, touching the soft cotton of her dress, and glanced at her reflection in the side mirror. Her oval-shaped face and round brown eyes were untouched by make-up and the red spots on her cheeks had disappeared. She looked over at Francine who was busily chatting with their father. Looking past them, she stared at the light green blur of flat pastures with sparse trees and turned to peer out the window beside her. She rolled the window completely down and rested her arm on the thin slit into which the glass had disappeared, her elbow peeking out of the car.

“Vivian! Why did you open up the window? Now my hair’s getting all messed up,” Francine complained.

“It was getting stuffy in here,” Vivian said.

She quickly rolled up the window and looked at her sister. Francine had colored her face again; the shimmery purple coating her eyelids and the dark crimson tinting her lips aged her artificially unlined face that was covered with foundation a slightly different shade from the natural skin color of her arms and legs. Vivian thought she looked more grown-up, but mom only wore make-up on special occasions, and Francine’s face was frequently saturated with color.

“Francine, you look fine,” her dad said.

Francine ran her fingers through her tightly curled hair and shook her head lightly from side to side, causing the curls to frivolously dance.

“There, that should do it,” she said. The curls rearranged themselves in their original position. Vivian noticed no difference between their position before and after opening the window.

They turned into a curved driveway before a large white clapboard building and onto newly mowed grass and halted before an oak tree. Vivian and Francine stepped out and waved at their dad.

“Good night!” they called out and rapidly walked to the double door of the building. Mumbles and beats emanated from within. Vivian was reaching for the door handle when someone called out her name. She turned to see Leigh walking from his blue sedan. She frowned at his casual appearance – an untucked and wrinkled green and white plaid shirt over black slacks. His black hair was in its usual messy state and he brushed a few locks of hair from his forehead; they immediately fell back. Vivian winked at him. Several of his freckles emerged beneath the light shining above the door, charming his good-natured face. She poked his nose lightly and tugged at the hair on his forehead.

“Allow me, ladies,” Leigh said, and opened the door for them, ludicrously waving his arm and bowing slightly.

“Where did you learn that, from a movie?” Francine asked.

She composed herself and walked through the doorway, her back rigidly straight and her ringlets barely moving with each solemn step.

Vivian laughed at her sister’s jocularity and quickly followed. She paused inside the brightly lit entry hall and noticed a man leaning against the wall facing one of the two doorways leading to the dance hall. He took no notice of the newcomers and stood with one leg bent back and the rubber sole of his sneaker pressed against the wall. He slowly reached down into his shirt pocket and extracted a lighter and pack of cigarettes. He gently hit the pack against his open palm before drawing one out and quickly lighting it with a flick of his thumb. After taking a long draw, he met Vivian’s earnest gaze.

She quickly turned away and whispered to Leigh, “Who’s that?”

Leigh surreptitiously glanced at the man, who had turned his attention back to the room in front of him. “No idea. May I have the first dance, miss?” Leigh asked.

Vivian smiled, and slipped her arm into the awaiting crook of his bent arm. She followed him into the other room, uncomfortably aware of the strange man curiously watching their retreating figures.

Inside, the large dance hall was festooned with hanging paper cutouts of music notes and multicolored streamers. A few people sat around tables arranged along the corners of the room. Bunches of white balloons, spotted with black music notes, hung from the center of each table. Other small groups of people circulated around the room. A band was assembling and checking the equipment on stage. Large brass chandeliers hanging from the exposed metal rafters dimly glowed amber. The conversation buzz was unusually subdued. A round clock hanging above the stage pointed to 8:40, and the dance would start at 9:00.

“Let’s head out back. I wanna see how they assembled the tent,” Vivian said.

Her hand softly slipped into Leigh’s as she led him towards the back hallway, smiling and waving at a few of her neighbors and friends.

“Where are you troublemakers heading off to?” someone called out.

“We’re gonna disassemble the big tent in the back!” Leigh called out.

“And then use it for a bonfire!” Vivian added.

She giggled as they broke into a run, rushing into the kitchen and surprising the staff, who recognized them and smiled.

“Oh, I bet you two are up to no good!” the chef said. The large woman turned her back to them and continued plopping fritters into a hot skillet. A large mound of fresh ones cooled on a lemon-colored platter beside her.

Other platters covered a large rectangular table in the center of the room. The lid of a silver gravy boat was askew, revealing the thickening brown sauce. Several other sauce boats, some covered and uncovered, were arranged in between dishes of potato casserole, an immense ham, golden fried catfish thickly covered with breadcrumbs, and a platter of fat pork chops. Even the bowl of red beans and rice and the plate of biscuits were the largest Vivian had ever seen.

The collection of smells, the sizzling sound of oil frying in the pan, and the nearness of sumptuous dishes, untouched by anyone and perfectly arranged, tormented Vivian and Leigh who knew dinner wouldn’t start until the band finished playing.

“C’mon. No point ruining our appetite now,” Leigh said as Vivian stared at a colossal heap of fried oysters delicately sprinkled with lemon juice.

“You can have a biscuit, if you’d like,” one of the cooks said.

“No thanks, sir, we’ll wait until everyone else can enjoy the food,” Vivian replied.

As they walked out the back door, Vivian whispered to Leigh, “They haven’t even started on the desserts yet. Can you imagine what they’ll make? All the cobblers and pies and cakes you can imagine. Some covered in mounds of whipped cream, others arranged on a little plate with space enough for a scoop of ice cream.”

Leigh pinched her arm. “Stop it. We’ll have enough time to enjoy the food.”

She and Leigh emerged onto a wide pasture. Every tree was garlanded with small strings of daisy-shaped lights and satin streamers. Old-fashioned lamps hung from tall poles neatly arranged in a straight row leading towards a gold-colored tent. They rested beneath a flowering magnolia tree. Vivian leaned heavily against Leigh and pressed her hand against the tree trunk.

“So, where is it?” she asked, looking around for the striped tent used the year before.

“Hmm, seems to me we’re at a fancier dance than I thought,” Leigh said, pointing at a new tent.

“I think you’re right sir. Looks to me like silk from here.” Vivian said. She grew thoughtful. Tapping a finger against her chin, she said, “Yes, looks very fancy indeed.”

“I think we have to do something about it,” Leigh said.

“I agree. Let’s survey the perimeter first,” Vivian said.

Nearing the gold tent, she noticed the white swirls embroidered on the fabric. Vivian rubbed the cloth between two fingers and motioned Leigh closer.

“My hunch was correct,” she said. “This here is fine Coomer silk.”

“Ahh, Coomer silk, of course. Where is it from again?” Leigh asked.

Vivian resumed a sober demeanor and said, “Why from China, of course. They don’t say Coomer over there, but that’s what it’s called here. Some poor translator probably lost his job because of the whole mess.”

“Yes, I thought some conflict was involved with Coomer. Wasn’t it the name of a man who stole a roll of silk from a rich merchant in Luoyang?”

Vivian held a length of the silk close to her eyes. She analyzed the pattern of swirls and then held the cloth up to her nose. Taking a long whiff, she stuck out her tongue and tasted it, leaving a dark circle. Leigh watched her antics with a grin but quickly resumed a straight face when she looked at him.

“After thoroughly testing this product, I believe this silk has traveled a long way. Originating from China and then journeying to the Philippines, it changed many hands before being shipped to Mexico City. From there, it sat at several clothing stores, sometimes in full display at the front of the store, tucked into a cubbyhole with other rolls of cloth, and other times waiting in a well-secured box in the storage room. After that, a merchant visiting family here brought the silk along and sold it to the local clothing shop, where it was bought by our wonderful town committee and sewn into a makeshift tent.”

“That’s some story,” a gruff voice said.

Vivian looked past Leigh’s shoulder and saw the man from the entry hall. Leigh turned his head sharply to look in the same direction.

“Oh, hey, mister. Has the band started playing yet?”

“No, not yet. The band’s finished setting up. They’re just waiting for the singer to get out of the bathroom. I hear the first number is catchy. Maybe you two should head on in before you miss it.”

“Where’s the band from?” Vivian asked.

“New Jersey,” the man said.

“That’s a long way from here. What’s your name, by the way? I’m Vivian and this here’s Leigh.”

The man stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s Bailey.”

Leigh formally shook Bailey’s hand and Vivian stuck hers out and pumped the man’s warm hand. She assumed he was a drifter who was hitchhiking through the state or from a nearby town to attend the annual dance. He held her hand and looked at her with a trace of a smile before releasing it. She looked at him long enough to notice the brown flecks in his green eyes, then deftly slipped both of her hands into the small pockets sewn into the sides of her dress.

Standing in the middle of the wide path swathed in light from nearby lampposts, Vivian was able to fully view him. He was not much taller than Leigh, with an average build, short and evenly cut hair, and a forgettable face.

Disturbed by his attentiveness, she instinctively grabbed Leigh’s hand and attempting cheerfulness, said, “C’mon then. We don’t wanna miss it!”

She and Leigh quickly walked back into the building, their nimble feet lightly crushing the short grass beneath them. Only when reaching for the door knob did Vivian hear Bailey following them. Her hand trembled slightly at the sound of his heavy footsteps, but they soon found themselves cloaked in the warmth of the kitchen and entered the cooler dance hall.

The three men on stage starkly contrasted the awaiting crowd with their heavily-worn t-shirts and dark blue jeans. The room had quickly filled up with more girls wearing light cotton frocks in every soft color, from peach to seafoam green to azure. In spite of the different patterns and bits of cloth added here and there to accentuate their figures, all the dresses were cut in the same style, similar to Vivian’s, with a round collar only revealing the two little knobs of the collarbone, short sleeves fitted tightly around their arms, and wide and full calf-length skirts. The men dressed more demurely. Many wore checkered shirts like Leigh, while others wore dress shirts tucked neatly into pressed slacks boasting sharp creases on the front. Francine stood at the other side of the room and eagerly waved at Vivian and Leigh. Vivian smiled back and turned towards the stage at the sound of a quietly humming harmonica.

On stage, Bailey stood at the central microphone wearing a harmonica holder. He lightly strummed a guitar, and the harmonica continued to murmur before quickly trilling an octave of sounds, holding high notes and plunging low, drowning out the calming guitar melody. At the end of the last low note, he began singing in a deep and throaty voice, each word clearly reverberating through the room. The crowd watched him, enthralled by the simple lyrics of a heartbroken song that was accentuated by the beauty of his voice. Slowly lowering his voice near the end of the song, he whispered the last repeated stanza before playing a final note on the guitar.

A small pause succeeded before the crowd loudly cheered and clapped.

Bailey removed the harmonica holder and leaned his guitar against the side of a speaker. He slipped on the strap of an electric guitar before playing the first few notes. The drummer quickly joined in, enticing a few brave dancers to begin moving their feet. The other guitarist and the bassist then entered and Bailey began singing a more upbeat song. Vivian keenly listened to the lyrics as the whole dance hall exploded into activity, with girls kicking up their heels and men twirling their partners. Some couples accidentally bumped into each other, but everyone flashed smiles and quickly turned to the next available space. Vivian smirked when she noticed the song was about dancing.

“This is the type of music that enlivens you,” Leigh said. “Care to dance?”

He twirled her and held her at arm’s length before twisting her back towards him. They began dancing in a small corner before being swept up in the stirring movement, and were pushed forward towards the stage. They resisted the surrounding couples and stubbornly clung to the small space. Bailey looked down and winked at them in recognition.

“Do you think they do this in the city?” Vivian asked.

She crossed arms with Leigh before he swung her around.

“Nah, they’re probably too busy. I don’t think they have dances like we do,” Leigh said.

Within the short pause between the end and beginning of another song, the couples reassembled themselves in a wide circle encompassing the perimeter of the room. Leigh and Vivian placed themselves near the stage; Vivian facing Bailey as the band began to play again. He stared fixedly at her and commenced singing another song about a mixture of downtrodden and hopeful emotions. Attuned to the beat of the song, the couples danced the two-step. Moving further from the stage, Leigh looked at Bailey, who was singing about “a young American girl” and watching them as they circled around the room.

Rotating around the room and returning to their original spot in front of the stage, the couples disassembled and returned to their chaotic twirls and individual dance routines. Bailey donned the harmonica holder and the other three band members walked offstage. A few of the stage lights were turned off and those remaining pointed to the thin space in front of his feet. With his outline fuzzily merging with background shadows, he began another song only accompanied by the strumming of his guitar and closed his eyes before crooning the first stanza.

Leigh grabbed Vivian by the waist and softly clasped her to him. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and circled her other arm around him. He slowly led them to the other side of the room.

Vivian watched the floor slowly recede beneath them as they moved across the room and stared into a clump of balloons that had fallen from the center of a table to the floor amidst the earlier chaos. The lyrics of the bleak song followed them, firmly lodging into Vivian’s heart, nibbling at her gaiety and energy. Unable to share in the exultation of the room, but unfamiliar with the complexities of a broken heart, she suddenly asked, “How can someone be so sad and sing such songs repeatedly?”

“He’s a drifter.”

“He’s also a dancer. The second song was about dancing…and living. But now he’s fallen back into darkness.”

“Some people are just like that. They grow up differently. There are other things out there that we don’t know and may never experience. We don’t know and we can’t relate but we can finish the dance.”

Vivian grasped him tighter and shifted her head to his other shoulder to face the radiating hall light.


Michelle Ong’s work has been published in Windhover, The Citron Review, and Foliate Oak, among others. She blogs at