The boy rocked in time to the music, rump bouncing against the back of a ruptured easy chair. He pushed a mouth harp across tiny teeth, accompanying a blues singer over the pops and scratches of a fast-revolving 78-rpm record. The harmonica’s discordant moan caught the rhythm, modality, and feel of the music and bounced it back to singer and guitar. The boy wore a striped jersey, baggy blue corduroys, and brown oxfords. Soft-rounded cheeks, nose, and chin glowed beneath a bowl-cut thatch of dark hair. Brown eyes revealed amazement and delight, as yet unscarred by any perceptions of what might follow.
As he played, the boy stared into the album propped open against the bookcase. A Negro man in a white shirt stood in the ruins of a burnt-out prairie home, his back to the viewer, the carved neck and body of a guitar strapped over his belly. Charred planks and timbers reached toward the night sky. They reminded the boy of witch fingers.
The only structure left standing in the painting was a scorched brick chimney. On the mantelpiece, a clock stood intact save for the heat-shattered glass face. Across a sea of prairie grass, a passenger train shone silver in the moonlight, windows radiating warmth into a dark night. In the foreground the man embraced a guitar, black strap diagonally bisecting a white-shirted back. The lonely man, the dark night, the unreachable warmth and movement of the train all cried loneliness, abandonment, and missed chances. Desolation was lost on the boy. He was four years old and was busy making music with the man in the picture.
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.