Benjamin Warner: “The Two Harmonicists”

There were two harmonicists. I signed up for lessons with Dewayne Keyes. The other didn’t give lessons. He played along to the Star Spangled Banner, center stage with the University Big Band, at a pep rally in the Davis Center. His name was Tony Demarco. Dewayne Keyes didn’t care much for Tony Demarco.

“What he’s playing isn’t the blues,” Dewayne Keyes told me. “He used to be a decent guy, before he started in with all this poppy shit.” He squinted down at the tablature he’d Xeroxed for me. It was as if his distaste for Tony Demarco had filled the room with haze, making it hard to see.

I said, “I’m into the blues, man. That’s what I’m here for.”

We were sitting in an alcove of a university administrative office. There wasn’t even a door between us and the bursar’s secretary.

Well,” he said, “I can go in one of two directions. We can go Dylan: he’d wail on the high end like this:” and he sucked in and out on the high end for a bit, “or we can go Sonny Terry.” He did a run up from the bottom. “That’s more technical. That’s like, you need a lifetime of practice.”

“I’ve got a while,” I said.

“He’s got a while!” said Dewayne Keyes, as if to the bursar’s secretary.

We met once a week, for five weeks, and I did some practicing in my dorm room. Dewayne Keyes wore flannels to our classes, and when he got really worked up showing me something tricky, he’d roll the sleeves so I could see the ratty, yellowed waffle shirts he wore beneath. His mustache was gray and untrimmed. When he played, he closed his eyes and made pained expressions, and the hairs on his upper lip brushed the top of the harmonica’s metal plate. I paid him ten dollars a lesson.

By the end of the five weeks, I had that Sonny Terry run cold. It hadn’t taken a lifetime. I carried the harmonica in my pocket and as I walked through town, I’d turn down alleys where it was just me and the garbage cans, and take it out for a toot. Ithanked Dewayne Keyes profusely. “Really,” I said, shaking his hand in both my hands, “it’s been great.”

I’d felt a little emotional ending our time together.

“No problem, kid,” he said. “Just remember one thing: there’s nothing like the blues.” He’d stood as a signal for me to leave, and when I turned in the door to look, he was still there, rigid and fat in the alcove.

Then one day, I was walking down the street. It was early spring, and the air was sweet from the way it was caressing the early buds and blossoms. There were people in short sleeves, and there were buskers in the square; a blues group, in particular. I stopped to watch them play.

The lead guitar wore a leather cowboy hat and sunglasses. He had a gravelly voice I liked, and they were playing a Muddy Waters tune I knew. A crowd had grown around them, and out of the crowd stepped a sleek little man with a ponytail. He was bald on top, and wore a pressed shirt tucked into his slacks. A silver belt buckle shone where it held everything together.

The lead guitar smiled and cut the song off short.

“No, no. Keep jamming, Larry,” said the pony-tailed man.

“Ladies and gentlepeople,” said the lead guitar. “A treat. A real treat! Mr. Tony Demarco!”

Demarco pulled a harmonica from his pocket and the lead guitar said, “Ah-one-two-three-four.”

They played Got My Mojo Working, and Demarco sat back on rhythm until the music peeled away and he soloed. There were wild twists and turns, and sweet-squeaky end-arounds that make me think of flip-kicks in a pool. Then he pulled away. He cupped his hands and dug his face into them so that the harmonica disappeared. There was a flutter of notes that made the lead guitar and the drummer open their mouths in an awe that looked like pain. They all had the exact same expression, though they hadn’t looked at one another. I guessed it was something musicians just did. They’d had their hearts broken by their own talents, but they were too decent to even know it.

Afterwards, a bunch of people gathered around Demarco, and he was actually signing autographs. I’d gone in close, too, and without realizing it, I’d taken my harmonica out of my pocket. I didn’t know what I was going to do: maybe ask him to teach me a riff, or maybe have him sign the plate.

But something made me look over my shoulder, and there was Dewayne Keyes. He was staring at me, standing next to a kiosk that had been stapled full of fliers. In the spring, students would sometimes set those kiosks on fire, and I could still see someashen remnants fluttering above his head.

I put the harmonica back in my pocket, but he was already walking away. The wind was stiffer, and I followed him down the street with my hair blowing in my face. He was wearing an old knit cap—a maroon one that was worn out and folded funny—so that he looked like one of the bums. I followed it like it was floating down a faster and faster river.

Finally, he turned into a store. It was a Walgreens. When I went inside, he was leafing through a magazine.

“Mr. Keyes,” I said, though I’d never addressed him as anything before.

He turned a page in Field & Stream, and kept his face so calm that I was scared.

“It’s Paul,” I said. “From the class.”

I’d started to grow a goatee, and clung to the hope that he’d confused me for someone else.

“Yeah,” he said. “Okay. I remember.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “That guy can really wail.”

He put down the magazine and looked at me slowly to teach me something terrible. There was disgust all over his face. He said, “Once the lessons are over, that’s it for me. I don’t do tips.”

When he left, I stood there with the metallic taste of shame in my mouth. I would not play again.

He was the better harmonicist.


Ben Warner grew up in Annapolis, Maryland

Leave a reply