Thursday, March 6, 1913

The Alley, Hollins Street

He’d been assigned to the Alum Chine, a new ship for him. Some kind of crazy name, he thought, but the vessel looked to be not so big, not so hard to manage loading. He was grateful for that. Someone said that it was going to Panama, to build a canal. Randolph hadn’t asked what a canal was. He waited until he was home that evening and mentioned it at dinner.

“Loading dynamite for Panama, for the canal,” he said, then looking at Arbutus, “Do you know anything about that?”

She did, and she told him about the design of the Frenchman, and how it would change the world, let ships get from the east to California without going around South America. Randolph didn’t even try to remember the man’s name, all those unpronounceable syllables.

Of course, he thought, she would know all about that. Arbutus and her books, her reading, her knowledge about things that didn’t mean anything and she couldn’t even put a meal on the table.

He caught Myrtle’s eye, and his mother-in-law shook her head. “It’s a good thing you can sew, Miss Spouting-Off,” she said.

 Arbutus smiled and raised her eyebrows. She was used to, and proud of, this kind of teasing. Randolph chimed in. “And she’s the most beautiful Negress in Baltimore. I don’t need no book to tell me that.”

Myrtle put down her fork. “Tell me why they’re sending that stuff down there. How come it’s coming from here?” “To blow big holes in the ground, enough to get ships through. Right, ‘Butus? Explosives, dynamite. Big signs on all of the packages. Danger most likely. But we don’t have to worry. They said it’s only dangerous if 20 someone lights one, or something like that. Nobody is allowed to smoke on the ship, so I ain’t worried. It’s just another job, nobody doing anything special.”

 Randolph reached in his pocket and handed Wanderer a rectangular object wrapped in brown paper, tied with twine.

Arbutus saw him. “What are you giving that boy now?” she asked.

Randolph patted Wanderer on the head as the child tore open his gift. “Take it on over in the corner. I’ll show you how it works in a few minutes.”

Myrtle stood. “It’s a harmonica, ain’t it? A harmonica.” She turned to her daughter. “Arbutus, your father played one. Do you remember? Oh, too young, maybe.”

She called to the bedroom where Camelia sat, rocking Lillian Gish. “Melie, do you remember Papa and his harmonica? Randolph’s bought one home to Wanderer. Oh, Laws, we’ll have the best music now. Banjo, harmonica. Melie, Arbutus, it will be like the old days. Just like Joshua back here with us.”

Myrtle put her hand to her mouth, patted it. “Just like the old days.”

Arbutus didn’t smile. “Where did you get that?” she pressed her lips together. She fixed her eyes on Randolph.

Randolph folded his hands, placed them to the left of his plate. Assuming what he thought was the pose of Pastor Theodore, he intoned, “My dear Arbutus. You ask about the origins of this harmonica? I will tell you. Your earnest husband and father of Christopher Columbus Corporal, known to all as Wanderer, on his way home from a rigorous day at the docks, just happened to pass an establishment adorned with a sign of three balls hanging in front. If I understand correctly, such establishments cater to those who may be in temporary fiduciary distress, may need a dollar or two to tide them over until better times come along.

“As I walked by such establishment, a sparkle of silver caught my eye. I was led by the Lord, yes, by the Lord, to enter, whereupon I realized that said shining object was a harmonica, and a voice, yes, I do think it was the voice of the Lord, shouted, yes I say, shouted, not whispered, that Wanderer needed said object, that said object would bring pleasure not only to Wanderer, but to this entire household.

 “So, I heeded the Lord’s voice, and here I am.”

Myrtle laughed through his entire speech. “Oh, Randolph, how you blaspheme!” she said between hoots. “We will be punished for sure. Pastor Theodore will box your ears in public for this.”

Even Arbutus smiled and shook her head at her husband who could always turn a problem into a laugh, “Now Randolph,” she said, working to make her expression severe. “How did you get it?”

Randolph stood and walked to where his wife sat. He leaned down and rubbed his cheek against hers. “Don’t worry, Arbutus, my beautiful one. I paid for it. I didn’t pawn anything. I paid for it. Twenty-five cents, cash on the barrelhead. Nothing, not a thing to worry about. Only dream of the music Wanderer will make.”

Arbutus turned, folded her arms. “And just where did you get that twenty-five cents, ‘cash on the barrelhead’?” Randolph took her hands in his, unfolded her arms. “You leave the worrying about that to me.”

“You are incorrigible,” she answered, and walked to the back of the house.

 Randolph looked at Myrtle. “Incorrigible. Did you hear that? That must mean handsome.”

Myrtle smiled and shook her head. “And it’s a good thing that you are.