• The Harmonica

    Bethany Ball

    Spring 2023

    I shucked off my coat and hung it on a hook beside the dryers. They rumbled with bright electric heat. The YMCA’s service desk was toward the back of the building, and it was the entrance through which the members entered the fitness area and the pool. I loved shifts back there. The service desk was like a big chaotic womb. Hot and noisy from the massive washing machines and dryers behind it. There wasn’t very much to do back there, especially in the evenings. I had almost no responsibility beyond checking members’ cards and handing out towels. Above the washers and dryers, fluorescent lights blinked and flickered and bathed the desk in cool white light. I noticed that underneath the lights there were no shadows. As if chemical light could cut through matter. I buzzed in a group that had a Wednesday night basketball game. A minute later I let through a couple of old white dudes with long tube socks and thick terry cloth sweatbands wrapped tight around their bald heads. One wore a Pistons jersey over his T-shirt. Forty. Laimbeer. A show of support. The Bad Boys were playing a home game tonight against the Lakers. They carried racquetball racquets under their arms. I handed them towels and ushered them inside.

    The washers and dryers ran all day washing members’ towels and all night washing resident linen. The towels and linens pulled straight from the dryer softened my chapped knuckles and dry palms. It was hot back there, a pleasure in the depths of a Detroit winter. Some employees would sweat through their clothing after just an hour, but I was happy even with my flushed face and my hair sticking up all over the place from electricity and humidity. It was the only place where the deepest, coldest parts of me thawed.

    Back at the service desk I could play the tinny radio tuned permanently to WDET—playing that night a segment on Malian music. Ali Farka Toure and all the great griots. I could read as much as I liked. The lost and found was a treasure box I checked every day. I’d find bottles of expensive shampoo and conditioner I’d shove in my bag when no one was looking. There was a Timex watch that still ran. I’d found a pair of leather gloves the color of a Werther’s caramel among the abandoned swim goggles and bathing suits.

    James appeared from the dark hallway that led to the residents’ front desk and, before even saying hello, walked behind the desk. I was glad to see him. He always had something smart to say. He wore his heavy leather coat. On its back, a red, yellow, and green silhouette of a map of Africa along with a fist outlined in red thread in its center stood out in bold, embroidered relief. He had salt and pepper hair that stood high off his forehead. The sides were shaved. A gap separated his front teeth. He took up a lot of space.

    He said, Stella what are you doing here? What are you doing back here folding towels? Why aren’t you up at the residents’ desk?

    James opened the dryer door. He pushed mounds of towels into a wire cart and wheeled them over to the big table where I was perched with a book. I dog-eared the page while James folded a towel and then another with quick, practiced movements.

    You still giving Joseph money? he asked.

    I’m not giving Joseph money, I said. Though I had.

    Bullshit, James said. You’re giving him money. You think that thing with Terry had happened out of the blue? Don’t be naïve.

    I’m not naïve, I said. But I was and James knew it.

    You think he’s buying Coca-Cola with that money.

    James pulled a stool up to the counter, and we were both thinking about Terry’s heart attack. It happened on Valentine’s Day, just a few weeks ago. I’d spent my shift cutting out hearts from scrap paper and taping them up around the front desk while residents, who weren’t interested in love, watched the Pistons.

    Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and lives in New York. She has published two novels, The Pessimists and What to Do About the Solomons, with Grove Atlantic.

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