Monday, Nov. 25, 2002, 11:26 AM

Harmonica story

He regrets never having learned to play harmonica--that one silver harmonica that an ex-girlfriend miraculously produced from the bowels of her underwear drawer when he said that he had always wanted to learn. He could still feel the weight of her pressing against his chest, even after. But his mind was on the harmonica then, as it is now. Silver shining engraved music holes waiting for the right diaphragm to force sound from their mouths. He could feel it cold on his lips, quivering lips that had never touched metal in quite this way. Not the way that his lips had touched her mouth or breasts. And she said she loved him, and her body said she used him, and his mind was playing sweet harmonica music the whole time.

She passed. He kept the harmonica. Would never part with the harmonica. He kept it in an antique box with the sand from a beach that had been witness to his carnal workings. He kept it with the ring from a dead man he once treated to lunch. He kept it with the blue ribbon that had been tied around a teddy bear when his grandfather was still alive. He kept it next to the lipsticked end of a cigarette that came from the mouth of a carnival woman who was old enough to be his mother, but did things his mother never would. He kept it locked away with his memories, stories, songs, and plans. And he was sure that his heart was in there somewhere, but now he isn't so sure it's not falling from his chest.

He had checked all of his pockets for his pride, and lint was the prize for his search. he had been to countless drive-ins looking for his innocence--dragged many streams, and spent many nights alone wondering where it had gotten to. He found himself seeking refuge under cover, and between legs that never seemed to keep him warm enough no matter how far around they wrapped. And the music played on and on.

And his family was sure he was grand. Big things to be expected. Books to be written, worlds to be conquered, and hearts to be won. Keep your hearts, he'll have none of it. Just play that sweet old hobo music. Ham and eggs over a fire, sourdough and creosote next to the tracks of the train that never comes. The place where the weeds grow high as a man's chest and suck the life from the ground.

If he could grow roots he would dig deep and drink long. If he could grow wings he would fly far and high. And if he were the star, everytime he left a girl for his hat and coat harmonica music would fill the theatre.

Her lips moved and her finger was naked. Could it be true? He watched her lips stretch and tighten and he felt as though he were being pulled by horses in all directions, and it all came down to her teeth bursting through those lips in a smile everytime she said that other person's name, and he wanted to kick over his chair and kiss her. But they were sitting in a booth and that other person's name kept getting in the way, and her smilesweetsmile floated in his mind the whole way home. She had revved him high on the phone telling him that she had something important that desperately needed to see him and body and soul before it would ever be right. And would it ever be right again? Now he just laughed as the car sputtered to a stop, the needle caressing the vowel on his dashboard, certainly telling it the news that had occupied him too long to fill his tank.