“Band Organ … Myrtle Beach, 1959”

Her small hands are sweaty. She keeps losing her grip. The cherub, mouth open to make it look like it’s singing from the scroll stuck to its little frozen fingers, isn’t supposed to be in the girl’s lap. The organ is ruined without it. One dimpled leg kicked straight out and the other sharply bent, it won’t balance. Stubby silver wings jab the girl’s chest; toes poke her thigh.

Just before closing. Only the three—little girl, older woman, and tall man—are left. Not even teenagers with arms around each other. No one else in the rows of wooden benches in front of the Pavilion Band Organ. The last set of the season.

Stiff-armed angels beat drums, stroke harps. “The Merry Widow Waltz.”

“It’s not a toy.” The girl’s grandmother frowns. “If it breaks, it can’t be replaced.”

The man straightens his hunched back and grips his knees with long sun-browned fingers. He winks at the girl and smiles. But his eyes don’t smile. His face looks plumb worn out.

“Let her take it home, Lady M. Just for the night. Our secret.”

His name, his real name, is Mr. Beach. He’s plucked the cherub from the organ that no one is supposed to touch—there’s a sign; the girl, just turned six, can already read—and plopped it into her lap.

Everyone calls the grandmother Lady M. She despises her real name, refuses it.

***

Sometimes the girl forgot and let the screened door slam. A grumble, far-off thunder, from the small dark den in the house where her grandparents lived, a short walk from the beach and the amusement park.

“Papa loves you. He just doesn’t know how to show it.”

The girl knew why. Long ago, Papa’s father, a Wash-Foot-Church-of-God preacher, jumped and shook, handled snakes and spoke in tongues. In the old falling-apart photograph album stuffed with dead relatives, the preacher had come loose, a brown crust of glue on his back. Toys were the Devil’s playthings, he’d said, according to Lady M. The girl could tell from his bleached eyes and hungry-hollow cheeks, his stiff collar and bristly beard, that he’d have searched until he found a switch with thorns for the bare legs of her grandfather, that pale scared-looking boy in short pants. …

Lady M, who never forgot, inch by inch eased the screened door shut. Hardly a click when the latch caught.

She took the girl’s hand. They turned the corner. The wind off the ocean snatched the grandmother’s head scarf, twisted it this way and that: “We’ve worn the sun plumb out.”

In the near-dark, they counted the blocks, one-two-three-four, to the Pavilion. Carnival lights hiss-popped in the salt air.

All at once, they turned electric. They popped past the wooden coaster, its clattery climb and fall, screams that rose and fell. Popped past the candy apple and corn dog stands, the little boats with bells, the wishing well.

Mr. Beach stood beside the carousel. It seemed to the girl that he was always waiting for her and Lady M. He dug into a leather bag at the end of a strap slung crossways over his shirt. In his wide palm a soggy strip of yellow tickets, a whole night’s worth.

Mr. Beach ran the rides. He was crazy about the girl, her grandmother said.

They rode together, Lady M and the little girl, on the carousel and Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris wheel that swung them up to the moon then tried to spill them into the yellow path the moon made on the ocean.

Her scarf whipping this way and that, Lady M smoked a cigarette and waved while the girl rode the little cars, boats, teacups, train.

Labor Day. Tomorrow the rides would be shuttered until Easter. The girl would go home to first grade.

The last yellow ticket gone. … Mr. Beach waited near the German band organ that was built a hundred years ago on the other side of the ocean.

To the girl, it seemed big as a barn, fancier than a church: carvings with gold edges, angels with stretched-out wings and long, long trumpets, cherubs that tapped drums and rang bells, ladies in long gowns who plucked harps.

On either end, big girls in short tunics—aqua, the girl’s favorite color this whole entire summer—twirled around and around on one foot, one arm crooked over their heads.

The music was loud and bossy.

The three ended all their nights this way. But tonight Mr. Beach had a surprise. He led them back, behind the organ, into a dark where they’d never been. He scraped open the door to a sort of makeshift wooden fort they’d never seen.

At first the little girl felt she was seeing the ripped-open insides of some fantastical beast.  There, spot-lit, the secret insides of the organ. Giant wheels and ropes and pedals and two sweating men—all of it moving, around and up-and-down and back-and-forth. Stiff music sheets shot through with holes climbed out of a crate on one side, slid across to the other side.

In the shadows, Mr. Beach held her grandmother’s elbow with one hand, her shoulder with the other. To catch her if she fell.

Rows and rows of pipes. There was no magic. This was how everything worked.

***

The bench bites into the backs of her thighs, but the girl is too scared to move. Her insides churn like the ocean when a storm is coming.

At the bottom of the organ an ugly gap like where her front tooth fell out. The cherub that belonged there but instead was here, on her lap, is made of something like the good china kept locked in cabinets until Christmas. Only for grown-ups.

She tries to want it, tries to feel grown up. But the lopsided figure, so much heavier than she imagined, is stabbing her leg. Her leg shakes. She can’t make it stop.

The wind is making Lady M’s eyes water. She re-ties her scarf.

“It’s too much. Anything could happen.”

The girl sees in her mind the cherub slipping between her thighs and shattering on the ground. She envisions small sharp pieces that cut her fingers, that can’t be glued back together.

“Just come back,” Mr. Beach says, as though this will fix everything even if nothing needs fixing. Like the cherub the girl pictures broken at her feet. “Bring it back tomorrow. I’ll be here working, shutting things down.”

For a minute that goes on and on—a minute that seems as lost in time and place as the figure she holds tight with hands that are sweating more than ever—he looks at the grandmother, she at him.

To keep from staring at the terrible empty space where the cherub belongs, the girl focuses on the twirling girls. Twirling and twirling.

***

Afterwards, for a year or two, she tries to spin like they did. But she only gets dizzy and staggers, sometimes falls.

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About Ashley Havird

Ashley Mace Havird's debut novel, Lightningstruck (Mercer University Press, 2016), won the Ferrol Sams Award and was named an Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. Havird's most recent collection of poems, Wild Juice, is scheduled for publication by LSU Press in 2021. She has published three other collections including The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which won the X. J. Kennedy Prize. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many journals including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Ashley Mace Havird lives in Shreveport, LA with her husband, the poet David Havird.