Harlequin Strings This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 31, 2011
I put my shoes on quickly, tonight. They are black and too small for me as I tear down the stairs, calling for her behind my shoulder.
She does not say anything. I imagine her ‘annoyed’ face while she does not respond.
“Ma!” I yell.
Even upstairs, I hear her inhale as she pauses to say something. That is what she does when she is making the annoyed face. “You know,” she says, “I wonder what the chances are of my leaving you at home? Huh. It’s not a bad idea, now that I think of it, seeing as—”

I cut her off. My shoes are too shiny and my dress is too new and I have heard music seeping from the windows of this place too clearly not to go tonight.

“No! I’m sorry! I’ll wait,” I say.

“You don’t have much of a choice, now do you?”
But I know she would’ve taken me anyway. She takes me to all of her business- things, like I have to be there. I don’t mind, so I have never asked why.

We do not need to take the bus to get there. She says it is only a block away, and it’s too nice outside not to walk. I forget how much ‘block’ means. Plus, sidewalks here are cracked and uneven, and they scuff my shoes when I am not looking. I would rather ride the bus.

“Look sharp,” she tells me. “These are important people.”

I can see the sign from where we are, now. It is black, orange, and tired; it hangs above everything like it was there to see the world made. ‘The Harlequin,’ I read. The name sounds like a secret.

We walk through light and music that pour into the street like they are squeezed by the walls of this place, and must be part of the night outside. I decide that the fronts of all buildings should be more like this. Inside, everything is busy and sure of itself. It is dim and red and orange and the tables all have tiny white candles on them. There are big silver platters and the whole place seems to grin like it knows something you don’t. A man with skin as dark as the wood he works behind pours wine from a coffee pot, laughing in his white tuxedo. The music here laughs with him, and I look to find where it comes from. On a stage, old men tap their feet to what they do; one winks at someone, or the crowd. He plays a big, upside-down violin. I have always liked those.

“Ma, this place is fancy.” I tell her. “Why did you—”

“I know. I didn’t suggest it, they did. I didn’t want to turn ’em down.”
“You could’ve just said someplace else…”
“If we get this, it’ll pay off for whatever we spend here. Eventually. Could you just trust me on that one?”

A waiter offers to seat us in his best polite-voice. Ma smiles and points at someone I can’t see; “Look sharp,” she says again. She says that a lot, so I know what she means. I will sit still and up straight and be “so cute” when someone talks to me, and I will not get food on my dress or crawl under the table, because I’ve got to pull at their heartstrings. That’s what Ma says.


Two men sit at the table the waiter leads us to. They are dressed nice, like us.


These are important people.


They stand and shake Ma’s hand and say “Well nice to meet you!” to me, then, “M, I had no idea you had a daughter…” to her. We all sit down and I smile with my hands in my lap.
“So, Maggie, sounds like you’ve got a bit of a desperate proposal for us, hmm?” one of the men says. He talks to her like my teachers to me. Also, he is very bald, and I don’t like the way he smells.
“Of course there is some gravity to the situation,” Ma says. She is nervous in the way that only I can tell. I turn to watch the old men play. “I’m sure, however, that this will be entirely worth your while down the road. Er, with the funds from your endorsement….”
I have stopped listening by now. We order and receive our food, and the waiter offers them wine from a coffee pot like the other man had. They go on like, “why should we trust that your coalition won’t remain on life support even after our grant,” and things. Ma breathes deep to answer. When I have finished my salad and meat, I ask her if I can go to the bathroom. She nods without looking at me.
I do not go to the bathroom. Instead, I dodge waiters in their white suits until I am at the back of the room, where she can’t see me. In front of the stage. I sit down in an empty chair I find next to other people that have come to hear the band. Some stand at skinnier tables I am too short for, and high-heeled women laugh into men they came with. I only sit and watch.
Sometimes, I clap along or tap my foot like the old men do without realizing it. I forget that I have a table to go back to. But the music swells in the room and I can only grin and lose where I am, watching the trumpet player’s cheeks puff and the drummer lean back to laugh.
“This next one I thank is fuh the lil’ curly-headed thing down in front,” I hear. I look up and I know my eyes get big as I touch my hair. They all chuckle and the big-violin player smiles right at me, spinning his whatever-it-is around like a top. Everyone claps. I scoot my chair forward and wish I could sing.
I am not sure how long it’s been when I get up to go back to my seat, but I think that Ma will be mad at me. When I am close enough, I hear “Absolutely not!” and “But sir, I can assure you…” like that. She does not see me.
I don’t want to go back to the table anymore. I turn back towards the stage.
No. Ma will be angry.
When I am closer to our table, she notices and gives me the ‘sit-down-now’ look. I do. Quickly. “Look sharp,” I know she’d say, so I do that, too.
Ma puts her arm around me and makes herself smile, like I am important to something here. But I don’t hear my name. She talks much faster now, saying “I’m not sure you understand just what this all means, and I’m convinced that if you only read my full proposal, and gave the coalition some thought, you—”.
“Maggie. I think we’ve given it enough thought.” The bald man looks around, grins. “Well! As long as we’re here, the Harlequin, what good would an all-business visit do?”
Ma opens her mouth to say something, but doesn’t. She looks away.
“Have a drink! On us!” He goes on. The other one laughs while the bald man leans back in his chair to stop a waiter, ordering something I know I can’t have.
“No.” Ma does not even add ‘thank you’ like she makes me. “I have to get her home.” She is quiet now.
“Oh, come on! Loosen up!” the second man says.
“And why not a little dessert for the kid,” the bald man adds. I hate being called that, unless it’s by Ma. “It’s the least we could do.”
“It’s…no, thank you.” She says it this time. She looks at me. I start to put on my coat.
Ma puts hers on, too. She shakes their hands and has me smile at all of them and say “good to meet you!”
We leave. She takes my hand, and the waiters nod their heads good-bye at us. I can feel the big-violin player smile after me as we do not look at the light behind us. The night is thick and lazy, and the music smirks at it.
Ma stops and just stands there. She does the inhale she does for her annoyed face, but it is not annoyed right now.
She takes a long time. “You up for the park?” she asks.
I smile up for her. She sighs and does the same for me.
Sometimes I know when Ma will not sleep well.





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