Scooting up a little in his chair, Wallen adjusted the gooseneck lamp so it shone directly on the center of his desk then laid one Popsicle stick on top of another one and placed the sticks across two narrow strips of craft paper. Then he folded over each strip and secured them with Scotch tape. Pausing a moment, he took another draw on his cigarette then set it back in the ashtray and carefully slipped out the bottom stick. Next, he stretched a rubber band around the length of the top stick then placed the bottom stick under it and fastened them together with two smaller rubber bands.
Smiling, he lifted the homemade harmonica to his mouth and gently blew, performing a very ragged rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Wallen leaned to his left as the bus lumbered around a corner, pressing his shoulder against the window which was spattered with raindrops. The newspaper on his lap fell to the floor but he didn't bother to pick it up because he wasn't really interested in reading it. Instead, he preferred to watch the different people who came aboard which was why he was seated at the back of the articulated bus. It allowed him a clear view of both doors.
After a couple of stops, a young girl boarded the bus with her mother and sat in the row directly across from him, her toes barely touching the floor. He stared at her out of the corner of his eye, amazed at the size of her eyes which seemed as large as walnuts. Bright blue walnuts, he thought to himself, grinning.
After the next step, he took out one of the Popsicle harmonicas he made last night and began to play the row boat ditty and, at once, the girl looked over at him as he knew she would. He played a few more bars then handed the harmonica to her. Shyly, she shook her head but he insisted she take it, and she did and placed it in her mouth and blew but nothing happened.
"Press down with your lips, dear," he told her.
Squinting, she did as he suggested, and still not a sound.
"Don't forget to blow while you're pressing."
Again, she tried, and after a moment produced a faint little toot that brightened her entire face.
"Good job," he congratulated her.
Grinning excitedly, she handed the harmonica back to him but he refused to take it.
"It's yours, dear."
"Oh, sir, you don't have to do that," her mother said, patting the girl's left knee.
"It's my pleasure."
"What do you say to the nice man, Ellen?"
He nodded. "I hope you enjoy playing it."
Shortly after the girl and her mother got off the bus, he offered a harmonica to a young boy who seemed even more pleased than the girl. He made five Popsicle harmonicas last night and intended to ride the bus until he gave out all of them. Once a week, for the past six weeks, he boarded one of the crosstown buses and handed out the noisemakers. He was so shy talking to people he didn't know he only thought he would do it once but was so gratified by the reception he received that he decided to pass more out.
Not surprisingly, he only had to play a couple of notes when a ginger-haired girl seated in front of him turned around and looked at the crude harmonica and smiled, and he smiled back and handed it to her.
"Here, give it a toot."
Before she could try, though, her mother told her to give it back to him.
"That's all right," he told the stern-looking woman. "She can have it."
Turning just her head, she glared at him for a moment. "I know who you are, mister."
She nodded tersely. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd not bother us or else I'll have to report you to the driver."
Wallen didn't offer the harmonica to anyone else and got off at the next stop and started home even though it was a good two mile hike. Since he got out of prison nearly four months ago, he had been recognized before but never when he was passing out a harmonica. The children he gave them to were too young to follow the news so he wasn't worried about them recognizing him. They were often with adults, though, so he should have expected that one day someone would recall reading about him in the newspaper. The fatal accident he was involved in was mentioned in news reports for several days, and when he was arrested his mug shot was printed on the front page of the daily paper.
Even now, after all this time, he found it hard to believe what occurred. Early one evening, on his way home from work, he noticed a thick pile of leaves in the street and, for whatever reason, drove over it. Almost at once he struck something that felt like a plank of wood and nearly lost control of the steering wheel. Not having any idea what was buried under the leaves, he continued on, worried he might have damaged his axle. The next morning, on the radio, he learned that a five-year-old girl, hiding from her older brother in the pile of leaves, was crushed to death by a hit and run driver. He was incredulous, mortified. And though he knew he should turn himself in to the police, he didn't want to go to jail so he kept quiet, hoping what he heard on the radio was all a terrible dream, but someone in the neighborhood identified his car. And by the end of the week two detectives appeared at his door with an arrest warrant.
Caleb McCoy, a burglar Wallen met soon after he entered the state penitentiary, was the person who showed him how to make a harmonica out of Popsicles sticks. It was a trick his father had taught him when he was a youngster. And the sounds he was able to produce out of the crude little instrument were remarkable, as polished and precise as those of a professional musician.
"It's amazing what you can get out of one of these damn noisemakers, if you're willing to put in the practice," Caleb told him one day out in the yard. "Not only can you put smiles on folks' faces but sometimes even in their hearts."
Wallen did indeed practice day after day in his cell and in time managed to develop a fairly extensive list of songs he could play on a harmonica. He never became as proficient as Caleb but he didn't mind because what really mattered to him was to produce those smiles that the inmate talked about so that others would realize he wasn't that terrible person who drove over that little girl buried in the leaves.
Rounding a corner, as he headed home, he noticed a youngster stretched out on the lawn of a house in the middle of the block. He smiled. He had one harmonica left in his pocket and, at once, took it out and started to play it as he walked toward the child.