Tears n’ Tunes

My quick response to the Daily Prompt: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/prompt-singing-the-blues/

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but if I have the blues, I listen to the bluest music available. The quiet Miles Davis sessions. The most mournful Joni Mitchell love-lost ballads. I never thought that people listened to sad songs in order to be sadder – music offers a path out of sadness. Sure, I’ll cry and really get into the lyrics and try to apply them to the given sad, sad situation – but at some point, I begin to feel better. All of a sudden, I’d rather listen to “Layla,” because hey, at least it’s a bad-ass sad love song. Then maybe I crank it up, listen to some obscure Zepellin, or maybe some tiki lounge. Before I know it, I’m listening to “Happy” by Pharrell and thinking of real ways that I can pull myself out of the pit. 

 

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On The Iris – Arthur Tress Photographs

My latest Getty Iris post about our acquisition of Arthur Tress photographs of children: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/children-in-another-world-the-photographs-of-arthur-tress/

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Lessons Learned/The Apple Blossom Queen

A few words –

I had a difficult time writing this. I started and stopped many times, second-guessed, cried in frustration, and almost abandoned it about 3/4 of the way through. Thus far, I’d had an easy time finding a rhythm and developing a story. This was different. In the end, I was encouraged to publish it, even if it felt clumsy and “not my best work.” Because every story, every word put to paper, is a learning experience and helps you grow. Plenty of writers abandon ideas, but I refused to let this one go. I’m proud that I held on.

I’m moving onto a piece of non-fiction that I’ve been planning for a while now, and I think it will be refreshing after this experience. Anyway, here it is – take it or leave it!

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The Apple Blossom Queen

The map looked like it belonged in a B-grade horror film. A red felt marker had drawn the trek across California’s lower abdomen, from ocean to desert on the I-10 East. Then it veered off down a rural road that looped into itself. It was one of those places where you got disoriented in the rain, found a warm and inviting home, and walked into a nightmare. They were surely just hours away from being cut to pieces by some deranged, machete-wielding hick. Or, Meg could dismiss this gruesome outcome and enjoy the morning drive.

“Don’t be a creep,” said Charlie.

There were always jitters on the morning of a road trip, as toothbrushes were remembered, lights turned off, the garage door shut. The rumble of suitcases being wheeled down the driveway was akin to the sound of a plane taking off.

Road trips meant McDonald’s. Greasy Egg McMuffin wrappers and hash brown sleeves littered the center console of their sedan, and cold coffee and warm orange juice occupied the cupholders. Diffused morning sun was an affront to their puffy eyes, but neither bothered to put on sunglasses.

Charlie liked to use paper maps on these trips for their novelty. For each excursion they purchased a crisp map to their destination that was subsequently marked up, folded, unfolded, crumpled in frustration, read while on the toilet, dropped in mud, splattered with soda, smeared with something presumed to be ketchup, and stuffed in a road stop trash bin when they could no longer resist the seductive charms of GPS navigation.

She continued to frame the trip as a get-away prompted by nothing other than the words “let’s go.” They were the spontaneous type who threw cash to the wind in search of adventure. That may have been them five years ago. Now there was  a new purpose, more serious.  Between selecting music and  consulting the map with needless intensity, she struggled to get to the heart of exactly why they were traveling to Yucaipa, California.

***

“Wine.”

Nina had a way of saying a single word that conveyed her utmost confidence in it.

“Uh, right now?”

“Yep. Open the bottle and have a glass with me on the patio.”

Meg pulled a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and pondered the wine key. Charlie had always opened their wine  due to her reputation for breaking off half the cork. Here was a goofy lesson in self-sufficiency.

A month before the trip, Meg had spent a final night in Nina’s home. Always uncomfortable imposing, Meg pretended that she had worn out her welcome, though Nina insisted she stay longer. It had been almost two weeks of vagabond living since she’d left Charlie, and it was time for Little Sheba to come back.

“How do you feel about leaving?”

“I’m OK…I don’t really think I’m ready, but it’s unfair to him. I can’t keep him in limbo forever while I figure it out.”

“I just want to make sure you’re going to be OK. Because at the end of the day this is your life, and you can make any decision you need to make.”

They talked into the night, at times detouring from the issue at hand, taking windy roads towards career, children, travel. Nina was hardnosed, and could put it all in black and white when all Meg saw were stretches of grey. Long after Nina had gone to bed, Meg stayed on the balcony and stared at the full moon. She felt like it was the last time she would be truly alone. That she must be saying goodbye to some fleeting, spectacular future where there was eternal solitude despite the frenzied world around her. For a few precious weeks she’d been able to cup her hands to her mouth and drink in its sweetness.

Fuzzy from wine, Meg put on her coat,  zipped up her suitcase, and walked out the door without a sound.

She revisited that night often.

***

“Where’d you go babe? Where are you? Meg?”

She had a habit of disappearing down rabbit holes. He could always tell. It was different than before. Before, she’d been able to obscure her moods, or maybe he just hadn’t picked up on their cues. Now she wore it all on her face, like clown-white make-up that accentuated every wrinkled frown or lip quiver.

Day by day he was getting used her new, mercurial nature. They could be enjoying a movie or evening walk when she’d suddenly grow quiet and her eyes would become distant. The therapist said the best way to expedite the mood was to address it head-on, and Charlie often did.

“I’m sorry, I was out of it for a second.”

“Is everything OK?”

“Yeah. What are we, maybe half an hour away?”

“Check the map.”

Yucaipa was Apple Country, the same way Buellton was Split Pea Soup Country or Gilroy was Garlic Country. It’s “Apple Loop” was a collection of small farms with names like “Careaway Ranch” and “Olsen Brothers Orchards.” Every autumn, an army of parents would descend with their broods in tow and ransack the town. Apples were plucked and discarded due to signs of sickness, and farm pigs happily gobbled up this misfit fruit. Sticky toddlers chewed honey-covered apple slices while parents twisted cider presses so they could bring home gallons of rural elbow grease. The local café was overwhelmed by patrons seeking warmed apple pie with a slice of cheddar and a cup of coffee. It put an immense emotional strain on the town’s residents that went unnoticed. Charlie thought  Yucaipa would be the perfect place to forget.  He had chosen the coziest of all cozy B&B’s, arranged  gravy-drenched meals, and packed  the warmest wool shirts.

They turned off the I-10 and began climbing the loop that sat a few thousand feet above. Cars were parked along the road at all possible angles – SUVs snug between oak trees, minivans sitting squarely in the mud. Like a thousand Eves, families hiked up the road, bewitched by a tart bite of fruit.

With a few hours to kill before check-in, they managed to wedge their car in an open space (God bless the lowly sedan) and wandered the retail village. Deer gratefully took 25-cent handfuls of grain from Meg’s flat palm at the petting zoo, and she took an almost sexual pleasure in dipping sugar-coated cider donuts into strong tea. These were times when happiness was a mist that hung in the air and could be drawn in the lungs.

They found a gift store that sold yet more wool, and chose postcards to send distant friends. As she was paying at the register, a bright pink flyer caught Meg’s eye. It had a hand-stamped apple on top and the following offer:

Become Yucaipa’s Apple Blossom Queen!!

Open entry October 7th, winner crowned October 9th

Registration at Goode’s General Store

All ages welcome

Pie-eating, pig racing, interview

Ideas never entered quietly. They were intruders that beat Meg with a baseball bat until she cried “uncle.” Meg’s mother always reminded her that she had been bullheaded since childhood. She used to make Meg create lists of reasons why something wasn’t a good idea, but she’d rarely heed them. Even her decision to marry had been inevitable, organic, a flower that was always promised the soil and water it needed to bloom.

“I think I want to do this.”

“When you say you ‘think’ you want to do something, it usually means you definitely want to do it, but you think I’ll disapprove.”

They drove to Goode’s General Store, a brand-new structure made to look old. Inside, a woman with a 60-year-old face and the chestnut brown bob of a 30-year-old sat behind a folding table. Glasses hung on a jeweled chain around her neck, and she raised them to see the young couple approaching.

“Hi, are you here to sign up for the pageant?”

“Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Then go ahead and fill out this form for me, honey. Pie eating is tomorrow at 10a.m. I’ve got a packet of instructions for ya too.”

Meg turned to Charlie as she put pen to paper, flashed a sly smile, and wrote her name in clear print.

***

As committed as she had been to order and wholesome living her entire life, Meg had slept soundly on Nina’s  narrow vinyl sofa. She reveled in the wrinkled clothes hanging out of her suitcase. She found delight in the folding and unfolding of her travel toothbrush every morning. She had grown accustomed to a steady diet of toast and tea, with the occasional fast food foray.

Here was a piece of the heart of the matter: Charlie was a good man, and didn’t deserve this.

She had heard the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me” so many times on TV and in movies that she deemed it the ultimate placeholder. The excuse for bad behavior. Yet she found herself saying it, thinking it, every moment. How do you tell someone that one morning you woke up and wanted to buck the life you’re living? What had possessed her to stray? Why did people use the word  ‘stray’ anyway? It made her feel like a lost puppy.

Meg read up on the subject and was eager to self-diagnose. She generated a questionnaire:

  1.        Was Charlie a bad husband? No.
  2.        Were you unhappy? Yes and no
  3.        Were you happy? Yes and no
  4.        Were you bored? Yes and no
  5.        Do you believe in love? I believe in my definitions of love
  6.        Did you marry too young? Yes
  7.        How did you get here? I have no idea
  8.        What were you thinking? For the first time in my life, I wasn’t
  9.        Where are you going? I don’t know

She’d always believed that a truly depressed person was one who refused to leave bed in the morning, and chose instead to sip tepid coffee and stare at a laptop screen. Anxious yet rooted to the sheets. For her, depression was an undulating monster, a writhing creature inside her that napped and woke at odd intervals. A Grendel for the nerves.

***

She and the pie were in the midst of a staring contest, but she could have sworn she saw it blink. It’s Granny Smith filling glistened in the morning light, taunting her. The buttery crust radiated warmth even after overnight cooling. Having denied herself coffee and breakfast, she was ravenous and ready.

Ten pies each. Ten minutes. A successfully eaten pie had to be cleared of all filling and outer crust. One could not eat half a pie, then return to it later. One had to have someone who could provide glasses of water upon demand. One had to throw up in a designated bag. Meg now understood why this competition was not called a “beauty pageant.”

“OK, so I think the best strategy would be to eat the crust first, then the guts. That way you’re not struggling to find the broken bits of crust.” Charlie was making sense. Yes, that sounded right.

Meg surveyed her competition – ten local beauties with names ending in -lyn or -ber who had hair in various blonde gradations, pug noses, tanned legs up to ‘here,’  and eyes that showed the fear of consuming calories. One middle-aged mother of five whose husband had entered her so she could “feel like a queen.” She looked furious. Finally, a woman named Opal, who was 75 years young and whose family had owned an orchard in Yucaipa for 90 years, long before interlopers with dollar signs in their eyes had made the place a rural Disneyland. Meg liked her best, if only because she was the lone contestant to introduce herself in any meaningful way. Opal even smiled and wished her good luck before affixing a tiny pair of swim goggles to her eyes to avoid errant crumbs. She was a smart cookie.

“On your marks, get set, eat!!!”

Cinnamon-spiked ooze went up Meg’s nose, then slid down her throat as she avoided choking. This was easy as, well, pie. She’d had a similar experience – not long before she decided to make broken eggshells of her life, she’d taken home half of a large chocolate cake from a birthday party. Alone one afternoon, she lifted the plastic lid and dived face-first into the confection, grabbed fistfuls and shoved them in her mouth, and then sat on the kitchen floor and licked her fingers. This contest was child’s play in comparison. A piece of cake.

She bulldozed her way through pie after pie, on a form of autopilot that she assumed the morbidly obese called “dinnertime.”

“Stop!!!”

The judges – three of the eldest orchard owners, assessed the damage. She cursed under her breath when she saw an uneaten piece of crust on her fourth pie. Despite this, she was awarded second place, beaten only by one of the blondes. The thickness of her thighs made it obvious to all that she had committed herself to practice.

“Fuck yeah, babe! Come here!”

Charlie spun her around and kissed her.

“Cut it out! If I puke, I’ll get disqualified.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

***

“I just don’t know how many different ways I can say I’m sorry.”

“You’ve said it, but each time doesn’t make it any easier to forgive you.”

Most marriages, even strong ones, would have buckled under the weight of her betrayal. But after so many happy years together, Meg and Charlie chose instead to put on gloves, stack the bricks, and mix the mortar. They talked but did not raise their voices. They paced and cried and held each other. It was something Meg had wrought, but it was treated as an uninvited guest. A foreign cousin who ate with her mouth open and put her feet on the table.

“I shouldn’t love you as much as I do, but I can’t help it.”

“I’m trying, babe. I’m really trying hard.”

“Yeah well, I just think that if it’s something worth saving, you never need to try.”

These were moments when Meg would put her hand to her chest and search for a heartbeat. She always felt it, but it was never the velvet rhythm of blood pumping – it was gears grinding, metal upon metal. Old hardware picked from flea markets and assembled. It all felt rusty and inhuman. She could never cry in the moments that felt appropriate. Instead the shame froze her, and most nights she turned away from him and curled into a ball.

***

The piglets slept in a pile of soft snorts. Their cloven feet  kicked and twitched as each searched for the best spot to snooze the day away. Multi-colored ears tags were used to select a champion.  Number 10 looked lean and mean. Number 5 was a wild card – refusing to sleep with the others, and greeting each contestant with a wet nose.  Meg ended up with number 12, who she named Clara. She was a dainty runt who seemed speedy if given the proper motivation.

Charlie had suggested tempting Clara towards the finish line with a piece of bacon.

“Don’t be a creep,” said Meg.

Where the pie-eating contest that morning had depended on digestive will, this afternoon’s challenge was absurd in its arbitrariness. Yes, one could improve their chances by choosing a slim piglet, but really it was the mind of the beast that would determine the outcome. She rather liked that idea – an animal armed with little more than its instincts making the decisions for them.

Charlie stood in the crowd, his wool shirt plastered with sweat. She meant to warn him that October would be hot. Or maybe he was just nervous for her. Funny the things you learned to tolerate after years of cohabitating, like perpetual perspiration. Mild annoyance was written on his face – there were apples to pick and memories to make. She had again disrupted his plans.

She carried Clara as one would carry a baby with a dirty diaper, and the piglet squirmed to escape.

“Look at this tough little one, ready for a race.”

“Yeah, you better watch out, she’s out for blood!”

Meg smiled at Opal, who had whispered to each piglet before settling on number three. She reminded Meg of a psychic she’d seen when she was sixteen, on a trip to Berkeley for a college tour. Every word she said was kind and genuine and true, even though all she wanted were the contents of your wallet.

The contestants lined up with their swine. The crack of a starting gun startled most of the piglets, and they began to scatter. A few wandered among the crowd while sniffing the air. Meg watched, helpless as Clara wandered the grass track. After a few minutes of panic, the piglets gathered themselves and began seeking respite from the heat at the small white canopy that also served as the finish line.

In the end, Opal’s piglet had won. It wasn’t a clean victory by any means – it had bumped into another piglet on its way, and sent it on its back, legs trotting in the air. Meg had placed fifth. Her competitive nature was beginning to take over, and for the first time she truly wanted to win. It wasn’t about spending less time with Charlie and the uninvited cousin. It wasn’t about the guilt she was running away from. She wanted the blue ribbon, the trophy, the crown, the sash. She felt like getting on her knees and begging the judges for something, anything to call her own. Something that was good, and hard won. Something that wasn’t tainted by her own pity.

She waved at Charlie and he waved back, smiling.

***

“I want to have a baby.”

“You say that every time you drink.”

“But I mean it this time! How cute would a little you or me be?”

“You always say that newborn babies look disgusting, and that kittens and puppies are the way to go.”

“Piglets are cute too.”

***

Meg looked the dress up and down, skeptical.

“Two words. Blue gingham.”

“I’ll look like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.”

“No, you’ll look like you’re trying .”

They had a break from competition that afternoon, as preparations were being made for the interview, crowning, and the Apple Blossom Ball that immediately followed.  Meg had packed sweaters of varying thickness, but had neglected to pack the wardrobe of a country queen. Melinda’s Thrift was her best bet in a pinch, and Melinda herself kept a vigilant eye as Meg and Charlie danced through the aisles, trying on floppy hats and bola ties.

They hadn’t fought or talked about anything serious in two days. The talking was what got to her. Just as time was forming a thin scab over the wound, the talk would slice it open again. She was tired of explaining why she couldn’t explain herself. She knew this joy would last only another day or so before they’d drive back, hung over and facing reality at 75 miles per hour.

She eventually settled on a rose pink cotton dress that cinched at the waist. She felt like a 1950s sophomore about to go steady. They crossed the town to an outdoor pavilion next to Goode’s. A crowd had begun to gather – locals mostly, since it was Sunday afternoon and most tourists had driven into the sunset with their squalling, over-tired children. At dusk, the crowd settled in and Meg joined the other contestants, each sitting straight as arrows and tense as bowstrings.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 59th annual Apple Blossom Queen closing ceremony!” said the brown-bobbed woman who had handed Meg her contestant application.

“This year has been one of the tightest races we’ve ever seen, so tonight is especially important. Each contestant will answer one question in 60 seconds or less. The scores will be compiled and the interview will count double. Then the contestant with the highest score will be our queen. Ok, let’s bring contestant #1 to the stage, Bridget Combs. Bridget, your question is – which apple variety grown here on the Loop is the best for making cider?”

Meg sighed with relief. All softball questions about apples. Of course! How could she have thought it would be anything more?

“I would have to say Golden Delicious.”

“Braeburns are best picked in October, at least that’s what my dad says.”

“I’m not sure I understand the question, can you please repeat it?”

“Yucaipa is the name of the Native American tribe who lived here many, many years ago.”

“Definitely Fuji.”

 

At last.

“Contestant #10, Meg Little, your question is ‘What is your favorite apple recipe and why?’”

Meg froze. She couldn’t bake frozen cookie dough, much less core and peel apples. Then, a single memory appeared as a flash, and she had her answer.

“My favorite apple dish is old-fashioned apple pie, and I’ll tell you why. When my husband and I were in college, we chose to live together when we were very young, and didn’t have much money. Every week we would go to the dollar store to buy our food and other groceries. I came home one night after having a really bad day, and I smelled something in the kitchen. He knew about my day, and had bought flour, butter, sugar, and apple pie filling from the dollar store. We didn’t have a pie pan so he used a brownie pan to bake something that we still call ‘the five dollar apple pie.’ He even taught himself how to make a lattice crust. It wasn’t the most delicious pie, but it sure is the most special to me”

***

A Zydeco band played on a stage made of wood pallets, a cart of apples as their backdrop. Guests piled plates high with mustard potato salad, barbeque and beans. The local Lions Club sold beer and soda from red coolers on wheels. Children ran circles around an impromptu dirt dance floor, laughing with cornbread in their teeth. And in the middle of it all was the Apple Blossom Queen, radiant and wearing a shimmering sash and tiara. Opal waved with her left hand and held in her right a silver scepter with a shiny red apple on top.

Meg had seen this movie before – the old lady always won, and everyone else was always very happy for her and learned valuable lessons about themselves. Her screenwriter friend called this a ‘trope.’ Opal had been asked about the future of Yucaipa, and had delivered an answer with just the right measurements of eloquence and humor. It was a win well-earned.

“Wanna dance?”

Charlie held out his hand. He knew and she knew. This wouldn’t be their last dance or even their last happy night, but the future would always be uncertain.  Regardless, there were memories – of dollar store pie and of pageants. Of a thousand other struggles and triumphs. Maybe love wasn’t a single thing but the sum of experiences. Memories were love made eternal.

The crowd swirled around her, and Charlie dipped her low. A classmate had once told her that spinning in circles made you feel the earth’s rotation. She broke from Charlie’s embrace and spun herself again and again, inviting looks of concern. As she stumbled  dizzy across the dance floor, the dirt under her feet had a pulse. She was kin to the roots, branches, leaves of every apple tree. She took an apple from a basket and bit into it, letting the juice drip down her chin. It was mealy and brown, but that didn’t matter. It was her apple to bite.

 

Diorama-rama!

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I’m a regular contributor to the The Getty’s blog, The Iris. Thought I’d start sharing these posts here as well. This one discusses museum dioramas: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/diorama-rama-history-behind-glass/

Ready, Set…

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GO! I submitted “Quantum Mechanic” for Colorado Review‘s Nelligan Prize: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/nelligan-prize/. I’ll be crossing my fingers until July!

Charmer Snake

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The revival tent hung damp and dew-dropped in the moonlight. A single string of naked bulbs hung across its length and were powered by a generator whose steady hum was overwhelmed by the sound of 63 singing souls. Paper fans were useless on an evening like this – too cold and humid  for them to do anything but activate lingering coughs. The summer heat brought with it easy insanity – an expected increase in debauchery. But January entered with stealth and robbed the holidays blind, leaving nothing but another year devoid of hope, save for the nights of revival.

Carl and Jed stood behind the tent near the generator, their figures casting long, thin shadows that made ghostly gestures as they tuned their instruments. Beads of nervous sweat gathered on Carl’s forehead as he held his ear close to his guitar, willing from it the eerie sharps and flats that made the backwoods seem all the more sinister. He continued to second-guess the gig, as if he still had the luxury to weigh the pros and cons. Really it was Jed who’d made the decision for them, never passing up the chance to add to the Greely Brothers’ coffer  and  sample the local hooch and hussy.

“…and I have had brothers and sisters tell me that the Lord does not listen, that the Lord does not understand the depth of their souls and the nature of their plight! But do you know what I tell them?! I tell them that the Lord is everywhere, he is in all of us, he knows our pain, he knows our joy…”

“Shit, I gotta piss,” said Jed, and he leaned his upright bass against a tent pole. He wandered a few yards and sighed as a steady stream hissed and wound its way into a creekbed.

Carl had the womanly habit of compiling signs of age, and he studied Jed’s profile in the evening light. He was 31 and Jed 35, and unyielding sunshine from years on the circuit had sculpted deep crow’s feet that only Jed wore well. Since he was a child, Carl had known that his baby face, bright blue eyes and deep farmer’s tan were no match for personality – and Jed was all personality. Six foot two, lanky and pock-marked with a bald patch. Not a handsome man by any means, but every woman he locked eyes with was bewitched by his charm. Once every few months, a mobile library would visit their hometown and brought with it tales of Indians  with rag turbans, whose sensual flutes could coax black-lipped cobras from wicker baskets. Carl saw Jed that way – someone who could produce undeniable appeal.  

He heard a loud and joyous “Amen,” followed by  “What a Friend We Have in Jesus .” The back canvas flap snapped open and Reverend Nash appeared, his pressed white suit soaked under the arms.

“Boys, get on over here!”

Jed zipped and loped to the tent, smirking.

“Ready, my brother?” He slapped Carl on the back.

“Yup.”

“Yeh just never know who’s listenin’, right? Keep the faith.”

Jed had convinced Carl to spend some of the advance they received for the gig on accessories to accompany their dull tweed suits. He sweet-talked the girl in the shop into giving them a discount on two strawboaters and bright red bowties. Carl caught a whiff of Jed as he shook out his pant legs, and wished they’d spent the money on getting the suits cleaned instead. He thought they looked like two dandies playing the boardwalk on Patriot’s day, but Jed insisted that the look was trustworthy and crowd-pleasing.

“…these boys have come all the way from Pratt, Kansas to deliver the Lord’s word to y’all, and let me tell you, I rarely see boys more intent on worshipping the Lord and spreading his good wishes. I hope you will help me in welcoming…the Greely Brothers!”

The crowd produced scattered claps, unsure of the two strangers who intruded upon their collective intimacy. What looked to be the oldest woman in the crowd scowled at them, though Carl knew from experience that a scowl like that was earned, permanent, and not a snub. Jed’s baritone filled the tent.

“Evenin’ folks.”

“Evenin’.”

“I would ask if y’all are keepin’ warm on a night like this, but I can tell that y’all are already keepin’ each other cozy with that sweet cider that Ms. Sally Brown prepared special for this occasion. Praise Sally for her kindness tonight.”

Various displays of appreciation reached Sally Brown’s ears and she smiled and nodded.

“Now I know we don’t look like the usual bunch of guys who speak to ya’ll during this time of renewal.             But let me tell you one thing that does unite us. Folks, do you love Jesus Christ? I’m glad to hear you do, because tonight that’s all me and by brother Carl are here to say…”

Jed began to weave their tale for the audience. His voice unfurled like a silk ribbon, imbued with just the right amount of folksy wit and religious fervor to entrance them. Now he’d tie them in that ribbon, stun them with the Lord’s word, and consume them whole.

“We’d like to begin tonight with a song you may have heard as a lil’ baby when your momma sang it. Please sing along if you ain’t shy.”

 The older crowd jumped awake at the sound of “Jesus Loves Me,” bright-eyed and not entirely sure of their present location. Toddlers bounced to the rhythm their mothers’ knees made as they tapped along.

Each time they played this song Carl did think about their mother, alive and widowed in Pratt. She was long-suffering , but rather than it making her soft as butter, it had made her steely. Jed had always been favored because his jokes and teasing lifted her out of the dark void of her own making. As sweet and earnest as Carl could be, it was never enough to keep her from sleeping through the day or staring for hours at the unlit stovetop with an unpeeled bowl of potatoes in her lap.

They resembled two white taper candles, their erratic heads bobbing like two flames. It didn’t take long for the crowd to embrace them – they had, after all, used the same words. Spoke the same language. Felt the same all-knowing power in the room – a visit from above made special for them. Carl had the idea that the amount of hubris in a town was disproportionate to its size, and he’d seen his theory proven many times over. He wondered how many acts of violence would be committed once parishioners were let loose on an unclean world. He’d seen drunks who attended a revival, been saved from addiction for a brief moment in that white womb, then opened a flask before the final organ notes were played.

While Jed  introduced the next song, Carl looked at him and then the audience to see where his brother’s eye was landing. It didn’t take long to spy a young woman, maybe 17. Her blonde hair was in frizzy finger waves, and needed a trim. She wore a strange grey felt skirt that fell in thick strips around her hips, a tight-fitting floral jacket, and cordovan lace-ups. She looked hungry first, then desperate – it got dangerous when the two were switched. Ashen face, fine cheekbones, lips that had only hours ago been drawn with ruby rouge, then concealed with powder to preserve decorum. Yes, she would the one tonight. There was no doubt. Carl wished he were Catholic when these thoughts came to visit, so he could bless himself and pretend he didn’t hear.

The brothers were used up by evening’s end, red-faced, their fingers aching from the rapid pluck and strum. The audience was like a newborn baby – in need of constant vigilance and using any excuse to cry. Each song needed to inspire, each speech had to hold hearts in its fist. They had worked everyone up into a frothy mass, and expelled them into the cold night air.

“Well boys, I will admit that I was skeptical when Josie told me about y’all and your work…”

Reverend Nash pulled a moist wad of bills from his pocket and fanned out two twenties.

“…what you say we go down and grab some dinner at The Hollyhock?”

***

He knew the girl would show. He’d seen her shake Jed’s hand, and he’d whispered something in her ear. Jed could smell them – starved for attention, promiscuous because there was no good woman to teach them otherwise. Carl himself preferred the company of the ones who could talk, who could string together a series of words to form something that, if not profound, at least made him question himself. Trouble was that women like that needed cultivation, not a fly by night brother act.

The evening had been predictable, with the good Reverend giving an embellished view of his faith. The monologues were full of footnotes and asides. Mostly they addressed the poor and dark, and how the misery was justified, and how so few would be saved. Carl had unearthed this pattern  – the camaraderie ceased outside the tent flap. After steak and peas and ceaseless talk, thank-yous were exchanged and the Reverend turned in for the night.

Jed sat on a piano bench, the blonde rocking back and forth between his knees. He’d introduced her as Thora. While they had abstained in the presence of the Reverend, Jed now had his face in bourbon, while Carl swirled his own glass. He was lonely when Jed tracked and captured a lady for the evening.  As much as Jed was a constant source of frustration and envy, he felt something like love when they practiced in lamplight at roadside motels. They still flipped a coin for who got the bed and bedroll for the night, and still wrestled for the last bite of chicken pot pie or sip of whiskey.

“Excuse me, Mr. Greely?”

At first, Carl thought someone was speaking to his long-dead his father. He turned around to see a man who so resembled a villain that he had to believe he was the contrary. Nature would be too cruel to give a man oiled black hair, pointed mustache and gold-toothed grin,  and all the while point his destiny toward nefarious.

“Yes, sir?”

“Let me buy you another drink. If you don’t mind, there’s some business I would like to discuss. Is your brother available as well?”

Carl turned to the piano and saw an empty glass without its owner. He would have to do this business alone. Seeing that Jed was indisposed had increased his confidence, and he swapped the polite country boy-minstrel act for a more serious performance.

He was Saul Morris, and he had a proposition.

“Have you ever heard of Chautauqua?”

Carl’s eyes widened. Of course he knew. Back in ’16, his family had traveled 20 miles to see the Chautauqua speakers, musicians, and various pieces of rural inspiration. The act was polished and perfect. He’d heard rumors that performers were paid well, but that mattered little. He saw in his future  a newer, bigger tent, gleaming white and wafting in the breeze. He saw a clean suit, a smooth face and a new guitar. He saw Jed smiling, healthy, plump.

“Think of me as a…finder. I scour places like this one for boys like you. I’ve been following you through a few towns now. I like your act – it’s sharp and it’s American and I like the energy you bring to the room.”

“Thank you sir. We’ve been on the circuit goin’ on eight years now – gotta good act.”

“Well, I hope that you are comfortable playing for a mixed audience. Does your catalogue include songs from the common songbook?”

“Yes sir, and original compositions too. And no, no problem with the audience. We play for anyone willin’ to listen.”

 “We’re leaving for Eureka tomorrow on the 9:15 train. I’ll give you cash for your ticket and once we arrive you’ll begin training. After a few weeks, you should be ready for the circuit. There’s a group moving through Fortuna shortly, so you will likely play with them.”

A warmth spread from Carl’s heart to every extremity as they shook hands and tipped hats. He hoped that Saul hadn’t felt him trembling. Jed said it every night, “you never know who’s listenin’.” It had become a mantra repeated daily. Over the years, it had also become a dream in stasis. He wouldn’t be able to tell Jed until early morning. It felt good – a secret for his ears only, even if it was just for a few waking hours.

The motel where they were spending the night was a quarter mile from The Hollyhock, and he thought the walk home would clear the bourbon from his brain. He unknotted the red bow tie and threw it at the darkness.

He had trouble locating his keys as he approached their motel room, but managed to turn the lock. As he opened the door he saw the shadow behind him.

Carl had never felt a fist in his face, but had guessed it was like in the movies he’d seen, where heroes throw rapid punches, fall, bounce back, repeat.  It was more force and pressure than pain, but he still hit the ground hard. His ears rang and his mouth hung open, stunned and slack. The kicks began immediately, from thigh to groin to abdomen until he could no longer gather air. He felt someone rustle his pockets, without sound. Pull his billfold, without sound. Kick, silence. A breeze slid through the pines, then disappeared.

Lying on the motel room carpet,  he saw a carousel of visions. The night’s tent crowd was mouthing psalms, and as they did their mouths grew wider, wider until they jaws dislocated. They had no eyes, and  their faces glowed the color of a fresh bruise.  Bits of the evening  came and went, except each person was an object of terror, every moment was his last. He licked the blood from his lips, swallowed hard, then slept.

“CARL?! AW SHIT, CARL!? WAKE UP BROTHER, WAKE UP, WAKE UP! GET THE FUCK UP, GOD DAMMIT!”

Carl groaned and lifted his head. Blood glued his face to the floor and ripped open his lip as he sat up.

“What is ever-loving Christ happened to you? You got your money on you? Aw shit, you didn’t do nothin’. You got your money? I knew you wouldn’t do nothin’ to piss someone off.”

Jed couldn’t wash his own underclothes, much less mend a broken wing. But he tended, wiping Carl’s face with a warm cloth, fetching a bottle of aspirin from the market, icing his tender jaw. He guessed that someone at The Hollyhock had seen them at dinner with the Reverend and assumed they had their pockets full. Jed was awful sorry, as he was every morning in which he had to face what he had wrought.

It took Carl a full hour to remember Saul, the handshake, the early train. His gut flipped and his breathing grew short.  He wouldn’t tell Jed. Ever. The guilt would drive him places a man has no business going unless he aimed to end his own life. Or was he speaking for himself? It didn’t matter.

Jed picked dry mud from under his shoe and squinted at the late morning sun.

“You know I say it every day, right? That you never know who’s listenin’? Well today I woke up and said ‘y’know what? I don’t matter who’s listenin’.’ We got our songs and our pride. We don’t need no one but us.”

“I know, brother. But ain’t it best to keep the faith?”

Back on the Chain Gang

My quickie response to this daily prompt: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/prompt-chain-gang/

Dishes. I hand-wash every coffee-stained mug, cheese-crusted plate and greasy spatula. I loathe it because I know that a convenient solution is painfully just out of my grasp. We invented something to take the sting out of suds! Where are my anthropomorphic bubbles? Where’s the sauna for my saucers? I live in an area of Los Angeles where the 1920s bungalows are ill-equipped for modern convenience, so scrub I must. Yes, I realize that most of the world goes without this machine, but it’s like denying a child a candy bar while reminding them that there’s a box of them behind a locked door. However, I have a fantasy I activate on a night of especially gruesome platters. I imagine myself as a prairie woman with a tight, slick bun and muslin apron, wearing no make-up with a strong upper body. I am a no-nonsense mother of five (six if you count poor, departed Sarah), who tackles each tin cup with a fervor that is only matched by her love of the Lord. Before I know it, the sink is clear and I can get to washin’ undershirts and preparing drop biscuits for pa.