This story is from Banjo Lessons, my first (unpublished) novel. I wrote it in 1986, when I was 24 years old, and the countryside, farmscapes, and historic small towns of Maryland were succumbing to suburban and ex-urban sprawl spreading out in all directions from Baltimore and Washington DC. I was moved to re-visit this story by the recent floods that devastated the historic district of Ellicott City, Maryland, as a result of the unchecked development of nearly every square foot of farm and pasture land surrounding the town.
The Ghosts of Ellicott City
I don’t believe in ghosts, but Maggie does.
Back where she came up, every other house has been burned down or boarded up, and she’s got a story for everyone. A fire starts for no reason. The well goes bad. On the rocks in a creek out back, splashes of what look like blackened bloodstains that never wash off. A new church collapses the first time the people pile in. An old cellar gives all at once, caving in with the rain and burying three people alive.
For Maggie, there’s always some nightmare behind the story, a blurred charcoal sketch of misery and death under the paintjob of what happened. Some old lady hung herself in the attic. A kid fell down the well and drowned. An old man shot his wife, dragging her over the rocks and burying her in the creek bank. They built the church on Indian burial grounds. Under the stairs in the cellar, a runaway slave woman had to suffocate her kid quiet while the bounty hunters worked over the people upstairs.
I try and tell Maggie there’s an explanation for everything: squirrels chewing through wires, too much rain, bad engineering, a sink hole; but she won’t hear any of it. And now that we’re moving into this new place, I suppose one of us will find out soon enough.
After last Friday night’s gig at the Whistlestop we were sitting around the back bar drinking and shooting the shit and waiting for Old Cora to count up the door and cut us our share – Maggie, Hank, Butch, Linda and Jason’s girlfriend, and some woman Butch brought along – when Maggie blurts it out: we’re looking to move, soon as possible.
“Some place with more room,” she said. “And lower rent, and closer to the city, but quiet.”
“Ha!” Butch burst into laughter, spraying the freshly wiped‑down bar with a mouthful of beer. “Good luck with that.”
It sounded pretty funny to me too, but then Hank said there’s this place just opened up across the way from him, in one of the old stone houses strung up through the wooded hills above old Ellicott City.
The rent’s cheap because the house is old and small and a little rundown. But the neighborhood’s quiet because it’s stashed halfway up a rugged river valley, on a narrow, crooked road where the real estate money guys don’t go because the bulldozers can’t follow. The road twists and turns up through the trees, past the old mill, past the battered white church and old schoolhouse and weathered stone huts with the gray outhouses in the back. Everything hangs right on the edge: in two places the road swings out along the ridge; and just back of the houses on the riverside, the woods drop straight down to the crashing rapids of the Patapsco River. Echoing up from the bottom of the valley, the coal train rumbles past, every two hours, a long slow rolling explosion burrowed out of the hillside at the other end.
“She’s going on two hundred years old,” the landlord tells us as he unlocks the door, “A solid old house, in a solid old company town. Lots of history. This place,” he says,” was home to generations of workers. They worked at the textile mill just down the road, before they put in running water.”
The rooms are all narrow and tiny, like little miniature people used to live here. A strange, pale blue light spills in all the little windows.
Maggie and I walk up the steep, narrow stairs to the top floor, check out the bedroom and the little room in the front that is more sloped ceiling than walls. I bend down to look out the window onto the empty street, the old stone houses across the way.
“A cozy place for you to practice,” she says.
We go down to the bottom floor, past the bare stone walls of the stairwell, and check out the kitchen, then back up to the little room on the top floor.
“Yes,” Maggie says, “this is it, the perfect place for us.” Then she leans toward me and whispers, “even though it’s full of ghosts.”
* * *
Hank helps us move in.
We can’t get Maggie’s old bed up the stairs. I’m bent over nearly double trying to make my end clear the top of the stairwell so Hank can swing his end up and over the break in the wall for the railing. But it’s that damn sit‑down job of his. Or maybe all the beer he drank during the first run over here. We leave the bed in the dining room.
Hank stays and drinks more beer and picks his guitar while Maggie and I unpack.
I take a break, pull out my banjo, the open‑back one because its closest to hand, and plunk out a couple old‑timey tunes with him.
He drains another beer, stops in the middle of the next song, and starts talking about dropping out again.
“I’ll tell you, Caleb – it’s getting crazy at work anymore,” he says. “They all think I’m going nuts. Maybe I am.”
This happens every six months. He starts getting itchy and nervous, starts in again about pulling up stakes and cutting out. He fishes another beer out of the paper bag at his feet and talks on, mostly to himself.
“Maybe I should just blow it off,” he says. He means his computer programming job, which he is always talking about blowing off. “I’d sure like to be able to grow it long again.” He means his hair, which is already pretty long for someone who has an office job. “Maybe I should just say fuck it and move back over the Eastern Shore and work on the water again.”
“But what about the band?”
He looks up at me. “Huh?”
“If you move all the way over there, the band’s history.”
“Yeah,” he mumbles, “the band.”
“Come on, ease up,” I say. “We’ve got some good gigs coming up this spring. The Rock Mountain Festival in Virginia, the band competition up in Gettysburg, the folk thing in Philly –“
“Sure,” he sighs, taking a long swallow of beer. “We’ve got some good gigs coming up.”
“Hey, don’t knock it. That’s what gets me through all those ass‑busting shifts out in the cold.”
“Yeah, well, what the hell.” He puts his guitar down and drains his beer. “I don’t know. I’m just sick of it the office crap, the jackasses, staring at a green screen all day,” he sighs.
I go back to unpacking. Next is the stereo, and the records, and the two hundred cassette tapes of live recordings and demos and outtakes I’ve collected over the years. I like arranging and re‑arranging them in the split pine rack I built when the shoeboxes I carried them in for years finally wore out. Every time I move into a new place, I get to arrange them all over again. Hank says he gets tired of the live tapes because he hears only the mistakes, but I like playing them anyway, especially when I’m bummed out.
I put one on and turn it up loud, with a little extra on the low end. The ring of my banjo and thump of Butch’s bass and roar of the crowd fills up the little old room, and it’s a connection, it’s alive, it’s contact. It may have mistakes, but it’s working, and feels like something is happening, right now, right here in our new place; we’re into it, the people are into it, and it matters. And it’s always like that, no matter how many times I play it.
“Hey, man,” I say to Hank, “we should do a live set‑up at the Whistlestop some night, and produce it.”
“You mean and release it? A live cassette?”
“Yeah. We’ve got half the money saved up from the Tumblehome cassettes, right?”
He opens another beer. “Doing something live is hard, man. We gotta set it up ourselves and hire a real sound man. And we have to get some good mikes and rent some serious equipment.”
“So we’ll rent some serious equipment.”
“Yeah, sure,” he shrugs. “I don’t see why we couldn’t.”
I don’t know why Hank is always so damn played out all the time. He’s got a good job, it pays him good money, at least for as easy as it is. Either way, it beats the hell out of the grunt work, especially come summer or winter. And he’s got the gift on that guitar, and he doesn’t even seem to care. The perfect ear, and all those wires running back and forth between it and his fingers.
I go upstairs for another box of tapes. Hank has it for sure, and a lot of people with the time and energy and hunger to play but none of the ear and timing would trade their soul for it. He can listen to Jason and me play a tune we spent two hours working out on mandolin and banjo – and he just jumps right in, and there it is. Perfect back‑up rhythm, crisp little fills around the chord turns, and a sizzling lead break, popping with cliffhangers, blue notes, pauses, rushes.
I asked him about it once.
“Well, whatever it is,” he said, “it saved my ass back in ’70.”
That’s all he ever says when I ask him about it. One night he told me how his music got him not just through the Army but the whole war. He knew the trumpet and all that marching band stuff from high school, and he said he managed to finagle his way into the Army Band. Which was a big deal, he said, since he started out as a rifle grunt and was set to eat some serious shit over in the jungle.
I remember the bar where we were sitting when he first told me all that. It was right after we started jamming on Sundays at the bluegrass store in Westminster. He was in computer night school and working graveyard at some packing plant.
“Seriously, long hair?” I asked, “What the hell were you doing in the Army back in those days?”
He said he was just a screwed‑up kid trying to live up to something he thought his old man, a tough old farmer gone for Jesus and big in the local VFW, wanted him to be. Which the old man actually didn’t want, as it turns out.
“’Cause it was a funny war,” he said. “Besides, that was before the anti‑war thing got out to the sticks.” He said that everyone he hung out with was either ducking out on the farmer exemption or were itching so bad to get off the Eastern Shore and away from all the hard work and no money down that end of the Chesapeake, even Southeast Asia wasn’t far enough away.
“And how about this shit,” he said. “The band’s coming back from playing concerts in South America, and we’re all dressed up, right? And I’m walking into the airport terminal in L.A. with my trumpet case, when this snotty little high school kid in a tie‑dye shirt runs up and spits on me and calls me a baby‑killer!”
“What’s so funny?”
I look up from the boxes and see Hank standing in the doorway. The beer is starting to show. His eyes are glassed over and his mouth is fixed, hard and wiry, like a little mousetrap waiting to pop.
“I was just remembering something you told me.”
“That story about the kid spitting on you in the airport.”
He grimaces and mutters something to himself, turns and I follow him back downstairs.
Maggie is unpacking a box. She looks pissed about something. I notice a half‑empty pint of rum on a box next to the ashtray. Hank must be even drunker than he looks.
We sit around listening to a tape and he starts mumbling to himself in that weirdo accent he picked up when he was playing for tips in the bars in Amsterdam and Germany.
Fifteen minutes later he stumbles across the empty road to his house.
Maggie works on the kitchen stuff, and I play the banjo a bit, but I’m too restless and go into the kitchen.
“What do you think’s wrong with Hank?” I ask her.
“He’s lonely,” she says, like she’d just been thinking about it.
She stops unpacking and looks at me a moment. “Don’t you think that’s enough?”
I go back to trying to play some, but I’m still restless.
I pull on my old work coat and go out for a quick walk down the road.
Out in the empty little road, the night air is cold and hard and damp from the breath of the river. Just beyond the valley’s strange pocket of silence, the city hums along: a low, dull grinding of too much traffic, just ten miles away, mixed up in one long, ceaseless moan. It’s muffled by the trees and hills walling us off in this new place, but it’s still there.
I walk down the steep, winding road, past a crumbling stone house, around a bend, past the old school. I try to imagine this old ribbon of tarmac stripped down to mud and rock and more mud; in its place, I try to see two, jagged, washed‑out wheel ruts. I try to smell the horses, the tangy sting of hot dung, and furious steam from nostrils, and long white strands of froth hanging from the baggy pink leather of their mouths, crunching iron bits. They yank and strain and grunt their way up this hill. I listen for the crack of leather, and the rattle and creak of iron and worn wood and clattering wheels. And as the road wraps around the old textile mill just up the bend, I try to see myself in my own work clothes, trudging past them, on my way to that mill, back and forth, six days a week, from now until the day I’m such a broken down wreck I’m no good to anyone, including myself.
I stand in the empty road, in the pale yellow glow of a streetlamp, looking up at the mill. Six tall stories looming straight up from the hillside, all smoke‑blackened brick and rust‑red wire and broken glass. It’s closed down now, except on the ground floor: an antique refinishing business, a fender‑bender shop, a graphics company.
There is a metallic‑green wash in the window of the graphics place. I think it’s a computer, but I’m not sure.
* * *
Our first night in the place, we sleep on our mattress in the middle of a room full of unpacked boxes.
I wake up early and Maggie is already up. She says there are ghosts here, she’s sure of it now. “I heard them moving around,” she says.
“You did, huh?”
“And I heard an old woman humming.”
I try not to laugh. “Yeah?”
“It’s not funny,” she says. “I really did. I heard her humming a song.”
“Yeah? What kind of song?”
“One of those old string‑band ballads, like the ones at that heritage festival in West Virginia.”
“Yeah, well,” I chuckle, “if there are ghosts here, at least they got good taste in music.”
“It’s not a joke, Caleb. I heard them going all night.”
I think what she heard was herself, sleeping in a strange place. Or maybe what she heard was the melody of a new dream, mixed up with the old familiar, rhythm of her own breathing.
* * *
I love playing my banjo in this small, empty room, on the top floor. Two stacked milk crates for a seat, my music stand, a pile of sheet music and tablature and paper and a few songbooks, some pencils, a mug of coffee, an ashtray, and nothing else. There’s a little six‑pane window at my feet, the ceiling sloping down a few feet over my head, the room all washed out with that pale blue light.
Maggie’s at work all day, and today is all mine, except for a couple banjo lessons later tonight. No grunt work until next week; no gigs to get ready for until the weekend. I’m spending the whole of it alone, working on a new banjo tune, a minor key, mid‑tempo bluegrass instrumental, all string‑bending bluesy touches and pleading minor notes. The melody is choppy in places, and I work the same piece over, rolling it around and around, like clay in my hands. Roll it out, shape it up again, roll it back out and see what it looks like.
Then a gnarled scream, out in the road, “Shawn!!!”
I stop playing. It was a woman’s voice.
“Shawn! My baby, my baby! Please come back! You have to come back now! They’re trying to find you!!”
Did I just hear that right? It sends a shudder through me, and I strain to listen, but everything is pale blue light and silence.
“My God, Shawn! Where are you?”
I put my banjo down, get on my knees, and look out the window.
There she is, standing in the middle of the road. Long greasy brown hair around a mottled face, twisting into a tangle of barbed wire, her jaw clenching and unclenching. A faded housecoat, old sneakers, tattered bandanna around her neck.
“Shawn!” she yells, her head tilted back, like she’s hollering at the sky. “You have to come back! Doctor Kapiloff is coming after you!!” She runs a few feet down the road and stops. “Did you hear me, Shawn? He wants to kill you!” She crosses her arms and paces back and forth in the street, her eyes bulging, her face knotting and unknotting.
“But I don’t need to pray,” she shrieks, her voice angry, addled, strained. “No I don’t, no I don’t! You see, Shawn – I told him and those people from that church to leave us alone! So don’t you worry, my beautiful son! I’ll find you without the Lord’s help! Oh, my beautiful son, I will I will I will, before he kills the both of us!!!”
To hear her better, I crawl over and start to open the window. The paint cracks, and her head whips around and her eyes shoot fire into me. Her jaw clenches up so tight it looks like it’ll break off.
I’m suddenly dizzy as I back away from the window. That look in her eyes reminds me of something: the psych hospital up in Boston, where Brandon and I played one Sunday. I know that look, saw it in those twisted faces that day. It’s what people mean when they say madness.
* * *
The sun’s out and it’s almost warm, for January anyway. Clearing my head after four hours with both banjos, walking the mile or so down the road to the main drag of Ellicott City for a pack of cigarettes and a carton of milk.
On my way down, I pass a couple of pale, skinny girls pushing strollers up the road. They can’t be more than sixteen years old, and it’s a school day today, right?
Go figure, I mutter to myself. The last twelve years I’ve been all over the country, lived up and down the East Coast, and here I wind up in a place just like my hometown back in the mountains. Maggie too, from a hometown even worse. Is this somebody’s idea of a joke?
Most of these new neighbors are the last generation of millworkers, and their kids and grandkids. The girls are skinny, wire‑thin arms and legs and no boobs and sad little paunches; or they’re fat and doughy with pinched mouths and double chins. Their faces are the pale‑gray color of fluorescent light, but for two swaths of blue eye shadow and two smudges of pink blush, framed by flat, stringy hair. Ratty sweatshirts and cheap‑looking copies of designer jeans, the younger ones, sixteen, seventeen maybe, all smoke long, white‑filtered cigarettes and push babies up and down the road in strollers.
The older ones are the same way, except they come out only at night. They smoke and drink quarts of beer on the stoops and shout across the road to each other and scream at their kids. Twice already, walking past two different houses, Maggie and I heard that old familiar, shuddering scene: a woman screaming over a steady stream of slaps and whaps and then a huge thud and a little kid’s long shriek, a siren’s wail. Both times, it made my blood run cold. And both times, after we got home, Maggie climbed the walls half the night, remembering.
The teenage boys are even more pitiful‑looking, or they seem that way to me at least, because that’s what I remember best from my own hometown. They wander up and down the road in groups of three and four, ragged shirttails sticking out of torn, smudged jean jackets. Chopped, greasy hair hanging down over their eyes, they sneer as they walk past Maggie and Hank and me sitting out on our stoop. They tighten up their strides and screw their mouths into what they think is a bad‑ass scowl, like a lot of the younger guys out on job‑ sites. They leer at us sideways, trying to look all cocky, like to say, “Hey, I’m a man now, so don’t fuck with me.”
But to me, the only thing they look is scared and lost. It’s that same old panic, the terror of helplessness and the sudden realization: Goddamn, I’m poor just like my Daddy; nobody gives a shit if I live or die; and life really is just work and beer and babies and never enough money, no matter how hard I work; and what the hell am I gonna do now?
Some of them move on and make it, I suppose. They get a trade and a union card, or work extra jobs on the weekends, or they join the service, or they just run away. But most just grind away at it, and buy lottery tickets. I’ve seen them hanging around during the workday, living off welfare or their broken down old mothers. Like the ones who hung on back home, they get by like rodents get by, sneaking around, stealing, peddling junk or weed, stealing, hoarding.
A lot of them hang out just down the road, at the bottom of the hill near the bar by the bridge going into town, a whole pack of them. They lean against the soot‑black railroad trestles on either side of the road, drinking and smoking and talking with people stopped in the middle of the road in their old cars. They remind me of guys who come around to job‑sites looking for pick‑up work. They never get any because the foreman usually figures they’re all lazy troublemakers who’ll get drunk at lunch and not come back or get drunk and come back anyway and break something. Or they’ll pick a fight with one of the black guys, if there are plenty more white guys than black guys on the site to back them up.
I’ve been passing them on my way up and down this hill since we moved in last week. Worn out boots and frayed, greasy jeans, faded black t‑shirts over thermals, and always that big stupid chain on the wallet. “Bikers without bikes,” Frank used to snicker when we’d see guys like that shooting pool in the dive bars down in Fell’s Point.
I walk around the last bend in the road, past the first old stone house. A hundred feet up the hill from the main road and the bar, I can see some guy stumbling up the road. There’s a splash of blood on his face. Wet‑bright red in the sun, the blood is splattered across his mouth and chin, and drips down onto his jean jacket. The rest of them are gathered in their usual place across from the bar, spread out along the road, laughing and throwing beer cans at him.
I move to the side of the road and quicken my stride.
“Shit, yeah,” one laughs. “Casey pop’im one!”
“Fuck yeah! Casey pop’im good!”
I walk past them, my head down.
“Casey done ‘im alright, just like he said he’s gonna.”
“Casey don’t fuck around.”
“Yer fuckin’ A, he don’t! Casey drop that sum‑bitch.”
I walk out onto the main road and cross the river, roaring brown from last night’s rain. I walk under the rusty iron railroad bridge, and start up the main drag of Ellicott City.
I’ve driven through here a dozen times already, but I’ve never walked up the street before. Weekends it’s jammed up, the traffic stopped, the sidewalks full of fancy-looking people in fancy weekend clothes, all carrying shopping bags and taking pictures of the old stone buildings lining the streets and climbing up the steep hillsides over town. I’ve wanted to come down some night and check out the bars and maybe see if we can get a gig, but there’s been something going on with the band or up at the house every night.
On the other side of the river, the Baltimore & Ohio railroad station – the oldest in the country Hank says – is a museum. It looks like one of those little buildings on a model railroad. Two people in fancy clothes stand out front, cameras around their necks, looking at some brochure.
So this is what the brown signs out on the state highway call Historic Ellicott City, I think as I wander up the street, mostly empty in the middle of a weekday. The buildings are all ancient gray river stone or brown brick, with lots of nice new clapboard trim. They line the narrow street, a two‑story stone and brick and clapboard slot winding up the hill. Tiny little alleys and passageways are carved into the breaks between buildings, a creek running through one of them. Some are fenced in by wrought iron gates; some have old iron bells hanging in dusty silence. They all lead to little sets of stairs and steep walkways up the back hillside.
Up above the left side of the street, a jagged row of old houses and buildings rises up and looks out from their perches over the buildings down here. On the right side, the valley shoots straight up behind the buildings, a wall of stone and scrub bush and little white picket fences and stairways crisscrossing up to a couple of churches. Steeples sharp and straight as knifeblades, propped way up on top of the hill, they stab at the clouds. They look like they’re falling down onto the town, but it’s really just the clouds slipping past their pointy crosses.
On the storefronts down here, all the stone and brick has been sandblasted and scrubbed and re‑faced and re‑mortared. Up ahead is a place with a big old‑fashioned sign sticking out Ellicott City Hardware, Lumber & Supply, Est. 1831.
I duck inside and look around. There isn’t any lumber or hardware. It’s a whole bunch of little stores: an ice cream shop, a cookie thing, a hair place, a toy store and a framed print deal on the first floor. Some lawyers offices upstairs. A teenage girl with frizzled, two‑toned hair and a big, floppy suede and jean jacket bumps into me. I start to say excuse me but she just “humpfs” at me.
I walk back out and go all the way up Main Street, past twenty or thirty shops. Antiques, decorations, notecards, framed prints, wedding gowns, kites, pottery, plants and Maryland souvenirs. Not a single place to buy cigarettes or milk.
I finally give up and decide to go into one of the bars to buy some smokes out of a machine. Maybe they have live music. I’ll ask to see the manager and see if he might be into booking us for free for a trial gig. A regular scene would be great since it’s just down the road. If bluegrass is too hard‑core, maybe just Hank and me doing our folk duo sets.
I walk into one of the bars down in the first block. The place is all brass rails and smoked glass and plants. There’s a huge mirror behind the bar, and three dozen different bottles of imported beer lined up at one end. The bar and the tables on the other side of a long rail are empty, except for a couple guys in suits eating, and a bartender in suspenders and bow tie, reading USA Today.
“Could I have some change for a dollar?”
He stares at me a moment, his eyes running down my old work coat, and goes to the cash register. When he comes back he slams the change down on the bar, a foot away from my outstretched hand.
* * *
Last night I had a dream about Stover Henry. I couldn’t see him – we were talking through a wall or something – but I imagined him sitting there in his rented room in downtown Baltimore, with his greasy hot plate and old record player and yellowed eight 8×10 promo shots and press clippings hanging in cheap frames on the scarred walls.
I could tell from the rumbling in his voice that he was drunk again, and the whole time we’re talking I could barely hear him. He was drowned out by his own record, his one big hit, “Arkansas Rambler,” recorded by a dozen different big‑name bluegrass bands and done as a B‑side on a country single back in the ‘50s. He kept playing it over and over, and I could hear him picking his mandolin across the top of it. And he kept saying to me, “You got it kid, the bluegrass timin’, the bluegrass touch. Don’t you go Hollywood on me, and don’t go hippie, and don’t you play none o’ that colored music like some o’ them do. You just keep playin’ that straight‑ahead, high lonesome Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley sound. That’s God’s music, son, and you young fellas are the ones gonna keep it alive, when we old‑timers’ up singin’ with the angel band.”
I tried to say something back, but my voice wouldn’t come and the record stopped and I heard him take a swallow of something and he said, “Just you be careful ’cause the road business, that’ll kill you, kid. Don’t you know back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was walking around a new town every day with a thousand bucks in my pocket, and that was money back then. Nowadays, the business is fulla two‑bit crooks and penny ante con‑men, and Nashville’s run by a bunch o’ shysters. So you just watch yourself out there, ’cause it’s the music that’s real, and you got the touch, kid. Don’t you never give up on it.”
It was a very weird dream. I wish I could just re‑wind it like a tape and play it back, because it’s all jumbled together, and I haven’t talked to Stover Henry since we jammed – what? Two months ago?
I sit up in bed and feel the sour emptiness well up in my stomach and the sudden throb behind my ears. I drank a few too many myself last night, after the gig.
I look over at Maggie. She is awake and looking up at the ceiling.
“Hey,” I say, “I didn’t know you were awake.”
“Are you kidding,” she says, a little bitterly, and rolls over. “I slept like hell last night.”
I sit up. “Yeah?”
“What do you think?”
I have no idea what’s bothering her so I don’t say anything.
She lets out a long sigh. “We don’t get home until three o’clock, you pass right out, and I was barely asleep when the damn phone started ringing.”
She looks at me a moment. “Don’t you remember?”
“Uh – not really.”
“Stover Henry. The damn thing rang about ten times before I finally got up and answered it.”
“Stover Henry called?”
“Yes,” she says, irritated. “Drunk as hell, and probably doped up on those damn pills again. You just sat there listening to him run his mouth.”
“Don’t you remember? You listened for ten minutes, before you finally just hung up on him.”
* * *
Wind and rain, thunder and more rain. It’s a freak storm: thunder and lightning in the January. It happens once or twice every winter, when warm air from down south runs up the Chesapeake and collides with cold air coming down out of the hills of central Pennsylvania. The light turns a metallic, yellow-greenish gray, the color of aluminum when you’re brazing it with an acetylene torch.
Maggie and I are hanging an old framed poster she bought at some estate sale when Ga‑boom! – there’s a bone‑jarring explosion of thunder, the sky crashing down onto the hills all around us. The rain speeds up, tears at the pavement.
Then, out in the street, a scream: “Shawn!!! Can you hear me!” It’s that woman again. “Shawn!!! It’s raining and the river will be up and I have to find you! I can hear you, my baby, I can hear you! Stay where you are, my beautiful son, I’ll save you! And we’ll run away before Doctor Kapiloff kills us!”
Maggie walks up to the front door and looks out the peephole. “It’s a woman,” she says, “standing out in the road screaming. She looks crazy.”
“Yes, I –“
But Maggie is out the door before I can say anything else.
I run upstairs to the little window and watch.
The woman stands in the same place. Her hair, clothes and bandanna are soaked through, matted to her body. She stares at Maggie, her eyes two flashes of fiery black light.
Maggie goes up to her slowly.
The woman backs away.
Maggie says something.
“Are you hiding my son?” the woman shrieks at her, backing away faster. “Are you? Goddamn you and the day you were born!” She trips on the sewer cap. “Didn’t you hear me?” she yells, jumping to her feet. “Give him back to me this instant! It’s raining and the river will be up and he has pneumonia! Don’t you understand? He’s paralyzed and he’s dying of cancer and I have to find him now!”
Maggie moves a step closer and says something.
The woman turns and runs up the hill to the rowhouses across the road. She slips in a spot where the grass is worn off, and falls in the mud.
* * *
In Hank’s little stone house across the street, I sit in slots cut into the maze of clutter in his living room.
Actually, his living room is more like a living attic, with its broken‑down old easy chair, and ratty and caved‑in couch, the upholstery worn down to shine. There’s an old clothes trunk for a coffee table, crowded over with empty bottles, clogged ashtrays, sheet music, magazines, dog‑eared books, crumpled cigarette packs, a pile of peanut shells, and two candles burnt down to wax blobs. A card table is shoved into the corner, covered with stained newspapers and sagging under a load of empty beer bottles, a pile of oyster and clam shells, half a loaf of moldy bread, a clam knife, an oyster knife, some forks all bent and unbent and re‑bent, a pile of lemon wedges squeezed dry, a crusty bottle of hot sauce. There’s an old electric bass in another corner, next to an amplifier with an ashtray and a bunch of empty bottles on top; four different guitars, some playable and some not, leaning against the walls. Crooked bookshelves along one wall groan with books on religion and philosophy and music and history, with pictures and political cartoons taped to each shelf. There’s an old stereo on a pile of milk crates, half a dozen orange crates full of old records. And behind the chair, an antique brass floor lamp with a shade that’s been crushed and uncrushed and re‑crushed a couple times. The other walls are covered with torn and fading concert posters and handbills for gigs and weird rumpled pictures and posters from Europe. Everything else sits under a stack of dirty dishes, a pile of newspapers, magazines and junk mail, an overflowing ashtray, a bunch of old clothes.
I’m sitting on a milk crate in a hole in the middle of it all, watching Hank’s old cat pick its way across the top of the piles, stopping to paw a crumpled cigarette pack, lick at an oyster shell, then lick itself.
Hank’s whole house looks like this. Every room is less a room than a graveyard of crap people left behind, a bombed‑out museum of everybody who crashed here for a few days or a few months: people from the band, or from other bands, or people who just happened to be hanging out in some bar, getting drunk with him and needing a place to crash because they got evicted or their mothers or girlfriends kicked them out. You have to climb over things to get around in here, and you have to clear away a pile to find a place to sit down. Maggie won’t set foot in here, and just laughed at me when I tried to tell her that at least it feels good and lived in.
Hank and I don’t say much, just sip beers.
“You working this week?” he yawns.
“Yeah,” I mumble back.
I’ve been working a floor-finishing job in a new supermarket way down by DC. The work came up just as the first freeze of the winter was setting in. The temperature didn’t make it out of the teens today.
“How’s it going?”
I take a swallow of beer. “It’s work.”
“Inside or outside?”
“Yeah, except it’s a new building and they’re only heating it enough to keep the pipes from freezing up. To hell with everybody who’s working on it.”
“Yeah, well, you do real work – you get real fucked.”
If somebody else who worked in an office all day said this to me, I’d say he’s full of shit. But Hank grew up farming, and he used to do road work and cut firewood and paint boats and work in a packing plant, so he’s not just singing the workingman blues to make me feel better.
“The cold’ll suck the wind right out of you,” he says.
“Yeah, the cold’ll suck alright.”
“Where’s the site?”
“Down near DC.”
“Yeah? That’s a hell of a haul for a day’s work.”
“Yeah, it’s a haul. But we make a buck and a half more an hour on jobs down there than up in Baltimore. Plus I get an extra twentyspot a day for my truck. And since we start up by loading out the warehouse, I’m on the clock for the run down and back.”
We use my truck to haul the tools and cement and epoxy and joint filler and other shit we need for whatever we’re doing that day, so I get an extra twenty bucks a day for gas and wear and tear. For the ride down there I team up with Mike, some guy from the new crackerbox section on the hill above Ellicott City. We leave at 6 am to beat the office‑worker rush hour down there. His wife waits on tables at a bar in Baltimore and he has to pick her up at two in the morning, so he doesn’t sleep right and always ends up crashing out in my truck, all the way back and forth.
The alarm goes off at five o’clock, and it’s a pot of coffee and half an hour on the banjo. Then I bundle up in my thermals and yesterday’s crusty sweatshirt, a flannel shirt and jeans, and then I zip up into my old hunting coveralls and work boots. Still, I walk outside and Wham! it’s barely over zero degrees, a breathless cold and stone‑deaf silence, and my bones rattle in the hard, icy darkness. All my muscles seize up and my joints freeze and my chest aches with each breath.
I huddle up in the cold metal of the cab, waiting for the truck to warm‑up, listening to this week’s four or five country songs on the radio. Right around the time I pick up Mike and head to the warehouse to load up, the tapedeck is finally warmed up, and I pop in some bluegrass or some real country and head south, Mike snoozing all the way.
Down at the site, it’s still dark and I’m numb from the drive and sleepy from the dry heat of the truck. I get out and the cold slaps me in the face all over again and I shiver and unload the truck. My back still stiff and sore from the day before starts its screaming for the day, and all I can think about is jumping back in the truck and racing home and slipping into the warm breath of sheets and blanket and wrapping myself around Maggie until spring.
But we need the money. Last month’s bills are overdue; this month’s bills are coming due; next month’s bills will be due soon enough.
I spend the rest of the day stooped over or down on my knees, working on a bone‑numbing slab of icy concrete. Ten hours of it, scraping, prepping, grinding, sanding, spreading and coating the new floor, filling the joints, sweeping and spreading and coating it all again. My hands ache with the cold. Old callouses crack, blister and peel away to new callouses. My fingers go thick and fat and slow, like dumb little sausages, and my hands curl into gnarled hooks, as the fixed stiffness and monotony of another ten hours sets in. The same motions, over and over and over, pulling all those finger‑to‑hand‑to‑wrist wires taut: stoop and scrape, stoop and chisel, stoop and pour, stoop and trowel it all out, then on to a new block and back to the first stoop, over and over and over and over and over.
When I get back to the banjo at night it takes me an hour of warming up and messing up, just to get loose enough to get ready to practice. It takes half an hour of loosening up just to teach a lesson to one of my beginning students.
I look over at Hank. “Feel like playing?”
“In a little while,” he sighs. “How’s Maggie?”
“She alright,” I say. “She just started volunteering at some shelter for wives and kids who get beaten up by their old man.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Something she’s always wanted to do.”
“Yeah. Her mother used to beat the shit out of her, you know. Almost killed her a couple times.”
“No shit.” I sip my beer. “Anyway, it’s been bugging her lately – ever since hearing the kids up the road getting beat up last week.”
“Yeah,” he sighs. “I’ve heard it.”
We sit in silence and drink a few minutes. I’m anxious to start playing. I look at the piles in the room, and notice for the first time a buckskin behind one of the crates of albums. I stand up and climb over a couple boxes and pick it up. It’s the dull gray tint of a winter coat and still has a little give in it. I flip it over. The blood streaking the rawhide finish still has a touch of rusty red.
“This can’t be more than a couple weeks old,” I say to him. “Where’d you get it?”
“Some guy up the road.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I was walking up to get a packa smokes ‑‑ and this hippie guy comes out of the abandoned place up on the bend and asks me if I want to come in and check it out and maybe buy it. So I climb in the window with him, and there’s his old lady and a couple kids. From the smell of the place, I’d guess they been squatting in there a good month or two.”
“Yeah. The guy said he was broke and they didn’t have anything to eat, so I gave him twenty bucks and he gave me the buckskin. Told him I didn’t want it. But he made me take it anyway, so I gave him another twenty.”
“Yeah,” Hank sighs. “So I went up the next day with some cans of food and juice for the kids and some beer and reefer, and they were gone.”
“Huh.” I stare at the buckskin, short and thick and bristly in my fingers, the blank gray of the winter woods.
“You want it?”
“Nah,” I say, rolling it up carefully and tucking it in the corner. “I’m a little burnt out on the deer hunting business, ever since that scene with Maggie’s brother back at Thanksgiving.”
“Yeah,” he grimaces. “I’ll bet.”
I stand over him. “So – you want to play or what?”
“In a little bit,” he says. “I’m kind of burned out.”
I sit back down. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” he groans, “Frank and I went out last night.”
He sighs. “We got pretty trashed. I didn’t get to bed till around three and I had to be to work at eight. Hungover up through lunch.”
He tells me the same story I’ve told or heard a hundred times: he and Frank drank their way through Fell’s Point. They got blasted on beers and shot pool and smoked some weed out back with somebody and started pounding shots. Got in a fight with a couple snotty college boys in the Horse You Came in On or the old Waterfront Hotel, tossed around in the crowdswill at the Cat’s Eye Pub, wound up in the dark, creepy stink of the Dead End. They got thrown out of wherever Frank picked on somebody, and they ended up getting thrown out of two other bars before the night was over.
“That Frank,” Hank shakes his head. “He’s a crazy bastard.”
“Yeah,” I laugh to myself, “I know.”
“He’s really gonna wind up in some shit, the way he gets when he’s drunk.”
Hank is right. Every time I go out drinking with Frank the same thing happens, each time a little bit worse. With every drink, he gets more wound up instead of more settled down, louder and bigger and all over the place. After seven or eight, he can’t even sit on the stool anymore. Just stands at the bar and chain‑smokes and starts knocking things around on the bar and snapping at people. They usually don’t say anything though. He’s a big guy, six two with a swollen chest and beer gut, and hard gray eyes and big meaty hands.
Frank always goes into the same kind of tirade about some politician, or what a phony the person who just walked in is, and how full of shit the newspapers are. The whole time he’s ranting and raving, he’s messing with something with his hands. My beer bottle, the damp cardboard squares on the bar, the napkins, the straws, the ashtray. One night he was so wound up he knocked a whole plastic fruit holder thing down behind the bar and we got thrown out. Another night he smashed a glassful of gin and ice on the stone‑slab bar and we got chased out. The time after that he threw some napkin holder thing across the bar and it smacked a guy in the face, and the place blew up and we had ten people running us out and halfway down the block.
Sometimes, if he’s drunk enough, he’ll talk shit on someone, right to their face. It’s usually funny too, except when it’s cruel, and I feel like apologizing for him, or disappearing from the whole scene. I suppose they just figure him for a mean‑drunk. But I suppose that’s all he is when he’s mean and drunk. They roll their eyes or pretend they didn’t hear him and he laughs after them and the whole bar quiets down and leers at us and I try to talk him into splitting.
When we finally get out in the street, he walks right out in front of traffic and flips the bird to whoever honks at him. Then he starts breaking stuff. I’ve stood by I don’t know how many times, jumpy, looking around, waiting for some cop to show up, and watched him smash up bottles, streetlights, signs, windows, abandoned TV sets, whatever he can get his hands on. One night I watched him take a parking meter apart with the big framing hammer he used to keep in his truck, for the big jobs, I suppose. He laid into that thing for ten minutes before he finally smashed the glass out and knocked the whole thing off its bolts.
One night they threw him out of the reception for his girlfriend’s best friend’s wedding after he put his fist through some fancy door window. Another night he used his bare hands to tear a diamond shaped light off the roof of a Diamond Cab Company taxi. On still another, he climbed up on a bulldozer sitting next to a construction site in downtown Baltimore, managed to find the spare key, and got it started. (Luckily there weren’t any cops around and he couldn’t get the thing in gear.)
I look over at Hank. “Did he break anything last night?”
“Just a car antenna.”
“Yeah,” I chuckle. “He likes those for some reason.”
Hank goes into the kitchen and comes back with two more beers. “I don’t know about him, Caleb.”
“He’s just pissed off,” I say. “He hates his job and he’s frustrated.”
“No, it’s not just that.”
“Sure it is,” I say. “That, plus he doesn’t have anything else going on. He never shoulda quit playing.”
“Ah,” Hank waves me off, “there’s more to it than that. He was never that into the scene to begin with. Not enough for it to matter much when he blew it off, anyway.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say. “He had a pretty good band. And he’s a hell of guitarist, for country and all. At least he used to be. Now he just works and drinks work away.”
“Yeah, well,” he says, sitting back on the couch and lighting a cigarette. “It’s like he’s better off now, being all bitter about it. Before he just had a good band, and an okay scene. Now he gets to be a martyr. Know what I mean?”
“I mean he acts like it’s somebody else’s fault that he got screwed,” Hank says. “And until it gets fixed he isn’t gonna try and have any kind of life. He won’t compromise and say okay, here’s the deal. I’ll work and pay the bills and all that shit. But four hours a day and the weekends, that’s all mine, I get to have a life. He won’t cut that deal. He’s only making it harder on himself. You know?”
I shrug. “Yeah, I guess. It’s not much of a deal though.”
“Yeah, no shit,” he mutters and takes a long swallow of beer. “It’s like the deal you make in the Army. In basic, they’re gonna own you and that’s all there is to it. You gotta give yourself up, at least for those months, I mean. But then they back off, more or less. You can be yourself again – long as you wear the soldier shit and do the soldier shit. You just go through the motions and nobody’ll bother you. That’s the deal. But if you walk around with that look on your face, like it’s all bullshit and you’re not playing, they’ll spot you a mile away. And they’ll get on you. At least they did back when I was in. They push and push, just to see somebody break. It’s like a big game for them, this control thing.”
He chuckles, mostly to himself. “I hate to admit this, Caleb, but they had me. I was so fuckin’ gung-ho you wouldn’t believe it. Earned a Marksman Badge and everything. Big deal, I know. On the Shore that’s all I did from about ten years old on ‑‑ shooting geese and ducks and rabbits, so it wasn’t any big accomplishment. But that’s what I mean. They get you thinking all this bullshit about what’s real and what isn’t. Frank’s like one of those guys who just won’t break. He knows what’s real. And he just won’t give in to it. ‘Cause everything’s basic training in one way or another. Every job, every boss, dealing with the state, dealing with the bill collectors. Man, the whole fucking world is the Army.”
We sit in silence and sip our beers and I think on this for awhile. Hank is right about everything being the Army, but I don’t think he’s right about Frank. Frank used to have a life. He used to play a good guitar and he could sing, too. And he used to be a lot of fun to hang out with, back when he was still making a go of something. Actually, he was pretty damn good on the guitar too, or could have been, for as little as he practiced. I think he really could have done something with it, and what the hell happened?
Nope, Hank’s wrong. Frank did break, a long time ago. That’s why he turns mean when he’s drunk. He broke, gave up, caved in, and he’s angry at himself, deep down disgusted at his own failure to keep at it. That’s why he’s always picking a fight with the world. I tell him to go to some jams, sit in with Hank and me, play some open mikes. Call up this guy and try and get something together, start hanging out and making contacts. But Frank’s always got some big excuse ready for why it won’t work. I used to think he was just lazy. And maybe he is. Lazy is a lot easier than putting yourself out there and finding out where you stand. Maybe Frank’s afraid of finding out that he’s just really good, and not great. Maybe he needs something else to blame it on.
I look over at Hank. His eyes are half‑closed.
“Hey, man –“
He shakes his head. “Huh?”
“You want to uh – play a little – or –“
“I don’t know, Caleb,” he sighs. “I don’t think I’m up for it tonight.”
“Oh well,” I say.
I finish my beer and stand up. My lower back screams. I pull on my coat and pick up my banjo. My hands have curled back into stiff little work hooks.
“Wanna play tomorrow night?” he asks.
“I’m teaching tomorrow night.”
“So that’s it ’til regular rehearsal Thursday?”
“Yeah,” I say and start toward the door.
Hank doesn’t get up.
“Thanks for the beers, man.”
I step out into the razor bite of the air. I shove my left hand into my pocket and crunch across the frosty, rutted mud of the road between our houses. The whole valley is frozen shut, silent, breathless. I look up at our darkened house. Maggie’s working late at that shelter.
I take a deep breath. My body tingles. It’s eight, eight‑ thirty maybe. It’ll take half an hour just to warm my hands up; but I’ve got that half hour, and another good hour or two before bed. And I’ve got another good half hour in the morning, before I have to leave for work.
* * *
Drip‑drip-drip. Water off the icicles hanging from the roof, drip‑drip‑drip, down to the brick sidewalk in front of the house. The snow is melting and I cannot sleep.
Drip‑drip-drip. I open and close my eyes. Drip‑drip-drip. A shadow glides across the wall, into the glow of streetlight spilling in through the window. The shadow pauses, a smudge of gray, gathering into a circle, a face, two eyes, a squiggle of mouth.
I close my eyes and look again. The face twists out of shape as a truck clambers up the road and past the house, the headlights washing the shadow off the wall.
* * *
Three women are moving in next door.
It’s the first warm day of the year, so Maggie is getting the flower box in the window ready for planting and I’m sitting out on the stoop transcribing some sheet music into banjo tablature when the women pull up in a new Volvo station wagon and battered VW bug. There are funny looking, rumply mattresses bent in half and lashed to the top of both, and both are crammed with suitcases and dozens of bulging boxes.
I help carry some of the boxes into their house. The milky faced woman in the straw hat, ratty-looking dress and thick glasses dumps each in a big pile in the middle of the living room.
“You sure have a lot of books,” I say as she empties the last overflowing box into the pile.
“We’re opening a bookstore down in Ellicott City,” she says.
“As soon as Rachel’s father signs the lease.” She squints at me through her glasses. “By the way, do you know where I can find a copy of Le Monde?”
“The French newspaper. I count on it for accurate coverage of the situation in West Africa.”
“West Africa? Beats the shit out of me.”
She bends over the great pile books and her breasts drop down into the opening of her dress and just sort of hang there, and I look away “I’ve been addicted to Le Monde ever since my summer at the Strawberry Mountain Writer’s Workshop in the Catskills.”
I have no clue what I’m supposed to say, so I just say “huh.”
“It’s the only truly objective, anti‑imperialist publication covering the situation in the Third World.”
She is sorting through the books, pushing them into different piles. Her breasts sway back and forth in front of the opening in her dress. I can see all the way down to the top of the nipples. They’re half‑erect, but mostly flat, like little pink buttons. Why is she doing this? Does she know I can see them?
“That kind of perspective is rare, thanks to the corporate media conglomerates,” she says and then looks up at me and smiles. I look away. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah uh ‑‑ sure,” I say. “So you’re a writer, huh?”
“We all are. That’s why we’re opening this bookstore. We believe in action. And that means direct confrontation with the bourgeois market forces, if we want to promote an alternative to petty bourgeois culture.”
I have no clue what I’m supposed to say to this either, so I say “makes sense to me. Have you written books or –“
Her breasts bob a bit, back and forth. They don’t excite me, but it’s hard to look away when somebody’s sticking them in your face like this.
“I won honorable mention for a poem at the Workshop,” she says. “And I’m applying to the Graduate Fiction Writing Program at Johns Hopkins.”
“So what do you all do for a living?”
“Well ‑‑ Susan teaches writing at the University. Rachel is a public – I mean she does public relations for a hospital downtown. And I’m just sort of biding my time. Doing a little free‑lancing, waiting until the store opens. What do you do?”
“Me? I’m a construction worker.”
“Oh,” she stands up quickly and flattens out the front of her dress. “You don’t – um – you don’t look like a construction worker.”
“What does a construction worker look like?”
“Well, um ‑‑ I guess I don’t really know then,” she says, nervously.
“I also teach banjo lessons. And I play in a bluegrass group.”
“Oh, how exquisite!” she squeals. “I told Rachel as we were driving up here: ‘this place is so Mother Jones!’ Can’t you just hear a banjo going in the background? I’m so glad we’re going to be neighbors.”
“Yeah,” I start for the door, trying not to sound too snotty, “me too.”
“By the way,” she says, “do you have any trouble with some of those uh ‑‑ those rough‑looking guys at the end of the road?”
“What do you mean by trouble?”
“Oh, you know ‑‑ is there any crime, or anything like that?”
“I don’t really –“
“It’s not that I’m paranoid,” she cuts me off. “But when I lived in the East Village – you know, just a few blocks from the Lower East Side – someone broke into my flat. And I’ve always been a trifle nervous since then.”
* * *
I drive up the road, weary with a day of work and two hours of overtime. My legs are numb, my head heavy, and there is a new cut on my right hand.
I sliced it along the machined edge of the safety housing on the concrete saw, when I was tightening the blade down. The blood was everywhere and made it look worse than it really is. We got it cleaned out and covered up and I managed to stay on the clock the whole time and work the rest of the day. The foreman told me I could roll if I wanted to. But I figured the day was wrecked anyway. And the job’s a good one, a clean, well‑lighted warehouse in a new industrial park. It’s happening this week only and I was counting on the overtime and making time and a half to catch up on the bills. The money would go right out the door, so I was working for nothing really, for a nothing I know too well, but it’s not like I have a choice.
I pass the mill, pass the church, and try to remember the words to our new song. Standard bluegrass lament in three‑four, a waltz in G minor. I can’t remember the second verse. It’ll come to me when I’m playing it on the banjo. The new cut is on my right hand, so I don’t think it’ll mess up my playing any. I curl my hand into position and feel the crack and sting of the cut opening up. I realize it will do that every time I go to play, before it finally heals.
I drive around the bend and see Maggie sitting on the stoop talking with Hank, a crumpled brown bag at his feet. I park and sit down with them. Hank is draining a beer. He puts the empty in the bag and pulls one out for me and another for himself.
“Start over,” Maggie says to him. “Caleb should hear all of it.”
Hank takes a long swallow of beer. I notice wisps of foam dried into his drooping moustache. He takes another swallow and says the old man living next door told him about the woman who stands in the road screaming. Her son drowned in the river five years ago. They found the body two miles downstream, twisted up in the screen trap where they draw out the water for the ceiling tile plant. The woman was freaked for two years and then, instead of getting over it, she got worse. She went into an unbreakable depression and tried to hang herself with a clothes hanger, but only managed to cut up her neck really bad.
Hank gets drunker as he tells us the story. The cops took her to the hospital, and she came back a month later, paralyzed with drugs to keep her quiet, lifted out of her depression into a glazed, disoriented mourning. Her nasty, miserable sister moved in and took care of her, shoved lithium and valium and something else into her, and pestered her with people she’d bring over from the Assembly of God. Then her sister started taking the valium herself and has been ever since. Without it, the woman started screaming out in the road every time it rains, and has been ever since. Without the right kind of drugs and with just enough daylight in her scrambled brain, and she’s living in a mad rage of denial. Hank says she’s got it so her son is not yet dead, but is always just on the verge of drowning, right now, somewhere down in the river behind our house.
“That’s why she goes nuts during a thunderstorm,” Hank says, draining the beer and opening another.
The three of us sit in silence for the longest time. I think about the thunderstorm, and remember the woman’s desperate, anguished rantings, more fierce, more urgent.
“What happened to your hand?” Maggie asks me, reaching for it.
I look down at the bandage. “Just a cut.”
“Is it bad?”
“Not really.” And it isn’t so bad, really. Last year’s slip‑up was a lot uglier. “I still got in the full day, plus the overtime.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have,” she says. “We’re not so broke that you have to kill yourself, like last summer.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “Last summer.”
That’s when I really did have no choice, and so I worked through it, nine fingernails and a huge bandage on my ring finger.
The college boy on the summer crew tried to force a dolly full of concrete sacks out of the freight elevator just as I’m bending down and trying to get the wheels over the tracks. I felt the crunch and yanked my hand out quick with a yelp but the nail came tearing out, deep, all the way down to the damp, curly waxpaper root. I stared down at it like it was all happening in a dream: fingernail hanging there in a spreading pool of fire and lights and faces and voices spinning around me and everything goes cold and sweaty and blank, and I’m going down and Wham! I came to, the dream gone, and I’m face down in the burning stink of the mud of my puke all mixed up with concrete dust and dirt.
But back then, I had no choice. Maggie and I were hurting so bad for the money, I just cleaned myself off, they bandaged it up tight and covered it with plastic, and I said “I can work, man, I can work, this ain’t nothing.” They laughed and said I was nuts and a hardheaded bastard – all of them except the five or six guys who had wives and weren’t working regular and who needed every hour’s wage too. They just gawked at my hand, half‑sorry for me and half‑ grateful it wasn’t them who had to work with a raw nailbed inside a bandage.
I look up and see Hank downing the last of his beer and opening another one.
“You feel like working on the new song tonight? I’d like to have it ready for the Waynesboro thing next weekend.”
“I don’t know,” he mumbles. “I’m a little too buzzed to uh –“
I sigh. “Yeah, well ‑‑ I don’t really feel like it either. Work was a bitch today.”
Maggie goes inside and Hank and I sit on the porch drinking. That was a bitch, that fingernail. I couldn’t play the banjo for two weeks. It was infected, and working with it every day made it worse. Every night, Maggie would clean it out with hydrogen peroxide and I’d hang onto the toilet seat and writhe and moan and Maggie would bite her lower lip and sometimes weep and I’d try not to moan out loud and make it worse for her. But it eventually healed, like most everything you clean out at the end of the day. The infection went away and the raw ooze in the middle of the nailbed dried up and hardened. I started playing again and a new nail came in, harder than the old one, and now it looks almost normal.
I look up and see Hank scrounging around in the bag of empties, looking for a beer. He’s drunk and mumbling something about John Lennon being dead.
That’s another thing I can’t figure out about Hank. He got out of the Army and went through some other shit and then he started getting into sixties music, just about the time everyone was burning out on it.
He explained it to me on our way back from a folk gig the two of us did one night down in Virginia. He got married to this half‑crazy girl he met in the Army. For the ceremony, he stole some officer’s piping and shit for his uniform, and an old samurai sword. On the wedding night, there was a fancy, twenty‑dollar bottle of champagne in their motel room. Crazy girl said she was allergic to champagne and dumped the whole thing down the bathtub while he was taking off all the officer’s shit; they spent the whole night eating ‘shrooms and smoking dope and drinking and by dawn they were screaming at each other and six months later the marriage was history and he was out of the Army and looking for work.
He went home because he had nowhere else to go, and because his old man was freaked out over the farm going to shit. Hank tried working it but there wasn’t much to do in December besides sharpen tools, feed the animals, put stuff up for the winter and help overhaul the tractor. So he signed on with a waterman and worked on a skipjack during oyster season. He started sleeping with some girl who worked at the crab processing plant. And a bunch of guys beat him up for some reason he never explained. Then he was in some accident, and suddenly he’s got ten grand in his pocket from the insurance payout and his hair’s down to his waist and he’s trashing a hotel room in Denver. Spent all ten grand in a couple months and all he had to show for it was a nice Martin acoustic, which he later had to sell for rent and groceries, and a new Fender Stratocaster. Was this all before or after the ship painting job and psychedelia garage band in Delaware?
He hands me a beer. “Last call,” he says, opening a beer.
I wish I could remember the story. I’d ask him about it, but I’m too tired to listen. His stories are always great, but they take some concentrating, and I’m pretty beat. Besides, he’s not in a talking mood anyway.
We drink the last two beers and Maggie comes back outside.
“Isn’t that something,” she says, “about that woman, I mean.”
I look at the spot, four or five yards up the road, where the woman always stands. “Yeah, well ‑‑ it makes sense,” I say. “You heard what she was saying that day.”
“You think she’ll be like that forever?”
“I mean,” Maggie says, licking her lips, “how do you break into that and tell her the truth? How do you fix someone up enough to listen? And then tell them?”
“She knows the truth,” Hank mutters.
“And what’s that?” Maggie asks.
“I said she knows the truth. She just doesn’t give a fuck, that’s all.” He laughs bitterly to himself. “You think that’s some shit? How about somebody who blows away John Lennon ’cause he can’t stand what a fuckin’ lie it all turned out to be? Figure that out. And then they get these goddamn shrinks on the news who say it’s a fuckin’ hero worship scene.”
Maggie and I stare at him.
“You two,” he mutters. “You don’t know shit. Like – if her baby’s gone, then why bother? Huh? Maybe she knows all about it, huh? Maybe she’s just sayin’ no fuckin’ way, man – this ain’t fair, and this ain’t right, and this ain’t real, so fuck you! So she’s standin’ out here screamin’, and so what?”
I know from growing up with a mean drunk for a father that when they get this way, you don’t bother arguing, because that’s exactly what they want and it only makes them worse. Best just to play possum, so that’s what I do, and Maggie knows by now to follow my lead.
Hank stands up with a lurch and almost falls over. Snickering, he turns and looks down at me. “And I’ll tell you what, mister all banjo all the time. She’s what’s real, man,” he points in my face. “And that’s why she’s freaking you out. She’s saying ‘fuck you, reality ‑‑ I ain’t buying it!’ And that’s what’s real, my friend. Not any of your simple‑minded, let’s just deal with it and play a couple sentimental country songs type bullshit.”
Maggie looks at me and sighs and says with her eyes, Hey, don’t let it bother you, he’s just drunk again. I shrug back at her and say with my eyes, Yeah, I know, and it doesn’t bother me.
“Yeah, well, man,” I say to him. “Whatever.”
Hank stands up and growls and brushes us off. “Ah ‑‑ you all don’t know shit.”
He starts across the road toward his house, his head down, snickering to himself.
* * *
One of the new weirdo women next door, the one that always looks so sad (Rachel?), said she saw some real old‑looking fiddles and mandolins in a shop down on the main drag. She said they were unrestored and real cheap and I might want to check them out. It’s a nice afternoon, spring coming on for real now, so I’m walking down instead of driving and soaking up the damp, ripening bark smell of the woods, and all the birdsong, and the first crisp taste of green in all the trees.
I pass the bar at the bottom of the hill with all the scary guys hanging around out front, and cross the river.
Halfway up Main Street, past the antique shops and fancy little restaurants, I hear the string‑bumble of old‑timey banjo music. I quicken my pace around the bend and the music is louder now and I see an old truck – so old it’s got those wheel well fenders on the back and running boards – parked in the alley. There’s a real old dresser and headboard to a bed in the back, and a guy about my age sitting on the tailgate playing clawhammer banjo.
I stop and listen a moment. He looks up at me from under the brim of his dusty hat, his eyes two smoky slits and his cheeks a splotchy swirl of week‑old whiskers. A burning cigarette is planted in the corner of his mouth.
He finishes the tune and I walk up to him. “Little drop‑thumb melodic, huh?”
“You know yer banjo?”
Before I can say anything, two matching goofballs walk up and stop a few feet away. Khakis and pastel‑colored shirts, sunglasses dangling from bright red cords around their necks, their hair slicked up and swept off to one side. One snaps a picture of the old church across the street.
“Oh, it’s all so real,” the other one says, smacking his lips.
They finally walk past us and I turn to the guy with the banjo. “Yeah, I play the banjo myself, mostly three‑finger. But I do some frailing and a little clawhammer.”
“Oh, yeah?” He tunes the second string down half a step to B natural. “Wanna play some?”
He hands me the banjo, an open‑back with an old blackened walnut neck, a thick walnut rim, and a real calfskin head instead of the usual white plastic. I run through the new fiddle tune I’ve been fixing up the past couple of days.
I finish it up in one turnaround, look the banjo over, check the intonation and harmonics, and run through the tune again.
“You pick that ol’ hornpipe right pretty,” he says as I hand the banjo back to him.
“Thanks. That’s a real nice instrument you got there.”
“I think so.”
Two women in skin‑tight, flaming orange and pink gym shirts and big fluffy hippie skirts walk by.
I look over the banjo‑player. He’s staring at the two women and shaking his head.
“So where you from?” I ask.
“Kentucky,” he says, re‑tuning the second string. “Jones County. Down near the Cumberland plateau. Name’s Walker.”
We shake hands.
“Nice to know you, Caleb.”
He tells me that he and his brother just moved to Maryland to look for work. They’re out of money and trying to sell their mother’s furniture – “because she’s up in heaven now,” Walker explains – to antique dealers in town. They’ve been sleeping in their truck behind a 7‑Eleven and trying to find a job and a place to live.
“Back home we hear there’s more construction work ’round here than fellas to do it,” he says. “Ain’t found any, though.”
“Yeah, well,” I say, “it’s been slowing down the last year or so.”
“Yeah, well,” he says, plucking at the opening bars of “John Henry.” I listen to the tune and study his left hand fingering.
“You from ’round here?” he asks me, playing softly.
“I live on that hill up there,” I say, pointing toward the hill on the other side of the valley. “Moved in a couple months ago.”
“You weren’t brung up ’round here, were ya?”
“I figured not,” Walker smiles, strumming the banjo. “Y’ain’t like these other folks, all in such in a big ol’ hurry. You talk good an’ proper though. You go to college?”
He stops playing. “What kinda work ya’ll do?”
“Concrete contracting. I do pouring and finishing mostly.”
“They lookin’ for anybody?” he asks, still working at the tune.
“Afraid not,” I say. “Right now most our crews are between big jobs.”
“Yeah? So how do you figure it?”
“How do I figure what?”
He stops playing. “Well – me and my brother been wonderin’ – seein’ as there’s no work to speak of, where the heck everyone’s workin’ at? Nothin’ but folks in new cars and trucks and all , but we can’t figure where they all workin’. Ain’t seen no fact’ries, least any ain’t been closed up or turned into shoppin’ centers.”
I laugh. “Yeah, it’s something, isn’t it.”
“And help me figure this,” Walker says. “We keep seein’ guys all dressed up in suits and ties and all, and they’re drivin’ around in pick‑ups. Now where we come from, no man who wears a suit is drivin’ around in no pick‑up truck. What’re these fellas all doin’ for a livin’?”
I laugh. “Beats the heck out of me.”
“Well,” he shakes his head, “if you live here and ya’ll don’t know, I reckon we ain’t gonna figure it out neither.” He starts in on the banjo again, a fast, plunky mountain rhythm. I listen to him play for a few minutes, thump and roll, thump and roll, the melody bubbling up out of the top of the steady, hypnotic, insistent rhythm. Great feel, great timing, and perfect tone, raw and flowing at the same time, like all the best Appalachian music.
Two guys come out of the shop next to the alley and walk over to the truck. One is dressed like Walker, in boots, faded flannel shirt, and old hat. The other guy’s wearing a purple sport shirt and baggy dress‑up pants tied at the ankles like a girl’s pants. Short‑cropped hair and glasses with big red frames and a tiny moustache so thin and clean it looks penciled on.
“This here’s my brother, Walker,” the first guy says.
The funny‑looking guy nods at him. “Pleased to meet you, Walker.”
Walker nods at him warily. “Same.”
The two of them stand there, ignoring me and staring at the furniture a moment.
“Well anyway,” Walker’s brother finally says, nervous, anxious, like he’s about to get caught at something, “like I was sayin’ – my mama got ’em out her Ma‑maw’s house. That’d make ’em my great Ma‑maw’s. And seein’ as she passed on ’round the turn o’ the century, I figure they’s at least a hun’erd year old.”
The other guy, an antique dealer I suppose, rubs his soft, pink little hand along the wood of the dresser. “That’s what I was afraid of,” he sighs.
“ How’s that?”
“Well, it’s a red oak primitive. The market has been positively saturated with them for the past two years.”
“So, uh ‑‑ so,” Walker’s brother stammers, “that mean you ain’t interested?”
“Not necessarily,” he says, itching at his little moustache. “The period is still very much in demand. But I’m afraid the price has come down considerably.”
Walker shakes his head and turns back to his banjo, plunking out another round of “John Henry.”
His brother shifts around on his feet and stares at the dealer uneasily. “So uh – what’re they all worth to ya then?”
“Hmm,” he purses his lips. “I think two would be fair for the dresser. Or three and a half for both pieces.”
Walker’s brother stares at him a moment, his mouth hanging open. “Three and a half ‑‑ what?”
The dealer rolls his eyes. “Three and a half hundred. Dollars.”
“You kidding me?” Walker’s brother blurts out. “I seen stuff in your shop ain’t half as nice. And it all’s goin’ for seven and eight hun’erd and up.”
The dealer chuckles a moment and then all of a sudden his eyes go hard and he glances at Walker, who plucks the banjo a little louder.
“Let me explain something to you,” the dealer says. “The prices you saw are what we call retail, with a standard mark‑up. And here you are, presenting me with these pieces wholesale, without an appraisal. I’m afraid three and a half is the best I can do.”
“But this here stuff,” Walker’s brother says, “this was my great ‑‑ my great Ma‑maw’s. From way back. They ain’t junk if that’s what you’re thinkin’ – “
Walker steps it up still louder and snickers.
“I’m not saying that,” the dealer snaps over Walker’s banjo. “I’m simply telling you what they’re worth wholesale. Feel free to try elsewhere in town if you don’t believe me. I’m sure you will –“
His voice is drowned out by Walker, who sings out over the thump and roll of the banjo, the last lines of John Henry. “Be‑fore I’ll let you steel drill beat me down, I’m a‑gonna die wi’this hammer in my hand, good Lord ‑‑ I’m a‑gonna die wi’this hammer in my hand.”
He hits the last chord and I stand there looking at the three of them. Walker stares at the banjo, his brother at his feet. The dealer smiles at Walker.
“I’ll tell you what I could do,” the dealer chuckles. “I’ll give you a thousand for him,” he laughs, pointing at Walker. “Such a relic ‑‑ he’d look absolutely perfect in my window!”
* * *
Walker and his brother were nearing flat broke, so they sleep on the floor in my upstairs practice room for three days. They are all embarrassed when Maggie offers them gas and pocket money but she won’t hear shit about it.
Each day they go out looking for work, but there isn’t any for guys from out of town without union cards.
On Saturday, Butch comes over with the parts and changes the oil and tuning up their truck. Then he hangs around and we have Hank and Jason and Stover Henry over, and Maggie makes a big pot of chicken stew, and we play and trade tunes and drink beer until well past midnight. Stover Henry, all sixty years and two hundred pounds worth, sits there propped up on the couch in his percodan haze, sweating all over his mandolin and rambling on about the golden days of bluegrass and live radio and his big hit “Arkansas Rambler.”
All night, he is all over Walker and his brother to stay in town. He says he could probably line Walker up with some gigs down in DC, and maybe even do some recording.
Walker keeps staring at him uneasily, still smarting from not finding any work I suppose, and finally says, “why is everybody jus’ want somethin’ from me for nothin’?”
The next morning, they say they are going back to Kentucky. Maggie and I try to give them fifty bucks for the trip, but Walker refuses.
“We can’t take any more of your hard-earned money,” he says.
“But what about food and gas to get home on?” she asks.
“We’ll be alright. On our way outta town, we’re gonna just suck it up and take the three-fifty from that jackass for our Ma-maw’s furniture.”
* * *
I can’t sleep. I stare at the wall. I watch for the shadows to move. Are there any ghosts here?
Last week, an old sugar bowl dropped off the shelf, the one along the stairway in the kitchen, and shattered on the floor. I figured Maggie would say it was a ghost. But she looked at the shelf and said the other things had all moved near the edge, jiggled there by all the footsteps of us going up and down the stairs all these months.
“But maybe it wasn’t that,” I said, seeing she was disappointed. “Maybe we put them near the edge. And why that old sugar bowl?”
I can’t sleep. I stare at the shadows. They do not move.
And what about the generations of millworkers, up and down those same stairs? I can conjure up the face of one now, a face just like my grandpa’s. A tangle of lines and cracks knotted into a broken circle of leather, his eyes red with the sting of cotton fibers. He is sitting out on the stoop, picking at the rawhide callous growing over the stump where his thumb used to be, coughing up chunks of lung as brown and brittle as canvas.
How was it back then, before the union rules and all the laws they made to try and save us from – or at least slow down – the monster we’re serving every day? On the job, we have to wear goggles and safety masks when we’re jackhammering up concrete and sawing out chunks of old asphalt, or grinding down the high spots in a new pour. The goggles and masks keep the dust and grit and sting out of our eyes and lungs, but they make it harder to see and harder to breathe. My sweat and spit soaks the inside of the hard rubber mask, mixing, drying and wet again with new sweat and more spit. The stink of my working makes me sick.
I can’t sleep. I hate work. The foreman’s leaning on us again. “We’re behind schedule, you bastards!” he growls at us. “The developer and the contractor and the investors, they’re all losing their shirts, and it’s your-all’s goddamn fault, you bunch of faggots!”
Somebody shoots him a look and then gets it all. “Yeah?” the prick turns on him. “You gotta problem, faggot? You want some?”
He cracks the whip again, and we grumble and curse him under our masks, but we work faster.
I hate all of it. My back has that pull again, the one that never goes away once it starts. Even after a long weekend, that same pull, buried in the muscles just above the left side of my ass. It pops out again on Monday morning with the first lift, the first carry, a hot iron imbedded along the left side of my spine. And my ears, always ringing from the racket. The screech of the saw as it chews into the stone, the grinding of the mixer, the bone‑rattling chomp of the jackhammer, the stuttering roar of the bulldozers. All that pounding of pile drivers and hammers and chisels and riveting guns, an endless, thundering monotone of steel‑on‑stone, and two dozen guys shouting at each other over it.
I wish I could just quit. I wish I could make those extra two bills a week from playing gigs and teaching banjo lessons. I wish I could quit and just sit on the stoop all day and listen to the birds and play my banjo. I’m always so sore and stiff in the morning, groaning with that first lift and pull at sunrise. Ten hours later, my arms and legs all hot and swollen, my ears numb, my head an empty cloud. I hate work so much, some mornings I wake up and wonder how the hell I’ll make it through another day. Pain, from my heels up the back of my legs, my ass, my back and neck and wrapping itself up over the top of my head, like fingers with claws going for my eyes. Some days I wonder how the hell I keep from toppling over with my first aching steps and collapsing onto the cold, hard, bathroom floor.
I can’t sleep. I hate this life. What am I waiting for> What do I think is actually going to happen?
Frank asked me that the other night. He got drunk enough to talk straight out and mean, but not so drunk that he was in one of his rages. His eyes burned straight into mine and he kept at me, “So what the hell are you going to do with your life?”
“I’m doing it,” I said.
“What?” he snickered. “Play banjo for a bunch of slobs in the sticks and work this jerk‑off construction job? No trade, no card, no future, no nothing – all for the stupid banjo?”
“Don’t give me that shit,” I said, “I’m working on getting some sessions work. And maybe our next cassette will sell better. And maybe one of the big indie labels will press it as an LP, and we’ll get some exposure and I’ll get to tour again.”
He just snickered again and said, “So you’re waiting around to ‘make it,’ huh? You and the five hundred guys hanging around Nashville? Is that the deal?”
“If you wanna put it that way, yes.”
“And what do you think your chances are?”
“My chances are zilch if I don’t try.”
“Yeah, well,” he sneered. “You can try all you want. I don’t care how great a picker you are, either. It’s all connections, man, you know that. Probably five hundred great banjo pickers in Nashville who are all trying to make it as we speak. And the record companies need all of dozen of ’em for all the banjo‑playing you hear on country albums. Call me a liar if you think I’m wrong.”
I didn’t say anything and he kept at me.
“Come on, man – admit it!”
I still didn’t say anything and he said, “at least you should face up to it. Don’t you think? Don’t you?”
I finally blew up and lashed back at him, “You’re right, you miserable asshole. I’m fucked. I’m living for some stupid fucking pipe dream!” My voice shook and my eyes burned, and it was the first time I ever came close to bursting into tears in front of a man, not counting Brandon back in Boston.
“There! You happy?” I said, my voice trembling. “You feel good now? You miserable bastard.”
That finally shut him up and he just sat there looking all guilty and glum. But underneath, I could see that he was glad he’d said it, glad he got to me like that. He was right and he knew it, and now he was sure that I knew it too.
I can’t sleep. I wish I could quit. I wish I could just run away. I’ve tried both, though. Been through it a hundred times, and I know better now than to even think about it.
I wish I didn’t know better, and could still believe in either solution, run away, quit. I tried quitting once, right before I met Maggie. I swore off the music forever, tried to just put it away, like an old useless thing in the attic. Worked overtime, drank more, watched TV, went out honky‑tonking with Frank.
So this is normal, I remembering thinking, this is what everybody else does. A whole month, I just went to work every day. Went home and ate supper and read the paper and watched something on TV that was supposed to be funny. Went out on Friday night and got drunk with the guys from work.
One of those miserable nights Frank and I went to the Paradise Saloon, the big gin joint down near the railyard. Fifty‑cent draft night. The place throbbed with hundreds of mean‑looking city people dancing to some shitty electric band, the air thick with blue smoke and the stink of old beer and skanky perfume and underarm rot.
We got drunk and danced with some nasty girls with long, greasy hair. They looked like they were sweating make‑up. We went out back to smoke a joint, and Frank started making out with one of them and the other just pouted at me.
This is stupid, I thought. I’m going home.
Frank gave me shit and said, “what? are you gay now?” right there in front of about ten people hanging out in the parking lot. I was pissed enough to take a swing at him but before I could, a big fight broke out between a group of rednecks and a bunch of dirtballs. So we had to split anyway, before the cops showed up.
On the way home Frank said he was sorry for calling me gay, and said he had a great time anyway.
So this is normal, I thought. I rather kill myself than live like this. Or figure out a way to go to college and make real money. Or something.
The rest of the time I ended up just sitting around with guys from work, drinking and smoking and bitching about the foreman and staring up at the ballgame on TV. Telling jokes, shooting pool, trying to sneak looks at the boobs on the barmaid when she bent over to pull beers out of the cooler. It was all a great big bore, but the darkness and the beer and the ballgame and boobs and smoke were all just numbing enough to keep the boredom from sinking in too far. The worst was going home, after the place closed.
Every night, taking the backroads to stretch the drive out, slumped down in the dull green light of the truck cab. Nothing but junk country and shit rock on the radio. I’m beat down drunk and miserable; and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this terrible panic rises up and sets its teeth in my gut. I’m dying. I’m rotting away and that’s all I am: just rot, just dying, just nothing, another day used up and nothing to show for it but a little more cash to pay to somebody else and another two dozen miles on my truck.
This is normal? No hope, nothing to look forward to, just another day of work and another night like tonight, and what’s the point of that? It’s after midnight and I’m supposed to be heading toward sleep and I don’t want to sleep. I want something, something to live for, something to show for all the trouble of living through another stinking week. I was goddamn desperate.
Two mornings later, after going to bed early and sober, I woke up in that shadowy silence just before dawn, a song spinning around in my head and down to my feet. I realized then that it was the smoldering silence of Frank’s awful world that was killing me and I was fixing to blow up if I didn’t let the music back out, right away.
I jumped up, and just this once, I said to myself, I’ll get my banjo out of the attic, and suddenly I’m playing again and it’s so alive and happening and real in my hands I can hardly stand the pure raw joy of it.
That same thing has happened to me dozens of times right here in this old house. I awaken with a song bunched up in my head, and I ache to hear it out loud. But I’m working that day so I hurry it up. Work the gum out of my fingers and grope for the tune in the strings of my banjo, gulping down my coffee, chomping on some dry toast. Then it’s off to the monster for another day.
But if I’ve found the tune, early like that when the day is fresh and full of hope, my body will throb with it all morning. I count the hours till lunch, then count the hours till quitting time, thinking about the song, the runs and rolls, a few bits of words that might work with it.
But always, when I finally get back here to my banjo, the song has faded or gone stale. My head is empty again. Something inside me has been broken, something that only sleep will mend.
I can’t sleep. I hate work. I wish I could quit. I wish I could just run away. The monster is tone‑deaf. He won’t let me sing. I need to quit, I need to sleep, I need to run away. Will there be a song for me in the morning? I need sleep, I need sleep, I need sleep.
* * *
A strange thing happened last night. Hank’s sister was down for a visit from the Jesus college. To celebrate her getting some church money for going to work as a new preacher in South America or somewhere, he took her to one of those big old stone restaurants down on the main drag in Ellicott City.
Just as they were coming out of the place, his sister shuddered and broke into a cold sweat and turned to ice. She was freezing and shivering all night, even after a couple hours in front of the fireplace, Hank told us. She said it felt like a wind blew through her and sucked all the heat out of her body.
She was still shuddering with it at dawn when Hank called us over to see what we thought he should do. It was Saturday and we had the day off so all three of us took her up to the hospital.
In the waiting room Maggie said that sometimes ghosts will drain off somebody’s body energy. Hank said maybe that’s it. I didn’t want to believe it, but couldn’t figure anything else. Maggie said she was sure of it, though. She told us a couple more stories just like this one, about weird things that happened to people back home, and by the end of them, Hank and I were pretty much convinced too.
After a couple hours of waiting, a doctor guy finally came up to us, a long white coat with the thing around his neck. He looked about Hank’s age, all red‑eyed and tired in the face.
“She’ll be alright,” he said. “Just an anxiety attack.”
“Anxiety?” Hank asked. “But she’s been cool. Not uptight about anything. You sure?”
He said some mumbo-jumbo about symptoms manifesting themselves and all that and Hank still argued with him.
“These kind of attacks usually occur just prior to a major change in the patient’s life. Often, right before people get married.” He looked at the forms on his clipboard. “I see here that her permanent address is out‑of‑state. Is she in the process of starting school or moving down here?”
“No,” Hank said. “But she’s about to go to New Guinea on some church work.”
“There’s your answer,” the doctor said, writing something on the clipboard. “I’m prescribing a medication she should take if she has another attack. She’ll be alright.”
After he left, Maggie said he was full of shit, that it really was a ghost. The ghost thing still made more sense to me, but what do I know? I’m not a doctor.
* * *
Rachel and Cindy, two of the new weirdos next door, are sitting on their stoop when I get home from work. Whenever I see Rachel, I can’t help but think of Jennifer up in Boston – who I thought was my girlfriend until I realized I was more like her pet – with her rumpled but clean work clothes and boots, and straight white teeth, and soft, flowing black hair.
“Hey,” I mumble to them as I cross the road, thinking about a hot shower and scraping off a crust of sweat mixed with dirt and concrete dust.
“Hi, Caleb,” Cindy says. “Can we talk to you about something sort of personal?”
“Sure. Let me go grab a shower and change and I’ll be right –“
“Oh, that’s okay,” Rachel cut me off. “We don’t mind the way you look.”
“Alright,” I shrug, walking up to their stoop. “What’s up?”
“We were wondering if you’d like to uh – to come to a meeting,” Cindy says. “At our bookstore.”
“And bring along some of the other workers you work with,” Rachel says.
“What kind of meeting?”
Cindy licks her lips. “It’s sort of a – a –“
“A consciousness‑raising session,” Rachel cuts her off.
I stare at them a moment. “A what?”
“Basically, we want to feel out the workers on where they stand,” Rachel says. “On some key issues.”
“What kind of issues?”
“Oh, you know,” she says, “like their values and resentments and self‑esteem. You know – all the psychological issues associated with uh – with – class.”
I stare at the broken bricks of the sidewalk and can’t decide whether to laugh at them or tell them to go to hell. They’re exactly like Jennifer and her crew up in Boston. Maybe I’ll just mess with them a little. “You mean how they feel about getting shitted on by everybody all day long?”
“Yes,” she says. “Precisely.”
“Well, it’s not really all that bad,” I say. “I mean – if we have a grievance –“
“Oh,” Cindy says, “you mean you’re unionized?”
“Sure,” I say. “Isn’t everybody?” Then I spin it out as fast as I can: “We’re not a certie trade so we don’t have cards or a hall, but we got a steward, and we’re repped on wages and bennies from the Service Workers Local, so it’s as good as certie trade.”
Cindy looks up at me. “Could you repeat that?”
I’m tired and feeling a little ornery, so I say the exact same thing and just stare at them. They look like they could use a little shaking up.
“And having bennies is good,” I go on, “because if we get fucked up in a machine or something, we get a check right away – without having to get a lawyer to go try and deal with the government clowns down at Workman’s Comp.”
Rachel narrows her eyes at me. “Are there frequent accidents on the job?”
“Oh, sure,” I say. “Somebody’s always getting fucked up. Sometimes they’ll do it on purpose, to get paid time off.” I look at them and try not to laugh, not that it’s funny. “We call it ‘pulling a fast one.’ You know – some guy whose so sick and tired and beat up and desperate he just can’t stand working anymore. So he goes and gets drunk at lunch – drunk and crazy and gutsy enough to turn his head and just do it.”
The blood is leaving Rachel’s face. “Do – what?”
“Oh, you know,” I say. “He’ll stick his left arm out in the way of something coming down on the crane and – SNAP!” I clap my hands and they jump. “His arm breaks in half – and he’s got a two-month vacation at two‑thirds pay.”
Cindy shudders right on cue, like a fiddle trill coming in on just the right lyric.
“As a matter of fact,” I go on, “I even saw one guy jackhammer off part of his foot. It was right before a strike, and a bunch of guys were trying to fuck themselves up before the strike went off. Disability pays way more than strike wages. So this guy figures he was just gonna break a couple toes. I guess he didn’t realize how much less juice it takes to jackhammer off a foot instead of a piece o’ concrete.”
Cindy’s mouth is hanging open and I stare at her and can’t help but smile.
“You’re just making this up,” she says, “to upset us – aren’t you?”
“No,” I say, the smile gone. “I’m just used to hearing about it.”
“God,” she says, “that’s so awful. What kind of man would mutilate himself to get out of working?”
“A pretty goddamn desperate kind of man,” I say.
Cindy shakes her head, obviously trying to make this fit into everything else she knows and not doing a good job of it. “I just can’t imagine ‑–“
“Well, anyway,” Rachel interrupts, her voice suddenly irritated. “How do you and the other workers feel about the union?”
“Oh ‑‑ you know,” I shrug. “It sucks. How are we supposed to feel? The union guys are all scumbags on the make. They’re sleeping with the bosses and there’s nothing we can do about it. But it’s better than no union at all.”
“So why don’t you vote in a new union?” Rachel asks.
I laugh. “Are you kidding? You mean go against the union?”
“Certainly. It’s your union. Why not?”
“Because we’d get fired. That’s why not.”
“Don’t you have any more balls than that?” Rachel snaps at me.
“What?” I say, stunned, not sure I heard that right. “Balls?”
“Yes,” she says. “As in backbone ‑‑ as in dignity. As in standing up for your rights.”
“Yeah?” I’m suddenly pissed and it all comes out. This fucking rich little bitch! How dare she say that to me! “Let me tell you about balls and standing up to the union, honey. My old man had a big hard‑on for the union, right? He was all gung‑ho about it when he was my age, back when his plant was just getting organized. He sang union songs and Woody Guthrie songs and got into some hardcore strikes and fistfights with the goons and all that ‘you can’t move me, I’m sticking to the union’ shit. Fifteen years later, the union got bought out by a bigger one. All full of lawyers and speechifers and political whatnots. And as soon as jobs and money got tight, who’s ass was covered? The union pigs, that’s who. Sold their own people down the fucking river. And my poor son of a bitch of an old man – he – he –“
I catch myself when I notice Cindy going even paler than usual. Rachel just looks disgusted.
“Yes?” Rachel snaps.
“Nothing,” I say, staring at the cement crust on my boots.
“No,” she says. “Go ahead. What did he do?”
“He tried to do exactly – exactly what you’re talking about and –“
“And so what happened?”
I kick at a loose brick in the sidewalk. Slivers of weed grow up the side. I don’t feel like thinking about it or dealing with it or trying to explain any of it them.
“Nothing,” I say. “He’s dead.”
I look at them. Cindy’s mouth is hanging open. Rachel is staring off, biting down on her lower lip.
“I learned from my old man’s mistakes,” I finally say. “That’s America. And what we got isn’t the best, but it’s better than no union. At least we get a decent wage and some insurance out of the deal. It’s more than the millworkers had around here a hundred years ago. If you look at it that way, and who’s gonna complain?”
Rachel jumps up and turns her back to me. “I told you it was no use,” she says to Cindy. She goes into their house, slamming the door behind her.
“Sorry about that,” Cindy says. “She’s kind of moody.”
“Yeah, well –“
“I tried to tell her it was a bad idea. She’s just been very depressed the last few days and needs something to keep up the faith.”
“Yes,” Cindy says. “Don’t tell her I told you – but her novel was rejected by the publisher she had been counting on most. The workers’ meeting next Sunday was her way of getting to work on something else.”
“Next Sunday, huh? Well, that wouldn’t have worked with the boys from my crew anyway.”
“Next Sunday’s the big hot rod show out at the Fairgrounds. They’ve been talking about it for the last month.”
“The uh – hot rod show?”
I laugh. “Yeah. It’s like the Super Bowl. They look forward to it all year.”
* * *
I’m sitting on the couch, picking at my banjo. Maggie’s doing something in the kitchen. I hear her chuckling to herself. I feel like an asshole.
Hank just left. It was a nasty argument, and I hope it doesn’t show when we’re on stage Friday night. Either way, I don’t think he’ll be coming over for any social visits for a while, which is just as well as far as Maggie is concerned.
He showed up to practice, but he was way too drunk and weirded out about something. All he did was get drunker and weirder, and then finally stormed out. The argument started after he went on and on about John Lennon, his voice all weepy and eyes all moist.
I was already in a bad mood. I wanted to get to work on an arrangement for a new song, and I was beat from working all day, and fighting it off so I can play. I felt cheated out of a night of music, and mocked on top of it.
Hank was mumbling all that nonsense about John Lennon the saint and martyr and nobody understands and all of a sudden, he starts sobbing. I couldn’t believe it. He’s sitting there on our couch, weeping about John Lennon.
And I’m pissed. I’m sitting across from him picking my banjo and itching to play and finally just spat it out, mostly because I was angry at him for being too drunk to work on the song.
“Oh, come off it, Hank! John Lennon’s dead. He has been for nine years. And besides that,” I snapped, “he was just a rock star – an entertainer who got all full of himself, along with everything else from the sixties.”
He looked at me like I’d just spit on the Bible. “You’re wrong, man, dead wrong. You’re just twenty‑seven,” he whimpered, slobbering beer all over his beard. “You don’t understand how it was back then.”
Maggie rolled her eyes and walked out of the room.
“It was so real,” Hank mumbled, “so fuckin’ real, man ‑‑ taking strawberry mescaline and not giving a fuck ‑‑ just not giving a fuck. All of us driving over to DC and demanding – a hundred thousand of us, man – demanding an end to all the fascist lies. The sixties was the best, the best time for –” his voice trailed off and, no shit, there were actual tears rolling down his face.
I was so pissed and disgusted I just about shit myself. “The best time for what?” I snapped.
“For the revolution, goddammit!”
“Yeah,” I snickered, “the revolution! Give me a break, man. It wasn’t even the sixties anymore, back when you were doing your sixties thing. Remember? The war was over and John Lennon was making crappy music with Yoko and New York real estate.”
I heard Maggie in the kitchen, trying to choke back a laugh.
“I feel sorry for you, Caleb,” he said, sucking back his tears and taking another long swallow of beer. “I really do.”
“Because you’ll never know how real it was.”
Real? I wanted to yell at him. When was it real? I didn’t say it because I knew it was just my shitty mood talking after such a shitty day, and I shouldn’t have popped off in the first place. So I just shut up and let him ramble on, and I sat there trying to remember what year it was. He told me the whole story on the way back from that gig down in Virginia. Was it 1973? 1974?
Hank wasn’t even a hippie or anything, at least not at first. He was just some guy out of the Army, looking to start his life somewhere, maybe play some music. He was just a guy working on the water, getting up every morning at four and going out before sunrise and trying to scrape a living off the bottom of the Chesapeake with oyster tongs. But it wasn’t working. The oyster harvest was off, there was no music around to play except gospel, and the people in that town never liked him to begin with after he blew off the church. On top of that, he was fresh out of the Army and bad‑mouthing everybody in it as a bunch of gutless bureaucrats and ass‑kissers and saying we got what we deserved in Vietnam. That’s when they really started hating him. And he was what 20, 21? Already married and divorced, his hair long, stoned all the time. But that wasn’t it, either. There was a girl, the one from the crabmeat plant, and there was a fight. Somebody called him a white trash hippie.
That’s it. The girl was black. Some guys from her town called Hank a “white trash hippie” and beat him up. Now I remember. We were driving back from a festival down in Fredericksburg and he was telling me how he started hanging out with this girl from the next town over, the black town with all the seafood processing plants. Her name was Nita and she was working her way through nursing school and supporting her father and little sisters.
“She was one of those real heroes you never hear about,” he said, “One of those people that just endures, you know?”
He said he met her at a farm auction and she was the only person around who was really cool and thought the church was bullshit and was into the Beatles, like he was back then. He said he used to drive her home from school, and one night after dropping her off, he was halfway down some dark, empty road and they got him.
Now I remember: they weren’t the black guys from her town who always sneered at him. They were the white guys from his town who always sneered at her. They followed him, two cars and a truck with the high beams on, honking at him, running up his ass. He said he tried to speed up, but his old man’s truck was a clunker and wouldn’t do better than sixty or so and when they got far enough out, they came around and boxed him in and ran him off the road, into the ditch along a cornfield. He smashed his head when he went into the ditch and he tried to get out and run, but he could barely stand up and they had him.
They dragged him into the middle of the field, three of them, he said. Spitting on him, kicking him, asking how he liked fucking a monkey. He said they didn’t beat him up too bad, just a few punches and a lot of talked like they were going to worse, but it scared him enough to shit himself. Then he stopped telling it, and I’ve always wondered if there was more to it than that.
The next night, Hank slipped out of the old man’s house and hitchhiked up the Shore to an old friend’s house in Delaware. He got a job painting ships and played guitar in a garage band and grew his hair to his waist and started banging speed, and snorting coke, and eating a lot of acid. It was 1975 and the war was over.
“Yeah, well, whatever,” I grumble to him.
I feel like shit for what I’d just said to him.
“It’s not like you think, man,” he said. “It’s not. It was real. It was the only real thing.” He wiped his face.
“Look, man,” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m just –“
He stood up. “No, man, don’t say it.” He picks up his guitar and heads for the door.
I get up and go over to him. “Hey, uh –“
“Forget it, man,” he says, opens the door and looks out into the road. “You’re right. It’s all shit, that’s what it is,” he mumbles on his way out. “Just can’t seem to let go of it.”
I feel like an asshole. I put my banjo down and go into the kitchen. Maggie is cleaning the little metal things that go under the burners. They’re stained with stuff that spilled and boiled over, their once chrome‑gleaming rings blackened and hardened by heat and more heat, a hundred times over. Maggie always cleans them when she’s agitated.
“Maybe we should think about moving,” she says.
I think about it a moment. Yeah, maybe we should move. I don’t want to go anywhere else, but I don’t want to stay here either.
* * *
I’m sitting out on the stoop with a cup of coffee, watching the last shaft of the day’s light crawl up the old stone faces of the houses up the hill across the way.
The warmer weather makes work better, now that we’re back outside. Today we finished a big pour ahead of time and the foreman let us sit around and bullshit, still on the clock, with one of the cement truck drivers, the steely‑haired guy with the sideburns, white t‑shirt, jeans and old western boots. He’s an old buy, wiry but fleshy, with a little paunch, his arms still taut with the half‑gnarled muscles of a man who doesn’t do steady heavy work anymore but still has to do one or two big grunts every day. He was telling us about his horse.
“Yeah‑up,” he said, “I ride him all over out the country.”
“That’s right,” Bill said. “I seen you up the fairgrounds last year.”
“Yeah‑up,” he said. “I ride him over the fairgrounds every now and again. Used to ride him clear up the Legion Hall, and all the way down into Ellicott City – ‘for’in they widened 29 to four lanes.”
“That right?” Joe said. “All the way down Ellicott City, huh.”
“Yeah‑up,” he said. “You could, back then. Tie him up right out front and go in and have cold one.”
Bill’s belly shook with laughter. “Just like the goddamn Marlboro man!”
We all laughed at the joke, and the cement truck driver looked a little embarrassed.
But a moment later, a hush fell over everyone, and I looked around the circle of men. They were all staring at the ground dreamily, a peaceful, faraway look on all of those tired, sweat‑stained faces.
* * *
I’m practicing in the empty room on the top floor, soaking up the smells of a warm and stormy April afternoon, the air all spicy and green and wet with rain. I’ve got a new instrumental tune I’m going to try out for the first time at our gig tonight. It’s a struggle remembering all the little hooks and turns. Too many hours at work and lessons on three nights and I haven’t gotten in any decent practice all week.
I stop picking and re‑tune.
Out in the street, a shriek, that woman again, crying out for her son.
I get down on my knees and look out the window. A soft rain is falling. The woman paces back and forth in the wet road, the same, ever‑exploding agony in her face, frantic, anguished, lashed with the guilt of the helpless mother. She could not save him, and she cannot let go of him.
I stare at her gnarled mouth, the frenzied eyes. What does she hear? His scream? Can she hear him still, dying, right now in an eternal present?
Maybe I can write her story into a song. Maybe I should try. I don’t know.
I walk to the top of the stairs and look out the little window in the back of the house, down through the budding trees to the river. The water rushes on, brown with mud. It chugs past boulders, twists around a cluster of swamped trees, gushing up and churning around the bend by the old mill.
The woman’s scream again, out front.
I try and imagine that one moment, washed away since by so many spring thaws and summer thunderstorms and cold November rains. For her, that horror is happening right now, at this precise moment, as it has every moment since. One accidental collision of gravity and flesh, a child’s scream muffled by mud and water, the flow of blood over rock. Why can’t she let go? Why this madness? That moment came and passed, and then another moment, and then another. Then the screaming stopped, sucked into the thunder of the moving water, and a lifeless body was carried away on the current.
Go home, crazy woman. Go home and make some coffee and turn on the radio and try to tap your foot to the music. Your little boy is dead and it is time to move on. It is time to start living again. Is it that hard?
I stare down at the river and wonder. Is it really that hard?
* * *
I can’t sleep. I sit on the edge of the mattress and pick up my banjo, my fingers whispering over the strings, a sad little ballad.
It’s not enough to wake Maggie, but she mumbles something anyway, twitches, rolls over and sinks back to sleep.
My fingers brush another sad little tune off the strings, just enough to make sounds like soft rain on a metallic roof.
I’m glad we’re moving, glad to be getting out of this place. I like the woods and the river, all the history. But it’s too much like my hometown; there’s too much pain here, and I don’t have any blood left to give. I can only stare at these broken people, and wonder how they got that way, my face as blank and steady as a clock’s.
Maggie said the same thing about the shelter. She would come home depressed and stay that way for a week. There’s too much pain out there and you can’t stop any of it. It just keeps coming. Let it cut too close and you’ll bleed, and then you’ll be bled dry.
I’m glad to be getting out of here. Maggie found us a nice place to rent out on a farm. Cows and woods and a big pond full of fish. We can start over out there. Put some tomato plants in, sow some corn, start an herb garden.
Moving out of here four months after moving in but it’s just as well. Frank and his girlfriend need a place to live, now that they’re getting evicted. Frank went into his usual late April rage. Got mean drunk and broke every window in their apartment. He can have this place with my blessing.
He’s turned into such a sour, mean‑spirited son of a bitch lately. Probably won’t even hear the beatings, the shrieking kid up the street. Probably won’t even notice the old woman across the way. Or if he did, he probably wouldn’t care or would find it funny in some sick way.
But I don’t care either. Or maybe I do care, but I know better. I don’t know. I want so badly to believe in the ghosts, if only because it’s better than believing in nothing.
I go back to the ballad, slow it down, and let the last piece of melody hang and the rhythm swell up behind it before turning back to the beginning.
A shudder in the bed, and Maggie snaps awake. She looks up at me in the glow of the moonlight.
I stop playing. “Bad dream?”
She sits up and rubs her eyes. “Yeah.”
I laugh softly. “Ghosts talking?”
“No, just a dream,” she sighs. Then she sits up in the bed and sighs again. “There aren’t any ghosts here.”
“What about the millworkers?”
“No,” she says. “Their spirits were dead before their bodies were.” She pulls herself up out of bed. “The only ghosts around here are still alive.”
She goes down to the bathroom and I head back into the ballad, a weeping, plaintive melody in A minor. It’s an old song, really. But there are a couple empty corners where I’ve put in a few of my own touches.
* * * * * *