Let Me Tell You, Boys, Of Sweet Mayhem
by David Williams
Day became dusk and night bided time in the shadows. The guitar player leaned back on the top step of porch and whispered to his best girl. Callie just let her eyes roll, for she was wise to the ways of the con, the come-on and the silver tongue. Her daddy was a guitar player, too.Now night stepped out from beside the house, waving an unlit cigarette like a wand.
"Night's come for you, Jimmy Lee," she said. "Night's come for your itching bones and your fine city ride."
The white Cadillac convertible, a gift from the record company, was parked on the dirt yard, beside the chain-link fence. This was in the small country town of Digs, an hour dead east of Memphis, still in the state of Tennessee; you could sit on the porch and see Mississippi off in the distance, hiding behind a tree. Slow-peck vines, their flowers the shape and shade of red painted-up lips, were making advances on the car. They could have it, for what Jimmy Lee cared.
"I'm not going anywhere, Cal," he said. "I'm here. I'm home."
Night stepped onto the sidewalk, hitched up a National guitar and set about to play. It was a slow blues, the saddest refrain, but strictly suckers' bait. Soon the song had steam, buzz and crackle.
"Night comes on strong," she said, "and night won't take married for an answer. It never does."
"Nah," he said, as if the word, scarcely more than a grunt, were some incantation against the very night.
Night sang songs of train tracks, deep ditches and shallow graves from which men rose with a thirst more powerful than death. Night sang of Caddy convertibles that could be had for a song, if it were a really good one. Night took requests. Night sang Bottle It Up and Go and Waiting for a Train. Night crept closer, gave that slow-peck vine a good run for its red painted-up lips.
"Don't marry me, then," he said. "I'm staying, still and all. I told you. I'm home."
"Home, huh? In this nothing-doing country town you couldn't wait to leave four years ago? Home, huh? Sitting on the porch of a house that's just a few splashes of paint beyond a shack. Sitting here with a good view of that dirt yard and that chain-link fence and having to drive way the hell to East Motherless to buy a six-pack of beer?"
"Anyway, Cal," he said, "I like what you've done with the place."
Callie Jest was a painter. She had a wild, dripping brush for a left hand. She'd painted the house white and then she'd painted all manner of art upon it—specters and visages and black polka dots, snatches of Bible verse, blues lyrics and the green snaking waters of Wander Creek.
"Well, it's not the Hotel Peabody," she said, "but it's home."
"Home, yeah," he said. "I like to wake up knowing where I am and knowing I'll be there tomorrow and the day after. I like to sit on the porch sucking on some good country air. Just being with you, Callie Jest. Just being with you."
"I'll give you a couple of days," she said, "and you'll be back on that highway like stripes."
~ Night sat on the hood of the Caddy and sang of its outlaw past, a trumped-up tale, it's true, but sung with the thick air of knowing.
of sweet mayhem
Let me tell you 'bout the flash of knife
Let me tell you, boys,
of bitter wisdom
Let me tell you 'bout twenty to life
There were hoots not heard since Johnny Cash played San Quentin with Merle Haggard sitting in the front row.
Jimmy Lee hitched up his own guitar, a hollow-body Gibson, and took up night's song. He could play it once, old time's sake and all. He told himself so. He could play it like a record and then put the record back in the sleeve, the sleeve in the cover, the cover in the peach crate, like so.
It was a walking blues, a good stretch of the fingers. He leaned over the guitar, head bowed as if confiding to the thing. Notes loped, notes moseyed. He sang,
I saw the light
I saw the light up ahead
Neon, she said
Now there came a sound like slung gravel, a rushing whoosh of night noise, of bash and clang. The walking blues had hopped a ride and gone.
"Leaving songs," she said.
He set the guitar at his feet. He took stock of his bones. He sensed no itch to wander, none to stray. He smiled at her. He said, "I swear to you, Cal. I've given up the road, the weed and the lusty throng."
A lusty throng is what gathered those nights of that American summer to hear James Lee Vine and his band play their songs of wanton foolery. The tour was to continue in a week, in Little Rock. Then Dallas, then Houston, then farther west as the days took the names of cities and the nights played the same songs on new stages before the same lusty throng, only different.
"I've had my fill, Cal." The words were heavy with truth and the weight of lifting them felt good to him. "I'm full up."
She watched night make time with the slow-peck vine. They'd be in the back seat soon, she thought, going to town. Callie shook her head and sighed.
There were many days, but just the one night.
Some days could do little more than crawl, but some thought they could fly. Some days chased doubt with drink and some were cocksure. Other days had wisdom to fill riverbeds and these days flowed with knowing purpose. Some days spoke to God and God spoke back, and some days were damn fools bent on folly.
Some days were good with their hands and some had nimble minds. These were capable of greatness and bravery and insight that gave God Himself pause. And some days wrestled with the eternal questions: Why? When? Where? And with no answer thus forthcoming, a question that was its own answer: What the hell?
Some days knew they were up to facing the night and others braced for the struggle and still more bared their necks and awaited the bite.
Some days sipped and supped and some swallowed whole. Some days gorged and some fasted. Some days were feasts lovingly prepared and some days were just too deep-fried for their own good.
Always, though, there was another day coming. It might be better. Or anyway, different.
But all the nights were Saturday, bent and restless.
She sat beside him on the porch. She had fresh whiskeys. She had bare feet and toenails painted blue the shade of dark in the usual way. He ran a finger along the half-moon scar on her left knee.
"So what about the tour?" she said.
"The tour can go to hell, via Little Rock."
This seemed to cheer her some, and she sipped the whiskey. Her lips glistened. Her lips glowed wet with nectar and potion, country sweat and high test, and she leaned in to kiss him. She knocked him one.
He ran his finger some more along that half-moon scar and then he lifted her long legs. He admired their shape and sheen in the blue dark. He considered her toes, kissed and even counted them.
"All there?" she said.
He ran a finger the length of her shin, up and down, up and down. He settled on up. He bypassed that half-moon scar. He stopped at the hem of her dress and then he didn't stop. "Ahem," Callie Jest said, and sipped whiskey through a hairline crack of wry smile. It was her favorite party dress, blue-flowered and drink-stained with a couple, three lucky cigarette holes. She wore it that last night before he'd left town. They'd gone dancing at this cinderblock juke out beyond East Motherless. The band played the electrocuted blues and they danced and drank beer from quart bottles and adjourned to the field out back.
The next morning, they stood in the dirt yard. He leaned in to kiss her and she pushed him away, because hell, she thought, he's already gone. He's giving off exhaust and motor hum and gravel crunch just standing here.
She was wearing his filling station shirt, short-sleeved and drab gray with his name stitched on it. The filling station was where he'd worked; well, it was where he propped his feet and strummed his guitar and wrote his songs of her—all his songs were songs of her—as months fell from the beer distributor calendar that hung from a nail on the filling station wall.
He reached for her but she shooed his hand away. "Oil embargo's on," she said.
But as he turned to go, she whapped his ass with her open hand. That would have to do, would have to tide him over, tide the both of them, and so he took up his guitar case and he left that place called Digs, to go and sing his songs of her to a world that couldn't give three damns and wouldn't know him if he'd worn that shirt with his name stitched on it.
Four years later, he filled the great halls of the land from floor to rafters with songs of her.
"All there," he said.
It pulled from another pocket a silver flask. It drank deep but seemed shy of satisfied.
The days passed and the nights straggled behind them, sad shadows of themselves, strung out on the saddest refrain. Jimmy Lee sat on the porch of that small house sucking on some good country air. The phone rang and rang—the record company, band mates, their manager, the press—and he told them all the same thing.
"I could sit here forever," he said. "If I'm lying may God take away my voice, turn me off just like a radio."
"I remember what this one singer sang," she said. "The truth is a slow train / and we're all just hobos, really.'"
"Well, the singer was young and drunk and he thought damn foolery was the new coming religion," he said. "The singer thought he had it all figured. The singer was freshly famous and thought fame was a wise, knowing thing. This was before fame revealed itself to be a carny barker just trying to turn a buck into two. The singer thought the songs only came in bottles and the bottles could only be had at this place down the road a piece. The singer bought every romantic notion of rock 'n' roll decadence. He popped them like pills. The singer, he thought Jesus stretched taut on the cross had nothing on Hank slumped lifeless in that Cadillac backseat."
"Lordy," she said, more to the night than to him, "but the singer's found religion. Some, anyway."
"Nah, I'm still this heathen on two feet, trying to find my way. I think God likes to see us struggle with ourselves, man against his nature and all that. God must get weary of all those people who are so damned sure of everything. I think God likes to see the inner battle. God likes a good scrap."
"So anyway," she said, "you believe in God."
"I'm not so sure there's a heaven and a hell, but yeah, I reckon I do."
"My daddy, he believed in heaven and he believed in hell," she said. "He believed they were cities on his latest tour, same as Tupelo and Montgomery and Hot Springs. He believed a good man's eternal reward would fit in a shot glass without a drop wasted, and that a bad man's damnation could be tempered with a couple of headache powders. He was a Goody's man."
"Your daddy was a hell of a guitar player, and a wise man, too," Jimmy Lee said. "He knew. He told me one time, 'Believe the songs. Follow the songs. Follow them to the ends of the earth and only then should you stop.' He said then to tap the keg and await the savior."
"My daddy said a lot of things but he didn't do much."
"He had his day, your daddy."
"One damn record and it didn't sell," she said. "My daddy never had a day, Jimmy Lee. He had a night, and it was Saturday."
Night slumped behind the wheel of the Caddy, listened until it had heard quite enough. Night jangled the keys, and in the sound heard a familiar song and slowly began again to feel like itself.
Night bummed a light and night called for a drink, for drinks all around.
"I love you, Cal," he said. "I love the hell out of you."
"Oh, I've got some left," she said.
The night doesn't ask much: a whiff of gas and a working radio, a slug from whatever bottle's handy. The night will have what you're having. The night has one eye on the road and the other on the radio dial.
Come dark, you can pull in sound from hundreds of miles away: blue stomps from the big cities, lick-skillet country come down from the hills and up from the hollows, gospel on the lam from grace.
He thought of those early days of leaving, out with the band on the back roads in that old van, going from one dive bar to the next. They'd play their shows and then tear-ass out: the sound check and the fury, the power chord and the glory. They rocked and then they rolled.
He'd do his thinking then, out on those back roads. He'd think of writing her a letter but he never did. He'd think of what he'd say.
We never had a song, did we, Cal? You'd think you'd have gotten a song out of me if you didn't get one other thing. Surely I'd be good for that. But the songs are all mine, even those songs of you. I hoard them. I stuff them in my pockets and line my shoes with them. They're mine—goddamn it, I made them—and I only give them away to perfect strangers I meet out on the road.
Morning now, and Callie Jest took a black dripping brush to that Cadillac convertible. She painted it from bumper to bumper. She took a break for a morning beer and then re-appeared with a white dripping brush and with it painted highway stripes up the hood and down the trunk.
The day makes demands. The day asks for timeliness, a good day's toil, sweat upon the grindstone. You can shirk but the day lets you know it. The day tallies a mark where your conscience is or ought to be.
But the night doesn't demand courage and frowns upon caution. The night can't spell that word, caution. The night spins out on those hairpin curves of c. The night drives a big boat of a car, long as Hank's hearse, and there's always room for one more damn fool.
He sat on the porch thinking about fools and foolery, about how hard it was to be what he was and what he wanted to be, all at once. Because, he thought, a good man doesn't just spring forth, whole and solid and polished, with each new bidden day. Because the day still makes those demands upon a man, and day's darker side, biding its time out back in the alley with the alley boys, won't let you be.
The newspaper out of Memphis said the band's Little Rock show had been cancelled, and Dallas, too, but that Houston was on—or anyway it wasn't off yet. There were rumors of scandal and speculation of wanton foolery, but the band's manager, Early Mains, said it was Jimmy Lee's throat.
"Li'l touch of something, is all," said Early Mains, old carny barker that he was. "Couple of days of rest, boys and girls, and he'll get back to rocking the clothes from your bones."
Jimmy Lee smiled as he read that, took stock of his own bones and again sensed no itch. He didn't figure a man could be a rock star and a good woman's man, too. But he didn't know of any Tennessee statute that said he had to be a rock star. He sat on the porch and watched Callie put the last of the stripes on the car.
She sat on the porch now. He sat there with her. They had fresh beers. They sat for the longest time. They sat until it was dark as country midnight and then she said, "Night's come, Jimmy Lee Vine."
"Sure enough, night has, Callie Jest."
They drank their beers and watched it. Night danced and night crooned and night acted the fool for them. Night touched the moon for luck and then night hitched up its guitar and set about playing. Night played Mystery Train, Cadillac Man, and the one about Robert Johnson, asking to be buried down by the highway side, so his ghost could catch a Greyhound and ride.
Night jangled keys, like jangling keys were the new jazz. Night stomped feet and clapped hands.
"Think I'll call it a night, Cal," he said as she watched him for the slightest sign of itching bones.
"Yeah, Jimmy Lee."
Four o'clock, and even the night had nodded off. Now the big car eased from the dirt yard, making for the back roads and other roads beyond. He broke into a leaving song. He sang,
I'd leave it if I could
At least that's what I told her
The road's my home
My church of roam
I'm a most unholy roller
She turned off the radio and pressed the pedal to the floor. Gravel flew, filling the sky with road.
David Williams is a Memphis newspaper editor and fiction writer with several short story credits and two completed novels, "The Long Gone Daddies" and "The Very Last Night." His blog on music and writing, The Soundcheck & the Fury, is at http://davidwwilliams.blogspot.com/.