the moment ... he had to play
you spare me over till another year?
wasn't sure what had made him pick up his old git-tar and sit out
in front of the courthouse. But there he was, a-playin' on the day
that Pat Brown got himself hung.
Rege never paid the papers no mind, just what folks said down at
the store and what he heard about. Folks he had to take his trade
with were about all he saw, nowadays.
Rege worked his little patch of land up on Short Mountain, came
down when he had corn or sour mash to sell and never bothered no
one besides. The government men left him alone, possibly because
he never sold enough white lightning where they thought he could
turn a profit. Rege didn't want much. Just wanted to be left alone.
There was something in the wind that day, though. Didn't smell
right. A screech owl had come to set outside his window the night
before the big trial. Rege had waited for it to say something. It
hadn't, though, not like the way his Grammy told it. Just set there
looking in, then flew off after a mouse.
It had been all through the papers about old Pat, anyway. Pappy
One-Eye down at the tavern, who bought up most of the mash Rege
ever had to sell, had told him about that. Rege had heard the dogs
and the cussing every couple of nights, all the younger men from
town out with their old coon hounds, liking to give up the ghost
once it got past midnight or so.
"I hope they string him up by the ballacks," Pap had
summed up, over the little bit of see-gar he always had in his teeth.
"I knowed how that little girl looked, after 'bomination.'"
Rege knew how Pap had come by that. Undertaker Mallory had not
spoken of the Streeper girl outside of the reports he had to make
to the sheriff and mayor-as-coroner.
But Conor Mallory had spilled his guts to them and word had a way
of not staying inside the tavern. They found that little Streeper
girl buried under a pile of brush, Pap said, on the bank of the
thin part of the crick uphill from Shaw's Pond. Been hunting her
all winter, Pap didn't need to remind him. What had been left was
kind of easy to examine, Mallory had said. Too cold for bugs, too
warm for frost.
Easy to examine ... but hard to look at.
Rege sat playing git-tar now, looking up at the big old tower of
the new courthouse that had just gone up that year. Selectman Erskine,
in his speeches on the town common that summer, was always running
his mouth about Rock Springs being the new nexus of the Trans-Continental
Railroad, once they built that railway curve around the mountain.
To hear him tell it, Rock Springs would be a big city soon.
Dream on, Rege thought, tipping the big, wide brim of his
hat to the few ladies who passed that early in the morning. He seen
Cora Flanagan going past, and Miz Fanelli the butcher's wife had
gone and pitched a fifty-cent piece in his hat, standing in front
of where he set on the wall by the little wrought-iron fence out
"Play 'Long, Long Ago,'" she'd quavered, her dark eyes
looking straight into his. Miz Fanelli had a market basket held
in both bunchy, red-knuckled hands. Rege had looked at her for a
minute, thought it over, and worked out the odd double-chords.
She'd clapped those work-worn hands like a schoolgirl and gone
on her way. Rege had been pleased, though he never could have spoken
of why. It had just seemed right, to come down and play in the town.
He left the money in his case, and gave it not another look.
But after she'd gone, he'd thought a moment, looking down at his
own hard hands. She'd made him think of another song, the one about
old Death. He searched his poor chucklehead for the first few lines
and got it after a moment. He'd known one other feller who knew
that song: the guy who usually busked here for spare change.
The rag-and-bone man had been a face he knew, and well remembered
there. Even for a colored. They never had no truck with what color
he was, though. Old Jake was just someone who came by every third
Saturday, and left his mama a few coin for their tin cans and such
Rege paused in his playing, his eyes lost in one golden sunbeam
that passed by to meet him, through the storm clouds of the early
day. He hadn't seen Old Jake down here at this corner with his fiddle
nigh on five years. He wondered what had become of him, knowing
he was probably doing all right. But this was Jake's corner. Rege
would say something.
Rege remembered the first time he'd ever been to town, a young
boy who didn't know much, holding his mama's hand as she passed
with her own market basket to drop a coin in the cup. Had Miz Fanelli
not asked for that song, he would not have remembered.
And as he played now, switching from "Long, Long Ago"
into "The Midnight Special," Rege recalled that there'd
been a younger member of the audience, nowadays ...
A skinny black boy, all of about 12 or 13, standing round the square,
carrying his own git-fiddle
on a rope tied to both the studs and once about his shoulders? Rege
"Hey, boy!" Rege hollered up. A few of the passersby
looked around. "You know this'n hyah?"
Without a word more, he launched into the one he'd been thinking
Oh, Death / Oh ... Death
Won't you spare me over / till another year?
He never got the whole way through the first verse. Miz Fanelli
had come by and got Rege where he set, left hand still over his
heart like he was takin' a bow. Undertaker Mallory had taken right
off work to bring the hack down and take Rege on to the next gig.
They'd hung Pat Brown later that day.
on that same corner, Mackie Walker stood at the bus stop, disgusted,
waiting for the 7:01 to take him to school:
WORK ... FOOD ... CIGARETTE ... HOME ...
His mahogany fingers cradled the Gibson 12-string at his shoulders.
Mackie would have felt bad, playing right where he was.
This was Ron's spot, old Ron Jenkins the bluesman who came down
and busked for his supper with a much more seasoned guitar than
But at the moment, Mackie could not control the spirit that rose
up in him. He had to play.
He had to get this freestyle out:
WORK ... FOOD ... CIGARETTE ... HOME ...
None of y'all ever / look each other in the eyes!
Damn! / You know what YEAR this is?
Somebody got to find their own routine ...
The guitar dropped from his hands on the strap about his neck.
His hands began to pick like plants
following the sun. Mackie found the song his hands had already started
and let his voice do the same.
Oh, what is this / that I can't see
With ice-cold hands / taking hold on me ...
By the time the bus came for school, Mackie thought to himself
that he might have to have a talk with Ron. His guitar case had
collected a little under 50 bucks. But Ron hadn't been around for
a while. It was Ron's corner, though, and Mackie would say something.
All the way to school it was like Mackie could still hear someone