20 Aug Fiction: A Journey, an excerpt from the upcoming novel “Nashville Chrome,” by Rick Bass
THE ROAD WAS DIFFERENT, ONLY A GENERATION AGO. Country music singers of today have no idea. It’s all podcast and blog, all surface and slide. Not so long ago it was muscle and slog, sustained and enduring hope, and drift, always drift.
In 1952, the musician Jim (“Gentleman Jim”) Reeves and his wife Mary befriended a young musical family, the Browns, and took them under their wing. They were all managed by the same snake-oil promoter, Fabor Robinson, who had asked Jim and Mary to show the Browns the ropes. Hardscrabble poor, the Browns had never been more than 50 miles from their home in Sparkman, Arkansas, while Jim and Mary Reeves had been touring for more than 10 years by that point. There was something about the Browns that reminded them of themselves, and gave them a breath of fresh air. Maxine, ambitious and haunted, barely 21, was the oldest Brown; Jim Ed was 20, and Bonnie, at 16, was the baby. Jim and Mary Reeves were 35. It was a hobby, back then. It was a way of life, rather than a living. Had the Browns cared to see such a thing, they might have been able to observe Jim and Mary a little more closely and peer into the short near future that awaited them, with the paths of nearly all mentors establishing as if through ancient negotiation the same trails down which their disciples must travel — but the Browns chose not to observe those diminishments, that underlying wobble in Jim and Mary, and instead, in the power and exhilaration of the Browns’ youth, they observed only the joy.
Sure, Jim drank a fair bit, and Mary seemed to be strung a little tight at times, but there was such great fun to be had at every show, and in every mile traveled; in every breath taken in, and in every exhalation.
It was all so incredibly new for them. They set off for the Pacific Northwest, feeling they had been handed the keys to the world, or as if they had just been born.
They drove all day and night before seeing mountains for the first time, real mountains. The air in the Colorado mountains was cooler and drier than they had known air could be, and they noticed that sounds traveled farther, and held together longer.
To save Fabor money, they camped out as they traveled, and built fires to stay warm, and sang and played music far into the night, while Jim Ed and Jim drank from their flasks and watched the sparks cascade into the stars whenever they tossed wood on the fire. Bonnie and Maxine weren’t yet drinking much back then, but under those cold stars, and in the spirit of the party, they would have a warming sip now and again, whenever Jim Ed or Jim passed the flask.
For a country music singer, Jim wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and the Browns sometimes teased him about this, calling him a rhinestone cowboy, and telling him he needed to come visit them at their home some day and spend some time with them in the woods before he could truly call himself country — but there on that trip, Jim began to learn a little about such things, and was not displeased with a life he had previously viewed as uncouth.
The endless sky of Wyoming, and then, farther up into the mountains, the foreboding yet exhilarating forests of spruce and fir. The sulfurous exhalations of Yellowstone, the fantastic roiling belches of the mudpots, the hissing venthole aspirations of fumaroles. The impatient 93-minute wait on the boardwalk for the spray of Old Faithful, with the brimstone taste of it in their lungs. Tourists rushing out afterward to reclaim their scattered laundry, having stuffed it down into the maw of the geyser some moments before the turbulent ejection.
Bears walking the roads and leaning up against their car with dagger-claws, nose-smearing against the glass, mugging for snacks. Jim trying to put some of Mary’s lipstick on one bear, and the bear snarling and snapping at him, Jim pulling his hand back just in time, milliseconds away from the end of his guitar-picking.
Pelicans floating overhead, as ghostly white and slow-moving as if in a dream, and seagulls drifting and squealing, and no matter that they were still a thousand miles from any present-day ocean.
The tattered clouds of the Pacific Northwest, then — all the way to the Puget Sound — where the slate and metallic sheen of the skies, bruise-purple and storm-green, was beautiful, but seemed to attach its leaden colors to Maxine’s blood in a way that she found dispiriting. Too far from home, was all, perhaps, or maybe it just wasn’t her place on earth.
In her home movies from that trip, Maxine can see hints of what was to come, in those few frames that she inhabits, in the moments when Bonnie grabs the camera and turns it back on her. Not quite yet a worry or a fretfulness, but instead maybe just the beginnings of a kind of stillness or wariness: the dawning, perhaps, of an understanding of the nature if not the name of the thing — the blessing as well as the curse of fame and talent — that was in her. The Browns would go on to become famous, like Jim Reeves, though but briefly; their career would last but three years. They would have half a dozen hits in that time, and then would be forgotten, passed-by; they would vanish.
Seeing those beautiful pewter skies in the Northwest, and feeling the first tug or bump of depression: as surprising an emotion to Maxine then as if a large ship far out at sea, floating serenely and confidently above a thousand feet of water, and with no sign of a shore in any direction, was to suddenly bump hard against something just beneath the surface. It was all fun and games for Jim Ed and Bonnie, but Maxine viewed it differently. To her, fame felt like air; already, she had to have it in every breath.
In the Pacific Northwest, she saw a killer whale. She was sitting by herself after their last show, out on a porch overlooking the water. She was lulled by the ghostly white shapes of the big sailboats in their moorings on the dark water, masts stark against the sky without their sails. The water lapping almost but not quite rhythmically against the dock. The male musicians were still inside the bar, drinking. Maxine kept turning and looking back in from the darkness at the yellow window squares, and at the mirthful, vibrant figures moving around within those frames. She wanted to join them but for some reason could not.
When the whale surfaced she saw only the back part of it, going back down, gleaming wet in the night. She thought at first it was a sailboat turning slowly over. She ran inside to get the others — her sorrow or sadness jolted out of her, burned so clean and free as if it would never return — but the whale did not reappear, and they teased her and accused her of being drunk.
ONCE THEY WERE TURNED AWAY and headed back, Maxine quickly felt better, headed back downhill. She saw that the continent was as vast as her dreams, and thrilling for that, but unsettling; it was as if the physical detachment from her home, one of those fractures that Fabor had counseled them about, had opened up, and everything she was, and everything that she might be, was draining out.
They ran out of money in Idaho and Fabor wouldn’t wire them any, so they had to wait tables and wash dishes in a truck stop, and play live shows in the parking lot each night, selling autographed black-and-white glossies of themselves afterward to raise enough money to get back home, but no matter, they were pointed in the right direction, and because of their youth, it was nothing but fun, only an adventure.
They were driving two cars, the Browns in one and Jim and Mary in another, and Jim and Mary pulled a little homemade shell of a trailer that was stuffed with all their gear. Passing back through Colorado they detoured to go see Pike’s Peak, where, frustrated by how hard the trailer was to maneuver, Jim Reeves unhitched the trailer, took their luggage out, and gave the little trailer a shove with his boot, sent it catapulting over the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff just for laughs.
At another point in the journey, still in Colorado, Jim’s and Mary’s car ran out of gas in an autumn snowstorm in the middle of the night. Jim Ed hiked down off the mountain in his dress boots while the others stayed with the cars and struggled to build a wretched little fire with comic books and wet branches. They were on a back road, no traffic passed by — they imagined they might remain stranded there on into the winter, and then the spring — but fortune favored them, Jim Ed found a cabin at the bottom of the mountain at daylight, and got a ride back up to their cars with a can of precious gasoline, and they continued on their way, back down toward the flatlands, back down toward warmth, back down toward home: driving hard now, nonstop, with no more gigs scheduled, and the intensely bittersweet pull of home aching in all of them now.
They did not regret the tour, but each felt as if he or she had somehow gotten away with some great risk or gamble, in the adventure of their outing — had sought to pull away from the directive of where the larger world most wanted them to be, and what it wanted them to be doing — and that although the freedom of that pulling-away had been exhilarating, they were getting back home only just in time — though of what the consequences of not getting back home and re-attaching might have been, they could not have said, but knew instinctively that they would not have been in their favor.
Almost as if each of them had been guilty, while on that grand trip, of spurning their various gifts, and were made uneasy by the strange thrill they felt in that betrayal, that willful destruction of the vague contract they each held. A contract which, unlike the one with Fabor, they had never signed, and never requested.
THEY DROVE DAY AND NIGHT, heading south and east; down out of the mountains and across the broad plains and then back up into the hills and hollows. They took the good roads straight on toward Memphis arriving south of there just before dusk. They stopped and looked down at the Mississippi, and were reassured by the force and mass of it, as well as by the deceptive leisureliness of its pace. The muddy color of the river, as well, was calming — prior to their trip out West, that color was the only one they had ever known a river to be — and with the last of the sun glinting off the water it looked like a winding path of bronze, passing with strength through a seething velvet jungle, and they relaxed further, watching it and considering the things they had seen.
Jim offered everyone a pull from his flask. There was a hand-carved sign in the pull-out area where they were parked that told the story of the New Madrid Fault, over which they were sitting. Back in 1811, the fault — which underlay the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, down through Memphis and Tupelo and Jackson and all the way down to New Orleans, and into the sea — had cracked like an eggshell. The Mississippi had run backwards for days in what everyone, slaves and slave owners and freemen, believed with deepest conviction was the end-time, with the bodies of men and animals riding those frothy, muddy waves, pitching and tossing amidst the timbers and rootwads of forests and the rooftops of houses. Horses, some dead and swollen from hundreds of miles ago, others still saddled and swimming hard, as if riding to war, but with no riders. A terrible harvest from what used to be downstream but was now upstream.
The Browns and Jim and Mary sat on the back bumpers of their old cars and watched the river until the glint went away. Then they got in their cars and continued on, following the river south for a while before stopping to call the Browns’ parents, Floyd and Birdie. They gave them an estimate of when they’d be in, and proceeded on, a tiny caravan, winding now on the familiar country roads and back roads of their youth, their childhood, drawing ever closer to the feast.
And when they passed the old sawmill, which was shut down again, and pulled into their dark yard and saw the lights on in all the rooms, saw the figures of their mother and father, and their younger sister Norma inside, saw those figures come out of the light and into the darkness to greet them, they were received again as if home from a war. They introduced Jim and Mary to their family, and celebrated with music, and Birdie’s cooking, all night long.
A fire in the fireplace, the smell of pies baking, and a pot roast cooking in the oven. Sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, turnip greens; home, warm and yellow-lit and safe and intimate. Home, never leave. Bonnie laughing the loudest, glowing, exuberant and radiant. A glance by her over at Maxine, who, though smiling, seemed almost at one point to be wearing a stage smile; seemed to somehow be curiously distracted. Home, never leave.
One sister, Bonnie, would soon step gracefully away from fame, would not regret its passing by — would be grateful for what she had had — while the other, Maxine, would spend the rest of her life waiting, and burning.
How can this be? Is there not a choice in such matters — a pill one can take, a certain light bulb beneath which one can sleep, a simple readjustment of awareness or attitude? Why do some fires go out while others smolder on?
How much, really, does any traveler get to choose her or his path? If a river that has always flowed south one day can turn around and flow north, can not other such journeys and paths yet reverse themselves, and bring joy, or peace, to one who has not yet known or traveled such a route?