In June, they went to one of the smaller festivals at a fairgrounds near Fiesterville, which had once been a race track with the dirt tri-oval still apparent. The paved quarter-mile drag strip was the preferred location of those who camped with big units. Forty and fifty-footers were nothing unusual at festivals these days. Chat remembered when it was almost all popups and tents or hard-side tag-alongs in the early days, and those folks were still there, scattered about in the twenty-acre field or up in the woods, nestled between rock oak, maple and scrub pine trees and the huge layered sandstone outcroppings that broke up the undulating hillside, so hard to deal with they called the rock “Pike County Diamonds”. Building on a piece like that was a real pain, probably the reason the neighborhood was still undeveloped.
They had left work early on this Friday to help the Pigeon Forge Volunteer Fire Department— “To Serve and Protect!” their motto—specifically to help them “build” their stand out of a few hundred cases of beer and soda, which would be happily cannibalized, iced and sold during the course of the weekend. One of the fire company boys would sleep there to reduce the amount of pilferage, although at a buck a can, there was no good reason for theft.
In all the years he had played, Chat could only remember one theft at a festival up in New York when the too-anxious owner of a loud generator found his missing on a Sunday morning. He was fond of firing it up at six in the morning—one of the only three good hours to sleep between the heat of the sun and the insane picking that would go on until dawn. They found the generator later that day, tossed into the stream that ran through the campground, minus a spark-plug, but otherwise, none the worse for wear.
“The first thing we gotta do is build the walls,” Chat said happily. “Then we can get our stuff set up.”
“How’s beer-drinking jive with the Bible there, preach?” Sterling asked.
“And why is that any of your concern?” Chat asked, carefully stacking the cases of beer one on top of the next, staggering the courses so the wall would be solid.
“Just curious.” Sterling muttered, grabbing another case of beer and handing it to Chat.
Chat grabbed it, put it in place on the wall, sprang up on it, spread his arms out wide, and threw back his head.
“‘I would give you spiced wine to drink, the nectar of my pomegranates!'”
Jo-Jo paused in his unloading and looked at Chat quizzically.
“Keep yer freakin’ spiced wine. Hell, it’s getting hot out here.”
Chat jumped back down and moved to help Sterling with the stacking. He said, “I’m glad for hotness, then. You don’t remember bitching about that deep freeze we had in January, then? And the quote is from Songs 8:2, for your information.”
“Never heard of that one. Like the wreck of the ole ’97 is it?” Jo-Jo cracked, wiping perspiration from his forehead and smiling.
“Bad form to poke fun at God, Jo-Jo. I swear, the bunch of you are godless as Hindus,” Chat said, hoisting a case up on the wall.
“Actually, Hindus have way more gods then you do, preach. Hell, they got a god for every freakin’ thing. Even sex.”
“Wow. Maybe I’m a Hindu, then,” Jo-Jo laughed.
“And to think that only yesterday you were a lesbian,” Sterling said, mock pensive. “Hey, that reminds me. You hear about that new band? Lead singer is a guy named Slick Pete, and he has all these chicks behind him playing?”
“Oh, all girl band. There’s a concept, ” Jo-Jo sniffed.
“Well, remember that video with that guy, rock and roller, had all those girls with short black hair and red dresses, played behind the guy and then they all danced to the tune, kinda?” Sterling asked.
“Robert Palmer,” Jo-Jo said.
“Right. Well, this guy has the same set-up, except they’re all Indians.”
“Nava-hos?” Jo-Jo smirked.
“No, dummy. Indian Indians. You know, dots?” Sterling said, poking his index finger at his forehead as he said it. “Anyway, this guy calls the band ‘Slick Pete and Hindi Bimbos.'”
Chat laughed out loud.
“My God. Listen to you two. Where on earth would a band like that ever get hired?” he said, grabbing the last of the cases off the second truck.
“Where else? Califorinicata. But I hear the girls are really hot pickers, so maybe it isn’t so wacky after all,” Sterling said, hoisting the case up to Johnny.
“Well, no weirder than that bunch we camped next to last year at the big festival. What was it? The ‘Gay Blades of Grass?’ Those guys were nuts,” said Johnny.
“I still can’t believe you asked them what it was like to be gay,” Jo-Jo said.
“How the hell was I supposed to know that they were gay impersonators, for the love of Pete? Hell, I don’t even know what that means. I mean, I think they were gay after the way they acted after the beers and shine,” Johnny said.
“Well, they get the bookings. They were on Oprah the other day. I mean, imagine that, a bunch of bluegrass players on Oprah, for gosh sakes. Perversion pays these days, I guess,” Chat said sadly.
“And there’s no homophobe about you then, is there?” Sterling said to Chat.
All four of the boys were covered with sweat now, the beads welling up, then curving droplets would wash away the thin layer of dust that was beginning to settle on everything near the road. The units came rolling by in ones and twos with drivers with their arms out the window, waving as they passed.
“I’m not afraid of ’em. But they’re sinners all the same, and being a sinner and pretending to be one seems to be the same thing to me,” Chat said, frowning.
“Well, they do seem to have a blast, nancying around up there. And if they were gay, who would ever know, now? So this way, they can do what they like and the average guy can at least justify it all as an ‘act.’ Incidentally, isn’t that what we all do act, to some extent?” Sterling said, pausing in his lifting to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand.
“No acting about me,” Chat said firmly. “Or with Johnny, here, either. Right, John-boy?”
“That’s right!” Johnny said happily. He never paid these talks too much mind. They were too complicated, and somebody was sure to get a little pissed about it, so keeping out was the best way he could think of to keep it down.
“What about me? You saying I’m some kind of actor? ” Jo-Jo asked, staggering backwards with his hand palm out on his forehead and his face contorted as if in pain, fanning himself manically with his other hand. He stopped and looked at the three with sudden seriousness.
“Well, there was that other group I heard about. Does all the old cowboy songs. The Hanks, Jimmy Rodgers, like that, and they call themselves the Mad Cow Boys,” Sterling said, straight-faced.
“That’s pretty funny,” Chat said.
“Oh. So diseased livestock jokes are okay, then?” Sterling said. Chat shook his head with the shadow of a smile still on his face.
“Well, I was thinking, with all the Indian craze going on, we could call ourselves ‘The Troubled Utes.’ Come up there with those funky hats on and act bad.”
“Yeah, sure thing. We could raid people’s camps, carry off their women,” Jo-Jo said.
“Hindi Bimbos. That’s funny right there,” Johnny said, as he snugged the last case of beer into place. The “bar” was complete. The four stepped back and considered it: the cases of beer, neatly leveled on pallets, comprised three sides of a rectangle ten by ten and maybe eight feet high. Three large galvanized water troughs soon arrived, and the first ten cases of soda and beer were quickly iced down while poles were raised on the four corners. A blue tarp was raised overhead and down three sides, immediately plunging the inside into cool and welcome shade.
“Ah, a thing of beauty!” Sterling murmured.
“Like the tower of David! Pretty near. So, ready to get the cabana up, then?” Chat said.
From the hollow came the mournful sound of a recording being played over the PA system: Larry singing “Six More Miles.” The four men bantered easily as they made camp, first setting up the cabana in front of the popup that Chat had hauled down the night prior—a ten by twenty-foot tent of white, complete with four sides, zippered door and by-gosh windows on the sides. They placed the sawhorses in the one corner nearest the tree line, then the plywood bi-fold door on top, then the table cloth, an old plastic one with pictures of pinecones and canoe-paddling Indians on it (not Indian Indians)—that was the mess area. On top of that went milk crates stacked one atop each other for the cooking necessities, and bungee cord hooks on the aluminum framework of the cabana made a convenient place to hang pots and pans.
They got out their half dozen chairs and an empty spool of wire for a table, and set up the fire ring out front near the pile of logs and construction scrap that Jo-Jo was stacking against a small pin oak out in front of the campsite.
The last thing they did was to string the huge blue tarp over the area where Johnny and Sterling were pitching their tents, forming a small compound with the cabana in the center. Rain or shine, they’d have a place to hang out and play when they got bored or tired of traipsing all over the campsite in the middle of the night.
They ran up the state flag and iced the beer. Over on the hillside, in the mid-way of the old dirt track and on up into the woods, small knots of people were doing the same thing. A steady stream of festival goers were driving in, slowly, usually making a circuit around the track once to lean out of their windows and greet those who were already there. After a minute, a new rig they didn’t recognize slowed and stopped next to them, and when the door opened, there sat Red, as big as life.
Red was a long-haired biker with grizzled beard and a stomach too large to even be called a beer-belly. In fact, it wasn’t beer at all that did it too him, at least not directly. It wasn’t the calorie-laden, bubbly goodness that was at the center of most music, or beer’s caustic relative, booze, either, that made Red look like he had swallowed a quarter keg. It was his liver that was failing after four decades of boozing it up, banging down a fifth of Jack a night and picking until the first bird chirped. That’s when a fellow knew he had done it again, and that he would be suffering until the sun went down and the cool shadows laid their healing hand on the scorched summer hills. After a long afternoon “nap” and then a cheese-steak to settle the stomach, a real picker would be right back in the saddle again.
More than once the boys had seen Red flat on his back in the dewy grass of a festival site, seemingly dead to the world, or propped up in a chair near the fire-ring with head slumped on his chest, listened as the night became a thick stew of half-remembered licks and songs, and the small pauses between songs grew and grew until they annealed the night with silence. Then someone would carefully unstrap the Martin and put it to bed, leaving the picker to the cold and the dew in the frequent times they could not rouse him from death’s little cousin, sleep.
He’d been off the juice now for ten years, but still smoked like a fiend, maybe two packs of Marlboro’s and half a lid a day.
“I tell ya, I’m lucky to be alive. That last time they brought me in, they thunk I was a goner, and I thunk so, too. I was in too bad a shape to make out any kind of will or something, then I realized I had spit to give and nobody to give it to. There’s death in that bottle, I know that now—pure death. I’m a lucky man to be here at all to tell you that,” he had told Chat at the same spot last year.
“Hey there, boys! Check out the new rig!” he said happily this day, and of course the boys piled in, “ooohing” and “aahing” at the brand-spanking new camper, a sweet 38 footer with AC and a shower, comfy captain chairs in the dining section and a bedroom that looked like a 5-star hotel. The boys were all atwitter, and Red was mighty proud, too, showing the rig off, twisting up a fat joint and bragging about how little it had cost him—only fools would buy a new camper; you waited until somebody died or got too sick to go anymore, then bought it out from under ’em.
“How the hell could you afford this rig, if you don’t mind my asking,” Sterling asked him, and Chat winced. For an Ivy League guy, Sterling could be pretty crude, he thought.
“I been putting money by the last ten years or so. Hell, now that I don’t booze no more, I don’t need much money. I spend all my time just camping and picking anyhow.”
“Still, must have set you back a good deal,” Sterling persisted.
“Couldn’t afford a liver, so I bought this,” Red said, a trace too loud, and the boys all looked at each other first, then at Red to see if they should laugh. But Red wasn’t laughing, just looking at them with pot-reddened eyes.
Johnny finally broke the silence.
“Geeze, Red. You need a liver?”
“What they say. I figure, if I gotta go, I’ll go in style. No sense waiting around to do the things you dream about doing, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Chat murmured. “But, well, shoot, Red. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
In the awkward lapse of silence they could hear the Lost Ramblers next door teasing out the harmonies to an Everly Brother’s tune, “Bye Bye Love.”
“We all gotta go sometime, Chat ole friend. I got no regrets. I done more in 55 years than any six guys I know, screwed more women and got drunk as a lord, seen the world, all 50 states, Europe and Mexico, played a thousand tunes.”
“A thousand? Hell, Red, you played that many last year,” Chat said, mock-cheerful.
“Well, let’s make that a thousand and one then, my friend,” Red said.
The boys walked into the crystalline sunlight, picked up their instruments and were soon back in the only world that seemed real at a time like that, a world where an idea turns into a vibration that makes chords that become riffs and then songs and then universes of songs about the real world. They were songs with more weight and muscle, more blood and bone, more hope and more misery than the world the music was supposed to represent, the music soaring above the summer goodness like joyful birds against a landscape of greens so rich and blues so deep they made all the other colors jealous, weaving skeins of faith that held and lifted them all up like Ezekiel’s wheel.
Chat paused in between the songs, thinking of the place without Red in it, wondering, and he could tell the others were thinking that, too. He looked at the snug campsite with new appreciation, perhaps trying hard to burn the moment into his mind, and played out the weekend the way he thought it would go.
He knew that the woods edge where they were camped would keep the sun off until at least eleven the next morning, and that was important. They would be lucky to get ten hours sleep over the next three days, reason enough to have taken the following Monday off.
Up until this year, Chat had taken only four days off a year, besides Sundays: first day of buck season, first day of trout season, and the Mondays following the two festivals they always played. Homer was too happy to fill in at the pumps and could repair a flat or tune a carburetor if the need arose, although he invariable wound up getting somebody riled over some trifle.
But, people had come to expect it, like Christmas or the first snow, and so Chat figured it wasn’t all bad.
“Hey. Lets get jammin’ here,” Sterling said, anxious.
“Relax old son. We have all weekend. You know you’re fingers are gonna be sore when we’re done anyways,” Chat said.
Johnny sat silently and smiled, sipping the first of five-dozen beers he would drink that weekend. That was the way, he thought. One an hour wouldn’t hurt a fly.
He stopped for a moment and sat in one of the folding captain’s chairs, took a long pull on the Yuengling and looked out over the festival grounds. The sun was touching the trees on the ridge opposite, throwing long shadows that stretched themselves towards him. Johnny half-remembered his grandma, she was Acadian, singing a song:
Quand les cieux sont bleus
que je suis un homme corageux
Je ris et chante, je travaille sans un soin
Mais quand le soir est pres de
Les onmbres me reclament
La nuit tourne le rhome et je frissonne
Seul pensant de l’une qui est alle avant
His mind translated the words with ease. “When skies are blue I am a brave man, I laugh and sing, I work without a care. But when evening is near, the shadows claim me, the night turns cold and I shiver alone, thinking of the ones who have gone before.” He gave a little shiver; surprised at the memory, then also remembered what she would say whenever that happened: l’oie marche sur la tombe: goose walked on my grave. He took a pull on his beer and looked for a pleasant thought to put that all out of his mind. Too morbid, that was.
This was one of his favorite times, after all, sitting and listening to all the faint sounds of picking, a fragment of a banjo, laughter from a group of friends in the hollow, the evening like silk or a ripe peach, smooth, delicious, the smell of a good steak cooking over wood smoke, pinpoints of fires leaping into view as the sun began to hug the horizon and the halflight of dusk smoothed all the ragged edges. The small and twisted trees in the forest opposite melted into a dark, solid sentinel against the pinks and oranges of the sunset, the gray and rutted road became a silver ribbon, the unkempt midfield, hastily mown and raked out with clumps of grass and hay sticking up like cowlicks in the light of day now became a field of incredibly smooth greenness in the moment just before all color ceased and the world was made into a black-and-white photo.
Johnny had seen that happen once. They were driving through the Water Gap, the Delaware River running high after a heavy rain that had first melted the snowpack and had itself turned to snow, coating all the branches, trees and rocks of the Indian Head and Mount Minsi on the opposite side of the river, and both mountains were clothed in white. They had been driving through the dusky light to a bar job they had over the border, and Johnny couldn’t put his finger on what was odd about the beauty in front of him until he realized that the land was in black and white and the sky, a deep indigo, was very much in color.
Yes, Johnny saw things like that, and, once in awhile, if the boys weren’t too frisky and prone to making fun, he’d point it out, although he knew pretty much when they felt it, too. He just didn’t want to be thought stupid. Sure, he hadn’t been the best at school, but part of that, he reasoned, had to do with being made fun of. After all, the teachers had to get him a special desk when he was in the fourth grade, because he was so big. And he wasn’t much for reading like Sterling and Chat, and he certainly wasn’t much for clever talk and the ladies like Jo-Jo.
That didn’t mean he had a heart of stone, as the song went, especially for things of beauty, which there was more of now that girls were coming to the festivals and listening to the music. In the early days, there might be some women at a festival; some guy’s old lady, maybe with a couple four kids running around while Dad picked and drank and joked with the boys.
But now? There were young girls in halter tops, barefoot, with small toes like pink sausages and chipped red nailpolish, silver bracelets around trim ankles, or the new woven friendship bracelets with wooden beads, long golden hair, or spiked green hair that surprised Johnny now when he saw it because some of them actually looked pretty good that way. He particularly liked the curve of their young cheeks, laying on blankets and kissing a little bit with some lucky buck or catching the rays after being up all night camphopping.
The kids liked sliding from one atom of music to the next, a center of musicians circled, playing and laughing and singing, looking at each other and smiling as if they were in on some secret joke, the listeners coming and going, surrounding them from song to song. And then came the time Johnny almost hated: walking from one campsite to another had been getting harder and harder as the beers went down and the clock ran on, and now suddenly it was getting easier to get around. It always took a minute for him to figure it out: the sun was getting ready to rise, and the hidden ruts and holes that had grabbed at his feet for the hours prior were now slowly revealed.
It was then that a man had better rush to get to bed or risk another day and night without sleep. The whole weekend would be a blur and the music would suffer.
He took another sip—empty—and heaved to his feet. He still had an hour of light left, time enough to get the stew on the stove and the lanterns lit, the fire set and his own bed made, so that later all he had to do was fall into it. He couldn’t think of anything better than when they would be jamming, maybe the night being a little cold, they would have the sides down on the cabana, he would leave to relieve himself, and then, coming back towards his temporary home, he’d see the cabana lit from within with shadows of the musicians inside made huge on the walls like the champagne scene from Dumbo.
How could a man worry in a place like this? It was the reunion of a family who knew how to love, who cared about its members, a campground full of people almost all of whom were delighted to see each other and bask in the music one more time. Johnny went to get his bass out of the truck, ready for the evening and the night like the small child he once was getting ready for Christmas or the best birthday ever.