fiction by Michael Amos Cody
Kayla slept under layers of quilts in the upstairs bedroom where she’d slept as a girl. Outside the frosted windows of her parents’ farmhouse, downy flakes of snow fell straight from the windless sky to the frozen ground on what would have been—in any holiday movie—the perfect Christmas Eve. But despite the snow and the season, she dreamed herself at some summer solstice’s Jamboree, alone and bathed in dancing firelight.
Then not alone.
She listened, straining with dreamy confusion to hear a sound just beyond the edge of the darkness.
Was it a voice? A fiddle?
The echo of her sudden solitary cry woke her in a near silent night that glowed with colors of Christmas lights left on outside—greens, reds, yellows, and blues dangling from the eaves and rising from the lawn. The dream sound drowned in the quick and shallow breaths she drew as she sat up in bed. As her breathing steadied, she imagined she heard distant sleigh bells as someone traveled home across snow-covered fields and old sled roads. Then the ringing came closer, and she recognized the sound of the state salt truck heading deeper into the mountains, the chains on its tires jangling and grinding, biting through the snow.
The dream left a vivid picture in her mind and a restless questioning in her body. She climbed out of bed and threw on a white terry cloth robe, padded downstairs to her mama’s yellow and blue kitchen, and painted until dawn.
When the slowly growing gleam of Christmas morning’s sunrise-on-snow became brilliant and overwhelmed the light above the kitchen table, she backed away from the canvas and sat down in her chair.
She’d painted herself alone in the foreground—barefoot in summer grass, her body lit golden orange by a bonfire burning beyond the frame. With lips slightly parted, she listened intently to some faint music or muse or maybe nothing. Her sun-streaked brown hair spilled in ringlets past her shoulders. Bangs of the same colors, but straight and wispy, caged searching blue-gray eyes. She wore a dusty blue cotton dress, knee length and sleeveless, with a plain white t-shirt underneath. A plain silver bracelet dangled around her right wrist.
Around her, Jamboree’s darkening, dew-sparkled field lay still, rimmed by rounded hills standing stark and black against the electric blue residue of a fading sunset. Immersed in that afterglow, just above one gentle peak on the left, a golden quarter moon appeared to hold a white star between its horns.
Kayla’s Jeep Cherokee Pioneer bounced along the freshly oiled dirt road until she pulled up eighth in the earlybird line of cars and pickups waiting for the 12:35. Down the hill she could see the front car stopped just short of the railroad tracks where the dirt road ended.
She opened her door and got out.
The morning had broken in slow motion, its beginning obscured in gray mist, but the June sun was now calling away the last breaths of mountain fog.
Dressed for the day in pale blue jeans and one of her daddy’s old red flannel shirts—one with sleeves that almost rolled up by themselves—she clambered up onto the hood of the Jeep and leaned back against the windshield to take in the lay of the land beyond the tracks.
Old man Ponder’s pasture had been recently mowed for Jamboree and the rectangular bales of green hay gathered from the center to make way for the festival. The field stretched for two hundred yards west, away from the tracks. There, a low, darkly wooded ridge of hills curved back around both sides of the field until its ends met the railroad gradient, shaping Jamboree’s meadow into a bell.
Against the far tree line stood the flatbed trailer that served as the festival’s stage for music, skits, and raffle announcements. Food booths and picnic tables lined the left side of the midway. People scurried about these, tending cooking fires and grills. Right of the midway ran the row of craft booths, carnival games, and a few simple rides—a tilt-a-whirl, a merry-go-round, a stunted Ferris wheel.
Kayla eyed a spot at the near end of that right-hand row and decided it looked like just the place to set up her outdoor gallery and sell some of her paintings from the past year. She sat up on the hood of the Jeep and stretched and yawned and leaned back again, looking drowsily up at the bluebird sky. Then she closed her eyes, comfortable in the cool bright morning.
Mrs. Whitson, over the counter at Whitson’s Green Grocer that day of the blizzard: “Beggars can’t be choosers, honey.”
“What makes you think I’m going begging?”
Mrs. Ramsey, on the front steps of the Runion Community Church after Reverend Thorn’s Easter service: “Well, pickings are getting slim at your age, ain’t they?”
“I’m only twenty-five.”
Mrs. Brady, in the teachers’ lounge at Hot Springs Elementary: “Lord, my girl, twenty-five is getting on around here.”
“I haven’t met the man I’d have yet.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Kayla.”
That cliché again.
Mama, in her garden: “Kayla, honey, it scares me to think of you living all by yourself up in them lonesome apartments.”
More local grannies: “You’re out of college and working and it’s time. . . . I reckon the boys you knew in high school are either married or gone from here. . . . My daughter’s youngest boy ain’t so much older than you. He’s been divorced, but. . . . Sweetie, when you gonna give your mama a grandbaby? She’ll be too old to enjoy one before you know it. . . .”
She believed for a short time five years before that she might marry Gabriel Tanner, a local celebrity just back from Nashville. He’d been in some of her general education classes at Runion State University. But he left town every weekend to play with his band, and nothing ever came of it. Then he married Dennis Garrison’s older sister for the second time.
Her mama said that she was too picky, that the silver screen and the fashion magazines had built a wall of dreams around her heart, and that, if she ever decided to try and enter the art world of some big city and met an actor or a musician or a model there, she wouldn’t like him. It wasn’t in her to like such a man or such a life.
In the last meeting with Professor Lowrey, her Runion State painting professor for more than three years, she’d listened in shock as he told her he didn’t know how she could paint with such soul and be so “provincial.” He’d warned her that if the clichéd barefoot-and-pregnant life of local lore trapped her, her sensibilities would become so dulled that her art would be lost. She must take her talent and run away, he’d said.
And when Cindy, her best friend and former roommate, was moments from walking down the aisle to take the hand of a man who didn’t seem dreamlike in any way, shape, or form, she’d just looked at Kayla with a sad smile and said, “I feel like I’ve got that last good man in Runion.”
Still, as the social event of Runion’s calendar year, Jamboree once again held some vague romantic promise, a promise underscored this year by the memory of her dream last Christmas and its strange resonance that troubled her like a ringing ear. New residents in the county almost always turned out for a closer look at what they’d gotten themselves into. Over the years she’d watched beautiful people from Asheville and Knoxville become regulars at the festival. There was even the occasional visitor from Charleston or Atlanta.
She’d seen love found in the swirl of the celebration, as young couples slipped hand in hand between and behind the bare-bulb-lighted, candy-striped tents of the booths, stealing toward the edge of the bonfires’ golden-orange light, and fading into the wooden darkness beyond. But she’d spent most Jamborees with her girlfriends, flirting with the hopeless local boys and hopelessly flirting with the boys from far away. And when the hour had grown late, she’d lingered with the grown-ups. Her daddy’s giddily tipsy friends smelled of warm beer when they laughed and let her dance the last waltzes on their toes.
Of course, there’d been Jamboree evenings when she playfully begged a boy she liked to leave the row of carnival games and dance with her. She remembered Joshua especially. He was harder to get to dance than any of the other boys. And whenever he let her take his hand and lead him into the swirling crowd she couldn’t contain her squeal of excitement.
He’d come as the new kid to Runion High School just at the start of their ninth-grade year. He was stout and blond with a freckled face, and he always dressed in pressed blue jeans with the tails of a blue or white dress shirt tucked neatly into his belt. He made her laugh so that she sometimes got in trouble for giggling in the classes they took together. Within three weeks after the first homeroom bell rang she wore his birthstone—a sparkling yellow topaz set in a pitted silver ring she brought down to her size by wrapping the bottom in royal blue yarn. Soon they found themselves involved past the point they believed their parents and teachers would have remembered and understood. Like pilgrims freshly arrived in a new world of touch, they explored each other. She remembered her breathless wonder when near him in their secret place in the stairwell, a wonder as of just discovering her hands, his hands, skin under clothing and the pulse of hurried blood yet deeper underneath. Never caught in the middle of their groping, they never lost that edge of excitement inspired by the new sensations—not that they ever had opportunity to go too far beyond the limits of their growing curiosity.
Then—it’d been just before their tenth grade Christmas break—Joshua’s father received another transfer at work, and by January his family headed north to Roanoke.
Kayla had waited ever since for that feeling to find her again.
She felt the train before she heard it, heard the whistle’s song before the rhythmic rumble. It sounded still some way away through the valleys and hills, so she didn’t move. The bright noonday sun glowed red through her eyelids and warmed her all over. The honeysuckle mountain breeze rose up from the verge of the railroad gradient and cooled the sweat on her upper lip, at her temples, in her palms. This day wanted to relax her, hypnotize her.
But her mind churned with Jamboree and painting and loneliness and, mixed with it all, the fugitive dream-sound she’d convinced herself held the key to everything—be it voice or fiddle or something new and unknown. It always seemed in moments like this, in some restless half-doze, that she could hear it again, slowly becoming more than a distant ringing in her ears. She could almost make it out and name it. But almost was as close as she ever came. Either something interrupted her train of thought or she drifted off to sleep.
The 12:35 rumbled by. It was an excursion train, moving along tracks that had once carried a hard-working logging train back and forth between the tightly packed Madison County mountains and the busy sawmill in Runion. Now the engine pulled two closed coaches and one open—all three for sightseers—and an old red caboose. Except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, it daily ran the scenic route between Runion and Wolf Laurel Resort’s golf course and ski slopes. It passed slowly, whistle singing into the hills and back. Shadowed faces hid behind the sunlit hands that waved from the engine and the coaches. A fat man with a bright smile beaming from his red face stood on the platform at the back door of the caboose, wildly ringing a bell hanging there. The clang and thunder gradually mellowed to an echo and then faded altogether as the train slipped into the next swell of ridges, the last leg of the ride to Runion.
Back at the wheel, Kayla cranked up her Jeep and moved with the line into Ponder’s pasture and parked at the foot of the railroad gradient. She smoothed out her evening outfit that lay across the back seat, rolled up the windows, and then collected her canvasses and the sack of stick-man stands her daddy had made for them. She soon had her makeshift gallery nearly set up and hovered thoughtfully around the semicircle, carefully arranging the paintings by contrasts—day next to night, portraits next to landscapes, bright moods next to dark.
She heard the familiar voice from behind her and turned to see her daddy walking hand in hand with her mama toward the midway.
“This old thing?” Kayla said. “I found it on a bush down by the skinny-dipping hole.”
Although he never seemed to change, her daddy’s wavy brown hair, she knew, had grown white and sparse under his Fricker’s Hardware cap. His years of thinness now showed some overhang around the belt. He wore a threadbare shirt and corduroys—the same outfit he might have worn to the first Jamboree twenty years before, adding only some rubber-soled walking shoes to the ensemble.
Her mama’s shoes matched her daddy’s. She looked hardly older than Kayla in her acid-washed overalls and a navy cotton blouse printed with tiny white flowers. She ran thin fingers through her red hair and stepped close to Kayla, attempting to hide a smile with a look of mock distress.
“Now Kayla, Agnes Tallent dropped by the house the other day, beating the bushes for some highbrow charity function. She said she simply had to have my painting of you for the new Main Street Library, but don’t you even think about it.”
Kayla knew Mrs. Tallent would sooner be caught dancing naked in the woods than at Jamboree.
“All right, Mama. If she’s bribed anyone to ask about it, I’ll just tell them it’s above your mantel and they’ll have to haggle with you. That should shut them up.”
The three laughed, and Kayla turned back to her gallery, still smiling as she greeted a couple of Jamboreers already drawn in by her work.
All afternoon she answered questions about her paintings.
Where’d you see that barn with the satellite dish on top?
Is that Gunther Gosnell’s trailer with all the Christmas lights?
Are you familiar with Asher Durand’s work?
The Shelton Laurel Massacre site?
Did Mikey Fredericks actually sit for this portrait, or did you paint it from a picture?
And all afternoon she listened to the voices and music around her.
Nothing clicked. Nothing echoed or stilled the sound that murmured in the firelit darkness of her remembered dream.
By five o’clock the seven stands stood empty, and two hundred fifteen dollars nestled in her money bag.
She kept the fifteen to spend on supper among the food booths and gave the rest to her daddy for safe keeping. Together they packed her things and carried them to the Jeep. She checked her watch and decided she had an hour before going to the changing tent to dress for the hoedown that started at seven.
“Heard anything that rings your bell?” her daddy said, not looking at her as he closed the Jeep’s back hatch.
“I’m getting tired of listening,” Kayla said. She felt a shaky edge to her voice and quickly turned away and leaned against the back of the Jeep.
Her daddy leaned back beside her and stuffed his big hands in the pockets of his jeans.
“Well, just dance your mama’s old shoes off, and don’t worry about it.” He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. “You never know what might happen.”
Kayla picked up on the nod to her parents’ origin story, a tale she knew well—the sudden awkward but overwhelming attraction at a barn dance in his telling and the durable practicality of the moment in hers.
“Yeah, you never know,” she said and laughed her mama’s laugh and kissed his neck just below the long earlobe. “Save a dance for me, okay?” She pulled away toward the food booths, letting go the strong fingers that had taken her hand and given it a last squeeze.
The mention of her mama’s old shoes made Kayla smile to herself as she nibbled on an ear of steamed corn dipped in butter.
Late in the winter she’d decided to find the exact outfit she wore in the Jamboree painting, and she’d since spent nearly every Saturday rummaging through department stores, second-hand shops, and yard sales from Hot Springs to Asheville. Simple as they were, the blue cotton dress and the just-right white t-shirt took much longer than expected to find. And after they hung in her closet, she continued the search for the silver bracelet and the earrings that had been nothing but a point of light beneath her hair from the perspective of the painting. She knew she would recognize them when she saw them, and she did. She bought everything piece by piece with her salary as a circuit-riding art teacher in the Madison County school system.
But from the beginning of her extended shopping spree the shoes had been a problem. In the painting, she was barefoot, but unlike the practically invisible earrings, she somehow couldn’t picture the shoes.
Then last night after supper at her folks’ house, her mama briefly disappeared while Kayla and her daddy washed and dried the dishes. She returned in a few minutes carrying a dusty white shoebox.
“I’ve been waiting to see if you were gonna find any shoes for the barefoot girl,” she said. “These have been in an old trunk in the attic for years, but they’ve cut many a rug in their time.” She handed the open box to Kayla. “They’re not in too great a shape right now, but the leather’s still soft and they should clean up real nice. I put a new pair of shoestrings in there, too.”
The shoes were simple with thin leather soles and only a slight heel, and they fit perfectly. Kayla had thought of Dorothy and Cinderella, of ruby slippers and glass.
She finished her Jamboree supper and threw the cob in the trash. She refilled her iced tea, wrapped a napkin around the sweating plastic cup, and walked back along the midway toward the Jeep to get her hoedown outfit and go to the changing tent.
On the way she met a dusty green cargo van with “The Obion River Ramblers” painted on the side in a blue script drawn to resemble a river on a road map.
By the time she came out of the changing tent, the westering sun had left Jamboree in twilight. A golden red glow edged the western ridges and the thin cirrus clouds above, and Hobert Stackhouse had begun his yearly duty of lighting fires in metal barrels—a hillbilly version of an old lamplighter. Kayla always wondered how he kept his perpetually greasy-looking yellow and white beard from catching fire, leaning over into each barrel as he did to strike a match to the paper under the firewood.
She heard the band tuning somewhere in the gathering dark to the left of the stage—the usual mandolin, guitar, upright bass, and fiddle. And she saw on stage, a drum kit and an electric piano that waited in the steady purple-orange glow of the lights.
Not the usual bluegrass band, she thought.
. . . the band mounted the flatbed trailer, and an anxious crowd flooded into the dancing area down in front. Colored lights began to pulse brightly against the backdrop of black hills and the now washed-out and star-dusted sunset—the glow of all reflected from the foreground of scattered bald heads and occasional flashes of eyeglasses.
She tossed her day clothes into the Jeep’s passenger seat, closed the door, and looked at herself in the window reflection that faded with the day. She smoothed her dress and leaned close to pat her hair and check her teeth for lipstick.
As she returned along the short midway, the band mounted the flatbed trailer, and an anxious crowd flooded into the dancing area down in front. Colored lights began to pulse brightly against the backdrop of black hills and the now washed-out and star-dusted sunset—the glow of all reflected from the foreground of scattered bald heads and occasional flashes of eyeglasses.
The drummer counted four, and the band drove into some lively but unfamiliar music.
The singer stepped up to the microphone and stood stomping his booted left heel as he sang.
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,That can sing both high and low.Trip no further, pretty sweeting;Journey’s end in lover’s meeting,Every wise man’s son does know.
She listened to his high and lonely voice, watching him as she walked slowly toward the dancing area.
He kept his fiddle lying along the inside of his forearm, pecking at it with his bow or plucking on it with his fingertips while he sang, only bringing it up to his chin for his featured solos.
Was his the voice? The fiddle?
She could only identify what she heard from the stage as a thin echo of whatever she’d heard in her dream. She decided she’d just as well follow her daddy’s advice and dance the evening away with whomever would ask.
And she did, accepting the first invitation from somebody she didn’t even know. Then another from another, whirling and twirling her way steadily toward the stage. She danced with the old men and the boys, the sound of her laughter rising over the noise so that every man within earshot followed it to her to ask for a once around—family friends, more strangers, leftovers from high school days.
The Obion River Ramblers not only played the usual bluegrass standards, country songs, and hymns but peppered their show with songs the singer said they’d written themselves, as well as bluegrass arrangements of a classic pop hit by the Police and a waltz by Johann Strauss.
Her daddy caught her in his arms just as the band played “The Tennessee Waltz” to end the first half of the show.
“I’m loving this band!” she said, patting her face with a bandanna she pulled from the pocket of her blue cotton dress.
“Your mama and me got us a claim staked up nearer the front,” her daddy said.
Kayla followed him through the crowd to where her mama sat in one of the lawn chairs they’d brought from home. She could tell by the flushed cheeks that her mama had been kicking up quite a bit of grass herself.
“How’re the shoes holding up?” her mama asked.
“Great!” Kayla said. “But right now I’m more concerned about how my feet are holding up. Feels like I’m gonna have blisters till Christmas. I think I should’ve worn socks.” She closed her eyes and gathered her damp-darkened brown curls in one hand on top of her head and with her other hand pulled the bandanna from her pocket again and wiped all around her neck.
Her daddy opened a lawn chair for her, and she sat down with them.
They were comfortable together, always had been, but both her folks had a quietness about them at that moment. Although they were talking and laughing, she could feel they were anxious for her. They knew of the dream, of its haunting hold on her, of the hope she’d invested in this one night because of it.
The Obion River Ramblers returned to the stage to finish out the night and finish off the dancers.
The singer lifted his fedora for a moment and brushed his blond hair back with his fingers, took off his glasses and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He stayed close behind the old radio style microphone as he talked.
“We play a lot of shows across Appalachia and the South. Got a song we found in Nashville that we think is just perfect for folks like y’all in places like this. But we want to try and do it special tonight ’cause y’all are the best crowd we’ve seen in a good while.”
The Jamboreers broke into wild applause at this.
“In fact, the name of the song is ‘Jamboree,’ and as they say, ‘It goes something like this.’”
A reverb-shadowed guitar riff chimed twice from the stage. The singer entered with a rhythmic lyric and the song bloomed into a lilting waltz with a kick behind it and a refrain that sang,
Songs for the highland,Songs for the sea,Songs for the lovers who long to live freeFrom the painful misgiving and the fear of misstep.Let ’em laugh right out loud
And dance wild through the crowded Jamboree.
Again at this, applause and whoops and hollers and whistles.
Kayla danced with her mama and daddy. They held hands on forearms and moved in a circle to the graceful three-quarter rhythm.
The next hour of the hoedown was a wild mountain revel. One tune no sooner finished than the next began, all coming at a breakneck tempo. Everybody danced harder and harder, knowing the 10:35 was surely winding its way through the mountains and bringing with its passing the signal for closing time at another Jamboree.
Kayla laughed and sang and high-stepped with a different partner every song, never sitting down.
Yet in all this pandemonium she kept feeling that someone was watching her. She didn’t let it hinder her dancing, but when she slowed to catch her breath she furtively glanced around to try and catch a furtive eye. She always ended up looking at her folks. One time they would be dancing, the next looking back at her.
The band raged recklessly through the end of a thrashing version of “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Kayla looked again at her folks and saw them staring at the stage. She followed their gaze just in time to see the singer put his fiddle in its case, lay his glasses there also, and come at a run back past the microphone to leap off the front of the stage, his hat floating off his head as he landed on steady feet among the startled dancers. Then she bumped into a body and looked away.
Within two beats of the drum someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to meet the singer.
“I’ve been watching to make sure you weren’t here with somebody special,” he said, ignoring the youngest Edwards boy she’d been dancing with. “You’re not here with some grizzly who’s too cool to dance?”
Kayla shook her head.
“Shall we?” he said.
As if on cue, the band dropped a beat and swung into one last waltz.
The singer held her in a distanced, formal posture as he swung her in wide circles through the crowd.
They laughed as they danced but made no attempt to talk above the music and the noise of the people.
She felt the warm wetness that soaked the back of his blue denim shirt.
They moved closer.
She smelled the mingling of scented soap, the earthy essence of skin and sweat, and the light aroma of beer on his warm breath. She looked up into eyes like splintered blue glass.
He held her tight. Unlike the rest of his body his hands felt cool and dry, one still gently holding her right hand and the other moving under the hair at the back of her neck.
She remembered that touch, that feeling—her Joshua. She knew this vibrant singer had made such a leap and danced such a dance many times before, but she tried not to think about that. This was her dance, her night, her dream.
When the instrumental ended he gave her a squeeze, pulled away, and bowed low as she blushed and clapped. Then he bounded back onto the stage and thanked the people for having such a great time with the band and him. At last he led a rousing version of “The Sweet Bye and Bye” that ended with the rumble and roar and whistle song of the 10:35.
The crowd thinned quickly when the train full of stargazers had passed.
Kayla saw her mama with an arm around her daddy’s waist. With still a trace of that quiet look about them, they smiled and turned away into the ebb of people flowing up the midway toward the parking area.
She walked back and forth with him as he loaded equipment from the stage into the trailer hitched to the van.
He told her about picking up music late in high school and studying violin at a small college near his home on the Obion River in west Tennessee.
She praised the band, told him about her painting and her teaching.
He asked if she could paint a portrait of him and his fiddle.
She thought about her portrait of Mikey Fredericks and knew that she could, but she said nothing about the dream or the role she thought he—or someone very like him—had somehow played in it. She didn’t mention that now, at the end of this night, his voice drowned out the faraway ringing in her ears.
As the equipment on the stage slowly dwindled, some quiet, desperate sense of the moment kept her from looking too long at him. She wanted to remember things that too close a look might prove not true before she could cherish them. She might want the chin and cheeks more defined, the skin less pink.
But the eyes were perfect.
She wished she would ask him to stay, but she only gave him her number and asked him to call about doing his portrait the next time he came to the area.
He promised he would as they walked to her Jeep.
The van pulled up to the tracks, the band trying to settle in for an overnight trip to somewhere else.
To Wheeling, she remembered he’d said.
He waited to be sure her Jeep started, then said he would see her, turned away toward the van, and almost before she could catch her next breath, he was gone.
She slept in the cool gray light of a foggy Tuesday morning and dreamed again.
It wasn’t of the singer, the fiddler, the dancer she’d met at Jamboree that she dreamed, but of years ago and Joshua.
They’d slipped out of first period’s Christmas assembly and met in their usual place in the stairwell—a dark place smelling of old wood, varnish, and dust.
He kissed her once but didn’t try to get his hands under her shirt. He looked sad and told her his father had a new job, and they were moving over the holidays.
She felt hot tears on her face, tasted the salt, ached to her fingertips, stood mute.
Then he kissed her again and whispered he would see her and turned away down the stairs as the second period bell rang and rang and rang.
Michael Amos Cody is author of the novel Gabriel’s Songbook (Pisgah Press, 2017) and the short story collection Twilight Reel (Pisgah, 2021). He was raised in western North Carolina and lives with his wife Leesa near Johnson City, Tennessee, where he teaches at East Tennessee State University. He spent a decade in Nashville writing songs, a handful of which were recorded by such performers as Glen Campbell and Gary Morris. He fiction has appeared in Tampa Review, The Chaffine Journal, and Yemassee, among other places. Find him on Twitter @DrMacOde.