Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Patti Meredith
Patti Frye Meredith was fortunate to grow up in the Blue Ridge Mountains listening to bluegrass music. Thanks to the encouragement of faithful family and friends, she will soon complete her MFA from the University of Memphis and declare her novel done.
Saturday nights after Agnes and her mama got the supper dishes washed, they tuned the radio to WSM in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry. Her mama had an autoharp from when she was a girl and she taught Agnes to play the old songs, "Fair and Tender Ladies," "Banks of the Ohio."
“If I was a sight younger, I’d go off and play music like those Carter girls,” her mama would say. Agnes’s daddy would grunt, “Ain’t nothing stopping you now.” A row would commence and Agnes would slip out to the far end of the porch with her head full of ballads, tales of ruin veiled by gentle tunes. Enough to fill a heart.
The night Agnes won the Glade Valley Talent Show she played "Fair and Tender Ladies" making the song somber as a funeral hymn, even sang the last chorus with her fingers spread across the harp’s strings to mute the faintest ring. Her pure voice rose and fell on its own, natural as any bird’s. …like a star on a summer morning, they first appear and then they’re gone.
It was the dog days of August but when Agnes sang, folks stopped fanning their damp faces with the flimsy one-page programs. They gazed at the stage as if under a spell. A single yellow tinted light shone down on Agnes creating a ghostly halo around her head. The sultry air caused her thick black hair to cloud around her shoulders and fall like a fancy collar. Her body felt washed by a kind of heat she imagined others could feel. The auditorium was dark, yet Agnes felt eyes upon her. When the last note faded, there wasn’t a sound until her mama, front row center, stood and clapped. Once outside, Agnes clutched her framed certificate and took in praise. Cecil Gentry, a quiet, kindhearted boy she knew from school, waited until the well-wishers cleared away before he came to her.
“That was some fine singing, Agnes,” he said.
“Thank you, Cecil.” Cecil was two years older, and Agnes had always thought him handsome with his black hair and eyes, his wide shoulders. Truth be told, they looked like kin, but there was no blood between the Coxs and the Gentrys, no blood and no alliance. Cecil’s daddy owned the drug store, and his mama didn’t like her only child mixing with the poor dirt farmers from out in the county.
“You won hands down,” Cecil went on to say. He had a smooth, even voice, not like most boys she knew whose chopped, splintered pitch was a birthright.
“Well.” Agnes dropped her head. “Singing is just something I like.”
“It likes you back.”
She smiled up at him. “I thought you were off to the fight.”
“I’m the last to go from my class. I leave a week from Tuesday.”
“Well,” she said.
“Hey, what if I take mama and daddy to the house then drop by your place.”
“That would be fine.”
He asked for letters when he left for Fort Knox. At sixteen, Agnes had never written a letter, but she wrote him right off. She wrote about her dream of being as famous as the Carter girls, as well as her daddy’s meanness, her mother’s hard days. Cecil never said much about army life – not that Agnes ever asked – instead he offered hints of rescue. He talked about how fine it would be to hear her on the radio, about how he wanted to go off to college, maybe go on to be a lawyer.
What Agnes held from those letters was his talk of leaving Glade Valley. When he came home at Christmas they married. On their first morning as husband and wife, Cecil’s daddy and mama drove them to Knoxville for a country ham dinner, and then Cecil got on a Greyhound bus. When the bus disappeared around a dusty curve, Mrs. Gentry said for all to hear, “I pray to God he didn’t leave you with a child.”
Agnes spoke without malice, “Me too.”
It wasn’t long before Cecil’s letters came with postmarks from overseas. France. Germany. They may as well have said the moon. Agnes played her autoharp, went to school and wrote her dreams in plain language to Cecil.
In the two years it took him to get home Agnes never strayed. The marriage bed mystery discovered had cured the need for more. Her yearnings were far greater than a naked tumble.
With the world at war, the rations and church meetings spent rolling bandages for the Red Cross, Agnes felt the pull of a life not of her making. The radio news brought nervous voices of men who spoke from the front line. Her daddy would shake his head, “There ain’t no end to it.” Agnes’s mama worked her Victory Garden and stood over her steaming pots like she was preserving freedom in glass quart jars. She carried platters of salty ham biscuits to the doors of mothers whose sons were lost. She fretted over the living.
But as close as the war was – folks talked about the Germans like they might be out in the barn – as close as it came to Agnes when she stood in a December wind and smelled the fresh-cut evergreen atop a classmate’s pine casket, she defied the pull. She kept whatever was happening over there separate and apart from herself. What was real to Agnes were the pictures in her head. She saw herself standing at a microphone like the one she imagined Roy Acuff leaned into when he sang “Night Train to Memphis.”
Through the week, she listened to The Tennessee Barn Dance on WNOX in Knoxville. Afterwards, Agnes would give her mama and sisters a little show. She taught her little sister, Mary Kate, to introduce her like she imagined the man on WNOX would someday, for Agnes meant to get herself on WNOX. She thought about being on the radio like it was something she’d do tomorrow or the next day. Like fixing supper or going to church. She pictured herself standing at a microphone and that man named Bob Burkett saying, “I want you to welcome Agnes Gentry from Glade Valley, Virginia. She’s going to play a little number for us.”
After Cecil got his discharge and came back to Glade Valley, they lived with his mama and daddy. One evening when it was just the two of them out on the front porch he showed her pictures in a magazine. Life. She saw the name Buchenwald. She’d heard him say the word, knew it was a place he’d been at the end. “Did you see these people with your own eyes?” He got up off the swing and went inside taking the magazine with him. Agnes looked at the pictures that one time, and not again.
It took Agnes months to pull Cecil from his mama, to get him the hundred miles to Knoxville. The day they left, he and his daddy went back in the house after Cecil’s trunk. Agnes stood beside the new Ford coupe Mr. Gentry had bought his only son. Mrs. Gentry stepped up close, so close Agnes could not look away. “If you had any sense, you’d know Cecil isn’t fit for such a thing as Knoxville. He needs to rest his mind. You’ll kill him sure as you’re born.” Agnes hated the woman. The round face, pious chin, gray hair pulled tight and wrapped around her head. Mrs. Gentry did not wait for a reply. She turned and went in the house. Agnes looked off down the road.
They rented a three-room house from a Mr. Ralph Abbot. A girlfriend from home had told Agnes about it. Her husband was already enrolled at the University of Tennessee, along with what seemed like every boy from Chattanooga to Memphis who had lined up over at the school before the ink dried on the GI Bill. Mr. Abbott had built the house for his son who was killed in Italy. He had been reluctant to let it go, but he took to Cecil and went easy on the rent. He even got Cecil hired at the Sinclair station, but he quit after a week. He said the hubbub of Knoxville was bad for his nerves. When it looked like Cecil might have them pack up for Glade Valley, Agnes found a job. She was lucky to hire on at Standard Knitting since the boys coming home not of a mind for college got first dibs and were welcomed like kings to the castle.
The first thing Agnes did after she got to Knoxville was to find WNOX. She knew it was on Gay Street atop the Andrew Johnson Hotel. And when she stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the tallest building she’d ever seen, seventeen floors of red brick, a calm came over her restless soul. Yet, she didn’t dare go through the door. It wasn’t time.
Every night after super, she practiced her songs. Cecil liked the ballads. It got to where that made Agnes mad. She could surely play the sad ones. She pulled clear notes from deep inside her belly and blew them out like the sweet breath of God’s best angel. People cried. But when Cecil asked her to play "The Wandering Boy," it made her mad all over. It was like he wallowed in her gift, sullied her pretty music. Agnes liked to frail those strings, throw back her head, and let out "Sunny Side" and "You Are My Flower."
Cecil sat, drank coffee and smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. That was his day – day in, day out. It was only in the pitch black dark that his voice was heard. She let him holler. She thought maybe he would holler the demons out and wake whole. Agnes began to suspect Cecil was haunted. If he truly did witness the sights in those pictures, smell the rotting flesh, there was no telling what had a hold of him. She bought him bottles of Four Rose Bourbon, thinking maybe a good drunk would cure him. Her Daddy’s best days were after a big drunk. But Cecil didn’t have the gumption to be a drunk. And it all seemed worse, not better, when spring came.
Cecil’s mind was back on that magazine. She wished she had carried the thing out with the trash. She wished Cecil would get up out of that balding horsehair chair Mrs. Abbot gave them and find work. She wished he’d go over to the school and take that test for the GI Bill, do like he talked about in his letters, and get an education. But she might as well have wished for diamonds and rubies to fall from the sky. He was not moved by sweet talk or any fit she could summon. She had believed he was just tired from the war, that his melancholy would pass. When it didn’t, she told herself she was lucky he’d made it home alive. Her own cousin would most likely never step foot outside of Glade Valley, a handful of letters, her only proof of a life. But then there was Jimmy Johnson. He marched home, told all who would listen how many Krauts he’d killed, and then left town with a green duffle bag thrown over his shoulder like the world owed him a prize and he was off to collect.
Mrs. Gentry wrote long letters to her son, telling him flat-out to come home. Agnes knew Cecil sent back words of promise. But she wouldn’t hear of it. Truth be told, what his mother wished for Cecil didn’t come close to Agnes’s rock-hard plan. She hadn’t picked Knoxville out of a hat.
Agnes didn’t drive. Cecil took her to work before daylight, but she liked to walk the four miles home. The air cleared her head of the racket and the oily stench of the sewing machines. She was thinking how the dogwood and redbud reminded her of home when she saw a tent set up by the road and thought a traveling preacher had come to town. At the supper table, she said as much to Cecil. “How about you and me going to hear what he’s got to say? It’s Friday night, we ought to be doing something.”
Cecil spooned a fork full of lima beans into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, then looked down at this plate, “Me and God are done.”
Agnes pushed her chair back from the dinette table and threw her spoon hard against the wall. She went to throw her plate, but the wild roses circling the rim brought to mind her mother’s hands. Words too bitter to swallow left her mouth one after the other. When she said disappoint, he laughed, not like before the war, but like a ghost might laugh. The haunting of it stopped her heart.
He’d had that magazine out again. The one with pictures of where he said he had been at the war’s end. Skeletons with eyeballs staring out alive or dead, who could tell? Naked bodies “piled up like cord wood,” that’s what a fellow said in the magazine. Agnes had heard talk that the pictures surely came from Hollywood. That there was no way on God’s green earth they were real.
Agnes picked up the thrown spoon, wiped the floor and said, “Well, I’ll not sit here another Friday night.”
The thought of setting out again for town didn’t bother her a bit. She was more than ready to walk.
It was close to dark when she got to the curve in the road. The brown canvas tent, lit up from inside, sat off to the right on a rise. Cars littered the field. Agnes heard three quick hits of a bow on strings, and a man’s clear voice rose high as a woman’s. She picked up her pace. If the road hadn’t been so rocky, she would have taken off her shoes and run. She got up to where there was a line. A man with a cigarette hanging off his lip was taking money.
“Is this a revival?”
A squatty, round-faced woman with a tow-headed baby sprawled around her hip smiled like Agnes had made a joke. “Some would say so.”
It was then she saw the cloth sign hung on the back wall of the tent: The Rocky Ridge Boys Music Jubilee. “Twenty cents, little lady,” the man said. He stood at a table with a wooden box. The cigarette smoke made Agnes’s eyes water. She reached inside her pocketbook. Her hands shook. She almost dropped her change purse to the ground. She handed the man her quarter and got a nickel back.
Agnes made her way through the crowd of folks who carried on and called out to one another like they were at a family reunion. She was a stranger among them and paid no attention to who she shoved or who shoved back. It was like nothing she had ever seen. Past the standing crowd, there were rows of wooden folding chairs. The square platform stage, three feet off the ground, was empty except for one lone silver microphone atop a silver stand. Just like the one she dreamed in her head. Whoever she’d heard singing was gone. The chairs up front were full. There was a flat-footing board off to the right side; a ten by ten wood floor that Agnes knew would be full of dancers stomping time. She went and stood in the middle of it, afraid someone would tell her to go to the back of the tent if she had no seat to claim. A long legged man came into the tent through a flap at the back and strode up to the microphone. “Good evening, friends.”
The microphone hummed and settled. The crowd stopped their chatter and hollered back, “Good evening, Bob.”
She knew the voice. Bob Burkett. The man she’d come to Knoxville to see was taller than she’d imagined, tall and loose limbed. What didn’t hang loose was sharp. His hair peaked and held on the top of his head like a tiny pyramid. His boney elbows dangled out of the sleeves of his white short-sleeve shirt. He held up his hands and waved them over the crowd like a healer. He had to shout. “We’ve got our hometown boys here tonight and they are ready to give you a show. Are you ready?”
The crowd hollered back, “Yeah.”
Agnes couldn’t speak.
“Give a big Tennessee welcome to The Rocky Ridge Boys.”
Five men in white short-sleeve shirts tucked into high waist black pants came through the tent flap. One hefted a bass fiddle taller than he was up on the stage. Another followed with a guitar slung across his shoulder. Four could have been brothers with their stocky build, slicked back dark hair and white toothy smiles. The last to step up stood a head taller than the rest and held a mandolin close to his skinny chest. His skin gave off a golden hue like he spent his days in the sunshine, and his blonde curls wouldn’t be tamed by the shiny balm. The crowd whooped and hollered, the likes Agnes had never heard. The oldest, the man with the banjo, stepped to the microphone. The fiddle player stood on his left not three feet from Agnes. The boy with the mandolin hung behind.
“Howdy Knoxville, we’re going to kick things off tonight with a little number called 'Cacklin’ Hen,' we hope you’ll like it.”
The pure twang of the banjo shot through Agnes like her very skin was hooped and stretched beneath the strings. Bob Burkett stepped off the stage and stood beside her. “What’s wrong, little girl, you forgot how to move those pretty legs?” His own long legs swung out from under him. Their bodies, stiff from the waist up, found the rhythm with heels and toes and flat pats. With their limp arms swinging, they shuffle-stomped to opposite ends of the board. Agnes held her head high and watched Bob Burkett throw a long leg sideways out in front of him. She swung hers behind her. Bob Burkett hopped and kicked forward, Agnes matched him. Together they stomped and tapped like they’d been chosen to put out the fires of hell.
"Cacklin’ Hen" went into "Nine Pound Hammer." An old couple—the woman still in her kitchen apron—shuffled onto the board. Agnes closed her eyes and circled around like a ballerina in a music box. More tunes followed, one after the other. When the songs ended, she opened her eyes. Bob Burkett was gone. Agnes looked out in the crowd. Surely he was close.
“We’ll slow it down a little right now, let young Curly sing one,” said the man on the banjo, “it’s called 'Pretty, Fair Maiden in the Garden.'” The boy with the mandolin stepped up to the microphone. The fiddle player leaned in and bent his bow into a whine.
Agnes stepped off the board. The tent canvas had been rolled up to let in the night air. A half-moon sat treetop high. Curly cuddled his mandolin. He stroked the strings giving rise to a trembling harmony that rang through Agnes in perfect pitch. His long fingers stretched and found their frets. He closed his eyes and dropped his head down over his chest, then rose up wailing in sweet agony about love gone wrong. She saw the muscles in his neck strain against his shirt collar. Agnes wanted to be that mandolin, wanted to feel those fingers dance on her skin, wanted the touch to be alive. When he was done, he looked right down at her and smiled.
Had she not come to this tent for salvation?
When the show was over, Agnes wasn’t the only one who didn’t leave with the crowd. She stood by the edge of the tent as folks went up to the stage to shake hands with the Rocky Ridge Boys. She shifted from one foot to the other, thankful for the breeze. The front of her dress was wet with sweat; she wanted to reach inside her purse for her Red Night lipstick, but knew that would be tacky in a crowd. She saw Curly break away from the group. Agnes stepped to where he would pass. He came towards her and smiled. “Howdy-do.” He went to step around. Agnes blocked his way. “That was the finest mandolin playing I ever heard, and good singing too.”
His blonde hair fell in sweat-wet ringlets down his forehead. His two front teeth overlapped, and he had a crooked grin. “Well, that’s mighty nice of you to say.” Curly smiled. “I need a snort. How about you?” he said.
With his hand on her back, he guided her to where the others stood around the open trunks of two rundown Plymouths parked side by side. They passed a bottle of liquor in a brown paper bag. “Goddamn, J.D., how come you to stop that guitar when you did on Cacklin’ Hen?” said Tom the fiddler.
“I thought you was coming in. That’s where you come in last night, stepping all over me.”
Agnes took in all they said. She watched Curly wrap his mandolin in felt and lay it in a worn leather case with no less tenderness than a mother with a newborn child. The banjo player, the one called Edmond, wiped his face with a white handkerchief. “I worked up a damn sweat.”
“I thought you might fall out on us, old man,” said Clyde. He leaned into the curves of his bass fiddle like it was a woman. “You reckon we need to find us a young man to pick that banjo?”
The bottle came around. Curly handed it to Agnes. “Help yourself. You’re surely in need after all that dancing.”
Edmond laughed, “I ain’t seen the likes since that gal up on Iron Ridge.”
“I play music,” Agnes said. She held the bottle, but did not drink.
“You do?” Curly said.
“Yes, I play the autoharp and sing. I won the talent show back home.”
“Well, I bet that was a pretty sight to see,” said Clyde.
“If I don’t get something to eat, I am going to fall out sure enough,” said Edmond. “Anybody know how to get to that diner Burkett said to meet him at?”
“Bob Burkett?” Agnes said.
“One and the same,” Curly said. “Mr. Radio himself.”
“He better have our damn money,” J.D. said. “Where’s Jackson Street at?”
“Right up from where I work at the mill,” said Agnes.
“Well, get in the car and show us the way, little lady,” said Edmond. The door of the Plymouth whined. “Get in the front. Clyde and that bass fiddle don’t leave much room in the back.”
Curly turned to Tom. “You and J.D. follow us.”
Curly slid in beside Agnes. He picked up her left hand. “So, where’s the mister? He ain’t going to come after us with a shotgun, is he?”
“He won’t leave the house,” Agnes said. “He’s still got the war going on in his head.”
“A lot of fellows do.” He laid her hand back in her lap. “I got a cousin who ain’t never going to be right.”
“You turn left up here,” Agnes said.
Agnes imagined Cecil back at the house. He’d be at the kitchen table with the Knoxville Journal spread before him, a pair of rusty scissors in his hand. In the evenings, he cut out pieces of news. "War Criminals on Trial," the headlines said. He kept the flimsy clippings in his trunk. “What do you do that for?” she’d asked.
Bob Burkett opened the door when they walked up to the diner. “Get in here before Elmo shuts off the lights. I was getting worried, afraid you boys had left out of here without your money.”
“Oh, I know you were worried to death about that,” said Edmond.
Bob Burkett cocked his long neck back like a rooster and looked Agnes up and down. “Well, if it’s not our little dancer.”
She stepped forward and put out her hand, “I’m Agnes Cox, Mr. Burkett, and I’ve been meaning to come see you since I got to Knoxville. I play autoharp and sing.”
“Well, a new star for the radio,” he looked at Curly, “just what I need. Thank you, boys.”
They moved to a long table in the center of the room. “I went ahead and told them to get some eggs and bacon frying.”
Agnes took a seat. The bright lights of the diner made her feel self conscious. When the waitress brought out platters of eggs, she asked her, “Where’s your ladies room?”
She led Agnes to the back. “Which one of those men is your husband?”
“Not a one.” Agnes raised her chin and looked straight at the foul-faced woman, ready if there was to be more said.
The woman shook her head and looked away taking a pack of cigarettes from her apron pocket. She nodded to a door. Inside Agnes found the string for an overhead bulb. The mirror was blotched and speckled, but there was enough silver left to show Agnes her frizzy hair. She wet a piece of thin toilet paper and wiped her face, combed her hair down and put on lipstick. When she was done, she surveyed herself. Her arched eyebrows, pale skin, red lips and dark eyes made a pretty picture. She reached for the door and the string to turn out the bulb and hurried back to the table, not wanting to miss a bit of the talk.
The bottle was on the table now. Beside every plate sat a little glass of brown bourbon.
“I tell you,” Bob Burkett was saying, “those Kentucky boys have a new sound, there’s more mandolin in it, Curly.”
“Good God Almighty,” Edmond said, “don’t tell him that, it’s got to where we can’t shut him up now.”
Curly grinned at Agnes, and she smiled back. It was like they were in cahoots.
“I got two rooms down the road at the motor lodge with your names on them, compliments of WNOX,” said Burkett. “Don’t spread that word around, ‘cause I can’t do it for everybody.”
“Well, ain’t that fine,” said Edmond, “but we best be on the road, we got to be standing upright in Nashville tomorrow evening.”
“Come on, Ed, we drive all night, sleep in the car, we won’t be worth a damn,” said Curly.
“Well, Curly, I’ve never known you to be too particular about your beauty sleep. I bet you’d get more rest curled up in the car than you’re liable to get here in Knoxville town.”
The men laughed and poked at each other.
“Since I’m up next at the wheel, I reckon I ought to have a say,” said Tom, “and I say I could use a little shut-eye.”
Walking outside, Curly took Agnes’s hand. “Come on. I’ll get you home.”
She pulled away and faced Bob Burkett. “Mr. Burkett, I’d much appreciate a bit of your time this week. I could come any day and play for you.”
Burkett rested a hand on her shoulder, “Honey, you’re a day late and a dollar short with that harp. The music has done moved on.”
Agnes felt her face flush. “Come on,” Curly said. She kept her eyes down and got in the Plymouth.
“What’d he mean, Curly,” she said. “What’d he mean the music’s moved on?”
“Ah, don’t pay no attention to him. He likes things stirred up. And besides, ain’t nothing happening here. It’s all in Nashville now.”
Curly drove to the Sunset Motor Lodge. Edmond and Clyde got their instruments and bags out of the car and said goodnight. When they pulled back out in the road, Agnes turned to Curly. “I want to go with you. To Nashville.”
“Hey, now, sweetie, you’re a swell gal, but we just met one another.”
“It ain’t that.” Agnes said, “I’ve got songs.”
“Listen,” he scratched his forehead, “I bet you’re a fine little player, but we ain’t got no use for an autoharp.”
“I sing, too,” Agnes said, “and I got songs. Couldn’t you just look at them, listen to what I have? Couldn’t you just do that one thing, Curly?”
“I could listen, sure, but…”
“Then drive me out to the house.”
Agnes told Curly where to turn on the side streets from town. They passed the field where the jamboree had been. “How long you been playing the mandolin?” she asked.
“All my life,” he said.
“That’s how long I’ve played my harp.”
They were a half mile from where the gravel turned to dirt. “Stop and wait here,” she said.
Curly grabbed her arm when she went to get out of the car. “Hey.”
Agnes recognized the touch, knew the meaning of the tug. She let go of the door handle and turned her body to his. It all became one thing. This too, she thought leaning into Curly. This too.
She left him to wait. The heels of her pumps wobbled and her legs felt weak. A scattering of white stars could still be seen against the coming blue. The air chilled her damp skin through the navy cotton dress. She’d left her sweater in the car. She was glad for the air, for the coolness. So, that’s how sin came to you, she thought, sin’s not a trip you plan to take, but you’re there before you know it.
Hadn’t she thought it was a tent revival? Wasn’t it for God that she went? She and Cecil didn’t own a radio. Four dollars and seventy two cents stood between Agnes and the twenty-two dollar General Electric radio at Butler’s Hardware. There’d been no talk at the plant of a music show coming to town, no talk she’d heard, anyhow. Who could hear a word said over the rumble of a hundred iron machines stitching denim into overalls?
Curly’s wiry body had felt like hot metal. She couldn’t help thinking of those machines, how she fed the denim beneath the thick, silver needle, how it pierced and jerked the heavy cloth, changing the shape into something altogether different.
Curly couldn’t deny her now. He’d have to take her.
By the time Agnes got to the house, her mind could not light on one thought long enough to think it. She’d done wrong. She’d stepped over. She had to get in the house and get out. Maybe Cecil would be asleep. Maybe she wouldn’t even have to see him. She could write him a letter from Nashville, send him a telegram. She eased up on the porch, glad to see she’d only have to open the screen door.
“Agnes?” She could just make Cecil out. It was darker in the house than it was outdoors. He was there, in his chair, the orange glow of a cigarette moved. He stood. “Where you been?”
“Music. They were playing music. It was a show.”
“They want to hear my songs.”
“The Rocky Ridge Boys.”
“What boys?” Cecil was up close now, right at the door, his face easily seen in the dusty blue morning light.
Agnes bent her head and made to move around him. “I got to get my harp.”
“It’s nearly five in the morning. You can’t be traipsing back to town.”
She went around him to the bedroom. She moved with ease in the dark. She pulled the string and the bulb came on in the closet. Cecil was at the bedroom door.
“Agnes? We need to talk about this thing. You’ve been out all night.”
She spied the old canvas satchel she’d brought from home sitting back against the wall. She grabbed it up and laid it open on the bed. “It’s my chance, Cecil.”
“Your chance at what?”
“Getting on the radio.”
“Aw, Agnes.” He sat down on the bed, and cradled his head in his hands. “We should have never left home. We’ve got to get away from here. It’s not like we thought.”
Agnes went to the dresser and opened a drawer.
“The world, it’s dangerous, Agnes. Ugly.”
“That’s in your head, Cecil.”
He looked at her. “If you’d seen what I’d seen, you’d not expect another good thing from the world.”
When she came back to the bed with a handful of undergarments, he took her by the arms “Don’t you even hear the words to them songs you sing? Don’t you know the world will break your heart?”
A scant year ago, she would have told you straight without the hint of a lie that she wanted only two things from the wide world. For Cecil to come back from the war and for him to get her to Knoxville. He’d done both and she was grateful, but he had to know if she could walk off her own mother’s porch, leave her crying, she’d surely not stumble a time getting off his.
He held her arms until she had to look him in the face. “I’m sorry, Cecil, I am.”
When he said go, she went. It hadn’t taken long to get the words spoken, to get them said once they started. The canvas satchel not half-full of all she’d need, and the autoharp wrapped in worn burgundy velvet let him know she was going. That she meant to walk right off the porch, step around the loose boards that would throw you if you didn’t watch out, and hightail it down the hard-packed dirt road. “You take care of yourself,” she said.
The sun was coming up on a world that was neither dream nor genuine. Her steps kept time to the tune she imagined herself singing on the Grand Ole Opry with the Rocky Ridge Boys. Shady Grove. Her left ankle gave way with the broken heel of her pump. She reached down and took both shoes off. She didn’t slow up to walk around the rocks in the road, or worry with her ankle. There’d be shoes in Nashville, she thought. There’d be everything in Nashville.