Joe-Neil strapped on his harmonica belt and pulled a Bb Marine Band. He licked up and down the reeds, then lit into Glory Train—huffing and hooching like an approaching train himself, standing for breath at the bridge, bowlegged and bouncing in place. Chuckers snatched his dreadnought from the corner, found a pick in the pocket of his tens and tore into a rhythm that set Joe-Neil to clogging. The old man worked his stocking feet all over the hardwood. At the break, he cupped his hands to form a bluesy vibrato as my daddy slapped time on the double bass. And when my uncle paused to sip his shine and slap the saliva from his harp, Chuckers launched into a flatpicking fury. A blind man would think it was old Doc Watson himself sitting on the fireplace shelf running those frets. Joe-Neil smiled so big and proud he couldn't blow.
Aunt Or read her book and swayed her head from side to side with the music. She was my favorite of daddy's siblings. Always a smile and a kind word, never without a book within arms reach—thick books without pictures. Old Joe Neil, her own uncle, said she knew everything about everything but kept it all to herself. I've always remembered that.
It's a wonder my Co-cola didn't shatter in my hands. My knees were jogging and my toes tapping the floor of Aunt Or's parlor like morse code. I wanted to dance with Tassie something fierce. She was worked up too, moving her hips over the cane chair. But I waited—wrung that bottle and jutted my newly whiskered chin to Chucker's chunk—my eyes like steelies to the magnet of Tassie's brown legs.
Finally, the pretty neighbor girl was overcome by the music and took to the floor. Tassie Wysong danced. She didn't posture, put on, or prance like the girls at the Dream Inn on nickel beer night. Tassie danced as if possessed, as if she became the music and the music her. Watching her, was to witness something true, something wild, something set free. It was not enough to want her, though it couldn't be helped, it was the desire to somehow be part of her.
My daddy was smiling from ear to missing ear. He stole an eyeful of Tassie as he tipped his Pabst, keeping time by hammering his left hand along the fretless ebony. Momma didn't seem to notice, or if she did, never let on. She fanned herself with a GRIT magazine and smiled her pretending-to-have-fun smile. It was Bingo night and Momma had her eye on a porcelain rooster. Daddy complained about the "glass chickens" cluttering up the house and persuaded her to do some hootin'.
"Mylan and Nestor gon be down from Girdlemaker," he baited, wrapping his arms around her from the back and pushing his face into her neck as she stacked my birthday cake.
"I'm not in the mood for a hoot tonight, Case," she said sternly, "I'm going to the firehouse. It's my night . . . "
Daddy abruptly backed off and sat back down to the table with me. I searched my soup for a potato, an onion—something to say as she frosted and he sulked.
"I hope you spent as much time on that washing machine motor as you did that guitar this morning," Momma said.
"I could have read the directions through this soup!" he countered.
She called his bass a "guitar" whenever she became angry or jealous of it. I thought about the joke Joe-Neil told me the previous morning while we were counting clams. He asked me if I knew why my momma's nagging bothered my daddy so much?
"Because it goes in one ear and stays there!" he said.
I thought Chuckers would fall off the dock laughing.
On my daddy's behalf, I just smiled politely and went back to my counting. He was awful sensitive about losing that ear to the impetigo. "His own dern fault," Momma always said. It was true. Daddy had some unrealistic fears about doctors—certain he could fix anything with that can of salve. Aunt Or said it was because of something that happened when they were children.
At six o'clock, Momma burst out of the bedroom in red shorts and a white cotton blouse and sharply announced that she was ready. Daddy knew better than to speak. He went for his bass while I fetched his beer.
Momma didn't take to many people. But for some reason, she liked the company of Mylan Poobot and her handsome cuban, Nestor, the "Accordion King of Delmarva." She listened in awe as Mylan talked about her homeland in broken English; she studied Nestor's long, manicured fingers teasing the keys of his Cordavox—closing her eyes and swaying with the bellows. Perhaps she considered the accordion a sophisticated instrument. It was a general "lack of sophistication" in and around Pocowaddox that could provoke Momma to launch into one of her tirades, eventually retreating to the back porch with one of her fancy New York magazines.
Daddy noted that Nestor's eyes rolled back in his head when he sang Juntos en el Cielo, Momma's favorite. Like Momma, Mylan, Nestor's Vietnamese wife, was not musical. She simply slapped her tiny legs and howled along in her native language. Momma found her cat-calling charming. The two women talked about being foreigners, having a lot in common, Momma being born in New Jersey and all.
I was adding a unison fifth beneath Aunt Or's high, our voices harmonizing with Joe-Neil's lead and Preacher Earl's third to form an impressive four part.
For the heart to mend —it's gonna take earth, seed and water—and the farmer's daughter
Our voices filled the parlor and flowed out of the screens into the warm night. My cousin Jame slipped a little more of his grandaddy's backyard hootch in my Co-cola, my eyes weary from the last potent swig.
Then, with hardly a pause, Chuckers walked into a bluegrass root-fifth progression and the room came alive again. The elders shifted in their chairs and the preacher reached for his tambourine.
With that, my desirous prayers were answered. Tassie took my hand and pulled me to my feet. The homemade poison reached my brain the instant her green eyes locked on me. I staggered, a bit awkward and embarrassed—fearing Momma's disapproval—until Tassie smiled at me like the devil herself and spun me around.
It's funny how a woman becomes beautiful just by looking into your eyes. I felt the world and all my fear fall away. I leapt on faith—the music, white liquor, and a full heart pushing me forward into the flames—throwing my arms toward the heavens, giving it all up to dance with Tassie Wysong.
We twisted, shook, stomped and swung each other all over that room. At one point, I spun her so hard, her cotton dress lifted like the petals of a prayer to the sun and her white panties made an appearance that caused my daddy to slip so far off the beat, the elder's clapping sounded like a flock of geese taking flight. It was the actualization of a teenage boy's romantic, rebellious dreams. And though I have made a fool of myself many times since, it has never has been as fulfilling.
I have that particular Saturday night on tape. My daddy had brought home a second-hand Philco tape recorder for my 15th birthday. After Momma changed her mind about the hoot, and Daddy had washed the dust off the Fairlane and put on his Florida shirt, I laid the bulky device on the back seat between the Tupperware case that held my three-layered birthday cake and the styrofoam cooler full of Pabst beer. A cloud of dust followed us along Snotty Creek Road. Daddy's upright poked its short, fat neck out the trunk of the car, and a shirt sleeve waved from the box of hand-me-downs meant for cousin Jame.
There is a place towards the end of the reel, right after Preacher Earl tucked his chin and did his best Ed Sullivan to introduce me, that I sang That Bridge Won't Burn.
I remember closing my eyes, but still feeling Tassie watching me—staring hot like the sun, burning my face red. My voice broke at the promise of a kiss part, you can hear Chuckers urging me on, "You got it, Son!"
A few moments later, if you put your ear up to the speaker of the Philco—as Joe-Neil hummed softly and Aunt Or sang Simple Strand Of Pearl—you can hear Tassie ask me to walk her home. I used to rewind the tape and listen to that part over and over as if I still couldn't believe it.
That night, as we walked through the pines that separated her Airstream trailer from the Purkey's big house, Tassie stopped me with a hand upon my shoulder. At first I thought she had seen a coon on the path. Then I felt her other hand rest flat against my chest.
Even in that moonless pitch, I could see her eyes glowing like green embers.
She moved closer and whispered, "I forgot your birthday, Wyle."
My heart beat like daddy's slappy bass in the rocking farmhouse behind us. The din of the crocuses disappeared into the crashing surf of blood rushing in my ears. She pressed against me. I could smell tangerine shampoo, the intoxicating musk of her perspiration, and Boone's Farm wine. Before I could find the breath and courage to speak, she kissed me.
I instantly realized that I had never been kissed before. Not even by Lacy Van Leer, who moaned as she sucked my tongue and pulled out handfuls of my hair. Tassie's lips fell as soft as snow upon mine, they parted like the unfolding of a rose and her warm breath filled me with all I had ever longed for.
"Sweet dreams Honey-Boy." I thought I heard her say.
And as quick as that, she had disappeared into the darkness.
I stood beneath the pines, lost in my heart, for the longest time. I heard the slap of her screen door, watched her milling around inside the trailer until the dash of light. Then her silhouette . . . in the violet hue of the television as the dress fell from her shoulders and she stood defined before the screen. The vision of her body in that prolonged moment before she sank from view and into her bed, is one that I will carry forever. It was the image I saw as I closed my eyes each night, held sacred in the knowledge that it was for my eyes alone. It remains my most cherished birthday gift.
With the dew of Tassie's kiss still upon my lips, I was dancing with the raccoons, barefoot on the pine needle carpet, my daddy's heavy bass walkin' the cake down a dusty road in Louisiana Moon. And when I heard Nestor's squeeze box take the break, I lit out on the dew of the promising new morning and burst into Aunt Or's kitchen so deep in love, I could have gladly perished on her linoleum.
The Poobot's arrived late. The Accordion King had appeared earlier on the boardwalk in Sea City. My tape ran out with Nestor singing Juntos en el Cielo. Momma tilted her head, closed her eyes, and lightly swayed to the cuban rhythm. It was the only time I saw her smile. She even reached and pressed her hand to the small of daddy's back, a sweet gesture, as he leaned into the "other woman," slid into a double fingered octave, and worked her voluptuous mahogany to a weeping vibrato.
Morning came with the violent intrusion of sunlight through the bay window and the accusing clang of God's Church's bell. Sighing sedans parallel parked along Boxiron Road in front of Aunt Or's farmhouse. Sunday suits and modest dresses posed beside the shining automobiles before walking solemnly across the churchyard and disappearing inside. I stood framed in the screen door and watched the ambitious Christians across the field. I felt clear, righteous, and smug, as if I possessed something they were all searching for behind the white clapboard.
Mylan slept on the braided rug before the floor fan. Jame and Joe-Neil snored from opposite ends of the couch. The room was close and heavy with the smells of tobacco, bacon and coffee, and sweat. Chuckers poured Nestor another Bloody Mary and retreated to his winged-back, rubbing the dark holes where his eyes had sparkled only hours before. Only the tireless cuban was left standing. He caressed his ruby accordion with a minor drone that displaced an illuminated cloud of cigar smoke.
The elders had left before midnight on the heels of the good Reverend. Daddy was staggering when Momma pushed him to the Fairlane and drove him home. Aunt Or slipped off to bed with the Sunday bird stuffed, the dishes washed, and her hair set to curl.
Life is funny most times. Lessons always hard.
My journey had begun. I sat on the Purkey's porch with my imaginary plans spread out over the pine boards like a road map: a big wedding reception at the Dream Inn; my watercolors and ball trophies on the walls of Tassie's trailer; arriving home from the dock to find her pretty, barefoot and pregnant. In my dreams only a day before, I had played center field and batted clean-up for the Orioles, but alas, a child no more.
"With age," Joe-Neil always said, "the fool remains."
Tassie's Malibu drove out of the lane before a cloud of dust. She waved—I could see the sleeve of her blue waitress uniform—she simply waved.
Sin was rising like cinders from the chimney of God's Church, fleeing through the open windows as the choir sang Love in Thee, be not forsaken—forever be with hearts awakened. The Malibu paused at the weeds concealing the likeness of the Purkey's farmhouse in a mailbox of similar disrepair.
Hope rose with me from the rocking chair on that porch. I stood expectant and shielded my eyes from the dawn. Had she suddenly remembered the glorious night before, the future that had already begun? Was she waiting for me to join her? No. And contrary to the white flash of reverse lights, was a cloud of blue smoke and the echo of revving horsepower off the walls of the church. Tassie, for my benefit only, with the finesse of a rose thrown from the deck of a departing ocean liner, bid me farewell with a popped clutch and the violent screech of melting rubber, gnashed gears, and ejaculating fuel.
Melvin Daisy, the young new church deacon, thrust his head from beneath the stained glass and raised his middle digit toward the heavens. I had to smile despite the hollow, dense pain that had engulfed my chest. And as Tassie's Malibu faded—catching a hint of rubber shifting third as she sped through the stop sign where Boxiron turns into Main—the deacon spread his hand to wave at my notice and retreated sheepishly into the church (perhaps, with defined purpose). The monotone choir concluded with a repeated chorus: Take not to heart, this fallow peace—when harvest gold doth heaven reap.
When we kissed again, I was grown, and Tassie a new bride. I stood in the receiving line behind Joe-Neil, Chuckers pushing me along—anxious for the cold beer and the party waiting at the Dream Inn. And she was beautiful, as pretty in white lace as I had always imagined. I shook the groom's hand and noted how insignificant he appeared at her side.
There is supposed to be a finality about marriage where I come from. And as Tassie stepped forward and embraced me, she whispered, "I'll always remember you." She kissed me gently upon the lips and looked into my eyes as if she knew I had held on to something that never was, that never would be, for too long. She meant to set me free.
So I turned and walked away forever. But I never really let her go.
I tried to drown myself in Old Milwaukee beer that July afternoon. Chuckers, Jame and I danced with Tassie's plain cousins from Raleigh and built a pyramid out of beer cans on the table. I even caught the garter and had to put it on the leg of her obese step sister, Regina. And when the elastic would not stretch any farther than her bulbous knee, I slid my empty fingers along Regina's leg beneath the crinoline to imply that her thigh was not that large, till she playfully batted me away as if I were being salacious. Afterwards, she blushed and smiled gratefully.
When the party was over, and Tassie had driven off with her new husband and few dozen of our beer cans trailing behind her aging Malibu, I walked home alone. Regina had given me the garter back. Perhaps to remind us both of the simple kindness of strangers. That ring of lace, with the tiny embroidered heart of pearls along the spent elastic, lies in a chest in my attic. It rests there with perfumed letters, souvenirs, and photographs of everything once special to me.
I had opened the box to search for the address of an old friend when I came across the tape recorder and the brittle reel that I am listening to now. It is nearly inaudible—Joe-Neil's harmonica rising and falling in pitch as the tape drags over the rusty heads—but it transports me back in a cloud of emotion.
To hear Aunt Or's commanding voice usher my thin warble through the chorus of Home Is Where The Heart Is breaks my heart. There is no one I miss more. Listening to Chucker's picking reminds me that he could have really been something if he had ever left that little town and gone to Nashville as he had intended. Then, upon hearing their combined laughter, their joy, I give thanks that he never did.
There is a moment on the tape when the silence grows and Tassie speaks. She is talking about something that happened down at the Dream Inn. I can hardly make out her words, then everyone laughs and the music starts again. But, at the sound of her voice and the image of her face, I realize that I had been seeking her and longing to recreate those feelings since that night. Every woman I had ever been interested in, had initially reminded me of Tassie: her off-blond hair, fiery green eyes—smart, sexy and mischievous. If I heard a sweet southern voice in a restaurant, I would turn, fully expecting the same full lips and slight overbite to match.
Aunt Or called a particularly satisfying hoot a "Jubilee," a "proper rejoicing." I think it best describes what we were all doing in that farmhouse on those warm summer nights. It was kinship that shaped the very way we get through our difficult lives. It was Momma's hand to the small of daddy's back, Mylan dreaming of her homeland as the cool breeze caressed her forehead and her perfumed cuban serenaded her, Joe-Neil's stocking feet polishing the hardwood, Chuckers, lost in his groove. These things have stayed with me as well as my memories of Tassie, shaping my perception, blessing me with little moments of joy.
My children, my wife, though they cannot miss what they had not known, have been somehow cheated in my eyes. Our little family is like a satellite, as independent as all the little families I know now. There are no hoots. We gather solemnly at Christmas and Easter to exchange store-bought gifts, but never overstay our welcome. We are postured and proper—"sophisticated," Momma might say.
But it's the flaws, the weaknesses, the giving in and letting go, from which we learn our greatest lessons. Old Joe-Neil used to say that you couldn't trust or really know a man until you had given him a sip of shine, a back beat, and the flash of a pretty brown leg—watching his true nature blossom or cower before you. Sometimes we would burst from our dark cocoons in song and shake ourselves to the music until we shed our fears, found our joy, and took spiritual flight. And sometimes we would make fools of ourselves and fall flat on our faces. But I swear we were better for it either way.
I remember watching the christians leaving God's Church with peace in their eyes . . . so full of hope. I knew they had a hard road too. I wish now that we would have called them over and shared breakfast, laughed at our mutual fears, sang together until the sun rose so directly overhead, there would be no shadows to slant our perceptions. Weren't we all vested in sin for taking a step away from God with our judgements? We could have had one hell of a party—a jubilee.