They broke down in the thick hot air on the side of the highway in Arkansas. It was a big old boat of a Buick, deer tan. Leroy had bought it for $100 and then rebuilt the engine. He couldn’t read, but when he closed his eyes he could trace the workings of an engine from start to finish in his mind. His old lady was asleep, swollen and pregnant with his first child in the passenger seat. Her baby from her last man was asleep, too, on her [End Page 105] lap. Both of them were red and sticky in the heat. There was the sound of mosquitoes whining and the slap of his hands against their bites. The big rigs barreled by much faster now that they sat still with the bright green of the rice paddies laid out alongside them.
He wondered where she dreamed of when she slept; the mountains of their home or the hot plains of her youth outside Texarkana where they were headed. He’d never left West Virginia before, except to go to the part of Virginia that might as well have seceded with them in 1863. From what he’d seen so far, he figured he wouldn’t have any reason to ever leave home again, assuming they made it back. He woke her to tell her that the car was dead and he was going for help. She scowled and said, “Goddammit, Leroy!” and then closed her eyes again. He left his woman, her child, and their unborn baby sleeping in the car in the slow afternoon, and set out walking, long left arm outstretched, muscles distinct beneath tanned skin, thumb up towards the sky.
The woman who picked him up drove a new Toyota, talked clean and harsh like people in the movies do. She said she was from New York City, on her way back to Austin, wrapping up a tour. There were guitars in hard black cases in the back seat, coated in stickers. There was fine blond hair on her legs above her cowboy boots, and a tattoo peeking out from the neckline of her shirt. He could hear her bracelets clinking like the wind chimes on his mother’s porch as she turned up the air conditioning. She asked him lots of questions, but he kept his mouth closed as much as possible without being rude, not wanting to let his rounded words out into the air with her sharp ones.
“Have you ever been to Clifftop?” she asked. “I go every year.” The festival that young kids with money went to over near Sam Black Church where the girls didn’t wear bras, and the boys wore thick beards and flannel shirts but talked like this woman, and they all took drugs but never got busted. He [End Page 106] remembered how a young girl in an old fashioned dress had flirted with his Uncle after she heard him play the banjo. And how his sister had pulled at her own shirt hem and fidgeted around all those young women whose teeth and hair and skin glowed, who carried themselves with such importance. He remembered how they’d ignored her, hadn’t even looked at her, even though she was the best fiddler there. How it had made him want to fight someone, and he had, and then his whole family had gotten kicked out. They’d never gone back.
“No ma’am,” he replied.
She finally stopped asking him questions, and turned up a Hazel and Alice recording. She sang along with a voice like powdered sugar: flexible and pretty, sweet and white. He could tell life had gone easy on her. He bet she hadn’t bought the car with money earned making music. He heard his mama’s voice in his head saying, “You can’t sing a mountain song unless you know despair up close and personal.” He thought of his brother and sister sitting on upturned buckets on the patio outside the trailer, singing and picking, the crickets and katydids joining in on the harmony. He felt his throat tighten. Felt a deep gratefulness wash...