words: Marla Cantrell
Glen Campbell showed up at the foot of my bed three nights after he died. He said, real gentle like, “Mary Alice, you’re from Phoenix, aren’t you?” I sat up, a shockwave running through me. I blinked twice, thinking Glen might disappear, but he didn’t. I was from Phoenix, though I wondered how he knew. I’d moved to Arkansas when I was six, and now I was nearing sixty, a fact I held like a cup of scalding coffee that was bound to burn me sooner or later.
“I wrote a song about Phoenix once,” he said, grinning, and just like that, a guitar appeared in his hands.
I held a finger to my lips and nodded toward my husband, Carl, who was wearing his CPAP mask. That mask has ruined our love life more than his snoring ever did.
Glen wore a chestnut-colored leather jacket I remembered from an album cover in the 1970s. His pants were tan polyester, his shirt red, flowered, and unbuttoned to the middle of his farm-boy chest. Death had made him young again. He frowned. “You don’t want me to play?” he asked, and I said, “Not if it wakes up Carl.”
“We should go outside then,” Glen said.
My pajamas were gray and stretched out, and there was writing on the top that read, Help Me Make It Through the Night. It was a line from an old song I used to slow dance to at the Shimmy Shimmy Club when I was barely eighteen. Now, the words were more like a prayer. “I don’t think I should be hanging out with a man, dead or otherwise, in the middle of the night,” I said. “No offense,” I added, and Glen said, “Might make for a good story someday. I know how you love stories.”
So, I crawled out of bed. We walked through the house until we reached the back door, and then we stepped into the bloom of that August night.
Glen took a breath. “No place in the world like Arkansas.”
I have a gardenia that lives only because I set it right by the porch there, where the runoff from the AC drips and drips. It had flowered last Sunday when Glen’s address was still on this side of Glory. On the fence row a few feet away, my antique roses bloomed, all pink, all with French names I couldn’t pronounce if you held a .44 to my head.
Glen leaned against the porch railing and breathed. “The perfume of night,” he said. “The drifting smell of hay and creek water. Dirt roads after a summer rain. County fairs where everything’s fried. Churches that smell like old books and lemon furniture polish. I love them all.”
“That right there,” I said. “What you just said, all that beauty, that’s how come your songs grabbed at people’s hearts.”
His guitar was slung across his back. “I had a way of looking at the world sideways, I guess. I think it was because I almost drowned once. My brother Lyndell saved me when I was a little kid. After that, my life seemed like a miracle, like a divine gift.”
There are two rocking chairs on my porch, painted turquoise, the color chipping the way all those home decorators love nowadays. I sat down, and Glen adjusted his guitar and sat next to me. “I saw you once at the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair,” I said. “They’d turned the lights low, and you rode to the middle of the arena on a white horse. The glitter on your outfit caught the moonlight, caught the lamplight, threw sparkles that looked like shooting stars. My lord, how you could sing.”
Glen picked up his guitar and started singing his song about lonely housewives that kills me every time.
The moon was leaning toward red, so pretty the weather guy showed a picture of it on the news the next morning. When he finished singing, he said, “If I’d stayed in Arkansas, I might have married a girl like you. Had a bunch of kids. Maybe some cattle.”
I smoothed my hair with the back of my hand, felt the heat rise to my face. The tree frogs were so loud they sounded like an engine come to life. “Still a smooth-talker,” I said, and he said, “I get that a lot.”
The next thing he said was, “Let’s walk.” I stepped inside for a minute, snuck into the bedroom and slipped on my tennis shoes. When I came outside, Glen was in the backyard, the stars above him. He looked like a god.
We walked down the dirt road in front of my house. When we reached the crossroads, I led him down another dirt path that took us to Paddock Lake that was hidden behind pines and oak. The surface of the water was a mirror for the moonlight, and a family of raccoons huddled on the bank. We eased around them. At the fishing dock, we sat. Glen took off his cowboy boots, rolled up his pants, and put his feet in the water.
“My deepest memories are in Arkansas,” he said. “Sitting next to my mama in church on Sunday morning when I was a boy, knowing there’d be dinner on the ground after. Playing that first five-dollar guitar Daddy bought me from Sears and Roebuck.”
He moved his feet back and forth, two metronomes keeping time, the dark water swishing. “Once I was gone, though, I didn’t know how to come back.”
“None of us blamed you,” I said. “Dang, that one year you sold more records than the Beatles.”
Glen smiled. “I remember that,” he said.
“I dug my heels in, as soon as we got to Arkansas,” I said. “Those first six years in Arizona felt like a fraud. There was no unpredictable weather. There was no dew on the grass. Well, if you had grass. Most of our neighbors had given up and dumped gravel in their yards. When I got here, I knew I was home.”
Glen found a pebble, skipped it across the water. The rock hitting the surface sounded like firecrackers, three loud pops. He frowned. “Those last years were mighty hard. My whole life I’d believed I was on this planet to help folks forget their troubles. At the end, it was as if everybody’s troubles were sitting on my chest.”
He was talking about the Alzheimer’s that chewed him up, that broke his heart. Every day was another subtraction problem until even the edgy light of an August day was an undefinable thing.
“Is life better now?” I said, and pointed to the heavens.
“You can’t even imagine,” he said.
I blinked hard against the tears that burned my eyes. The day before, I’d come home from the store, put the ice cream in the pantry. I didn’t find the carton until after dinner when Carl wanted dessert. It wasn’t my first forgetting.
“I’ll be sixty soon,” I said. “Before the calendar changes from August to September. I was planning a big birthday party, but I’ve got this daughter I’m crossways with.” I rubbed my arms against the damp night. “I don’t think I can fix it, and I don’t think I could stand having a party without her.
“Carl’s going to take me to Western Sizzlin. I got a friend who offered to take me to the Dixie Stampede in Branson the next day.”
I looked at Glen. He was staring at his hands.
The lake smelled of fish and old leaves. A breeze blew through the trees, the sound like a deck of cards being shuffled. “I lit a candle for you when I heard you’d crossed over,” I said.
“Awful nice of you,” Glen said.
“When you left this earth, it felt like you took a part of my girlhood with you. I grew up with your songs. I kept a poster of you on my bedroom wall.”
Glen shook his head, an expert on loss, a Ph.D. in sorrow.
“I forget people’s names sometimes,” I said. “I took my wedding ring off months ago when I cleaned the oven. Still haven’t found it. I couldn’t remember the word ‘sock’ last week. I call my dog by my old dead dog’s name about ninety percent of the time.”
I could see the raccoons rising, their bodies wobbly as they inched along into the woods. Glen said, “It could be nothing at all, Mary Alice. Just the effects of time, of too many memories.”
“I do have a truckload of memories,” I said, and I could feel relief ease through me.
We lay back on the dock, the damp wood cool, the night electric with crickets and tree frogs. An owl hooted. “I’d have the birthday party, if I were you,” he said.
I could see the globe of a flashlight on the walking trail a few yards away. I could hear two voices, the high trill of a girl, the bass of a boy. The girl said, “If my mom finds out I snuck away to see you, she’ll kill me!” The boy answered, so low I couldn’t make out the words.
Glen grinned. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” he said. “Thank God for that.”
I started to mention his own reputation with the ladies, the scandals that followed him like his own shadow for years and years, but something about the easiness of his body, the looseness of his smile, made me want to spare him any bad memories.
“I’d better get you back,” Glen said, and pulled me to my feet. I wondered if the young couple saw us, if they were surprised by the sight of a young man and an old woman on the dock, so close they could be up to something.
Back at home, we sat on the porch, and I asked him to sing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” I remembered every word.
When he finished, he placed his hands just above my ears, and kissed the top of my head, took his jacket off and wrapped it around my shoulders. He took a few steps and then turned around. “Have the party,” he said again. “Let the people who love you, love you.”
As he walked away, I pulled the coat tight around me. It smelled like woodsy aftershave and old cigarettes and spilled whiskey. Remnants of another time.
The lights in my neighbor’s house flicked on just as the sun started to rise, but I stayed on the porch, watching Glen leave, his hands in his pockets, his head turning now and then, as if he was taking in every fencepost, every blade of grass, every bird on a limb. I tried to look at them the way he did, and suddenly they were the stuff of miracles, they were as precious as little lambs.