words: Marla Cantrell
It’s fixin’ to come a storm soon as we get together, our bluegrass band called Three Top Mountain, but that don’t stop Effie. He thinks you got to play no matter what. If the tornado sirens go off down in town and Effie’s wife calls up here at the hunting cabin we all share, Effie’ll say to us, “Ya’ll can go get in your fraidey holes if you want to. Me, I’m playing my fiddle.”
Well, you can’t go to the storm cellar with your tail between your legs, so we always stay, me and Layman and King, even though King, who plays the washtub, lost his house in the tornado of ’96 and he still shakes like a hula dancer when the sky rumbles. When it does, Effie’ll start in on some song like “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” just to put his spin on how things might turn out if a twister does find us.
So today we’re fixin’ to practice, and the door ain’t closed yet so you can see the sky turning the color of a two-day-old bruise. Already King’s a sweating and a shaking and Layman’s got his eyes turned on his mandolin that’s setting there on the table, and Effie, truth be told, can be a flat-out bully, so he ain’t flinching at all. He’s just getting the show list together and acting like everything’s business as usual.
I close the door, and Effie says, “I think we should start with ‘Sitting on the Front Porch.’ Crowd pleaser, ever single time. Then, ‘Baby’s Little Shoes.’ And then ‘Walking with Clementine’ for the old folks. We’ll finish with ‘God Bless the U.S.A,’ since the veterans’ home is bringing a bus.
Lightning is hitting closer, the sky like the Vietnam War, and then the boom, boom, boom of thunder that rattles the whole cabin. King’s sat down, and he’s turned white as cow’s milk. King’s a big man. He can’t even button his overalls up all the way on the side, so when he doubles over and falls out of his chair, ain’t one of us knows what to do. Still, me and Layman get with it, kneeling on the floor, and Layman puts his finger to King’s neck, checking his thumpity pulse.
“I ain’t doing no mouth-to-mouth restitution!” Effie hollers, and I shoot Effie a look.
Layman’s fanning King when he comes to, and I’ve got up and got him a cool washrag for his head. King holds the rag to his forehead and leans up on his elbow, looking like ten miles of bad road.
“You okay, buddy?” I ask, and sit back down beside him. Just then, the hail starts, them icy bullets ricocheting when they hit the tin roof.
“My new truck,” King whines, and covers his eyes.
Mine and King’s and Layman’s pickups is parked outside, and they’s getting blasted. I think about my old Dodge, the one I had since I still had my own teeth. The hail, big as cotton bolls, must be hitting it pretty good, and it makes me sick to death.
Effie’s truck, his is parked under the old lean-to carporch we threw up last summer. Well, sure it is, I think.
Layman, who’s usually as peaceful as a hen setting in dirt, pushes hisself off the floor. He walks to the window, looks outside at the hailstones I imagine are eating up our pickups, and says, “Dang it all to hell!” He hits the wall with his fist, and then says a cuss word I ain’t never heard him say before. It feels like that storm is moving from the wicked sky to way down deep inside us all.
We listen to the hail drop, the pow-pow-pow of it an awful thing. After maybe five minutes, it goes on down the road. And then the rain come in behind it like a fireman’s hose, making the air smell like a river.
King tries to stand—I’m still sitting there with him—so he grabs my shoulder to do it. He’s about as wide as he is tall, and he near about knocks me over on his way up.
Once he’s standing straight, he says, “I’m off like a prom dress, so don’t y’all try to stop me.” He’s near about yelling so he can be heard over the rain on the tin roof. He don’t make a move for the door, though, and standing there with his forehead all scrunched up, he looks like he’s making a life-or-death decision. After a while, he says, “Hold up a minute; I got something to say.”
His voice is all Shake-and-Bake when he turns to Effie. “You didn’t do a dad-blame thing to help me when I was down on that floor, buddy.” He points to me and Layman. “These two was right beside me when I come to, and you was looking at us like we was some TV show you wasn’t particular interested in.” King rubs the back of his neck, and his mouth turns way down. “You’re about as useful as the U.S. Congress, Effie Mongold. We should send you on up to Washington, D.C. with the rest of them bottom-feeders.”
We don’t talk politics, not since we got into a knockdown drag-out when Clinton ran for governor that second time, but King don’t seem to be abiding by any rules today. I get up on my knees, grab the old chair that’s sitting right there and haul myself up. I take a step toward King, in case I need to referee.
King, looks to me like, ain’t near-about finished with Effie.
“You act high and mighty, like you was the backbone of Three Top Mountain,” King says to Effie. He points to Layman. “But Layman here, he might not play music as good as you, but he’s the one got the news folks out here to do that story calling us the best bluegrass band in this here River Valley. And he books ever show, and when you drink too much, let’s just be honest here, when you drink too much, you can’t play worth you-know-what.”
Effie’s a little banty rooster of a man, but he’s been known to fight mean, and when he lunges at King, it takes me and Layman to stop him.
We’re holding Effie by his scrawny arms that feel like a kid’s pick-up sticks, and he’s kicking, his cowboy boots near about sparking off the wood floor.
“You are a liar and a snake, King Brammel,” Effie says. “A liar and a snake. When you die, you’re going to go straight to hell. And just so you know, when you do, I plan to play the fiddle on your grave.”
King looks like he could put Effie in the ground right then and there, his own self. I start to butt in, but then Layman steps in, which is hard for him, I know, because he don’t like fighting of no kind.
“Ya’ll cut it out!” Layman says. “You and King need to quit showing your behinds. That gig on Saturday pays a hundred dollars, plus they feed us. We ain’t had a set-up like that since we played that Blue Magnolia shindig for the rich ladies who wanted to dress up in thousand-dollar boots and wear tight jeans and drink beer until they acted like schoolgirls again.”
Layman swells up, like I never seen him do before. “And Effie, we ain’t playing ‘Walking with Clementine,’” he says, pointing his finger right in Effie’s face. “The old folks can do without it for one durn night. I wrote my own song and I want to sing it. It’s called ‘She Broke My Heart and Stole My Wallet.’”
I’d known Layman sixty-two years, and it’s the first I’ve heard of his songwriting. His ex-girlfriend, the one who brought over the Mexican casserole when Layman’s wife died two years ago, was probably the inspiration for this new tune. Word was, she was over in Branson now, hooked up with a cowboy singer who wore a bolo tie and colored his hair.
Effie’s face is so red it looks like he might catch fire. He opens his mouth, shuts it up, and then his shoulders fall. He looks us all dead in the eye, me and King and Layman, and then he says, “Fine! That’s fine as frog hair. I been carrying you yahoos for way too long.”
King says, “Wouldn’t take all that much to carry you, Effie,” and then he cuffs Effie on the shoulder, and smiles at his own joke. Effie looks like he might get mad, but then I guess he thinks better of it, cause he holds out his hand and King takes it, and then they’re hugging like long-lost brothers.
I see Layman wipe a tear just as Effie lets go of King. Effie heads for his fiddle case, where he always keeps his bottle. “Ain’t nobody driving right now,” he says, his voice kinda growly like. “And that includes you, King.”
“We should at least go see how bad our trucks is,” I say, and Effie says, “Can’t do nothing about it now. We might as well play.”
King laughs at that, says, “Effie, you don’t never change, do you?” And Effie says, “I reckon not.”
So we sit down and pass the bottle until Layman starts singing. “I loved a girl from Minnesota. Loved her with a passion true. And then she stole my dad-burn wallet, took it out and followed you. You must be a handsome cowboy. You must look like Johnny Cash. But Dandy Heartthrob, I forewarn you, she is fishing for your stash.”
The liquor burns all the way down, which ain’t no big surprise. But the song surprises us all, and we eyeball each other and bust out laughing. Effie picks up his fiddle, and I pick up my guitar, and Layman his mandolin. King drags out the washtub, and we get back at it, the boys from Three Top Mountain. We start to play then, in this rickety cabin with the world outside in shambles. The music sounds better than it has in a long time, and I think we all know it. Cause we keep playing even when the telephone rings. It’s probably Effie’s wife, checking on the storm, making sure we made it through. I strum my guitar and look at these old coots I love better than kinfolk, even though I’d never say it out loud. No, I would not. Not in a million lonesome years.