Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Notes Like Water

BY MARC HUDSON

He’d found us. Ma said it wasn’t so, but I had a feeling. It was the same feeling I had about the one legged man. The same feeling I had about the man with the bear paw tattoo.

I knew.

Ma told me to put it out of my head, but there wasn’t any other place to put it – it was just there, planted like one of those fluffy seeds that blows in on the wind. I imagined Daw in that old pickup of his, always just one or two towns behind, stopping at restaurants and barrooms, asking after the little girl and her runaway Momma.

A man named Slim was setting up for the show. I’d met a lot of Slims since we ran away – fat Slims and skinny Slims, tired Slims, Slims that wouldn’t stop talking, Slims that hardly said a word, cranky Slims and Slims that were good-hearted. This Slim was big. Not fat, just big, with arms as wide around as my legs. He was whistling “Peggy Sue” and watching me out of the corner of his eye. He was thinking the same thing they all thought. Six months, six hundred miles and I knew that look. “Haley,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“Haley Comet.” It was the name I’d picked for that town. My name changed everywhere we went. I did this on account of Daw.

The giant Slim came over and wrapped his big hand around mine. “By god, you are just a little thing aren’t you? How old?”

“Eight,” I said.

“It’s a pleasure.”

I was playing at a place called ‘The Savvy Steer.’ There was a sign out front of a long horned steer with a cigar in its mouth. It was a big place, bigger than I was used to—even had a little stage with a few spotlights on the ceiling. Most of these places just jammed the band into a corner somewhere. Slim already had the keyboard set up in the middle of the stage. “Hank says you’re something special.”

I heard that a lot. There wasn’t anything I could say about it one way or the other.

Giant Slim motioned to the keyboard. “Give it a spin?”

I climbed onto the stage. He had to make some adjustments to the seat so that I could reach the keys. “How’s that?”

“Fine, thank you.”

Slim took a few steps back and folded his arms across his chest.

Sometimes it took a little while for the music to come. Sometimes it was just a trickle, sliding down. I sat with my eyes closed, trying to put Daw out of my head. After a minute my fingers began to move—arpeggios at first and then ‘Baby, Baby, Bye, Bye’ from Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Jelly Roll Blues,’ some Little Richard, some Bach. I rolled them, one into another, funhouse style, complete with crooked floors and stretchy mirrors and then finished with something of my own, something twinkly and sad that fell out of me from some other place, pouring down in bright little drops. There wasn’t anybody in the bar but Slim, Hank, Ma, and a man mopping the floor. By the time I was done, they were all standing in front of the stage with the same silly look—all but Ma, who’d seen it before.

I was born eight years and six hundred miles away from that place. Ma said I didn’t make a sound for the first two years of my life. She said the first thing I ever said was music—not the word, but a note, something high and clear and pitch perfect. This might be. I didn’t care to talk much when I was younger. All I can remember is the music trying to find a way out. Even before I knew any words, I just opened my mouth and little bits of song would happen; odd tunes, melodies, lyrics from the radio—gathered up crow-like and sung out. Just like in the Savvy Steer—all of that music moving through my fingers. I can’t tell you how it happens. It’s just there, pouring in, pouring out. People imagine notes flickering through my head, but I can’t read music. It’s more like water falling out of the sky. I don’t move the water so much as it moves me. Deep water moves the minor keys and base notes. Shallow water makes the high notes. Sometimes the water wants to come down all at once, come down so hard that my hands can’t keep up. When I was smaller it used to get away from me sometimes. My fingers would be all over the keyboard, banging along, that big river having its way with me. Daw would get so angry. ‘You’d best settle down,’ he’d shout. I knew enough to stop when Daw began to shout.

“I’ll be damned,” said Hank, the owner.

Giant Slim was shaking his head. He turned to Ma, who was sitting at the bar with her cup of coffee. “You need to take this child to Nashville, or Austin, or Los Angeles. Someplace other than here, anyway.”

“Ever see anything like it?” asked Hank.

“Oh, heck no,” said giant Slim.

“You?” said Hank to the man with the mop.

The man with the mop just shook his head.

Back at the motel I took the velvet pouch from my suitcase, untied the rawhide cord and placed the amulets one after another on the floor around the bed. There were eighteen in all: three keys from my old piano—the one that Daw smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer—two silver coins that I stole from Daw after he smashed my piano, a crow feather, a silver barrel ring with a little cylinder of amber, a stone shaped like a sparrow’s egg, a penny that was run over by a train, a piece of turquoise, a note from my best friend Jenny, a tiny blue medicine bottle with a cork in it, a marble, a pocket watch from my granddad, an old pair of dice, a porcelain thimble, and one of those hats from a Monopoly game. Once they were in place, I climbed onto the bed. Ma sighed. She took the pair of chicken wraps she’d bought for us on the ride over and stretched out beside me, her back to the headboard. “You don’t have to do that,” she said. Ma never knew where my gifts stopped or where they began. Sometimes she got a little overwhelmed by it all.

I reminded her about the one legged man. I’d had a dream about a one legged man awhile back and the next day a man with one leg knocked on the door of our motel room asking if we’d seen his cat.

“Coincidence, baby,” she said.

“What about bear tattoo?” Bear tattoo had been a man named George, a friend of Daw’s. George walked into the billiard hall where I was playing about a month after Ma and I ran away. That same morning I told her that there would be a man at the show with a bear tattoo. The show started and there was George, at the bar, blue paw print on his neck. He hadn’t seen Daw in a while and didn’t know anything about us running off.

Ma handed me a chicken wrap. “Nothing bad ever came of that.”

“It could have.”

“You know I love you.”

“Sometimes that’s not enough,” I said.

“Sometimes it is. Eat. I’ll get the hot pot and make some tea.” She climbed out of bed, taking care not to step on the amulets.

It had been six months eight days and nineteen hours since we ran away. Ma told Daw we were headed to the grocery store. Daw is my dad, Dalton Allen West. Everybody calls him Daw. We stopped for groceries the Stop and Go and then kept right on going. We’d stayed in twenty seven motel rooms since we ran off. I’d counted. Sometimes I just wanted to pick one and stay, pretend we had a home, maybe make a friend, swim in the pool. We moved in a world of grownups, places that lit up after dark, places that smelled lived in and cried over and half-forgotten. I hardly ever saw kids my own age anymore.

“Peppermint?” Ma asked, waving a teabag between her fingers.

“Please.”

Ma was a beauty. I mean that in every way you can imagine. Back home she was the receptionist for a dentist, Doctor Woods. She acted too, in the community playhouse. Sitting in the dark and seeing Ma when the lights came up, hearing her pour herself out without Daw interrupting used to make me giddy. She deserved the attention, all of those eyes on her. Daw didn’t like her acting because of the looks she got from other men. They used to fight about it until Ma finally got tired of fighting and quit. Neither of us talked to Daw for a week. I don’t think he cared. Daw did enough talking for three people anyway.

It was right after she quit the theater that Ma started taking me to church. Mostly we went just to get away from Daw. The Sunday school class met in the basement beneath the sanctuary in a small room off the events hall. Whenever the congregation sang, the muffled chorus would roll through the floor like thunder. I told Ma I didn’t want to be down in the basement having Sunday school with all of that singing going on, so she let me sit with her up in the pew. Ms. Lovejoy, who played piano during service, heard me singing one Sunday and took us aside after church. She brought me over to the piano and played ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ while I sang. “Never heard anything like it,” she said. “This child has perfect pitch.” She played a few more hymns. “Extraordinary!”  I asked her if I could sit at the piano. “Do you know how to play?” I suspected that playing was just a matter of letting the music out, of singing with my fingers. Ma says I sat down on the bench and just started in.

After that, Ms. Lovejoy wanted me to come to the church three days a week for lessons. Daw said no. He and Ma had a good shout. I stayed in my room for a week until Ms. Lovejoy found somebody in the congregation willing to donate a piano so that I could have lessons at home. Once Daw heard me play it got him thinking. “She’s destined for the carny,” he said to Ma. Ms. Lovejoy taught me Bach and Handel and Mozart and Daw made me listen to rock and country music. It didn’t matter to me what it was, I soaked it in and poured out a great glorious quilt. Ms. Lovejoy called a music teacher at the university to come and meet me—a man named Professor Murty. Professor Murty wanted me to go to the university once a week for more tutoring, but being as Daw distrusted places of learning as much as places of worship, the professor had to come to the house instead. He was the calmest man I’ve ever met, especially around Daw, who had a way of getting under peoples’ skin. Professor Murty ignored Daw’s eavesdropping and door slamming. “Music,” he told me once, “will be your saving grace, the way you speak to the world and the means by which you cavort with angels.” After a month of what he called ‘Professor Murty’s high minded nonsense,’ Daw took a sledge hammer to the piano. That was the end of my cavorting.

Ma lit some incense and lay beside me on the bed while I did long division. Outside the motel we could hear the cars passing. Ever since we’d run away she’d made sure I kept up with my schoolwork. Hank, the bar owner, called to remind us to get there an hour early so that I could go over the playlist with the band. I thumbed through a stack of vocabulary cards while Ma painted her nails. “Do mine?”

“Work,” she said.

“Toes then?”

“Okay, toes.”

We’d been reading “The Odyssey,” by Homer—taking turns reading aloud. The day before, Odysseus had swum to the Isle of Scherie after Poseidon wrecked his raft. The Phaeacians had a big party, Demodocus sang about the battle of Troy and Odysseus burst into tears. I knew a little bit about how Odysseus felt, except that we didn’t have a home to get to, just some raw dirty place we were trying to leave behind. Ma said we had a home and we just hadn’t found it yet. It was out there waiting for us. “We’ll know it when we see it,” she said.

The summer after he took a sledgehammer to the piano, Daw bought a camper van so he could take me around to the fairs and carnivals. I sang top forty hits and torch songs and pretty soon word got out that I was something special. Daw got me booked with a big carnival operation and we spent the summer riding from county to county in the van. They kept me in a sideshow tent, ‘tarted up’ as Ma put it, with blush and eye liner, singing pop music and playing a synthesizer. Ma would drive out to see us on the weekends. Mostly, she and Daw would fight. With money in his pocket and the bright shiny cosmos of the carnival winking at him from every direction, Daw was contented. I played twice a day, singing to crowds of astonished onlookers. They filled the dirty canvas tent, the bright music bending them at the elbows and knees. For a short time I forgot about my splintered piano. And then the summer ended and school began, the carnival disbanded and the music stopped. Ma arranged it so that Professor Murty met me at school once a week to continue our lessons without Daw knowing. Meanwhile, Daw talked the owner of a place called “Lazy Jay’s Grill” into letting me sing on the weekends. Every Saturday night I sang country music. Pretty soon there was a line out the door and I was singing Friday nights, too. Daw bought a pair of alligator boots and began calling himself my manager. He wore aviator glasses and a cattleman’s hat and strutted around while I played telling everyone that what I had was good genes. He liked to say that his father and his father before him had been of a musical mind and that I was most assuredly the product of paternal heredity. I never saw any of that money, and neither did Ma.

Ma painted my toenails while I read the “Odyssey.” I told her she needed a man more like Odysseus.

“Odysseus wasn’t real,” she said.

“What about Professor Murty?”

“Professor Murty and I don’t have much in common.”

“You have me.”

Ma got the hairbrush, sat behind me and set to work on my hair. “We’re very different people. It’s true though, we both want what’s best for you.” She still wore her wedding ring. I asked her once if she still loved Daw. “No,” she said. “It’s just better if other men think I’m married.” A hundred miles ago we’d gone to dinner with a stock car racer—a smiling, handsome man with a Stetson hat whose favorite words were “hot damn.” ‘Hot damn, you can play and sing! Eight years old? Hot damn! Hot damn, this food is good! Hot damn, it’s a beautiful night!’ It was the first time I’d ever seen Ma out with a man who wasn’t Daw. On the way back to the motel she was quiet. “He was nice,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Are you going to see him again?”

“No, honey.”

“You don’t want to?”

“Want hasn’t got anything to do with it. It’s just the way things are.”

“Because of me?”

“Because of a lot of things.”

Ma put my hair in a French braid. She went and got my favorite bandana and tied it around my neck.

I started to cry.

“Shhhh,” she said. The light along the edges of the window blinds had turned grey and it was raining. “You’re gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine.” She put her arms around me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried, probably when I’d slipped on the stairs and come down on my tailbone and Daw had thought it funny. I knew I shouldn’t be crying. Ma had enough to worry about without me making it worse. But just then it felt like tears were all I had. I was scared for Ma and I was scared for myself and while I’d never thought much about it before, I was scared for the music, or for whatever it was that made the music. Maybe there was someone or something, somewhere, pouring out her song through me. If something happened to me, what would become of her? Would she fade away like some dead star in the cosmos? I might be the only chance she had to speak. If Daw hurt me or Ma, what would she do? As much as he’d failed at life, Daw wasn’t the giving up sort. The idea that Ma had taken me and run off would be unforgivable, something akin to stealing, especially since he’d come to see me as a way to make a dollar.

Ma got my shoes and put them on my feet. “I know you’re tired. But we’re getting close now.”

Daw was like Poseidon, I thought. We’d get just so close before he turned our little raft upside down. I picked the amulets off the floor and put them into their pouch.

“Why the long face?” asked Hank when we got to the Savvy Steer. Ma put a hand on my head and told him I was feeling a little homesick.

Hank stuck out his lip in an exaggerated pout. “Sorry to hear it, dollface.”

“Oh, she’ll be fine once the music starts.”

We made it a point not to talk about ourselves too much. Home was always some vague spot about forty miles south of wherever we happened to be. Ma was better at that sort of thing than I was. She could spin great clouds of conversation without saying much of anything. I always wanted to talk about Ms. Lovejoy and Professor Murty and the smashed piano and Daw and the carnival. Mostly, I just talked about music and left it at that.

Hank led us past the bar and through the kitchen to an office out back. The band was there—two guitar players, a drummer, and giant Slim, who was playing bass. Like most of the bands along the way, they were all around Daw’s age. The drummer and the two guitar players looked at one another when Hank brought me in. “Just wait,” giant Slim told them.

We sat around Hank’s office looking at the playlist until it was time to go on. Giant Slim must have sensed that something was wrong. On our way through the kitchen he took me aside. “You all right?”

“Sure.”

“C’mon now. What is it?”

“It’s just this feeling I have.”

“Bad feeling?”

“Scared feeling.”

“What are you scared of?”

“I’m scared of Daw.”

“Your dog?”

“My father.”

“Oh.” Giant Slim nodded as if this made sense. “You got a bad daddy?”

“We left home.” I looked for Ma. She was talking to Hank.

Slim squatted down and looked me in the eye. “Not easy is it?”

I shook my head.

“Mmmm. Well, you know what? I’ve heard you play that piano out there. Yes ma’am. And I’ve been around long enough to know that what you’ve got doesn’t come along very often. And I’ve been around musicians long enough to know that wherever the music is, that’s where home is. Tonight you’re home. Right out there on that little stage, that’s it. That’s Home.”

I shrugged.

“What’s your name?”

“Haley,” I said.

Slim grinned. “What’s your real name?”

I looked at him for a long time. “Sam.” I said, finally. “It’s short for Samantha. You can call me Sam.”

“Sam.” Slim put out his big hand for the second time that day. “I’m Lonnie. That’s short for Alonzo. You can call me whatever you want to. You’re the oldest eight-year-old I’ve ever met. And let me tell you this, that group of men are some of the best musicians you’ll ever want to play with. What I mean by that is that you can take this thing wherever you want to take it and we’ll be right there with you. You know what I’m saying, don’t you, Sam?”

I knew what Slim was saying.

“As long as we do a few of those tunes from the playlist, Hank will be just fine. Other than that, this is your world and we’re just going to live in it for a while. You all right with that?”

I nodded.

Slim smiled and motioned with a big arm for me to lead the way. “Welcome home, Sam.”

Ma caught up with us at the door, handed me the pouch of amulets and put her arms around me.

The restaurant and bar were almost full. All the servers were wearing straw hats and shirts with the “Savvy Steer” logo on them. I looked around, searching the room for Daw and saw only the vague faces of strangers. At the foot of the stage I stopped and untied the rawhide knot, opened the velvet pouch and circled the keyboard with amulets. The men in the band all looked at one another and then at Slim who nodded his assurance. I took a seat and closed my eyes.

Giant Slim slung his bass over his shoulder and stepped up to the microphone. He welcomed everyone to the Savvy Steer and recommended something called the Blue Mountain Mudpie for dessert. I was waiting for the music. I opened my eyes and looked around again for Daw. Everyone mostly had their eyes on me. I saw Ma on a stool at the bar. “We’ve got a special treat for you tonight,” said Slim. “She’s just about the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen and let me tell you, I’ve seen some stuff. Proof enough that good things come in small packages. Please give a warm welcome to Haley Comet.” A handful of people applauded, a sound not unlike corn popping. The music still wasn’t coming. The applause died away and I could hear the sound of silverware on china. After a moment, Slim walked up beside me. “You all right, Sam?” The first song on the list was “You Don’t Know Me,” by Ray Charles. Slim leaned over and grabbed a stool, placed it beside the keyboard and sat down, facing me. He began playing the melody on the bass. The drummer began to brush the snare and clap the high hat very softly. It was a quiet conversation, the shadow of a song. I forgot about Daw just long enough for the music to find its way in. It trickled down, a clear little wash. My fingers found the keys and pretty soon the song was there, rolling out of me. The place went quiet. People put down their drinks and their silverware. I sang. I looked at Slim, hunched over his bass, head cocked, eyes closed. When the song was over it was as if the room had been reinvented, stripped bare and reupholstered, painted, scrubbed, and populated with giddy animated bodies.

We stayed with the playlist, one after another, Slim sitting on the stool beside me, the crowd getting louder with every song. At one point, Slim looked around at the rest of the band and then leaned over and took the playlist off the keyboard, folded it in two and tucked it into his pocket. He winked at me. “You go ahead, Sam. We’ll be right here with you.”

I let the water in and let it out, hands and fingers telegraphing rills and wide, deep channels. I played the music that had passed through me for as long as I could remember. I sang about the one legged man and about the scared looking dog that just made it across the highway on our way to the show, about the woman in the motel room next to ours who spent a whole night sobbing, about the apple truck that turned over and sent a river of fruit rolling over the asphalt. I sang about my splintered piano and my best friend Jenny and the carnival. I felled trees and hewed planks and drove nails. I raised walls and built a roof and hung a door. I made a bed for Ma and a bed for me and then I found that dog that had just made it across the highway and I made a bed for her. And beside the house I made a brook and planted trees. I hung the sun and the moon. I lie down beside the brook and let the current move my fingers. All that water told a story. All I had to do was let it out.