Read Nashville Chrome Online

Authors: Rick Bass

Nashville Chrome (10 page)

Frames of Jim and Mary Reeves, the one time they all five went on an extended tour together, traveling out to the Pacific Northwest, a two-week journey, and the mountains and plains and dense rainforests as exotic to them as if they had traveled to Mongolia. Maxine did all the filming, and there are long stretches where she filmed the era's myriad construction projects—dams being built, gaping dry reservoirs not yet filled, and roadbeds excavated but with their foundations not yet poured—Maxine filming such things to show Floyd, who could never have imagined such industry. Though the footage is incredibly boring now, she watches it all and marvels at, and tries to recall, the enthusiasm she had back then for everything—even the sight of a bulldozer digging a ditch—and of how everything was new and unfamiliar.

There was not a trace of her depression, back then, and not a trace of weakness; and again the clock of the world was utterly frozen: for herself, surely, and yet also, she thinks, for everyone else, or at least everyone with whom they came in contact—even if only for a very short while. For two or three beats, maybe; for the amount of time it takes to draw a deep breath.

It
was
frozen, for a few moments, she is certain of this. The old movies remind her of this, they are her proof.

A JOURNEY

E
LVIS WENT BACK
down south and then over to Texas on a solo tour, and the Browns went on their Pacific Northwest tour with Jim and Mary. Ten years of Fabor, and ten years of touring, was beginning to take a toll on Jim and Mary. Had the Browns cared to see such a thing, they might have been able to peer into the short near future that awaited them, with the paths of nearly all mentors establishing as if through ancient negotiation the same trails down which their disciples must travel—but the Browns chose not to observe those diminishments, that underlying wobble, and instead, in the power and exhilaration of their youth, observed only the joy.

Sure, Jim was drinking a little more, and Mary seemed to be strung a little more tightly than even a year or two before, but there was still great fun to be had at every show, and in every mile traveled, in every breath taken in, and in every exhalation.

It was all so incredibly new—as if they had just been born. The air in the Colorado mountains was cooler and drier than they had known air could be, and they noticed that sounds traveled farther, and held together longer.

To save Fabor money, they camped out as they traveled, and built campfires to stay warm, and sang and played music far into the night, while Jim Ed and Jim drank from their flasks and watched the sparks cascade into the stars whenever they tossed wood onto the fire. Bonnie and Maxine weren't yet drinking much back then, but under those cold stars, and in the spirit of the party, they would have a warming sip now and again whenever Jim Ed or Jim passed the flask.

For a country music singer, Jim wasn't much of an outdoorsman, and the Browns sometimes teased him about this, calling him a rhinestone cowboy and telling him he would have to come visit them at their home someday, spend some time with them in the woods, before he could truly call himself country—but there on that trip, Jim began to learn a little about such things and was not displeased with a life he had previously viewed as uncouth.

The endless sky of Wyoming, and then, farther up into the mountains, the foreboding yet exhilarating forests of spruce and fir. The sulfurous exhalations of Yellowstone, the fantastic roiling belches of the mud pots, the hissing vent-hole aspirations of fumaroles. The impatient ninety-three-minute wait on the boardwalk for the spray of Old Faithful, with the brimstone taste of it in their lungs. Tourists rushing out afterward to reclaim their scattered laundry, having stuffed it down into the maw of the geyser some moments before the turbulent ejection.

Bears walking the roads and leaning up against their car with dagger-claws, nose-smearing against the glass, mugging for snacks. Jim trying to put some of Mary's lipstick on one bear, and the bear snarling and snapping at him, Jim pulling his hand back just in time, milliseconds away from the end of his guitar-picking.

Pelicans floating overhead, as ghostly white and slow moving as if in a dream, and seagulls drifting and squealing, no matter that they were still a thousand miles from any present-day ocean.

The tattered clouds of the Pacific Northwest, then—all the way to Puget Sound—where the slate and metallic sheen of the skies, bruise purple and storm green, was beautiful, but seemed to attach its leaden colors to Maxine's blood in a way that she found dispiriting. Too far from home, was all, perhaps, or maybe it just wasn't her place on earth.

In her home movies from that trip, she can see hints of what was to come, in those few frames that she inhabits, in the moments when Bonnie grabs the camera and turns it back on her. Not quite yet a worry or a fretfulness, but instead maybe just the beginnings of a kind of stillness or wariness: the dawning, perhaps, of an understanding of the nature if not the name of the thing—the blessing and the curse—that was in her. The realization that she probably wouldn't be able to slow it down or moderate it, even if she ever desired to. Which was just fine, more than fine, at the age of twenty-three. But not in control. Apace with it, but not in control of it.

Seeing those beautiful pewter skies in the Northwest and feeling the first tug or bump of depression: as surprising an emotion to her then as if a large ship far out at sea, floating serenely and confidently above a thousand feet of water and with no sign of a shore in any direction, was to suddenly bump hard against something just beneath the surface.

In the Pacific Northwest, she saw a killer whale. She was sitting by herself after their last show, out on a porch overlooking the water. She was lulled by the ghostly white shapes of the big sailboats in their moorings on the dark water, masts stark against the sky without their sails, the water lapping almost but not quite rhythmically against the dock. The male musicians were still inside the bar, drinking. Maxine kept turning and looking back in from the darkness at the yellow window squares, and at the mirthful, vibrant figures moving around within those frames. She wanted to join them but for some reason could not.

When the whale surfaced she saw only the back part of it, going back down, gleaming wet in the night. She thought at first that it was a sailboat turning slowly over. When she realized what it was, she ran inside to get the others—her sorrow or sadness jolted out of her, burned so clean and free, it was as if it would never return—but the whale did not reappear, and they teased her and accused her of being drunk.

Once they were turned away and headed back, Maxine quickly felt better, headed back downhill. The continent as vast as her dreams, and thrilling for that, but unsettling; it was as if the physical detachment from her home, one of those fractures that Fabor had counseled them about, had opened up, and everything she was, and everything she might be, was draining out.

They ran out of money in Idaho and Fabor wouldn't wire them any, so they had to wait tables and wash dishes in a truck stop, and play live shows in the parking lot each night, selling autographed black-and-white glossies of themselves afterward to raise enough money to get back home; but no matter, they were pointed in the right direction, and because of their youth, it was nothing but fun, only an adventure.

They were driving two cars, the Browns in one and Jim and Mary in another—they traded drivers and passengers—and Jim and Mary pulled a little homemade shell of a trailer that was stuffed with all their gear. Passing back through Colorado, they detoured to go see Pikes Peak, where, frustrated by how hard the trailer was to maneuver, Jim Reeves unhitched the trailer, took their luggage out, and gave the little trailer a shove with his boot, sent it catapulting over the edge of a thousand-foot cliff just for laughs.

At another point in the journey, still in Colorado, Jim and Mary's car ran out of gas in an autumn snowstorm in the middle of the night. Jim Ed hiked down off the mountain in his dress boots while the others stayed with the cars and struggled to build a wretched little fire with comic books and wet branches. They were on a back road, and no traffic passed by—they imagined they might remain stranded there on into the winter, and the next spring—but fortune favored them and Jim Ed found a cabin at the bottom of the mountain at daylight and got a ride back up to their cars with a can of precious gasoline. They continued on their way, back down toward the flatlands, back down toward warmth, back down toward home. Driving hard now, nonstop, with no more gigs scheduled, and the strange and intensely bittersweet pull of home aching in all of them.

They did not regret the tour, but each felt as if he or she had somehow gotten away with some great risk or gamble, in the adventure of their outing—had sought to pull away from the directive of where the larger world most wanted them to be and what it wanted them to be doing, and that although the freedom of that pulling away had been exhilarating, they were getting back home only just in time. What the consequences of not getting back home and reattaching might have been, they could not have said, but they knew instinctively that those consequences would not have been in their favor.

Almost as if each of them had been guilty, while on that grand trip, of spurning their various gifts, and were made uneasy by the strange thrill they felt in that betrayal, that willful destruction of the vague contract they each held. A contract that, unlike the one with Fabor, they had never signed, and never requested.

They drove day and night, heading south and west, down out of the mountains and across the broad plains and then back up into the hills and hollows. They took the good roads straight on toward Memphis, arriving south of there just before dusk. They stopped and looked down at the Mississippi and were reassured by the force and mass of it, as well as by the deceptive leisureliness of its pace. The muddy color of the river, as well, was calming—prior to their trip out west, that color was the only one they had ever known a river to be—and with the last of the sun glinting off the water it looked like a winding path of bronze, passing with strength through a seething velvet jungle, and they relaxed further, watching it and considering the things they had seen.

Jim offered everyone a drink from his flask. There was a hand-carved sign in the pull-out area where they were parked that told the story of the New Madrid Fault, over which they were sitting. Back in 1811, the fault—which underlay the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, down through Memphis and Tupelo and Jackson and all the way down to New Orleans and into the sea—had cracked like an eggshell. The Mississippi had run backwards for days in what everyone, slaves and slave owners and freemen, believed with deepest conviction was the end time, with the bodies of men and animals riding those frothy, muddy waves, pitching and tossing amid the timbers and rootwads of forests and the rooftops of houses. Horses, some dead and swollen from hundreds of miles ago, others still saddled and swimming hard, as if riding to war, but with no riders. A terrible harvest from what used to be downstream but was now upstream.

The Browns and Jim and Mary sat on the back bumpers of their old cars and watched the river until the glint went away. Then they got in their cars and continued on, following the river south for a while before stopping to call Floyd and Birdie. They gave them an estimate of when they'd be in, and proceeded on, a tiny caravan, winding now on the familiar country roads and back roads of their youth, drawing ever closer to the feast.

And when they passed the old sawmill, which was shut down again, and pulled into their dark yard and saw the lights on in all the rooms, saw the figures of their mother and father and Norma inside, saw those figures come out of the light and into the darkness to greet them, they were received as if home from a war. They introduced Jim and Mary to their family, and celebrated with music and Birdie's cooking all night long.

A fire in the fireplace, the smell of pies baking, and a pot roast cooking in the oven. Sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, turnip greens:
home,
warm and yellow lit and safe and intimate.
Home,
never leave, never leave. Bonnie laughing the loudest, glowing, exuberant and radiant. A glance by her over at Maxine, who, though smiling, seemed almost at one point to be wearing a stage smile, seemed somehow to be curiously distracted.
Home,
never leave.

LITTLE JIMMY DICKENS

B
Y
1956,
THERE WAS
no one bigger. They were as big as Elvis; Elvis was as big as the Browns. They had won every major award there was in country music, and the Browns had been at it just long enough that they were beginning to get comfortable with their good fortune. Ascent was all they had ever known; how could there ever be anything else?

Few if any mapmakers can mark the precise moment of highest fame or pleasure in any life, whether an ordinary one or extraordinary; and rarer still are the travelers' own abilities to do so. Maxine, with the alcoholic's force of denial—and no matter that she is in recovery—still believes her apogee has not been reached, that all which has come before has been but a false plateau. A more detailed observer, however, might suggest that the peak came very early, and quickly: on the first night they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.

In typical Brown fashion, it was a night of their highest high, and yet one of the lows that would most gnaw at Maxine for the rest of her career.

They had been chosen to share the headlines that night with Little Jimmy Dickens, one of the original stars of the Grand Ole Opry. How they had adored him, had spent their childhoods crowded around the static of their one radio listening to him on Saturday nights, and counting the days and nights until the next week's performance.

Meeting Jimmy Dickens then, backstage, the first time they made it to the Opry. Approaching him with stars in their eyes—this little man, this icon—but being rebuffed by him even before they could shake his hand. Already, he had seen more change than he had bargained for in his life, and the high nasal whine that was his trademark must have seemed to him the antithesis of these three attractive young people, and their own sound, and their sudden fame.

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