Authors: Rick Bass
The diners resume their dining. The nice waitress comes back over with her pitcher of iced tea and tells Bonnie that that was real pretty and asks if she used to be a singer.
On their way out of the restaurant, Bonnie and Brownie walk down the wooden steps, gripping the handrail but walking steadily, with the gift of their youth, only five years younger than Maxine on the calendar, but much healthier.
Maxine can't negotiate the steps. She pauses at the top of them and then makes a game try, but she simply can't see the ground on which to place her feet; it's too dark, and she's too weak. She grips the handrail with both hands, shudders a bit, trying to will not just the necessary strength into existence but all the other things she needs but can no longer haveâbetter eyesight, better hips, better balance. But she cannot control those things any longer, and no blazing lights come on to illuminate her path, her brave attempt; instead, she turns and calls back to one of the waitresses, asking if she can get help down the handicapped ramp, while her sister and brother-in-law proceed, seemingly unfazed and unfettered by time.
The handicapped ramp, while descending more gradually, winds away from the restaurant and parking lot at first; eventually it switches back toward Bonnie and Brownie, and their parked carâbut for the time being Maxine and the waitress are heading off into the darkness, toward a grove of woods, shady oak trees with long trellises of Spanish moss hanging down.
The handicapped ramp is more poorly lit than the regular stairs; only three lamps punctuate its entire length, so that they have to move through the darkness from one pool of light to the next, as if swimming. It's terrifying to Maxine, with her night blindnessâlimping toward the dark forest with her newly mended hip, the fractured seam of it throbbing and threatening to snap again, every step a miracleâbut worth it, maybe, for that night out on the town, and, best of all, for the waitress's touch, her hand on Maxine's arm for a little while.
Should I have joined in with Bonnie,
when she sang her little ditty? No, absolutely not; it's imperative to have absolute control over one's voice
âand yet, how many more chances are there?
She grips the waitress's arm with both hands. She holds her chin up as they ease down the ramp, walking away from everyone, walking straight toward the dark woods. Only the tremorsâas powerful as electrical currents, and with her quivering like an Olympic gymnastâbelie the fear that is raging within her as she proceeds regally down the ramp with the waitress, into the darkness, chatting quietly all the while.
Bonnie and Brownie take her back to her dark home, the lone porch light burning. Bonnie and Brownie are staying at the nearby Motel. It's a late night for all of them, and Bonnie and Brownie want to be up and traveling early in the morning, trying to make it back to Dardanelle and then north in time for that day's watering. Worried that already the plants will be parched.
They embrace, tell her to call if she needs anything, then go back down the walk slowly to their car.
IM AND MARY JUST
couldn't do it anymore. Jim had been ridden hard and put up wet too many times, he told them. To get out of his personal services contract with Fabor, he had to give up full interest in all his previous hitsâeleven years' worth, including a dozen number ones, along with $10,000 cashâbut he was free, by God, and got to start over. He didn't have as much bounce in his step as he used to, he said, but there was enough to keep going.
"I feel like I got out just in time," he said. "Maybe I stayed a little too long, but I think I got out in time." Ever the gentleman, ever their friend, he offered to loan them the money, if they wanted to try to cut a similar deal.
"No," Jim Ed said, shaking his head, "we couldn't. That's really nice, but we couldn't. I can't borrow that much from you."
Maxine's eyes went dark, thinking of Fabor. "Do you have that much?"
Jim laughed. "No," he said, "I'd have to borrow it myself to loan it to you. But at least, by God, I wouldn't be borrowing it from Fabor."
"No, pal," Jim Ed said again, gently. "But thank you. It's sure been a good ride."
"It sure has."
Another drink, and another. The Browns thought that indeed he did look freeâliberatedâbut not so fresh. As if there was not so much left to liberate.
Floyd and Birdie continued to marvel atâto revel inâtheir children's ability to make a living doing what everyone in their family had always done, playing music and singingâand marveled too at the celebrity. Only Norma remained behind now, still in school, but in some ways it was almost as if the others were still at home, for at almost any hour of the day or night, they could turn on their radioâa gift from their childrenâand, if they listened long enough, one of the Browns' songs would always come on. It was almost like it had been when they were still living at home.
To Floyd, in such moments, lying on his back beneath the maw of a tractor, or mucking out the mules' stalls, it was almost as if they were still right there, and occasionally he would stop in his labors and just listen; and though they were his children and it was a sound he had known all his life, even he, with his familiarity with their music, and his gruff demons, would in those moments know a balm. He would lie there looking up at the blue sky through the underside of the old engine, or would lean on his shovel and just listen, with a strange and wonderful mix of emotions; the old fevers draining away as if never to return, and pride swelling in him, and the core thing, the thing he didn't even think about much: love.
The radio was scratchy but the sound was pure. Sometimes he liked to pretend that they were just around the corner of the house, practicing. If Birdie was nearbyâif she was not farther off, down in the gardenâhe would call to her, sometimes identifying for her which song was playing, other times just shouting that they were on; and in those early years, she would stop what she was doing and hurry up the hill to hear the miracle of it. Committing the ancient error of wanting things, good things, to stay only just the way they were. Wanting to stop time in its tracks, even then, with their lives pretty much behind them by that point; loving the scroll of days, now that their children knew comforts that Birdie and Floyd had never known.
When times were good like that, and Floyd was in his cups but not yet despondent or bitter or frightened, he had a saying, a little joke, that indicated how pleased he was with such rare moments of calm and cheer and fearlessness. He knew such confidence was foolish, which was why it amused him, on the occasions he felt it.
"We might get out of this alive after all," he would say, grinning, enormously pleased with life, and the moment. Laughing at himself, mostly, knowing how quickly that moment of optimism was fading even as he briefly inhabited it.
Maxine has so much time to think now. She tries not to live with regret, but if you're hungry for something and you don't ever get it, then how else can you live? It makes no sense to her; it seems dishonest to pretend there's no longing. Some people are just lucky enough for it to finally fade away. She was lucky in other ways, but never that way.
When they first got famous, but before Elvis and the Beatles found themâback when they were just a little famous, even though it seemed like a lotâher parents had diverged in their opinions of the fame, as they did on so many other issues.
Floyd, for all his criticism and distrust of Maxine, was finally proudâor so it seemedâand urged them only to push on harder, to take every venue offered to them; to make hay while the sun briefly shone. It was Birdie who in her quiet way first suggested moderation or caution.
When Birdie told her how she sure enjoyed having her children around the house now and again, Maxine had seen only a clinging old woman more interested in her own needs than in the opportunities that lay before her children.
It had surprised Maxine a little, for never before had she known Birdie to be that wayâbut Maxine had paid it little mind and pushed on, hurried on, saying yes to everything. There had been no balance, no tempering. What was it Birdie had said?
I hope you'll remember to leave room in your schedule for how things used to be.
Maxine had bristled at the intimation that there might be anything in her life that wasn't good, and had been further exasperated by Birdie's ignorance as to what her life was like. Irked by Birdie's intuition, and her simple ways. Maxine had grown past all that, had put away the childish things of her youth, and was irritated that Birdie wasn't necessarily overjoyed by and utterly approving of the new Maxine, the famous Maxine.
And if Birdie had explained it furtherâthat risking the cutting off of Maxine's foundation entirely might eventually render Maxine's gift lifelessâwould Maxine have listened? In all honesty, almost surely not. And in the meantime, there was Floyd with his unfettered enthusiasms countering Birdie's temperance. What did Birdie know about fame, anyway?
It was nobody's fault but her own, Maxine tells herself, that she is where she is now. Certainly, she's too far down the road to turn back.
What if we hadn't signed with Fabor? What if we had managed to buy back our freedom sooner?
Things moved too fast, back then. And anyway, what did Jim Reeves really do with his freedom? By the time he got it back, it was too lateâthe good was already past. He felt better, was all. The tension of being owned by a cruel person was gone, but his freedom had come so late in the game that, in Maxine's view, at least, it might as well have not come at all.
ABOR CALLED FOR
them to come to California under the guise of needing to record some new songs, but the real reason was that he was in lust for Bonnie. It was the first time they would travel without the protective custody of Jim and Mary, and because Fabor owned the Browns, they went to him.
He told them they could stay in his mansion, and his interest was clear from the moment he picked them up at the train station, when he saw Bonnie get off the train, accompanied by Maxine and Jim Ed, who though older were no match for Fabor, so far from home, and so gripped by his power, and with the obstacle of him between where they were and where they were going.
Fabor started in on his play for Bonnie that afternoon, in the recording studio, having successfully isolated her for a solo while placing Maxine and Jim Ed on the other side of the glass. They watched in disbelief as Fabor circled the crooning Bonnie, placing his hands on her hips and then around her waist as she fidgeted and twisted and side-steppedâstill singing, still recordingâand finally, with tears streaming down her face, wrenching free from his grope, the song catching in her throat only a little. Her voice so powerful that even with that little catch, it was a good recording, and the cries of protest from Jim Ed and Maxine, and the thumping of their hands and fists against the window, were as muted to the recording as would have been the movements of insects under a glass jar.
By the time Maxine and Jim Ed spilled out of the control room and hurried down the hall and into the recording room, the song was done, and Fabor, with the disease to which he was hostage, had been rejected by Bonnie yet againâshe had had to physically shove him awayâbut was still pursuing her.
"I'm just wanting to be friendly," he was saying. "I'm just wanting to help you become a better singer."
Bonnie was shakenâshe had been pursued before, but never with either such insistence or madnessâand the Browns retired to their rooms, unnerved by their host's way of doing business.
"I don't care if he is the boss," Maxine told Jim Ed. "If he tries to touch her again, you knock the hell out of him."
"Don't think I won't," Jim Ed said, but Bonnie put her hand on his and said it was okay, she could handle it.
They thought they might catch a break at dinner, served there in the mansion, where Fabor's wife would be joining them, but they were wrong. Fabor, shameless as a goat, continued to pressure Bonnie, discussing all the different forms of sex, and which ones were his favorite, and, again, his graphic desires for Bonnie, while his wife smiled and nodded.
The Browns ended up leaving the table. Jim Ed was confused, Maxine was furious, and Bonnie was in tears. They went back to Maxine and Jim Ed's room, despairing at this circus, or prison, that they had gotten themselves into.
"We should probably leave," Maxine said, and Bonnie, pale, didn't disagree. "Our songs are all recorded; he got everything he needed from us. We can just camp out at the train station. At least we'll be away from him."
Jim Ed hesitated. "I think we can protect her tonight," he said. "I know we can. Let's just stay the night, then leave in the morning before breakfast. I don't think he'll bother us again tonight."
Maxine disagreed. "He can't help himself," she said. "He's an asshole and a prick, but beyond that, he can't help himself. He'll be back."
"I'll be okay," Bonnie said. "Our rooms are right next to each other. I'll lock the door. We'll be okay. We can leave in the morning, before he even wakes up."
No one could fool Maxine in such matters. She had an alcoholic's innate understanding of the nature and possibilities of deceit as well as desire. She told Bonnie good night, walked her to her room, and made sure she locked her door, then lay there in bed, listening and waiting for what she knew would be coming.
It only took a couple of hours. When she heard the click and rattle of the key, she jumped out of bed and ran down the hallway to Bonnie's room, where she found Fabor, clad only in a multicolored floral-pattern silk bathrobe, advancing on Bonnie, who was standing up in her bed and shrieking.
Jim Ed came rushing down the hall behind Maxine, and they shoved Fabor out of the room. Jim Ed took a swing at him and knocked him down. Fabor got up and slunk down the hall.
Maxine stuffed Bonnie's clothes and belongings into her suitcase, she and Jim Ed stormed back to their room and packed, and then they went out into the night, off the grounds and into the darkness, hauling their suitcases. They would walk the eight miles to the train station. Fabor reappeared on the lawn, in his ridiculous bathrobe, and followed them a short distance, shouting, "I still own you!"