Authors: Rick Bass
Maxine and Bonnie cried the whole way. They stopped only to switch arms in the lugging of their suitcasesâit was a humid night, and they were swelteringâand they reached the train station in the last wedge of darkness before daylight. They slumped on the station benches, their heads on one another's shoulders, and slept for an hour or so, with the calls of the dawn birds entering their sleep. Maxine twitched, rousing herself every so many minutes to make sure Fabor had not followed them, before they were all three awakened by the nearing of the train.
By eight thirty they were boarded and looking out at the golden morning, pulling away from the station and California, and once more headed home, being given another chance to get back on track and to make their stand together in the only place that really mattered, and the one place where they were always at their absolute strongest. Forged with the lows as important as the highs, and the world making them into something that they had not necessarily asked for. The world, not Fabor, owning them in that regard.
Home to Floyd and Birdie, who would always adore them. Home to Poplar Creek, and rich for having a place to return to, whether free or captive, or somewhere in between.
IM ED WAS ALWAYS
the workhorse. It was the way he best fit the world, and there was a grace in that. It was he to whom Maxine and Bonnie turned when the Browns sought their own freedom. After the incident in California, there could be no turning back: better to quit singing than to continue as hostages to Fabor.
Jim Ed put down his guitar and went back to work in the mill. It was risky business, and all the more so for his having been away for a couple of years. During that time he had gotten a little soft, not so much physically, but mentally. The economy was starting to warm up, the country was hungry for lumber again, and Floyd had started the mill back up, had knocked the flakes of rust off the blades and oiled the machinery and cleared out the clamor of brush that swarmed in over the machines whenever the mill paused.
Town and the woods, back and forth; Floyd and Birdie boarded up the Trio Club for a while and retreated to the place they had come from, the place that had kept them alive, though sometimes at such high cost.
Jim Ed figured that if he worked double shifts, he could get close to the debt in about six months, and could maybe borrow the rest from Floyd. Birdie was glad to have her children back home.
All Jim Ed had to do was take care of his hands. He asked Floyd to keep him away from the planer as much as possible, and to instead assign him the harder tasks, such as sorting and stacking the newly sawn lumber. It was backbreaking labor, but all he had to do was be mindful of splinters and of falling stacks. In a way, the work was a kind of freedom in itself, allowing Jim Ed the ability to lose himself in the repetitive symmetry, and in the brief waiting for each next plank, and in the exhaustion, the limber ache of being utterly spent at the end of the day.
Like his father, he loved the roar of the mill, the shrill, exciting clamor of the alchemy by which twisted trees were made into straight and shining lumber. He loved the green scent of the trees, and the sharper scent once it was planed to lumber, and the bright whiteness of it that was particularly dazzling within the first few moments of being planedâbefore the first fading oxidationâand he loved most of all being back home, with his full family.
Like all the workers, Jim Ed avoided even a single beer at lunch. He listened, just as he had when he was a child, for the sharpener's midday call to find the ringing, tempered harmony. If Bonnie and Maxine were aroundâand usually they wereâthey would walk down to the mill to help him listen. It was a game for them now, to see which of them could hear it first, and yet, still, they took it seriously, and always, each was quieted almost to the point of hypnosis when he or she heard itâas a Border collie or other herding dog might feel when, even if ever so briefly, perfect order was established within a herd.
Bonnie and Maxine would bring their own guitars and Jim Ed's down to the clearing. They would eat lunch with Floyd and Jim Ed and the rest of the workers, and when they had finished, they would play and sing quietly there in the shade while the rest of the workers listened and finished their lunches.
It went like that day after day, all through the summer and into the fall.
They were already free, and just didn't know it.
The mill's operation was ragged in the first weeks after being restarted. Flecks of rust fell from every cog and gear and even from the blades themselves in those first days, so that little plumes and clouds of shimmering orange-gold dust attended the whine and shriek and roar of the mill. An asymmetric ringing in Jim Ed's ears, the resumption of tinnitus, those first few weeks, until his brain learned how to block out the roar and the echo of the roar that followed him in his head even after the mill had shut down at five every day. Floyd enjoying his second chance.
A one-legged man, still out in the woods, still felling trees! Everywhere in the Browns' lives there continued to be this surface symmetry, surface functionality, girded below by the muscular knot of asymmetry, the tense and conflicting roil of things being always just a step off-balance, and in need of correcting.
After work Jim Ed would go fishing with the other men from the mill; other evenings he would go to a campfire with them out in the woods, in a clearing of their own making, and would drink and tell stories. Still other evenings he went straight home, eager for dinner and to see his family, and after eating went out on the porch with all of them and played and sang. His hands were still intact, his voice still miraculous. Of the three of them, he was the most malleable, able to adapt to any sound and imitate any voice, even while slowly developing his ownâbut also, in a remarkable way, he was the foundation for the three of them.
There were fireflies in the meadow. No one was rich and it couldn't even be said that everyone was fully healthyâFloyd's ghost leg bothered him, particularly in the evenings, and Birdie's heart was beginning to beat irregularlyâbut it was all still good, all still a dream. It was as if they had not quite yet been called out onto the stage where they would leave behind the place that had given them their gift in the first place. They had been to the Opry but had come back.
Out in the fields, between their porch and the woods, and at the edges of their vision, the sparks drifted, rose and fell, blinking on and off. As soon as they got free they were going to Nashville on their own, they had decided.
Jim Ed had had some close calls, had gotten some nicks on his hands here and thereâbut now he was two-thirds of the way through the debt. He only had to run the planer occasionally. For his part, Floyd was enjoying having his son working with him but was starting already to get worn down by the labor and was beginning to get that itchy, cautious feeling that something not all good was about to happen; and despite the better income, Floyd was missing the restaurant business, with the daily surprise, or potential surprise, of almost anyone coming through the door, at any time. Wherever he was, he hungered for elsewhere.
At the mill, the camaraderie with the same group of men, their duties and gestures and habits so familiar to one another, was a comfort, as was the pleasure of the physical exhaustion at the end of each day and the tangible expression of product, of material rendered or stackedâthe scent and touch of the newly cut boards, and the roar of a saw ripping them, and the trembling in his chest, the whole mill shaking as the planer buzzedâbut the older he got, the more he liked the restaurant, and liked particularly the chance it gave for him to show off his children, there on top of the hill, with the faux neon sign blinking.
He was drinking too much again. It was what he did when he was near the edge of great failure, but also what he did when he was far less frequently at the edge of success and peace. That old part of him, that ancient part, that could not look at a forest without wanting to burn it down, if only for the excitement. Stepping in closer to such destruction, as if trying to feel a warmth he could not otherwise attain.
As Floyd grew older he was less inclined to put more money into the mill. He kept thinking about the restaurant. He didn't replace his equipment as often as he used to, and used the blades for longer than he had in years past. And sometimes, even if a tempered harmony had been able to be achieved from a blade in days and weeks past, it would one day not be that way for the same blade. No matter how much the sharpener worked on it, the harmony could no longer be found. One day it would be as if it had just gone away.
The better the steel, the easier the harmony was to find, but some of the blades he was buying now were cheaper, and although the Browns could always find whatever harmony there was to be gotten from each blade, it began to seem to them, over the summer, that the sound was leaving those blades faster than it used to.
The green forest beyond, shimmering in the heat, a thousand shades of green, and the muddy creek that gave it life, wandering slowly through that forest, seeming to promise them that nothing would ever change.
The day Jim Ed hurt his hand, he wasn't even working the planer. He had been stacking boards and a tree length had gotten stuck in the blade. The planer operator had hollered to him to come help, to get on one end and pull. The wood was in a bind and needed to be rocked back and forth.
It was just bad luck. He could have been more careful, should have beenâespecially knowing that he was almost done with his shiftâbut it was late in the day and both he and the planer operator were hot and tired and thinking of home. Jim Ed in particular had been daydreaming, thinking of past concerts and envisioning new onesâand for whatever reason, he got things backwards, they both did, so that when Jim Ed pushed, the planer pulled, and the tree wrenched free, kicked back out of the blade, and he found himself leaning too far forward, outstretched, with his good hand, his right hand, pulled right up into the shrieking saw.
It took only two fingers. He thought it was going to take the whole hand. It didn't even hurt, just felt like a bump, and he thought at first the fingers had gotten folded under his hand.
There wasn't even that much blood at first, but then there was, and though the sawdust absorbed a lot of it, it was still all over the planing table, and running down his arm.
All of the men had seen such things before, but never with it happening to the boss's son. The planer operator shut the engines down and gave a call to the others to come start looking for the fingers. The protocol was to find the fingers, clean them and wrap them in ice, if possible, though if no ice was available, then cold waterâand get to a hospital and sew them back on as quickly as possible. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes with young people amazing things were possible.
Floyd was down in the woods, working with the sawyers. He heard the mill shut down, and when he didn't hear it start back up, he wondered what all might be going on. But he and his crew were way down in the bottom, and he kept thinking the engines would probably start back up at any minute, and didn't want to waste a trip up the hill out of simple curiosity.
He and his men started back to work on the tree they were felling, an immense water oak, and the sounds of their own saws and axes filled in the silence, the men working steadily beneath the shade of the old tree that would soon enough be toppling over and flooding the men's work space with light.
The planer operator, hunting for the fingers as if his livelihood depended on it, found them both quickly. He knew where to look and he hurried Jim Ed into his truck. They sped off just as Birdie and the girls were walking down to see what was going on. Other than the initial call to the other men to come help look for the fingers, there had been no outcry, no turmoil, though once Birdie and the girls got down there, that changed. Bonnie and Norma began to cry, Birdie was keening, and Maxine was cursing like a sailor. Wanting fiercely to go back in time even a few minutes so they could do things differently. As if believing the outcome would have been different.
The finger reattachments didn't take, and in the end, the doctor said, would be more likely to cause an infection that could compromise the rest of his hand, or even his life, and would at the very least delay his recovery, and would never be functional anyway. The doctor took the fingers back off just two days after putting them back on. Floyd had been drinking since the accident and was out of commission himself for a while. Bonnie and Jim Ed and Maxine conferred in the hospital room and made a vow to keep going. The magic was in their voices; Jim Ed's guitar playing, while adequate, had always been a bit of a prop anyway. They would adjust their voices yet again. He would still be able to play, just not quite as deftly.
Such ragged disynchrony in their lives below. No one knew. Anyone who heard their voices from that time, so polished, would never have imagined mud or heat or blood or sawdust. Would certainly never have envisioned despair, captivity, furor, confusion. All would have continued to be serene above, ordered and calm, always in control. Sleep, just a little longer.
Floyd took a loan out on the mill, gave Jim Ed the money. The Browns were touched by his generosityâhis insistence that they take the moneyâand did not turn it down. They thanked him profusely and promised they'd get it back in no time, that once they started touring again, and without Fabor doing their accounting, they'd be back on their feet before they knew it. Maxine had been writing some new songs and they couldn't wait to try them out. They would be even better than before, they said.
They weren't bragging or bluffing. It was just a truth, like a wide-open lane. They could see it, could still feel it moving through them, carrying them with it. It was just the way it was.
They were neck and neck with Elvis now. As incandescent as had been their trajectory, his was even slightly more so. His number one hits were beginning to score more on the pop charts, and theirs on country. While Jim Ed had been at the mill and the Browns back at Poplar Creek, Elvis had released "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Don't Be Cruel."