Authors: Rick Bass
Once daily the sawmill operators would shut down for lunch in the rising heat of the day. The engines would fall silent and songbirds back at the shadowy edge of the forest would resume their calls. The locusts would be sawing, but that was a lulling sound.
The workers' meals, while much of the rest of the country was starving, were fit for kings and princes: cold biscuits with blackberry jam and honey, thick sandwiches stuffed with salt-cured ham, fresh tomatoes, or fried chicken, or a sandwich made with leftover venison.
The men visited among themselves, talking quietly about weather or hunting, or about the wood they were milling, or about the machines to which they were hostageâthe machines the men served and serviced; machines that, if they stopped running, took away the workers' pay and dictated, with their sputtering valve-worn unpredictability, whether the men's families would have money for the most basic of items: flour, salt, sugar, shoes.
Few of the workers owned any machines themselves, but rode horses or walked. Too many of them spent their money on whiskey, purchasing it from neighbors or buying the supplies and making it themselves. They were as dependent on it as they were on one another, and the machines, and they sat there at the edge of shade, in the clearing where they were gnawing deeper and deeper into the forest, and stopped and caught their breath, even as the rest of the country floundered in the Great Depression, threatening to sink back down into the gruesome poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in which starvation was still an ever-present reality, as it had been ten thousand years before.
And resting thereâstalled thereâthe men had no real idea that for the first time they had much in common with other lives beyond their small hollow: that people on the other side of the great forest, whom they would never seeâurban people whose lives were surely more complicated than their own, and who also surely possessed and moved through the world with some sort of laminar grace unbeknownst to the hill peopleâwere now in the kind of dire economic straits that the hill people had known all their lives.
As the meniscus of the forest separating the two grew thinner, and the desperations on either side of the forest more similar, it would have seemed that both sides might somehow have sensed they were becoming more similar, shaped and molded toward a sameness of circumstance if not spirit.
But that was not yet the case. The men sipped their cooling coffee from battered steel thermoses and waited for their sweat to cool. They talked either reverently or scornfully about their machines, and when they were ready for the second part of their day, they disassembled the sawblades from their axles, and while the engines cooled further, some of the men would set about sharpening the circular blades of their saws, rasping with a motion so practiced that it was possible to tell who the saw sharpeners were by their musculature alone: a certain slope of shoulder, a particular thickness of forearms gotten from days and then years of grinding steel against steel.
The saw sharpeners would place the blade flat on a spindle and file outward, honing the steel to address every point on the blade. They could tell roughly from their long experience when the critical edge was regainedâthe sharpness that would make their work go a little easier in the second half of the day.
They could feel the softening, the sudden slipperiness, as the last of the resistance was worn away and the edge was gained. They could hear it, tooâanyone could notice itâand when this happened, the saw sharpeners would straighten up from their work as if rising from a trance. They would give the blade just a few more light touches, as if to be sure that the edge was real, and then they would brush and blow the steel filings from the blade and knock the magnetized crumbs of iron from their files, and press a thumb or finger lightly to the sawblade to confirm with touch that which their ears, as well as the sudden slackness and ease in the muscles of their arms and backs and shoulders, had already told them.
That was pretty much the spot where sharpeners at other mills stopped and put the blade back onto the planer and the men would start the engines back up. And for the next few hours, the newly sharpened blades would address the green wood with greater ease. It was good enough for most, and because most of the lumber being milled was rough-cut anyway, the extra edge did not much matter.
Floyd, however, had a special way of sharpening his blades. He insisted that each blade be fully tempered, or retempered, in the middle of each day. It was important, he said, that the blade be able to fully control the wood. It saved money, too. The edge of a tempered saw not only held longer but cut sharper, resulting in less engine wear, as well as a higher quality of lumber.
The secret to his lumber's quality lay in his children's ability to discern pitch. At the end of almost every lunch break, the Brown children would be summoned to the saw-sharpening table, where the newly honed blade would be placed on an axle with a motor and then spun rapidly, as if being made ready for a cut.
There was a certain sound, a ringing, that a fully tempered saw made when it had achieved that absolute perfect edge. It was a sound that the men could sometimes hear, but other times, for whatever reasons, was indiscernible to them. The sound they listened forâthe perfect bladeâheld an eerie resonance, the faint sirenlike echo of a high harmonic that was little different from the tempered harmony the Browns were already learning to achieve with their voices.
Their individual voices were becoming ever more exceptional. Something inexplicable was happening to them. Anyone could see it, could hear it, and with them still just children. People talked about them when they sang in church choirs, or at weekly social gatherings on the weekends, and relatives' birthday parties. The Browns listened to the Grand Ole Opry on their family's radio, as did everyone they knew. If a family did not own a radio, that family would travel on Friday and Saturday nights to the home of a neighbor who did.
All throughout the dark woods at night, the scattered and farflung impoverished hamlets would be stitched together in one fabric, the community of sound, as they sat and listened to the weekly radio shows.
Even as young children, the Browns could imitate with perfect pitch any of the performers they heard on the radio. They were eager to please; the oldest, Maxine, was particularly desperate to please. Floyd was hardest on her, the one most like himself. He tried to manage her like his mill, or any of the other things in his life he could not control. In his mind, anything she did could always be better. Day after day, he transferred his dissatisfactions with himself onto her.
The men would strive to hear what the children were hearing. They would watch the children to see if it could be discerned at what point the children heard what it was they were listening for.
There was no mistaking when the Browns heard it, even if the men, with their hearing battered by the years of saw-roar, could not. The children, though they would already have been listening intently, would become even more stilled. Whereas in the beginning each of them had been listening to the sawblade as an individual, there was some unnameable point where they were suddenly listening to it as one, the three of them focused on something no one could see, and which few, if any, could hear, though which many of the men could now sense.
They might as well have been striving to hear a deity. The way the deity seemed not to be thereâin a room, in a building, in a grove of woodsâand then the way it
there; not instantaneously, but completely.
There in the clearing, when they heard the higher harmony, the secret pitch and pulse of the round blade having achieved its perfect temper, the children's faces would soften; as if, even though they were children, they had nonetheless been carrying around burdens and tensions, had already absorbed them from the lives of those who surrounded them.
Some days it might be Jim Ed who first heard the sawblade's release, and other days, Bonnie or Maxine would hear it before the others. But always, once the ringing started, it would be only a second or two before they all three heard it, so that they each became entranced simultaneously.
Sometimes the children would not hear the sound. Despite the best and most practiced efforts of the saw sharpener, the tempered pitch would not yet be achieved, and the round table's motor would have to be shut off, and the files brought back out, and the blade addressed yet again. And here, too, the children were useful, for they could indicate to the saw sharpener an approximation of how far off-temper the sound had been.
The eyes of the men watching them, awaiting the verdict. The three children already standing in a line, as if on a stage.
After the children finally detected the harmony, the spinning blade on the round table would slow to a stop. The relaxation on the children's faces would fade, vanishing with the sound itself, and the children would rise and return to the shadier, cooler forest to resume their duties of being children, unseen by and unknown to the world. Playing their guitars. Singing a little. Pretending they were famous.
The men remained behind, attached to the machines. With the blades adjusted, the machines would start back up, coughing and blatting slowly at first, burning either too much oil, through heat- and grit-worn pistons, or not enough, with dust-soaked filters starving the motors. The men would tinker with the engines, adjusting throttles, until the deafening race of the engines was saturating the small clearing and spreading into the damaged forest, shaking the ground with the throbbing, and the howl of the timber being planed to foursquare beams, slabs of lumber falling away in bouncing clatter as the men resumed their attempts at making a living. Shouting at each other to be heard over the roar of the sawmill, but unable to make themselves be heard. Shaking their heads and resorting to crude gestures and, when those failed, shaking their heads further in frustration and waving off even the attempts at communication.
Heads down, back to the focus on work. The bright leaves of the lumber falling away from the blade like sheafs of hay being cleaved. A fountain of sawdust pluming from the sawblade, whirring gold dust in the sun.
The forest shrilled with the shouting chorus of the insects, which seemed to be endeavoring to imitate the roar of the mill. There were catfish to catch in the swimming holes, squirrels and deer and turkeys for Jim Ed to hunt, and rutted clay roads to explore, either on foot or on bicycles, the tires of which were long-ago worn smooth and multi-patchedâbut as wonderful as the isolated, suspended world of their childhood was, it was far and away secondary to the world they entered when they heard, or created, the tempered harmony.
The children, with their backs to the mill, walked up the dirt road, talking quietly, conversing earnestly. Walking quietly a little farther on, thenâthe mill so faint as to be almost inaudibleâand in that new silence, and having walked a short ways into that silence, the children would begin to sing, making little attempts at harmonies. They would stumble with the harmony only once or twice, but on the third or fourth redo, they would hit it perfectly, and they would walk a little farther on, raising dust, their voices somehow floating above them, as if coming from somewhere else.
HE WORLD, OR
the world of country musicâthe only world she cared aboutâhad surrounded her for maybe ten good years, had swarmed around her and her family, once it was discovered that she and they were the epicenter and nucleus of it, the yearning and voice that gave rise to what would quickly become the highly commercial Nashville music industry.
Then that world went on past, leaving her withered and broken, like the dry husk of a shed insect skin. That part doesn't much matter to her anymoreâshe has become accustomed to the physical pain and diminishmentâbut what plagues her is how she has been forgotten. Being forgotten is a thousand times worse than the physical reductions, the body's humiliations and betrayals, and there is still just enough of the old curse that was placed on her almost eighty years ago to keep her wishing for more, wanting more, needing more.
Her wishes are a burnt-out gutted shell of vitreous searâa lifetime spent burning with a fire, a hunger, no one should be expected to possessâand now that her body is failing, there's no fuel left for the Poplar Creek summons to feed on. It has feasted on her, has long since used up the sweet best of her and moved on, either searching for another or disappeared completely, perhaps, to wait for a whileâa generation, or a centuryâbefore emerging again; and whether near the original site or much farther on there is no way of predicting.
She is still left with some of the sparksâcrumbs of fire that seek to find the last of any fuel she can feed themâbut there is no fuel; no one wants her, no one knows who she is or how it was.
She has a house to live in, and Social Security and disability benefits. Most don't even have that. Most don't have anythingâcountry music using up its young entertainers the way nations use up young men for war. Hank Williams dying in his Cadillac, Patsy Cline's plane tumbling from the sky, Buddy Holly's likewise, with Waylon Jennings having given up his seat on that plane, deciding to remain behind.
Why has Maxine survived? And if she had not survived, would she perhaps still be remembered, rather than forgotten?
Her children, while not entirely estranged, are scattered to the winds. They remember her birthday sometimes, but not much more. They are busy with their own lives, and back then, the fire did not allow her to bond to them as she might otherwise have.
They don't blame her for that, exactlyâit's just that her identity to them was more of an absence than a presence. She bought the house right before the divorce, and right before running out of the last of what little money there ever was. It's a 1960s-style low brick ranch house in the suburbs of West Memphis, green sloping lawns and shady streets, young suburbanites sudsing and washing their cars on their driveway every weekend.