Authors: Rick Bass
It was Bonnie upon whom Fabor set his relentless sights. Subtlety was not his forte, and he was after her from the first moment he saw her, telling her, among other things, that a woman who was a virgin had a different, weaker voice than one who was not, and that it was his duty as her representative and agent to help her strengthen her voice to its fullest potential.
She wasn't going to sleep with him, of courseânot to improve her voice or for any other reasonâbut she worried about it, was made a little insecure by the gnawing that she was somehow holding her siblings back.
Fabor used them hard that first year; toured them all over hell and back, barely paying them enough for meals, and on the nights when audience numbers were lowâplaying in a club where ten or twelve people showedâhe would berate them, calling them lazy. They turned out another number one hit, "Here Today and Gone To morrow," but then, afraid that their success would skyrocket too fast and that he might somehow lose control of them, he began releasing the worst cuts of some of their studio re-takes, including a wretched song called "Itsy Bitsy Witsy Me," which they had sung just for fun, in falsetto, with off-key piano work. It was never meant to be recorded, much less released on the radio.
"Why in the hell would he do that?" Maxine asked Jim. "It's an embarrassment. Why would he want to sandbag us?"
"It's complicated," Jim said. "Part of him wants to be rich and part of him wants to be king. I can't even say he's got a split personality, because I've never seen anything good in him. It's a bad deal," Jim said, "but we're healthy, we're doing what we love, and we're having some good times. Am I right? Are we having some good times?"
"You're right," Maxine said. "We're having some good times, but that doesn't mean he's still not a sonofabitch."
"He is that," he agreed. "It takes some getting used to." Jim was silent for a moment, then picked up his guitar and played a few melancholy chords, spacing them far enough apart so that gentleness, if not peace, might fill in, and fit.
It was as if Fabor viewed them all as he would a herd of sheep, or goats, or cattle. Floyd was controlling, but nothing like this; Floyd's destructiveness was turned inward, while Fabor's seemed only to radiate outward, burning with menace.
At larger venues, where Fabor made each of his musicians play only two or three songs, presenting a dozen or more musicians to an audience on any one night, he insisted that each and every performer remain onstage after his or her last song, for the duration of the eveningâon display but no longer performing, sitting there in a chair onstage with a stupid smileâthe adrenaline from the musicians' own performances leaching away quickly now while the newest act played B and sang and received the next round of applause. It was brutal, it was ridiculous, and even the audiences were discomforted by it.
Fabor advertised his traveling show as "The Fabor Robinson String Music Act," but the performers and audiences began calling it the Fabor Robinson Strange Music Act.
He was tone deaf; he favored loud over soft, fast over slow, surface over depth, style over substance.
Still, the Browns were able to tolerate him, for a while. It was a piece of rotten luck, they told themselvesâbefore signing with Fabor, they had sent a demo tape to RCA, but that letter had gotten lost in a pile in New York; less than a week after they had all three signed with Fabor, an offer had come from RCA, but it was too late then.
It didn't matter, at first. They had come out of the woods, their gift had maneuvered them from out of the most desolate obscurity into something resembling the larger world or a crack or fissure leading out into the larger worldâand in the beginning, their being hostages did not yet matter so much, for they were being heard, and everyone who heard them loved them, would love them forever. There were, they believed, far worse things than being imprisoned.
HE LITTLE DOG
is the light of her life, or is to the extent that she'll allow another to hold that much power over her. She pretends that a large part of her days are not centered around his regular appearances. He comes over to see her in the morning, not long after she's gotten up and has made her tea and is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, scowling at the news but somehow pleased also by each day's verification of her views on the disintegration of culture. The entitlement of affluence, the aversion to hard work, the immodesty and promiscuity, the greed and selfishness, the savage civil wars and collapsing environment ... It's all there and she scans it quickly, pretty much knowing what the gist will be, while she waits for Buddy to show up at the back door, with a presence to which she is so attuned that she imagines she can discern his approach through the synchrony of their two hearts beating as he draws ever closer, yard by yard: stopping at each of his signposts to scent-mark, investigating each garden and every sandbox, trotting primly along his route, through gaps in the miscellany of sagging chain-link fences and cedar-split rail fences, working his way toward her through a fairly convoluted routing, so that it is not as if Maxine's backyard is merely another stop along the way but is instead his sole destination.
How her heart leaps when, in the accruing stillness of her waiting, she hears the distant scold of a blue jay in the Millers' backyard, indicating that Buddy is passing through. She smiles, takes a sip of teaâ
He always comes to see me.
Such pleasure, or, if not quite pleasure, satisfaction, will never end; his arrivals and their effect on her are as constant and mythic as those of each day's rising of the sun. And five or six beats later, she hears the fussing of the mockingbird in the yard next door as Buddy crosses over, ceaseless in his predictability. She's all but deaf, but she sits with her better ear turned and tuned to his approach, and it seems that she can still occasionally hear what she wants to hear.
She rises as quickly as she can from her chairâhow did it get to be this time in the morning so fast? After so much waiting, why is time moving so quickly now?
It was precisely this way when she was drinking: the fearful yet delighted edginess in her blood, and the delicious pretending that things were otherwiseâthat the edginess was not there. Trying to control it, but only barely, and in the end, not.
The visual auraâcertain things at the periphery dimming while others become more illuminated, even gildedâand the tightening also of aural intensities, with some sounds becoming so much sharper as to be almost painful. The quickened heartbeat, to the point of palpitations, and the rush of anticipatory endorphins: always, the best part about drinking was the very last second, right before the first sip was taken.
But the sip had to be taken in order to complete the cycle. In order to begin it all over again and start the journey back toward anticipation.
So it is with Buddy's daily arrivals. Maxine gathers the little scraps she has been saving for him (sometimes she splurges and opens a can of dog food, though as fond as she is of him, she tries not to do this too often) and opens the door to see him waiting there, just a tad impatient, but otherwise a perfect little gentleman, a silver-frosted little wirehaired terrier looking utterly distinguished, his eyes bright with his own waiting.
He cocks his head and listens as she speaks to him, tells him
Good morning, Mister Buddy,
lavishes a few old-woman's endearments on himâ"Aren't you a handsome fellow this morning! How is your day going, what have you seen?"âand then lowers the paper plate to where he is waiting, the place where he always receives it, next to the water bowl that she always keeps filled; and he drops his head quickly then and eats steadily, though neatly, spilling nothing.
When he is done, he lifts his head and licks his lips and beholds her for a moment, waiting for moreâshe laughs but never gives him more: "You've got to stay trim, Mister Buddy"âand then he is off, and Maxine, through long practice, has become accustomed to pretending that she's all right with that, and that she doesn't wish he were hers or that she had a fence around her yard which, after entering, he could not exit.
She pretends that she does not want the responsibility of having him around more often than he is, that his brief daily visits each morning are just right. She pretends that it's exactly the way she would have designed things if the choice were up to her.
Then he is gone, and the long day begins. With some luck she will see him again, later in the afternoon, when he passes back through her yard, hurrying toward his home to arrive there before his owners' children get in from schoolâbut those passages are fleeting, and rarely does he have time to stop, even on the occasions when she sets out enticements.
What to do with such long days, and such longer waiting? Sometimesâeven now, after nearly fifty years of being forgottenâshe sends handwritten notes, in old-woman shaky-scrawl, to the addresses of nightclubs that she remembers, or to music companies, requesting work, asking for another chance, another gig, another audience, another anything; though there is nothing, only a terrifying absence. The letters almost always come back unopened, Return to Sender, though occasionally there will be a form rejection or, ever so infrequently, a short personal rejection.
She doesn't mail the letters out as much as she used toâstamps have gotten so expensiveâbut now and again she still does: she just can't help it.
She knows she could still sing. Can still sing. She sings to herself. Hers is an old voice now, but she still feels a power in her. It's trapped down in there. It won't ever leave, not while she's alive.
She sings as long as she can, until she becomes dismayed by the diminishmentâfive, ten good minutes, with restsâand then falls quiet again, putters around in the dark house, waits for the mailman, and in the afternoons, looks out the back window at the bright heat of the day, hoping for a glimpse of Buddy passing by.
HERE IS A BALANCE
in the world, and no work is ever wasted. Fabor had imprisoned their careers even as they were first blooming, and there would be others who would trip the Browns up as they were ascending, who would pull them down just when they had gotten a leg upâbut it worked the other way too. Whenever they got too far down, someone always happened by to give them a hand back up. Along with the unpredictability and controlling nature of Floyd came the unconditional love of Birdie, and her ceaseless work on their behalf and on behalf of the nuclear shell of their family.
Life at the mill was getting hard again. Floyd loved being in the woods, but always, the work eventually proved to be incompatible with his alcoholism. Inattentive due to drink, he lost two fingers on his left hand, a match now with the two he had lost on his right hand some years earlier, and so he packed his family up and moved up to Pine Bluff, began building another restaurant on the foundation of the old one, and named it the Trio Club in honor of Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed.
Floyd milled the lumber for the restaurant and drove it into town, and the whole family pitched in with the construction, with Birdie working hardest of all, up before anyone else and staying out on the job long after the others had worn out.
She got tired, but she didn't know how to quit.
It'll be beautiful,
she kept saying. Floyd and Jim Ed did the wiring and plumbing, and, spurred largely by Birdie, they had the place open a month after driving the first nail. As there was always a balance, or a striving-for-balance, in their up-and-down lives, so too was there a similar meter in their family. Whatever Floyd and later Maxine put at risk, or even damaged or sought to destroy or turn their back on, Birdie and Bonnie would always be ready to help put back together. The oscillation in their lives was remarkable, though as close as they were to it, they never noticed it, but instead simply continued to move forward each day, always looking one day ahead.
Floyd and Birdie put a new sign over the threshold, brightly painted light bulbs made to look like neon, arranged to represent in crude silhouette the profiles of the three oldest Browns, with a treble clef and three notes next to the glow-in-the-dark dazzling illumination: red, green, gold, orange, pink. Moths swarmed the lights, fell in thick clutters to the ground. Birdie swept them each morning, kept the light bulbs dusted and clean, unscrewed them and painted them anew every two months, sometimes experimenting with the arrangements to give each silhouette a slightly different effectâone more lurid, one more ebullient, one purer. It was amazing what a little variance could achieve, even with the borders of the illumination remaining unchanged and unalterable.
People came to eat Birdie's pies, but also to listen, in the evenings, to the Browns' soothing harmonies: singers and musicians who would go on to become the stars of the next decade. There was just something so
so smooth, about the up-and-down registry of the sound. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, and the Davis Sisters came to hear them. It was a tight little core; the seeds of what would become the multibillion-dollar Nashville country music industry came through there and were touched by the Brownsâcoming like the lost young people they all were back then, coming more to touch the Browns than to be touched, like animals in the wild forest coming to crouch and drink at the head of a fountain, the only wellspring for miles around, and doing so in a time of drought, and with fires burning all around.
They came, they brushed up against the Browns, and then they went on their wayâmagic-brushed, and forged from a fire they sometimes didn't even realize they'd touched, though others of them understood right from the very beginning the nature of the raw talent they were witnessing.
The new restaurant had been open only a few weeks when the one who would change everything, and who would never be forgotten, drifted through. He was nothing, just a kid with a guitarâone of maybe hundreds who traveled that path up through Pine Bluffâand those inclined to disbelieve in predestination might do well to reconsider the path that took him straight to the Browns. He had been born only a hundred or so miles to the east and had lived his seventeen years with some passion, and some magic, but nothing like what would come after his life intersected theirs.