Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Roger Sheffer teaches Creative Writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His stories have appeared most recently in Harpur Palate, Pikeville Review, and Northwest Review. He also has an essay forthcoming in River Teeth.
That last guitar I set on the road was a Gibson, what my dad, Jimmy, gave me for my sixteenth birthday. He’d wrapped it in the kind of cheap shiny paper that comes on long cardboard tubes. Wrapped it like a loose bandage. I remember unwinding that paper and knowing what I would get, faking a smile, Jimmy looking at me real close to see my reaction. I squeezed out a thank-you and he squeezed out a nod that might have meant, "You’re welcome." That guitar was all I had of him—and the look in his pouchy eyes when he said, "Boy, you need to practice if you want to be any good." He said I was piss poor. I needed to kick myself in the butt, and if I didn’t, he would. Jimmy didn’t stay around much. He had his own music, and places to go with it.
I set that 1963 Gibson steel-string in the middle of Sandy Mountain Road on purpose but people kept stopping their cars and moving it to the shoulder. Or they would drive around it, the way people like to do, on foot or in a vehicle, as if they’ve been pulled into a long, slow, and almost respectful orbit of whatever dead thing lies at the center of their life. It’s like a rock in your stomach that a big scab eventually forms around. For me, the dead thing was any kind of music.
Guitar-killing went better after dark. There’d been other guitars hauled from the closet, laid in the road and condemned to the fate of a ground hog, a flattened armadillo. The other night, my thirty-dollar Sears Roebuck acoustic lay out there in its cardboard case. A bunch of kids in a loud pickup ran over it, then stopped with squealing brakes. I heard this from an open window that faced the road, my chin resting on the sill, pretty comfortable there. The kids yelled, "Hey man, what did we kill? Was it a dog? A cat? I hope it was a goddamn cat." They backed up and one person got out and kicked it a few times—I heard a scraping noise—and then they laughed, saying how crazy it was to leave a guitar on the road, in its goddamn case, no less, right where people could run over it and think they’d done something awful. Whoever owned that guitar must have despised it, to lay it there on the pavement so defenseless. This wasn’t the sort of thing a person would do by mistake—set down his guitar on pavement and just walk off. They drove away slowly, yelling the same thing. I sat in my dark house, smiling.
They had gone so far as to open the case and kick it, jump on it. I had heard the awful sound, not just the cracking of wood, but the disharmony of decades-old strings clanging in the night, out of tune and sorrowful. Which reminded me of myself at sixteen or seventeen, searching for chords, bedroom door closed tight but Jimmy’s evil remarks bleeding through the loose wood grain. He’d sing those remarks. He was always singing.
Only one Bluebird Boy sees well enough to drive—Pernell, the drummer. Jimmy and Clyde need cataract operations. No medical insurance, never had any. Blindness could become part of the act, sunglasses and canes and guide dogs and fan sympathy. The tour bus is a beat-up 1969 VW van, rusty white. Sleeping accommodations are pitiful. Jimmy and Clyde share the foam mattress. Their legs stick under the drum set, splayed out on both sides of the amplifier. Good thing they’re brothers, fraternal twins, or this wouldn’t look right. Pernell sleeps sitting up, arms on the steering wheel. He can’t straighten out more than a couple degrees. He’s a featured attraction when they walk on stage, bent over like a broken toy. His choppers once fell out of his mouth, a shock to the audience—Pernell Palmatier on his hands and knees, scrabbling around in deep grass to retrieve his dentures while his caved-in mouth sucked air and his loose lips flapped. Jimmy and Clyde have all their teeth, kind of yellow, horse-teeth, no lips, abundant black hair. They sing real young, they move young. If you’re seated far enough away, they could fool you. You squint through misty eyes and forget your own age and think, "These guys can’t be fifty yet, hardly look forty. Life is eternal." With his premature white hair in its puffy pompadour, however, Pernell has looked senior-citizen old since the group first went on tour in ’57, sitting at his drum set, steady and grim-faced. People thought he was Jimmy and Clyde’s father, watching and controlling them.
When I was still doing music, I shelled out three hundred bucks on a "traveler’s guitar," a three-pound Martin in a black nylon case with the strings (ultra-lites) already strung and a "backpacker’s songbook" tucked in the side pocket, campfire songs only Pete Seeger could get through without his teeth rotting. I’d have that three-pound baby—and songbook—out there on the pavement right now if I hadn’t lost it at the airport last year. That guitar never played right, so much like an ancient banjo with its minimal bass sound, the top four strings continually at odds. Even my tone-deaf cleaning lady found it offensive. She said it was a perfect candidate for the Museum of Broken Guitars, if there was such a place. That’s the way she put it. Richland County’s got more than a couple half-assed museums—a museum of aluminum dinette furniture, a museum of three-armed sweaters, of obsolete and tasteless beer. The museums have more rational names than that, with signs on telephone poles directing the insane to keep driving straight, to turn left or right or go back a few hundred yards.
I went out the door, dragging my Gibson into the high middle of the road—in its dark gray, fake-leather case with the purple plush lining that smelled like rotting fruit and bad weed. I gave it one last boot-kick and was sitting on my front-porch glider when this gal parked her red convertible along the shoulder. She got out with a nice blond hair-flip, picked up the guitar case and brought it to me, the righteous way these busybodies grab a stray dog off the side of the road and return it to the negligent owner.
"This yours?" Why did she ask?
"No, it’s yours."
"Got to be yours, mister." She shoved it at my chest.
I shook my head. "Nobody owns anything in this world."
"Why so bitter? Why must you frown like that?"
"My face froze a long time ago." I held the frown until it melted into a smile. "One day I got pushed out the back of a VW minibus and my face hit the road and it’s been the way you see it now ever since. Broke a nerve."
"Are you being sarcastic?" She enjoyed this, way too much.
"I’m not. It really happened. My dad pushed me."
And so on. This whole thing had generated a parade to my front door: well-meaning citizens, like the freak-page editor for the Richland County paper, who wanted a head shot and three paragraphs, as if he’d rooted out the truth of my musical heritage. I slammed the door. Damn fool wanted to know my story. Nobody can know that kind of story. People can read about a family and declare the son to be ungrateful for neglecting his inborn musical talents. The self-righteous can read about such a loser and say, in a letter to the editor, "That man should sell those instruments and give the money to the poor." But they didn’t live through this, never felt the father clamping the son’s fingers to the bloody steel strings as he screamed, "It’s there! Right there! Memorize every goddamn fret. You keep looking all the time and counting the frets and you’ll never get any better. Practice, you little bastard."
Pernell angles his head, squinting through streaks of windshield mud. The wipers only whomp and slide over the thick stuff that has splish-splashed up from one or two farm vehicles.
"Hey boys," he says, with a light chuckle. "Hey boys."
Jimmy and Clyde take naps while Pernell drives. They’re semiconscious when not sleeping—from the poison fumes rising through holes in the floor of this wreck, sifting up through the blue shag carpeting where they lay their heads. The boys haven’t been getting enough oxygen. Their color is ghostly white shading into pearly blue, eyes as yellow as their teeth. They forget song lyrics and just go blah-blah-blah for a while, or they vamp on two chords until their memory revives while Pernell waits for that shift back into reality. This has been true for many years. It happens in concerts and the crowd doesn’t care, their ecstatic heads nodding as if in a dream, a completed version of what is really just a sequence of rough fragments, none longer than eight measures.
"Hey boys." Pernell rolls down the window and lets in a dose of fresh air.
"Test question," he says, idling at a little junction with no traffic coming either way, the endless piney woods. "How old are ya?"
"Which one are ya talkin’ to?"
"For God’s sake, Jimmy." Pernell rolls the window down another two inches. "Are ya that bad? I’m talkin’ to the both of ya."
"Thirty-one," Clyde says, sitting up. "Maybe more. Forty-one?"
"There’s a one in it," Jimmy says. "Fifty-one."
"Your little boy is fifty-one," Pernell says with a big hooting laugh, wrong on that number but not by much. He’s talking to Jimmy. Clyde has nothing but daughters, six or eight, by three different mothers. The daughters have all passed forty and some have grandchildren. Clyde hasn’t seen the daughters since they were kids. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren, are only a theory of what is possible, given how many years have passed. Jimmy sees his son every decade, bachelor boy, married once or twice, sells insurance out of his living room, writes books and articles about music. Jimmy’s boy used to help out on rhythm guitar but he couldn’t keep the beat and then they had him carrying stuff, but that didn’t work out, since he liked to drop equipment and poke holes in it. One night they gave him the boot, actually pushed him from the back of the van onto the road. So long, boy, they sang in three-part harmony. They sang better then, and it was a different van, a shorty school bus, painted with pink and white daisies, with a pop-up top and boat hitch.
Pernell taps the horn. He needs assistance. They have wandered off the primary roads and onto twisting, broken-up, no-name tertiary roads, with no reliable signs, no towns bigger than three houses, and none of the good fortune that used to plunk them down on the concert stage with fifteen minutes to set up before they played. Pernell unfolds and refolds his 1977 Sunoco road map. It covers the whole country, major highways and interstates. There might be a 201 or a 301 within fifty miles of their parking spot. There’s an oh-one in it. Through the dried streaks of mud on the window he can see an evergreen ridge and a few clouds. A hand-drawn cardboard sign points left: Baby Rabbits—Free.
On both sides of the dirty white van, in bird’s-egg blue, one of the old girlfriends painted "The Bluebird Boys!"—with pictures of three absolutely cool bluebirds in sunglasses, two of them strumming guitars, the third on drums, beating his sticks so hard that his feathers fly. Plus, a phone number. The number was disconnected in 1982, then reassigned to a county landfill, where if you asked for the Bluebird Boys you got an answer like, "They’re buried too deep. We can’t get at them."
Red Convertible lady gave up arguing with me. Her helpful gesture was supposed to lead to intimacy—a duet on the porch, glass of beer in the parlor, back rub—but I kept this encounter on the level of bloodless argument, in separate living room chairs, a protective cat covering my lap. I wore down that lady until she said uncle. I guided her out the door by the elbow, handed her the guitar and she took it and stepped down from the porch, hugging it like a baby under her right arm. She did a nice little high-heeled wobble as she crossed the road, and I thought, goddamn, she’s gonna strap that thing in the back seat of her convertible and drive off and sign up for strumming and picking lessons at the Rivertown Mall. I was wrong. She laid the guitar on the pavement and drove away, as if she respected my integrity, shared my grievance against those who live by the twanging and crashing of wild chords. That afternoon on Sandy Mountain, a procession of cars passed my house, happy-hour traffic. After dark, the goddamn thing glowed inside its charmed circle. Not one wheel touched it, not one low-riding, pavement-sparking muffler.
I had a dedicated room, full of busted Fenders, Gibsons, Guilds, Silvertones, K-Marts, not all busted from cars running over them. Some were busted from the years when I lived with a woman. Different house, different town. And no, I did not crack them over her head. I beat them on the wall, shoved them against the stucco ceiling. I had my reasons: a pain in the vestigial limb my father had jammed into me, like some third arm he’d been carrying around and had no further use for, a pain that throbbed until I silenced it. Some guitarists suffer pain in the shoulders, from the weight of a guitar hanging on a too-narrow strap, or in the lower back, from being hunched over too far while practicing too long. I could never locate my pain. Maybe I was depressed. That’s what my doctor finally came up with and tried to put me on drugs. I found a better cure.
The free-rabbits place is burnt to the ground. A sign nailed to a fencepost on the property has its original message crossed out, one word added: "Sorry." Pernell chokes on that word, wants to write a song about it, but all he ever contributes to the group’s music is the beat and a few notes of melody. Jimmy and Clyde are in charge of words.
"Hey boys. Give a listen."
It’s been a decade since Jimmy and Clyde wrote a meaningful song. They have revised old ones, dropping and simplifying verses to accommodate brain-cell and tooth loss. When they were still writing, they would scribble lines on napkins and receipt slips from convenience stores, stuff them in their pants. Even two decades ago, they had to write everything down or they’d lose it. Jimmy and Clyde are fraternal twins, but their bodies and minds are falling apart as if they were identical. Pernell could be their brother, but he’s just the kid from across the street in the town where they were raised, the one who jumped the high fence they were kept behind and ran up to them and said, "I got drums for my birthday!"
"I got the beat, boys," Pernell says. "Now you do your thing. A song about them burnt-up bunnies." He honks the horn in four-four time, accent on the first beat. They are driving a paved road, and another vehicle passes, honks back. "Come on, boys, let’s have a song back there. ‘The precious little bunnies, all black and white...’"
At another T intersection, as much as half a day from the baby rabbit place, Pernell stops next to a hand-lettered sign, a piece of broken barn siding nailed to a telephone pole. The words are so strange he must put them together slowly: Museum of Broken Guitars. What the hell? It might have been nailed there to engage his sympathy, the arrow pointing not left, not right, but into the past. That the sign is real is beyond doubt; that there’s a real museum is another matter.
"Interesting," he says with the usual chuckle. "We’ll stop at the ol’ guitar museum when we reach it and you two can duck into the rest room and empty your diapers. It stinks back there."
One of the twins makes a pouting baby sound as he snores.
"Hey boys, maybe we should stop by that museum and trade in your Fenders for a couple of broken K-mart specials."
At one time the band had a different name. I was fresh out of high school, hauling equipment, sweeping up afterward, cigarettes, beer bottles, bloody kleenex, catching insults and butt-kicks from both Jimmy and Clyde. They called themselves "The Wanderers." Their top-forty song was "I Keep Wandering," or "I Keep Wondering." They never made a distinction between wander and wonder and window and waddle. All vowel sounds were buried in their throats, muffled and mixed together with chewing tobacco and bleeding gums. Nobody ever published a songbook of their greatest hits, because the words could not have been included and the tune was nothing special. Buh-buh-buh-buh, duh-wuh-buh-buh—on two or three different notes. These guys were paralyzed in the lips, the throat. Their bodies were packed too tight into shirts and jeans. By the time they got old and loosened up, their minds were shot. For the past decade they’ve been pretty much unheard from, lost on a road tour between Nashville and California. I used to follow the bus in my roadster, but the exhaust fumes blocked my view. They shook me off, and I returned home to my own miserable life, got married and divorced and married and divorced. The Bluebird Boys didn’t know a thing about my life. I sat home and played, swore at myself, tried again, then put away my instruments.
Parked along a remote and flimsy shoulder, the van leans to the right. The tires are under-inflated. Pernell taps on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, bitta, bitta, bitta, a fragment of a fragment, black and white. He can’t remember the gig, whether they’d been invited or they’d seen a day-glo poster stapled to a utility pole, something about a biker rally with music, figured they’d be welcome, honored as classic rock legends. Or they are driving home from a gig they’ve already performed—sleepwalked through it, dreamed it. Pernell’s throat is raw, wrists tired, ears blasted. Yes, they played somewhere, he is sure of it.
The van has 500,000 miles on it. One day in 1992 the nines turned and stuck on the zeros. They’ve lived in this crappy thing almost two decades. The girls used to decorate the outside with toilet paper, pink and green and blue. The girls used to hang onto the roof rack when the van pulled out from the concert parking lot, and it was hard to shake them off except by driving along the highway and going sixty or seventy and hitting a bump or a pothole; one of the girls would fly off the roof, clutching a bit of toilet paper. "Another angel," Jimmy or Clyde would sing out. The Bluebird Boys married a few of them, traveled with them, dumped them off, pissed on the legal papers they’d served them with, pissed on every sheet and burned them in remote fields where they would drink all night after a concert. They don’t drink much nowadays. Pernell can’t recall his last taste of booze. He’s been slurping chlorinated water from public fountains, dining off the tiny bits of food set out on tables in supermarket aisles.
He’s had the van windows open an hour, the smell of clover blowing through.
"Where we going? Can one of you boys tell me?" An eight-bar pause while they ponder that question, space for an entire song about forgetting, but he’s not gonna bug them about song-writing.
"Nope," says Jimmy. "Not a clue."
"Where’d we play last?"
"High school? Ha, ha."
"What was our last song?" Just a two-beat pause.
"Popsicles?" That’s Jimmy.
"Soda Pop?" Clyde.
Pernell is weeping. He slumps against the horn and blasts over the racket the boys make as they reconstruct a song they never sang, babbling and kicking against the sides of the van. Pop-pop-pop. This is not music. This is the sound of an eight-track tape going off track, of three strands unraveling from a rope once tightly wound.
After so much flat land, the terrain changes and the van follows a rocky riverbed downstream. Tour’s over, is what this probably means. A nursing facility will admit them. Pernell will back up to the door, and the boys will roll from the van, knock the drum kit to the ground, pull the amp by the wires, strangle and gag. Staff will run out and look at the mess. Who are these old men? Why, they’re the Bluebird Boys! Never heard of them. Problem is, they behaved themselves while touring. In the days when they made enough money to sleep in motel rooms, they never trashed them. They’d repair the room if it needed it, take a screwdriver from their pockets and tighten up the window sash, the drooping TV antenna, the soap dish. "No charge," Pernell would write on the motel stationery.
He will pull up to a nursing home or hospital and unload the van, dump the boys, hobble a few feet in his own bent-over way (dentures in his pocket) and ask for a wheelchair, a private room in the welfare unit. Pernell and Jimmy and Clyde will have skipped the usual steps between adolescence and old age. They will have never worn a coat and tie, never mowed a lawn, never bought insurance, never made retirement plans. If they have taken an indirect route to the nursing home, it is only because they are accustomed to performing that way, encore after encore, final chord upon final chord, unresolved. You could never quite tell when those Bluebird Boys were finished.
I stayed up late burning music I’d written—in my very public front yard, tossing flammable trash into the wire-caged fire. Legal stuff, creative, you name it. I was lighting cigarettes from the flames.
The boys had been close to my house all night, drawn from their wandering into the sphere of responsibility and family obligation, what passed for love among those who constantly sang about it and never once expressed it toward me. I heard them coming a long way off. The Bluebird Boys had driven around my Gibson twice already. This rusted-out, no-muffler, low-to-the-ground piece of shit came squealing around the curve on Sandy Mountain Road. That’s what I heard. And the voices, too, inarticulate, exuberant, immortal in their youthful recklessness. They had not turned old in as many ways as I had hoped.
You wanna know why I leave guitars in the road? Listen to those voices. Then you’ll know why I sit up nights with a sick headache or curl into my bed and weep.
Five minutes later they came squealing from the other direction, coughing blue smoke, backfiring in seven-four time, car radio whanging, the boys singing along in wordless yodels. They were old and brain-dead but had found their way back to where I lived. The thing in the road they kept driving over, missing every time so far, did not look like a musical instrument to these blind old men, but like a familiar person lying down, a dark figure from the past, sticking out, ill-shaped and ugly, something that never fit, never tuned right or practiced enough. When their misaligned clunker finally ran over my Gibson—as it was fated to do—the Bluebird Boys would understand this, if not in their heads, at least in their bones, a jolt on the off-beat. They would have returned to where they started, the dead thing at the center. And the music would be over, the sad pretense they lived by.