From The Long Gone Daddies
By DAVID WILLIAMS
The night doesn’t ask much, my daddy used to say, a whiff of gas and a working radio. Come dark, he said, you can pull in ancient sounds from hundreds of miles away – blue stomps from the big cities, lick-skillet country come down from the hills and up from the hollows, gospel on the lam from grace.
My daddy told me a good many things, for never being around much. He told me stories of the road and the songs he found there. Songs of sweet evil and blue ruckus. Murder ballads, odes to ghosts. Drinking hymns.
It was night, always, in my daddy’s stories. The night will have what you’re having, he said, a slug from whatever bottle’s handy. The night, like the devil, got all the best songs. So my daddy said. So he did.
I never did sleep well, as a boy. Or maybe we Gaunts are just naturally restless.
Some nights, we have the road to ourselves and the radio sings only for us. We play our shows and tear-ass out. Tonight, it was this little dive bar in a town we took to calling East Motherless, no one there but two old boys shooting pool for beers and a long-haul trucker we all swore was dead. One night, we played to an empty room, couldn’t even scare up a ghost. But we play, no matter. We rock and then we roll. We load our gear into a muddy-brown Merc with a little trailer behind, and we’re off. Slinging gravel, filling sky with road.
Buck Walker drives and plays drums. He’s got a heavy foot and club hands, but he keeps the beat. Jimmy Lee Vine’s on electric guitar. That’s him in the backseat, wrapped like cable around a woman he met in a phone booth outside of another Texas town. We give names to all of the little towns and that was Eden. It was ramshackle buildings on hardscrabble streets, but then you should have seen Beulah Land.
The woman’s name is Delia. I’ve yet to catch her last name or she’s yet to say it. She says she can sing, and she wants to see the world. She scares me something crucial.
My name is Luther Gaunt. It’s me riding shotgun and thinking way too much. This is my story – mine and my daddy’s and his, too. This is the story of the whole damned lot of Gaunts, and of the old family guitar. Cassandra is her name.
I write the songs and sing them. I was singing one tonight when I sensed something behind and to my right, where our old bass player, Moon, used to stand before he quit us one night, in mid-song, for reasons he didn’t hang around to share. If I looked, I’d have seen Delia, our new bass player, having decided all on her own, likewise in mid-song, to join the band. But I kept singing, lost to the song, eyes open just enough to make me wonder what took those two old boys from their game of stick and made that trucker rise from the dead.
The songs are in the guitar, a 1930s Cassandra Special Rider the color of whiskey and water. It was my daddy’s, and before that it was his daddy’s, and before that it was a birch tree. There’s a scroll of gold flowers around the sound hole, an offering, my daddy told me, to the dark hollow within. I didn’t believe everything he said – I had a mama, too, you know – but some of those things were true and some were even wise. Some were both, like how the songs come through the sound hole at the strum of chords, the slide of fingers across strings.
The songs flow like river and drink. They pour forth like smoke signals and factory steam.
My daddy and his daddy would follow that Cassandra anywhere. They were dust upon the land, singers in search of song. Always there was a song, whispering to them.
“Sweet talk and come-ons, Luther,” my daddy, John Gaunt, said. “Secret chords, mystery tunings. You understand what I’m saying, boy?”
I was son and boy and sometimes Luther to him. I was his best audience, a packed house, ever rapt. I hung on every word and bought the tour T-shirt. I said I thought so, maybe, and my daddy said, “Well, you will.”
I think about that as I pick the strings of Cassandra. I pluck and strum. My thumb drums soft on her body. I’m not so much at playing the thing – I’m no god. I’m not my daddy, the sly wonder. He could make that guitar sound like a train, a chicken, or any damn thing – like bedsprings at midnight or a battlefield at dawn.
“Make it sound like a train, Daddy,” I’d say.
“The Cotton Blossom or the Sunnyland?”
“The Twin-Star Rocket,” I’d say.
“Oh damn, boy. That’s a fine one.”
He would play some song and then say to me, always, “My daddy was better. My daddy was the best – would have been, anyway. But things happened, Luther, like things do. He was supposed to go and record for Mr. Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. It was all down to happen. This was 1953. Before Elvis and ‘That’s All Right.’ You see what I’m getting at, boy?”
I nodded like I knew, and my daddy said, “He had a song worked up with a couple of boys he played with. Mr. Sam, see, he was looking for a white man could sing black. He said he could make a million dollars with such a man. This is history – it happened. And Mr. Sam, he thought your granddaddy, Malcolm Gaunt, might have been the one.”
I was just a boy, but I knew these stories were more than mere truth. I knew myths and legends when I heard them. They were songs to me, all of them, and I hung from every hook.
“A man worked for Mr. Sam, he heard my daddy play in this Memphis club. The Eagle’s Nest. Came up to him after and said something like, ‘Damn, man.’ Then he told Malcolm to come see Mr. Sam. He said what day to be there. So my daddy, your granddaddy, he didn’t come begging like Johnny Cash did later, like Carl Perkins. I’m not saying there’s a thing wrong with begging for what you want. Some men, though. Well, son: Some men, history taps on their shoulder and asks pretty please. But like I said, Luther boy, things happen.” It was like one of those moments of silence in church or before a ballgame after somebody big has died, the way he paused. “Well, something sure as hell did that day.”
“What happened, Daddy?”
“It was the morning of the day,” he would say, and then say no more. He’d take up the guitar, instead. He’d play a little of nothing in particular, just something to fill the air and the moment. Because words failed, just then.
There’s a picture of him, standing out front of the train station in Memphis. It was 1953. There had been many trips down South, from his home up North, but this was his last. He stood outside of Central Station, guitar case at his feet, cigarette on his lips. He looked weary from the haul, his skin a highway gray. But he was working on a smile, as the picture was snapped. Could be he liked what he could see of the woman behind the camera. There’s a second picture from a few moments later. Malcolm had loosened his bones, become his old self again. He’d let his arms drop to his sides, let his fingers dangle. Malcolm’s fingers were long and thin like the fringe on some old cowboy singer’s stage shirt. Malcolm’s fingers were endless, my daddy said, like the road and some women’s legs. My daddy’s fingers were not nearly so long, and mine less still. Sometimes I can’t help but feel like the last of a diminishing line. What to do, I wonder, but play it out?
So Malcolm left home that last time. He left the gray, besmoked North for the bright, sunny South, first by foot and then by hitching and finally by train. I wonder was it the Pan American, the one Hank Williams sang about, leaving Cincinnati, heading down that Dixie line. I wonder did my granddaddy stick his head right out the window, like Hank said to do, and feel that Southern breeze.
Some things I know for sure: Malcolm left a wife back home in Pennsylvania, in the coal-dusted city of Scranton. Sara was her name. I spent countless hours with her. I was the only one who would. Everybody said Sara was bone-mean and the reason Malcolm wandered, but I knew better, even as a boy who knew practically nothing else. I knew, because by then I’d heard the songs. I was starting to understand already, like my daddy said I would.
I’d found the old records. I had to root and sneak in closets and cellars, but they called to me. I heard them through floorboards, in dreams. I followed the sound and found them, records black as country midnight. And me, scared of the dark – and drawn to it.
My daddy said it had always been this way. Back to the bogs of Ireland, he said, the men of the Gaunt line followed the songs. They followed them onto ships bound for America. In the New World, the songs settled in the mountains and later set out on foot for the cities. They met and mingled with the blues. They woke in strange beds and stirred to strange sounds. There were songs about every moving thing. Songs about fast trains and big rivers. Songs about songs. Love songs. He played them all for me. Bad things were forever happening, in those songs. Love went south and there turned dark: Knives were unsheathed and shown to fair maiden skin; the skin did not flinch but it bled when cut. There were shootings and drownings. There was rain by the torrent, high water everywhere. The world would come just shy of ending, and most always there was a woman, a wife, back home. Sometimes there would even be a song about her, but only sometimes.
My daddy told me all this, and me just a boy. My grandmother Sara told me the same stories, but set to different music.
“The family name was Gaughan until America got a good look and called them Gaunt,” she told me. “I’m Irish, too, but of different stock. I was a Power. My people got to keep that name in America. I guess it was one America could spell.”
The Powers were a stout line, shoulders wide as church doorways and chests broad as whiskey barrels. She told me of them. These were not myths and legends, but dispatches from a time and a place and what happened there. They had the heft of truth, the stench of sweat.
“The thing of it is, Luther,” Grandmother Sara said, “the name Power means ‘the poor man,’ and Lord knows my people were poor as those Gaunts were gaunt. I guess it was America’s idea of a joke to let a poor family with the name of Power, something it never had and never would, keep that name and parade it about. But the Powers, they worked. Lord boy, they did.”
The Powers were given broad shoulders as their stake in the world, but the barrel chests they came by honestly. They earned every pence and shilling they were given and every pound they were denied. Then it was pennies and nickels and the odd dollar.
“The New World didn’t change them one,” she said.
“One what, Grandmother?”
“Iota. You know what that is, Luther?”
I just listened for what she’d say.
“It’s even less than a little bit. It’s hardly more than none at all. It’s a handy measure of truth and love and money, has been my experience, Luther.”
Old Sara Gaunt could be as mean as they all said. She rode her boy hard. My daddy said it was like he’d been born with the Gaunt version of original sin – Malcolm’s trespasses heaped upon him. She all but pushed him out the door, he said, with that guitar in his hands.
But the old woman liked me. I listened to her. I wanted to hear her version of the truth, the ring and toll of it. I collected versions of the truth the way other boys did baseball cards.
“Grandmother, what became of my granddaddy?”
We’d sit in the front room of her little house, down the alley from where I lived with my mother. She sat in an old straight-backed wooden chair with a Bible on the table beside her. She’d pick it up from time to time. She never opened it, that I saw. It might as well have been a wooden carving of a Bible. She’d just shake it at me. She’d say, “Are you a God-fearing boy?”
Sara Gaunt was a substantial woman, tall enough to look any Gaunt man in his wandering eyes. Her own eyes seemed closer to gray than any other color and her body was a rigid thing of the iron works. People wondered what must have possessed that handsome guitar-slinger Malcolm Gaunt to marry such a cold, mean, straight-up-and-down woman. But I knew, because I’d seen the pictures. They were in the sleeves of the records I found. They were young then, Malcolm and Sara, slow-dancing in a barroom, him in a suit and her in a dress, his arm slung low across her backside, like a swipe that lingered. You didn’t have to play those records to hear the music they danced to, but I did. I played those records every chance.
There was another picture. They were around a table with friends, glasses raised and faces grinning. Sara’s face was half-hidden by her long curls of hair. And another picture, taken by a lake: Sara had been swimming. She was posing for the camera, summer vamping, hands through those sopping curls and hip jutting.
The young Mrs. Malcolm Gaunt had curves like that Cassandra Special Rider guitar.
I take a drink and pass the bottle to the backseat, to Delia there. She takes a sip and chases it with a swig.
“Cheap stuff,” she says.
“House brand of the night, my daddy used to say.”
“Your daddy said a great many things, sounds like. He liked to talk.”
“He did more. He wrote songs and sang them. He went out into the world.”
“Well, I don’t recall the name. I don’t guess he made it big.”
“No, Delia. I don’t guess he did.”
I turn in the seat to watch her drink. She takes another sip, another swig. She lowers the bottle. Her lips glisten, wet with nectar and potion, holy water and that hooch. She hands back the bottle.
“You think making it big is the measure of a man, Delia? You think the point of writing a song is for the world to hear it and turn it into some big smash? You think fame’s the only thing, the whole point of it all?”
“Yeah to all that,” she says.
I take a drink and hand her the bottle again. She raises it, like to toast me, but she says, “I scare the hell out you, don’t I, Luther Gaunt?”
I’m honest on top of thinking way too much.
When the weather was good, we’d sit out on the porch. My grandmother Sara would trade her straight-back chair and shaking Bible for a rocker and fly swatter. But her stories – of the families, the Powers and the Gaunts – were much the same. They were parables. I was to learn from them. They were to scare me.
She told me of the Gaunts, with those songs in their heads, and of the Powers, with miners’ helmets on theirs. She said the families had a habit of marrying, said it was the way of the fates. She said the Gaunts were good-looking even in their gauntness, with thick heads of black hair and eyes dark as notes on sheet music. She said they dressed as slick as they could afford, and then some, and that they had a way that worked like potion on those female Powers.
“Every other man those Power girls had seen looked like he’d been coughed up out of the black earth,” she said. “And, you know” – wistfully, she said it; she looked away so I couldn’t see her face – “they had a way with those songs.”
“Is that how it was with you and my granddaddy?” I said.
She sat rocking just slightly on the front porch. She sat watching the day and did not say anything for the longest time. Then she said, “Your mother will be starting dinner, Luther. You best go and help her.”
“So did my granddaddy have that thick head of hair and those dark eyes and – ” I must have sounded wistful then, but at boy speed, hopped up on knowing that all my memories were ahead of me – “and did he play that guitar and sing you songs?”
“I hear your mother calling.”
I dropped my head. I made a move to stand. I said, “Grandmother?”
“You best go and help her. I don’t intend to tell you again.”
“What happened to keep Granddaddy Malcolm from going to see Mr. Phillips at Sun Records?”
“You want to get whipped by me and your mother both, Luther?”
But there was something in her voice, or something missing. I said, “What happened on the morning of the day, Grandmother?”
She waved the flyswatter. She shook her head. “Most boys your age, they just want to know what’s going to happen next. You need to get your head out of the cobwebs, Luther Gaunt.”
But I knew she wasn’t about to banish me. I knew, because I’d seen those old pictures – those pictures she’d hidden away but hadn’t thrown away, hadn’t burned. And I’d heard those old songs. She knew it, too. Saw it on my face, reflected. That’s how it seemed to me, and me just a boy then. She was that young, curvy thing again. She had those wild curls of hair and Malcolm was there with, her arm slung low across her backside. A song played. They danced.
“What happened on the morning of the day?” I said, trying to bring her back.
But then she just looked at me, said nothing. Because how do you tell a boy that his granddaddy, the family ideal, the best of them all, maybe better even than Elvis and Johnny Cash and the rest, never played a note for Mr. Sam Phillips at Sun Records because he was shot and killed for taking up with some other man’s wife?
“Yeah, Jimmy Lee?”
“Care to make yourself scarce, brother? Give me and my girl Delia here some privacy?”
“Sure, Jimmy Lee.”
We’ve stopped, somewhere in darkest Arkansas. The engine made a gasping sort of sound and then gave out. Buck says it’s probably just the engine’s way of telling us we’re lost and ought to cut our losses for the night. He smiles at this thought and puts his head against the head rest. He falls right to sleep.
I look around. It’s an empty lot of an abandoned building – looks like it could have been a service station, along about the time Mr. Sam Phillips was looking for that white man who could sing black.
So I make myself scarce. I step outside the car. I lay across the hood with the old guitar on top – Cassie’s like Delia, she likes to be on top – and my beer within reach. I pick, I strum, I drum that thumb. But I can’t conjure a song, mine or anybody else’s, and so I sit in the dark and drink from the snub-nosed brown bottle.
I close my eyes and try for some old radio song. It’s Johnny Cash, his voice a low rumble like God with a chest cold, singing about a woman named Delia. Johnny says she was low-down and trifling, she was cold and mean. Johnny says if he hadn’t shot poor Delia, he’d have had her for his wife.
There was Blind Willie McTell’s Delia. She was a gambling girl, she gambled all around. She got herself shot, too. There are hundreds of songs about women named Delia – or maybe just one song about a single woman, sung hundreds of ways. But always to the same end.
“Delia, oh Delia,” I half-sing, and wonder what will happen when she and her fate meet up. My money says fate best watch its backside, this time.
Delia. Oh, Delia.
I say her name again, half-sing it again. I drift to silence. I watch the black, empty sky. It’s an unwritten song. But now, from nowhere, or east of there, come fireworks, all thump and glow. Lines of light collide and splinter, sparks trail. The sky is a-bloom, the sky is a-sputter, and I trace the designs left by the fading lines – that’s my favorite part, the fading away. I close my eyes, open them. Close and open, close and open, and every time a new sky, neon-dusted.
Damn, I’d forgotten. It’s the Fourth of July.
My mind drifts in its favorite direction – back. I think of Malcolm and Sara, the good times they had, before it all went south. I think of home, my mama and daddy, and rare moments there. When my rambling daddy was off the road, he’d put his cigarette lighter to a Roman candle and say he was giving God a hot-foot.
My mama would stand in the doorway and watch. I’d smile up at her.
Close and open, close and open. Now the sky is filled with some new language, a message. An old story or my fate foretold? I couldn’t begin to say.
So we’re going to Memphis – the sacred muck, the shining jewel of all sad backwaters. Malcolm’s kind of town, and his last stop. My daddy’s kind of town, too – maybe he’s still there, and still kicking.
Memphis – great lost city of sound. You can walk on whiskey in Memphis. You can bang your blue guitar.
“Your guitar,” says the city on the bluff to the pilgrim at the banks of the big river, “is it blue?”
Pilgrim says, “Oh, it’s sad as can be.”
We’re going to Memphis, to become famous or something like it, to be discovered and cut a record, to do as Elvis did, and B.B. King and the Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and a million blue others.
We’re broken down just now, in the empty lot of a ghost-forsaken town let’s call Darkest, Arkansas. We’re lost and busted, with no apparent way to get back on the road, much less down it.
But what the hell? We’re fifty-odd years late already.
David Williams is a Memphis newspaper editor and a fiction writer whose stories have been published by Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, The Pinch, and Night Train. He blogs about music and writing at The Soundcheck & the Fury and tweets fiction on Twitter @damnshortstory.