Saturday, March 21, 2009

Solace in Song

Solace in Song

It’s a hot day in Memphis. The kind of hot where you can’t remove enough layers to stay cool. But dad and I aren’t stopping, no sir, not stopping for anything. This is the first time I’ve seen him smile since Oliver died last fall. Dad always loved Oliver. He was the favorite son, you could say. Oliver was of the same mold as dad, born with a blue collar around his neck. Calloused hands, tougher than the very earth he moved. But today is about us.


Oliver and I used to sit on the dock at the creek out back. Just sitting, fishing, and listening to the sounds of the night. We’d be out there for hours, catching nothing, caring less. The mosquitoes always left us alone, and we left them alone. Everyone had a truce on that dock. The crickets sang, the dogs howled, and we just sat there humming along. Oliver used to tell me about our obligation to take over dad’s construction company one day. He was 17 at the time, and had already been working for dad for two years now. He looked just like the old pictures of dad when he put on that hard hat, patchy facial hair and all. I never listened to those rants, though. I knew I would skip town the second I could. These hands weren’t made for that line of work. I was a sophomore in high school and had already found my calling. I was moving to Memphis and making something of myself. Dad’s shoes already strolled off with another pair of feet in them. Ever since I heard the sounds of W.C. Handy on dad’s old turntable I wanted out. The father of the blues sang and I listened. Bliss.

Oh that melody sure appealed to me.
Just like a mountain stream rippling on it seemed.
Then it slowly died, with a gentle sigh
Soft as the breeze that whines high in the summer pines.

I wanted to cross the mighty Mississippi and reach the bluffs of Memphis. I wanted to get lost in that melody on Beale. Magnolia, Arkansas couldn’t hold me back.


The tank’s full, concert tickets are in the glove box, and dad doesn’t have much to say. Music is the only real passion we’ve ever shared. He figures we ought not change that at this point. The keys jingle with every pothole I hit crossing the border to Arkansas. “These damn roads ain’t gotten a lick better since I was your age,” says dad. “They’ve been workin’ on ’em for 30-odd years now.

“Yeah dad, I don’t know what’s taking them,” I say, going along with his small-talk. The sweat is starting to bead on dad’s bald forehead.

“Can’t you get this thing any colder? Forty-thousand bucks and the thing can’t even keep an old man cool.”

“It’s 105° out there dad, there’s only so much it can do.”


I finally got out of there when I turned 18. The kudzu-like grasp Magnolia had on me had been broken. Dad never really forgave me for leaving, but I had accepted that. I had thought he would approve of the move, being the music fan he is, but that was not the case. Oliver had climbed the ranks of the company and was management now. And there I was, a kid with a disposable camera and a stenographers pad and a pencil. The singers had their instruments and I had mine. I worked free-lance for the local paper covering the local music scene. They paid me $30 a story, $35 if they used my picture too. It was enough to keep the food on the table and the leaky roof over my head.

After a year of immersion in the blues culture, I took a full time job and settled down. I got the snazzy office with the view. I was living my dream, getting paid to do what I love. What could be better? That’s when I got the call from Oliver.

“Frank, mom’s sick.

Just as Magnolia had faded from my life, it attempted to crawl back in.

“What kind of sick, Oliver?”

“The heart attack kind. If you want to see her again, you’re going to have to drive pretty damn fast.

The ride home for the first time in over a year was the longest five hours of my life. I was in a daze, a tailspin. I couldn’t imagine what my family would say to me, if they would speak to me. Dad hadn’t spoken to me since I left, and Oliver had grown distant too. I felt closer to the singers I interviewed than to my own flesh and blood. Dad wanted his two sons to carry on the family business; apparently just one wasn’t enough. I passed countless road signs, wanting to take each one of them, wherever they led. I dreaded returning to Magnolia and the current circumstances just worsened the matter. I turned on the radio and let the music do the thinking for me. I popped Bright Eyes into the tape deck and fell in a trance.

Time still drags you forward

Although you keep resisting

The speedometer rolled like the wheels outside, crawling closer and closer to their destination.

You know it is what you leave behind

You'll soon start missing

The people you once counted on

I arrived in Magnolia to see my mother’s final breaths. My father, brother, and I sat around her in the cold hospital room. Oliver and I struggled to hold off tears, only letting out a sigh. Dad stood there motionless, emotionless. The ticking of the clock rhythmically broke the silent tension in the room until she flat lined. The everlasting drone of the machines was more than I could handle. After the funeral, I walked out, not looking back all the way home to Memphis.

I had lived in Memphis and worked for the paper for a solid 15 years before the next time I went home. I got the call at 12:03. I was at lunch with a coworker when I saw the call from my dad. It had been awhile since he called, so I expected the worst. I answered the phone to hear my father’s trembling voice.

“He’s dead, Frank. Get your ass here now.”

My phone fell from my hand, now numb, to the cold marble floor, followed soon thereafter by the tears. Tears pelted that floor with such impact, such sorrow and loss in each of them.

I walked out of the restaurant without even paying. Started the car then headed for highway 40 just like the last time. My mind flooded with emotion and thought. How the hell could this happen? This wasn’t supposed to happen, a son is always supposed to outlive his father. I wanted to call dad, but that damn marble floor got the best of my phone. So I turned the radio to 11 and drowned out the emotions in my head.

I'm falling down

And you're not here to break my fall

Geoff Rickley’s words seeped into my mind.

I shut my eyes when you're around

I hold my breath to kill the sound of your voice

I finally met dad at our old farmhouse. It hadn’t changed a bit since I was there for mom’s funeral. As soon as I walked in I could tell dad had been crying, which I had never seen in my 35 years. His eyes were as red as the setting sun. There was a mound of tissues next to his chair in the living room. I looked deep into his eyes.

“Drunk driver,” he said. Nothing else.

We sat down next to the brick fireplace. He handed me a bottle of whiskey and turned on an old blues record, just like he raised us on. And we sat. Sat there silently, drowning our sorrow in cheap liquor, letting the delta blues singers do the talking for us.


Dad had always scoffed at the idea of luxury cars. He always had his trusty American work trucks. Dad mumbles incoherently about the heat once more, then reaches for the radio. The Avett Brothers serenade us over the speakers. One of the bands we are on our way to see. Thankfully they can engage dad better than I.

I wonder which brother is better

My eyebrows rise.

Which one our parents love the most

I’m afraid to look over at dad. Our way out of conversation is turning its back on us.

I sure did get in lots of trouble
They seem to let the other go

Dad musters up a faux cough, indicating that he too feels our middle ground collapsing.

A tear fell from my father’s eyes
I wondered what my dad would say

I discreetly start to reach for the dial. I can’t do this right now. This is our trip to enjoy as father and son, even if it is in silence.

He said I love you
And I’m proud of you both, in so many different ways

As I finally touch the dial, I notice it’s too late. His hand is already firmly pressing the off button. Our eyes meet. A million scenarios run through my head, and none of them involves an enjoyable car ride.

Franklin…” dad says in a stern voice. I look into his eyes, not knowing what to think.


I’ve never seen dad speechless before now. Is this year-upon-year of guilt and negligence catching up to him as he now dodges my glare?


My eyes snap back to the road. Only a second too late.

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name.

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