No Electric Instruments Allowed

 

            He sat out back on the aging stump of an oak, his long, spindly legs bent and his elbows resting on his knees. The crickets could be heard clearly, playing their music with their bows somewhere out in the yellowing field. The light above the door shown on his hunkered back, casting a shadow out, far away and into the grass. His eyes were open and staring straight towards the grove, his chin resting on the round head of the hickory cane he held tight in his grip. The fingers of his left hand thrummed rhythmically against the sturdy wood, the gray swirls of callused skin creating a sound like fingernails clicking pensively. He was keeping time.

            Behind him was an old but well-kept wooden building that had once been Clem’s Grocery and Gasoline. The faded Coca Cola placard hanging above the porch had never been taken down, and the squat fuel pumps had been left dry. More than a dozen cars had pulled into the dirt drive in the last twenty minutes.

            The screen door behind him was opened by a balding, slightly over-weight man in his forties. “Hey Shorty, It’s near ‘bout eight.”

He pulled up on the cane and stood, taking his time to straighten up to his full height of six and a half feet, and ambled over into the light. His face was creased with yellowing wrinkles that could scarcely be seen in the shadow cast by the brim of his cap. “I’m ready.”

The middle-aged man held the door open for him. “There’s about twenty people last time I looked. I was hoping we’d get this good a crowd. All the fellas from down at Richardson’s are here. They brought an amp and a pick up for you.”

The old man’s voice was deep and quiet. “I don’t like using neither.”

The middle-aged man walked across the kitchen quickly, his back turned to Shorty. “Yeah, I know. But the sound in there ain’t real good. Folks in back won’t hear you.” He looked out into the open space of the den and turned back to the old man. “Reckon there’s about thirty now.” He motioned Shorty towards him. “Come on over here. Got something in the pantry you might want to see.”

The aged timbers creaked beneath Shorty’s large brown boots. When he saw the door to the pantry open, his faced cracked into a grin. “The old Coke machine.” He looked it up and down. The metal was faded and the paint was gone. The traditional curving cursive logo curled its way in the metal where it had been engraved long ago. On the left face of the machine was a slim glass door through which could be seen the bottoms of glass bottles.

“Have one?” The middle-aged man asked.

“Believe I will.” The quarters and dimes the middle-aged man slid into the slot made crisp, clear clinks when they struck bottom. “Says on the front that it costs a dime.” Shorty said.

“Yessir. I had that fixed awhile back. Costs sixty-five now, what with it coming in old bottles and all. Have to special order them.” He opened the clear door, took out the first bottle, let it close, inserted a few more coins, removed another, and let it snap shut and lock. He handed one to Shorty.

Shorty bit his lip, twisting at the aluminum cap with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. After a moment, he gave up, handing the middle-aged man the bottle. “Used to could twist them off bare-handed.”

The middle-aged man took the bottle and shoved it into the slot on the front of the machine. It popped off in one smooth movement and clinked down out of sight as the change had before it. He handed the bottle back to Shorty. “Colder than the plastic ones, ain’t it?”

He took a swig. “Reckon it is. Ain’t had one like this in awhile. Tastes different. Sweeter.”

The middle-aged man had already drank half of his down. “Sure does.”

Shorty sat down in a chair by the kitchen table, the wood yielding audibly under his weight, and leaned his cane against his knee. He swirled the cool beverage around in the bottle, eyeing it, then took a slow sip. “When I was a boy, Daddy’d get one for Edgar and me to share. We’d put peanuts in it.” He paused. “You got any peanuts?”

The middle-aged man was looking out into the den. “Nope. It’s about time to start. The boys have fixed up the amp and all. You just got to clip it on when you take out the guitar. Ready?”

Shorty set his Coke aside. “Reckon so.”

The moment the two of them walked out into the den, Shorty’s demeanor shifted. He grinned, but not so as anyone could see his teeth. They were yellow from age. His head was high and his step lively, despite the cane. He and the middle-aged man stood on a square platform with a six-inch rise above the floor. Shorty looked about the group as the middle-aged man said, “Y’all are in for a treat tonight. This is Shorty Odham from up around Hickory. Best picker I ever saw.” With that, he stepped down and took a place to the right of the platform, beside the porch door.

Shorty sat down on the stool and removed his cap, which he set on the floor with his cane, then opened up his cracked leather guitar case and pulled out a six string acoustic. The wood was of pristine quality, kept oiled and clean and dry for a lifetime, but the insignia had faded from the headstock. Someone sitting on the tattered tweed couch in back spoke up and asked, “What kind is that? Martin?”

“Nosir.” Shorty said as he reached into his pocket and removed a gleaming tuning fork. “This here’s a Gibson, back from when Gibson was the best guitar they made.” He struck the fork on his thigh and listened. His eyes were closed, his head cocked to one side, but only for a moment. When the resounding timbre quieted, he shook the fork at the audience and said. “Most folks use an electric tuner, but it don’t always do the job. This here’s god. It’s never wrong.” He rang it again and tuned the Gibson by ear, and when he was satisfied, he clipped the small microphone into the sound hole carelessly and asked for someone to plug the chord into the amp. The middle-aged man obliged, and then hunkered down over the speaker, fiddling with the knobs ad nauseum as Shorty spoke to the audience, his voice warm and deep, his face still grinning out at them, “He’s gotta hook this up on account of I don’t use a pick, and on a classical guitar, hand-pickin’s pretty but quiet.”

“Why don’t you use a pick?” a voice called out.

Shorty cast his eyes downward and his grin faded. “Pick’s a cheat,” he answered curtly. “Can’t do as much with a pick.” After a moment, the grin returned, and Shorty said. “Don’t sing neither. I just play ‘em.”

The middle-aged man was finally satisfied with his progress, and gave Shorty a nod. Shorty nodded in reply, and said “This one’s called Wildwood Flower.” He began to play, his dry fingers moving with careful, measured speed. He played three instrumentals before he began shaking his hands between songs, and after playing The Claw, he began flexing them and making fists as he spoke to the people, the grin still cracking his face.

“Knew this fella used to come in here back when Clem ran it. A midget name of Brink that lived down the road a piece. He was a mean little bastard, too.” Shorty snorted a chuckle and went on. “Once, his neighbor put up a fence and for some god awful reason Brink got mad about it. And one day, when his neighbor was in here, sittin’ and shooting the bull, Brink come in and snuck away his Coca Cola bottle and spit some snuff juice in it and put it back without him knowing. But he found out soon enough. Damn near lost his grits.”

            The people gave a polite laugh once the story had ended, and Shorty flexed his hands another few moments before playing Wild Turkey at a frenetic pace. At times during the song, the notes would sound coarse and muted, and the timing between his right hand and his left was not always synchronized. Once he had finished, he sighed and sat still a moment. Then he said, “Got one more. It’s called Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The old grin was still on his face.

The middle-aged man by the door blinked rapidly at him and furrowed his brow.

As Shorty put his hands in place, a portly elderly fellow wearing an Amaco cap could be heard saying to the man beside him, “Best damn picker I ever seen. Should a heard him twenty years ago. Sumbitch used to play like he was double parked.”

            Shorty closed his eyes and bowed his head as he began to play. He bit his lip rather than grin, and pushed his chin into his chest, which was slowly rising and falling with the sequence of a metronome. His old, slender fingers were lithe on the soft strings, dancing down the frets and returning again. The main theme of the piece was complemented by additions here and there, sonorous sinew attached to the bare bones of the old song. The tones lilted around in the air and faded, giving way to fresh notes flowing one after another with flawless precision. When he reached the coda and his fingers rang out the jingling, bell-like sounds of the harmonics with which he usually completed the song, he instead went into first one reprise, and eventually another.

            The room was silent as he played on. Shorty’s breath, deep and steady, was in time with his melody. He leaned back, eyes closed, facing the light that glared above him. He didn’t stop until the strong hand of the middle-aged man by the door grasped his shoulder tightly enough to hurt. “Shorty,” He whispered. “Your hand.”

            His right index finger had opened up. As he had played, spatters of red had begun to trickle down onto the old wood of the Gibson in tiny droplets. His hands began to tremble.

            “Must’ve cut it on little E.” He laughed shakily and looked at the man. “Don’t know how that happened on nylons. They’re always so easy on the hands.”

            The middle-aged man handed Shorty a handkerchief and turned to the rest of the room. “Thank y’all for coming. Let’s give Shorty a hand.” The people clapped and whistled their appreciation, and then grew into their own groups of conversation as they readied to disperse.

Shorty wiped the blood from his guitar with care, caressing it away. He then placed it back in its aged case, afterwhich he tended to his hand. He sat a moment, then carefully bent down and took up his cane and hat and stood. There were a few hands to shake and polite conversation to make before he limped back into the kitchen and tasted the now warm Cola. It was flat.

 

                                                                                    Nicholas Bowden