The following accounts are transcribed verbatim from six (6) audio cassette tapes recorded between June and August, 2002. All emphasis, punctuation and parenthetical inserts are the author’s. [JLB]
He was hangin with me and Jesse Mundy the night he met her for the first time. We were in Nashville, down on Elliston. Seventy-six, I believe. Near twenty… six years ago now. Mundy was runnin a little blow for a dentist he’d hooked up with up, and we were just along for the ride, you know… testers. Sorta kinda.
(Laughter… inaudible comment)
Seriously. To this day, I cannot tell you why in the name of Christ we weren’t ever busted. I mean, really. Fuckin poster boys for the Stamp Out Idiocy campaign. First, we’re right in the middle of the fuckin seventies, so we’re fucked from the word go. Mundy’s drummin for Waylon, who, back then, anyway, can’t fuckin eat breakfast without getting busted. So right off the bat, Mundy and the whole fuckin band is guilty by association, and blippin on every cop’s radar in four states. And we’re runnin with him! Jesus. Ridin in that seventy-five Caddy coupe he’d bought off of Faron Young. Knickerbocker Tan with the chocolate velour inside? Fuck me. Wire hubs. Low rider, you know. Haulin a briefcase full of blow. A fuckin briefcase, man. And I mean full. And it’s the seventies, you know, so we’re all hat acts… wearin straw Resistols with big rodeo brims … looked like a trio of renegade flyin nuns. With handlebar moustaches and heads full of fuckin hair.
(Laughter… inaudible comment)
No shit. Hair, man. Caddy full of hippy cocaine cowboys — cruising Twang Town.
(inaudible – seventy-nine with — inaudible)
Don’t remind me. Anyway we were makin runs that night, you know. Blow for the dough and all, and Mundy’s emptied the briefcase. Done the last deal over at RCA, so we’re clean, except for personal, you know, and some weed, and our cut of maybe five grand… and son we were ripped, roarin, and flush when Mundy dropped us off at The Gold Rush. We walk in, ownin the place, you know – ain’t a drugstore cowboy in there don’t know us – and it is fuckin packed. S. R–freakin-O. Wall to freakin wall, you know. End to fuc—
(Inaudible voice from another room)
–HEY! Who’s doin the damned interview here?
Sorry, man…Anyway, it was packed. Normal Friday night and we’re workin the room, you know, and a couple of guys from Vandy vacate and we grab their saddles and mount up and we’re just startin the tab when he sees her a few yards down the bar standin behind the stool her freakin date or whatever is sittin in. Hear what I’m sayin? So he slides out of his saddle, tips his hat, and offers his stool to this woman. She grabs a fresh drink and starts walkin. Fuckin guy she was with never knew she was gone. Two hours later I’m still doin the ‘three’s a crowd’ thing’ when she takes off with her girlfriend. He grabs a pen from behind the bar and writes his number down on a napkin, and she does the same. Lookin at each other like fifth graders. Son, that was all she wrote. That was the ball-game. That was the last—
(Inaudible voice from another room)
–Will you. Shut. The Hell. Up?! This is my goddamned deal. That’s the way I talk. That’s the—
(Inaudible–pontificate… sound of your own voice – inaudible)
—LIKE HELL I DO.
(Inaudible. Door slams)
Sorry, man. We still recordin? K. Anyway, she put the fuckin mojo on my man. He was done. I coulda put a fork in him. Holdin that napkin like the Pope had blown his nose with it; foldin it up and slidin it down in his vest pocket. I told him right then and there he may as well put his drink on that napkin, cause they wasn’t no way a girl like that’d ever have anything to do with a renegade like him.
We rolled into the house around five that mornin and they was a note from Mundy on the kitchen table sayin she’d called him.Three weeks later, I’m standin next to both of ‘em in a church, handin him a ring to put on her finger.
Is the machine on? I just talk? Don’t have to hold the —
Ok then. The idea for the thing was Black’s. He’d known him better than most of us, save maybe his children, but they weren’t really children anymore, they was grown, you know, and he’d been all but shut out of their lives for two, maybe three years. I can’t tell you the last time he ever stood in the same space as any of ‘em; last time any of ‘em ever talked to him, save for some quick, bullshit little line of text on the phone. It’us like he’d never been there. Like he’d never existed. Those children left him when she left him. I think if you peeled the scar back, that’s what killed him. Losing them. Losing her was bad. Broke his heart. But losing them kids…. losing them kids broke him.
Black got word to her, of course, but wasn’t nobody really counting on her even being there anyways, let alone wanting anything to do with burying him. Truth to tell, we weren’t really burying him — in the ground, like. He wanted to be cremated, you know, but he wanted this thing, too, from what I understand, this – well, hell, this party. Him in the casket, dressed in that white shirt and leather jacket… and holdin that damned wine glass. Come from one of those plastic sets that’s made to look like real crystal, you know. It might’ve stayed there, empty, but filled up, Jesus, we like to never got it to stand straight up and down. Had to kindly wedge it between his fingers, you know, and they were locked up, you know, and we sorta slid the base of it, the flat, round part, under one hand, cause they’re both folded across his chest, you know. Like to never got it to stand there. Booker had a tube of liquid nails and a caulking gun in his truck, put a little dab right on the bottom of it and in—I don’t know, ten minutes or faster—son, it was set up. Undertaker like to come undone. Had to take a scalpel to that hand and…. kindly trim the bottom of the plastic away. Thought we were going to have to taze him when Booker told him “you don’t need to be getting all up in our shit about it, wasn’t nobody going to know when he’s a pile of ashes in a clay jar anyway.”
Later on, we kindly pushed that little flap of skin the undertaker trimmed off his hand under the cuff on that leather jacket. Couldn’t tell a damned thing was wrong. And he looked good, you know? I think that’s all he really give a damn about. Did he look alright.
My name is Jonelle Hale and I live at—
(Inaudible – but thanks–)
Oh. Okay. Well. Let’s see. First time I ever met him was when the two of ‘em come up to Momma n’ Daddy’s. They’d got married the week before, and didn’t tell anybody except Coyle Black and Dottie Staley. Went over real good, you know. She’s my sister, though, you know, and I could tell she was happy. Kinda. Seemed to be. And he was… oh, man, we were like long lost brother and sister. Swear to God. He’d been in the house all of ten minutes and it was like I’d been knowin him my whole damned life.
(inaudible –same way–?–inaudible)
Oh hell no. Mama n’ Daddy thought he was a fuckin con man. Well, Mama did. Daddy just didn’t trust him…hair real long, wearin a tam—one of those English hats like John Lennon’s you know?—with a pearl button shirt and those …(Laughter…) those fuckin bell bottoms…. Oh, man, he was—(Laughter and coughing–)
–Hang on, k?
–Looked like he was tryin out for The Mod Squad. ‘Member that show? What was the black guy’s name…?
(inaudible –Linc…something –inaudible)
Linc! Right… Jesus, I’m datin myself. Anyway, he kinda looked like Linc, you know, kindly black, cept his hair was real long. Mama thought her little girl’d lost her mind. But hell, he made her n’ Daddy a pan of cornbread that night, and Hon, he was in. I’m still… I’m still fucked up about this, you know…? If they was anybody… any two people on the face of the fuckin earth I’d a put money on makin it, it was them.
Bull. Shit. He’d a fuckin died for her. And hell, he did.
I’d never seen a man pine for a woman like that. I mean it now. This was a grown man. Strong. He’d run with some heavy-duty boys back in the day and…. come out clean the other end, you know. Which is something. Feet on the ground. Head on straight. You wanted this man on your side of the field. But—and don’t get me wrong, I loved him like a brother—the man would cry at the drop of a hat. And I don’t mean just cry. I mean weep. Shudder-and-suck-wind–and-fight-for-words weep. Didn’t matter where we was, day or night, on the job site, at Kroger’s, in the studio… didn’t matter. He’d hear something on the radio, or see somebody, be watchin a movie or a ball game, and it’d come on him like a haint and just cut his knees out from under him. He’d throw those Ray-Bans on—day or night, dint matter—and go sit in that truck alone til it passed. Tear you up. I mean it now.
I didn’t think the service… thing… was all that bad. We all knew he didn’t want everybody sittin in sackcloth and ashes and singin Old Rugged Cross. But they was some that got all up in the air about it. Drinkin in a funeral home and all. Which, I suppose, they have a point, you know, but who the hell really cares? Ain’t no part of that carpet they won’t be able to clean out with some Bon-Ami, and hell, we paid for the damned room, or parlor, or whatever the hell they call it. Didn’t that give us, like, renter’s rights or something? Nobody that came and knew all he’d been dealin with give a good Goddamn. Only family he had that did come was his ex-sister in law, Jonelle, and she was kindly fucked up herself when she walked in. Xanax or something’s what Booker told me. Truth to tell, Jonelle was a hell of a lot closer to him than his ex-ex was. Her own sister, now.
She come too, you know… Black tell you? We all wondered if she would. Kindly raised everybody’s eyebrows a bit, but she didn’t stay. Walked right in the room, didn’t sign the book, took a look at him lying there holdin that wine glass, turned around and walked out. Not a Hello how ya doin to anybody, not a tear, not so much as even dabbin a Kleenex up in the corner of her eye pretendin they was one there. Coldest damned thing I ever saw. Younts was following her down the aisle ready to get up in her face, but Black hauled him back in and then went out into the front room and kindly turned her around said something to her. Real quiet like. She stood there like a goddamned fencepost until Black turned around and come back in the parlor. He wouldn’t tell nobody what he said to her. Two, maybe three minutes later, I seen her pullin out of the parking lot, ridin shotgun next to some boy in a black Lexus or something. Mighta been a Acura. I was kindly far away.
Are you taping now? They don’t really call it ‘tape’ any more, do they? God I’m so not tech-savvy. And I need to be. Should be. It’s the future. Try that. It’s a Pinot Gree I bought in Nashville. Is that fabulous? Do I just start?
To begin with, it was awful. The entire affair. I still can’t believe no one so much as called me to so much as even ask for some kind of input. I’m a planner, for God’s sake. That’s what I do. He would have wanted me to….. to decorate and… Jesus, there was no theme, for God’s sake. How do you say goodbye to someone you loved dearly and not…not have a theme? I’d have at least brought some decent stemware and thrown out those god awful plastic tumblers that Laurena Wills brought, bless her heart. Don’t put that on there when you … you know… edit, or whatever. She’s a dear and I love her to death, but she doesn’t drink. She nor Lane neither one. And really. If you’re going to drink in a funeral home, honey, don’t cheapen it with plastic, for God’s sake.
Well I should have. At the least maybe a dozen doilies to corner the pews with. I don’t know. He’d have wanted me to’ve done something, for God’s sake. Wouldn’t you think? Jesus, I’m crying again. I don’t go to funerals as a rule. And it will be a month of Sundays before I ever attend another with those… cretins again. Coyle Black and that bunch. Oh, God…. strike that. Can you erase that? They loved him. I know they did. All of them. And in their own way, they were gentlemen when she made her little appearance. For my part, I wanted to throw my drink in her face, and would have if Laurena Willis hadn’t seen me angling towards the woman, and stopped me. God, I was so embarrassed. I was smashed, yes. But so embarrassed I was even thinking about doing something so cheap—him lying there. And he was—am I rambling?
I tried. God knows I tried. I was deeply in love with him, you know. Deeply. But he… she was everything to him… everything. Her and the children. Had to beat him over the head to get him to notice a girl. He was very lonely, you know. An infinitely lonely man. Infinitely. It’s what killed him, for God’s sake. Loneliness. Abject loneliness. The depression took all the… life out of him. It just… killed him.
What it said was ‘acute coronary failure’. What the hell is that if it isn’t ‘severely broken heart’?
Black called me right after he’d heard, and I don’t mind telling you it hit me hard. I was on a run to Louisville when he called. Had to fool with the phone for a minute before I could swipe the green thing and answer it – iPhone, you know. New one. The one with the girl that talks to you. Sarie or something. Which is weird, cause that was my Meemaw’s name.
They was only a handful of folks in the place when me and Marcie rolled up: Black, Jimmy E., Mickey Solowizc and his wife, whose name I can’t never remember, some Hebrew name or something—mighta been Jewish—Navy or something. Hell, I don’t know. I just call her Hon or Darlin whenever I see the two of them. Which Marcie says ain’t supposed to be done anymore. She says when I say that it makes me sound like I’m sexy. Which, at my age, you know is—
—Sex-ist? What the hell… So I’ve been sayin it wrong?
…I’ll be go to hell.
Hey… really? You know why donkeys don’t go to college, son?
Because nobody likes a smart-ass.
Anyway, wasn’t a lot of folks to start with, but by the time Brother Hovie stepped up to give the talk, they wasn’t an empty seat, and this was in the big room, you know – the Eternal Parlor. Seats a hundred. And son, every one of em was there. Wasn’t like everybody really knew him, though, you know. Lot of folks come ‘cause that’s what they do. Go to funerals. Hell of a thing, you know. Wait for folks to die, watch the obituaries. Old Deavurs Green down to Campaign was the leader of the whole pack. His nephew’s Lane Wills, you know. Used to say his Uncle Dev“…enjoyed a good funeral more than any man I ever knew.” Hell of a thing. Truth to tell, most of em know about the ones that’ve died before the obit runs in the paper. Hear about it in church or the rest homes. They put the damned things on the calendar, you know. Get dressed up, go to the funeral home and cry and carry on for somebody they didn’t even know. Use half a dozen sheets of Kleenex from the boxes on the pews, drink a cup of coffee, sign the book, and go next door t’ the next one. Marcie told me she ever gets to following that bunch she’s just gonna put her head in the oven.
Thing is, I can’t say I knew him as well as some. Don’t think I ever spent more’n coupla hours at his place. Mostly, I’s just there to pick him up if he needed to work a couple days, take his mind off things, you know. He kept to hisself, mostly. Holed up in that little rock and timber place by the creek he moved into after she give him the papers. Me and Black and E come over three or four times to watch a Titans game on his flat screen. He’d buy a couple of pizzas or a coupla those deli trays from Krogers, with the little trays in the big tray, you know, little squares of cheese and little pastrami sticks and stuff, you know. Which I think are just Slim Jims they cut up.
Exactly. Anyway, we’d go hang and sit on that one couch he had, throw a few back, and bullshit at half-time, you know. Little past the half, he’d start driftin. Set your watch by it. He’d be all up and getting it when we first get there, but he’d start just … shrinkin. Like a shadow or something. Offense’d be on the field, and you’d catch him starin off at one of the pictures on the walls, or just lookin off at nothin. It was like a shrine in there, you know. Pictures of her and the kids everywhere. Thirty years’ worth of a life. Just… gone. Hardly ever stayed to the end of a game. ‘Less they was on top, you know.
Black tell you about the liquid nails and the wine glass?
I didn’t think any of the kids’d come; I’d tried calling all of three of them, but never heard a thing back, so when Trevor and Jenna showed up, it was kindly a surprise. Not that they were there, but that Jace wasn’t with them. It’d been bad between the two of them for two years or more. But this was his father, his Dad…you know? He’d probably been closest to Jenna towards the last year or so. She was the only one of the three that ever sent him a text back, or e-mailed him, but they were few and far between. God he was proud of her. He was proud of the boys, too, but he couldn’t say one word about his ‘Baby Girl—’he called her that from the time she was two, maybe three months—without he’d just… light up. And then he’d have to check out, cause he just couldn’t stand being away from them. Family was all that ever mattered to him, you know. It was everything to him.
I’ll tell you somethin ain’t nobody else knows. He wanted me to keep this private, but, hell, he’s gone, and what you’re doin with this tape and all, it needs to be told, you know. Know what I’m sayin? Thing is, he’d thought for years that Jenna blamed him when they lost her big brother…when they lost Dylan. And I don’t… I don’t think she ever…. I can’t hardly… Can you shut that off for a minute?
(After a few moments, taping resumes)
He thought he knew what had happened. Thought he knew what they were doin when they hit the wall. The bridge… what do you call it… abutment. Adam was in the car when it happened, you know, Dylan’s cousin, but he never could ask Adam about it. Never talked to him about it. It just… it was like pouring salt in the wound. You know? But he thought he knew. And he thought Jenna knew as well. And he believed—for years, now—he believed that Jenna, his Baby Girl, blamed him for Dylan doing what he and Adam were maybe doin that day. Held that inside him along with everything else. That turned into him believing Jenna pushed her mother to leave.
None of us. I mean None. Of. Us. could fuckin believe what was happening. They were like, the family, the couple all of us, the rest of the damned family were lookin to, you know? They were like, It. This is how you do this. This is how it’s supposed to be done. Watching them fall apart just killed us. The rest of us in the family. Just fuckin killed us.
Booker told you I’s fucked up at the service, didn’t he? Fuck him. It don’t matter. Booker didn’t know him. Really know him, you know? Nobody knew him as well as I did. Save for the kids and….my sister, maybe. He was more my brother than in-law. And hell, I was there for all of it, honey. The good and the bad. And the ugly. Jesus. All those years. Thirty-five years. He just couldn’t let go of it. Any of it.
Let me tell you somethin, I was there in the damned room when they went to the counseling deal, and he dropped to his knee. His knee, now, wiping away tears, and told her he’d love her until the day he died. His lawyer is up tryin to talk over her lawyer… He sits back down, and she’s starin straight ahead, hasn’t moved a damned muscle, and says, “You’ll forget in time. I have.”
Ripped his heart out. Changed him. Changed him.
I was the first one to get there, you know. After his landlady, anyway. She was getting ready to call Melvin. Gray. Melvin Gray? You know him, don’t you?
Hell, I thought everybody and their brother knew Melvin. Anyway, he was on the card he give his landlady. Like an index card, with seven names and numbers on it. Deal was, if she walks in, and he’s… you know… she’s supposed to try each of the names on that card in order. And you know who the first four were. She tried all four, then tried Brandon, my brother…. And he’s in Florida, so I’m next on the list before Melvin.
I wasn’t gonna take anything, you know, but, I mean, what? The kids? Please. Her? Gag me. No fuckin way. She’d burn them as admit she wrote ‘em.
Because they’re proof. Proof of how she felt. Once anyway. Ten single page letters in ten envelopes. All of em with her little return address sticker on the envelope and those little flowers on the paper. All of em written in that cursive thing she did with the swing at the end of the U’s, and the esses, you know, and every page…he’s taken a red pen to every letter and underlined the same three words on every page.
I love you. He’d underlined every single I love you that she’d written.
Carryin a torch don’t even come close, man. Six years, everybody, me included, spent six fuckin years tellin him to get past it, you know, that he’d heal and get over her and…move on. Hate that fuckin phrase. It wasn’t just hopin she’d come back to him again, but believing it, man. Believing it. And hell, I’m lookin at him there in that casket thinkin they’re gonna carry him away and he’s…smilin, and I hadn’t seen him smile in…in fuckin years, you know, and—
–And I remember thinking, he’s finally moved on, man. He’s moved on and this time…. this time—he’s over her, you know? For good.