The Query – Part Three

It’s hard to adequately describe, to limn the sense of ecstacy, reward and pride that comes with the knowledge that you’ve become a published writer, or in my case, about to become a published writer. You’re suddenly legitimate; you have credentials, credits beyond the blog, the on-line content, and the volumes of television and radio commercial copy you’ve dashed off over the years. A book – a book you’ve written, re-written, revised, revised again, sliced mercilessly and finally finished, has had an offer. You can now say –truthfully- ‘…me…? I’m a writer.’

The after-effects of the meeting with Jonas Kelson had kept me groggy for most of the day. I was in a kind of euphoric state; hovering somewhere between disbelief, intoxication and elation. I was on a literary contact high. At my desk, I took the mock hardback I’d fashioned some months before, taking the cover off Oleg Cassini’s biography, and replacing it with the cover I’d designed of my book, opened the book and inhaled the scent of ink on paper. If I closed my eyes, I could smell the unmistakeable scent of a bestseller. I picked up the phone and called our family company’s heads honchos Jim Loakes and Paul Corbin, walking them through a play-by-play of the meeting from start to finish. I went through it a third time for Murph. We were packing our proverbial bags. Our proverbial ship had come in.

Late in the afternoon, I called Sharlene at the Sheraton. “I’m bringing a DVD of ‘The Mikado’ for you,” I said. “I know you’re going to have a drink with Declan, and then dinner with Lisa Wysocky, so I’m going to just leave it at the front desk. I’ll call tomorrow before you board your flight home.”

At my laptop, I opened the manuscript and began reading. Three hours later, I’d reached page 189. I closed the program, hit SHUT DOWN and closed the computer. Murph’s words from three days before were ringing like tiny, silver bells in my ears. “It’s fine. It reads fine.”

I smiled. She’s right. It’s o.k….it’s fine. It’s good.

For the first time in many months, I slept soundly.

At around eleven the next morning, I called Sharlene from the car, hoping her morning meeting was done, and I could spend a few minutes with her. She answered on the first ring of her cell.

“When this whole thing got under way, you told me you were giving Kelson an exclusive until today,” I said. “I know you heard Declan tell everybody at the table he wanted to be able to give you a final answer by this Friday.”

“Right,” she answered. “I heard the same thing.”

“My question is…are you going to hold to that, or give them some latitude?”

“I think we need to give them the latitude,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll do anybody any good if I hardball them now, because I think this is on a fast-track. I don’t want us to be over confident, you know…but you don’t bring the heads of sales and publicity and marketing into a first meeting unless you’re serious. I think they’re going to make us an offer – I’m just not sure what the number’s going to be.”

“How did drinks with Declan go?” I asked.

“Fabulous,” she said. He’s totally sold on the synergy thing – the book being the anchor product, marketing Ford Show DVD’s with it – doing QVC – he’s excited. Oh…I forgot. I had a thought, and gave him the operettas DVD with The Mikado that you’d left for me at the front desk. He was the only one at the table that didn’t get a Christmas DVD, you know…so I told him you made a special trip out here to drop this off for him.

“And…?

“He was blown away. He loved it. We scored. It was way cool.”

God, I love this woman. “You’re too good, Sharlene. That was strong. I’ll put a copy for you in the mail right away.”

I was still walking on air, still couldn’t believe I’d queried her less than a week ago. “This is like a dream,” I said.

“I know,” she answered. “I want to wake up at the bank. Gotta go. I’m packing and off. I’ll e-mail you on my layover in Dallas if I hear anything.”

When I got back to office, I logged onto MartinLiteraryManagement. I wanted to read through the testimonials from her other clients, get an idea of length, form, etc., and have something in her in-box by the time she landed in Burbank that evening. I wanted to give something back. Something besides dinner and one night at the Sheraton. A testimonial that would be different from anything else on her site. A testimonial that would let her know I was a writer now. A published writer –or, soon to be. Something that would let her know how grateful and proud I was. I opened up Word, and typed THE QUERY. The first chapter of this essay poured out onto the screen over the next hour.

At 5:02 central, I hit SEND.

At 7:48 my laptop informed me I had mail. The sender was Sharlene. She’d read THE QUERY. I opened the e-mail.

 

Subject:  RE: From Jeffrey Ford

Date: 05/08/07 7:48:01 PM Central Daylight Time

From:  Sharlene

To:  JBF Sent from the Internet (Details)

You may call me when you receive this.  Oh my, this is fabulous!

 

Fifteen minutes later, she called the office.

“I just got Chapter One of your new book,” she said.

“Well…it isn’t really a…”

“It’s fabulous. I want you to keep this under wraps. It’s not finished yet. It’s an ongoing story, you know.”

“It was really just a…”

“I think when this whole thing is done, when we get the deal, you write the final chapter, and we sell it to MediaBistro, or one of the literary mags. A diary of the whole process, you know – from query to deal.”

“Great,” I said. “But I really just wanted to—”

“–Tell Murphy I so enjoyed meeting her. She’s a doll. I’ll keep you posted. Bye.”  And she was gone. I let the dial tone drone for a few seconds, and then hung up.

A few minutes later, Murphy came back to the office. I was in my chair, holding the receiver in my hand, staring blankly at the keypad.

“Was that Sharlene?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Did she like the testimonial?”

“I’m not sure about the testimonial,” I answered. “But she loves the new book.”

______________________

Wednesday passed. Thursday’s sun rose and set. Murphy and I occupied ourselves with normal business. I finished sending e-mail notes to all the other agents I’d queried, including those with, or who’d requested partials, informing them I’d signed with Sharlene. In hours, my inbox was filling with responses.

“Congratulations. Sharlene’s great.”

“Best of luck. She’s a great friend…great agent.”

“Damn. I guess I missed the boat. Good luck.”

And a score or more of similar good wishes. Each was a testimonial to Sharlene Martin in and of itself. But she didn’t just have this effect on her clients, she’d shined the whole damned industry. In three years. She wasn’t anywhere near her peak, and I’d been lucky enough to get a seat on the bus…damn.

Friday came and went. No word. Murph was nervous. I told her it was fine…normal, par for the course. Not to worry. “There were seven department heads in that meeting,” I told her. “I really don’t expect Sharlene to hear anything until Monday.”

I was scared shitless.

Monday came and went. Nothing. Tuesday, an e-mail from Sharlene.

‘I know this must be dreadful for you. The waiting is always the hardest part. I’ll let you know the minute I hear anything. Try to stay distracted.’

Oh, Jesus. She’d italicized anything. That meant she wasn’t sure. Now she was expecting anything. Including…oh Christ. Including a negatory.

I tried to stay distracted. Do what your agent tells you. I called Corbin on TEF business.

“Hell, I want to know what’s happening with the book!” he said.

Sonofabitch.

“This is the norm,” I said. “We’ll probably hear by the end of the week.”

Loakes was fidgeting in Palm Springs. He’d left seven messages on the machine. I couldn’t bear to call him.

For two days, I was tempted to e-mail Sharlene. Murph was adamant.

“Do NOT e-mail her. She’ll let us know as soon as she hears something. Do the laundry. Bill your karate students. Work on the screenplay. But do NOT e-mail her. She’ll think you’re stalking…that you’re not stable. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

The next day I finished Chapter Two of The Query, and ran a copy of the operettas DVD for Sharlene.

“Can’t I just let her know her DVD’s on the way?” I asked Murph.

“What do you think?” she countered. It smells –no, it reeks of fishing. Let it go. Do NOT e-mail her. Jesus.”

“O.k., honey.” Murphy left the office. I opened AOL and clicked on SEND MAIL.

 

Hi, Sharlene,

A quick note to let you know that your DVD copy of ‘Gilbert, Sullivan and Ford’, with The Mikado and HMS Pinafore went out today. Sorry for the delay…we had some tech issues to resolve.

Best to Anthony…

JBF

 

Thirty minutes later, my in-box rang. Sharlene

‘Thanks, Jeffrey. I’ll call Declan today and find out where we are.’

That was Wednesday, 4:08 in the afternoon – central daylight.

Thursday afternoon was busier than normal. The public school I was involved with as a martial arts instructor held its annual day-long Field Day, and, as it’s been for the past nineteen years, I was there from morning until the end of the school day. At three o’clock, I said goodbye to the kids and the staff, called Murph, and started the short walk home. It was a beautiful day, cloudless, seventy-five, a light breeze from the west. From inside my hip pouch, my cell rang, twice, three times, a fourth, and then fell silent. Whatever it was would keep, I thought. And as soon as the thought passed, Murph did likewise, pulling about, and swinging back to pick me up.

I was looking forward to a couple of hours down-time before heading to the Dojo for the evening’s classes. Life was good.

As is my custom, I headed for the office as soon as we got in the house, opened the screen on the HP, hit the power button, went to the kitchen and nuked a cup of joe from the morning’s pot while I waited for the laptop to power up. I set the cooking timer for fifty seconds at high. Got the milk out of the fridge, opened the dishwasher, retrieved a clean spoon, and watched the timer count down the last fifteen seconds on the microwave. Three beeps. Warm mug. Dash of milk. Too much sugar. One semi-fresh cup of coffee. I love technology.

On the way back to the office, my cell played the Chopin piece that lets me know a message is in voice mail. I pulled the phone out of my pouch, flipped the lid and checked the read-out. It was from Sharlene.  At my peak of multi-tasking skills, I keyed in my password on the phone as I loaded AOL. The e-mail opened at exactly the same time her voice-mail began on the speaker-phone.

Kelson had passed.

_________________________

© 2015. J Buck Ford

The Query – Part Four

For a moment, the passage of time slowed to a standstill; the cursor’s wink on the monitor froze on, Sharlene’s message on my phone dropped in pitch like a record on a turntable being powered off. I was sure that there was some wire crossed somewhere, some logic overlooked — some reasonable explanation for why breathing was suddenly so difficult.

I pressed CALL and dialed Sharlene’s number. Half way through the third ring, it suddenly cut short, and through the near-microscopic earpiece, I could hear the brief, quick intake of muffled breathing on the other end.

“Sharlene….?”

She was crying.

“I can’t believe this,” she said.  “God, I wanted this so bad. I’m so sorry. I would have nev—“

“—Just a minute.  Just a damned minute, girlfriend. You’re crying? You’re crying?! There’s no crying in baseball! Wait…I mean….publishing! There’s no crying in book publishing!  You’re Sharlene Martin, for God’s sake. You’re the toughest literary agent in town. And you’re…. considerate. Strike that. You’re a shark. A fighter. Get a grip.”

Silence.

“Sharlene…?

Nose into Kleenex. Then… “Jesus. You’re right.”

“What the hell happened?”

“They were worried about your mother…and her –”

“—Language? Her profan–”

“–Her death. The… way she died.”

“Her… the what?”

“It came down in an e-mail from Josh Mueller. He said Kelson was concerned she didn’t… what did he say? Wait a second… let me read it to you… here: ‘that she didn’t die in a Christian way. We’re concerned about the effect it might have on our core market, and frankly—’” She paused and exhaled like somebody’d cut the valve stem on her spare. “Jesus, I literally can’t believe I’m reading this.” She said. “… ‘we’re concerned about the effect it might have on our core market and frankly, on Ernie’s fans. She killed herself. She broke a Commandment.”

For a micro-moment, the sheer absurdity of what she’d just told me hung in the air like a bad one-liner from a washed-up comic.  This idiot wasn’t just talking about my mother, he was talking about Betty Jean Ford, who began breaking the Commandments when she was barely out of grade school; who broke handfuls of them before lunch every day. Who tutored me at her feet in the paralyzing beauty of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain… who wrote the book on breaking the Commandments, for God’s sake.

For an instant, it hung there.

“And for that transgresshunn, Betty Jean Ford,” I said in my best Oral Roberts, “Is going to go straight to Hayull.”

We both exploded in laughter.

“Betty Ford scotched this deal, Sharlene. Kelson wasn’t supposed to happen. Jack Westholm in New York wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to happen, Sharlene Martin. This book will stand or it will fall with you.”

We talked for a few more moments, tightening our belts and sucking air – taking the edge off.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” she said. “Give me a couple of days to regroup.”

We said goodbye, and I hit END. A fitting gesture; for all my bravado, I was nevertheless convinced that my career as a writer had died before it had taken its first breath.

__________________

The couple of days Sharlene needed turned into a week, then two. I moved across the hours in slow motion, wading through them with leaden feet and heart. After three weeks, I was certain I’d never write again. Never write anything. I looked at the keyboard like it was some kind of alien device. Putting pen to paper seemed… pointless. Obviously, a published writer was not to be my lot in life It had all been one grand exercise in literary futility.

I was wrapping my lips around the Toyota’s tailpipe when my cell phone began playing the Debussy funeral dirge I’d downloaded a few days before.  Ringing and vibrating; buzzing like a carpenter bee hung up and humming in my pants pocket. After the fourth ring, the tailpipe was getting a tad warm, and I knew I had a choice to make: burn my lips off, or answer the phone.

It was Sharlene. “We’ve got a meeting,” she said.

My lips, it seemed, were safe.

“Cumberland. It’s a small company. Historical fiction and bios, mainly…”

“Boutique?” I asked.

“More like a closet. But they’re legit, and they’re interested.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning. You’re meeting with Ron Forster – head of the company, and you’re going to love this…. Are you sitting down?”

“Yes,” I lied. “Tell me.”

“He was with Kelson for ten years. And honey, he’s looking for a little hard-cover payback.”

______________________

Friday April 4, 2008 – Nine months later

I was running late, and knew I’d be fighting traffic on the way to the airport. Murph was on a 5:30 Jet Blue leg from Kennedy and I needed to be on the off ramp ten minutes ago. If I took Briley to Elm Hill and jogged down to Donelson Pike, I might could come in the back door, shave ten minutes off and still make it to Arriving Passengers before she got out of luggage.

Wasn’t going to happen. I threw the van in reverse, got maybe six feet out the drive and two feet shy of rear-ending a UPS truck pulling in behind me. The driver hit the air horn, spooking a bunch of crows in the big oak tree and climbed out of the jumper seat, carrying a square box maybe 20 by 20. I grabbed the box, signed the digital… signer-thing, set the box in the well between the seats. Foot on the brake, I put one eye on the driver’s side mirror, waiting for the truck to back out, and let my other eye drift to the top of the box. Two-maybe three inches above the address label, a dark red logo, rectangular, a black border encasing five words:

CUMBERLAND PUBLISHING HOUSE – NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE.

I laid my windbreaker over the box and hit the gas.

Murph was standing in the waiting area when I pulled under the awning at baggage. I swung curbside, threw it in PARK, threw her bags in the hatch, threw her in the shotgun, ran to the driver’s side and climbed in behind the wheel, just in time for three cars and two parking jitneys to pull in front of us. We were going to be there for a few minutes. Providence.

I reached in the cargo hold, pulled a small pocket knife out, opened the blade and handed the bolster-end to Murph.

“And you’re handing me a knife in the airport for….”

“I want you to be the one to do this,” I said.

“Kill you for being late?”

God, she’s funny.

“God you’re funny…. I want you to open this.”

I whipped the windbreaker off the parcel, flinging it back to the back seat with the abandon of a magician, unveiling the big reveal.

Three cars ahead, one of the parking jitneys swung out into oncoming and beckoned by the uniformed security, we inched forward before coming to a stop again. Murph’s eyes never left the box. She brought her free hand to her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “When did they come?”

“Today,” I answered.

“Oh God…. And you didn’t… you didn’t open it?”

The SUV two up pulled out, and we crept forward another car length.

“I wanted you to do that,” I said.

Loaded with riders, the second jitney pulled out and we pulled forward. Another minute, maybe, and we’d be headed home.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I love you,” I answered.

With her index finger across the length of the blade, like a surgeon, she creased the tape and the tip of the blade sunk between the seams of cardboard.

“Careful….” I whispered.

Slowly, she drew the knife the length of the tape, cut the ends, folded the blade back in its haft, handed me the tool, and opened the box.

I do not believe that I shall ever forget the next moment; should I live beyond all years, it will never fade from my memory. The moment when she lifted the first copy off the top like she was holding a rare thing, an heirloom, and laid the book on her lap, brushing her hand lightly across the dust jacket.

“I can’t believe it,” she said whispering. “It’s real. This is … this is your book….”

She looked up and into my eyes, her own brimming with tears.

“You’re an author.”

The last car pulled away, and waved on by the uniform, I put the van in gear, and we swung out onto the road leading home.

_________________

© copyright 2015. J. Buck Ford

Ghost In This House

My father was a student of music, an American singer, raised on The Methodist Hymnal, trained in opera, a devotee of western swing and hillbilly boogie–and a cat who knew the difference between the two. He had an unerring, instinctive talent for recognizing  genres; a little-known aspect of his musical education that grew into somewhat of a personal penchant as he grew older, and one I grew to respect enormously.

Particularly as it related to country music.

Ernie Ford was not a country singer. He was a singer, period. But he was a singer who understood musically, culturally, instrumentally and lyrically what made a country song country. From fifty-eight, fifty-nine, through…seventy, maybe,  it was one of the principal reasons he gravitated closer to Ken Nelson and what was coming out of Bakersfield, and kept himself distanced professionally from the Music Row establishment for so many years. His close friendships with its architects notwithstanding, he held a private, but deep disdain for The Nashville Sound and saw it as a wholesale sellout to remake country music in pop’s image. Make it relateable. Palatable. Upbeat. Make it relevant.

When the label pushed hard in the early sixties to make him relevant, to make him palatable, to mold him into the whole countrypolitan thing, he pushed back, and in April of sixty-four recorded Country Hits…Feelin’ Blue, a twelve-song set of lonesome, brokenhearted standards from  Don Gibson, Jenny Lou Carson, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Frankie Brown and Carl Perkins, cut over ten hours with two cats: Billy Strange on acoustic guitar and John Mosher on upright bass. No overdubs. No harmonies. Maybe two takes. Every song. It was, hands down, the best album of his entire career. By bringing each song back to its most basic elements, unfiltered, uncluttered by unnecessary bullshit and unapologetically blue, Strange, Mosher and Dad unwittingly created a work that is both a musical masterpiece of simplicity and a profoundly moving exploration of sadness.

…A human condition that, along with much more, is profoundly missing from what’s being pawned off as country music today.

_______________________

I am neither a scholar, a seer or a musician, notwithstanding a handful of years masquerading as the latter. I have no dog in this hunt save for my own opinion, and I’m just bright enough to know that it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn what my opinion is. Others have said much the same; others with voices more learned, more distinguished…more celebrated than mine, voices with the power to be heard far above the din, and even they have come under withering fire. My own voice carries no such influence, and it will be read (if at all) by many who will chalk it up to age, negativity, an unwillingness to accept change…. and the bitter ramblings of a late entertainer’s aging son who’s hoping for some cheap literary controversy.

Take your best shot. Here’s the truth….

There was a time, not all that long ago,  when country music mattered; when it mattered as a distinct, singular American art form, and a chronicler of life. There was a time when its poets laureate wove hauntingly true, brilliantly real stories that spoke eloquently on the human condition, and a time when its heralds sang in clear, untutored, compelling voices in the crowded and loud wilderness of popular entertainment.

Today, save for a shrinking handful of artists who still hear its voice, it is, at best, a shadow of itself; an unrecognizable mashup of styles that have so thoroughly diluted the genre, that its very essence is being drained away, its true form and sound–its true identity–lost to an entire generation. Filtered out by labels-full of indistinguishable voices, after-market fiddles, uninspired Van Halen ripoffs, and, save for rare, endangered  exceptions, empty, vapid songs that are like the Country Charts equivalent of overused Facebook memes.

Not that all overused Facebook memes are a bad thing. Even in its most lucid, literary days, 16th Avenue produced more than its share of them. But they were almost always the exception to the rule. ‘Achy Breaky Heart‘ was a hit for a lot of reasons, principally because even as recently as ninety-two, it was the balance track; the I don’t want to have to think about anything ‘cept tapping my finger on the rim of the steering wheel and riffing on Billy Ray track in a year of songs that reflected what the greatest country writers and songs had done for decades; held a mirror up to us all. Told us stories that we had all lived through; stories of loss and betrayal. Of sacrifice and redemption. Stories of hope and resolve. Of social injustice and death. Of the unbreakable bond of unconditional love and of hearts broken beyond repair.

These were the songs that held us, that kept us sliding quarters in jukeboxes, made us pull off the road so we could wipe the tears from our eyes. The songs that etched themselves into our hearts and minds and memories. The songs that told the complex truths of who we were in two minute-long stories even the most uncomplicated of us could understand and relate to. They brought us closer together, and showed us our common humanity. They gave us the emotional soundtracks that scored our lives.

If one uses today’s charts as a yardstick, more than half of our common humanity’s apparently focused on your girlfriend, your truck, a six-pack, her hair, the moon, that ball cap you’ve got turned the wrong way and a tractor.

Not that hair and a girlfriend are bad things. I’m still trying to remember what it felt like to have either one.

________________________

I’m not so far gone that I think it’s gone for good. Even now, deep into the night, this glass all but empty, the radio a low hum from across the room, I hear it. I hear echoes of it coming through the speakers, floating across the ether. I hear it curling around Miranda Lambert and snaking through Chris Stapleton. I hear it channeling up through Carrie Underwood and hangin over Jason Aldean…hovering in the air like ribbons of smoke until it fades away, leaving only faint traces in the room. Like a siren song in my ears.

…Like a ghost in this house.

© 2017. J. Buck Ford

The Importance of Ernest’s Cornbread

In November of 1977 my marriage and quite possibly my life were both saved by an eight by twelve-inch pan of cornbread. Not the metal pan itself, mind you, although had the situation been allowed to deteriorate any further, I may have required it defensively; perhaps to deflect a projectile. No, my salvation lay with the recipe for the pone itself, and its architect, its composer; my father. That he was some two-thousand three hundred miles away when he saved me was irrelevant, and actually, he didn’t know he was saving me at the time. Truth to tell, I wasn’t sure that he’d saved me until after the fact.

Bear with me, it’s a long story.

I am not a Southerner by birth; I am a Californian transplanted to the South by way of Colorado. My forty years as a Nashvillian notwithstanding, I confess that half of me still feels inexorably drawn towards The West and the birthplace of my mother; a longing I don’t believe any amount of time lived elsewhere will diminish.  It is the yin to my yang half, which is pure unadulterated East Tennessee DNA, courtesy my old man. Like the cellular tides within me that physically pull me towards the shores of the Pacific, I confess that I feel a similar, equally strong molecular magnetism when I’m around a pan of sawmill gravy; an iron skillet delicacy I believed for years was a beverage.

I moved to Tennessee in 1976 as part of my Five Year Plan on How to Fail in The Music Business — which worked beautifully, by the way.  Phase II: Using Your Publisher’s Office as a Second Home was just concluding when I met my wife, Murphy, and the entire itinerary basically went to hell in a handbasket. I still failed–successfully–but a little ahead of schedule, and not quite according to The Plan.

The story really begins about the time Murphy’s father reluctantly agreed to allow me into the family, an event which came to pass some four and a half months after our marriage: an earlier event which we notified both sets of parents about after it had happened. Not a good idea, in retrospect. I was suspect from day one; a ne’er do well, a rake, a roué. A transplanted libertine from the west coast who would have to prove his worth, have his mettle tested, and otherwise convince her father and mother that they shouldn’t simply kill me out of hand for marrying their daughter unannounced.

The kill me part came closest to happening one afternoon towards the end of November– the very day I speak of in this brief memoir–when Murphy and her mother both suggested that I ride to Sonny’s Bait Shop with my father-in-law, Bratten.

Now, I grew up around bait shops, and naturally jumped at the prospect. No better place on earth for a little male bonding with my new father-figure. And because he knew my Dad was a Tennessean, and had actually fished a good deal in that part of the country, I figured Bratten would be of the same sort of mind-set.

I kindly figured wrong on that one.

Murph and I had just driven in from Nashville, and I was still wearing my mid-70’s Twang Town wardrobe: two-inch platforms, blue stovepipes and a wool-knit tam. Like John Lennon’s. Way cool. I had on my favorite snap-button shirt, one I’d bought that summer at the Loretta Lynn Western Wear store in Donelson.  Midnight blue with about a thousand tiny little white stars. With the tam? Please. The whole look said … well, I don’t know, it said something. Frankly, I thought it said I looked fabulous.

Bratten, however, was of a…differing opinion. I knew this from overhearing the colorful way he was telling my mother-in-law, Jo Bill, that perhaps I should’ve chosen another ensemble. Something, perhaps, that made me look a little less like an idiot.

He said maybe three words to me on the way to Sonny’s. When we got there, he suggested I wait for him over by the minnow tank, that he’d just be a minute. Well hell, the minnow tank was a good twenty-five feet from the counter, where he ambled over and spent the next ten minutes be-essing with Sonny, who kept cutting one eye over towards me like we’re doing a scene from Easy Rider 2. Finally, he cocks his head towards the tank, then back to Bratten and says, “Who you got there with you, B.H?”

Bratten doesn’t turn his head, he lowers it, slowly, like an old horse, his eyes closing briefly as he exhales a long plume of smoke from the Camel that’s been alongside the toothpick that he keeps wedged between a coupla molars about halfway back in his jaw. The smoke hits the top of the old glass counter-top and spreads across it like dry ice across a concrete floor. His head shakes side-to-side almost imperceptibly. But before he can say anything, Sonny takes a long pull from his Lark, and fairly spits the smoke out. In the general direction of the minnow tank. “And where’d you get that hat, son?”, he asks me, the words pumping out with the smoke, like exhaust coughing out of a tailpipe.  “Carnaby Street?”

Eventually, Bratten introduced me–as we were driving away–and eventually Sonny and I became friends, but frankly, the whole thing kind of hurt my feelings. I’m a sensitive guy, you know, an artistic hyphenate, and trust me, I was sensing it. I was picking it up like a telegraph. For example, riding back in the Fleetwood I could sense that a nightcrawler would have a better chance of bonding with a small-mouth than me with my new father-in-law.

But that all changed in just a few hours.

It got worse.

I am not a vain person. I have as big an ego as I need, but, vain? I don’t think so.  At the time of this adventure, however, I was, maybe, just a tad vain. About hair, mainly; mine in particular. Principally because I was losing it. By the day. An aerial shot would have revealed expanding crop circles in the follicle fields of my pate, leaving distressed and bare ground where once grew mighty stands of strands, thick and dark. And wavy. Thick, dark and wavy. In the wake of this exodus, what hair I had left was…retracting; curling inwards at the ends in thinning strings; all a-knot and askew, giving me, when not wearing a hat, the appearance of a simpleton.

When bringing this to Murphy’s attention, knowing my wife shared my view of the importance of hair; mine in particular, she smartly suggested we go to Rite-Aid and buy a hair straightening kit for men. “Or maybe women,” she said. “We’ll see which works best.”

On the way back from the strip mall, I drove to Murphy’s parents’ in a state of almost giddy anticipation; a euphoric hunch that in a matter of hours, I would look like the guy on the front of the Pantene Pro-5 Straightening Creme box in the plastic Rite-Aid bag on the seat between us. That my strength, my… essence would be rejuvenated, re-awakened. Renewed.

And I’d be able to comb it again.

In today’s world of hair care, I’ve learned that straightening takes nothing more than a shampoo, a conditioner, and voila, you’re essentially done. In nineteen and seventy-seven, however, the process was a bit more involved, requiring me to commandeer the one bathroom in the house for a rather extended period of time. A couple of hours, if I remember right. For Step 1 and 2.

Alone and freshly shampooed, I carefully removed the contents of the box and arrayed them in order of use on the built-in shelf behind the vanity. Conditioners, tools, lotions, applicators, a cool comb (a comb!) and a special silver hat with an elastic band that fit over my head like a bathing cap made out of Reynolds Wrap. A perforated bathing cap made out of Reynolds Wrap. Perforated with scores of tiny little holes not much bigger around than a belt notch.

Like a surgeon prepping for the OR, I fit the cap snug around my head, snapped the elastic just above my ears, cracked opened the bathroom door and signaled Murphy, who was waiting patiently in the adjoining bedroom, keen to hasten the experiment and my new vitality. Together now in the bathroom, a towel caped across my shoulders, the cap upon my head, she selected a tool from the kit’s contents that looked like a yarn hook for doing macrame. With the dexterity and speed of a weaver, she deftly thrust the hooked end of the thing through each hole in the cap, rotating it slightly, as if twirling pasta around a fork, then pulled long cables of my hair through every port until the whole field of the cap looked like a rice paddy. Brown rice.

Swiftly, she selected a small tube of straightening lotion from the ingredients and with the Special Applicator, varnished all twenty-five hanks of hair flat against the top of the bathing cap, where they’d have to stay for the next hour. Finished, I stood, pulled the corners of the towel around my shoulders, pinching them at my throat like a manteau, and turned to face the mirror.

Which was precisely when Bratten opened the bathroom door.

Normally graced with a stoic visage—John Wayneian profile and jaw framing resolute, piercing eyes—I watched as the entire plain of his face changed in front of me. His mouth slowly slacked open, like it was being lowered mechanically, a half-smoked Camel hanging somehow on the rim of his lower lip. The toothpick hung on the edge of a piece of bridgework. His eyes went from the towel to the bathing cap and then to his daughter. He got three words out, “…What in the–”, and then she shut the door, muffling his last two words: “…goddamned hell….?”

The vocabulary choices one makes when cursing can reveal a great deal, if one pays attention. And, as Murphy herded her father to the other end of the house, he was revealing plenty. For example, through the bathroom door, I could hear him revealing to Jo Bill back in the kitchen how badly he’d like to see my license plate disappearing out of town, and our marriage license disappearing in an ashtray.

I looked quickly in the mirror, then looked at the Panasonic AM-FM LED clock radio on the vanity. I had fifty-three minutes left. I had to make a decision. I couldn’t very well remain locked in the bathroom for another fifty… two minutes, now, and sequestering myself in the back bedroom until I was presentable was out of the question. I was weighing the pros and cons of sneaking out the back door for a hit off the roach I’d saved from the drive up when Murph walked in.

“You can’t stay back here for another hour,” she said.

I glanced at the clock radio again and offered that it was actually only going to be more like forty-seven minutes now, but having inherited a great deal of the stoicism of her father, Murph didn’t see the humor I did. Nevertheless, she was right. I couldn’t stay back here. I was an actor…a musician… I was an an artist, for God’s sake. Image was everything. Every. Thing. And I, by God, was doing something about mine. More to the point, I was her husband. Their son-in-law. I had to find some way, some…tactic of connecting with her father. Bonding with him. Bridging the divide. Closing the gap. Taking his .22 shells away.

I suggested that we start packing when there was a knock at the bedroom door.

“Murph?” Jo Bill… Murph’s mom. “Are y’all ok?”

“We’re fine Mom.” Eyes cutting to me. “We’ll be right out. Do you need anything?”

“Well…” And then, like a song from an angel came seven words from Jo Bill Cook. Alone, they were merely seven plain and unassuming bits of language; one pronoun, one objective pronoun, two verbs, one preposition and article each, and one noun. Root terms employable in uncountable ways grammatically, and yet, strung together in the order in which they filtered through the bedroom door, they carried with them a power…a saving grace that seemed to fill the room with light. Seven common parts of speech that held the answer to all my hopes and my prayers. Seven words that would build the bridge to reach across this depthless gulf between me and the rocky, adamantine shoals of Bratten Hale Cook.

Seven simple words.

“I need you to make the cornbread.”

By the time of this story, the marriage that Murphy and I had was just shy of five months old. Not a stretch, by any stretch, but long enough of a spell that I’d already treated her to more than one pan of Ernest Ford’s cornbread over that short half a year. And with the occasional hint from the old man on his own recipe, each pan was better, lighter, and more golden that the last. Being a southern girl, she knew from cornbread, and like me, knew that our ship had just come in.

I stood up, snapped the towel off my shoulders and peeled the Reynolds Wrap cap off my head, leaving a crop of twenty-five saplings of hair still cabled together with straightening solution. I looked at the clock radio. Thirty-one minutes. To hell with it, I thought. We’re talking about cornbread, here.

I turned to Murph who took one look at me and dissolved onto the bed in near-silent hysterics, tears streaming down her face. I grabbed the ceramic-handled, paddle-styled hairbrush with cushioned and synthetic, round-capped bristles from off the chifforobe and thrust it her hand. “For God’s sake,” I said, “Snap out of it. I’ve got a bridge to build.”

____________________

I have no real recollection of how many squares out of that pan of cornbread Bratten ate that night. When I watched both he and Bill sopping up the redeye gravy she’d made with it, I knew that, while there would be (and there were) other gulfs, and other canyons, there was one less to cross than before.

Today, my marriage to Murph, like Bratten and Bill, is gone but for the memories. For thirty-three years I stood in their big kitchen in Smithville, a Cook in all but blood and name. Thirty-three years of births, deaths, fights. Christmases, Easters and Graduations. Vigils, elections and Fiddler’s Jamborees. Thirty-three years of hopes and dreams. Of love and of loss.And all of it…. all of it held together with the most unlikely bindery, the recipe for a family’s history, passing down through the years and generations.

A single pan of Ernest Ford’s southern cornbread.

 

Thank you, Dad.

 

© 2016. J. Buck Ford

Betty, The Cross and The Tree

Contrary to popular belief, Ernest Ford was not a particularly religious man. No more than the next person is, anyway. We were not a faith-based family. Religion did not dictate our habits or customs, it did not govern our lives, and we did not live by the lyrics of the hymns that provided the income that we lived on.

We did not go to church every Sunday. In the North Hollywood years, we attended the First Methodist Church on Alameda occasionally, but it was not customary. What was customary was getting take-out from the Kosherama delicatessen on Olive after the service. Greatest corned beef on rye in Burbank. Not wanting to offend anyone, we sang with the Christians and ate with the Jews.

We said grace at the table, but not every night. Brion and I knelt by our beds and said our prayers, but not every night. More often than not, we prayed that Mom would not come in with a belt, after having several of another sort. If she did, we prayed her aim would be accurate, because the leather falling on our legs or our backs was way worse than on our backsides. And we prayed that Dad would take pity on us and intervene sooner, and not later.

When we moved to the Bay Area, even our sporadic church attendance stopped after only a few Sundays. I suspect that Fame had something to do with that; I have fragmented memories of Dad’s unease and embarrassment, surrounded by an infatuated congregation paying more attention to him than the sermon and the pastor giving it. I suspect Mom also had something to do with it; services traditionally began at eleven, and Sunday or not, she’d usually had a glass or two of tomato or orange juice by then – mixed generously, of course, with a healthy splash of Smirnoff. Add just a dash of unpredictability, and an ever-so-slight pinch of unexpected caprice, and God only knew -literally- what wondrous thing one might behold or hear from Betty Ford, wedged in a pew between her seditious sons and her pious-in-the-eyes-of-the-public-husband.

Confliction and faith existed side by side in our house, and while I believe that Dad was, for the most part, secure in the beliefs practiced historically in his family, faith neither offered, promised, or provided any such covenants for Mom. While her mother, Jesse, was raised a strict Irish Catholic, and her father, Charlie, was brought up by iron-fisted Dust Bowl Presbyterians, their daughter took no refuge in the scriptures, or strength in the prayers of either doctrine. On the contrary, she recoiled from it, carrying a distaste and distrust of dogmatic ritual with her throughout her life.

That aversion was never more evident than in a letter from April of seventy-nine, when Jesse passed away at ninety-two. “Ernie is gone to Vegas,” she wrote. “Wouldn’t you know mother picked this week to die. Didn’t go to the funeral, as I feel they are heathen and barbaric.…” Her Christmas letter that same year included a sketch she’d done of herself, suspended from a cross, crowned in thorns, blood and tears staining her face.

I have no memory of ever hearing Mom profess alliance with any denomination, let alone those of her parentage, and I am ashamed I never asked her as much. In my youth, asking such a question was unthinkable. Not unpardonable — just unthinkable — I simply never thought to ask. Growing up, I assumed that she was what Dad said we all were, Methodist. And I never questioned my assumption; choosing instead, to believe in the Word of Dad.

While I don’t believe Mom was agnostic, and certainly not atheistic, she was normally noncommittal when the matter of faith came up, and she usually changed the subject, feigned boredom, or busied herself with some innocuous task until the subject changed itself. Pressed into a corner, however, she rarely failed to make the moment memorable.

Not long after moving to North Hollywood, Look magazine arranged to come to the house for a cover story, feature interview and photo spread, hoping to capture the ‘real’ Ernie Ford and family. When the editor on hand suggested a shot of all of us at the kitchen table saying grace, he got way more real than he ever anticipated.

Excusing herself, Mom withdrew to her dressing room upstairs. When she returned, she’d changed into old capris, a dowdy sweater, and strategically placed about seven oversized hairclips around her head. Adding the piece de resistance to her homely ensemble, she breezed over to the pantry, and slipped an even older apron around her neck. No one said a thing, but had anyone wanted to, there was plenty of room–the silence was deafening.

Looking at the picture today, it speaks as loudly now as her actions spoke that morning. Seated at the rectangular table in the kitchen, Brion, Dad and I are in earnest prayer; our eyes closed penitently. To my left, Mom sits forlornly, hair clips and all, her eyes wide open, staring blankly at the Formica patterns on the surface of the table.

All this is not to imply that we did not observe or acknowledge Christian tenets as a family – we did. But the truth is, we observed them less because they gave order and foundation to our lives, and more because we were expected to; the public expected Dad to live by that image, and Dad expected his family to reflect it, or at the very least, not to tarnish it.

Expectations and imagery notwithstanding, our observance was practiced more often seasonally than regularly, and most often at Christmastime.

Oddly, I have no memory of Christmas before we moved to the Bay Area. I’m certain that we celebrated it in North Hollywood and several early snapshots from the Whittier years confirm our commemoration while we were living there. Nevertheless, my holiday memory banks from those years are empty. Weird.

Few days of the year were as important to Dad; he reveled in the preparation, the decoration, and the anticipation, He ordered enormous hams from a Virginia smoke house, and bought immense turkeys that cooked, seemingly, for days, taking an almost perverse delight in the art of basting. He baked golden pones of stone-ground cornbread in iron skillets, and labored over his cornmeal and sausage dressing – a master’s recipe I vainly try to reproduce each year.

He rose early during the season, long before everyone else, and built great fires in each of the fireplaces, waking us slowly and peacefully with the sound of oak hissing, and the smell of cedar burning on the hearth.  Like an older brother, he counted the days until school ended, waiting in the parking lot for Brion and I on the last day, the station wagon warm, carols on the radio, pipe in his teeth, waving us to the car and into his embrace.  Like a Rockwell scene come to life, we motor home, tree strapped to the roof, Dad, me and Brion singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’ along with Bing.

Alas, my memories of Mom during Christmas are less idyllic, though they are no less evocative.

Of the hundreds -the thousands- of pictures chronicling our lives, I have only four taken during the holiday that include Mom. One is from nineteen-fifty, her and Dad in front of their tree in Monterey Park, both of them smiling, but her eyes are closed. Jump ahead eleven years to sixty-one, when we traveled back to Bristol to spend the holiday with Dad’s folks. Here’s a black and white of Dad standing between his mother and Mom, looking for all the world like a worried referee; Maude to his right, her eyes on her son, beseeching and …fearful? On his left is Mom, her jaw clenched, eyes riveted on the table, where, for all the world, she appears to be beating the living hell out of a defenseless ham.

The last two were taken on Christmas morning of eighty-two, just minutes, maybe only seconds apart; Mom sitting on the steps of the living room, frail and thin in a faded pink housecoat, a Bloody Mary on the tile floor next to her, a wan smile gracing her face.

I believe that Mom wanted Christmas to be merry, but I do not believe that they were ever so for her. The Holidays I remember are wrapped with very few memories of her being truly happy during the season. Save for one year. It was the only year I remember she accompanied Dad and Brion & I to select the tree, and she came only because she was promised that the selection would be hers. No interference from Dad, no meddling or griping from Brion and me.

The lot was not far from Stanford, and the night was cold, even by Bay Area standards. We’d been customers of the sawyer for a number of years, so he naturally began the tour of the trees with the blue spruces; regal, tall, and redolent with the scent of evergreen. They were beautiful, and perfect for the sixteen-foot ceilings in the living room.They were also in a completely different part of the lot than Mom. She’d simply disappeared in the forest. Not knowing what to expect (she’d had a few drinks before we left the house) we split up, and initiated a search.

It was Brion who found her first, alone in the back of the lot, where the stunted trees were tossed after being discarded from the truck as undesirable. They lay there in a pile, boughs bent, stacked like so much cordwood. Amid this refuse stood Mom, holding a tiny, nettle-bare pine, not three feet tall. It looked like it had the flu, if trees could catch the flu. She’d placed it on a stump used by the sawyer for trimming, and was waiting for us.

“I found it,” she said.

Later that night, a fire burning brightly on the hearth in the living room, Betty Jean finished putting the last ornament on the little tree, on top of the round federal table near the window. As she slid the star over the tiny evergreen’s tip, the weight of the ornament was too much, and bent the tree to one side. But the star did not fall. Brion moved to aright it, but Mom stopped him.

“It looks sad, Mom.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m going to call it my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

“Why?”, he pressed.

“Because Charlie Brown’s Christmases were always sad,” she answered.

The big back log in the fireplace hissed and rolled forward, sending Dad to the hearth for the poker. Mom laughed a small laugh, took a sip from her drink, and we all took turns placing presents under that year’s tree.

 

From “River of No Return – Tennessee Ernie Ford and The Woman He Loved”

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