Singing for Dixie
“The Colonel’s finishing breakfast with RCA,” he said and got back in the car. They drove south. The Cadillac glossed pink, the chrome glinting. He rode in the passenger’s seat, slumped against meringue-hued leather. The windows were rolled down and drained Coke bottles knocked about the rubber mat floor. The Wednesday morning traffic was slim. They made good time. He thrummed his fingers along his thighs and tapped his foot. Bill’s bass jounced in its straps and rattled on the roof. Radio voices harmonized. He fidgeted with the dial, zipping through gospel stations, the news, and back. “Are we there yet?” Scotty said, like a six-year-old on the drive to Cape Lookout, “Are we there yet?”
All three got out at a gas station in Farmville. He went for a walk across the parking lot. “I need to move my legs,” he said. Scotty filled the tank. Bill bought apple juice. They watched him scuff back towards the pump, racking his arms above his head and cracking his knuckles. “You still need to get a belt,” Scotty said. The girls had filched it in Mobile; they’d scrunched through the locker room window and clambered into the showers to paw and strip him. After each show, girls surged the stage door. Their hair pin curled and rolled. Their lips apricot pastel. They wore snug pencil skirts and cuffed their sleeves. Their neck and shoulders, their fine-spun clavicles, were dusted with Yardley’s Lily of the Valley and glistening.
The Hotel Roanoke bloomed with nurtured clusters of tansy. Burgundy canopies and half-timbered gables spread out trifold. They made their way around an oval of clipped lawn, carrying their squashed luggage and scuzzed guitar cases. The summer furniture had been brought out early, cushioned wicker chairs and round tables in the chestnut lobby. Scotty and Bill checked in, smiling chummy and squint-eyed. His smile was routine. “His face needs washing, but he’s a good-looking boy,” one paunchy maid said to another.
They were shepherded up to the top floor. He plunged onto the velveteen sectional and teased off white Bucks. “Your feet smell like roadkill,” Bill said.
“Lord a’ mercy,” Scotty said, “Buy some new socks. Buy some socks and a belt.”
“My feet smell like perfume. They smell just as good as L’Aimant,” he said, laughing.
“Who wore that?” Bill asked.
“Some pretty baby somewhere back.”
Bill ordered room service. Melon balls, club sandwiches, and spoon bread. It was dished up on gilt-rimmed plates. Bill and Scotty ate on twin-sized mattresses; their helpings jiggled as they rearranged pillows and shifted their weight. He dissected his club. He dug out the tomato and onion, butter-knifed on a thicker layer of mayonnaise. “You’re the fussiest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen,” Bill said.
“I’m not fussy,” he said, “It’s the sandwich that’s fussy. I just want it simple.”
He took the Martin out of its case. Unlatched, the case infused the air with the scent of guitar polish, sweat, and lit cigarettes. The B string hung from the saddle.
“Scotty, you got any thicker ones? These break too easy,” he said. They tuned together. Skimming through the beginnings of songs, through choruses. They emulated the act that preceded them, the closing tune that Slim Whitman trilled each night. Their hands did lively guesswork across the chords. He ramped it up, leading into double time. Bill grabbled for the key change. They laughed. They harefooted through the verses. They jauntily strummed.
At the American Legion, he watched the Singing Ranger drive jangles through the flush of stage lights. Hank’s collar was pressed. Jacket gussied with desert chicory, Mojave aster, prickly poppies, and succulents of sequins. The names of places were reeled off, an auctioneer’s breakneck grind. He watched from the side, in a pouch of velvet curtains. Throughout the tour, he’d told Hank that he could recite the lyrics to all of his songs. He’d told Hank that he knew every flip side. “Are there really Eskimos in Canada?” he’d asked. “Are all the policeman Mounties? Do you eat a lot of beaver? Is it always snowing? Do you play hockey? Have you seen polar bears?”
“I’m from Nova Scotia,” Hank said.
He’d played Hank’s songs for Jimmy Snow. “Pop thinks you’re a bit of a punk,” Jimmy said, “Thinks you wear eye shadow.”
He darted paper airplanes off hotel balconies. He printed neat messages on Sheraton stationary and made sharp crimps and folds. Down to the parking lot, he flew “Soupy Ravenheads for Stacked Girdles!” and “Praising Mr. Peanut Butter Sandwich.” He liked to imagine some finder-keeper uncreasing the letter. He liked to imagine stumped expressions.
He sprayed Anita Carter with water pistols and whistled the theme song from the Lone Ranger. “Hi-ho, Silver,” he said. He watched the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle pluck their strings and harmonize. Maybelle’s voice was crone-like, but comforting. Scotty said Anita’s voice was celestial. They watched her solo. Anita’s dark hair fell in big, open curls. Her skin seemed moonlit. “I’ll find out if she wears falsies,” he said, but all he did was take turns sharply. She slid from the passengers seat towards his body. Scotty bought her chocolate malts.
He listened to Slim Whitman’s dove-cooed yodels. He wrapped money in a letter to his Mama, addressed and sealed an envelope, while Bill, Scotty, and Slim drank beer and played cowpie poker. Slim goaded him to join. “Leave him be,” Scotty said, “He doesn’t drink and that suits him fine.”
At the American Legion, he took the stage in a pink button-down and old slacks. The front of his hair brushed high with butch wax and sheened with oil. He spit out his gum. His hips slyly whirled. He tore at guitar strings. Scotty and Bill bobbed, twins in light shirts and dark ties. The audience breathed as one, swooned in the dark. Older women swayed in the aisles. Young girls hollered with plump voices.
He belched into the mic. He snarled. Bill straddled his bass and rode it. They traveled a rhythm of attraction, disobedient merrymaking, smiles and wet armpits. Through ascending vocals and a gravid beat, through a chapel of cheers, the audience upraised their hands. The band stopped. He stood steady in his noiselessness. His eyes were fierce. He cuffed his guitar. The howl lagged in the air, two strings ripped clean.
The prettiest girl was Jo. Jo sat backstage with her ankles crossed. She rode to the hotel, pressed against him, sniffing up the ring of his dirty neck. She said, “The show was phenomenal.”
He said, “I’d play country music if I had the chops.”
The prettiest girl was Merry. Scotty and Bill watched her slink across the Persian rug in the dining room. She ate dinner with her mother. Behind candlelight, tablecloth, and crystal, she gleamed. Bill and Scotty drank gin. He drank water and forked at a potpie. “I’m inviting her up to the hotel room,” Bill said.
“Not if I beat you to it,” Scotty corrected. They gawked and ordered gimlets. When her mother went to the ladies’, Bill and Scotty called to her from their seats. “Are all you boys looking at me?” she asked. He tottered to her table. He introduced himself with a loose hand and smoggy eyes. “I can’t speak for my friends,” he said, “But I was definitely staring. I have to know if you’re lost, ma’am. Heaven is a long way back from here. ”
Scotty and Bill laughed. “Faking drunk,” Bill said, “like how he smokes with that unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Scotty said. “He’ll always get the girl.”
The prettiest girl was Alice. She jumped on the bed, her skirt breezing up. Her skin, her ankles, like buttercream. The radio blared. He danced in bare feet on the khaki carpet. Scotty and Bill played percussion with a fork, a spoon, and the low wooden coffee table. He dragged out his suitcase of dirty socks. “All the way from Memphis,” he said and popped the lid.
“They smell,” Alice giggled.
“He won’t wash them and he won’t throw them away,” Bill said, “He thinks that’s wasteful. Just turns them inside out and keeps wearing them. Buys another pair and stinks those up too.” Alice hopped off the mattress and opened the sliding door to the balcony. The night air smelled like foxgloves, smelled sylvan and purple. A cool wind goose-pimpled her arms, tussled hair. He came out to the railing. “A couple of nights ago I was looking at the ocean,” he said, “ I wrote my Mama about it. I’ll take her there, if the money lasts.”
“I know it will,“ she said. She pushed her little body against his. He felt her heart thwack in her chest, her sweaty hands at the back of his neck, her dry lips shushing. He thought about Dixie Locke. He thought about that year in high school when he sang only for her. Her powder blue living room and his first guitar. He remembered how his voice tore away. How hollow notes filled with church choirs and revival tents, with lamplight and headlights and highways, a twin brother buried, and smaller things lost. Singing for Dixie made him tremble. Singing for Dixie, he knew what he had.
He said, “Let’s go wish on it.”
Alice said, “It’s not a falling star.”
“It’s earthbound, isn’t it?” He looked for his shoes. He shrugged on a blazer. Bill found the keys and Scotty unpacked a sweater. Alice shut the balcony door and locked it. She picked up the kicked-off pillows and arranged them under the comforter. They went out through the lobby. They settled into the Cadillac. He turned on the radio, pulled out of the parking lot. “I can direct you,” Alice said and snuggled under his arm. Past a lit-up sign for H&C Coffee, past a dark verdant park, through the blond light of intersections, they drove. “It’s really bright,” Scotty said from the backseat.
High above and inset in the shadowy clod of mountain and tree, the Roanoke Star flared. They chased it past the train depot, under the metal arches of a bridge, through a border of concrete railing, to the end of a neighborhood set with brick houses and preened shrubs. He could see a white point, lightbulbed and brilliant, peeking over the rooftops.
He turned the high beams on when they hit the woods. The car ascended up. It moved under a canopy of leaves and branches. Alice rolled down her window. He listened to the susurrus of wind and wheels, to Georgia Gibbs voiced through the dashboard. The city’s light split the foliage. “When we get to the top, I’m wishing for blueberry pancakes,” Bill said.
Alice said, “I’m keeping my wish a secret.”
He said, “This star could light the whole city.”