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Nothing with Strings
Louise and her sister, Lily, were standing in the middle of the parking lot of a Super Wal-Mart in Despera Springs, Florida, trying to decide where to sprinkle their mother's ashes. They had driven for hours across the Panhandle to get here, with the ashes in a gold-toned plastic urn on the backseat, but now nothing seemed right. They kept remembering the stories their mother had told them all their lives of her Despera Springs childhood: the monkey who died in a watermelon rind; the mysterious stranger who walked around behind a blue mule and was never seen again; the brave boy who swam across the lake in the path of light from the tower of the Chautauqua building. In a lifetime of retellings, certain phrases had settled into place like keystones: "curled up in a watermelon rind," "never seen again," and "the path of light" -- and the stories developed a lilt and cadence that made Despera Springs seem like a fairy-tale place, not an ordinary town you could find on a map and drive to on an interstate highway.
But here they were, and as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but discount stores, gas stations, used-car lots, and fast-food restaurants.
"We can't sprinkle her ashes here," said Louise. "She'd end up stuck on somebody's shoes and tracked into a nail and tan salon."
Lily was no help. She had just had her heart broken by a banjo player, and all she wanted to do was listen to the Stanley Brothers singing heartache songs and weep.
"Let's go," said Louise. "Just drive around, maybe we'll find a vacant lot, sprinkle her in some weeds, and get on home."
"Oh, your poison love has stained the lifeblood in my heart and soul, and I know my life will never be the same," Ralph Stanley sang from the tape player in a high, keening wail. Lily put the car in reverse, but the tears welled up and she backed smack into the side of a dented-in, scraped-up, painted-over Plymouth Reliant. In a terrible silence they craned their necks and watched the car door creak open and a long leg reach out, agile toes clutching on to blue shower shoes, then the whole man unfolding out of the driver's seat, tall, loose, and lanky.
"We are so sorry, sir," Louise said all in a dither, scrambling out to meet him. "My sister should not be driving a car. She just had her heart broken by a banjo player, and the tears distort her depth perception."
The man stopped and staggered back on his heels. He peered in earnestly at Lily. "Bluegrass?" he said. "Or old-time?"
"Old-time," said Lily.
"Aw, honey, bless your heart." He squatted down and gazed at her sorrowfully.
"Wait a minute," said Louise, rummaging in the glove compartment for the insurance card. "Shouldn't we be examining our cars and assessing the damage?"
"We are assessing the damage," said the man, and he stood up, took two spoons out of his pocket, and went into a little shuffling dance, tapping the spoons high up on his thigh, chucka chucka chucka, then down near his knee, hitting the palm of his hand on the upstroke, double time, ticka ticka ticka.
"I can't find any dents on your car that aren't already rusted over," called Louise.
With a little flourish he drew the spoons slowly across the inside of his knuckles and slipped them back into his pocket.
"You can trust me," he said to Lily. "I don't play nothing with strings on it."
"Can you help us find something?" said Louise. "We're looking for a lake somewhere around here, where there used to be a building with a tower."
"We're looking for the kind of place where a man might disappear behind a blue mule, or a brave boy might swim in a path of light," said Lily, "to sprinkle our mother's ashes."
"I know what you want," said the spoon player. "Come on." And he shuffled back to his car, the soles of his shower shoes slapping against his heels. Louise punched Ralph Stanley out of the tape player, and Lily drove carefully, with her eyes wide and both hands on the wheel. They followed him out of the parking lot, out onto Highway 90, past a cineplex and an industrial park. His back bumper was crumpled up and hiked up too high on one side, which gave a goofy look to the car, like a dog with one ear wrong-side out. They turned right at a light, then left at a stop sign. They passed a gun and pawn shop and an abandoned scrapyard in a pecan grove. They crossed a railroad track, then the spoon player pulled up into a little alley behind a row of dried-up-looking, old, spindly houses, long ago painted white.
"What are we doing?" said Louise. "Is this safe?"
"Stay on the risers," he said, and they followed him up rotten steps, across a toppling side porch, and out onto the front. There was a little, weedy yard, a crumbling street, then a long slope to a perfectly round lake, shining black in the afternoon sun. Across the lake in the hazy distance they could see an old building with a sagging roof and a crooked octagonal tower.
"Look, Louise," said Lily. "Go get the ashes, it's Despera Springs!"
It was the kind of sight, with the dwindling season, the dappling and the shimmering and the haze, that brings simpleminded emotions to the surface, and Louise stood at the porch railing and thought about their mother, on just such a fall day as this, a happy little girl in this town, now come back for her final rest; and Lily, with the selfishness of the brokenhearted, thought about her lost love, the banjo player, and how she would never be able to stand and look at such a sight with him.
They were both lost in these easy reveries, blinking back cheap tears, when they heard an odd ruffling sound behind them and turned around to see through the screen door an old woman sitting in a straight chair holding an ax in both hands and staring into the fireplace at a big black-and-white Muscovy duck, up to his little gnarly knees in soot and ashes.
"Grab him!" she called out. "Don't let him flap, he'll fling soot all over the house!" The spoon player grabbed the duck with both hands, backed out with him through the screen door, stretched his neck over the porch post, and one two three whack, the old woman chopped his head off and he flopped down into the azalea bushes.
Louise sank down on the rotten step and gazed out across the lake with her hands limp in her lap; Lily wheeled around and stared wide-eyed into the gloom of the cluttered room; and the old woman sat down heavily on the top step and grabbed Louise by the knee.
"I am exhausted," the old woman said. "I have congestive heart failure, and any little thing like that will wear me slap out."
It took them different ways. Louise, feeling a maniacal need to establish some kind of order, fell into a patter of formal good manners, introducing herself and giving a brief nonsensical synopsis of their mission here: their long drive, no place for the ashes, the spoon player, the Chautauqua building -- "and this is my younger sister, Lily."
But Lily wouldn't stop staring into the house. For some reason, with that whack and flop she had felt the banjo player lifted out of her mind for the first time in months, and images of the cluttered room rushed in to fill the unfamiliar vacancy: clumps of heavy furniture, a crumpled chandelier slouched in a corner like a giant spider, a clothes rack draped with white cotton underwear.
The spoon player finally brought them back to their senses, bouncing around the corner of the house with the duck, picked, drawn, and singed. He rinsed it at the spigot, laid it out in a black skillet, and set it down on the porch beside the old woman, who picked out one last pinfeather.
"They come up from the lake and fly down the chimney," she said to Louise, "and we eat them."
"Oh," gasped Louise. "That makes sense." And she and the old woman settled down quite companionably on the steps with the duck in its skillet and the ashes in their gold-toned urn between them, getting everything straight -- "So you are Lila Martin's girls; I had a cousin who married a Martin," the old woman said, and "That was Sid Stringer's monkey, he only loved two things, beer and watermelon," and "Yes, that's the spoon player, he keeps a lightbulb screwed in over at the Chautauqua tower, looks after us somewhat."
Behind them Lily sat on the porch floor, playing with the reflection of the Chautauqua building in her mind. When the breeze died down and the reflection in the lake grew clear and distinct, she could squint her eyes and make herself believe that the reflection was the building itself. This seemed to make anything possible, and she went on to imagine ladies in white lawn and gentlemen in bowler hats strolling in the lake yard, a drunken monkey on a red leash, a blue mule, and a mysterious stranger with a black mustache. Then a little breeze would stir up the ripples, the reflection would slur, and everything would shift back to real. Her mind would clamp down again, and there would be the banjo player on that cold, cold night, nudging her down the walkway and saying, "How could you have thought it was that important?"
"Hey," said the spoon player, looking at her through the spindles. "It's not your fault. You just let love get tangled up in your mind with a stringed instrument, that's all, easiest mistake in the world."
Lily smiled at him, the patient, weary smile of the brokenhearted. "You're sweet," she said.
"I can help you." He wiped his hands on his pants and slid the spoons out of his pocket. "I can teach you to play the spoons." He drew them slowly across his cupped palm with a little muffled cluck. "Hell, I can make you wish you were a spoon."
"Let's cook this duck," said the old lady, standing up and tweaking the seat of her skirt straight. "You bring him in," she said to Louise, "I'm not that strong."
"The thing is about spoons is," said the spoon player, "your ears do most of the work."
There was a clatter of pots and pans, rattling and crashing from the kitchen, and a big, sleek rat dashed through the screen door and hurtled off the edge of the porch.
"Sinking ship," said Lily.
The spoon player closed his eyes, screwed up his face, and started singing "Pretty Polly," then came in on the spoons, chucka chucka chucka. From the kitchen they heard steady talking, then a frying sound. "I was digging on your grave the best part of last night," sang the spoon player. They smelled cooking onions, garlic, and pepper.
"She's browning it," said Lily. "My sister can cook anything."
"Look here," he said, "you take the spoons back-toback, you put this finger between here, that gives you your distance."
"But I don't want to learn to play the spoons. I just want to walk down there and look at the water," Lily said.
In the kitchen the clatter settled down and the long, slow cooking began. Louise and the old woman strolled out into the side yard where the early camellias had started to bloom. The spoon player leaned up against the porch post and dozed off with his arms flopped over his bony knees. Lily wandered around the edge of the lake where the ducks were beginning to settle down for the night, standing on first one foot, then the other, tucking their heads under their wings. There was that good pond smell, and the smell of old towns in the fall of the year -- piled-up leaves, dry rot, sasanquas, the last of the ginger lilies and the first of the tea olive. Then there was something else -- the deep, rich smell of roasting duck.
"There's just enough," said Louise, ladling out dark gravy. Somehow she and the old woman had rummaged out of all that clutter an elegant table setting for four -- a white linen tablecloth with a corded monogram, big Blue Willow plates, thin water glasses with chipped gold rims, and in the middle a bowl of sasanquas, pink and ruffly. The whole thing was just beautiful, all blue and white and rosy, and they stood and looked at it for a minute, that peaceful gleaming place smoothed out of all this mess. Then the spoon player said, "I can tell we're gon' eat," and they did.
It was way past dark by the time they had sopped up the last little driblets of gravy, washed the dishes, and flung the duck bones out into the bushes. "Y'all are welcome to spend the night," said the old woman. Then she trailed off down a dark passage, mumbling something about clean sheets.
But there's nothing like cooking and eating the native food of a place to make you feel as if you belong there, and Louise wanted to explore this old town where she now felt so at home. "Let's go walk around the lake," she said. "Bring the flashlight, sir, you can tell us the stories."
There were no streetlights in this left-behind town, and from the edge of the lake they could barely see the houses straggling along the street like the old, dried-up shed skin of a snake. But across the lake one light was shining out of the broken-out windows in the tower of the Chautauqua building.
"Look, Louise," said Lily. "The path of light!" And sure enough, there it was like a wrinkled yellow ribbon stretched out across the black water.
"Well, I'll be," said Louise. "Just like in the story."
The spoon player stepped out and turned to look at Lily. "You could swim across that."
"That's just what I'm fixing to do," said Lily, and she took off her shoes and stepped out of her skirt.
"Lily!" said Louise, grabbing her by both arms and hanging on. "Lily! Something will eat you!" But Lily was already up to her ankles in mud, little pools of water forming around her feet.
"Ain't nothing out there'll eat her," said the spoon player, holding the flashlight up to his forehead and playing the light across the water. "I don't see no red eyes."
"Lily!" said Louise. "You'll drown! Your belly is full of duck!" But Lily was up to her knees, throwing off her shirt.
"That duck will give her strength," said the spoon player.
"Lily!" said Louise. "I'm sure this is against the law!"
"The law ain't looking," said the spoon player.
It felt terrifyingly spooky at first, with the rough grass scratching her legs in the dark and the mud squishing up around her feet. But when she got deep enough to stretch out and swim, she thought nothing had ever felt so good as that silky black water against her skin. At first she swam elegantly, as she had been taught, with long, smooth strokes, lifting her head to the side to breathe. But when she finally stopped to look around, she saw that she had lost the light and was yawing off into the darkness. She treaded water for a minute, twirling around in a panic looking for the light. She couldn't tell whether it was exhaustion or terror making her breathe so hard, deep, gasping gulps and whimpering exhalations, so she just floated for a while to calm down, with her back to the darkness and her face to the starry sky. Then she turned over and began to swim again, dog-paddling with her head up this time, staring straight ahead at the light. How simple it was, she thought, for just this little while -- nothing in the world but black water and deep blue sky, and these silly little movements of her hands and feet keeping her alive. Then it seemed as if all at once the light was closer, then quickly closer and closer, then she was in the fringe of grass again, and there was Louise throwing Lily's shirt over her shoulders and saying, "I have never heard of anything so foolish!" and "Lily, what in the world," and there was the spoon player smiling his gap-toothed smile and saying, "I knew you'd come out of it," and they walked back around the street with Lily's teeth chattering the whole way.
They never found the clean sheets, but Louise cleared a space on a sofa in the front room and they fell asleep with their feet propped up on a box fan and their heads on a twelve-pack of toilet paper, Louise still scolding softly, "Why on earth...," and Lily with her hair still dripping, feeling clean and strong, as if with all that gasping and gulping she had finally breathed out something poison that had settled in deep.
It was bright daylight when they woke up. The spoon player had left in his flop-eared car, and the old woman was rattling around in the kitchen, frying eggs. Lily went out on the porch and looked down at the lake, glittering in the morning sun. Its dark comforts of the night before were gone, and now it looked like something brittle that had shattered into little sparkling chips.
"Look," said Louise, "we forgot all about Mama's ashes." There was the plastic urn still sitting on the top step, with dew beaded up on the gold. They took it down to the edge of the lake, Louise prized off the lid, and without any ceremony she flung the ashes out over the water. A few ducks waddled over, stomped around for a while, then dabbled and rooted around in the mud and shallow water, smacking their bills together, chucka chucka chucka -- for all the world, thought Lily, like a pair of spoons. Copyright © 2008 by Bailey White