Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 300 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice
Cry Me A Song
By Steve Carr
When the night sky was filled with blinking lights of the fireflies Papa would say each one was a newly departed soul saying a final goodbye before going to heaven. With the drone of insects in our ears and a chorus of toads croaking out their nighttime serenade, we’d sit on the front porch and Papa would leisurely smoke his pipe while I tried playing on my guitar the song I was teaching myself how to play. Papa said I could charm the venom right out of a water moccasin with the way I strummed the strings. I played on my acoustic guitar – a gift Papa had given me when I was nine – songs I had learned by listening to the records of Johnny Cash. Papa said paying to have anyone teach me how to play would be a waste of money, even if we had money to spare to pay someone, which we never did. He was certain that one day I’d go to Nashville and make a name for myself playing guitar.
Our house that Papa built was on stilts and stood in a swampy marsh. He said he built it in the marsh because it cost nothing to build a house where the land is always under water. We got to and from the house by rowboat that was kept tied to one of the stilts. The only sign that we were connected to civilization was the poles and wires that carried electricity to the house. We didn’t have a telephone. Papa had an old pickup truck that he kept parked in Ned Greely’s gas station parking lot, two miles from where the marsh ended and solid land began. Every morning before the sun rose we rowed to land, and then walked to his truck, a mile away. He’d drive me to school and then go to work at the oil refinery over in Belle Chasse. Papa had the fancy title of Cleaner Operator, but he was just a janitor. After school was let out I’d wait on the steps for Papa to pick me up. By the time we got home it was nearly twilight. This was how it was all the way through school, up until the year I was a senior.
I was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, where my mama was from and where my parents lived when they first married. Mama left us when I was five. That’s when Papa built the house on stilts and we moved into it.
I tried to match the chords I was playing on the guitar to the calls of the egrets and hawks. Nearby, tall cypress trees rose out of the marsh like sentinels, their branches dripping with moss. Sometimes breezes through the trees emitted the same sound I made when I rubbed my hand up and down the guitar strings. After Papa went to bed I’d sit on the old steamer trunk next to the opened window in my bedroom and try to identify each sound as a distinct chord, separating the splash of a gator’s tail from that of a heron landing on the water. I held my guitar, moving my fingers on the strings as if I was playing it, without making a sound. Papa was a light sleeper. He once said that the only noises that never woke him up were those that rose out of the swamp, and the sounds Mama made the night she walked out.
In the evenings there wasn’t much to do inside the house on stilts or sitting on its porch, other than listen to scratchy records or pick on the strings of the guitar. As soon as we got home we ate dinner and did the few chores required to keep it from looking like a pig sty, and then I did my homework. Papa would sometimes fish for crayfish, but very few of them ever grabbed onto the hook he dangled at the end of a fishing line tied onto a bamboo rod. I don’t recall us getting much company during those years. Ned Greely stopped by once in a while to join Papa in smoking a pipe and to argue politics. Papa was a Democrat and Ned was a Republican, but their arguments seemed to always end in agreement, no matter the subject.
Papa said about Ned, and meant it as a compliment, “He’s never been more than a few hundred miles from here but he talks like he’s been around the world.”
Papa was born on a small tobacco plantation a few miles outside of New Iberia. The plantation had been handed down for several generations, but by the time Papa was old enough to start attending school, the ground had stopped producing viable crops and his family didn’t have the money or manpower it would take to revitalize it. They sold the plantation and the once majestic house that had fallen into ruin and moved into town where my granddaddy managed the grocery store. Like me, Papa was an only child. He’s never said much about what growing up was like for him, other than that he spent many hours sitting in the front row of the Evangeline Theater watching movies. Right out of high school he joined the Army. He went to Iraq right out of boot camp, just before his nineteenth birthday. Papa doesn’t talk about what he experienced while in combat there, but he says about war, “It’s grown men playing games with dangerous toys.”
As I said, Papa met my mama in New Iberia. He was home on leave when they got married in the Episcopal Church.
After she left, Papa kept Mama’s wedding dress in a box under his bed.
I was eighteen when I graduated from high school, ranking near the bottom in terms of grades.
With my guitar strapped to my back, Papa and I rowed across the swamp on the Saturday morning I left for Nashville. Ned picked us up at the place where we got out of the rowboat and drove us to the Greyhound Bus Station in Morgan City. While riding with Ned, Papa sat up front and argued with Ned about immigration while I sat in the back seat and looked out the window as we passed the verdant landscape clogged with kudzu.
At the bus station Papa hugged me before I got on the bus. “Don’t forget about me when you become famous,” he said.
“I would never forget you, Papa,” I said.
I sat in the back seat of the bus the sixteen hours it took to get to Nashville, strumming lightly on the guitar.
The rooming house was ramshackle and located on the edge of downtown Nashville. My room was small and cramped with only two pieces of furniture, a bed and a dresser. It smelled as if a full can of pine scented air cleaner had been sprayed into it, which did nothing to remove the odor of alcohol and stale urine that wafted from the tattered carpet and lumpy mattress. The window looked out over a vacant lot overgrown with weeds. There were three other rooms on my floor, but the men who lived in them were older and existed like phantoms, eerily quiet and rarely seen.
I scoured the phone book in search of names of agents, producers and even country music stars, finding few of any of them listed. I strapped the guitar to my back and took the bus into town every day and walked into offices of the few agents I found and tried to get an appointment to see someone, anyone, to show them my talent. In the lobbies there was generally more than a dozen other men and women dressed in some variation of country-western attire waiting to be seen. Most of them carried a better quality of guitar than mine. In six months I had met no one. I ran out of the money Papa had given me as a graduation present.
Late in the afternoon, after a long meandering walk, I found myself at the base of the Parthenon in Centennial Park. I was looking up at the columns when a female voice called out to me. I turned to see a woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing several yards away.
“I’m sorry I followed you, but you’re the spitting image of your father when he was your age,” she said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m your mama.”
She didn’t look like the few pictures I had seen of her. I tried to imagine how she would have looked the last time she held me. There was a hardness in her facial features; a face of a survivor.
I said nothing.
“You play the guitar,” she said, part question, part statement.
She took several steps toward me. I saw in her eyes something I vaguely remembered. The agony.
“I’m so sorry I had to leave you,” she said. “There was nothing else I could do. Your Papa probably told you this already. He couldn’t help me any more. He came back from Iraq damaged and it affected me more than it did him.” She brushed a strand of gray hair away from her face. “My drinking got so bad that I wasn’t fit to be a mother.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered what happened to us?”
“Every second of my life that I’m not drunk.”
“I’m going back home tomorrow,” I said. “If you want to come with me I’ll be at the bus station at nine in the morning.”
“Okay,” she said. She then turned and walked away.
I was six by the time I stopped asking about my mama. Until then my questions about her had been met by Daddy with simply “she went away” or silence. We stopped visiting my grandparents as soon as we moved to the swamp and they never came around. I had never heard of a falling out between Daddy and them, there just seemed to be a lack of interest. In that first year at the house I never asked Daddy why tears streamed down his face as he would listen to country music on his vinyl records.
Mama didn’t show up at the bus station. I boarded the bus for home, leaving the guitar inside a stall in the men’s restroom.
A month later I received a letter from someone in Nashville who had been told to contact me by my mama as she lay on her deathbed. Mama said she was sorry.
That night Mama said goodbye in the form of a firefly.