Breaking Melancholy’s Mourning

Learning New Songs

The first time I heard “Jerusalem Ridge,” I was in the passenger seat of Denny Sterling’s Chevy S-10 halfway to Charlottesville, Virginia. My date was wrapped in a tarp in the truck’s bed behind us. Denny’s spicy aftershave filled the cab. He alternated his attention between sharing roadside vistas and playing air guitar imitations of this Rice-guy’s flatpicking version of the song. 

 I smiled at the perfect landscapes and fantasized about the peaceful life Kate and I could have led.

 “Should have made her come along,” Denny said.

 I glanced at him past the corner of my eye, spooked by his psychic timing. “She had to do something for her mother. Wanted to tell you she was sorry about missing this trip.” My better self wished for such a conversation.

 “You’ll love it,” Denny assured me. “Everybody loves a good Bluegrass jam.”

 “Sure,” I said. “Eternal love, let’s take a walk, honey, and I’ll drown you in the beautiful Ohio river. Tom Dooley, how ‘bout a trip to the gallows for your over zealous lust? What’s it Caruso likes to say? All the ‘no-good-lowdown-hoedown’ of a nice family gathering.” 

 “Military morons!” Denny scowled, mentally reliving the hundred or so daily jabs from our co-workers in the Sheet-metal shop. “Call me obsessed! They don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.” He shook his head dejectedly. “Bluegrass is roots music. Ain’t no other music didn’t start right,” he thumped the dash above the on-board radio, “here.”

 I envisioned two chickens dressed in coveralls squabbling the finer points of modern music, cackling “Roots music, roots music” and “kill your lover, kill your lover.” A newspaper floated by with the headline, Beatles Macabre Beginnings. It made me chuckle.

 “Go ahead, laugh. You’ll see.” 

 As much as I disliked Denny’s constant fervor, seeing his hangdog stirred a tingle in my chest. And it reminded me that my current circumstance made a pretty good argument that death proves eternal love. 

 “Well, thanks for inviting us anyway.” A lame attempt, but cheerful jest was hard to muster on this trip. 

 When Kate told me about her baby, I’d decided maybe a trip to the mountains would be an agreeable change. Get to see some settled folks that didn’t have issues. Find out if the mountains of western Virginia would be a good place to raise a kid or two. I told Denny we’d go along before I realized Kate had planned another trip. Now I was stuck in this adventure to the end, just like those Bluegrass-song characters. Kate’s hand-written note felt two-inches thick in my hip pocket.

 Denny hit the replay button at the end of the tune. “Tony Rice is like a god, or something!” he said.

 “Yeah, a god.” I was glad he had a distraction, but couldn’t relate. I mean, I’d heard Eddie Van Halen from the third row, man. And the song in Denny’s CD player didn’t even sound like any Jewish music I’d ever heard. 

 Pastoral scenery whipped by my window as this Rice-A-Rona dude smoked through the Jerusalem tune for a third time. 

 Something in the fast, Bluesy groove wrangled the notes into the space beneath the skin of my forearms. I tapped the armrest as the song weaved itself into my dreamland with Kate.

 “That’s where Bill Monroe was born,” Denny cut in.

 “Huh?”

 “The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. Born in Jerusalem Ridge, Kentucky. Song didn’t really have anything to do with Jesus on a cross.”

 “Okay.” I hoped he didn’t start preaching. I wanted to get back to my daydream with Kate mothering our imaginary children.

 “Course, he didn’t write the song. It was another guy. A fiddler, I think. Baker maybe.”

 “A fiddler or a baker?” The conversation plunged my head into an icy creek. I hadn’t planned on talking about Bluegrass or religion with Denny. I just needed a ride.

 “No. Kenny Baker. He played fiddle for Bill Monroe.”

 “Oh. Now I’m clear.” A little sarcasm might reverse Denny’s hankering for conversation.

 He’d changed his instrument to the steering wheel, tapping to a rushing multitude of notes. “Too bad Katy missed this.” He’d only met her once, before her physical appearance made it awkward to leave the house.

 “Kate.”

 “Huh?”

 “She didn’t like Katy. Said it sounded babyish.”

 “Oh, yeah. She doesn’t like Katy. Sorry.”

 I sucked a breath and clenched my rectum. “I’ll be sure to let her know how much you care,” I muttered, relaxing my sphincter a tad. 

 Denny rolled off another barrage of taps convincing me he’d missed the verbal slip. 

 A growing roll of pastures and decorative fencing offered escape from a dangerous topic. 

 “Picturesque,” I said.

 Denny grunted.

 We’d just cleared Richmond, the country decidedly more farmer-friendly. Kate would like a farm. One like that Victorian north of the highway with the big white barn and small herd of Jersey cows. I twisted in my seat to continue viewing our fantasy homestead, imagining a gurgling creek just over the knoll. The property disappeared behind a burst of evergreens.

✿✿✿

I must have dozed off pondering that little farmhouse. I woke to the odor of gasoline, and the S-10 beneath a Quick-Stop overhang. Denny wasn’t anywhere.

I jumped out and went to the back of the truck. 

My precious bundle had rolled over against Denny’s banjo case, sort of like she was keeping it company. I’d told Denny it was tent poles and a four-man I wanted to try out, from the Recreation Center on base. Kate was a slender girl without the baby, and short. I’d wrapped the required shovel inside with her. I didn’t lie. And Denny bought it. 

I couldn’t really say if Kate liked banjo music. Except for that outdoor Black Oak Arkansas concert along the North Carolina border we hadn’t spent much time outside the trailer she’d shared with her emotionally absent mother and filthy-mouthed uncle.

“She ready?”

I jumped back and popped my noggin on the topper’s gate. “Damn. What?”

He chuckled. “Sorry. The pump. It finished? I gave the guy a twenty.”

I pulled the gate down and latched it. “It says fifteen bucks. Better get your change.”

“That’s all right. I know the guy, friend of my pop’s. Besides,” he held out a fountain soda, “I grabbed us a couple drinks.”

“Thanks.” Condensation rivulets wrapped the circumference. It was colder than I expected, even for a warm summer evening like this one. I tucked it against my shirt, suppressing a shiver, and got into the truck where I stuffed it between my legs.

Denny climbed in and trapped his drink between the dashboard and the windshield. “Forty miles, maybe. Should have filled it at Richmond.”

“That’s dangerous.” I pointed to his dripping soda.

“We’re in the country, now, Bub. That’s the way it’s done.” He grinned and cranked the engine.

“Country shouldn’t mean stupid. If that thing tips into the dashboard, we’ll be walking to Charlottesville.”

Denny looked confused. “Testy.”

“I’m just trying to save Triple-A some grief.”

“Whatever.” Denny grabbed the cup and pulled it from the windshield. He took a brief suck at the straw, and then shoved it back up there, spilling a bit onto his hand when the lid popped open. “Ah, hell! I been doing it this way since I started driving.” He slapped the lid tight and that’s where the soda stayed.

We cruised into the twilight, Denny tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, me trying to figure a way to get Kate out of the truck and into a nice plot of Virginia mountain soil. 

Denny reminded me Bluegrass doesn’t have drums, did I realize that? “Percussion is in the banjo and mandolin,” he told me. “Banjo’s a snare drum with strings,” I said. He laughed. “Jerusalem Ridge” came around again, on his homemade compilation tape–“these are my three favorite Bluegrass bands”–and he’d shut up for a few miles.

We pulled into Charlottesville around eight. Lights were snapping on, turning the city into a living jewel. Something mystical happens at twilight. Longer wavelengths of light or something, cutting across greater sweeps of sky, warming the tone of this broken world. Everything looks new again.

I watched this freshness roll past while Denny babbled about the instrumental orchestration of an ensemble tune that played on the stereo. The network of gullies, hills, and hollows all carefully planted by God’s own hand mesmerized me. Kate would really like this place. I should have driven her up here sooner.

I asked about stretching my legs, but Denny insisted on heading directly to the jam session. “Got to bust a few banjo licks before bedtime.” We cruised by a row of small cottages on the outskirts of Charlottesville, edging our way north. Each lighted window pinged against my embittered heart. These painful illuminations became sparser as we wound through tall trees, mostly Beech and Red Maple according to Denny. It bolstered my confidence about finding a spot for Kate.

We burst into a clearing filled with vehicles, tents, and crowds of Bluegrass denizens. Bonfires scented the crisp air. A crush of twanging music overtook the song playing on the Chevy’s stereo. 

Denny tapped the off button and crept from camp to camp with his window down, shouting at circles of musicians flailing guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles. Some turned and nodded. Others raised the headstock of their instrument high. 

We passed close to an upright bass and the thumping resonated throughout the truck. I instinctively shifted in my seat to see if Kate felt it.

Denny eventually found a suitable group of minstrels. He braked and hopped out. “Come on, Bub! Jump on in.”

Maybe the thin mountain air caused him to forget I didn’t have an instrument. Or that I didn’t play music.

“I’ll just wander around and check things out, Denny,” I said when I’d reached the tailgate where he was yanking that banjo free of its case.

He beamed. “Great! You’ll catch a lot of awesome musicians.” Then he was gone.

Kate rested peacefully, wrapped in the tent. 

“You’ll have your place soon, Sweetie.” I pulled the topper gate closed and headed into the woods.

This concludes the first half of “Learning New Songs”

You can find this story in Breaking Melancholy’s Mourning, a two-story anthology of short fiction. Free on all platforms.

 

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