Other than a handful of holidays and one funeral, I had spent the last fourteen years successfully avoiding my hometown where, because of a terrible misunderstanding, everyone believed I was a pervert. But then my father had a stroke on his twelfth mission trip to Honduras, two-hundred miles from civilization, and was flown back to the U.S. speaking nonsense. No excuse was enough for my mother.
“Judah Lynn Davies,” she said, “your father is a survivor. A walking miracle. He nearly died and you can’t even be bothered to help us out a little.”
“I told you I can’t come now. I’ve booked time in the studio. I will lose my job if I miss this. Do you want me to lose my job?”
“Next flight, mister.” My mother was a schoolteacher known for her switchblade syntax. “Next. Flight.”
So there I was, back in Texas after fourteen years, sitting in a frigid hospital room watching the doctor perform tests on my father.
“Alright, Mr. Davies. I want you to follow along and do what I say, okay?”
My father looked to my mother, who was eating his hospital applesauce and reading an Oprah Winfrey magazine even I knew was months old. The look on his face said, I’m hungry. It said, Where the hell are we?
“Go on, Wendell,” said my mother.
The doctor had my father touch his nose and then his right knee and then left knee. Then, just to be cruel I guess, he made the man pat his head and rub his belly.
“Good work, Mr. Davies. Now can you tell me who this is?”
The doctor pointed to me.
Robbie was my uncle, and not necessarily somebody you wanted to be mistaken for. The doctor wrote something down, which seemed a bit unnecessary, honestly.
“Mmm,” said the doctor. “And what is your daughter’s name?”
My sister, whose name was not Becky, burst into tears.
“He can’t remember us! He can’t remember a thing! Oh Daddy, what has happened to that beautiful mind of yours?”
“No, no,” said the doctor. “He knows who you are. It’s the names, the words themselves, he’s struggling with. Like we thought, his motor skills and coordination have been unaffected, but he is experiencing pretty severe aphasia. His brain is having difficulty processing speech and language. He’ll need extensive speech therapy. There’s a center not far from here. I’ll send a referral and have someone call you to set up appointments. They don’t take insurance but have competitive rates.”
The doctor left. My mother rubbed her temples and mumbled, “Competitive rates. Competitive rates.”
Look, when you are raised by a Texas History teacher and a protestant missionary there are a few things you just have to understand. The first thing is this: Money will always be an issue and complaining about financial or material struggles of any kind is as shameful as public nudity.
“Well,” my mother said to no one in particular, “God won’t give us any more than we can handle.”
My father’s face was screwed up as though it required immense concentration for him to simply lie there. Fearing he might get stuck this way forever, I picked up his juice box and placed the straw to his lips.
In my real life, the one in Nashville, I was about to lose the job I’d worked the last decade for. I was a producer at Bucking Foal Records and the last two albums I’d helmed had been commercial failures misunderstood by critics. But a friend of a friend introduced me to a young songwriter named Naomi Withers and I convinced her to let me record her new single. She’d been called this generation’s Joni Mitchell and let me tell you the woman could write, sing, and play. Stone-cold smart, too. I agreed to cut the single pro-bono, confident once she saw her art explode onto the national scene, she’d want me to cut the album. She was going to save my career. I was going to send hers through the stratosphere.
This free session was what I had to cancel to see my father. Naturally, Naomi pulled out and was rumored to now be negotiating a deal with a different label. My boss informed me of the development via voicemail.
“Because of what you’re going through,” he said, “you get till the end of the week to make it up, Bud.”
On the ride home from the hospital, my mother continued to massage her head and neck, occasionally rolling it around on her shoulders and letting out a moan that made me shudder.
“Judah, I have to ask you a favor.”
“Do you, now?”
“Your father would like you to see if you can get your sister’s car fixed.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The engine is making a noise and water is leaking onto the floor.”
“Is this one issue or two separate issues?”
“Ask your sister,” said my mother.
“I plan on it but I need to know one thing. Did you have me fly down so I could take her car to the mechanic?”
“I told you he wouldn’t do it, Mom. He doesn’t want to be a part of this family,” my sister snarled from the backseat.
“Your father scheduled it before his stroke and he’s been very concerned about it. He’d be much more comfortable if you joined her.”
“Well then,” I said, “career be damned, no sister of mine will go to the mechanic alone!”
I took my sister to Aztec Auto first thing the next morning.
“You know what happens when you have aphasia?” I asked in the car.
“Is this the beginning of one of your disgusting jokes?” Her hands were folded in her lap and her posture was prim and perfect. My sister was all the things I wasn’t: deeply religious, soon to be married, and living at home. She taught World History to tenth graders and I was certain she was still a virgin.
“Never mind,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you what I read online last night, about how people with aphasia often experience depression, mood swings, confusion, and intense emotional volatility. But what’s the problem with this here car?”
“You don’t hear that sound?”
It was her car and here I was driving it.
“Sounds like the belt,” I said. “I bet the belt is worn.”
I didn’t know the first thing about cars.
“Is that really true about aphasia?” she asked.
“He called me Uncle Robbie. I cancel the single most important session of my life and the first thing the man does is call me Robbie. Imagine how that feels.”
“Imagine how Dad feels,” she sniped.
“Okay. I was joking. No need to get like that.”
“Truthful? Dad nearly dies and you act like it is some big inconvenience for you. We love you Judah and this is how you treat us.”
I didn’t tell her I’d booked a flight later that week and planned on staying a few extra days. Sometimes you just cannot win. And who had been reading up on living with aphasia? Not her.
At Aztec Auto, I told the attendant about the noise her car was making and the possibility of it being a worn belt. My sister went into the waiting room. Across the garage a lanky man with sagging pants bent over the exposed engine of a diesel truck.
My stomach does this thing where it goes into fits and spasms when something awful is about to happen to me. I do not know the science behind it, but it is evidently some kind of flight or fight response triggered by what is called the reptilian brain.
I did not need to get a better look at the skinny man to confirm what my stomach had sensed: Freddie Schramm, the person responsible for my reputation in this town as a leering pervert, stood across the parking lot. I threw the keys at the attendant and ran for the waiting room.
“Judah Davies!” I heard behind me.
“Freddie Schramm,” I said, feigning surprise and doing my best to ignore the quivering in my gut. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Shit, Judy, I been here ten years now.” He crossed the lot in about three ugly strides. “I practically run the place these days.”
Sophomore year of high school a girl named Sarah Sanderson accused me of looking up Freddie’s girlfriend’s skirt. I refused to fight him because it wasn’t true. For the next two years, he made my life miserable and convinced everyone in the tri-county area I was a pussy-hearted degenerate.
“Hey, man. Listen. I heard about your dad. I’m sorry. Just know you guys are in my thoughts and prayers.”
He clapped my shoulder harder than necessary. He had long fingers and huge bulbous knuckles like a tree frog.
“How long you in town for?”
“Well, you know … ”
“Look at you, man. You working at Bucking Foal Records, still?”
“Yeah, I am,” I said, feeling at first a swell of pride and then a bolt of unease in the form of a stomach spasm so violent I nearly doubled over. How did Freddie know where I worked?
“Sick, man. If you’re not too busy, my band Vulture Eye is playing at The Ice House tonight. You ought to come by.”
“I probably shouldn’t.”
“No seriously. Come out. I know what you’re thinking but we don’t suck. Promise.”
“Well, we’ll see.”
“So what’s wrong with your ride?”
“It’s making a weird noise and something is leaking onto the floor.”
“You think those two issues are separate or related?”
“I think the car is just a piece of shit, Freddie. It’s my sister’s and she’s had it for years. She’s a school teacher and can’t afford much, you know.”
“Hell, man. Tell her we’ll work out a deal. Y’all got too much to worry about right now.”
“No need. We plan on paying for it.”
“How about this? You come to the show tonight and we’ll get this taken care of.” He turned his palms up and tilted them like scales. “All you gotta do is come out.”
I ducked into the waiting area where a woman sat with a small child. The moment she saw me she crossed her legs and pulled her child to her. Good to be home, I thought.
Half an hour later the mechanic told us the passenger window needed to be replaced and the condenser had busted. (Two separate issues.) Altogether it’d be eight hundred bucks.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” I said. It could not be helped.
“Judah Lynn,” my sister hissed in a way so much like my mother it frightened even her.
Freddie snuck up and threw his grease-monkey arms around me and my sister.
“Deal don’t sound so bad now does it, Judy? We go on at ten.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” said my sister on the way home.
“Would you stop. They wouldn’t eat that kind of money. They cheated us somehow. Or Freddie honestly thinks he can weasel me into signing his shitty band.”
“Or maybe the Lord provides for the faithful, Judah. Can you not accept a blessing?”
“Freddie Schramm is not a blessing. He is a miserable jackass and he only did that because he thinks I can be his big break. Do you know what he did to me?”
“Everyone knows, Judah. But now is your chance for reconciliation. Your time to move on.”
“Move on? I did move on. You people brought me back.”
“He really helped us out today. He helped me out.”
I couldn’t tell if my sister was talking about Freddie or the Lord Himself.
“Dad knew,” she said. “Dad knew you needed to be there with me so your friend would show us kindness and you could find forgiveness in your heart. His faith is so strong. Imagine if you hadn’t been there, Judah.”
“I am,” I said. “In fact, I am imagining I am not here this the very moment.”
Okay listen, my sister and I were raised in a home where there was good reason for all our suffering. The Lord had a plan and we were just too human and foolish to see it. Once our toaster set the kitchen on fire and burned all of our belongings. But there was faulty wallpaper in the prefab so the manufacturer gifted us a new model. The Lord works in mysterious ways. My dog was run over by our neighbor, a raging drunk, but as I cried over Bojo’s carcass the neighbor prayed with my father and converted on the spot. Everything happens for a reason.
Unable to bear my sister anymore I pulled a CD out of the console and popped it in. A slide guitar dove in with some expertly controlled feedback followed by a reverberated drum beat.
“Who is this?” I asked. My sister had no taste in music and that guitar tone was quite tasty.
“I thought it was yours. I don’t listen to music when I drive. I like the quiet. I talk to God.”
I grabbed the disc’s sleeve. “Vulture Eye Demos. Vol. II.” I ejected the disc and sent it out the window.
My mother was on the back steps scratching the dog’s ears and drinking a Shiner Bock. The rehabilitation center had called.
“How bad?” I asked.
“The important thing is your father is alive.”
“Great. We can’t afford it.”
“We have to remember God has a plan for everything.”
“Do we really have to pretend like God gives a shit about us right now? Sure looks like Dad got the short end. You can tell me how things really are.”
I wished I hadn’t said this because I knew rather than answer she’d just change the subject to something she was not ashamed to talk about, namely how I had abandoned her and my father and sister when I moved to Nashville.
“It’s time you thought seriously about moving home. We could use the help.”
The other thing you have to understand about being raised by a Texas History teacher and a missionary is this: the only good reason to leave your hometown is to go on a field trip to the Alamo or spread the Gospel to those less fortunate than you.
“Mom. I can’t do that.”
“Would you just let me?”
A herd of freak birds six feet tall thundered along the fence behind the prefab.
“I didn’t know Mr. Moeller still had emus,” I said.
My parents’ prefab home sat in the country outside of town. The neighbor, an old German man with yellow teeth and a lower lip perpetually stuffed with Skoal, had purchased a bunch of emus back in the 90s. They were the new beef, he assured my father. Emu ranching never took off but I loved watching the birds bound through the shrub like dinosaurs.
My mother took a swig of beer.
“They’re releasing your father tomorrow.”
“Like tomorrow, tomorrow?”
“What other tomorrow is there?”
Sometimes when my mother says something it sounds like lyrics to an old song.
“Did you ask if there were any options should this rehab place not work out?”
“I’ve got to get the house ready for him,” she said. “I haven’t had time to go grocery shopping or vacuum or walk the dog or clean the car.”
“So that’s it?” I asked. “He’s coming home and we can’t afford therapy so we’re gonna pray hard and hope everything is okay?”
“I’m doing the best I can. Maybe after a few months we’ll have enough saved up.” She downed all but the dregs of the beer. “Or we can see if the church will host a fundraiser. You know your father would never accept donations though. Will you finish this? I shouldn’t be drinking.”
I walked to the back fence and began peeling the label off the sweaty bottle. The emus turned their heads to look back at me.
Once when I was about six years old I heard my father preaching in the backyard. This was early in the morning, right around dawn. He stood here at this fence with his Bible splayed in his palm and a big bucket of old lettuce at his feet. I had no idea who he was speaking to or why anyone would want a salad for breakfast. When he saw me on the back steps he said, “Come on out, Bud. Come see.” The tall grass wet my bare shins and green and brown grasshoppers flew like sparks from the weeds. When I reached him, he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Keep an eye out. They’ll be here soon.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Angels,” he said.
He proceeded to read from the book of Psalms. It was his favorite. Like David, my father believed nature was perfect and a sign that God could do no wrong.
Over the hill at the edge of the pasture, the heads of emus appeared on their lithe necks. This was the first time I’d seen them. I had no idea what they were. My father cleared his throat and spoke louder and clearer. The ground shook as the whole herd galloped toward us. I began to cry.
“Don’t be scared, now. Aren’t they magnificent?”
I wasn’t scared and they were magnificent. They had long delicate lashes like the women in my mother’s magazines and bodies the shapes and sizes of Christmas trees.
“They won’t hurt you,” he said, offering his bucket of lettuce. I squirmed as they drilled their big pointy heads into it.
“Now don’t be scared. They’re just hungry. You wanna try?”
I shook my head and wiped my eyes.
“Hey, it’s alright. Why don’t you reach down and give one a pat on the head? They like that.”
And so, I did. And later at school, I told the whole class I touched one of the angels my father summoned, to which my teacher snapped, “Judah Davies you need to stop telling fibs. Your father wouldn’t approve.”
Out in the yard I finished my mother’s beer and watched the herd move away from our fence.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” I shouted. The emus trotted off, unmoved.
The Ice House was packed with sickly looking white boys in glasses and flannel. The thing with the college crowd is they look the same everywhere you go. I had a hard time believing so many young people were willing to drive to this town to see Freddie Schramm play, but according to the bartender, Vulture Eye was the only act.
Believe me when I say I looked long and deep for any reason to dismiss them. But I came up empty. They were incredible. A tinnitus inducing wall of sound with a country flare reminiscent of Rust-era Crazy Horse. The crowd knew their songs and shouted requests all night. Their stage presence was impressive too. No histrionics. They looked and sounded like veterans, confident the tidal wave of guitar riffs was all they needed to impress. It’s not something you see from a lot of these upstart bands. Freddie played a Gold Top Les Paul, one of the ’57 reissues it looked like, and truth be told the man could shred. Every time he finished a solo the crowd whistled and cheered. I hate to say it but I might have, too.
In high school Freddie dated a girl named Bridget Riley. She was a dime, I won’t lie. Why she ever dated Freddie was beyond me, but at the homecoming pep rally my sophomore year I got caught looking up her skirt. Only that is not what happened. What happed was this: I stood on the gym floor beside the accordion bleachers with my hands in my pockets (Where else was I to put them?) when I spotted a sparrow in the rafters. Even before the Bridget Riley episode of which I am about to tell, I maintained a healthy disdain for my classmates. Though I made good grades, I was considered boonies-country trailer trash. Unlike other trailer trash who were feared and respected because they smoked cigarettes and had pregnant girlfriends, people believed I was an earnest prude who would try and pray their sins away. What I’m saying is I didn’t have many friends. So, as I watched this sparrow fly around the rafters, I imagined the trapped creature defecating on one of my classmates’ heads. A dreamy smile spread across my face when who but Sarah Sanderson should lean over and say, “I know what you’re looking at Judah Davies, you freak.”
Just then I realized from where we stood we could see clear up Bridget Riley’s skirt. She stood at the edge of the bleachers above us and if she was wearing any underwear it was the kind that made you wonder why she wore any at all.
“Freddie Schramm, this sicko is touching himself and staring up your girlfriend’s skirt!”
The fact that she told Freddie and not Bridget says all you need to know about Sarah Sanderson.
Freddie locked eyes with me as people scurried away leaving me on the gym floor, my hands still in my pockets.
“Judah Davies get your hands out of your pants and get up here so I can kick your ass!”
In the days to come Freddie convinced everyone I was a frustrated virgin with repressed desires who got off by peeping on girls. He challenged me to a fight at the cliff behind the school. For divine reasons unknown, our school was built near the edge of a limestone quarry and any time there was a dispute that called for violence, the fight would be staged at the edge of a hundred foot cliff overlooking the quarry. Heights terrify me. And besides, I was innocent. Naturally I did not show up. Freddie told everyone I was a coward and obviously guilty because an innocent man would defend his honor or whatever. The town happily obliged.
The school board voted to pass a rule saying girls must wear shorts beneath their skirts.
People in the halls whispered, “Can you see his hands?”
From the urinal beside me they hissed, “If you shake it more than twice it’s a sin.”
Honestly, I felt bad for Bridget. Other boys made obscene gestures when she walked by and her reputation became forever linked to mine. Knowing I could not approach her in person, I sent her a note but it was intercepted and the vice principal told me I wasn’t allowed to speak to her.
When my father received news of what happened he took me to the Sonic on the hill and ordered us both Strawberry Limeades.
“Judah, what you’re going through is completely natural. I want you to know that. But learning to control these impulses—”
“Jesus, Dad. That’s not even what happened.” I explained the whole situation at the pep rally. “So yeah, I might have looked, but I wasn’t looking. There’s a difference!”
“You know,” he said, after a long silence, “there will be a time when none of this matters and everyone will see how wrong they are about you, son. David wrote in Psalm 41 ‘My foes all whisper against me; they imagine the worst about me: I have a deadly disease, they say … But you, Lord, have mercy and raise me up that I may repay them as they deserve.’”
I don’t know how David fared, but I did not have a single date while in high school. The most I ever saw—get this—was what floated above me that day in the gym.
Back in the Ice House, Vulture Eye’s set was ending. Freddie went up to the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, this next one goes out to my boy Judah Davies. His family’s going through a rough time so somebody buy the man a drink. Actually, buy him two so we can see what he’s doing with his hands!”
The joke was lost on most of the crowd, but Freddie beamed. He approached me after the show.
“Shit, Judy! You actually showed up. So what’d you think?”
I nursed my Coors Lite and took a moment to answer.
“Well, I won’t lie, Freddie. Been a while since I’ve seen someone play like that.”
“I hope you’re not just saying that. We work our asses off. Listen—I hate asking since you’ve got so much going on right now, but I’d kick myself if I didn’t say something while you’re in town.”
Here it comes, I thought.
“There someone at Bucking Foal you could introduce us to?”
“Yeah, Freddie. That someone is me.”
He looked at me with an anxious grin as though anticipating a punchline.
“I’ll spare you from looking like a jackass,” I said. “You know the answer to what you’re about to ask is ‘No.’ Frankly I am a little surprised at your gall for thinking I’d help you out after everything you did. But if I were stuck in this town like you, I’d probably be pretty desperate to get out too.”
I can’t lie. It felt great to say this and see the dumbfounded look on his face. I stood up and tossed my bottle over the bar and into the trash can where it broke against the other bottles.
“You can’t be serious. The Bridget stuff? We were kids, man. All that shit is behind us. I’d love to work with you. I love what you did with Whiskey Dream’s sound. They needed to go electric like four albums ago.”
The bar was emptying out. Crushed cans littered the floor. In the parking lot a couple of drunks got in a fight.
“Maybe so, Freddie. But I’ve dealt with one too many assholes from behind the glass to willingly sign on another. Thanks for inviting me to the show. I’ll see ya around.”
I might have skipped out of the bar that night.
Before his stroke my father spoke with clarity and confidence. He read the Bible daily and rarely used contractions. These traits suited him well as he spread the Good Word across Central America, Africa, and other places deemed so unfortunate they attract the presence of evangelicals. But as the week progressed the severity of his aphasia became clearer.
“Buddha nut!” he exclaimed any time my mother’s dog jumped on the couch.
“I can’t force the jangle on, guy!” he growled at me, while pointing my sister’s phone at a blank television screen.
“Why does your mom have such large sandwiches?” he cried, kicking a pair of sandals out of the doorway.
One morning I heard him up early preaching away at the fence like he used to. Only he wasn’t preaching. The truth was my father, Wendell Davies, was crying. The Bible was open in his hands and he kept turning the pages back and forth and shaking his head. Not a single emu was near.
Part of me wanted to go out and tell him he didn’t need to read the Bible to understand it. He probably had all those verses memorized anyway. I mean, he’d forced my sister and me to memorize a good many. Sure, he’d probably butcher them now—“I can do all jeans through crosses that struggles me”—but he still had the meaning of it inside of him. That was more than I ever had.
The other part of me couldn’t help but think he’d done this to himself. If the man had gotten anyone else to take my sister’s car, I’d’ve cut a deal with Naomi Withers by now. I’d have enough to fly him to the best speech therapist this country offered. But my father had made many puzzling choices he chalked up to the mystery of God’s will. Around the time my mother became pregnant, he turned down a high-paying position at a company that manufactured scooters for the mobility impaired in order to become a missionary. How often I dreamt of this other reality where I was not raised in a trailer home and my father could afford to send me to college without condemning me to student loans.
He began flipping the pages so violently a few ripped. Finally, he threw the Book into the yard. I could see his shoulders bouncing. Just then I noticed he forgot the lettuce. I went to the kitchen and dumped some into a plastic bucket I found beneath the sink and ran out there after him.
“Dad, wait,” I said, but I could not see him anywhere. I picked the Bible up and circled the trailer, fearing I’d find him facedown in the grass, his brain just hemorrhaging away.
“Bubby?” he said.
“What? No. Dad it’s me.”
Days spent lying in a hospital bed had taken more than a few pounds from my father. His eyes were sunk deep in his head and he looked like an emaciated stranger who’d wandered out of the woods.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
He had a red canister of gasoline in one hand and a box of matches in the other. He looked down as if he’d only now noticed them and then pushed his way into the brush. Let me tell you; for an aphasiac man in his sixties, my father could move through some brush. I circled the property for a good five minutes before I heard a whirring sound and the crackle and pop of open flames. Evidently, he saw it fit to burn a perfectly alive juniper sapling. When I found him, he stood so close to this burning bush I feared he might burn himself up, too.
Maybe I was thinking of Moses on Mount Horeb. Maybe for a moment I forgot I no longer believed in miracles. Whatever the reason, I could not move. I could not pull him back. I could only stand there and behold the spectacle.
The tree burnt until it was nothing but a spindle. It takes a lot of heat, a lot of gasoline to burn up a live juniper. When my father turned, his face was blistered and oozing. His eyes were red and swollen shut, his lips all puffed up. He picked up his red canister and went back to the house, puzzled by the look of horror on my face. A ring of embers pulsed in the ashes of the tree. I kicked some dirt on them and went chasing after my old man, afraid my future had just unrobed and bared its ugly naked self.
Though he was upset when we took him back to the hospital, my father let the nurses look him over without much fuss. He’d sustained second degree burns across his front side and needed antibiotics. The doctor said we were to rub aloe vera on him at least three times a day.
“Not it,” I said.
“Not it! I think you should be the only one to do it since you didn’t stop him,” said my sister. “Don’t listen to him, Daddy. I’ll make sure he does it.”
A nurse dolloped some Vaseline on his finger and he smeared it over his blistered lips.
“I want to know if he can still feel pain,” said my mother. “Is that something that can happen? Can one just not feel pain anymore?” She sounded a bit jealous, honestly.
“The burns don’t concern me as much as this behavior. Erratic changes in behavior are common with brain injuries. Is he seeing a speech therapist?”
“We’re doing our best,” said my mother.
“Mrs. Davies, I can’t stress to you enough how important it is he receives the right rehabilitation and therapy now. The brain is plastic and if we want it to heal properly he needs to begin work immediately.”
No one said a word on the ride home. My father fiddled with his bandages and pulled a couple off. I looked at my sister. If she was going to jump up there and stop him from hurting himself she sure was taking her time.
We passed the pawn shop where many years ago my father bought me an old RCA record player. My first. The tone out of that thing was so warm you felt the band was there in the room with you. He bought it so I could listen to his Gospel recordings but he had an old Townes Van Zandt album called High, Low and In Between. That was the gateway for me. Merle. Willie. Guy. I knew country music—real country music—was my calling. The day I told my parents I was moving to Nashville to fix the genre, my mother cried like all the mothers in the songs I loved. I’m not sure she ever really forgave Dad for giving me that RCA.
“Do you still have your old ginger with the soul?” he asked me.
I could never understand the decisions my father made, but I will credit him with this: he never stopped me from pursuing my dream and never once complained about me moving away.
“I do,” I said. “The tonearm needs to be rebalanced though. About time I took care of that.”
The next morning, I downloaded the remaining Vulture Eye demos to my laptop. I do not believe in divine reasoning, but I admit it was fortunate I did not throw all of them out of my sister’s car. Most of the songs featured broken relationships, highways, bars—standard stuff. One song, I am certain, was about me:
I see you spyin’
Inside you’re cryin’
Boy that’s no way
Of livin’ and dyin’
After I finished all four demo discs, I downloaded the best tracks to a zip file and sent it to my boss. Half an hour later, he called.
“I want you to know I only opened those because I feel sorry for you.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think it’s a miracle you stumbled on this and if you don’t pursue it like your life depends on it you might as well stay down there in Texas. Someone will make this band big.”
“I know it,” I said. “But there’s something I have to do first.”
“I don’t care if you have to suck every single one of their dicks. You want to keep your job—you get on this.”
My boss hung up in a manner that is custom to agents and producers. Even on an iPhone it is like a guillotine dropping.
I dialed Aztec Auto and asked for the manager.
“Listen, Freddie. I’ve thought it over. If you want to talk, meet me at the cliff when you get off.”
“Not so high and mighty now.”
“I could make you huge. Gritty blue-collar band with guitar riffs bigger than the Texas sky. People eat this shit up. But first I need to hear you say you should’ve never done what you did.”
“Judah, we were teenagers. Let it go. I don’t even know what really happened.”
“Exactly. And you’re going to call everyone who’s still around and get them at the cliff. Then you’re going to admit you were wrong in front of all of them.”
“You want me to call everyone to the cliff?”
“Even Bridget Riley.”
“You know she’s like an attorney or something in Dallas, right? She’s got kids.”
“Well she can bring them along.”
I hung up like an agent. I will admit it is harder than it looks.
There were about a dozen people at the cliff including me and Freddie. I spied Sarah Sanderson in her Mazda with her phone out and ready to record. To my delight, she’d gained at least a hundred and twenty pounds and had five ugly kids crawling around her car. Freddie had his back to the cliff and was flanked by the members of Vulture Eye.
“You talk to Bridget?”
“I got her assistant. Said she couldn’t make it so I told him to leave her a message.”
“You tell these people why they’re here?”
“Judah, you really going to do this?”
“No. You are. Tell these people it wasn’t true.”
“Let it go, man. We were kids. I don’t blame you for looking. Hell if it were me I’d have stolen a look, too. Granted she gave me a whole lot more than that.” Freddie fist-bumped his drummer. “Look, man. I don’t give a shit. You didn’t do it. I was an asshole. Whatever.”
“Say it like you believe it.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Do it,” I said. “Do it!”
What happened next felt like something that must’ve happened long ago and was still happening at this very moment. Something that could not be stopped, a point where all possibilities converged into one impulsive action I had dreamt of for the better part of sixteen years.
I shoved Freddie. Hard.
He wind-milled his arms and looked back at the yawning precipice that threatened to take him. What I saw in his eyes was something graver than terror. I did not reach out to pull him back. To tell you the truth, until that moment, I had underestimated just how deeply the damage Freddie had done to me ran. I know how it looked. Me pushing him and just standing there and watching. I wished I had tried to pull him back. I really do. Mostly because, as it turned out, he did not fall. He lived to tell everyone I had attempted murder, which was not true. I never intended to kill him. It was an accident.
“You could’ve killed me, you fucking bastard!”
For reasons that would soon become painfully clear to me, Freddie removed his shirt and handed it to his drummer. Before I had time to do anything he popped me in the jaw then began throwing jabs. The weird, bony knuckles on his fists were like golf balls, pelting me from all directions.
I should say now that until this moment, I had never been in a fight. The closest I’d come was when the bassist of one of my bands tried to walk out on a contractual obligation, but it never came to blows. Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to do. Freddie rushed me and I wrapped him up in what I intended to be a headlock but the result was more of a hug. The crowd found this funny. Freddie head-butted me in the face, which caused my nose to bleed and ruined my shirt. I kicked him good in the shin which got him hopping on his other leg.
As the fight wore on and we traded blows, the crowd became confused. More than once I heard someone ask if we were done yet. Someone else said to just let us wear ourselves out. Far in the back, I heard Clayton Crawford explain the whole Bridget Riley story to his wife who obviously was not from here.
We circled. Freddie busted my lip but I gave him a shiner. Finally, he bull-rushed me and pinned me to the ground. With both knees on my chest he began slamming his fists into my head.
“Stop!” I cried, “Oh God, stop!”
Freddie’s fist seemed to strike me from some far-off place. When he was finally done, it was just the two of us. He stood with his hands on his knees and spat in the dirt.
“I pity you, Judah Davies. I really do,” he said. “I don’t care who you know or what you have to offer. I will never work with you, you murderous pervert.”
The sun was setting by the time I got home. As I pulled into the gravel drive, I got a text from my boss asking for an update on Vulture Eye. I hit ignore and stumbled out of the car.
My father stood at the back fence with the bucket of lettuce I’d brought him the morning he lit the juniper on fire. I limped toward him, a bruised and swollen mess. He seemed to expect this for he did not look the least bit alarmed. When I got to him, he turned toward the fence and whistled loudly. I shut my eyes and felt his hand steady me. Over the pounding in my head I heard the feet of coming angels.
Cody Lee has worked as a librarian, teacher, and copywriter. He received his MFA at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has published writing in Witness Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, and JMWW. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two cats.