By Stephen J. Lyons
A man with a two-day beard unloads his clothes from a four-door Cadillac with Texas plates and tells me something I will never forget.
Hooked on his index finger and draped over his right shoulder on hangers are a handful of short-sleeved, snap-button, western style shirts. He says he’s been coming to this part of the Arkansas Ozarks every spring for decades to hear the music at the Mountain Home folk center. He says Mountain Home is only an eight-hour drive from his home in east Texas.
The man nods toward the cabin next to mine as he tells me about his wife who always makes the trip with him. Been married thirty years. Some ups and downs but they get along. Raised good kids. House paid for. Did it the right way.
I picture her unloading the suitcases, stocking the mini-fridge and maybe checking out the dismal selection of channels on the television.
The man switches the shirts to his left shoulder and looks straight into me. Something has shifted in his face. There is an unfocused vacancy around his eyes, where there are deep, topographical wrinkles like rivers seen from the air. But there are also shallower creases. New tributaries. I cannot imagine I will ever see someone as sad as this man from Texas.
“This time we brought our daughter,” he says, pointing back to the cabin. “Hell, she needed to get away. A month ago, her husband and her two boys, eleven and twelve, were killed in a head-on with a semi. An awful thing.” He shakes his head. “An awful thing.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. This was more than I bargained for when I stopped for a friendly chat. I tell him again, “I’m so sorry.”
I try to feel the man’s loss as a father, grandfather, and husband. A man who comes to the Ozarks simply to hear jam sessions on the square, where the old-timers pick music as old as this country. But this time the trip is different. This time he brought his wife and daughter here to be healed by music. Or so I want to believe.
I follow his gaze to the cabin where the family rests after their long drive across Texas. “My daughter just needed to get away…from everything. We’ll only be here a few days. Have to get back. My son’s having back surgery.” He nods a goodbye and carries his shirts inside.
My stay transforms into one of anticipation. Will I bump into the man’s daughter? What will I say to her? What will she look like?
I cannot bring forth a face. The only face I know is that of the man’s, the grief deepening the creases around his eyes. A tragedy like this should not happen to a person at his age, or at hers, or to any of us at any age, but it does each and every day, to someone. To dwell on this thought for too long is paralyzing.
I try to stay focused. This town feels like an outpost. Somewhere else. Against the grain. Outside this nation’s boundaries. Yet I am not far from the geographical center of America, which is just north over in Missouri.
I loaf at a music store and listen to some old timers pluck and sing “But I Didn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” Authentic is what I think I witness, but I don’t really know. In the town square are empty chairs arranged in circles for jam sessions. Mockingbirds pick through trash. Hound dogs sleep under porches.
Despite the distractions I cannot shake the feeling of loss. It’s as if the man’s sadness poured into me like a virus. He has sent his family’s grief out into the world through me. There is no quick cure for this virus. No antibiotics. It has to run its course.
I search the aisles at Wal-Mart for wine or beer, but the clerk says with a laugh that the county is dry. If I want a drink I will have to drive to the next county. Miles over twisted, steep hills of oak and hickory. In the dark. I stay put.
In the morning at a local restaurant I take my eggs and bacon with grits. Several cups of weak coffee with powdered creamer that will not dissolve. I look out the window and watch baby armadillos graze below a bird feeder. I’m not sure there is a cuter animal than a baby armadillo. A family of raccoons appears next at the bird feeder. Then a cat. A turtle. None of the animals seem skittish.
I buy a hickory hiking stick with a bearded face carved on the handle, made by a man named Bubba. I lean on my stick and walk into the dense forest. Soft forest light filters through. Bright blue, orange, and crimson birds flit in the canopy. The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was resurrected not far from here but then faded back into rumor. Alligators have wandered up waterways from the Gulf of Mexico. Cougars are spotted but never confirmed. Monkeys would not seem out of place. The great reshuffling of the animal world continues.
Down the road a wood frame house advertises two kinds of handmade dulcimers. Inside a man chooses an anniversary gift for his wife. The clerk plays “Amazing Grace” on a mountain dulcimer with hearts carved on the front. She plays beautifully as if at a funeral.
For the next two nights the Cadillac sits in its parking spot outside the lighted cabin. The blinds are drawn and, from a distance, the blue aura of the television screen gives the room a neon glow, like a tavern. I hear the clinking of glasses; silverware scraping across plates. But I do not hear voices, and I never see the man, his wife, or his daughter. I am tempted to knock on the door, yet I have nothing more to offer.
On the third morning I wake up early. I look out the window. The Cadillac is gone. The air is cool. Birdsong fills the air. In the distance I can hear bluegrass playing. I begin to feel better, more hopeful, as if a weight has lifted. Still, I know that anything can happen.
STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. You can get his books through your local, independent bookstore, or online at Amazon.