2/3 Golden Mean and a Chord
Steel gray, like the feathers on a hen, it's a dominicker
day sky. This afternoon Izzy wrote her last love song. Etheridge ate the
love (her love) and swallowed it whole. It's what's been missing for years
and now she's calling it in, saying Where'd it go? Find it for me--now.
Izzy Isabella has taken other lovers, been kind to
generations of men, but few have warranted a song, a list of devotions and
dislikes. She's got twenty-one top ten hits and three-quarters have been
to Etheridge--a man who wears milky black jeans and faded plaid flannel.
She holds to him because she remembers his kisses, a few stories he's
told, and her melodies, her lyrics, change when he's around. He's a
tune-up for aches, for hearts that won't--can't--let go.
The loving, though, is about to stop. The Grammy's will be
awarded because of someone else's broken heart. The tunes'll be sung in
some other key. Izzy's leaving country and sad songs--steel and slide
guitars--and taking up with amplified bass and heavy one, two, three drum
beats. Her mother tells her to wait, to pay the mortgage first, to let
that nice girl from Kansas record one more song, but Izzy says No, No way,
No how. The doctors have been called. Reservations made. She's due for
surgery next Monday.
"Why now? Why at forty-six?" asks Mama Isabella.
"Because cancers grow too quickly. I'm through with dead
life." She pauses, tugs her yellow streaked hair. "And that uterus, these
women parts, have had some use...could have had a lot more though too."
"But Izzy, sweet Izzy. Because of him?"
"No, because of me, because with it gone I can write rock
n' roll. I can throw out heartache for good. I'm going hard line, hard
core, baby. I'm crossing charts, switching markets. Etheridge doesn't
deserve that much attention."
Mama Isabella sighs, falls back into her porch glider. She
squints at Izzy. Shakes her head. "It's your organ, honey."
"It's what died inside me."
"But when did Etheridge kill it?"
"He never killed, he just gulped my love."
"Did he take your sex?"
"Are you sure?"
"I could only wish. He infested my mind like a bed with
nighttime chiggers. I want the thoughts I had before I had him. He's
hogging too much memory. I'm giving that old woman over. There's a new one
on the make, on this prowl."
"He took your sex."
"He told me stories. Gave me sideways looks. A wolf in
sheep's clothing, he leads you to the precipice and then says So long."
"Oh, there's plenty. Mountains and Owl's Gap, Tennessee.
He broke his body when he was eight. Said he was hanging from a catalpa
tree limb and reaching for fishing worms when he fell three stories into
the river. Landed head first into that limestone crushed sand. His
grandmother, shelling snap peas in her lawn chair fifty yards away, saved
him. Her back was to him but she turned--at the sound of the splash--and
saw his skinny and knobby kneed legs lined straight up in the air,
wriggling like a guppy’s tail."
"Yes, go on. Where are you here?"
"It's here he started writing songs, writing those words
that string him to me. It must have been the body cast, the wheelchair,
his grandmother's humming. His mother couldn't take his poor pitiful face,
his brittle bones, those eyes that crawl up and down your skin, so she
borrowed him out, let him become a grandma's boy. Miss Gilly bought him a
guitar, a fiddle, an old player piano. She let him listen to more than
just gospel on Sundays. She even learned to play harmonica so he could
have company on the songs he sang. He says he used to sit for hours,
wheelchair pushed tight to the kitchen table, and scrawl melodic messages
to his dog, his favorite radio singer, his mother long gone. And with all
that practice, all those hours spent alone or with Grandma, something must
have took. Either that or it was always there, waiting for the push and
rise of encouragement, like how dropped stones stir a pond and bring fish
to the surface."
Izzy sighs. "I can't name all the artists who've hungered
after his songs. His harmonies are haints in your heart."
"But what is this to do with you? With all this
"Was it only three weeks? three months? that we fell together? I can't
remember; those days were such a rush. Sore limbs and lost hours. All you
can do is cling to your lover's thigh. I couldn't stand to be one inch
removed from his bony frame--would sit in the kitchen and listen to him
hum, to him string together notes and little catch-phrases. Scraggled hair
flying, he could be frying eggs and create a love song before they'd
reached sunny side up. He wasn't, isn't, moody like the rest of us. He
doesn't stomp around the house, go on about how the spirit's left him,
shriveled and dried into something the size of a small pecan. He's the
only one I know who doesn't secretly yearn for constructive criticism,
ache for praise. He picks songs from the air, as if they'd been left
there, hanging like thoughts interrupted."
"Why, that sounds wonderful. A real stand-up kind of guy."
"Yes, but it means he doesn't see why the rest of us are
down on our knees begging for the muse's scent."
"You've never begged in your life, Izzy."
"It's the idea, Mama. It's how Etheridge can take or leave
a situation--a wrong turn off the highway, a woman who stands before him
waving her arms in desire. He's the king of shrug your shoulders. The
opposite of love isn't hate, it's maybe-I'll-call-if-I-remember. I need a
man who'll move, who'll call at three a.m. and beg to love me. I want to
walk around feeling the rats gnawing my stomach, to be exhausted with
love. Etheridge makes molasses seem hurried. With him, there is none of
that awful word closure; harsh words roll off him like raindrops on
waxy tree leaves. He can't understand. He just walks on and opens the door
to his world of gritty song hooks and three chord truths, leaving you
outside to moan over this man whose face is pocked with scars and beard
"That first song was for love, for the look he'd give when
he'd hear it on the radio. Such melodies, it had lines to make you weep--a
true top ten beauty. Sunday afternoon and we were outside in his garden,
pulling weeds and tending his tomatoes. The stereo whispering on his patio
and then the song. I jerked up straight, said, 'Etheridge, that one's
"He just nodded. No smile, no hug to crush my bones, only
'Nice bridge. I think we've got nut grass here.’ Where are the ears in his
heart? Can he not recognize wails written for him? I had to get out, so I
moved to Oregon and he stayed here. I met my third husband and Etheridge
won four Grammy's.
"Then I heard he fell in love, dedicated a whole cycle of
songs to this new woman. They lived on a valley's ridge outside Nashville.
(I like to think she was pale and bulb-figured.) They hibernated on that
hill, wouldn't come down except to maybe taste the pizza and sharp fizz of
a fountain drink at the local dive three miles away.
"Then came September. The album shipped and she left him
the following day. For why? For whom? Nothing that he could blame. Poor
thing had weeks of press and tours ahead. Numerous nights playing those
songs to her. So he fell down catatonic on his soft maple floors--denting
the wood ever so slightly--and didn't rise for four days. For four days he
rewrote those songs. It was the meter reader who saw him, glanced in a
window and saw him prostrate there, toe bobbing rhythmically to music
being redone. He called the neighbor who lifted Etheridge up, force fed
him chicken salad sandwiches until he came to. The next album went
platinum in three days, people praised his courage, and every long
suffering country artist since Job the First contributed to an album of
tributes in his name."
"But Izzy, I'm going deaf with questions here. What about
your lady parts? What is this to do with you?"
"You could name jealousy, you could name emotions that
curdle or you could say that his stories hover over me. He's a habit, a
too well-placed memory."
"So I'm still confused."
"Remember forty-three? The year I fell in love with too
many pills. He appeared, sat by my hospital bed and fed me cream of carrot
soup. Spoonfed a woman he hadn't seen in ten years, a woman who'd written
heartache melodies for and against him. You see my heart goes frantic,
claws in on itself every time I see or think of him. I need nitroglycerine
at his name. Oh, where was I when he fell down with love?"
"I always thought him perfectly fine. Izzy, this is so
"I should have done this years ago. I've got to go down
deep to be rid of him. Some infections must be rooted and cut. I don't
want this song anymore. It's repeating, confusing the ones I want to keep.
I used to be different. Remember thirteen, that snow day in late March? A
freak of weather that laid us flat with several inches. Sister and I took
the sled, slid repeats down the hill. Then late afternoon, the sun so
strong, we broke through the creek's thin ice. I didn't come up
crying-like sputtering with tears, though. No, I rose grinning, with icy
hair and blue-tipped fingers. Rushing down that hill, I'd been singing a
song and instead of quitting, letting it fall away with the water, I kept
it going, emerged and finished with a chord change and sharp high
note--like a cat wailing right on key.
"And before then there was age eight. Late nights awake
listening to Daddy and that old upright piano. Those standard hymns
pouring up through the basement vents. He'd play a chord or line twenty
times before he found it right. Sister hated it, would moan and pull
pillows over her head. I thought it heaven, would lie there grinning at
the ceiling, thinking all girls should be so lucky. To this day, I hear
'The Old Rugged Cross' and weep nostalgic tears.
"You see, Daddy's playing was good penicillin, a beginning
of the best kind. It's what creeped in and started all those first
melodies, but Etheridge, dear Mother, is what happens when a woman holds
on for too long. Beginnings are lost, disappear, and what takes their
place is something like a muscle atrophying. Weakness is subversive,
stronger than strength. It's the way bullies are the smallest and shortest
of children. It's why captives fall for captors."
"I'll never understand. Oh my, baby."
"Mama, I've rested here too long. Time to clean up and
clear out. I'm through with stolen love. 'Tis better to give than to
receive'--I'm giving for all the times he's taken. I'm handing the sex
over, bronzing that old woman."
"I thought he didn't care. Didn't notice? How could he
take anything? It's your organ, honey."
"Well I've been swollen with love and now I'm pocked.
Something's been gnawing away all these years. I've hated this not-let-go,
of having him trail me like a hound, of reserving little parts of myself
just for him, just in case he should walk back. I'm letting go. There'll
be no more songs, no more visions of him. This surgery is erasing these
holes, it's sewing me new again and I've already bought the glass bowl for
display. A centerpiece of the best kind. There'll be an engraved plaque to
go along--there for evermore. I'm moving on, please show me the next town,
the next lyric or melody. I've got hits of greater strength inside, the
charts should be prepping right now."
Lacey is from Nashville but currently lives in Oxford, MS.
Her fiction has been published in the Yalobusha Review and her
nonfiction in the Nashville Scene.