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Lacey Galbraith

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?"

"No."

"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."

"What stories?"

"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 can't-let-go?"

"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 stubble.

"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 mine.'

"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 severe."

"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.

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