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Friday, April 07, 2006


A friend of mine got caught up in the latest fiction craze It's been a few months since this friend gave me a mix-disc with a song on it that he knew I liked. Now, he's challenged me to write a story based on the song At first, I didn't want to do it, a little fearful of putting my own spin on someone else's art. After a couple of days, though, I couldn't get this little story out of my head. So, hereya go. It's based on the song "Home" by Marc Broussard.

Cope didn't say much. If we asked him a question, he'd answer, always with a "yessir" or a "nossir." Beyond that, he sat silent in the back seat, staring out the window and wiping runners of sweat from his neck.

"Okay back there, Cope?" I asked. My hands were wet on the steering wheel. If the car had been going any faster than three miles per hour, I would've been worried about holding on. As it was, there was a greater chance I'd dehydrate and die before I ran the car into one of the pine trees on the side of the interstate.

"Yessir," the kid said. "One-one-one."

Papa had been quiet, too, but Cope's unusual elaboration pulled the old man out of his daydream. "What's that, son?"

"One-one-one," Cope repeated, pointing at the mile marker sign. It was faded green with white letters, bent on the top right corner, and tilting slightly toward the grove of tress on the east side of the road.

Papa nodded. "That's right son. Took us half an hour to get from one-one-zero to one-one-one."

"Twenty-eight minutes," Cope said and turned back to the window.

Cope was no more Papa's son than Papa was my father. Papa was actually PawPaw, my grandfather. Ten years ago I changed the way I said it--not the way I thought it, though.

I watched the thermometer on the dash as it teased the red line on the far right. I figured we didn't have much longer before the old Monte Carlo would give up. At the speed limit, the breeze--even at 90 degrees outside--cooled the engine block. At a standstill, we could've grilled our peanut butter sandwiches on the manifold.

"We're going nowhere fast," I said, if only to see if I could pull Cope back into conversation. He'd been with us for about eleven months. He was polite, helpful, and never lazy. He helped clean, he always folded his sleeping blankets on the couch in the morning, and he only cried at night when he thought I was asleep.

"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere," Papa hummed. His voice was deep, smooth, and darkened by 40 years of Camels.

It was a game we'd been playing since I was old enough to talk. I'd say something and Papa would sing it. He always kept his head turned when he sang the first line. He waited for me to give him something else to sing. This day, I was hot, worried, and not much in the mood.

"Cope, you put the guitar in the trunk, yeah?"

"Yessir," he said, a little brighter this time. Cope loved when I played. He'd tap his foot and clap quietly with the beat. "One-one-two."

I looked to the roadside. That mile had gone a little faster, but now traffic had stopped. I could feel the engine's heat trying to push through the dashboard.

"Rollin' down the road, going nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk," Papa sang. Cope leaned up and put his chin on the back of the seat.

The last time traffic had been like this had been the last time Cope had seen his mother. It was the last time a lot of kid's had seen their mothers, in fact. The guys on TV had called it a Cat 5. Papa just called it, "The Big One."

I craned my head out the window and saw nothing but stopped cars. Thousands of them shimmering in the heat, half of them with heads looking out the window to see why we weren't moving. Five more minutes and I knew the Monte Carlo would be dead. I killed the engine and prayed it would start again. As the idle went silent, people started to get out of their cars. Some looked at the sun, some looked their cars, but none of them looked back South.

Last time, a lot of people tried to stay home. No one--not Papa, not me, and certainly not Cope's mama--believed the Big One. Now, the TV men were talking about a Cat 2. It wasn't the Big One, but the people on the road were acting just as scared.

"Will you play, Jimmy?" Two weeks before, we had cut Cope's hair down to nearly nothing with some clippers Papa kept in the bathroom. Now, I could see the sweat beads on shimmering against Cope's brown scalp. Would I play?

"Cope, now's not the best time."

"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere," Papa hummed.

He was right. Something had happened up the road and the line of cars was stopped, ten thousand cars long, and nature chasing us all away. It's hard to be chased when you're facing a wall, though.

There was a young family in an SUV in front of us. Dad had turned off his engine and was pulling Sprites out of a cooler. I was getting a little worried about Cope and Papa. It was Mississippi July hot.

The roadside rose up on our right to a square patch of pine tree shade.

"Cope, you think you could carry my guitar up that hill?"

Instead of answering, he held out his hand and waited for me to give him the keys. I looked at Papa who merely sung, "guitar packed in the trunk."

I had a jug of tepid water in the back floorboard. I helped Papa with one hand and held the jug in the other as Cope ran over the pine needles and up into the shade. Above, a television news helicopter hovered, its hemispherical camera shifting from right to left, panning the immobile cars.

Papa and I weren't planning on leaving. It was sheer luck our little house survived the Big One. Together, over a cold beer on the front porch, we had decided if the structure could make it through a Cat 5, it would scare the hell out of a Cat 2.

The next morning, though, we found Cope in front of the TV watching a storm swirling off the south Florida coast. His shaking hands and empty eyes meant Papa and I didn't have to talk about it any more. We were leaving.

Papa and I never discussed how Cope came to live with us. We never talked about whether it was a good idea, about how it might look for two white men to be living with a little black boy. We didn't talk about how my mama was gone or how Papa had lost his only child. No, we didn't talk about that either.

At the top of the hill, I handed the jug of water to Papa. He took a pull and handed the jug back.

"You thirsty, Cope?" I asked.

A small black hand pushed the guitar into mine and reached for the bottle. Cope took a sip and looked at me over the top of the water.

"Take a seat," I said to no one in particular and planted my behind on the pine needles. "How did that go, Papa?"

Papa's mouth curled into a smile. "Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk."

My fingertips were sweating, even in the shade. They slid across the steel strings, tinny, bluesy. I could hear the song in my head. "Sing it again."

"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk." Papa was patting his knee with the beat. Cope's hands were clapping silently. The line hit me in time with the music.

"Somewhere around mile marker one-twelve," I sang, "Papa started humming the funk."

The SUV family, all with Sprites in their hand, had walked to the side of the road. They stood listening as Papa and I sang, trading lines, and driving Cope to make more noise with his hands.

The cars still weren't moving and the far-away whipping of the new helicopter suggested nobody was going anywhere for a while. It seemed many drivers had come to the same conclusion. Engines went silent and faces appeared through the heat. Families, old and young, and come in search of the shade we'd found. Some sat, some stood, but they all were listening.

Papa and I had run out of spontaneous lines and had taken to humming along with the steady blues beat. I watched the faces. A captive audience, I thought, but kept playing.

Papa told me once that he had played guitar for my mama. He said she smiled and pretended to play an imaginary guitar on her lap. He said she had loved me more than he could ever say. Papa hadn't said much after that.

"Take me home."

The "o" on "home" was drawn out, a note across eight beats. It was a high voice, perfectly in tune. "Take me ho, oh, oh, home."

Cope was still clapping quietly, but now his lips were in a circle, as he sang it again, the chorus to a song none of us had ever heard. "Take me ho-oh-oh-home."

A 12-year-old SUV kid was next. His voice sounded like it was about to change and it made for a roadside harmony that I couldn't help but enjoy. "Take me ho-oh-oh-home."

I played two more bars before half the assembled audience was singing along with Cope and the SUV kid, 20-part harmony at mile marker 112.

It was over before I had a chance to paint the memory picture in my head, but I can still hear the sound. I can still hear Cope's voice.


Anonymous Falstaff said...

That's f'n beautiful, Otis. I'm a little breathless.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Tooloftheman said...

I'm guessing your next post is going to be about how you made $900 last month as a secret shopper? You lead a charmed life my friend.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Maudie said...

I bought the Broussard CD today 'cause of that song - love it and the story... nice.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Daddy said...

Oh my.
Very nicely done, my friend.

12:13 PM  
Blogger rj said...

good stuff, man, as always.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice! I found a place where you can
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10:09 PM  
Anonymous Su said...

Love the song and the story to go along with it makes it even better, Brad. Thanks.

11:09 AM  

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