Orange Blossom Special

from: graymare

Gibson, girl, stay in tune. That tape don't wait for loose strings. Or stiff old knuckles. We've known some good times though, you and me . . . There. That G-string sounds about right now . . . .

Somebody said Mutt come from a character in a comic strip. And Hank, too, of course. Aunt Pearl said she thought that was probably it . . . . And maybe I walked funny when I was little. Can't remember now, but it stuck . . . . Hank and Mutt and Rooster, that's what they called us Gieseke boys, never mind our given names. Either Hank and Mutt and Rooster, or The Boys, back then. Back when they was blaming us for whatever mischief was done around the farm, or sometimes in town. "Who done that?" they'd say. And somebody'd always answer, "Must've been The Boys." And mostly they was right . . . .

"Under the Double Eagle" and "Twelfth Street Rag" and "In the Mood" . . . Them pieces always felt best with Hank and Mutt.

. . . Them pins, I know that's what I'm feeling. Pins in the elbow, and two steel hips. Molly calls me a man of steel. Don't feel eighty-two. Can't put on my own socks, but I can still play this git-fiddle . . . . She can just go right ahead packing that suitcase. I got time to pick a little . . . . Crying's for women. Gotta pick a little this morning . . . . Funny how one little old something, missing a step, a tiny little old clot of blood, can change things forever. With me, one dumb split-second running up a ladder with a bucket of paint. Aunt Pearl's house. Painting the trim green. Wham! Laying on that concrete porch on my back, knowing I was hurt bad. Aunt Pearl's little girl, all growed up, said I looked like a Christmas tree, what with all the blood and green paint and the white suds from scrubbing the trim. That's what must of made the ladder slip. No sir, eighty didn't hit me like seventy did. Elbow never was the same again. Thought old Rooster had crowed his last Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, laying there in the hospital that day. . . . Mutt was living back in Arkansas and we could get together whenever me and Molly would make the trip. Hank was gone by then. Molly and me never left Blanco without some guitar or other thowed in the back of the car. Molly would make Aunt Pearl a birthday cake and we'd stop by her place in Round Rock and then head out for Mutt's and Leona's. Course, I'd play Aunt Pearl some of her old favorites before we left. . . . Couldn't take cake to Mutt's house because of his sugar diabetes . . . . Sunday afternoons with Ed Schmedler at Luckenbach, when the weather was good, just drinking Shiner and picking away under the live oaks, that was okay. And at country dances Saturday nights. Old Ed was okay, I guess, but I never knew when to trust him. After all, he wasn't family like Hank and Mutt. With brothers you kinda know what to expect. Like when Hank was about to change keys on us, they was always a sort of twinkle in his eye that tipped us off . . . .

Brothers. The fights was painful and all, but nothing's ever quite like family. Nothing. I guess it was Mutt or Hank taught me to play as soon as my fingers was big enough to mash the strings against the frets . . . . That tape. Have it somewhere around here. The last time Hank played his fiddle before he got drunk and fell down and broke his shoulder . . . . Old Ed and me, we did pretty good together for awhile. Families go their different ways, and I kept in practice with Ed. Earned a little money besides at the dances. With that and fixing up old furniture from garage sales to sell down at the antique store, and Molly cleaning a house or two, we got by pretty good. Can't do none of that out here at the trailer park. And they keep going up on the rent of this patch of dirt our house sets on. Son says we oughta be near family. At our age, he says. He's got no idea how much life we got in us yet . . . That little tyke's a cutter, though. We get to see a lot of her, baby-sitting and all. Molly and me, we've fixed the place up real nice. Gotta keep busy. Painting and watering. Gotta admit, plants grow good out here. Better'n that limestone around Blanco . . . . All tuned now. Where'd I lay that pick down? Family, he says. Here it is, "Orange Blossom Special". . . . Daddy used to work on the railroad. Hopped a train one day and never come back. When Mama married again and had the two girls, us boys was left pretty much on our own. Girls' daddy didn't like us much, so we stayed out of his way. . . . Guess we did cause a lot of mischief back on that farm when it never rained and most of the crops wouldn't make. They was dust everwhere back then. It seeped in around the window panes and blew in through the screen doors. Made your teeth gritty. When we wasn't picking cotton or guitars or fiddlin' around, we was drinking bootleg likker out of a mason jar. Mean as hell when we was drunk. Hank never did shake loose from it. We none of us ever aimed to hurt nobody. What was it we done about them jars of hominy in the cellar that got Ma Burney so mad that time? We was growing so fast, maybe it was we was just hungry that day. . . . The girls in town wasn't all that scared of us. They'd act scared sometimes, but then they'd hang around anyway, as long as we made music. They sure smelled pretty. . . . None of us ever had a lesson. Just picked it up somehow. Now there's a joke Aunt Pearl might like – how we "picked up guitar pickin'". She always liked words. . . . Can't remember a time before them grooves got fixed in the callouses on my fingers. Feel like I was born with the neck of a guitar in my left hand working up and down the frets, picking with my right. Never had one sounded as good as you, though, since I fixed you up. You was sure in sorry shape when I bought you off that kid. But I knew when I smelled the sweet glue and rosewood and dust from the hole that you was worth fixing. Old ones have a better sound. Had to patch the cracks inside, re-set the neck, and plane the ebony fingerboard. And then change out the nut with ivory. But your tone was sweet and mellow that way. Yeah, worth all that, Gibson girl. Mutt said I should of been a luthier. But I always just liked fixing things. Molly says ain't nothing I can't fix . . . but today she's wrong. Aunt Pearl petted my hair once when I leaned against her in the buggy, going to town. Guess I was just little then. Always liked her, Mama's baby sister. Gotta keep picking. Picking's better'n thinking about them's gone on. Hank and the girls and . . . Mama years ago, and Aunt Pearl last fall. Two hips of steel don't stop the picking. Just stiff how I have to sit, but at least it don't hurt no more. Here come Hank's part. Course this one's mostly fiddle. But we always give each other a chance to shine. We should of got Uncle Sephus and his mandolin on a tape while we could. Then we could of had one of them sessions like we had winters back at the big house on the farm . . . the blue norther howling around outside that old house while we made music inside, loud enough to drown it out. Ol' Sarchin' Cold, Ma Burney called it . . . . It'd come ripping out of Oklahoma and across the river and over the bluffs. Yeah. And then it'd come howling around the corners and whistling underneath like it was looking to come inside where it was warm--where the music was. Ma Burney. I guess she liked to be where the music was, too. She'd been to Boston when she was a girl, Mama said, to learn piano, but she never played with us. Said she didn't learn the pieces we played. But she hung around and kept the big blue granite coffee pot going on the back of the wood range in the kitchen. I can smell it now – the hot boiled coffee in them heavy white cups, and the oak wood crackling in the pot-bellied stove in the middle room where we played. And when it got dark, the smell of kerosene burning in the wicks when she lit the lamps. I'd volunteer to poke the fire and add wood, just so's I could warm my hands and face over the roaring red hole, and watch the sparks snap and head up the flue. Winters they was no crops, not even scraggly ones, and no rows to hoe. What was left of the garden was all lined up in dusty jars in the cellar--green beans and hominy and beets and corn and turnip greens and, oh yes--tomatoes. Rows and rows of tomatoes . . . and pickles. Cellar smelled sort of like a big towel that somebody forgot and left laying around damp for a week. That smell and the tough feel of hominy between my teeth and Ma Burney blessing us out, and Hank saying to me, "What did you expect? Hominy's just corn embalmed in lye water." . . . Mostly it was read the Sears Catalog, or Monkey Wards, or think of some crazy trick to scare somebody . . . or get drunk, or fight. We didn't really have to get drunk to fight. . . . But it was best when we just played together, me and Mutt on guitars. Sometime Mutt would second on the four-string banjo, and Hank on the fiddle. Nobody could beat Hank on that fiddle ever, or beat him at anything else, if he wasn't drinking, him being oldest, and bigger and stronger – and probably meaner. I was always having to take up for Mutt when Hank'd pick on 'im. They was some fights we had back then coulda got ourselves killed once or twice. But everthing was more fun when we was all together . . . Like when we was all in Hot Springs, working at the hotel. Hank was the one that called the square dances, and fiddled, too. Working at the hotel was good, for that time. Guess that's when we made this tape . . . . Anyways, us boys was together then, but it wasn't quite the same as back on the Red River before any of us was married, winter evenings in that middle room at Ma Burney's house. Uncle Sephus would hang back while we warmed up on "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and "Sally Goodin." Fore long, though, he'd git up out of his rocker and reach his mandolin down off the top of the pie safe and join in, picking and grinning and spitting between his brown teeth into that mucky spittoon of his. All four of us patting our big old brogans on the linoleum to keep time. Then's when we'd play the living fool out of them old breakdowns – “Down Yonder" – now there's where they's a good part for the mandolin – and "Old Joe Clark" and good stuff like that till the house like to shifted on them rocks under. And Aunt Pearl's little girl curled up warm by the wood stove, with them skinny drumsticks of hers hugged next her chest and her eyes bright, listening. . . . Get ready now . . . Change key and speed it up . . . Here's where Mutt hit some good licks now, and Hank and me's just playing along, backing him up. . . . His foot had gangrene, they said, so I guess it had to come off. But Leona said, "The clot killed him anyway, yesterday after they let him go home." Least, I think that's what she said when she called last night. She was crying pretty hard. Old fingers, keep up. Don't fail me now . . . Here's my part. Hit it! That tape won't slow down for old fingers. "Orange Blossom Special" don't slow down for nobody.

Barbara Fryrear -- Published, New Texas 2000



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