Weaving through Shawnee National Forest, then hugging the Ohio River’s meandering banks a hundred miles before circumventing horse farms and tobacco barns southeast through Kentucky, the road from southern Illinois to Bardstown in 1970 had been as circuitous as Harlan Dillbeck’s subsequent journey: from teenage, five-string banjo prodigy to three-time Master Bourbon Taster Champion of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If seventeen-year-old Harlan had waited a few more years to begin his drive, Interstate 64 would have been completed. That road would have been far straighter. As for his life, who knows?
Tonight, sixty-three-year-old Harlan—failed four-time Master Bourbon Taster Champion, as of moments ago—is in the Louis Philippe room at Bardstown’s Talbott Inn pulling his Glock 26 from its holster. “Rigged is what it was!” he shouts.
Is Harlan aware that Louis Philippe I, exiled King of France, stayed at Talbott Inn in 1797 while traveling to Nashville? Does Harlan know that King Louis, or one of his attendants, painted the mural of a French garden that the gun is aimed at now? Does Harlan realize that Jesse James, after spending a debaucherous evening downstairs in Talbott Tavern—site of tonight’s Master Taster Taste-Off—plugged the French birds and butterflies with shots from his six-shooter? Yes, yes, yes. And like Jesse, Harlan takes aim at the mural, though standing to the side for fear the bullets might ricochet off the protective Plexiglas at him. But in the instant before Harlan fires, tonight’s Taste-Off judge, the Reverend Sam Boone, enters the room.
From the souls of his loafers to the top of his head, Sam is little more than five feet tall—each shot zinging off the Plexiglass above his white comb over.
“Goddamn, Harlan!” shouts the Reverend Sam as he drops to the floor.
“Didn’t see you coming, Sam,” says Harlan.
“How about that last shot, you fool?”
“Fool, you say,” says Harlan, waving the Glock’s nose in Sam’s direction as footfalls strike the stairway leading to the upstairs hall. “Not fool enough to know I’ve been cheated.”
“You’ve been hit,” says Sam, raising his arm from the floor and pointing at Harlan’s feet, where blood is puddling on the hardwood. “Serves your ass right.”
As it so happened, two of the ricocheted bullets had entered the plaster above Sam. A third had bounced off that wall and entered another. And two bounced off the third wall as well, completing their trip around the room, one plinking off the Plexiglas, another grazing Harlan’s right buttock, from which a trickle of blood runs off his shoe. Harlan’s ass had been served.
“I’ll be damned,” says Harlan, exploring his bloodied right cheek through the hole in his trousers before six Taste-Off contestants bound into the room and subdue him. Three contestants to each of Harlan’s arms. “Easy boys, I was just letting off some steam,” he says, when Reba Fenway, master taster at Heaven Knows Distillery, runs into the room—her long black hair in pursuit.
Legs as long as a thoroughbred’s. Eyes as green as blue grass. Two years ago, Reba would have feared for Harlan’s safety. “You all right, sweetie?” asks Reba, rushing to Sam, whose comb over has flopped over in the fracas.
When Harlan was seeing Reba, their fifteen-year age difference never struck him as unusual. But Sam and Reba? Good God.
“The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming,” says Sam, standing with Reba’s help and pointing at Harlan. “I’d say it’s come for you today.”
“Not now, Sam,” says Reba. “You OK, Harlan?”
“Been better. This isn’t over, Sam,” says Harlan: butt-shot, blood-stained, angry.
“There must be something fishy goin’ on.”
From the kitchen, where fourteen-year-old Harlan was helping his mother with the dishes, the soprano voice sounded like nothing he had heard before. “Get a load a that!” Harlan’s dad shouted from the living room couch, where he was watching The Porter Wagoner Show on the family’s 21-inch, Zenith color console. Across the room, Harlan’s little brother, Duncan, was lying on the carpet shooting marbles at a row of plastic green soldiers, standing in dense green shag.
“I guess some large mouth bass left that lipstick on your shirt.”
“You’re old enough to be her father, Franklin,” said Harlan’s mother, June, stepping from the kitchen for a look. “Oh, my. She’s about to bust out of that dress. I liked Norma Jean’s voice better.”
“Bust is right. Who cares about her voice?”
“Now, Franklin,” said June.
“I think there’s something fishy goin’ on.”
Curious, Harlan stepped into the living room behind his mom, a dripping washcloth in his hand. “Whoa,” said Harlan, eyeing Norma Jean’s replacement. Harlan thought this girl sounded good, too.
“Let’s all give Miss Dolly here a hand,” Porter said as the studio audience broke into applause. Were it not for the washcloth, Harlan would have clapped, too.
“Got him!” said Duncan as a bazooka man disappeared in the loom.
Little did Harlan know, the seed of his life had been sewn. After that night, Harlan and his dad never missed The Porter Wagoner Show. “Dolly time!” they’d call to one another. And though his interest in Dolly did not wane, Harlan also enjoyed listening to Porter’s band, The Wagonmasters, and specifically to Buck Trent the banjo player. While listening to Buck, Harlan’s right thumb and first two fingers would pick against his shirtfront as his left hand fretted up and down an imaginary banjo. It was as if, before this life, he had been a picker in another. But another seed had been sewn, too.
Almost fifty years later, Harlan will call his brother, Duncan, from the Nelson County jail, asking him to drive from Illinois to Bardstown and pay five thousand dollars in bail. “For shooting my ass and threatening another,” Harlan will explain. “A preacher, so-called.”
In the course of the conversation, Duncan will inform Harlan that, as boys, they had consumed life-altering amounts of perchloroethylene from their well water. For Duncan will have recently discovered that their childhood home had been built atop a dry-cleaning dumpsite. “We drank that stuff for years, Harlan. The doc says that’s why I hear things—you know, my voices. Could be why you get so angry.”
“That and about a million other reasons. You still hear the Irish kid? Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“Yeah, I still hear Kevin. And others. But I just found out about the water a few months ago. I would have told you sooner, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I thought knowing this might make you even more pissed off. Besides, everybody’s got to live with something or other.”
“Perchloroethylene. PERC, they call it. For me, it took forty years to kick in. For you, I’m guessing sooner.”
“Who knows? Hey, Dunc, they want me back in my cell. Coming, Patti.”
“Patti?” says Duncan.
“Deputy Patti. See you tomorrow, Dunc.”
“You’ll see Darlene, too. She won’t let me drive anymore. She’s afraid Kevin might tell me to go off a bridge or something. Slow as Darlene drives, probably be more like tomorrow night before we get there.”
“Take I-64 through Louisville.”
But that December, 1967, after badgering his dad for a banjo the past three months, Harlan’s dad relented, driving to Evansville, Indiana, where Harlan found a Kay five-string for fifty dollars—his dad’s fifty dollars—before picking up a copy of Banjo Made Easy by Buck Trent himself.
“Merry Christmas, Son,” said Franklin.
The Final Dram
Earlier tonight, seated at the Talbott Tavern bar with nine other Taste-Off contestants, Harlan suspected there was something fishy going on when he caught more than a hint of vanilla in the final round.
Harlan thought that he’d done well, though the third round had given him some trouble. Swishing that dram between his cheeks, he couldn’t decide whether it had aged five years or six. “Six,” he’d guessed, after sensing a bit more smoke from the barrel and spitting the bourbon into a Talbott Tavern glass.
The contestants, master tasters all, had now sampled nine drams from his or her distillery and guessed the number of years the tastes had aged in charred, white oak barrels. Each dram, a full three scruples, had been poured by the Reverend Sam Boone, pastor of Sudden Glory Fellowship and director of Forever Yours Funeral Chapel in nearby Shepherdsville. With Sam standing barely taller than the bar, it was hard for Harlan to imagine Sam Boone’s blood coursed with even a scruple of his distant relative Daniel’s courage.
“You have one more minute to guess,” Sam said to Harlan, leading off round ten. Sitting next to Reba Fenway, at first Harlan thought her perfume was throwing him off. Euphoria, Harlan recalled from the two years they had dated. But no, it wasn’t that.
Harlan had worked at Rowan Brothers since he was seventeen, working his way up to master taster. At sixty percent corn, Rowan Brothers tended toward the sweet side. But this . . . You could use it on a pancake, Harlan thought before spitting into the glass, now ten drams full of a Rowan Brothers blend.
“That’s wheated bourbon. Didn’t come from any of our barrels,” said Harlan.
“Thirty seconds to name a year,” said Sam.
“You’ve made a mistake. Or someone has. I’m telling you, this isn’t Rowan Brothers.”
“Come on. What’s this all about?”
“Ten,” said Sam, smiling at Reba.
“Alright, ten. Ten goddamn years!”
Minutes later, Sam announced, “From Rowan Brothers, with nine correct tastes, this year’s runner-up is Harlan Dillbeck. And our Master Bourbon Taster champion, from Heaven Knows, Reba Fenway! A perfect ten. Congratulations, Reba. Harlan, wait.”
But by the time Sam had finished his announcement, Harlan was off his barstool, heading for the Talbott Inn stairs. Stairs that Jesse James himself once climbed.
Maryann by the Hand, Martin by the Neck
1968 — 1969
By summer, Harlan was picking “You are My Sunshine.” By fall, he’d mastered “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Soon after that, “I’ll Fly Away,” which he was ready to do. If Harlan had had his way, he would have turned sixteen, dropped out of school, bought a car, and headed for Nashville.
Harlan’s break came while playing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at his high school’s spring talent show. Jerry Lawson, lead guitarist for The Illinois Ramblers, was there that night to accompany his daughter Maryann on his Martin twelve-string. Maryann had just knocked “Crazy” out of the Shawnee High gym when Harlan took the stage. Six bars in, he was surprised to hear a twelve-string rhythm to his five-string melody. Looking behind him, there stood Maryann and her dad. “Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining,” crooned Maryann, soon to be announced, along with Harlan, that night’s co-winner. “Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue.”
That summer, 1969, Harlan and Maryann travelled throughout southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and western Kentucky with The Ramblers, playing county fairs, church socials, and VFW’s. Onstage, Jerry introduced Harlan by saying, “I could tell a natural when I heard one, folks. Before I knew it, I grabbed my Maryann by the hand, my Martin by the neck, and took the stage with—Harlan Dillbeck, everybody!” Then Harlan would play a few riffs of “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” his favorite.
Those were heady days for Harlan. Taking up the lead from Jerry on “Cripple Creek” or “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” Harlan noticed teenage girls drifting toward the stage, clapping and dancing as he picked. Out of the corner of his eye, he could tell that Maryann, onstage to his right, noticed, too.
For the first time, he saw Carbondale, Vincennes, Paducah. For the first time he saw real money. At thirty dollars a show, by August sixteen-year-old Harlan had earned enough to buy a 1960 Plymouth Belvedere with one hundred forty thousand miles and two white-walls. It was in this car that Harlan saw much more.
Harlan had always admired Maryann. She’d played Laurey in the school musical, Oklahoma! With legs as high as an elephant’s eye, Maryann high jumped on the boys’ track team. She western rolled as high as she was tall. District champion.
One night that August, The Ramblers played the Saint Ambrose Bierstube in Jasper, Indiana. They had finished their final set, and while Jerry and the band imbibed beer inside a tent, Harlan and Maryann imbibed each other inside The Ramblers’ van. They made love a second time inside an empty goat pen at the Vanderburgh County Fair. The remaining times, in the Belvedere’s back seat, became a blur in Harlan’s mind. He guessed he’d wait awhile to go to Nashville.
In October, with Harlan cheering her on, Maryann ran a consistent fourth man on the boys’ cross-country team. By November, five pounds heavier, she was running seventh. There would be no high jumping for Maryann next spring.
Harlan and Maryann’s son, Lawson, had been thirty-two when Harlan last saw him—fourteen years ago at Harlan’s father’s funeral. Franklin had had a heart attack while watching The Rock defeat Hulk Hogan on Pay-Per-View.
As Deputy Patti escorts Harlan to the lobby, at first Harlan thinks his sister-in-law, Darlene, is standing next to an overweight guard and a prisoner. Duncan, wearing khaki slacks, has gained weight. Lawson has that look.
“Hey, Lawson. Hello, Darlene. Put on a little weight there, Dunc,” says Harlan before awkwardly hugging all three.
“It’s the psycho drugs they’ve got me on. They make me hungry. I’m up fifty pounds. Why are you limping?”
Pointing to the hole in his pants, Harlan says, “I told you, I shot myself in the ass.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, good to see you.”
“Good to see you, Dunc. Pretty as ever, Darlene.”
“Right. They let you drink in there, Harlan?” asks Darlene, blowing salt-and-pepper bangs from her eyes.
“Sober as a judge. Didn’t expect to see you, Lawson. How’s your mother?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“The boy could use some help,” says Duncan—the boy being nine years younger than he.
“What kind of help?”
“Could you take this somewhere else, Harlan?” asks Deputy Patti, looking up from her desk, her skin several shades darker than her khaki uniform.
In the past eighteen years, Patti had booked Harlan into jail five times. But with only the faintest of laugh lines beside her dark brown eyes, her age was hard to tell. “Shift change,” says Patti. “We try to clear the lobby. You’ll be getting notice of your court date in the next few days.”
“Thanks,” says Harlan, “I know the drill. Patti, this is my sister-in-law, Darlene, my brother, Duncan, and Lawson, my son. How about some dinner, everybody? On me. There’s a diner not far from here. You, too, Patti. We’ll wait.”
“Maybe next time, Harlan,” says Patti, smiling as she stands. “Nice to meet you all.”
Harlan had heard that Patti teaches Jazzercise. Looking at her now, as she walks ahead to open the door, he believes it. “Next time—good one, Patti. I’ll take you up on that.”
My Old Kentucky Motor-In Inn
In March, Harlan was called into his music teacher’s homeroom. Facing Mrs. Kleinschmidt at her desk, he took a seat on the piano bench and eased back against the keyboard.
“I think this might be an opportunity for you, Harlan,” Mrs. Kleinschmidt said, opening a colorful brochure. “Have you ever heard of Stephen Foster?”
“I think he lives in Kentucky.”
“No, but I can see why you might think so. He died a long time ago. They put on a play about him every summer at the amphitheater in Bardstown. With the way you play that banjo . . .”
Mrs. Kleinschmidt went on to say that she thought it might be a good way for Harlan to earn money the summer before his senior year. “You’ll need it,” she said. “What’s your baby’s name?”
Everyone knew about Harlan, Maryann, and their baby. And word had gotten around that Jerry Lawson had no intention of letting Harlan play with The Ramblers that summer. Mrs. Kleinschmidt was right; Harlan could use the money. Maryann kept telling him that her dad would come around, but in the meantime, Harlan couldn’t even come to the Lawson’s house to see his son. “Lawson,” answered Harlan.
“I made a call to Bardstown,” said Mrs. Kleinschmidt. “The auditions are in two weeks. They said that you should be prepared to play the three songs I’ve written down on this brochure. They’ll ask you to play two songs in the key beside each song.”
“Thanks, Mrs. K,” said Harlan, leaning forward for the brochure. “Why not?” he said, striking a discord on the piano keys as he leaned back.
After learning “Ring, Ring the Banjo” in F, “Oh! Susanna” in D, and “Camptown Races” in G, after telling Maryann he would see her in a few days and giving Lawson’s foot a squeeze (at Harlan’s house), Harlan jumped into his Belvedere, weaved through Shawnee Forest, hugged the Ohio River, and wound around Kentucky horse farms and tobacco barns on his way to Bardstown. With his banjo by his knee.
Slipping ten of thirty dollars from his banjo case, Harlan paid for a room at My Old Kentucky Motor-In Inn, across Stephen Foster Avenue from My Old Kentucky Home. “The place that’s in the song?” Harlan asked the desk clerk.
“That’s the one.”
The auditions were to be held at Bardstown High the following day. After a cheeseburger, fries, and a vanilla shake at a nearby diner, Harlan returned to his room and ran through the three songs again. He was fidgeting with the rabbit ears on a black and white TV, when he heard a banjo playing “Camptown Races” in a nearby room.
Was Harlan impressed by what he heard? Did he think that this rendition compared to his own? Did he fear for tomorrow? Yes, possibly, no. For why would anyone auditioning tomorrow, no matter their skill, be playing “Camptown Races” in D? After checking the brochure one last time (Camptown Races: G), Harlan turned off The Wild Wild West and fell asleep, never dreaming years would pass before he’d see Maryann, Lawson, or home.
“Ate here the first night I came to Bardstown,” says Harlan, after arriving at the diner from the jail. “April, 1970. Seventeen years old.”
Sitting in the booth beside Darlene, across the table from Harlan and Lawson, Duncan asks, “Was it called Camptown Diner then?”
“Same name. Same booth,” says Harlan, squirming on the well-worn red vinyl. “The doc said my cheek could be sore for months.”
“How’d you shoot yourself again?” Duncan asks.
“Again? Pass the ketchup, Aunt Darlene,” says Lawson.
“No, just the once. And it’s a long story,” Harlan says. “Ketchup on a hot brown?”
“Don’t worry, he won’t,” says Duncan.
“What do you mean, he won’t?”
“No, I was telling Kevin not to worry. You won’t be telling any long stories, will you? Kevin hates long stories.”
“No, guess I won’t,” says Harlan, frowning at Darlene.
“His doctor says it’s best for him to engage his voices,” says Darlene. “I’m not so sure.”
“Anyway, what kind of help do you need, Lawson?” asks Harlan.
Twenty minutes later—after listening to Lawson explain how he might have helped his friend Timmy steal what some people call drugs from Duke, a bad dude who might have killed them if Timmy hadn’t cut off Duke’s little finger, and how Duke, never mind his drug raps, called the cops and fingered Lawson and Timmy, but the cops said that since Lawson had been in no trouble compared to Timmy, he could skate with one hundred hours community service if he rolled on Timmy, which, since the whole idea had been Timmy’s, Lawson did, but after working off his CS hours cleaning kennels at the pound, he heard that Timmy was so pissed (“sorry, Aunt Darlene”), mad at him for rolling, Timmy put out a thousand dollar contract on him—Harlan sides with Kevin. He hates long stories, too.
“Some friend,” says Harlan.
“We thought he should skip town,” says Duncan. “And here we are. This is some serious coffee.”
“What’s your mother say, Lawson?” asks Harlan.
“It was her idea for me to come here. Mom says if anyone would know what to do, what with all the trouble you’ve been in—”
“Not now, Lawson,” says Darlene.
“No, your mother’s right. I’ve had my share of run-ins,” says Harlan. “Now I almost killed a mortician. The water made me do it, right Dunc? You all about finished? It’s almost nine o’clock. They’ll be closing soon.”
With the moon over Kentucky barely shining through the clouds, they get into Duncan and Darlene’s Dodge Ram—Darlene driving, Duncan beside her, Harlan and Lawson in the back seat—and head for Harlan’s house near the high school.
“I heard what he said. I’ll ask him,” Duncan says to—Kevin? “Thought you said the guy you shot at was a preacher, Harlan.”
“Claims to be. Has his own church and funeral parlor. Gets them coming and going.”
“What’s with you and him?” asks Darlene. “Turn here?”
“Next light. Sam and me, we go way back. Another long story. Don’t worry, Kevin,” says Harlan, staring at the back of Duncan’s head.
“Maybe don’t get him started. It’s getting late. He has trouble sleeping as it is,” says Darlene, stopping at the light.
“A church and funeral home?” asks Duncan.
“Bingo,” says Harlan.
“Way bleedin’ back, you say?”
“Sometimes he talks like Kevin,” says Darlene. “County Sligo.”
Unfastening his seat belt, Duncan turns toward the ack seat. Smiling in the red glow of the streetlight, he says, “We might just have a plean.”
“Plean?” asks Lawson.
“Irish for plan,” explains Duncan. His smile turns green.
Driving through the intersection, Darlene says, “Oh, no,” as though she’s been down this road with Duncan and Kevin before.
“You missed the turn,” says Harlan.
Doo-dah in D
After a breakfast of eggs and grits at Camptown Diner, Harlan drove to Bardstown High. Eager for his audition to begin, he had to sit in the auditorium for two hours as, one-by-one, college-age girls sang, “Why No One to Love?,” “Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?,” and “If Only You Had a Mustache”—each girl performing two requested songs. By the time the girls finished, Harlan thought he could have grown a mustache. But then it was the boys’ turn to sing, “Open Thy Lattice, Love,” “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” unendingly, it seemed. Though several girls had caught Harlan’s eye, his ears had had enough.
“We’ll break an hour for lunch,” announced a large man in baggy madras shorts and leather sandals. “Then we’ll hear the banjos.”
With only three dollars in his wallet and twenty hidden in his banjo case—figuring two for supper, ten for that night’s room, a buck-fifty for breakfast, and eight for gas money home—Harlan found a corner market, where he bought an apple and a Snickers bar for lunch. Back at the school, he was bending down to the water fountain outside the auditorium, when someone said, “You pick a mean banjo, brotha.”
Lifting from the fountain, Harlan turned and, across the hall, saw a painting of a grim old man with a coonskin cap on his head, a rifle on his shoulder, and a hound by his side. Only then did Harlan realize he was looking over the top of someone’s blonde buzz-cut.
“That’s my great-great granduncle Daniel. I’m Sam Boone,” said the little guy, extending his right hand toward Harlan while holding a Gibson banjo in his left. A Mastertone, Harlan noticed. “What you got there?” Sam asked, nodding at Harlan’s case.
“A Kay,” said Harlan, shaking the smallest hand he guessed he’d ever shook. About the size of baby Lawson’s foot. Couldn’t reach three frets, Harlan thought. “Name’s Harlan Dillbeck. Where’d you hear me play?”
“In your room last night. Never would have guessed that was nothing but a Kay. I’m two doors down from you.”
This was who he’d heard playing? Harlan had heard that Earl Scruggs has small hands, but Sam Boone’s hands are no bigger than a cat’s paws. “Where you from, Sam?”
“Paris,” Sam said. “Kentucky. Good luck, Ferlin.”
“It’s Harlan. Good luck yourself.”
Ten minutes later, baggy shorts led the six banjo hopefuls backstage. Taking their seats in a row of folding chairs, four of the boys looked to be in their early twenties. As for Sam, it was as if a teenage voice was coming from a ten-year-old’s body.
“How long you been playing?” Sam asked, sitting beside Harlan.
“Couple years? When I started, my banjo was bigger than me.”
“Still is, looks like,” said Harlan, eyeing the Mastertone standing in Sam’s lap, its tuning pegs two feet higher than Sam’s shit-eating grin. The little guy was getting on his nerves.
“OK, boys, we’ll go in alphabetical order,” baggy shorts said before disappearing through the stage curtains. “First up, Rusty Baker,” the same voice, amplified, said as a red-haired boy two seats down from Harlan stood and parted the curtains with the neck of his Vega Sunburst. “‘Ring, Ring the Banjo,’ Rusty,” the voice said, followed by a banjo’s ring.
Harlan was thinking Rusty wasn’t half bad when Sam said, “Sounds like his finger rolls are missing a thumb.” Slipping a silver pick onto his own right thumb and a blue plastic pick onto each of his first two fingers, Sam asked, “What do you say, Ferlin?”
“I’d say give the guy a chance,” Harlan said as Rusty wrapped up “Ring, Ring the Banjo” and, as instructed, kicked off “Oh! Susanna.”
“Lighten up,” said Sam, popping each knuckle, shaking both hands, and swiveling his head from shoulder to shoulder. By now Sam was no longer getting on Harlan’s nerves. He had reached the summit and planted a flag.
“Next up, Sam Boone. ‘Oh! Susanna,’ Sam,” the voice said.
Earlier that year, Harlan had heard James Taylor sing “Oh! Susanna” on the radio. He sang it like a love song. But here was Sam playing like he was off to “Camptown Races.” Harlan’s version of “Oh! Susanna” took three minutes. Sam had wrapped it up in two.
“Little quick there, aren’t you, Sam?” the voice said to Harlan’s satisfaction.
“Anyone can play it slow, sir,” Sam answered.
“Well, let’s see what you can do with “Camptown Races.”
Sam had not made it to the first doo-dah when Harlan realized he was playing in D, just as he’d played last night. Why weren’t they stopping him? Meanwhile, aside from Rusty, the other contestants were squirming in their seats. “D?” one boy said. Here again, Sam was managing to turn twelve furlongs into no more than eight. He’d already reached the finish.
“Now that’s more like it,” the voice said, pleased with the speed, it seemed. “Thank you, Sam. Now let’s hear what Harlan Dillbeck can do. Same two songs, Harlan.”
With his mind on “Camptown Races,” Harlan parted the curtains, took the stage, and played “Oh! Susanna.”
“Played like the love song it is,” said baggy shorts, seated in the auditorium’s front row.
“Thanks, sir. Uh, said Harlan, fingerpicks twiddling, “I think we’re supposed to play ‘Camptown Races’ in G.
“Let’s see,” the man said, fumbling through some papers. “That’s right. G it is.”
“But he played in D,” Harlan said, pointing to the curtains with his Kay.
“He did? Well, I guess you’d better play in D, too. Don’t you boys tune in G?”
“Blind man could play in G. Give us what you got in D, Harlan. Only fair.
“Yes!” a voice shouted from behind the curtains. Sam’s “yes,” no doubt.
Normally, Harlan could have played this song, any song, in D. But he’d been practicing in G. And he was angry. The little fucker planned this all along, Harlan thought as he ripped into the strings.
If they had stopped Sam from playing in D, he probably could have played in G, too. He’d no doubt practiced in both. Sam must have hoped they’d play in alphabetical order, that he’d be asked to play “Camptown,” and baggy shorts would require the others to play in D—a key in which they had not practiced. Sam had nothing to lose and principal banjoist to gain, Harlan thought. ALL THE DOO-DAMN DAY! Harlan’s banjo wailed.
“Good God, Harlan, it’s a song, not Chickamauga,” baggy shorts said. “But thanks, I guess. Roy Jones, you’re next. Any relation to Grandpa?”
Upset with Sam, baggy ass, and himself, Harlan’s banjo nearly took out Roy Jones as they passed each other through the curtains. “Gets a little tricky in D, don’t it . . .” Sam began with a wink as Harlan walked toward his seat.
Had it occurred to Harlan to grab his case, jump into his car, and head home? Yes, yes, yes. And he more than likely would have had Sam not added “brotha?” to his question, at which point Harlan grabbed Sam’s Mastertone, shouted, “Brother my ass!” and, with one hand on its neck and the other on its tailpiece, snapped the banjo with his knee.
Counting Jail Cells to Sleep
An hour ago, Harlan, Duncan, Darlene, and Lawson, after springing Harlan from jail and eating dinner at Camptown Diner, arrived at Harlan’s house. Now, lying in his bed, staring at a water-stained ceiling, it occurs to Harlan that this is the first night he has ever slept under the same roof with his son. How is that possible?
It had all started the day he turned Sam’s Mastertone into a mandolin and his own life into one of confinement in Bardstown—at first involuntarily, but then, aside from a few nearby getaways, he’d just stayed.
He’d finally driven to Nashville, years after quitting the banjo. One night, across from the Ryman at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, after hearing a man call Tennessee whiskey, “bourbon,” Harlan broke the man’s jaw and spent four nights jail. For threatening a tour guide at Graceland (Harlan considered Elvis overrated, the tour guide had not), he’d spent three. If not for his undisputed skill for tasting, Rowan Brothers would have lost its taste for Harlan years ago. Counting jail cells—the time be booed Pete Rose in Cincinnati, the time he put a nine ball through a mirror in Knoxville . . . —Harlan falls asleep.
The next morning, Harlan ties on his Rowan Brothers, Bottoms Up in the Bluegrass apron and fries some bacon and eggs. At the sound of footsteps, he turns from the stove to see Duncan and Darlene entering the kitchen from the guest room. “Some apron,” says Duncan. Looking down, spatula in hand, Harlan sees two bare butts—a man’s and a woman’s, unmistakably—poking up through blades of grass.
“Bacon and eggs all right?” asks Harlan. “Coffee?”
“Sounds good,” says Duncan, pulling a chair out from under the table and scooting in beside Darleen. “So, Harlan, what kind of terms you on with that mortician preacher?”
Arriving at Harlan’s house the previous night, everyone went straight to bed—in Lawson’s case, a foldout couch in the basement. They’d planned to discuss Kevin’s plean in the morning.
Turning to the stove, with his back to Duncan and Darlene, Harlan says, “Terms? I told you, I fired five rounds at Sam.”
“Thought you said you guys go way back.”
“Back to hell.”
“Well, Kevin thinks that Sam, being a mortician, could say Lawson’s already dead. Then we run an obituary here and in the Southern Illinois Times. That way Lawson’s friend won’t send anyone to kill him. He’d already be dead.”
“You don’t get it,” says Harlan, bringing bacon to the table. “Sam and I don’t talk.”
“And being a preacher, he could say a few words at the funeral,” says Duncan. “Charlotte says it’s OK for fathers to cover up for their sons. She says Confucius said so. Tell the preacher that. Pass the bacon, Darlene.”
“Confucius? And who’s Charlotte?” asks Harlan.
“His Unitarian minister in Vermont voice,” says Darlene. “Just be glad he doesn’t start singing with her.”
“Singing?” Harlan says when, with the look of a dead man, Lawson walks into the kitchen.
“Morning, Lawson,” says Duncan, “What do you want on your tombstone?”
Rubbing his eyes with his thumbs, Lawson bumps into Darleen’s chair and says, “I never gave it much thought.”
“Not bad,” says Harlan. “More coffee, Dunc?”
Three cups later, Duncan still hasn’t let go of the plan, explaining how a funeral would be necessary to convince “eegit Timmy” that Lawson’s dead.
“Irish for idiot,” Darlene explains.
But by Duncan’s fifth cup, Harlan has to admit that Kevin’s plean, despite Harlan and Sam’s history and the annoying Irish expressions, makes sense. “Suppose I could talk to Reba.”
“Reba? The woman you used to see?” asks Duncan, helping himself to more bacon.
“She’s with Sam now. She might get Sam to listen.”
“You know, Harlan, maybe you should get a cat,” says Duncan.
“Why would I want a cat?”
“Keep you company. You and your history with women. We wouldn’t take a million dollars for Robinson Crusoe. We found him stranded at an interstate rest stop on our way home from a Cards game. Didn’t we, Darlene?”
“That we did,” says Darlene, as if the Robinson Crusoe story had grown old. “And his litter box needs to be changed.”
“In that case, we’d better get going,” says Harlan. “Let’s write us an obit.”
“Now we’re suckin’ diesel,” says Duncan.
A Career is Born
Before shortening Sam’s Mastertone, there were three things that Harlan had failed to consider: first, the agility of a large man in madras shorts and sandals; second, the malicious damage laws in Nelson County Kentucky; and third, the noon checkout time at My Old Kentucky Motor-In Inn. At the crack of a banjo and Sam’s “Sumamabitch!” the big thespian had leapt onto the stage, run through the curtains, and grabbed Harlan in a bear hug. “Someone, call the police,” the man said. Meanwhile, the motel clock kept ticking.
Following an explanatory phone call home in which Harlan’s father said, “Night in jail might do you good,” Harlan spent not one but five incarcerated nights, each one accruing an additional ten dollars in motel fees. That fifty dollars, plus court costs, two hundred thirty-five dollars for a new Mastertone, and one hundred in punitive damages, meant Harlan would not be leaving Bardstown anytime soon. After learning that Harlan was almost five hundred dollars short, Judge Rowan said, “You can catch up on your schoolwork this summer. Can you lift an empty bourbon barrel, Son?”
Unbeknownst to Harlan, Judge Rowan, along with his brother, were co-owners of Rowan Brothers Distillery. Harlan had just had his first job interview. “I suppose,” Harlan said.
“Yes!” shouted Sam, rising from his seat in the courtroom.
Sam in the Purse
As Duncan, Darlene, and Lawson finish breakfast, Harlan calls in to Rowan Brothers for a personal day. Then, over another pot of coffee and occasional objections from Lawson, the four of them compose his obituary.
Satisfied with their efforts, Harlan suggests that his guests take a tour of My Old Kentucky Home while he contacts Reba about Kevin’s plan. “The place that’s in the song?” asks Lawson.
“That’s the one.”
Intending to catch Reba at work, Harlan gets into his van, a black pearl Honda Odyssey. Driving northwest out of town, he passes warehouse after warehouse filled with aging Rowan Brothers bourbon before veering northwest onto State Highway 245, bound for Heaven Knows Distillery in Bullitt County. Seems impossible, Harlan thinks. Forty-six years since he rolled the other way, thinking he would win the audition, make some money, and earn Jerry Lawson’s respect.
All these years Harlan had assumed it was Sam Boone that had gotten under his skin at Bardstown High. But maybe—what had Duncan called it, percho-something?—maybe that had, too. It would explain some things. That first summer, he’d lobbed a cherry bomb onto The Stephen Foster Story stage during Sam’s performance. Shortly after that, he’d inscribed PAID IN FULL with his thumb pick on the motel owner’s car hood, costing four more nights in jail, three hundred dollars in damages, and another six months in Rowan Brothers servitude. One night in February, 1971, after learning Maryann had married The Ramblers’ drummer, Carl Baumgart, Harlan heaved his banjo into the Beech Fork River. One summer day in 1979, after batting fifth for the Rowan Brothers Softball Hotshots, he took out Sudden Glory Fellowship shortstop, Sam Boone’s, left knee with a cleats-up slide. Then there was the broken jaw at Tootsie’s, the argument at Graceland, and so on.
Time was, about 5:00, Friday afternoons, Harlan would walk into the office at Heaven Knows and say, “Working hard, Connie?” to receptionist, Connie Arbeit—a woman about his age with big blonde hair—before walking into Reba’s office, unannounced. There, he’d wait as Reba finished entering notes from that day’s tastes into her desktop. Then he’d follow Reba to her house in Shepherdsville, where he kept a weekend’s worth of clothes.
They had met at Reba’s first Taste-Off, held annually at Talbott Tavern. Harlan finished third that year, but first in another respect, for that night Reba had agreed to a drink that led to two that led to dinner three nights later.
“Working hard, Connie?” Harlan asks now as Connie looks up from her desk.
“Never could fool you, girl. Reba busy?”
“Let me check,” says Connie, tapping the phone on her desk. “How you been, Harlan? Other than shooting yourself.”
“Heard about that, did you?”
“Reba, there’s a Harlan Dillbeck here to see you. Good looking fella. With a limp, looks like . . . Uh, huh . . . Go on in, Harlan.”
Harlan knew, as everyone did, that Reba got the job as Heaven Knows Master Taster thanks to her father, Forest. Before Forest Fenway retired, he’d master-tasted for Heaven Knows for half a century. The night Harlan met Reba at her rookie Taste-Off, she’d said, “Thanks to Daddy, I could tell wheat bourbon from a rye time I was ten.”
Though it had only been two years since Harlan dated Reba, walking into her office feels like stepping back fifty. Gilt-framed photographs of Whirlaway, Citation, Adolph Rupp, and Joe B. Hall line the mahogany paneling. Irving Stone biographies, the complete works of James Michener, and Forest Fenway’s many First-Place silver Taste-Off snifters fill the converted, cherry gun case shelves.
“See you haven’t changed a thing. Other than your trophy,” says Harlan, nodding at the snifter on Reba’s walnut desk.”
“About that, Harlan.”
“Well then, have a seat.”
There was a time when Reba shared Harlan’s view of Sam. “An arrogant little man,” she’d once said. But then one June Sunday morning at Reba’s house, all that changed.
Harlan had awakened to find himself alone in Reba’s bed. He was about to get up, when she walked into her bedroom, dressed. “Where you off to?” he’d asked.
“The Lord’s house. Be back in a few hours. Sleep in, sweetie.”
Lying on his back, staring at the revolving fan above the bed, Harlan guessed it had been forty-some years since he’d been to church—other than his parents’ funerals. And though he’d never known Reba to attend, he figured which church she was heading to was none of his business—as long as it wasn’t Sam’s church. But good God, the Lord couldn’t live there. Plus, he’d heard her car door slam. It was summer; the sun was shining through the blinds; and Sudden Glory was just two blocks up Plum Street. If she was going there, she would have walked. Besides, Reba knew how he felt about Sam, the little bastard. Harlan went to sleep, awakening a few hours later to the sight of Sam, hanging from the bedroom doorknob, grinning from the corner of a Sudden Glory bulletin inside Reba’s purse. Grinning like he’d won another contest.
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” Reba had said, kicking off her shoes inside her closet. “We ran into each other at Walmart. In light bulbs. He said he was preaching on forgiveness, and that we should come. You in particular.”
Flinging the sheet from his body, Harlan said, “Got a better chance of seeing me in one of his caskets than his church.”
“That’s what I told Sam, pretty much. I know how you feel about him. Truth told, it’s a shame you didn’t hear his message,” said Reba, stepping from her dress. “And my, can he play that banjo.”
“Played you for a fool is what,” said Harlan before he jumped from bed, pulled on a Rowan Brothers T-shirt, stepped into his jeans and left.
The following week, Harlan didn’t go to either Heaven Knows or Shepherdsville. But after not hearing from Reba in almost two weeks, he’d driven to her house on a Saturday, hoping to talk, when the Forever Yours hearse parked at her curb had left him speechless. After slamming his Odyssey into the hearse’s rear bumper, Harlan found his voice and more. For within seconds of contact, the hearse’s rear door opened and Sam, wrapped in a sheet, jumped out, giving Harlan clear view of a stretcher. There, wrapped in nothing, lay Reba.
“Thing is,” says Harlan, lifting the snifter from Reba’s desk and buffing it with his shirtsleeve, “I got a favor to ask.”
52 19 G
April 6, 1980
After unloading empty barrels for years, Harlan now oversaw the placement of them, bourbon-filled, in Rowan Brothers’ twenty-five warehouses. Twenty thousand, fifty-three-gallon barrels per house. One morning in September, he was in Warehouse 19, walking down a barrel-lined aisle streaked by east-facing sunlight. He was looking for a barrel that had been in place ten years. As long as he.
Like him, the bourbon had aged. Like him—aside from a few solitary trips to Rupp Arena, Churchill Downs, and Nashville—it had not moved.
He’d bought a little house not far from Bardstown High. Summers, he played left field for the Hotshots. Dated a few girls. Even came close to marrying Betty Moffett, a Bardstown vet tech. One night after dinner, Harlan picked up Moses, Betty’s orange tabby, and sat beside Betty on her couch.
“I asked you over tonight to say I’m sorry,” said Betty, “but I’ve prayed on it, and as long as you make spirits for the Devil, I can’t marry you.”
In Harlan’s way of thinking, the closest thing to the Devil was the anger that would surface in himself. He would look back with pride to turning his back on the Devil that night. For without one word, Harlan smiled at Betty, lowered Moses into Betty’s lap, and walked out.
Day after day, walking down rows of barrels, Harlan had begun to think of them as friends, quiet friends who never judged him. Looking up at stacks of barrels, he imagined the bourbon inside, soaking up tannins as it aged.
Many years later, Harlan would look back and wonder how his life had passed so quickly. Aside from occasional romances and obligatory Rowan Brothers parties and picnics, he’d spent his life alone. If not for his three First-Place snifters and intermittent jail time, he’d hardly lived at all.
But that day in Warehouse 19, as Harlan walked down the aisle with instructions to pull barrel 52 19 G, Fill Date 04 06 70, it occurred to him that could have been the day he’d snapped Sam’s banjo. One crack. Everything had resounded from there.
A few steps later, he looked up, stopping where the sunlight slashed across the fill date. The Master Taster had sampled the bourbon yesterday. Unlike Harlan, its time had come today.
Searching for Mushrooms at NASCAR
As Harlan returns the shirt-shined snifter to Reba’s desk, she says, “Let me get this straight. You want Sam, who you tried to shoot, to put your son’s obituary in our paper and the Illinois Times. Never mind he’s alive. Then Sam performs a funeral service—closed coffin, I hope—followed by a graveside service. Surprised you don’t want a meal at the church afterwards. Anything else?”
“Southern Illinois Times. And a meal might be nice,” says Harlan, smiling.
“Who writes the obituary?”
“Got it right here,” says Harlan, pulling a sealed envelope from his back pocket.
Reaching for the envelope, Reba says, “I’ll talk to Sam tonight. I owe you that much. But I doubt you’d do this for him.”
“No, don’t guess I would, seeing as how he steals a man’s woman, fixes contests, and I don’t run a church or funeral home.”
“I beat you fair and square, Harlan. Sam said so.”
“Take Sam’s word plus a dollar, and you’ve got fifty cents.”
“And as far as him stealing me, Sam was there for me when you weren’t.”
“In the back of a hearse, you mean.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. With that temper of yours, you’ll never get close to anyone. At least not me. Everyone’s out to get you, according to you. It gets old, Harlan. Sam, he sees the best in people.”
“That’s because to him everyone is some fool to best. Company included. And when did I ever lose my temper with you?”
“Look, Harlan. I said I’d talk to Sam. I’ll give him this envelope and let you know what he says. I think you’d better go.”
Walking past Citation, Harlan turns and says, “Tell Sam this needs to happen yesterday. Could mean life or death for Lawson, and Duncan needs to get home.”
“Your brother still hearing things?”
“Funny you should ask. This plan, it was— Just call me soon as you can.”
Southern Illinois resident, Lawson F. Dillbeck, 46, died tragically Wednesday, April 18 after falling off his father’s roof in Bardstown, Kentucky. A graduate of Shawnee High in Jefferson County, Illinois, and owner operator of Lawson’s Lawns and Such, he enjoyed hunting mushrooms in Shawnee National Forest and NASCAR. He is survived by his mother, Maryann Baumgart (stepfather, Carl); father, Harlan; uncle, Duncan (aunt, Darlene; cousins, Ron and Don); and ball python, Carl. The Light shines on the enlightened, and Lawson was well lit. Memorial service to be held Saturday, April 21, 3:00 at Forever Yours Funeral Chapel in Shepherdsville with burial at Rose Hill Cemetery to follow. The Reverend Sam Boone officiating. He will be missed.
“You write this, Harlan?” asks Reba, lowering The Kentucky Standard to her desk as Harlan, Duncan, and Darlene enter her office. “No wonder the envelope was sealed.”
It’s Friday. Reba convinced Sam to help; Sam took the obituary to The Standard; and Harlan has returned to Heaven Knows the following day. “Reba, this is my brother, Duncan, and my sister-in-law, Darlene,” Harlan says as Reba walks around her desk to greet them. “We thought Lawson should lay low.”
“Good thinking,” says Reba.
“We’ve heard a lot about you,” says Duncan, accepting Reba’s hand. “Sorry things didn’t work out for you two. Nice office.”
“Pleased to meet you,” says Darlene, giving Reba a hug. “Euphoria?”
“Yes, it is. Harlan, pull up some chairs,” says Reba, touching his shoulder and catching his eye.
There was a time, looking into Reba’s green eyes, Harlan saw his reflection as if cast from a bountiful sea. Looking into Reba’s eyes now, knowing they were more apt to reflect Sam, Harlan felt like he was drowning. “We all pitched in a word or two,” he says, nodding at The Standard.
Returning to the chair behind her desk, facing Harlan, Duncan, and Darlene in their seats, Reba asks, “Why a fall from your roof?”
“That’s the kind of thing he does, cleans gutters—and such,” says Harlan.
“Reads like he searches for mushrooms at NASCAR. Did he find his snake there, too?”
“Jesus, Reba. It’s an obit, not a book.”
“What’s this about being enlightened?”
“Charlotte’s idea,” says Duncan. “She’s a minister.”
“According to this, Sam will be missed,” says Reba, folding The Standard and tossing it aside.
“Not likely,” says Harlan.
“Listen, Harlan. I didn’t call you over here to insult Sam. We have some planning to do.”
“We want the cheapest damn coffin he’s got.”
Seems like a lifetime ago, Harlan thinks before realizing it was a lifetime ago—when he stood behind red velvet curtains as Maryann walked through them and sang “Crazy.” Only this time there is an organ droning in the background as Harlan parts green tweed for her to exit. Looking as though she could still run a six-minute mile, Maryann leaves the anteroom at Forever Yours Funeral Chapel, places her hands on the casket (closed), and starts weeping. “I saw your mother act like this in Oklahoma!,” says Harlan.
“What were you doing there?” asks Lawson from a corner of the anteroom. “Who do you see out there besides family?”
Family—a word Harlan had not considered until now. Lawson, Duncan, Darlene, Maryann, and even her husband, Carl. Took a funeral to bring them together. “Sam, glad-handing a few friends of mine from work,” says Harlan, “Connie Arbeit, Reba. There’s Deputy Patti.”
“But do you see anyone who doesn’t belong here?”
Turning toward Lawson, Harlan says, “You mean other than a man at his own funeral with a snake around his neck.”
“I told you, the name is Carl,” says Lawson, stroking the snake between the eyes. “Just like my dad.”
Since Duncan informed him of the water they once drank, Harlan imagined it rising through Illinois soil much like the voices that rise in Duncan and the anger in himself. But this time, it’s not anger, it’s disappointment that surfaces at the sound of “my dad.”
“Did you ever think of me as your dad?”
“Not at first. I was only one year old when Mom married Carl. He was my dad, far as I knew. But by the time I turned sixteen, I couldn’t stand the guy—always telling me what to do, don’t smoke this or why’d you do that and shit. I named Carl, Carl, to get even. Started telling friends my real dad lived in Kentucky.”
“Don’t see why you can’t have two.”
“Cool,” says Lawson, stroking Carl-the-snake’s skin.
“Sam’s about to start. Just stay where you are and enjoy your funeral. And hold onto Carl,” says Harlan, parting the curtains, giving Lawson a glimpse of the chapel.
“Some coffin. What is that, plywood?” asks Lawson.
“Pine,” says Harlan. Then he slips out.
Around ten o’clock the previous night, Maryann and her husband had arrived at Harlan’s house with Lawson’s snake, which had been in Maryann’s care since Lawson fled Illinois. Harlan learned that when Maryann’s Carl wasn’t drumming, he ran a paint store. “I could give you some suggestions,” he’d said as he looked at Harlan’s drab walls.
They had gathered in Harlan’s living room, and all but Duncan had capped off the day with shots of Rowan Brothers’ best. “None for him. He hears enough voices as it is,” Darlene had said.
“Suppose my walls could use some color,” said Harlan before turning toward the couch, where the snake lay extended across Duncan’s and Lawson’s shoulders.
When the python’s head swiveled, Harlan noticed an unusual marking between its brown eyes. In the center of a coppery splotch, a smaller brown splotch looked like another eye. A three-eyed snake with a flickering forked tongue. “You have somewhere you can put that thing tonight?”
“Carl sleeps with me,” said Lawson.
“Not tonight. You and I’ll be sharing the foldout in the basement. The day I sleep with a snake . . .”
“We’ll sleep in your van.”
After finishing their bourbon, they’d turned in: Duncan and Darlene to the guestroom; Lawson and Carl to the van; and Harlan to his basement, just below his bedroom, where Maryann and her Carl slept.
But now at Forever Yours Funeral Chapel, seated in the front row between Harlan and Carl Baumgart, Maryann stands, steps to the casket, and sings, “Tears in Heaven,” tearfully.
Sounds as good as ever, thinks Harlan. And with Lawson alive as ever, Harlan is impressed by her tears. But surprisingly, by the third stanza, Harlan feels tears welling, too. Exactly who he’s crying for—who knows? Lawson? Eric Clapton? “’Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven,” sings Maryann.
“Oh, but we do!” Sam shouts from behind a shortened pulpit. Wearing a black suit with a black string bowtie, white hair in place, he continues, “Thank you, Sister Maryann. Folks, in Psalms 6:6, King David said, I am worn out from sobbing. All night I flood my bed with weeping, drenching it with my tears. Like King David, we have wept. We have flooded our beds with tears for Brother Lawson.”
Could sell tears to a baby, Harlan thinks.
“But in Acts 21:13, Paul says, Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? And that’s what I ask you today. Why are you weeping, folks? This should be a day of celebration!”
He’ll be pulling out his banjo next, Harlan is thinking when he hears a door creak from the rear of the chapel.
“Can I get an amen!” shouts Sam.
The Five Susanna Chorus
To this day, twenty-eight years after arriving in Bardstown, Harlan had not seen The Stephen Foster Story (aside from the time it took to heave a cherry bomb at Sam onstage). But Harlan’s parents were visiting, and his mother insisted they see it. The problem was that Harlan’s father had insisted on a pre-play tour of Rowan Brothers, where, beginning with a taste of the 160-proof white dog, straight from the pot still, and ending with a sampling of eight aged bottled bourbons, Franklin got sloshed. “They all same the taste to me,” he said, after sipping a sweet blend.
Running late for the show, Harlan took his parents to Camptown Diner. But after downing the roast beef special and drinking four cups of coffee, Franklin was no less sloshed.
Thirty minutes later, ten rows in front of Harlan, Franklin, and June, a young Stephen Foster was singing “Oh! Susanna” (too fast, thought Harlan, but at least Sam’s not on banjo), when all five Susannas lifted twirling skirts to their faces and grabbed bright-colored garters from their thighs. “Get a load a that!” said Franklin.
Taking his eyes off the stage, Harlan saw his father reaching for a garter as it sailed into the audience, reaching . . . reaching . . . before tumbling onto a woman in row nine, sending both Franklin and the woman into row eight on top of a young girl. “Oh Susanna, don’t you cry for me,” Stephen Foster sang as a large man—the girl’s father, presumably—heaved Franklin into row seven.
One day, Harlan would attribute the rage he felt to the dry-cleaned water he’d consumed as a boy. But that day, with the help of his twenty-five-years-of-service Rowan Brothers ring on his finger, he broke the large man’s nose with no thought at all.
That night, Franklin, who had come to his son’s defense in the ensuing ruckus, slept soundly in a cell he shared with Harlan. Awake on his bunk, Harlan wasn’t thinking of the nose he had crushed, the play he had stopped, or the jail time he faced. Instead, he thought of the young deputy, Deputy Patti, who had found an extra pillow for Franklin before removing the weapon from Harlan’s right hand—the ring that had splintered a nose. “Procedure, Mr. Dillbeck. We’ll take good care,” she said with a voice as smooth as twenty-year bourbon.
In Cold Blood
“Amen!” replies everyone but Harlan. Instead, turning toward the door-creak, he sees an orange Fighting Illini hoodie and camouflage pants walking up the aisle—the face inside the hood, a man of forty, maybe fifty years, sporting a braided red goatee.
But it’s not the goatee, it’s the man’s bandaged right hand that grabs Harlan’s attention. Hadn’t Lawson’s friend Timmy lopped off a man’s finger? With his good hand, the man lowers his hoodie and grabs a seat beside Reba, three rows back. Harlan turns toward the anteroom. Between its green curtains, Lawson’s blue eye grows large.
As for the celebration Sam called for, it isn’t much of one. Duncan says, “No one sharpens mower blades like Lawson.” Maryann tells how Lawson once stayed up all night kneading Carl. “His snake,” she explains. “It swallowed a squirrel.”
Following Sam’s benediction, as the mourners pay final respects, Harlan positions himself beside Maryann and Carl-the-husband in front of Lawson’s casket. With one hand on the lid, Harlan is prepared if anyone, namely the red-bearded stranger, tries to look in. But when the man approaches, he barely glances at the coffin. “Sorry, dude,” he says, offering his left hand to Harlan.
“You a friend of Lawson’s?” Harlan asks, scanning the ink on the man’s left knuckles--D U K E--before giving them a shake.
“You might say. We both know a guy who asked me to see old Lawson off,” says Duke, whose amber eyes quiver like bourbon in a shot glass.
“Thanks for coming,” says Harlan.
“See you at the cemetery,” says Duke.
Next in line, wearing a flattering black silk dress and pearls, Deputy Patti takes Harlan’s hand in hers. “I’m so sorry, Harlan.”
“Thank you, Patti. Nice of you to come.”
“I don’t want to alarm you,” Patti says in a near whisper, “but we received word from the Jefferson County, Illinois, jail. They overheard a conversation between a prisoner and a visitor named Howard Earl, goes by Duke, the man you shook hands with. I saw his ink, too. That’s why I’m here, partly.” Continuing in a normal voice, she says, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs.—”
“Baumgart,” says Maryann. “Thank you for coming.”
“Patti, Maryann. Maryann, Patti,” says Harlan. “I owe a lot to Maryann and Carl, Lawson’s other dad.”
“Hear that, Lawson?” says Carl, performing a two-fingered drumroll on the coffin.”
Judging by the thumps, Harlan can tell that Sam forgot to fill the coffin—with newspapers, bricks, whatever—to give it heft. Duncan had suggested kitty litter. Kevin, empty bourbon bottles.
“Lawson’s only father, more like,” says Maryann, as though anger had been surfacing in her, too.
“Um, nice to meet you all,” says Patti. “See you both later.”
“No, wait,” says Harlan. “I’ll walk you to your car.” Then, looking at Maryann, Harlan says, “I appreciate you and Carl being there for Lawson when I wasn’t.”
“You mean for the first forty-six years?”
“You have a right to be upset. It’s just that one thing led to another. Your marriage for one. Then it seemed too late. Maybe now things can be different—for us all,” says Harlan, glancing at the anteroom.
“We’ll see. At least you got off to a start this week. I’ll give you that.” Turning to Patti, Maryann says, “It would have meant a lot to Lawson.”
A short time later, Duncan, Darlene, Maryann, and Carl Baumgart join Harlan near the hearse, parked outside Forever Yours. “Pretend it’s got a body in it,” Harlan tells them before Sam’s nephew Danny, the hearse driver, steps from the car.
With Danny pinch-hitting as sixth pall bearer, they lift the coffin above a dented bumper into the hearse, a dent for which Harlan had paid to be fixed. “Must a been a little guy,” Danny says as the pallbearers get into the car. Judging by Danny’s smirk, Harlan suspects Sam has filled him in. But all has gone well so far. Why take any chances? Aside from Duncan singing the chorus to “This Little Light of Mine” and Darlene whispering to Harlan, “He’s singing with Charlotte,” they drive to Rose Hill in silence.
Winding through the cemetery, Harlan spots a fluttering white tent above an open grave. Soon the hearse comes to a stop. Behind it, Patti, Connie Arbeit, and Duke step from their cars—a beat-up Dodge van in Duke’s case. Orange. After the pallbearers feign Lawson’s dead weight to the gravesite (even Danny affects a grimace), a black Lincoln Town Car drives up; Reba and Sam step out; and Sam begins.
“Four days ago, it pleased God to lead Lawson to his daddy’s rooftop. But brothers and sisters, Lawson did not die that day,” Sam says with a grin aimed at Harlan. “And though we commit his earthly vessel to the ground, Lawson is with his heavenly Father now, standing on the rooftop of heaven,” he shouts. “Hallelujah!
“Lawson’s family invites you to share a lunch that the good ladies at Sudden Glory Fellowship have prepared. Now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus, the love of God Almighty, and the spirit of the Holy Ghost be with you today and evermore. Amen.”
An hour later, Harlan is standing in the desert line at Sudden Glory Fellowship with Deputy Patti. He’s scooping cherry cobbler into a bowl when he feels a tap on his shoulder. “Got a question about Lawson’s snake,” says Duke.
“Duke, Patti. Patti, Duke,” says Harlan.
“How’d you know my name?” asks Duke. “Oh, yeah,” he says after Harlan taps his own left knuckles.
Up to now, standing in line at Sudden Glory, Harlan had managed to avoid Sam. What was there to say? Thanks, to a guy about to make five thousand dollars? (“He’d normally charge six,” Reba had said. “But since there’s no body . . .”) But here Sam is, cutting in line, envelope in hand. “Suppose you want to settle up,” Harlan says, squirting whipped cream on his cobbler.
“Now, Brother Harlan, we’ll get to that soon enough,” Sam says, stuffing the envelope into his suit pocket. “Nice to see you again, Deputy. Patti and I met when my nephew Danny got into a little trouble,” Sam explains to Harlan. “That where you two met? Who’s your friend?” Sam asks, looking up at Duke.
Tomorrow morning, Duncan and Darlene will depart for Illinois. Tomorrow afternoon, Maryann and Carl Baumgart will leave, too. The next day, Sam, Patti, and Harlan will meet with Judge Rowan, old Judge Rowan’s son, to discuss Harlan’s Talbott Inn charges. In the judge’s chamber, Patti will offer to create a Jazzercise for Anger Management Class, JAM; and Sam will consent with the judge’s decision to sentence Harlan to one year of JAM attendance (Wednesday nights, Bardstown High). Given the importance of Harlan’s master taster status and the fact that this Judge Rowan, as did the preceding one, has much at stake in the distillery, Harlan will not be surprised at his honor’s leniency. But Harlan will be grateful to the judge, to Patti, and to some extent, Sam.
“Duke, Sam. Sam—” Harlan says in the desert line. But faster than Harlan can complete the introduction, Duke yells, “Snake!” at the sight of Carl slithering from the kitchen, serpentining beneath the desert table, and coiling behind Sam. Faster than Lawson, running from the kitchen, can reach Carl, Duke pulls out a Smith and Wesson from underneath his Fighting Illini sweatshirt and takes aim—the snake a clear shot if not for Sam in the way. Giving no thought to more than forty years of grievances, Harlan lowers his shoulder and drives Sam into a double-frosted chocolate sheet cake.
“Drop the weapon,” says Deputy Patti, squeezing Duke’s bandaged hand and yanking down.
“Shitsake!” yells Duke, dropping his gun and himself to the yellow linoleum.
Rising from the sheet cake, wiping chocolate from his eyes, Sam looks to his right and says, “He’s been hit.” Standing beside Sam, Harlan runs his hand across his butt and thinks, not again.
“Hands behind your head,” demands Patti.
“I was aiming for the snake!” yells Duke.
Securing Duke’s hands with her pearls, Patti says, “Harlan Dillbeck, you have some
explaining to do. I thought your son was dead—before now.”
Before now? Harlan thinks, turning from Patti. And there, beneath the dessert table, motionless atop his snake, lies Lawson—a red rivulet running on the floor.
Two months from now, leaving Wednesday night JAM with Patti, Harlan will say, “I could never bring Carl to class. The vibrations from the music would scare her. She wrapped into a ball this morning when a fire truck went by. It’s what ball pythons do when they feel threatened. Like that day at Lawson’s funeral.”
“Wait, Carl is a she?”
“Yeah. Lawson didn’t know that when he named her. He didn’t think much of his other dad back then.”
“You know, Harlan, if you called her Carla it would clear things up.”
But for now, at Sudden Glory Fellowship, it’s still Carl. And the only visible part of Carl is the tip of her tail, sticking out from beneath Lawson, whom Harlan falls upon to embrace. Meanwhile, Duncan, Darlene, and Carl Baumgart rush to Lawson’s side. “Lawson!” Maryann screams, squeezing into the space beneath the table atop Harlan. Despite the shock of the moment, Harlan imagines the picture this would make: a stack of Carl-the-snake, Lawson, and Harlan himself, topped by Maryann beneath a table filled with cobblers and pies.
“Mom, Dad, you’re getting heavy. Carl’s been hit,” mumbles Lawson from below.
“Praise God!” shouts Sam nearby.
Maryann is first to stand, followed by Harlan, then Lawson. In a bleeding mottled ball, curls Carl. “It’s just a flesh wound, looks like. Someone, get a towel,” says Carl Baumgart, cue for Sudden Glory Parishioner, Connie Arbeit, to run into the kitchen and hustle a dishtowel back. With two wraps around the python’s body, Carl staunches Carl’s cold blood.
Still on his knees, Duke says, “You gotta believe me,” his red goatee braid swinging from Harlan to Patti as he pleads. “I didn’t come here to shoot nobody. I seen the obit, and I figured Timmy being in jail hadn’t, and since he was willing to pay a stack to kill Lawson, why not cash in? So, I visited Timmy and told him I thought Lawson might be in Kentucky with his daddy. I said I’d come over here and kill him and bring back the proof. That snake took me by surprise, is all.”
“What kind of proof?” asks Lawson, lifting Carl to his shoulders.
“That three-eyed snake. Everybody knows you wouldn’t go nowhere without it. Timmy, he said, ‘Bring me back Carl, alive, and I’ll know the snitch is dead.’ Timmy always liked that snake. Me, I thought whoever wound up with it would be happy to give it up. I’d tell Timmy I pushed you off your daddy’s roof, show him the obit, and give him the snake. Anyways, I was about to ask where the damn snake was, when there he was. Who was in the casket?”
“So, you tried to kill your proof, dumbfuck?” asks Lawson. “Sorry, Reverend.”
“Looks like,” says Duke. “Probably would have if I hadn’t shot left-handed.”
By this time, Reba has cleaned the chocolate from Sam’s face. She’s dabbing his lapel with a napkin, when Sam asks Lawson, “Love that serpent, do you?”
“Yes, sir,” Lawson says, stroking Carl’s third eye.
“Couldn’t see your way to give it up?”
With Duke on his knees, Sam, short as he is, looks Duke in the eyes and says, “Look here, you go back and tell this Timmy fella you got here too late. Lawson was already dead. You seen his body at the funeral. Make sure Timmy sees the obit, and tell him Harlan wanted the snake. How much for you to do that, Duke?”
“Harlan, give the man his money,” says Sam.
“And trust him to do what you say?”
Leaning into Duke’s left ear, Sam says, “Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Don’t He, Duke? First your finger, then God knows what. I have me some friends in Paris. They might just like to take a motorcycle ride to Illinois.”
“Bang on boyo!” says Duncan.
“I catch your drift, Reverend,” says Duke. “Paris?”
Ladling a drink from the punch bowl, Sam says, “Now then, Harlan, let’s have us a word. And thank you, Patti. Nice pearls.”
Following Sam upstairs into his office, Harlan sees two five-string banjos, a Deering standing in a chair and a Gibson lying in an open case across Sam’s desk. “Have a seat,” says Sam.
Harlan has not held a banjo since he tossed his Kay into the Beech Fork, but picking up the Deering, he can’t resist playing the riff he used to play when Jerry Lawson introduced him in the Ramblers.
“‘Clinch Mountain Backstep.’ Not bad,” Sam says, before lowering his fruit punch to the desk, picking up his Gibson, and playing the first nine notes of “Dueling Banjos.” Pausing, Sam looks at Harlan while grinning that shit-same grin from decades ago.
If it were up to Harlan’s mind, he would not accept the duel. More than forty years since he’d last played. He’d have to be a fool to accept Sam’s challenge. Da-da da da da da da da daa, Harlan’s fingers reply.
Da da da da da da da daa, plays Sam, before Harlan’s mind wins out. Lowering the Deering, Harlan sits and pulls out his checkbook. “What do I owe you? Let’s get this over with.”
After putting the Gibson in its case, Sam reaches into his suit pocket, opens the envelope, and says, “According to this, five thousand three hundred eighty dollars and thirty-seven cents—for the Norwich Pine, taxes, and my services. But seeing as how you might have saved me from being shot, let’s call it an even five thousand three hundred. Fair enough?”
“How about five thousand four hundred and you put in a word for me with the judge.”
“About you almost shooting me at the Talbott?”
“What else would I mean?”
“Fifty-four hundred it is. But just so you know, I did this all for Reba’s sake. I could lose my license over this.”
“Your license to steal, you mean,” says Harlan as he rips out a check.
Picking up the Gibson, Sam launches into “Camptown Races,” in D, to no surprise. Glaring down at Sam, Harlan picks up the Deering and, in G, joins in—discord the likes of which raises Reba up the stairs and, for all Harlan knows, Stephen Foster from the dead.
Two months later, leaving Wednesday night JAM, Harlan says, “Good point, Patti. But Lawson’s called her Carl for nearly thirty years. Be hard to call her Carla now.”
“Thirty years? Pythons live that long?” asks Patti, walking hand-in-hand with Harlan down the steps from Bardstown High. A full moon shining in the east.
“Out in the wild, they don’t. Kind of like us in a way. You and me could live a long time, now,” says Harlan, giving Patti’s hand a squeeze.
“Listen to you,” says Patti, squeezing back.
Looking down at their clasped hands, in the mix of moon and streetlight, Patti’s slender brown fingers complete the back of Harlan’s white hand. “Lawson’s working graveyard unloading a late shipment of barrels,” says Harlan. “How about you stay at my house tonight?”
Up to now, Harlan and Patti’s relationship has consisted of meals at Camptown Diner and Jazzercise at Bardstown High. But last Wednesday night had ended with a hug on Patti’s doorstep.
“I have to be at work by seven in the morning. You’ll have to drop me off at my house by six.”
Walking down the sidewalk toward Harlan’s van, Patti says, “I’ve been meaning to ask, that day at the church, when you and Sam went into his office, what did you talk about—before you started playing?”
“Nothing much. Sam wanted his money.”
“That and he wanted me to know that he did Lawson’s funeral for Reba’s sake.”
“Well, he did talk to Judge Rowan for you,” says Patti.
“Between you and me, I paid him to speak to the judge.”
“I didn’t hear that,” says Patti as Harlan aims a key at his van and punches the opener. “What is it between you two, anyway?”
“It’s a long story. But just because two men can’t stand the other, it doesn’t mean they can’t help each other out when— Oh hell, I don’t know. Let’s go home,” says Harlan, opening the door for Patti to his Odyssey.