Submitted by William Elder.
Toes exploded. Clearly, that’s what happened to him— he exploded, at least his heart did. Lying on his own, old, flowerdy couch, watching his own black and white teevee, minding his own business on a Saturday afternoon, probably more than sipping whiskey and Coke, his own good heart attacked him without warning, turning into what the doctor called an overripe plum, that burst like rotten fruit. He bled from everywhere to all over, dead before the commercial, before he knew what hit him. That was some comfort to all, except him.
But he was out of it, gone. His many friends mourned him in their many ways, most with music, and really mostly for music’s sake. For Toes was a hot-handed banjo picker who could hit a lick or two, and then some. He was lead banjo and one of the founders of Hanky Mountain Express, a bluegrass band that had kicked-ass around Virginia out of the Shenandoah Valley long enough to be beloved by many— always on the bill at festivals, a real stage presence, welcomed in parking lots everywhere when the instruments came out, as they always did, and with a couple of vinyls to their credit.
Now a mainstay of the band was gone, just like that. Toes of course was Tommy Oliver, the same way Charlie Rankie, guitar player, was Chuck Roast, Rick Richardson, mandolin ace, was the Flyin’ Zero, and bassist and funny man was Gus Volmer, or just Gus. Just because.
“J’ever hear about the young, newly-married couple… that didn’t know the difference between Vasoline… and window putty?’ Gus would lean over and ask between numbers. Rick would draw back in disbelief, maybe strike a chord for emphasis. Gus would lean in to the microphone, pause, look from side to side, to make sure it was alright to say: “All their window panes fell out!” Ta-da: Bluegrass humor.
Toes’ death wasn’t funny, of course, but his life had its moments.
Toe’s mourners gathered at a small, white against green, country church outside Staunton, Virginia, one with a big parking lot. The parking lot was important. Music got made there, off bumpers, out of pick-ups and lawn chairs, made by the fingers of bluegrass’ worshipers and their sweet songs, high whiney, and lonesome. They came, they gathered, they picked, they played, they came together around the songs they all knew and loved, just to sing them again— with Toes in mind. Time came to go inside the church, which was almost a sacrilege in itself. Silence fell. Pews filled. Walls were lined, instruments held against blue-jeans, cradled against whatever shirt felt right that day. An understated man in black understood his role as a mediator of loss. He called upon the gathered to come forward and each one to say his or her piece about Toes, about the loved-one who could no longer speak for himself. A line formed. Words were spoken and retreated from with slow steps. Finally the line gave out. The man in black came forward to ask if anyone had more to say. All was quiet, but for birds.
Then, Rick stood up, white shirt and tie, unusual for him. He shuffled to the aisle, side-step at a time. Up the aisle he came, ramrod straight, up onto the pine dais. He grasped its polished edges and looked out stockstill over the gathered sea of upturned faces. For a long time. Long enough for a feeling of unease to creep into the dead-still room. Faces leaned forward to compel… something to happen, threatening to tip too far forward.
“Last summer…” Rick’s words came just in time. Faces caught themselves just in time. “… the Express got a gig down in Ocracoke, on the Outer Banks, in Carolina. Money was good. We took it, naturally.” Faces leaned back. This was something an audience of musicians understood. “Long haul, but good money. Me and Toes decided to drive The Flying Zero down, to carry the instruments, and have as a spare bedroom. The others would follow on their own.” He looked over the nods of understanding in the audience. “Down to the coast is a good three-hour plus haul.” More nods. “Long and tiresome enough to start paying attention to signs and such. ‘Look at that,’ Toes said. A faded yellow sign with red letters said: SEE WILD ANIMALS AHEAD! ‘You see that?’ Toes asked. I said I did. ‘That sounds great!’ I said it did. A few miles ahead we passed another: DON’T MISS THE WILD ANIMALS JUST AHEAD! ‘See what that said?’ I did.” So did everyone in that little church. “WILD ANIMALS COMING UP— ONE MILE AHEAD! ‘Let’s stop,’ urged Toes. ‘Stretch our legs! Whaddya say? See something?’ He became more excited with each yellow sign. Besides, we needed a pit stop.
The place turned out as faded as its yellow signs. Gravel parking ground under us. Toes was out and in before I could shut down the Flying Zero. I followed. The oldest female not yet in the Guinness Book of Records sat and watched us enter without much interest. Toes asked her a few questions and beat it out the back door. I looked over the amazing array of fishing gear, aisle after aisle of ocean rig, totally foreign and fascinating to a mountain-creek fisher like me. But fascination soon faded to futility for one without a 28-foot Boston Whaler, or one of its cousins. I wandered on outback looking for Toes.”
The audience in the little white church wandered with him. Despite the air of reverence that brought us together, little conversations broke out, questions puttered around.
“Well. I found him!” Rick’s voice broke out like a hosanna, commanding attention. “He was in this little courtyard filled up mostly by trash and a wired-in cage, roofed, maybe ten feet across. There was Toes, hopping from one foot to the other, flailing with his left hand, whooping. His right hand was up against the wire of the cage— no other animals in sight— his forefinger apparently poked through the wire. He hopped and pleaded. ‘Help me! Oh, God help me! Get me out!’ On the inside of the wire was a bright orange orangutan, hairy as a homeless hippy, lips against the wire of his cage— with Toes’ finger deep in his mouth. I had indeed found most of him.”
“Above the orangutan’s cage was a sign in faded red paint that said as clear as all capitals could make it: DANGER! WILD ANIMAL! STAY AWAY FROM CAGE! I don’t know until this day how I kept from falling down, I was laughing so hard. I thought to myself all I had seen that finger do with a banjo, and sobered a bit. I ran inside, waving and yelling. The old woman understood immediately. She bestirred herself with impatience, mumbling, while she hobbled outside, threw open the cage door, whacked the wild animal with her knitting, and screamed: ‘Stop it! Both of you!’ She slammed the cage door and stomped back inside, giving Toes her look reserved for the terminally stupid. The orangutan retreated to a neutral corner. Toes squealed like a pig newly freed from ape spit, blowing on his ill-placed digit, still hopping up and down.”
Rick drew himself up behind the podium, stopped, looked over the breathless congregation before him for a long minute. “Toes grabbed me by the collar with both hands. He pulled me down into his face, red as a beet, there in that courtyard, looked me straight in the eye, and said to me, ‘If you ever tell a living soul about this, I’ll come back and haunt your sorry ass forever!’
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
Susanne Bacon says
What a vividly written story! And I love the punch line. Keep it coming, please!