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The Halloween Project Day 1: The Banjo Man

The overstuffed chair on the porch of his ramshackle house barely supported Zeke as he gazed out on the stars against the purpling sky of the Great Smoky Range. The sun set quickly in late October; oranges, yellows and reds, dropping quickly into greys and blacks. Tennessee, especially in the mountains, made that bargain long ago with Mother Nature. Summer was long, humid and hot, but when winter beckoned, the cold winds brought the message. He gazed out and looked long and thoughtful.

For forty years Zeke was the Banjo Man throughout the valley. People said he was born in the house he lived in, four miles off any main road, but Zeke really didn’t remember. He did remember ma and pa and a brother or two, maybe three. They all died or moved away, he really couldn’t recall. But he did remember his daddy teachin’ him to play banjo. Maybe it was a cigar box banjo, maybe not.

That was what he did. Day in, day out. All alone, he sat on that back porch and played his banjo. In his twenties he took a trip into a city, bought himself a right fine banjo, might had been Chattanooga, but that was a long time ago.

Zeke lived alone. Chickens, sheep and goats. A pig now and then. Chopped his own firewood. Cut through the ice in the pond down below for fresh water in the winter. Saved the ice in slabs in the barn layered between hay to keep what he needed frozen. Raised his own vegetables all summer.

He didn’t dislike other folks. Mostly, he just found them talkative to the point that he thought his pigs had better conversation. He would walk the four miles into Sevierville when needed and buy the things he couldn’t make for himself at home. Nails, shingles, bullets. And then there was Bill’s Bar – B- Que. The road house had grown into the place in town where everyone released a little steam on Saturday night. On the big neon sign outside the Que had burned out so long ago that everyone ready to party on a Saturday night said they were going to Bill’s Bar – B and that was enough to be said.

Bill’s was a honky-tonk roadhouse that specialized in late, and very late night carousing, liquor and music. Thirty years ago, maybe forty, Zeke had walked into Bill’s with his banjo strapped to his back. Zeke heard some damn fine bluegrass blaring, folks were dancing and the liquor was flowing. Bill shouted out “So, young buck, what you think you got to offer us here at Bill’s?” Without a word, Zeke made his way up to the small elevated platform that acted as a stage. He sat down and took a long slow look at the others assembled there; a drummer, if a single lonely snare drum could be called percussion, a fiddler who had left his teeth on the shelf long ago and a stand-up bass player who looked like his first shave was yesterday. They all jumped into the tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and the die was cast.

For the next 40 years Zeke walked the four miles from his shack down to Bill’s and played the banjo with a rotating cast of band mates. Some played their asses off and moved on to better paying gigs. One got hit by a semi when he wandered out into Route 44 in the early morning and never looked up in time. Some faded away and some stayed for decades. But when the music was rolling and the crowd was on the edge of ecstatic Zeke was fingering that fretboard like he was born with a banjo in his cradle. If you stayed late enough Bill would break out a jug of moonshine that looked like it had been distilled in the devil’s graveyard. It was brown and not clear enough to see through. He’d give it only to the band and any time they took a swig in shot glasses that were also smoky and dark the music would take a momentary lull and their faces would look as if they had either taken confession with Jesus or shook the hand of Satan. Then the music would soar.

But Zeke stayed, even after Bill died and Little Bill begged him to stay as long as forever. Way back he was paid two dollars a night and all the whiskey he could drink. Later on it went up to ten dollars a night. Never got any better than that, but Zeke liked the whiskey. Some nights when the music got frenzied, the house, always packed, reached a pitch like the Second Coming. A local character, Deacon Dan, would jump up on stage and start shouting in the midst of a song, “Y’all better get your asses to church tomorrow! We are dancing and singing tonight but the Almighty sees your inequities and wants you to repent your sins! The sins of your past and the sins you are all committin’ tonight!” Eventually, someone would kick Deacon Dan’s ass off the little makeshift stage and the band would roll on, lost in the magic of the music.

Zeke played with abandon. People who had been here and there, Nashville to Memphis, would exclaim that he was the best banjo player they had ever heard anywhere. After a decade or two suits made their way out to Zeke’s house. Their car only took them about three miles in and they had to make their way by clambering over a wooded trail for the last two miles. They slowly sidled up to the back side of Zeke’s house, but he heard them coming for a hundred yards. He held up a lantern as they stepped into the light.

“Can I help you?” he called out.

“Hello!” they replied, “We’re from TMI records out of Chattanooga. We’d like to talk with you.”

“What about?”

“A contract…maybe…or having you come into the studio to do some recording.”

“Not interested, “ Zeke replied.

“Well, we hear you’re the best banjo player in the Smokey Mountains.”

Zeke hesitated a moment. Then he issued a small laugh.

“I’m sure that ain’t true.” He shouted back.

“There’s money in it,” a suited man said back.

“What do I need with money?” Zeke said.

“Well, you could buy yourself a new banjo. Or even a new house. Or how about a car?”

They could hear Zeke laugh, a louder, sarcastic grumble.

“Shit.” He said.

And he followed with:

“This here banjo is like my third arm. This house is where I was born, at least I think I was born here. And as for a car…to me that’s nothing but a big, goddamn paperweight.”

The corporate men tried several other arguments and incentives until finally Zeke simply said, “Gentlemen, thank you for your time, but this conversation is over…and please get off my land.”

It was about two weeks later when Zeke, slowly and reluctantly, rested his banjo into its case and ended another Saturday night of music and revelry at Bill’s Bar B to walk the four miles home. It hadn’t been but a half hour on a truly clear October night, moon short of full, but shadows sharp, when he noticed a small dog coming up the path toward him. Zeke never gave it a thought.

“Hey, boy,” he called out in the shadowy dark.

Knowing animals and feeling a kinship his entire life, Zeke extended his hand. He reached down, his left hand lowered as the dog approached. In a bright explosion of energy the dog launched, clamping on Zeke’s hand and embedding its fangs into the meaty bulb of muscle and sinew at the base of his thumb. Zeke screamed a yowl of pain, gave a sudden jerk and the animal relented, but stood its ground.

“God damn! God damn, you son of a bitch!” Zeke screamed.

The dog hovered on all fours, mewling in a grotesque low growl, ready to attack again, when Zeke realized it was not a dog at all. A coyote maybe. But not a coyote. Something. Something he had never seen before. Something from the darkest caves of the Smokey Mountains. Something that had never been this way before. Not in his long lifetime. Perhaps never. Only a moment longer, then it turned and made its way off into the darkened forest.

Zeke hustled the last half mile home. He boiled water and poured it, despite the pain, over the gaping wound. He painted the injury with whiskey and boiled water once again. He wrapped it in some torn bandage and slept, fitfully and dreaming. In the morning the wound had festered. He followed all the remedies he knew and they were many. Despite the pain he applied emollients and herbs, black salves and dark liquors. The infection grew. On the fifth day he could no longer feel his thumb or his little finger. Fingers began to blacken. On the seventh day he took the big carving knife that he used to cut the joints of sheep that he had slaughtered and cut off his thumb. Two days later he took off his pinky and his fourth finger. He took to his bed in fever and pain, whiskey not enough. Three days later he struck off his remaining fingers on his left hand and buried those fingers beyond the shed where the others lay.

Zeke sat in the overstuffed chair considering the stars as they crystallized in the night. He peered down into his lap and looked longingly at his hand , his left bandaged, resembling nothing more than a flattened, round stone. Next to it lay a harmonica.

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