The day the boy rode into Asheville, a tropical storm was whipping up the coast from Louisiana. Radio announcers in Connecticut cautioned people to stay off the roads even before one drop of rain fell, but Earl Ray and his wife Marilyn were not about to close their country western bar—River Star Ranch—just because of a storm, especially not on the day of the Annual River Star Competition.
They were at the bar that morning when the boy opened the door and the wind whipped in behind him. Marilyn looked past him out into the parking lot, where his old Chevy pickup sat, rounded fenders, rusty runners, dents and all. His truck, his worn blue jeans and scuffed cowboy boots, even the way he filled the doorframe was curious.
He glanced at her and then shook his head. “I want to sing tonight.”
Just then, the sky started to rumble and rain pelted the ground, sending dust into the air. Marilyn pulled the boy in and shut the door behind him. His hand was warm and dry, like an electric blanket, where you could feel the electricity running. His eyes lit on Earl coming toward them.
“I guess this storm’s going to be a humdinger,” Earl said to Marilyn. “They say it’s veering inland, coming our way.”
The boy focused on Earl, and Marilyn saw his china doll beauty, the blonde hair, clear skin and periwinkle blue eyes narrow to an animal intensity; his features pushed up slightly and his eyes half-closed as he shifted his guitar.
Earl looked at Marilyn.
“He wants to sing,” she said.
“Is that so?” Earl looked hard at the boy.
Thunder shook the air. Both Earl and Marilyn jumped, but the boy didn’t flinch.
Earl tipped his head to the side, as if changing perspective would help him figure the boy out. “I’m sorry. We get only name bands, top performers for the competition. People pay $16 a ticket or more to get in here.”
“That’s what I’m going to be.” The boy turned to the almost empty room. “One of the best. I can fill this house now, I bet.”
“What’s your name?”
“Willie Fillmore. All due respect, son, but I never heard of you and I know most people in the business if they’re that good. You’re telling me you can fill this house?”
The boy nodded.
Earl plunked the armful of linens he was holding onto the table. “Alright then, let’s have one song. Make it your best.” He eased himself into a chair. Marilyn sat next to him.
“Doesn’t matter what I play,” the boy said as he opened his guitar case. “They all sound good.” He pulled out a shiny red and white guitar.
Marilyn smiled. “You are full of piss and vinegar! You remind me of my husband,” she nudged Earl’s leg, but Earl was watching the boy. “You go ahead and sing for me and I’ll give you a plate of ribs, on the house.”
Willie tossed his head; fit the strap over his should and plucked a few strings of the guitar. He opened his mouth and started to sing.
Earl’s arm slipped off the back and Marilyn’s chair as the boy’s mouth emitted sound—a blast of wind forced through a winding tunnel of rock. And the wind, his voice, was like antiquity. It riveted Earl to his seat. He didn’t know the song; he wasn’t paying attention to the words. He listened to the voice. The boy’s voice came rushing on the air high and low pitched, free and focused at the same time.
Earl’s face turned fish belly white and sweat broke out above his lip. That boy had a voice as pure as only one other voice he’d ever heard. It was old as rock and young as new breath, and borne up by a spirit not of this world. The boy knew he held power over both of them, but it was Earl he watched, while at the same time compelled by something outside their vision and knowledge. When he finished singing he took a slight bow.
“Boy,” Earl cleared his throat and the word came out as a growl, “where’d you get a singing voice like that?”
“It’s in the family,” Willie said.
Earl sat back, mouth open and shook his head.
Marilyn touched his shoulder. “Earl? Earl? Are you alright?”
Earl didn’t speak. He couldn’t speak. He wasn’t there. He was in the hot New Orleans sun, in a fallow field of cotton, the magnificent pecan trees waving in the wind; Spanish moss draped from each like a lacy shawl on a ghost.
Earl gulped down some air. “Yes,” he croaked.
Marilyn shifted her attention from Earl back to Willie. “Your family must be so proud of you.”
“My mother died a few months ago. Pancreatic cancer.” Now his eyes were moist with tears; but behind the tears, they were clear.
“Oh, that’s an awful thing for a boy your age,” Marilyn crooned. She wasn’t looking at Earl, she was thinking of her own children surrendered to her first husband, surrendered because she had messed up, not through abuse but neglect. The kids were old enough now for the scars to show. But it seemed they didn’t think they had scars as long as she stayed out of their lives. She didn’t even know what they looked like. “How old are you, Willie?”
“Eighteen,” he answered. That was the age of her own son.
“Your daddy?” Earl leaned toward the boy. “What about him?”
“Never knew him,” Willie stopped abruptly.
Marilyn put her hand on Earl’s arm. “Earl, can we put him on the roster?”
Earl squirmed on his chair like he was sitting on 100 volts. He rubbed his hands on his thighs. “Alright, then. Come back at six o’clock.”
Willie nodded and put away his guitar. He turned to leave.
“Willie,” Earl called him back. “How did you know about River Star Ranch?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Like you said, sir, you’re a name in the industry.”
Earl puffed up. “I used to be. In New Orleans. Then I met Marilyn and I had to save her from her evil ways. He smirked but hurt washed over Marilyn’s face.
She kept her voice light and replied “Earl, I have been saved by a higher power than capital Y-O-U.”
Earl smiled at her, a tight little smile. “I don’t think so, Marilyn.”
“I know so.” Marilyn shook her head to wipe away the pain, then smiled bravely at the boy. “Earl had a place on Bourbon Street,” she said, with pride.
“You heard of Bourbon Street?” Earl shot at Willie.
“Sir, I was born on Bourbon Street.” Willie turned away again.
Marilyn followed him to the door. Looking back, she saw Earl staring after the boy. The lunch crowd had begun to appear, needing her attention, but she ran into the kitchen and dialed her friend Carmel, a psychic down in New Orleans.
“Carmel, honey. Do you have a minute? The strangest thing just happened—a boy just came in…” She told Carmel about Willie and his voice and its effect on Earl.
When Marilyn was finished talking, Carmel said, “Listen Marilyn, it’s time we talked portals. We never talked about this before, but there are points of energy in your body, places located on the back of your body, which get ignored. Portals, they’re called. Always been there, and almost always been ignored. People who pray or meditate can turn their awareness around, open up these areas so to speak and open to other realities through the portals. Sometimes visitors even come through the portals to help people with their unfinished business. Don’t be afraid. You still pray regular, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” Marilyn said proudly. “Every day I get a good conversation going with Jesus.”
“Well, I’m getting a strong signal from you up there. Now, listen good. It shouldn’t be too hard for you to do this. What you need to do is open up the portal this boy came through to find out why he’s here. Can you do that?”
“What is this portal? I don’t understand.”
“You may not understand it until you do it, sugar. But I think this boy has some business with you and Earl.”
“Well, Carmel,” Marilyn looked over the kitchen staff from the corner where she was hunched, and lowered her voice. “There is something strange here, that’s for sure. You just never heard anything like this boy’s voice. I never have. It doesn’t sound human. You should see Earl. He seems hypnotized. I never saw him look the way he’s looking now. It took some hold of him.
“This boy must have sensed some splinter need you two have,” Carmel said. “it’s probably not a core need, not yet, which is good, because then you’d really have problems. But still, splinter needs radiate from the core so you got to recognize them.”
Just then there was a crack of thunder interrupted.
“Me and Earl are fine,” Marilyn said.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Carmel’s voice crackled through the line, and then she hung up without even saying goodbye. Marilyn was used to that. Carmel was her only friend left from New Orleans and they talked about once a month. Whenever Marilyn told Carmel she missed her, Carmel, instead of agreeing, would say, “I’m right here with you, honey,” as if time and distance weren’t real.
Marilyn looked out at the dining room again. Earl was still there, sitting in his trance.
“Hey Marilyn?!” the cook shouted. “Maybe you’d like to take out these plates?”
Marilyn grabbed the entrees and took them out, leaning over to kiss Earl on the head as she passed by. He moved out from under the caress of her lips. She found him a few minutes later in the supply room, stacking linens.
“Earl, what are you doing in here? You’ve got to get to the bank and get the prize check before noon.” It was like he was sleepwalking.
They had been married for 18 years, 16 of them in Asheville. When they moved up north and opened River Star Ranch, Earl thought he had left his ghosts behind. But that boy was a ghost, he was sure of it.
“I’m going to get the check in plenty of time, Marilyn,” he snapped now. “Just leave me alone.” It had taken him years to reconcile himself to this place, to the smallness of it compared to Bourbon Street. The boy’s appearance reawakened his disappointed sense of destiny.
Marilyn stood under the light and Earl noticed with distaste the gray roots of her hair and the sagging skin under her chin. She took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you say things to hurt me, Earl, but I’m not going to try to hurt you back. I know you’ve got disappointments. We all get disappointed in life, but that doesn’t mean you just pass it on, especially to the person who loves you.”
That was classic Marilyn. She laid her vulnerability at his feet for him to step on or respect. He saw she had prepared his stage outfit as she called it silver-studded belt, his cowboy hat, and a checked shirt pressed and neatly folded on a shelf next to the old red cowboy boot from which he would draw the winner’s name.
When Earl looked back to the door, the space Marilyn had occupied was empty.
“I know your mother’s name,” he whispered to the wind. “Her name is Alyson Brand.”
Earl’s bar had been on Bourbon Street. He waited for the time of day when the music started, when he could stand on the uneven sidewalk and hear the air fill with its music. The saxophones, trumpets, drums like spirits floating filling the sky, swirling over head, swooping down to enter his bar, his ears, his soul. The music was joy, joy, joy.
And that was how he met Alyson Brand. She was with a gig coming through New Orleans for a month. That first night she sang and he heard her voice, the same voice as the boy’s now—exactly that voice without gender, not owned by sex, unfettered from the world. His whole life had prepared him for her because he expected love to come like a thunder bolt, not low and grounded and quiet, as it had with Marilyn. He and Marilyn had been married for one unremarkable year. As soon as he saw Alyson, with her platinum hair scooped up and held by a clip in the back, except for a few wispy strands that hung down and caressed her neck and then heard her sing, he fell in love. That first night after her gig they closed his bar and still found places to go.
“I should go back to the hotel and rest my voice,” she said. It was nearly eight in the morning. Instead they walked to Café Du Monde, where a swarm of people gathered under the canopy in Jackson Square, voices animated and happy. The waiter brought them chicory coffee and a plate of hot beignets with powdered sugar heaped on top and Earl and Alyson watched the birds swoosh down to the empty tables and peck at the sugary crumbs. By 9 am the jazz started and voices rose and fell with the beat. He liked the way Alyson tossed her head, like she was shaking the music around all the time. A saxophone player had played “Smile and the world smiles with you,” and Alyson had sung along. All talking stopped. All eyes were on her. Earl felt proud to be with her.
The month had gone by in a blur. She was 28 to his 43. Every night, he listened to her sing and every day, he shared all the people in his life with her, including all the music connections. Earl hardly went home and it wasn’t long before Marilyn knew of the affair but Earl didn’t care. He had never felt so alive, so connected to a purpose a reason for doing everything he did, every minute of the day…and night. He took Alyson to the best bars, the places where people played.
One night after hot music and hotter sex, they lay in her hotel room watching the sun come up and Earl said “This weekend I’m going to tell Marilyn I’m leaving her.”
“What?” Alyson shook her head, her objection clear. “Why?”
“Because of us? For us. “ He reached for her hand.
She pushed him away. We never talked about this. I’m going to Nashville, Earl. This is…well, this is just what it is.”
He saw then that she thought she was poised on the edge of greatness, stretching into her future success and leaving him far in the background.
“But you’ll need a home to come back to, wherever you go.” He hated how weak he sounded but he said it anyway. He couldn’t lose her.
She flung his arm off her and sprang off the bed. The next day she left New Orleans and every day, he waited for her to return. Months on end. Marilyn hovered over him, but he wouldn’t speak about it. How could Alyson disappear after she had made him love her like that, plan his whole life around her? She was like fog lifting off the road during a rainstorm. She was night itself. But still, he waited for her to come back. His business faltered. Alyson cut a record and it sold but not well. He thought she might come back then. No. More months stretched on. Then Marilyn’s uncle died and she inherited the house in Asheville. She told him she was leaving and he needed to make a choice. He didn’t see it as much of a choice. He felt dead either way.
What if–. Now Earl knew this might sound crazy, but not so crazy. What if this boy was his son? He and Marilyn had not had any children together. What if Alyson had gone off and had this baby and never wanted to tell him—who knew why. But it would be like her. Why else would this boy be here now? He wanted to believe—this boy was family.
Marilyn waited for him to leave for the bank, and then she slipped away from the lunch crowd, into the back room and locked the door. She sank down onto the floor, and slowed her breath, trying as Carmel had told her to send all that energy flowing around to the back of her body, instead of stopped up in her head. The storm had kicked up again, the wind whining and crying like a baby. Just like a baby, stuck alone in some room, whining and crying. Marilyn started to cry, remembering how her children had clung to her when Family Services came to take them away. They were so young. She was just 22 and the kids were 2 and 3. She had stopped dancing at the Sky Top when she had the kids but she was hooked on the drugs and she did what she needed to get them. Her first husband had given her chances, she couldn’t say he hadn’t. And she had blown every one. Earl came along and helped her back on her feet. Forgiving him had become practice for forgiving herself, but there were days, like this one, when she wondered why she bothered.
At 5:30, the sky was pitch black. The storm thrashed and moaned, but still River Star Ranch was filling up with out of towners. Many of the singers were going to be late, the storm had delayed flights and downed power lines had prevented others from getting there and Earl was in a foul mood.
When Willie appeared wearing the same outfit as earlier with the addition of a black cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, Earl and Marilyn approached from opposite sides of the restaurant. Earl reached him first.
“A bunch of people on the roster are stuck in traffic. Can you sing?”
Willie looked around the restaurant and his face was a screen, but when he nodded, Earl could see her profile again. The aquiline nose, the straight brows, the chiseled chin.
“Was Alyson Brand your mother?” He blurted it out.
“Who?” Willie frowned.
“Are you serious? Earl” Marilyn asked. “After all these years–?”
The boy’s gaze went between the two of him. Earl was still convinced that the boy was his son.
Marilyn stepped back; the plate of hot ribs she was carrying slid to the floor.
“You don’t deserve me, Earl. You never did.” She spun away and left the ribs splattered on the floor.
“Marilyn, come back here and clean that up,” Earl shouted.
Willie jammed his hat on his head.
A tremendous crack of thunder split the air. The lights flickered, and then went out.
“Oh, shit,” Earl stomped his foot. In the pitch black he could see nothing. “Stay seated everyone. Give me two minutes to get to the basement and turn on the generator.” He lowered his voice and whispered, “Willie? Can you sing for them? Something to keep them occupied so they don’t panic?”
“Sure thing, sir,” Willie answered.
Earl clapped his hands together. Even in pitch darkness he could feel the people’s restlessness. “Stay seated. Please. Mr. Willie Fillimore is going to sing for you while I go start the generator.” Earl backed away, arms reaching for the wall behind him. He found the door and eased his way down the stairs and around the all to the generator. Just before he flipped the switch and heard the familiar hum of electricity, just for a moment, he paused to listen to the boy’s voice. Without the benefit of sight, his other senses shifted into play and the voice, while beautiful and pure did not sound like the voice he remembered. It sounded tinny now, like an adolescent’s undeveloped soprano. Why had he thought otherwise? How had that voice held such power? Was it Destiny itself, come to correct his life choice? His heart pounded and he was having trouble breathing.
He started the generator and light flooded the basement. Pushing open the doors of the bulkhead, he scrambled up the steps and let the rain pelt him. There was no moon, but outside he could breathe. By the light of the generator, he followed the stone walk to the front door of the restaurant. He could see Willie singing now. Through the window, he could see that the boy was standing in the center of the room, holding the microphone, turning each time he sang a few phrases. He sang as if the entire room was his stage. The people clapped and Earl saw the joy on the boy’s face, a face that no longer looked like Allyson Brand’s face. This Willie Fillmore, who lit the room like a celestial body, was a stranger to him.
Marilyn came from the kitchen and stood in the corner of the room. Her white shirt cast her skin in a sallow light, showing the dark circles beneath her eyes. She looked tired; she worked so hard in the bar, not because she loved it, but because she loved him. He watched as she closed her eyes. Her lips moved. Was she praying?
He felt foolish, haunted by the ghost of a memory of a woman who had never loved him, who had used all his musical connections and disappeared from his life, while his wife had taken him back, forgiven him and worked by his side to make his dream a reality for all these years. What a terrible betrayal of her love he had just committed.
He moved toward the door.
Marilyn’s eyes fluttered open and she glanced out the window and saw him, soaking wet. She pulled a cloth from the table and met him at the door, wrapping him in it. “You’ll catch a death of a cold,” she said.
“You are right,” Earl said, catching her hand. “I don’t deserve you. The truth is, you save me every day Marilyn. I mean it.”
“I know,” She smiled and patted him with the cloth again. “You think I don’t know? Go on in now, Earl. It’s you they want, not this pretty boy.”
She shoved him into the dining room and all the people turned toward him. Willie was still holding the microphone. Earl plucked it out of his hands.
“I’d like you all to give a hand to Willie.” The crowd obliged. “That’s some voice on that boy. I’m sure you’ll get to be that star you’re planning on becoming.”
The door opened and their lead act walked in. Earl looked around at the people.
“Just one person I’d like to acknowledge tonight. My wife, Marilyn.”
Marilyn stood in the entryway, wiping her hands on her thighs.
“Honey, it’s you holding me together. I’m sure all these people know it. I’m sorry it took me so long to see it.” He held his arm out for her and she floated toward him and tucked herself in his embrace, the one she had waited so long for.
This story originally appeared in Issue One of 4ink7.