Murder Ballads #3

Take That Right-Hand Road

The tall woman looked like a skeleton someone had carefully folded a paper bag over. She had creases in her face, next to her mouth, and at the base of her neck, but creases, not wrinkles. Her skin mostly stretched smooth over her skull and clung to her long bones tightly.

“That’s how it is in the Estes family,” she said. “Feast or famine. Hard or soft. Skinny or fat. You don’t meet a lot of in-between Esteses.”

Were it not for the heavy work boots that weighed her to the earth, it was easy to imagine her floating away on a strong breeze, like some kind of seed birthed from a mysterious, unknown flower.

We were in the parking lot of the McDonald’s just off I-40 in Brownsville. Across the way, we could see the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, but Ms. Estes scoffed when the old, long-haired British white guy said he wanted to see it.

“Go on your own time,” she said. “I’m supposed to take you to Durhamville and to show you something true, not to be your local tour guide.” She didn’t sound mean when she said it, just frank. And then she laughed, so the British white guy laughed, too.

His name was Bob. I’d driven him to this parking lot because my boyfriend, who worked for a record company in Nashville, was sick. Okay, hungover, and couldn’t do it and also couldn’t call work and tell them he couldn’t do it.

“You’ve never heard of him?” my boyfriend asked me.

“No,” I said.

“I might have to break up with you.”

“Then who’s going to drive him?”

End of discussion.

We got in my boyfriend’s car—Ms. Estes in the passenger seat and Bob, once again, in the back. Once Ms. Estes was in the car, though, he didn’t answer his phone or worry about his texts. He seemed enraptured by Ms. Estes.

“How are you related to Sleepy John?” Bob asked.

“Turn left up here, honey,” she said to me. And then, this was weird. She reached over and brushed my arm, not obtrusive enough that Bob would notice, but enough so I looked over at her. She gave me a big wink and then she said, “He’s my daddy’s cousin.”

But the wink meant that was a lie, right?

“And you never married?”

“Of course I did, but who else was there to marry hereabout but another Estes?” Then, I swear, she winked again. “We’re not so close as to make us hillbillies. Oh, here, child, take the north fork in the road.” I maneuvered the car in the right direction while Ms. Estes looked me up and down. “What kind of music do you like? You’ve got that fancy hair, so I’m guessing Valerie June. You know she’s from around here. Oh, you have to take the jog here. We want to get over to Fulton Road.”

“I’ve been loving that new Beyonce album since it came out this spring,” I said. I didn’t know who Valerie June was, but Ms. Estes’s interest in her made me curious.

“Well, now,” she smiled. “Beyonce’s an interesting choice. She knows a thing or two about real and myth and how to keep a foot in each one. You remember how everyone heard ‘Daddy Lessons’ and they all had opinions about whether she was saying too much about her relationship with her father. But a lot of those feelings came from Ms. Gordon, one of the other songwriters, and her feelings about the men in her life. See, Beyonce knows how to make something personal when it isn’t and how to make that personal thing sound universal.” Ms. Estes waved her right hand back and forth in the breeze from the air vent. “That’s one important motion. Then you heard that song she did with that pale gentleman? ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself.’”

“I quite like that one,” Bob chimed in.

“I bet you do,” Ms. Estes said. I didn’t understand the exchange.

“Now you’ve got Beyonce using the music from a song, ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ that Led Zeppelin stole—”

“Covered. Borrowed. Recreated.” Bob shouted out less harmful synonyms for “stole” from the back seat.

Ms. Estes rolled her eyes, but she smiled kindly back at him. She didn’t dislike him. That was clear, but she didn’t seem as taken by him, or maybe as deferential to him as he was used to. He seemed pleasantly unsettled by her.

“Took,” she reiterated, “from a woman who lived right over here in Memphis about a hundred years ago. Just think on that. Oh, and watch this curve up here. The locals take it fast from the other direction. They’ll slide into your lane.” I slowed down and approached the curve with more caution. “Beyonce uses a white man to steal a song back from some white men who stole it from a black woman who took a thing that happened to real people right nearby here and made it legendary.” She paused and regarded me again. “Were you supposed to be here?”

“No, my boyfriend was supposed to drive, but he’s sick.”

“Hmm. Then fate has brought us together. That’s nice. That’s good.” She was now moving her left hand in the air stream of the over vent. Both hands twisting and turning. “Make real things myth. Move myth things back into reality.”

Until now, trees had lined the sunken road, but suddenly, we came over a ridge and the fields we had been too low to see now spread out before us. Short plants. White cotton.

I gasped.

Then, to my surprise, my throat wouldn’t open back up. Wouldn’t let me breath. I slammed on the brakes without even realizing I was doing it. I tried to take my hands off the steering wheel so that I could put the car in park, but they wouldn’t let go. I felt like I was falling, except I also knew I wasn’t even moving. I was having some kind of attack. I was losing my damn mind.

I had come to Nashville for college from Chicago. There were things in Nashville that you had to learn not to see or you’d go mad—the antebellum homes, the old stone walls built by hand by people enslaved on the plantations those homes presided over, the occasional Confederate battle flag. But they were rare enough or innocuous enough that you could learn to ignore them. And you don’t see this by Nashville.

Cotton.

Field after field after field of cotton.

That’s why we were headed out here. Sleepy John Estes’s family had been enslaved out here, had worked these very fields, and then sharecropped on them, and then…what? Money and suffering. All around. Money for some people. Suffering for others.

Ms. Estes leaned over and dropped the car into park.

“Just breathe,” she said, as gentle as can be. “You’re fine. Look.” She leaned back so I could see past her. “No one lives out here anymore. Machines are going to pick it. It can’t hurt you.” I started to cry. Crying meant I could breathe again. Bob leaned forward and handed me a bottle of water. I’ve never felt more grateful to two people than the two of them sitting with me while I was overcome and then recovered.

After a few moments, the strange vertigo passed and I drove on.

“Up here,” Ms. Estes said. “Take a right.” We drove on another five, maybe ten, minutes until we came to a cemetery. “Go a little farther,” she said and, when we passed a stand of trees, there was another cemetery, a nicer one, gated off, in front of a church. “Turn left just past this graveyard.” We went by the big white church and then, up the lane, was a smaller, more humble church. It was surrounded either by a third cemetery or the first cemetery we saw had stretched around the gated cemetery, made its way through the tree line, and spilled around this church. “Back in the day, this was the black Baptist church and that fancy church was where the white Baptists went. Park here.” I parked halfway between the two churches, facing the tree line. We all got out of the car and began walking back towards those trees.

We came to a headstone. Sleepy John Estes.

Bob was delighted. He took a million pictures of the grave stone and of the grave yard. We went tromping through the trees and he laughed every time we came upon the grave of another Estes. Here’s another weird part. He knew almost all of those folks. This old white British guy had somehow learned the identity of everybody in this country cemetery and knew how each of them was related to Sleepy John Estes. Who were his siblings, who were his parents’ siblings, and the generations above them. He knew all the cousins and step-cousins and who grew up in which household.

As I stood there watching him cavorting through the headstones, taking pictures, making notes, shouting out facts about the names he recognized when he knew them, I realized, he either damn well knew who Ms. Estes was and how she was related to Sleepy John when he asked her that, which was rude, or, and the second I realized it, I thought it seemed right, he damn well knew she wasn’t an Estes at all and was letting her know he knew. I turned back toward her. At first, she didn’t notice me. She just stood there, he face turned to the sun, a contented smile teasing her mouth, her gray hair sparkling in the light. When she sensed I was looking at her, she looked back at me and winked again.

What the hell is going on here?

“You good, Bob?” she asked after he seemed finally to be headed back toward us.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Just fantastic.”

“Well, wait until you see downtown Durhamville.”

We got back in the car and went up the road another mile or two. We came to a small group of abandoned buildings just south of a crossroad. On the west side of the road were three empty storefronts, dilapidated, hollow, overgrown. I parked in front of a squat log building on the east side of the road. Maybe it had been a post office? It, too, was abandoned.

Is it a shame Durhamville is a ghost town? I can’t decide. It’s good news for the people who were trapped here in life that their descendants don’t have to live here anymore, but it bothered me for reasons I didn’t quite understand that no one had bothered to pull the old buildings down.

The three of us stood in front of the car, surveying the uninhabited ex-town.

“Now, let me show you something,” she said. She plucked Bob’s phone out of his hand and the car keys out of my hand and messed around hooking the phone into the car’s stereo system. An acoustic guitar. Then a weird kind of growling. Then a man with a scratchy voice, singing, “Going back to Brownsville, take that right hand road.” Ms. Estes sat in the driver’s seat, her leg propped up in the door frame, her foot tapping in time with the music.

Bob and I stood near here.

“I’ve always loved this song,” Bob said. Ms. Estes raised an eyebrow and I waited for her to say something, but she let it pass. “We think that the voice is the most essential part of a song, the words the thing that touches a listener. But John can’t even finish words. Brownsville gets lopped off into ‘Browns.’ He mumbles most of the verses. I think it’s because he thinks the most important part is the melody on the guitar. The words are just decorations to draw your attention to what the guitar is doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re complete or if they’re only groans or merely grunts. The guitar’s the thing.” He paused, lost in some thought. “I think we got that. We learned that lesson.”

“Well, surely, you wanted people to understand what you were saying, though,” Ms. Estes said.

“Yes, but I didn’t fight with the guitar about it.”

“All right then,” she laughed. When she smiled, she looked both incredibly young and impossibly old. “I promised you a truth.” We stepped back and she got out of the car, Sleepy John Estes still singing “take that right hand road” from the car. Ms. Estes fiddled with her necklace. I saw now that what I thought was a gold cross was actually a hammer, a tiny golden sledgehammer. She walked to the intersection and she stood facing north. She extended her right arm out, gracefully, like a dancer, right palm up, fingers extended. “To get back to Brownsville from Sleepy John Estes’s ancestral village, you take the right hand road.”

I don’t know if I can adequately explain how I felt in that moment. It was a simple statement of fact. It was, indeed, a truth. To get from Durhamville to Brownsville, you take that right hand road. But, when I heard it, when I saw it, I felt like, for a brief moment, I saw another America draped over the normal one, stitched to it in some places, billowing away from it in other places. Some other America, a shadow, no, not a shadow, a lighter place, a dream America, where, if you could get to it, you could escape this real place, full of dead and forgotten towns and dead and forgotten people. In the dream America, things lingered, people remained remembered.

What Sleepy John Estes had done, somehow,—and if you’re familiar with any of the rest of his music, you know he did this all the time—was to take this real, ordinary thing, this stretch of road in this case, and move it into that legendary America. It didn’t matter if real Durhamville dried up and blew away. This road, this right hand road, was safe in that other place.

“You can’t let them get too far apart,” Ms. Estes whispered to me. “But it’s not good when they’re too close together. They have to dance with each other. That’s why music is so important.”

It didn’t dawn on me to be confused by how Ms. Estes knew what I was thinking. The revelation was so profound that, of course, she must have known it. I stood there, mouth agape, looking, somehow both at this ordinary spot and this myth. How long did I stand there? I can’t say. Only that, when Bob finally rested his hand on my shoulder and said it was time to go, the song had stopped playing.

When I turned toward him, he was smiling, but tears were pouring down his face.

“Thank you,” he said. “I had always wondered if I would ever get to meet her. I thought perhaps I had fucked things up so much I never would. But I think she came to meet you. Look.” He pointed at my collar. “She left you a present.” I reached up. I was wearing her tiny gold sledge hammer necklace.

“Ms. Estes?” I looked around, but she was gone. I looked back at Bob. “Who was that, really?”

“That, my dear,” he smiled in a way that made me feel like he would have been something else in his younger days, possibly, still was, “was Miss Polly Ann.”

“Who?”

“Polly drove steel like a man.” He waited for it to register with me. “No?”

“No idea.” I said.

“Well, you will, I imagine. I must say, I’m jealous of that. I doubt I’ll see her again.”

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3 thoughts on “Murder Ballads #3

  1. I love that I think it gets at my feelings about the intersection of music and real life in ways that I find more satisfying than I’ve been able to articulate in non-fiction. I really love the idea that things larger than us–rock gods, strange supernatural beings–could feel lucky to know us, too. And I really like the idea of people trying to be good and showing kindness to each other. I guess it comes down to being a story about people benefiting from running into each other, and I like those a lot.

  2. And I guess, too, to make it explicit, I like that it gets at how it’s music that allows a lot of us to benefit from running into each other, that music is a thing we can all love together in ways that make us not-quite-strangers.

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