There’s this joke that old-time musicians used to like to tell, but maybe now it’s only popular amongst us fiddlers:
Q: How do you get a banjo player off your porch?
A: You pay for your pizza.
It’s just a bit of good-natured humor, but I don’t think Michael liked it.
I knew Michael was trouble from the moment he moved to town.
First of all, he told folks his name was “Michael” instead of “Mike” like a normal person would. We don’t put on airs around here, and we don’t like those that do.
Second of all, when I asked him what brought him to town, he told me “a job.” The thing is, he just delivers pizzas, and who the hell moves to a small town like this for a job as a food delivery boy? It just didn’t make sense.
Third of all, Michael dresses like a hobo but he still plays this fancy banjo. It’s an antique five-string that’s somehow in immaculate condition, even though Michael plays it so dang much you’d think there’d be wear on it somewhere. I kind of suspect he may have stole it from a museum and then moved to town to hide from the law.
Fourth of all, Michael is a show-off. This is a Christian community. We don’t believe in calling attention to ourselves, but in our jam sessions Michael would ambush me with a three-finger roll sometimes. It’s like he was trying to show up my fiddling. For crying out loud, we play fiddle tunes around here, not fancy-pants bluegrass songs.
Fifth of all, and this is really the worst, Michael is just so preachy and “holier than thou.” That sort of thing really gets on everyone’s nerves. When he ain’t delivering pizzas or picking that no-doubt-stolen banjo, he’s prattling on about “the power of music to bring people together” and other such peace and love bullshit. Like I told him, if the Good Lord wanted people brought together, he’d’ve done so by now; we ought to just play our music like we always have and make a “joyous noise” our own way. There ain’t no need to bring foreigners or newfangled notions into it.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael is good—dang good—with that banjo of his, and he’s a nice fellow underneath the shabby clothes and the pompous preaching about the Brotherhood of Man. I still like Michael real well, and as a Christian I’d welcome him and the rest of them back if they were to humble themselves and apologize for doing me wrong after I hosted them on my front porch for all those years of jam sessions.
You see, it was Michael that started all of this by inviting that Lopez girl to come play with us, as if a Mexican had any business playing old time Ozark fiddle tunes. Sure, Maria was pretty handy with that mandolin of hers, but she couldn’t take a joke any better than Michael. She just got real quiet when I asked her how she kept her instrument dry swimming across the border. After sitting there still as can be for half a minute she climbed down off my porch and walked away. In less than another minute everyone else in the group had followed that bitch. They toted their guitars, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins down the steps and loaded them up into their cars. It took Rebecca Watson longer to make off with her upright bass, on account of she’s a little bitty thing and only barely taller than her instrument, but she wrestled it down the steps and then Charlie Lot helped her put it in the back of his truck.
They all drove off into the night, and most of them I ain’t seen since. I hear they’re jamming out at the Old Wye Schoolhouse now, but apparently I ain’t invited.
Most of my neighbors agree that Michael and the rest of them done me dirty, and some are glad that the undesirable sorts that’d started joining my little group have stopped coming by. We’re an upright community here, so vagrants like Michael and that Maria Lopez stick out. They make folks feel uncomfortable. Old Lady Patterson across the street says she prefers listening to my fiddle by itself anyway, without all the accompaniment. She tells me she’s glad that she doesn’t have to lock her doors against the undesirables now that they’re all out at the Old Wye.
I still miss playing together, though. There’s something about playing music in a group that’s good for the soul. And there was something about Michael that makes me wish he’d come back and make up with me.
I called and ordered a pizza last night, just to give Michael a chance to apologize. Only it wasn’t Michael that delivered the pizza, it was some Italian looking guy wearing a name badge that said “Raphael” on it. He left his little pickup truck running in the driveway, with the windows down and the speakers blaring bluegrass. I could hear Bill Monroe making a high, lonesome sound clear up on my porch as he handed me my pizza.
“Where’s Michael?” I asked the delivery boy.
He looked me in the eye before he answered, and I felt something in his gaze measuring me up-and-down and in-and-out. Then he answered me in a voice so deep that my chest throbbed in time to the cadence of his words.
“Michael’s work with you is done, my friend. He won’t be coming to you anymore.”
On the truck stereo, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys commenced to crying holy unto the Lord. I was afraid of that lousy son of a bitch delivering my pizza, but I knew that Old Lady Patterson was watching all of this from the window in her parlor. I had to be strong, because I didn’t want her to have to hide in her house worried about what a foreigner like this Raphael fellow might do to her. I screwed up my courage.
“Pardon my French, Ralph,” I replied, “but what the hell is that supposed to mean, ‘his work with me is done’?”
Ol’ Bill was singing about how sinners ought to hide their face, and Raphael smiled at me with sad eyes.
“It means that there’s barely any time left for you to go to Michael. He’s jamming at the Old Wye Schoolhouse tonight. You’re welcome there, and your fiddle is, too. Music is a universal language. It brings people together and is a salve for their souls.”
From the truck’s speakers, Bill was hoping to stand on the rock where Moses stood. I feared the delivery boy deep in my bones, but just then my anger came from an even deeper place than my bones. So I raised my voice as I answered him.
“You tell that Judas he can fuck right off until he apologizes to me for stealing my jam band.” Then I pointed to his truck and the music reverberating out of it. “And this ain’t Kentucky.” I threw a $20 bill at him. “Now, take your goddam money and get the hell out of here.”
Raphael caught my money between a deft thumb and forefinger. He smoothed it out and folded it neatly before he made my change.
“There you go, sir,” he said as he handed me $9.73 back. “And remember, all is not yet lost, but the hour grows late.”
As he walked back to his truck, I heard the sound of a furious banjo playing and felt more than heard the admonition to cry holy unto the Lord. Then he drove off into the gathering evening, and I was left alone and afraid.
Worse than feeling scared, I could feel that I was being watched. Down the street, I could see that Rebecca Watson had been over at Charlie’s house, and the two of them had been loading her bass fiddle into the back of his truck while I was taking that peculiar pizza delivery. What her bass was doing at his house, I ain’t going to speculate about, but it can’t be wholesome. They were paused in his driveway and looking my way as Raphael drove off, that damned bluegrass music still blaring from his windows. I could feel the eyes of all the other people in all the other houses on the street looking at me, too.
I took my pizza inside and ate my dinner. It tasted of brimstone.
That was last night. This morning I woke up before sunrise to the sound of a banjo playing on my front porch. It was a three-finger roll that that would’ve made Earl Scruggs green with envy, so I ran right out onto the porch thinking that Michael was back to apologize to me. I burst out of my door without stopping to think or even to pull on any pants.
I stopped up short on my doorstep because there was someone picking a banjo in my porch swing, alright, but it wasn’t Michael. Instead of Michael there was some dark skinned man who obviously wasn’t from around here. This stranger was picking the ever-loving daylights out of a banjo that’d seen better days. The head of it was covered with something dark that looked like suet, and there were singe marks all around the rim and up the neck.
This man picking a banjo on my porch was obviously up to no good. I figured he must’ve come down from the city to pillage us out here in the countryside—or worse. The rest of the street seemed quiet and deserted, but there was a light on across the street. I had to do something to protect myself and Old Lady Patterson from this banjo playing gangbanger. Overhead, clouds were beginning to stream in despite a sunny forecast.
I keep a pistol in the house to run off the criminal element, but I’d left it in on my nightstand and didn’t dare turn my back on someone like him to go back inside to get it. I figured I had to take a strong stand to show that I ain’t some bumpkin that can be pushed around and victimized. Even though I was fresh from my bed and wearing nothin’ but my skivvies, I stood up straight and asked him, “What the hell do you think you’re doin’ on my porch?”
He kept right on playing a bluegrass song that I didn’t recognize, its notes scattered hither and yon at an impossible tempo. His response came without so much as a slackening of the pace, but it sure didn’t seem like an answer to my question.
“I’m Gabriel,” he said.
My God, it felt like the man was playing the sun up over the horizon. There was a red glow commencing to burn in the east, and I guess it was reflecting off of the belly of the clouds that’d rolled in unexpected because my house and the yard and the entire street were all bathed in a bloody haze of light. I smelled sulfur on the wind.
“That’s maybe your name, but I asked you why it is you’re here, boy.”
He shrugged and kept right on playing a song that buzzed more like hornets than bees.
“I’ve got a job to do,” he said.
Even if his banjo playing was so sweet that the tune brought tears to my eyes, he just didn’t belong on my porch. I blinked hard and set my jaw.
“Looky here, Gabe, the job you need to do is to get your ass off of my porch.”
He kept on picking without pause.
“My work on this porch that you claim to be yours is not yet done,” he said in a thrum. My God, his dark fingers were a blur over the banjo strings. “Even now, my friend, you can repent and join your neighbors at the Old Wye Schoolhouse.”
“There ain’t no way in hell that I’m doin’ that,” I told him.
He shrugged again. The complex, frenetic song continued unabated, both a joyous noise and a dirge and more all at once.
“I feared as much,” he answered without so much as glancing up, “but you are correct, in a way: if you do not depart, hell is sure to come.”
Something about that sounded judgmental, and that sure made me mad.
“Go fuck yourself with that banjo!” I hollered as I slammed the door and went back inside.
It’s been a couple of hours now, and he’s still out on my porch playing that banjo as I type this. His song is a torrent of notes thrown into the heavens as a foul smelling rain falls against my windows. There’s something in the rain that rattles on my roof. I hear a sizzling outside.
I need to get to work, but I don’t think it’s safe to go out in this storm. I don’t think it’s safe to stay in here either, what with that person out on my porch and the house creaking in the wind and the scent of fire coming in even though I’ve got all my windows closed. I don’t know what to do, so I’m just going to fiddle awhile to steady my nerves while I think on it.
In the meantime, though, let me know if you have any ideas for how to get that damn banjo player off my porch, okay?