by JAKE MAYNARD
Welcome to the Troublesome Creek Folk School and Resort, where classes are held in little cabins lining the creek bank. There’s one for mandolin class, another for forest foods and medicine. One each for beginner banjo, wicker basketry, woodcarving, storytelling. Flagstone walkways connect the cabins to the main lodge on the hill—a hotel with forty-eight rooms, a small conference center, and a hotel bar with elk antler doorknobs. The architecture is oversized and rustic, like a national park.
The furthest cabin from the hotel is for the class you teach—Traditional Fiddle for the Classical Violinist. You’re walking there now, a fiddle case slung over your back and a folder full of sheet music tucked under your elbow. The weather is hot for mid-September. You could be wearing shorts. You’re walking quickly—always late—sweating right through your blue t-shirt. Oh well. At least you braided your hair.
Your students are standing around the front of the cabin. Some are already rosining their fiddle bows. They’re the usual sort of middle-class, baby-boomer white people with money to spend on hobbies. Like your parents, who you never call. One student, though, sticks out—the young guy with the lawyer-hair, slicked back and neat. Patchy stubble is trying to grow at his jawline. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and old leather boots, despite the heat. Ironic or old-fashioned, you can’t be sure. He smiles at you, a crooked half-smile, and walks into the open cabin door. He looks familiar, almost uncanny. Maybe from a fiddle festival? Maybe from your past life. He makes you a little nervous. He reminds you that you’re twenty-eight. A millennial. A young old-fogey.
The hardest part of learning is unlearning. That’s how you start the first class of the week. When you say it, your students nod as if they understand. Everyone is seated in a circle, in chairs made by students in a furniture-making class from the previous year. They creak. Your students hold their violins tucked perfectly under the crooks of their elbows, their classical education proper and strong. There are eight of them in total: three male music teachers from West Virginia, a married couple from Pittsburgh, two stuffy retired women who supposedly come to the camp every year but never get any better, and then there’s Lawyer-hair. His grandfather was from Kentucky, he says in the class introductions. He likes the music’s connection to place. Its interconnectedness. “It’s earth music,” he says. “It’s like people back then always had their ears to the ground.”
You’re not sure if you want to laugh at Lawyer-hair or pat him on the head.
After introductions, you use your smartphone and a little speaker to play two old field-recordings from long dead fiddlers. “Listen for those off-notes,” you say. “I call them narps. Like, notes between natural and sharps. You might even hear them as out of tune. But listen closer and you’ll learn to love them. They are microtones, each with a little emotion.”
The recording stops, and you demonstrate how to play narps by playing an old tune called “Johnny Don’t Get Drunk,” adding dissonant slides that slip perfectly into pitch just behind the rhythm. You have long and nimble fingers that move mechanically across the fingerboard. Some fiddlers’ fingers flail, but not yours. You don’t hold the fiddle like a classical player anymore—now it’s down on your breast, casually held—but you’ve never tried to change the practiced way your fingers move across the strings. Sometimes efficiency can be beautiful.
After class, Lawyer-hair lingers around while you pack your fiddle and stash your teaching supplies in a cabinet.
“Hey! Same phones,” he says, pointing to your iPhone on the table.
“Must be destiny,” you say, and immediately regret it. Did you sound cheeky or flirty? It’s so hard to tell.
“I bought your CD,” he says.
“Oh, so you’re the one!” That line, the one you always use.
“I love how authentic it sounds.”
“That’s because I recorded it in a coal mine.”
“No,” you say, smirking.
He laughs, wags his finger at you, and says, “It’s weird, though. I just got into it—into fiddling—like nine months ago. But I’ve never felt so into anything before. You know?”
You do know. Of course you know. You left a life, a chair at the Providence Orchestra, for all this—screeching fiddles and sad old songs sung by men and women with backs like wind-bent trees. But usually your story doesn’t feel worth telling. So you tell Lawyer-hair you’ll see him later and leave him standing in the cabin. You take a walk around the resort, down the creek that bisects the property. The low sun feels nice on your arms. With your fiddle case on your back, your shadow looks a lot like a turtle.
By the time you return to the hotel everyone else is eating dinner. You sneak your plate from the hotel buffet to your room and feel lucky that nobody spots you. You love the hotel room, with its climate control, its movies on demand. You live in a tumbledown little farmhouse with bats in the attic and doors that swell with the seasons. It’s been three years for you there. In the summer, you travel to teach and perform and record old fiddlers. In the winter, you huddle under blankets and play fiddle and watch the curtains move as the wind pours through the windows. Sometimes you look at graduate programs online—folklore, ethnomusicology, anthropology—and sometimes you try (and fail) to learn to knit.
But after an hour or so in that sterile hotel room, you just need to get out. So you walk out to Old Bessie and slide in. The beaded seat cover feels familiar and soft against your back. Your dad gave you Old Bessie when you graduated at the conservatory. Here you feel as much at home as anywhere.
Inhale that old-car smell. Dry-rotted vinyl and baked motor oil.
You turn the key and pump the gas to give her some help. Bessie starts up with a cough. The engine ticks, the muffler tells you it needs to be replaced. Public radio is playing classical music. Close your eyes and listen. It’s Bartok, right? The guy who rearranged old folk dances for orchestra. Five years ago you’d have known for sure. The piece is familiar enough, though, that you run your hand along the steering wheel, fingering imaginary notes.
Lawyer-hair’s leather boots keep coming back to you as you listen. Heavy boots in this weather. A part of you hates him for trying so hard. The other part knows you’re projecting.
There’s a concert by the banjo instructor, Phil, in the conference center tonight, but you’re too tired to go. Students always leave you feeling worn and hollow, like they’ve sucked the marrow straight from your bones. Think of all the years you spent in classrooms and private lessons. All the long car rides with your father to better and better teachers. Did you leave them this worn, this hollow?
You tell your students to think of rhythm as a train chugging through a valley. Rhythm is a train and the fiddler rides in a train car. “In classical music,” you say, “the goal is to find your seat and put your ass firmly into it.” They laugh. “In old time music,” you continue, “you can move around—let the rock of the train push you to the back of the car. Walk up to the conductor’s door. You’ll reach the end of the line at about the same time either way!”
The class appreciates the metaphor.
The first tune of the day is called “Five Miles from Town.” You play slowly, careful to articulate each note. Your students set their smartphones at your feet to record you. “Five Miles to Town” is your favorite fiddle tune, the one you play at contests. It’s crooked; instead of sixteen beats, it has seventeen. There is no good math to explain this tradition, you say.
After class you walk back to the lodge with Gary and Mary, the married couple from Pittsburgh. They teach kids’ violin lessons and want to start including traditional music. As a pedagogical tool, they say. Mary has little eyes the color of an aging barn. As you walk up to the lodge she pumps you for details about your life. People always find you novel.
“You don’t have much of an accent,” she says.
“Believe it or not,” you say, as if it’s privileged knowledge, “I’m from Rhode Island.”
“And that’s where you studied classical! That makes more sense. But you must have roots here, right?”
“None at all.”
You shake your head.
“And you just came here all by yourself?”
“All by myself.”
“Well, good for you,” she says. “These little country towns need more people like you. Lord knows we’ve even got them up by us.” Gary nods. You want to ask Mary what she means, but you’re pretty certain that she doesn’t know.
So instead you change the subject. “So, do you have any children?” you ask.
“Gary and I have fifteen for lessons each week,” she says, smiling. Sometimes you manage to find the sadness in every little thing.
Tuesday night is your night to entertain the students at the camp. You don’t like to perform, but it’s written right into your contract for the week. All of your fiddle students attend except for Gary and Mary. You imagine them in their room trying to make a little vessel of all of their musical hopes. It’s not a pretty thought.
There are twenty-five people in the conference room. Chairs enough to hold forty. Almost everyone is grey-haired and smiling. You sit on a high stool at the front of the room wearing skinny jeans and a baggy sweater. Sleeves rucked up past your elbows. Hair pulled back in a loose ponytail to keep it away from your fiddle. You play a selection of fiddle tunes from Kentucky and West Virginia and Pennsylvania—music from the Stamper Family and the Carpenter family, country rags you learned from old vinyl records, and tunes from Elijah Elswick, your mentor and the source of most your knowledge. You also sing an old Virginia ballad called “One Morning in May.” You sing these lines—
When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure
When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale
Out of the alehouse, and into the jailhouse
Out of the barroom, and down to my grave
It’s too bad that you don’t like to sing. Your ballads are soulful, sung all high and nasal. Audiences need songs, need words. This you have learned. In between each song you fidget with the sleeves of your thrift-store sweater. Lawyer-hair sits in the front, listening so intently it feels like a private concert. He writes down the names of the songs, asks about their sources. He even asks if he can set his smartphone on the table next to you so he can get a good recording. When you play—or especially when you sing—he closes his eyes. He sways in his chair, like a snake being charmed.
To finish off the night, you play guitar and sing your favorite country song, “No Ash Will Burn.”
Love is a precious thing I’m told
Burns just like West Virginia Coal
But when the fire dies down, it’s cold
There ain’t no ash will burn.
Today is a special day because Elijah Elswick has agreed to come and fiddle for your class. Elijah is seventy-eight years old, you tell them. This is the source. This is like drinking straight from the well.
When Elijah walks into the class, everyone claps. “Oh you people only like me because I’m old,” he says.
In Elijah’s left hand is a wooden fiddle case with ornate brass latches. The case is shaped strikingly like a coffin. Elijah sits down, sets his fiddle case on his lap, and says, “This here’s so they just bury my fiddle with me.” Uneasy laughter.
The first time you met Elijah, you thought he looked like a pockmarked Larry King. He looks older now, older every time you see him—his body drawing in on itself like a dried-up apple.
Elijah hands you his rosin-stained fiddle and asks you to tune it for him. There’s a little glint of awe and jealousy in the eye of every student in the room. They all know about Elijah Elswick. “She comes to see me all the time,” he says smiling. “I swear she likes me more than my wife ever did.” Then Elijah plays a few tunes, his fingers still dexterous.
The students clap. Lawyer-hair’s eyes look a little moist. You could be imagining it, but you think his bottom lips quivers. You know why. Elijah can still fiddle, but the cruel, slow decline is well under way.
When Elijah was a boy—or so he tells the class—he longed to play his father’s fiddle so much that he sat up late some nights listening to his father play, moving his fingers across his skinny wrists to practice. But they didn’t own much and his father didn’t allow any of the children to touch his instrument. Kids couldn’t be trusted. Same as always, he jokes. Elijah isn’t exactly sure of the first time he touched the fiddle—his age varies with each telling of the story— but it was in some stolen moment when his father was off in town. To Elijah it was as if the instrument was asking to be pulled from the dresser drawer where it was kept. “It pretty much just hopped right up into my hands,” he tells the class with an impish laugh. “Sometimes things just come right smack to you.”
After class you walk Elijah to his pickup and ask him if he will come back on Friday to teach a few more tunes. “You know I will,” he says, “I get a real kick outta being famous.”
Elijah drives away faster than you’d like him to. His fiddling has slowed but his driving has not. Why can’t it just be the other way around?
You turn and see Lawyer-hair in the distance, standing near the entrance to the lodge. He’s pacing, looking down at his phone. You want to go and talk to him, even about the weather. He puts his phone to his ear, keeps pacing. He looks like he should smoke cigarettes. Those fidgety, busy fingers. Admit it, he’s attractive. Quite attractive. Most of the men in your little town are married or live off gas station hot dogs.
You take another walk down Troublesome Creek. The sky is a deep blue, the hot glaze of summer gone, and wind tosses a few leaves in the creek. The water is low, barely moving. The mush of the creek bed dries in the sun. The mush is underwater most of the year, but now it’s exposed.
It’s been a dry fall, you think, and a dry summer too.
It no longer surprises you when you notice things like that. It used to. It used to scare you, and make you feel provincial, like this life was taking you over. It’s been six years now since you moved here, dropped out as your father puts it, even though you had already finished your bachelor’s degree. Aside from those sharp flashes of childhood, it’s increasingly hard for you to remember Rhode Island. Tunes and stories and odd anachronistic sayings now fill up your headspace.
The trail down the creek is wide and flat where railroad tracks once ran along it. You walk slowly, meandering, and stop at a sluggish pool where three brown leaves are circling. Their stems are pointing skyward. You bend low to the water and take a picture on your smartphone. For some reason—you’re not exactly sure why—you send it to your father. Teaching a fiddle camp this week, you write, will call next week?! Things are getting better. You sent him a copy of your CD and he said he liked it, via text. You like to imagine that someday you will invite him to watch you perform.
Tonight is the square dance. Morris Morrison—a local square dance caller with hunched shoulders and forearms the size of two-liter bottles—has come to teach the dances. Morris calls dances at senior centers and town festivals. You end up fiddling with the band, even though you’d rather dance. It’s a quirk in your shyness, the dancing. You like its structure, its pace, and the way that the dancers stop being people and blend, instead, into patterns.
There are more women than men, as usual, so some women wear ties and dance the man’s role. Lawyer-hair tries to dance in his clunky hipster boots. He circles left when he should circle right. He promenades when he should dos-i-do. Allemandes when he should spin his partner. He rips when he should snort, snorts when he should rip.
Morris sings out the calls –
Promenade and stay on time
Chase that pretty girl down the line.
Late that night, under a swollen, sagging moon, you can’t sleep. Often you can’t sleep. So you make your way out to Old Bessie and sit. The radio is out of decent music, so you rummage through the cassette tapes you keep in a little shoebox on the passenger seat floor. Among the old country and blues tapes, you find an unmarked cassette. You know it well. You slip it in the player and listen to yourself playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto at your first recital. You were eight, maybe nine. You screeched. You played naturals when the music called for flats. You lost the tempo. Twice. But at the end, there is a swarm of clapping. The loudest hands, you guess, are your parents. Your father was always so damn proud of you. But does that forgive his lack of understanding, his dismissal, his demeaning? Of course not, you think. Forgiveness and understanding are not the same thing, no not at all.
In class you teach square dance music. “Square dancing was a huge part of young folk’s culture in Appalachia,” you say. “It’s where you got to flirt. It’s where you met your spouse. It’s where you first tried whiskey and where the poor folks and rich folks all mixed. It’s where Elijah met his wife,” you say, “and he’ll kill me if I tell you. But he says it’s where they conceived their first son, too.”
The class laughs. Lawyer-hair hoots. Gary says, “Well I’ll be . . . ” and trails off, patting Mary rhythmically on the knee.
Thursday night there is no entertainment after dinner. Instead local musicians are invited to the hotel bar for an open jam with free drinks. You and Phil, the banjo teacher, and three other local fiddlers make up the core of the jam. Some of these musicians come to your house in the summer to play music. Sometimes they bring their wives and sometime they don’t. You used to feel the cruel heat of their wives’ eyes on you as learned the traditions of their men. That feels like a long time ago. Now you think of them, more or less, as your friends. One of the women told you a story about a woman fiddler she knew as a kid and told you where you could find her grave. Phil’s wife even brought you a pie on Christmas. They try to hook you up with their single sons or nephews.
At the jam, everyone crowds in toward you and Phil. There are five more fiddles, a few guitars, eight banjos, and five mandolins. You drink from a glass of bourbon on ice and at once feel it in your ears. Phil starts a tune, a driving melody. A tune you know well. Start in with him. Banjos come in, bouncy like the sound of corn kernels popping. Guitars hold tight to the rhythm. The beginners know enough to play quietly. Slowly, all the sounds begin to coalesce. One sound. The feet bounce together. Many legs. A centipede. And Lawyer-hair across from you, his head is lowered. His feet bounce. He has found what you like to call a music place. You can see it. He feels for the first time that feeling that drew you away from home. Away from the life you never knew you hated until you, by chance, first heard an old-time string band at a farmer’s market in Providence. He’s feeling that now—just aching with music—across from you, and for that your heart is growing.
For three hours the music goes like this, musicians sneaking out one-by-one to give in to sleep. In the end it is you and Phil and Lawyer-hair, all sitting tight-kneed in a circle. Your face is florid with whiskey and music and connectivity. With communion. You play one more tune five times over and finally it’s time for the bar to really close.
The first time you heard old-time fiddling, you felt changed. Like there were sounds trapped in your bones that bones do not make. Old sounds, high and lonesome. Lodged deep in the rosin of your ribcage. Echoing there. You had never known they were there, but they were. There all along, waiting. You forget sometimes, between giving lessons and making homespun albums and performing at nursing homes and corporate parties. But on nights like this, you remember.
You’ve been eating in your bed all week, so Lawyer-hair has to wait outside the half-closed door while you shake out the comforter and dispose of an empty pretzel bag on the nightstand. You kick the week’s clothes under the bed. Dirty panties get caught around your ankle and you hop, as if on a pogo stick, to get them off. You hope you’ve been consistent with your birth control. Usually it feels like the least of your worries. Here we go, you think, and you invite him in and sit on the edge of the bed. Cross your legs, uncross your legs. Tuck your hair behind your ear. Wait. Smile. Say, “Yeah, so.” He looks around, and sits right next to you. He moves in. You feel his hair up against your cheek as he runs his lip just behind your ear. You are shaken with that hungry dissonance, that want for harmony, for blending, for all things to slip perfectly into pitch. Dissonance can only last so long, right? Right.
You’re ten minutes late for the last class of the camp. Elijah is already fiddling for the students.
As you walk in, you wave and mouth Sorry to everyone. Everybody grins. You feel your face grow red and hot. They just know you were up late fiddling, you tell yourself over and over again. And so what, you think. So fucking what. With quick little glances you look at Lawyer-hair. He’s sitting with his face in his hands. His hair is a mess and his eyes are puffy like a bug’s. You didn’t let him sleep over. Maybe you should have.
“Sorry,” you’d told him last night, lying with your head on his stomach, your hair fanned out over his body, “but you have to go. I don’t want to get caught with you sneaking out of here in the morning. Can you imagine?”
“Oh come on. It’s not like you’re my high school teacher or anything,” he said.
“How about a compromise,” you said, sitting up, throwing your legs around him. Grabbing his hands and pinning them together above his head. Nibbling at his chest as you repeated the words. How about a compromise.
It amazes you now to think of yourself saying those words, that boldness. You’ve never been that way—assertive, lusty—not even with the fiddle in your hands. That’s what you like about old-time music, the more you think about it, the way that you can lose and be lost, folded into a music larger than yourself. Not like classical music, with its competition for chairs. Its showy codas and assertive solos. Thinking of last night makes you cringe and smile and sigh and squirm in your seat. This life, these people. The prudishness. How old are you, anyway? Back home, you tell yourself, you might be hooking up with someone every weekend. Okay, probably not. But the point still stands.
You set your phone to Record and slide it with the rest of them at Elijah’s feet. You have over sixty recorded hours of Elijah’s playing. Someday, when high-speed internet is available at your house, you’re going to archive it online for anyone to hear for free. Elijah likes the idea.
Elijah finishes playing a tune and says, “Well some of us need a little more beauty sleep than the rest of us. I’d say you was getting your makeup on this morning but it don’t look to be the case.”
Everyone laughs and Elijah keeps at it—“Kristen’s such an old-timer, you know, she don’t believe in using a clock.” More laughs. A smile opens up on your face and laughter comes out. It hurts your head to laugh but you do it anyway. Laugh deep.
Elijah teaches the whole morning class for you, his body glazed in sunlight from the window. When class ends everyone stands around and talks, not wanting to pack up and leave the retreat on such a warm fall day. Lawyer-hair is talking to Gary and Mary. Just wait until he approaches you. How is this supposed to work? I had a really nice time. Here’s my number. See you around. Elijah has moved, the sun now a bright white flame in a square on the floor over everyone’s smartphones. Squinting, you bend and pick up your phone. Soon you will call your father. You promised. You will get Lawyer-hair’s number, you hope. Swipe your thumb across the screen and see you have a text message—“Morning sickness again. Fucking Blah. Can’t wait to see you!!!”
Across the room, you can feel Lawyer-hair looking at you. This phone is so much cleaner than your own. Smooth, free of cracks. You bend down and put his phone back on the floor and grab your own. You slip out the door, managing a wave for Elijah on your way out.
Back at the hotel you pack your things into a canvas duffle bag that you bought three years ago at a flea market in Charleston. You think you should be crying but you’re not. Instead you feel feverish, a heat from deep inside you bubbling up. Nothing but a little hangover. You got so little sleep. An idea comes to you. Somewhere in the conference center’s office, there is a registration file for each student at the camp. Each file has an emergency contact line, and on that line, you assume, is the phone number for Lawyer-hair’s wife. Hopefully it’s a cell phone, you think. A text message seems more doable.
Inside, you churn. Run to the bathroom. Stand over the toilet. Heave dry air. Eyes always water at times like this. The administration office is off the hallway that leads to the parking lot. It’s right on your way out the door. Hardly out of your way at all. Swallow your urge to spew. It’s none of your goddamned business, right? Right.
Old Bessie always looks happy to see you. Your things are packed and it’s time to go. You’ll be getting a check for teaching at the camp in the mail. You should be saving for a new car, but maybe you’ll take a trip to see your folks. Folks. That way you talk now. Folks, y’all. Is this it, is this life you? Maybe nothing can ever really be you. Hangovers always make you like this, existential and a little sad.
In the parking lot, people are loading their cars. It looks like rain. The leaves are lifting their palms, prepping to catch it. You plan to slip out unnoticed. Old-time music is a small community, you’ll see them all again soon.
You turn the key. Click, cough. Then nothing. Fuck. Now you feel the heaviness in your eyes. Your eyes are heavy-warm but the rest of you is cold. The weather has turned, your windshield wipers are shit, and you’re just so damn tired. Think about your little house with bats in the attic. Suck back tears. Get out of the car. Open the hood. Prop it with the broom handle. Take a look. This you can do.
Lawyer-hair is walking from the hotel with his bags slung over his shoulder and Ray-Ban sunglasses resting on the crown of his head. Elijah walks up from the other direction.
Lawyer-hair says, “It’s not what you’re thinking.” Maybe it’s not. Maybe he just has a sister. You open up to speak, but Elijah talks first. “I bet it is what I’m thinkin’. I’m thinkin’ it’s one of the pulleys on the serpentine belt. The pulleys froze up. I could hear it all the way up there.” They converge in front of your car and bend over the engine. They discuss what they see, what they cannot see.
More men show up—from nowhere it seems—and they all hover over the engine, poking at the cables and belts all wound inside. So you move back to the driver’s seat and look up tow companies on your phone. For the past three years, you’ve been telling yourself you’re going to learn more about cars. Youtube can teach you. You can learn anything on Youtube.
Elijah motions you to start up Old Bessie. When you turn the key there is a grinding sound, then nothing. The men keep their hands at work. So many hands at work. They think they can get it running, at least well enough to get you to the mechanic. Tows are expensive out here, they tell you, as if you don’t fucking know. Elijah motions to you and hollers something. You’re thinking about Lawyer-hair. About his pregnant wife. Or maybe his pregnant sister. Goddamnit. Before him, it’d been over a year and barely even worth remembering. Why do you let this bother you? Of course it’s not your fault. Elijah says to start her up. You turn the key again and the Bach Double chirps your sour notes. Old Bessie sputters and starts, thank god.
You turn off the stereo and sigh with relief. Then, you witness what happens next. Hear the atonal whine of the belt going bad. Watch a man in a yellow polo jump frightened at the sound. See his elbow clip the broom handle propping the hood. Watch the heavy hood fall. Feel the car shake as it does. See Lawyer-hair and Elijah jerk their hands from the roiling, grinding engine, trying to outrace the hood’s gravity. See them fail. Now wince so hard your eyelids pinch shut. Keep them closed. Listen. Hear the men scream—something about a finger, more than one finger, oh god, oh fuck.
Let this blind second stretch. This second where everything is sound and no sound has a source.
Jake Maynard lives in Morgantown, WV where he studies in the MFA program at West Virginia University.