THE SHINY BLACK 59 BUICK LESABRE SEDAN bolted across the West Louisiana Highway towards Texas. Its hood leaned forward past the rest of the car like an overbite—like it couldn’t wait along with the rest of the car to get to its destination. The sun burned high, and the road gave off steam if you looked at it just the right way. Frank Russet took a draw from his Camel and returned his left elbow to its resting place on the window edge. The gray smoke, which unfurled from the end of his Camel, disappeared into the wind before it appeared. He listened to the wind tear through the window like the Furies. He held the wheel steady with his right hand. He stared straight ahead at the point where the road met the sky. The white clouds serrated showed the full depth and distances. There was no darkness in them, and the depth of sky they revealed was staggering. Frank thought of summer days growing up in Mississippi. He remembered laying in the back lawn staring up at the blue sky: it had looked close and small—something you could understand. Distances and spaces you could comprehend. His brother, Henry, slept in the passenger seat; two passengers slept in the back seat. They were the Russet Brothers Gospel Band. Their instruments lay in the car’s trunk.
They’d lit out at midnight, and Frank had been driving since then. He liked the time to think. He hadn’t minded driving at night, but it had started to get to him since morning had come. The radio had kept him going so far. He loved the radio. Anything it brought him. He didn’t care if it was blues, country, gospel. The way he saw it, blues was about getting into trouble, the country was about the consequences, and gospel sought a respite from the cycle. All real music was a document of the soul, he thought. A document of the soul. He thought about this as he took another pull from his no-filter Camel, flicked it into the thick air to topple to its resting place in the loose gravel between the highway and oil field. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. The wind felt warm and, by glancing at where the sun sat in the sky, he figured it was about noon. They hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. He looked in the rear view and eyed the sleeping faces of his passengers. He put both hands on the wheel and leaned forward, stretched his back, and eyed the roadside ahead for a sign of coffee and sandwiches. He leaned back into his seat, rubbed his face and felt stubble.
Frank picked the glass ketchup bottle up, felt its weight, eyed the label and sat it back on the table. His back was against the wall, so he could see everyone. On the other side of the booth his brother, Henry, rubbed his eyes. James and John both eyed their menus. They had poured concrete and played in a small gospel band before joining Frank’s group. The construction boom after the war had kept them busy for a while. James was thin and always rubbed his mustache. He had been the foreman of their concrete business. John was heavy. He did the heavy lifting and never said much. The four of them had spent enough time around each other that they felt comfortable not talking. Hank Williams played on the diner’s jukebox. I was riding number 9, headin’ south from Caroline. I heard that lo-o-one-some whistle blow. The group of them looked like hungover salesmen in their two-day stubble, wrinkled slacks, white dress shirts and loosened ties. Except for their shoes. They were black and shined like new. Not even a fingerprint.
The waitress brought a pot of black coffee and four white mugs. She poured them one by one. After pouring the last cup, she left the pot sitting on the table and asked, “Cream, sugar?”
Frank and his brother, Henry, took both. James and John took neither. Frank watched the side of the waitress’ face as she wiped her hands on her red apron and wrote their orders on a yellow notepad. She walked back to the kitchen. Frank said “hmm” aloud as he watched the way her white dress swayed, as she walked away.
“You know boys, I was thinking we oughta do that one—the river—right after I finish preaching,” Frank said.
“I’ll bet that’s what you were thinkin’,” James said and grinned. He sipped at his coffee.
“People like that song. Remember, back in Tennessee?”
James and John nodded. Henry looked like he was lost in thought.
“Well, we got the harmony down.” Frank held his warm coffee mug in his hand, in front of him on the table, but didn’t drink. He thought about making their way back east, after Texas. Their car passing this same diner going the other way. He could almost see it out the window. He pushed the thought out of his mind. “And all we’ve got to do is go into that, and then our closer, and we’ve got ‘em. Reckon they’ll like that river song in Texas, too?”
“Hell, they love you in Texas,” James said.
“Alright, we gotta find a crew to set us up. You and John take care of that,” he said, nodding towards James. “I and Henry will take care of everything else. Anybody see a payphone when we walked in?”
“Right outside the door,” Henry said, nodding behind him to his left, in the general direction of the entrance.
Frank got up, walked to the payphone outside the diner door.
He held the black phone against the side of his face, listened to the ringing followed by silence, picked at the outside edge of the glass phone booth with his left thumbnail, and eyed their booth through the window.
Frank slept on top of the covers in the El Paso motel room. He still wore his dress clothes, minus his blazer and tie, which hung over the chair in the corner of the room, and his socks that rested inside his dress shoes besides the bed. The curtains were drawn, so no light could get in. The window air conditioner had hummed him to sleep through the mid-afternoon voices and the heat rising outside. He had felt the voices and heat rising together and becoming one, trying to overpower him, but the steady hum and cold force of the air conditioning defeated them, quieted them.
He woke up at dusk with a memory not of a dream, but a consciousness and feeling he had while he slept. He had become conscious of the Gideon’s Bible that must have been in the dark wooden nightstand drawer beside his head, and the rising heat and voices, which had joined into one force. Each of the sensations felt like a knot within him - like a twisted muscle, or bruise just under the skin. A physical part of him that reverberated through bone and muscle like a clenched fist. He felt the sensation of tension between the two, but it was eventually soothed and put to sleep by the coldness of air and the steady hum of the window unit. He sat up at the edge of his bed, his feet bare against the thin carpet. The air was cold and heavy in the room, like a fog. He stood, punched hands through blazer sleeves, crossed his arms across his chest, and opened the curtains.
Through the row of trees, he could see the shadow of purple light. The twisted black limbs visible against fading light. He felt its absence before it was gone and wished he had woken up twenty minutes earlier. Across the trees was Mexico. He had been here before. He waited till the black limbs disappeared from sight before he switched on the electric light.
He stood in the shower and felt the heat of water. He closed his eyes and listened to waterfall against the ceramic tub.
Frank and Henry sat in the black Chevy in the parking lot outside the radio station. Frank squinted against the harsh angle of morning light. Henry adjusted the car’s passenger side visor to block the direct glare and rested his elbow again on the open window edge.
“Everything in line for tonight?” Frank asked, and tapped his fingers against the outside of the car door.
“Yeah, they’re just finishing setting up the tent now. Should be ready in a couple hours.”
“Good.” Frank rubbed his fingers over his chin and nodded.
“So, did you sleep since yesterday?”
“Mostly.” Frank shook a Camel out of his pack, lit it, looked ahead. It hung from his mouth.
“So, what’s this meeting about?”
“This could be big, Henry. I don’t want to talk too much about it before it happens. I don’t wanna jinx it.” He wanted to tell his brother all he imagined could result from this meeting but stopped himself. “But this could be big for us. Remember Carlos?”
“From El Paso Tabernacle? The Mexican guy?”
“Yeah. He’s setting it up for us.” Frank dashed out the open window and cleared his throat.
“Can I get a Camel?”
Frank shook one-half free and held the pack out to Frank. He took the loose Camel and lit it. They listened to a car moving up the road. Frank looked over his shoulder. It continued on further up the road.
“You talked to Cindy last couple days?” Frank said.
“No, hospital’s got her working third shift.”
“Who’s watching the kids?”
Frank nodded. They listened to the sound of a drill coming from road construction somewhere closer to town. When the drilling stopped Frank listened to the jangle of the pin oak’s leaves against the wind.
“Trees look the same here as home, don’t they?” Frank said.
“I was just thinking that.”
Frank listened to the sound of engine approached and tires crunched to a stop. Standing on the black paved parking lot Frank shook Carlos’ hand and smiled. “Good to see you, Carlos.” He meant it. “Everything still in place?”
“Frank, everything is looking very promising,” Carlos said, in good English.
“I like that tie, Carlos. What do you call that?”
“It’s a Bolo tie. The cowboys used to wear them to keep their hats from blowing off.”
“I’ll have to get one of those.” He patted Carlos on the back.
“Hi, Henry,” Carlos said. They shook hands.
“Well, let’s get out of this hot parking lot and find out what we have here. Radio station owner’s name is Rich Goodwyn, right? Hell of a name.”
Frank, Henry, and Carlos sat across from the desk facing Rich Goodwyn. Frank admired his desk. It was solid oak and sure angles. It had carved patterns around the corners. Not too over the top, but classy. It was a much nicer desk than you’d expect from a guy who owns a radio station on the outskirts of El Paso.
“Hell of a desk you got there, Rich,” Frank said and leaned back in his chair. He looked relaxed.
“Thanks, Frank, Carlos has an uncle across the border that makes them by hand. I didn’t know preachers said words like hell and shit.”
“Well, I was a human being long before I became a preacher. I try to remember that.”
“Carlos said you were a piece of work.”
“That’s what my mom always said. Dad had other words for it. Not preacher-words, either.”
Rich grinned. “Carlos tells me that you draw a big crowd, across most the southeast and southwest.”
“We do. Expect about 500 tonight.”
“That a good turnout?”
“Average. Seen more, never less. They like us in Texas.”
“It seems that way.”
“So, Rich, what kind of music do you play here? I’ve always loved music, all kinds.”
“Country, mostly. Hank Williams, Ray Price. Johnny Cash. Some Rock ’N’ Roll. Elvis. Buddy Holly. A little blues—Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters. Even some jazz late at night, when no one can complain.”
“So, how far does your signal reach?”
“I don’t know if Carlos told you, but we just finished building a new antenna. Old one reached five states. But this new one.” He shook his head. “When the weather is right, it’ll reach 28 states - all the southeast, southwest northwest, into parts of Canada when the sky is clear. We built the new one across the border and don’t have to follow FCC rules over there.”
“That’s right. It’s all legal. For the most part. If you’re anywhere as good as Carlos tells me you are, we’ll get you a spot once a week, do that for a month, see how it goes.”
“Carlos is no liar. You give me that spot, send the signal as far as you say you will, and people will listen. They’ll come back. Week after week. Tell their friends. No question about that. That’s how it will go. Every Sunday, 9 pm, one hour, year contract. You don’t have to pay us much. Twenty dollars a show. We take offerings from the audience. They mail them here. You handle that for us, keep twenty percent. We got a deal?”
Rich Goodwin leaned over his desk. Then he leaned back, looked at Carlos, then panned his gaze from Henry to Frank. The distant sound of the road crew’s drill crept into the room like a whisper or a promise.
“You two brothers?” Rich Goodwyn asked.
“I guess I claim him as blood,” Henry said and grinned.
“That’s right. I’m the oldest. Henry’s my number two in charge. He runs the band and sings a close harmony. Only brothers can sing a harmony the way it oughta be. Like the Everly brothers. Monroe brothers. I could name ten others. It’s in the blood.”
“He’s the talker. The girls like me best,” Henry said.
Rich smiled. “Gospel only?”
“Gospel only at the revivals. We play country, folk, and Rock ’N’ Roll on our own,” Frank said.
“How bout a Saturday morning gospel music show? This country loves God and his music.”
“We could do that. This country loves all music. And it’s not God they love, it’s being forgiven—and they don’t care who or what does it.”
“Frank, you’ve got a deal.” Rich stood up and shook Frank’s hand across the desk.
“Mr. Goodwyn, there’s just one more thing.” Frank withdrew his hand and got silent for what felt like too long like he was thinking, reconsidering some angle he’d overlooked, or having some crisis of conscience. “28 states? We’ve got to see that antenna.”
Rich Goodwyn, Henry, and Carlos all laughed. Frank brought the black Buick to a stop beside Carlos’ car. Dust rose from the tires and the dust particles they’d struck up behind them, scattered in the wind and began to fade. Frank watched them in the rearview, and he turned the engine off, pocketed his keys. He thought of all those individual, tiny particles of dust and how they joined to look like one mass until they separated and left just sky above the earth. He looked up slowly at the sight in front of him.
“Shit,” Henry said and paused before he closed his door. “It looks like that antenna would send a signal all the way to Russia. Maybe all the way to hell and back.” Henry looked at Frank. “Heaven, too.”
Frank stood silent, staring at the antenna, its bright steel reflecting light. It stood in contrast to the brown, barren hills behind. It reached so high it looked like it became part of the sky. The Tower of Babel couldn’t have been any higher.
“It’s really something, isn’t it Frank?” Henry said.
Frank didn’t say anything. The sun was in the middle of the sky, above them. He stood with his thumbs under his belt and took it all in. He knew his life would be different now. He didn’t say a word all the drive back. Henry was used to his quiet spells and stared out the window the whole time, watched the desert go by like a movie screen. They drove through the valley that preceded the borderline, past the billboard that said ‘Adios Amigo’. Frank brought the car to a stop in front of Henry’s motel room door. It was two doors down from his own. James and John’s room was on the other side of Henry’s.
“See you in a couple hours,” Henry said.
“Alright, see you then.”
Frank stood at the lip of the stage looking out over the crowd. He seemed to lean over them. He scanned their faces. He could see the expectation, joy, and fear in their eyes. He could see their future joys and fears. He saw what they had felt before, all that had happened to them, the imperceptible marks it left on them. He could see the causes and consequences melding together into one experience, taking place in the now. A story that told itself in imperceptibly subtle expressions. A longing in the eyes, behind the pupil, telling a story. A line on the face. Around the mouth. He saw it consuming them as they fought as best they could to cover it up.
He saw a young woman in the fifth row in a red and yellow flower patterned dress. Her brown eyes were sorrow. They were beautiful. He imagined a life with her. Children born. A lost baby. A lost parent. Hard times. Little food. An inheritance. A severed index finger at the logging mill. The compassion in her glance when he walked in the door at the end of a work day. Age creeping in. A leaving. A parting.
He saw an old man with white hair in the second row. He wore a flannel shirt. He saw them together as kids hunting deer. Surrounded by woods, yellow, brown leaves, feeling the leaves’ coolness. An accident. A brother drowned. A twin. He saw the struggle. Every morning fighting through it so that he could get to work. The evening. The waiting. The loss. The conversations that wouldn’t take place. Uttered by the man to the trees as he walked. Hours and hours.
None of this took place but it could have. He felt how it would feel to have happened. The reverberations that echo through human bodies and minds across space and time. All this he thought for a moment as he glanced over them.
He knew, at this point in the sermon, his brother, Henry, would be standing behind him with his Martin guitar in hand. James would be setting his upright bass down on the floor and stepping off the stage, behind him. He’d stand in the wings rubbing his mustache, waiting for the cue to take up his bass again. Big John would be playing his banjo down like a wounded friend and shuffling off stage. Henry would stay onstage behind him.
Frank looked out at the crowd. He understood them. He knew what they wanted and needed. He wanted to help them.
“Who are you?” he asked the crowd, in a quiet, almost inaudible voice, looked at them, let the silence stand.
A moment later, he broke the silence again. “Who are you?” He looked out at them, let the silence hang, scanned their eyes and made eye contact with each of them, holding the contact long enough to see them.
“I don’t know you, but I know you. I know everything there is to know about you. I know what you’re afraid of, what you’re ashamed of. I know what you want and what you need. You’re a human being. That’s who you are. And I love human beings. My favorite characters in the Bible are human beings. Samson. He was weak. He loved too much and it made him weaker. He wanted too much. He lost his gift, everything he had, was made a slave. He was a human being. I love him. King David. He saw beautiful Bathsheba on the roof, showering, and wanted her so badly that he killed her husband and took her for his own. Why? He was a human being. He murdered. He did terrible things. I love him. Moses. He lost his temper, let anger control him. He lost control. Why? He was a human being. He could only look into the land he’d led his people towards through the harsh, unforgiving desert for decades. Judas. He was untrue. He betrayed what he loved. He betrayed himself. He couldn’t forgive himself. His threw his body away, tossed it towards the earth, and shattered it into pieces. Why? He was a human being. I love him. Lot’s wife. She looked back. She dwelled on the past. She couldn’t let it go. She was transformed into a block of salt. Why? She was a human being. I love her. Who hasn’t looked back? We all have. Because we are human beings.”
He remained standing on the lip of the stage, at its center. “You are all strangers, but I know you. Poetry, music—that’s the language of the soul. America’s great poet of the human soul, Walt Whitman, once wrote ‘Stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you. Stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you.’ Do you know why he said that?” He looked out at the crowd meeting their eyes, letting the silence hover. “Because you and I were brothers. We were sisters. We were lovers. We grew up together. We betrayed each other. We stole from each other. We forgave each other. We took care of each other. I know you. Do you know what human beings need? They need to be forgiven. Do you know why? Because they’re human beings.”
He looked out into the crowd, silent, meeting their eyes with his own, holding their gaze with his own. “I forgive you. I know you. And I forgive you. But we all feel that if we were truly known, in our hearts, we could never be forgiven. Listen to me and believe me. I’ll say it again. I know you. I know you. And I forgive you.” He stood at the lip of the stage and leaned, almost seemed to hover over the crowd. He stood silent, scanning their eyes with an earnestness. “I know you. And I forgive you,” he said once more as if he were having a quiet conversation with a friend or lover. He stepped back from the stage’s lip, as Henry strummed an E-minor chord that sounded as beautiful as David’s harp. Its sound filled the room.
“The river flows home... where we come from.” James and John added their voices to the melody. “The river flows home…. where we come from. Don’t need a paddle, don’t need an oar. Don’t need to wonder why you’re going for. The river flows home… where we come from.” They held a close, almost perfect, three-part harmony and drew out the word ‘home’. The last line repeated many times. The simplicity of it struck those that heard it. E-minor moved to A-minor for the first two lines. E-minor moved to G for the next two. Then, it came back home and ended on the first verse, repeating like a mantra, till words lost meaning, became meaningless sounds, then back to E-minor. The chords and verses moved like a circle that brought everyone back to where they began.
Later that night, at midnight, Frank sat across from Henry in a Ciudad Juarez bar, on the Mexican side of the border. A neon sign behind the bar glowed through the dim room, through the smoke that hung and did not move. Frank felt good. He felt relaxed. He tapped his wedding ring against the edge of the solid glass mug. “That’s a solid glass. Well, how do you like Mexican beer?”
“It’s good,” Henry said and took another drink.
“You feelin’ alright? Talk to Cindy tonight?”
“She’s working third shift. Remember, I told you earlier today?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been distracted with everything.” Frank took a drink of beer, sat back in his chair, and held onto his glass—resting it on his leg.
A dark haired girl with dark eyes walked in the door with another woman, who could have been her sister. She looked at Frank and they locked eyes for a moment. He looked at the table and took another drink of beer. He sighed. He looked at his brother across the table. “This is the life, isn’t it? We’re drinking Mexican beer and it it’s only uphill from here.”
“I haven’t noticed you stopping at a lot of pay phones lately.”
“I know. I know. But think about this: We’ve come a long way since Mississippi.”
“We have. You know that deal today.” Henry took a sip from his beer and sat it back on the table. “You know that’s gonna change things for us, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know,” Frank said. He sounded serious and afraid. They sat quietly for a minute. “If you don’t want to travel as much, we could cut back, come here once a month to do our shows for four weeks in advance.”
“The traveling is okay. I used to not like it, but it doesn’t matter now.”
“I know what you mean,” Frank said. “I know what you mean.” He took a drink of beer and sat his mug against his leg. “We’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t we?”
Frank glanced over at the dark haired girl and she smiled. She wore a red dress. Frank smiled. She flipped her hair over her ear.
Frank woke up and saw the white pillow next to him splintered with dark hair. Her breathing was quiet and steady. He gathered his clothes and woke up Henry in the next room. They got in the car, rolled the windows down, still moving with caution as if they were afraid to wake someone up. They stopped for coffee, then kept driving out towards the desert. James and John would be getting up about now, he thought and headed for a bite at some greasy spoon. They’d be ready to check out of the hotel several hours from now, but Frank wanted to make one more stop before leaving.
Frank parked the car in front of the antenna. He and Henry sat on the hood of the Buick.
“You got any Camels left?” Henry asked.
Frank shook two Camels loose towards the top of the pack and held them out to his brother. For a couple minutes, they stared at the antenna against the sky and smoked. The wind was loud. It sounded like it fought to cut through the immensity of the structure in front of them, but failed. The top of the antenna was so high it swayed. But it was steady, too. The swaying was its way of showing its strength. Like a huge oak who’s swaying only strengthens the unyielding grip of its roots in the earth. Frank rested his hand against the warm metal hood of the car.
“You know, everything is going to be different for us now, Henry.”
Henry shook his head. “What would mom think? Twenty-eight states?”
“I know. I wish I could have been there, you know. I think about that.”
“I know. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I was with a German girl that night. You believe that? I just wish I was someplace better. I didn’t know she was even that sick. I got Carol’s telegram that morning and felt like a real sonofabitch.”
Frank took the Camel pack from his left breast shirt pocket, shook one loose, and held it to his mouth. He held the pack out to Henry. He took one from the pack. They sat smoking for a few moments.
“But this antenna,” Frank said. “This is going to really be big for us. You know the army gave me that Frost book when I enlisted to go over there? They gave all the GIs that Frost book. That’s why everybody knows who Robert Frost is now. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a genius. But, there’s a lot of talented geniuses that nobody knows about. He got that one break that put him over the edge. You’ve got to be heard, first. That’s the important thing. You’ve got to be good, no, great—but that doesn’t mean shit if you don’t get heard. And this,” he pointed at the looming antenna with his lit cigarette, “this is how we will be heard. They’re gonna remember us. Mark my word.”
“They’ll remember you, not the guitar player.”
“They’ll hear and remember both of us. We’re family. You got a voice, too. Look at that antenna. Twenty-eight states. Can you imagine that?”
They both stared towards the antenna and considered all it meant.
After a while, Frank looked over at Henry as he looked ahead. He saw the worry hiding in his eyes. He was all fear. His face was like a mirror. Frank looked back towards antenna and warm horizon and tried to forget what he had seen on his brother’s face.
Later, Frank and Henry drove back towards the US. As a trail of dust gathered behind them, Frank looked one last time at the silver antenna’s reflection in his rearview mirror.
Wes Blake earned his MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio at EKU. His work has appeared in Louisiana Literature Journal. He writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Going Home is his first novel. He is currently writing a memoir, and an essay collection. He teaches English, and lives with his wife, Natalie, on their small farm in Nonesuch, Kentucky.