I stuffed the jacket and duffel into the hatch, and secured the rear of the Dakota pickup.My body felt off-balance, reflexes slowed or too quick, my center still somewhere 30,000 feet above the earth between Arizona and Virginia, my mind wandering across a handful of years, my feet crunching snow in the clear 20 degree air as I climbed into the truck‘s warm interior.
I smiled as the first strains of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" album danced through the speakers, the slowly-building opening of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" setting the mood perfectly as I headed West on Route 33, towards the blue mountains of the Alleghenies.The harmonica in my pocket was cool, through the thin capilene, and shadows raced across the hood of the truck as I gained the foothills, notes swelling to carry me through the trees and along the winding river road, while memories of a departed friend and times together danced across my mind.
"Remember when you were young?
You shone like the sun.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes
Like black holes in the sky.
Shine on, you crazy diamond."
Barry "Shady" Wade was a Southern boy born and bred, a biker and a rocker and a bud of truest blue who had climbed Seneca Rocks on ancient Goldline, in the years of the Viet Nam conflict.Those years had long gone before we met in the trenches; he a rod-buster and laborer and I a steel walker and concrete finisher, doin' what it takes to get through the storms and bitter cold of the miserable winter of '93 with body and mind intact.A small but powerful fireplug of a man, Shady nicknamed me "Tiny" for my advantage in size, andthrough the tests of danger and tedium we became fast friends, as men in combat, prison and other hard places often will.
As winter slowly made way for spring and summer, we spent evenings drinking and shooting pool, turning wrenches and rolling smokes.It was here that I came to understand Shady’s great love and encyclopedic knowledge of old Delta Blues players and their work. Drunk and slightly stoned, with his shock of red hair flying free, dressed in worn bib overalls and shitkickers, he would stagger around the clubhouse of The Scavengers, a small motorcycle club comprised mostly of Nam-era vets to which he belonged as sergeant-at-arms. In one hand a Miller Genuine draft, a smoldering roach, or a pool cue, in the other a harmonica; wailing with Pinetop Perkins, and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Thelonius Monk, Buddy Guy and Big Mamma.
He shared a child's love of all the wild places, most of which he had only ridden through on his ailing scooter, or hiked in during the Army's preparation of his mind and body for the horrors of "police action" in Southeast Asia.Shady delighted in my tales of the vertical world, and always swore that, "someday, Mah-cul, you'n'me's gonna have us a real big time, out thar on them rocks! Give me a chance to break out some o' thishere Army trainin'!" His eyes, mild and blue behind incredibly thick lenses, would shine with excitement, and he would look away towards the distant mountains and laugh. "Yessir, one day real soon."
Sometimes, even all these long years later, I can still see him like that.
Well, time... yessir, now, time, it is a funny thing, and it rolls away like an endless River that knows no return, carrying good intentions and bad to the distant sea of Regret, opportunity fled forever from our fingertips.
The job ended, and despite the bonds of brotherhood, we simply lived too far apart, in more ways than one, for the link to last.I lost my lady love, lost my way and moved away to the Southwest to find a new dream and regain my Vision.Shady stayed in Fishersville, where he started making his money in slightly less licit ways than simple construction, still carrying his harmonica every day, still playing a snatch or two of them good old Delta Blues whenever things looked dark or he was just trying to stir up a laugh. We called across the country, and even sent a postcard or two, but things just seem to get in the way of well-meant resolutions- kids and school, court hearings and contract deadlines, airline schedules and concert rigs and the thousand details of a life on the move. The River just kept on rolling, far and away, down to the Sea.
I hadn't even thought of Shady in a couple years, beyond momentary determinations to call him that faded with the drinks of the evening.
Then I heard the harmonica.
The strumming guitar of "Wish You Were Here" backdropped David Gilmore's plaintive, untrained voice as I crested Shenandoah Mountain, snow gleaming along the river in the distant valley below as I thought back to the harmonica.
I had been sitting quietly at home, going over expense reports, and plans for the next two months on the road. I tossed my trusty hardhat, covered with stickers and graffiti from a dozen years and a score of major projects, into the toolbox with my rigging gear. Folded in it was a felt liner, lumpier than it should be, a momentary distraction at best.
From somewhere in the distance, I heard a harmonica, faintly playing a snatch of ragtime that danced on the late afternoon air of October.I reached for another page of hardcopy and paused.
I rose fom my chair, crossed the carpeted floor to pull back the drapes and survey the street outside my Scottsdale apartment.A few birds flew at the motion of the curtain, but aside from them, the cul-de-sac was empty.I frowned, puzzled, as, unbidden, one thought linked to another and I thought of Shady.
(Somber notes of the Pavane slide through the interior of the truck as I drop down the curving mountain road, winding along through forests of oak and elm, hickory and blazing maple still clinging to a few crimson leaves. A deer stamps and freezes at the verge as I flash by, smiling as I drift back again to memory.)
After a bit of digging, I found the number, on a tattered business card engraved with the Club's name and colors, Shady's bookkeeper block print still legible on the faded surface.
The woman that answered was older, but I knew her voice.
"Howdy, Mrs. Wade, This is Mike Gray, worked with Shady building the Medical Center, back in ninety-four… used to come over and eat with y’all at lunch.Is Shady there?"
There was a long silence. Finally, with a slight trembling, she asked "Who is this?"
I repeated my name.
"Michael," she said, "you haven't been home in a few years, have you?"
Something coiled coldly in the pit of my stomach, a door opening on some truth I had known in my heart, but had refused to face.Suddenly short of breathe, I answered that, aside from brief visits, that I had not in fact been home in almost three years.
Ma Wade's voice was awkward with the burden of emotion, and she was almost formal as she went on.
"Michael, Barry- Shady, I guess y'all called him... Do you know… no, I s’pose you didn’t, an’ that’s why…”She trailed away for a minute, and I heard a sob of breath, indrawn.
“My boy is gone, son… he died on this very day-” a creak as she twisted in her chair, anfd a muffled exclamation- “exactly five minutes before this, last year.”I could tell she was crying, now, but she struggled on. “A year to the day, Michael, and not an hour before the Lord took him, he was holding an old photo of the two of you, laughing as best he could with his lungs full of pneumonia and wondering where you were and how you were doin‘."
I looked into the tool chest, where the hardhat lay, with the soft liner folded inside. Something poked gleaming from one corner. A memory tugged at me as I answered, giving my condolences in a kind of quiet shock, promising to visit on my next trip through the area, then hung up the phone, fumbling with numb fingers. I reached down, and slid the harmonica from the old helmet liner.
Barry Wade, the Shady Man, gone.Somehow, despite knowing the life we both led, he was someone I had been convinced just wouldn‘t die.He was just that kind of guy; ugly as sin, tough as nails, irreverent as hell and somehow just a bit larger than life.The last time we had spent together was four years before, an afternoon and evening spent drinking and playing music. Billiard balls gleamed under the green-shaded lamp above the table in another of our endless games of nine ball as Shady pulled his oldest harmonica from the front of his bibs.
"Mah-cul, I wan' you t' have this mouthharp. Sumpin' t' remember yer ol' bro Shady, out there in the big wide world." He fixed me in his mild gaze, and pointed one work-gnarled finger, tattoos bulging on his bicep. "Reckon as our roads are partin', and that ain't a bad thing, just kinda aggravatin', as Life will be. Shady Man done had a big ol’ bag o’ dreams. And he’s lived a many of ‘em and pissed away more than a few more.Shit, I ain’t got no regrets, much… what the hell is regret gonna do for an ol’ piece o’ scooter trash like me anyhow?“
He paused, dug out his can of Skoal and dipped a mighty pinch to stuff into his lip.Chewing for a moment, he leaned aside and spat, then grinned at me, before resuming a serious face.
“Now, if'n anything should happen that we don't git to them hills, well, you take that old harp someplace pretty, and you blow a few notes for old Shady, and then you toss 'er as far as you can heave. Least that ways, some part of this ol’ boy will be out there in them hills, and you’ll be free to git on down your own road.“
He held up one hand as I opened my mouth in protest, paused to take a deep swig of his beer, belched, and continued.
“I know, I know, you prob’ly gonna tell me sumpin’ bout a keepsake or some other shit… but I’ve buried more’n a few brothers and I c’n tell ya, mem’ries are the only keepsakes ya need.”A shake of his wooly heady.“Ain't no good holdin' on to the past…“
His grin flickered again, impish.
“Besides, you can‘t play for shit anyways."
Then he laughed, tapped his beer against mine and hugged me hard, like a brother will.Blew a fistful of notes to relieve the somber tone the day had taken and proceeded to run the table on me, again.
Part III- Pavane
Franklin was a-glitter with Christmas and bustling with last-minute shoppers as I made my way through town, towards the high blue folds of North Fork Mountain, now lit in the last glow of evening. In my pocket, Shady's harmonica was cool, an angular link to memory.
I thought of all the plans, the drunken imaginings, hell-yeah shindigs, and quiet afternoons following brutal days on the site, when we had simply looked off across the distance to the silent promise of the Blue Ridge, and beyond. Thought of hardships and danger faced every day with determination, sarcasm, laughter and gallows humor; of heartbreaks and triumphs shared and celebrated, as we lost girls and jobs, hide and motivation, only to begin again every Monday morning in the cold hours before dawn.
Upper Tract passed in a blur of aging houses and residents, the tiny store parking lot crowded with huge trucks, tractors and coverall-clad hunters.A mile further on,I turned left, the angular iron bridge throwing long shadows across the frozen cornfields as Wonderland opened before me.
The entrance walls rose on either side of the car, ice floating on the slow currents of the South Branch of the Potomac and I drove the last eight miles into the canyon's heart in silent thought, a lump tight in my throat as I recalled Ma Wade‘s face, crumpled and tear-streaked, her soft, arthritis-gnarled hand holding mine the day before as she had cried, silently, the meal of brown beans and cornbread forgotten on the table as the sorrow she had held in for a year spilled out in the dusty afternoon sunlight slanting through her kitchen windows.After an hour of laughter and tears, she heaved a deep sigh, wiped her face on her apron, then stood and hugged my neck good-bye and kept me a moment more as she prayed for God to watch over her son‘s last returning friend.
Parking, I sat listening to the cooling engine tick down, then drew a deep breath and pushed myself into motion.Digging into the duffel in the back seat, I pulled on gators and gloves, settled the knit cap snugly against the cold, and headed upstream, away from the road. Water moved in silent darkness beneath the snow, and ice on the smooth stones left every crossing treacherous.Deer watched from the ridges above, dusted in white, their breath pluming in the air as they chewed winter’s meager forage.
Finally, two hundred yards away from the car and two hundred feet above the River, I stopped.
This was the place I had always meant to bring my brother, the place he had never seen. A natural amphitheater formed by a widening of the streambed, the water falling twenty feet above, then flowing past the odd chair-shaped boulder and over a broad landing to cascade gently down six-inch steps, past soaring walls and columns of stone, draped vines and huge old trees lending the place the air of a throne room of the gods. Sunset light splashed the walls, streaming through the gap above the falls like a bridge across forever.
I pulled the harp from my pocket, and slapped it against my palm as Shady had a thousand times, morning noon and night, years before. A handful of hesitant, unfocused notes, and I drew a deep breath, swinging into a stuttering, off-key version of "Amazing Grace", wishing for his gift, for any musical talent, wishing there were drums, and a bagpipe, harpers and a golden chorus. Tears blurred the world as I listened to the echoes die, but a laugh swelled my chest, and I let it go, let it all go as I held the harmonica high to catch the last glow of evening, as a twilight came down and owls hooted softly in the shadows of the forest.
Then, end-over-end, it flew, into the gathering dusk, a shining comet, its last notes played out, the wishes of its owner finally and forever complete.
As I made my way, back down towards the road, I felt a shadow and turned.
For just an instant, I saw the wide grin, the wild red hair, and blue eyes smiled at me over wire frames again, as that mild voice echoed, for the last time.