And payment with a song
By Bill Thompson
Sometimes I struggle to make sure I live in a real world out here in the country.
A couple of days ago I was coming back from a friend’s house after a really bad thunderstorm. My friend, Jeremy, lives down one of the few dirt roads left around here, and the rain had made the roadbed slick in some places and boggy in others, so I was driving carefully. I could hear the mud slapping on the door of my pickup truck, so I was driving very slowly so as not to make it look like I was a refugee from one of the frequent mud races held down in the Green Swamp. (Of course, nobody would suspect my old pickup of participating in such an event.)
It was a good thing I was driving so slowly because just a short distance in front of me I saw a gaggle of geese crossing the road. They were not in a straight line, just sorta wandering in a group with no evident leadership. I stopped in the middle of the road and waited for the six geese to cross. They didn’t seem to care whether I was there or not, and they didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry.
The geese waddled on across the road and the little shallow ditch and proceeded on into a cut-over field. The heavy rain of the storm had caused water to puddle in several areas of the field, and the geese settled down into the shallow pools.
The drizzling remnant of the storm was blurring my vision of the geese, so I rolled the window down to see them better and turned off the engine. What a peaceful scene. No noise, not even the soft breeze moved the dripping leaves of the sweet gum trees.
I sensed more than heard the sound come from behind me. It was the sound of small, uneven splashing. I turned to look through the back window of the truck and saw a man on a bicycle coming up beside my truck. He was soaking wet. He wore no hat. His only attire was a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and flip-flops on his feet. He had a banjo case in the basket of his bicycle and a small pack tied behind the seat. He stopped beside me and asked, “Hey, buddy, you goin’ into town?”
I started to give him a sarcastic reply, “No, I thought I’d just stay out here in the middle of this muddy road till somebody misses me.” But I didn’t. I told him I was, indeed, going that way.
“How ’bout givin’ me a ride then? I’m ’bout give out peddlin’ through this mud.”
I told him to put his bicycle in the back of the truck and get in. He took his banjo out of the basket and, with one swift motion, threw the bicycle into the back of the truck. The crash of the bicycle startled the geese and they took off with a great honking noise into the drizzling rain.
“Whatcha doin’ out here in this mess?” I asked.
“I been down to the beach and a fella told me this road was a short-cut to Whiteville. I believe he lied.”
“You not from around here, I take it?”
“Nope. Originally from Louisiana but I got friends all over. Travel around to see ’em and play a little banjo music. Got a cousin in Whiteville; that’s why I’m headed there.”
The passenger smelled like sweat and beer. He evidently hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. His long hair hung like a used mop as the water dripped down his body and onto the truck seat. I had a lot of questions to ask this curious wanderer, but we were back in Hallsboro in just a few minutes. As we pulled up beside the old Pierce and Company store, he said, “You can just let me out here. I’ll call my cousin to come and get me.”
I let him out and he said, “Thanks for the ride.” He reached to get his bicycle out of the back of the truck when he suddenly came back to the door and said, “Hey, can you wait just a minute. I’ll be right back.”
Before I could reply he rushed into the store. I waited just a few minutes because he left his bicycle in the truck. He did quickly emerge from the store and got back in the truck. “She’ll (his cousin) be here in a few minutes. Listen, I ain’t got no money to pay you for the ride, but I would like to do something for ya. How ’bout I play somethin’ for you on my banjo?”
Before I could answer he took his banjo out of the case and began to play. I didn’t recognize the song but he was a pretty good banjo player.
He played a couple of songs. Then he said, “Well, that’s about it.” He put his banjo back in the case, got his bicycle out of the back of the truck and waved at me as he said, “You take care now, ya hear,” as he walked over to the loading dock of a warehouse. He never told me his name.
Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.