We made it as far as Tuscaloosa before stopping for the night. Bo drove the whole way, unwilling to relinquish even that much control. It was about what I expected: no deviations from the interstate, cruise control set at ten miles over the speed limit, he only stopped at chain gas stations and restaurants, and worst of all, he did in fact listen to talk radio. Thank God for earbuds, or I might have dove out the passenger door.
We had adjoining rooms at the motel. Sometime after midnight, I woke to the sound of a banjo playing. I sat up in bed and listened. Bo never sang, just plucked the strings in a slow, tentative fashion. Like he wasn’t sure if he still remembered how to play. Over the course of an hour, he worked at it. His playing became more confident and the song finally recognizable, the old North Carolina ballad Tom Dooley.
Another murder ballad. Why did it have to be a murder ballad? Wasn’t it creepy enough for him that the banjo was haunted? That it had worked some evil mojo on his brother? No, apparently not. Good ol’ boy Bo had a little goth streak of his own, and it led him right to the darkest music he could play.
Why did he want to play it anyway, when that might be the very thing that allowed the spirit to influence Justin? Sure, his brother had been playing the instrument for months. An hour or so of clumsy practice was unlikely to do much, but still, why risk it? It made no sense.
Once Bo quit playing, I drifted into an uneasy sleep. Morning came too soon and brought a headache with it. The motel had a free continental breakfast which consisted of cereal and microwave waffles. I got coffee and took my laptop to an empty table.
I may have taken time off work but all that really got me was a brief reprieve from new assignments. I still had a regular online column dedicated to music history that I’d recently talked the editor into greenlighting. The deadline for it was fast approaching. I picked a topic and let my fingers fly.
I knew the moment Bo approached and started reading over my shoulder. “Learning anything?”
“Yeah, actually, I am.” He walked around and took the seat opposite me. “I didn’t know the banjo came from Africa.”
“Africa, the Caribbean, then the U.S.” I saved what I had so far and glanced at the word count. Not enough yet. “The original gourd instruments evolved over time. Slaves taught their owners how to play. White minstrel performers made the banjo popular, starting around the 1840s. It became a part of jazz. Bluegrass. Bluegrass and roots music are why people think of it as an American invention. A white thing.”
“I sure didn’t know any black kids in high school who played the banjo.”
“Ever heard of the Carolina Chocolate Drops?”
Bo shrugged. “Maybe. Sounds like one of the bands Justin’s talked about.”
“When did you give it up?” I kept my eyes on the screen but my fingers were still.
“Playing. When did you stop? I heard you last night.”
Mortification lit his face on fire. “Nosy much?”
“Hey, the walls are thin.” I clicked the save button again and closed the laptop. “I could tell you know how to play, but it sounded like maybe you haven’t done it in a while. You were hesitant.” He sat stone-faced, the line between his eyebrows a deep groove. I tried another tack. “Have you and your brother ever performed together?”
The granite lines of his face softened into something resembling handsome. “When we were kids. He’d play the banjo and sing. I’d play the guitar.” A smile tugged at his mouth, and he was so lost in thought, he didn’t try to hide it. “Our granny would sing with us sometimes. She’s the one who taught us how to play.”
“Did you guys just play for family, or did you ever go for bigger audiences?”
Some of the granite returned. “We did a local talent show once.”
“How did it go?”
“We got second place. I let Justin keep the trophy.”
I was getting close to something, I just wasn’t sure what. “Did you do more shows after that?”
“No.” He pushed his chair back and rose. “We need to get on the road.” With that, he left me there, wondering what nerve I’d hit.
We drove in silence for nearly an hour. He didn’t even subject me to talk radio, for which I was profoundly grateful. As we reached Meridian, I pulled out an old rock and roll travel guide from my bag and flipped through it. “Hey, you want to stop at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum?”
He looked at me like I’d grown another head. “We’re not on vacation. We’re taking this trip to get help for my brother.”
“I know that, but our appointment’s not until tonight and we’ve got plenty of time.”
“Like, an hour.”
“I said no.”
“I just think a little break would do you good. You need to relax.”
“You want to spend an hour helping me relax, you should have said so back at the motel.”
I answered with a middle finger, embarrassed I’d left myself open like that. Annoyed at the images his suggestion brought to mind. “Just for that, I’m picking the radio station.” I reached for the stereo controls.
He stayed my hand, his big hand engulfing mine. “Please don’t make me listen to top forty.”
Incredulous, I stared at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said what I said.”
Against my will, my estimation of him rose a few notches. A man capable of a meaningful apology couldn’t be all bad. “Classic rock it is, then.” I found a station and we cruised through Meridian.
We made it to Nacogdoches, Texas, in plenty of time for me to take a nap at the latest motel. Once I woke, I showered and dressed, then sat down with my laptop. I struggled for another couple hundred words on the column. This topic should have been a breeze, but I was too distracted. Too nervous. Our appointment with a luthier magician loomed, and I did not feel at all prepared. But maybe that was for the best. I couldn’t treat this like an interview because it wasn’t one. The professor had been adamant that a condition of this magician’s willingness to examine the banjo was that I respect his privacy. If I wrote about tonight for my blog, I couldn’t mention names, details, or even the state where the luthier magician lived.
After a while, I gave up on the Turntable column and opened another document. In this one, I kept a running list of all the motels and hotels I stayed at. Since I traveled frequently for the magazine, it was a pretty long list. I typed in this latest motel, then deleted the entry and closed the doc. This trip wasn’t for the magazine. Maybe it was time for a different list, one for blog-related travel. I created a new document in the blog folder and typed in the names and locations of these latest three motels. When I had time, I’d go through my notes and add in motels from my first experience with the supernatural. What I would not do was think about how much time I spent in motels.
Another thing I didn’t want to think about was being back in Texas. It happened once or twice a year at least, whether I wanted it to or not. When it was for work, it was easy to forget where I was and just focus on whatever concert or festival I was covering for Turntable. I never came back for any reason other than work. Texas wasn’t home anymore, it was just the place where I grew up.
I texted Bo at dinner time but he didn’t respond. I ate alone at the steakhouse across from the motel, one eye on my phone while I read a paperback romance I’d picked up somewhere along the way. After my meal I sent Bo another text, that again went unanswered. I walked to his room. He’d made sure to get one away from mine this time and when I leaned close to the door, I knew why.
His playing had less hesitation this time, but still lacked the ease and familiarity present in his brother’s videos. Bo had to work hard for every recalled note. I listened as the song came into sharper focus until I could identify it. High on a Mountain. He hummed a bit but didn’t sing. Did he learn this one from his grandmother? The thought sent me backing away from the door. He didn’t want to share this with me. I was wrong to take even a piece of this private moment. I hurried back to my own room.
According to the map on my phone, it would take us twenty minutes to reach our destination. I added ten minutes to that in case of traffic. Five minutes before we needed to leave, I would text him again and hopefully he would respond this time. He knocked on my door before I had a chance to send the message.
“Are you as nervous about this as I am?” He held the banjo case across his body like a shield.
“Yes.” I grabbed my bag and the room card key. “You ready for this?”
“I guess so, since I have no idea what to expect.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t know what to expect, either.” I locked up my room and we headed for his car.
“That doesn’t make me feel better. Kind of makes me feel worse. I thought you were supposed to be some kind of expert.”
“With music, I know my stuff. This, the paranormal stuff, I’m still learning.”
We drove in apprehensive silence for several minutes before he spoke again. “Why are you doing this?”
“Your brother asked for my help. Seems like a good enough reason.”
“Yeah, but we’re not paying you. If we agree to sell the banjo, you’ll get a commission out of that, but Justin has to agree, too, and I don’t know if he will. Or when he might be well enough to even think about it. That wasn’t even on the table when you came out to see me. So what’s in this for you?”
I had no answer for him.
“That magazine you work for won’t touch anything this weird, so it’s not like you get a big article out of it. Your blog is anonymous, so you don’t really get anything from that.”
This conversation was officially on my last nerve. “Why do you think people have to get something out of doing a good thing? That is some next level cynicism right there.”
“I’m putting a lot of trust in you. I guess I just want to know who you are.”
I swore under my breath. “What is this, a team building exercise? I’m a writer. A music nerd. A natural brunette. I like tacos. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Pluto should still be considered a planet. I’m a night owl, I’m terrified of vampires, and as far as I’m concerned, Astral Weeks is the greatest work of art ever produced. What more do you need to know?”
He slowed to turn onto a dark road that we probably wouldn’t have found without GPS. “What’s Astral Weeks?”
I held up my left hand, palm facing him. “I can’t even talk to you.”
A sound filled the car, big and gusty and made of pure delight. I gaped at Bo. “Are you laughing? Like, actually laughing? I didn’t know you knew how.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
For the first time, I found myself genuinely curious about his life beyond how much he cared for his brother. “Care to share any fun details?”
He slowed the car to a crawl, the headlights shining on a mailbox, the number 908 affixed to it. “This is it.”
My gut tightened and the muscles in my shoulders bunched with tension. “I’ve got a weird feeling about this.”
Bo turned in to the driveway as the elvish tattoo on my wrist warmed my skin.