“Not even to have two good hands.” Julia gives Aura Lee a glare that I can feel from across the room.
“Let the dead lie,” Belle agrees. She’s Aura Lee’s grandmother—Julia’s mother—but her eyes say she can kick my butt if I give her half a reason.
“But it’s an awesome song.” Aura Lee sits on the couch with her bare legs curled under her. Glasses of iced tea sweat on the coffee table, an old door with the knob removed.
“’Awesome.’” Belle lights a cigarette and belches smoke from her nostrils. “We send you to college and that’s the best you can do? ‘Awesome?’”
“You know what I mean.” Aura Lee hunches forward and I can see her sinking into the family dynamic, her at the bottom of the tree. “It would be perfect on the CD. But I don’t know all the words and I can’t find it anywhere. Plus we want to get the writing credits right.”
“Not going to happen.” Julia shakes a cigarette onto the table and puts it between her lips. She wears jeans and an old Jackson Browne tee, both faded to the color of gravel, but she’s still seriously hot. She’s Aura Lee’s mother, but she might still be pushing forty from this side.
“Why not?” Aura Lee’s chin inches forward. The three women look so much alike I can see the DNA flowing down the family tree. Same triangular faces, same green eyes, same wine-red hair, except Belle’s has a little gray. Varicose veins turn her lower legs into a barber pole.
“That was Luther’s song.” She lights Julia’s cigarette and Julia draws until the end glows like a new penny. She blows smoke toward the window. The wallpaper has a yellowish tinge and the whole room smells like an ashtray.
“I barely remember him,” Aura Lee says. “I thought maybe it would be a way to, you know, connect with him again.”
“You were learning to walk when he died,” Belle says. “Cancer. Went like that.” She snaps her fingers, the click filling the room.
“Cancer,” Aura Lee says. “You should quick smoking, Gram.”
“Yeah, and you should forget the damn song and go back to your books.”
“Classes are over,” Aura Lee says. “We get everything set up, we can record it all in a few days before the fall semester starts.”
Julia draws again and puts her cigarette in the ashtray. “You know how long cutting an album takes? Months.”
“Not now, the technology’s so much better. We’re talking about a week, max. The guy who runs an open mic off-campus has a decent studio. He’s already penciled us in for late July.”
Belle and Julia look at each other like they’ve just been offered a handful of beans.
“Um, excuse me?” They turn to me with shotgun eyes. They have to know Aura Lee and I hooked up last fall. We still have separate housing in the dorms, ‘cause you can’t move off-campus until you’re a junior.”
“Ms. Holden, you said your husband sang the song? Do you know where he heard it first?”
“Nope.” Belle crushes out her cigarette.
“But you still play, don’t you?” Her fingers still have calluses and I wonder where her guitar is. Ours are in my car. Maybe we should bring them in, try to loosen things up.
“And you sing, don’t you, Ms. Holden?” It registers for the first time that they’ve got the same last name.
“A little. I couldn’t play…”
Julia’s voice fades and she holds up her right hand, the one not holding her cigarette. A thumb and pinkie. It’s all that keeps her from being perfect. Her daughter’s still working on it, but she’s getting there.
“Born this way. Lucky they were making shoes with Velcro by the time I was learning to dress myself. Buttons are still a bitch, though.”
“I’m sorry.” It sounds stupid, but I can’t think of anything better.
“Not your fault.”
Aura Lee clears her throat. “Listen, can we play you our other songs? You know the older stuff, but I’m starting to write too, a little. And I really like ‘Pear Tree.’ It’s a terrific story, sounds like some of the old Appalachian ballads.”
The older women drag on their Marlboro lights. Aura Lee rolls her eyes.
“OK, can I at least show Ash around?” She glances toward the stairs. The whole downstairs isn’t much bigger than a suite in the dorms, and I wonder how big the bedrooms are. There have to be three of them, and I’m not sure that leaves room for a bathroom.
“Keep your door open,” Belle says. Aura Lee rolls her eyes again.
I follow her upstairs, the women watching me pretend I’m not checking out her ass. The stairs are so narrow I wonder how they got furniture up there unless they built it in the rooms. Aura Lee leads me into a room with one large window overlooking a field. She opens it wide for what little breeze it offers.
“They’ll think about it.” She flops on the bed and her top rides up so I see her belly-button ring. I wonder if the women know about that. Or her tattoo. She took her eyebrow piercing out before we came.
“Is that good or bad?” I’m only five-ten and I have to stoop with the low ceiling.
“We play some of our other stuff, they’ll hear how that song would work for us and change their minds.”
Aura Lee doesn’t have a great voice, but you can hear the truth in it, like she’s lived every word she sings, like she’s been nineteen forever and it never gets any better. We met at an open mic last fall and figured out right away we should team up, and now we get a gig once in a while. Twenty-five bucks and a burger, but it beats a finger in your eye.
“You didn’t mention your grandfather sang it.” I sit next to her on the single bed, the only thing that can fit in here. The dresser looks slightly heavier than cardboard. I wonder how her clothes don’t crush it.
“I only remember Gram and Ma singing it, but Ma never sang out. She always told me Gram and Gramps were pretty good.”
She points at a picture on the wall. A cheap wooden frame contains Belle and a man with a heavy jaw and light hair. The girl in front of them can’t be more than seven or eight, but I recognize Julia hiding her right hand behind her back. The man holds a pear in his hand, and the tree behind them spills shade across their faces.
Aura Lee goes to the window and I join her. A few hundred yards away, a split rail fence seems to be slowly dying, a small brook and a patch of woods beyond it. Between us and that fence, a blasted stump sticks up like a finger.
“That’s the tree in the picture,” she says. “It got hit by lightning when I was seven. Scared the shit out of me.”
The stump stands a hundred yards away. If it had been closer, the falling tree might have slammed through this wall.
“You look like your mom,” I say. Nothing gets past me twice.
“Yeah.” She stands. “Let’s check the attic.”
“There’s an attic?”
“Yeah, it’s probably stuffy as hell, but maybe there are more pictures. Gram and Gramp playing out, something like that.”
“They didn’t record anything, did they? You would’ve mentioned it.”
“You needed money and an agent back then. And they were doing Americana before it had a name. Nobody could’ve cared less.”
Turns out there is a bathroom, not much bigger than a phone booth, and outside it is a swinging trap door with steps that fold down. The heat spills out so thick my eyes tear up while I follow Aura Lee’s cut-offs up that ladder. The attic ceiling’s only about five feet tall, just enough so old clothes can hang on racks. Dresses and shirts under plastic wrappers, winter coats and boots. An old trunk that belongs in a pirate movie. Yellowed newspapers and magazines. I walk around a sticky strip dotted with dead flies.
“Hot damn.” Aura Lee points to a stack of old LPs and 45s.
“Bob Dylan,” she says. She digs deeper. “Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Kingston Trio, Burl Ives, Josh White, Chad Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Peter, Paul and Mary...”
She pulls a Dylan LP from its sleeve. “Great condition. Shit, you could get a few bucks for these.”
She reads the label on a box with an old tape reel.
“Library of Congress. Jesus, this is old stuff they were probably learning from.” She spreads more boxes on the floor. “Let’s see if ‘Pear Tree’ is on one of these.”
A couple of boxes are old bluegrass and I check them first. The song has that high lonesome feel, minor key creepy. No luck.
“Not that I see a tape recorder up here,” she says. “If we find the tape, we can take it back to school, someone must have an old reel-to-reel.”
Sweat drips down my back and my throat scratches from the dust. I’m ready to bag it when Aura Lee opens the trunk. Old bed linens on top, framed pictures under them, some with Julia holding a baby that has to be Aura Lee.
“Whoa.” She digs into the pile and pulls out a framed eight by ten. Her grandparents huddle next to a microphone with their eyes closed. The man holds a banjo and the woman plays a Martin guitar. The tuning pegs of another guitar hide behind the man’s knee, maybe the old Guild Aura Lee plays now, and a neon Schlitz sign glares red behind them.
“I wonder where this was taken. It’s gotta be a bar somewhere around here.”
“Doesn’t have to be around here,” I say, but she shakes her head.
“They never made enough to travel much. Didn’t get farther east than Ann Arbor or west than Muskegon. Don’t think they ever left the state.”
“They always lived around here?”
“Gram’s family did. Gramps came up from Kentucky to work in the auto plants back when we made our own cars.”
“Kentucky,” I say. “Maybe that’s where he learned the song.”
She pulls out more pictures and finds a shoebox. When she opens it, a bunch of cassettes stare up at us, labels with smudged pencil. A beat-to-shit cassette player lies under the box.
“When did CDs take over?” she asks. “Before we were born, I know that.”
“Eighties?” I say. “My father has some old tapes and vinyl, but mostly CDs.”
“So this is probably thirty years old, give or take.”
We put the other stuff back. Aura Lee goes down the ladder first and I hand the player and tapes down to her. Back in her room, I think she’s even more surprised than I am when the cassette player works. Tinny music comes out of the speaker, drums, bass, electric guitars.
“Someone’s out of tune,” she says. The tape seems to speed up and slow down, and I can’t decide whether it’s the player or if all the years up in that heat stretched the tape. We listen to a few minutes, then she ejects it and tries another one. That’s more electric stuff, and even worse than the first one.
“I wish we could read the labels,” she says. She pulls out one of the old reels. “If it’s one of these, we’re screwed. The tape looks like it’s melted together. We probably won’t be able to play it even if we can find someone with a reel-to-reel.”
Julia appears in the doorway, her eyes narrowed to green slits.
“What are you doing?”
Aura Lee puts in another cassette without looking at her. “We found these up in the attic. We’re checking to see if one of them has the song.”
“They’re probably all junk.” Julia’s eyes remind me of a cat, even more than her daughter. When she looks at me again, I feel like a mouse.
Aura Lee turns up the volume and we can hear that this tape is acoustic, so maybe we’re getting closer.
“Ash, why don’t you go get our guitars. We can try to figure out the chords.”
It’s ten degrees cooler out of that cramped room. I pop the trunk on my old Chevy and pull out our guitar cases, both covered with stickers from every open mic and coffee house we’ve played since last fall. Jackson, Ann Arbor, East Lansing…
When I step back in, Belle looks up from her cigarette.
“Is that Luther’s old Guild?” Her voice is softer than anything else she’s said.
“Well,” I say, “it’s what Aura Lee plays. If it was her grandfather’s first…”
Belle’s lips tighten. I maneuver the guitar cases up those tight stairs. Aura Lee’s still listening to the tapes and Julia’s still hovering over her.
“It’s Gram and Gramps,” Aura Lee says. “Crappy recording, probably live.”
Julia crosses her arms, her right hand underneath. “I think they wanted something live to send to the record companies. I don’t know if it’s one of these or not. Not that it matters, none of the record companies ever got back to them, I don’t think.”
“When was this tape made, Mom, do you remember?”
Julia shrugs. “Not exactly. Maybe 1990? Dad died in ninety-eight. You were only a little over a year old.”
The room goes silent except for the tinny version of “Long Black Veil” on the cassette player. Crowd noise drowns out the guitars. Aura Lee turns the cassette over and we hear more singing, but no crowd. Lots of stops and starts, with talking in between.
“Saw him pick her fruit.” That’s Belle. Julia’s eyes widen and Aura Lee turns up the volume.
A guitar plays a rhythm figure and a man sings the line.
“And only that ripe old pear tree
“Watched as he picked her fruit. Yeah, that’s better. I like that.”
Aura Lee looks at her mother, toward the stairs, and back at her mother.
“They wrote it? They wrote the song? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Julia hugs herself and shakes her head. Aura Lee turns off the tape and stands.
“Let’s take this downstairs.”
I lead the way because nobody can get by our guitar cases anyway. There’s a little more room in the living room, but Belle’s already lighting another cigarette. Her face shows she heard us upstairs.
“Gram.” Aura Lee puts the cassette player on the coffee table and looks for an outlet. “You and Gramps wrote the song, didn’t you?”
“How did you two decide you’re ready to do a record?” Belle doesn’t look at her.
Aura Lee glances at me. “We’ve been playing together since late last year, ten bucks here, twenty-five there, pass the hat a lot. Some guy asked us if we had CDs to sell, and we figured we could probably do that. We know a guy who has a studio, a couple of graphic artists from school…”
Julia appears at the foot of the stairs. Aura Lee looks at her, then back at her grandmother.
“Gram, why didn’t you tell me you and Gramps wrote the song?”
Belle shrugs. “We were just fooling around, stealing from lots of the old ballads we knew. We never meant to play it out, even if Luther lived. It’s not even finished.”
Aura Lee shakes her head. “Four or five verses, that’s pretty much a whole song.”
Julia sinks to the bottom step. All she needs is a flowing dress and long hair streaming behind her to look like a wronged maiden out of those same ballads.
I open my guitar case and find the pencil and paper I keep under the tuning pegs. Aura Lee takes her own guitar and sits on the couch next to the cassette player. When she strums a chord, both Julia and Belle seem to shrink.
“Standard tuning?” Aura Lee rewinds the tape a few seconds and turns up the volume. When the music comes up, I strum a few chords and find where it’s going.
“Yeah. And in ‘A’ minor.” We listen to the words and music, and I try to find the bass note as we go along. It’s not hard, especially since they keep stopping and starting to try different words.
“Under that ripe old pear tree,
“He swore he loved her true.
“And only that ripe old pear tree
“Watched as he picked her fruit.”
Aura Lee looks at Belle. “The only verse I remembered, and I didn’t understand that line when I was little. Confused the hell out of me.”
Belle holds up the cigarette pack to Julia. When she nods, Belle lights a cigarette and walks it over to her.
“When she began to blossom,
“She told to me his name…She revealed to me, she let me know…what do you think?”
“Um…‘revealed’ sounds better. Maybe ‘man’ instead of name?”
“Gotta rhyme with ‘shame’ at the end.”
I put down my guitar and pick up my pencil. “Back it up and play it again.”
Belle puts her hand over Aura Lee’s.
“Please.” Julia’s voice barely carries across the room. The cigarette smoke wreathes her face.
We play through three verses, lots of stopping and starting again, which gives me plenty of time to write down the words. And the chords are baby simple, like hundreds of other old ballads. But now we know this one isn’t that old.
Julia stares at her partial hand and Belle’s eyes burn into the cassette player.
“Aura Lee,” she says. “Don’t do this. Please.”
“Gram…” Aura Lee plays the next verse.
“And give that ripe’ning child his name
“And share with them his wealth…his life…his pride…never mind, keep going…
“But he just sneered go ‘way old man
“I’m not your daughter’s first.”
“What a great line.” Even Aura Lee whispers. “But it’s so awful, too.”
Belle leans over and yanks the cord out of the outlet.
“Enough, God damn it, that’s enough.”
“Gram, what the hell…?” Aura Lee puts down her guitar and reaches over for the cord, but Belle jerks the other end out of the cassette player and throws it across the room.
“Enough, enough, enough.” She looks a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than a few minutes ago, and her eyes slash across us like a hawk’s talons.
“That song must never, never be sung. I thought we threw it away years ago when Luther… Give me that damn tape.”
“Not a chance.” Aura Lee pops the little door open and jams the cassette into her pocket.
Julia rolls into a ball on the bottom step, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands covering her ears. Her shoulders twitch and her keening gives me goose bumps.
“Mom? What’s…” Aura Lee crosses the room and sinks next to her mother.
Belle steps between them and cradles Julia in her own arms with her back to her granddaughter.
That’s when I remember the pictures upstairs.
I go over and pull Aura Lee back onto the couch.
“Wait a second,” I tell her. “Just be quiet for a few minutes.”
“No,” I say. “Seriously. That stump in back of the house, the tree you said was hit by lightning, it was a pear tree, right?”
“Yeah, but…” I see her get it, too. “Oh, my God.”
We force ourselves to sit until Julia uncoils and looks at her daughter. For all she sees me, I might as well be on Mars.
“Mom.” All three women are about the same height, but when Aura Lee sways across the room in her cut-offs, she seems to be nine yards of legs. They tangle in a big hug, all arms and red hair and sniffling.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. They don’t hear me. I go over and pry Aura Lee loose long enough to find the cassette against her hip bone. The three of them sink to the bottom step in one big heap and I replace the cassette and plug the player in again even though I know what’s coming now. Aura Lee finally turns to her mother.
“This isn’t made up, is it?”
Julia’s throat moves like she’s swallowing an earthquake.
“Not all of it.” She wipes her nose on the back of her hand and lets out a sigh she seems to have been holding in for years.
“Son of a bitch wouldn’t marry a cripple. He didn’t want a child of his to inherit....”
Aura Lee’s eyes widen and I force myself to push “play” again.
“Then rage filled up this father’s heart
“My child’s tears fed the flame…fueled the flame, do you think?” Luther’s voice, that same guitar figure.
“Go on, we’ll fix it later.” Belle’s voice.
“And now that wicked young man lies
“Where he laid my child’s good name.”
I write it down while one last chord hangs in the room. I hit “stop” and none of us look at each other.
I walk outside, around the house. The sun hammers my head and I wish I had a hat.
The stump is about three feet tall and a foot across, the outside jagged and blackened, and the center looks pulpy, like it’s rotting. I don’t know a pear tree from a flag pole, but judging from the diameter, this one must’ve been tall.
I walk around it in ever-widening circles. Nothing looks different, some tall grass, a few bare spots, a few rocks. It’s a field, for Christ’s sake, what else do you have in a field?
Aura Lee joins me, her mother’s eyes looking out of the younger face. I and pull her against my chest and feel her shaking.
Belle and Julia join us, leaning against each other like it’s all that keeps them upright.
“This side.” Belle’s shadow falls across the stump and reaches back toward the house, tiny in the distance. “Right here.”
Aura Lee’s fingers squeeze mine and I squeeze back in self-defense.
“Nobody ever found out?”
Belle looks at the stump, then at me holding her granddaughter.
“The whole family was mixed up in all sorts of…shenanigans. Nobody asked any questions because they wouldn’t want to know the answers. He might’ve just took off with money or…”
And now that wicked young man lies
Where he laid my child’s good name.
“Is he buried here, too?” Aura Lee’s voice breaks to little pieces in the breeze.
“Uh-huh.” Belle and Julia look so beautiful I know I’ll see them in my dreams for the rest of my life—and wake up screaming.
“Forget that song,” Julia says.
I’m still holding the paper with the words, now almost bruising my eyes.
“It’s a great song.”
And then I think about why it’s such a great song. It tells the truth, about how people love and care for each other and put themselves in danger doing it. I never knew Luther, but I see now that he was a hero. He’s not around to suffer, but Belle and Julia could go to jail, which won’t help anyone. All because of Aura Lee, and she wasn’t even born yet.
It really is a great song. But letting other people hear it…
I hold up the page so the women can see it, and tear it in half, then tear the halves again. Then again. One more time, the packet thick enough so I have to work at it. I open my fingers and let the wind carry the shreds away, ragged white moths floating across the field until I can’t see them anymore.
I kiss away the tears running down Aura Lee’s cheeks before I look at her mother again.
“We’re all in this together now. Aren’t we?”
Aura Lee walks over and hugs her grandmother. Then her mother. Then she turns and holds out her hands to me, two good hands, the ones that play guitar, the ones that hold me tight.
Two good hands.