I’ll put the whole story together and post it soon. Thanks for reading.
Nathan McLure had never entertained the notion that a motel might offer free breakfast for its guests, and he took to the Red Roof Inn’s morning offerings as if they were at a Shoney’s breakfast bar. He also didn’t know what to do with a bagel, so Jerry showed him how to split one, toast it and smear it with creamed cheese.
“Hmm,” Nathan said. “This ain’t half bad.”
He ate two bagels, two sausage biscuits, a bowl of cereal, two bananas and a cinnamon roll. Apparently he didn’t drink coffee, but twice he refilled his plastic cup with orange juice. Jerry just watched him, amused.
“I noticed you brung your guitar,” Nathan said. “I play a little.”
“Really? You ain’t played since you left home?”
“I had one when I left, a little bitty one my dad give me when I was a young’un. I reckon somebody at the carnival’s got it now.”
“We get back to the room, you’re welcome to play mine.”
“What you do, Jerry? If you don’t mind me asking …”
“Nah,” he said. “I’m a writer. I write books, and I write songs. The latest book I wrote is about music. I’m selling ‘em at a bookstore here in town this afternoon, and then I’m gonna play a few songs I wrote tonight. A friend of mine, one I wrote about in the book, is letting me open for him.”
“You’re welcome to stay till tomorrow, or, you know, I can understand it if you want to get home as quick as you can. I’ll put you on a bus as soon as there’s one running if that’s what you want.”
“Shit,” Nathan said, a little too loudly, “what’s one more day?”
Jerry would have spent the morning planning what he was going to say, which passages he was going to read, and what songs he was going to play. He might as well let Nathan play around with his guitar a little.
Nathan didn’t just play. He was bad-ass. He could pick out all the famous country intros: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” even the intro to Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” Listening got Jerry to thinking. It wouldn’t be a problem for this kid to pick up the chord progressions for his simple songs.
“Hang on,” Jerry said. “Be right back.”
The truck had a locked-down, airtight bed cover. Jerry opened it and pulled out the hard case that protected his Telecaster. He also had a small speaker he used when he wanted to practice in a motel room. He could turn the sound down low so that it wasn’t any louder than a softly played acoustic.
“Ever play one of these things?”
“Oh, yeah. I used to be in a rock band.”
“As good as you play a guitar, Nathan, what in the hell possessed you to run off with a carnival?”
“Shoot, Jerry, everybody and his brother plays a guitar where I come from. Ain’t much of a living in it.”
“Don’t seem to be much of a living in a carnival.”
“Well,” he said, “I reckon I found that out the hard way. By the way, I reckon I ain’t much for compliments” – he said it com-pluh-MENTS – “but I ‘preciate you helping me out.”
Jerry hooked up the electric. “Swap with me,” he said, taking his Martin. “Let me play a couple of my songs. I’ll play the chords. Just jump in there when you feel like it. See if you can play a little solo after the second verse.”
The kid was talented. Neither he nor Jerry had ever had a lesson. Jerry wasn’t anything special. As a guitarist, he was mainly a writer. He loved the words more than the music. Nathan could make that Telly talk. He was what Jerry had always noticed in great guitarists. The instrument was a part of his body. He hit notes with his fingers the same way Jerry did with his voice. Jerry played three or four songs he’d written. Nathan picked up every melody and made it his own.
Jerry felt like Buck Owens the day he met Don Rich.
“How old are you, Nathan?”
Jerry would have guessed at least twenty-five. The nineteen had been hard years. The last few months had obviously been hell.
“You sing any?”
“Nah,” Nathan said. “I ain’t much for singing. I can do a little harmony.
“By the way, them songs of your’n are dern good.”
“I ‘preciate it,” Jerry said. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in sitting in with me tonight?”
He thought a little. “Yeah, I’d like that. I’m a right good bit rusty.”
“Tell you what. I won’t play but two or three songs at the book signing. That’s just a little something I throw in to liven things up. You just come along with me for that, but then we’ll go over to this club where I’m opening for Lonnie Wiggins. Ever heard of him?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“He’s good. He’s an old buddy of mine. You and him’ll get along right off. Tell you what? I’m just playing for tips. Ought to be a good crowd, though. I hear it’s just an old honky tonk. I’ll split the tips with you. Give you a little spending money for the rest of the way home, if nothing else.”
“Ah’ight,” Nathan said.
They practiced for several hours. About noon, Jerry walked across the street to a convenience store and bought a six-pack of Bud Light, a can of mixed nuts and a pack of Marlboros because Nathan said he could stand a smoke. It wasn’t exactly common for Jerry to drink beer before a book signing, but he’d had several where either the store or him had sprung for wine and cheese.
The signing was modestly successful. Jerry sold a dozen books and signed some paperwork to leave five on consignment. Siri helped him find a nearby Wells Fargo, and he deposited the check at the drive-through ATM. Then they drove to the Honky Tonk Atmosphere and met Lonnie Wiggins backstage. They watched his sound check and walked onstage to plug in their guitars and briefly check their own. Jerry was pleased with his and left the stage a few minutes before Nathan, who was probably as much impressed with the sound as interested in adjusting it.
“Lonnie, you ought to hire that boy,” Jerry said, watching Nathan in the wings with Lonnie. “Take a listen to the first song or two when I get started.”
“Where’d you find him?”
“Picked him up hitchhiking. Yesterday. Swear to God.”
They played for an hour, and all the songs but two were ones Jerry had written. Had he not had Nathan McLure alongside, he’d have played mostly covers because people in bars aren’t that interested in listening to songs they don’t already know. He’d have played a real rabble rouser, Cash or Willie or Waylon or Merle or Strait or at least one Hank, and then tried to slip in an original while he had their attention. He could pull them off this time, his songs, and he realized it shortly after he opened with “Mama Tried.” The people picked up on the picking. It didn’t take much reminding to get them to toss bills in the bucket. When they got through and sat at a souvenir table, more people wanted Nathan to autograph a compact disc he’d never heard than the guy who sang on it and wrote all the songs. Jerry did all right, though: five books, twenty-seven CDs, and a dozen tee shirts, all suitable for Nathan McLure’s signature. Somehow, Jerry figured he’d get a song out of it.
Nathan never made it to the Greyhound station. The next day, Jerry Lennart drove him all the way back to Bonham, Texas, which was on Highway 82 between Texarkana and Wichita Falls. It was a long drive from Little Rock, but they didn’t talk all that much and mainly listened to music. They ate at a Whataburger, which pleased Nathan because he’d sure missed them. Jerry asked him how he got out of jail, and Nathan said they’d just let him go because they’d gotten tired of feeding him hot bologna and scrambled eggs. Jerry told him to get his business settled and keep in touch, and if he wanted to plunge into the red-hot Carolinas music scene, let him know. Jerry let him out with a business card and three hundred dollars in the middle of Bonham because Nathan said he had some arrangements to make. Jerry turned the truck around and made it almost back to Memphis, where he slept five hours in a Motel 6. He drove the rest of the way home on Sunday.
Jerry never heard from Nathan McLure again. He didn’t owe him anything. He’d earned every dollar he’d given him or spent on him. Jerry wondered about Nathan. Maybe he’d been on the run. Maybe he’d killed that carnival boss, or maybe they’d gotten into a fight, and Nathan thought he’d killed him and took off. If that had been the case, though, they wouldn’t have let him out of jail because he ate too much bologna.
Nathan McLure played a bit role in several Jerry Lennart songs and a major role in one. The last had been a minor hit for Lonnie Wiggins, and Jerry wondered if its subject ever heard it. He Googled the name several times, but all that would have really uncovered was an obituary, so he was happy when he didn’t find anything.
Jerry and Nathan were friends for a very short time, but one thing they weren’t was Facebook friends.