When I was young / I went off to college / But I flunked out ‘cause I could not pass no test / My old man barely made it past fifty / And I reckon that I’ll follow his footsteps / But it ain’t gon’ be bad health that’s gonna kill me / It won’t be red meat or pecan pie / It won’t be smoking cigarettes / Or drinking hard liquor / Ain’t nothing killing me like living / The way I do.
For Abel Mondell, a rainy day was life, bright sunshine the aberration, but he was accustomed to exile and reluctant to peer outside much anymore. He played his guitar a lot, and it was a damned shame he didn’t get up on stage much because he’d never been better. His songwriting was good, too, but that was just because Abel was pleased with it. If the rest of the world was, he reckoned he’d still be living in Nashville. He tried to avoid looking at that statuette, the one given for being “The Outstanding Songwriter for the Year 2002.” Glancing at it made him sad. Staring at it made him cry. When he’d reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession, he had mistakenly thought it the harbinger of success, when, in fact, it had been the portent of doom. He’d had fifty songs recorded, but it had been ten years since the most recent hit. He’d gotten tired of being told, essentially, that his songs were too good. They were thoughtful all the way through, when what record companies wanted were clever hooks and cheap rhymes. He gave them the sorriest song he’d ever written, about how his baby wouldn’t make love anywhere but in the bed of his pickup truck, and he’d have thought it appropriate if he’d been laughed out of town, but that was the song all the marketers and image specialists passed around. It hadn’t been a hit, but it had been recorded on a hit record, and it was the main source of much-needed revenue at the moment. The only places they laughed at him were the beer joints of Lower Broadway and East Nashville, and, in his mind, those were the only places that mattered. It wasn’t that Abel was making a stand on principle. Calling the world the way he saw it was easy, easy as hitching up his britches or restringing his guitar. Following the bouncing ball of focus groups and targeted demographics zapped his nervous system like a taser. Or a root canal, absent the local anesthetic.
Futility had driven him out of town, back to the basics, where he could interact without feeling every eye in the room. He wasn’t back home, but it was close proximity. He’d had a little cabin on the lake for thirty years, a place to get away, and now it was home because he’d gotten away. He kept the vestiges of a family – his mother, his sister, assorted cousins, nieces and nephew – at a safe distance. The water lapped up to his backyard, but safety was about twenty miles. Abel cut the grass every two weeks, and most days he scooted around the lake a little in his powerboat, but mostly he just played his guitar and scribbled his lyrics, because that’s what he did and was too old to do anything different.
Hellfire, that’s my problem in general.
Once every week or two, Abel paid his bills. He was well known at the post office and the trash dump. Every so often, he’d just show up at the hardware store unannounced and chew the fat with the same fellows who were there around lunchtime every day. He learned not to talk too much about himself. It made him sound like a bullshit artist. These folks didn’t know who he was, the principal reason being that they didn’t care. Home had always been a mixed blessing. It seemed like the only place on earth where he got no respect and also the only place where he didn’t get his ass kissed.
Come to think of it, there are a few more of those places now.
Occasionally, Abel drove over to the Mexican joint out on the main highway, next to the bridge. He went to eat chips and salsa, and whatever else Javier Mota was of a mind to fix him, but he stashed a guitar behind the seat, and sometimes, in the bar, some old-timer would recognize him, and he’d go fetch the guitar and put on a little show. Once every month or two, somebody would send him a text message, and he’d drive over there on a Friday night, sit around and swap songs with some local pickers. A lot of songs came out of Casa Chipotle, not from swapping them but from watching people listen to them. Abel had never been one to drink every night, but he liked a good Mexican drunk every now and then. He kept playing his guitar, Javier kept catching his eye and asking, “Beeg beer?” and he kept nodding, all the while watching the young toughs and their girlfriends stalking around the pool table and stepping outside for a smoke.”
Kids didn’t change much. Every generation was eighty percent the same, and in every one, the twenty percent was what folks noticed and amplified. The way Abel saw it, things were looking up. They still found places where the owners would let them slide even if they weren’t twenty-one, and owners found cops who would let them slide, and, oh, by the way, the beer was on the house to those who wore badges. On the lake, most everybody played ball, and Abel always did requests for the deputy sheriffs, which made it unlikely he’d get lifted for a pinch runner on the way home.
Life had grown quite predictable, and in that was there comfort. He was operating at a responsible budget deficit, and he had about three to four years, at the current rate, until he was dead broke. Abel was trying to make the best of them.
TO BE CONTINUED