Sure enough, when three o’clock rolled around, so did several high school kids. In deference to Mud Galvin’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, he and Abel got provisionally high before they got there, and the kids apparently did the same.
Abel was glad Victoria was back. She had been Mud’s significant other for at least a decade. She was probably in her forties, so Abel reckoned she was comfortably more than half his age. For all he knew, she might have been at the grocery store the night before – it hadn’t been that late when he left – but he’d noted her absence and hoped nothing had come between them. Mud needed someone to look after him.
Once the kids straggled in, Abel went to the kitchen to help Victoria with refreshments. He spread egg salad and pimiento cheese. Victoria insisted on cutting the sandwiches into triangles and then shaving off the crust. The sandwiches disappeared quickly. Abel thought he might have to go back to the kitchen and retrieve bread crust from the trash. He and Mud didn’t even try to grab one. It would’ve been like sticking their hands in the garbage disposal.
The lemonade was good, though.
Warren played a guitar and said he fooled around a little with writing songs. He was a good-looking kid and might’ve played a little ball. His apparent girlfriend, Jess, was a looker, too. She played harmonica, most likely because Warren had taught her how. She brought a little pouch of harps with her, though, so she took it seriously and knew what she was doing. Henry didn’t play ball unless it was billiards. It was fairly obviously he had spent most of his young life playing mandolin. He was good at it. All three of them were good at what they did, especially eating sandwiches.
Abel had not heard his cell ring. He didn’t think he’d set it on “vibrate.” He’d probably missed it in the din. The din of the den. He had a voice message, and it was from the local area code, 615, so he thought he’d better see what it was. He walked down the steps and sat down at the picnic table under the oak tree and next to the hammock. The message was from Cain Caldwell International, Limited, a title that struck Abel as hilarious. Cain Caldwell Universal, Sharply Defined. It seemed like he could have LLC’d it. When he called back, trying to keep from laughing, he only had to “hit one” once before his call was swiftly forwarded to the business manager, Judd Herlong, who said he “had some good news, indeed.”
Judd wasn’t lying. Abel hung up and sat for a few minutes stunned. This was a situation he would have to rethink. He didn’t notice Jess, the harpist, until she sat down opposite him. He acknowledged her with a nod. If Warren played ball, Jess was surely a cheerleader.
“I been thinking about a song,” he said from nowhere. “All I got is a chorus. ‘Since I was just a boy, they’ve said the truth shall set you free. Sometimes it seems the truth is just a source of misery. The line is long and weary gathered at the gates of hell. Just heed the devil’s call. Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
“Cool,” she said. “Want to smoke this joint with me?”
Abel took a deep breath. “Does a one-webbed duck swim in circles?”
Jess laughed and took it as a yes.
Abel feared he was performing beneath the level predicted by Mud when he had extolled his songwriting virtues. He was in something of a trance, which wasn’t unusual after getting high with a gorgeous woman who might conceivably have been his grandchild. A man got old a lot faster than his taste in women. Really, it was sort of liberating. He could flirt unashamedly, given the acknowledged absurdity of the situation. Abel was no threat.
Mud toted the mail. He spun his tales. Picking up a poor hitchhiker. A waitress in a truck stop with an awful secret. A man who commits suicide after the bank forecloses on the farm. In Mud’s world, most everything was either humorous or tragic and sometimes both. Abel fumbled the lyrics of the songs he knew best and got the ones right he hadn’t thought about in six months. He nodded politely at Warren’s tunes, which were at least enthusiastically bad. Abel told Jess she reminded him of Patsy Cline, which was a lie he had foisted upon numerous others.
After Mud sang one of his funny songs, “The Worst Things in Life Are Free,” the song swap played itself out. It was a poker game Mud won. The kids enjoyed themselves, but, really, it was just a great way to get a Friday night started. If they hadn’t excused themselves – Jess gave Abel a peck on the cheek and a hug – it might have lasted all night, and Abel and Mud might never have made it to Lanny Mercer’s bachelor party. They killed a couple hours getting stoned before they left.
“It seems like no matter where I stay, every time I come to Nashville, I wind up driving back and forth, one side of town to the other,” Abel said on the way. “If I’m playing a gig in East Nashville, something’ll take me to West Nashville. If I’m down toward Franklin, there’ll be a need to go to Gallatin or Goodlettsville.”
“Just stay at my place,” Mud said. “Won’t be no need to go no place else.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, that you might be right. Least this time we just gotta go to Lower Broadway.”
“What’s on your mind, Abel? Something’s got you frazzled.”
“That call I went outside to make? It was from Cain Caldwell’s business manager.”
“What’s his name? Judd Herlong?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure that’s it.”
“He was mine for about ten minutes,” Mud said. “I reckon ‘bout everybody else was, too.”
“He was sending a contract by courier. I bet they don’t get a lot of couriers at the no-tell motel I’m staying in. I had to fetch my wallet to remember the name.”
“Well, Mud, it seems that Cain Caldwell has decided he wants to make an entire album out of my songs.”
“Like Waylon did with Billy Joe Shaver. Well, almost, anyway.”
“Yep, this Judd fellow said Cain wants to bring back the concept album, like Willie did with ‘Redheaded Stranger,’ ‘Phases and Stages,’ seems like there was one or two others. Hell, he’s offering a good chunk of money right up front.”
“Damn, son, congratulations,” Mud said. “About time you struck oil again.”
“Yep. I still can’t help but thinking something’s wrong with the picture.”
“Hell, son, I can tell you what’s going on. First of all, it’s a damn good idea. You got songs you can string together any way he wants, but I’m gonna tell you what’s happening. Caldwell, the son of a bitch, is feeling some heat from our buddy Lanny. Lanny wants to do that album but ain’t got the clout. Cain’s got the clout. He’s gonna cut that album so Lanny can’t.
“My professional opinion is that it ain’t no concern of your’n. You in the business of songwriting, and when some big star wants to do your songs, why, that’s why you wrote ‘em.”
“In other words …”
“Take the fuckin’ money,” Mud said.
The wedding was at the Opryland Hotel. Lanny Mercer had the remarkable good sense to marry a woman who wasn’t a singer. Olivia was a pediatrician, leading Mud to crack that she probably wouldn’t have to “turn no more pedia tricks if she don’t wanna.” Lanny was a college man himself, but he hadn’t ever made any use of his phys-ed degree. The best lesson he’d learned at the University of Kentucky had been how to catch a woman like Olivia.
It took Abel a while to find Lanny and a while longer to finagle a way to see him. Abel said he needed two minutes in private, and Lanny walked with him out into one of the mammoth hotel’s courtyards of fountains and greenery.
“I got an unusual wedding present for you, Lanny.” Abel handed him a contract.
“I’m s’posed to sign it,” Abel said. “It came by courier. You know how you been talking about doing a whole record of nothing but my songs? Well, your buddy Cain Caldwell’s a step ahead of you. That contract is between him and me, and he’s wanting to do a record of my songs. I’m supposed to stay over. He’s put me up for the week at that Hampton across the street from the Hall of Fame. I’ve stayed there before. Right nice place. It ain’t the Four Seasons, but it’s way past my usual speed.”
Lanny skimmed the first page. “So why you showing this to me?”
“I’m not showing it. I’m giving it.”
“The way I got it figured, and Mud assisted me in this analysis, is that Cain has got a little interest in holding you back. He knows you want to do this album, so he’s gonna to do it first, not because he likes my songs but because you do.”
“But I can’t sell nobody on the idea,” Lanny said.
“That’s the point,” Abel said. “Maybe, if you show that contract around, it might change some minds.”
“I’ll take that chance, buddy. It’s your wedding present. Tell Olivia it’s the thought that counts.”