Sources of Outlaw Country
—David Wesley Williams
Sources of Outlaw Country
Ivy Coldwater drove west, toward Memphis. She stopped an hour outside of town, in the dirt parking lot of a little country church. It was getting to be dark. The only light came from one of those portable electric signs with wheels, like you might see outside a honky tonk or rib shack, with black plastic letters touting country music and cold beer, or the best rack this side of the Bluff City. This being a church, the letters on the sign said all were welcome, sinners especially. Ivy smiled and thought about how the church and the honky tonk seemed to be chasing the same clientele.
She got out of her old Caddy and had a look around. The church was a humble little clapboard building, painted white. It was about shack size. There was a small light over the front door but it was turned off, or maybe the bulb had burned out. The portable electric sign that provided the lot’s only light also issued its only sound — a low electric moan like a lonely bass voice, warming up, as if waiting for the rest of the choir to arrive for practice. The sign seemed about to break into “Angel Band.”
There were small windows on each side of the church door. Ivy peered in one and then the other, but saw only bare pews and an empty pulpit. There were no ghosts about. There were no angels. Behind the pulpit, on a riser, was room for a small choir. Ivy tried to imagine them, in full sway, in high fervor. She closed her eyes and listened hard. But it was only the low moan of the electric sign she heard.
She tried the door but it was locked, knocked twice but no one came to answer. She stepped back from the church and sat on the back bumper of the old Caddy, with her head down. She stayed that way for half an empty hour, seemed like. It was full dark now. She got up and looked to the sky, to the heavens there. It was a black night, with just a sliver of moon. The moon was like a rind of something up there, and there was not much more than a dusting of dim stars. It was the darkest sky Ivy had ever seen. It was dark as death, dark as the gaping maw of a Shiloh cannon, dark as Elvis’s hair when he dyed it.
She stepped back some more, walked across the country road and took it all in. She returned to the car, opened the trunk, and got out her paint and supplies, to capture the scene as she saw it. Maybe, in her painting, the church would become a little bit of a honky tonk, all welcome, sinners especially. The choir could give way to a string band, like Mumford Bean and His Itawambians, out of Mississippi, or the Julep Twins, pride of Kentucky. The preacher could call out dance steps between recriminations.
But instead Ivy began painting on the old Caddy, which already was black with white road stripes the length of the hood, roof, and boot — a rolling piece of folk art called “Lost Highway,” acrylic on Detroit steel.
She was in full sway, in high fervor, before she could wonder why. The dark did not deter her; better, sometimes, to paint by feel. She’d read about a steel guitar player who grew up practicing that way. He’d turn off the lights and have to sense his way up and down the neck. He fumbled along until he didn’t. He said it got to where the strings would whisper to him.
It was about that dark in the parking lot of the little country church, but Ivy’s hand moved as if guided. She painted brown roosters crowing and a clear blue sky, a speckled bird with silver wings. Trains, trucks, and horses, of course. Skull orchards and revival tents. Bottle of Hadacol, can of Schlitz. A Holy Bible, with helps. Jesus, resplendent and rather cool in a cream-colored Nudie suit embroidered with rose thorns and crosses, and perhaps in a nod to His favorite rockabilly singer, feathers.
Elsewhere and all about were images from Southern myth, winged mules and talking dogs, and the devil playing mumblety-peg with the Meanest Man in Three Counties for one of their souls. There was a boy named Shooter, but he had no gun. He was unarmed; that is, he had no arms. He had butterfly wings. There was a man named Rev — a dirt-track racer of regional renown.
On one side of the trunk was an all-seeing eye — or was it an egg over easy? On the other side of the trunk was a series of portraits. There was Ivy’s mama and daddy, from the good days; they were kissing and telling lies, drinking yesterday’s wine. There was a stern figure called The Muleskinner, playing a Gibson F-5 mandolin. They were all there, on the trunk lid of the old Caddy.
The quarter panels she filled with words, so many words, strung together in strange and beautiful ways. Hoss. Busthead. Slumindicular. The words wrote themselves, pretty much. They fell from the night sky. There were prayers and pleas and pointed questions such as, “Are we all just hoboes, really, on the gospel train?” There were nods to God and odes to everything. There were bits from Revelation and Lamentations, and Brother Claude Ely. The Beatitudes got mixed up with the hillbilly blues, and made a perfect sort of sense.
Once she had filled every available space, Ivy crawled into the backseat of the old Caddy. She fell quickly to sleep. She dreamed that all the figures of her folk-art car painting came alive for a honky-tonk, church-parking-lot party. Things quickly got out of hand, quite happily so. There were kegs of beer and a pig on a spit, and the gospel choir sang the hell out of the hits of the day.
Ivy Coldwater was dreaming, still, when she awoke to sounds outside the car.
The girl had blonde hair with blue ticking and the boy wore a brown derby hat. They seemed to be out on some early morning spree or adventure, about which the boy — or was he a girl? — seemed to have grave concerns. They were peering in at Ivy, from outside the back, passenger-side window. The window was open a crack, so Ivy could hear a bit of what they were saying about her. The blue-tick girl was saying for the brown-derby boy to drag her out and leave her on the church stoop, and they’d steal her car and light out for Jackson. She said Jackson like it was more metaphor than municipality. The girl said it was a funky-looking car but it beat the hell out of their current transportation. She said she’d never heard of anybody robbing a bank and pedaling away. She said it embarrassed her, to be a budding girl outlaw and still riding a bike. The boy said he wasn’t stealing any cars or robbing any banks, but the girl didn’t pay that any mind. The boy had a strange way of talking. It was as if he hadn’t expected to have to speak, indeed had not spoken in a very long time or gotten much of a chance, and the whole apparatus up in there was rusty. He sounded like a talking dog, Ivy thought — or a girl, maybe, trying to sound like a boy, trying to stand up to a force of nature. The girl said they’d see about that, and the boy said, “Well.”
Ivy’s eyes were open a crack, too, but not so they could tell. Her hair was in her eyes, so that gave her some cover, as well. She watched them. The girl was plain-faced and pinched-looking, but she was a bold sight, in a constant blur of motion. Her hair was straight but when she moved the ticks became streaks, blue as Nashville neon. Ivy had to fight a smile, watching this girl. She had nerve enough to power a sub. She had gall by the fifty-five gallon drum. She was hydroelectric power from the TVA and white lightning from some Kentucky holler and she was the Collins Kids playing “Hoy Hoy” on the Ranch Party TV program in 1958. She about gave off smoke. The boy — or girl, still impossible to say — was another matter. He was slightly built and had a formal air about him, stiff like, as if he could have used a squeak of grease. He turned to the girl with a look of desperation. He seemed to be asking himself, with every shred of his being, how he could possibly stay with this girl — and how could he possibly not?
“Is she dead?” said the brown-derby boy to the blue-tick girl.
Said the blue-tick girl to the brown-derby boy, “If she is, she’ll be harder to carry but the car’ll be easier to steal. So it’s six of one.”
“Everybody knows dead weight’s heavier. Go ask Newton.” Newton was the boy’s much older brother, already off to college, at East Tennessee State, home of the Buccaneers.
“I’m not carrying a dead body and — ”
“You can drag her. It’s just over to the stoop there. Ah, hell, I’ll help. We’ll both drag her. She don’t weigh a buck.”
“ — and I’m not stealing a car and I’m not robbing any banks.”
Now the blue-tick girl turned to face the brown-derby boy. He was taller, but only by dint of that hat. She snatched it from his head and put it on her own, in one sweeping move that included the stuffing up of her blue-ticked hair under the brown derby hat. It disappeared altogether, her hair. She looked now like a wax figure of an infamous girl outlaw, pale as she was. She kissed the boy on the lips, quick like, and then put the derby hat back on his head. She did this all in one motion, too. Her blue-ticked hair fell and flew like a rainsquall.
The girl said, “If she ain’t dead we may have to kill her.”
But the boy had had quite enough.
“No kissing!” he said. But even a dead woman could see it on his face, that the brown-derby boy would kill and steal and bust banks for another of those kisses from the blue-tick girl.
It was getting to be full light. The girl opened the door. She stepped back, for better to see Ivy’s face. She brushed her hair out of her eyes. There were dots and dabs of paint on Ivy’s cheeks and chin. It was like she’d been crying ten shades of tears. There was every kind of tear — sad tears and happy tears and tears well beyond the scope of both. There were drunk tears and levee-done-broke tears, world’s-end tears and thick-smoke-in-my-eyes tears, marry-me tears and yes-I’ll-marry-you tears, D-I-V-O-R-C-E tears.
The girl leaned in just close enough to poke Ivy in the ribs. Ivy said, “Oww.”
The boy stepped back and jumped at the same time. He wound up on the seat of his striped trousers — yes, he wore striped trousers, brown in two shades; they must have come with the derby hat in an ensemble deal. The derby hat rolled off his head, looked like an armadillo in formal wear trying to scurry away. He just sat there, looking at the girl’s bare, dusty feet. Yes, barefoot — these two maybe needed to steal her some shoes, before they stole a car. Priorities, young people!
The girl leaned deeper into the backseat, inches from Ivy’s face. She had heard tales of the dead who talked — not grand statements and holding-forth, mind you, but a stray word that had gotten stuck in the windpipe at the moment of death, forced loose by a sudden jostling or jab to the ribs.
She poked Ivy again. Ivy said, “Damn, girl. I’m not dead, only sleeping.”
The blue-tick girl turned to the brown-derby boy and said, “Tilly, we got a live one. And a looker, too!”
There was no stealing or killing, no dragging of bodies. There was no need for it. Ivy said they could have her car, if they could get it started. She said it was old and maybe not reliable as getaway transportation, but it beat hell out of a couple of bicycles. She said they should try knocking off a financial establishment on top of a hill, so the old Caddy could get a rolling start, some momentum. Ivy said success in life was about two-thirds momentum, anyway, not that she endorsed robbing banks, mind you.
“Which Jackson did you have in mind?” Ivy said.
The blue-tick girl, whose name was Stell, looked at Ivy like it was some sort of trick question. Ivy said, “I see. You just want to go somewhere that’s not here. You want to go somewhere, do something, be somebody.”
Stell dropped her head so as to let the blue-ticked hair sweep over her sheepish smile. She said, “Well.”
“Jackson’s a good place to say you’re off to,” Ivy said. “It gives you options. I think there’s upwards of twenty. The Tennessee one, you know, it’s not thirty miles that way.” Ivy pointed in a random direction, more for show than anything. “Now, if you mean Jackson, Mississippi, well, you’ve got an hour to Memphis and then three hours south — four if you drive through the Delta. You should do that. You’ll have some adventures, for sure, in the Delta. You’ll be serenaded and maybe saved, and robbed, too — maybe all by the same man or men. You’ll dance to the country blues and cry tamale-juice tears. Maybe the car will die and you’ll have to hop a train. There’s always a train, coming or going in Mississippi. Mind you don’t hop one with too much momentum. You might lose a leg, and your boyfriend — boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, no matter to me — his derby hat. Like I say, lots of trains in Mississippi — the Southern and the Yellow Dog, the Sunnyland and the Bumble Bee. Or you might even drift on over to Big Muddy and catch yourself a riverboat called Roll On Mississippi.”
Stell pointed in the same direction as Ivy. “Maybe we’ll just do the closer one, then we’ll see.” She nodded to her sidekick. “Tilly’s got church on Sunday, and I promised we’d be back. Tilly’s in the choir. Sings — what is it, Till?”
“Contralto,” Tilly said, like it was a condition for which treatment had failed and it was down now to prayers.
Ivy said, “Well, then. I think this old Caddy’ll make it that far. Don’t mind all the noise. Just roll down the windows and turn up the radio. Drive fast, don’t look back, Godspeed, and all those other things people say in moments such as these.”
“You just going to hand us the keys and papers?”
The girl seemed displeased. She thought about it. “Anybody asks, can you say you was robbed by Stell and — ”
“Tilly,” Tilly said, stepping up beside Stell. It was the first word he’d spoken that was in tune.
So it was done. The blue-tick girl drove and the brown-derby boy rode shotgun. They tore out of the little country church dirt lot like they were three days late for a wake. Country dust flew and taillights shone, and time, the great revelator, stopped to gawk. The old Caddy outdid itself, really; started right up, and then went from zero to Godspeed in 4/4 time, boom-chicka-boom. Ivy marveled at the improvement. Must have been that new paint job.
DAVID WESLEY WILLIAMS is the author of the novels 'Everybody Knows' (JackLeg Press, 2023) and 'Long Gone Daddies' (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2013). His short fiction has appeared in Oxford American, Kenyon Review Online and such journals as The Common and The Pinch. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.