BILLY AND EDDIE GOT THIS CRAZY IDEA that they wanted to enter the band contest, and of course they wanted me to sing. I told them I couldn’t do that in the light of day. Billy plays guitar, and Eddie plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, but neither of them can sing worth a damn. I can’t hold a beat, and I can’t stay on key very long, but I’m loud and I can extrude those long, high lonesome notes that Eddie likes. But only when I’m drunk.
Billy said he was semi-pissed at me because I wouldn’t sing. I told Billy that I was semi-pissed at him for putting me on the spot that way, and, on top of that, I was really pissed at him about this morning. Billy said, “What about this morning?” I said, “Damn it, Billy, when I got in the car this morning, I got in the back with Eddie, expecting Janet to be in the front seat, where she always sits, next to you, except, this morning, there was a girl up there, and it wasn’t Janet.” Billy said, “So?” I said, “Billy—I saw Janet last night, and she was talking the whole time—like she always does—about you, and how you and her are going to get married someday, like you promised. Has something happened since last night that I haven't heard about?”
Billy looked at me like he was really trying to understand what I was saying. He said, “I’m not going with Janet anymore.”
I said, “Since when?”
And he said, “Since last Saturday.”
“Does Janet know about it?”
“I was kinda hoping you'd tell her.”
For a second, I just stared at Billy’s stupid face. Then I said, “Billy—I think that’s something that you ought to tell her, yourself.”
Billy said, “I’m probably not going to see her anymore.”
I turned around and took a few steps away to collect my thoughts, and then turned back to Billy and said, “Look, if I had known this was going on, I’d never have gotten in the car, this morning.”
Billy’s lack of empathy was really starting to get me down.
I said, “Listen, you stupid shit—you may not care what Janet thinks anymore, but I do. I’ve known her a lot longer than I’ve known you—in fact, she introduced your sorry ass to me—and if she ever finds out that I was riding in a car to a blue grass festival with you and your new girlfriend, she’ll never speak to me again. Besides crying her eyes out for the rest of her life.”
Billy swung his guitar up on his hip like he was the one who was being abused. He said, “If you decide you want to sing, let me know. There’s three groups ahead of us.” And he walked back over to the tree that Eddie was standing under.
I walked off in the opposite direction, around behind the makeshift stage that had been set up. What pissed me off was that Billy had already messed me up with Janet. If I gave her the news, she’d want to know how I found out, and then she’d hate me for it. If I didn’t tell her anything, she’d find out eventually and hate me for not telling her. This wouldn’t matter at all, except that I like Janet. I like her a lot more than I like Billy. I like her more than I like Eddie. And I like Eddie.
So I was stuck out in the wilds of Delaware, or Maryland (I wasn’t sure which side of the line we were on) in somebody’s field at an old-time music fest, with no way to get home except in the same car I came in, with Billy’s new squeeze, sitting cocked up in the front seat. I cursed myself for ever thinking that Billy was anything but a jerk.
Just then, I looked up and spied a young, skinny girl, standing by the far side of the stage, about twenty feet away. She had on a thin cotton dress and her bare, bony arms hung limply by her sides. From one of her hands, a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s dangled. For the few moments I observed her, she stood completely motionless, apparently taking no notice of anything going on around her.
Seeing this girl, I thought: who knows why we do the things we do? On the strength of this wisdom, I walked up behind her and slipped the bottle from her fingers, saying, like a gentleman, “May I borrow this for a while?” She didn’t respond. I took the bottle behind a big tree and, twenty minutes later, I was ready to sing.
I returned the bottle to the girl’s bony fingers and went looking for Billy. I found him under another tree, where he and Eddie were running through the chords of “Careless Love,” which was the only song that we all three knew.
I said to Billy, “Do you know how stupid you sound, running through the chords with nobody singing?”
Billy said, “Where have you been? We’re up next—I thought I was going to have to cancel.”
Eddie said, “What do you want to call yourself?”
I stared at Eddie.
“We’re going by our real names,” he continued. “What do you want to go by?”
A smattering of applause rose up when the music, coming from the stage, petered out. Billy shouted, “C’mon!” and, the next thing I knew, I was stumbling up the steps behind Eddie as Billy, already on the stage with the mike, was squawking: “We’re Billy, Eddie and Jack! and we’re going to do a little bit of ‘Careless Love’ for my new girlfriend!” I snatched the mike away from Billy and screamed into it: “This is for Janet, goddammit!”
Billy hit the intro with his guitar. Eddie followed with his mandolin. I opened my mouth and a high lonesome sound came out.