The Tennessee Tornado
This here is the story of two high-steppers. Like many youngsters on the edge of manhood, Duff and me wanted more from life than the confines of our little piece of Arkansas could offer, so we set our sights high above every geographical border, legal parameter, or moral constraint that stood between us and our dreams. Yes sir, that is exactly what we did. We sighted high at life, and then we pulled the damned trigger.
Folks back home say that me and Duff are trouble when we’re together. The real trouble though is that we’re always together. It ain’t all mine, nor Duff’s fault either. Duff’s Pa and my Pa are cousins, which makes me and him some sort of cousins too. Our Pa’s put us out in the fields together a good many years back, partly because they needed help I suspect, but mostly to get us away from the house. Ever since then me and Duff have worked, and dreamed, together. Since we were fourteen ain’t neither of us never had a stitch of clothes that weren’t stained red with the dirt from these Arkansas River flood plains. Ever since we were fifteen years old we have been fighting the Fayetteville townies who call us “Redneck Grits,” or “Okie Okra Eaters.” And ever since we were sixteen years old me and Duff have been winning those fights.
Duff ain’t the best fighter, but he’s a mean son of a gun that don’t know when to quit. The angels messed up when they made Duff, accidently giving him one hundred and seventy pounds of person to go with his two hundred and twenty pounds of bantam rooster. That boy just bows his head down and walks in swingin’ until somebody hits the ground. If it’s him that hits ground first, he’ll climb back up, find him a stick to swing, and wade in again. That Duff will do in a pinch.
But Duff’s real talent is in his voice. Our line is long on Irish and Welshmen. I must have gotten more of the Irish, being the better fighter of the pair, while Duff leans toward the Welsh. They do say that the Welsh have a beautiful language. If so, they must need beautiful voices to carry those words, too. Duff is proof positive of it. When Duff pitches into a song everyone within earshot will stop whatever it is they are doing to listen, he’s that good. It was my aim to get that boy up to Nashville someday, though I never could figure out how to do it... until one day I did.
Old Rainey Woods knew some things. A short while back the key broke off in the tractor’s ignition. Rainey showed me how to cut and splice the wires to by-pass the ignition switch. He said he learned how to do it in the army, but then, that’s what he said about everything he knew. Regardless, that was when and where a bad idea hatched itself, an idea that derailed a friendship that was every bit as strong as a brotherhood.
Me and Duff talked it over through the Summer’s dog days, and on through the harvest. Come Autumn we had what, for some odd reason, we believed to be a foolproof plan. I would get us a car, Duff would get us some money, and we would head out together for Nashville and country music stardom. Once they heard Duff sing in Nashville they’d put him up for show in those Grand ’Ol Opry lights for sure!
Like we did every Friday night me and Duff climbed into the back of Rainey’s pickup for the ride into town. Old Man Rainey let us out near the Dairy Queeen on Main Street. From there we walked on down to the high school, where cars were parked in long, neat rows across a grass field outside of the mercury vapor glow from the football stadium. The plan was to get something nondescript, something that wouldn’t draw attention, but when I laid eyes on her we made the first deviation away from our “foolproof” plan. She was a ’68 Dodge Charger with a 427 hemi, and she was painted such a dark, forest green that she was almost black. I had me a slim-jim I had rigged by tin-snipping a notch into a two foot strip of steel banding strap. I slid that strap between the driver’s door and the window of that Charger, felt for the lock rod, hooked my notch on it, and yanked her up. Once inside the car I cut, stripped, and touched the wires together just like Old Man Rainey had taught me to do. The four barreled carborator gave a great, belching cough before the plugs caught, firing that aptly named muscle car to life with the roar of an uncaged wildcat, as though she was as ready for this adventure as we were. It was that simple that me and Duff had us a car!
I waited outside the “Liquor and Smokes” shop while Duff went in. When he ran back out it was with a brown paper bag spilling greenbacks out the top in the one hand, a pistol in the other, and a fifth of Black Jack whiskey tucked under his chin for luck... and now we had the money! Maybe it was ill gotten, but it was a damn site more, and a damned site easier, than the money we’d been sweating our asses off in the hot delta sun for every summer that we could remember. We were on our way.
I put the pedal to the floor of that Dodge Charger, and we never slowed until after midnight, when we crossed over the Mississippi River. Feeling free and safe once out of Arkansas, Duff and I pulled into the parking lot of a brightly lit, girlie-pink shack advertising itself as the, Kitty-Kat Room, “Memphis’ Premier Gentleman’s Club!” Neither me nor Duff had the required identification, nor were we gentlemen, but we did have two fifty dollar bills, which served just as well as a driver’s license for the tattooed biker manning the door.
An hour later, me and Duff staggered out of there with our paper sack two hundred dollars lighter, and with a very friendly, very curvy, very young looking dancer who billed herself as “The Tennessee Tornado” tagging along behind us. Me and Duff had fallen hard for the ”Tornado’s” twist and shake pole routine. As for her, girls had never payed me much mind until they needed something heavy lifted, so I suspected that she either liked what she saw in Duff, or she was curious as to how much money was left in that brown paper sack he carried.
Duff? He didn’t care which was the reason, so long as she came along, and frankly, deep down, I didn’t care why either. She improved the view, whatever her reasons.
I’ll admit to some discomfort at what I saw in the rear view mirror as we sped towards Nashville. I didn’t like to think I could be jealous of my own cousin Duff, but it was right there in the rear view mirror if I could only have seen it, looking back at me from my own angry eyes. Somewhere near Jackson I noticed that the rolling around in the back seat was winding down. When Duff passed out, “The Tennessee Tornado” climbed over the seat. She scooted over close beside me, pressing a glittery shoulder against mine while she fixed her face in the rear-view mirror, smelling sexy-dirty like whiskey, cigarettes, and faux French perfumes. “What do y’all aim to do in Nashville?” She asked.
“We’re gonna find someplace where Duff can sing.” I kept my answer short. I wasn’t used to speaking with pretty, half-naked girls.
She gave me a long, pouty look which softened me up as intended. “Don’t you like me?”
I took my eyes off the road for a moment to glance her way. The denim jacket and boots she’d been wearing when she got in the car were gone, leaving only a much too small bikini top to go with her short-shorts and bare feet. Having her here beside me like that set my heart to racing. “I reckon I like you all right.”
“But not like Duff does?”
I swallowed hard. Never having spoken like this with a girl before, my answer spilled out quick, too quick, like a third-grader’s answer to his teacher’s easy question.
“Maybe like Duff does.” I stammered.
The Tennessee Tornado smiled at me then. She laid herself across the front seat of that stolen Dodge Charger with her head in my lap, and her prettily painted toes pressed against the passenger side window while I drove toward the coming dawn, but she did not go to sleep. I found myself liking her more and more as the miles clicked over on the odometer and my calloused fingers combed through her silky hair, but the back of my mind was wondering what Duff would think if he were to wake now?
The neon glow from the corner of Nashville’s Front Street and Broadway were dazzling to three hillbilly kids. We did not park, as it was four in the morning, but we drove by Tootsie’s, The Ryman, and Music Row, all places we’d heard tell of on the radio, and had a craving to see. We passed Earnest Tubb’s Record Shop, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Our excitement grew as we circled the town’s one-way roads, but then Duff climbed up front to better see the sights and my face grew hot when I saw his hand rest on her bare thigh, and squeeze. Not to be denied, I took hold of her hand, wanting him to see me do it. Me and Duff never thought we would, but we‘d made it clear to Nashville, where hillbilly dreams come true. We’d managed to get ourselves within striking distance of our cotton patched daydreams, but it was all beginning to unravel before we even got out of the damned car.
It’s funny how two people can know each other, can love each other, and can spend their whole lives tighter than ticks, living just like brothers, but when you add a third party to the pair, someone who likes them both for all of that, suddenly all those years, all those loving memories, all of those dreams baked up in a broiling flatland field harden like clay into sun-dried turds.
Nashville proved to be bad luck for me and Duff. It was my bad luck that I‘d been born with more of the Irish in me, while Duff got the Welch. It was Duff’s bad luck to find that piece of pipe by the curb where I’d knocked him down, and to pick it up. He really never had much chance with me in a knock-down, drag-out. In my anger and jealousy I can’t even remember taking it from him, or cracking his skull with it.
I’ll never believe it was me that done it. No, it was a Tennessee Tornado that killed my cousin Duff, just as it was that same wildly dancing wind that whirled away with that paper sack full of money while the sirens and the lights gathered around me, and it was that same sexual tempest that caught me up in it, and blew me like Dorothy clear to Death Row in the Tennessee Correctional Facility.
It was a perfectly formed funnel cloud that done it, blowing away that fool-proof plan of Duff’s and mine, leaving nothing but a devastating path of destruction in its wake.
I never could have done it. No, it was a mesmerizing, fast moving, Tennessee Tornado.