He had always looked forward to the turning of summer into fall, always loved that first day when the crispness of a breeze caused you to pull on your collar a little more snugly around your neck. Most of his friends complained about the weather. The nip in the air made their fingers cold, made strumming the guitar chords almost painful at times. But he didn’t mind. Too him, it was a reminder of change, a reminder of the turning, of the cycles.
Take these chains from my heart…
It was that bittersweet, almost tangible sense of treasured sadness that drifted downward from the heavens with the falling leaves. They crunched under his boots as he made the familiar journey to his favorite spot. The overcast skies were another thing he loved, like a cozy sweater in shades of pearl and platinum that, covered Music City after a sweltering summer.
…and set me free.
He always walked by the Ryman on a day like this. Tradition, habit, superstition – whatever it was, it helped him. Johnny, Hank, Roy, Patsy, Minnie. His ears had become attuned to the voices of their ghosts over the years as he made his way down Fifth Ave. They surrounded him, vague whispers heard through closed doors, although Hank was usually hollering at Minnie to give him his drink back.
You’ve grown cold and no longer care for me…
He always wondered if he would ever be on that stage. Would people be so delirious for him as they were for Hank and demand those famous six encores? Sometimes he wondered if he would even be walking past the Opry in the first place if he had lost his faith, if he hadn’t been able to shake off the same demons that got the better of Hank. Of course it was too late for some things. It was too late for her. He couldn’t save her. He had made her temporary. He couldn’t save the “we” that he wanted to be permanent.
All my faith in you is gone, but the heartaches linger on…
But through the loss, through the grief, he could save himself. And he was. Every time he passed the door to Tootsie’s without going in or left a job stone-cold sober while laughter and the tinkling of ice in glasses faded behind him, he saved himself. That was usually when he heard Minnie again, telling him to love himself so much that it hurt. He’d finally learned that lesson. He’d finally learned that loving himself first meant that he might eventually be able to love someone else in the right way, the way he couldn’t love Her.
Take these tears from my eyes and let me see…
A clear view of what he wanted was there in his mind even if his vision was often blurred by the salty regret that slid down his cheeks. But that seemed to be drying up with the applied balm of forgiving himself in a way that reconciliation never could, not that it was an option. He was fine with that. He was making himself fine with that. He was making himself put that to rest. He was making himself bury that time and leave it in peace.
Just the spark of the love that used to be…
Hank’s lyrics popped into his mind as he turned the corner that would take him to the park. Yes, that was it, he’d fit that one in at some point. The older tourists generally wanted exactly what their younger counterparts wanted, the big hits, and he did love those. Everyone knew “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Lovesick Blues;” there were days when he must have sung those 20 times as the groups of map holders came and went. Occasionally there was a grandma from Alabama who shyly asked him for “Cold, Cold Heart” and then pulled his face down with their fluffy pillow-soft hands for a peck on the cheek before they walked away, sighing in contentment.
If you love somebody new, let me find a new love, too…
He was on his third round of “Hey, Good Lookin’” when he noticed her sitting on a bench across the wide stone pathway that cut the park in two. Every few minutes she would turn slightly and glance to her side then quickly turn back, seconds later reaching up to brush away what he assumed was a tear. He wondered at first if she was waiting to meet someone, but then it struck him that she was turning out of habit to comment to a person who was no longer by her side. He knew that. All too well. It had taken him weeks to stop things like that: reaching for his phone to send a text asking about dinner, expecting to see Her face when he heard the clicking of heels approaching.
The crowds were getting smaller due to the dinner hour. Perhaps now was a good time. He would play it for her, maybe she would somehow understand that it was meant out of compassion.
He looked up to make sure she was still there and his heart began beating swiftly when she stood. Was she leaving? He strummed the opening chords and was relieved when she sat back down.
It was oddly quiet when he finished, a lull in foot traffic and general noise from the city.
She stood again and began to walk across the pathway to him.
He waited, gripping the neck of his guitar and fiddling with the pick on his other hand.
“You’re not bad for someone who is actually a natural baritone. Ever tried exploring the proper Fächer? I could have you on stage in The Magic Flute in six months. You might get off the street if you ever find your voice.”
He blinked in surprise, not sure what he was expecting, but definitely not this.
“I’m sorry,” she rushed to continue, almost as surprised as he was at her own comment, “I’m a music and voice teacher, I can’t help but notice and open my big mouth.”
“Uhm, I, -“ he was stuttering, trying to figure out how to respond to this stranger.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she repeated and the color flooded her cheeks. “I’ll just attempt to walk away before I say anything else stupid. Good bye.”
“No, wait,” he reached out to catch her arm and the pick fell from his hand. They both stooped to retrieve it, but she was faster, the top of her head crashing into his nose as he was on his way down and she was on her way up.
“Oh my god!,”she exclaimed in horror. “Are you okay?”
He staggered backwards a few steps and she grabbed his shoulders to steady him. It took several seconds for him to answer, the blow to his nose stunning him and leaving him unable to speak at first.
“Well, if my nose wasn’t out of joint from your greeting,” he managed to say while gingerly pressing his fingertips to the offended appendage, “it certainly is now.”
Her eyes widened and she laughed, a tinkling sound of delight and embarrassment that halted abruptly when she saw the trickle of blood that was reaching his top lip.
“My days at the Met are over before they’ve even begun,” he was trying to sound put out, but smiling at the absurdity of the situation. “No one wants a Papageno with a crooked beak.”
Her countenance brightened while she reached into her bag for a tissue and he’d never been more grateful to have had a grandmother who made him listen to the Metropolitan Opera Live Broadcasts when he spent the weekends with her.
“If he sounds like I think you would sound, they wouldn’t care. Not to mention if he looks like you look, crooked beak or not.”
She blushed again, only this time she didn’t try to flee. Fussing over him for a long minute, she held the tissue to his nose and apologized until he shushed her.
“I played that song for you,” he stated softly, hoping it would ease her embarrassment.
“I was getting up to ask you for that one, it’s my favorite and I’ve never heard someone like you play it, on the street or in a bar or anywhere. How did you know?” her tone incredulous.
“Well, I contemplated breaking out some melancholy Massenet, but the Nashville set in general doesn’t speak French – you have to head to Louisiana for that – and they might boo me off the street.”
She giggled and produced a second tissue.
“And I had already been thinking about that song,” he added before he lost his courage.
A heavy sigh punctuated his admission and her expression was a silent confirmation that his hunch had been correct. She understood. She was the same.
“Thank you,” she offered and squeezed his hand before leading him to the nearest bench.
“How do you know so much about opera?”
He grinned at her question and the gesture caused him to wince at the pain in his nose.
“Don’t let this cowboy hat fool you, I’m a walking contradiction, darlin’,” he twanged in his best Hank impression, “I might ask you how you know so much about Hank.”
“Well, I guess we have that in common as well. We both enjoy breaking stereotypes. There’s no reason why someone who is singing Hank Williams on the street shouldn’t also know his Beethoven from his Bartok.”
He took the tissue and wiped away the last of the blood.
“Beethoven wrote one opera, Fidelio, and Bartok also wrote only one, Bluebeard’s Castle,” he quipped as though he were narrating a documentary for the BBC, “neither of which contain a great leading lyric baritone role, although I prefer the Bartok. Yes, there I go again, breaking stereotypes. And yes, it’s because of the pirates.”
Now she was looking at him with an entirely different expression.
And the spark jumped in him. Her gaze moved from his eyes to his mouth.
“I want to gobble you up like a plate of biscuits from the Loveless Café, showing off your genre knowledge like you’re Placido Domingo or something.”
He grinned again, ignoring the throbbing in his nose. Her frankness was so refreshing, especially after being around someone with such tension that he felt like he had to filter every word for months leading up to the parting of ways. He pushed that memory from his mind and focused on the person who was here, now, right in front of him, feeling the final length of chain fall off his heart.
“How fitting you should mention that, since he started off in zarzuela baritone roles and –“
He was interrupted by her hand coming up to cover his mouth.
“If you don’t shut up about this,” her voice was low, her eyes narrowing, “I’m going to kiss you before we even know each other’s name.”
Her fingers lingered on his lips for a few heartbeats before she dropped her hand.
“Well, take me for some of those biscuits,” he rasped, “and I might let you.”
And set me free.