THE CAROLINA WONDER BEAN
What would the prize be this year the Bean wondered? Each year the fiddlers at the festivals seemed to be better and faster as they searched for the notes no one else could find. Bean knew that one day there would be a young kid who could play like no one else. It would then be time to move on and enjoy his memories, something he didn’t want to think about.
The red clay along the creek bank below him that had cracked in deep black lines, reminded him of the sinewy hands of Old Calhoun, sliding along the neck of his white maple fiddle, seeking out the sweet and fluid notes of a mountain reel. He smiled at the remembrance and thought of how much he missed the old man who had taught him so much about music.
He reluctantly rose and made his way back to the tent where Nate Stoner waited for him. Over the years Nate had been like the older brother he never had. They’d met at a festival and music became their bond. Nate once told him, “It’s not only the way you play the notes, but the silence you leave between them that makes the difference. You got the best silence of them all.”
Nate was sprawled in a chair in front of their tent. He pulled off his favorite brown hat, scratched his balding head, squinted into the sun, and then put the hat back on.
“Well,” said Nate. “Here we are again.”“Seems like we always are,” said Bean. “Don’t you ever get tired of all this?”
“Don’t think about it much. Besides, what else is there?”
“Maybe settlin’ down for a bit,” said Bean. “We’re getting too old to live on coffee, whiskey and music.”
“Old! Why we both still have all our teeth—hell, we ain’t done yet! We can still cut the mustard just fine! You need a beer, Bean, and quick! You’ll feel better after that. I don’t know what’s got into you lately.”
The Bean took his fiddle case out of the tent. He clicked it open and ran his hand over the smooth, light brown wood. The small, ragged Confederate flag attached to the end of the fiddle drooped waiting for Bean to bring it to life.
“It’s how you feel the music, Nate. That’s all that matters. Those guys from the city talk too fast and play too fast. Never be any good.”
“Maybe so, but they’re winnin’ a lot of contests.”
“Down by the creek was thinkin’ about Old Calhoun. I wish he was still alive. He’d show them city guys a thing or two.”
“Remember when we made that tape of us playin’ and singin’?” said Nate.
“Even had that record company interested in us,” said Nate. “I wonder what would have happened if they had made a record of us?”
Bean shoved some beer cans into the pockets of his baggy trousers and walked off through the meadow toward a knot of musicians who played by a camper from Georgia. A striped piece of canvas had been stretched over two poles on one side of it; underneath, three women sat on brightly colored folding chairs staring out from the shadow. One of them smoked, and the other two sipped from plastic cups. Bean stood in the sun and watched a young guitarist slam into a fast bass run. The fiddle player next to him hunched his body into the tune. His hands moved unsteadily across the strings as he tried to keep pace with the guitar player. The tune slowed and Bean moved off toward the stage.
The clearing where the bands played was surrounded by a grove of Sycamore trees. Bean looked over the crowd. A few danced to the band that was on stage, and others strained to see between the children who pranced up and down.
He found a chair at the back and propped it up against a tree where the ground was dappled with yellow medallions of sun. A tall girl stood very straight and alert by the light pole in front of him. Her light brown hair had been pulled back over her ears. The big red flower patterns on her faded print dress curled around her body.
She wasn’t flashy like some he knew. Having a woman with you was always nice. And certainly a lot more fun than being with Nate all the time. Sometimes there were feelings you had that only a woman could fix. Nate would understand that, he’d been married once before.
“Hey, Tall Girl?”
She turned her head and smiled at him. The Bean unlocked his feet from the chair and stood in front of her rocking slightly on his heels. He liked her eyes and the way the light danced in them
“Hey, Tall Girl, how about goin’ someplace and havin’ a beer?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“My name is Nancy.”
“How about it?”
She studied him, shrugged, and then smiled again.
She followed him to the bank of the creek and sat on a rock.
“Where you from?” he said.
“Alabama,” she said, then took off her shoes and put her feet into the water. She sat back and let the light breeze rustle her dress and hair.
“Never been there.”
“It’s just like any other place I guess,” she said.
“I’m called the Carolina Wonder Bean. Came into this world small—‘bout a possum whisker under five foot four, never did grow. I can play a fair fiddle and sing some. Was on television once when I played for the governor. He liked the way I played ‘Bill Cheatum.’ Was born in the hook of Missouri, right above the Arkansas line. Moved to Carolina when my daddy got restless. The Carolina Wonder Bean, that’s who I am.”
Her smile was one he liked. You could always tell a lot about a girl by her smile. This one made him feel good all over.
“It’s nice down here,” she said.
The water gurgled over the rocks like a child. Small minnows darted over her feet.
“I’m down with Nate. We been playin’ together for a while. Sometimes people would pay us for a dance. But usually we’d just do it for the fun of it or go to people’s houses for corn shuckin’. They’d just sit around the house and listen to us make music. That’s about all I can do is to make music. Don’t want to do much else. Gets in your blood. Me and Nate work in a place that makes cardboard boxes, it keeps us out of trouble. He’s the best buddy I ever had.”
“I tried singin’ in a church once,” said Nancy. “But I couldn’t reach the high notes. I wanted to be a great singer.”
“You still can be.”
“Sure. Look at me. I’m just a short squatty little feller, but that never made a difference. I always knew what I wanted to do. You want to sing—do it!”
Bean opened his case and took out his fiddle, then tuned it, and drew the bow across the strings. Mountain reels were Old Calhoun’s favorites. Tunes that were like life itself he used to say. The best kind of tunes, tunes no one played anymore. He finished and lowered his bow.
“That’s beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never heard anything so beautiful.”
“Just like you.”
“Bet you say that to all the girls”
She smiled again and stirred the water with her hand. The minnows flickered.
Thin clouds streaked the sky—the only marks in the thick heat that domed the low green hills and meadow.
“My daddy never taught me the fiddle,” said Bean. “He wouldn’t allow it in the house. No kind of music. He hated music. Thought it was sinful. But there was this feller down the road from us about five miles, Old Calhoun, and he started teaching me the fiddle. Never told my daddy. It’s nothin’ more than a piece of wood and some horse hair, but it sounds slow and lonesome, the way I feel sometimes.”
“I went to Bristol once with my granny,” said Nancy. “There was this old man, probably like your Old Calhoun, who used to play at night on the porch and drink whiskey. I got to like the fiddle after that. It was like I was part of the music. The same I feel when you play. Have to be goin’. Day’s gettin’ on.”
“Yeah, Tall Girl, see you. Thinkin’ I might stop playin’ festivals for awhile.”
“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Bean.
“You ask me, just keep playin’. Isn’t that what you want to do? “
Bean nodded his head.
“Maybe I’ll teach you a few songs. Then you can get on with your singin’. Hell, we might even try performin’ at a festival.”
“I’d like that.” She kissed him lightly, and then walked off into the meadow, holding her shoes.
The Bean downed his beer then started playing slowly, thinking how her lips tingled on his cheek. The creek caught the notes as they glided in the air and murmured softly back at him. The sun glittered on the back of the brown water. A light breeze trembled the leaves.
“Hey, Bean?” said Nate. He stood in the shadows with his guitar. “You alone?”
“Just finished playin’ for a girl. Didn’t feel like leavin’ yet. A tall girl, she was Nate, a tall girl in a yellow print dress down from Alabama. Never met one like her before.”
“I’ve heard that before. If I had a dollar for every time you said that, I’d be rich.”
“I mean it this time.”
Nate tuned up his guitar and joined Bean as he began to play again. A small group formed around them on the muddy bank. One of them cocked his head over a banjo, tuned it, and followed Nate and Bean to the end of the song.
“I’m called the Carolina Wonder Bean. Came into this world small -- ‘bout a possum whisker under five foot four, never did grow. I can play a fair fiddle and sing some. Was on television once when I played for the governor. He liked the way I played “Bill Cheatum.’ Was born in the hook of Missouri, right above the Arkansas line. Moved to Carolina when my daddy got restless. The Carolina Wonder Bean, that’s who I am. So you better let the devil take hold ‘cause I don’t wait for no man or woman…”
The Tall Girl stood under a tree watching him. Their eyes met, and a little smile tugged her lips, a smile that made him feel giddy and daring. He winked and knew he could play like this forever no matter what happened. And maybe later he’d ask her when she wanted to start learning some songs.
Richard Lutman lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He has a MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He currently teaches short story classes as part of Coastal Carolina University's Lifelong Learning program. He was a 2008 Push Cart Nominee. His web site can be Googled at: www.WordRealm.net.