The country looks the same, Jack Merrill thought. The narrow two lane asphalt road cut through the stands of pines and cedars and the sky was a ribbon of blue above the trees. Back behind the trees were the nice brick houses owned by people who had money. At his turnoff the houses would be closer to the road and had weathered clapboard and the people were not rich.
The road was smoother than he remembered. He was trying to avoid bumps because Cheryl, his guitar player, was asleep in the back seat. He would spend just a little time with his dad and they would drive another few hours to get to Remington to work a dance tonight.
He was glad Cheryl hadn't objected to taking this side trip. He knew she was tired. They had been on the road for four weeks and they were always hustling to get to the next show. When he was a kid he thought that being on the road would be romantic. There was romance in road food like milkshakes and hamburgers and French fries. Then there was the freedom of the road.
Now life had become the grind of driving hundreds of miles a day, meals at roadside diners, tuning the radio to find some station that would come in, getting into town and finding the club or auditorium, and doing sound checks before the show. But he would do it all over again, he thought. Staying here and working in a factory or a store would have been pure hell.
He wondered if his dad would be understanding about his career now. It had been a few years. Back then his dad thought he should play at church socials and other small gigs while he worked at a regular job and got married and had kids.
He remembered the last time he saw his mother. She had died two months ago and he wasn't able to get back for the funeral. When he last saw her he had recorded his first single and it got some airplay. She was so proud. She invited friends and neighbors and they had an informal concert at the house. His father grilled hot dogs and she made potato salad and Jack made homemade vanilla ice cream.
The concert should have been fun. Some of the locals thought they were hot shot musicians who hadn't gotten a break. They were jealous of Jack. The truth was they weren't very good and this was as far as their musical talents would take them.
But Jack played well and he got to do a duet with his father. His father was a fair guitarist and taught Jack his first chords. He wondered if his father still played. It might be fun to play a song or two.
He came to the turnoff and saw the Shell station. The owner, Fred Parker, used to work on Jack's old cars for just the cost of parts and minimal labor. Jack had stopped by the station lots of times just to get a Coke out of the soft drink machine. Cokes were colder and sweeter when they came from the vending machine at Fred's Shell.
When he pulled in next to the pumps he saw Fred, wearing his customary denim work shirt, shuffle out of the station. Fred was more bent now and strands of thin gray hair curled out from under his hat. At first Fred seemed more intent on watching his steps, but he recognized Jack when Jack stepped out of the car.
"Jack!" he said. "Jack Merrill." Fred's pace picked up and he stuck out his hand as he reached Jack. "How are you doing, boy? It's been a long time."
"Five years," Jack said. "How is everything?"
Fred's face clouded. "The missus isn't doing good. They think it might be cancer."
"Oh, God," Jack said. "I'm sorry to hear that. Is she at home?"
"Yep," Fred took off his hat and scratched his head. "She's home for now. She still tries to get around. But it don't look good, Jack."
He wasn't certain what to say. All those songs about love and heartbreak and he didn't know what to say now. He hoped Fred understood.
"Can I get some gas?" Jack said.
"Sure," Fred said. "I'll fill it right up and check your windshield and tires. Does anybody in those big towns do that?"
"Not many," Jack said.
Fred put the nozzle into Jack's gas tank and the pump clanged as the gallons passed by. "I'm sorry about your mother," Fred said. "It happened right quick."
"Yeah," Jack said. "I just couldn't get here." He felt defensive and he looked at Fred to see if Fred's expression changed.
Fred finished filling the gas tank and put the nozzle back onto the pump. He finally looked back up at Jack.
"I think folks understood," Fred said and wiped his hands on a paper towel. "It happened too quick for you to get back. But you're here now. Going out to your dad's place?"
"For just a little while," Jack said. "We have to work a dance tonight. But this isn't too far out of the way."
"Who's the young lady?" Fred smiled.
"She plays guitar for me," Jack said. "She's darned good too."
"I've heard you on the radio," Fred said. "Making lots of money?"
"I'm making a living," Jack said. "Nothing big yet. But I have some stuff recorded that I think might do well."
Another car pulled into the station.
"I better let you tend to your customer," Jack said and paid Fred. He shook Fred's hand again. "Good seeing you."
"Same here," Fred said. "I hope you can make it back quicker next time."
"Good luck to your wife," Jack said, but Fred had already gone to the other car.
He eased the car back onto the highway and took the turnoff that went to his dad's place. The cemetery was on the way. He saw the wrought iron fence and the sign for Crestview Cemetery and he took the small access road inside and parked under a pine tree. It should keep the car cool so Cheryl could sleep, he thought.
He walked over the soft spongy grass until he found his mother's grave. The gray granite marker lay flat in the soft grass. "Susan Merrill, devoted wife and mother" was engraved on the stone with a bas relief bouquet of flowers.
"Hello, Mom," he said. "It's been way too long."
He bowed his head and heard the rustle of the grass moving from the light breeze. The air was sweet from the scent of bouquets placed on the graves and from the gold and red wildflowers growing on the hill beyond. It was quiet. He wasn't used to quiet anymore. It was as though time had stopped and taken a break.
When he was a kid Jack longed for the day he could grow up and move away from home. Now he wished, just for a moment, that he could be a kid again. He'd like to be in his mother's kitchen while she fixed supper or baked a pie . He wished he could see her across the red and white plaid tablecloth while she sipped her coffee and he had an iced tea and they could talk about music and dreams. Now he had music and he had dreams, but she was forever and always in this place. She was so close, but so terribly far away.
I'm always in search of an epiphany, he thought. Epiphanies were even harder to find than song ideas. Songs were a coalescence of a few descriptive words and an arrangement of notes, but he wasn't quite sure what comprised an epiphany.
"Are you okay?" he heard Cheryl behind him. She walked up beside him and her honey blond hair glowed in the morning light.
"Mom," he said, "this is Cheryl, the best up and coming guitarist in the business."
"This is . . . nice," Cheryl said.
"For a cemetery," he finished for her. "Let's head on out to my dad's place."
They walked back under the quiet green pines to the car and Cheryl resumed her place in the back seat. Tonight, he thought, we need to get a couple of nice rooms. I could use some sleep myself.
He was driving through pasture land now. Farmers here raised beef cattle the old-fashioned way. The cows were free to roam the pastures until they were slaughtered. He saw a white board fence that swooped around at an angle and saw his father's cattle. The old man had gotten much better at cattle ranching down through the years, he thought.
He drove up to the front gate and saw the mailbox with the freshly-painted "Merrill" in black letters. His father liked Olde English script and had a professional sign painter do the letters. He turned onto the gravel road that went up to the house.
His dad had invested more in the ranch than in the house, Jack thought The place looked slumped with age. Paint was peeling from the green trim around the windows and the eaves. The white paint looked a dull gray.
He parked the car and walked up to the front door and knocked. He wasn't sure if his father would be home, or maybe somewhere else on the ranch. A gray pickup was parked in the drive, so he was probably home, Jack thought.
His father answered the door. He was grayer and thinner than Jack remembered. He was wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans and his face lit up when he recognized Jack.
"Hello, Son!" he said in a strong voice. "I wish I'd known you were coming. I'd have cleaned up. Or maybe baked a cake," he added with a grin.
"It's good seeing you, Dad," Jack said as his father opened the door.
He stepped inside and hugged his dad and felt his father's bony frame beneath the plaid shirt. He was taller than his father and noticed his father's thinning hair as they embraced.
"Come in, come in," his father said happily and gestured for him to come into the living room. "I'll make some coffee."
"Don't go to much trouble," Jack said. "I have to get on to Remington in a bit. I'm playing a dance there tonight."
"Come in the kitchen," his father said. His father was scooping coffee into the coffee maker and taking down a box of store bought doughnuts from the top of the refrigerator. "Sorry the place is a mess," his father went on. "I've been out checking the cattle."
"It's fine," Jack said. "I saw your cattle on my way in. They look good. I hope you aren't working too hard."
"Here's a plate," his father said. "Napkins," he said to himself. "There are napkins here somewhere."
Jack took a chocolate doughnut from the box and nibbled at it until his father poured a cup of coffee.
"You still take it black?" his father asked.
"Sure," Jack said.
His father poured his coffee and poured a cup for himself. He put the coffee pot back on the coffee maker and pulled back a kitchen chair with a scraping sound and sat with his back to the kitchen window and facing Jack.
"So you're working tonight?" his father asked. "I wish you could stay a while. Can you come back after the show?"
"I'd love to," Jack said. "But we have to keep going. We have another couple of months on the road."
"Sure," his father said with a half smile. "How's the doughnut?"
"It's fine," Jack said. "I saw Fred at the Shell station. It's too bad about his wife."
"Yeah," his father said. "She's been sick a while. I think Fred should sell that station. He's worked hard all these years. He needs a chance to retire and spend time with Emma."
Jack was quiet. He heard the ticking of the clock on the mantel in the living room. He remembered how he used to like sitting in the living room when he got home from school and with it totally quiet. He would close his eyes and let melodies drift through his mind. He didn't read music and he didn't have a tape recorder back then, so he wanted the melodies to stay in his memory.
"Did you get a chance to see your mother?" his father broke into his thoughts.
"Yeah," Jack said. "I stopped by on the way over here. It's a nice stone. I feel terrible that I couldn't be here for the funeral."
"It was so quick," he father sighed. "I'm glad she didn't suffer, but it was so quick."
"So, how are you doing, Dad?"
His father was quiet, as though trying to sort through a lifetime of memories and emotions, and then said, "I'm okay. The place keeps me busy. Your sister and Frank help me out." Then he said, brightening, "I have my old guitar. It's out of tune. You think you can tune it for me?"
"Sure," Jack said and followed his father into the hall. He father opened the hall closet and took out the old battered guitar case. He handed Jack the case and they went back into the living room. Jack sat at the end of the cloth couch and took out the guitar.
His father bought the guitar at Sears when Jack was about ten years old. Jack lost interest in learning to play for a couple of years, but then started to practice every day. He ran his hand over the smooth brown finish of the guitar, hoping to conjure up memories of those melodies from long ago.
He quickly tuned the guitar and started to hand it back to his father.
"Why don't you play something? If you don't mind," his father said.
"What would you like to hear?"
"How about 'Wildwood Flower'?" his father said. "You learned to play by practicing 'Wildwood Flower.'"
The old guitar felt comfortable and familiar to Jack as he played the old melody. When he finished he said, "I'm not Chet Atkins, I'm afraid."
"You sound fine," his father said. "You're a real pro. I guess maybe you did the right thing in becoming a musician."
Jack put the guitar back into the case and snapped the top shut.
"I've wondered sometimes, Dad. It gets to be a grind. It's dog-eat-dog. But all in all I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing. Not seeing family is the hard part."
"Well," his father said and let the word hang. "Well."
Jack checked his watch and said, "Dad, I'd better go. We have to do a sound check before the show."
"Okay," his father said. "Let me give you my number. I finally got a cell phone. I'm still learning to use the darned thing."
Jack put his Dad's number into his own cell phone and they embraced again.
"I love you, Dad."
"You be careful out there, Son. Call me."
When Jack got back to the car he felt his eyes tearing up. For all those years he dreamed about leaving. Now he wished he had just a day or two to stay.
"Jack," Cheryl said from the back seat. "Everything okay?"
"Sure," he said. "I think I just had an epiphany."
"What?" she said, still groggy from sleep.
"Never mind," he said and started the car and waved to his father. "Go back to sleep."
Back to the romance of the road, he thought.