Rhythm and Bluegrass
In Which I Make a Poor First—and Second—Impression
Frantically unpacking my flaming vehicle while it merrily burned on the side of the road was not how I wanted to start my time in Mud Creek.
My dad was one of those “prepared for anything” Boy Scout types who believed you shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car unless you could recite the owner’s manual from memory. Unfortunately, there is no entry in the manual for “what to do when your engine catches fire.”
It had started off as such a nice morning, a drive through the mountains of eastern Kentucky to the far southeastern, almost-Virginia part of the state. I was headed to Mud Creek, home of McBride’s Music Hall, to salvage a treasure trove of priceless musical artifacts before the long-shuttered building was bulldozed to make room for industrial space.
McBride’s was a microcosm of American pop culture history. It was one of the first establishments in Kentucky that allowed interracial dancing. It was a hot spot for blues and country-and-western performers, which was almost unheard of. Bill Monroe played that stage; so did Hank Williams Sr., Little Richard, James Brown, and Ray Charles—musicians I loved so much for their simplicity and honesty. Everybody who was anybody in the music scene in the fifties and sixties cut their teeth at McBride’s. And that time capsule of precious musical history had been sealed off, untouched, for almost fifteen years, waiting for me to sift through the remains. My fingers were practically itching.
Mud Creek was just far enough from the mountains of Appalachia to avoid scary negotiations with curvy, high-altitude roads, but it was still pretty remote. Eastern Kentucky was practically a state all its own. To people like me, raised on the relative “flatlands” of western Kentucky, bluegrass geography was always a bit of a muddle. People seemed to assume the state ended at Louisville. Point of fact, Western Kentucky University was located in south central Kentucky. The westernmost counties—McCracken, Ballard, Fulton, and Trigg—just sort of stuck out from the state’s face like an unfortunate preoperative nose.
As I got closer to Mud Creek, the roads seemed to get progressively rougher, the landscape craggier and more . . . beige. I hadn’t realized that this state, known for green pastures, even had places that could turn various stages of dull brown, but eventually the ground, the vegetation, even the rocky cliffs that seemed to rise up from nowhere and then drop into nothing were all beige. It turned out that looking at earth-toned earth for extended amounts of time was excruciating, so I stopped at a diner for waffles and to add to my collection of truck stop snow globes. Then I stopped at a fruit stand that, as it turned out, sold illegal fireworks. And then, the moment I spotted the battered green MUD CREEK, POPULATION 5,304 sign on the side of Highway 15, something inside my engine hiccupped, rattled, and then ignited in one last extinction burst of effort.
I veered off to the shoulder as smoke rolled out from under my hood in ominous tendrils, pulling flames behind them like streamers. For a moment, all I could do was stare. This was actually happening. My car was on fire. How did that even happen outside of an action movie?
Wait a minute, burning cars led to spectacular explosions in action movies.
I yelped and yanked the wheel too quickly, nearly sending my SUV tumbling into the roadside ditch. The flames were dancing across the bubbling white paint in earnest now, and it took my fingers a few minutes to catch up to my brain’s message of “unbuckle your seat belt and get out of this Hindenburg on wheels!”
To my eternal shame, I was not one of those “good in a crisis” people. It took three tries before I managed to unbelt and jump out. And even then, all I could do was stand on the pavement, wring my hands around the strap of my shoulder bag, and mutter some variation of “Nononono” over and over. I just stood there trying to blow out the roaring remains of my SUV like it was a giant birthday candle.
And then I saw my electric-blue laptop bag through the back window.
“Lola!” I squealed. “My baby!”
I scrambled to open the hatchback and started hauling boxes to the side of the road like a one-woman moving crew. Of course, Lola was stuffed securely behind my seat, behind all of the other equipment, in an impossible-to-reach spot, and I needed my supplies too much to just toss them out. First, I had to carefully unload the digital display boards and my projector. Then the acid-free storage sleeves and boxes. The flames were climbing higher and Lola was still stuck behind a stack of boxes. Grunting, I climbed over the tailgate, wedging myself between the ceiling of the car and the boxes, reaching for Lola’s bag.
This was so my fault. Because I spent so much time on the road, I was allowed to drive my personal vehicle, under certain special requirements, such as regularly scheduled maintenance by the state’s garage staff. Sadie Hutchins, assistant director of marketing at the Kentucky Commission on Tourism—and my direct supervisor—had been telling me for weeks that I had to bring my SUV in for a complete check. But I’d been so busy wrapping up my other projects to prepare for a long-term stay in Mud Creek that I’d sort of skipped it, figuring I’d take the car in for an oil change when I got into town. Sadie’s “I told you so” would likely involve a three-page memo. Signed by the governor.
I vaguely registered the sound of tires crunching over the gravel behind me.
“Y’all right there, ma’am?” a thickly accented voice asked.
I turned around to face the person, who was not being terribly helpful, seeing as I was very obviously not all right at the moment. Good Lord, he was a country music video come to life: red-plaid shirt untucked, jeans frayed and worn at the knees, thick sandy-blond hair mussed by the red baseball cap he was tucking in his back pocket. His eyes were hidden behind silver aviator sunglasses. A thin white scar across his chin underlined his mouth, like he’d suffered an accident just to emphasize those pearly white teeth.
One might think that, living in Kentucky for most of my adult life, I ran into the Backroad Cowboy type often. But I lived in Frankfort, the state capital. The most rural experience I got was visiting cousins in Smithland, where we held reunion picnics in the family cemetery. And on the rare occasion when I encountered the Backroad Cowboy type, he was usually looking past me to the girl not wearing a Jem and the Holograms T-shirt. Therefore, my dating history was chock-full of perfectly passive vegan fellas who would be more useless than I was in this situation.
Mr. Cowboy, on the other hand, seemed tensed to act if I needed him, though his expression was oddly comical. Like he ran across damsels in flaming distress all the time and expected my brand of twitterpated impotence in the face of inferno-esque car failure. I would have found this insulting, but (a) he was right and (b) he was so very pretty.
I would take time to be embarrassed on behalf of my gender later.
Thunderous rumbling from the direction of the engine brought me out of my cowboy ogling. “I’m trying to get my baby out of the car,” I called, my voice choked by the gray fog slowly seeping into the backseat.
“Your baby?” Mr. Cowboy flinched, as if the whole “vehicular inferno” thing had just become significantly less funny, and dashed to the driver’s side. He jerked the back door open and started yanking plastic storage bins and pitching them over his shoulder. I winced at the way he was tossing things haphazardly against the hot pavement.
“Where’s the car seat?” he yelled, throwing boxes marked BEDROOM and KITCHEN in neat block script. “Why the hell would you put so much crap back here with a baby? What the— What is all this?”
“Car seat?” I coughed, waving my hand in front of my face to ward off the smoke. “What are you talking about?” He moved just the right box of files and I wrenched Lola’s bag free.
“Yes!” I cried, clutching the bag to my chest. “My baby!”
My irritated Samaritan looked at me as if I might be insane. I grabbed my suitcase and scooted out of the back of the SUV just as the flames started to creep through the air-conditioning vents. He was waiting for me by the tailgate and helped me to my feet. Together, we dragged my stuff as far away from the car as possible.
“That is not a baby,” the Cowboy growled as I clutched the laptop bag to my chest. He took off the sunglasses, tucking them into his shirt pocket. The piercing blue eyes were not happy with me or my baby. “You scared the piss outta me for a damn computer?”
Oh, right. Most people would construe “my baby” as an actual living child. This would be what my best friend, Kelsey Wade, referred to as a “Bonnie-size abuse of language.” I would say that was unfair, but I had just convinced a man that my nonexistent infant was at risk of serious injury in a car fire.
“If you knew how important Lola was to me, you would understand,” I said as he took the bag from me and scanned me from head to toe in a completely nonsexy, checking-for-boo-boos sort of way.
“Ya named your damn computer,” he scoffed, wiping his sooty hand across his forehead. “And ya named it Lola, to boot. Is there much gas in the tank?”
I shook my head. “Almost empty. I didn’t want to stop when I was so close to town.”
“Don’t ya have a fire extinguisher?”
“Yes, under the front seat,” I told him. “Which is currently on fire.”
“Hmm, that won’t help, will it?” he said, pursing his lips. Why, oh why, did he have to purse his lips like that? He probably had some beautiful girlfriend at home with long blond hair and one of those Southern-girl smiles that could sweeten iced tea from across the room. I’d bet she never got padded bras from her grandmother in her Christmas stocking. I’d bet her high school nickname wasn’t “Fraggle Eyes.”
I really needed to get myself under control. Everything I owned was burning and I was busy seething in resentment over a stranger’s hypothetical girlfriend. Maybe there were hallucinogenic qualities to burning tires?
Mr. Cowboy noticed my irritated expression and said, “Well, I don’t wanna upset ya, but I think you’re gonna have a hard time drivin’ away from this one.”
It took all I had not to laugh. Because laughing would probably lead to hysterical crying, and I didn’t want to scare the nice man. The windows clouded with black film as smoke rolled out of the back gate, boiling up toward a cloudless late-summer sky. And that’s when it hit me. My truck was gone. My phone charger. The Ray Charles biography I’d been reading. The soft, worn-in denim jacket—stolen from a college boyfriend—that I kept slung over the passenger seat. They were all gone. I plopped down on top of one of the plastic bins and stared at the ruined mess of my SUV.
I’d spent the better part of five years driving around in that car, visiting schools, remote towns, obscure corners of the state where my services were needed. I would probably be less upset if my apartment burned down.
Then again, I didn’t really have an apartment. I had a spare room in Kelsey’s apartment. I traveled too much to merit getting my own place. Usually I stayed in one location for a week or two, long enough to alienate the keepers of the local history collections and make friends with the motel’s night clerk. Then I moved on to the next town, the next task, overseeing small historical restorations, creating special exhibits at public libraries or local museums, leading special curriculum sections at schools studying state history.
But this project would be a little different—instead of living in a motel for a few weeks, I would actually get an apartment of my own while I was here, which I was really looking forward to. I’d leased a one-bedroom in a complex called Fernwood Estates. I had visions of a pretty little white building overlooking Main Street, or, if I was lucky, a view of the actual forest, which would be considerably better than the brick wall my window faced back home. I would have a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom I would clean myself. I could pretend I had a home of my own for a while instead of illegally piggybacking on poor Kelsey’s lease.
Apparently my completely spacing out disturbed the Samaritan, who put his large, warm hand on my shoulder and gave it a little shake. “Don’t ya worry. I’ll call Fred and set up a douse or a tow, or whatever needs to be done here. Fred runs the fire department and the wrecker service, which is pretty damned convenient. He’ll fix ya right up.” He pulled a battered silver cell phone from his back pocket and started dialing.
“Thank you,” I said, moving my plastic seat a bit farther from the heat of the burning car, into the scrubby grass just between the shoulder and the shards of rock lining the ditch. “Really. I know I shouldn’t have gone back into the truck for my things, but I need all of this for work. Plus—” I raised Lola’s bag, making him roll his eyes a bit. “Baby.”
“What sorta work do ya do?” he asked, the phone pressed against his ear. His attention wavered as someone picked up on the other end of the line. “Hey Fred, it’s me. I’ve got a pickup for ya, mile marker seven by the population sign. Yeah, you’ll love it. It’s extra crispy.”
“Not funny,” I told him. He held up two fingers to measure “this much” funny. I shook my head, but I was biting my lips to stop a smile from forming.
I continued checking the boxes for damage as he said, “Wait, what?”
All of the teasing mirth drained out of the Samaritan—whose name I was going to have to pick up sometime soon—and he bit out a curse. “How?” He groaned. “Again? No, it doesn’t really matter how much sewage it is. It’s sewage. There’s no sewage scale. We’ve gotta get it stopped up.”
The Cowboy stepped away from me and continued his conversation. I only heard “library” and “panty hose.” Well, that didn’t sound good. I supposed between “burning vehicle” and “ankle-deep sewage,” the burned-plastic smell of smoldering upholstery wasn’t so bad. He turned back to me with an apologetic expression on his face. “Look, I’m sorry to leave ya like this,” he said, “but there’s an emergency, and I’m the only one who can fix it. I really have to go. Would ya rather ride into town with me?”
“No, thanks. From what I understand, there’s raw sewage wherever you’re going.”
His eyes narrowed, even as his full lips quirked. “Sharp ears.”
“I tend to pick up on words like ‘sewage,’” I told him. “I’ll just wait here for Fred. What’s Fred’s last name?”
My mouth fell open. “Really?”
“For at least the next month.”
“Did he lose a bet?” I asked.
He shook his head in mock sadness, a small smile playing on his lips. “Never put your faith or your dignity in the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. You’re sure ya don’t want to come with me?” he asked. I chuckled. “I’ll call Fred later and check on ya. Maybe I can help ya get a rental out here. We don’t have an agency in town, but—” He cursed softly when his cell phone rang again. He checked the screen and groaned. “I’m sorry. I really have to go.”
“Well, thank you,” I said. “I appreciate your attempted baby-saving.”
He opened the driver’s side door of his battered red-and-silver early-model pickup, which was marked with a hand-lettered logo, MUD CREEK HOME REPAIRS. He tossed me a bottle of water, dripping with condensation. “Just stay back from the truck, in case it decides to blow. Drink that. And when Fred shows up, try not to stare at his eye.”
“What about his eye?” I called as the man climbed into his truck. “Hey!”
His sandy head bobbed out of his truck cab. “Yeah?”
“What’s your name?”
“Will, and yours?”
“I’ll catch up with ya soon, Bonnie!” he yelled, grinning as he fired up his engine and pulled onto the highway. “Welcome to Mud Creek!”