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The Power of Love: A Nashville Lightning Storm

AMERICA

By Timothy Carlson

NICK HAD just landed a clerkship at a brand new prefab luxuriana by the sea. I met him as he got off work one night, at the twelfth floor lounge of his motel overlooking the ocean and the honkytonk Boardwalk.

Nick was my old midnight caper friend, with whom I used to spend the lonely hours between midnight and eight in the morning during summers in Daytona Beach, playing golf in the moonless nights by flashlight, seeing how many times we could go around a traffic circle without getting dizzy, riding on the top of the hood of my car down the beach with no driver (steering with our feet through the open sunroof, and a book on the accelerator pedal) or driving through the Tomoka swamp roads to watch the phosphorescence on the drooping Spanish moss. I was very curious to see him because rumor had it that he was engaged.

Nick was a veteran of the drug years. His jobs included: lifeguard in nearby Ormond until thrown off the corps for dereliction of his tower (he took long lunches); mate on a charter fishing boat; bagman for a big lettuce caper; treasure hunter for a load of cocaine left in the ground by dealers near an old launching pad near Cape Canaveral (foiled by a flash flood); and stunt car driver for a shoestring film that ran out of money. His heritage was Greek, and he knew all about fencing things in underground Daytona, and who burned down what restaurant for what insurance money.

He also knew about women who wanted action. He had been a lifeguard since he was 14, and women swarmed after him since the beginning. Despite knowing about the women who had paraded their needs before him year after year. Nick had the grace to retain a surviving romanticism.

The latest, and what looked like the enduring target of his affection, was a sweet young thing from near Nashville, Penny: age sixteen, and soon graduating from high school into the arms of her dreamboat, Nick.

YES, YES. IT was all true. She had come down with her parents last summer, and the moment that Nick gave her parents the key to their room the girl was his. The little brother came back ten minutes later and said. "You better not see my sister. There'll be trouble with my father." This was in August and she's been swooning ever since. Nick himself is in a bit of a swoon. He had flown to the family's ranchhouse near Nashville twice during the fall. His visits enjoyed the family's blessing until Penny's mother did an about-face and revealed that Nick was 23, not the harmless 19 he was purported to be. The father now swears that he will kill Nick, and if Nick tries to enter the county, he will swear out a warrant. Every phone call they make is possibly overheard, and through these stormy times Nick's phone bills have jumped from eighty to two hundred dollars a month.

Penny has sent Nick the journals of her life back home during their absences, and they are already two loose leaf volumes of every waking minute. It seems she is the best English student in her class, and thrives on well looped y's and I's, which is fortunate since the loves and the your take a predominant part in her manuscript. Mostly it goes something like this Well last night Nick and I told Dad. No matter how hard we argued we couldn't win him over, and unless he relents I will just die...Nick is just the most perfect person in the world...Mother read my diary yesterday and I am so mad at her I can't speak... Yesterday old ----------came over and he drove me around for an hour and kept trying to convince me that I should take him back! I'm so mad I just can't speak. No one can ever take Nick's place!...

Dear Diary, if I don't get to see Nick, I think I will just die. But don't worry diary, I wouldn't kill myself. I love him too much to ever lose faith... Dear Diary, every time Nick and I say goodbye, it rains. Dear God, those raindrops match my tears. It's good to know that you are on our side...Dear Diary, I told dad what Nick and I thought up, but it didn't work and I'm going to have to see the doctor tomorrow...

Nick explained to me that he and Penny told her father that she was six weeks pregnant, so they'd have to get married.

Dear diary, I worry that I am making Nick uneasy and I fear that he will leave me...If I were Nick, I would leave...I can be such a bitch...Nick just called and now I can sleep in peace...

Nick seemed in perpetual bliss, and got even further into that state when I offered to read aloud both volumes of Penny's journals so he could get a little different perspective on the whole thing. By that time I had drunk two tequila sunrises. So the reading was full of emotion, but no little imprecision as well. None of this bothered Nick, who smiled away. He said this time it was the real thing. He said he'd given up all the girls who once crossed his path and he didn't miss them. He understood, he said, that Penny would pass through several stages of growth that he has already gone through. I asked him if he could face disappointment and he gave a brave answer: "If I try and fail I haven't lost anything," he says. "And Timmy, I think I can do 'er."

NICK HAD learned a few new things about love himself. When the name Debby Bartosch came up in one casual conversation. Penny pressed Nick about her. "Aw, don't worry about her," said Nick. "You'll like Debby when you meet her." This was the Debby Bartosch who went with Nick and me to the annual Pelican Avenue New Year's eve party, and at which Nick and Debby were scheduled to perform a "crab mating dance" for the throngs. They somehow failed their scheduled performance and ended up wrapped up in the same blanket in the back room, both passed out over a bottle of mad duck champagne. Maybe some year, I keep hoping.

So Penny writes in her diary, not privy to any of this knowledge in any mere factual way, but already possessing the fullfledged instincts of her feminine heritage: "I will not want to meet Debbie Bitch. Why doesn't Nick realize this? I will hate her. I don't want to share Nick with anyone else in the world!"

The more I heard of Penny, the more often I watched him deal with marathon phone calls; I began to share in his hypnosis. No longer was I just a listener, as Nick plunged deeper into some sort of blessed state. A fool possessed, perhaps, but I was getting caught in the undertow.

My work was done in Daytona and soon I would have to return North. I mentioned that I wanted to see the country music scene in Nashville on my way. And that was all the hint Nick needed to decide that he had been away from Penny too long. With a hastily agreed upon hundred-dollar loan Nick quit the motel and we were on our way.

In our VW, racing along from Daytona to Nashville in the buffeting wakes of trucks and trailers, surrounded by the highway signposts, the concrete dividers and huge green directional signs, we could only imagine the blood-soaked land we were passing through. Still, certain places with history caught us in their web so that we experienced more than our seatbelted cocoon. Just beyond Chattanooga was the battlefield of Chickamagua, where my great-great-grandfather was killed in 1863, leading his unit of a Wisconsin Norwegian regiment.

Nick's associations were not so much of the South, but there was one site he was excited about.

"Timmy, when we get to Nashville we've got to see the Parthenon!"

Nick spoke glowingly about the full scale replica structure that awaited us, near the Vanderbilt campus. "My grandfather would have loved to see it," said Nick. It turns out that Nick learned the motel business from his grandfather in West Virginia, and Nick was not averse to playing up to the crafty old gentleman's desire to leave his fortune in good hands. Nick was all ready to be the old gentleman's guide on a return to Greece, the fatherland, until Nick's father, seeing a threat to the line of succession, told the boy to scram back to Daytona.

Leaving Chatanooga, the weather tilted. We left the dream-like Florida mid-eighties and met head-on the ominous fringe of a Northern blizzard. Further ahead in Tennessee lay a vicious front of unending rain and tornadoes looking for barns to rip apart. Nick didn't talk much by then. He took over the driver's seat in a trance, driving steadfastly, relentlessly drawn toward the source of his $200 phone bills.

This was not the same fellow who once told me: "Making love doesn't mean so much. It's just a few brief moments where people get together and make each other feel better."

Now, he was driven.

WE ARRIVED in a downpour of majestic proportions in the magic city of Nashville. The Nashville I was looking for was the Nashville of an old Hank Williams and a new Waylon Jennings. I wanted to see performers whose edges were finely honed and who seemed to spring from the country, and made no accommodations for television in their performances. The Nashville Nick had come to find was part of the vast network of motel people. He had come to apply for work in one of the newly-opening prestige chains, fixed with glowing references from his employers in Florida. This boy can fill your house, they said. Nick was going to get a job to be near Penny. We checked into an eight-dollar-a-night shell at the intersection of the main highways which went to Louisville, Knoxville, and south to Chatanooga

Our 12-hour, nonstop journey notwithstanding, we took off at 10 p.m. for Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, just around the corner from Ryman's Auditorium, the site of the original Grand Ol' Opry. Tootsie herself was clearing the bar early, since Nashville had been put on a tornado watch that evening. Nick and I managed two beers apiece, and I added my name to the tens of thousands that had already been scrawled on the walls in the back.

I tried to see all the thousands of Instamatic prints and the signed record albums on the dark walls: Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins all had bits and scraps of their fame tacked on the walls. As, Tootsie was ushering us out the door into the unrelenting rain, stung by forks of lightning which left a sulfurous taste in the fingers-frozen night air, we asked where we could find some good music.

Across the street, was the answer, right next to Ernest Tubb's music shop. As Nick and I crossed the cracked pavement in this fast-crumbling section of town, with the heart, the old Opry building, cut right out of it and transplanted into the wide open spaces of chain motels and highway interchanges--transmogrified into another exhibit in a Disney vision of Country Muzak land--we saw the lights of a glowing juke joint called the Wheel.

Thanks to Nick's easy introductions, I asked an older woman to dance to Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes." The Wheel was top heavy with musicians, for six different performers sang at one time or another, and although one long-haired jeans-wearing young couple danced like a cut out of Woodstock, the audience was a strict country crowd. There were ducksweep haircuts and fancy stitched pointed boots for the men and the women wore their hair up. The barmaid never stopped hustling, and every time she came by Nick obliged her, as he got further and further into this new society. When we sat down the woman told me I had a lot to learn about dancing in this town.

The woman looked at me straight on, but her whole attitude did not include me in the circle of her friends as she had included Nick. He was now deeply involved in a conversation with her younger companion, a pure country sapling of a girl who spoke in an uncut twang and who retreated into a scared doe shyness as she smiled at the music. The woman said she drove trucks every now and then, when she wasn't working at a local truck stop.

"Mah husband, I drive with him. He had an accident about four years ago. Driving, I take care of him. But every now and then I go out like tonight. It's like this. I can't leave him. You grow to love a person and you cain't cut it off. But he cain't give me what I want any more. Now I'm not talking about going out and finding a young feller or nothing...But sometimes you jes have to lay down with somebody...every now and then...to feel right."

THE LIGHTS ARE LOW and the music spins along. Nick's eyes are set in a determined fog, he is on his way to his ninth beer and suddenly he looks like a stranger. His arm is around the skittish girl.

"Now I don't mean to be nosy or nothing. But could you answer me one question," asks the woman truck driver. "Do you make good money at what you do?"

I told her it probably wouldn't sound good to somebody in trucking, but I did pretty much what I wanted, being single and all. The woman laughed and turned to another woman friend her age.

"We keep coming to places like this, looking for the answer. But we never find it!" They both laughed.

Nick turned to me and said that although quite a few amazing things had occurred, we might yet be surprised. "If we don't watch it, we might end up back at the motel with two old ladies."

The woman spoke of her favorite country singers; she didn't share my enthusiasm for Waylon Jennings, but liked Hank Williams. The best country music show she'd ever seen was the time Buck Owens appeared on television with his former wife and her present husband Merle Haggard, and Buck's son, borne by the very same former Mrs. Owens. They all sang together. The woman's eyes shone as she told me what that incredible reunion meant to her.

With his ninth beer, the gallant and the Pygmalion was coming out in Nick. The young girl with the woman truck driver was her daughter, 27 years old and unsure of herself, said Nick. As he explained it, "she needs a lot of help getting out of herself. I don't know who'd have the time."

It turned out, Nick did. After a while, the shy girl passed Nick a note. One of the flared sideburns crew asked what it was. Nick deftly covered. "It's a poem," he said. It was her name and address. "That was a challenge," said Nick. "She didn't believe a stranger would go to the trouble to find out where that address was and go there at three o'clock in the morning."

After some heart-to-heart talking with the mother. Nick and she agreed that the girl needed to develop some confidence in herself. The woman drew a map on a napkin, and Nick drove me back to the motel on the expressway.

"I'll be back in the morning," said Nick. I sank into a state of twitchy purgatory in the empty motel room as the lightning grew louder and closer. I had stopped drinking at two beers and was further from comprehension than if I had matched Nick's pace. Why had he left? The day was nearing 22 straight hours of highway unraveling followed by the unraveling of events at The Wheel. The sound of an approaching freight train rent the air, rising above the flailing of rain. That's the sound people hear when the funnel is about to scoop them up. It turned out to be only a train.

NICK returned about 10 a.m. and woke me up. It was still raining. I asked him how he could face Penny right after that episode.

"Timmy, if we were together, that wouldn't happen. But we're not. It's not a question of taking love away from someone. It's giving. The only trouble was, that girl didn't help me AT ALL."

After a few vehement philosophical reservations, I suspended judgment. Nick is again possessed by Penny, and we will visit the Country Music Hall of Fame before setting out for the small town where she lives in the early afternoon.

The plan was to get Nick into Penny's two o'clock music class before it started, and to have the music teacher, a friend and ally of Nick's, ask Penny to report to his office to talk with him. Penny had no idea Nick was in town.

Stalking into town nervously we soon discovered that no one was in school that day because of flooding and the tornado watch. We toured the town of three or four thousand a little too thoroughly for my taste, then holed up at the Kentucky Fried Chicken place by a pay phone to call Penny's go-between Jilly. There weren't many other places. A Spin-a-Pin six-lane bowling center, a few 7-11s, and the remnants of a destroyed drive-in movie screen torn up by a tornado while Gone With the Wind was playing, said Jilly. It's that kind of town. Sixteen churches, a tiny one-room newspaper and a loan office. The head shark, as fate would have it, is Penny's daddy. Everyone in the county owed him money at one time or another. So whether or not he was well liked, the strings of influence were everywhere.

All day long, rain drops drip No Penny. We return in sadness to Nashville. Taking one last shot. Nick has me call her house. In my best high pitched southern voice, I say, "Hello. Is Miss Penny there?"

"She's asleep."

"Goodness. That's sad. Could you tell me if she's been asleep long? Or maybe she just went to bed?"

"Who is this?"

"Timmy Carlson."

"Just a minute."

"Hello?"

I had to head north early the next day, but I took Nick back into the hamlet and left him at its one motel. The Thistle Dew Alone, with only a wire to his mother for enough money.

A week later Nick writes. He has gotten a job in the Thistle Dew and is pursuing his dream.

Dear Timmy.

I'm still alive despite all the chances I've taken recently.

I'm frightened every time a policeman pulls in but the body rush quickly subsides when he says "I'll be needing a room about 1 a.m."?! Our switchboard is an antique which means that I have to put through all of the calls. The same policeman calls and says "Will you git this number fer me--and if a man answers--hang ep."

Another man whose face is terribly familiar comes in the office after parking around the side--in order not to reveal the passenger's identity--and asks for a room. He spends all his time pulling out his money despite my attempts to direct him to the registration card. I ended up insisting that he register and he hesitates, then begins. While he is writing he tells me, "I don't usually do this. We've got an arrangement here."

I'm catching on quick, it's just like anywhere else. I heard another story about the Moonlight Drive-In.

The reason that it is closed and in shreds is because it was always playing X-rated films which could be seen from the road. So (here it comes) some Southern Baptists stormed the place and reduced it to shambles.

After they completed the job they all swapped wives and checked into the Thistle Dew.

The only people I don't expect are the postors of the churches. They are making too much money from their Christian congregations to jeopardize it by checking in. They go somewhere out of town dressed as Road men.

I feel like I'm walking into the mouth of a whole. It feels great but have you ever seen what comes out of the tall of a whole?

I think I have realized the come of Penny's home life. Her mother could possibly have a large tumor in her brain, causing severe pain and mood changes. She has a history of these things. This is the latest news. I hope that it will be corrected soon..."

Which was immediately followed by another letter a week later:

They still don't know that I'm in town

Penny turns seventeen today!

I have been very hand on her lately because I didn't think that she had courage enough to stand up for herself. We have had to hide our love from everyone and it has affected my pride. My hair is standing out like a lion to signal my frustration. I think that if she has the love for me that she says she does then she wouldn't let anyone keep us apart not even her family.

Today was a perfect example. First thing in the morning I called her house, thinking that her parents were at work and it was safe. Her mother sounds just like her so I said "Penny?" "No, this is not Penny." "Could I wish Penny a happy birthday?" "No." "I just want to wish her a happy birthday." "Marvin, this is Nick. Do you want me to get Penny?" "Click."

I called Jilly to get Penny to meet me at the Pizzi Pan. I fell asleep, and got a call from Penny about 4 p.m. She wanted to see me, but we would have to meet behind the Burger Queen beside the motel. She showed up in a green mustang.

I told her to move over and got in the driver's side. She asked me where we were going and I told her to wait and see. When I drove out on the street she ducked down. I pulled around the motel where we have a single car garage. Pulled the car in and shut the door. Penny said: "You're crazy if you think I'm getting out!" I took the keys so she had no choice. We went to my room. She said, "There isn't even a chain on this door!"...I told her that I had something for her to read. A letter. It was more or less a demand for some sort of sign from her that she had the strength and courage that it would take to get us somewhere. We didn't have to hide. She cried. Then she started getting dressed in order to leave without talking about it. I could not allow that and I didn't. After a time she calmed down and started to talk. She cares, but she isn't ready for the sacrifice yet. So her feeling isn't that strong--yet. As we were yelling at each other we caught each other's eyes and realized that this fight was ridiculous. We had never really fallen away from each other. If we had, we were now back together for the cause. But!

We started looking for her keys. It took half an hour to realize that they were back in the car. Now! Getting her back to the car was another matter. We decided that it was necessary to wear a disguise. She put on my coat and pants. Back to the Burger Queen...

It was 7:30 p.m. When I got back my boss told me that Jilly had called and said that Penny's mother was looking for her. I haven't heard from her since.

Do you believe that I am in love with someone who can be 'grounded'?

The other night I called Nick for the latest word. He is getting paid a total of $12 a week by the Thistle Dew proprietor, who gives him room and board and knows that Nick himself is grounded. Nick says he and Penny may be ready to make a move soon. An anonymous caller rang her up a few days ago and said "I saw where you went the other day." Nick has heard that it's possible for them to get married in Georgia and make it stick. If courage holds they may soon light out to the south.

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