It's the morning after Election Day and, like the morning after prom night, some of you are holding your head in shame and some of you are whistling over the griddle. I live in the town that Jesse Helms suggested building a fence around in lieu of a North Carolina zoo, and if that would have kept him out we would have agreed to it. So most of my Facebook feed blew up today with predictions of the apocalypse. I do have enough friends in flyover country to see that despair and hope exist in roughly equal amounts.
I'm going on tour again. Driving to pick up my guitar player Johnny this morning, the cellist Paul and I remembered six years ago, when one of our best friends got married to the love of his life. Three weeks later, two nights before our country elected its first black president, our friend died in his sleep. His bride found him cold. Kevin was thirty-seven.
A friend called Paul and gave him the news. As soon as they hung up, Paul called him back to make sure it was real. Then he hung up and called him again. "I just want to make sure I'm not losing my mind." The way we keep checking the election results.
Paul drove over to their house. "I just stared at those steps for a while. I knew what was on the other side. Once I crossed those stairs, I would be in Hell. And it was. It was terrible."
Two days later, Paul's wife went to work the polls. They had campaigned for Obama. She cried. She didn't want to go. Paul dropped her off. "I was glad it was raining so the guys at the gas station couldn't tell that I was crying."
Not every fall in North Carolina is amazing. Sometimes the frost comes late and the trees just peter out, jaundice yellow and diaper brown. It rains and suddenly it's winter, the bare rib cage of the eastern forest upturned to the grey sky, buzzards circling the dead earth.
In the fall of 2008, every tree blazed. Maples, crepe myrtles, butternuts. The sweet gums glowed outrageously purple with yellow tips like Christmas lights. Like a wedding dress at a funeral.
Obama's victory was obvious by the time the polls closed in North Carolina. Paul picked his wife up and drove out of Pittsboro through a surreal scene of people dancing in the streets, cars honking, a quiet despair crawling slowly through the chaos of a new Hope. Their dreams had come true. Their dreams had been crushed. The next week, we all sat in the same room where our friends had been married a few weeks before. We shook our heads, disappointed in the results of life.
Six years later, not much has changed and everything has changed. Our friend's widow never sold the house. She rented it to Johnny and his wife, and they moved in this week. Paul and I pulled up this morning and stared at those same cement stairs for a moment. The red paint peeling. A plant that needs watering. Another beautiful autumn day.
A couple days ago, Johnny and his wife still lived with an outhouse and a woodstove. A floor you had to climb. Cold air whistling through the wall. They haven't had a thermostat in ten years. She graduated school three years ago, spent a year looking for a job, and found one ten minutes from our old friend's house. Johnny quit his job this year to tour full time and is, despite all the rhetoric about a career in the arts, making more money with me. This little house with the three cement stairs is a new and hopeful chapter in their lives. A tangible taste of dreams dreamed together.
We packed the van and I walked back to the little shed behind the house, where Kevin had stored and played his drums. I opened the door and it all came back. An enormous sunset still covers the back wall, painted by Kevin's wife when they moved in six years ago with their own dreams. The drums are gone. Now there's a Stratocaster and a saw.
I walked back up front and Johnny said, "You guys want to see the house?"
We walked up the three stairs into Johnny's new house. Their cat crouched, traumatized by its new indoor life. Johnny stood in the bathroom, his arms outstretched, a mix of pride and wonder on his face. Indoor plumbing.
When Kevin died, Paul stopped playing electric bass and picked up the cello. I couldn't play with my band either. It just didn't work without Kevin. Then we found each other and here we stood in Kevin's old house, in Johnny's new house, seasoned by five years of rehearsals and gigs, about to embark on a tour across seven states we've never been to before as a band. Talking about a new record. Designing posters. Filling the void- and what a beautiful void Kevin left behind.
We walked out through the back yard. Georgia Brown, their dog, ran around her new green kingdom in circles and nipped at us. "Over here's where they buried the wedding clothes." Three candles stood against the fence. A few white roses. Like nothing had changed in six years. But a lot has changed in six years.
Speaking of dreams and change, however you feel about the election, we're playing in Birmingham tonight and there's a black president. As we pulled out, an old man pushed his bicycle up the hill. The church sign across the street read, "Sign broken. Message inside."