08/05/2013 08:08 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Ladies Room


Len had spent eleven years cleaning the Mens rooms and the Ladies rooms in Mr. Prudowsky's three Asheville bars. Fine, private places. Marvelous venues for live music. Uncanny acoustics. A lucky job. But time to retire.

As he knew they would, the three ghosts appeared again in the Ladies Room of The Pea Vine at 4:30 AM, the middle of his shift. It was May 7, his ninetieth birthday. Len's checklist of tasks more or less done, he listened in.

They didn't know he was there in their afterlife as they rehearsed the same song, the one song. Between takes they talked about their husbands because, after all, they were not done with them.
They did not talk about Len. He knew he did not qualify. He was neither man nor woman to them. He had been a kind of motherfather to the band they had formed that called itself "Lula Town" after Millie's favorite Charley Patton song "Mind Reader's Blues." Millie, Dee, and Felice were musicians then, forty-some years ago, but they were in the nest and not yet flying.

He and his students had been music to each other: that flawed music with sweetness - and love - arriving in its flaws. His best students always outgrew him. Len was surprised how he missed them, missed their jarring phrasing, their improbable leaps to falsetto or gravelly inarticulateness or full-octave skid.

"Let's find the head," said Felice to Dee. Felice, who was the lead vocal and on rhythm guitar, had a thing about hating a stumbling start to a song.

Half an hour earlier, Millie had been the first to wind the spring of the talk about their husbands' crying. "He would blubber over some lake or river he remembered," she said.
And now she added, "Raisins. Raisins a special way in his oatmeal would make him cry. Or an untied shoe.

"Or steam on the window. You know: over the sink or in a store front."

Millie had no grip on the dobrojo's neck, so it simply hung, too high, on its strap. She should lower that. Len had told her many times.

Millie said, "You hear that?"

"Yep," said Dee.

Felice tightened the seat of the microphone. She asked, "Rain?"

There was no mike on Millie or on Dee. Millie's wooden stool was under the metal frame of a john door, and she had strung a wooden cowbell up. She liked to make a calucking sound with it for no good reason. Whenever she did, Dee hit the start button on the DryHands
machine behind them. Millie said, "If he saw somebody tear up. Well. It's like somebody wet
and gooey would make him -- you know: wet and gooey."

Dee said, "Yep. It's like a crybabyman doesn't see it coming -- and next thing happens is his noseholes are wet and he's dribbling like mine -

" - mine mightcould fight the bawling - and not too good -- or he might hide himself and lose it on the stairs or somewhere in the house, and you could hear him -

"--he'd make that garbage-disposal sound in his throat and try to turn it off, really try - and mine said, 'Shit Dee, shit, I'm sorry' if he was crying -

" - and he'd go right on with it and make a leaky, gummy mess of himself and not pull it together and -"

"They keep things," Millie said.

"--and - yes they do. Mine did."

Determined to bring them back to the music, Felice strummed a chord combination to remind them. It was always that C, F, G-minor at 4:30 AM in the Ladies Room.

Len had not imagined that common triad in the great beyond. He had pictured shadowed forests of staves, singing birds there: splendor. It was better than what he had pictured. And Millie's central role in the band: that seemed impossible. Like Len, she had an abnormally acute sense of pitch and rhythmic flow. She was utterly tireless in her commitment to music - like him. Like him, she over-thought, and that meant she rarely got in her teeth what her talons captured.

At a rehearsal six years ago in the Ladies Room, Felice asked why Millie was missing.

"She's dead," said Dee. (He wanted to ask, But - how is that possible?) Exasperated, Felice asked,

"Again?" It apparently happened all the time. Dead. And dead again. Millie would miss two or three more rehearsals. Offering no explanation for re-expiring, she would return. She was a better musician each time.

He sat on an upended trashcan. He tapped his foot on tempo. He wished they heard him. He wished that they could vaguely make out the sight or the sound of him, as they had done when they took their lessons from him, and he from them.

Their hair and manner of dress changed on The Lethe Tour; their tone of voice and the key of their emotions shifted, though the conversation was always about their husbands' crying.
And it was always about the band solving the problem of the unwrapping part, of breaking open the first words of the old standard without Felice sounding like she had just hammered her thumb.

Len could not pull himself away because he had felt called there. He was there as he had been there for fifty-nine years, teaching many hundreds of musicians. Most gave up and became listeners, ashamed to be listeners, oblivious to how that mattered in their capacity for loving and being loved. Some developed into professionals; others, entertainers; a few, teachers. The failures, the most grotesquely bitter and resentful of the lot, insisted it was impossible for one person to teach another to be a musician; as far as Len was concerned, their graves were more spacious than their lives.

Learners had sought Len, had asked him to bring them inside the leaving-trail and the returning-trace of their own music. Though they had the humility to be guided, they taught themselves. That autonomy meant that at the right place of crossing, they dropped him for better guides, kept the connection, but barely recalled the depth of it.

It hurt him. It was all wrong. On certain mornings, however, when their music was pure sorcery, it was all right.

And this early May morning he knew what the terms would have to be if these three and his other twenty-six deceased students were going to actually see him; that is, if he was going to celebrate his ninetieth with them, and no longer be the invisible listener.

"How do we want it?" asked Dee.

Felice said, "We need a tickler chord or something."

Felice nodded at Millie, who glided over the bottom of C. It didn't work. She clawed a barred F. No. No.

Millie's dobrojo had come from a garage sale in Oteen, a town nearby. Len remembered her showing the inbred banjo/dobro to the band, telling them her whole life had changed. She
could not have lifted her own newborn before her with greater excitement. It had been an important day for them all.

Dee said, "Here," and offered a tickler chord. She had learned before the others how to begin in the calm. She had mastered it in only a few lessons, and the others had learned it from her and then asked Len for the fine adjustments.

She was the first to forget it and to cause them to forget. Like all bands, Lula Town sent sparks flying, and put out its own fire. The nature of the beast.

"Mine had the trembly problem the last years." Dee strummed the top end of the G-minor on her guitar, a blond Gibson ES-335. (She had named it "Peetie Wheatstraw.") "I think we want something like this," she said.

Millie struck the cowbell. Caluckacaluckaluck.

You, he thought. Len knew her so well. If she eternally returned, why did he feel such sadness about her repeated deaths? Because teaching was ordinary lesson-giving. Because it was the intercourse of learning. She had once let him draw a chord diagram on her palm in blue ink; when he apologized, he had used the word, "inappropriate," and she had said, "Beautifully."

"Something like this?" asked Dee, who started up the DryHands. For thirteen-and-a-half
bars, it breathed into the room. No one laughed. At just the right moment during it, Dee firmly, calmly sounded a turnaround chord.

Every night of their appearance in The Ladies Room that moment repeated itself. The rest of their performance might change, but not that. Len had taught Dee the letting go of herself; she had discovered entirely on her own how to be a prankster in her improvisational playfulness.

The letting-go sounds were the ways to go in farther. Whenever he had taught this, Len called to mind a lifelong friend who had been in a terrible accident and had lost a hand and, later, a leg.

"After the amputations," his friend told him, "you go in farther. Listen to this," he
said, and sang "I'll Fly Away" in order to show Len he could sing better now that he could not play.

Millie said, "Do that again," and Dee dialed down the reverb, and strummed Peetie Wheatstraw, whom she sometimes called The Devil's Son-in-Law, The High Sheriff from Hell. Millie nested an easy coin-spilling arpeggio inside Dee's chord. "Give it," said Millie.

Dee gave it again. It was not the one.

"Are we waking up this song," asked Felice, "or putting it to sleep?"

Millie said, "Do that again," and Dee obliged, and Millie subtracted something that had only been ornamental. The sound was now more forlorn.

"Heard about Etta James dying?" Dee asked.

"Bad news for them," said Felice. "Good for us."

Millie said, "I cried when I heard it."

"Me too. Never cried the same in all the living time. Never once." Felice tapped the mike with her fingernail. The ice-splash sound stayed in the room. Len's temples and his toes and fingers were chilled by it.

Almost inaudibly, Millie asked, "Ever cry about Leonard?"

"No," said Dee, still making up her mind. "Yes," said Felice, undecided. "No," said Dee.

"No," said Felice. "Yes," said Dee.

"Huh?" said Millie.

"It was time to quit him, learn from somebody better. I could've cried," Felice said. "I
almost cried telling him."

"I told him all wrong -" Dee said. "I said, 'Leonard, you've gone as far as you go - and - I have to go on' - and I kept the tears. And inside me I cried hard."
Millie said, "I never cried for Leonard. Didn't cry when my husband died or my mother or father.

"Couldn't feel bad enough for myself about my own deaths to cry.

"But moving on from Leonard. Oh. I almost cried."

Felice tapped the mike again. Out came the sounds of the lower realms. They drew him in.

They drew him down.

His end was that simple. Len had heard the leaking sounds of his heart clearer every day of his life. Now, those train whistles traveled away, whispering, falling quiet.

Felice breathed into it: Don't know... She tried again: Don't knowww..."

"Isn't today the day?" asked Dee.

Millie said, "Yes. Yes it is."

"We were fishing before mine died," Dee said, "- and we had a camp in the woods at
a little pool on Pigeon Fork but it was too cold for fishing, and it must've been October -
"--misty - like in October - and pretty leaves so bright you could see them right through the mist."

"Oh, Dee," said Millie, who had let in - and farther in - the sound of the word Don't. Far
inside it, she was the Millie with no bar dividing the measure. And Len had been a - what had he been to her?

"Oh you," said Dee to Millie.

"And you," said Dee to Felice who was looking right through her.

Millie said, "They puddle up." Her sigh verged into pity and into pleasure.

"You see something?" Dee asked Felice.

"You see something?" Dee asked Millie who looked around the Ladies Room, looked
right at Len, and didn't see him. Not yet.

"Dee. Millie." Felice hummed the first three notes. She did not push hard, though she did push.

Dee said, "And some of the leaves were falling but I mean down-over-on-and-around us. And the top of his pole was shaking - and his cork was bobbing -
"--and he started leaking like he'd never stop."

Millie said, "Men puddle up. Something they can't do or won't is what sets them off. Or if they never could do something or something never would come to them and can't."

Millie had a feeling. She glided again over C. "You know, like calling to say 'You
alive? Want to go eat something?' They can't do it. Then they can't help but cry about it."

Felice asked Dee if she could bring it; she meant: could she bring The Calm again? Dee answered, "And I said to mine, 'Well, all your crying - it's funny more than it's sad, my dear.'"

Millie played the pulling-under tickler chord. The sound was respirable. It lived inside the instrument. It lived outside. It dissolved.

Dee played a quiet cresting wave. In perfect tranquility, Felice went far in: Don't know why - there's no sun up in the sky -"

"And he said, 'Yeah' but cried harder a lot longer, and his mouth was trembly and his chin was already all wet - and by November he died, so that was as much answer as he was going to give."