The Legend of Nudie Suit
Posted on Sept. 24, 2018, 4:51 p.m.
Posted on Sept. 24, 2018, 4:51 p.m.
Legend begins under the spacious skies. Eking a hardscrabble life out of the fruited plain. Amber waves and all the rest. Before his chin ever saw whisker one he was busting his hump sunup to sundown. That’s panhandle life and you’d have never heard him bellyache about it.
That is, until the land turned on ‘em. Weeks without a cloud in that spacious sky. Turning those waves from amber to brittle brown. Looked like whole acres would crumble if you so much as looked at ‘em cross. And then came the wind, whipping half a million square miles of parched soil into vast clouds of dust. Folks called ‘em black rollers on account of the way they turned noon into night. The air wasn’t fit to breathe for the young and hearty, the old or infirm had to be kept cooped indoors for days at a stretch, lest one of them rollers rolled away with their soul. Father told him it was biblical, foretold by John the Revelator himself. So he wore out the knees of his only pair of britches praying for deliverance.
But that sweet chariot never swung low enough to see ‘em through all that dust and Father took matters into his own hands. Sold off the handful of the herd that hadn’t starved to death and pulled up a tidy sum of cash stashed under the kitchen floorboards. Put the lot of it on a ‘27 Ford Model AA and loaded it down until you’d have thought the leaf springs would snap. Seeing their earthly belongings lashed to that flivver, he’d of sworn their little house could never have held all that. Father cranked it up and the Ford shuddered something awful. Father said, ‘Everybody in. The Lord’s telling us to leave this place.’
‘Where we headin’ all loaded up like this, Father?’
‘Just to the horizon, I reckon.’
But he couldn’t see any horizon through the next dust storm sweeping in.
Made it over the divide and left the dust behind them. Round Bakersfield, the Ford decided it had had enough. Father said California would be their Canaan. There was work in oil to be had, but not enough for everyone who’d been forced off their farms. Father provided best he could but the devil that had chased him from the plains settled on him anew in the land of milk and honey. Or in Father’s case, milk and honey with a healthy dose of whiskey. Father took to itinerant preaching, most often to what he called ‘the dissipated.’ Those lost souls who haunted the honky tonks after breaking their backs on the oil rigs. More and more of his evenings were spent in those saloons and taverns, long into the night. Father presumed he was saving the lot of ‘em from damnation. Mother said he’s saving everyone except himself.
Mother tasked him with seeing to it that Father made it back to his bed rather than a ditch after his tavern testifying. And it was outside those honky tonks that he heard the gospel. A sermon with guitar, fiddle, and a lap steel keening high and lonesome. Beer swilling preachers, hair slicked up high, in custom made Nudie suits glittered with rhinestones. Flamboyant as any revival tent reverend. Rollicking tales of braggarts and brawlers. Ballads of lost love turning tears into wine. As though KVOO was broadcasting all the way from Tulsa to the very Bakersfield bar where he sat waiting for Father to stumble out the door. He came to know every tune. Sang ‘em to himself humping luggage for the railroad. Won his first beat up guitar in a card game. In no time flat he was playing like he was born holding a guitar. And singing just as natural as though he was talking, in a drawl so deep and rich you could slice it like cake.
Father did not approve and let the fact be known. He’d wave the Good Book and bellow in between belts off the bottle. Wouldn’t stand for his own flesh and blood to give themself over to heathen ways. No son of his would be stepping on stage with the devil in some two-bit saloon, Jezebel herself waiting in the wings. And he’d carry on like that until the whiskey made his tongue too heavy in his mouth and his head too heavy on his shoulders. With Father finally slumped over the kitchen table, he took hold of his guitar, said a silent farewell, and lit out on his own looking to claim a future for himself.
He hit every joint in Bakersfield. Said they just met their new top draw. They said he was a no good, no account hustler who couldn’t sing his way out of a wet paper sack. He said they wouldn’t know a superstar if it bit ‘em on the ass. Took the money he saved slinging bags for the well heeled on the Western Zephyr and bought himself a Nudie Suit. It was the only thing he owned, other than that battered old guitar, when he stuck out his thumb and started walking. His feet were just considering blisters when a car made a stop and a cloud of dust.
‘Where ya headin’ all decked out like that, bud?’
‘Just to the horizon, I reckon.’
And it went like that, car after car, from California to the Ozarks. Builds up a powerful thirst. He was looking for something to cut the dust of damn near eighteen hundred miles when he put his boots down on South Ave. The neon issuing forth from the countless honky tonks was a sight to behold. But, then, so was he. Strode into the first gutbucket dive he saw and bellied up. ‘Beer. Dark and smooth, barkeep.’ Wet his parched whistle and said, ‘Ain’t got a dime to my name, but what I do got oughta be worth enough to cover my tab.’ And he strummed that battered old guitar and sang. The juicers at the bar swiveled their heads and caught flies. Repeated this act at every joint on the strip. Made a name for himself, though not much of one. But he was nothing if not stubborn. By the time he fought his way onto a stage, he blinded ‘em with rhinestones. Then he blinded ‘em with a megawatt smile. Then he sang for ‘em and really showed ‘em the light. And when he stepped off the stage they had his reward waiting for him. Beer. Dark and smooth as his baritone croon. And another one waiting for him after each encore. Drank his worth in beer. Folks said he was the cause of a hundred hasty marriages and a hundred more divorces. Might never have made a dime, but made his mark just the same.
The old auditorium’s long since closed and the spotlights dark for decades. But in the darkness, the stillness, you can hear the echo of that baritone and catch flashes of that Nudie Suit. Stars like that may burn out eventually but the light they made shines brighter than any black roller threatening to darken your spacious skies.
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