“A spell is something a lot of people call a lot of different things. Some call it dementia. Others say amnesia. I just call it getting old.”
The next morning, Hiho stood before a white shack on Choctawhatchee Bay. The air was heavier than his breath; the brown lawn wet from it; and when stepping out of the blue caddy, his feet sunk into the ground, making the sound a rag makes when it’s rung out of water. There were crickets and grasshoppers humming around the shack; a stale sea breeze blowing off the edge of the yard; and the sun inching slowly over the mangroves, shone just low enough to catch his bald head and draw a sweat. In his hand was a canvas night-bag full of old work clothes and some loose clippings of tablature and rhymed verse. The old man took a long breath and climbed the porch steps. He knocked twice. Robi appeared in the doorway. She had her red hair in a bun and her forehead up high and spoke through the screen door.
“What are you doing here, Dad?”
“Thought I’d swing by and see my two favorite girls.”
Robi curled her brow.
“Kim and I had a bit of a disagreement.”
Hiho dropped his bag.
“The kind where I ask to stay with you for a while.”
Robi stepped out on the porch and saw the blue caddy parked square on the front lawn.
“You drive here?”
Hiho lowered his head. Robi shook hers.
“I guess you forgot the incident at Aunt Sue’s?” she said.
“Just ‘cause they say I can’t drive doesn’t mean I can’t drive.”
“You drove the thing right into her dining room. Nearly killed the woman.”
“I told you, she asked me to do it. Aunt Sue’s been trying find a way to skirt the mortgage for years. She wasn’t anywhere near the living room when it happened.”
“Where’s Kim, anyway?”
“I’m gonna give her a call.”
“I wouldn’t do that, Robi,” Hiho said, drawing out the sound as he turned away toward the yard.
To Robi, his figure was dark under the shade of the porch, muddied from the sun’s reflection on the blue caddy out behind him. She stayed quiet and watched him as he ran his hand over the top of his head, and remembered what Kim had said the last time she called; something about his spells. Now, his breath was growing loud and heavy against the sounds of the yard, like he was turning something over in his mind. Maybe he was having one right then.
“Did you know Kim’s been running around?” Hiho said with his back turned. “She spends her days out of the house; comes home trying to tell me I’m sick. Lying son-of-a-bitch. I’m sure she’s been lying to you, too.” Then he turned back to the house and looked at Robi like a parent looks at a child when something’s gone irreparably wrong, and said firmly, “You can call her, but I’m staying. And I’d appreciate you not making a fuss. At least for a few days.”
Robi squeezed the hair at the top of her head and sighed.
“There’s coffee on the stove, Dad,” she said, spinning in the door. “Take off your shoes before you come in.”
In the kitchen, Hiho sat at the round table and Robi worked on the stove. She called out over the FM to her daughter Lila-Claire. Two small feet pattered across the grey plywood floor until Hiho smothered the girl in his chest. Her blond hair fell over his arms like a wet mop.
“My little pea!”
“Hiho! Did you come to visit?”
“Why, yes I did.”
“For how long?”
“I reckon a week or so.”
Lila-Claire leapt from Hiho’s arms. “A week!” she yelled, jumping around the kitchen. The floorboards bounced beneath her.
“Sit down and eat your breakfast, Lila,” Robi said, pouring Hiho his coffee at the table.
The little girl sat across Hiho and held her spoon in a fist until Robi set before her a bowl of cereal. The three sat for a moment quietly but for Lila-Claire’s splashing spoon.
“I hear you’re starting up at school soon, little pea. Are you excited?”
“What’s not to be excited about?” said Hiho.
The little girl looked down at her cereal.
“The summer’s almost over and we still haven’t been out on the bay.”
“In the canoe?” Hiho asked.
“Ma promised we would go.”
Hiho looked at Robi dismissively.
“What?” Robi said. “The thing’s a mess—all splintered and wet. And I can’t catch a break with the new rotations.”
“How would you like it if we went out on the bay tonight?” Hiho asked the little girl.
“The bay? Tonight?” Lila-Claire exclaimed. She leapt from her seat again, nearly knocking her bowl from the table.
“Don’t play games with her, Hiho,” Robi said. “She doesn’t have a heart for breaking.”
“Nonsense. I can fix it up this afternoon. It doesn’t sound like too much. We’ll be out on the water by day’s end.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea, Dad, considering you just—Hey, Lila, sweetheart? Sit down and eat your cereal, alright?”
“Please, darlin’,” Hiho said, “Let me take care of it. I’ve always been handy around the house.”
“That so? Because I can’t remember a time you weren’t hoboing around Kentucky on your guitar.”
“Robi, I’m a music man. Your generation doesn’t know what that means.”
“I know what it means. You never were home, Dad.”
“Okay, you’re right. It wasn’t easy.”
“Wasn’t easy for all of us—you, your ma, me. But it doesn’t mean we weren’t all working hard.”
“And I’m saying there wasn’t much to show for it.”
“Hard work doesn’t always make you rich, darlin’.”
Robi held the mug close to her face and blew on her coffee.
The FM started fuzzing up. Lila-Claire had finally sat still and was watching them quietly. Her eyes passed from side to side across the table like the eyes of a terrier, glancing from Hiho to her Ma, and back again. Robi stood.
“I have to go to work. There’s some peanut butter and bread in the cabinet for lunch.” She looked at Hiho. “Better get to it, now. That canoe’s got your name on it.”
“Oh, I swear it on the King James Bible. You won’t be disappointed, Robi.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Robi said. She walked into the next room and gathered her things. At the bottom of the drawer she kept her scrubs in she found a picture of her and her Ma that she had once been folded to hide her father’s figure. She unfolded it, stuffed it in her pocket, and grabbed the rest of her things. When she came back in the kitchen she found Hiho sitting still at the round table with his eyes closed, listening to blues on the FM like he was hearing it around a summer campfire. She turned it off. Then, she kissed Lila on the cheek and patted Hiho on the shoulder. “I’ll be back around five,” she said. “My work number’s taped inside the cabinet. Try not to call.”
Robi walked out and the door fell shut. For a minute, Hiho sat in the quiet with the little girl just watching him. Sometimes the quiet brought on a spell. Suddenly, he stood up and rushed out the door, leaving the girl in the kitchen.
“Wait!” Hiho said. He stumbled down the porch steps with his hand on the railing and met her in the front yard. “I need you do to me a favor.”
He walked to the rear door of the blue caddy, opened it, and reached into the back dash. He pulled out an old Martin guitar with scratches and dents in the mahogany body. The strings were clipped clean like they had once been snapped by wire cutters, and the head was missing a few tuners.
Hiho held the guitar out to Robi.
“I won’t drive anymore. But I need you to drop this at the shop for me. They’ll know what to do with it. I can play for the little one. It needs some new strings on it; shouldn’t cost much.”
She took the guitar.
“What do you really want it for?”
“Listen, darlin’. The sooner you take care of this, the sooner I’ll be out of your hair.”
Robi rolled her eyes and climbed into her red Jeep. The engine fired. She rolled down the window and called to Hiho.
“Don’t go filling her head with your stories, Dad. She’s only eight.”
When she’d gone, Hiho found it was nearly quiet but for the crickets and the grasshoppers thrumming along in the yard. He looked out to the edge near the water where the yellow canoe lay in a bundle of green bushes. The sound of the bay made a rhythm in his head. He hummed to it and in turning back to the house, caught the eye of Lila-Claire who had been watching from the kitchen window.
The sun beat down on the yard and Hiho was working hard under it. He had the yellow canoe in the middle of the dirt lawn where he set up a stool and the FM box. He was shaving away the belly, getting at the splinters and the chips in the yellow paint, and clearing out the insides that were soft from the winter months when the Panhandle gets cold and rainy.
Around noon Lila brought out a glass of icy lemonade and some wet Wickles from the refrigerator. Hiho was dripping sweat on the canoe when she came out.
“Lemonade, for me? I’m supposed to be watching after you, not the other way around.”
Lila-Claire sat on the stool with the jar in her hands and crunched into a sweet Wickle.
“Hiho?” she said.
“What is it, doll?”
“How come I never heard you play any music?”
Hiho paused from his work and set the iron sander on the ground. He took the icy lemonade in his hand and leaned his rear against a smoothed patch of the canoe’s belly.
“I always wanted to play for you, darlin’. But your Ma’s never really liked my music.
“Would I like it, Hiho?”
“I don’t know. You ever hear any folk music?”
“Is that old people music? Ma says I don’t like old people music.”
“Old people music? You tryin’ to say I’m old?”
Lila-Claire laughed and shifted on the stool. Hiho swigged the lemonade.
“Folk music ain’t old people music. It never gets old. That’s the beauty.”
“But everything gets old, Hiho. Even you got old!”
“Oh, but not folk music. You see, the songs never change. They’re played over and over again, each time a little bit different, like each time they’re a little bit new.”
“If your music’s new, then why doesn’t Ma like it?”
Hiho leaned back and sipped the lemonade.
“It’s not about the music, darlin’. It’s about what it makes her think of.”
Lila-Claire swung her legs and chewed on her Wickle.
“It’s hot,” she said.
“Why don’t you head inside. I’ll be done in no time.”
Hiho picked up the sander and started rubbing down the rough parts again.
“What’s a spell?”
Hiho stopped his sanding.
“Where’d you hear about spells?”
“Ma said that Kim was worried about your spells. But I don’t know what spells means.”
Hiho turned and slumped down a bit to her height.
“A spell is something a lot of people call a lot of different things. Some call it dementia. Others say amnesia. I just call it getting old.”
Lila-Claire’s head was down.
“Ma says it means you forget things.”
“That’s what they tell me. One minute I’m fine. The next I’m not making any sense, like I forgot what I was doing or something. Funny thing is, I don’t remember ever having one. It’s like when you drink too much and they tell you all the things you did when you were drinking, but you can’t remember doing a single one of them.” Hiho looked at Lila-Claire who was swinging her legs some more from the stool. “I don’t reckon you can’t really relate.”
“Are you almost done?” she said.
“Almost,” Hiho said nodding. The little girl smiled. She jumped from the stool and made off toward the house. A few minutes later Hiho took the Wickles and the lemonade and sat under the willow at the yard’s end. He noticed the FM was going in and out. A few minutes of fuzz. A few minutes of quiet. He listened to it like that, all out of frequency, and tried to forget about Kim.
Robi called Kim before she left the office. She got stuck talking for half an hour. Kim said she tried talking Hiho into a home. His spells were getting real bad. She said she brought it up the past night before bedtime. Hiho flipped. He stole the caddy in the middle of the night, and she chased him all the way down Centre in her nightgown. Robi wasn’t sure about the spells, or the home, but said she’d call back tomorrow.
On her way back, she stopped at the market and then at the musty guitar shop to pick up Hiho’s Martin. The heavy, bearded man at the counter asked for forty dollars. Robi said twenty. The bearded man said thirty-five. Robi slapped down a twenty, picked up the guitar, and walked out.
She didn’t get home ‘till five-thirty. She got right to work in the kitchen without even taking off her scrubs. Hiho sat in awe at the round table, watching the Martin on his lap. The wooden body had been polished; the tuners chromed; the strings shined and slicked with a touch of grease.
“Ain’t she gorgeous?” he kept saying with his hands rubbing the neck like some shiny idol.
“Still looks old to me,” Robi said. She was filling up a pot of water in the sink.
“That ain’t always a bad thing, you know.”
“Might not be a good thing either when it costs you forty bucks.”
“Right, right,” the old man said and stood from the table. He reached into his flannel pocket and pulled out a few bills.
“Here’s about twenty, Robi. Take it. We’ll call us even.”
Robi looked at the cash in her hand. The faucet kept running.
“Don’t mention it, darlin’,” Hiho said and sat back down at the round table.
Lila-Claire ran into the room and sat across him.
“Play something, Hiho! Play us a song!”
Hiho cracked an open chords and let out a loud howl that Lila-Claire giggle in her seat.
Robi was chopping carrots by the sink and spoke in the tone she uses on her daughter.
“Hiho? How ‘bout you save the music for later?”
“Robi, when are you gonna learn to appreciate music?”
“I appreciate music. Just not yours.”
“That’s nonsense. You used to love my music.”
“Yeah? The same way you used to love Ma? ‘Cause that went away real quick.”
“Why you gotta say that? I try reminiscing about the good and there you go bringing up the bad.”
“Can’t think about one without the other. If we’re reminiscing, why don’t we talk about your running around? Ma never did talk about you the way you talk about Kim.”
Hiho sat in quiet. Robi’s knife on the cutting board broke up the silence with loud knocks and splashes in the pot.
After a moment, Hiho stood up slow and set the Martin on Lila’s lap. He walked toward Robi by the sink. She had the faucet running over the carrots. Hiho got real close to her, close enough to kiss her on the cheek, like he was still thinking about what to say when he got to her ear. Then he finally whispered, “I’m sorry, darlin’. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I lost your Ma for it. Don’t make me lose you, too.”
Robi shut off the faucet, picked up the pot from the sink, and faced Hiho with water dripping from the sides.
“It’s okay, Dad. But you’re blocking the burner.”
“Oh,” Hiho said and stumbled back to the round table.
Robi set the pot on the stove and struck a match to light the gas.
“Say, Robi. Why don’t you let me take Lila out on the water for a quick row before it gets dark. I can play her a few songs out there and not bother you while you’re cooking.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”
“I’d agree, but the radioman’s calling for rain the whole week.”
Robi turned to Hiho.
“How’s the canoe?”
“All good to go.”
“And you, Dad? How you feeling? It’s been a long day.”
“Me? Oh, I’m more alright than Kentucky on a hot summer day.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“But Ma!” Lila said, springing to the floor with the Martin in her grasps. It knocked against the floorboards and echoed. “You said we could! Can we please?”
“No. Not this late,” Robi said. “Hiho’s had a long day. And it’ll be dark before you know it.”
“Come on, Robi. I’m alright, really. Don’t worry ’bout me. It’ll be just a minute. For old time’s sake, it might be the last chance we got.”
Robi checked the pot on the stove and sighed.
“Twenty minutes but not a second more. You hear, Hiho? Twenty minutes then right back for supper.”
Lila-Claire jumped from the floor and Hiho swung open the door. The little girl and the Martin bounced through it. Hiho made out the door behind her but stopped when Robi called him.
“What is it, doll?” he said, peering his head back through the door.
Robi looked down at the carrots she was stirring in the pot. The water had grown a tint of orange.
“I talked to Kim today…We should talk about it when y’all get back.”
Hiho nodded. The door fell shut behind him and the two made their way across the dirt yard. The old man looked back toward the house and saw Robi peering out the window. She was smiling, if just barely. At what, he couldn’t tell. Then he looked ahead and saw Lila running toward the water with her arms wrapped around the whole body of the Martin guitar. It was two times bigger than she was.
Hiho noticed the bullfrog once they reached the water. It was croaking like a menace over the quiet Choctawhatchee Bay. The canoe lay on a small clearing at the edge of the yard where the tree line broke and the dirt met the dark blue water. Lila jumped into the front of it and Hiho inched it into the bay. When he climbed in himself his momentum pushed the canoe about fifty yards from land. The current carried them out from there.
Hiho was sitting behind Lila-Claire, who was tapping her feet against wooden belly in excitement.
“What are you thinking there, sweet pea?”
“It’s just like last year! We’re doing it, Hiho. We’re doing it again!”
“How ’bout it, darlin’? Where should we go?”
“Bells Leg? Duck Lake? Oh, oh! We could go all the way to Bunker Cove and look at the minnows in the shallows!”
“Either one, baby doll. Just hand me that there paddle so we can get moving.”
“That paddle in your hands there.”
“Send it back, now, and we’ll be going.”
Lila twisted her waist. She had one hand on the bottom of the neck and another on the butt of the body. She swung the Martin out over the edge of the canoe until her waist couldn’t turn any more. She held it there a second, waiting for Hiho to grab it from her hands.
Hiho was sitting still behind her. His mind had gone somewhere else. The bullfrog had stopped croaking. He thought he might be able to spot it, catch it even, and began scanning the edges of the water. A near minute passed. The bay fell silent. Lila’s hands began to slide. One hand slowed up the neck along the oily strings and the other crept down the lacquer finish of the body. She kept calling back to him, calling back to Hiho. The Martin inched nearer toward the water.
Hiho was still surveying the lake for the bullfrog. It stayed quiet, the sneaky thing, a menacing thing, really. He could hear the girl’s voice in the foreground; that was menacing, too. “Quiet up there, now. This old croak might be all we have to eat tonight.” Finally, as if random, Hiho acknowledged the girl’s yelling.
“All right, okay, fine. Just give me the damn thing,” he said and snatched the Martin guitar from her hands. Lila-Claire looked at him funny.
“Are you gonna play a song, Hiho?”
“A song…” he said, bemused, with the instrument in his hands. “Yeah, sure. I can play a song.”
He moved his fingers along the strings and aligned them in an open C. Then he nodded his head confidently and said with gusto, like he was warming up a stage, “Brought to you live from Howling Jack Harlow, this one’s called, uh, ‘Backwater Blues.’”
Lila-Claire stomped her feet against the wood and the canoe rippled in the water.
“Hiho’s playing a Backwater Blues!”
The old man put his hands back in position. He strummed an open C. It came out a C7; then a C9; a C augmented. His hands fell away.
“What happened to the song?” said Lila-Claire. She was turned in place to face Hiho who was staring at the guitar like he wanted it to be something it wasn’t.
“If you’re not playing, Hiho, then we better get moving. Ma will be mad if we’re not back for supper.”
Hiho didn’t respond. He fingered the neck and strummed aagain. It sounded muted, out of tune, like not much of anything.
“Do we have a paddle?” Lila-Claire asked.
Hiho kept watching the guitar.
“Where’s the paddle? How are we gonna to get back if we don’t have a paddle? What if we’re stranded out here, Hiho? Stranded! We’re gonna miss supper!”
The old man looked up at her confused; then back down at the guitar, more confused.
Lila-Claire turned back toward the front and started digging through the crevices. She was reaching over the edges and patting her hands all around the sides of the canoe. She found no paddle but could see her reflection in the dark water. Her face was stretching in the water toward the back of the float. She looked ahead, still bent over the side. They were moving quicker now, out toward the sea, at a pace more rapid than the current. Then she heard the sound behind her; the sound of Hiho rowing the canoe with the Martin guitar like a paddle. He was dipping the mahogany body in and out of the water, pushing the canoe forward, using the neck and the oily strings for grip.
“Hiho! What are you doing?”
“Well, sweet pea, I’d say right about now we’re fixing off to Bunker Cove to see the minnows. What do you think?”
“I thought you wanted to play the guitar.”
“I’d love to play a guitar, darlin’. But what guitar are you talking about?”
“The one in your—.”
“You sure you still wanna go to Bunker Cove? It’s alright if you don’t. I’m sure your Ma would be happy to see us back sooner than later.”
Lila-Claire frowned. She turned and faced the front of the canoe. They were a long way from the shore; probably closer to the shallows than the house. She really just wanted to see the minnows.
“What do you say, darlin’?”
Lila-Claire paused then stood on her seat. Her feet were shaking and the canoe wobbling. She caught her balance, looked on toward the shallows, and pointed her finger onward, like a tiny captain, signaling all ahead, calling onward to see the minnows.
Hiho smiled and kept on paddling. The Martin splashed along the side of the canoe and filled up with water a bit more at each pass. He was humming something to the rhythm of his rowing; something to the sound of the crickets and the grasshoppers in the mangroves; something along with the hum of the bullfrog and its wily implacable croak; something that might have sounded like a backwater blues.