Whiskey River take my mind,
Don’t let her mem’ry torture me.
Whiskey River don’t run dry,
You’re all I’ve got, take care of me.
Kenny put up his guitar and sat down in his chair. Contemplated the hunk of metal in front of him – chips and wires and plugs, an LED screen where her face would soon be. All this technology built to make them feel like they were still together. All the space between them a constant reminder of how far apart they were. He grabbed the wooden seat and scooted forward until he was close enough to his desk to rest his elbows on either side of the laptop. Long fucking day. He pressed the power button and waited for the screen to come to life. It’d been two months since he’d seen her as anything other than a 2D reflection on a screen. She was just as beautiful minus a dimension, but impossible to hold onto. So he held onto this moment instead. The one where he’d almost forgotten what she smelled like, the taste of her lips, the way her colds fingers felt upon his skin as she traced circles on his chest while he drifted off to sleep. He hoped the memory of her face would fade just as these had, but every time he closed his eyes, there she was, a tattoo on his mind’s eye. He clicked a small video icon on the computer and forced a smile when his face showed up on screen.
Bea was perpetually running late, overbooked for a life that started fifteen minutes ago. She knew Kenny would be waiting for her. Always on time. It was the thing she’d miss most – the one constant in an otherwise inconsistent world. She ran offstage amidst the screams for an “encore.” When she got to her dressing room, she made the mistake of looking in the mirror. She knew she was late, but decided to give herself a quick tune up anyway. Her reflection was a ghost, exhausted from being on the road – interviews, shows, and telephones. This is what you wanted. She sat in front of the mirror, big bulbous lights framing her face. A little blush, a lot less eyeliner, and some chap stick did the trick. After a show, her lips were like the desert floor. She remembered their first kiss at Craft Cellar on 4th Avenue. It was her first time performing on a stage, long before she was playing sold out shows at well-known venues. When their lips first touched, she flinched, the salt of his skin stinging the cracks in hers. Ever since that night she made sure to carry Chap Stick in her pocket for when she came offstage, just in case he was there waiting to kiss her. This was the first time she’d used it in two months. She looked again at her reflection, more alive now than not. Before getting up she sprayed her wrist with his favorite perfume. Stupid.
She’s running late. I should be used to this. He wasn’t. He still held out hope she’d be on time and was always disappointed when she wasn’t. It reminded him of being a kid on Christmas morning and having to wait for the rest of the house to wake up before he opened his gifts. Only there were no presents this year. He watched the screen try to mirror the movements of his face, always a half second behind, ghostlike in its reflection. A moment later, her face lit up the screen. How many rings before she starts to wonder if I’ll answer? How many before she misses me? How many until…
She stared at the screen on her phone as it tried to connect. At the start of the tour, she’d requested high-speed Internet access at every venue. Back then their life was less pixellated. Now, she relished the time it took to connect. It was her moment to pretend everything was still okay. A second later his face appeared and washed away all the pretense in hers. No longer a country music superstar playing sold out shows five days a week across the globe, she was the girl by the lake pretending to skip rocks while the Taylor Brothers fished, casting furtive glances at the youngest one, Kenny, as he cast his line out, while the sun cast his shadow on the water.
She was too young for him to have these thoughts. Even as he fished he felt the warmth of her stare on his shoulders and neck and other places he wasn’t yet ready to admit. An eighteen-year-old man had no business entertaining such notions with a fifteen-year-old girl. If he wanted her, he’d have to wait.
I fall to pieces,
Each time I see you again.
I fall to pieces,
How can I just be your friend?
She snuck up to his window nearly every night that summer. Listened in as he played old country records – Willie, Patsy, and Hank – and some new ones – Randy, George, and Clay. He couldn’t sing a lick. She’d lean against the cold cedar outside the window and harmonize with him, just loud enough that he couldn’t hear. By the time the next summer came around, she’d learned all his favorite songs. And now that she was a grown woman of sixteen, the older kids agreed to let her join them for the nightly bonfire. Kenny and the rest of the boys would gather wood while the girls poured them glasses of moonshine and tuned the guitars.
He slugged a glass of hooch, grabbed his guitar, then launched into “Whiskey River.” Everyone sang. When it was over they all raised their glasses and took a swig in unison. Then, as was customary, Kenny held out the guitar and waited for the next person who had a song to sing to come and grab it. The entire group was surprised when they saw Bea rise to her feet. At first, Kenny thought she might just need a refill for her drink, but a quick look down revealed it was still full. He glanced up on caught her gaze. Held out the guitar. His eyes a question mark.
Bea nodded and navigated her way over, past empty bottles and beer cans. As she reached out her hand for the guitar, she caught a log with her foot and tumbled into Kenny’s free arm. “You all right?” he asked. She said she was and the rest of the group let out a sigh of relief, followed by a burst of laughter. She was too nervous to be embarrassed. Kenny handed her the guitar and pulled the leather strap over her head tightening it to remove any slack. Silence. She wondered if they could hear her heartbeat, then quickly strummed a chord to cover it up.
He’d been in love before, but had never been able to pinpoint the exact moment it happened. Until that night. Sitting under the stars listening to this girl sing “I Fall To Pieces.” The way her voice trembled at first before finding its footing on the line, “How can I just be your friend?” A realization, all at once, that he couldn’t.
Throw my ticket out the window,
Throw my suitcase out there, too,
Throw my troubles out the door; I don’t need them any more,
‘Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.
Long after the fire cooled and the other kids returned to their houses, Kenny and Bea sat on that same log, either unwilling or unable to move. He told her of his father’s record collection, the one thing he’d left exclusively to Kenny when he passed. His brother, Darrel, got the signed Ty Cobb baseball mitt, while the eldest, Tucker, inherited a library of books set in the Old West – mostly biographies of guys like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp. They all shared the small fortune he’d amassed as a land man with their mother, Betty. She made each one of them promise to use a portion of it for their college educations, but Darrel got a baseball scholarship to Mississippi State and Tucker an academic scholarship to Ole Miss, so Kenny was the only one who’d have to dig into his inheritance for schooling, something he’d become completely disillusioned with ever since he picked up a guitar at fifteen. He made his mom an offer, Let me travel for a year, then I’ll come back and go to school. She agreed, with the stipulation that he had to send her a postcard from every new city he visited. Three weeks later she received a postcard from Nashville. It was the only one he’d need to send.
She’d had a year to practice the songs she heard outside his window and was getting pretty good, at least according to her best friend, Trixie, who’d never spoken a less than complimentary word about anyone other than Justin Hicks, and that was only after he’d lit a strand of her hair on fire causing their entire social studies class to clear out leaving her alone in the room until the smell subsided. But other than that one incident, life was “Amazing!” to Trixie. She used it to describe everything from the sunset to leftover clam chowder, but Bea could tell by her inflection that she really meant it this time. “Patsy would be proud,” she went on. Bea smiled. One month later, sitting by the fire, those words echoed in her head and were enough to reassure her as Kenny held out the guitar for the next person to play.
“You should come to Nashville,” he told her that night. At sixteen it was a pipe dream. Her parents hadn’t even heard her sing outside the church choir. She said she’d think about it. And she did – every single day for the next two years. Not two hours after graduation, she was hugging her parents goodbye and pulling out of their driveway in her baby blue F-150 with Trixie at her side. Six hours and four Red Bulls later, they pulled in to Music City, USA. When they finally made it over to Kenny’s downtown loft, he was waiting. Always on time.
Moonshine keeps me sober,
I’m drunk in love with you,
That Mississippi River,
Is carrying me through.
Two short years and Kenny Taylor had already begun to make a big name for himself in Nashville. At Craft Cellar, a local dive bar with live music six nights a week, he met Thomas Craft – owner, country music aficionado, and fellow Mississippi transplant. Old Tom’s life had been much the same as young Kenny’s. They talked about floating the river with a 30-pack of Natty Light, how music always sounded sweeter when played by a fire, and their love of Southern women. It wasn’t long before Kenny was invited to join Tom and his friends for their Sunday Brisket Brunch in the back of the Cellar. Kenny made the most of this opportunity, striking up friendships with the musicians who’d show up there. He became a regular at their get-togethers. And though the fires burned brighter and the instruments were nicer, he couldn’t help but reminisce about Mississippi and the girl he’d fallen for.
Six months later he had an album’s worth of songs. They became anthems at the bonfires, everyone there singing out his lyrics picturing their own forgotten homes and the girls they’d left to pursue their dreams. After a particularly bibulous night, Kenny was approached by Jenson Castle, a folk singer from Kentucky whose first single, “Bourbon Blues,” had been getting spins on the local stations. “You ever think about recording any of those?” Jenson asked him. He hadn’t. Truth was, he’d measured his voice against his heroes and reasoned he was best left playing empty bars and bonfires. “How bout I record one of ‘em?” And just like that, Kenny became a bona fide songwriter. By the time Bea and Trixie arrived in Nashville he’d written eight songs that had made it on to albums and three that he’d heard on the radio. The first one was titled, “Moonshine Makes Me Sober.”
Kenny didn’t mind that Jenson changed the lyrics from “Mississippi River” to “sweet Kentucky liquor,” just having a song on the radio surpassed his wildest dreams. He didn’t think his luck could get much better, then three months later Bea called to tell him she was moving to Nashville and might he know of anywhere to stay.
She pulled up to the curb of his downtown loft, hit the brakes a little too hard sending her guitar case flying forward before its momentum was stopped by the back of her head. As she winced in pain, Trixie shoved the guitar case back in the seat as if it was being punished. That sent Bea into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, which only made the throbbing in her head worse. She thought she might run out of breath when she heard a tap on the window, looked up, and swallowed what was left.
They’d phoned each other every night since she told him she was moving. Still, this moment felt like a dream. In the year since he’d seen her, she’d grown even more beautiful. Her hair was long and straight and bore an uncanny resemblance to the mahogany-stained guitar he’d picked up at Corner Music in Nashville after his first check for “Moonshine Makes Me Sober” came in. Her eyes were the same light blue color as the Tennessee sky. The curves of her body as perfect as a handmade Martin. And a smile brighter than any stage light he’d ever seen.
She reached for her suitcase, but he insisted. His loft was two flights up and he refused to let her or Trixie carry a thing. That night they went to Old Tom’s Craft Cellar, listened to live music and talked about the past. When they looked up it was 2am. The bar was all but empty and Trixie had long since gone to sleep on the hammock Tom kept out back. But the stage was still lit up. Three acoustic guitars hung on a rack and Bea could sense what Kenny was thinking when he pointed that way.
For all their phone conversations and nights when she’d sing him to sleep, he’d only ever seen her play live that once. She agreed to one song with the condition that he’d hold off judgment on account of her slight buzz and overall tiredness. He agreed. Until she picked the first string. He tried to place the song. It was familiar, but had a new feel about it that made it hard to place. Then she sang the first lines…
There’s a shadow on the river,
Of a girl I used to know.
When the sun sets it get closer,
Then it’s gone and off she goes.
And as the night falls I get lonely,
Only bottles left to hold,
The more I drink, the more I miss her,
The more I can’t seem to let go.
Moonshine keeps me sober,
I’m drunk in love with you,
That Mississippi River,
Is carrying me through…
If a better version of his song existed, he’d never hear it. His eyes glistened in the light when she opened hers. She looked up, vulnerable in a way only someone who’s played a song for another person knows. “What’d you th-“ she started, but before she could finish the question his lips were enmeshed with hers. Kenny pulled back when she flinched, but before he knew it her hands were wrapped around his head pulling him back in. If first kisses tell you everything you need to know about a relationship, they both knew they were in love.
And always would be.