Lend Me a Hand, Johnny Cash
by Paul A. Toth
Levi Wilson stomped his foot on the cabin floor and said, "Give me one thing strong and true or I'll aim my gun at the left eye of God." "Eye of Satan," his son Joe corrected. Levi sat on the floor and removed his right shoe. "Screwy goddamn feet," he said, the eyes of his little head moving in two directions, lids drooping. "Now calm down," Joe said. "This Teller thing, it's not altogether serious. Some of them -- some of them are joking." "I'm the wrong one for the job, it seems." "Like grandpa used to say, between the seeming and the dreaming..." Joe took a guitar from behind a chair, sat down and sang:
Beneath the stars and planets beaming,
And all the teeming teams a-teaming,
Between the seeming and the dreaming,
Lies the unclaimed treasure gleaming.
"Oh," Levi said, "my dad could sing when he was drunk. But what kind of Teller fails his religion, his family, his town? The Teller went wrong. He named me Leviathan, for God's sake. The mythic whale, the enemy of light! What kind of father names his son that? His last words to me were, 'Make this the driest county north of the Mason-Dixon Line.' But don't we need a dusk breather from our troubles, a moment's peace hemmed between stitches of misery, to forget our fathers' failures, if nothing else?" Joe changed tunes:
I fell down on my knees,
confessed to the village priest.
I begged for my freedom
from the chief of the secret police.
I pledged my lifelong love
to a girl named Della Reese.
Yet none of these things
brought me peace
like a flock
of silent sailing geese.
He set the guitar down and said, "Let's go." "You're a good son," Levi said, and started sobbing. "Go ahead," Joe said, "if it makes you feel better." "Some men never know the slightest thing. Nothing is solid to us. I wish I were Johnny Cash, strong and true. How on earth can I be Teller? I'm not ready for the role." They started across the road, a snaking hole through green, a tunnel of leaves, shrub, foliage, dividing the light into weird variations, as if the tops of trees formed a ceiling of stained glass. "I'm not all talk," Levi said. "Goddamn it, I'm not all talk." When they approached the tavern, an automatic light activated. Joe looked at Levi and saw the raccoon wrinkles and what his father called the marks of old King Pock. It was true: In the last year his father had crossed the hair-wide line dividing the young version of his face from the one that would appear in an obituary. The face that's stretched down and out, blubberized or pulled thin as taffy, mocking youth, insisting this is the real face, not that previous mask. Joe understood what confused his father, the desire to know what separated enlightenment from whimsy, wisdom from exhaustion. In his wild days there must have been something more alive and real than this rocking chair self, and if one self balked at scolding and the other scolded, which had it right? The door opened and a woman with wide blue eyes looked out at the two men. "Well," she said. "You're here. Welcome, Teller," she said, and she embraced and patted him on the back, her shoulders jiggling. "Can I get you a beer, hon'?" "I better stay dry, Sunny," he said. "We might all have to learn how to walk without the crutch." "Aw, Jeez, Levi, you wouldn't do that even if you could, would ya?" She took their coats and they followed her into the main room of the tavern. Fifty men and women and children filled the place, some sitting on the edges of the two pool tables, others watching TV from barstools, still others leaning against the walls. A few tipped their hats, one or two smiled at Joe in an apologetic way, and the rest looked away, at their watches or the floor. At the rear of the room was a small stage, brightly lit. A man approached the microphone and the screech that accompanied his,"Testing, testing, testing," brought the crowd noise down. "Evening. We like our stories here. History's important to us, important enough to bring us all out to welcome the new Teller, not to mention the three-for-one special on Miller Draft. As tradition has it, I'll read a brief history of our Snowy Abyss, introduce the new Teller, and then you can get back to drinking. "As you know, the town was born right along with the Downey Federal Penitentiary in 1972, when old Tom Wilson decided every prison needs a nearby way station." "I'll be back in a second," Levi said to Joe. He hurried to the bathroom in back, closed and locked the door. From his pocket he removed the pamphlet Dr. Sims had given years before, which he still carried due to a compulsive urge to check and recheck the condition he feared. As he read, his mind accentuated his own symptoms: "SMALL BODY SIZE AND WEIGHT, SLOWER THAN NORMAL DEVELOPMENT AND FAILURE TO CATCH UP. Skeletal deformities: deformed ribs and sternum; curved spine; hip dislocations; BENT, FUSED, WEBBED, OR MISSING fingers or TOES; limited movement of joints; SMALL HEAD. Facial abnormalities: small eye openings; skin webbing between eyes and base of nose; DROOPING EYELIDS; nearsightedness; FAILURE OF EYES TO MOVE IN SAME DIRECTION; short upturned nose; sunken nasal bridge; flat or absent groove between nose and upper lip; THIN UPPER LIP; opening in roof of mouth; small jaw; low-set or poorly formed ears. Organ deformities: heart defects; heart murmurs; genital malformations; kidney and urinary defects. Central nervous system handicaps: small brain; faulty arrangement of brain cells and connective tissue; mental retardation -- usually mild to moderate but occasionally severe; LEARNING DISABILITIES; SHORT ATTENTION SPAN; IRRITABILITY IN INFANCY; HYPERACTIVITY IN CHILDHOOD; poor body, hand, and finger coordination." That goddamn drunk doomed me good, he thought, and it was all his fault she kept on drinking through the pregnancy. He took a half pint of bourbon from his jacket, unscrewed the lid and drank half before almost choking. He took a breather and drank another quarter, sucked for air and drank the rest. He stood and felt the blood rush through his body. He turned on the faucet and bent towards the sink. The water seemed to come in slow motion waves of coolness, each drop a second of time he knew he could snatch from the air if he liked. Then everything clarified, his sense of the situation and his point of view coming into focus. For just a moment, he considered the artificiality of his strength, its tenuous and unreliable source. Still, it was the only source of strength he had and he would mine it until he no longer needed strength. Finally his body accepted all the liquor and he emerged from the bathroom with the feeling that he wore a golden crown. "And so," Jerry was saying, "Tom Wilson kept the town on the straight and narrow, or tried anyway, before leaving behind his only son Levi, who tonight assumes the post of Teller. A round of applause, then, for the Second Teller, Levi Wilson." There was laughter and applause and laughter. Passing the table of Sally Dougherty, Levi heard her say to her husband Bill, "I can't stand it, these idiotic fake holidays and everything about this place." "But it's a boring place," Bill said. "What else is there but make believe?" Levi took the microphone from Jerry, who patted his back and held out his hands in applause. Meanwhile, Sunny brought Levi a beer and set it in his free hand. Words buzzed through Levi's brain like one-winged bees, bouncing off the walls, into neurons, sticking in the fissures, spiralling through the space, looping and rolling through streaks of electric charges shot astray. A few thoughts landed on Johnny Cash, who stood strong and true with guitar in hand. Levi squinted and brought his two almost imperceptibly different images of the world together, lining his eyes like rifle sights. The audience fuzzed, sharpened, blurred. He saw the motioning gestures as alterations of the tavern's substance, the whispering and muttering as disturbances of an underlying peaceful hymn. He straightened his crown and spoke. "Big joke. Some treasure, Joe." The microphone squawked. "So 'I Survived the Abyss,''' he said, quoting the T-shirt that was sold to ex-cons and wayward travellers. "Snowy Abyss. Remember the geese." Sunny, who had remained by the stage, said, "Levi, it's all right. Come down if you want." He brushed her words away. "My father died clutching an armchair. It was quite a sight, God ripping man from a Lazyboy. 'Crushed by the divine power, and cast on the shores of the Red Sea.' That's some God. But who am I, a crooked serpent?" Joe approached the stage. "Come on down, Dad. That's enough." "I named you Joe. Now, that's a name. Leviathan is an accusation, not a name. Twisted, coiled. Like this town. This town is a joke. This town is a novelty song, a T-shirt our main business, besides the import and sale of alcoholic beverage." "You're the main consumer," Sally Dougherty yelled. "You shut up," Sunny said. "It's all right, let her speak," Levi said. "That family of yours is crazy. How come all the women die young, huh? How come no mothers?" "They both died in the burden." "More like the bourbon." "Come on down, Dad. You've done your work." Someone said, "How about a song, Joe?" "Not tonight," Joe answered, lifting his father off the stage. Sunny marched to the Dougherty's table. "He's a good man and whatever we can do to prop his dreams with sticks and crutches, we'll do. That means the whole town, you included. This town was born on a crazy dream and if you wanna stay in it, you better do your part." Then she said to everyone, "Somebody put on Johnny Cash." "What's with Johnny Cash," someone whispered, and someone else replied, "His dad hated Johnny Cash, all the things he never was."
Late that night Levi half awoke in a fever dream, body and brain struggling against memory and realization, reaching for a crown and finding thinning hair. Levi heard himself snoring and continued dreaming anyway as Johnny Cash sat at the foot of the bed and sang.
His father died a crazy dream,
every dusk breather
a dreaming prison.
Hon', get my gun,
for sticks and crutches,
sticks and crutches,
sticks and crutches
will break your bones.
Levi awoke but not quite all the way, dressing with a rumbling deep in his sinuses, while all about him fell snatches of songs and phrases, pronouncements and sermons. "Snap those sticks and crutches," he shouted. "Dad?" "Go back to sleep, son. I'm thinking, that's all."
He opened the door and walked outside. The night was still and quiet but filled with all that his mind emptied into it.
"I wear no crown," he said, heading towards the tavern.
He approached the building, reaching for a match he did not have. Then he circled the tavern, thinking there must be a can of gas, a torch, a spark, two sticks.
Two sticks. He squatted and began rubbing sticks together, one after the next, but they snapped or shredded or crumbled.
He could push the building down. It would take a while.
"Lend me a hand?" he asked his friend.
"Sure," Johnny said, removing his jacket and hanging it on a tree. "We'll get it down."
But as he kicked and pushed at the building with a rumbling deep in his sinuses, the door opened and Sunny came out. "Levi? I thought I heard --" "It's just me and Johnny," Levi said. "But Levi, I'm your friend." "You're a good friend," Levi said, and started sobbing. "Come," she said, and pulled him to her chest. She bent towards the ground, holding him against her. "I like Johnny Cash, too," she said, stroking his hair. "I know what he means to you: Something strong and true." "True?" "Truer than true, Levi," she said, and when she pronounced his name it sounded deep and rumbling, an undercurrent that ran through the town and all the world, a name to cherish, the name of an unconquerable