OUR FIRST NIGHT IN NASHVILLE, a man died right in front of us on Broadway. My father was at the wheel, my brother was in the seat beside him, and I was in back with the window rolled down, taking in the musty, fertile smell of the South. We’d just pulled a U-Haul full of my brother’s ragged belongings eleven hundred miles from Colorado and had raised a beer or two in celebration of our arrival. Now we were headed for the honky-tonks, where we planned to listen to a few country covers, eat fried pickles, and watch cowboys strut around in boots that had never touched anything but concrete.
It was 10:30 on a Wednesday night, and we were tired but happy. Uncommonly so. It had been a long time since the three of us had been together, and our individual lives were looking up: I’d just finished my first year in graduate school; my father had remarried after thirteen years as a bachelor; and my brother had decided to leave the college town where he’d been veering toward alcoholism and relocate to Nashville, where, at the end of three days, my father and I would leave him to execute a vague plan of breaking into the music business. He hoped to find work at one of the publishing companies on Music Row in any capacity — as an intern or even a janitor — and work his way up to production or artist management. Once established, he intended to help our father realize a lifelong dream.
My father is a singer-songwriter. At fifty-four he was sharpening his stage presence, his guitar work, and his vocal range. He was teaching himself complicated chord progressions and thickening the calluses on his fingertips, working to finish his first studio album. He had always been a musician, but he had always been something else, too: a cattleman, a ditch digger, a pool player, a construction worker. Though his musical talent had emerged at a young age, his parents had not encouraged it. They were practical, hardworking ranchers, and they listened to his songs with an indifference that bordered on rebuke. My father grew up and established a ranch of his own, and when that venture failed, he built custom log homes for the wealthy. Every day for thirty years he laced up his work boots before dawn and came home after dusk, covered in mud or sawdust. He married my mother, divorced her, raised my brother and me, and ushered his parents through the ends of their lives, and all the while he wrote songs, scribbling lyrics down on whatever was handy, be it a yellow legal pad or a two-by-four.
When my brother and I were children, we learned to sleep through our father’s jam sessions, regardless of how long they lasted or how loudly the music resounded through the trailer’s walls. His songs, however sad or irreverent, became our lullabies. His friends, most of whom would die of drug overdoses, became like uncles to us. They ruffled our hair and laughed at our jokes: thin and bespectacled Guy, who cranked away on his harmonica; ponytailed, half-Navajo J.R., who closed his eyes when he sang harmony and tapped his cowboy boots on the orange carpet. They played while my father sang of women haunted by the men who had abused them as children, of old men trapped in bodies that would not die, of convicts ambling down from Greyhound buses to stare at a world they scarcely knew. His voice sounded a little bit like Leonard Cohen’s, with a Dylanesque nasal edge, the latter owing to his many broken noses — first in car accidents and fistfights, then from the unexpected swing of a cow’s head, and finally in an innocent wrestling match with my brother, whose hands shook for two days after he heard the snap of my father’s cartilage against the wooden arm of the couch.
Our father’s songs matched the roughness of his voice. Many had an apocalyptic quality, an end-of-civilization darkness, a defiance of authority, religion, and law. They were not ideal for dancing. Nor did they seem to entertain the elderly, sunburned tourists who sat slumped in the local bars. But sometimes — and my body sagged with relief when it happened — a crowd would go silent and listen, and then rise to their feet in whistling ovation. Once, I saw a woman wiping away tears. I saw men line up to shake my father’s hand. I loved his songs and knew every word of them, even the ones he forgot. I loved the good nights, when strangers heard his lyrics and understood, and I dreaded the crowds of drunks who wouldn’t listen, the smug producers who told my father that his songs weren’t sentimental enough for housewives; who said, “We might have signed you twenty-five years ago, but now you’re too late.”
That success eluded our father only reinforced a resentment my brother and I had been cultivating for years, a chip on our shoulders that had grown every time a kid on our school bus referred to “that junky old trailer where nobody lives.” Once, when a man introduced himself to my brother by saying, “Hi, I’m Rich,” my brother said, “Yeah? Well, I’m poor. What’s it to ya?” Poverty, we believed, was not our natural state. Our ascension was imminent. One day somebody with taste and influence would hear one of Dad’s songs, and, by some mysterious process, we’d have a regular house: a house with heat that came from heating vents and not a secondhand wood stove; a house where the water in the toilet didn’t freeze at night; a house where, when you took a crap in the bathroom, you couldn’t then run to the living-room window and watch it shoot from the broken sewage pipe in the backyard. I sketched floor plans. I lost myself in Better Homes and Gardens. When we drove into town, I pressed my forehead against the passenger window of my father’s old truck, staring with envy at the homes we passed, some of which were merely double-wides or rattletrap farmhouses. Though we’d never set foot in a church, I’d put my hands together, look vaguely upward, and think, Please help Dad get to Nashville.
And now we were finally here, in the city we’d invoked a thousand times. The night air felt heavy and warm as we passed through the suburbs toward the downtown skyline. Alongside the highway stood austere white churches, drive-through barbecue joints, billboards touting home-style biscuits, and a roadside undergrowth so impossibly thick I couldn’t imagine anyone hacking through it. Everywhere was a low whir of insects and a damp, earthy smell that reminded me of my grandmother’s basement.
At the intersection of Third Avenue and Broadway, we stopped at a red light. We were in the left-turn lane, a cream-colored Cadillac in front of us, its turn signal flashing.
“Brand-new,” my father said, nodding at the Cadillac. Its plates were temporary tags issued that day.
When the light turned green, the Cadillac didn’t move. My father let the truck roll forward slightly and honked. It was a polite honk, as honks go, meant only to get the driver’s attention. Still the car didn’t move.
The light turned red again. Though the Cadillac’s windows were darkly tinted, we could see the outline of the driver’s head, which moved slightly, as though he’d straightened himself in the seat. Then he was still.
The light turned green. Again the Cadillac didn’t go. Its turn signal continued to flash. Horns sounded behind us. My father took a deep breath and kicked down the emergency brake. “I think the son of a bitch is dead.”
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right.
Still, when Dad got out of the truck, I feared that the man inside the Cadillac was not dead but deranged, that he might gun my father down or leap from the car and butcher him with a knife. I wanted to call my father back, tell him to pull around the Cadillac, as more-sensible drivers had done. Getting involved seemed like something a rural person would do, and I’d spent much of my life trying not to behave like one.
But my father was not afraid of much. He’d grown up on a cattle ranch, seen death and administered it to livestock. He’d inhabited redneck bars and pool halls, spent nights under bridges when he couldn’t afford a motel. He’d been struck by a rattlesnake and by lightning. He approached the Cadillac matter-of-factly. I held my breath as he leaned to look in the driver’s-side window. He was still for a moment. Then he turned and gave us a grim nod.
My brother put on our hazard lights, and we got out of the truck. Other drivers honked at us, gawked, then swerved away in frustration. As a bus tried to pull around, my father jogged to the bus driver’s window.
“Can you radio for an ambulance? This man up here is dead.”
“If he’s dead,” the driver drawled, “then he don’t need no ambulance.” He wedged the nose of the bus into traffic and went on.
Remembering I had my cellphone, I pulled it out and dialed 911. I turned in a circle, looking for street signs, anything I could use to describe the intersection. The store windows were packed with cowboy hats and feather boas and towers of shiny postcards. While the phone rang, my brother slowly approached the Cadillac to look inside. He stood there for a moment, then put his hands in his pockets and moved away.
Then a police officer came rumbling around the corner on a motorcycle. Thinking he’d come to help us, I ended my call. But the officer did not seem to notice the traffic snarl or see my brother’s waving arms. He’d have gone right past had my father not stepped into the street, where he could not be missed, and called, “Hey, we need some help here!”
The officer hit his siren, releasing a long wail. He maneuvered the motorcycle around and came to an abrupt stop in front of us. He was a short man with a round face and bulging, watery eyes, helmet sitting atop his head like half an eggshell. With a great show of irritation, he clambered off the motorcycle and stomped toward my father with his hand on his baton.
“Is there a problem here?” he asked.
“I believe this man up here is dead.”
The officer looked around my father at the Cadillac, then at our truck parked behind it. He squinted at our out-of-state plates and pulled a notepad from his shirt pocket.
“Where are you-all from?” he asked.
We told him.
“And what brings you to downtown Nashville?”
“It’s not us,” my brother said, pointing. “This guy has something wrong with him.”
The policeman wrote down our license number. “Have you-all been drinking tonight?”
My heart began to race. We’d had a couple of beers to christen my brother’s new apartment, and my father had three prior DUIs. He’d paid the fines, taken the classes, spent the time in jail, but another arrest could have sent him away for years. I’d had only one beer, so when the officer asked who’d been driving, I said I had. He looked me over, eyebrows raised.
“Listen, God damn it,” my father said. “The man in that car needs medical attention.”
I reached for my cellphone and hit redial, cursing myself for having hung up in the first place. It still seemed to me that the man’s death could be reversed, that his brain or heart might be restarted somehow, if only someone could help him. The motorcycle’s red lights flashed across the pavement as the officer pulled up against our bumper, running our plates, glaring at my father. It was clear to me that the officer intended to arrest him, if not all of us.
That’s when the dead man’s car took off.
Perhaps rigor mortis had set in, causing his foot to stiffen and slip from the brake. Whatever the cause, the Cadillac began to roll forward down the hill, heading for two busy intersections and then the Cumberland River.
“Well,” the officer said, “it looks like he’s moving now.”
“He’s not moving!” I shouted. “He’s fucking rolling!”
The officer whirled on me, eyes bulging. I froze. I have always refused to show respect to police officers, substitute teachers, and anyone else who demands my respect before earning it. For a grim moment I thought my reckoning had finally come. The officer stepped up to me, scowling, his chest inches from mine. But even as he tried to intimidate me, he cast fearful glances over my shoulder at the street. Perhaps he’d refused to approach the Cadillac not because he didn’t understand that there was a dead man inside, but because he did. He’d shied from it like a horse from the scent of another horse’s blood, hoping that someone else would intervene, someone who knew what to do, someone with initiative. He’d performed his duties the way I’d played high-school soccer — running in the same direction as everyone else but hanging back, keeping a teammate between me and the ball.
Soon the commotion behind me was too much to ignore, and the officer turned his attention to the street. The dead man’s Cadillac had crossed Third Avenue and was sailing through two red lights. Cars honked and swerved. Men on the sidewalk pulled their wives and girlfriends to safety. Others dropped their bags and flattened themselves against buildings. The Cadillac rolled on, a silent white ship. It must have been going twenty miles an hour when it reached the end of the street, jumped the curb, and slammed into a thick oak overlooking the dark stripe of the river. There was the whoosh of exploding air bags, and the doors of the Cadillac flew open. The oak’s branches swayed. The street was quiet for a moment. Then smoke began to roil from beneath the crumpled hood, and two men burst from the doors of Big River Brewery and ran to the dead man’s aid.
The officer stood there, mouth open. Then he pointed at each of us in turn.
“Nobody moves! You hear me?”
He ran to his motorcycle and, for an uncomfortable moment, struggled to heave his leg over the seat. His siren wailed importantly as he sped away.
The keys were already coming toward me in the air when I turned to ask my father for them. I caught them and drove us through the wet nighttime streets. It had begun to drizzle, a soft, warm rain, unlike the pelting cold of a Colorado storm. We drove straight back to my brother’s new, paint-smelling apartment, saying little.
FOR THE NEXT TWO DAYS we stayed in. We played poker, made a pot of green chili, watched an old movie we’d already seen. My brother arranged his furniture and unpacked boxes, and the three of us resumed a quiet rhythm of cohabitation, living as we had before college had separated us, before my father had remarried and moved out of our trailer and into a respectable house in town. We reminisced about the trailer, about how tall the weeds had grown in the well-fertilized backyard, about the forgotten jug of apple cider that had exploded one night as we’d watched TV, splattering us in fermented juice and shards of glass. We remembered the pile of old Christmas trees that had accumulated in the driveway — the way the tinsel had clung to their branches long after the needles had browned and fallen away — and how one winter we’d had to burn them for firewood: first the old Christmas trees, then the doghouse, then the front steps. We laughed at the unlikelihood of our having been so happy. Even now I wake after a good night’s sleep believing I’m in that trailer, warm beneath a smoke-smelling sleeping bag, with my father and brother just down the hall, all of us so close we can hear each other breathing.
But even as we reminisced, we thought of the dead man. We combed the Nashville newspapers but never found any mention of the runaway Cadillac, or its deceased driver. I realized that I’d never completed my second call to 911, though I couldn’t remember hanging up.
We talked about what we might have done differently. We might have tried to get the car’s door open. We might have attempted resuscitation (though, honestly, none of us knew how to perform it). We might have had the presence of mind to turn the Cadillac’s engine off and pull the emergency brake.
I regretted that I’d never looked inside the Cadillac at the dead man’s face. Even my brother, who is too squeamish to bait a fishhook, had looked. He described the driver as a broad-shouldered man, whose bald head gleamed in the light from the street and whose face was etched diagonally from ear to chin with a deep, jagged scar. He wore an expensive-looking white suit and sunglasses, though the sun had long since gone down. His ring-bedecked hands had slipped from the wheel into his lap.
Maybe he was a mobster, my brother said. Maybe he’d died of an aneurysm. Too much cocaine, my father said, and his heart had just stopped. The scar? A knife fight. A fall from a tire swing when he was four.
“He wasn’t much to look at,” my father told me. “And you’ll have plenty of chances to look at dead people.”
He was right, of course. I’d already seen dead loved ones, grandparents laid out in rosy makeup, casket lids open, hands carefully arranged. And on a dark street in Los Angeles I’d seen a wrecked motorcycle, its tires slowly spinning, and just beyond the reach of the streetlight a man so twisted he could not have been alive. The police were there, standing behind their squad car, arms crossed. I suppose it isn’t unusual. There are people dying everywhere, of diseases and violence and age, lives blinking out all around us like house lights at night. We are dying as we sit here. Perhaps what is more surprising than seeing a dead stranger is how few of them we see.
LATE THAT FIRST NIGHT, after our encounter with the dead man, the rain began to fall in gray sheets. I couldn’t see how we were going to leave my little brother there, in a town where people died at traffic lights, where cops made emergencies worse, where hunched figures dragged battered guitar cases down the streets. I could tell that my father was apprehensive too. He gave no more pep talks to my brother about how they’d revolutionize the Nashville sound. There was no more talk about how my brother’s gregariousness could get him in any door. We knew he’d have to get a job in the next few days, something temporary to pay the bills until he got a foothold in the industry, but we did not know then how long these jobs would mire him: first selling used furniture, then selling high heels to Southern belles, then killing rats and spiders, then serving lunches at a chain restaurant, then cleaning the slave quarters on an old plantation, after which he’d start his own business and go broke. We could not foresee how he would work and try and go hungry, or how some nights he’d get drunk and cry from loneliness, which would last not months but years. But we’d begun to sense this disappointment, as if the dead man’s appearance in our path had been an omen.
“Play us some of your old songs,” my brother asked our father, and he did — one about a gambler, one about lost love, and one that we knew was about our mother, whom he’d loved deeply for many years before their bitter divorce. As he sang, his voice softened, and he got a faraway look that had scared me as a child. He’d always explained that he was only concentrating, but his eyes could go so cold and dead that his soul seemed gone from his body, and, unable to look at them, I’d focus on his fingers moving up and down the neck of the guitar. But I was older now, and I looked at him while I listened, following the lyrics down well-worn paths. I looked at the creases around his eyes and at his hair, which in recent years had turned entirely silver. I felt grief welling up in me, though I didn’t know what for. I tried to distract myself by thinking of the next couple of days: We’d take a trip to the Grand Ole Opry, maybe, or try some Southern barbecue, just as soon as the rain let up. Perhaps my father and I could stay an extra day or two — there wasn’t any reason to leave so soon. But there was no stopping it. I felt my face heating up, my throat constricting. I have always cried at the least provocation.
“Oh, no,” my brother said and chuckled, scooting closer to put an arm around me.
My father smiled and shook his head. He moved quickly into a mock love song called “Old What’s-Her-Face” that he always reserves for crowds who are losing heart.