It all started with a misplaced minor chord, one which rattled through the pews of Steeple Auditorium, deep in the south and deeper in the night, rippling through body sweat and overpriced mixers. Another chord followed and failed shortly after — slow and low, but loud enough for the fans and the band to toss a glance to Sharp Bend McCafferty and his seemingly aimless autoharp. Wherever he was going, he was going fast.
He was not going alone. Planted in the front row with a licorice whip, Velveteen Vanderwelt tied loops without looking, her eyes trained on Bend who trained his in return. It was a masterclass in contagious restraint until Old Bones caught their chemistry in a 40 x 40 projection shot. The fans and the band and the heat knew what to call it from that point on: it was true love in the temple of Bluegrass, terrible, tortured and right.
Bend was never really fixing for a wife, which was of no bother to Velveteen. She vowed to never wear white again after her childhood husband, Lightning Strike Vanderwelt, died by the sting of a golden-tailed scorpion. Some said he did it himself, riled the critter up just to see how much damage could be done in a moment of sadness.
The scorpion survived and had little to say on the matter.
All of Bluegrass rallied ‘round Velveteen, a teenage widow, and wanted whatever was best for someone so beautiful, even if it was Bend, who happened to be twice her age. And married.
Tendril Townes-Mccaferty should’ve seen it coming like pigeons on a trail of popcorn. Ten and Bend took Velveteen in when the scorpion got the best of Strike. She made a living out of watching the McCafferty’s television, twirling her licorice from sunrise to sundown, scribbling riffs with Bend between segments. Velveteen dedicated her first show back to Bend in a tearful mid-set monologue. Ten received a special thanks in the program, next to an ad for discount ham.
Bend started up his old weekly residency after that with the boys from the band and a long list of brand new ballads: Familiar Stranger, Wrong But Right, Forty and Afraid, May He Rest In Peace, May You Rest With Me. Bend told Ten she didn’t have to come to the shows if she didn’t want to.
“S’all overpriced mixers,” he said, lining the brim of his hat with cologne.
Ten took his word. Velveteen took her seat, as a close friend ought to. Bend took a detour on the autoharp. Two weeks later, the paper announced that Velveteen and Bend were engaged without the intent to marry.
True love, terrible, tortured and right.
Ten suffered until spite took hold. She didn’t want to kill Bend but someone had to do it. It was what was right in the name of Bluegrass. She combed through their drawer of kitchen pistols but couldn’t find the right fit. She tossed a batch of homemade honey butter biscuits in a shallow bowl of rat poison but something in the dusting left more to be desired. Whatever it was, she didn’t have it or have it in her. To kill and be killed were two different things. The whole affair called for someone reckless by trade. Ten took to the road after nightfall and started searching upon recommendation.
A harvest moon followed up above like friends of pigeons on a trail of popcorn as Ten pulled off the road and climbed her way through a field on the edge of town. She shuffled her feet and sang little spills of songs she’d written with Bend not so long ago: Kissing & Missing, My One and Other, ‘Til Something Better Comes A-Knockin’. Grass gave in, grass grew higher. She continued on for a half mile or so until she reached an unexpected clearing she’d heard might be waiting. There, she made eyes with another set of eyes, slow and lower than low. Wherever she was going, she was no longer going alone.
Across town, Bend and Velve debuted their new duo act at the Steeple, backed by fans and the band alike. They held hands and remarked on the front row seat that brought them both back to what was terrible and true. Their friends joined in: Snifflin’ Ray Cobblebone, Juke Box Jimmy Knobs, Shinola Swellheart, Gaut and the Gamblers. White balloons drifted down from the ceiling as the girls in gingham wheeled a buttercream cake onstage, SWEETHEARTS in black sugar frosting on top, bleeding with spectacular beauty.
Bend made a joke about passing plates ‘round the whole auditorium. Fans and the band laughed as a side door swung open, a drunk hush hush bouncing off the walls. Heads turned from pew to pew before panic played a solo. There, in the shadows stood Ten. In her hand, an active stinger, coated in gold.
“Evenin’, y’all,” Ten said.
“Evenin’,” the fans and band mumbled out of duty. Velve and Bend joined in, too, before Ten continued on.
“Y’all done did me wrong, don’t ya think? Y’all picked my heart apart like pigeons on peanuts.”
“Popcorn,” Old Bones whispered from a mountain of AV equipment.
“Regardlessness,” Ten said, “y’all know what happens to a traitor in the temple of Bluegrass.”
The fans and the band wallowed in shame, shaking their heads in soft agreement. It was true; they did know what ought to happen. Centuries of songs didn’t lie. For matters of the heart, someone had to die.
Bend did the honorable thing and removed his hat. He took one last detour with his autoharp in hand and circled the stage for a final look. The wobbly barn backdrop. The neon stage right exit. The creaky spot. Bend circled back and placed his hat at center stage, a piece for the people to remember him by. Velveteen yelped at the end of the ritual.
“Ten,” she said, “it don’t have to be like this. My heart only beats for one and one only,” she whimpered. “My heart only beats for Julian.”
A strange anti-sound took hold of the Steeple. Ice shifted. Pews creaked. The scorpion let out an anxious hiss. Cake melted. Confusion mounted.
“Who?” Ten finally managed.
“Yeah, who?” Bend added.
“Julian,” Velveteen announced. “Julian is the one I love.” Velveteen’s eyes turned to tears as she raised her hand, reaching out and pointing across the floor. On the other end of her desperate finger was Julian, golden tail and all.
The fans and the band gasped. Bend and Ten, too. Julian wriggled his way out of mid-air suspension and zig-zagged his claws across the floor. He angled his way towards a bizarre embrace with Velveteen, inciting a panic in the pews. Fans made a dash and gathered ‘round the Steeple’s perimeter, tipping a bar cart in the middle of the chaos. Nearly $60,000 of mixers spilled their way down the aisle carpet, trailing towards the stage and the newest spotlight love affair.
“I love you, Julian,” Velveteen whined in broken gasps. She held him up to her lips and went in for a victory kiss. The fans and band did what they did best. A noisy cheer. A battle cry. The energy lit Velveteen up like a family evergreen.
She died shortly after, like a girl on poison ought to.
A half-moon made shadows on the night of Velveteen’s funeral. All of Bluegrass attended the service out back in the Steeple plot, sharing soft prayers for the other legends who died in the name of love: Scrapple Molasses, Hootin’ Hal Richmond, Bail Bond Billy Bland. Julian attended the service. He seemed to share his sadness with the comforts of a tumbleweed. She was all body. The disrespect, son of a bitch. Bend and Ten agreed to sing a song as they lowered Velveteen’s body down beside Lightning Strike. Bend tuned up his harp as Ten cleared her throat. They brushed shoulders in a shared state of somber, a half-glance catching a half-glance. A look away. A soft glance back.
“This one is called What’s Forever Anyway?” Ten said.