BRAND NEW DANCE
By Kathryn M. Barber
In high school, Miller lived right across the street from the Carter Fold. Next to the barn that belonged to Miller’s daddy sat an even bigger barn, one that housed benches instead of hay, instruments in place of working tools. You could hardly pass by without noticing the barn for the record that displayed the words The Carter Family Fold: Honoring AP, Sara, and Maybelle stood large and tall over the highway. Adjacent to the barn music house was the old AP Carter Grocery House, now converted into a museum that marked musical legends passed through right here, Hiltons, Virginia. Her birthplace was the birthplace of country music. The mountains rolled like the notes that came from that barn on Saturday nights, and the grasses swayed with the banjos as they lingered in night time air.
This is what Hiltons, Virginia is like: you don’t have sex before you’re married, and if you do, you lie about it. Everybody goes to church somewhere, whether or not you believe in God. You pray every morning in the gym before classes start, and you skip over the chapter about evolution in the science books. If your car’s broke, you drive your daddy’s tractor to school, and if you wear a dress to a Friday night football game, you look like an idiot. Plus, you’ll freeze to death. Lots of folks drink, but you don’t talk about it much, and if you see someone who goes to the same church as you at the liquor store over by the high school, you don’t make eye contact.
Miller and Maggie had been best friends since a youth group trip to North Carolina back in the seventh grade, and sometimes on Saturday nights, they would sit on the porch swing of Miller’s house, Mountain Dew in wine glasses held between the correct fingers, and they would sip them and pretend they knew the ladies dragging their dresses and boots across the gravel roads, scurrying to arrive before the first note was played:
“Her husband is cheating on her, but she just can’t see it, because she’s having so much fun,” Maggie said, her voice laced with a false New England accent.
“And her,” Miller joined, mimicking the accent, “she over there, she’s got her cowfee and she left her dowgh at home, and she’s just here to have fun, just a fun weekend away with the girls. She don’t care what her husband’s doing back in New Jwsey, because she’s having too much fun.”
“That’s fine, baby, you do whatever you want, just as long as you have fun,” Maggie replied.
Miller swirled her pretend wine around in her glass, made it tunnel like the tornado that picked Dorothy Gale up out of a sepia-colored existence, dropped her on a yellow brick road in red shoes.
She wondered sometimes if Hiltons, Virginia would be so easy to escape—if one day, some storm might just swoop her up, carry her off out of these dark mountains, out of the maze of gravel roads that wove and clung to the river snaking through the trees and dirt.
“Where do you want to go? After college, I mean? Miller asked. They’d been trying not to talk about it, but now, Miller couldn’t help it anymore.
Maggie shrugged. “That’s a long way off, Miller.” She traced the outline of her wine glass with her fingertips, swished a gnat onto the inside rim, then flicked it out.
“You leave for college in a month.”
“Carson-Newman is less than an hour from here,” Maggie reminded her. “I’ll be home on weekends. And before you know it, I’ll be home in a year for your graduation.”
Something crashed from inside the house, and Miller shut her eyes. Her father was screaming at her mother again, this time about the Supreme Court and whom which candidate would appoint, how we had to keep John F. Kerry out of the White House next year, or he would ruin everything America was built on:
American needs George W, we’re all going to hell if he doesn’t win. We need a godly man, someone who’s going to show our children what Jesus means.
Why does every President have to believe exactly the same things about God as you?
You’re a godless woman, Lydia.
Godless? You think I’m godless? Why, because I don’t believe the Bible is infallible? Because I don’t believe Jesus hovered down from heaven and breathed every verse of scripture into the heart of whatever scribe was holding a writing instrument? Because I haul your children to church four times a week while you sit here at home with your television and your case of beer?
Every word in that Bible was written by the Lord God himself, and if you don’t believe that, I think you ought to reconsider your salvation. You are godless.
Maggie stopped moving the porch swing, laid her hand on Miller’s. Both were quiet, wanting neither to break the silence with their own words, nor to continue to be privy to Miller’s parents’ argument. They’d listened to the same arguments over and over. Church. Politics. Her dad’s drinking. Her mother’s temper. For five years, they’d listened to their arguments travel through walls and around corners. Miller’d learned about her mother’s miscarriage this way, her dad’s whores, and that her uncle had raped her mother twenty years ago. This is why Miller loved Maggie most: because Maggie didn’t comment, ask how she was, or how she felt. She was just there.
“It’s just an hour away,” Miller repeated in a whisper.
“New York,” Maggie said. She turned to face Miller in the swing, touched her hands to Miller’s cheeks. Miller’s stick-straight dirty blonde hair fell into her face, and Maggie tucked it behind thrice pierced ears. “That’s where we’ll go after college. Both of us. We’ll live in a crappy apartment in the middle of Manhattan that we can’t afford, one with rats, and beds that fold out of the walls, and it’ll be so loud, we’ll have to yell across the living room at each other.”
“But we’ll be together,” Miller said.
Maggie nodded, black curls bouncing across a tanned face. “We’ll be together. And we won’t be here.”
The tractor driving between the Carter Fold and the porch created a medley with the singing and banjos across the street, drowning out the argument, even if just for a moment. Miller inhaled, breathed in the hay, the mud, the scent of the river mingled with horse manure, breathed in all that was Hiltons, Virginia.
After every home football game, the Christian high schoolers attended Fifth Quarter, a worship service beginning at 10pm and lasting until midnight. The sinners went to the sock hop, danced on each other like they were in a Footloose remake. Miller and Maggie’s parents didn’t allow them to go to sock hops, and anyway, Fifth Quarter had more food. Plus, they were dating boys from over in Twin Springs, almost half an hour away, and they only saw them at church events and once a weekend. Steven and John Thomas skipped their own high school’s football games to watch Gate City’s, and while dancing in the school gym wasn’t a proper excuse in any of their parents’ eyes to stay out until midnight with the opposite sex, worshipping Jesus was.
It would have been a perfect foursome, seeing as Miller and Maggie were best friends and their boyfriends were best friends, except for one thing: Miller didn’t like Maggie’s boyfriend, Steven. But Steven was her best friend’s boyfriend, and, he was her boyfriend’s best friend, so she had to. Or, she had to pretend like she did, anyway. If you asked Miller, and no one had, Maggie was far out of his league. Steven was hard, serious, and sometimes controlling. Maggie was silly, passionate, and easy-going. When Maggie wanted to get a tattoo on her eighteenth birthday, Steven told her no girlfriend of his was going to have a tramp stamp or some skanky tattoo on her wrist or arm. Nice girls didn’t do that. His girl, definitely didn’t do that.
Miller watched Steven shovel Pizza Hut pizza in his mouth, inhale the chess bars made by Porter Hammond’s mother. As Maggie raised a third slice to her lips, Steven put his hand on her, leaned over, whispered: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Maggie?”
Porter Hammond’s bass playing was the worst thing in the world, second only to Steven. Miller tried to sing along with their youth leader, tried to dance and do the motions to “Every Move I Make.” All she could hear though, was Porter’s bass making her ears cringe, their friend Addy Jill’s perfect voice exactly on key anyway, and Steven telling Maggie she was too fat, even though Maggie weighed in around 125.
When their youth leader, Al, was done preaching about how holding hands leads to sex in the backseat of the church van; and when the two girls both named Sara(h) had finished another skit about witnessing; and when Billy had stopped pacing the isles shouting about Jesus, forgiveness, redemption, and grace, Maggie walked with Steven to her car. Miller walked John Thomas to his.
Some of the other kids from school were already lined up outside the Sno Shack sitting adjacent to the church, an establishment that had learned to stay open after every church event, no matter the time or day. Maggie’s sister, who was in Miller’s year, stood by Addy Jill’s car, comparing notes on the calculus exam they had the following Monday. As Miller leaned against John Thomas’s car, surveying her peers across the parking lot radius, John Thomas leaned into her, kissed her cheek. He backed up, looked at her in her freckled complexion, curled her fingers into his.
“I love you,” he said.
Miller held her breath, begged the constellations above of her Orion and the seven sisters to whisper words to her, to breathe an echo into a silence she felt bound to. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” John Thomas stumbled. “So, I’ll uh, I’ll see you at youth next week if your parents don’t let you go to the Passion play this weekend.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Miller said, twisting his varsity jacket around her.
“Well, and we’re on still on to go see Johnny Cash next Saturday night, right?”
“Of course,. Definitely. Jimmy Cash.”
Miller slid into Maggie’s passenger seat as John Thomas and Steven drove away, their tail lights blending in with the hill traffic sign and Pal’s blinking special sign, Big Chicken, Frenchie Fry, Peachie Tea, $6.27. “What was that?” Maggie asked.
“He said he loved me.”
“What did you say?” Maggie shifted the car into gear, her brakes squealing, rolled down the hill toward the Pizza Plus, signaled left toward the high school.
Maggie’s laugh sounded like the background noises from all the nineties sitcoms blended together and amplified over Porter’s bad bass amplifier. “You thanked him?”
“Yes,” Miller said, laughing. “What was I supposed to say?”
“I don’t know, how about, I love you back?”
When Miller was silent and Patsy Cline’s voice filled the old Buick, Maggie bit her lip, finally understood. “You don’t love him back, do you?”
The floor was just dirt. The benches looked like church pews. They raised up and up, like a theatre seat, but the back of the room was open, letting the star light shine through where the drapes and windows could have been.
“We met her once, you know,” Maggie was saying as the foursome joined the line, John Thomas fingering the stack of four tickets nervously. “A few Halloweens ago,” Maggie continued. “I mean, we didn’t know it was her at the time, but when we got back in the car, Mama said, ‘Y’all know who just answered the door and gave you that candy?’ and we said, ‘No ma’am,’ and she said, ‘That there was June Carter Cash. That woman’s a living legend. Y’all best save them pieces of candy.’”
“I wish we could’ve seen them together,” Steven sighed dramatically, fingers running through his hair as he resituated his ball cap. “Johnny and June? How could we have lived here our whole lives, and never seen them perform together?”
Miller, unphased, unevaded, and uncaring, asked: “You do realize there’s a new Marvel movie that came out tonight, right? And instead, we’re in the armpit of Virginia, listening to some hillbilly play a banjo? Seriously?”
John Thomas, Steven, and Maggie all stared at her.
“This is Johnny Cash,” Steven said.
“Well, then, I’m so sorry,” Miller said, rolling her eyes once Steven had slid his arm around Maggie and turned to face the box office. John Thomas’s eyes begged her to be nice, and she became embarrassed he could tell how much she disliked his friend.
“You literally live across the street, and you’ve seriously never been to the Carter Fold?” Steven asked her.
“You literally live next to the J&P Market, and you seriously haven’t invested in deodorant?” Miller returned. Maggie’s elbow shoved into her side as Miller shrugged and allowed Maggie to pull her across the line of the stage.
The dirt clung to Miller’s sandaled feet, and she surveyed the sea of boots in the pews around her. Instruments were strewn across the stage on stands: banjos, guitars, fiddles. She sat down between John Thomas and Maggie, Steven on the far end. While the locals and the tourists filed into the barn doors, the players took their places on the stage. Musicians trickled onto the raised platform as the audience continued to flood in from the Virginia mountains, the Scott County blanket of stars. The summer air smelled like flowers and fresh-cut grass, a stench of Miller’s daddy’s farm blending in, all floating through to their noses through the windows with the raised garage doors. As an old man tottered onto the stage with a cane and some assistance, John Thomas straightened in his pew seat, stiffened like the bulletins in the racks last Sunday. His brown curly hair, normally a mess and all over, looked like it’d been combed, and maybe even—was he wearing gel in his hair?
He looked nicer than he did most Sunday mornings at church.
“It’s him,” he whispered to Miller. He took her hand in his, squeezed it tight, bounced it on his leg as though the band could not keep time without his own rhythm.
The crowd rose to its feet across the old barn, thundered in applause like the winds had thundered through the Appalachian Mountains the night before, soaked Miller’s daddy’s cattle field.
“Hello,” the old man said into the microphone. “I’m Johnny Cash.”
“It’s Johnny Cash,” Maggie whispered in a squeal.
Everyone in Hiltons, Virginia clapped, stomped, whistled, hollered, as Johnny Cash began strumming, singing: I heard that train a-coming, it’s coming ‘round the bend. I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.
Maggie drank in his voice, the familiar sound her parents had raised her to, sung the words to herself between Steven and Miller. Miller was silent but hypnotized by the wrinkled and frail voice that came from the man dressed in black. She watched his gold wedding ring catch the light as he strummed it over his guitar strings, inhaled his words as they changed from waiting for a train to walking around sidewalks high on a Sunday morning. Beside her, John Thomas wasn’t staring at Johnny Cash; he was staring at Miller, watching her fall in love with Johnny Cash, and the idea of a movie theatre or spending the night doing anything besides listening to his old man and his guitar evaporated like the steam from her mama’s cornbread.
When he stopped playing, strung the last chord of “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Maggie looked at her best friend to see Miller’s hand on her chest, grief in her eyes. Johnny paused a moment, as though he was unsure how to proceed.
“Well, I don’t really know what to say about how I feel tonight, about being up here without her,” he said, his voice shaking along with his hands. “June and I were together forty years. And the thing that’s so severe, there’s no describing it, no way to tell exactly what the pain is. It’s… it’s the big one, the biggest. You lose your mate, the one you’ve been with all those years. It’s the big one. It hurts so bad. It really hurts. It seemed to be getting a little better, knowing I was coming to celebrate her birthday, coming to her old home place.”
Miller’s hand rested on her chest, and she could feel herself rising and falling like the notes that tumbled out of his guitar. What this love was supposed to feel like? This old man, who could barely walk across the stage he’d spent his life on, pining for, missing this woman? Missing a woman who’d not only been his partner, his mate, on the stage, but in life? Was love supposed to feel this heavy? Was love supposed to feel like Miller felt now, like she couldn’t breathe anymore, like the world should stop and fall into step with her, with Johnny, with June? Is this how John Thomas felt about her?
“We spent so much time here and had so much love for each other,” Johnny continued. “I wish I could tell you, wish I could share it with you more—how we felt about each other. I’d like to do a song that’s a tribute to June.”
He fumbled with the song sheets, shuffled to find the correct one, a man leaning over to help him. “She loved it here, she loved all you people. This is for June. I know you’re here tonight, baby.”
Miller’s breath got stuck in her throat, like the time she found her daddy’s whiskey under the kitchen sink, sipped it, choked it back up. The audience around her disappeared, and though she’d never listened to Johnny Cash, or to June Carter, she knew what June looked like. And she pictured her, standing in front of the stage, tapping her hand in time with the notes. She imagined the ghost of June Carter, watching her husband mourn her, echoes of his grief reverberated through the old barn, slipping out through the open windows like fog.
Carry me away on your snow-white wings to my immortal home. Oh, come, angel band, come and around me stand.
Maggie was in tears, holding Steven’s hand. A wave swept over the Carter Fold, handkerchiefs and face tissues creeping out of pocket books, and by the time Johnny finished the hymn, sniffles and light weeping had become the harmony.
“As June said about me, you don’t sing too good, but he is a good old boy.” Johnny smiled, shifted his sheet music again. It occurred to Miller that though he had the music stand in front of him, he wasn’t actually looking at the notes directing his fingers. He was looking at the rafters, as though June might be caught up in them, as though Heaven might have allowed her a temporary exit, if only to tell him she was still with him. What kind of man loved a woman this way? What kind of woman was capable of inheriting a man this level of pain in her absence?
I find it very easy to be true. I find myself alone when each day’s through—because you’re mine, I walk the line.
When the boys were gone and only Miller and Maggie remained, hunkered down in Miller’s bed with glow-in-the-dark stars shining above the laced canopy bed, Maggie whispered: “Are you awake?”
“No,” Miller said.
“Did you say it back to him? John Thomas?”
Miller was quiet. She didn’t have to strain her ears to listen to the argument coming from the back-living room. Maggie leaned over to Miller’s dresser, switched on the radio, turned it up so that Miller’s parents’ voices were lost in LeeAnn Rimes’s. “What do you think love’s supposed to be anyway?”
Maggie whispered, her face turned toward Miller’s, both heads on silk pillowcases. Maggie was wearing their State Championship tennis team t-shirts from last spring. Miller wondered if when Maggie left for Carson-Newman, if she would still wear those shirts, or if they’d remain at the bottom of her dresser, the blue and white replaced by navy and orange, exchanged Blue Devils for Eagles.
“I don’t know. Isn’t it supposed to be like a can’t eat, can’t sleep, reach for the stars, over the fence, World Series kind of thing?”
“Wow. You’re so philosophical tonight,” Maggie said.
“That’s from a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie.”
“Is that how you feel about Steven?” Miller asked.
Maggie hesitated, and silence hung between them in the dark like the net that hung between them through three years of tennis practices behind the elementary school. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe one day I will.”
“I think maybe it’s supposed to look like Johnny and June,” Miller whispered.
“Johnny cheated on his wife and left her for June,” Maggie said.
“I don’t care. I didn’t know it was possible to love someone that much.”
Four weeks later, Miller helped Maggie pack her life into a couple dozen boxes, pulled packing tape across all the tops and bottoms. The next morning, Maggie was leaving for Carson-Newman, a full hour away down Interstate 81. As the girls surveyed the stack of boxes, Maggie’s mother entered her bedroom.
“Magnolia,” her mother said. She never called her Maggie, only Magnolia. “It’s after midnight, honey. We have an early start tomorrow.”
Miller nodded, said goodnight to Maggie’s mama, and the two girls walked outside to the driveway, lingered above the view of where the river met the mountain. The moon was reflecting off the river water, full and round like it was the night they walked home from the Carter Fold with Johnny’s voice still in their ears.
“I wish I could go with you tomorrow, help you move in,” Miller said. She couldn’t look Maggie in the eyes, determined to say goodbye without all the tears.
“I wish you could too,” Maggie said, “but you have your last first day of high school tomorrow. Brand new year, brand new dance, right?”
“I have my first day without my best friend.”
“You have Addy Jill and the others. You’ll be fine. Senior year is the best one.” But she didn’t sound convincing; her words were shaking like Johnny’s fingers had shook running across the guitar that night back in July. “You sure you don’t want me to drive you home?” Maggie asked.
Miller shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I can walk. I need the air.”
They stood there, silent, unsure, and afraid. “I’ll miss you, Magnolia.”
“I’m going to miss you too, Amelia.”
Maggie took Miller in her arms, and they wept together. They wept like the time Miller’s uncle died while they were on a youth retreat and no one could make Miller stop yelling and heaving. They wept like they did the day Maggie graduated from Gate City High and it first occurred to them they would have to face the next year without each other. They wept like the time Maggie’s old boyfriend wouldn’t stop touching her, told her she was gay if she didn’t like it. They wept like they did the first time they heard Miller’s daddy hit her mama. They wept like the time Maggie’s mom had a miscarriage and didn’t come out of her room for weeks. They wept because tomorrow was the beginning of forever.
About the Author
Kathryn M. Barber comes from the mountains that follow the Tennessee/Virginia state line. After finishing her MA at Mississippi State University, she moved to Nashville, where she taught at Belmont University. Currently, she is in the second year of UNCW’s MFA program, where she writes fiction and teaches Intro to Creative Writing. Although she grew up just down the road from the Carter Fold, she didn’t discover her love for Johnny Cash until living in Nashville—now, he shows up in her stories quite often.