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The first time I saw Corrie Appleyard I was about five years old. I woke up hearing music late at night and came downstairs and found him and my father sitting in the kitchen of our house in Somerville, picking at their guitars while Corrie sang. The next time was about a year later in a dingy bar somewhere in Boston. My father, my sister, and I were at a table and Corrie was on the little stage, sitting on a high stool behind a mike, playing and singing. I remember that it was a smoky, smelly, noisy place and that I was drinking an orange soda, and that we were the only kids there, but I don't recall much else. Later, Corrie used to come to our house whenever he was in the Boston area, and a couple of times he came to my father's cottage on the Vineyard. Then I didn't see him anymore until June this past summer, when he came walking out of the past down our long, sandy driveway.
Zee and I and the kids were in the yard loafing under the warm blue June sky when Diana stopped running around and stared up the driveway, then moved over to her mom. Zee and I turned our heads and there was Corrie walking toward us, satchel in one hand, guitar case in the other. I hadn't seen him in more than thirty years, but I recognized him instantly. At first, he didn't seem to have changed at all, but then he'd always looked ancient to me, being older, even, than my father.
Now, though, he really did have some years stacked on his shoulders. His skin was still that same coffee color, but now it was lined and his hair was mostly gray, as was the mustache and beard that once had been black as tar. There was a hint of illness in his face, but though his step wasn't quite as light as it once had been, it wasn't an old man's shuffle, either. It was the stride of a man who had walked a lot and still had places to go.
He hesitated as I stood up from my lawn chair, but then came on.
"Who could that be?" asked Zee, giving cautious Diana a hand to hold.
"That's Corrie Appleyard," I said, feeling happy. I went to meet him and put out my hand. "Corrie," I said. "My God, it's good to see you."
He put down the satchel and squinted at me as he took my hand. "You got the edge on me, young fella. Who might you be?"
"I'm J. W. Jackson. Roosevelt's son. You used to come to our house in Somerville and you came here once or twice, too."
His smile was as white as ocean foam. "Little Jeff. You've growed up some. Well, I'll tell you, Jeff, I happen to be on the island, so I thought I'd come and see your daddy." He looked at the house. "My, my, this place has changed quite a bit."
I picked up the satchel. "It was mostly just a hunting camp when you were here, but now it's getting closer to being a house. You won't find my dad, I'm afraid. He died a number of years ago. But come on, I want you to meet my wife, Zee."
He walked beside me. "Rosy, dead? I'm sorry to hear it."
"It was a warehouse fire. A wall fell on him and a couple of other firemen. Almost twenty years ago, now. My sister's married and living out near Santa Fe, and I'm right here. We sold the Somerville place."
He shook his head. "Twenty years. Time does fly."
We came to where Zee and Diana were standing. Zee, wearing shorts and a shirt tied around her flat, tanned belly, held Diana's head pressed against her with one hand, while Diana wrapped both arms around her mother's sleek thigh and eyeballed Corrie, trying to decide whether he was friend or foe.
"Zee," I said. "This is Corrie Appleyard. Corrie, this is my wife, Zee."
Their hands met and their smiles gleamed. "How do you do, Mrs. Jackson?"
"Call me Zee, Mr. Appleyard."
His head dipped and rose. "Zee, then. And I'm Corrie. I knew your husband's father, and Jeff, here, when he wasn't much older than that lad over yonder. I do believe that you're the first Zee I've known."
"It's short for Zeolinda. My people are Portuguese."
"And Corrie's short for Cortland. My people are mostly African originally, with little bits of this and that mixed in over the years. And who might this be?"
"This is my daughter, Diana. And that guy over there is her big brother, Joshua. Joshua, come and meet Corrie."
Joshua, who had been taking things in from the far side of the yard, came and accepted Corrie's hand.
"How do you do?" said Corrie.
"I'm fine. Nice to meet you," said Joshua, just the way he'd been taught.
"You shake hands, too," said Zee to Diana, "and say hello."
Diana let go of her mother's leg with one hand and held it out. "Hello," she said.
"Hello, Diana." Corrie's big brown fingers enveloped her small pudgy ones.
Diana retrieved her hand and again wrapped her arm around Zee's leg. Her eyes went to Corrie's battered, sticker-covered guitar case. "I know what's in there."
"What?" asked Corrie.
"You're right," said Corrie, acting impressed. "How did you know?"
"My pa's got one. He plays it sometimes."
"Does he, now." Corrie looked at me.
I nodded. "I have two, actually. My dad's old Martin, and a Gibson I got at a yard sale for thirty bucks. But to call what I do with them 'playing' is stretching it a bit."
"He sings to us sometimes when we go to bed," said Joshua, who as usual had been listening even though he didn't have a lot to say.
Atta boy, Josh. Stand up for your old man.
"I was about to bring out some lemonade for the kids and a couple of beers for the grown-ups," said Zee. "You got here just in time to join us. You and Jeff have some catching up to do, I'd say."
"Well, I don't mean to intrude on you, but a beer sounds good. Thank you."
"Don't say too much before I get back," said Zee, lifting Diana to her hip. "I want to listen in." Mother and daughter turned and disappeared through the door of the screened porch.
"Let's grab a couple of chairs," I said, and led Corrie to the lawn table between the house and the garden. He put his guitar case on the ground and sat down.
"I remember the view," he said, looking east over the garden toward Sengekontacket Pond, the barrier beach on its far side, and the sound that stretched toward Cape Cod.
"A million-dollar view and a two-thousand-dollar house," I said. "Like the guy in the song with a ten-dollar horse and a forty-dollar saddle."
He nodded. "I remember when Rosy bought this place. Twenty-five hundred dollars, as I recall. He wanted me to go in with him. Did you know that?"
"No. He did, eh?"
"Yeah, he did. Your mom was dead then, poor thing, and Rosy wasn't interested in any other woman. He thought the two of us could share this camp, but I had the Mississippi place already, and a sugar foot to boot, so I wasn't interested in owning anything I couldn't carry with me. Besides, I told him, there wasn't no reason for me to spend all of my money buying a house when I could sponge off of him for free! So he bought it by himself." Corrie's laugh came from deep down somewhere.
"Well, you're more than welcome to stay here now, if you don't mind tight quarters," I said. "A lot of water under the bridge since I last saw you, and we'll need some time to catch up."
But he was looking at the lumber in the yard and at the skeleton of the rooms I was building for Diana and Josh, and shook his head. "Not this time, but thanks. I see that you've outgrown the place and are adding on. I'll have that beer and then be on my way."
I felt a wave of dismay. "You can have the couch in the living room. I don't want to lose you before you're really here."
"That goes for me, too," said Zee, coming out with a tray filled with drinks, crackers, and bluefish pâté. "We've about worn out that record we have of you and Blind Boy Fuller, and I want to spend some time with the man who made that music."
"That's mighty fine of you, ma'am, but I already got me a place to stay. Boy I know and some of his friends living here in a big house for the summer, and I got a bed there waiting for me. But I'll be pleased to sit a spell and catch up on the news. Say, isn't that bluefish pâté? I remember your daddy used to make that and it's got my mouth watering."
"Well, don't wait around for an invitation!" said Zee. "Pitch in before we eat it all ourselves."
Zee sat herself down and we all got into our beer and food.
"Mighty fine," said Corrie, smiling. "So you still got that old bootleg record, eh? Must be pretty worn by now. I gave it to Rosy almost forty years ago."
"It is wearing a little thin," I said, "but we just don't listen to the scratches." I nodded at his guitar case. "I'm glad to see you're still at it."
"And I'm glad to see you got yourself a nice family and are settled down. I remember I got a letter from Rosy just after you lied about your age and went off to Vietnam. You wasn't the settling-down type back then, and your daddy was worried about your wild ways."
"And not without cause," said Zee, circling my arm with hers. "But I've got him under my thumb now, and I'm trying to civilize him."
"I see that you are, and I want to hear all about everything before I leave you." He dug a small plastic vial from a pocket and shook out a pill. "My doctor probably wouldn't approve of me washing this down with beer, but I do a lot of things he don't approve of." He laughed and popped the pill into his mouth.
So we talked and had more beer and finger food, and talked some more as the summer sun fell away to the west.
I told him about my very brief combat experience and the wounds I'd taken in Nam, about recovering and coming home and joining the Boston PD and going to school and getting married and divorced and shot and recovering again but giving up the save-the-world game and moving down to the Vineyard and meeting Zee.
And Zee told him about growing up over in Fall River and becoming a nurse and marrying and supporting her husband Paul (known to me as Dr. Jerk) while he studied medicine until, studies behind him, he'd left her for a more adoring woman and she had come to the island and met me and married me and now we had two little Jacksons to support us in our old age.
And Corrie told us how he wandered from down south to up north and from out west to back east, always playing in small clubs and bars, never making it onto the big stages and never minding that at all because the real blues people knew who he was and what he could do, and that was enough since the music had always been the important thing. He had no ego, for when he talked about his music, it was as though his talent were one thing and he himself was something else; the talent was a gift that had been entrusted to his care, and to which he owed a duty. He was only its caretaker, and took no credit for possessing it. As he tried to explain this, I was reminded of hearing Pavarotti talking about his voice ("the voice," he called it) in the same way, as though it were something apart from himself, toward which he had the duties of a caretaker.
Corrie talked of appearing with Josh White in Boston back in the fifties, and meeting my father there in the club and coming home with him because he was short of money and Rosy had offered him a place to stay. He told of hanging around in New York and playing with Brownie McGhee and Alec Seward, and learning from the Reverend Gary Davis, and listening to Larry Johnson, who was young then and still was by Corrie's standards.
And now he was on the island so he could play at the coffeehouse up in Vineyard Haven and later at a church in Oak Bluffs.
"I read about that in the Gazette," said Zee. "We'll be there to listen. I wouldn't miss it for the world!"
"Mighty fine," said Corrie, looking at the house. "You folks have spruced this place up a bit. You still have fishing rods hanging on the ceiling like when Rosy and I used to come down here? That man sure knew how to catch and cook a fish. We had some good times out on the beach."
"The rods are still there," I said. "Maybe you'd like to go with us in the morning. I have to meet somebody here at ten, but the tide will be right about seven, and we plan to do some fishing before I need to be back. We'll be pleased to have you go with us."
He smiled and nodded. "And I'll be pleased to accept that offer." He glanced at the sky and the lengthening shadows. "Well, I gotta be on my way." He stood and put out his big brown hand. "I thank you for your hospitality, Zee."
"It's been my pleasure. You're sure you won't stay?"
"No, ma'am. I thank you for the invitation, but I've got people waiting for me. I'll see you in the morning. Been a long time since I went after a bluefish." He reached for his guitar case, but I had gotten to it first.
"I'll drive you," I said, walking toward my old Land Cruiser and snagging his satchel as I went.
"I know a kidnapping when I see one," said Corrie with a laugh. "Good evening, Zee."
"Good night," said Zee, watching as we got into the ORV and drove away.
"Beautiful girl," said Corrie.
"She is that. Where are we going?"
He got out a piece of paper and named a number and a street in Edgartown. "Grandson of a friend of mine is living there with a bunch of his college friends," he said. "Down here to try to make some money before he heads back to school this fall. Says they got an empty bunk I can have as long as I need it."
The Vineyard teems with such young people every summer. Most of them enjoy the sun, sand, sex, and other island entertainments before going back to the mainland in time for the fall term, and some of them actually manage to save some money in spite of the outrageous prices of the outlandish accommodations offered by the local slumlords.
The house where we stopped looked to be typical of such places. It was old and run-down, and its unkempt yard was littered with beer cans and other collegiate debris. There were five cars and a moped in the driveway, a fairly good sign that the occupancy limit was being totally ignored.
Corrie climbed out and collected his gear, then leaned down and stuck his hand through my window.
"Thanks for the ride, Jeff. You know, you look a lot like your daddy did thirty years ago. See you in the morning."
"Check out the escape routes before you hit the sack," I said. "One of these places burned down last March. They're all tinderboxes."
"I've seen worse. Thanks for the ride."
He walked toward the house and I drove home, feeling good. Corrie Appleyard. Who'd have thunk it? I'd not read a paper for a week, and thus had missed the ads for his concerts. If he hadn't decided to visit my father, I might never have known he was on the island. More evidence that the nonliterate life was not good for me.
Copyright © 2000 by Philip A. Craig