Plucked.Jake wondered how many banjo strings he could ruin before anybody figured out that he was behind the deed. This week alone he had managed to fray the strings of Old Junior Winston in two separate spots while the family was out on various self-absorbed tasks. Jake doubted whether another set of eyes had even glanced at the dust-covered banjo; it still sat in the very spot his warm fingers had last left it to rest. His footfall made nary a sound as he crossed the room, focused on the silver gleam of the banjo’s body.
The corner that the instrument called home was awash in daylight that had crept around the lifeless curtains of the tiny window. The streaks of golden sun made the belly of Old Junior Winston look stretched beyond its years, the circular rim grasping the leather with age-defined weariness. Jake paused to consider the banjo’s age; older than him by far, but the exact date of craftsmanship was beyond Jake’s knowledge. He supposed his sister would know Old Junior Winston’s birthday, it was her that had christened the instrument after all.
Of all the things to name a banjo, “Old Junior Winston” had Jake’s vote to be the stupidest thing he had ever heard. But when his sister had picked at the strings the notes had danced for her unlike anybody else. Jake remembered clearly the day she declared “Old Junior Winston named himself, brother. I only just tickl’d ‘em til he told me.” She always did have a flair for the overly imaginative. Jake squeezed his eyes shut to block the echo of the voice ringing in the air. Her ability to turn nothing into something was unmatched by anything. It was the same quality that turned the family’s slight Appalachian accent into the deepest hillbilly twang coming from his sister’s lips.
Jake scrunched up his nose and imitated his sister’s pronounced drawl, “Ol’ June-yoir Winns–stun.” He flicked his fingertips toward the strings of the banjo, annoyed still at the ingrained habit of using a first and last name for harmonious leather and metal. Particles of dust swirled around him, blowing the banjo’s irritation at being forgotten right back at him. Jake knew he was picking a fight that Old Junior Winston was better tuned for than he and quietly let the air fall still. Careful not to upset the aging instrument any further, Jake backed into the shadows with a sigh, fading into to the eerie silence of a once musical room.
Days passed before Jake returned to his old bedroom in the upstairs corner of the attic. This time he took in the walls that surrounded Old Junior Winston in what had become his temporary retirement home. Jake was sure that the banjo enjoyed the poster of the big-breasted blonde on the hood of the car on the wall opposite; it WAS a ’79 Iroc-Z with a 350 double-pumper, bored 30 over, stroked. The blonde was okay, as girls go. But the American Muscle was the real beauty. In the other corner, a simple gold cross hung above the bed. Jake stifled a giggle recalling the number of times the metal hit the wall while he was breaking all of the Good Lord’s rules. As each of his girlfriends moved through his memory, Jake was sure he wasn’t going to hell for humor. Maybe for Harmony and Heather, but not hilarity.
The curtains were no cleaner than they had been in years. Jake questioned whether anybody but him even remembered the old upstairs bedroom anymore. The calendar on the desk had trapped Old Junior Winston in February of 2005; the sheets on the bed were fleece and warm and worn and lonely. Sitting solo on the floor, the banjo had been blanketed with dust. Jake wanted nothing more than to lie upon the coverings and cradle the instrument until they both felt young again.
The strings were still frayed; G and C. Jake knew that meant nobody had bothered to come up to the room. Old Junior Winston looked angry, pieces of frizzed metal jutting here and there from his neck, while the remainder of the string lay flaccid against his body. Never a more defeated banjo had Jake ever seen. He grew angry at his sister, and her neglect and abandonment. What in life could be so pressing that she had completely overlooked Old Junior Winston up here in his solitude? Had she forgotten how her fingerplucking spread laughter and joy to all that heard Old Junior Winston sing for her? Surely everyone knew that he had only borrowed the banjo to impress his sister’s cutest friends, Jake’s skill on the instrument paled in comparison to hers.
Perhaps they had experienced a falling out, both being so high-strung. Jake was more than aware of how quickly the banjo could shift keys, and his sister was the maestro of her own tune. She had invented her own key. When hillbillies describe bitches or banjos, plucky doesn’t even begin to cover it. Jake couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her play; her smile so bright it made the music louder. The eyes of blue would fiercely announce each note and Old Junior Winston would roll them back with a smooth calmness that betrayed everything that her flashing irises foreshadowed. The melody rolled together to create a song of contradiction that perfectly portrayed his sister in a way no description could. Jake could only imagine how the two must have struggled for the upper strumming hand.
Jake knew that his sister never would have mindlessly neglected Old Junior Winston. Adulthood had not been easy for her, with the cancer and all, but she found solace in the banjo that made Jake understand the comfort of song. Through years of chemo and radiation she would pick and strum the sound of healing. At times the drugs would leave her so weak that she was unable to bear the weight of Old Junior Winston. Curled on the bed, she would close her eyes and Jake would quietly roll the banjo strings to cover the noise of her soundless tears. She never commented on his low-quality playing; Jake liked to think she heard him as a warped version of a bad record. Her dry lips would crack into a slight smile as she hummed along to the familiar tune and drift off to sleep.
The memories of disease flooded back to Jake as he worried about his sister’s health. Remembering the nights of angst at seeing her so depleted filled him with a sense of trepidation. No matter how many people traveled with her, the road to remission was a path his sister had walked alone. There were times Jake had pretended not to notice how sick she was while his sister had seen right through him. He thought back to the most recent time they talked– he could not remember their last conversation! Turned suddenly by his disappointment, Jake growled in frustration and disturbed the stillness of the room. His anger from moments ago at the broken strings of a banjo quickly turned to concern over the damaged cells of his sister.
It had been some time since the diagnosis that changed the way his sister danced. Before the cancer spread through her body she never let him play Old Junior Winston. There had not been a moment that she gave Jake permission to play the banjo, rather, once she got sick she lost the fight to take it back from him. Or maybe she found comfort in his ineptitude. Either way, the instrument laid abandoned in the attic bedroom now, having come an incredibly long way to get nowhere.
Jake smiled sadly in the direction of Old Junior Winston, unsure of whether it was the banjo or his sister that had been left behind. The frozen moment of the room had captured the despair he had felt when he learned of her disease. He had been so young back then, just finished high school and already knew more than everybody else. He remembered he had been packing for his move from home; his cocky confidence at becoming the head of his own household causing him to pick and choose through the items he deemed worthy of relocation. Concentrating on the banjo in his hand Jake had not noticed his sister’s feather-light skip up the stairs.
She pranced around him and one hand shot up to punch his upper-arm, but Jake had long since learned to deflect her taunting and grabbed her hand with a smile. His sister was a smart cookie, of that there was no doubt, but why she insisted on throwing jabs at someone twice her size was something Jake had never understood. Sure, she had 2 years on him, but Jake had a foot and fifty pounds. And yet her tiny little fist fought against his grasp with enough strength that Jake barely had time to register the fingers of her other hand had wrapped around the neck of Old Junior Wilson and wrestled the banjo into her arms.
The banjo belonged by his sister’s side; Jake swore he heard Old Junior Winston sigh as she quickly rolled her fingers over the length of his strings.
“You scratch him like he’s a dog.” Jake muttered, refusing to use the banjo’s full name to express displeasure at being bested. His sister was unfazed by his attitude.
“Ol’ June-yoir Winns–stun likes his chi-yun rubbed, jus like yew dew.” Her Appalachian drawl was more pronounced in retaliation to his negativity; she had stretched her accent out so long that Jake might have fallen asleep in the middle of the sentence. He shook his head and stared at her, unwilling to further fuel her character with more words. His sister offered him a half-crooked smile and her eyes flashed sapphire as she accepted his challenge to see who could be more stubborn.
With a twist of her arm she had the banjo at playing height and her left foot stomped down on the discarded pile of clothes Jake had been sorting through. He had not seen her put on the fingerpicks and yet they were already tugging at the strings of Old Junior Wilson like she had been playing for hours. The tiny flashes of silver moved across the belly of the banjo with a speed that blurred where her fingers ended and the instrument began. Jake had always been mesmerized by the way his sister seemingly flicked her fingers to direct Old Junior Winston to sing.
The notes tumbled from the banjo and snaked around Jake’s head, each twang pulling his mouth closer to a smile before floating into his ears. The melody cascaded from his sister’s hands and filled the room with Old Junior Winston’s bright tones. It could be said that it was a sound unlike any other; the plunky bluegrass notes every bit as unique as she was. Jake’s foot tapped involuntarily and he knew his sister had won. She knew it too, her playing increased in ferocity until the two of them had stomped their way into a crescendo. Hardly a hootenanny had formed before his sister strummed a few final stray notes and closed her eyes as she sunk backwards onto his bed.
It was then that Jake knew something was wrong. He had seen his sister talk to the banjo for days on end, poking and prodding and listening to every secret that the strings would tell. She would never shush Old Junior Winston in the middle of a conversation. Jake remembered how tired she looked, how tiny in her silence. She seemed unable to communicate once the music had stopped. Jake stood, surprised at finally seeing how much his sister hid behind the loud mouth of Old Junior Winston. She pulled apart her eyelids and met his gaze; his blue eyes questioned why hers were so damn weary. She sighed and struggled to sit up.
His sister, the destructive bottle of pure joy, had been contained. Jake didn’t need full details of the enemy, although even now he could hear words like “Stage Three” and “metastasis” circling around him. He wanted to rage, he wanted to fight, he wanted to turn the bedroom into a war room and discuss the plan of attack. His sister held up a hand before he had a chance to speak. She again ran her fingers down the neck of Old Junior Winston and the banjo shivered in anticipation. This time when she played, the waterfall of sound lifted Jake’s spirit.
The song was not beautiful, but it spoke of strength and grace that is more powerful than beauty. Each wooden twang filled Jake’s head with the words he knew his sister was afraid to say. He had never seen her fear dance on the frets until that moment when her fingers shook and she stumbled on the strings. The missed note rang louder than all of her perfection and in the silence Jake heard the emotions that his sister could never say. When she finished the tune she stood, offered him the banjo, and walked from the room.
Jake moved his hands, expecting Old Junior Winston to be there. The memory had been so vivid he swore his sister had just passed the old banjo to him. He raised his nose to the air, convinced that her god-awful patchouli oil would still be lingering in the room. But the air was as empty as his hands; both the banjo and the bouquet had been abandoned years before.
He ceased coming to the attic room when his sister had lost the strength to come up the stairs. It had not been easy to watch her lose her light. Each doctor’s visit was accompanied by more pain and suffering. Her blue eyes dulled to gun-metal grey; as cold and unfeeling as the handshakes she offered in lieu of her normal hugs. The golden locks fell away from her head and she bowed her spirit in defeat. As much as he loved his sister, he slowly slipped from her side. Jake could no longer stand to watch her soul being poisoned by the medicine that kept her alive.
But she had won that fight! Jake wiped away the tear-filled recollection as the room came back into view. His eyes landed on the banjo in the corner, the strings now mocking his forgetful state. Another scene crept into his mind; a jubilant celebration in which his sister announced her remission. Her hair was now a short spikey mess jutting haphazardly from her head. The light in her eyes had returned, albeit a tad dimmer than before. Their mother had given her a new Morgan Monroe Appalachia banjo. She had whispered a long drawn-out “haawt day-yum” when she opened the box. It had been such a relief to see her face aglow in smiles after all she had been through. But he had seen how pale she still looked, and how her giggles had been changed to reserved laughter. Jake wondered if she had thought the cancer would return.
He never heard if she named the new banjo. It wasn’t in the attic room now. Jake would have noticed a gleaming new pot next to Old Junior Winston’s worn and stretched belly. He imagined the aged instrument was full of banjo jealousy, and then surpressed a chuckle at his own silliness. He had unknowingly begun to feel compassion for Old Junior Winston during his trip down memory lane. The banjo had provided the soundtrack for the home-movies that played in his mind. He looked at the strings he had broken on previous haunts to his old room and cringed at his juvenile behavior. He bent to blow a layer of film from the banjo and swallowed a fair amount of guilt with the dust.
There were so many things he had forgotten. Much like the abandoned Tasty-Freeze, his memory had not served him in years. Once his sister had been returned to good health, Jake had been less driven to be near her. And now, well now Jake couldn’t recall when he had seen her last. The urgency of closeness had faded. He wasn’t even sure why he had come back lately; an unexplained desire to return had been building within him for some time. Perhaps this was where the connection to his sister was the strongest.
Everything about Jake’s old room held a piece of his sister in it, from the tennis rackets she had once beat him with to the sweatshirts on the floor that she would regularly make her own. The desk was a hand-me-down from when she had moved from home; the bedspread a gift from one of the many holidays his sister insisted they celebrate together as a family. Christmas and Thanksgiving, sure, but she had found a reason to host a dinner nearly every month. Jake hated the gatherings when he was younger, and grew to loathe them even more with age. With longing in his chest, he imagined the chaos and headache of spending another Sunday in the kitchen with his sister.
To the banjo again he looked. Old Junior Winston held more of his sister’s heart than any man ever could. He had watched her spend night after night with old boy by her side. With moon light in the window and moonshine in a jar, Jake and his sister would pass the banjo and the booze and solve the problems of the world. They would laugh and sing, giggle and grin. Eventually the banjo would curl up in her lap as she drifted off to sleep in the corner. Her rhythmic snoring would roll out the whispers of their last song before trailing off in the dark. He wondered if Old Junior Winston missed playing with his sister as much as he did.
Coming back to his old room was foolish. There were no answers here. Only more questions. And a shit-load of laundry that still needed washed. He had no idea why he thought somebody would notice a few broken strings on his sister’s old banjo if nobody had noticed a decade’s worth of dirty socks at the end of his bed. The film of residue on the window told him that his old room had been empty since he had abandoned it in 2005.
Old Junior Winston stared him down with the wisdom of five strings and a lifetime of being picked and pulled at. The abandonment of the banjo had jaded the instrument, the notes now hallowed puffs of breath from the belly of the beast. Time had passed Old Junior Winston by; his song had been muffled by a disease of a destroyed soul. Jake mourned for the loss of music. The sadness that filled the air forced all thought from his mind. The sister that he knew was gone. His eyes welled with years of tears as he dipped his head to the banjo that was as lost as he.
The broken strings bowed slightly in a nonexistence breeze. Jake felt, in the electric presence of the seasoned banjo, that Old Junior Winston was swaying his neck in acceptance of the inevitable. For in that moment, they both knew that neither would be back here again. Like Jake, the banjo was out of tune and tired; like the banjo, Jake was broken and lost. And the room was cold and empty without the light of his sister’s life. There was no way to bring back the things that were gone; there was no way to refill the room with song. With a light step and a heavy mind, Jake turned and left the old banjo to die in the quiet neglect of the vacant room.
Old Junior Winston sat on the floor, basking in the stillness that comes with ten years of being undisturbed. His frets and strings creaked with age, nothing unusual there, and his belly grumbled with the stretching that time provides. In his heyday, Old Junior Winston had been a banjo of unmatched sound. In his may-day, he was missing strings and frayed at the seams. The pockets of dust and disrepair spoke of an impending end to Old Junior Winston’s music-making days. Even the banjo knew he was two strings short of a full chord.
Without warning, the door at the base of the attic stairs was thrown open with the force of a million unspoken emotions. Up the carpeted entranceway rushed a bull of uncontained energy that streaked by the bed with nary a sound. Before the room could react to the intrusion, the banjo’s silver body sliced through the air and smashed against the window frame.
The hushed acoustics of the bedroom hardly did justice to the screaming pain of Old Junior Winston exploding into pieces. Again the long neck rose high in the room and crashed down, this time on the hard wood of the recycled desk. Pieces of the banjo began splintering off, bits of string and worn canvas smudging the dust in every corner the deserted room. The frame was decimated, barely clinging to the body of the instrument with the last vestiges of its musical soul it could muster. Once more the banjo slammed against the wall of Jake’s long-forgotten attic bedroom. A few wooden notes plucked along to the moment as Old Junior Winston’s neck finally snapped in half and the banjo fell to the floor with the finality of a ballad’s end.
Tears hit the palms of Miss Joleen Doreen, mixing with the blood of cuts inflicted by rage. She wiped snot away with the back of her hand as she looked at where the banjo strings had ripped into her flesh. It didn’t hurt. Fuck, she didn’t know what “hurt” even was anymore. She thought that disease had numbed her to feelings; she thought that having cancer had cured her from the suffering of emotion. But as she grew stronger, life made her weak.
In the later years of treatment and recovery she had not once considered picking up Old Junior Winston to play through the pain. Sure, her mother had given her the Morgan Monroe Appalachian Banjo; a crafted instrument of quality so high she felt daunted by the prospect of picking it up. Hell, she ain’t really picked up a “mount’n guuii-tar” since the last time Jacob LeRoy had passed her Old Junior Winston.
It felt to her like it was yesterday, and not a cold February night nearly ten years past. The cancer had been winning, but Joleen Doreen knew she was too damn country for a city-disease like cancer to kill. She had been so tired, but she knew that Jacob LeRoy would sit and drink moonshine with her until the sun came up if she wanted. Chemotherapy had been so hard on her, she barely would let the fumes from the alcohol touch her lips, but she would fake a healthy drink every fucking time for the sake of her hillbilly reputation. She wasn’t there to get drunk, she was more interested in the company and the banjo in her lap. She had always been able to tell a better story when Old Junior Winston narrated for her. And Jacob LeRoy loved a good story.
Maybe that night she had pretended to drink too much. Perhaps the pills and poisons and medicine and malaise had caught up with her. For whatever reason, she had fallen asleep on the beanbag chair in the corner with her arms wrapped around Old Junior Winston. She had sleepily handed the instrument to the shadowy laughing figure of Jacob LeRoy. She mumbled about the morning as he pulled at a few strings of the banjo. The last time Joleen Doreen had ever smiled at the plucking of Old Junior Winston, the notes were swirled with the moonshine-laced tones of Jacob LeRoy’s wishes of goodnight.
She looked down at the shattered remains of the banjo at her feet. She closed her eyes as her head tilted back; her nostrils flared with emotion as she felt the hot sting of her erupting feelings. She should have fought harder, against the disease, against him leaving that night. If she had entertained him more maybe he would have stayed at home. Every ounce of her still felt the weight of exhaustion that had pulled her down that night. She sank to the floor as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Pieces of Old Junior Winston’s lifeless body dug into her sobbing form; broken shards of banjo were poking into her shaking limbs as she cried. Each sharp reminder of her loss evoked more tears from Joleen Doreen; for in all the struggles of the eight years gone, she had never once thought to play it in song. More than anybody else, she KNEW that Old Junior Winston would hear the pain of Jacob LeRoy’s car accident like she had, but Joleen Doreen would never play the instrument again.