Southern Legitimacy Statement: My grandfather gave me my first chew of tobacco around the age of five, and I started hunting with a shotgun when I was eight. As for my interest in the Southern aesthetic, well, that probably began in about the fifth grade, when my buddy and I sang a spirited duet of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in the school talent show, each clad in a cowboy hat and a western vest.
In terms of lineage, I have been told that some of my ancestors came to Texas from Tennessee in the days of the Republic and apparently opted to drop a letter from their surname due to what may be described as a legal issue. However, my finest claim to Southern legitimacy is the fact that I am the however-many-great, great step-grandson of the Father of the Father of Texas.
Cora Mae Atkins had just turned thirteen and was growing so quickly that it seemed like her mama had to let the hem out on her favorite calico dress about once a week. Upon each of Cora Mae’s knobby knees she donned a flesh-colored band-aid, and her flat auburn hair was cut a bit unevenly. Her mother wanted her to be a musician, and though Cora Mae liked music fine, she did not particularly care for playing it.
Cora Mae’s mother, Tilley Bee Atkins, played piano at Second Baptist Church and kept an old upright Baldwin at home so that she could practice songs such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” “The Solid Rock,” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” for the Sunday service. Mrs. Atkins relished every opportunity she had to touch the ebonies and the ivories, though her daughter lacked such enthusiasm. Cora Mae, in fact, disliked playing piano so much that, in an act of clear-eyed pragmatism, she had cut the tips of all her fingers with her father’s pocketknife to avoid having to practice. Whenever the piano teacher, who had been hired when Cora Mae’s mother lost patience, arrived at the house to teach private lessons, Cora Mae promptly presented her daintily-cut digits and was granted what the piano teacher called temporary clemency. Cut fingers served as an easy alibi, and the music teacher at least pretended to believe that the little cuts were an accident, and Cora Mae never had to play.
Tilley Bee, who had long hoped that her daughter would one day join her on the piano bench at church, attributed her daughter’s disinterest in playing music to adolescent angst, an affliction that would pass as surely as acne. But angst was only a contributing factor. The main issue was that Cora Mae happened to have a different passion. Ever since her father had made her and her sister spend some family time watching a Spaghetti Western about the outlaw Belle Starr rather than the dance contest the two of them had wanted to see, Cora Mae had dreamed of becoming a professional gambler. After seeing that movie on the Cowboy Channel, Cora Mae dreamt of dealing blackjack while wearing a black silk dress and a necklace that matched the cute little pearl-handled pistol she would have strapped to her left hip. She could imagine herself cutting the cards, shuffling them in a beautiful, orchestrated flurry, and dealing them one by one on a green velvet table as the steamboat on which she was traveling rolled down the Mighty Mississippi.
Her younger sister, Virginia, however, did enjoy playing music, and she could often be heard playing their daddy’s fiddle, which she had acquired when Daddy quit playing for reasons he never told the children. Virginia could play “Three Blind Mice” by the time she was four, “Roly Poly” by five, and “Faded Love” by six. She also learned to saw out a little Mozart, but that was just because their mama wanted to show off to the neighbors. Cora Mae had been sentenced to violin lessons as well, and she even had a fiddle of her own, but rather than find an alibi like she had with the piano, she just sawed and grated when she practiced, if that is what that sadistic exercise could be called, for she garnered all of her passive-aggressive energy into her violin practice in order to punish her mother for forcing her to play. She had no apparent musical talent or ardor for the art form, but still she played, if only to get her mother’s goat.
Now Cora Mae was standing under an enormous oak tree at the Waylon County Old Fiddle Geezer Society’s annual diamond jubilee. Her sister, Virginia, had brought her fiddle and planned to play in the thirteen-and-under open competition. Virginia could do what she wanted as far as Cora Mae was concerned. She herself had pretended to forget her violin and now stood empty-handed in the shade. The fact that she wouldn’t be playing burnt her mother’s biscuit, but there was little that could be done at this point since they were a good twenty miles from home and the thirteen-and-under competition was about to start in a few minutes.
The only other contestant besides Virginia was a six-year-old boy with turd-brown hair who was missing a fair number of teeth. The boy, who was skinny, pale, and covered in freckles, shook and scratched like a birddog with fleas, and he kept rosining his bow in what appeared to be a deep obsession. He tuned his fiddle with a strange look on his face while standing alone a few steps away from the shade of the oak, and then he played a few bars of “The Farmer in the Dell,” and Cora Mae thought he sounded pretty good for a rickety little boy.
Cora Mae, to her credit, was not plagued by jealousy. She saw the world as it was much better than most children her age and did not find herself threatened by other young people, and certainly not a freckle-faced kid who could play a handful of chords on a starter violin. However, she did see an opportunity. The sign on the registration table noted that a first, second, and third place prize would be awarded for each division, including the thirteen-and-under open division. The winner would receive thirty dollars. Second place would receive twenty dollars, and third place would receive ten dollars. The entry fee, she saw, was five dollars. She looked to her left and right. There were no other children lugging fiddles for as far as the eye could see.
“Virginia,” Cora Mae asked. “Can I borrow your fiddle after you play?”
“Why?” Virginia asked. “You don’t like to play.”
“I do, too.”
“You do not. You just like to make noises to irritate Mama.”
“I’m not saying I play well, but I do play. Can I borrow your fiddle or not?”
“Of course, you can. You’re my sister.”
Cora Mae smiled.
“Thank you, Virginia. You’re a good sister.”
“You don’t have to be stuck-up about it.”
“It’s not stuck-up if it’s the truth.”
“Maybe not. Either way, thank you for letting me play your fiddle.”
Virginia grinned and opened up her case. Cora Mae took a five-dollar bill out of the pocket of her dress and went to the registration table to pay. She unfolded the bill and laid it flat on the table. She then filled out her registration form and handed it back to the heavyset man in suspenders and a straw hat who was manning registration. Once Cora Mae walked away from the table, two frumpy old ladies and a skinny old man leaned over her registration form like buzzards on a dead armadillo. After a couple of minutes, the old man from the fiddle contest walked over to the oak tree, stood up straight, and then began to speak.
“Welcome to the eighty-seventh annual Old Fiddle Geezer Society’s annual diamond jubilee. For our first competition of the day, we got our thirteen-and-under division. We got three contestants today. Virginia Atkins, Caleb Reichenberger, and Cora Mae Atkins. I’d like to thank all of these young people for coming out and sharing their musical talent. The young are the future, and we’re real proud of every one of y’all. First up to play is little Miss Virginia Atkins, who’ll be playing ‘The Arkansas Traveler.’ Virginia, can you take a place near the old oak and play?”
Virginia, who always did her best to please adults, stepped under the tree, raised her fiddle and her bow, and waited for her cue, which the old man gave with the nod of his noggin. She began to play “The Arkansas Traveler” even though her family was from Texas, and then she slid into the reel for which she was named, and then weaved back into the original song. When she was finished, there was a smattering of claps, and she started to grin, her long dishwater blond hair flapping in the wind. She gave a slight curtsy, her green eyes sparkling and her lips curling into an easy smile as she gazed at the judges’ table.
The Master of Ceremonies resumed his position under the tree.
“Next up is Caleb Reichenberger from Limburg, Texas. This little fella will be playing… Caleb, what are you playing?”
“I’m playing the ‘Beaumont Rag,’” he said and then drew his fiddle to his cheek.
A deep breath later and Caleb was fiddling hard and fast, his instrument occasionally screeching like a freetail bat on fire, and his tone, by anybody’s survey, was awful at best. But still he played, and he hit the notes the best he could. When he finished, there was vigorous clapping from a contingent that was very likely his family, considering that the majority of them were freckle-faced with turd-colored hair and grinning from ear to ear.
“Next up is Cora Mae Atkins,” the announcer said. He gave her a gentle nod as if he figured that she was shy, and then he stepped out of the way. “What are you playing, Cora Mae?”
At first Cora Mae started to panic. There was a crowd of people moving toward her, and her first instinct was to start running as fast as she could. There were probably more than a dozen people now standing there looking at her, including the little boy who had just played and her younger sister, who didn’t appear too concerned about losing. Her father, she could see, was standing back with his arms folded and with one hand on his chin like he was thinking about supper or something. Her mother, in a denim dress and boots, stood directly in front of her smiling like it was Christmas.
Although she had changed her mind about being in the contest, Cora Mae figured that she had better play since she had already paid her five dollars, which had taken her three weeks of chores to earn. Cora Mae had not told the announcer what she was going to play because she really didn’t know, and in the end, when the bow touched the strings she started making awful, high-pitched sounds that caused a couple of birddogs waiting for their masters in the back of their trucks to start to howl. The judges wrinkled their noses and squinted. Her sister, she could see, was wincing like her mama was about to hit her with a flyswatter. Her father took a chew of tobacco and made the same face he made when someone asked him if he had killed anyone during the war. Her mother, who was standing front and center, looked like she might march right up and swipe that fiddle out of Cora Mae’s hands.
Cora Mae started to grin, and then she slid her cut-covered pinkie down the fretboard to play the highest note, if a note is what it could be called. The dogs in the parking lot went crazy, and she could hear the howls of dogs from the farmhouse down the road now. She played that note as long and hard as she could, sliding her bow faster and faster and faster until bow hair began to fly. Then, when her arms started getting tired and her fingers, which had not all healed from the little cuts she had made, started to hurt, she ended on four quick strokes of something she thought might be a chord. Then she saluted the crowd with her bow and gave the fiddle back to her sister. A few people clapped, but most just stood there in astonishment.
“What do you call that?” the Master of Ceremonies asked.
“It doesn’t have a name,” Cora Mae said, “but if it did, I would probably call it ‘Fiddle Player’s Pain.’”
The crowd milled and talked while the judges tabulated the scores. Cora Mae stood off to the side, and her sister was now talking to her father and mother. After what seemed like very little deliberation, the Master of Ceremonies resumed his place beneath the huge old oak tree.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have our results. The third-place winner, who will receive ten dollars and a certificate, is Cora Mae Atkins.”
A few people clapped with bewildered looks on their faces, and Cora Mae strode confidently up to the Master of Ceremonies, shook his hand, claimed her prize, and now stood there beside him.
“Second place, who will receive twenty dollars and a certificate of achievement, is Caleb Reichenberger.”
The group that appeared to be his family started hollering his name and clapping like he had just scored a touchdown. The little boy walked up, limply shook the judge’s hand, took his prize, and then stood next to Cora Mae.
“And the winner, I am proud to say, is Virginia Atkins,” the Master of Ceremonies said. “She done us proud with her version of ‘The Arkansas Traveler.’”
Virginia rushed to the grassy space that served as the stage and shook the MC’s hand profusely. Then she smiled, bowed, and claimed her prize. People in the audience started snapping pictures, and all three of the winners stood up straight and smiled. Cora Mae imagined that some people would have been embarrassed had they just gotten beat by a six-year-old boy who looked like he would have a rough time eating corn-on-the-cob, as well as by his or her own little sister, but she wasn’t. Cora Mae Atkins was on her way to becoming a professional gambler. Today she had learned how to play the odds and how to put up a good bluff, and she was happy, as well as proud, for, with a gambler’s eye for an easy game, she had just doubled her money.