Unlocking the Box
an excerpt from Said We Can Never Be
By Linda M. Rowland-Buckley
“You should put white ribbon on that cowboy hat for a change.” Minnie laughed and threw back her head. The thing was, Cowboy’s hat was not something she’d ever change. She would never add ribbon, or nylon or anything. She wouldn’t even attempt to clean the dirty frayed straw, because that hat had been her token to Chicago as much as the torn Greyhound bus ticket that now sat in her hat box of sentimental stubs, waiting to be filled. At Ceci’s Bar, she met up with Cowboy Max and was goofing until Blind Cat showed up to discuss how to find a bass player for their band. Practice space had come easy when the owner at Ceci’s, where Cowboy tended bar, let them use the club on Sunday afternoons.
So after she recovered from her belly laugh, Minnie asked, “Cowboy, your dad ever see you play your horn?”
“Yes ma’am. He double-parked his eighteen-wheeler one night when I had a gig in Chicago and he was passing through. That’s when I was still living back in Niles, driving over here for gigs. What makes you ask about my dad?”
She watched the smoke rings rise from Cowboy’s curled mouth.
Being crowded on the small stage where she played with the Hot House Blues Band, where her gusty, large lungs could weather a note, letting it float over the hazy room filled with smoke and chatter, until faces turned her way… this was only some of what Minnie lived for when she sang the blues. When she got up on Ceci’s stage and her emotions calmed and melted at the same time, it was because here she was singing her blues—gritty, smoky red, fiery blues.
It’s where she poured her emotions like her mother poured her feelings into her porcelain sink. Minnie avoided thoughts of her mother, shoved them right back into her belly and locked the key on them, except when her guitar sat in her lap. Then she let that locked box fly wide open and that anger, angst, betrayal, sorrow and love came pouring right up. She sang deep and hard about her mother’s recent death, sudden death. The death that left Minnie unable to ever make a proper goodbye, make right all the demons that lay between them, as well as the mysteries like the note her ma tucked in her knapsack the day she left. But this quick swell of emotions Minnie pushed back inside herself as Blind Cat pushed open the door of Ceci’s.
“You’re late,” Cowboy said as he stomped his cigarette into the ashtray.
“I know. Trains are late, or I’d of been here on time.”
“Let’s get this figured out. Can’t take much more of Minnie riding me.”
“Blind Cat, don’t you think Cowboy needs a girlfriend?” Minnie said with a grin.
“I don’t care much about his love life,” Blind Cat said dryly.
“I just think it would make him less grumpy. Believe me, I’m not applying for the job.”
“So got anyone in mind for a bass player?” Cowboy cut in.
“I got someone in mind. He’s real young. Been playing since he was twelve or so,” said Blind Cat.
“Haven’t we all? How old is he now?” Cowboy asked.
“He’s seventeen and real eager, but more than that his fingers can fly. Make the electricity sizzle.”
“What’s his name?” Minnie said as she twisted her long hair into a braid.
“His name’s Owen, but he’s known mostly as the O Man.”
“See some people just have really cool names,” Cowboy said, his drawl rolling out on really. Minnie knew his accent came out when he was irritated.
“Cowboy is a decent name,” she said.
From the small nod of his chin in her direction, she was aware he had heard her. “When is he coming by?” she asked.
“Tomorrow for practice…for a test run,” Blind Cat said as he stood. “So let’s say we meet up here at two o’clock? As always…nice to see you Minnie. Later Cowboy.”
“Later Cat,” Cowboy said.
More whispers from the box that Minnie crushed in her gut escaped when she stood in the choir at Mass on Sunday morning. The small choir sang Give to the Winds Thy Fears. On the Greyhound two years ago, where she sat and pulled out the note card her mother had slipped into her knapsack; she read the four short words. Stay sweet, Love ma. A torn page had fallen out of her card as the bus bumbled along; it was a Bible page from the Book of Exodus. The familiar words had comforted her then as now; the highlighted passage was Miriam’s victory song where she danced after Moses parted the sea. It was her mother’s handwriting in the passage’s margin that always made her heart deflate, I once understood this, but then and now are not the same.
Her mother only understood Minnie singing on the side of a church, when it came to a stage in Chicago her ma became narrowminded. It was as if her ma never had a dream. Here she had written that she no longer understood Miriam’s joy. It was the kinship Minnie felt with Miriam and the dancers. She understood them, and therefore she understood God. Her mother no longer understanding Miriam was the same as her not understanding Minnie. So she sang her suffering up to God in the small emergency exit alcove with her choir before she stuffed her pain back in her locked box for band practice that afternoon where she could open it again.