I creep past flowers that rise over my head. Bright pale moonlight casts shadows, which make me jumpy.
Gravel crunches. I am trying to be silent.
My guitar case bangs against the porch.
Sh! “Mmf,” I say under my breath.
Taped to the aluminum frame of the storm door is this note: “Charlie, there is a guy sleeping on the couch in the living room. Don’t freak out.”
Homeowner Holly, presumably asleep, knows I am scheduled to arrive late. She’s left the door unlocked.
“Have people freaked out in the past?” I wonder as I try to open the door quietly. “Were they screamers?” As the wooden door separates from the weather stripping it makes a loud woosh-pttk and the door knocker offers a reflexive “tunk” that I wouldn’t have noticed in the daytime.
The guy on the hide-a-bed slumbers on. Bedclothes rustle as he rearranges himself and sighs.
I do not freak out.
My guitar case has a plastic handle that makes a loud plastic handle sound every time I set it down. Even when I manage not to bang the guitar case against furniture, and set it down slowwwwwwly, with my muscles tensed until the metal bits quietly make full floor contact, the handle still makes the loud plastic sound.
No response from the slumberer.
The aluminum screen shooshes shut as the plunger hisses into the thing all storm doors have to keep them from slamming. It latches noisily and the chain that keeps it from opening too wide jinkle jinkles and taps the glass. I shut and lock the front door.
I am inside Bryan and Holly’s house in the wee, wee hours.
I’ve done this three times.
I have never met Bryan, and I have never met Holly.
I will sleep in “The Writer’s Room.” The house is a neat old 1960s “modern” design that’s laid out like a big apartment. There’s a master bedroom where I assume Bryan and Holly are asleep with whatever animals they have. I’ve never met their pets, despite many hours spent in their domain.
My room has a cozy light on, across the hall from their closed door.
I pass an empty bedroom on my way. Why isn’t the lodger in there? Many mysteries.
My room is like a very nice youth hostel—the basics are all there. It’s spare, tidy and clean smelling. I read instructions on the little fridge, and a typed note stuck under the glass top on the desk with the cheap room rates, and the labels on the closet about the linens and such, and another label on the back of the door requesting we writers keep the door shut because of the cat.
There’s a towel and washcloth. For some reason, the towel and washcloth make me wistful.
Since it’s the middle of the night, I’m asleep pretty quickly. In the dawn hours I’m sort of aware of Holly and Bryan and their lodger moving around. A dog is trit-tritting outside my closed, locked door. I don’t hear a cat. Probably because it comes on little fog feet.
Eventually I’m up. Everyone’s gone. Cat and dog are invisible. I go into the sixties bathroom. It’s very homey, which in this case partly refers to the grout around the top of the bathtub, which is loose. There are more instructions, for how to flush the toilet. The exhaust fan doesn’t work, but who cares about exhaust fans, really.
I don’t freak out.
In the mirror I see myself in boxers: I am the only person I’ve ever really seen in this house. I could be a spy character, or the penguin in The Wrong Trousers. My relationship with Holly is vaguely clandestine, limited to the phone and emails. I’m always there late, and I always sleep in until they’re gone. I leave a check for the correct amount on the desk in the room, and disappear while they’re away.
If I had the gumption to be sinister, this might be how it feels.
Here is what I’ve gleaned about my unseen hosts, the profile I have assembled: they are music lovers to the degree they open their home to songwriters for forty dollars a night (less if it’s a multi-nighter). It’s very likely they are musicians, too, but that’s not confirmed. There is no TV I can see; the stereo is the center of the living room. An old banjo is hanging on the wall. There is a guitar stand, with a good brand of guitar handy for any songwriter who gets a sudden inspiration.
On the bumper of a white car (Why is their car here? I’m alone. Have they left for work in one car? Do they have three cars? Is this some kind of double-cross?) is a sticker that says “WannaBeatles.” Is that Bryan or Holly’s band? A band they like?
What else of importance can I note? Dishes are always neatly stacked in the dish drainer. Clean sink. Could be significant. Tends to suggest they’re not actual musicians, after all.
I’m trying to prevent my casual observations from edging into out-and-out snooping, but I notice the top of the CD stack by the stereo is the Beatles’ Let It Be… Naked, which I know means the songs are stripped of the unwelcome Wall of Sound Phil Spector caked onto them.
Got it. Purists. Big into Beatles, yet providing shelter to country music writers.
I realize that I’m standing in the house equivalent of Ringo’s rendition of “Act Naturally,” the old Buck Owens song. Both date to about 1965. Both ignore artificial musical boundaries.
Or whatever. That’s the kind of weird stuff a mind starts to work on if it’s not around people enough.
Everyone in Nashville that you meet is a potential connection. Everyone with even a tangential relationship to the music business could possibly introduce you to someone who will turn out to be important.
So far, no connection here.
The running joke now is that I’m invisible. In an email exchange about my last stay, Holly signed off as “The Visible One” where you would typically put “Cheers” or “Sincerely.” It just works out this way—either I’ve gotten started late driving five hours from Indianapolis; or, I’ve been up till all hours recording a demo; or, I’ve been at the Bluebird Café watching songwriters perform until 11:00ish then gotten lost on the drive to their house (it’s not very close to Music Row).
Out and about and around in Nashville I’ve met so many people who are really good at what I guess we’ll call “networking,” though it takes more finesse than that word usually conjures.
For example, they’d make sure they arrive at Bryan and Holly’s while there was still a living soul stirring.
Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (so that includes you, too, Pitcairn Islands) has a bumper sticker you see on cars all around Nashville that says, “It all starts with a song.”
They could print a second sticker that says, “But it can also stop there.”
You have to make friends, the old-fashioned way. It’s grade school. “To have a friend, you must be one.” You’re looking for people you click with. People who will tell you the truth about your songs.
Some people are excellent at insinuating themselves into better and better company—they move upward socially. Sometimes through guile, sometimes through being socially adept, sometimes through deliberate or accidental charm.
Now and then, people move up through being really talented.
Almost always, though, I’m certain they’re at least somewhat visible.
It would be nice to meet Bryan and Holly, such songwriter-friendly people. They’ve centered their lives around music, in Music City. They’d probably sing me some of their songs, or play them on their stereo. They’d probably ask about my Nashville experiences, and show interest in my replies (I would keep them short). One of these days, I’m going to arrive in the early evening, feeling friendly, brimming with things to talk about from my mind’s unfettered wandering during the drive down. I’ll knock on the door, and it will woosh-pttk open and reveal either Bryan or Holly or one of their lodgers, wide awake.
I might freak out.