My friend Evan trudged across the plowed field holding a box of teapots. All kinds—one looked like a cat, one was a “Hall,” some looked valuable, some looked old. I carried a box of teapots, too. The lids rattled as we walked.
“Twenty-some years ago I wouldn’t have predicted your carrying my mom’s teapots across this field with me,” I said after a minute.
Evan plays rock guitar. My band used to open for his, before ours suspended operations in the mid-nineties. I’ve always admired a song he wrote about 1960s Indianapolis 500 driver Jim Hurtubise, a man who loved the physical sport of racing and hated tinkering engineers. “Put the wing back on the airplane/Put the man back in the car,” Evan loudly sings. Thematically the song is kind of The Magnificient Ambersons set a half century later, relocated a few miles west to the race track. Inherently un-Nashville-ian.
But what do I know? Maybe Evan’s song could get traction in Nashville—tale of a man’s man, celebrating the old ways.
Still, I’m sure Evan just wants his song to be what it is: a rock tune he sings loudly. He’s not blighted with my nutty ambition to top charts.
Years after our late nights in the Broad Ripple band scene, Evan became an advertising writer at the same agency I work for—we’ve spent hours together worrying about TV scripts and annual report copy. Today he’d come to the auction of my parents’ farmland and personal property partly out of polite interest in my family and partly because he likes old stuff. Now he was carrying teapots across a field.
Plod, plod, plod.
I’d gotten to the auction a few minutes before it started, and had to park way out in the middle. Lots of people showed up—hooray—but were gone now. My Jeep sat out by itself, a long way to carry these clinking pots that spent the previous twenty or thirty years in a display cabinet.
Mom and Dad both declined to be present the day of the sale. They could have been there, but were overwhelmed by the idea of watching people walk off with their stuff.
During the previous month or so my mom, my sister and I tried to save anything with special meaning, as if the house were slowly catching fire and we had time to pull out the important stuff. Even with weeks instead of minutes, the process was still as frantic and haphazard as if the house were filling with superheated air. Whatever remained was carried into the yard this morning and arranged on rows of tables.
Once it was over, the contents of the house were irretrievable—as permanently gone and reduced to memories as if the place had just burnt to the cinder block foundation.
Everything must go.
All at once. Poof.
Instead of the crackle of flame, the patter of a septuagenarian in a cowboy hat:
Who’ll give me five now five now seven fifty, seven fifty, who’ll go seven fifty, c’mon boys, your wife called, said you could go seven fifty… Seven fifty! Now ten, ten, ten, who’ll give me ten now twelve now twelve… now fourteen… fourteen… fourteen…. Sold, twelve dollar, number 78.
Auctions equal nostalgia: so much of what sold today was acquired in the seventies at estate sales and is now twice-auctioned. I do love that sing-speak patter. I dig the faint mustiness of indoor stuff dragged into sunlight and morning air, cigar or even pipe smoke hanging over it from old guys come to see if they could get a deal. I need a coney on creased oval paper from the white trailer through a sliding window with ladies inside who seem to be the same ladies who were in there decades ago.
If I allow myself, I can be sentimental about anything.
Clinky clink, said the teapot lids.
My wife and I—before all this, before Mom had to move away because Dad was giving her stress-induced transient ischemic attacks, before Dad fell up the stairway and sprawled on the landing where he hit his head which erased the memory of the fall and led to him living in a nursing home, before lawyers helped us figure out complex finances—my wife and I had agreed we needed to downsize.
Therefore it was uncool for me to bring home too many treasures.
“Honey! Look! Boxes of teapots!”
Earlier Mom had texted from South Carolina. In general she had been brave about selling almost everything she owned, only hanging onto what she felt strongly about. She did great. But today, after a bad feeling about the auctioneer’s general lack of focus on her teapot collection, she’d become aware through texting with friends that the teapots were selling too cheaply. She needed us to save some, however many we could. Evan bid on some, I circled back for others. Those we managed to save were not necessarily the ones she would have wanted from the outset, but here they were.
Clinkety pank, said the random assortment as Evan and I walked them to the Jeep. They were safe now, huddled in these boxes like an odd group of wallflowers filmed by a news crew outside some awful disco inferno, the lucky ones who’d been standing near the exits and got out before the whole place went up, huddled now together under blankets.
Pank… pank, clink.
There was a vague sense we might take them home and sell them on eBay. Maybe we will. It’s a lot of work, though, and besides—it’s hard for me to let anything go.
Including the idea I might write a song someone would assign a value to and give me money for, like a teapot.
I’ve always been like this.
It’s not enough to write a great song about an Indy 500 driver, like Evan did. I want more and more and more people to hear it, to praise it, to remember it, to play it, to get it stuck in their heads. To buy it.
As a kid I’d walked these exact fields feeling that way with a Scottie at the end of a leash, a handsome little dog leftover from when we lived in town. After she died I walked a series of rougher mutts without leashes. As I’d walked, I’d sung the dogs songs I was writing.
From as early as I can remember music, I remember wanting to write music.
I started a high school rock band, with the son of a construction company owner. He played bass. I played Elton-John-inflected piano. We debuted at a talent show held during sixth period at our high school—the whole gym was electric with excitement. We killed with a raucous, wordless version of “Travelling Band” by CCR. It was transcendent. We brought down the house. Oh, Lord, what a feeling. Eventually we worked up an instrumental I’d written and the band won a talent show at the county seat town a few miles from our farmland school district, which I think helped recruit a charismatic plumber’s son who lived in that town and agreed to be our vocalist. He could sell “Turn the Page” and various Tom Petty songs. And “Tush” by ZZ Top. How exciting—a kid from the county seat with rock star charisma singing “Lord, take me downtown—I’m just looking for some tush,” while we jammed along behind him.
None of my lyrics were ever finished to the point that I could imagine the plumber’s son singing them.
One of the early songs went, “Black toothpick trees/That let go of their leaves/Are all that seem real when it snows…” I was stuck. I had no idea where that was leading. How were things other than the trees “unreal?” I didn’t know.
“The shadows dancing on the wall/Have one by one begun to fall/The people have not moved at all/Strange…” Again, stuck. What could it mean?
“Colonel Scott came home one night and found he had no home/He stopped the clock, unplugged the lights and cut the telephone/He pushed a chest of drawers over up against the door/And thought of friends who he knew from the war…” I had no idea where that was heading when I wrote it in high school, and have no idea now.
I was no Taylor Swift. I couldn’t have written “Fifteen” at 15, or 18—or now, even, obviously, since I’m still trying to figure out how to compose a marketable country song that’s personal without appearing contrived.
I still can’t make it work.
I’ve always just been a yowly singer in a field with a dog and pretensions.
Also teapots, on occasion.
I think of Freedy Johnston.
“I sold the dirt to feed the band” is a piercing lyric from his song “Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know.” He grew up in Kansas, but was compelled to write and sing and rock all night. So he moved to New York. When he inherited a farm, he sold it for his music. A few years ago, Freedy came to perform in an art gallery near downtown Indianapolis, and the people staging the event had a little reading beforehand. They requested I read one of these columns, actually, which I did. I chose the scene where I awkwardly sing on a Nashville open stage after a truly gifted performer had just slayed the room. I’m told Freedy murmured to the organizer he’d had similar experiences. Nice to think we share that—Freedy is obviously more driven than I am, definitely a better singer and songwriter. I can picture him walking around a farm, though, like me, warbling songs he was making up.
Then eventually selling that dirt.
To feed (and provide necessary medical care for) (in my case) the folks.
Dad’s still very much with us, calling every few days with complaints about the nursing home. Since neither he nor mom came to the sale, it felt like my sister and I were left alone to make like Freedy with the dirt. It’s a weird feeling.
That dirt is backdrop to happy memories—the dog and the songs—but there are plenty of icky ones, like Dad under stress (I can now sympathize with mid-life pressures) angrily saying unfair things about my mom as we built hot-wire fencing to keep cows contained. I remember wanting him to shut up very badly and imagined throwing a hammer at his head.
Included in the sale of the farm is that little Hallmark moment.
Let’s also toss in the memory of the dead breech calf my dad blamed me for not saving, feeling I should have identified the distressed mother when I checked on the cows after school while he was at work, alerting him before summoning the large animal vet. I probably gave the herd a cursory onceover that day and went in to pound out “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” on the piano that I spent most afternoons after school playing so aggressively that many of the keys broke. I learned to work around the broken keys, but it’s because of them we just left the piano inside the house for the new owner today and didn’t even try to auction it.
There’s plenty of memories to leave behind. The nights the well “lost its prime” and I couldn’t manage to hold the flashlight where Dad wanted. Mornings mom was furious with me for making the school bus wait because I’d been “dawdling.”
I’d like to think the good memories and funny stories win, though. Let’s say they do. Practicing “Jumping Jack Flash” with the band in the garage, for example, the role of Jagger played by the plumber’s son. Growing up on the farm, though, I’d never had occasion to hear the Rolling Stones’ version (we had sheet music!) and I insisted on making it a keyboard-centric tune, playing that famous riff on a Fender Rhodes piano borrowed from the high school band room: “Doont, doo, doo-dah-doo, doo-dah-doo…” Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Steely Dans!
And let’s not forget hours in the sunroom listening to music, from comedy albums to hundreds of 45s—a genre-ignorant mishmash, from “My Sharona” to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” from Blondie’s “One Way or Another” to Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away.” Nighttime, after I did homework, I’d put big headphones on with a spiral cord attached to a big console—and even with those Radio Shack ’phones the noise of actual farm crickets was so loud it blended with the recorded crickets on the transition between “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Sun King” on Abbey Road side two. In that room I listened to the original cast recording of The Music Man so much that I memorized all the words and sang those incredibly clever songs to the dogs when walking her/him/them, gracing them with a little Meredith Wilson when I wasn’t working on “Black Toothpick Trees” or failing to spot breech births or warbling Elton. “Cash for the merchandise, cash for the merchandise…”
The farm is where I first played with melody, interior rhyming and prosody—the pleasing sound of words supporting their own meaning—even as I failed to find resonant emotional truths.
Maybe I’ll figure it out eventually.
I’ve definitely managed to save a lot of material, these random memories from those farm days.
Who knows what any of them are actually worth.