The Nest Egg
‘Lost the front burner on my stove. Gong to Clark Town Electric to get a replacement.’
Morgana’s message, in misspelled pencil on newsprint torn from a month old Clark Town Gazette, was stuck to her front door with a wad of still-damp chewing gum. She used to spell better, I thought. Sniffing the fresh spearmint flavor from my index finger, I knew she hadn’t been gone long. There was still a hint of dust in the air where she customarily parked her rust red ’99 Ford F150. I’d just walked a full half-mile, mostly uphill, in sticky Carolina humidity to propose to her, only to find this note. Because I always read out loud, a sentence at a time, pausing to catch my breath. “They might not stock a thirty-seven year old burner.” Cough. “They’ll try to sell you a new stove,” I predicted. “Probably a good idea. Do they know their ten dollar delivery charge won’t nearly cover,” gasp, “hauling it all this way?” The road, proper, ends about fifteen descending switchback miles down. Then it’s a gully all the way, and a fast river in a hard rain. Depending on the weather, they’d need a helicopter or ATV, and a team of husky deliverymen to install it. But that wasn’t my problem.
My old white and rusting ’68 Chevy Van (hey, I’d really liked the song) hadn’t started in a year and it barely ran when it did. Now the tires looked melted into the ground and vines climbed the doors, anchoring it to the earth, hence my hiking. What took me a twenty minute jog ten years back had taken me a solid hour, walking, not running, and having to stop several times to pant and sip water, once for peeing. My visit was motivated by my need for a ride to the doctor’s office in Clark Towne, which was a twenty mile trip down that infamous road.
I’d decided it was time to propose marriage. It was my calculation that she couldn’t refuse a ride into town to a fiancé. But, as I’ve mentioned, she and her truck were gone.
I cussed her out for her absence, and only because she wouldn’t hear it. “I climbed this goddamn hill to propose to you,” huff, “the least you could goddamn do is be here. Son of a bitch.” I’m not a very eloquent profaner, Morgana’s a Shakespeare by comparison, she’d slander you and you’d ask her for a copy. I’d have asked for her hand some weeks back but I’d only just found an engagement ring I liked I know you’re supposed to find one she’ll like, but Morgana liked anything that sparkled, and this one, a huge M embedded with gems, had just arrived in the mail. It was a hum-dinger, it could blind you if the lighting was right, and some of the stones were allegedly diamonds. I was sure she would accept my proposal because she was the marrying kind, and was currently single due to the demise, three months back, of Spencer the dairy man, her last spouse; I’d be her twelfth husband, if memory serves.
I’d fallen in love with her long ago, when we were teens and had just started writing songs together, but Morgana sensed we’d make beautiful music together and that business should be kept separate from love; she was always suspicious of anything from me that might be considered courtly. “No entanglements,” she’d say, wagging her finger at me when we were teens practicing our music and I had amorous thoughts. “Business and romance don’t mix.” I’d abided by that rule for many a year, but now she’d been single for three long months and I knew her loneliness would bring on another betrothal. And our business had long since faded.
We wrote many bad songs to get some good ones, and were blessed by becoming recording stars of lesser fame. ‘Les and Lovey’, that was our stage name, me being Lester Finch. Morgana Crump’s name didn’t abbreviate well, so we went with Lovey. We were both born in nearby Winship, so meeting at the VFW talent show as teens was almost inevitable and made for quaint liner notes. I played a sharp rhythm guitar back then, and Morgana was a superb pianist. I was the better vocalist, but together we sounded good enough to record. ‘Let the Love Shine Through,’ that was our first hit. It was Number Four on Billboard until Kenny Rogers replaced us with ‘Coward of the County’. Our fourth track, ‘Main Street Blues’, that one stayed Number One for three months, until Dolly Parton bumped us with I forget which of her songs. Our album stayed Top 40 for almost a year and went platinum, a country-folk-rockabilly fusion, so the critics called it. We had the two hit songs, three lesser known, a year of arena concerts warming crowds for bigger stars, forty cities in forty days, nights blurred by bus rides. That was our payday, and with that level of fame the craziness rose up and surrounded and suffocated us like a rubber blanket. We toured our asses off. Morgana discovered heroin with that damn son g, courtesy of a roadie I fired. She sounded like Janis singing it, and she had the habit as well.
And then we faded, as we’d begun to pray.
Fame cooled, and then we found we wanted it back, ain’t that always the way? We wrote several more tunes, even tried to copy our previous success with similar melodies, but the songs didn’t chart, radio play dwindled. Venues got smaller, the paydays got lighter. We got angry at each other, we fired the band, we had public fights, trashed at least one hotel suite, she and I ruined one concert by going out very intoxicated, forgetting our lyrics, arguing on stage and walking off. Shortchanging the fans, that was the bottom for us, we were both ashamed of ourselves. We went on what our second manager, Hairy Frank (all I can recall of him now is the nickname) called ‘hiatus’.
She took a long trip to Asia and studied with Buddhists, and didn’t answer the letter I sent her. I worked as a studio musician and built a cabin near hers. When it was finished I went in and shut the door and wouldn’t answer for anyone but her. After a year, people stopped knocking. She came back a year or so later, cleansed by the monks, and wanting a good cheeseburger. She knocked, exotically tattooed, with her head shaved, and I opened the door.
Though Morgana was once the sort of gal who would step out for cigarettes and a month later you’d get a postcard from Niagara Falls, I knew she would return to her cabin. Besides caring for Faron, her forty year old work in progress, she couldn’t abide the real world. The Post Office and Town Grocery and Liquor store drew her down the mountain for brief visits every few weeks. A normal soul would stop by more often, but she couldn’t function out there anymore, I know because I couldn’t either. Back in the day, strangers would call out “Lester! Lovey!”, and sometimes they were simply fans and that was nice, but more often they were hoping we’d make them famous, listen to their tape, get them an agent. We ordered everything, food, clothes, delivered, to avoid being in public; that all ceased to be necessary some years ago, but now we’re shy and can’t help it. I can tell you for a fact, neither of us has a television and I don’t have a working phone. Every once in a while one of us buys a paper and the news breaks through and always the world seems to have gone deeper into crazy, compelling us to tuck in deeper.
Morgana was wonderfully determined to read and respond to all her fan mail, and back when it came in bags she needed chemical help to get through all the offers of marriage, of great investments, of spiritual guidance, and still some charming, ball-point honest-to-God fan letters; now it was a letter or two a month, a glass of wine and a teary-eyed reading of a devoted fan’s memories of a concert decades back. Her fan letters are finally few enough that she can write kindly responses.
Me? I haven’t had a fan letter this millennium. But I don’t have her brown eyes.
We’re both seventy now and our last gig was six years ago, at a retirement community in nearby Winship. Us and a couple other one-hit wonders from back in the day, entertaining other blue hairs. Some performers think that’s the final (lucrative) humiliation, playing the elderly circuit. “That wasn’t half bad,” I’d said off stage; I’d enjoyed it more than I’d expected to. The crowd was great about singing along whether you asked them to or not, but Morgana kicked her keyboard over and poured a bottle of water on it, which caused a bright arc and popped a circuit breaker which took out the dressing room lights. “I quit,” she said to the smoldering keyboard in the dark. “Pass it on.”
Her cabin is a good destination after a hard climb up No Name Mountain in July, because she has an outside well and her water is pure ecstasy. I pulled up the bucket, an old galvanized one, and used the dipper to slake my thirst. Almost as good as whiskey, that water. I drank, and poured a little over my sweaty noggin, and noticed a couple of her exterior logs needed caulking and made a mental note to do it, though she’d said she didn’t like me working on her home, she didn’t want the obligation.
I found a piece of shade under a birch and lay down to wait for her, hoping to doze, but my little backpack made a lousy pillow. Trying to soften it, I removed a dozen coverless James Bond paperbacks that I’d considered a find at a yard sale a year back, a pack of indecent cards from where I didn’t recall, found again a copy of a Jehovah’s Witness Bible I wanted to throw out but feared to, an orange I’d put in for emergency food but no hunger was ever strong enough to peel it, and finally, the true blame for discomfort, the brick of paper checks payable to me, bound tightly, hundreds of them, each for three dollars and seventy-nine cents or less. I riffled through them again; the eldest was from 1983, for just seventy cents, from HardTimes Records. Hardtimes was bought six times in the eighties, as reflected on check banners, finishing as Supreme Music, Inc., out of Delaware. With inflation, the original seventy cents crept to eighty-cents, then to ninety-four cents; it broke the dollar barrier ten years back and jumped to $3.99. I’d counted them up when I found them for the third time, a month ago, and it came out to five thousand and change. I’d once had money, but friends and relatives took loans they never repaid, and on the advice of our second manager I bought some city properties that, in 2008, lost their value. What was left was a trickle of modest paychecks for being the songwriter of ‘Main Street Blues’, and a reminder that somewhere, someone, was always listening. Without a mortgage, living simply, my Social Security covers the bills, but I needed more cash now, for medical reasons. Morgana had convinced me Medicare was a scam, though I can’t recall the roots of that talk now. It was time to cash in my nest egg.
It was a warm day and I’d dozed off. “Mister Lester?” I woke to a stick in my belly.
“Faron, you moron,” I grumped. “I’m gonna shove that stick up your...” Faron is a misfit Morgana insisted on house training, with limited success. “When is your Mom coming back?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said mournfully, kneeling by me. He stands almost seven feet tall and buzzes his scalp. I think he might be forty, he doesn’t seem to show much age, but he’s strong as an ox and he’s very loyal and protective of her. “I was hoping you did. She left just before you showed. How long is that?” Like a dog, Faron had no concept of time.
It was past noon, past one in fact. “It’s maybe forty-five minutes into town, if the road’s in good shape. What would keep her there so long?” asked Faron. “Can you make me lunch? I ate all the cereal for breakfast. I’m starving.”
I needed to get out of the sun, so we stepped inside her cabin. That is a privacy invasion I’m very wary of, reminded by a shotgun blast that whistled past my ear last April 1st when I had the bad idea of April-fooling her, so I kept the door open wide so I could hear her truck coming. I found what looked like potato salad drying out in a cracked ceramic bowl. I set it on the table, found a fork in the drawer and called him. “Come an’ get it.” Faron will eat absolutely anything you put in front of him, and so he did.
My stomach rumbled and I considered peeling my orange, but I just don’t like citrus. Faron scooped his food like a prison inmate, one arm a barrier and head bent over the bowl protectively. He emptied it in about a minute, then leaned back and burped softly. “Whatcha doing here?” he asked, appetite calmed, making conversation.
“I’m waiting on your mother, obviously,” I said.
“She says she don’t like you, but I think she actually does.” He smiled his mischievous smile; he’d lost a lower tooth since I’d last seen him, three weeks back. “You axing her to marry you?” he asked, fishing around. Couldn’t blame him, Morgana still got at least one marriage proposal a season and had a wall of wedding photos, as well as a few from our performing days. I looked at them for the dozenth time; she wore sandals and a robe in her first wedding, to our first manager Joe Ziti, who we eventually fired when money went missing; then there were a couple pix from the eighties with her big hair, both knot-tyings to backup musicians, then the grander photo with seventeen bridesmaids when she married the (bankrupt) millionaire, Godfrey Dole. Her last three sacred joinings took place under the lights of Vegas. She’d stopped wearing white after number six, but she had glossy photos of all of them, she was the sentimental type. The only adornment hanging in my cabin was a faded, framed copy of the album jacket of ‘Introducing Les and Lovey!’, with both of us on it, looking much, much younger.
That was when I heard the tape, an old one it must have been, of us singing ‘Main Street Blues’. I’d stopped playing my copy years back for the sake of not wearing it out (and I sure as hell ain’t playing an empty-3 or whatever). Morgana had speakers mounted in the rooms, so the song followed you through the house.
‘So you say it’s time to say good-bye,
Love’s a bad idea sometimes,
We gave it our best run,
You’re leaving me on Main Street,’
I heard my recorded voice, nicely doctored by studio magic, for the first time in around five years, and her sexy growl singing rhythm. My God, we sounded good, even if the lyrics were, frankly, crap. “Why are you playing that?” I asked Faron.
“When she’s gone a while I get lonely, and I want to hear her voice,” he said, and sounding like a five year old he maybe softened my heart a little. We both listened to the rest of the album in silence, and we were both a bit misty eyed when it ended.
Sometime later, after I’d looked through her mail and gave up on finding any beer, I saw her dust cloud down the slope, above the wild flowers, coming home. “There’s mama!” yelled Faron, and that reminded me that marrying Morgana would rope me to Faron as well, and that gave me pause to reconsider. She came to a hard stop that made the front tires plow gravel and the old truck squeak.
“God dammit, Lester, do you need another warning shot?” She was wearing a new straw cowboy hat and when she took it off I saw her new hair cut, short as a banker’s. Accustomed to it silvery and halfway down her back, the way she’d customarily worn it, I did a double-take when we met in the kitchen. “That you?” I asked, “You got your hair cut.”
“As always, you are a master of the obvious. Your kitchen burn down?” she asked. Her face was almost as it looked on our thirty year old record albums, soft crows feet now aside her deep brown eyes, a half-smile, slightly upturned nose. Small wonder I’ve been in love with her so long, me and half the population, perhaps more than half. If only she’d been a little pickier in choosing mates. Likely hungry, she opened the refrigerator door and said, glaring at me, “Someone ate all the tater salad.”
“That would be your pet.”
“If you ain’t here to steal food, why are ya?”
“I’m here to ask you a question.” Then, with considerable effort, I got on one knee – one of them’s a replacement and it actually works faster than the other, so it takes some coordination if I don’t want to end up rolling like a tumbleweed. I fished the ring from my pocket and extended it. “Morgana, would you,” I had to snag a breath, “be so kind as to –"
“Get up,” she ordered, arms crossed, frowning, then smiling. “Why on earth are you proposing? What do you need that I have?” She took the ring, studied the stones curiously, and set it in a glass ashtray next to her wristwatch she never wore.
She knew me too well. I called Faron over to help pull me back up. “I need a ride into town. I got bank business.” She opened my pack, rooted around and retrieved the rubber-banded bundle.
“Your nest egg? Didn’t I tell you four years back to deposit these? Why are you cashing them in now?” She had nothing but Social Security now, that’s what marrying men who think you’re rich will do to your savings.
“Have to pay a bill.”
“Must be one hell of a bill.” She’d taken me for a doctor’s visit a month ago. “So, what did the doctor find?”
“That one of my organs isn’t lasting as long as I need,” I admitted. I sat down, and then I might have looked scared, I really don’t remember.
“Heart? Kidney? Big toe?” she quizzed me.
“Heart. I need to have it worked on.” Huff. “And that’s why I was proposing. Cause I’ll,” cough, “need the ride and then I’ll need to lay in bed for a little while after,” gasp, “after they’re done with me.”
“I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad,” she said gently. She drove me in without accepting my proposal and followed me into the bank, where Assistant Manager Michael Amendola spent twenty minutes arguing with me over what checks they would honor. He was a balding youngish fellow, aging before my eyes. “I counted these up four times,” I insisted, sitting in front of his desk, my checks on his mahogany, sorted by decade. “Totals up to six thousand,” cough, “four hundred thirty nine dollars. And nine cents.” Yeah, my total got a little higher every time I reported it, as I figured nobody wanted to count them all.
“Typically, Lester, six months is the longest a check can be held,” he explained, going on the third time. This last time he tucked my name in to see if it helped. “A hundred and eighty days, more or less. You’ve got checks here,” he picked up a classic, eighty-nine cents, cut in 1984 and sun-faded, “this one’s older than me. If I cash this that means my bank goes to this non-existent corporation looking for eighty-nine cents.”
“Humph. I was taught a check is the same as money,” I fibbed. Grandpaw had counselled me never to take a check, as a grocer in the Depression he’d had too many bounce. “You saying a dollar bill printed,” I wasn’t really short of breath, but I wanted to leverage my ailment, “scuse me, a bill printed in 1983 wouldn’t spend today?”
“It would have been pulled from circulation long ago,” said Amendola, looking concerned. “I-I can help you a little, Lester, but it won’t be all six thou.” Morgana finally dragged me out with five thousand. “And frankly, I think Mister Amendola gave you charity for most of it. Plus you was starting to swear.”
“I’ve saved those checks for years, until I needed them,” I insisted, getting a little sentimental as we headed for the clinic.
“Shoulda cashed them,” she said brusquely. “There’s a lesson. Now let’s see what the sawbones says.”
Doctor Mahmoud, a tall, lean fellow from India with cold hands, had excellent English. “Mr. Lester,” he said dryly, and limply shook my hand. He nodded at Morgana. “After looking at your tests, I think we are looking at bypass surgery. You’ve got massive blockage. I think a quadruple bypass is the only answer.”
“How much is that?” Morgana asked, and when Mahmoud mentioned a number with a five and at least four zeroes, she said that was too much. “Can’t afford it.” It was good to have her there, doing the hard work with numbers, a necessity I’ve always found uncomfortable.
“I can promise you ninety percent success and you’ll feel much better afterwards.”
Morgana leaned forward, one hand on his desk, and said kindly, “that sounds wonderful, but he can’t afford it. He ain’t got no ins-urance. Are you willing to wait ten years to get paid?”
Mahmoud frowned at that thought.
“What can you do for… three grand?”
Now, this is why Morgana had been our best business manager. Over the years she got us more money for concerts and better hotel rooms and better whiskey while waiting for the show to start. She was looking for a deal and darned if we didn’t get one. He studied an x-ray closely, holding it against a light, tracing some spots with his well manicured finger. “Well, one of these arteries could take a stent. That will improve your circulation by about fifteen percent. And I can repair this valve for now. I can’t guarantee how much better you’ll feel.”
“He’ll feel better enough. So, where do we get a valve from?” she asked. The doctor talked about a tissue match. “Do we have to get a real person’s valve? Doesn’t GE or Mopar make something like this?” I was going to suggest to her, privately, that we use Faron as a tissue match, as I had known for years that he was my son. We’ve never brought it up, and we still haven’t, though I once pretended to size him up as a kidney donor and Morgana whacked me with a piece of firewood. “Home correction,” she’d warned me.
The best valves, they cost more than we had, Dr. Mahmoud explained. “I’ve heard of a Chinese version, I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I need to do some reading, but if I find good analysis I’ll put in this new Chinese valve. I can write up the operation and get published in a medical journal, which helps my practice. And I’ll only charge you nine hundred because you will be what we call a guinea pig.” And later I learned the Chinese gave him the valve free, just for the publicity, though we still had to pay the nine hundred. And most of two grand got spent on pills.
Things have worked out well. I’m not short of breath anymore. Morgana and I are courting while I convalesce; this mostly amounts to me getting out my six string and her on a new used keyboard remembering our old times, which sometimes finishes with what the kids now call mattress dancing, but she hasn’t said ‘yes’. I wrote a dozen more songs from her couch, including ‘My New Valve’ and ‘Nest Egg’ that she assures me are crap. The day I walked over I had to stop every five minutes to catch my breath. I can walk to my own cabin now, a half mile away, without a rest. The Chinese valve and that stent did improve my endurance, which I hope to prove on our prospective honeymoon, and with the money we saved we bought a new stove, fancy one at that, as Morgana is a good cook. The doc appears at medical talks to pitch the Chinese valve and I show up healthy and stand and wave and get paid, so I’ve started another nest egg. I got check number seven yesterday, and these are for a hundred or more, and this morning after coffee I’m not supposed to have, Morgana announced, “We’re going into town and deposit these checks. Nest eggs belong in the bank, not your backpack.”
Then she picked up the ring I’d offered her and tried it on. “That’s purty,” she said, smiling mischievously at it, then leaned back to take me in again, as if looking for my best side. “Maybe I am ready for another. Specially one with some savings. Since you’re layin’ here already.”
“What’s different?” I asked her, filling with joy but not quite trusting it. “I’ve been in love with you forever, and you turned down all my previous proposals.”
She pursed her lips, reluctant to let a personal truth escape, but then said, “You’ve changed. You used to think you could do everything, even when you couldn’t, which was most of the time. Self-reliant and stubborn is not a combination I could love. But now, it appears you need me.” She leaned over and kissed me, and not since high school had she planted one on me like that. “Makes you a bit more attractive, somehow.”
Then I felt happy, something I hadn’t truly felt in a long time. Morgana began humming a tune and picking it out on her keyboard. I recognized it – the Wedding Song. She’s always liked Peter, Paul and Mary. And no, Faron will not be my best man. Perhaps Mr. Amendola would do the honors? He’s been a lot happier to see me of late.
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