Twilight Serenade

The two-lane that wound through the Arizona desert took its damn time getting to the middle of nowhere. That’s exactly where we were headed, so we followed it around gullies and over low ridges towards some bare-looking hills in the distance. About halfway through it passed by a deeper valley filled with treetops. A wooden Park Service sign indicated a campground. It was getting late, so we turned off and checked it out. It was perfect: a stream ran through it, there was a clean restroom, and the other people who had found their own way to the middle of nowhere seemed quiet types. No one was drunk, and there were no loud radios playing. We parked the van, got out, stretched the road cramps out of our shoulders, and sat at the picnic table. It was covered with sycamore leaves, which I swept off. Bob, who had been driving, said, “Guess it’s time to eat.”

“Hell, Bob, with you it’s always time to eat.”

Bob looked down at his considerable midsection and smiled. He had made his peace with himself long ago. He never said much, and never worked more than he had to to keep himself fed. He wasn’t, in fact, very good company, unless you were dedicated to exploring fast food culture in America, which we had done pretty thoroughly on the way out, but we’d known each other too long not to be friends.

Despite his hunger, he sat for a good while at the picnic table, listening to the twittering of birds hidden in the trees around us. Once in a while you could hear another camper’s voice, or the quiet wheedling of a radio. Big-bellied men in shorts wandered back and forth with their lumbering wives, sometimes trailing stick-thin pale kids along. No one looked at us. The license plates I could see were all from the Midwest. The sun was slowly collapsing towards the low hills in the west.

Bob indulged in a burst of activity that consisted of heaving himself into the van and emerging with a boxed turkey sandwich and a bag of what appeared to be yellow styrofoam packing peanuts, a cheese-flavored concoction for which he felt an inordinate fondness. A can of Coke rounded out the repast. I grabbed a bag of trail mix and a mushy apple. Gas-station food. Bob picked the lettuce off his turkey sandwich, claiming it gave him gas. The birds continued to twitter invisibly in the trees, while the strange pale children wandered about with sad faces. It was a good place to relax if you were tired of life, but I was glad I wasn’t a kid here. When I finished crunching trail mix, I got my tin cup out of the van and slugged water from the standpipe by the restroom. I don’t know how the hell they got piped water into the campground. There was no sign of a town nearby, and no electricity.

As we sat waiting for the day to end, I heard the sound of a bluegrass fiddle start up. At first I assumed it was a radio, but there was something different about it — a relaxed feeling, like the sound of someone humming to themselves. “Bob,” I said. “You hear that?”

He grunted.

“Sounds like live music. Want to take a walk? Free concert, man!”

Neither of us was fanatic about bluegrass, but what else was there to do? Bob said, “Naw. I’ve been driving all day. Don’t feel like walking.” His face slumped into the neutral expression that dominated it when he wasn’t being addressed directly.

“Suit yourself,” I said. I wandered off in the direction of the music.

It sounded better the closer I came to it. Eventually I found them at the edge of the campground, under a spindly metal windmill and a tank on stilts that explained the mystery of the piped water. Two old men in hats and long-sleeved shirts, playing fiddle and guitar in time to the creaking windmill. Six or seven of our fellow campers stood around watching. The two old farts weren’t playing tunes, just jamming together. The music rose and fell endlessly like the swallows that flew in the air beyond the windmill, chasing bugs. They were pretty damn good. Didn’t say a word, nor look at us; just played on till the sun sank away and the sky began to darken. Then they brought it all home.

“Gettin’ too damn dark to play,” the fiddler said.

The guitar picker grinned. “That’s my brother’s little joke,” he said. “You see, he’s blind.” They both chuckled. The guitar picker took his brother’s elbow and guided him back to an old pickup truck parked nearby, while the audience clapped quietly. I followed the brothers to their campsite. “You’re pretty good,” I said. “You pros?”

“Thanks,” said the blind brother. “Guess you could say so. We hit the festival circuit. On our way to Reno next.”

“Well, we might just follow you there. When’s the show?”

“Saturday. It’s the whole weekend, but Saturday’s when we play. Glad you liked our little twilight serenade.”

“Couldn’t have been better,” I said.

“Sure it coulda,” said the guitar picker. “But it was all right, wasn’t it?” He gave his brother a gentle nudge.

“We been doing this since we was kids,” said the blind fiddler.

“I believe it,” I told them. “Thanks.”

They tilted their hats at me, and I went back to the campsite.

I could see Bob’s legs through the open side door of the van, and I knew he was asleep already. It was too early for me. I leaned back on the picnic table and watched the sky. I stayed there a long time while the campground went to sleep, bit by bit. Some time later, a meteor shower began to draw tiny faint streaks across the summer stars crowding the sky. I lay myself on my back on the picnic table and watched the show until I fell asleep.