So much of the music that blew through the dormitories - with the smell of dirty socks - or was always blaring out of the juke box in town at Edgar's Diner - with the smell of burgers and fried onions - so much of the music in the air then - so dumb and stupid and the singers so lacking in life - Julius Larosa, Teresa Brewer, Frankie Laine - so discouraging, this music, because it did not connect in any way to anything I wanted or anything that seemed real.
So much of it this way. Then suddenly everywhere from all the radios and juke boxes there was something else. Burl Ives. Sad and strong and real.
On top of Old Smokey
All covered with snow
I lost my true lover
From courting too slow.
` It was instantly my music. It reminded me of how sweetly sad and hopeless life could be, which made me think at the same time of possible happiness and hope - of life that might succeed or might fail but would be warm and important - a life of love and longing - a life where the stakes would be very high.
For courting's a pleasure
And parting is brief
And a false-hearted lover
Is worse than a thief.
Kitty was singing the Burl Ives songs now - "Foggy, Foggy Dew," not "Napoleon's Retreat" - "Wayfaring Stranger" and "I Know Where I'm Going," not "Blueberry Hill" or "Shrimp Boats Are A-comin'".
She is singing in the back baggage area of our plain maroon Chevrolet sort of
station wagon - not quite a station wagon since there is no wood on it. Kitty and I and my twin brother don't drive yet ourselves so Mother and Dad are driving Peter and me back from New Hampshire from the end-of-the-school-year-weekend where the seniors - what we call Sixth Formers - graduate and even the rest of us can bring dates to dance in the gym and rent boats on Squam Lake. Kitty's skirt is pulled up high and her fine, rounded bare legs are stretched out and up from where she sits in the baggage area, her heals resting on a narrow metal ledge beneath the permanently closed rear window.
Her skirt had gotten wet when she and I strolled off and found a brook while
Mother and Dad were having pre-lunch drinks in a parking lot near the Vermont border - "It is a crime what they charge for simple high balls in these roadside places." They always chose to have cheap blended whiskey and tepid water in the car. We could smell it as we got close from our stroll - holding hands, stopping to kiss - back from a place so foreign from this family scene.
And now we were moving again - Mother and Dad in the front arguing about the route - in the next seat my seemingly helpless southern grandmother and the good twin Peter. Peter would glance back and try but fail to smile. I thought maybe it had been bad enough for him when I was so inept and unhappy that I was an embarrassment - and worse now that I was so far outside the family even here in this family car.
And Kitty sang in this place where music seemed so unlikely - as the car rose
and fell with the hills we were traversing - singing Bur Ives :
And the grave will decay you
And turn you to dust...
And I chimed in being funny, pretending to sing harmony that I could not sing: "Turn you to dust."
"Not one girl in fifty," Kitty sang, "That a poor boy can trust."
And we kept on - "Snow," "too slow," "decay you," "To dust."
They'll hug you and kiss you
And tell you more lies
Than cross ties on the railroad
Or stars in the sky.
This moment with Kitty all the more sweet knowing betrayal could never, ever, be far away.
Kitty and I kept singing and laughing down Vermont, across Massachusetts, into Connecticut all the way to the Sound, and no one else laughed. And for years
Mother and Dad and Peter would do snide dinner table imitations of me singing "On Top of Old Smokey."
So come you young maidens
And listen to me
Never place you affections
On a green willow tree.
The leaves they will wither,
The roots they will die
You'll all be forsaken
And never know why.