This is a story I wrote about 3-4 years ago. Like many of my stories, it is about the bittersweet life in the mountains of my home... the hills of Kentucky.
Christmas Eve morning in Beloved is glorious, as you most likely expect. There was a good bit of snow on the ground like folks had ordered a white Christmas. The decorations an’ lights just glowed in the soft mornin’ light. Annie Pankey was up an’ directin’ traffic on Main Street. Somewhere she had gotten an orange “safety patrol belt that went around the waist and over the shoulder. Never mind it was for youngin’s to wear…never mind that it had the badge from Dayton, Ohio City Schools on it. It looked right official an’ folks was followin’ Annie’s directions all mornin’ long. Most of the directin’ involved keepin’ folks from parkin’ in front of “Pankey’s Hankies” – Annie’s antique store.
The Henny Penney was full, as usual on any given mornin’. Men folk gathered each mornin’ to discuss weather, crops an’ politics. Christmas Eve mornin’ was no different. There was good-natured kidding’ about what one man or another bought his wife. Beanie Collins had slipped a Sears and Roebuck ad for women’s underwear into Buck Smith’s coat pocket an’ had Uncle Billy Gilbert just happen to find it. Everyone roared when Uncle Billy innocently grabbed it an’ pulled it into view an asked, “why, Buck, what in the world is this? You getting’ Lucinda somethin’ frilly an’ unmentionable from Santy?”
Buck Smith turned four or five shades of red an’ Roscoe Goins suggested that one particular shade of red would be a great color for some silk drawers for Lucinda. ‘Course, Buck got him back when he beaned Roscoe with a snowball as they was leavin’.
As folks were laughin’ an’ enjoyin’ the company of friends, the door to the Henny Penny opened an’ in comes Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark. Everyone cheered when Bottlecap Bobby walked in. He was sort of a local celebrity these days an’ was from over to Peabody, close to Double Creek. His family had lived for many years just on the other side of the low water bridge just across the Red Bird River. Uncle Billy made room for Bottlecap Bobby in the booth where he was sittin’ with Hap Collins.
Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark was Bobby’s stage name. Bobby had played bluegrass music for many years an’ he went with the tide as it became popular across the country. Now there was a big ol’ bus parked out in the back of the Henny Penney parkin’ lot with his name – “Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark and The Glass Bottle Band” on the side of the bus. Bobby traveled all over the country an’ had even been to Europe playin’ ol’ bluegrass tunes on his banjo, guitar an’ dobro.
No matter where Bottlecap Bobby was durin’ the year, he always took a Christmas break an’ ended up in Beloved. After he visited for a while he would head over an’ across that low water bridge over the Red Bird River to where his Mama an’ Daddy still lived. ‘Course, their standard of livin’ was a lot better these days. When Bottlecap Bobby’s career had first taken off, he had bought them the biggest doublewide that he could get up Route 66 an’ over that bridge. Three years ago he had moved the doublewide out an’ built them a big ol’ house with a full basement AN’ attached garage.
Hap Collins didn’t know Bobby as well as some of the fellers sittin’ ‘round the Henny Penny an’ was right taken by this star sittin’ with plain folks. He said how honored he was an’ Bobby laughed. Told Hap he was just an ol’ drunk the good Lord saw fit to straighten up an’ bless a little bit.
Hap didn’t know the story an’ apologized for bein’ nosy. Bobby laughed an’ told him not to worry. He even asked if Hap would like to hear the story of his life. Hap an’ all the rest of the men said yes an’ Bobby went out to the bus to get his banjo. By this time a couple of the boys in the band had roused an’ came in. They headed out to the bus to get instruments an’ Bessie Bowling grinned as she opened the back meetin’ room.
“Y’all need to move it back here for this. I need to make some Christmas tips an’ y’all are keepin’ them seats way too long.”
Everyone grinned sheepishly as they got up an’ moved to the meetin' room. Bessie noticed that several of them men shelled out way bigger tips than they usually left. She didn’t know if it was a Christmas tip or if she had shamed them into leavin’ it. Bessie didn’t much mind, though. Them tips would help pay for more college up to Berea College where she went to school.
Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark an’ his band settled in an’ started to tune up. They played a few riffs as folks got settled in’ an’ then took off with some of the best bluegrass a man will ever hear this side of Ralph Stanley. The upright bass player did one of the longest bass fiddle solos ever heard in bluegrass music an’ the fellers listenin’ clapped and carried on for a long time.
Then things got quiet an’ the band played real slow an’ low as Bobby began to talk. His story started out with his birth to good folks over at the Red Bird Mission Hospital. He came from good stock an’ his folks were some good people. Bobby was another story. He told of a youth wasted early on with drinkin’, gamblin’ an’ runnin’ with the wrong bunch of boys.
He learned to play about anything a feller could play. His Daddy taught Bobby the dobro, mandolin, bass fiddle an’ banjo. His Uncle Delmer taught his the guitar an’ even the trumpet. For a while Bobby traveled around playin’ for honky-tonks an’ bars. Folks said he might amount to somethin’ if he straightened up.
One branch of the Clark family got involved in a feud years back with some Delvins an’ it had gone on for years. Bobby got right in the middle of it an’ shot a boy in the back. He was egged on by his cousins who was too scairt to shoot. Bobby stood there when that boy fell an’ rolled over. That boy laid there an’ looked at Bobby for a long time. Bobby’s cousins told him to shoot the boy an’ get on with the feudin’.
Bobby looked into the eyes of that boy an’ his heart broke. He asked the boy’s name an’ the boy said it was Charlie Delvin. Bobby picked Charlie Delvin up an’ carried him in his arms for miles to his Daddy’s home across that low water bridge. He cried out to his Daddy an’ they loaded that Delvin boy into a truck an’ drove him to the Red Bird Mission Hospital. The Doctor was able to remove the bullet an’ Charlie’s folks came as quick as someone could get up to their home.
When asked who shot him, Charlie Delvin told his folks he didn’t know, but that if it weren’t for Bobby D. Clark comin’ along, he reckoned he would have laid on the side of that hill where he was shot an’ died. That single lie effectively ended the feud between the Clarks an’ the Delvins.
Bobby didn’t get over the shootin’ as easy as Charlie did. It haunted him an’ drove him with demons that he could not shake. Charlie’s gift had changed his life an’ kept him from goin’ to the pen…but it couldn’t get rid of the guilt that haunted Bobby.
Bobby tried to drown his demon with good corn likker. He tried to drown it with homebrew, muscadine wine an’ even pure grain alcohol. Bobby tried to kill it with hard livin’ an’ takin’ risks, but the demon an’ Bobby D. Clark lived through all of it.
Eventually, Bobby D. Clark ended up with the soiled reputation and wasted life of the town drunk. He was the man folks walked over when he laid passed out behind a bar. Bobby would try to play his banjo for a couple of drinks, but eventually his talent left his shaky hands an’ Bobby sold all his instruments.
Bobby paused for a while as he got to this part of the story. He played quietly on his banjo an’ the boys in the band followed along. Tears ran down his face an’ his short pause became a long round of playin’ as the boys took out an’ played some sad songs. The boy on the fiddle had come in an’ ended the playin’ with “Blue Christmas”.
Bobby cleared his throat an’ continued. He told of wakin’ up behind the ol’ barn that Peanut Chappell had turned into an illegal bar. Peanut called it “Peanut’s Palace”. Bobby woke up feelin’ more like the fool than a king.
Bobby saw Charlie Delvin goin’ into the barn an’ called to him. Charlie came over an’ Bobby asked if he would go in an’ get him a little somethin’ to drink. Charlie stood for a while lookin' at him an’ then went in. A moment later he returned an’ handed him a bottle. Bobby thanked him an’ sat there holdin’ the bottle in shame.
When Charlie left, Bobby looked an’ realized Charlie Delvin had brought him a Coke. After he cussed Charlie for a while he found a bottle opener an’ opened the Coke. He held the bottle cap in his hand for a long while as he drank the Coke down in one long swallow.
Then he looked at the bottle cap. He stared at it a long time. Bobby turned it over in his hands again an’ again. More than once he read the bottle cap.
At this point Bobby stopped an’ all the band stopped too. “That bottle cap changed my life. I stopped drinkin’ that day. I worked in the tobaccer till I had money to buy back my banjo. For weeks an’ months I sat on the porch of my Daddy an’ Mama’s ol’ house an; relearned all that likker had taken away. Daddy retaught me all I had forgotten an’ all I did was work in the tobaccer, sweat the alcohol poisons out of me an’ practice. Daddy bought me a dobro an’ I kept playin.”
Bobby grinned, “After a while I got me a hat to keep the sun off my head an’ I put that bottle cap on my hat. I never from that first day drank anything stronger than Coke. About six months later I saw Charlie Delvin an’ stopped him as he was goin’ into the Dobson’s General Store. I asked him if I could buy him a Coke an’ he grinned an’ said “Yessir”. I did an’ when he took the cap off the bottle he looked at it an’ handed it to me.”
“I think this here cap is yours.” Charlie Delvin said.
“Bobby continued, “I took the cap an’ looked it over. I shook his hand right there, asked him to forgive me for that day long ago an’ Charlie Delvin hugged me right there in front of the Dobson’s Store.”
“I took that bottle cap home an added it to my hat. I have worn it to this day with them two bottle caps. That’s why they call me ‘Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark, Hap…’cause of them two bottle caps.”
Everyone grinned as they listened to a tale of rags to riches. They grinned because all it took to drown them demons was a good bottle of Coke. Bobby went on to play all over the country – even on WSN an’ the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Hap asked what it was about that first bottle cap that turned Bobby around. Bobby took his hat off an’ handed it to Hap. The first bottle cap had two short sentences on it…”Drink Coke. Play Again”
Bobby explained that even though he knew that cork lining was a game piece for a contest Coke was havin’, it was his wake-up call. He took them words to heart, never drinkin’ again. He did exactly what the bottle cap told him to do. He drank Coke AN’ he played again.
The second bottle cap? The one Charlie Delvin handed him outside of the Dobson’s General Store? It said, “You’re a winner!”
The band played for a long time with Bobblecap Bobby D. Clark playin’ one song after another. After a while he stopped an’ the men gathered ‘round clapped an’ slapped Bobby on the back.
Bobby put that hat back on his head, called to Bessie Bowling for some breakfast an’ the men of Beloved settled in for good natured talk about the weather, crops an’ politics. Later that mornin’ the big bus left the Henny Penney Restaurant an’ headed up Route 66 toward that low water bridge that crosses the Red Bird River over close to Peabody, Kentucky. Like every year, he was home for Christmas.