Johnson County Library and The Writers Place are pleased to announce that Timothy Tankard has won the open category of our writing contest on the theme of MUSIC with "The Crawdad Song".
Tankard grew up in Kansas City and lives here now. His jobs over the years have included teaching high school and junior college English, newspaper reporting and editing, and computer programming. (That's what has paid the bills!) He's had a few stories published in literary journals, including Kansas City's New Letters magazine. He likes to play music with his wife Valerie. They have two grown kids, Frank and Kitty, and a not so grown dog named Serenade.
The Crawdad Song
I’m standing on the ledge outside my bedroom window, about to light a reefer, when my father walks into my room. From the dark I watch him look around in the lamplight, and then he opens my desk drawer and starts rummaging through it. I know what he’s after.
I step back in through the window, which doesn’t seem to surprise him.
“You shouldn’t be out there,” he says. “How many times I gotta tell you?”
“Oh, maybe a hundred,” I say. He’s in his usual late night getup: white boxing shorts, sleeveless undershirt, bottle of beer, flip flops. For some reason he never goes barefoot, not even at home. “What’s up?”
“You got any smokes?” Though he scolds me for smoking, he’s not above bumming one when he runs out. That’s only fair, since I’d stolen plenty from him when I was underage.
“I quit!” I grin, digging a pack from my pocket. He takes two, tucking the second behind his ear.
“You should quit.” He lights up, staring at that cigarette as if it’s a bomb. “We didn’t know any better when I was your age.”
Back when Dad was my age he was a linebacker on his college football team. He was studying pre-med and majoring in chemistry and math, all on the GI bill. Then Mom got pregnant. Dad busted a kneecap skating. Eventually he graduated and landed a job at Western Auto.
Looking at him, you wouldn’t guess he’s had a heart attack, bypass surgery, and two DWI’s. When he grew a mustache people said he looked like Charles Bronson, though I didn’t see it.
Yesterday afternoon, when I came home for spring break, my sister Katy told me Mom had rented an apartment and planned to move out. Being away at college I’d grown detached from these things, but Katy was in high school so she had a different lookout.
“He’s a mess,” Katy was saying. “He paces around all night, drinking and smoking. And farting. Who can blame Mom?”
“I’ve seen worse,” I shrugged. She was leaving for work at Winstead’s, and had on her carhop dress.
“The day I graduate,” she said, fixing a bow into her hair, “so long KC! Me and Jesus are heading for the mountains!”
My sister and I have very different memories of our father. I recall him coaching my baseball team, taking us on canoe trips, being an usher at Mass on Sundays. Katy knew the evenings when he didn’t come home and we ate dinner without him, his plate left at the table long after we did the dishes. Nights were the worst, that’s when the fighting started.
“What you doing up this late anyway?” my dad asks.
“Maybe you can tell me.”
Dad just shakes his head. “Nobody crazier than people.” On his way out he knocks over my guitar, which was leaning against the bed. Actually it’s his guitar; I play it when I come home since I leave my electric at school.
He picks it up, and sits on my bed. “I never hear you play anymore,” he says, holding the guitar out. “Play something.”
“Not tonight Dad,” I wave him off. “I’m tired.”
“You still know the Crawdad Song?”
“No Dad, I completely forgot it.”
“Of course I know it. Everybody does. It’s like Yankee Doodle.”
“Not the verses we play,” he says. “You know I learned them from my dad, your grandpa Hank.”
I’ve heard the story a million times. How his father Hank Moriarty, who died in a fire two days after I was born, learned it from a “colored” man he met during the Depression on an oil rig in Oklahoma. Later his dad determined that man was Blind Boy Fuller. I didn’t put much stock in it, though the version he sang does have verses I’ve not heard elsewhere.
He starts strumming, humming the words. My father was never much of a guitarist, but he could sing. I envied his voice – it was strong and real, not like mine, which I felt sounded contrived.
“Come on son, I don’t ask for much,” he says. He starts singing and, reluctantly, I join in.
“You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey...”
But after a couple verses I stop. “This is dumb. Maybe tomorrow,” I say, “When you haven’t been drinking.”
Dad doesn’t say anything. He lays his guitar on my bed and heads downstairs, his flip-flops slapping the wooden steps.
A few weeks later, I get a call from my Mom at my dorm.
“Your father had a stroke last night,” she’s saying. “We didn’t find him ‘til morning.”
I drive home, and find Mom and Katy sitting in the kitchen, along with my grandparents on Mom’s side.
“He’s at St. Lukes. You best go say your goodbyes,” Mom said. Her eyes looked so red and her face so exhausted that she frightened me.
I go upstairs and get Dad’s guitar and leave for the hospital. A nurse leads me to his room, where I find him staring at the ceiling, covered with a sheet, wires snaking out, his bare feet exposed.
“Can he hear me?” I ask the nurse.
“You never know,” she says, and then checks her watch and leaves.
“Hi Dad,” I say. I tug the sheet down over his feet. Then I pick up the guitar and I sing the Crawdad Song for my father. I sing all the verses, including the ones that Grandpa Hank learned from that blues man in Oklahoma.
Then I lightly kiss him on his forehead and leave.
My father has been dead for over twenty years. Mom sold the house and moved to the Kansas suburbs and married a kind man named Monty, who doesn’t drink or play music.
And I still play the Crawdad Song from time to time. I’ve two kids and I tell them the story about Grandpa Hank. And I point out the picture of my father that is on our wall.