By the time I got home, the detectives had already been to our farm and told Zeke the whole story, which he told me when I got home.
John McMullen, also known as Happy Jack Wilkins, and a string of other names, was a man of considerable intelligence and unlimited ability to charm. Having flunked out of the University of Georgia, he turned his wits to crime, travelling around to little “backwater towns” (the detectives’ words, not Zeke’s), claiming he could put communities “on the map” and bring tourism and prosperity, if only they had the capacity to advertise, and that, of course, meant building a radio station.
It was a scheme as old as time. Take people’s money, then cut corners, use cheap material and haphazard methods, and instead of a radio station, you’ve got a bare-walled concrete block building with loose wires connected to nothing.
To further feather his nefarious nest, Happy Jack, a performer of considerable talent, also offered music lessons, teaching less in each session than the student was able to accomplish, and kept on teaching, even if the protégé did not have enough talent to fill a thimble half full.
He would stay in a town as long as he was undetected, but when the law caught up with him, off he would go, laying low, and then gradually resurfacing with another costume and another name, but the same scheme.
Zeke concluded: “Bet you didn’t know you’ve been married to a fool all these years,” which near about broke my heart right in two. I felt ten kinds of guilty for not being supportive of Zeke while he was pursuing a perfectly honorable aspiration.
By late afternoon, news of Happy Jack’s escape had rampaged through town like a herd of spooked buffalo. Luke heard the story at Big Al’s Diner and filled in his brothers and sisters when he got home and said they’d best behave themselves all evening.
At supper that night, Zeke hunched over his plate, and shoveled pinto beans and cornbread into his mouth, washing it down with sweet tea from a Mason jar. The younguns were so unaccustomed to their pa being melancholy, they didn’t eat much and talked even less.
One by one they asked to be excused. Ned hung back. Thinking he was whispering, he asked me if he could have Zeke’s banjo now that he wasn’t going to play it. Amos jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. I shook my head and pointed them both upstairs.
Augusta tiptoed to her pa and slipped her arms around his neck.
“It’s all right, Pa,” she said in her squeaky little voice. “I think you play the banjo real good.”
Zeke pulled her close. “Thank you, honey bun. Some things just aren’t meant to be.”
I lay awake most of the night, thinking of going after Happy Jack myself, and then imagining ways we could raise money and finish building the radio station ourselves, and then thinking we could borrow a bulldozer, knock the whole thing flat, and rid ourselves of the memory.
Finally drifting off, I jerked awake when I heard the banjo playing. Easing up on one elbow, I checked to see if Zeke was beside me, which he was. I listened closer. It was the banjo and it was beautiful.
I stumbled downstairs, and realized the tune wasn’t coming from the house. I stepped out on the back stoop and saw light coming through the cracks in the barn door. I made my way there, slipped in, and found Ned, perched on a hay bale, playing “Turkey in the Straw,” pretty as you please.
Startled, he stopped when I came in.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” he said. “I know I should be in bed, but it was like the banjo was calling my name. It was just sitting there, cast off and ignored, in the parlor. And you said to Pa a hundred times, y’all paid good money for it.”
“It’s all right, darlin’,” I said. “But how in the world do you know how to play?”
He shrugged. “I been watching Pa. Sometimes when y’all would be gone to town, I’d pick it up and play it. I’ve always wanted to…well, ever since last summer, when Stubby Shaw’s grandpa was visiting and he showed me a few chords. But he went home to Kentucky.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.
“I was going to, but Zed said it made you so mad when Pa was playing, there was no way you was going to put up with it from me, and if I knowed what was good for me, I’d keep quiet.”
I swept him up, banjo and all, and told him how sorry I was, wiped my eyes on my sleeve, and then asked him to play another verse so I could sing along.
We walked back to the house together. Ned laid the banjo on the kitchen table and we both went back to bed.
The next morning I told Zeke what had happened. He got this stern look on his face I could not quite figure out, and then hollered for Ned.
Ned slipped downstairs and appeared in the kitchen door. “Yes, sir?”
Taking the banjo from the table, Zeke walked over to him. “All yours, son.”
“Thank you, Pa,” he said, squeezing him tight. “I’ll take good care of it.”
Later that morning, the phone rang. It was Zona Rae Hawkins, wife of Shorty Hawkins, the would-be mandolin player, also taking lessons from Happy Jack.
She said, “I don’t know how Zeke is, but Shorty’s near about grieving himself to death over that mandolin. Anyway, I thought I’d tell you my sister knows a fellow in Starry Acres who can play anything with strings and he’s going to give Shorty lessons. I wondered if Zeke was interested. They could ride over together once a week.”
“No,” I said. “He’s giving up the banjo, but my Ned could use a ride.”
We hired a mason from Parkersburg to finish the radio station building. Situated high on the ridge and backing up to the woods and lake, it was the perfect spot for a bird blind.
When word got out Hog Holler was a birdwatching paradise, tourists poured in.
We repainted the signs Happy Jack had put up and had t-shirts made, too. Pretty soon everybody in town, visitors, and locals alike, were wearing yellow t-shirts with an owl winking on the front and a slogan printed on back.
It read: “WHOO’s up for birdwatching? Hog Holler, West Virginia.”
That was Zeke’s idea.