By Susan Burdorf
Tourists had lined the sidewalk looking for the first glimpse of someone famous. Broadway was really rocking tonight. In Tootsie’s, a new band was tuning their instruments as boys cheered on the cute girls in the Daisy Dukes and tight tees who continued walking by giggling.
Just another late summer night in Music City. I stood at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue waiting for the light to turn. My guitar, slung on my back and pointed down, bobbed reassuringly against the back of my knees as I walked away from the crowded streets toward my car. The night’s haul was pretty good. I was luckier than most. I had been playing that corner since early afternoon, finally giving it up to Big Bob with a handshake and wish for my good luck to pass to him.
As I walked down the street and cut through the alley to the lot where I had parked my car, I heard a noise. A cat wandered out from the back of a dumpster and meowed at me before standing still and looking behind me. The fur along its spine stood straight up as it hissed and spat at whatever was there before racing off down the alley in the opposite direction.
I slowly turned, expecting any second to feel someone grab me or put a knife to my throat.
But there was nothing there. I exhaled deeply.
Shaking my head at my foolishness, I moved on. Too many horror movies had me believing in ghosts everywhere. Then I heard it. Music. Softly playing a haunting song that twanged its way under my skin, raising the hair along my arms and the back of my neck.
I stopped, tilting my head as I tried to figure out where the sound was coming from. I couldn’t quite place a location, but the song was getting to me. Chill bumps appeared on my bare arms as I shivered without knowing why. I hurried toward where my car was parked, suddenly not liking the dark alley that had seemed so harmless just moments before.
Glancing left, then right, I could see nothing but brick walls stained from the flood a few years ago; along with debris piled up in the alley by an errant wind.
I kept walking, my boots clicking on the road beneath me. My breathing sounded loud and somehow out of place in the close confines of the alley.
I could see the fog from the Cumberland starting to form and drift into the alley as if a thousand cigarettes had suddenly been lit. As I reached the alley’s end, the music crescendoed and went silent.
I trembled and stopped. Something about that fog was not quite right. I watched as it gathered and formed into the outline of something not … quite … human, and yet not quite random either.
With a soft pop, like a soap bubble bursting, a man emerged from the fog. Short, lean, with a creased and lined face that spoke of age and experiences, I was looking eye to eye with the Ten Gallon Ghost. Doffing the aforementioned hat, he made a gentlemanly bow before gifting me with a wide, toothy smile.
I had heard of him. Who hadn’t? Known to haunt the streets of Nashville just after dusk, his music, mournful and haunting, could be heard wafting on the night breezes above the noise of jukeboxes and tinny bands that played the honky-tonks of Nashville.
The homeless were his friends. He would stop and chat with them before moving on to another corner to play before fading away as night came on.
I looked at him with awe. I had never expected to see him, let alone have him talk to me.
“Why, hello there young fella, nice evening ain’t it?” he sounded like a whisper on a breeze.
He lit a cigarette that glowed rusty red on its tip before the smoke mixed with the fog that swirled around him.
I nodded, unable to utter a sound.
He looked down the alley both ways and leaned toward me. And with a friendly twinkle in his eye, he pointed to the guitar barely visible above my left shoulder.
“Care to play with me a little?” he said, pulling a dirty beat-up guitar out of thin air. He strummed as he looked at me from the shadow beneath his hat. Tuning it, he broke into a melody that sounded vaguely familiar.
In spite of my conviction that I should leave, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to brag that I got to play with the Ten Gallon Ghost. Unzipping the case and holding my guitar, I strummed along for a few familiar songs.
Before long time slipped away from us as I taught him a few new tunes and he taught me some old ones.
He winked at me as he tipped his hat back.
“Thankee kindly, sir. I appreciate the new tunes. Have a nice night.”
And then he was gone.
I stood for a moment, guitar in hand, cat twining around my ankles.
I heard him the other night. His mournful and haunting song playing above the strident chords of the honky-tonk music on Broadway. And then I smiled and stopped playing on my corner as he played a rousing tune that finished with a flourish.
“That’s a new one,” I heard a homeless fellow say to his buddy as they passed by me.
“Yep,” said his friend as they moved past me while dropping a quarter in my hat, “I kind of liked that new one.”