And I bow as I step onto the dance floor, and the strings strain, and the bodies around us move. Bodies of abusers and saviors. Rose dances with Olsen, Destiny with Tiger. The music plays, we all twirl, and I take each of the next stories out onto the floor. The waltz is the most proper. The waltz has the arms wide, the circle, the spinning. The waltz doesn’t pull in close and breathe in the ear like I do with my wife. The waltz doesn’t get “tangled up and tango on.” The waltz holds back. It looks into the eye, holds at a distance, and the waltz appraises. The waltz appreciates.
There’s a scream across the battlefield as a hundred thousand warriors of bullies and abusers roar hatred in my direction. The Round Table lines up behind me. They bang sword on shield. You are about to read about the women standing along my side. They form the front ranks now. And when the horns blow and I collide with my abusers, it will be The Shieldmaidens waltzing with my enemies and dancing beside me as the blood and the hate flies.
I introduce you now to the women of my life and my past. I introduce you now to The Shieldmaidens.
I just went out to the backyard. As if I was gonna mow, I grabbed all the random twigs and sticks. I hugged them close, I hugged them so close to my heart, and I carried them in here. This room is called The Veil. Every inch of the wall is covered in tapestries and curtains. I’ve thrown the twigs down now. I’m gonna stand over them and I’m gonna give them meaning. These over here are visits. These over here are guitar lessons. These at my feet are my attraction to metal girls. Those far ones over there that skittered away from the rest of the pile, that’s hope and acknowledgement. And the rest of this pile sitting here akimbo on the floor, which I’m gonna put together while you watch like some kind of twisted jigsaw puzzle, that pile in the middle is Crimson Cloth. Let’s get to work. I have so much here to do.
Mumble joined our family when I was five, maybe late four. He pulled out an acoustic guitar, which my mom was not interested in. For years he tried and for years he failed, until at one point he looked at my mother and said, “Rose, my mother used to play old country, Hank Williams country, Buck Owens country on her guitar. I can play country, too. I don’t have to play Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce. I can play stuff that you’re interested in. I want you to be a part of this.”
So, my mother Rose got tapes and she sat in front of a boombox. She’d play the tape, listen to the words, pause, write the words down, unpause, write the next line. This was a project for her for a very long time. See the Canny family has talents. My grandma’s people are extremely talented. And Rose’s talent is singing. I have never heard anything better except those who have been trained. Lizzy Hale and “I Get Off,” she has Rose beat. Doro Pesch and “All We Are,” Rose can’t touch her. But Patsy Cline, Rose rubs right up against Patsy Cline in singing. Loretta Lynn, there is a little bit of Rose in Loretta Lynn. With the life Rose has led, nobody can sing the blues like Rose and Ray Charles.
She’s one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I stand by that. I’ll put my name on that. And she knows it, too, and she’s been humming and she’s been singing quietly to herself all her life when Mumble tells her, “If I have the song I can write the music and then you can sing and I’ll—”
She never heard anything after that. It was the “you can sing.” So here she is at the boombox, and she’s writing all the songs down. And that’s not good enough for her because she’s excited now, and while me and Cage and Tigress run Crimson Blade country, she’s at the typewriter. It’s an old one, old, old typewriter handed down, twice fixed from when broken, and she doesn’t know how to type. She looks at the words she’s written down of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, and she memorizes “Ring” and she taps it before looking up for “of.”
And she puts together the folders. Books? She had, and you guys might not know about this, there was a sheet of paper that you could buy that was all black. You took a blank sheet of paper, this black sheet of paper, another blank sheet of paper, and you stacked them and lined them up perfectly. You fed them into the roll of the typewriter, and that’s how you made an exact copy. We’ve come far, huh? Now it’s copy and paste, if even that. Sometimes it’s just save under a different name. So, many of you don’t understand the work, and behind the work the passion, and behind the passion the hope that Rose had when she typed out every country song that she loved, every gospel song that she loved, and yes, even a few Jim Croce.
With her typings and her sheet of copy paper, she made the two folders. Everything—Patsy Cline, Jim Croce, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Hank Williams, Jr. You know, Hank Williams, Jr. has a family tradition. The Mamas and the Papas, Peter, Paul, and Mary, the two folders had everything. Well, then you need a three-hole punch. And those holes had to be reinforced by tiny paper rings, which eventually became plastic sheaves. This is the heart of it right here. This right here is the heart of the entire relationship. Rose couldn’t leave Mumble because one day Mumble sat down with his guitar, she played part of the song, and he just knew the chord, the guitar chord to play at that moment. He knew the move to the next chord and he knew the run. She stood back. I remember the look on her face. It was, it was nothing short of awe. Mumble was allowing her to be what she always ached to be.
The two folders were sacred. They were put away and carried out extremely carefully. The beer had to be drunk very carefully around the two folders. It was all very beautiful. I guess the only term you could call it was beautiful, because a year after Grasp had been born, when she was together with Mumble for two and a half years, Rose had finally found a reason to love him.
He would play. He had a 12-string guitar. Have you ever heard a 12-string? A 12-string is everywhere. That’s the only way to describe a 12-string. A 12-string is in all the nooks and crannies. It’s in your ear and around the cartilage outside of your ear. A 12-string throbs between the fibers of the carpet. It’s not about volume. Listen people, it’s not about volume. To be honest, I’m not versed enough to tell you what it is about. But you have to experience it in a room, not a stadium. You have to be in the room with a 12-string as it’s being played, and you realize there is no experience you’ve ever had like it.
The closest I can get to letting you know this experience is Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Pride and Joy,” on the Unplugged television show. It’s old. There’s no drums. There’s no bass. It’s just Stevie on the guitar. Look it up. Go to YouTube. If you’re not a music person, it doesn’t matter. I’m talking about the only reason Rose stayed with Mumble.
When she heard him play that 12-string, it filled up all her crevices and cavities. When he was playing that 12-string, with the poverty crowding in around them, they were in a ring of fire. As they loved each other and he worked even harder, they were leavin’ on a jet plane. Through all the pain that Char caused, there was a tear in their beer. And singing and talent for Rose had always been a family tradition. And Mumble’s dad said, when he looked at my beautiful mother—far too beautiful for a man like his son—he said, “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln.”
Every song she chose, every song she fought for on that bandaged and ragged typewriter, he brought to music. And I think for a few months they were happy.
Once it was all in place, Mumble would play, folder open, and Rose would walk around the room. She’d do dishes, she’d clean tables, she’d cook dinner, and the daughter of Canny would sing. I’m gonna take a minute now. I’ve got a few big branches. I’ve got what I think is the correct number of twigs. I’m gonna line this up and I think it’s gonna form the perfect arch, so let me go.
Here in this moment we find Rose at her best. I always sat there with the second folder open in front of me, turning pages as they sang, reading along. On top of a word that I liked in the song would be the letters Em. I didn’t know what that meant. But right there, the music Mumble played would change. I was learning the fundamentals of the flow of the guitar. And always in the air, her voice. And this is the arch. It’s her voice. If we had moved to Nashville and they had put her in front of a record executive, she would’ve been signed. She’s a Canny. There’s no doubt in my mind she would’ve been signed.
I once saw Brad Pitt shoot a man, kill him dead. Unsatisfied, he went and shot him again. And I was horrified. I once saw Brad Pitt tell a joke, and the entire cast laughed. I once saw Brad Pitt in True Romance smoking pot on a couch. I’ve seen him fight World War II. I’ve seen him as the wild lover, thief, in Thelma and Louise. Cold and hopeless in Interview with the Vampire.
As I’m meticulously putting twig to branch on this floor as I create the arch, I can tell you that Rose’s voice did all of these things. “I’m hopin’, yes indeed, and I’m hopin’, that you come back to me.” Her voice took on another face. Her voice, it breathed the breath of a foreign planet when it said, “He looked down into her brown eyes and said say a prayer for me.” Because around that kitchen table, as Rose sang and that 12-string guitar filled every crevice of her life, there were seven Spanish angels, and that tiny apartment they could barely afford was the valley of the gun.
The first time Broken came to our house, we were in that duplex. I was running with Cage. I was roaring at gangsters with Tigress. He came to visit, you know he was the alcoholic of Mumble’s family. He was the older brother. Imagine you’re the reins to a horse, the Mumble family horse, and you’ve been whipped and you’ve been pulled every other direction but straight. After a couple of decades you’d start to fray. You’d start to get thin in places. And maybe you’re not as good at leading this horse as you should be.
Broken was the alcoholic of the family. I can tell you this, and I’m not gonna stay here, there’s too many emotions I’m not qualified to deal with. Too many stories that belong to other people. Broken had an older brother. Mumble had an eldest brother. His name was Grasp the First. Grasp the First died in Vietnam, and Broken was never the same.
I don’t like telling other people’s stories, so I won’t tell you the heartbreaking story of Broken. But have you ever seen it on the face? It’s prom night, you and your friends go to Taco Bell after the dance. You walk up to the register, all you want is a tostada, and you look into a face. And you know, you just know, this person has never been, or maybe rarely has been—and never truly will be—happy.
My mother hated Broken for two reasons. First one was the popsicle. We had a standing freezer. It was pretty big. Mumble’s father had given us half a deer worth of meat. And it was frozen in that freezer. Broken went in to get a popsicle. Family legend says he didn’t close it well enough, and half a deer rotted. That is Rose’s story. If you ask Broken why my mother doesn’t like him, he’s gonna go, “Nah, you’re wrong. She loves me. That woman would never say a foul word about me. No, Rose is a good woman.” With his dark eyes, he’d say, “Stop askin’ these kind of questions about your mom.”
That was the first reason Rose hated Broken. Mumble’s family has always been musical. Maybe Grasp had a bit of that, too, and that candle was just smothered and mangled. Broken came to the house, Mumble played his wide, expansive 12-string, and Rose sang. The next time we saw him was in Allenton, and the reason my mother truly hated Broken became apparent. It was not rotted meat in the freezer because of a popsicle. My mother hated Broken because of Crimson Cloth.
She had sons. They were assholes. She had a daughter. That daughter had a foot halfway out the door. That daughter was glam and beautiful, not unlike her mother. I really got a look at Crimson Cloth in Allenton. They showed up and Broken was playing the bass guitar. He knew scales. He knew notes. This was not an instrument he picked up because of the two folders. This was an instrument he had already been playing with. But now he had Crimson Cloth.
This woman was tall. She was toned. Lean and beautiful. When she walked, she was like a feline and you wanted her to rub her body against your leg as she passed. She was perfectly sitting in the throne of the ’80s. It was the clothes she wore. Tight, not like Rose’s. These shirts cut down, not to expose the breasts but to remind you they were there. I never saw her in anything but leather pants. She wore a lot of animal print. Her hair was long and blonde and glam. Do you know what I mean by glam? You might not. Wide and big. Hairspray. And the first time I saw her I didn’t love her. I wasn’t attracted to her. I wasn’t even scared of her. The first time I saw her I was amazed to be standing in front of her.
When the sacred folders came out, when Broken pulled out that bass, she unfolded from its case a Fender Stratocaster, and strapped it on her shoulder. It’s never on the shoulder, is it? It’s never strapped on the back. There’s no real good way to describe a guitar hanging off a person. You can try to describe it if you know the person and they are mediocre at their instrument. But if they’re good? Then, I mean, if they’re good the guitar just hangs. It’s part of their body. The strap becomes smoke. That smoke becomes a fog machine, and they’re on a stage. And I stared at her. She stood as she played. I think her Stratocaster was black.
They played all week. Mumble would play until it was time to go to work. He’d work a full shift and come home and play until it was time to go to work. He took two days off at the end of the week and slept all two days. And that’s when Crimson Cloth became a part of my life. I call her that because she hung a crimson scarf from the head of her Stratocaster guitar.
I’m in a room now covered with tapestries. I’ve got two slumbering dogs and a wife taking dictation. And in the corner is my bass guitar. It’s an acoustic bass so I can play it anywhere. Hanging off the head of that guitar is a black silk scarf. I hang it there in honor of Crimson Cloth. Because years from then, years from the first time I saw her, I was playing bass and she nudged me over.
You know, Broken was also playing bass. He had predicted what I had been taught, and he was filling in all the gaps. Can you imagine the kind of mind and ability it takes to play on the spot, never rehearsed, back-up bass? She knew Broken could hold it, so she called me over, and my mother snarled, but I went to her.
She hung her Stratocaster onto my back, off my shoulder. I don’t know if I was good enough—I think I might have been good enough—for it to hang right off my body. And she whispered in my ear, no way sultry, and though she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever been in the presence of, she belonged to Broken. And when I had met her, I had belonged to Jazz. And she was so much older. My twigs, my branches, they’re crossing over each other. I just about formed her face now. Her hair is done. I just have to bend these twigs in the shape of her eyes when she looked at me and I was terrified. I have to get this branch just right. I have to just break it off just a little bit and curl it up. Yeah, right there is the smirk. “You’re playing lead now.”
“I, I, I can’t play lead guitar. I barely can play rhythm.”
She shook her head. Let me try to arrange these branches. They look like dreadlocks but don’t think them that. We’re still glam, when she shakes her head, looks at me, and says, “I’ve been watching you play bass. You know everything you need to know. Lead guitar is just bass with a blade.” She tapped my hip and I knew she knew that I had a knife in there. “Lead guitar is bass with a blade. Just play.”
She sat down and she looked at me. She dropped her elbows onto the table. She did that thing women do, I don’t have the right branches, where they lock their fingers and create a kind of net for their chin to sit on. And she looked at me.
I was scared. I touched her scarf and ran it through my fingers. It was silk. Crimson Cloth’s red scarf was silk. I looked her in the eye and there, right there, it was that last twig, that last bit. That’s what I needed. Now the smirk of Crimson Cloth sits under the arch of a mother who never made it. She nodded at me, and I played. And there were bass notes mixed with the wildest imaginations of treble notes. And I played.
I don’t know if I played well.
But Crimson Cloth smiled, and when the song was finished, I ran my fingers through her red silk one more time.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 3: The Keep.