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The odor hit Justin first. It was mostly the aroma of old books, along with mustier, more organic smells: a touch of mildew, the accumulated reek of old-man sweat, and the whispery memory of tobacco from the days when professors could smoke in their offices. Not that it was ever a good idea for anyone to smoke in here, with all that flammable paper around.
He gazed silently into the darkness until he felt Veronica’s hand on the small of his back. She asked quietly, “You okay? We don’t have to do this right now.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” Justin Johnson said. “No point in putting it off. We have to start sometime.”
He turned on the light, and bright fluorescent illumination flooded the room. The little office looked as though an entire big-city library had somehow been condensed and jammed into it. Books, papers, CDs, DVDs, VHS cassettes, vinyl albums, open-reel recordings, and even one lone eight-track tape lined the shelves and, once those were filled, rose in piles almost to the ceiling.
On the walls hung maps, posters, and old photographs, many in black-and-white. Pride of place was given to an eight-by-ten autographed photo of Woody Guthrie, signed with the trembling hand that was a symptom of the disease that eventually claimed his life.
To Doc Adams, it read. Keep fighting!
Justin recalled the first time he’d seen it, on the day he met the surprisingly named Dr. Dock Adams. The man had looked like a biker Santa, with a white beard and long snowy hair that dramatically swept back from his weathered face, his blue eyes perpetually atwinkle. But that first day, he had mainly looked puzzled at the sight of a black kid in a leather jacket waiting in his office, a guitar case at his feet.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” Justin replied, and stood. “I’m early.”
“I never am.” They shook hands. “You must be Mr. Johnson. Well, have a seat. Before we start, I have to get my coffee. Would you like any?”
It took him three tries to hang up his windbreaker on the hook behind the door. While he went to the teacher’s lounge for his coffee, Justin looked around at the kaleidoscope of items on the shelves. He was pleasantly surprised at the number of African-American books, recordings, and memorabilia.
Adams returned, picked his way carefully around the piles, and dropped into his desk chair. Justin sat as well.
“So,” Adams said after his first sip. “You want to study folklore, specifically folk music, here at good ol’ West Tennessee?”
“I want to study with you, Dr. Adams. Since you’re here, I’d like to be as well.”
“Call me ‘Doc.’ Spell it however you want. Just never ‘Doctor Dock,’ please.”
“I see you brought your guitar.” In his heavy drawl, it came out “GEE-tar.” “You don’t have to audition, you know.”
“I take it everywhere.”
“Let me see it.”
Justin opened the case and passed him the instrument. “Takamine,” Doc murmured. “Don’t you like American?”
“I like the sound. Don’t care where it comes from.”
The old man put it across his lap and strummed a shimmering E-minor chord that sent echoes of the Beatles ringing through the small office. “Dreadnought body,” he muttered. He inspected spots where the finish was worn. “And lots of use. By you?”
“Yes, sir. I got it new when I was sixteen.”
Doc handed it back. “That’s a pretty nice gift.”
“I thought so.”
“You play anywhere?”
“Sometimes at open mics. I’ve been in a couple of bands.”
“Write your own songs?”
For a heart-stopping moment he thought Doc would ask him to play one. But instead the old man picked up Justin’s thesis proposal from the desk and peered down his nose, through his half-glasses. He would’ve already read it carefully, so this was just for drama’s sake, but Justin felt a knot of nerves twist in his stomach anyway. “Justin, I don’t mean this as a racial thing, but I can’t see any other way to phrase it, so I’m apologizing in advance.” He paused. “Why do you want to study folk music with me? Because my expertise is the Scotch-Irish diaspora to Appalachia, and that’s just about the whitest subject in the world.”
“It says in my proposal that I—”
“Forget the paperwork. Tell me. In words that don’t sound like you’ve memorized them, please.”
Justin thought for a moment. “Because I want to understand why some music lasts.”
“Then why not go study music? You got your BA in it already.”
“Because I don’t want to be just an academic. I want to make music that lasts. So I figure, if I can understand where meaningful music comes from, and why certain songs resonate when others just fade away, maybe I can do it someday. Make music that lasts, that is.”
“Like you are now?” Doc said.
Justin looked down in genuine surprise; he hadn’t even realized he’d been strumming softly along with his words. “Sorry. Habit.”
“A good one, as far as I’m concerned.” Doc leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. “Well, welcome to the Department of English at West Tennessee University. Hopefully, you’ll bring a new and valuable perspective to this. And remember…” And here Doc had really grinned, the first of thousands of times Justin would see that merry twinkle flare like a pinpoint spotlight in his bright blue eyes. “Folk music is supposed to be fun. So there’s no reason studying about it can’t be fun, too.”
“I agree,” Justin said.
And now he stood in that same office, two days after Doc’s funeral, preparing to sort through a lifetime’s accumulation of things that were both junk, and priceless.
“At least,” his girlfriend Veronica Lopez said wryly, “he left something behind.”
“Too much,” Justin said.
“Well, nobody ever thinks they’re really going to die, do they?”
“Especially Doc,” Justin agreed.
“When you pass seventy-five, though, you ought to take some precautions,” Veronica said. “Like maybe going to the doctor occasionally.”
“He lived like he wanted. He died the same way.” The police, called when Doc failed to show up for his office hours, found the old man on his couch, headphones on, a smile on his face. Justin had not been able to find out what he was listening to when he died, but whatever it was, he was glad it left the old man happy in his final moments.
The English department secretary, Mrs. Lundoff, said from behind them, “A little overwhelming, isn’t it? I swear, in all the years I’ve worked here, I saw truckloads of stuff go in, but I never saw anything come out.”
“It’s not that bad,” Justin said. “Once we get started, it’ll shake out pretty quickly. He was organized, just not in any way that you’d recognize.”
“Yes, the alphabet regularly vexed him,” she said dryly. Then she turned wistful. “He smiled and wished me a good evening on his way out, and they say he was dead an hour later. I still expected to see him come shuffling in this morning and try three times to hang his coat up before he finally got it on the hook.”
They all laughed a little at that.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to your work,” Mrs. Lundoff continued. “There’s more empty boxes and garbage bags in the storeroom if you need them. Also rubber gloves and some of those respirator face masks like you use for painting or yard work.”
“I don’t think we’ll need those,” Veronica said.
“Don’t be so sure. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a dozen different kinds of mold in here. And thank you, both of you, for being willing to help out. He thought the world of you, and I know wherever he is, he’s glad to know you’re the ones taking care of this.”
When Mrs. Lundoff was out of earshot, Justin said quietly, “Wherever he is, he’s laughing his ass off, she means.”
Veronica smiled and threaded her fingers through Justin’s. “Where do you want to start?”
Justin reverently took down the signed photo of Woody Guthrie. He looked into the legendary troubadour’s black-and-white eyes, smiled, and put it facedown on the desk.
“We’ll start here. That’ll be the most recent stuff. Let’s separate it into piles: originals, photocopies, and miscellaneous.”
“I bet I can guess which will be the biggest pile.”
“Me, too. But we can subsort that pile later.”
Doc Adams had been one of a literally dying breed of academic, a man who created his own discipline out of a lifetime of interests, research, and publishing. Although he was technically part of West Tennessee University’s English department, his expertise was in the way folklore from Great Britain and Ireland made its way to the Appalachian region. He’d written the definitive history of the dulcimer, conducted countless workshops at the Museum of Appalachia, and traveled the world as a noted scholar. And legend said he’d spent three weeks shacked up with Sandy Denny, during which he convinced her to form Fotheringay.
Why he’d remained at tiny little West Tennessee University was a mystery to most people, but not to Justin: Doc had not only tenure but carte blanche, since the prestige he brought the school more than made up for his occasional jaunts into less-than-scholarly fields. If he wanted to spend a year researching the imagery of rabbits in songs from northern Georgia, they were content to let him.
Justin had been his last graduate student, and after that initial interview, he never pulled rank again. Doc invited Justin and Veronica out for drinks at the local “members only” pub (due to the area’s convoluted liquor laws, you could only get liquor by the drink at private clubs; so the “club” charged one dollar for a lifetime membership) and regaled them with stories of his trips to Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, where he’d sought both folkloric evidence and beautiful red-haired lasses with equal success. He flirted mercilessly with Veronica in terrible Spanish, which made all three of them laugh, and he helped Justin prepare academic articles for publication.
The papers on his desk were a cacophony of topics and sources, in no particular order and to no obvious purpose. Doc believed in pursuing each and every tangent as far as it went, and for as long as it held his interest. Organizing this, Justin realized, was not going to be easy.
After three hours, Justin and Veronica had cleared about two-thirds of the desktop, and were coated in dust and book dander.
Justin sneezed. “Maybe we do need those masks.”
“Look at this,” Veronica said in wonder. She held an old three-ring binder, the ragged cover patched with duct tape and the pages faded to yellow. Veronica read aloud a note clipped to the cover:
My mother loved music, but we could not afford a record player. So she sat beside the radio and each time a song she liked came on, she listened and wrote down as many lyrics as she could. Each time, she got a few more, until finally she had the whole song, and put it in a special notebook. My love of folk music started with these notebooks.
It was signed Doc Adams, 1983. The date marked on the first notebook page was November 14, 1929.
“That’s so sweet,” Veronica said, her eyes misting. She opened the notebook and sighed. “Oh, my God, look at this!”
On the page were carefully written lyrics in a beautiful cursive hand, faded but legible despite nearly a century having passed since they were recorded. The first song was “Wayfaring Stranger.”
Justin put his arm around her shoulders. “It must’ve meant a lot to him, to have such a tangible way to remember her.”
Veronica wiped her eyes. “I’m just so glad they won’t be thrown away.”
“Me, too,” he agreed, and kissed her cheek.
“Excuse me,” a new voice said behind them.
The English department chair, Dr. Coffin, stood in the door. He was in his sixties, dressed casually, and looked over the neat stacks Justin and Veronica had already sorted. “You’ve made some headway.”
“A little,” Justin agreed.
“I appreciate you doing this. If we’d had to pay an archivist to start from scratch, all this material might’ve sat uncatalogued for years. Just sorting it into basic piles saves us a great deal of time and money.”
“It’s a pleasure to do it,” Justin said.
“Do you agree?” Coffin wryly asked Veronica.
“I do,” she said. “I loved Doc Adams.”
“We all did,” he said sadly. “He’ll be impossible to replace.”
“Any word from the faculty search committee?” Justin asked.
“No, with the school’s budget like it is, his position may stay empty long enough for you to claim it.”
“Hopefully not. The students deserve better.”
“The students always deserve better,” Coffin said. “But the men who hold the purse strings over in Nashville don’t see the profit in studying things like folklore. And to them, if there’s no profit, there’s no value. And that reminds me, Mr. Johnson: come see me tomorrow, so we can get you set up with another masters committee advisor. Does eight o’clock work for you?”
“Then I’ll leave you to your work. Thanks again.”
When he’d gone, Veronica said, “Do you think that’s true? That the only things that matter are ones that turn a profit?”
“I think he’s right that the people who control the money think that way.”
She shook her head. “Then you and I will never make a living.”
“Sure we will,” he said, and pulled her into a kiss. “Me with a degree in folklore, you with one in parapsychology, we’ll be rolling in it.”
“My degree is actually in psychology, you bum,” she said against his lips. “So at least I’ll be able to get a job.”
“Then you can support me until my research makes us rich.”
When they broke the kiss, she said, “I need a break,” and looked for someplace to sit down. The desk chair was filled with a stack of papers, so she chose what looked like a solid pile of magazines. As soon as her weight settled on it, though, the slick covers slid out from under her and she fell to one side with a surprised yelp.
“Graceful,” Justin said as he helped her up. “Been sitting long, or just reading about it?”
She looked down at the magazines, frowned a little, and said, “Hey, look.”
From the very bottom of the pile she lifted a metal lockbox. It was gray and featureless except for touches of rust on the corners. She placed it on the desk and tried to open it.
“Locked,” she said. “Wonder what’s in it?”
“Probably something personal,” Justin said, and turned back to his work.
“Wait, you’re not curious?” Veronica said.
“Of course I’m curious, but I imagine we’ll find a lot of curious things before we’re done. We’ll make that the start of the ‘curious’ pile.”
Veronica looked down at the box. It was big enough to hold a stack of notebooks, and clearly had something inside, but that something was not heavy the way papers or text would be. And it rattled when she shook it.
* * *
“What do you think is in it?” Veronica asked. The humid spring night air blew through the curtains, drawn in by the fan that was all their combined student budget could afford. They didn’t really mind. She lay naked on her back, while Justin sat on the edge of the bed, also naked except for his guitar. He strummed a few chords, then noted them on his laptop.
She saw that he hadn’t heard. He could dive so deep into music that he lost track of everything around him.
She poked him and repeated, “What do you think is in it?”
Justin looked up. “What’s that, Detective Mills?”
“Don’t do it,” she mock-warned.
“Are you asking me—”
“What’s in the baaax?” he finished, imitating Brad Pitt in Seven.
“You are awful,” she said, and they both laughed.
He put the guitar aside and stretched out beside her. “Whatever it is, we can’t just break it open. It might be private family stuff.”
“He didn’t have a family,” she protested. “We’re his family.”
“We’re his friends, watching out for his dignity.”
She scooted closer and draped one leg across him. “Come on,” she said teasingly, gently pressing her hips against him, “aren’t you the least bit curious?”
He pushed her onto her back. “I’m very curious.”
“So what do you think is in it?” she asked again, wrapping her legs around him.
“I don’t have a clue,” he said as he began to move more rhythmically.
“You worked with him every day,” she said breathlessly, meeting his movements with her own.
“Only for the past year,” he said, shifting his weight to free one hand to caress her breasts. “He’s been at the school for thirty years, and who knows how much stuff he might’ve…”
For a few urgent moments neither of them spoke. Then, after he rolled off, caught his breath, and kissed her deeply, he said, “We don’t even know how long that box has been there.”
“If the stack of magazines on top of it was any indication, quite a while,” Veronica said, tucking hair behind her sweaty ear. “Some of them went back fifty years.”
“Look, our job is just to organize and catalog it. It’s all the property of the school.”
“I know. It’s just that I hate mysteries.”
He chuckled. “You mean you love mysteries. You’re a freaking ghost hunter.”
“Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to. Either way, you eat mysteries for breakfast.”
She smiled and stretched with contentment. “I do indeed.”
Copyright © 2018 by Alex Bledsoe