It had been raining for most of the morning and Junior Biggs struggled to keep the logging truck from sliding off the dirt and gravel road. Up ahead the narrow tree lined passage  steepened even further and dis-appeared into a dark green tunnel of leafy hickory and tall Georgia pine. Biggs strained, muscling the gears into a sharp downshift, as a string of nasty words tore loose from his mouth. The lower gear caught just as Biggs felt the mushiness through the steering wheel when the front tire slid off the bed of the gravel and onto the soft shoulder. He tugged, straining his left arm against the pull of the wheel and bounced the logger back onto the winding road.

Harlan Dean, dozing in the seat next to him, was jolted awake. He yawned and sat up straight, looking out the open window. It was early afternoon—one or two o’clock—but the high trees cut off the sunlight, darkening the woods to a quiet dusk. Harlan sucked in a deep warm breath and ran a handker­chief over his face.

“I hate this damn heat.”

Biggs took a quick glance over at him, then looked out the driv­er’s side mirror, watching the brown, muddy mist being blown out behind the wheels of the empty flatbed trailer.

Biggs said, “By the time we get them damn chains and binders it’ll be too late to get back down to the mill.”

“Suits me fine,” responded Harlan.

“Well, I’m not sleeping in this goddamn truck.”

The roadway widened as they came around a sharp twist, and Biggs slowed, braking, easing the rig into a large sunlit clear­ing. On one side of the clearing sat an unpainted wooden house, flanked by a garage with the tail end of a green pickup truck sticking out of the open doors. Directly across was a small barn. It had been painted red at one time, but now the sides had turned coarse brown.

In front of the house a blue pickup was parked and two men lounged in the shade of the porch. Biggs brought the  truck  to  a stop in front of the barn and snapped  on the parking  brake.  A belch of air rushed from beneath the back axles. Biggs and Har­lan climbed down from the tractor cab.

“Hey,” Biggs yelled at the men on the porch. “Don’t nobody but me and Harlan work for a living?”‘

“Hell no,” one of the men shouted back. “Only two damn fools allowed in Georgia at one time.”

Another man lifted a jug. “Hey, Junior, don’t pay no attention to Jim Bob. You and Harlan got time for a little taste?”

Junior Biggs shouted back, “Silk, now you know I don’t take to no white-light’n you got.”

“This didn’t come from no still, boy.” Silk, a man with bright yellow hair, laughed, shaking the jug at Biggs, “Bought it last night down at Davis.”

“He ain’t lying, Junior,” added Jim Bob.

Harlan came around the front of the truck. “You get across the river okay?”

“Yep. Easy.” Silk waved the jug. “You wanna taste?” Harlan looked at Biggs. “You?”

“I’m gonna get them chains and binders first.”

Harlan started across the clearing towards the house, with his hand reaching out for the jug, while Biggs went off toward the barn.

It was dark and warm inside the barn, and smelled of hay, rust and gasoline. Biggs hesitated a few seconds, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light filtering in through the cracks in the roof. Off to the side sat an old automobile, flat tires all the way around, with two V-8 engines sitting and rusting on the dirt floor just in front of it. In the back of the barn, under the low beams of the loft, sat an old man hunched over a work bench.

“Coates?” Biggs called out.

The old man jerked his head around and squinted. He was blind in one eye. His forehead wrinkled up and he blinked the good eye. “Get the hell out of the doorway, damn you. I can’t see you stand­ing there in the light.”

Biggs stepped out of the sunlight and a few feet into the barn. “It’s Junior Biggs, Coates. I come after them chains and binders for the mill.”

The old man slid off the stool he was sitting on and came over to Biggs. He had a full head of hair, white as pressed, hotel sheets, thick and cropped close to his head. His face above his beard was wrinkled like a raisin and he was toothless. He gapped a grin at Biggs.

“What if I was to tell you they ain’t here, Junior?”

“I’d have to call you a liar.”

“Would you fight me for ’em?”

Coates was somewhere in his nineties and half-crazy with sev­enty years of mountain whiskey.

“Hell no, Coates,” answered Biggs, trying to keep his face som­ber as granite. “I don’t wanna get myself stomped.”

“Damn right ya don’t.” Coates gave his head a little snap. “Used to whip your daddy, Junior. Guess I can whip his boy too.”

“I guess.” Biggs looked down on the top of the white head and grinned. “Now let’s get them chains and binders.”

Coates started for the door in long legged strides ahead of Biggs. “Let’s get us a taste of that Davis whiskey first.”

Biggs caught up with him just outside the barn, grabbing him by the arm. “No, the chains first.”

Coates looked up at him, his toothless mouth parted in surprise. “You don’t expect me to work without first whiskey’n-up, do you?”

Biggs nodded. “The chains first,” he repeated.

“Horseshit, Junior-you dern fool,” and Coates shook himself free from Biggs’ hand. “Whiskey first!”

Before Biggs could grab hold of him again Coates was half way across the clearing on his way to the house and the Davis whiskey.

“Well, Junior,” grinned Harlan, when they both got to the porch, “I see Coates talked you into a little taste.”

Biggs shook his head, watching Coates lift the jug up to his whiskered lips. “The fuckhead mule won’t work unless he’s drunk.”

Coates coughed and wheezed and set the jug back on the step. “Nope. You’re wrong, Junior Biggs.” He wheezed again. “I just don’t wanna work!” And he sat down and let out a hoot and a laugh and slapped his thigh.

“Just wants to get drunk and lay in the sun,” said Biggs.

“Just like any old dog,” yelped Coates, squinting up at Biggs silhouetted against a sharp sunlight sky.

“Well, you fixed them chains, at least?” Harlan prodded him. “They’re fixed.” Coates leaned his back against the top step.

“Had to replace, hum, let’s see.” He paused, thinking, wiggling  a couple of fingers. “About two dozen links in all-between the nine chains.”

“And the binders?”

“Weren’t nothing wrong with two of them.” Coats answered and took the jug back from the man on the porch. “The other two just needed new couplings for the hooks.”

Coats raised the jug for another solid pull, then stuck it out to Biggs. “Here now, you take this here whiskey, Junior Biggs, or I won’t get you them chains, no way.”

Biggs took the jug from Coates and put it up to his mouth, draw­ing at the liquid inside. He brought the jug down, sucked a breath, feeling his teeth on fire and his gums go numb. “Whoooo.” He closed his eyes, his stomach heating up. “Silk, you say you got this shit in a real store?”

Silk nodded. “Yes’r. Over to Davis.”

“Take another taste, Junior.” Coates waved his hand and winked his good eye at him. “And you’ll feel more like setting and less like working.” He cackled, his wide open mouth looking like a little rabbit hole burrowed in white reed grass. “Go on, Junior, Gaw-dang-it. Take another little bit.”

Biggs tipped the jug again, sucking hard at the opening, then brought it down, shaking his head. “Shit!” He drew a deep breath, cooling his throat. “Shit. I’d swear this was raw-ass, still­-whiskey, if Silk hadn’t said he got it at a store.”

“Take some more, Junior.” Coates grinned at Biggs, his one eye getting wickedly narrow. “Just one more little taste.” He held up a forefinger and thumb to show him just how little, and let out another whoop when Biggs pressed it to his lips.

“Gaw-dang, Junior Boy, Gaw… dang,” Coates squeaked. “You just gonna drive hell out of that old logger tonight.”

Jim Bob sat up quick and squinted, looking down the road Biggs and Harlan had come up. “Say, isn’t that Tim?”

Around a twist in the road they could see a faded, twenty-year­ old Ford pickup truck. The left fender was missing, and the hood tied down by a piece of coarse rope.

“Hell yeah,” announced Silk. “And damned if he don’t have Ces with ‘im.”

“Dang!” Jim Bob jumped up. “We’re sure gonna need some more whiskey.”

The blue pickup bounced across the clearing, followed by a cloud of dust, and pulled up in front of the house. Both doors opened and two men dressed in overalls stepped out.

Coates snatched the jug away from Biggs and waved it above his white head. “Hey, Tim. Ces. I know you boys got time for a taste.”

Tim, a tall skinny man with an old railroad cap pulled down low on his head, stopped at the sight of the jug in Coates’ hand. He giggled and hurried back to his pickup, popped inside and back out, holding up a bottle. It was full to the top with dark brown whiskey. “And we got this,” he shouted.

“Well, come on ahead, Tim,” cheered Coates, “and we’ll have our-selves a fun get-together.”

Biggs took hold of Coates by his bony shoulder. “What about them chains?”

Coates turned on him, hard, pushing his hand away. “To hell with your damn chains, you dern fool.”

Harlan reached out and touched Biggs on his arm through the Levi jacket. “Best have a seat, Junior. We don’t have to be no place. No place at all.”

The whiskey was getting to Harlan. Biggs could hear it talking in his voice. It was getting to him too, making his head light and his legs heavy.

Tim set his bottle on the porch next to where Silk was sitting and suggested, “If we ask nice, we might get Silk here, and Ces, to pick awhile for us.”

“Goddamn.” Coates thumped his knee happily. “There’s an idea, Tim. Get your banjo, Silk! Get your banjo, Ces!”

Biggs thought about the chains laying somewhere in the heat of the barn, but let the thought slither away when Jim Bob dan­gled Tim’s bottle over his shoulder. He took the bottle from Jim Bob and drank as Silk brushed past him on his way to his pickup. Biggs held the bottle out to Coates, who shook his head, and when Ces came up the steps with his banjo, he handed it to him instead. Ces took the bottle and set it close to his leg, lifted the banjo onto his lap and thought for a moment, then started to pick-slow, timid at first, a little sad, as though he were trying to make up his mind about something important. Just a piece of a scale came out, then a cord, then another bit of scale, then he hesitated, looking up at the sky above the barn, puzzled, as though wondering about something far away.

Silk, his banjo slung over his shoulder, remounted the steps like a man among children, the pleased look on his face of a man knowing what he is about. He sat alongside Ces, and a little behind him, as if he were going to push him, guide him, steer Ces through some wilderness. He rubbed the palm of his hand along the strings, waiting, listening to what Ces was doing. Ces played a few notes and Silk copied, with an added flourish, and Ces cocked his ear, listening back and imitated, then Silk repeated, but built it onto a flourish, and Ces, stealing the sound from Silk’s fingers, echoed the addition, putting in an extra note or two, and striking a rhythm just before Ces followed along with a flow into the lead given him by Silk, then Silk added a chord, and Ces added it too, only faster this time, twice, once with the flourish and once with­ out, and Silk spread his face in a huge grin and raced on ahead of Ces, adding something else he knew just before Ces caught up, and pushed ahead, adding more, only Silk didn’t need any pushing, for he plunged forward and Ces raced to catch up, their fingers suddenly hitting the same tune, each adding all that he knew, beating down the same rhythm, no longer tracking each other’s heels, but now together, sailing, flying, fingers and smiles both working hard together, meeting and yet beating each other, hammering, glowing and grinning at each other, the sweat pop­ping out in tiny crystal beads across their foreheads.

Old Coates could not hold it back.

“YA-HOO,” he whooped. “YAAA-HOO.”

And up he jumped and broke into a wild, thousand legged dance. The dust and flecks of mud flew up from the road in a brown cloud around him as he spun round and round, clapping his hands and shaking his head, his feet stomping and rocking. He had given himself over completely to the strong, lightening quick fingers of his friends beating on the strings of the banjos, beating out a rhythm of celebration, and he hammered the ground and threw up his legs. He laughed and waved his arms about and slapped his thighs, his eyes closed, his head back and forth, bob­bing with the banjos, and he danced and danced, working at danc­ing as only a man with nothing in the world to celebrate can dance, with a stylish abandon, and so old Coats worked and danced to the rhythm of his living, worked and danced to war against every ache in his wrinkled body, every fear conjured in his mind. Old Coats danced and worked, slamming and kicking. He danced to celebrate his work. He worked to celebrate his life.

One tune spun into the next, rhythm and melody swimming up, around and back under the strong fingers plucking the strings. Biggs no longer had any way to tell if Coates was following the banjos, or the banjos were following the old man, and Biggs sud­denly found himself standing on the step, swinging, and banging his hands together, clapping with Harlan and the rest of the men. He threw his head back and opened his eyes wide at the long solid blue sky overhead.

“YA-HOO,” he screamed at the heavens above. “YA-HOOO.” And Coates grabbed him by the collar of his jacket.

“YA-HOO,” he yelled into Biggs’s grinning face. “Come on Junior, get out here in the sunshine,” and he hooked Junior by the arm with his own, pulling the big man off the step and onto the dusty road. “That’s right, Junior Boy,” he heard Coates roar in his ear. “Enjoy yerself. Enjoy yerself, Junior. Live! Live!” And Coates and Junior spun round and round, quick, together, stomping and spinning and sweaty, and Junior closed his eyes and kicked up his legs, drifting, letting the banjos grind their driving rhythm deep into the callused hide of his brain, the two of them twirling and kicked around in circles, faster and faster, throwing up twice as much dust and mud, and Biggs wanted to grab hold of Coates, hug him, and dance like that, his arms around the gray old man, and dance forever to the grandness of life.

“Don’t this just beat hell out of work’n, Junior Boy,” yelled Coates. “Don’t it just beat all hell! Feel it, Junior. Feel it!”

Biggs closed off his mind to everything but the rapid sound of the banjos and the heavy thumping of his blood in his ears, and he felt the sweat running down through the short hairs on his head, tickling his scalp, and he felt his big boots getting soggy from the moisture soaking through his socks and he wished he would never stop, but dance on like this forever.

Suddenly Biggs felt a yank, a tug. It nearly pulled him off bal­ance. He stumbled, nearly losing his balance, and opened his eyes. The banjos had gone silent. He planted his feet and turned around, his head spinning, his sight blurry.

Coates was lying still in the road. He was face down in one of the large mud filled ruts. Harlan was stooped over the old man, turning him over. Biggs shook his head, blinking hard, trying to stop the swimming behind his eyes.

Harlan looked up at Silk, who had come down from the porch. “What’s the matter with Coates?” Silk wanted to know.

“He’s dead,” Harlan answered.

Biggs stumbled a step and a half toward Harlan and Silk and laughed. “Dead fucken drunk, you mean.”

“No, Junior,” Harlan insisted. “I mean dead,” and his blue eyes blinked. “Dead, Junior. Old Coats is dead.”

The rest of them had come off the porch and gathered around to where Harlan had turned Coats over and was brushing the dirt off his face. Junior Biggs stepped in closer, wanting to stop what was going on, tell them they was talking silly shit, that everything was all right, that the old man had only ya-booed himself to death and it was all right. Everything was all right.

“Get him to a goddamn hospital,” Tim commanded.

“That’s forty fucking miles down that logging road,” Ces snapped at him. “Jesus, Tim, he’s fucking dead.”

“What the hell we gonna do?” asked Harlen.

“Get him outa the goddamn road,’ Ces answered.

They carried the body over to the porch and laid it in the shade. Biggs, not knowing what to do, followed behind and kept squeez­ ing his eyes shut and wiping the sweat off his forehead. “Jesus,” Biggs thought, “the chains, Coates‘d forgot to give him the chains.”

Silk and Ces set their banjos up against the wooden slats of the house and sat down, nobody saying anything. Somebody picked up the bottle and it got passed around. Biggs took a small sip and looked at Coates and his head cleared.

Jim Bob asked, “What’ll we do?”

“What the hell can we do?” replied Tim. “He’s dead.”

Somebody had closed the old man’s eyes, but he did not look asleep. The face was blank, dreary, faded and white as his beard. Biggs thought it looked like someone had painted a face on the washed out side of a barn, or pasted it on like Halloween mask, or something; it didn’t look like Coates.

“What’ll we do,” Jim Bob repeated, looking for something around him, mystified.

“Get a blanket,” Ces advised. “Cover him.”

Junior jumped in. “Hell no,” he barked. “We ain’t hiding him under no blanket. Not Coates! Leave him the way he is.”

Harlan and Ces watched Junior close, but no one countered him.

“Damn fool,” Biggs said.

Silk too glanced at Biggs, wondering at the big man for a moment, then reached out and took the bottle from him. He hesi­ tated, then set the whiskey down next to the body.

Silk said, “Old fool ain’t got nobody.”

“Cept us.” Ces added.

“What’ll we do?” Jim Bob asked again. “He’s dead.”

Harlan answered, “Put him in the back of the pickup truck and take him down to Davis-to Parker’s funeral parlor there.” And he frowned hard at Coates, then looked over at Junior. “But we gotta wrap him in a blanket first, I guess.”

” Jesus,” Tim whispered. “Parker’ll want money.”

“Then by God we’ll give him some, Goddamn it,” Biggs snap­ped, and looked around at the others. “Jesus, we can’t just leave him here. He’s got to be buried.”

Silk reached behind him to where he had rested his banjo and picked it up, slinging it over his shoulder again. “Old Coates don’t have nobody except us.”

“Jesus,” mused Jim Bob as he watched Silk poke at the strings of the banjo for a moment, making sounds quiet and sad. “Park­er’s,” he said softly. ” We’ ll get him to Parker’s. He’ll know what to do.”

Tim sat down on the lower step next to Harlan. “Damn, I can’t believe it. 0ld fool danced himself to death. What the hell we gonna tell the undertaker?”

Harlan tore his eyes from Coates and looked at Tim. “Just that, I guess. He danced himself to death.”

“Dern’d old fool,” Tim pronounced.

“Hell, might as well put that on his damn gravestone,” sug­gested Jim Bob. “Coates! Danced himself to death.”

“Could’a been something worse,” added Biggs.

“Yeah,” echoed Harlan. “Dying ain’t the worst thing that can happen to a man.”

“Living can be worse,” pronounced Ces.

“Except when you’re dancing,” Harlan pointed out.

Silk kept poking and plucking, looking at Coates lying stretched out in front of him, and then he let his fingers pick up, moving faster, stroking out another quick dance tune, and he closed his eyes, his body still except for his head which bobbed faster and faster, keeping up with his swift fingers.

Rooted to the spot, Junior Biggs stared at Silk, the banjo play­er’s eyes closed tight, his head cocked, bobbing, listening to the picking of his fingers.

“Coates, he weren’t no dern’d old fool, Tim,” Silk cried over his picking. “No sir. Coates weren’t no ol’ fool.”

Ces grabbed his banjo, too, and he and Silk played together with the old man’s body lying between  them, lost themselves in the music, like they had before, only now they played faster than they had before, and then they played faster than that. They played swift, they played hard, they played deliberately, pointed, and then played so quick that Biggs thought the banjos would both break in two, playing fast, then faster, the sweat running in streams down the deep creases folded in their cheeks, played faster until Biggs could see the pain gathering in their faces, and they went right on playing through the pain, like they would never stop, played on and on, twisting and pressing their features to keep the hurt in their arms and hands from stopping their fingers moving, so fast now that Biggs thought only the devil or God would play faster.

“GODDAMN IT,” screamed Silk, his eyes closed tight and his face a dark and heavy beet red. “Goddamn it all to hell if it ain’t


From Pray’s anthology of working-class short stories where he uncovers the ‘common’ man.