The Most Beautiful Girl (Chapter One Excerpt)

Chapter 1 – September 15, 2003

Johnny Cash Is Dead

I am at Johnny Cash’s funeral. The pianist plays “I Walk the Line” as a haunting gospel hymn while the congregation settles into cushioned pews. The legendary singer’s lifeless body lies in an open casket, dressed, of course, in black. The opening to Cash’s 1970s television show flashes on an oversized video screen at the front of the church, and we watch Johnny deliver his famous proclamation: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He looks brutally handsome and dangerous, and I half expect to see him walk out onstage with the Tennessee Three and kick off the show with “Folsom Prison Blues.”

I pull my thin summer sweater around my shoulders. This moment feels like the real ending between Dad and me. I have a picture of my father, his black hair slicked back like the young Johnny Cash, leaning back in a chair and balancing a Pabst Blue Ribbon on his belly. His Memphis Soul album collection rests on a shelf next to him. Both my father and Johnny Cash were young and virile when the photo was taken in 1968. Now I’m at Johnny’s funeral and Daddy is gone. He’s only been dead for two years, but we were estranged for an entire decade before he died and time seems stretched thin. I haven’t allowed myself to grieve either the demise of our relationship or Dad’s death.

Johnny Cash has been entangled in my life from the time I was a small child, present mostly through his music, the ghost of a man I didn’t really know. As a former music journalist and editor at Country Music magazine, I interviewed Johnny Cash a few times, but I’m here because of his relationship with my client Kris Kristofferson. I’m Kris’s publicist, and today my job is simple: Keep the media away. For Kris, this day is all about his friend John.

Kris’s wife, Lisa, and their kids sit in the pew to my right. I’m on the aisle and try to collect myself as Kris paces back and forth to my left. He moves like a panther, slunk low, his shoulders hunched as he wears a path on the sea-green carpet. I focus on Kris’s black trench coat as he circles. Reflections from the stained glass windows tinge his coat with shades of green and blue.  Kris’s agitation is contagious and I fold my hands together to stop them from shaking. I’ve been unsteady on my feet since an Associated Press reporter broke the news of Cash’s death to me at six o’clock in the morning three days ago.

Al Gore stands at the altar behind a podium. As he eulogizes Johnny, Gore talks about how he was supposed to be the next president of the United States. He says if it were up to Cash, he would have been. The former vice president describes Johnny Cash as a man of contradiction—like Kris’s song “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)”—“a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”—and recalls how Cash faced his inner conflicts. He didn’t deny or run from them. Instead, he embraced them as part of being human.

All of it reminds me of my own father. With each word, I sink deeper into my little corner of the church pew and try to make myself smaller and unnoticeable. It is surreal enough being here in the First Baptist Church, surrounded by people who knew and loved Cash, without Dad’s spirit fluttering around me. Tears flow down my cheeks, but I am silent. I want to let loose and wail, but I contain myself. Although I am sad about Cash’s death, it is the unfinished business with Dad that has its sharpened hooks in my flesh today.

I drift back to a time when I was five years old and my parents hosted a party in our basement rec room. I’m supposed to be asleep in my bedroom on the second floor, but instead I peer from behind the open basement door. I listen to the noises from below. Johnny Cash is on the stereo, and his music drowns out the laughter and conversation between my parents and their friends. I duck my head back around the corner as I hear my dad’s footsteps.

“I’m going to get some ice,” he says.

“Bob, check on the kids while you’re up there,” Mom yells.

I hold my breath and tiptoe toward the stairs that lead to my room. I hear Daddy singing “Long Black Veil” as he pulls ice cube trays out of the freezer and cracks the metal handle to loosen the cubes. I’m almost to the stairs when he catches me.

“Penelope, what are you doing out of bed?” He calls me by my pet name.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I answer. I don’t say that the music was too loud for anyone to sleep.

He picks me up. “C’mon, I’ll take you back to bed. I inhale my father’s Aqua Velva and brandy scent. Dad sings softly in my ear and carries me upstairs to the loft I share with my three brothers.

“She walks these hills in a long black veil, She visits my grave when the night winds wail,” he sings. “Tomorrow I’ll make pancakes when Mom’s at work and we’ll watch Batman, okay?”  Dad leans over, kisses me goodnight, and then moves around the room to check on my brothers.

My daydream becomes more vivid every minute. The next evening, while Mom works the night shift at the diner, Daddy puts Johnny Cash on the turntable. My brothers and I dance around the living room with him. I’ve just started kindergarten and my brother Robbie’s four. Stevie’s two and Ricky just one. Our Boxer puppy, Brandy, plays and twirls and barks and rolls and licks as Daddy takes turns lifting each of us off the ground to spin us. Of course, Daddy’s singing:

Hey, look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
It’s the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin’ my baby back

 

Daddy drinks thirstily from his highball glass, the amber liquid only slightly diluted with a few ice cubes and a splash of soda. Robbie and Stevie make train whistle noises in their little boy sopranos while Daddy repeats the line “Well, I don’t care if I do-die-do-die-do-die-do-die . . .” over and over and over again.

By suppertime, Daddy’s voice sounds a little funny. His eyes droop and he stumbles as he rolls the television stand into the kitchen. He lifts Ricky into his high chair and settles the rest of us at the Formica table. I rub the chair’s plastic-covered cushion to make it squeak. “Penelope, stop making that noise!” Daddy gives me the look, so I stop. “Turn on the TV and find Batman,” he orders as he flips a pancake. We eat and watch Batman. Pow! Wham! Holy bill of rights, Batman! To the Bat Cave, Robin! And then we repeat that signoff we love to hear every time: Same bat time, same bat channel!

Ricky falls asleep in his high chair and his head bobs to one side. Stevie’s face, sticky with maple syrup, is about to fall into his half-eaten pancake when Daddy scoops him from his chair.  Daddy orders me to put the dishes in the sink as he lifts Ricky from the high chair with his free hand. Daddy holds one boy under each arm as he disappears around the corner, and I hear his boots click-clack on the hardwood stairs to our bedroom. As he returns to get Robbie, I clear the table, careful not to drop any dishes.

“Okay, Penelope, time for bed,” Daddy says after the boys are tucked in. “Go put on your pajamas and then come back down to give me a kiss goodnight.”

I run upstairs to my bedroom. I change into my pajamas and creep back down the stairs and tiptoe into the living room. The stereo is on and Daddy is singing with Johnny Cash again.

“Daddy?” I call. Johnny’s drowning me out.

I try again. “Daddy?” I come up behind him in the living room as he gazes out the front picture window and watches dusk cover our small street. He jiggles the ice in his glass and continues to sing along with “Orange Blossom Special.”

All of a sudden, he turns around and sees me. “Hey, I told you to go to bed.”

“I came down to kiss you goodnight.”

“Oh yeah.” Dad crouches down to my level and opens his arms. I go to him and he kisses my cheek. He hugs me with the icy glass cold on my back.

“Goodnight, my Penelope.”

I run back up the stairs, crawl into bed and pull my pillow over my head. It barely muffles Dad and Johnny Cash. They’re singing like nobody’s listening.

I swear I can smell that Aqua Velva and brandy at Johnny’s funeral. My eyes pop open with the memory, but it’s Kris’ hand on my shoulder that truly jolts me back to today. I feel Johnny and my father in his fingertips, and I smile and nod to let Kris know I’m okay. He leans over me to kiss Lisa, and he walks to the front of the church to sing “Moment of Forever,” a song he wrote when Lisa’s father was dying. I lose the battle with my equilibrium as Kris sings, and when Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow follow him to harmonize on “The Old Rugged Cross,” it all becomes too much. I hang my head and openly cry with the rest of the congregation.

Emmylou was around the last time I saw Johnny Cash. It was September a year ago when John and June and the rest of the remaining Carter Family performed for a small group at the Americana Music Conference in a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nashville. George Strait was across the street at the arena playing to a sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000, but the two hundred of us crowded into the small ballroom at the Hilton were together to witness history—John and June’s last performance.

At the time, I was a producer for Great American Country (GAC) cable network, and we filmed the show. I interviewed Johnny and June later backstage after the show, and John looked tired and weathered and old. June was the spry one, yet she died first, eight months later, and most believe that June’s death was the beginning of the end for John.

Rodney Crowell takes his turn at the podium, and recalls a conversation between his former wife, Rosanne Cash, and Johnny’s mother Carrie. Rosanne had asked Carrie how she bore the pain of childbirth. “Child, we just endured it,” was Carrie’s response. Rodney relates that to how we will all have to live in a world without Johnny Cash: we will simply endure it.

My dad, Robert Rae Ruditys, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack on August 31, 2001. We hadn’t spoken in a decade. I did make a few half-hearted attempts to reconcile, but truthfully, there was too much damage between us. I had somehow wiggled out of the chains that bound me to my family, and there was no way I was going back to that place.

Dad died the year I turned 40. Six years earlier I left my hometown of Milwaukee to work in the music business in Nashville. Leaving my old life behind and starting over was liberating and exhilarating. So much so that for a long time I pretended my old life didn’t matter. Yet, today, memories of Dad are vivid, even more alive than they were at his funeral.

For much of my childhood my dad worked in a factory and moonlighted as an auto mechanic on nights and weekends. His greasy two-and-a-half-car garage was his favorite place. He wore blue coveralls and always had a wrench in one hand and a cocktail in the other. I often played on his big orange hydraulic jack while he worked. One day before he slid under the car, Daddy said: “Penelope, your eyes are especially blue today.” He smiled up at me from the dolly and rolled himself under the car where he sang another Johnny Cash song:

No, I never got over those blue eyes
I see them ev’ry where

 

While Daddy sang to me from under the car, I hummed along and climbed on to one arm of the orange jack, pumped the handle to lift myself up in the air, then flipped the plastic hydraulic switch and rode back down to the ground. The air hissed around me under the sound of Dad’s soulful voice. I did this over and over again until Dad slid out from under the car, yelled at me to quit playing with the jack and shooed me out of the garage.

Now Rosanne Cash is at the front of the congregation, remembering her father. “I can almost live with the idea of a world without Johnny Cash because in truth there will never be a world without him. His voice, his songs, the image of him with his guitar slung over his back, all that he said and sang and strummed changed us and moved us and is in our collective memory and is documented for future generations.” Rosanne pauses before she continues. “I cannot, however, even begin to imagine a world without Daddy.”

I flash back again, to my ninth Christmas morning. I sit cross-legged—rumpled and half awake—next to my brothers in front of our Christmas tree. I stare at my pink flowered pajama bottoms as Mom cries and yells at Dad for ruining Christmas because he came home drunk late last night.

On Christmas Eve, my mother had fluttered about the house and wrung her hands, her eyes darting between the brightly wrapped gifts, tree lights twinkling and four eager kids waiting for the magic of Christmas to begin. There was no sign of Dad. Mom phoned every tavern in town looking for him while my brothers and I, dressed in our Sunday best, waited to eat Christmas Eve dinner. It was late when Mom kissed us and sent us to bed with promises of a Merry Christmas the next day. I awoke a little while later, not to the sound of Santa’s reindeer, but to the crash of Daddy’s Ford into the massive oak tree at the foot of our driveway. I crawled on my knees to peek out the window to watch Dad stumble through high snow banks on his way up to the house, lit only by the car headlights glowing through the falling snow.

On Christmas morning Dad’s remorseful, at least until Mom pushes him too far. He sits in the gold velour chair in the corner next to the tree and hangs his head in shame as she stands over him and screams obscenities and threats. Mom leans over and pulls packages from beneath the tree, breaks them and hurls the wreckage at Daddy.

The partially wrapped cardboard sleeves from two LPs land at my feet, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter. I pick up each of them, remove the rest of the red wrapping paper and smooth my hands over the covers. Jagged pieces of broken vinyl push against the inside of the cardboard.  I wonder if I could glue the records back together.  Maybe we would have a nice Christmas if Dad could listen to Johnny Cash.

Dad leaps from his chair and struggles with Mom. He screams at her: “Sandra, you need help. You’re mentally ill. We need to have you committed.”

He looks down at the four of us, still quiet in our places next to the sparkling Christmas tree. “See, kids, your mom is losing it. We’re going to have to lock her up in a mental hospital.”

Mom throws herself at Dad. “You bastard!”

Dad pushes her away, picks up the Christmas tree and heaves it across the room. My four-year-old brother Ricky, all white hair and fat cheeks, crawls into my lap, buries his head in my shoulder and cries. I try to comfort Ricky while Dad slaps Mom repeatedly as she begs, “Please, stop, the kids, it’s Christmas.”

“I hate fucking Christmas,” Daddy yells as he shoves her to the ground and storms out the back door.

My brain is a time machine. As I sit in the church pew, it hopscotches back and forth through the decades. Each painful memory bites me deeper. I relive the joyful moments with longing. I see myself as a young girl when my family took Sunday drives in the country. Dad led us in singing the Carter Family’s “Church in the Wildwood” with his own version of the lyrics: “Oh come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, no lovelier church in the dale, no love is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the dale.”

We sang that chorus over and over again—four kids shoulder to shoulder in the back seat of Dad’s Ford. Mom would smile at Daddy from the passenger side, our dog Brandy curled at her feet. Sunday after Sunday, he drove us through the same Wisconsin country roads—blue sky and nothing but farm fields dotted with barns and old houses. Today, my heart aches for the family we were then.

Sorrow collapses upon me—a weight as heavy as this rigid church and the menacing solid wooden beams that hang above me. No one knows that I am weeping about my own father, wishing for a different ending to our story and knowing I’m never going to get it. Here I am, a middle-aged woman crying in a church far away from my family and still tormented by my dead father.