In summer 1981, I taught an evening class for adults, which met upstairs in a church building right across from a school. The students brought their guitars in through a large parking lot, illumiNatd by one incandescent light at the far end. The stairs of the old building creaked eerily as they walked up the steps to the second-floor classroom.
Nearly 40 years later, I remember a quietly beautiful young woman in her 20s who smiled as she sang our simple songs, but never spoke. But toward the end of each class, she repeatedly checked her wrist-watch, and as soon class was over, she hurried for the door.
But on the evening I want to tell you about, she never looked at her watch, nor did she leave her seat until every other student had left.
“I have something to tell you, Mr. Smith,” she said as she walked up and set her guitar case down.
“I enjoy this class,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.”
“I can tell you like it,” I said. “You smile, and you get things right the first time.”
“Playing guitar takes my troubles away,” she said.
“I understand that, Mary,” I replied. “I sure do understand that.”
I nodded. “There have been days it was the only way I could find peace.” I paused. “Do you have a favorite song?
“Of the ones we’re learning?”
She opened her case, took out her guitar and with a voice as clear as Mary Travers’ or Joan Baez’ she began to sing:
“Going down that road feeling bad,
Going down that road feeling bad,
I’m going down that road feeling bad …”
She paused before the last line.
“And I don’t wanna be treated this-a way.”
She wiped her eyes. “I can’t come to class anymore,” she said.
“My husband says so.”
“Nat thinks I’m running around with you.”
“It’s not funny,” she said. “If I keep coming to class, he may hurt you.” She paused. “Nat never starts a fight. But if anybody messes with him …” she broke off. “And if he thinks we’re going together …”
“I need to get home, now,” she said, placing her guitar back in its case, picking it up and turning toward the door. But she stopped at the sound of heavy boots echoing down the second-floor hall. They were coming toward us.
“It’s Nat,” she whispered.
“Mary,” a deep voice called.
I said a prayer for our protection, then answered, “We’re in here.”
A six-foot-five, 290-pound, bearded and pony-tailed Hell’s Angel ducked under the door frame.
“Mary, you’re supposed to be home,” he said.
“I needed to tell my teacher I’m leaving the class.”
He looked around the room. “Where’s everybody?” he asked.
“I had to wait until the others left.”
“Are you going with her?” Nat asked.
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
He looked me over.
“Let’s go,” he said to Mary.
“You don’t want her to take this class?
“Would you tell me why?”
“I don’t like her out at night by herself.“
“Don’t you think playing makes her happy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it OK for her to go on home?” I asked. “While we talk?”
Nat looked at me, then at her. He stroked his beard.
“You’ll go straight home?” he asked.
“Nat, you know I will.”
“A’ight,” he said. “You can go. But be there when I get there.”
Mary took her guitar, glanced at me, then walked away. Her footsteps echoed in the empty hallway and clicked down the stairs. Nat walked into the hall to watch her leave. Then he started to follow her.
“Nat, can we talk for just a minute?” I said.
He turned around to face me.
“We can sit there on the stairs.”
I went over and sat down. After a while, he took a seat two steps below me, then looked me in the eye.
After a while I broke the silence, “Nat, do you like music?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
He thought for a moment. “Lonesome Road Blues.”
“That’s Mary’s favorite, too.”
“Do you ever sing it?”
“I wish you would. It might make the blues go away.”
“I gotta go now,” he said.
“Wait just one more minute.”
He looked at me.
“I’m worried about Mary,” I said. “She looks scared.”
“Naw,” he said. “She knows me. I got something going on.”
“So you’re not gonna hurt her?” I paused. “When you get home?”
“You got a guitar?” I asked him.
“Yeah. One Mary plays … another one I play a little.”
“You want to come to class too?” I asked. “For free?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you let her come back?”
“I don’t know.”
Then Nat stood up and reached out.
I stood to take his hand. We shook.
“Thank you,” he said. “For talking to me.”
After Nat walked down the stairs and out into the night, I sat down on the stairs again, my trembling knees reminding me they had been in danger, and my mind realizing the request for protection had been abundantly answered. Even so, I felt a fellowship with Nat: a decent man, in a tough spot, but one of honor, who would keep his promise.
The next week Mary came back to class. I wanted to ask her about Nat, but when class was over, she just smiled as she carried her guitar case out. I never heard from Mary again. But I did hear news about Nat.
According to the version I heard, Nat was in a feud with a man I’ll call Hotshot, who put out the word that Nat was a dead man, and Shot was going to do the killing. So, on a November evening, several months after the guitar class was over, Shot called three of his entourage together, they armed themselves appropriately then rode their Harleys out to Nat’s place.
They turned onto the dirt road, and up to Nat’s trailer, where Shot skidded to a stop, left his engine idling, shoved his kick stand down, and strode toward the porch.
“Nat, I ain’t got time to mess around,” he shouted. “Come on out. I’m gon’ kill you.”
Waiting for Nat to emerge, Shot would have gambled every dime he had on his ability to keep his promise. But he would have lost that wager, for a few seconds after Shot’s announcement, Nat came out of the trailer and blew Shot away. His buddies ran to him, but realizing that Shot was gone for good, they holstered their weapons and lit out for town.
Nat watched them go, then waited on the porch for the sheriff to come — and for the undertaker.
When I found out why Nat was being held in the county jail, I knew his life would be even harder, now that he had killed his enemy.
I put off trying to see him for two days. When I finally called the sheriff’s department, the receptionist said Nat was not there and that there was no way I would ever get in touch with this man who took a life.
She was right; I never saw Nat again.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.