“Be sure to put enough cinnamon in the eggnog, Honey. You know how Daddy likes his cinnamon.”
Bethany carefully measured out two tablespoons of the brown spice and dumped it into the white ceramic crock, then stirred it. She liked making the eggnog for the Christmas party the town always had.
Cabin Row, Tennessee, a small village twenty-six miles from Johnson City, wasn’t very big; only about a hundred people including all the children. On the second Saturday in December, all of them would meet in the basement of the First Baptist Church for the annual Christmas party. All the women in town would try to out-do each other with the food they brought, but in addition to a side dish and a pie or two, the McCabe’s always brought the eggnog, five gallons of rich, creamy Jersey milk with three dozen eggs, sugar and spices mixed in.
There wasn’t a lot of money in the little town because there were no jobs. In the town proper lived Warren Sanders, the sheriff of Gadston county, Tennessee, Bill Huff, the man who managed the bank, and old Jesse Flynn, who owned the hardware store. The rest of the people lived on the small farms nestled in the valleys of the foothills of the Smokey’s. Even Pastor Jenkins lived on a farm. The church couldn’t pay him enough to live on that alone.
A few times a year, at the big holidays, the people of the area would stop their farm work and come together to celebrate. Easter meant all the women would be wearing the dresses they’d sewed over the winter, and the main course would be several hams the farmers had smoked in their smokehouses all winter. The Fourth of July was always a barbecue with fireworks the sheriff fired off at the town park. Thanksgiving was wild turkey supplied by half a dozen of the men and roasted by their wives and daughters. Each meal would include a special dish from each woman and each girl old enough to be looking for a husband. After the main meal, there would be pies made from the pumpkins most farmers planted in the rows of corn or from the fruits the women had canned to preserve over the winter.
Christmas was a special coming together for them all. Except for caring for livestock, all the farm work was done. The gardens had all been picked clean of the green beans, peas, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, and all the other vegetables the women had planted and cared for. Some of that produce lay in root cellars to keep until needed. The rest had been canned in Mason jars to supply each family’s food until the gardens could again bring forth their bounty. There was little to do on the farms then, so the party would last until late at night instead of ending a couple hours after the meal.
As Bethany tasted the eggnog, she thought of how the party would be. Everybody would walk down the row of tables, filling their plates as they went, and then sit down with family and friends. There would be happy conversation until they pushed their plates away, rubbed their swollen bellies, and groaned about how full they were and how good the food was.
More cinnamon, Bethany thought, and dumped in another two spoonfuls. After stirring and tasting it again, she smiled. That was about right. After a day sitting in the springhouse, the cinnamon would mellow into the other flavors and be just the way Daddy liked it.
Bethany grinned at her next thought. If he could, Daddy would slip out to the springhouse and add a little of the moonshine he always bought from old man Winters at this time of year. Her mother was always watching for that, so he was seldom successful. Mary McCabe didn’t hold much with alcohol, and especially not when there were children present. She did overlook the toast they always made on New Year’s Eve, but that was the only time.
That night, Bethany looked over the dress she’d wear to the party. It was from a new pattern her mother had bought on an infrequent trip to Johnson City, and Bethany thought it was beautiful. It fit her well, showing any man who wanted to look that she was a real woman. Bethany knew several men who would be looking. She only wished James would be one of them, but she knew he wouldn’t. It had been almost three years since he left Cabin Row.
Bethany had known James since they were both in grade school. He’d always been a good friend but by the time she had her sixteenth birthday, she was a little shocked that their friendship seemed to be changing. The gangly boy who played the guitar and joked with her was becoming something else. She wasn’t really sure what that something else was, but her body seemed to tingle all over when he was around.
James Parker didn’t appear to notice anything different, though she’d tried to make him see how she felt. Sometimes, when they talked, she’d touch his arm, or smooth her long, brown hair, and she’d always smile when she saw him. James just smiled back.
Bethany had ample time to smile at James. By the time he was fourteen, he was sitting in with the group of men who furnished the entertainment at the holiday parties. It wasn’t really a formal band. They didn’t practice together. Each just brought his guitar or banjo or fiddle or mandolin to the parties. After the meal, they’d pick up their instruments and begin playing on their own until someone in the group of people anxiously waiting called out “Wildwood Flower”, or “Black Eyed Susie”. Then, the men would bring their chairs together, strum a little to get everything in tune, and begin.
What followed was an hour of the music of the past that still held the love of both the people who played and sang it, and of the people who listened with feet tapping because they couldn’t not tap their feet. James fit right into the group, and by the time he was seventeen, was playing better than them all. He could also sing once his voice stopped changing from a man’s rich baritone to a boy’s high pitch and then back. His voice always carried Bethany away when he sang “Dixie Darlin’”.
It was at the Easter party the year they graduated from high school he’d told her of his plans, and her secret hopes had shattered into a million pieces.
“Bethany, the music teacher at school say’s I’m pretty good. He used to teach music in Nashville, so he oughta know. He says there’s still people besides us who like the music I play, and I could make some money doing it. He recorded me one day, and sent the disk to a man he knows there. The man was an agent for musicians, and he said he’d take me on. There’s nothing for me here, so I’m going to go to Nashville once school’s out. Maybe one of these days, you’ll be able to tell people you knew me when I just played for fun.”
Bethany had cried that night, and the next night, and the next. Her mother knew what was probably wrong since she often talked with James’ mother, but Bethany was almost a woman, and she needed to start working things out for herself. Her mother didn’t say anything other than to tell her about William Jones, another boy her age.
“He asked me the other day what you were going to do once you graduate. He seemed pretty interested. You know, I always thought he was a really nice boy. He’ll take over his daddy’s farm, I expect. They had him really late, and Jake’s got arthritis really bad. From what Judy says, William’s been doing most of the work for the last few years already.”
William was a nice boy, and he’d asked her out on a couple of dates. They’d had fun going to the movies in Johnson City, but the feeling she had when James was around her wasn’t there with William. After their second date, she’d told him she was too busy with school and work at home.
That May, after James and Bethany walked down the aisle between the rows of seated parents and received their diplomas, James had said goodbye and got on the bus for Nashville. She’d wished him luck. That night, she secretly hoped he’d fail the audition, or whatever they called it when you didn’t get hired to play music. Right after thinking that, Bethany realized she was being selfish, and berated herself.
She didn’t own James. She’d never even told him she how she felt. Why would he have any reason to know she wanted him to stay in Cabin Row? He seemed to like her, but he’d never said anything that meant it was more than just liking her as a friend.
Over the weeks as spring cooked itself into summer, Bethany realized James was gone. He’d written to her about once a week, at first. He was doing fine, and the man who was his agent said he had real promise. He was playing with some other musicians in the bars in Nashville, and was making a little money.
After the first month, the letters came every two weeks. His agent had gotten him a chance to record some of his music, and he’d been busy practicing with the musicians who would play what he called “back up”, and then spending hours in the recording studio until the sound was just right. He would start writing more often once the CD was released.
After that letter, no more came to the mailbox in front of the farmhouse. Bethany cried a little more, but then realized James didn’t feel about her the way she wanted him to feel. That realization hurt deeply, but she was mature enough to understand, and tried to get on with her life.
In July of that year, Bethany got a job in Johnson City as a cashier at Walmart. She had to buy a used car to get back and forth, but the job occupied her time, and she made friends with a couple of the women at work. There were also men. When she was still getting a few letters from James, Bethany compared the men who asked her out to James and always found them lacking.
When the letters stopped coming and she’d resolved herself to never seeing James again, she stopped comparing and began enjoying the attention the other men gave her. By Thanksgiving, she only thought about James once in a while, usually at night when she was trying to go to sleep. By Christmas, James was just an old friend, and she was seeing Mark Wilson, a young man who worked in Sporting Goods. She’d invited him to the Christmas party, and he said he’d be there. Bethany hoped he’d like the cherry pie she’d made.
It was obvious to Bethany that Mark felt a little uncomfortable with all the people milling around the row of tables. He’d been born in the city and Christmas for him was just immediate family, or so he’d told her. He didn’t know anybody except her and though she tried to introduce him, she knew he didn’t remember most of the names. He spent all the time before the meal standing next to her and nodding at what the people said.
That was the only thing about Mark that gave Bethany pause when she considered him as a potential husband. She’d grown up with the expectation that her future spouse would love the community gatherings as much as she did. Mark seemed like he’d rather be someplace else. She could probably live with that, she thought, but it still caused her some reservations about him.
Bethany was pleased that he did enjoy the food, and beamed when he told her her cherry pie was the best he’d ever tasted. She didn’t know if Mark liked her enough to ask her to marry him, but she had hopes. She was twenty going on twenty-one, and most of her girlfriends were already married. Two even had babies they brought to the celebration. Her mother kept telling her not to worry because she had plenty of time yet, but she was a little jealous of those girlfriends.
As the clatter began of women gathering their plates and silverware from their families to take home to wash, all eyes were on the semi-circle arrangement of about twenty chairs at the side of the church basement. Sitting beside those chairs was an assortment of cases for guitars, banjos and fiddles, and the big bass fiddle Pastor Jackson played was laying on its side. This was where the evening’s entertainment would take place.
The first to casually stroll up to the instrument cases was old Amos Crider. Amos was almost seventy, so he didn’t do much but play chords for the music, but he was pretty good. He carefully lifted the old guitar from the case, then sat down and started plucking the strings and turning the tuning pegs.
He was quickly joined by other men, and the church basement was soon filled with the rich bass of the bass fiddle, the mid-range tones of guitars, the sharp sounds of banjos, the scratchy sound of violins, and the high-pitched tones of two mandolins. The men would bend to hear the instrument next to them, pluck a string, and then either nod or carefully adjust a tuning peg and keep plucking until everything sounded right.
Mark tapped Bethany on the shoulder.
“Did you hire a band for this party?”
“No, they’re just the people who live here and they play at every celebration. They’re really good. Just wait and see.”
A little after that, George Smothers, one of the banjo players, strummed a chord and the rest of the players stopped plucking and looked in his direction. George smiled and his fingers played the first couple bars of “Home Sweet Home”. The players all smiled and joined in after that, and while they stumbled a couple times before their fingers got warmed up, Bethany was tapping her foot and smiling.
That first song was followed by “My Tennessee Home” and then by “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. Each song was really several solos by different players with different instruments while the rest of the players played the chords that filled out the melody.
It was during, “I Saw The Light”, the door to the church basement opened and a man walked inside with a guitar case. As soon as the band saw him, they stopped and started to grin. Beverly heard, “Is this a private party or can anybody join in”, and then caught her breath. It was James.
The whole room erupted in clapping and cheers as James uncased his guitar and took a seat at one of the chairs. After a couple of minutes of adjusting his tuning to match the others, he strummed a chord and then smiled.
“You guys go on and I’ll try to keep up.”
What followed was half an hour of the music the people at the tables called out and the men played from memory. It was a mix of old bluegrass tunes from the turn of the century to hymns to the music few outside the Smokey Mountains had ever heard because the notes had never been recorded except in the minds of the men sitting there and smiling as they strummed away. They took a break for a cup of coffee then, but Beverly knew they’d play until almost ten.
She’d looked forward to showing Mark how the people of Cabin Row celebrated Christmas. When she looked at him though, he wasn’t smiling.
“Mark, you’re frowning. What’s wrong?”
Mark shook his head.
“Is this stuff all they know how to play?”
“Well, there’s a lot more, but it’s all the same kind of music. Don’t you like it?”
“It’s OK, but it all sounds the same to me, just a bunch of guitars and banjos and violins playing what they feel like playing.”
Beverly was going to say that’s exactly what it was and the men played that way because they liked showing off what they could do. She didn’t get the words out though, because she saw James walking toward their table with a smile on his face. She felt her heart racing.
James didn’t look much different, she thought. He did seem to have a few lines on his face she didn’t remember being there before, but she might have just forgotten because she hadn’t seen him in over two years.
He looked a little embarrassed when he stopped in front of her and just said, “Hi, Beverly. You doin’ OK”.
Beverly felt her face turn warm and knew she was blushing.
“Hi James. Yes…I…I’m doing all right, I guess.”
He smiled then and Beverly’s heart was beating so hard she thought he could probably hear it.
“You don’t look much different…a little prettier maybe. This your fella here with you?”
Beverly looked at Mark, and he was frowning.
“James, this is Mark Wilson and I asked him to come to the Christmas Party with me. Mark, this is James Parker. We went to school together and he’s a professional musician now in Nashville.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a professional musician. I cut one CD, but it isn’t out yet.”
Beverly grinned back.
“Even if it isn’t out yet, just making one makes you a professional, doesn’t it?”
“Well, it doesn’t work like that, but a couple of the record labels are looking at it. I uh…I brought you a copy…if you want it.”
Before she could answer, the musicians started their plucking and tuning again. James smiled.
“Looks like they’re gettin’ ready to get started again. We’ll talk at the next break, OK?”
Mark stayed until that break, but when the music stopped, he touched Beverly on the arm.
“Bev, I think I’m going to leave.”
“Bev, since James got here, you haven’t looked at me even once. All you’ve done is watch him and smile. I don’t have to be a mind reader to know there’s something there, something I can’t compete with. The way he looked at you is the same. I like you, but I don’t think I’m the man you want. I think James is and I can’t sit here knowing you’d rather be with him.
“I’m not mad or anything like that. I still like you a lot, and I hope we can stay friends, but I know when it’s time for me to leave. I’ll see you at work next week.”
With that, Mark put on his coat and left. Beverly was still sitting there with her mouth open when James walked up.
“Your fella have to leave?”
Beverly looked up at James.
“Yes, he didn’t like the music very much.”
“To each his own, I guess. Whatca been doing since I left?”
Beverly felt her heart thumping again, and she stammered a little when she answered.
“I…I…I got a job in Johnson City at Walmart. I just run a register now, but they’re training me how to set up the clothing displays.”
“Sounds like you have it made then. I bet you’re pretty happy.”
Beverly thought about that for a moment. Was she happy, really happy? She’d thought she was until she saw James again. Now…
It was going to be like it was when he’d left the first time. He’d get her hopes up just by being there and talking with her, but then he’d drive back to Nashville and leave her in Cabin Row by herself. She’d spend a week or so moping around at work and crying every night before she convinced herself he wasn’t coming back. Beverly didn’t think she could do that again so she wasn’t going to give herself any way to hope.
She was going to say she was very happy, but Harry Jones, one of the violin players, started playing “The Orange Blossom Special”. James grinned and said if she was staying, he’d catch her at the next break.
Beverly listened to the music and tapped her foot because her brain told her to, but she was more thinking than listening.
Why didn’t James come back home for Christmas last year or the year before that? Why did he have to pick this year, the year she’d found a man she liked in Mark and had hopes he’d ask her to marry him one of these days? He’d hinted that he wanted to spend more time with her.
Now, Mark had seen how she’d looked at James and understood he’d never be able to wrench James from her heart. Mark probably wouldn’t ask her out again and she’d just be another woman who worked at Walmart. Beverly’s mother might say she had a lot of time left, but Beverly didn’t want to wait until she was thirty to start a family.
She sighed then. It wasn’t any use denying what she felt for James even if he didn’t feel anything for her. It was pretty clear he didn’t. What was that he’d said, that he’d “catch her” at the next break? If he really felt anything for her he’d have said something like, “I really want to talk to you at the next break”, or something like that. No, he still just thought of her as a friend. There was nothing she could do to change his mind about that.
Beverly prepared herself to be nice to James but to not gush all over him like she felt like doing. She was going to tell him she was happy and getting along fine. If she just said that, maybe he’d not stay to talk and she could go home and cry.
When James walked up to her and sat down in the chair Mark had left empty, Beverly felt her heart speed up again and wanted to tell him what she really thought.
Don’t let this happen, she thought. It won’t do any good anyway. He’s still going to leave.
She was surprised when James touched her hand.
“Beverly, this will be the last set. It’s hard to talk here and I have some catching up to do. There’s a pancake place in Johnson City that’s open all night. Would you like to go there once everything’s over?”
Beverly wanted to say she had to get home, but when she opened her mouth, what came out was, “I guess that would be OK”.
James didn’t say anything during the half-hour drive, and Beverly was afraid to say anything for fear all her thoughts would come tumbling out. It wasn’t until the waitress sat their cups on the table and then left that James looked at Beverly and smiled.
“I lied about you not changing, Beverly. I remembered you these last years like you were when you were eighteen. You look older now and you’re pretty instead of cute.”
“You drove me all the way to Johnson City to tell me I was pretty?”
James swirled his coffee cup.
“No. I needed to tell you some things I couldn’t tell you back there.”
James took a deep breath.
“I did cut one CD of songs, but that was a year ago. Evidently, I’m not as good as everybody thought I was because my agent hasn’t been able to get anybody to buy it. I don’t think I’m ever going to be famous like you said.
“I’m still playing with a band on the weekends, and I make a little money, but now, I have a full time job at the tire factory in Nashville. Have for almost two years now.”
“That’s why you haven’t been back home then, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Everybody was so proud when I went to Nashville. Some even said I was going to be another Doyle Lawson. I didn’t think that, but I thought I might be able to at least make a living. When that didn’t happen, I couldn’t come back home.”
“Then why did you come back home this year?”
James looked up from his coffee.
“Because I needed to see if you were still single and to talk to you if you were.”
Beverly’s mouth fell open for a moment.
“James, what are you trying to say?”
“Beverly, I knew you liked me in high school, because your mother told my mother. I also knew I could never make any kind of life for you if I stayed in Cabin Row. That’s why I went to Nashville in the first place. I couldn’t tell you anything then because I didn’t know if it was going to work out or not. When it didn’t…well, I couldn’t ask you to give up what you have just to starve with me. That’s why I went out and got a job – so I’d have a way to give you the things you want if I could convince you to come to Nashville with me.
“I don’t know if you’ll believe this or not, but I thought about you every night since I went to Nashville – what you were doing and if you’d gotten married and all that. When I saw you with that guy tonight, I figured I’d come back for nothing, but when he left, I wondered if…well, do you still feel anything for me after so long?”
Beverly just stared at James because she didn’t know how to tell him she’d done the same thing without seeming to be some crazy woman bearing a torch for him.
James looked at her and frowned.
“I guess you don’t. It was too much to hope for anyway. I’ll take you back to Cabin Row now.”
Beverly felt her eyes fill with tears and then felt those tears streaming down her face. She fished in her purse for a tissue, wiped her eyes, and then kept wiping the tears as she spoke.
“James, I thought about you every night too, but I thought you’d probably found some other woman and that’s why you stopped writing and never came home.”
James smiled a hopeful smile.
“So, there’s still something there?”
“There has been since high school. That’s why I’m crying. I finally heard you say you felt something for me.”
“It doesn’t matter to you that I just work in a factory?”
“I just work at Walmart. Why would it?”
“I don’t know. I just always wanted to be able to give you anything you wanted. I want to start seeing you, but I can’t because I still can’t do that.”
Beverly wiped her eyes again and then put her hand on James’.
“All I ever wanted was to be with you. It doesn’t matter to me how much we have as long as we have each other.”
James had to go back to work, but on Sunday night, he took Beverly to Johnson City to eat. When he parked in front of her parent’s house, he shut off the engine and then turned to her.
“Beverly, I had a great time tonight. I know I’m pushing you pretty fast, but could I take you out to eat next Saturday too?”
“James, you’re not pushing me faster than I want to go. I’ve waited over two years for this.”
James reached over and took her hand.
“I won’t leave you for so long again, I promise. I can’t now. I’ll be back next Saturday and I won’t leave until Sunday night. I’d uh…well, the factory shuts down between Christmas eve day and New Year’s Day. I planned on coming home then too, so if you’re not busy, maybe we could do something like go to a movie in Johnson City or something.”
Beverly felt him gently squeezing her hand and put her other hand over his.
“I have to work from the day after Christmas to New Year’s eve, but we could do something at night.”
“Well, you think about what you’d like to do then. I better let you go inside before you freeze out here. I’ll walk you to the door.”
Beverly didn’t want him to leave, but she knew James would get home late as it was. She started to open the door, but then turned back to James and put her arms around his neck.
“I can’t just let you leave, not after tonight. If you don’t kiss me, I’m going to kiss you.”
Beverly didn’t have to ask James to kiss her the next Saturday night, and when he kissed her on Sunday night, Beverly held her lips to his until she had to stop to breathe. When she eased back down from her tiptoes, she smiled.
“Promise you’ll kiss me again on Christmas Eve?”
James stroked her cheek.
“I don’t want to stop kissing you, not ever. I’ll give you a special kiss on Christmas Eve.”
The afternoon of Christmas Eve, James called Beverly’s parent’s house, and her mother smiled when she handed Beverly the phone.
“Beverly, it’s James. He wants to talk to you.”
Her mother was still smiling when she tapped Beverly’s father on the shoulder.
“Honey, can you help me in the kitchen a little.”
Beverly waited until they left and then said, “Hi James.”
“I’m at Mom and Dad’s house, and I thought if you aren’t busy tonight, we could just eat at the diner in Cabin Row and then go see the nativity scene at the church. I always liked that nativity scene.”
Beverly said that would be fine and she’d be ready at five.
James was a little quiet at dinner and as they left the diner, Beverly asked him if something was wrong. James shook his head and smiled.
“No, everything’s perfect, or at least I hope it will be. Ready to go see the nativity scene now?”
The nativity scene was the same Beverly had seen every year since she could remember. The people dressed up like Joseph, Mary, and the three wise men had changed over the years as had the two sheep and one cow, but the stable made from rough lumber was the same. In the manger was the same doll she’d seen before.
If she hadn’t been with James, she’d have just walked quickly past and then gone home. After he put his arm around her shoulders though, she wouldn’t have left for anything.
They stood there until James chuckled.
“I think Janice has gotten a little fatter since the last time I saw this. I don’t think Mary would have looked like that after she just had a baby.”
“Janice isn’t fat. She’s expecting, but she still wanted to play Mary this year. I don’t think she looks that big. She’s only about four months along. She’s really happy about being expecting. She told me she and Jack have been trying for almost a year.”
James looked up at the sky.
“See that star up there between the trees? Suppose that’s what the wise men saw and followed to the stable?”
“James, they couldn’t see that star way over in Bethlehem.”
“I know, it’s the star that brought me back to you though. I saw it when I drove to your house tonight.”
James took his arm from his shoulder and gently turned Beverly until she was facing him.
“Beverly, I was going to wait until spring, but I let you go once, and I don’t want to risk that again. Would you want to take this so I won’t lose you again?”
He took a small box from his pocket and handed it to Beverly. When she opened it, she caught her breath and looked up at him.
“I couldn’t afford a very big diamond, but it’s a real diamond, not just glass, and the ring is real gold.”
Beverly looked at the ring and then back at James.
“You’re asking me to marry you?”
“I am if you’ll have me. I know this is pretty fast, so I don’t expect you to give me an answer tonight. I know you’ll need some time to think about it.”
Beverly threw her arms around James’ neck.
“I don’t have to think about it, James. Just put the ring on my finger and then kiss me.”
From January until the end of May, James drove from Nashville to Cabin Row every weekend. The last day of May, Beverly quit her job at Walmart, and on the next Sunday afternoon, she and James were married in the First Baptist Church in Cabin Row.
This Christmas, they’re coming back to Cabin Row for the Christmas party, but this year, there will be a difference.
Beverly will bring a side dish and a pie, just like she has every Christmas since she was old enough to be thinking about a husband. James will bring his guitar and after the meal, he’ll sit in with the other men and play the old time music of the mountains.
The difference will be what Beverly does. She found a job at the Walmart closest to their apartment, and because she had experience, she was hired as a supervisor and didn’t have to work Saturday nights anymore. She started going with James when he played with his group of hobby musicians, and would sit at a table, tap her foot to the music and smile.
One Saturday night when she was fixing their dinner, James heard her singing “Dixie Darlin’” in the kitchen. He walked in and listened for a while, and then touched her on the shoulder.
Beverly jumped because she didn’t know he was there, but smiled when James said, “You sing pretty good. Why don’t you sing “Dixie Darlin’” with the band tonight? The folks would love it”.
That night, Beverly took a deep breath, stepped in front of the microphone, and started to sing. Her voice was a little shakey at first, but when she saw the people smiling, she stopped shaking and let her heart flow out through her voice. She’s been singing with the band on Saturday nights since then.
This Christmas, she’ll sing “Dixie Darlin’” while she smiles at James, but together, they’ll sing several other songs too. They’ll end the last set by singing, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” together.
Beverly picked that song because it reminds her of Christmas Eve the year before. The star she and James saw that night wasn’t in Bethlehem, but just like that star brought the wise men to the manger, this one brought James back to her. That’s what she’ll tell the people sitting in the basement of the First Baptist Church, and then she’ll try hard not to cry when she and James hold hands and sing it.