By Alan Gerstle
Johnny and Nora sat three feet apart from each other on the grass by an oak with a trunk so wide that Johnny thought it looked like it was about to burst, its branches and leaves so spread out that they seemed to be showing off. The couple had found this small, circular park while walking around Newport the night before. They were in town to be part of the folk festival. Now, in daylight, Johnny noticed how perfectly mown the turf was, as he watched girls in flower print dresses wandering around the perimeter while others had settled on the grass, talking in circles.
“There’s Donovan and the girl who he slept with last night,” Nora said, pointing with her chin. It was the first thing out of her mouth since they spread out the beach towel and parked themselves on the lawn. Johnny turned and noticed a girl leaning against the trunk of a tree near theirs. She wore a peasant dress. Light brown hair and freckles around her deep-set, brown eyes made her look mysteriously attractive.
The musician next to the girl was Donovan, Johnny figured. He looked like him—long, straight hair and full lips—and there was a black guitar case by his side. Johnny watched him yawn. It was odd that Nora had mentioned the thing about the girl. They hadn’t been out of one another’s sight since they arrived. Maybe he was better off not knowing. Otherwise, it could make him not like Nora the way he wanted to.
As the sun set the night before, Johnny and Nora had stood by the dock and watched the harbor. Johnny noticed how the boats fidgeted in the water as though they were waiting for someone who would never show up. When the dusk had given way to night, Nora pointed to a guesthouse. They walked in and paid for a musty room. The bed was creaky (not that they did anything). Nora wore pajamas, and Johnny fell asleep in his clothes. It had been a long ride.
The open fairway was crowded with people on their way to see the various performers. Lots of acts were going on simultaneously. Bluegrass bands and social protest musicians. Delta blues singers and Jug bands. Sometimes the venues were so close together, the music from one performance leaked into another. Johnny thought that it would have been easier if he had just listened to the musicians on records. At each event, someone was tapping a mike or making an announcement. Nora’s comment stayed with him through the day. It was like a sty in his eye he couldn’t work free.
The second night at the guesthouse, Nora was in her pajamas in bed. Johnny in his underwear. Nora faced the window, her back to him. Johnny noticed how yellowed the lampshade was. He twisted the lamp switch, and the room disappeared. Now the street lamp illuminated the tree outside their window. Johnny edged over to Nora’s side and glided his hand so it brushed across her breasts. He waited, but nothing happened. He tried again.
“What are you doing?” Nora said.
“Touching?” Nora said. “Please, stop.”
Johnny’s open palm turned into a fist. Then he opened his hand and stretched his fingers as wide as he could and watched the streetlight outside make his fingers glow.
In the morning, they had breakfast at a diner.
“I want to see Doc Watson,” Nora said.
“He’s pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” Nora shook her head. She had an odd, indignant look, like when she mentioned the girl and Donovan.
Johnny loved the howling harmonica and the wailing guitars as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band performed on stage. That was his music. Paul Butterfield’s voice and harmonica riffs were rough and defiant. When Butterfield sang, “I was born in Chicago,” Johnny thought of the sidewalks and streets where he lived.
When Bob Dylan came on stage, the audience cheered. When they settled down, there was lots of murmuring. Then the screeching feedback from the speakers overwhelmed the sounds of anticipation. A couple of technicians were scrambling around, adjusting the mics and amplifiers. The musicians were tuning their electric guitars.
“One, two, three,” Dylan said, and the speakers exploded with “Maggie’s Farm.” Johnny closed his eyes. The music soared and Johnny felt he was being uplifted by a sonic wave.
“TraiTOR!” Someone behind Johnny yelled. Johnny turned. An older, husky guy in a faded blue work shirt had cupped his hands around his mouth.
“TraiTOR!” He shouted even louder. Johnny saw the anger in the man’s demeanor, then devastation in his pale face. He had the expression of a knight that had flourished in a realm some king had sworn would be eternal, but had just found out he’d been lied to.