Nate Brown: “The Brothers Broad Touring Band”

The problem was that when Ray changed his same to Swarna and moved up to Iowa to live amongst his Maharishi friends, the Brothers Broad Touring Band was just gearing up for a Gulf Coast tour and, short one Ray Broad on the electric guitar, we were out one hell of a guitar man.

Not that I was officially part of the band then anyhow, but I’d been acting manager since Poppa’s passing, and Ray’s going off that way had upset me plenty, though not for the reasons it’d upset my brothers. Ray’s timing was awful, that was true. We’d already planned our last practice. I’d opened up a fresh bottle of Four Roses, and we’d aimed to be in a festive mood before striking out, which we had been until we found Ray’s note.

We’d all read it and, Ray being one to talk around things rather than to get at them head on, it’d left us with more questions than answers. The note went on in Ray’s tiny block printing about wholeness and humanness and, more to the point and more troubling to us, there wasn’t word-one about the band and its success or failure. Just said he’d felt a calling and was moving north to be closer to the SOURCE, which he’d made all capitals and had underlined for extra emphasis.

Bill was riled. We could see that by the way he thumped his fingers against the tabletop, and Duke, well, he could hold a grudge for years, and he’d always been hard on Ray to begin with. If Ray’d been in the room just then, Duke would’ve socked him. It was Dakoda who seemed the most busted up, though I—being Ray’s twin sister—I knew I felt it worst.

“Goddamn it,” said Dakoda, setting his fiddle in its case and then wiping it with his polishing cloth as if he were preparing to take it out in the yard and give it a burial. “We’re washed up ’fore we even got a fair shake at it,” by which he meant the big tour and the success he saw waiting for us down the road. It was disappearing in front of him, and I thought he might cry.

I sorta felt like crying myself, partly out of sadness but also because I felt a bit of freedom creeping back my way, and while I couldn’t voice it just then, there was plenty of joy in that feeling.

Having acted as tour organizer and having prepared myself for twelve weeks on the road with Bill, Duke, Dakota, and Ray, I can’t say I wasn’t excited by the idea that they’d call it quits right there and ask me to cancel the tour.

“Can’t say I didn’t see it comin’,” said Duke. “X-Ray’s never been real predictable.”

“Don’t go calling him X-Ray,” said Dakoda, “when you know he don’t like it.”

Ever since Ray’d gone to work at the power plant east of town, Duke and Bill and sometimes even Dakoda got to calling him X-Ray on account of the radiation, but being the closest to Ray in age and temperament, I knew how the nickname ate at him. I stuck to calling him Ray or sometimes Ray-Ray, which is what we’d called him when we were kids.

“They don’t even know what radiation is,” Ray’d told me once, shortly after he’d started work at the plant. “That’s what really burns me up.”

“Lord knows I love ’em,” I’d said then, “but our brothers ain’t big in the brain box.”

That was the truth, too. Fact is, none of us Broads except for Mama, may the Lord bless and keep her, and Ray’d ever had a lot going on upstairs. Partly, that’s why I wasn’t surprised when Ray ran off the way he did. Truth is, if the others were even a touch brighter, they’d have seen it coming like I had.

“Well,” I said to Bill and Duke and Dakota, “it’s a shame to shut her down before we ever hit the road, but I it’s probably best Ray left now rather than in the middle of it.”

Dakoda nodded, and Duke got pink in the neck and head the way he tends to when he’s upset.

“Hang on,” said Bill who, as the oldest Broad brother, was also the longtime leader of The Brothers Broad Touring Band. “Calico, baby girl, you play a little guitar.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. Bill was tenderness and expectation all of a sudden. He was nodding slowly, waiting for me to get to the place he was at. “No,” I said. “I don’t think I could.”

“It’ll never work,” said Duke. “We’re the Brothers Broad Touring Band, and we’re down a brother, not a sister.”

“Hell,” said Bill. “Y’all might be right.”

I was that close to being out of the whole deal right there, and for a moment, the future seemed so big and foreign to me that I felt a little faint. For the first time in a long while, I could see something other than the T-shirts and beer cozies and the cases of compact discs that were the currency of a Brothers Broad Touring Band manager. I could go back to work at the Paint Yer Own Pottery—hell, I could’ve opened up one of my own Paint Yer Own Pottery franchise if I’d wanted to.

Had Ray not left his banana-yellow hazmat suit hanging in the hall closet, I might’ve gotten to go on to taste that future, too. Instead, Bill begged and then demanded and then begged some more until I agreed to help the Brothers Broad Touring Band remake themselves.

All it would take, said Bill, was Ray’s big rubber suit and an oath on my part never to speak from the stage. The way Bill figured it, the audience would chalk the whole thing up to Ray’s eccentricity, which Ray’d pre-established with the turban, the talk of light and harmony and particles, the oils and brass bells and knickknacks that cluttered up his house and car and yard.

It took some extra Four Roses to get me into Ray’s suit. It was heavier than I’d thought it would be, and it carried the smell of plastic and of Ray’s minty shampoo, but the visor was dark and it was quiet inside once everything was buckled up and clamped down. It felt good to be on that side of things, to look out at my now-muted and muffled brothers through that charcoal-tinted mask.

What seemed clear to me looking at them that way was that Duke and Bill and Dakoda were in a sorta pain I’d never seen before. They were hurting at least as much as I was, and if Ray was what they needed to end that hurt, and if I was the next best thing to Ray, then I knew I’d be looking out on the world from the inside of that suit for some weeks to come.

We played Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. We played Buxton, Coombs, Haymire, Weston, Sheridan, Plattesville, Huntsville, Greenville, Greenvale, Greendon, and Grady. We played two shows in Birmingham and even took a gig in Athens, Georgia before turning north and extending the tour. People’d taken to the bluegrass band with the nuclear guitar player, and we’d been invited on dates as far north as Newton, Massachusetts.

Only way I could manage the stress of it all was to pour Four Roses into my sweet tea at night and slip away to call Ray.

“Callie,” he said last time we talked, after a show in Richmond that’d been indoors under some particularly hot stage lights, “are you inebriated?”

“Oh, Ray,” I said. “Oh, my Ray-Ray. We really are twins, aren’t we?”

“I would prefer it if you called me by my spirit name, Swarna.”

“I know,” I said, and I felt guilty about it. “I’m sorry. Still not used to it.” I could hear him breathing lightly. “You know the funny thing, Swarna?” I said, his new name coming easier with the Four Roses on my tongue. “Funny thing is that now everybody calls me Ray. Even with the press and the new tour dates and whatnot, everybody still thinks I’m you.”

“We are,” he said, “at the very deepest level, all part of one another.”

“Bill tells everybody that I’m—or, that you, I guess—just went mute and that you decided the world was safer in your suit. A vow of silence is what I think he’s been saying.”

“In our own ways, we all wear protective suits,” said Ray.

“Don’t I know it,” I said. “What gets to me is having to be so damned quiet all the time. Even when people’re speaking to me, all I can do is nod or shake my head.”

“In silence,” said Ray, “one can discern the heartbeat of the universe.”

“That right?” I said, though I didn’t really feel the need for an explanation. When I was just a little thing, Poppa had held my ear up to a seashell and I’d heard the whole ocean in there. I got what he was saying.

I finished my Four Roses and was tapping the glass against my open mouth, trying to get the ice to unstick from the bottom of my cup. To prove his point about silence, maybe, Ray’d stopped talking and I listened hard as I could for his breath on the other end of the line. I thought he’d hung up, but soon, he was humming, making the ommmmm sound that he’d once told me was the sound the world made back when it was born.

After a long time, enough time for me to finish crunching the ice from my sweet tea, he whispered, “Calico?” as if I’d gone somewhere.

“Swarna,” I said, and it felt okay to say his new name.

“Can you hear it?”

“I definitely hear something.”

Nate Brown’s fiction has recently appeared in The Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. He is the Deputy Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC.

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