"You know what's funny? They didn't even need to change his name. Tray Johnson sounds about as country as they come."
"Yeah, did you know Conway Twitty's real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins?"
"Are you kiddin' me?"
"Nope. He done used the name of two cities—Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas and bam! Just like that, he became Conway Twitty."
"I'll be damned. Ain't never heard that one before!"
"Well, it's true and you kin take that to the bank."
"So when'd he git home?"
"Well, ain't nobody seems to know for sure. Maybe a couple a' days ago. Folks been sayin' they seen him around since Thursday and it's Saturday now, so you kin figger it out."
"What brought him home?"
"Joe Delaney's death."
"Oh, yeah. They was real close, wasn't they?"
"Yep. He was like a daddy to him. More so than his real dad."
"So he ain't quit singin', has he?"
"I don't think so. But to tell the truth, I ain't heard. Seems more like he jes' slipped into town for the funeral. At least that's what I been hearin'. Knowin' him and how he feels about this town, he'll prob'ly be gone the next day."
"He ain't been home since his brother got kilt. He didn't even come home when his daddy died. I know they didn't get along so well, but he was still his father. Jes' don't seem right to me."
"Yeah, well, his daddy used to wail the tar out of him so they ain't no way I kin blame him. I heard tell his daddy got drunk real bad one night and come home and started in on Tray about being a mistake and how he ruined his life and kilt his mom."
"Yeah, that was terrible her dyin' in childbirth like that. His daddy was right near 50 when Tray was born so yeah, he wasn't planned for, but who tells their child he's a mistake?"
"I can't answer that. All I know is that boy can sing. Now how 'bout you finish cuttin' my hair so I kin git home and watch the game?"
Tray Johnson could sing. That wasn't in dispute. Since he left home in Tyler, Texas, five years ago at the age of 19, he'd gone from washing dishes at a restaurant in Nashville to having two number-one hits and another dozen in the country music top 40. He was 24, famous, rich, and chased by more girls than any man had a right to be chased by.
What no one knew was how deeply unhappy he was; how little the constantly growing numbers in his bank account did to fill the void in his life. He'd tried pretty much everything he could think of to fill it, but it was a voracious black hole that was sucking the life out of him.
For a couple of years, he'd done what any guy his age did in his position. He picked one or two or sometimes three of the prettiest groupies who showed up backstage after the show and took them back to his hotel room. He'd somehow managed to avoid the temptation to try things like cocaine and meth, but he'd fueled up on blended whiskey more nights than not, waking up the next morning laying beside some other nameless naked girl (or girls) he couldn't remember screwing the night before feeling more alone than he ever had. And yet he'd do it all over again that very night.
He never knew his mother and he never forgave his father who died from liver failure six months ago. There were only four people in Tyler, Texas, that had ever really mattered to him. Three of them were family. His older brother, Ray, his beautiful wife, Darby, and their young son, Colby. Ray had been gone for over two years now leaving just his sister-in-law and nephew. The one non-family member Tray had dearly loved was Joe Delaney.
Then two days ago, when he found out Joe had passed away, his entire life came to a standstill. He called his manager and told him to cancel the next five shows and to put everything else on hold. He didn't even give the 42-year old man who'd brought him from rags to riches a chance to ask questions. "Just do it, Dale," was all he'd said before hanging up and driving straight through to Texas from his last concert in Atlanta, Georgia.
Free of the constant entourage of groupies, band members, Dale, and the endless grind of touring 200 days a year, Tray felt almost free as he wound out the engine in his custom Chevy Silverado. He could afford to drive any car he wanted but rarely had the chance to drive these days and when he did, he was still a country boy at heart and he wouldn't be caught dead in anything but a truck. This one just happened to be—as they said back home—right nice.
The downside of having free time was thinking, and whenever Tray had time to think his mind drifted back to growing up in Tyler with an alcoholic father who regularly made sure to show him—and his older brother Ray—who was boss. They'd both lived in fear of him just like their mother had until she died giving birth to Tray. Shortly after Ray turned 18, he beat the living daylights out of their dad one night after he pushed them both around one too many times.
Ray was the big brother Tray always looked up to and even idolized; the golden boy who was everything he wanted to be but never could. Ray was one of the smartest kids in school and a star athlete. He'd been the football team's star running back and middle linebacker and was an all-state baseball player.
Tray was a decent baseball player, but nowhere near the level of his brother when it came to sports. Ray had not only dated the prettiest cheerleader, he'd married her the summer after graduation.
Darby Bell was the most beautiful girl Tray had ever seen although he'd never said a word about it to anyone. She was not only his brother's wife, but like Ray, thirteen years older than him. Nearly ten years ago, she'd a son they named Colby, and Tray, a young teenager, found himself spending as much time with them as he could. He even volunteered to babysit and change diapers for his nephew. After all, he was a Johnson and family stuck together. Well, until Tray left town, that is.
Lastly, thoughts of Tyler always brought fond memories of the man who'd been the dad his own father could never be. Joe Delaney was a barber who owned a one-chair shop by the same name. He not only did a fine job cutting hair he also did something no other man had ever done for Tray. He listened. He listened and he cared what the boy had to say. How he felt mattered to him and the older Tray got, the wiser and more important to him Joe became.
When he'd started dating, Ray provided advice, but it was Joe he leaned on for damned near everything. Joe had spent four years in the Navy as a young man, but had otherwise never been outside of Texas and only rarely much beyond Tyler.
Tray drank his first beer with Joe who tried to teach him that one was enough. Had fame not been so hard to deal with, Tray might never have taken a second drink, let alone a third or all too often, a tenth. When the world closed in too tightly, Joe was the guy Tray called. Sure, he and Ray talked as often as they could, but it was mostly just chit chat. "How's Darby? What's the little big-man up to these days? How's the football team doin' this year?"
It was always Joe he turned to when things got bad, and no matter what he was doing at the time, Joe found time to listen then offer his own brand of caring advice without ever pushing it on Tray.
Just two days ago, Tray found himself unable to breathe when Darby called him for the first time since Ray died two years ago. It had been Darby who'd called him then to tell him his brother had been killed by a drunk driver on a cold Friday night. And she was the one who'd called to tell him the only other man he'd ever loved was now dead, too.
As he turned his attention back to the highway, Tray was grateful for the solitude for at least one reason. There was no one in the cab of his truck to see him cry when it finally set in that Joe was gone. He was doing 80mph heading westbound on I-26 when it hit him and he just let 'er rip. He never slowed down, but he cried until he couldn't cry anymore.
He arrived in Tyler a little after midnight, and it was just warm enough that he slept in the bed of the truck in a quiet little place he'd gone to the first time he'd done it with a girl. He had a pillow, a mattress pad and a sleeping bag with him and until morning, that was all he needed as he fell asleep looking up into the familiar stars surrounded by nothing but the sound of an owl and the occasional cricket.
The next morning he woke up and it took him a few seconds to realize where he was. He stepped into the bushes to pee then put his sleeping bag away and drove into town. The first thing he did was drive by Joe's barbershop. In a way, he was glad he'd gotten all the crying out of his system because he'd have lost it if had anything left to lose.
He drove on by then pulled into a little diner called Maggie's. He put on a pair of sunglasses and a black knit cap and went inside. He didn't recognize anyone and so far no one had recognized him. He sat there and quietly ate a plate full of bacon and eggs, hash browns and toast, and drank a cup of coffee before leaving.
Without saying a word he left a crisp, new hundred-dollar bill to pay for the $7.99 meal. The rest was meant to be a tip to the young girl who'd been pleasant and friendly to him without knowing who he was and that meant a lot to Tray.
Not knowing what else to do, he drove by Ray's house and saw Darby's car in the driveway. He had no idea what day of the week it even was and had to stop and think before it hit him that it was Sunday morning which is why her car would still be there at this this time of day. Darby had worked two jobs since Ray died, and she was as proud and independent as they came.
What Tray really wanted to do was find out which funeral home they'd taken Joe to, but he didn't think he could face seeing him like that alone even once he knew. So he pulled into the driveway, shut off the engine, pulled off the stocking cap, walked up to the door and knocked.
"Coming!" he heard a voice call out.
Two seconds later, a young boy opened the door and said, "Can I help.... Uncle Tray?"
The boy threw his arms around Tray and hollered out, "Momma? It's Uncle Tray!"
"Hey there, Colby. How's my favorite nephew doin'?"
"Okay," he said not letting go.
"How old are you these days?" he asked having lost track.
"Nine but I'll be ten in a week. Can you stay for my birthday?"
Before he could answer, Darby came around the corner and shrieked.
"Tray! Get in here and give me a hug!"
Colby let go and watched his mom literally jump into his uncle's arms. He spun her around in a circle as she held on tight before he set her down.
"Just look at you!" she said. "Still as handsome as ever!" She peeked out the window then said, "What? No girls? No cameras?"
"I kind of snuck out of town in Atlanta and snuck into town here," he told her. "Speaking of beautiful, just look at you!"
"Okay, now that's just like you. Who else would tell a woman my age who looks like me she's still pretty besides you?"
She didn't look 25 anymore, but she still looked amazing. In fact, Tray thought she looked better now than she ever had. Her long, black hair was shorter, but it still looked amazing and time had treated her still-pretty face very well. He loved her bright blue eyes and her high cheekbones and those soft, full lips. He didn't know how she did it, but her figure was still as sexy as it had always been.
"You know I never lie, Darby," he said smiling for the first time. "Joe taught me the value of always telling the truth no matter what."
"Yes, you are an honest man, Tray, and Joe was so proud of you. And not just because you're a country music star. He loved you because you were such a good person. I saw him just last month, by the way, and he asked me to send you his best." Darby looked away for a moment then said, "I don't think he knew you and I didn't talk all that much."
Two phone conversations in two years certainly didn't qualify as a lot of talking.
"It's not that I don't care, Tray. I just know how busy you are and all."
"I always have time for you, Darby. I want you to know that."
"Come in and sit down!" she said changing the subject. "You hungry or want some coffee?"
"I just ate at Maggie's so no thank you," he said.
"Maggie's not doin' well, either," Darby said. "She's got diabetes and Parkinson's and I'm afraid it's only a matter of time. And before I forget, I'm real sorry about Joe, Tray. I know how much he meant to you."
"Thanks, Darby. He was like the dad I never had, you know?"
"Yeah, Ray said that many times. He and Joe weren't as close as you two, but he loved and respected that man a lot."
"Do you know where they took him?" Tray asked.
"No, but my guess would be Lloyd James. They're just a couple of blocks from Joe's house, and since he died at home, that would make sense. Would you like me to call and find out?" she asked.
"Would you mind?" he then asked her.
"Not at all. Tray? Did you want me to go with you to see him?"
"I'd like that a lot, Darby. I...I'm not sure I can handle it on my own."
"Can I go, Momma?" Colby asked.
"I don't know about that," she said.
"I'm old enough. Besides, you let me see Daddy, remember?"
"Yes, honey. I remember. I remember every single day," she said blinking away a tear.
"Okay. Um...let me grab my phone, and I'll give the funeral home a call."
Darby went to get her phone and Tray said to Colby, "So what are you up to or...into these days, big man?"
"Well, I'd like to be into baseball, but I'm not really that good. Daddy and I used to play all the time, but well, I don't really have anyone to play with now so...."
"How about you and I go to the batting cages later on today?"
"Seriously?" he said.
"As a heart attack," Tray said before remembering that was how Joe died. Colby didn't know that though, so it was just fine when the boy smiled at his uncle's reply.
"Can we play catch, too?" he asked excitedly.
"Colby James Johnson. You give your Uncle Tray a little space, okay?"
"But Momma, he said...."
"I heard, but we have something important to take care of first, remember?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "But can we go after?"
"We sure can," Tray promised. "You still got your dad's old glove?"
"I have mine, but I can't find his," Colby said sadly.
"No worries. Tell you what. We'll go get a new one at Tyler Athletics and we'll be all set. Maybe even pick up a new ball or two and possibly even a bat."
"Tray? Don't go spoiling my son now, you hear?" she said with a smile. She'd made it clear on several occasions she did not want or need his money even though it was obvious she could definitely use some financial help.
Darby was on the phone and Tray heard her asking questions.
"I see, so he is there? Is he ready for viewing? Yes? Okay. Is now a good time? Uh-huh. Okay. Thank you so much."
She turned to Tray and said, "Did you catch all of that?"
"I did," he told her. "Would you like to go now? With any luck, maybe we can duck in and out without anyone noticing."
She knew he meant noticing him but that was Tray, always thinking of his family.
"I should probably go change, huh?" Darby said.
"Why? You look great," he told her. The truth was she did look great. Even in a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, Darby was still beautiful.
At some point he wanted to talk to her and see how she was really doing. He knew she'd tell him she was fine and maybe she was. Then again, Darby didn't complain, and she never asked for help. Tray knew you couldn't rush these things, but he really hoped she'd find someone—someone like Ray—who could love her and her son the way they deserved to be loved.
"I can't wear a tee-shirt, Tray. That's just...disrespectful. I'll be right back, okay?"
While she was changing Tray asked Colby, "So what else is going on, dude? You got yourself a girlfriend yet?"
Colby turned a bit red and didn't answer.
"Is she cute?"
"Yes, sir," he said politely.
"Does she like you back?"
"Not really. She thinks Derek Wakefield is 'all that'."
"Well, she'll come around. As soon as she figures out what a great guy you are, she won't be able to resist. You're a Johnson, remember?"
Colby smiled then said, "Right!" as his mom came back in. Colby stopped talking and stared for a moment. "You look really pretty, Momma," he said.
"I'll say," Tray agreed.
It was just a just a plain, yellow shift dress, but it looked sensational on her. It was modest enough to wear to the viewing and still cute enough to draw plenty of attention.
"I can't remember the last time I wore a dress," she said.
"Well, you should wear one more often. You really look great."
"Thank you," she said. "Both of you. Okay, Colby. You ready?"
The funeral home had just opened, and Tray was relieved to see there was no one else there. Colby slid down and out of the cab while Tray offered Darby a hand and then his arm.
"You ready for this?" she asked.
"No, but it's not like we have much choice, you know?" he told her.
"I already think I'm gonna cry," she said.
"I'm here, Momma," Colby told her as he took her free hand.
"Yes, you are. My big, strong boy."
No one met them when they walked in and that was just fine.
"This way," Tray said. He could see the casket from the foyer through an open door.
As they walked in they saw a small sign that read: Joseph Paul Delaney: April 9, 1941- December 17, 2016.
Tray felt himself choke up then looked ahead and saw that familiar face and thought of a line from George Jones's song He Stopped Loving Her Today. The line was 'all dressed up to go away.' Tray wasn't sure Joe Delaney had ever worn a suit and tie in his life and yet he was wearing one in death.
"He looks good, doesn't he," Tray said as they stood alongside the casket.
"He looks like he's sleeping," Darby told him.
"Was he in a car accident, too, Momma?" Colby asked.
"No, Mr. Delaney had a heart attack in his house about three days ago, I think."
A lifetime of memories came flooding back as Tray stood there to pay his respects.
"Joe, I don't know if you can hear me. Same people say so, but I know you said that was—and I quote, 'A bunch of bullshit' but if you can—thank you for everything. And Joe?" Tray's voice quivered as he said, "I...love you."
Darby reached over and took his hand and squeezed it.
"It's never easy, is it?" she said.
"Not when it's someone you love."
Tray reached out and touched his old friend's cold hand and barely able to speak said, "Goodbye...Dad. And again, thank you for teaching me what it means to be a man. I will never forget you."
He looked over and saw a tear fall from Darby's eye.
"I will be. I just feel so bad for you, Tray. That's all. I know how much Joe meant to you and I'm hurting for you. You're family, you know."
"I do," he told her. Tray took a deep breath then said, "Okay, I'm ready if you are."
"Colby? You ready to go by some baseball gear?"
"Yes, sir!" he said a big, happy smile on his face.
"Then...let's do this!" Tray said.
As they were driving, Tyler asked if the store was still on Old Jacksonville Highway and Darby just laughed and told him it was.
"Well, they might have moved," Tray said.
"Nope, very little changes around here," she said. "It's still just up there on your right."
"I know where it is," he told her pretending to be offended.
"Colby? Would you sock your Uncle Tray for me?" she asked her son.
"No ma'am. Uncle Tray is my best friend."
Tray put his arm around the boy and shook him a little and pulled him close.
"You got that right, pardner!"
There were only a few cars in the lot so again, Tray thought they just might make it in and out without a hitch. He peeked inside before opening the door for Darby then walked in behind her.
Colby made a beeline for the baseball equipment, and by the time Tray got there, Colby had found five things that were his favorite.