Richard Taylor pedaled his bike down Main Avenue as fast as he could that hot August afternoon. He knew his mother didn’t approve of his trips to Bruno’s Food Store to listen to Elroy McGrady play his guitar, in fact she expressly forbid it; at thirteen, though, he was of an age that boys rarely listen to their mothers.
Mrs. Taylor felt she had good reason not to allow Richard to visit Elroy. For one thing Elroy was homeless, only his old guitar to his name. For another, he was a drunk; sauced from the time he woke up on whatever stump he fell asleep on to the time he went to bed on whatever park bench he lay down on. The price of Richard listening to Elroy play was some scratch for a cheap bottle of whiskey. Lastly, Elroy was black, and it wouldn’t do for a young white boy to be seen spending time with an elderly black man.
None of this mattered to Richard though. All that mattered was the music, and he had a couple bucks he saved up from his allowance to pass on to Elroy. While other boys were saving up their money to pick up Elvis Presley’s new album (Richard couldn’t get away from “Heartbreak Hotel”), there was nothing quite like Elroy McGrady’s blues.
That was all he could think about as he turned left down Second Street and rode down the sidewalk past Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe, although the thought of stopping for an ice cream did briefly pop into his head. His singular goal returned to him as he saw the sign for Bruno’s Food Store. As he pulled up to the side of the store, he hopped off his bike and walked it to the back. A grove of trees stood behind the store, and he saw Elroy sitting against a particularly wide oak, his back to the store with a bagged up bottle of booze in one hand.
“I’s a rambler, I’s a picker, I’s a fighter…” Richard heard him say to no one as he walked his bike up to Elroy’s tree. As he walked up to Elroy, the smell of stale sweat and piss caught him by surprise and he nearly gagged. He knew to expect it, a homeless man can’t be expected to have the best hygiene, but it never ceased to catch him off guard. The smell always passed for him after a little time, though.
Elroy sat against the tree Indian style, his guitar sitting in front of him. His tattered blue dress pants looked so dirty they could stand on their own. Richard supposed that Elroy’s collared shirt had once been white, but as far as he could tell, that had been years and years ago. A baseball cap sat high up on Elroy’s bald head, and nearly fell off as he lifted his bottle to his lips for a sip before he realized it was empty. The drop or two that had remained dripped from the lip of the bottle into Elroy’s white scraggly beard.
“Hello, Mr. McGrady?” Richard said coming up behind Elroy.
“Huh!” Elroy responded, spinning around the trunk of his oak tree. “Who dat?” He saw Richard and smiled. “Good ole Rich! How it be, my man?”
“I’ve got some money for you,” Richard said as he reached in his pocket, “I was hopin’ you could play for me.”
“Well, I’ll be!” Elroy exclaimed. “The lawd he work in ‘sterious ways! I’s jus’ ran out my med’cine, and here you be. I’s be happy to play for ya, son, I jus’ needs to be gettin’ more of my med’cine.” Elroy stood up from his spot and stretched, dropping his bottle to the ground. He turned to Richard and gave a great smile that would have been considered toothy, if there were any teeth to be seen. Richard found it unsettling. “You watch my Dobrow, ya hear, I’s be right back.”
“Yes sir,” Richard replied. He picked up the old guitar and strummed a little bit while Elroy walked up to the store. After a few minutes, Elroy came back, a new bottle with a brown bag in his hand.
“You ever play a Dobrow, son,” Elroy said as he sat down. He opened his bottle and chugged.
“No, Mr. McGrady.”
“How many times I gots to tells ya to call me Elroy. McGrady a slave name, and I’s a free man like my daddy afore me. Why some folks gotta give a negro a fool Irish name, well, that’s beyond me. ‘Sides, you name ain’t who you is. You rich, Rich?”
“That what I be talkin’ bout, boy.” Elroy stopped and laughed as Richard kept playing with the guitar. “My grandpappy, he a slave. Was. Firsta the family to be a freeman. You heard of the ‘Manc’pation?”
“My old grandpappy was there for that. Yes sir. He a slave over in Mississip. After he was free, he came over here to Georgia to find his kin. Settled us all right here in Macon. Used to tell me, he say, ‘Elroy, don’t you never let no white man call you boy.’ That’s what he said.” Elroy sunk deep into thought as he took another chug from his bottle. His hand shook as he brought the bottle down from his lips. Richard had stopped playing. “I’s might be different if I never listened.” James could see tears well up in Elroy’s eyes, but they never fell. He took another chug from the bottle, then set it down beside him. “Hand me my Dobrow, son.”
Richard passed the guitar back to Elroy. The music that came from his guitar as he played that day was more beautiful and sorrowful than anything that Richard had heard from Elroy before. Richard would later think that if Elroy had listened to his grandfather, no music would exist like the music he heard that day.