Throughout the late '70s and into the early '80s, while my marriage was new and my children were young, I worked for a large Southeastern construction company.
I was good at my job and I made a lot of money. A lot of money - especially for those years. There were times when I would have two or three thousand dollars worth of un-cashed checks in my wallet.
By 1984, however, I had apparently tired of being successful and making prodigious sums of money. I wanted something less.
I decided to leave my high-paying job constructing transcontinental power lines and try my hand at - of all things - songwriting. So, I moved to rural Tennessee, about an hour west of Nashville. Now, because one needs free time to pursue songwriting, it is very difficult to maintain steady employment. As a consequence of this fact, I odd-jobbed, taking temporary work where I could find it, gradually descending into poverty, dragging my young wife and children with me. (Why Karen did not leave me for a man with a job and a fully functioning brain, taking the children with her, I will never fully understand.)
Desperate to combine my inexplicable need to be creative with my obviously explicable need for cash, I began to enter the various songwriting contests hosted by the nightspots around Nashville.
And I won a few, sometimes winning ten or twenty dollars, enough for milk, bread, and maybe a pair of shoes for one of the little ones. Usually, though, the prize was something insubstantial, such as getting your name written on the wall in magic marker, or a free bottle of beer.
Then I heard about this contest on Music Row itself, at a more upscale joint called The Dive.
The winner would get one hundred dollars.
One Hundred Dollars!
Now, I know that doesn't sound like much now, but back then a hundred bucks paid for most of a month's rent or bought groceries for the family for a whole week. And the contest, at the time, was being held weekly, so there would be a continuing chance to win.
On the appointed night, I put on my best pair of dark blue Levis, my crispest white shirt, tuned up my guitar, and headed into town to The Dive.
There were a lot of really good songwriters present that night, and I heard many tunes that made me think I might be way out of my league. I was so nervous that my bladder sent me scurrying to the men's room again and again. Nonetheless, when they called my name, I screwed up my courage and went up on stage which was occupied by just a stool and a mike. I sat down with my guitar on my knee and spun to face the crowd. For a moment, I thought they'd all left the building. You see, though the stage was fully lit, the patrons sat in the dimness beyond the footlights - and the lights shining on me were so bright that I could barely make out the room, let alone individuals in the crowd, which was the largest group of people that I had ever confronted when armed only with a musical instrument.
I mumbled something by way of introduction and immediately swung into my first song, briskly setting pick to guitar string.
I looked out, opened my mouth -
- and forgot the words to the song. A song which I wrote.
There followed then a long - way too long - awkward pause while, like the proverbial deer, I gazed into the headlights of oncoming disaster and frantically searched the dark recesses of my skull for phrases that I recognized and might possibly utter in tune-like fashion while strumming a guitar.
And then, as the disapproving silence thickened, the words finally came.
"Alrighty, folks," I stated brightly, affecting what I hoped would be a magnificent recovery, and once again put pick to string. "Here we go....."
One strum, and - Boing! - the pick slipped from my fingers, ricocheted underneath the strings, and disappeared through the sound hole into the dark interior of my guitar. I looked down, stunned.
And my brain froze.
Forgetting in that terrible moment that there were two or three spare picks in my pocket, and sadly forgetting that there were also a couple of hundred people immediately to my front, I upended the guitar, holding it aloft, shaking it above my head while I desperately tried to dislodge the pick from the black hole whence it had gone.
Sporadic chuckles arose here and there from among the crowd as I continued to wildly agitate the instrument over my head, willing the pick to appear. Then, as my struggles continued unabated and my hope for a rescued pick remained unrealized, more chuckles, giggles, and outright laughter swelled from the shadowed gathering.
That awful collection of sound caused my brain to lurch forward for one brief moment. And in that moment, I remembered the extra picks in my pants pocket. Turning a deaf ear to the scattered giggles and the occasional rude suggestion, I thought bravely - I can still salvage this.
Lowering the guitar to one side, holding it by the neck, I stood, reaching into my pocket.
And the room erupted.
Gales of laughter beat upon me like the waves of a storm-wracked ocean.
Puzzled by the reason for this obvious - and horrifying escalation - of my humiliation, I stared dumbly out at the shadowy crowd for a long moment; and then I looked down.
And the reason for the raucous shouts of laughter became immediately obvious.
Evidently, on my last trip to the men's room, I had neglected to zip up the fly in my blue jeans.
Protruding from that most private of all clothing apertures, extending stiffly outward for five or six inches, was the crisply starched tail of my best white shirt.
The crowd, by that time, had decided that I was not in fact a contestant, but rather the comedic relief.
I, in that same moment, decided that I was done, finished, my short-lived "career" over.
Turning, I fairly leapt from the stage and ran for it, pausing in the artists' room just long enough to sling my guitar into its case, and then I bounded for the side door. I was running like a rabbit by the time I reached the parking lot.
Three-quarters of an hour later, utterly dejected, having had forty-five long, miserable minutes to ponder one of the most embarrassing evenings of my life, I pulled into the driveway of our modest home. Karen met me at the door. I could do nothing but stand there, head down, guitar case in hand, my heart and my dreams squashed like insects upon the walkways of life.
"How did it go?" She asked - and then I managed lift my head and she saw my face. "Honey - what happened?"
The kids were in bed, so I put my guitar away while she made us a cup of cocoa; then we went into the living room and sat down on the couch, where I stared down at the carpet and glumly related to her the events of the evening.
It was about the time that I was telling of the unzipped fly and protruding shirt-tail that I heard the stifled guffaw emanating from the general direction of the love of my life.
Startled, I looked over at her.
You know how it is when you want to laugh but know that you shouldn't? Like when you're at a wedding, or at a funeral, or in church, or like when your beloved husband is laying out the sad details of his recent and raw humiliation, and something just strikes you as too funny? And the eruption of good humor is abruptly way too urgent to contain or suppress?
You get a terrible case of the internal giggles, your shoulders shake, the corners of your mouth decide that they simply must turn upward despite your best efforts at maintaining decorum, and your eyes water. Yeah, we all know what that is like. It has happened to us all.
Well, that was my gentle and genteel wife as I told my tale of woe.
Apparently, she could see the whole thing very clearly with her mind's eye.
She tried to be sympathetic, God bless her; she really did try.
Alas, the droll aspect of the whole sordid affair was too much for her, and eventually she had to gain release. To this day, however, I am not convinced that it was absolutely necessary it devolve into her lying back against the cushions, gasping for breath as she pointed at me and giggled uncontrollably. The only consolation I have is that - though she won't admit it - I'm pretty sure she wet herself.
There is an epilogue to this sorry tale. Two, actually.
A week later, I tapped a reservoir of courage, went back to The Dive, sang my three songs - and won. And they had raised the stakes. First prize was now one hundred and fifty bucks. The next day, to celebrate, we took the kids to McDonalds for Happy Meals.
The second epilogue is not quite so uplifting as the first, at least for me. You see, every now and then - as recently as just the other day, in fact - I will find Karen leaning over a counter or sprawled over the back of a chair, fairly convulsing with good humor. Looking up at me with streaming eyes, she will tender the question between eruptions of giggles.
"Remember that time you went into Nashville to sing in that contest?"
Yes. Yes, I do.
And it's still not funny.
One doesn't require ghosts, I guess, when one is haunted by his past.
Daniel Hylton is the author of the recently completed Kelven's Riddle series.