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The Pickers

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Charlie and Rex played together every day, but not like most. Little boys and mutts were usually fast friends, playing tag or chase or tug-of-war. But not these two. Charlie’s dad got him the banjo the same time he got him the dog. Sure, the banjo wasn’t child-sized. Mr. Jason Reinsch didn’t have enough money to buy something that Charlie would outgrow soon enough. So he got him an adult one at a used musical instrument store. He got Rex from what he liked to think of as the used dog store.

There were a lot of choices of instruments there – all castoffs from the hundreds of hopeful people who came to their city every month, trying to become the next big star. Trouble was that very few of them had much talent, and even fewer had the discipline to make anything of it. There were instruments in there that had been bought and sold a half-dozen times, all at a small profit to Zeke, the owner. He didn’t want to charge too much, but he had bills to pay the same as anybody else, so he did what he had to do.

Charlie had never met Zeke or anybody else in the music business before then, but things changed. Once word got out about his act with Rex, he met nearly everybody who was attached to the music business. It seemed like that was most of the town in one way or another. If they weren’t actual musicians, they were songwriters, or producers, or agents, or roadies, or fans. Everybody wanted to see Charlie and Rex play. It hadn’t been like that at the beginning.

Charlie first learned bluegrass songs because that was what his dad knew. Why try to pretend to be an expert in something you know nothing about? That was a sure path to ruin. No, best to stick with what you know and build up on that. It wasn’t long before he was picking out a passable rendition of such classics as “Muddy Road to Ducktown” and “Dream of a Miner’s Child”. The latter was especially well-received because he hammed it up with a little soot on his cheeks to play the part.

He wasn’t a miner’s child, of course, but there were some similarities. His dad, Jason, dug out precious gems in a way – he was a picker. He never could see a way to having a full-time job, even when he had a wife and five children to support. He was too independent for that. He wasn’t one to submit to a boss, especially one who thought he could tell Jason how to complete the task he’d never even personally tried. Why did so many businesses think it was a good idea to have a supervisor who was a stranger to the task at hand? He had bosses try to tell him what to do in his first couple of jobs, thought better of it, and decided that as soon as he could, he’d never have anybody above him

Times were sure lean when he was married with children. All those mouths to feed and backs to clothe! A few years ago his wife and the children had wanted a dog and he put his foot down. He couldn’t see clear to how that would even be possible. It was hard enough making do with the earnings he made from up-selling his finds to antique malls and consignment shops. Did they expect him to rent a booth at the flea market as well to pay for the dog’s needs? That was too much like what he was trying to avoid.

Spring left him and took four of the kids one afternoon to her sister’s house and never came back. Jason had taken Charlie to the hardware store to get some chicken wire. He had the idea that raising his own chickens would save a lot of money in the long run, what with not having to buy eggs or meat ever again. He didn’t know anything about raising chickens, but he hadn’t known anything about raising children either and hadn’t done too bad. Or so he thought.

Spring was fed up with his get-rich-quick schemes that always turned out to be get-poor-slow ones instead. He never gave up, which in some situations is an admirable trait. But sometimes it is good to know when the time has come to move on and let go.

Like now. Spring was through with his promises that never work fulfilled, his dreams that seemed more like nightmares. Without even leaving a note, she left. Sure, she missed Charlie, but four other children were plenty enough to keep up with, and Charlie had been Jason’s favorite after all.

Jason noticed the quiet first when he got home. It seemed so peaceful. He couldn’t ever remember a time when the house didn’t have at least some noise from some child banging on something or his wife complaining about something else. He then noticed why it was so quiet. It was just him and Charlie there. This was unusual for his wife to leave without saying anything.

He was so grateful for the quiet that he decided to take a nap right then and there in the middle of the day. The last time he’d done that he’d been in kindergarten. It was just as delicious and just as needed now. Jason decided he’d take a nap every day from now on out. This was yet another reason not having to work for “the man” was a great idea. He could nap anytime he felt like it.

What did Spring know anyway? Always whining at him about how he needed to grow up and be a man. What did she know about being a man? She wasn’t one. She had no idea how hard it was to carry all this responsibility. It was a miracle he hadn’t snapped like some guys did and started killing people. Mass murder and road rage came from the same root after all – unexpressed anger. Jason figured it was best to not get angry in the first place, so he avoided everything and everyone that made him angry. Well, except for his wife of course. He meant it when he said his vows. Divorce wasn’t an option in his mind, no matter how hard it got.

Things were easier now that it was just him and Charlie. Less to keep up with. Sure it was harder without Mary to keep on top of the household things, but he could manage. He did before he met her, didn’t he? If the dishes didn’t get washed for a week, who would it bother? It seemed a waste of time to have to do it so often. She was always nagging about every little thing. He was better off with her elsewhere. He kind of missed the other kids, but Charlie really was his favorite. This meant they got to spend more time together, undisturbed by everyone else.

Of course, with Mary gone, he had to keep up with Charlie all the time now. He was too young to leave alone at home, like you could with a dog. That was how Jason came up with the idea of getting a dog and teaching them both to sing for their supper. This way he could set them outside on the curb to perform while he was doing the grocery shopping. The home farm hadn’t yet taken off like he thought, so there were still carrots and broccoli and potatoes to buy. Even when his crop did come in, he’d still have to go get milk and fruit. No way was he going to raise a cow or fruit trees. Too much work, and Jason was all about putting in the least amount of effort. If he could get someone else to do the work for him, all the better.

Charlie took to the banjo like a duck takes to water, and Rex was happy to howl along. Jason hadn’t figured having him as part of the act but it was sure funny to see him crooning in more or less in the right pitch. His timing was a little off but practice would fix that. Plus, he soon realized, people weren’t as likely to call the authorities when they saw them together. It was as if they thought the dog was a suitable guardian for Charlie, little as he was. Alone, they thought he was abandoned or had wandered off and tended to call the police to check up on things. But the dog there? That was okay somehow and they let them be.

Jason was through trying to figure out why people thought and acted the way they did, so as long as things worked out in his favor. His wife leaving him was certainly working out, better than he’d ever expected. Not like he’d even imagine she’d leave. But he certainly wasn’t one to pass up a good thing that came his way. That was part of the picker mentality, after all.

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