Harlan Yarbrough


Sally heard voices. She didn’t hallucinate, she heard real voices, but more intensely, more acutely than other people. Some voices made her feel sad, even if they were saying something positive and happy or delivering good news. Others made her feel sleepy, even if they were relating something exciting. She couldn’t remember not hearing voices that way, but she remembered how surprised she was to learn that other people didn’t hear voices the same way she did. She made that discovery at the age of ten, and the affliction, or talent, grew steadily from then.

Some voices could make Sally feel happy, even when recounting grievous news or reading obituaries. Some sounded so beautiful she almost wept for the sheer joy of getting to hear them. Some made her want to cover her ears or run away to avoid their rebarbative harshness. Others made her fearful. Some left her damp between her skinny legs.

Sally, like the rest of her family, enjoyed bluegrass more than any other form of music. They listened to other kinds of music—or, as her dad sometimes said, “We like both kinds of music: country and Western”—but they all preferred bluegrass. Excepting the pedal steel on a Western Swing tune, she didn’t much like electric instruments. She had a particular soft spot for the mandolin and fiddle or a good dreadnought guitar but enjoyed a good singer’s voice more than any other instrument.

Bill Monroe’s singing left Sally feeling mildly aroused, and his speaking voice made her feel happy. Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury affected her in much the same way but slightly less; Red Allen, too, but with a little more arousal. Osborne Brothers’ harmonies sometimes moved her to tears.

Leonard Cohen’s voice evoked mild nausea, while Jimmy Durante’s quite similar—although more musical—voice made Sally feel like a child being tickled. Rod Stewart, with a number one hit at the moment, and Bob Dylan both made Sally laugh or at least giggle. Freddy Fender’s style made her laugh but his voice made her sad. She found no pattern to which voices produced which effects.

Sally never regretted that she experienced voices the way she did. Indeed, she thought other people’s lives must be poorer for not experiencing voices that way. She didn’t even mind that hearing voices the way she did made her different from other people. The only real downside was that the intensity of her responses to voices could affect personal relationships. Fortunately, with effort, she developed the ability to make unbiased decisions.

She made herself get to know people, to know a little about them, before letting a voice impel her behavior. Less useful, and less important, with negative responses—because she didn’t want to spend time around those people anyway—the skill saved her some heartache and maybe bruises, in instances of inappropriate positive responses.

The summer after Sally’s graduation from high school, she worked part-time in her father’s music store, more or less by default. Sally thought she’d enrol at the local community college in the Fall; Sally’s mother thought Sally should get a job; Sally’s dad thought she should enrol at the local state college. Absent any other responsibilities, she gratefully accepted her dad’s offer of part-time work in his shop filing, cleaning up, and helping out. Her father allowed her time off when she asked, so she spent that summer going to all the festivals, jam sessions, and fiddle contests she could reach without her own car.

Three voices evoked no exceptional responses—those of her older brother, her younger brother, and her sister. She loved her siblings, but their voices were nothing but their voices. Uniquely, Sally heard her father’s singing voice and speaking voice exactly the same: they made her feel safe. Her mother’s speaking voice made Sally feel safe, too, but also frustrated. Sally rarely heard her mother sing, but that voice made Sally feel anxious.

One hot Wednesday in the latter part of August, Sally heard someone enter the store. Sally continued filing the paid bills and invoices, while she listened to the man introduce himself to her father. His voice made her feel not exactly aroused but all warm and cuddly. Finished with her filing, she walked out to meet their visitor.

When Sally’s dad introduced them, she missed everything the man said because she concentrated entirely on enjoying his smile and the warm cuddly feeling of his voice. The sparkle in his eyes intensified the effect. She pulled herself together and told the man she was pleased to meet him—and meant it.

Sally’s dad asked the man if he’d like to jam, and the visitor said, “That’d be great, but do you have any left-handed instruments?”

“Whaddayou play?” her dad asked.

“Whaddayou have?” the man replied.

“I always keep one left-handed guitar in the store,” Sally’s dad said, looking around.

“You sold it last Thursday, Dad,” Sally said, “and ordered a Takamine dreadnought Friday.”

“Has it come in?”


The man with the cuddly voice listened to this exchange, then said, “I’m staying at my friend Albie’s place, right around the corner. I’ll run over and get my instruments.”

With that, he ran out the door, returning a few minutes later with a guitar case and a mysterious rectangular case. When Sally’s dad took a Martin D-28 guitar down from the wall, the man opened the rectangular case to reveal an F-5 mandolin and a fiddle. He removed the mandolin and slung the strap over his shoulder, then removed a pick from under the strings.

“Looks like a Loar,” Sally’s dad said.

“It’s a copy. Bob Givens made it for me six years ago.”

“That’s the guy up in Idaho.”

“Yeah, he was in Southern California then, but he’s in Sandpoint now, I think.”

They talked about what songs to do, and Sally’s dad said, “You said you been workin’ with Monroe, so we oughta do some of his songs.”

“Sounds good. How ’bout ‘Sweetheart of Mine’?”

“My favorite,” Sally’s dad said with a big smile. She knew that was true—it was one of her favorites, too.

Their visitor asked if he might set his instrument case on the workbench, and both Sally and her dad hastened to assure him that was OK. He took the F-5 off his shoulder and stood it upright in the case, after he removed the fiddle. The man then tightened and rosined the bow and played an acceptable replica of a Chubby Wise kickoff. As he sang the first verse Sally thought, If heaven really existed, that’s what angels would sound like. While singing, he set his fiddle upright in the case and returned the mandolin’s strap to his shoulder. After the two men sang the chorus, the visitor played an authoritative break on his F-5, then swapped instruments again as he sang the second verse.

Sally’s dad and the man did seven songs together, and her panties were wetter than damp before the end of the second song. By the time the man put his mandolin away and her dad hung up the D-28, she could feel moisture on her legs.

About those legs: Sally’s mother said they were too skinny. Sally’s most recent ex-boyfriend said they were skinny. Her father said they were “just fine”—but he always defended Sally and took her side against her mother. Many of Sally’s girlfriends said her legs were beautiful, and several said they envied them. Sally thought her legs were skinny but didn’t much care. They were her legs, and she felt OK about them.

She did not feel OK about this amazing man walking out the door and out of her life. Usually demure, Sally surprised her father by saying, “Will you be around for a few days? We could probably round up some other pickers for a jam tomorrow.”

The man’s blue eyes looked directly into her green ones, looked straight into her heart, she thought, almost shivering. “Ummmm…y-yes,” he began. He hesitated, and Sally’s heart seemed to stop. He continued, “Yes, I’d really like that,” his eyes never leaving hers. Her heart resumed beating, so loud she was afraid he and her dad might hear it.

She tore her eyes away and turned to her dad, who said, “Good idea.”

The man and her dad chatted for a few minutes, while Sally enjoyed the residual arousal and the warm, cuddly feeling of the man’s speaking voice. The man said he was free pretty much the whole day and could drop by about two to find out the plans.

After the man left, Sally said, “Gee, he’s good.”

“You’re not wrong.”

“He’s better than Del McCoury.”

“Might be.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Up north somewhere,” her dad replied.

“Chico? Redding?”

“Oregon, he said.”

“I wish he lived here,” Sally said.

“Me, too. It’d be nice to have somebody around here who can pick’n’sing like that.”

While Sally sold a set of guitar strings and a capo, Sally’s dad began ‘phoning musicians in the area. He rang Vern Williams and said, “Vern, we just had a feller in here who’s just left Monroe and come back out here from Nashville.”

Sally couldn’t hear Vern’s reply, but her dad said, “Yeah, that’s right. You know ’im?”

Vern apparently agreed to come down for a jam session, and half a dozen ‘phone calls later they had a solid bluegrass band for a jam the next afternoon—and maybe evening, too.

The cuddly feeling and the arousal lingered, as one guitar sale and a couple of low-spending customers completed the shop’s afternoon. Sally’s dad locked up, and father and daughter joined the rest of the family for dinner. After the meal and after Sally washed and her brother dried, she retired to her room. She continued to feel a residual arousal and toyed with the idea of finding out where this Albie lived, so she could sneak in and crawl into the man’s bed. Her learned restraint persuaded her to pick up Slaughterhouse-Five, which she was half-way through, and read in her own bedroom. Later, Sally lay awake and restless until she gave herself the orgasmic release that allowed her to relax into sleep.

The visitor, whose name turned out to be Brett Jakes, arrived at 1:50 the next afternoon and chatted with Sally and her dad for most of an hour. They said they expected the other musicians to begin arriving about 4:30, so he left to run a couple of errands. Sally fought down the urge to follow him out the door.

Settle down, girl, she told herself, He’ll be back in an hour—and he was. In the forty-five minutes before the other musicians began arriving, Sally quizzed Brett Jakes about his background. She did want to learn more about him, but she also wanted to enjoy the warm cuddly feeling his voice produced. She felt suprised, and pleased, to find he held a degree in physics and mildly disappointed to discover he made most of his living playing commercial country music.

“Like, the stuff that’s popular now?” Sally asked.

“A few. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, “Good Hearted Woman”, “Remember Me”, “Don’t The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time”—that sort of thing, y’know?”

“Not the country-pop stuff,” she asked, with the question mark in her eyes rather than her voice.

“Nahh! I’ll do an Eagles song occasionally, ‘cause I like their harmonies, but I don’t like the Gnashville Sound. Mostly, I do older country, ’cause that’s the stuff I like.”

That made Sally feel better. “But you’re so good at bluegrass. Why don’t you do bluegrass all the time?”

“The only gigs I can get that don’t require half a day’s drive in each direction are country gigs. Of course I’d rather play bluegrass or Western Swing, but—”

“You play Western Swing, too?”

“When I get the chance, which isn’t all that often.”

“Which is your favorite?” Sally asked.

“Some days I like playing Western Swing as much as bluegrass.”

“Fiddle?” Sally asked.

“Yeah, but not hot like Johnny Gimble or Joe Holley or even Jesse Ashlock or Frankie McWhorter. I just kind of play the melodies.”

I’ll bet, Sally thought but said, “Could we get a Western Swing jam together? Could you stick around for that?”

Brett Jakes’s disconcerting practice of looking steadily into her eyes whenever he spoke to her or she spoke to him coupled with the warm, cuddly feeling engendered by his voice, almost made her miss his reply.

“I could do that. I don’t have any gigs for a couple of weeks.”

“No family to get home to?”

“Nahh. I don’t have much of a family—I’m not close to my parents or my siblings. I mean, I’d like to get home, but only ’cause I like to be home.” His smile broadened as he added, “I like to jam, too.”

Sally hoped Brett wasn’t staying around only because he liked to jam, but she’d settle for that. As she pondered whom to call to arrange a Western Swing jam, Vern Williams walked in and greeted Brett Jakes like an old friend. The two men chatted, and Sally seized the opportunity to ’phone Rags Ragsdale, who seemed to know every Western Swing musician in the Central Valley. He gave her a couple of ’phone numbers, and said he’d ring a few people and get back to her. By then, Keith Little had arrived with his banjo, and everyone seemed ready to begin making music.

Once started, nobody wanted to quit. Sally and her dad expected the jam to run until eight or nine, but Brett and Vern finished up with “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight” after eleven. By then, Sally felt an intense and unprecedented happiness and excitement. She went to bed aroused, dealt with her arousal the best she could, and fell asleep smiling. The next morning, the UPS man and another courier arrived simultaneously. Sally received the goods, signed the necessary documents, and logged in the items received—a new protocol she had instituted at the beginning of the summer, because her dad never seemed to know what he had in stock and what he didn’t. He was on the ’phone the whole time, straightening out an order that was supposed to have arrived two days earlier. As soon as he hung up the ’phone, he went to deal with an early customer. After selling a large order of violin accessories to that customer, he leaned his head into the office.

“You like our Mr. Jakes, do you?” he asked in a casual tone.

“What do you mean, Daddy?” Sally replied with wide-eyed innocence.

“You never took your eyes off him all night.”

I wish I could’ve kept my eyes on him all night, Sally thought. What she said was, “He is awfully good.”

“You ain’t wrong there,” her father allowed, then added, “He did a little better job of movin’ his eyes around than you did, but I think he likes you, too.”

Sally’s heart lurched. “Naww,” she started to say, “he’s just frien—”

“Don’t get silly with me, girl. I saw how he looked at you—and how you looked at him.”

Sally blushed and sat, silent for a moment, then asked, “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad at you!? Why should I be mad at you?”

“Are you mad at him?”

“Hell, no. He’s a damn sight better’n most of the boys you’ve gone out with this year.”

“You got that right.”

“I think he’s a pretty decent guy. We don’t know ’im all that well, though, so you be careful.”

“I will, Daddy.”

“You aren’t known for that,” her father replied.

“I’m getting better,” Sally responded with a little petulance.

Her father chuckled and said, “Yes, you are. J—”

“Do you really think he’s interested?”

“Honey, you’re so beautiful—how could he not be?”

“Oh, Daddy. That’s sweet of you, bu—”

“He said he’d drop in about noon. Let’s see if he asks you out.”

They both got back to work and enjoyed a productive and fairly lucrative morning, interrupted only by irregular ’phone calls from Rags and a variety of Western Swing musicians. Ten minutes before noon and twenty minutes after the last ’phone call, Brett Jakes entered the shop and greeted Sally’s dad. They chatted for five minutes before Sally left the office and joined them. She and her father gently probed for a biography of Mr. Jakes. Although he married at twenty-two, he’d been single for six years. No, he didn’t have any children. This was her dad’s turn to be surprised at Brett’s physics degree.

“Sally was the top student in physics both years,” he told their new friend.

Brett smiled at Sally, and she said, “I’ve always liked science—all the way through school. I’ve actually thought of becoming a science teacher.”

“Cool!” Brett said. “A difficult and frustrating job, I expect, but admirable and rewarding. I’ve thought about becoming a teacher myself.”

“You!” Sally’s dad said in wonderment.

At the same time, Sally thought, I bet you’d be a damn good one, but said nothing.

Turning toward Sally’s dad, Brett Jakes said, “Yeah, because I’m well and truly tired of being on the road. I’ve tried a couple of times to get out of the music biz, but the money lured me back.”

Sally’s dad shook his head and said, “You ought to live in Nashville then.”

“I did, Buck, remember? I just came back from there. It’s a terrible place.”

“But you’d have a lot of work without travellin’ far.”

“Yeah, more than out here. But let me ask you this: would you rather be in Tennessee or here?”

They quickly reached an accord on that topic, and Sally told the two men about the Western Swing jam session arranged for the next evening. Buck then said, “You can take your lunch break whenever you want, Sal.”

Brett turned to Buck and asked, “Do you close up shop or take turns watching it?”

“Both,” the other two said in unison, then laughed.

“Good!” said Brett. “Then close it up and let me take you both to lunch.” They did and he did, and all three enjoyed both the meal and the conversation. Sally and her dad quizzed Brett about his life in Nashville and on the road. He asked about their background and about Sally’s interest in science. They talked at length about musicians they all knew—or knew of—and liked, and father and daughter interrogated their new friend about some of their favorites. On their way back to the little music store, Brett said, “Whew! That was a big lunch. I think I need to walk some of it off.”

Seeing an opportunity, Sally said, “Me, too!”

Ever the indulgent dad, Buck said, “I’ll go ahead and open up, and you two go get your exercise.”

The other two continued to the corner, crossed McHenry, and walked along Morris. Out of the tumult in Sally’s mind came the thought, I want more than Brett’s body. There’s something special about him. As they strolled through Enslen Park, Sally made a risqué suggestion.

“Not sure your dad’d like that,” Brett said. “Besides, you couldn’t be more than sixteen.”

“I’m seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in two months.”

They argued good-naturedly about propriety and legality for twenty minutes, as they walked about the Park, then headed back to McHenry via Stoddard. On the way, Sally renewed her earlier suggestion.

“I don’t want your dad to kill me for fooling around with his little girl,” Brett said. “Hell, I don’t even want him to dislike me—he’s a nice guy.”

“He isn’t going to mind us getting together. He knows I’m going to do what I want, and he trusts me to make good choices. Besides, he likes you.”

Brett chuckled. “He just wants another musician in the family.”

“That, too. But I think he really does like you.”

“Good! I’m glad of that. But d’you think he’d want me for a son-in-law?”

Sally’s heart leapt. She smiled at her companion and hesitated a moment before asking, “Shall I take that as a proposal?”

Brett chuckled and said, “Does kinda sound like one, doesn’t it. Take it as what business people and bureaucrats call an expression of interest.”

Only slightly disappointed, Sally smiled at Brett again and said, “OK, I will.” After a short pause, she continued, “I guess my task is to increase the level of interest.”

“Not sure that’s necessary. But don’t ya think we need to get to know each other better? And we’ll have to wait until you turn eighteen.”

“Not my first choice—the waiting part—but I can live with that,” Sally replied. “I like the part about getting to know each other better.”

They continued back to the store with a mix of good-natured banter and serious sharing about a range of personal and other topics. Sally’s dad looked up with a questioning glance, as they entered. Sally just beamed.

The three jammed and chatted between customers, until the hour compelled Brett to leave for a dinner date with Albie and Albie’s wife—after promising to return the next morning. The next day brought Brett Jakes back to the store for more visiting, before he surprised his hosts by greeting Rags and several of the local musicians by name. Everyone in attendance thoroughly enjoyed the Western Swing session that followed. As Brett put his instruments back in their case, he said, “I’ll come by to say ‘Good-bye’ and have a visit before I head north.”

Sally followed him out the door and threw her arms around his neck.

“Wait!” Brett said, “Turn me loose.”

Stung, Sally removed her arms from his neck. With a catch in her voice, she asked, “Don’t you want me to hug you?”

As soon as Sally released Brett’s neck, he set his instrument cases on the sidewalk.

As he straightened up, he smiled at Sally and said, “Of course I do, but I want to be able to hug you back.”

Sally fell into his arms, and they embraced for several minutes. As they relaxed their arms, Brett placed a remarkably chaste but affectionate kiss on Sally’s lips.

After he had gone, followed to the corner by Sally’s gaze, she walked back into the shop feeling at once aroused and dejected. Her father watched her but said nothing at first. As she began tidying up and putting things away, he said, “You’re not thinking about climbing in Albie’s window, are you?”

“Daddy!” Sally said but didn’t look at him.

He said nothing, but, when she finally dared peek at him, he was watching her with raised eyebrows.

“That isn’t fair. You know me too well,” she said.

Buck nodded without saying anything, and Sally said, “Thinking about it, yes. But he told me not to.”

“He what!?”

“He said not to do that, if I was thinking about it.”

“Good for him, but why’d he do that?”

“He said he didn’t want to begin a relationship by breaking the law—and he said he didn’t want to get you mad at him.”

“He said that?”

“Yeah, and a lot more.”

“Like what?”

He said, if we were going to get together, he didn’t just want some fun in bed. He wanted something that would last.”

“What is he, a saint?”

“No, I don’t think so, but he’s a good man.”

“I think you might be right, Sal.”

Her eyes downcast but shining, Sally nodded but said nothing.

“So what’re you gonna do?” her father asked.



“Until I’m eighteen.”

“That isn’t long.”

“Thank goodness for that.”

Buck laughed. Sally chuckled a little and shook her head. They locked up the shop and went upstairs to their beds as quietly as they could.

The next morning, Brett Jakes entered the shop about half past ten carrying both instrument cases. He chatted with Sally and her dad for half an hour then jammed with them between customers for another two hours. After replacing his instruments in their cases, Brett turned to Buck and said, “Buck, I’ve become very fond of your daughter. Is it OK if I take her to lunch and then maybe for a walk before I leave?”

Buck smiled and said, “Brett, I reckon you’re a good man. You’d better take her for a walk and a talk, ’cause she’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”

Sally, still aroused from Brett’s singing, felt herself blushing and said, “Daddy!”

Her dad replied, “Am I talkin’ the truth?”

Sally, still blushing, nodded, then turned and smiled at Brett. He took her hand, and they walked out of the store, with her father smiling and waving behind them.

Over lunch and again as they walked to Kewin Park and along the inappropriately-named Dry Creek to Creekside Golf Course and then back all the way down the creek to its confluence with the Tuolumne River, they talked about everything under the sun, about music, about themselves, about each other, about their burgeoning relationship, about what each of them wanted in their lives, about politics, about their feelings, and dozens of other topics. They continued in the same vein as they walked back up Burney and 17th to McHenry. As they walked back up McHenry, Sally told her companion, “If you aren’t here on my birthday, I’m catching a bus to Medford the next day.”

“I can’t be here for your birthday, ’though I’d like to. I have a commitment in Eugene that night and the night before.”

“A girlfriend?”

“Hell, no! A gig, for goodness’ sake. I could drive down that next day though.”

“You could meet the bus in Medford.”

“Yeah, I could do that. I could drive down after the gig and be there when the bus arrives.”

As they walked the last few blocks to the music store, they talked about seeing each other in two months and Brett told Sally he would ’phone her whenever he could until they could be together again. He said he’d spend that night in Chico at the home of an old friend.

When Sally tensed, he put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Male!” then added, “Musician—but not bluegrass.”

In the store, Brett said good-bye to Buck, who discreetly retired to the office while Brett and Sally shared a lingering embrace and several kisses. With one last affectionate kiss, Brett picked up his instrument cases and walked out the door and around the corner to his pickup at Albie’s place.

As good as his as his word, Brett ’phoned Sally the next evening, and they talked for almost three hours. He and they repeated that pattern for three days, then missed three, while Brett was away at gigs. He ’phoned her again the next Sunday and through the week until gigs again took him away. He and they did much the same for the next eight weeks. As she said she would, Sally caught a bus to Medford the day after her birthday. As Brett said he would, he met her at the bus depot at five minutes to three that afternoon.


Educated as a scientist and graduated as a mathematician, but a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, Harlan Yarbrough attempted to escape the entertainment industry, working as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner.  Harlan lives and writes in Bhutan.  In the past six years, his short fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Quail Bell, Page & SpineGreen Hills Literary Lantern, and sixty-four other literary journals and won the Fair Australia Prize.