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  • Writer's pictureK. Arthur

"The Butterfly Game"

Updated: Apr 1

It was a 45-minute drive to Albertville on Sand Mountain. A couple of times a year Dad took me to work with him on a day when there was no school, except for the time we played hooky and went fishing at the lake instead. Dad was one of the owners of Sommers Music Company, with stores in Albertville, Rainsville, and Boaz. His largest store was on Main Street in Downtown Albertville. The inventory was robust with twenty-some-odd new pianos in the front showroom, Pearl drum sets, endless racks of sheet music, walls of hanging Gibson and Fender guitars, and a wind section bigger than a church choir loft. He sold every musical instrument from jaw harps to pipe organs, and he could not play a single one of them. But that did not matter much, because he was the greatest salesman in the world. I know that book has already been written, but the author apparently did not know my Dad.

Johnsongrass and primrose reached toward the asphalt as we headed up the mountain that morning. Barbed wire went on for miles to keep the cows in viridescent pastureland the same color as green apple Jolly Ranchers. The rolling countryside was scattered with gambrel barns and whitewashed homesteads, most of them Dad's piano customers. Three-quarters of the homes on Sand Mountain in the 1970s had a piano and at least one gospel singer in the family. Holiness and Baptist churches were every few miles, more of his customers. Coming in loud and clear on the AM radio was Paul Harvey, who told stories of the heartland condensed in 15-minute newscasts known as "The Rest of the Story." We cracked our windows to let the cool air in. It smelled different there, high up in cow country, 25 miles from the smokestacks of U.S. Steel. Not better, just different.

"Wanna play the butterfly game?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I answered.

"I'll take this side, and you take that side," he said.

And we started counting.

Every few seconds a bright yellow butterfly would flit across the road in front of us, the sunlight catching its wings. We each counted the number of butterflies that came from whichever side of the road we had chosen. Cloudless Yellow Sulphurs flew erratically, pitching and yawing like little helicopters being flown by pilots in training, and sometimes it was hard to tell whether they were coming or going. From time to time, an indecisive one fluttered to the center of the road, had second thoughts, and made a U-turn in its flight pattern. Those did not count. Dad always won by amassing a much higher butterfly count than I did. Every, single, time. Growing up, I occasionally asked him how he always won the butterfly game, but it was not until he was old enough to stop driving that he told me.

"They know they've gotta go south eventually, before winter starts," he said. "They come out of the north in the summer and fall, so I chose the north side of the road, or the closest to it."

"Oh, and you always picked which side of the road before I did," I responded.

"Right. But I don't see 'em much anymore, the yellow sulphurs," he told me.

"Hmmm," I said, "prob'ly pesticides."

"Yeah, things ain't what they used to be," he ended.

The music store is where I learned to look a man or woman in the eye, firmly shake their hand, and say, "It was a pleasure doing business with you. Please come back and see us." It is where I stood on my knees in a chair and learned to operate an enormous cha-ching cash register, proudly announcing to everyone within earshot that a sale was taking place. It is where I learned to count money back to customers. Cashiers do not do that anymore, and good customer service went out the window in the mid-80s, around the time they stopped making Chevy Citations, if my memory serves me.

At the end of the day when the last patron left, we started out towards home. The sky was dark gray with a greenish tint. Mean looking thunderheads rolled in from the west. The National Weather Service rudely interrupted Tanya Tucker singing Delta Dawn on the radio to issue a tornado watch for Marshall County, but tornado watches were as common as chicken houses and bodacious sideburns on Sand Mountain. Still, we looked for Cloudless Yellow Sulphurs on the drive home, but the road was void of any to count, because the butterflies knew better. Dad remarked, "They don't call 'em cloudless for nothin." So we watched for funnel clouds instead.


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