Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I Shook Hands with Nathan Beauregard

By Dave Wood
(originally published as "Twisted Spine Tom Straightens Out" in Sailor's Delight November 3, 1982)

It was Friday afternoon in Mortician's Crotch, Alabama, (there is no Mortician's Crotch, Alabama) so of course, it was raining fish (it has never actually rained fish anywhere and never will, thus evidencing that this story is fiction). The sun hung low and a little to the left. On Main street an old man was picking his teeth. 

"Gimme the green set in the pickle jar behind the safety razor", he told the pawnbroker. 

He handed over a dollar and, due to the fact that the teeth were a half a dozen sizes too big left the store with a broad and beautiful smile upon his face; As he started to cross the street he heard and saw a car approaching. It was a black Ford sedan with New York plates, Dixie cups and flying saucers. At the wheel sat a young man with steel-rimmed glasses, a chin a little obscured by what may have been steam or the promise of a beard, and a faded blue sweatshirt which bore the legend “I SHOOK HANDS WITH NATHAN BEAUREGARD - MEHPHIS 1968 " 

As the car drew level with the old man it stopped and the young driver leaned out of the open window and spoke. 

Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for a blues singer.” 

Instantly from a dozen doors and a score of windows there emerged a forest of black faces and the stillness of the late afternoon was broken by a thunderous chorus; 


A split second later the door of the jailhouse s flung wide and the sheriff, red-faced, overweight and fresh from bathing in sweat ran into the street waving his pistol in the air. He fired a single shot and the faces disappeared as swiftly as they had come, leaving the street as silent as before. The sheriff spat a plug of tobacco into the gutter, holstered his pistol, Holsteined his parts and returned to the jail. Through it all the old man stood immobile and apparently unmoved though in truth this owed more to the outlandish size of his new teeth than to any innate coolness in a crisis. Since leaving the store it had become clear to him that the price of his beating, beatific smile was a complete inability to operate his lips so that when, in continuance of his conversation, the young man at the wheel of the Ford asked if he would like a cigarette the best he could do was to utter a kind of low-key, grating shriek. Apparently oblivious to this, or at least commendably polite, the young continued. 

"The guy I'm looking for lived around here in the twenties and thirties. He made a few records for Columbia and Paramount. He was usually billed as Twisted Spine Tom, but on other issues he was know as Gammy Leg Willie, Busted Neck Jim, Howlin' Hunchback and Hopelessly Deformed Bob. I think his real name may have been Arnold Pickett, or Scratchett, or Dabitwithlotion and, and this could be important, he may have been disabled. 

"Eeeee…urrk…aahioo…eeeessshaah," said the old man, his face the while illuminated by the friendliest of grins. As he spoke, or gamely tried to, he rested his bony hand on the younger man’s arm and gestured incomprehensibly in the direction of the post office. 

"Eeeessh,” he said, “eeeeessh,” and, “eeessh'' again. Finally the strain of trying to speak became so great that the teeth flew from his mouth and hit the driver squarely in the face 

"Gesundheit", he said as the old man's spit dripped slowly off his nose. 

Helpfully, the old man rubbed the filthy, ragged remnants of his shirt sleeve in the young man t a face as a gesture of apology, leaving behind a dirty brown-black smudge and knocking the young man's glasses askew. 

"Be glad to help you if I could, young timer, but I caint. Seems to me like the best thing you can do is ask Abe Thomas over at the post office - he knows everybody in town ... ah would you gimme back mah teeth please?" 

The newly-acquired dentures had fallen inside the car and in bending to retrieve them the young man cracked his skull sharply on the dashboard, opening a cut abo t half an inch long which bled into his eyes. He reached for his handkerchief and, unable to see clearly, wiped his face instead with an oily rag. He thanked the old man warmly and drove down the street to the post office where, on entering he found Abe Thomas reading a newspaper. Without looking up, the postmaster spoke. 

"Trouble, trouble trouble. All over the world trouble, and who's responsible? Why Nicko the Asian. Every time there's trouble, there he is at the centre of it. Turn on the radio whenever there's a crisis and that's all you hear about. Nicko the Asian's in New York, Nicko the Asian's in Washington, Nicko the Asian's in Cairo. If we could only nab this guy we…” 

For the first time Abe looked up from the paper and saw the filthy, blood-stained young man before him. 

"Jeeeezus…" he said "You look awful, son. Been in a fight?" 

"Er, no…I was just talking to an old guy in the street and I…” 

"Never mind son, sit yourself down. I'll get you a towel and some coffee." 

He was as true as his word, and before long the young man was feeling and looking much better. 

"Thanks" he said. "I guess I'd better introduce myself. My name is Ira Lee Watkins and I'm from New York and I'm looking for an old-time blues singer who used to live around here years ago. Now of course he may have died or moved on, or anything but I'd surely like to find him if I could. You see I represent Ethical Considerations Records and we'd be very interested in recording the guy again if it were possible." 

Ira went on to tell Abe what he had told the old man in the street. The postmaster shook his head. 

"Do you have a picture?" he asked. 

"Well, all I have is a publicity shot taken in 1930, but it may not be much help. It shows only the back of his head, It was used to promote a record he made as "Shy Boy Shortlegs - The Crippled Conundrum.” Look I have a copy of the record here – “You Ain’t Got Nothin to Lose, Toulouse.” 

Abe looked long and thoughtfully at the picture and then slapped his thigh. 

''Damned moskoetas,” he said. 

After a few more moments though Abe laid the picture on the post office counter and said slowly "Now, Ira, I may be wrong, but I reckon this could be the guy who used to sing every Monday night down at the nudist cup. Called himself Spotted Dick till they thought of penicillin." 

"Hey, Abe, that's exciting. Do you know where I can find him?" 

"Well, last I heard he was livin' in a shack down by the railroad track" 

"Does he still have a guitar?" 

"Not since he started using Sinex" 

"And how will I find this shack?" 

"Oh, pretty much run down I guess, Dick never was much fer washing and such. He has a black goat." 

"A black goat" 

"Yeah, with a velvet collar. Wears it all the time," 

"I'm sorry Abe, I think we're talking at cross purposes." 

"That's the guy! I’m sure of it now." 

Ira decided he'd probably got as much as he was going to from Abe, so he shook him by the hand, thanked him sincerely for the towel and coffee and set off in search of the shack by the railroad track, the long-sought retreat he dared to hope, of Twisted Spine Slim (or Tom, if you like). 

Album titles drifted lazily into his mind as he drove. 

“The Legend of Twisted Spine Tom,” “The Resurrection of Twisted Spine Tom,” “Dance With…Well, perhaps the final selection could wait. 

An hour later, or it may have been a minute, so elastic was his watch, some innate sixth sense told Ira he had found the place he sought. A sixth sense aided by the gaily colored hand-painted sign which stood by the roadside and directed him to a nearby shack with the words: 


Ae he approached the shack Ira heard the sounds of moaning coming from within and the last shreds of doubt vanished. That voice was unmistakable. Even after forty years it still retained its power, its rawness, its majesty, its incoherence. He knocked and the moaning ceased. 

'Who is it?" 

“Good evening sir, my name is Ira Lee Watkins and I’m a blues researcher from New York representing…”

He could go no further as from the far side of the door there came a wild ecstatic clanging guitar chord and a shout of "Well I woke up this mornin’…." This was followed by a crash, a groan and silence.

"Sir!" cried Ira. He threw wide the door to find the singer sprawled among the remains of his bed still clutching his guitar but quite unconscious - stunned by a wrought iron spitoon which had fallen from a shelf as the bed collapsed and struck hill on the head. The young researcher resisted the temptation to think that perhaps the old man was merely over-wrought.

"Tom! Arnold! Bob! Are you all right Jim?" be blurted. Seizing a water jug he threw the contents into the face of his hero. The singer stirred slowly and opened an eye.

"Perhaps you didn’t notice, son, that the nearest john is two miles back down the road."

"Wha? Oh." With some distaste Ira replaced the jug where be found it.

The dazed and now malodorous bluesman gingerly felt his head. "Hmmm", he said, "Concussion. Remind me to put that on the sign."

He reached for a towel, dried himself as best he could, and finally held out his hand in greeting to his visitor.

Ira looked a little puzzled.

"Er…Arnold Rubbitt?

"That's me"

"Twisted Spine Tom? Gammy Leg Willie? Hopelessly…”

"The same"

"But you're not…forgive me…you're not…you don't appear to be…”


"Well, I suppose so, yes"

"Well, I ain’t but Doctor Ross ain’t no physician either. What the hell, it sells records, but don’t worry son, I limp real good - watch me."

Slowly, painfully, Arnold limped across the room, dragging his left foot as though it were made of lead. It was a performance of genius and Ira, even though he knew the truth, felt a lump in his throat as he watched it. An instant later with his teeth removed and his body bent and twisted into a grotesque parody of a corkscrew the alert, articulate Arnold Rubbitt was transformed into the feeble, gibbering husk or Twisted Spine Tom.

"If this guy don't send 'em wild in Europe" thought Ira, "I'm a pretzel."

He didn’t actually say I abracadabra' but the bewildering speed with which a standard contract form appeared from somewhere within his jeans suggested that he might have done. For his next trick he produced a pen in a similar fashion and thrust it toward Arnold all the while intoning the salient features of the contract like a mildly disinterested parrot.

At the word ‘royalties' Arnold fell to his knees and mumbled "your majesty" but Ira was too excited to notice.

"How should I sign this?" asked Arnold. "Do I put A. Rubbit, or T.S. Tom or what?

Ira felt a tear welling up in his eye. "Could you…would you…I mean it would make me very happy if…dammit, would you mark it with a cross?"

Arnold rolled his eyes and whispered "Lawdy lawdy lawdy" and for a moment Ira thought his heart would burst.

He looked, hardly daring to believe it, at the completed document; folded it reverently put it back in his pocket.

"Come on, Tom," he said, "we'd better get into town and get this thing witnessed properly and then what do you say we head up north?"

"Lead on, son", said Arnold, picking up his guitar.

"Aren't you going to put on your coat?"

"My coat?"

"Yes, the black one with the velvet collar?"

"Oh, you mean Herman."


"My goat."

"Of course. Well, no sense in hanging around. Let's go."

The words had hardly left Ira's lips when the door burst open with a crash that suggested the sudden dropping of a bomb. He turned and saw leaning against the door a man fully six and a half feet in height. He was wearing a dust stained poncho, a battered, trail-weary Stetson, buckskin trousers and brown leather boots. His sneering face bore a three day growth of a beard and between his teeth was clenched a smoldering cheroot. He stared malevolently at Ira and bared his tobacco stained teeth in a sinister, mocking grin.

"Hello Watkins,” he said.

Ira stood open mouthed and trembling and it seemed an age before he was able to croak a single word reply.


The tall stranger edged his way into the room, eyeing it lazily and resting his fingers lightly on a chair. Ira and Arnold watched but didn't dare to move.

"Who…?" whispered Arnold out of the corner of his mouth. Ira leaned close to the old man and muttered a reply.

“Rat Hawkins; the meanest, nastiest bounty hunter on the blues circuit. Calls himself a researcher and a scout but he wouldn't know a copyright or a royalty if it bit him on the leg. I've last count or the albums he’s…"

Hawkins clipped him painfully across the mouth.

"Button your lip, Watkins. Now, why don't you just pack up your things and leave quietly and let me discuss contracts with Mr. Rubbitt?"

"Contracts? Ha!"

Ira could not conceal a mirthless laugh. "What the hell do you know about contracts, Hawkins? All you know about is cassette recorders and ripoffs."

Hawkins grabbed Ira round the neck and lifting him bodily off the ground, spat his next words into his face with a venom that would not have disgraced a cobra.

"I'm giving you fair warning, Watkins. I'm going to grab a bite to eat. I'll be back in half an hour and I want your ass to be gone. If it ain't I'm gonna make you wish it had. When I’m through with you, you won't be fit for nothing but Lawrence Welk."

He hurled the half-strangled Ira so hard against the wall of the shack that the whole place moved six feet sideways. Arnold stood watching but sensibly made no move to intervene.

"Remember," said Hawkins. "A half hour. Now don’t you be here when I get back, boy!"

He left, slamming the door with enough force to move the shack back where it started. Arnold ran to Ira who still lay bright red on the floor clutching at his throat and apparently attempting a Satchmoistic scat version of "Sewanee River."

"Are you all right son? Jeezus, what's gain' on around here?"

"Thank God the water jug's empty'' thought Ira, but it was a few minutes before he was able to speak. When he did his words were not reassuring.

"Arnold, we're in trouble. Rat Hawkins is bad news. He travels around with a portable tape machine searching out singers and musicians, buying them a few beers or a jug of cheap whiskey then he gets them to sing a few songs and next thing you know the stuff's on an album somewhere and there's nothing you can do about it."

"Well, I could use a few beers right now."

"Arnold! You don’t know what you're saying. This guy is evil. He's out to rip you off, take you for a sucker.

"Hey, I could use a supper too."

"For Christ sake don't listen to him. Look, handled right you could make yourself a heap of money. A lot of people will want to see and hear Twisted Spine Tom. Concerts, albums, garden fetes, the whole thing, but if Rat Hawkins gets his slimy hands into you you've had it. I’m offering you a contract, royalties, a tour to Europe, TV, Radio."

"Maybe, son, but Jam tomorrow is fin!! so long as you got bread today, which I ain’t. Free beer and a few dollars in my hand sounds mighty good. Seems to me I've been ripped off all my life, so why should I trust you any more than this Hawkins guy? If I'm gonna get ripped off it might as well be today instead of next month. At least I'll get free beer.

Ira was distraught.

"Arnold, you can't mean that. Look, here's the latest Ethical Considerations album list. Look at the people we've recorded, and they're all getting paid royalties.

Pebbledash Slim and Suitcase Guitar Yardbroom are in France right now recording for TV, Brittle Fingernails Phil is doing commercials for Revlon and Big Mojo Gillespie is in

Vienna doing a months gig at the Uglyfellas Blues Club. Don't let it all slip away. Sign the contract and let's get out of here before Hawkins gets back."

Arnold stroked his chin and hummed. It was a catchy tune and Ira found himself joining in for a while before he suddenly jerked back to reality.

"Come on, Arnold, we don't have much timel"

"Well, lra, I look at it this way. I sit here a-mindin’ my own business when it comes first you, tellin’ me how you're gonna make me a big-name star and such, and then this other guy you say is gonna give me free beer. Now, I don't know either of you guys and I don't know what the hell is goin' on. Now, you want me to sign a contract, and that sounds fishy to me. If I'm gonna have to choose between free beer and a piece of paper then I guess I'm gonna choose free beer every time.”

lra couldn’t believe his ears. Had all he’d said been in vain?

"Arnold, you cannot be serious. Look, if it'll make you feel better I’ll buy you a beer myself."

"Now see here, Ira, I like you. Tell you what I'll do. I’ll sign your piece of paper if I can get a few dollars up front, just as a sign of good faith you know."

"But Arnold, I haven't got any money."

"Well, looks like Hawkins and me will be drinking beer together by sundown.”

Ira began to panic. He frantically searched his pockets and finally offered their contents to Arnold with a heartfelt plea.

"Look, I've got six dollars and twenty-eights cents."

"Six dollars and twenty eight cents?" Arnold looked pained. "Well, Hawkins should be back soon. I sure am parched."

"If you’ll only come into town where I can telephone New York I can get them to wire me some money. Shall we say a hundred dollars?"

"Shall we say five hundred?"

"Five hundred dollars? Are you crazy? Why, I haven't even heard you sing properly yet…"

''Well ah woke up dis mornin', and Rat Hawkins wuz knockin’ on mah door…”

"All right, all right, five hundred dollars, but let's get out of here before Hawkins gets back or I'm gonna end up like a pound of mashed potato.”


Ira and Arnold froze.

"Watkins, I know you're in there still. You shoulda run while you had the chance, boy!”

Ira peeped through the window and saw Hawkins standing about fifteen yards from the shack holding the microphone of his tape recorder like a pistol. He turned to Arnold.

"Is there another way out of here?"

"Sure. We could start digging.”

"I see. Then we’ll just have to go out of the front."

"Son, you can go out of the front if you like. Me? I think I'll just sit here and wait for Mr. Hawkins to offer me a beer."

"You can't mean it, Arnold. You've heard everything I said, and whats more there's the five hundred dollars."

"Ira, that guy could break the neck of a grizzly bear like I could a toothpick. Five hundred dollars don't go far down at the general hospital they tell me.”

"Six hundred dollars, seven only don't give up on me now.”

"A thousand."

"Arnold, you're insane.''

The singer went to the window. "I drink Budweisers!" he yelled.

"All right, a thousand." Ira was sweating. "But how are we going to get out of' here?"

"Leave it to me" said Arnold. "When I say the word, get Hawkins in here."

He picked up a heavy iron skillet and stood to the right of the door.

"Right", he said, "Do your stuff.”

Ira found it difficult to speak with his tongue trembling but somehow, he managed it, "If you want me, Hawkins, you'll have to come in and get me!”

"All right, Watkins, if that’s the way you want to play it don't say I didn't warn you. Start praying because I'm a-comin’.”

Seconds later the door flew back (it had been on vacation in Florida) and Hawkins entered, his hands clenched into fists the size of watermelons. He grinned, revealing perhaps half a dozen tobacco stained teeth and advanced on Ira like a slow motion avalanche.

"Careful, Hawkins", Ira said. "I have a black belt."

“Good. I can strangle you with it."

The lumbering Hawkins was almost on top of his terrified prey when Arnold struck. Emerging stunned from behind the door which had given him something of a nock when Hawkins burst it open he hit the villain squarely on the head with the skillet. It slowed him momentarily, but it took another three blows before he finally crumpled to the floor apparently unconscious. Ira continued to tremble for some time but eventually gathered his wits (the work of a moment) and urged Arnold to flee while there was still time. They ran to the car and were soon heading for town.

"We'll have to work quickly Arnold. That isn't going to hold Watkins for long. Did you see what his head did to that skillet?”

They stopped off at the post office and Ira phoned New York. There was some quibbling over the size of the advance but eventually the head of Ethnical Considerations Records agreed to wire the thousand dollars. It would take a few hours and the two of them decided to lie low in an inconspicuous bar where Arnold eventually got his free beer. By the time the money came through it was getting pretty late and Ira suggested that they get out of town right away and find a motel somewhere to spend the night.

"Tomorrow we head for New York. The further we are from Hawkins the happier I'll feel. From what I hear he's a sore loser."

Arnold paused briefly from counting his money and agreed. "Just gimme a second to go to the john and I’ll be right with you."

It was the last Ira saw of him.

Hawkins was still rubbing his head when Arnold returned.

"Would you watch it with that skillet?" he said. "You don’t have to act THAT good. How much?"

"A thousand"

"Not bad. Not bad at all. Fifty for the guy at the Post Office leaves us nine fifty. How about a free beer?"

Arnold laughed. "Come on, let's get out of here before Watkins wises up and comes round with the sheriff."

"Lay off, Arnie, there' a no way that guy is gonna go to the law and make himself look stupid. It ain't happened yet."

“I guess you’re right, but I still say we leave now. There’s work to be done.

“Okay, so what’s next?”

As they left the shack Arnold was saying, “Well, I hear there’s a couple of rubes from Wisconsin travelling around looking for Bumble Bee Taxform. Now, he used to hang around Pikeville. If we set off right away…”

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