of town to judge a tri-county speed-flossing contest. They asked Jeremiah if he wanted to go with them. But Jeremiah said that he still had to work on his school project, so they left him behind.
He put on the DVD again and then practiced the basic strum, doing what Red Beard had demonstrated. He groaned in frustration and put down the banjo. He went downstairs, raided the fridge for leftover grilled calamari, and watched a TV rerun about some kid called the Beaver.
But he couldnât stay away. He turned the TV off and marched back upstairs and grabbed the banjo. He placed the pot on his right knee, held the neck with his left hand, and strummed.
His strumming felt easier. His rhythm was more regular. It even soundedâ¦okay.
Jeremiah strummed on and on. He sped up, messed up, started again.
He had it. He really had it! He stood up, holding the banjo by the neck, and danced around.
âYes, yes, yes! Woohoo! â
The first tune Jeremiah learned was called âBlack-Eyed Suzie.â It had a couple of neat slides in it, when he had to move a finger of his left hand along a string, making the note rise up.
Three days later he learned âBarlow Knife,â and after that, âSalt River.â
Because he didnât have frets, he made some small marks with a Sharpie pen on the side of the neck to help him know where to put the fingers of his left hand. He discovered that there were several ways to tune a banjo. It was often these tunings that gave the tunes their off-kilter, mournful sound â like the sad mewling of a lonely cat.
As playing became more natural, Jeremiah was able to practice longer â up to two hours a day if his parents were out at the dispenser factory. Over the weeks he developed calluses on the fingers of his left hand. He learned how to do âhammer-ons,â hitting the fretboard with a finger to sound a note, and âpull-offs,â which were the opposite. Harder to learn were âdouble-thumbingâ and âdrop-thumbing,â to play quicker notes and more complicated melodies.
He gradually picked up speed. Sometimes, when he was in a real groove, it felt as if he was galloping along.
After three months he knew he was still a beginner, but he began to think of himself as a banjo player. And the only one who knew was Luella.
âYouâre lucky that your parents forgot about the shop project,â Luella said. âBut at some point youâre going to have to tell them.â
âAs long as that point isnât today,â Jeremiah said.
SPRING ARRIVED . Jeremiah played his banjo every chance he could get. When he had learned everything on the DVD, he moved on to a book for intermediate clawhammer players. He practiced scales and arpeggios and exercises. He learned new tunes.
At first when he tried to sing as he played, his hands got all mixed up. But gradually he learned to do two things at once. He sang âLittle Birdyâ and âCluck Old Hen.â And the song he had first heard on that porch so long ago, âShady Grove.â
He didnât always practice. A lot of the time he played for fun. His room had a stairway up to a turret overlooking the vast back garden. Sometimes in the evening, when his parents were at a dentistsâ convention or a golf club dinner, he would sit out there and play.
The banjo sounded right outside, with the chirping of birds and the splash from the waterfall below. He could play for a good hour before running out of tunes he knew.
One day in May, Luella leaned back in math class and said to Jeremiah, âI made you something.â
âWhat is it?â
âYouâll find out if you invite me for dinner.â
âIâll ask my parents.â
âYour parents adore me.â
âOkay, fine. Come tonight.â
âWell, if you insist.â
In the limousine home, Luella wouldnât tell him what she had made. Nor while