Sylvie DuMonde was born in a logging camp on the Deschutes river. Her mother, also Sylvie, departed not long after Sylvie’s birth so the youngster was raised (and named) by the crew boss. When the season was through, she was sent down to live with his wife and four other children, in Willamette, Oregon. The children were friendly but stupid and Sylvie roamed the streets of the town alone at night, looking for something new to learn and catching glimpses of other people’s lives. When she was around 11 (she never knew her real birthday), Sylvie stowed away with a traveling sideshow, the Anatolian Delights, and began singing for coins in accompaniment to the show’s belly dancing sister act. The Anatolians taught her to sing in phonetic Greek, Armenian, and some Arabic, but nothing else.
Bruno Brown, real name Todd Wilf, was working the front desk at the Copper Queen hotel in Douglas, Arizona when the Anatolians passed through one spring. Todd was not inclined toward naked-lady acts, but the future collaborators began casually trading insults while waiting for an endless freight train to pass on the last night of the troupe’s engagement. Mutually amused by each other’s extensive library of put-downs and epithets, the two agreed to meet after the show at the same crossing and share a bottle of wine from the Copper Queen’s extensive and under-subscribed cellar.
When Todd showed up that night with his National steel, Sophie got her first taste of singing the music that actually meant something to her, the kind she heard streaming out of other people’s car windows and over-cranked personal-stereo headsets. Todd, hearing how their voices mixed, realized he’d found someone who might be a friend for the future, and for the road. He told her to call the hotel’s 800 number anytime she felt like talking, which she felt like a lot that winter. It was like a correspondence course in life: Sophie asked him all the questions she’d ever had, and he made up the answers.
A year later, when the Anatolians returned to Douglas, Sylvie had worked up a small repertoire of pop tunes, as well as a few changes for a song of her own (eventually to become Don’t Drop Dead). Todd, meanwhile, had dyed his hair brown, changed his name, and located enough cash (located, not earned) for two bus tickets to New Orleans. After actually counting the money, Sylvie determined that they should hitchhike by way of Juarez City and San Antonio, instead. They would work on their act as they traveled.
Two weeks later, outside of Houston, the new partners were thrown from the back of a pick-up truck during Hurricane Irene. Sylvie woke up in the hospital in Galveston, where an X-ray tech named Herbie fell madly in love with her. Lost, broke, and believing Bruno dead, she took Herbie up on his offer of marriage and went slowly, painfully “straight” for five years. Playing stepmother to Herbie’s awkward son, Ian, Sylvie finally got her fill of American culture, catching up with the internet, the radio, movies, and TV. Ian got the best of those years, as Sylvie taught him to sing and play the guitar and helped him amass a record collection that made him popular in high school. This work done, she got the phrase “je ne regretted rien” tattooed on her left shoulder-blade and said goodbye to Herbie on his lunch break in the parking lot of the hospital where he worked.
Bruno was not dead, but the cash he had on him at the time of the accident was no longer there the next time he’d looked, three days later, in Beaumont, where the hippies who’d picked him up left him on the side of the road in the rain. He thought of continuing on to New Orleans—where he would have met Hurricane Katrina, head on, but only got as far as Port Arthur. There was no way to get anywhere after that, so he stayed put, sharing a FEMA trailer with a guy he’d met at cadet school and selling first pot, then refrigerators, then used cars. He was well on his way to permanently bitter and drunk when Sylvie showed up at his used car lot with Ian’s college fund in her purse, but not so far that he didn’t know a last chance when he saw it.
This record is what they made out of their shared assets, in a garage in Nashville, where they finally stopped to tally how much help they’d had along the way.