New short story:


Skipper slammed the door of his ’82 red Chevy pick up truck hard, but it made a flat, unsatisfying sound and he could tell that it hadn’t shut. He slammed it harder with the same result and screamed, “Fuck!”, swallowing the word at the last second so that it burned in the back of his throat. He leaned into the truck to see what the problem was and felt his head suddenly snap back as the brim of his 10 gallon banged hard against the edge of the driver’s seat.

The hat flipped up in the air and although Skipper tried to grab it on its way down he could not quite get his hand around the crown as it fell into a muddy puddle on the parking lot floor. He bent down to pick it up and his guitar case slammed into the truck door, making a loud thwack. Skipper hollered a garbled obscenity, then stood and took a deep breath, counting slowly to five. He leaned back into the truck and discovered the metal clasp of the seatbelt was lying inside the door housing. There was an ugly tear where the door had crushed the clasp against the padding of the door.

Skipper pushed the seat belt out of the way, shut the door, and walked slowly up the steps of Joe Steak, the oldest of the longtime cowboy restaurants on the main drag of Cave Creek.

As soon as he stepped inside, the quiet of the black, cool desert night gave way to the chatter and clinking of diners talking and eating. The clock behind the reservations desk read 8:20, nearly an hour past the time Skipper was supposed to have begun strumming the first few bars of the evening.

Got to cut back on the red wine, he thought. A light sleeper who up until recently had never needed an alarm clock, he woke with a start just 20 minutes ago, not knowing what day it was or what town he was in. His radio was blaring a Suns game at a volume that would have been too loud for the hard of hearing.

Wishing he were at least 50 pounds lighter, Skipper slid, as inconspicuously as possible for a man whose belly spilled some 8 inches over his cowboy belt, into the little set from which he performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. He unpacked his guitar quickly and launched right in, "Livin on the road my friend…", hoping that Oren, manager and son of the owner, had not noticed his absence. But banging the guitar had apparently loosened the D string, and Skipper had to stop and place the guitar across his lap.

At that very moment, Oren cruised by on his way toward the bar. Skipper tipped his hat, but the young man continued on without so much as a nod. Skipper resumed, "Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath as hard as kerosene …."

He felt out of breath, a little hoarse, but singing always soothed him, and as he started the second verse, his whole system seemed to lose its tenseness. "Lefty he can’t sing the blues all night long like he used to.…" Through all the ups and downs, the big paychecks and the little rundown bars, the nights in the arms of Gwen and Marlene or tumbling onto some dank motel cot drunk and alone, of one thing he could be sure: the people listening, as he did himself, took pleasure in his voice.

The tall waitress with the long thick braid that hung straight down the middle of her back stopped, as was her habit, to watch him for a moment. Skipper winked, hoisting an imaginary shot glass to his lips. The girl smiled back and went on her way.

The drink did not arrive, however, and Skipper sang a fifth and then a sixth song, his throat feeling drier, his voice sounding hoarser, till he thought it would just grind to a halt. He tried to catch the eye of the waitress with the braid as she hustled by with an enormous round tray, but she pretended not to see him.

“Oren,” he whispered, waving at the manager with his hand. “Where the hell’s my drink already.”

Oren put his forefinger to his lips. “Please,” he said. “I don’t think you should drink while you’re playing. It doesn’t look professional.”

“What the fuck. What’s a country singer without a drink in his hands.”

“You start to slur your words. The people in the back room can’t hear you.” This had become a point of contention within weeks after Oren had graduated hotel school and come to work in his father’s restaurant.

“I told you, get a better mike.”

“It’s a Senheiser,” he said and walked away.

In the old days Skipper would have just said fuck you and got up and bought himself a double at the bar and brought it back to the set and resumed singing. Or, maybe he would have caught up with Oren, spun him around and punched him flush on the nose, not because he really felt like it but because he imagined that’s what old Merle would have done.

But he’d blown too many good gigs, broken his hand too many times, gone through far too much money, and had his own nose flattened half way across his face and back, not to mention that Oren was 6 inches taller, 3 decades younger, and had played 2 years of college football.

So Skipper croaked out another song, finishing the set, then got himself a triple Jim Beam on the rocks and went and sat outside in his truck, turned the heater way up, lit a Marlboro, and switched the dial to WWAL on the FM radio. He loved smoking in the cab of his pick up at night, the windows all steamed up, dragging deeply on his beloved cigarettes while breathing in all the trapped smoke as well.

Made a fellow wonderfully light-headed and just a little sleepy. Skipper let his head loll back against the headrest. "We come here quite often and listen to music, Partaking of yesterday’s wine"….Jesus, that man could tell a story.

What the fuck is it with you guys, Lily, the only child of his 4 marriages, would say. Always thinking you have to live what you sing. You don’t see Placido Domingo walking around pretending he’s the fucking Barber of Seville.

Skipper smiled to himself. God, he loved women who got right up in your face even though they knew it might mean taking a hard slap to the cheek. Or even worse. Not that he ever really hit any of his wives. Mostly he just got a hard on when they yelled at him, hissing like alley cats, shoulders all hunched, asses out. He would think, what she really wants is a cock in her, but most of the time he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Closing his eyes, the alcohol beginning to ease the very last vestiges of tension in the far reaches of his limbs, Skipper stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray and pushed his hat down over his face, blocking out the streetlamp at the edge of Cave Creek Road. "Yesterday’s wine, we’re yesterday’s wine, aging like time, like yesterday’s wine."

It seemed just a moment later someone was knocking on his window. The waitress with the braid yanked the door open. “Come on, Skipper, you were supposed to be back on 15 minutes ago. Hurry up. Oren is so pissed.” She stood there with her arms folded across her chest.

“You run on in, darlin’,” said Skipper. “Jest got to get situated here.”

“You okay?”

“Oh, yeah, old Skip’s jest fine.” He waited for her to leave, then swigged the last of his bourbon, shuddered, and lit another Marlboro. He took a deep drag, but when he started to exhale the onrush of smoke tickled his throat and he started to cough, a small dry cough, but one he couldn’t stop. There was a rawness now at the back of his throat that made him want to suck in air, as if that would somehow cool the irritation. He opened the window and gasped deeply of the cold night air, but that just made his throat feel dryer, as if he’d swallowed a mouthful of talc, which in turn made him want to cough again.

He held his engineers handkerchief against his mouth, coughing every few seconds, waiting for the urge to cease. Liquid now seemed to be forming in the back of his throat, and he spit into the handkerchief, which he held up to the streetlight. But the red of the fabric made it impossible to tell whether it was blood or not. Whatever it was, the liquid had eased the terrible dryness.

Fuckin’ doctor, he thought as he slipped back into the set at the front of Joe Steak, pluckin’ those little pieces of flesh from the roof of my mouth. Shoulda never let him touch me. Bastards do more harm than good.

"Sitting at a fancy table in a ritzy restaurant, He was staring at his coffee cup….", he sang in little more than a whisper. Reaching down, he cranked the amp way up, smiling at the diners sitting nearest. He had always been able to work a crowd with his translucent blue eyes and big blond handle-bar moustache. But the patrons seemed hardly to notice him, young couples in nice clothes talking about buying new cars and remodeling kitchens.

The waitress with the braid brought him a tall glass of water and he drank greedily. But still he could find little of his voice and began leaving off in the middle of a phrase, trying to cover the missing words with ever more animated guitar playing, adding tremolos and arpeggios when his taste had always run to a Spartan minimalism.

The bar stools were placed seat down atop the bar. Skipper sipped a Budweiser straight from the bottle and watched the girl with the braid swabbing the counters, stacking glasses. She had a big ass and a weak chin, not nearly as pretty as any of his wives. But she was at least a quarter century younger than he, and that counted for something. “Sit and have a beer. Tell me all about yourself.”

“Oh, I’d love, too, Skipper, but I gotta finish closing up. My boyfriend’ll be here any minute.”

A light flicked off in the back room. “That’s okay, Annie, you run along. I’ll lock up.” Oren appeared out of the shadows. He walked behind the bar and poured himself a Cutty on the rocks. “Skipper,” he said, “come and sit up here. We gotta talk.”

Once in 1967, after a performance at a dingy club outside Houston, Skipper sat at the bar drinking when a skinny kid with a druggy-looking girlfriend -- the two of them couldn’t have been more than 17 -- began mimicking Skipper’s singing voice. Nothing mean, almost sort of flattering. But when Skipper kidded back, something about the young man being a string bean, he was off his barstool and suddenly Skipper was on the floor, holding his arms up as the kid and his girl and a whole bunch of their suddenly materialized friends were kicking him with their steel-toed boots. That was the first time it struck him: how fast things could get real bad.

In August in Phoenix it not infrequently gets up to 112 degrees. In Cave Creek, about 30 miles to the north, where Skipper had lived for the past ten years, it’s usually 8 to 10 degrees cooler. Lily, Skipper’s daughter from his second marriage, invited him up to Minnesota where she and her husband had rented a little house in the lake district.

But his throat hurt too bad. And after the surgery, he talked funny. So Lily got out her old, dog-eared address books and began making calls. Wife #1 was remarried to a veterinarian living in Nevada and laughed at the idea. Wife #4 said she was sorry to hear the news, but that she and Skipper had been together less than 6 months and she just didn’t feel that much for him.

The answering machine at the apartment of Wife #3 said, ‘Leave a message and if I’m in the mood I just may call you back.’ Wife #2, her own mother, had been killed in a car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway three days into her honeymoon with the Xerox salesman she married after divorcing Skipper.

Lily was searching for a cheap plane ticket to Phoenix when the phone rang. “What’s this shit about Skipper?” said the voice with the deep Mississippi accent.

Skipper was lying on his unmade day bed watching Oprah and soothing his endlessly raw throat with cold Budweisers when he heard footsteps coming up the wooden steps to the little apartment he rented above the travel agency. A skinny woman with bleached blond hair and big hoop earrings stepped through the front door.

“Holy shit, look what the cat dragged in.”

“You talk funny, Skipper.”

“I got cancer of the throat.”

“I heard.” He looked at her curiously. “Lily called.” She fished in her pocketbook and pulled out a deck of cards. “You still play gin rummy?”

She sat down on the bed next to him. “Jesus, what a mess. Soon as we play a rubber I’m gonna clean this place up. And don’t think I’m gonna sleep with you.” She looked over her shoulder. There was a couch against the far wall. “I guess that’ll do.”

Skipper swung his legs onto the floor and sat up. “I heard they made you some kind of big time pit boss over in Vegas.”

“I took a leave of absence.”

“You can do that?”

“No ex-husband of mine is gonna die alone – even if he was a giant pain in the ass.”

Wife #3 held out the cards to be cut, but Skipper waved her off. She started to deal. “Supposedly, the doctor says you ain’t gonna last more than 6 weeks?”

Skipper shrugged. “What does he know.”

“Well, don’t go provin’ him wrong. A girl could go crazy in this shit hole.” She flipped over a card. “Okay, knock with 7 or less.”


At 6:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hokay, i just saw second best movie. Jeeze...i'm one of those. Jeeze...there's a whole population of us? OH shit...oh shit...losers...jeeze...i guess you even know what i'm feeling/thinking now, too. Un-freakin'-believable. This is more or less a test to see if i can post anonymously. I'm damned if i wanna be recognized. I have no career or anything to stand on, so i gotta hide mostly. TBC


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