Imagine Houston …
An excerpt from Reverb, the new novel by Joe Ely
(LSM Oct/Nov 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 5)
LoneStarMusic is proud to feature this thrilling teaser from Texas music legend (and LSM Hall of Famer) Joe Ely’s newly published debut novel, Reverb (LettersAt3amPress). Inspired by (but not limited to) key events and characters from Ely’s own life, the story follows the odyssey of a restless young West Texan named Earle who leaves Lubbock in the Summer of Love with nothing but a guitar, a Super Reverb amplifier, a journal and the clothes on his back. In this excerpt — taken from Chapter 3 — Earle has recently thumbed his way from Lubbock to Fort Worth, where he briefly reconnects with an old friend and fellow Lubbock refugee, Gene, and lands a gig playing with a local band called the Neurotic Sheep. Earle is just getting acclimated to the band’s residency at a notorious Cowtown dive called the Cellar when the Sheep are informed that their residency has been transferred to the Cellar’s newly-opened sister club in Houston.
[Editor’s note: In addition to omitting a brief section of the chapter checking in on secondary characters back in Lubbock, for space reasons we are running this excerpt with (mostly) standard formatting, rather than Ely’s stylized use of hanging indentation.]
* * *
Opening night at the Houston Cellar brought out the best and worst of Houston nightlife. The Banditos, a notoriously badass version of the Hell’s Angels whose headquarters were in hideouts around the ship channel, came out in force. Harleys circled Market Square as the bikers paraded with their mamasitas straddling the rear wheel, looking like goddesses of some long lost underworld surfacing on some strange new planet for the first time. As they rolled together in a rumbling pack, they personified the very image of rebellion and defiance, yet Earle saw in their eyes the glint of desperateness that an outsider always wears, and felt a strange, although distant, kinship with these roaming refugees.
Cool Daddy Winter, his snow-white pompadour frozen hard in an invisible shell of spray net, arrived in a white limousine with a gaggle of slinky blondes at his side. His pink albino eyes squinted when the press fired their flashbulbs at him as he entered the doors of the new dungeon, and he ducked behind the curtain that concealed the band from the world.
The Neurotic Sheep parked diagonally across the street from the front of the Cellar in a fire zone. The old Chevy they arrived in was covered in so much rust that it looked like parts from an old railroad bridge drug up from some gulf salvage yard. No one had told them about any press party. The band looked so beat up that the press thought they were the clean-up crew and stepped aside to let them inside, all the while scanning Market Square for the possibility of another VIP or band member who may be late and newsworthy.
The inside of the club was just the same as the Fort Worth club with double the size and half the imagination. In fact the same clichés adorned the walls, the same flat black paint job with the same black burlap covering on parts of the walls and ceiling. Even the stage was made the same, down to the automobile dimmer switches used for the lighting system. Maybe it was designed so that neither light nor the blues could ever escape. There was a group of musicians going down to see the hotel and Earle jumped at the chance to break from this brand spanking new dungeon.
As they were about to leave, a vague and dangerous-looking man walked out of the front office and gave them a discriminatory looking-over as if he were some military officer inspecting the new recruits.
You the Fort Worth boys?
Yep, that’s where we come from today.
Bad Bob. Welcome to your own private hell, where you’ll be livin’ and tryin’ to breathe seven nights a week.
I guess we should say thanks.
You better wait on that. You might change your mind. You know the rules — nobody can be late, ever; no dating the waitresses, ’specially Candy; no alcohol inside the club; and a one-month notice if you decide to escape.
Sounds like the Army, said Earle.
You might be wishin’ for the Marines after a few weeks here, fuckface. I used to break in little shits like you in Fort Bliss. Don’t ever fuck with me.
He turned back into the office and slammed the door.
They didn’t spare no expense on the welcomin’ committee.
You said he was no picnic, but I didn’t expect him to be a fuckin’ bucket ’a scorpions.
Best to take the long way around him.
The Milby Hotel had seen better days. It was obvious that the mural of the fabulous locomotive on the wall in the lobby had not always faded into a water stain, and that the painted plywood around the lobby windows used to be windows. But it was convenient, being only three blocks from the club. There was a cheap little diner next door.
Each musician made ten dollars a night and since the hotel charged forty dollars a week for rooms, it was instantly decided that the band would only rent two rooms and share them accordingly. Since Earle’s entire wardrobe was on his back, he needed very little in the way of accommodations. He only had to jump in the shower and splash some water in his face from time to time and he was ready for the night.
The Cellar was packed. The Banditos took up the entire floor section sitting on cushions and having their ladies sprawl across their laps. The bohemians gathered at the tables on the side of the stage and smoked roll-your-owns and stared expressionless. The college kids sat on the other side of the room and talked to each other, laughing carelessly between themselves as if no one else existed.
A local band, the Treeks, opened the night and then the Neurotic Sheep went on and stumbled through most of their early set. The American Blues made a grand entrance, bursting through the front door, spilling drinks and crawling over the audience to get to the stage. They had only played two songs when a particularly surly biker grabbed a waitress and began popping the elastic on her panties while grunting through his beard at his compadres. Rocky had been watching from the bandstand and suddenly threw down his instrument and leaped onto the unsuspecting customer. The bouncers were close behind. A chain reaction began, with skirmishes popping up around the floor. The band went into a drum solo that built in intensity like a runaway freight train that was a perfect soundtrack for the mayhem. Rocky returned to the stage, slightly bloody, to a rousing encore. By the end of their set, the Cellar had been christened in the style that it would repeat over and over and over again.
Earle and the band had just enough time to eat their first meal of the day before going back to the Cellar. Their next set started at eleven and the American Blues went on at midnight. The crowd was starting to come in from other clubs all tanked up and ready for trouble. Earle and the Sheep played their best set ever (in less than a week) closing with Midnight Hour, and looked at each other in surprise at the ovation they received. The Blues were feeling their oats on the back side of the clock as Cool Daddy Winter joined them for two songs.
By the third set the crowd had evolved into a drunker, sleazier bunch and the real underground of Houston was beginning to appear. The Banditos, who had left after the fight early in the night, were back — double in size and triple in defiance. The waitresses were visibly afraid to walk between them and the bouncers were beginning to wonder if they were current on their insurance policies. The musicians dug in as if to find the source of their inspiration and to use it as a shield against any outside force that might cause them harm or humiliation.
As the band began to play, the music seemed to come, not from the surface, but from a deeper realm where the players felt a bond between all those who have come before. Now here they sat in the present moment, circled around a stage in a dive in downtown Houston. The more tribal the music became, the more unified the crowd became, until at 3 a.m. there were no differences between the most sophisticated and the most heathen in the audience. Everyone was connected to everyone and by the time the American Blues hit the stage the bikers on the cushions and the beatniks at the tables were making out with their women, squirming here and there, flowing with the passion. Everyone stirred as if on cue at about 4 a.m., when the bedroom called and the mass exodus began. When the Sheep went on for the 5 a.m. set, the Cellar had become a graveyard and the band felt like they were playing to zombies as one by one the audience nodded and were escorted to the front door by the bouncers. The main exception was the rather large gathering of the meth-headed Banditos who were just staring to kick into gear. When closing time came at 6 a.m. they raced for their scooters and zipped away into the dawn, to the warehouses in the ship channel where the week-long day was just beginning.
So much had happened in Earle’s life in the last twenty-four hours that it was hard to remember what had happened. When he landed on the couch at the Milby he was out cold, dreaming of a place far away, of a green slope that rolled down to the sea, where the clouds floated by and all the world was as simple as that ….
The next afternoon Earle woke up at two and went out to explore his new neighborhood. Every bar around Market Square had their jukeboxes blasting away, churning up the brutal heat. In fact it felt as if the music itself was creating the 100-plus degrees that was turning the sidewalks into griddles. George Jones sang his blues out of a hillbilly bar while next door Lightnin’ Hopkins’ voice wailed his own tales of woe from a jukebox speaker aimed at the street. From the shoeshine parlor came Sam and Dave and from a pawnshop came the Rolling Stones singing Time Is On My Side. Earle wondered how it had all evolved to become such a diverse center of sadness.
No answer came to mind so he stopped in for coffee at a burger joint on the south side of the square. The sign said St. Paul’s Cafe but there was nothing to suggest that any church or charity was involved in the management of the rundown cafe. Earle sat on the ripped Naugahyde stool at the counter and found a piece of yesterday’s paper at the booth behind him. He noticed that the ashtray was so packed with cigarette butts that it had become a pyramid. Earle lit a smoke and slid a Carling Black Label ashtray from down the bar.
Earle heard the waitress come up to the counter but he kept reading the paper as he ordered coffee and toast.
Who’s Saint Paul?
Was my old man till he bled to death in my arms.
Earle looked up from the paper and was stunned at the face of the old waitress. Her skin was the texture of sunbaked leather and the creases and folds seemed as if it had taken nature thousands of years to create such a masterpiece. There was a strange beauty to the old woman, yet there was a sadness as deep as the cracks around her eyes. There was a kind of symmetry to each line that curled and twisted like eddies in the Rio Grande. Each ravine had its mirrored equivalent but not always in the same part of her face.
Oh, my God. I’m sorry.
He saved me from a mad robber. Would’a killed us both if Paul hadn’t ’a wrestled him down. Bullet went clean thorough the son-of- a-bitch, bounced off’a the hard top, went back through him and into Paul’s heart.
They ought’a make a saint out of him.
We already have.
She pointed to the sign above the ordering window that said ‘Saint Paul’s Kitchen.’ It had been stitched by hand, embroidered with crude roses and placed in a substitute frame that had previously bordered a beer sign.
And your name is?
Paulina, Santa Paulina. That’s what everybody’s called me since Paul’s gone.
Earle, here. I just moved into your town. Playin’ over at the Cellar every night.
People ain’t too pleased about the Cellar movin’ in.
That gangster who runs it has warned everybody in ten square blocks about what a bad ass he is. He don’t scare me none. Them kind’a fellers usually get what they deserve.
I just met him, and I don’t care if I ever see him again. ’Cept at paycheck time. I’m just a musician, and I don’t get involved in the business end of things much.
You ever hear of Lightnin’ Hopkins?
He’s the King, far as I’m concerned.
He plays sometimes over at the liquor store and sometimes at the bar next door.
I can’t even believe that.
He’s got family down here.
Maybe I’ll catch him one of these days. Damn, Lightnin’ Hopkins! Never really knew if he was real or not just because he’s too real. You know what I’m sayin’? Well, guess I better run. Nice meetin’ you, Pauline.
I make the best French toast in Houston.
I bet you do. I’ll see you mañana.
Earle walked back to the hotel expecting to take a shower, but when he walked into the room every square inch was occupied by the musicians and the waitresses and other employees from the club. The smoke was so thick you could hardly see the dreadful pictures on the wall. In only twenty-four hours their room had established itself as the official hangout spot of the Cellar. He walked down to the lobby and found a gigantic couch covered in ragged gold chenille and he sat at one end, imagining all the millionaires that had sat there in the Milby’s heyday. He found a piece of paper by the house phone and wrote:
The Comfortable Dead, The Happy Dead
Those who deny in public,
Deny that they are dead
Let the Dead Wake Up!
Let the Dead Watch Out!
Drowsy memory perforated!
Soon the dead will rise!
Let the Dead Wake Up!
Down the tracks of insomnia
Let the Dead Wake Up!
He heard the elevator door open and a wall of conversation spilled out, mixed with smoke, perfume and guitars. It took him a second to realize that these were the same thirty people who had just come from his room. He glanced at the clock and saw it was close to seven, time to go to the Cellar.
He walked with everyone, straggling behind, and was greeted by two women who had dropped to the back of the pack and introduced themselves.
Hi, I’m Pam and …
I’m Loretta and we …
Like the way you sing and …
We dance around the corner from …
The Cellar and we live …
On the same floor as you guys and …
Sometime, if you want …
Come by and visit Prince Albert …
They turned at the corner, giggling, and waved good-bye, bumping into each other and dropping this and that like a slapstick team improvising trying to walk in a rolling funhouse.
Randy dropped back and made a commentary.
It’s a wonder they can make it through a day.
What’s with them?
Stoned titty dancers from the Stag.
They could still see them two blocks away, weaving and laughing.
Good thing they don’t drive airplanes, Randy said.
Or run the government.
After a couple of seconds Earle recanted his last statement and they both decided that the government would, in fact, be better if these goofy girls were running the planet. They would most certainly not be involved in an obscure civil war in Southeast Asia.
They walked through the Cellar door and felt all patches of time peel away and remain outside as the blackness inside forbade any forward advancement. In fact, the evening progressed very much the same as the night before and Earle was amazed to see a pattern emerge in such a short time. It seemed there was nothing any more fulfilling about this night than the night before, much to his dismay. He had hoped that it was only himself that was disturbed by this impression, but everyone he talked to seem to have some feeling that there was something not right about this place. Of course they would then dismiss their testimony with a shrug and a nervous laugh and change the subject to something a little lighter.
Earle began to cherish the time between sets, walking the streets, getting to know the characters around Market Square. He listened to countless stories about how each person happened to land in this stewpot of a city.
He walked to the liquor store that Paulina had mentioned and went in and engaged the man behind the counter.
Y’all carry Southern Comfort?
Half-pint, pint, or fifth? You of age?
Just seeing if y’all carried it or not. I’m new in town. Heard Lightnin’ Hopkins shows up now and then.
You never know what Lightnin’s gonna do. He’s like Texas weather, only more so. It might be rainin’, might be cloudy. Might be blowin’ like all get out. Free as the four winds but less predictable.
Maybe I’ll get lucky.
Mondays, ’round dark. He sometime git thirsty on Mondays.
Yeah, Little Bell, here.
Pleased to meet ya.
He walked back to the Cellar and slipped into the darkness. Nothing had changed. He played the next set noticing that the band stumbled at the same places each time. Each set was like a live rehearsal only they could not go back and fix what needed fixing. The magic from the night before was missing. It seemed that they were just going through the motions. He missed his Lubbock band.
When the set was over he strolled around the square and walked over to Main where he watched the buses load and unload. The city wound down as the oil company skyscrapers flicked whole floors of lights on and off. As the last of the workers trudged out, the night crawlers arrived, one by one, to see what they could scavenge from the scene. They had an air about them that was cautious like mice, yet sinister like scorpions. Con men, dealers and pimps snaked around the dark streets, sitting low in their cars waiting to make a play.
Earle realized that since he had ventured away from West Texas and out into the world, everything around him seemed to happen in a speeded up time frame, and as a result he had ignored his daily habit of recording his thoughts. He sat on a concrete windowsill that was lit by several pulsing advertising lights. He read backwards through the pages of his journal and it felt like he was reading someone else’s life, not his own. He did not feel even remotely the same person as the one from a week ago. It made his heart hurt to read his references to Patricia, as he allowed himself to reminisce about her for a beat or two from his empty chest. God, how he had loved her.
He saw himself as a fly in a huge, maniacal cowtown. He thought about his home far away and the events that led him to this unreal city and he decided he needed to jot down a couple of lines that had been rolling around in his head before going back to the Flat Black Inferno.
The Tornado berserk!
The Living, The Dying
Trudging on to Work …
O Volcano, Frost and Freeze
Wild fire of mad disease
Tidal Wave of the weary
Let the Dead Wake Up!
And the Dying!
And the Dying!
And the Dying!
During the next five hours the Sheep played twice more and Earle escaped to the streets after each round. By the end of the night he had met most of the Market Square regulars. They were all curious about the Cellar management and they all wanted to know if it was really as bad as its reputation. Earle said that he didn’t know much about it but that he figured it was worse than they had heard.
The Cellar emptied out after the four o’clock set and everyone filed out joking about going home to the ‘Chateau Debris’. Charlie invited everyone over to the band’s room for a party. As they entered the lobby Earle saw Pam and Loretta, the two strippers from the beginning of the night, still giggling and bouncing into each other. They saw Earle and asked if he wanted to come up to their room. It seemed like a sensible alternative to his only other option.
They had obviously been living in the hotel for some time. Their room, although huge, was jam-packed with stage clothes, hangers, props, trinkets and other things that had no name. Pam, the redheaded one, told Earle to make himself comfortable on the couch while they changed.
When they returned arm in arm they were dressed in East Indian outfits and giggling hysterically. Loretta, the larger of the two, asked the room to be quiet as she had an important announcement to make. Earle, since he was the only other person in the room, did not say a word.
Earle stood up.
The Prince has arrived.
She pulled a tin from her feather boa purse, and both girls mock-ceremoniously walked the can over to the coffee table. It looked to Earle like the thin kind of Prince Albert tobacco can that had a hinged top and would fit in your hind pocket. The two girls took a pipe out of an elaborate wooden box and asked Earle if he would like to do the honors. Since he did not know what they were talking about, he shook his head and mumbled that he was the guest and he reckoned that the hostesses were supposed to initiate all honors. Pam suddenly blurted.
Your accent is so cute.
It’s luscious and delicious.
After slurring her similar words, Loretta laughed herself into a ball on the floor.
Is that word inside a word?
It’s a wordy, wordy, wordy world.
The two girls howled with laughter and several minutes went by before they were able to contain themselves. Earle had never seen any two creatures quite so absurd in all his life.
When Pam was able to crawl to the coffee table, she pulled some green crushed leaves from the can and put them into the pipe and handed it to Earle. Earle smoked it just like his uncle Willis used to smoke his pipe.
No, don’t let it escape. It has to bloom in your body.
Pam took a long draw from the pipe and held the smoke inside her lungs for a long time until a thought flew by and caused her to laugh. Earle followed her directions but found that, except for being a little dizzy from holding his breath, he felt nothing unusual. He even told the girls that very few things had ever had an effect on him.
They passed the pipe around again and he noticed that the room had become so quiet that his thoughts were beginning to turn inward, away from the circumstances of the situation. He closed his eyes, partly out of exhaustion and partly to concentrate on what was inside his head. He heard a rustling in the room and opened his eyes to a nude Loretta who looked like she was ten feet tall bending to soft music that seemed to be spraying out of the walls. Pam then stood and dropped the sari from around her shoulders which twirled her glitter-covered pasties as it fell in a heap around the sparkles on her chrome high heels. She began to caress Loretta in a slow swish of her hand that left trails of light behind each movement, embedded into Loretta’s skin.
When he turned his head, he noticed that the candles left streams of light that stayed in his vision where he stopped his eyes. The shapes would turn into smoky spirits that seemed to dance in midair against the rolling blue and purple shadows that made up the dark space of the room. As their colors turned to blue and green, their shapes elongated and divided, giving themselves legs and arms that bent and twisted like some kind of taffy that became infinitely thinner as it stretched into the dark corners. He could hear the dancers’ skin as they rubbed against each other across the room, but the streams that were in his vision had commanded his attention. A groan faded into a train whistle which faded into the rattling of the fan which gave the impression that each sound was being played, on cue, in time to the dancing spirits that were now passing through the wall. The glass doorknob on the closet door seemed to beckon him and he was unable to do anything except to obey.
When he looked closely inside the glass he could see what looked like a contorted Shakespeare play. Ladies in tall pointy lace hats were watching television on a balcony above a huge ballroom filled with dancing shapes. Rubber Great Danes sat stretching their necks at the moon in huge spirals as if they were singing it a silent song. The ladies were fanning themselves with fans that spewed off dozens of the ghostly spirit phantoms that Earle had just seen dancing around the room. They dove in and around the waves of whirling blue velvet that had, only seconds before, been a hall full of dancing people. Golden falcons flew out of the windows of the palace and into the driveway where bishops sat on white Harley Davidsons in white robes and tall hats, revving their engines in time and in tune with the unseen orchestra that seemed to be playing just behind a wall of juniper trees at the end of the driveway. In the distance, large bonfires were burning on the tops of each of the many hills that surrounded the palace. At least it used to be a palace. Now it looked more like a huge gazebo surrounded by flagpoles hundreds of feet tall with ridiculously tiny flags attached to the top of each.
Earle watched this amazing event for what seemed like hours, only to be distracted by the smell of candle smoke from a candle by the couch that the girls had blown out before going to bed. Earle crawled over on the couch and closed his eyes to watch green and blue fluorescent road graders pave a road that seemed to be a perfect mirrored surface across the flatlands and into a crimson sunset next to a gazebo surrounded by flagpoles ….
* * *
Earle woke up with the afternoon sun slicing straight through the middle of his head. He was not sure if this was still his dream or if it was something left over from last night. He raised up and looked around the room. The glass doorknob caught his attention and he fell back into the scene he had witnessed inside its shell. He laid back down and closed his eyes, slipping back into recent events that now seemed mellow and unthreatening. In fact he slept for another three hours, waking when the giggling girls came out of their bedroom and asked if he’d ever been to Sugarland. When he asked where Sugarland was, they, of course, died laughing for at least another fifteen minutes.
Earle groaned at the thought that it was almost time for the first set at the Cellar. He decided to go to Saint Paul’s and see if they were still making breakfast at 5 p.m. He tiptoed out the front door, hoping the girls wouldn’t hear him leave.
There was an old black Cadillac in front of the cafe when Earle arrived. It had a mysterious, hand-made air about it and, when he saw Paulina, he asked her about the car.
It’s a friend of Lightnin’s. They were here a couple of hours ago. Saw ’em gettin’ Lightnin’s guitar out of the trunk. Might be over at Little Bell’s. You want a menu?
How could I eat knowin’ Lightnin’ might be wailin’ around the corner? Why don’t you shut this joint down and come over?
Cain’t. Paul would be reproaching me all the way there and back. Ain’t nobody else to run the place ’cept Willow. And she cain’t run a toaster, much less a register.
Earle skipped down to Little Bell’s and, sure enough, he could hear the refrains of Lightnin’s guitar from a block away. A few people were milling around out front; some listening, some smoking, and some tapping their feet and singing along. Earle was surprised there weren’t more people around and most of the ones that were there were from the neighborhood. He made his way into the bar next to the liquor store and there was Lightnin’, his gold tooth shining in the beer-sign light, sittin’ on an old cane chair wailing away with a half-pint of gin on the floor by his chair. He was in the middle of a revved-up rendition of Mojo Hand, grinning from ear to ear like he had finally made it home after a long hard journey. There was something familiar, almost grandfather-like about Lightnin’, as if his soul had merged with his music and been passed on through a tweed amplifier for the world to share. He played song after song and in-between talked and laughed with his friends in the bar. Little Bell came in the side door with a chocolate birthday cake with a sparkler implanted in the top. It appeared that Lightnin’ had ordered the cake for his friend, Napoleon, the bartender. After they mumbled assorted versions of Happy Birthday, Lightnin’ dedicated a song to Napoleon and as he played the floor began to shake. Earle could have spent the rest of his life in this spot had he not glanced at the clock to see that he was to be on stage in ten minutes.
He ran two blocks to the Cellar and saw Bad Bob eyeing him as he panted in the door.
Cuttin’ it purty thin, ain’t ya?
Just don’t fuck up. The Cellar ain’t forgivin’.
That seems to be the consensus.
The Sheep played an all right set that ended a few minutes early when Charlie busted a bass string. Earle hit the door and made tracks for Little Bell’s. The bar had returned to its pre-Lightnin,’ sleepy self. The light was still on the amplifier that Lightnin’ had played through and an empty half-pint bottle stood at the side of the chair. Napoleon was wiping the bar in a slow circular motion as Earle asked when Lightnin’ might return.
If I knew that, I might be one rich fool. He pop in like the Jack ’n a Box and he pop out the same way. He done gone ’bout ’da time the woid get aroun’.
Name’s Earle. I caught a little of Lightnin’ earlier before I had to run and play my set over at the Cellar.
Nice to make your acquaintance but I wouldn’t brag about my place of employment if I were you.
Somethin’ strange all right. I can feel it here, blocks away.
Bob ain’t got much of a name ’roun’ here.
We crossed swords the day we met. He don’t seem to care much for the very ones that pay his bills. It sure as hell ain’t his playin’ that brings in the door. Funny guy. Well, Napoleon, guess I better grab a little breakfast ’fore my nex’ set.
Breakfast at eight in the night? You keepin’ my hours now ….
Earle sat in a booth by the window at Saint Paul’s drinking coffee and watching black clouds bury the sun. Within minutes the rain came, turning to steam as it hit the broiling Houston asphalt. The windows fogged up and puddles of rain formed under the holes in the roof. Paulina was doing double duty, cooking and serving; Willow had to leave early to pick up her husband at the refinery. The radio was blaring that a half-million soldiers were now fighting in Southeast Asia and the war was escalating. President Johnson was saying that if America doesn’t stop the Communist aggressors in North Viet Nam they will be soon be trying to take over our neighborhoods. The station played Eve of Destruction and the chorus played differently to Earle now; everything that he had taken for granted, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was now being challenged by a war 10,000 miles away.
You look like you’re lost ’cross the ocean.
You ain’t far off. I’m gettin’ more and more worried that I might get called for the draft.
You shouldn’t fret, you should pray. Pray you get called up. It’d be an honor to serve your country.
That’s just it. I’m in a dilemma ’bout this whole deal. I’ve tried praying and the answer I get is the one that everybody says is the wrong one.
We had to stop the Germans from taking over the world.
I don’t see that this is anything the same.
Well, you just follow your heart and everything else will follow along.
My heart tells me to run.
That’s just what you’re doing. And it’s what I better do ’fore I git swamped in the kitchen. If that Willow does this to me one more time ….
California Dreaming came on the radio and set a series of wheels off inside Earle’s head that spun like the pointer on a compass. He remembered the times he traveled on the Santa Fe Chief with his parents, across the desert, to the palms of sunny Southern California. He remembered seeing the barracks in San Diego where his daddy had been stationed in World War II, and he remembered the ride up the coast on the Sunset Limited past great cliffs that dropped off into a wild, frothing sea. He remembered the lady who sat behind him and told his fortune by reading the bumps on his head. He remembered the fog that slithered around Alcatraz as he wondered what imprisoned killers ate for breakfast.
The other night in Fort Worth, Gene had mentioned something about knowing some people on the beach in L.A. and that he might go out there soon to see if he could find them. Earle thought that maybe it was in his fortune to see the beautiful West Coast again. On the other hand, maybe it was time for his next set in the pitch-black hellhole down the road ….
The days and nights crawled by and very little changed. The routine that had been established upon arriving at the Cellar soon became a deep rut. The insanity of having to be around that place for eleven hours a night was starting to take its toll on everybody. Not to mention the tension that was building at the hotel. The management had reprimanded Rocky and Dusty and Frank for turning their towels blue when they dyed their hair. In return the musicians were beginning to take out their own frustrations on the hotel’s outer appearance. Several of the landscape paintings in the halls had been manipulated to include such things as flying saucers landing in the distant hills while long-tongued dogs fornicated in the foreground.
If it weren’t for his friends around the square, Earle might have lost all hope. He began inviting them to drop by the club for the honor of having them as his guest. During the course of one evening he invited Bo Peep and Too Slim from the shoeshine parlor and Julio and Hector from the pawn shop. He stopped by Little Bell’s the next evening on his way to the Cellar and saw Napoleon polishing the bar.
You’re liable to rub a hole in it and then what would you do?
Have to shut this joint down and go fishin’ I suppose.
Might be too hot, the locks might melt.
Or the fish be hangin’ on to a root down on the cool bottom.
Earle looked through the glass to the liquor store.
I don’t see Little Bell.
His gal friend swooped him up and they done flew to Red Bird City.
I gotta go there someday. Hey, listen, I’d like to invite you guys over some night as my guests.
That’s mighty kind of you, but the word on the street ain’t too favorable towards that place.
I’m out to make it better. The place is a little too wrapped up in itself, that’s all.
Thursday’s our only night loose.
Good, that’s the new moon. Tell Little Bell or I will if I see him first.
Why, thank you Mr. Earle, I’ll let him know. I’d like to see the inside of somewhere other than this bar.
Bad Bob’s girlfriend, Candy, showed up that evening from Fort Worth and there was a general red alert around the club that night. No musician was to even glance at Candy, or Bob would have them vaporized by his pack of hoodlums. There was only one problem. Candy was nuts about musicians and ran around the club in a red miniskirt begging for their attention. Earle crossed from one side to the other several times to avoid this new threat to his well being and slipped in the far backstage dressing room while she was on the other side of the club. He was sitting on the couch, looking down, tuning his guitar when he heard the volume level rise in the room. When he looked up, his heart skipped a beat when he saw Candy slither into the room like a coral snake. There was no way out of the room so he stood up and faced the corner and started humming Saint James Infirmary. He could hear her slide across the room toward him. He stopped playing and began making his plea as if he were on trial.
I really really think you better leave this room.
She came back in a low seductive voice that struck fear in Earle’s heart.
What if I don’t want to. Are you going to make me do something I don’t want to do?
I’m just asking — no, begging.
A nice boy like you shouldn’t have to beg.
I didn’t know you knew my name. Say it again.
Earle turned around to find a creature more drenched in sex than any girl he’d ever seen before. Her pale flesh was bursting out of her clothes and she writhed before she spoke.
Say my name again.
Earle tried to say her name but the sound choked in his throat. The volume level rose suddenly in the room again, and Earle thought it was a reaction inside his own body until he saw the silhouette at the doorway. Bad Bob glared into the room.
Candy, I need to see you out here.
He stared a hole into Earle as Candy swiveled to leave the room.
And you ….
He slammed the door so hard that the sound in the room imploded and collapsed into a vacuum between Earle’s ears. He fell in a heap on the couch and wondered how he was going to finish out the night. Larry came in and told him it was time to go on. Earle asked for a slug of the half-pint that he had stashed in the wall. He took two giant swigs and then tottered, rubber-legged, to the stage.
He felt dizzy and disconnected as he walked to his amp. The weight of his guitar had doubled since the last set. The red and green lights burned his eyes, and when the band hit the first note he could feel the kick drum slugging him in the back of his neck. He opened his mouth to sing and the sound that came out was nothing like his normal voice; it was guttural like the sounds animals make when they are cornered and about to die. As he was singing he was also making a huge conscious effort to not look at Candy. But in every direction he turned she was there. It was as if she had premonitions of which way Earle’s head would be facing on each particular verse. She moved around the room and stood in whatever light happened to be there.
Bob was at the office door watching Candy priss around the room while watching Earle’s every move. The two bouncers at his side were following the direction of their boss’s head. They even shuffled their feet and moved their toothpicks at the same time.
From Earle’s viewpoint they resembled a three-headed viper trailing a grasshopper around a dry creek bed. He needed to escape this grave situation but had no idea how to get around the hazards at the front door. After the set, Earle told the band what he was up against and how he was truly at odds over what to do about it. Larry ran out and came back in with the news that Rocky and Dusty had offered their dressing room as a refuge. It was the room with the safe in it and it had both a deadbolt and a padlock on the inside of the room. Earle thanked them for their kindness and locked the door behind them as they went out for their set. For the rest of the night he jumped back and forth from stage to backstage and by the end of the night he was a wreck. He asked Rocky if he would bring his amp and guitar back to him so to avoid Candy and Bad Bob. Rocky not only brought his gear but offered him a ride back to the hotel with him and his girlfriend, Misty. They left out the service entrance around back and attracted no attention.
At the Milby, it took all of Earle’s strength to wrestle his amp upstairs. Rocky’s girlfriend said she would lock his guitar up in her car and he could get it in the morning. He had a key to Pam and Loretta’s room and fell out on the couch without even removing his boots.
In the morning he went down to the lobby for a cup of coffee and noticed some commotion outside on the street. He saw through the window a couple of Houston police cars with their lights blinking. Misty, who had given him a ride last night, was crying on the curb and a policeman was trying to comfort her. Rocky was pacing up and down the sidewalk ranting and raving. Earle walked out to investigate and immediately noticed the pile of broken glass by the side of the car.
He told himself that this could not be happening. Someone could not have taken his guitar. It was impossible. Not his guitar. Not his staff, the main tool of his holy trinity of tools. No, he decided, the police were there for some other reason; there was a shooting and the perpetrator, perhaps, missed. Maybe a gargoyle fell off the hotel roof. Each made-up explanation fell short upon his logic, although Earle refused to accept that which was obvious.
Rocky turned to find Earle staring at the scene in shock. He ran over to tell Earle what was going on.
Some son-of-a-bitchin’ junkie-assed bastard broke in Misty’s car and got your guitar, Misty’s suitcase, and my fuckin’ pistol. What in the hell is this fuckin’ world comin’ to?
Earle felt sick at his stomach and thought about the good Reverend who had given him a ride to Dallas and who had told him to use his tools to make the world a better place. That was less than a month ago and he had now lost two-thirds of his tools and, in his eyes anyway, the world seemed to be a considerably worse place. Anyway, he told Rocky not to worry, but after he said it he wondered why he had said something so mundane at a time like this.
Worry, hell, I just hope the asshole shoots off his own little pecker with my .38.
After the cops had gotten a description of the guitar from Earle, he walked down to the square stunned and bewildered. Every building looked hollow with rows of dead, sunken eyes. The storekeepers seemed to physically avoid him as he walked by. This was it. It was time to move on. He walked, slightly relieved at his decision, down to Saint Paul’s for coffee.
Paulina was reading the Bible when he sat down at the counter. She got up and brought him a cup of coffee before he had a chance to say anything.
Somebody shoot your horse? You want to tell me about it?
Thieves stole my guitar last night. I’ve pretty much had it. That was the instrument I used to speak through. I washed dishes for two years to pay for that guitar. I feel like my soul’s been stolen.
No one can steal your soul but the devil. You lost something dear, but it can be replaced.
There’s something about that place that’s rubbin’ off on me. I gotta do something before it gets too late.
That’s your best call yet. You know Little Bell and Napoleon went by there last night to see you and that thug at the door pointed to a tiny sign way up by the roof that said: Cover Charge $99.
Earle jumped up in a near panic.
That son-of-a-bitch. That son-of-a-bitch! That lowdown …. I’ve got to tell them —
I think they knew all along.
Earle thanked Paulina and ran out onto the square. He felt like he might never see her again and a wave of sadness ran over him. He walked with his head down, watching the sidewalk cracks, wondering what to say to his friends that he had invited the night before.
When he walked into the liquor store Little Bell glanced up and quickly glanced away. Earle went to the counter.
Paulina told me y’all came by last night. I had no idea that those guys were that low down. I’ve had it with them. I quit today. Right now. Right this minute.
You mean to say you didn’t know about that place before now? You ain’t got ears?
I had a bad feelin’ when I first walked in the door. I thought it was just me, though. Most of the musicians are happy just to have work and a roof over their heads.
Us black folks been havin’ situations like this for a long time. Maybe you seeing something for the first time.
There was a long silence between them as a police siren wailed thru the city streets.
Is Napoleon around?
After we got turned away, he started drinkin’ heavy. Reminded him too much of his upbringin’. He ain’t showed up to open the bar yet, neither. He don’t handle hangovers too well at his age.
Tell him I’m sorry about what happened last night and that I’ll come by when I figure out what I’m gonna do. Thieves stole my guitar last night. Broke out a car window in front ofthe hotel. Reckon I’ll have to start all over. Well, guess I better run.
Earle turned to leave.
Me and Napoleon ain’t blamin’ you.
Earle looked straight into Little Bell’s sincere eyes.
I know you ain’t.
It was painful to walk away but Earle was glad that he had heard compassion in Little Bell’s voice. Not that it made anything on the outside any better but it did make the understanding better.
Earle went by to see Bo Peep and Too Slim but there was a sign on the door that said ‘Gone off — Be back.’ He walked on down to the pawn shop and saw Hector by the back curtain but when he asked the cashier inside, he told Earle that neither Hector nor Julio was there and that he was not expecting them today and probably not tomorrow either. Earle could see the rage in the young cashier’s eyes and could see that a considerable amount of damage had been done. He asked him to relay the message to Hector and Julio that he was sorry for not realizing any sooner that the people he worked for were bigots and racists but that he did now and that he had quit the Cellar and was leaving the city soon.
He walked back to the Milby to try and catch the band but there was not a soul in either of their rooms, though smoke still hung thick in the air. He went over to the window and opened it as far as it would open and sat on the ledge and looked out over the cruel city. An approaching storm blocked the sunset and the neon signs came on as the rain lashed out and splashed into the glazed streets like molten lava. The whole city steamed and hissed like a wildcat defending something sick and unborn. The city’s incessant bass pulse came from somewhere deep and secret and the two sounds were pulling at one another as if some gargantuan force was being twisted inside. It sounded as if the city itself was seeking a breaking point in order to rid each part from itself. He scribbled in his book.
Flood Light Blind Eye
The Power Within!
Mad dogs follow
Where Fools rush in
Let the Dead Wake Up!
Oh Plastic Clock
The Timex cries
Alarm the World
Warn the Dead to rise!
Dead in Spirit, Dead in Nerve
Dead in Mind, no King to serve
Dead in Spark, Dead in Gut
Dead in part, Dead clear-cut
Lift your eyes, O Shaft of Light
Abandon Ye O Guillotine
Let the Dead Wake Up!
And the Dying!
And the Dying!
And the Dying!
Some insane impulse made Earle decide to walk to the Cellar and confront Bob Crump. He had to tell him what was on his mind and ask for the money that was owed him. When he walked in the door he was whisked into the office by the bouncers at the front door. Bob sat in a well- worn office chair and raised his brow and froze his eyes on Earle when he came in the room. Earle could hear the Sheep playing on-stage and he waited for Bob to blink. Finally Bob shifted back in his chair and crossed his arms.
Maybe you don’t recall our lateness policy. You’ve damned near missed the first set.
I ain’t late. I’m quittin’ this hole. Ain’t my idea of a good time. That ninety-nine dollar cover charge bullshit didn’t set well with my amigos.
We don’t like niggers and meskins in here and don’t care whose friends they are. And maybe you don’t recall our quitting policy. Nobody quits the Cellar.
Bob reached into the top desk drawer and pulled out a .45 automatic and aimed it at Earle. He then grinned the evil grin he always used when he intimidated someone. Earle felt his ribcage suddenly rise through his throat and lodge in the roof of his mouth. The bass notes hammered through the wall and matched the pounding of his heart, beat for beat. The door opened suddenly on his left and when Bob’s eyes darted toward it, Earle dove for the bottom of the opening. The bouncers were in the process of throwing someone out as Earle flew past them and sailed out the front door and across the intersection with cars’ brakes screeching all around him. His vision blurred at the edges of his eyes and his head felt like a spark-gun blowing fueled sparks from every cavity into the thick humid air. He could feel his lungs beating him in the back as the liquid light rippled beneath him on the wet, glassy sidewalks. As he rounded the corner his shirt caught on a piece of torn chain-link fence, causing him to fall and to skid across the asphalt. He stayed there, not moving, feeling that the pain of the fall was like a resurrection. He no longer heard footsteps behind him. He could feel a new dawn on the other side of the pain. He closed his eyes for a second and thought about the sweet girls back in Lubbock asleep in cotton quilts in rooms with little paintings hung on the walls of furry kittens hopelessly tangled in balls of twine.
He could hear Lightnin snappin’ his strings way back in the back of his head. He kissed the smooth sidewalk and when he lifted his head he could smell the bus to Fort Worth idling nearby.