A Picture of Me
They’re on their way to the Hilltop Bar and Grill, LaDonne tucked against Hank’s side and her head resting on his outspread arm. Wind sails through the car from the front windows to the wide-open rear windshield he smashed out the night before with a rusty golf club. Always in the aftermath, this unexpected tenderness and calm. The whole weight of her presses hot up against him. A smell of patchouli perfume emanates from the open neck of her favorite camisole, making him picture the dust-shouldered bottle of it on the wicker shelving unit he hung by the toilet in their bathroom some time ago, and then the hole in the hollow core bathroom door too, the wood splintered and shattered in a straight line where the toe of his boot went through. That was months ago now. Still he hasn’t replaced or repaired it. Hasn’t fixed the sheetrock in the kitchen where he almost blasted through it with an elbow either, or painted over the water stains in the ceiling over the bed. He draws a breath and pushes these thoughts away thinking, Tonight, tonight. The heel of his left hand rides at the top of the steering wheel, fingers twitching to the beat of a song he has in mind—special for her. From the old catalogue. George Jones. He hasn’t sung it in years but he thinks he can mostly remember the words. He has a way with that, one verse always calling to mind the next and the next for him—a perfectly unfolding pattern of rhythm, pitch and logic in his brain, like the whole thing’s etched there from the beginning of time. He’ll find the dead center of the pitch in the warmest part of his throat and build all his feeling around it to the point of breaking, but just to the point and not past it, and then he’ll look meaningfully out there at LaDonne in her seat at the table in back with her gin and tonic on a cocktail napkin, and the band product arrayed in front of her for sale, and he’ll hope like hell there isn’t anything to wind him up and get him going again, any little provocation or jealousy or reminder of the last few days’ struggles. This one’s for you Babe, he’ll say, and count the band in. Hank, man that was great, they’ll all say after. Larry, Gary, Bob. Geoff? He can’t remember if the fiddle player is on the gig or not. Can’t remember who he called, the last weeks have been such a blur. Got any more like that? You’re like a walking encyclopedia of songs, man! We should put that one in rotation on the setlist for sure! Nobody covers George Jones better than you! And through it all, singing, he’ll be watching her out there beyond the dancers, the little flashes of her through men in T-shirts and plaid snap shirts and jeans, men with their shoulders stiff and backs arched, making him think of scuttling crabs or scorpions, the light whisk-whisk of their feet on the dance floor so slick and cocky and prissy, the women tucking in and out against them, swirling, reeling out and back again . . . LaDonne there sphynx-like at the table and the sound of her laugh reaching him through the crowd, over the band.
“Gonna be a good one tonight,” he says. “I feel it.” Again the song asserts itself in his mind, the swoop into the first notes and the way the bass notes slide down—glissando, that’s the word the bass player used for it once—the light cymbal ride to christen the feeling and really draw you down, to let you know this one will break your heart. This one right here. “A Picture of Me, Without You.” For you, Babe. For LaDonne, he’ll say.
“Any requests?” he asks.
He feels her draw a breath, the back of her neck stiffening, head pushing less comfortably into him, calculating a reply. “Nah, you know me. I’m not picky. Pretty much anything, Hon.” And then, seconds later, “Well, you could do one of them Cajun numbers or Charlie Daniels, if you got the fiddle player. That’s always fun. But you don’t have to. Whatever you like, Hon.”
“Whatever I like.” The pressure of her against him lifts and settles again differently. Still his arm is flung out over the seat back, fingers losing some feeling. “Don’t gotta tell you what I like,” he says. He scoots forward slightly, steering with his knee a second as he catches at the adjustment lever under the seat with his fingertips and pushes back to make room for her, glancing once to see that she’s taken his meaning—forearm braced over her back and then across the back of her head as he draws her down. He waits for the feel of her fingers on him, her mouth, and keeps a foot steady on the gas, hand riding at the top of the steering wheel and still tapping out the rhythm of that song with his fingertips, some of the notes coming closer in his throat now. If you’ve seen a red rose unkissed by the dew . . . walked in a garden where nothing was growin or stood by a river when nothing was flowin . . . “Oh Babe,” he says. “Goddam. So good.” He keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, waiting for the big bloom of feeling to almost obliterate sight—the front end of the car caroming along, those sleek straight lines to the cross like a bullseye in the hood ornament way there at the end. Lincoln Continental. Once upon a time, he imagined it’d be enough, a car like this, on his way to a show, a woman like LaDonne beside him. Enough forever. Now he’s gone and bashed out the rear windshield like his own worst enemy. Trees arch over the road, leaf edges silvered in light and beyond that the lush green and gold pastureland of July in full bloom.
One thing he hasn’t counted on or has somehow forgotten about since the last time: Bob the bass player’s niece in her gauzy white skirt and cowgirl boots, the overhead stage lights and dance floor lights refracting on her thighs so the skin looks wet or dipped in silver. How this girl can be any relation to Bob with his dopey mustache and matching black eyebrows, his ponytail and muscle T-shirts and misplaced surfer talk, is one part of a mystery which also includes the fact that the girl is supposedly fifteen but has the breasts and mouth of a twenty-something and will spend the night twirling and cavorting with men three and four times her age while Bob watches from the stage. He remembers the first time meeting Bob and hearing him talk, a year or more ago, waiting to see if he could detect any movement of his lips back there behind the mustache and wondering if the density of hair would interfere with the sound, and if so, how—if Bob had a mouth at all. And as the voice emerged, realizing that of course he’d already heard him on the phone, and that the reedy, nasal quality of his speech had made him think of someone like Archie Bunker but without the bluster, a picture he’d then had to put out of mind, meeting him, because the doleful slab of mouthless face he’d been presented with so didn’t match it. Fucking Bob. Who the fuck was Bob? And what had he said about this niece? His sister’s kid. Sister hit a real rough patch. He and Marsha are looking after the girl for the summer, maybe longer. Good kid. Paula. Mind if she comes to the gig? Help with load-in and loud-out. Maybe get her a burger on the house later. Won’t cause any trouble. So long as I’m with her, acting guardian, it’s all legal right?
Already, same as last time, Hank senses the preordained effect of her on everyone in the band and on the dance floor—everyone but Bob, that is. Their eyes always following her with a distracted vacancy, distracted lunacy, waiting, watching the flounce of her skirt and her bare skin and hoping it might flip a little higher, show a little more. The stork-like lightning rod quality of those legs and the happy childish clomp of her cowgirl boots approaching the stage now, pausing to dip forward and whip her hair in a circle and grab it up with both hands behind her neck before slipping a pink elastic around it. “Uncle Bob,” she says. “Can I have a root beer?” Bob fingering notes on his bass, tuning and warming up, leaning against his amp and tapping one of his long bare toes in his Birkenstocks, nods silently and then stops.
“Hey, wait! Have some fries, too, OK? Something with a little nutritional value?” he says in that strained voice.
And then the disconcerting moment as Paula spins again, this time facing Hank, looking straight at him, her face top-framed in the rooster-plume of glittery blond hair, so that suddenly he sees the outline of Bob’s face inside hers—the same big nose, steep forehead and doleful eyes. The mystery within the mystery of her solved for a second, some of it anyway, leaving him queasy and confused and smitten, wondering, Is Bob really that handsome and I never knew it? Or is it just the fucking skirt? The legs? That’s it? What the fuck is wrong with me. If I was girl would I want to fuck Bob?
“Sure thing,” she says.
He scratches his mic with a forefinger and raises a hand over his eyes to see past the stage lights, watching after her as she clomp-skips and fades back across the dance floor, surrounded in a ring of light there at the center of the floor under the disco ball, arms out at her sides like she’s flying and gone again.
“Check hey, check hey, one! Two!” he says into the mic. Scratches the mesh of its windscreen again, listening. “Check hey. Hey everybody. So here we are at Billy’s Hilltop Bar and Grill on a Saturday night. Another Saturday night,” he sings. “Check hey, check hey, and if we can eventually get this microphone turned on . . .”
LaDonne’s got her flashlight on the back of the PA and is inserting a cable, changing the input on another and another. “Ain’t there yet, Hank. Hang on! Gotta figure out which channel . . .” She holds a hand up at him like a traffic cop. There’s a click and a hum before she flips the grounding switch. “OK, try now?” She looks up at him from stage right and for a second she’s so pretty in that Slavic milkmaid way, like he used to think when they first got together, a few years ago now—distant and preoccupied with her thoughts, mysterious—he can almost forget all their trouble.
“Check one. Hey!” he says again, scratching the mic, waiting for the rumble of sound. “Hey, hey, hey,” he says. Nothing.
He swings the guitar around from shoulder to belly, dragging his thumb over the strings to hear if it’s in tune. Doesn’t matter, since it won’t be plugged in or on mic, never is, but he likes having his pitches right all the same—a way of preserving order. A way of keeping some kind of control at his fingertips, singing, some foundation outside his voice if he wants or needs it. But you might as well ask one of us for a pitch, Larry the pedal steel player has said more than a few times. Honest to god. Thing’s just a prop, right? I say lose it. Well, yes and no, he meant to say, but didn’t. And he knows it’s nothing to hide behind or to conceal his weight either—the opposite in fact, since it looks pretty much like a toy or a ukulele in his hands. Whatever. It’s my daddy’s guitar. And I know it’s seen better days but the fact is people associate it with me. And anyway I just don’t feel right with nothing in my hands. So I’m not a guitar man. I’m a singer. So what. Twenty years I been fronting this band. I figure I got a right. None of which he’d said either, but felt he’d mainly conveyed by his expression, before the words he actually said which were, “Fuck you, Larry. I’ll play it if I want to.” He settles his pinky and ring finger in the grooves worn like ripples through the grain on the face beside the painted four-leaf clover decals, and picks out a few buzzing notes with this thumb and forefinger. Strums a G chord.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he says again.
“Check that the mic’s on, Hon?” she says.
Whap, whap, whap, goes the kick drum behind him. WHAP! The sound of a tuning key dropped on a drum skin with a rattle of snare mesh. WHAP! A snare shot so harsh it almost makes him jump.
Well, of course. He slides the on-off switch on the underside of the mic toward him, remembering for a second the light pressure of her thumb on him, and now finally here’s his voice, bigger than life blooming from the backs of the speaker cabinets. “Hey, hey. There we are.”
He gestures at the drummer. “A little quiet for a second please,” he says, and continues with his instructions for LaDonne. “Better, that’s better. Hey one! A little more ‘verb? Better.” He keeps his eyes on hers as she continues turning dials, bringing his voice into focus like he likes, warm around the edges, deep but with a brassy edge, nodding and counting into the mic. “Hey one. Hey two. Better, better,” he says. “Cut some of them highs.” Again he strums a chord and starts in singing. And all the while, just under the sound of his voice—the butter and plaintive rasp of it, the buzz through his sinuses making his eyes burn—here comes the clatter-clomp of cowgirl boots and somewhere in his peripheral vision the white dress floating by, the plume of blond hair. Beside him he hears Bob going on to Gary, the guitar player again with the same questions he always asks about this time during setup, regarding the bridge section of the Willie Nelson song they’ve been covering lately and the walking bass line they can’t seem to agree on. Shut the fuck up, he thinks. He waves a hand at them for silence, singing without realizing he’s singing anymore, all the feeling sucked out of it. “Kaw-Liga was a wooden Indian, standin' by the door. He fell in love with an Indian maid, over in the antique store. Kaw-Liga, oh, just stood there, and never let it show. So she could never answer yes or no . . . no no no no nooooo . . .”
“Hey! Hey! Yeah!” His voice booms and rings. “Perfect, Hon. Just like always.”
The girl’s got a foot up on the seat of a chair and her knee going back and forth like a wiper making the skirt billow and catch against her, talking to an older ponytailed man in a Harley headscarf with his thumbs in the pockets of his leather vest. She laughs and sucks soda through her straw.
“Right on the money,” Hank says. He looks past her at LaDonne, and knows he’s been caught. From the blink and the black stare, her eyelids seeming to square together like shutters. She’s seen. Why, Hank? Always looking at girls. She’s a child. Ain’t I enough for you? Ever? The tremor in the neckline of her camisole, the eyes brimming, it makes him so angry and full of feeling for her and trapped by those feelings at the same time he’s convinced for a second he could just reach straight through it all and make things good between them again. Except, of course he can’t. Paula dips forward shaking out her hair, the back of her neck showing like a stem you could pluck or pull. Well, he thinks, Ain’t fair, but if I looked like that I’d be showing off all the damn time too I guess, so . . . though for now, his one wish in the world is that she would just go away. Disappear or be caused somehow not to exist or to have never existed in the first place.
He pushes the guitar back on his shoulder like a knapsack and heads off stage left. “Gotta wet the whistle,” he says, stepping over pedals and cables. “Show time in fifteen,” he says and hops down from the stage. “LaDonne, Hon, you want a drink?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. Heads straight for the bar already knowing what he’ll get her. Double gin and tonic, no lime. And two for himself for while he’s singing. Drink enough it’ll all go away.
His favorite times, growing up, were those afternoons when the sky lowered, thick with gray-black clouds, and the air went dead still, a green-gold pall like the underside of a leaf reflected in it everywhere. A feeling of ominous oppression with the humidity, like your head might explode. Eventually, from the radio warnings or the cry of the siren downtown, the sustained note that went up and up and didn’t go down again for seconds and then for seconds longer, they’d know. “Quick,” their mother would say, herding them around the side yard to the basement hatchway, all her usual exhaustion and irritation with them replaced by this urgency to get to safety. “Come on, come on! Good boy, Hank. That’s good,” she said, as he helped her to yank the chain through the handles of the hatchway and then to lift and pull open the doors like wings. “That’s a good girl, Ginny. So helpful,” if his sister showed up in the back door with an armload of candles and safety matches in a box. Len would be inside cracking windows on the top floor to keep glass from exploding if the pressure differential got so bad that windows burst. “Hurry Len!” she’d yell. And down they’d all go into the cool, gasoline-smelling and cobweb festooned grit of the basement, the hatch covering still propped open so they could see up and out to the gray-black sky threaded with lightning—so they could watch those clouds swirling and scudding along, and then the rain suddenly switching on, bringing gusts of cooler air with it, snapping branches, hail pounding like nails and rattling against the sides of the house, bouncing in over the dirt floor at them, nuggets and pebbles of ice straight from the sky, straight from the pressure they’d felt building in the air around them for days.
These were the best times—right on the brink of calamity, cool and safe, out of the way under the house, hoping it might all just be blown to smithereens. And then the buzzing static of the battery powered radio as their mother scanned for channels, songs and jingles and weather updates punching through, advertisements—“It’s Daddy, it’s Daddy!” they’d say together whenever his car dealership got the sponsored mention, though it wasn’t him, just the name of the man whose signature embossed his checks. Hank would keep smoothing a hand on the dirt floor, smoothing and patting it, waiting for a song to come on that he might sing with. Patsy, Loretta, Buck, Hank, George Jones, Ray Price . . .something good to match his voice with and pour all the feeling he could into it, so his mother might look at him in the way he liked, her head tilting back and the candle light flashing on her glasses if the electricity had gone out, moving her head with the beat. Songs he didn’t even know that he knew until he heard them. “Listen to you,” she’d say, wiping at the moisture under her eyes, or, “You best be careful singing that way, Hank, you’ll have so many girlfriends you won’t know what to do. Don’t want but more than one girlfriend. You’ll have a whole lifetime of misery otherwise! Ask your uncle Bo,” and finally, “Come on now, that’s enough of that. Let’s go up and see what’s what.”
In the end, except once, no funnel cloud. Heavy rain and wind. Sudden sunlight steaming in the grass and ice shards prismatic as popcorn glass in black soil. Their mother’s lettuce patch beaten to leafy confetti. A bedraggled, wet dog over-grateful to be found and let back inside. “Thank God,” she’d say, taking stock, and they’d say it back, Yes, thank God. “We get to live another day. Thank the Lord.”
He’s had enough gin and little enough to eat that as he watches the spots of light from the disco ball and the movement of the dancers through it, the shadows thrown around them with the moving lights like ripples through the dance floor, he begins getting a closed in sensation, like he’s in that basement again, looking up and out at the world through the tunnel of the hatchway. A feeling of lowering darkness. He can’t shake it, or that is, he can shake it but only moments at a time by leaning toward the edge of the stage and keeping his lips right on the mic, feeling the warming, chilling touch of his own saliva caught in the windscreen against his lips, but then in no time the lowering effect catches up again and he can almost smell mildew and gasoline. Drawn by the plate of her French fries and sauces left at the table closest to the stage, the girl keeps dancing by every few minutes to dip a fry in ranch or honey-mustard. She makes a show of eating—licking and wiping fingers on her dress, dancing away. And each time, seeing her, he goes partially deaf. Hears only the hollowness in his own voice echoing around the room and can’t remove his eyes from her—the shine of sweat on her cheeks and darkening her hair. Not my problem, he thinks when he realizes that customers must be buying her drinks and/or giving her sips . . . the sloppiness in all her antics coming and going. No worse trouble than a drunken teenager.
The band sounds as good as ever, he guesses. The drummer keeps his usual bored time with the sticks and brushes, occasional jags and syncopations, cymbal crashes to keep himself amused, Bob in lock step with him most of the time, stone faced as ever. Larry and Gary weave their notes and chords around each other and around his vocal lines, occasionally moving in on a mic to sing backup. Their version of “Folsom Prison” feels especially good and relaxed, he thinks. In the pocket. Like it’s meant to sound. “Guitars, Cadillacs,” less so, dragging and limping through the stops and transitions, Bob hitting wrong notes every time around. Hank’s voice caroms above it all, through the rippled shadows and swirls of light, so that despite the gin and the general mediocrity of the band he still feels it—the force and power to control the room and bring everyone to wherever he wants.
He becomes aware of Paula’s absence over the last several songs only when he sees her again dancing with the pony-tailed Harley headscarf man from earlier in the evening, the cuffs of his shirt rolled into wads a few inches above his elbows to display the tattoos and ropy muscles of his forearms. He scoots Paula artfully under one arm and another, the tips of his fingers catching hers and drawing her back, twisting her out again and dipping her, then catching her around the waist so they rock and scuttle like merry-go-round ponies to the far side of the dance floor, talking and laughing the whole time. “Got them highway 40 blues,” Hank sings. Yeah man, yeah buddy, Larry says next to him, his mouth open in a little ring. The bar of his steel floats and dips over the strings. Hank angles the mic stand like he’s dancing with it, leans into it and catches sight of LaDonne also out there dancing, moving in her stately way, two-stepping a guy they met recently, he can’t remember which show, where—bald, older guy, striped overalls, like Mr. Clean with an eye-patch. Nobody to worry about. Tim. Electrician, he thinks. Can’t remember now. Something in the trades. Definitely Tim. No. Jim? A nice enough guy, and a sad story they’d heard in detail over drinks after the show. Wife dead from cancer, kid killed in Kuwait.
When they come to the instrumental section, on a whim Hank throws his guitar over his shoulder and jumps down off the stage to cut in with LaDonne. “Mind?” he yells over the volume. And for a few sweaty seconds, her damp waist solid under his arm and that camisole emitting all its familiar fragrances, the easy pace of her dance-step and the sound of all the other dancers engulfing him, he feels like maybe everything will be OK. They smile and make mock kissy faces at each other and he keeps his eyes from hers—from the swelling around them and around her cheeks. The puffiness from crying so many days. Waves at the band to keep it going—“Extended solos!” he yells up at the stage—and takes her around again, bobbing his hip against hers, his feet slipping in and out drunkenly, guitar headstock bumping the back of his leg, ending up at stage-right just in time for her to catch Tim and for Hank to spin his way onto the stage, leaning into the mic and singing again.
But something’s gone off while he was dancing, or in the transition from dancing to singing. Bob the bass player is at the edge of the stage and shouting over the clatter of the drums and the general band volume—“Get the fuck over here now!”—still keeping the bass pulse moving, and gesturing with his head. “NOW!” Hank follows to where Bob’s attention is focused and again he feels the bloom of darkness lowering on him, moving in from the sides. Paula and the pony-tailed man and another two guys are squared off against each other at the far side of the dance floor, shouting back and forth. All Hank can make out is “fuck you,” and “no fuck you . . .” and “who the fuck are you . . .” though it’s easy enough to understand that whatever’s going on, Paula is its epicenter—directly or indirectly, cause or fuse or solvent of their stupid need to outdo one another, and in a few seconds now Bob may have to jump off stage to help. Hit people over the head with his bass. Drag her to safety. For now she’s cornered behind the pony-tailed guy, her hands covering her cheeks and a look on her face Hank can only think of as shocked and aghast, like in a horror movie—one that for the first time all evening makes him feel exactly how young she is. A kid after all. Nothing more. Barely out of grade school.
He winds a hand in the drummer’s direction to call it a wrap, and as they bring the song shuffling down before the close of the final verse and chorus section, the whole confrontation seems to suddenly fizzle. The two guys who’d been harassing the man Paula was dancing with turn and stalk off toward the bar like their heels and ankles have been fused, arms still bent at the elbows. They slide onto stools and tip forward on their elbows with their backs to the dance floor. How drunk? He can’t tell. Still the tension is palpable through the room. Every one of the men here probably knows one or the other side in this confrontation, and even if they don’t, all of them are drawn to it, waiting to see what’s next—who’ll make a first move. If they’ll all get to start swinging. Bob squats at the side of the stage talking to Paula and pointing at the table with her cold fries. “Right there,” he says. “And that’s enough lip for now. You sit and don’t fucking move.” The buzzing reediness of his voice gives his words an extra force.
She flings herself into a chair, legs wound tightly over and under, dress fanned around her. “So I had a cigarette,” she says. “That’s all. So shoot me. Like you and Auntie Marsha aren’t the biggest potheads in the world . . .”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Bob cuts in. “I told you. It’s enough already. Any more trouble like that? I want you to go straight back into the kitchen and don’t leave. Got it?”
It’s wrong, he knows, but in his head now is the sassy, rascally slide of Charlie Daniels’s voice, his tell-it-like-it-is fuck you, anthem to Southern rock and country, and the swing beat groove that always makes everyone jump and go crazy. Better if he were to sing the George Jones song now. “A Picture of Me, Without You.” Perfect, really. Make them all slow down and remember how quick you can lose everything. How necessary it is to pay attention, and how sad if you don’t. “One from the master,” he’d say. “A little belt buckle polisher for you. So grab your sweetie or your favorite dance partner.” But in the back of his head, he still hears it, and he knows he won’t resist: Old Grinder’s Switch is running right on time. If he can just get the rest of the first verse at the tip of his tongue he’ll be set. Tucker boys are cooking down in Caroline. That’s it. The scold in the way Charlie sings that word, too, Tucker, like he’s saying, “Just try and stop us, we’ll kill you. This party’s sanctioned.” Ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd down in Jacksonville. Yeah. The arrangement . . . everyone knows the arrangement. The solid drum hit—BAM—and then the fiddle part, high to low. More bass and drum hits together. And now he’s got the chorus good to go too. Gather round chillin and be proud. Be loud here and be proud . . . cause the South’s gonna do it again and again and again . . . When’s the last time they played this one? He can’t remember. Doesn’t matter. Piece of cake. There’s no fiddle tonight, but Larry can adapt—play the fiddle parts on his pedal steel. Who cares?
The drummer sips his tonic water and mops his forehead with a towel, blinking at Hank, awaiting instructions. Larry smirks. Bob stomps pedals on the floor to bring his tuner on-line and hits the same note over and over to tune, same open string, making the arc of its vibrations wobble blurrily. “What’s it gonna be boss?” Gary asks, and from the tone of it, Hank knows they’ve been talking. On the break or while he was getting more drinks. Smack-talking, asking questions, whatever shit they find to say about him and his shitty guitar, his inability to use the Nashville number system or read a chart, his refusal to know anything about keys and time signatures. Capo three man, I don’t know what the hell you call it! With him and music it’s always been pure instinct.
Well, fuck that. He’ll take his instinct over their play-by-numbers crap any day.
“A little CDB, boys,” he says. “Key of A. Let’s light the place up.”
He turns and leans into the mic. Breathes into it just to hear himself, to feel his breath come and go, cool and warm in the wind screen. “Anybody alive out there? Anybody READY to let LOOSE a little? Go a little craaaaazy?” He breathes in and out again, hears a couple of yips and an all right and a fuck you man! “This one’s for LaDonne, cause she asked for it. By special request. For you, Babe.” He shields his eyes to see through the stage lights, but she’s not at her table. Not in the shadows at the far side of the room or at the bar beside Tim. Restroom? He pictures her in there fluffing the hair around her forehead and checking her eye makeup, poking fingers at her eyes and turning away with a last hopeful glance. “You know we been through a lot,” he continues, “and we’re gonna get through a whole lot more. So now hang onto your hats caaaauauauause . . .” here he lifts his hand, drawing circles in the air beside his head, dragging the word out, ready to signal the band, “The South’s a-Gonna Do it Again. And a one, two, three, four . . .” As he brings his hand down, right on cue, there’s the bass drum and floor-tom hit—BAM. Larry replying with the solo fiddle part, swirling up and down on the steel, followed by a cascade of drum kicks and bass hits and the rest of the fiddle part on steel. Full band groove, swing shuffle beat. Rockin. He leans at the mic moving his hips with it, grabbing chords on the guitar as they go by, lips right on the microphone ready to start singing as soon as the instrumental intro finishes. Old Grinder’s switch is running right on time . . .
But already, it’s too late. The tension in the room has shot from full tilt to meltdown and everyone’s fighting. Men pushing back from their seats, one with a chair raised over his head and bringing it down on another guy, on his back and head with a sickening sound, then turning to hit someone else, busted glass on the floor, a short guy with a gash on his forehead swinging wildly like a cartoon character at one of the two men who had Paula cornered just minutes ago, the pony-tailed guy with the headscarf fending off three men at once, a knife in one hand, stabbing and kicking, grabbing at chair legs as they swing toward him, kicking again . . .
“Well fuck me,” Hank says. He doesn’t know exactly when the music stopped, but it’s done now. Only the hum and crackle of amps and the faint sizzle through cymbals as he stomps across the stage after the rest of the band, his guitar raised like a shield if he needs it. He’s used it that way in the past. In a prior life when he would have waded right out there with them, teeth bared and waiting for the sting of their blows, their little fists, daring them to knock him down and throwing all his weight at them, stepping on people, elbows out, jabbing and stabbing with the neck of the guitar, head butting people, hollering. Not tonight.
He heads through the service entry into the cool, wet night, drunk still and waiting for the dark to close in around him for good. If he can just get to his car and collapse there a while. Maybe sleep. LaDonne will know where to find him. Rain misting down. Thunder? Thunder. Well, he thinks, isn’t that perfect. Until he remembers the busted rear windshield. The cardboard and plastic sheeting he meant to tape and staple in there today and never did, because . . . well, too many reasons. The popcorn glass scattered across the rear seat sparkling like hailstones in the streetlight, and the upholstery eaten through with mold and cigarette burns, covered in food wrappers and empty cans, crumpled chip bags and food containers, and now rain. Fuck it. The last thing in the world he wants is to be anywhere near that goddam car.
What had made him so mad in the first place? He can’t even remember. Money. Sex. Being sick to death of each other. All that’s clear anymore is the feeling that drove him from the house and down the shuddering plank steps outside and across the back yard, grabbing up the old golf club from the grass and swinging it around his head, looking for anything to hit. Anything that would break because there had to be some balance between what was inside him and what was outside, some thing outside himself to savage in a way that would be equal with all he was feeling. More than singing, more than yelling, more than fucking or punching, he had to connect somehow outside himself. Tree? No. Garage window? He went wheeling and twisting around the yard hitting the ground, the bushes, anything at all, and finally there it was, the rear windshield of the Lincoln and LaDonne up there framed in the front door now with her shirt torn halfway off and her face streaked with tears, hair spun out, no pants at all, legs as fat as tree trunks, hands around her head, saying, “Oh Jesus God, Hank. Don’t. No. Don’t do it. Really. Just don’t. Please!” And then the pleasure through his shoulder blades, the club’s shredded grip in his hands and the crack as the metal hit glass, all of his muscles contracting and releasing with it, and contracting again as he raised it to hit over and over, saying, “God damn it all to hell. Straight to hell.” No better feeling.
He finds her under the awning by the kitchen entrance—the girl Paula with a wad of bloody toilet paper in her hand and blood still showing pink and rust, stained in the skin around her nose and mouth and bubbling in fresh rivulets from one side till she wipes it away. Sniffs it back. Blood smeared across the back of one pale, bony wrist. Drips and splatters sprayed across the front of her dress and in some of the lower pleats. At first she looks frightened of him, looming up out of the shadows at her, until she identifies him and seems to decide it’s all right. The floppy leather hat. The guitar on a rope strap slung over his shoulder. Nothing to fear.
“I’m bleeding!” she says. Her face scrunches hideously. “My nose! I don’t even know how! I was trying to get outside . . .”
“What the? Where’s Bob?”
For an answer she cries harder.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” He steps right up to her. “Give it,” he says, and takes the toilet paper from her hand. “Now I want you to lean over and blow once, just as hard as you can. Get it all out. Don’t care if you get it on me. Don’t matter. Just blow.” She tilts from him, almost laughing through the tears. Covers one nostril and blows meekly. “Harder!” he says. “Really blow. And again! And the other side,” until a stream of half-clotted snot and blood spatters the side of the building, and then he moves up fast with the toilet paper. “Head back just slightly and relax,” he says. “Not so far back. Don’t move.” He closes his grip on her nose, pinching hard and staring right into her eyes. “Lean into it.” She smells faintly of strawberries and booze, and he has the impression she’s quivering or vibrating there at the end of his hand—almost as if she’d fly away otherwise. Her eyes shutter and scrunch. “Don’t!” he says. “Don’t cry. It’s gonna hurt cause I have to squeeze that hard or the blood won’t stop. Won’t clot. Just don’t cry, OK? That’s the worst thing you could do right now is cry. For Christ’s sake. Cry all you want later.” The eyes open directly into his, green with gold flecks and the pulsating black tunnels of her pupils leading him in, soaking him down until he feels pulled right out of himself. A softening of every nerve and instinct that starts somewhere near his solar plexus and eases from there to his heels and up the back of his neck. “OK?” he repeats, squeezing a little more. She nods. Makes a sound like, “Yep.” Flutters her eyes open and shut. Again he’s sucked in, smelling strawberries and baby powder, an acid tinge of something like fear or puke. “Just give it a few minutes,” he says. In his head are the opening lyrics to that George Jones song—Imagine a world where there’s no music playing. He could sing for her, he thinks. That’d be nice. Nice way to pass the time. But nothing more comes—no breath or melody, only those words and now the sound of the rain whisking down and blown through the trees. Rain in the gutter beside them. In the brook behind the bar running over rocks. The world going on as it always does. Had he noticed any of this before? Sirens in the distance too now, coming closer. Of course. Because soon enough the whole lot will be filled with swirling cop lights and cop cars parked at angles to block the exit, drunken, bloody guys in handcuffs, silent on their knees like they’re awaiting a sacrament. Meanwhile, here they are—he and Paula and the sound of the brook running. The rain coming a little harder now and the rumble of thunder. The reflection of him doubled in her eyes. He’d like to stay this way forever if he could. Never let go, never face whatever’s next. “Almost there now,” he says. She touches a hand to his wrist, her fingers light and cool. “Thank you,” she says. “Hey,” he says. “It’s the least I could do. Just give it another minute. You’re golden.”
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