Only that final chord don’t resolve nothing. Still, I ain’t working free-gratis, so I stumble down from the stage, just a plywood riser in The Lowbrow’s darkest corner, and straddle my stool at the bar. Try to settle into my J. D. and Lonestar, but good luck. Lousiest set I played in a good long while. Plus, there’s the why.
Floyd serves me another whiskey and longneck. Between Merle Swagger and T. J. Zott on the juke box, he puckers and asks, “Y’all hear sumpin?”
“Like wailing banshees,” says Dewayne.
“Like cats in heat,” says Floyd.
“Like dyin wildebeests,” says Dewayne.
“Put a sock in it,” says I. “I ain’t deaf.”
A glass shatters to the other side of The Lowbrow, followed by shouts and chairs thwacking against the painted concrete floor. I shake my head, knock back the Jack, and pour some ice-cold Lonestar down my gullet. Floyd and Dewayne got a point. Former up-and-coming roots country sensation such as myself shouldn’t tolerate no kinda interruptions. Opened for the likes of Jimmy Dough, Emmylou Hemmings, and Waylon Farris. Ain’t nothing to sneeze at. I lean into “Doin’ Some Pressure Cookin’” and finish my beer. Then I teeter to the door.
Bob Wire don’t take nothing from nobody.
Out on the sidewalk, beneath the dirty glow of the streetlights, a couple of gals can’t be more than twenty bang on twangy banjos, their old mangy mutt howling along, off-key. Bar-hoppers and idle passers-by slow their step, and a couple-few of them linger, pitching cash-money into an open banjo cases. Not just fistfuls of pennies neither.
Them gals don’t pause between one caterwauling number and the next long enough to tune their sour banjos or even express gratitude for the meager applause, so I just bide my time. Turn about’s fair play, like the feller says, only I’m bigger than that. I’m a professional. Seriously, I traded licks with the best of them: Townes Van Brownes, Larry Lyle Lovelace, Jillian Giles, just right off the top of my head. So I ain’t fixing to let a couple down-and-out gals who can’t carry a tune or remember their last shower get my goat. I take the high road.
Trouble is, I can feel Floyd and Dewayne staring at me through The Lowbrow’s plate-glass front window. I gotta get her done, I can guarn-damn-tee you that one. So even though they launch into another god-awful so-called song, banjo-banging, off-key singing, harmony dissident as any you ever heard, I take me a lungful and let her rip.
“I hate to tell you,” says I, “but that’s the absolute worst music I ever heard.”
Them gals don’t miss a beat. Or, put another way, they don’t miss any beats they wasn’t already missing. I catch a dirty look or two from the small but strangely enthusiastic crowd.
“Ain’t even music, truth be told,” I holler. “Just noise!”
“Shut up, old man,” they sing, improvising on the fly. “Face full of crags and a foot in the grave.”
Heehaws from the peanut gallery.
“Real funny,” says I. “But who’s a paid professional, who’s a spare-changin bum?”
But their cacophony flat drowns me out.
The following evening over to The Hard Luck Saloon, just half a block down 6th Street, I ain’t nearly so forgiving. No siree, Bob. You gotta have standards. It’s hard enough to make it in this business without every lunatic who knows the chords to “Texas Shuffle” trying to cut in on your bread-and-butter. You let them deadbeats get the upper hand, and it’s Katy bar the door. Next thing you know, it’s you out there on the sidewalk, singing for your supper. And that ain’t gonna be me. Not on your life, it ain’t! Who played with Kenny Lodgers and Donnie Millcreek and dadblame Billie Wilson?
So when my set break comes, I don’t do nothing more than wet my whistle, then I’m out the door. I push through a wall of springtime pollen over to the little park-type deal across the street. Listen to one of their bluegrass ditties, which ain’t half-bad. Folks mill about, tapping their feet or dancing a jig or clapping offbeat. Some drop bills into the mouth of a ratty guitar case, while others purchase the band’s demo from a self-service merch table they got set up over to the side. Way things sound, they got a long way to go, but you gotta start somewhere, right?
Soon’s they resolve on an F-sharp, I lay into them:
“Who in hell do y’all think y’all are?”
Ain’t nobody says nothing. But they trade glances—don’t think that’s lost on me. Buncha snide good-for-nothings. Dadblame banjo player stares at me like I left her at the altar. Little brunette with one of them severe hipster cuts, bangs too short, everything uneven like her barber was working by Braille. Looks familiar somehow.
“You got bona fide professionals tryin to earn a honest livin in yonder”—I motion to The Hard Luck—“and y’all are out here shriekin like demons at the gates of Hades.”
Their little innocent faces knot up. A run of pentatonic protest from the mandolin player like flipping me the bird.
Mean time, I shoo away the idle and curious, hollering, “They’re thievin food right outta my family’s mouth!” Though I ain’t got no wife or kids, and even if I did, they woulda done right to ditch me long ago.
Then the guitarist counts them in, and they bust into tight four-part harmony. Might sound sweet and melodious, if it wasn’t for them lyrics.
Past history’s past, just let it go!
Stiff with arthritis, you’re old and slow.
Career down the toilet, blew all your dough!
But the night’s still young, so on—
“With the show,” I growl. They’re just getting started, but that’s all she wrote, cause I go on a tear. Kick my Tony Llama through the upright bass, smash the mandolin with the fiddle or vice versa, bust that guitar to pieces against the curb. Them musicians wind up in a pile at my feet. Everybody but that banjo gal. She stares daggers and don’t let me get my mitts on her twangy instrument. Can’t say I blame her, point of fact. Still, I got my message out loud and clear, so I wipe my hands and swagger toward The Hard Luck.
“Y’all want some live music,” I holler over my shoulder, “cover’s ten bucks.”
Except that ain’t the end of nothing. I tell you what, it’s like they had a dadblame deadbeat convention, where they all agreed to make my life miserable as all get-out. No joke. Ain’t but two nights later, I’m onstage at The Lost Well, just a couple doors up from The Hard Luck, playing to a packed house. Thirsty Thursday! They all come out to see the infamous Bob Wire. Got the taste of J. D. on my tongue, but my mind’s clear as a bell, and I ain’t played like this long as I can remember. I’m on fire, friends, and that ain’t no lie. Peppering originals with covers, or maybe vice versa, couldn’t give a dang and what difference does it make, anyway? Them folks ponied up for cover. They stand or sit or lean, rapt and reeling. Even got a little blondie or two giving me the eye. Plus, they’re swilling whiskey like there ain’t no tomorrow, so you won’t hear no complaints from Floyd.
I’m right in the middle of a rousing rendition of “Wiltin’ Flowers,” when here come strains of “Irish Danny,” probably the worst song ever invented, leaking through the door. Next thing I know, everything comes out all wrong. I’m playing one song but singing the other, and the result’s a dadblame train wreck, I’m sorry to say. I oughta turn the whole thing into a big, fat Leprechaun joke, but that ain’t the way it goes. Not with them folks glaring at me like I took a steaming dump on their duvet. Whole place goes silent. Can’t even get no sympathy from Floyd or Dewayne. By the time I hear the clang of my guitar against the scuffed parquet, I’m out the door, swimming through the thick spring night.
“You done interrupted my show for the last time!” I holler.
Irish Fanny’s doe eyes saucer, but she don’t got time to prepare herself for the world of hurt I’m bringing. I rip that wheezing squeezebox outta her grubby mitts and wrap it around her throat. Put my foot through her kick drum, then stomp her fiddle and bust her banjo and smash her guitar into a million little pieces.
You’d think that’d do the trick, vent my anger and frustration and disappointment about the slide my career’s taken in the last, say, decade, penthouse to outhouse, but no dice.
“What is with you dadblame people?” I yell. “Like a comet tail of freeloaders!”
“You ain’t the boss of nobody!” she yells back.
“You come into my kitchen,” says I, “and I’m the boss of everybody!”
I can feel Bob Wire fans gazing through the front window of The Lost Well, but I can’t help myself. I shove Irish Fanny, a name I pulled outta thin air, into a flowerbed. She’s light as a bird, might even have them hollow bones, so it don’t hardly take no effort. She grunts but don’t say nothing. When she struggles to her feet, I raise my arm to swat her right back down into the azaleas. Before I can unleash, though, somebody grabs me by the shoulders.
“You done made your point,” says Floyd.
“Loud and clear,” says Dewayne.
I’m still full of piss and vinegar, but they drag me toward the front door.
“Now come on back inside,” says Floyd, “and do us some more of that musical magic.”
By now I keep having this nightmare. Don’t matter if I wake up, head-spinning, on a pull-out couch with another adoring Bob Wire fan or, cotton-mouthed, on my own cracked bathroom tile, it’s the exact same thing every single solitary time. One minute, I’m up onstage, playing to a gaggle of fans. The next, I’m strumming Bertha, my beat-up ole six-string, in the sweaty night to anybody that’ll listen, mosquitoes buzzing around my ears. I take a gander through the front window of The Lowbrow, know what I see? That banjo gal and her mangy old mutt on the plywood riser in the darkest corner, massacring another innocent song never did nothing to her. One number after another, the crowd applauds like it’s Flint Jones at Austin City Limits. Don’t make a licka sense. I set knuckles to plate-glass, but Floyd gives me the cold shoulder. Lonestar in hand, Dewayne just shrugs.
You’d think all them music wannabes would steer clear after word gets out, right? Only somebody, namely a scuzzy trio playing gypsy jazz outside The Down & Out, where I got my Friday night gig, can’t take a dadblame hint. This time I don’t wait for them to barge in on my professional music career. Soon’s I lay eyes on them, I give them the good news, bashing guitars and fiddle, kicking them in the pants with my Tony Llamas. One of them, little brunette reminds me of somebody, flips me the bird as she sprints off into the lonely night, hollering, “You’re a washed-up loser with more past than future!” But she’s just running off at the mouth, so it don’t get under my skin none. How could it? I’m Bob Wire, music legend.
Anyway, that seems to do the trick. From there on out, them dirtbags skedaddle soon’s they see me coming. Toothless Louis on harmonica and some students on screechy violins, bluesman on a shiny National and a Coltrane-wannabe on tenor sax, dreadlocked hippie on steel drum and a hipster on a piano in the back of an old Dodge van. When Bob Wire comes bearing down on them like a Brahma bull broke loose from his pen, they hit the high road, screaming and hollering, sheet music scattering in the humid breeze, guitar picks littering the asphalt.
Hot damn hallelujah!
All’s well that ends well, like the feller says. I play my tunes and absorb fans’ adulation, drink myself numb and wallow in a greasy pit of self-pity. That’s the way it goes in this business. When you’re up, you’re up, and you got friends galore. Every time you turn around, they’re paying your bar tab, buying you a brand-new Ford F-250 Lariat, and paying cash on the barrel head for your new ten-thousand acre ranch in the Hill Country. Trust me, I been there, almost, basking in the limelight, even if it was borrowed on the short-term from folks with equal or lesser musical talent, who nevertheless went on to bigger, better careers with greater name-recognition and longevity.
Cause guess what happened when things went sour and I hit the skids? Pool of friends dried up like a dadblame mirage in the Mojave. You bet, it did. Soon’s I needed a gig or a score or bail money at 3 in the a.m., all I got was “Can I take a message?” or “Who is this?” or “Don’t call here no more!” These days I ain’t even got friends in low places—nobody but Floyd and Dewayne. Sumbitches follow me around like dadblame groupies, I tell you what!
Still, at least there’s the music. That’s what it’s all about, right? Even if maybe I first picked up the guitar to pull some wool, I stuck with it all these years outta loving dedication. Don’t matter I gotta hitch a ride to every gig, or else take the dadblame bus. So what if I come home, when I even bother, to a cold, empty shack in some rich folks’ backyard? I ain’t even got a mangy mutt to snuggle me up, just my beat-up old six-string Bertha. She’s been with me from the beginning. Helped me write every one of my 300+ songs and played all my shows. She’s seen the ups, such as touring with George Black, George Haggard, and George Travis. And she’s seen the downs, too, such as getting booted from the Becca MacBryde tour bus, leading me to my present predicament, clinging to my musical career by the skin of my teeth. It’s a sacrifice and a burden and labor of love. That’s how much music means to me.
So I don’t hear peep for the better part of a week, week and a half. Then one night at The Bitter End down at the dirty end of 6th Street, as I’m up yonder onstage, that hipster gal barges in, just foaming at the mouth. And smack in the middle of one of the deepest songs the world’s ever known, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” penned by none other than song-writing legend Bob Wire. The audience, from tipsy to piss-drunk, sways along in time. A few even join in with me, singing,
The bottle’s now empty,
But my throat’s still dry.
When my ex-wife punched me,
She blackened my eye.
But a few friends are with me,
Though I can’t say just why.
And I’m so lonesome I could cry.
But that gal with the weed-whacker hairdo ain’t got no taste. She’s screaming and hollering and raising a fuss. Once her eyes adjust, she makes a beeline for the stage, knocking over everything in her path, chairs and tables and half-drunk patrons, too.
I’m what you call a consummate professional, been weaving my musical spells in front of a paying audience since I was seventeen, give or take, which makes me older than I’d rightly like to recall. Still, that means I don’t even flinch. Seen all kinda craziness in my day, mostly jealous stumblebums come for hot-blooded revenge. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what I got on my hands right now. But I don’t let it bother me none, just go right on a-pickin’ and a-singin’. That’s why they pay me the big bucks. Only this little filly’s got a fire lit under her backside. Plus, some lungs.
“My name’s Sue!” she hollers, and don’t nobody misunderstand her. “Howdy do? I’m gonna kill you!”
Audience laughs, cause what else they gonna do? They recognize a Jimmy Dough lyric when they hear one. But that gal don’t even give me a chance to smile or wink or blow her a dadblame kiss. Just grabs my ankles and yanks. Next thing I know, there’s a metallic clank and a feedback screech, and I’m flat on my back. Maybe she’s a petite number, but that gal’s stronger than she looks, dragging my bulk to the edge of the stage. That’s when them little fists start to flying. Gal smacks me everywhere at once, eyes, kidneys, mouth, gut, nose, private parts. Know what I do? I lay there and take it, is what. I ain’t fixing to hit no girl.
When I don’t keel over and die from her punches, she gives me a swift boot to the crotch, and I bray with pain that shoots from my private parts to my gut to the underside of my tongue. My teeth start to aching. Now she scampers up onstage and grabs my beautiful ole beat-up guitar by the neck. Ain’t nobody touches Bertha, only this little down-and-outer ain’t got the message. Audience gasps as she lifts it up above her head. Dewayne shouts, “Don’t do it!” Floyd yells, “Hands off that guitar!” Somebody hollers a despondent, “Noooo!” Could be me, point of fact.
Sue just grins, her eyes a-twinkle. Then she brings Bertha down against the lip of the stage. There’s a wooden thump, a hollow pop, a metallic jangle. Splinters fly. Folks groan. I tumble to the scuffed plank floor. Then the whole place goes stone-cold silent. But nature abhors a vacuum, like the feller says, and that gal fills it with laughter. No lie. She busts a gut right there in front of God and everybody.
“Like a hyena,” says Dewayne.
“Like a donkey,” says Floyd.
“Like a horse in heat,” says Dewayne.
“Will y’all give it a rest?” I say, hoisting myself up from the floor.
When she sees me back on my feet, the hipster gal’s grin dries up. Her eyes go shifty. Floyd blasts “Dueling Banjos” through the sound system. Now she makes a sprint for the door, but I lunge and tackle her in the middle of the room, busting a table all to pieces. While I got her down, I swat her across the face a few times—open palm, of course. Maybe she killed Bertha, but she’s still just a girl. Only I ain’t got the upper hand for long. She claws me across the cheek, then knees me in the already-sore privates. When I roll off, moaning, she goes for the door, but I grab her ankle, and she topples into a group of rough ’n’ ready Bob Wire fans, knocking down longnecks like bowling pins. They give her a stiff shove back my way. I get myself upright, then sprint at her and throw another tackle. Now it’s out the door we tumble, just a-kickin’ and a-scratchin’ in the blood and the mud and the beer.
I give it all I got, and that little gal does, too. And though The Bitter End clears, folks in every stage of inebriation encircling our two-person tussle, ain’t none of it lasts long. I ain’t got the wind for it, for one thing, so by the time I got her where I want her, pinned down with her arms wrenched behind her back, I’m plumb tuckered. The hipster gal’s still trying to kick and bite, but that ain’t news. Lucky thing she can’t get at me.
“Well?” I say. “Now what?”
“I’m gonna kill you!” she says. Only she don’t sound nearly so convincing the second time around, what with her face mashed into the chipped sidewalk and all.
“We could stay like this all night,” I say, “except these fine folks paid for music, not a knock-down drag-out brawl.”
“That what you call a brawl?” She snickers. “Anyway, last I checked, you’re short a guitar.”
I ain’t gonna lie, that smarts. Poor Bertha. I swallow hard and say, “Listen here, Sue. That your real name, by the by?”
“Maybe, maybe not. What’s it to you?”
Folks lean in closer. I clear my throat. “Y’all just head on back inside now. Me and this here gal’s gotta hash out some details.”
A few stragglers linger for longer than I might prefer, but eventually everybody moseys back inside for another round, cussing and discussing and watching through the window.
“Enough’s enough,” I say. “So lemme propose you a proposition.”
“I ain’t gotta listen to this.”
“Don’t ask me why, after what you pulled.” She struggles, but I got the weight advantage. “Maybe I feel sorry for you.”
“I don’t want nothin to do with you.”
“Here’s how it’s gonna work,” I say. “Either I get Floyd to call the cops—and don’t neither of us want that, right? Or you and me get ourselves up on that stage and play us some cotton-pickin music. It’s one way or the other. Your call.”
“Me and you?” she says.
“That’s right, darlin.”
Sounds like an easy sell, far’s I’m concerned, but that girl spits and gnashes and cusses a blue streak. But I ain’t worried none. What do I got to lose? One thing all them ups and downs have taught me is patience. So I shift my weight, wrench her shoulders a little harder, and bide my time.
“Fine,” she says, “I’ll do it.”
“Now would you get offa me!”
I relax the pressure a little. “I let you up, you ain’t gonna throw another hissy-fit, screamin and clawin and bitin?”
“Just get up, would ya? You weigh an effin ton!”
I ease away, on my guard, expecting her to go berserk soon’s she gets free. That, or make a run for it. But she’s calmed down a little and don’t try nothing drastic. We sit there in the warm night, watching drunks weave and stagger and puke in the gutter. Laughter ripples through the crowd. Twelve-bar blues drifts toward us on the light breeze.
“How we gonna play?” she asks.
“There ain’t but one way, Sue. Hell-bent for leather with all the love you can muster.”
“But you already busted up all my instruments.” She pushes a few stray hairs outta her face. “And some that was only mine on a borrowed basis.”
I feel my face flush. Hope she can’t see nothing in the strange jaundiced streetlight. “Sorry bout that. Folks say I run a little hot.”
“Yeah,” she says, scowling, “I mighta noticed.”
We sit there for a long while. Don’t nobody pay us no never mind. Then she says:
“Hey, I’m sorry I killed your guitar.”
I shake my head. “Poor old Bertha.”
Sue chews her lower lip.
“She had long life,” I say. “And it was a good one, too.”
“You ain’t gonna hold that against me?”
I suck in a deep breath, then extend my hand. “No hard feelings,” I say.
“You serious?” she says.
“Water under the bridge.”
After a long silence, she takes my hand, and we shake. “So now what? We gonna do some kinda a cappella thing?”
“Aqua what?” I say, swallowing a chuckle. “Naw, Floyd keeps a spare six-string below the bar.”
“Oh.” She looks genuinely surprised. “Really?”
“Well,” she says, “what should we sing?”
“Whatever you want, long’s it’s good.”
“I been at this a long time, darlin. Name your tune.”
Sue bites down a grin. “Then how bout sumpin by the infamous Bob Wire?”
I smile and struggle to my feet, then help her up. “Girl after my own heart,” I say. Now I clear my throat, take me a couple deep breaths, and sing, “But a few friends are with me, though I can’t say just why.”
She gazes at me, blank-faced and wide-eyed. For a minute there, I think I done made a serious blunder. Still, I seen all kinda unsympathetic audiences, some of them so mean and hateful they pegged me in the head with empties while insulting my crippled mother, so I ain’t about to be intimidated by no ugly-haircut, no-account hipster. But you know what? Turns out, I ain’t mistook in the least because Sue jumps right in there with some real sweet harmony:
“And I’m so lonesome,” we sing, and it don’t sound half-bad, “I could cry.”
Then we step inside The Bitter End, together.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.