Vacation Stories: Folksinger’s Blues
This story was the last thing I wrote for about four months in 2007 during my sabbatical from writing. It is featured in my short story collection The Carnival Papers and is one of my personal favorites.
The story is about a folksinger named Josh, who is loosely based on folksinger Josh Joplin of the Josh Joplin Group and Among the Oak and Ash as well as a solo album. Josh and his ragtag band have been touring the country in their van for years now, getting nowhere in the process. After a gig near Dallas, the band runs into a spot of trouble and forced to make some hard decisions.
I really like this story. I think it has a lot of “voice.” The main flaw is that I really don’t know anything about folksinging so I did the best I could. If you’ve enjoyed these stories, just remember there’s a whole lot more like it in The Carnival Papers.
After eighteen years of touring the United States, I’ve developed a sixth sense about how a gig will go the instant I see our destination. The Black Hat Saloon, with its buzzing red neon sign in the shape of a cowboy hat and gravel parking lot inhabited by an equal mix of motorcycles, pick-up trucks, and big rigs, will be a disaster. We’ll be lucky to escape without a police escort.
“This is the place?” Cathy says next to me. She’s been with me for the last eight years, long enough to develop a sixth sense of her own.
“Maybe it’s not so bad on the inside,” I say, trying to sound optimistic while I think back to that scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake, Elwood, and The Band are accosted with beer bottles at a similar redneck bar.
I cut the van’s engine, waiting until it stops clunking and shuddering to turn around. “We’re here,” I shout back to my bandmates. “I’ll go in to check it out.”
On the old mattress in the back, salvaged from alongside Interstate 40 in New Mexico, Clint and Darren stir like a pair of children at the end of a cross-country vacation. The side door opens with a banshee screech in Clint’s hand. His reaction mirrors Cathy’s, only with more profanity. “Shit, this fucking dump is it?” he says.
“Come on, we’ve been to worse places,” Cathy says, trying on that bright smile of hers to defuse the time bomb that is Clint’s temper. “Remember that place in Seattle with the leaky roof?”
“I should have brought a bathing suit for that one,” Clint says. “But just so you know, I can’t play the theme to Rawhide.” Between us, Clint and I must have watched The Blues Brothers twelve hundred times.
“What are you guys talking about?” Darren asks. He’s the baby of our outfit, a newly-minted college dropout we found in Athens, Georgia. In a rare moment of Providence, our last bass player quit after a food-poisoning scare in Raleigh-Durham.
“We were just discussing how bass players have such strong hands because they’re always jerking off,” Clint says, still breaking in the new guy.
“Hey, I’m not the one who picked up that midget transvestite in New Orleans,” Darren says, scoring a direct hit when Clint’s face turns ketchup-red.
“I thought it was a lost kid—”
As much as I would love to hear the rest of this exchange, I still have to go in and make sure the owner knows we’re supposed to be here. I leave Cathy in charge of our two grown children and cross the gravel parking lot to a front door that’s one solid piece of metal. It could survive a nuclear holocaust, leaving a hive of scum and villainy intact to repopulate the world. Opening this bomb shelter door requires me to use both hands and to grunt like a female tennis player.
If I walked into the place naked I couldn’t be more conspicuous. My Elvis Costello-style glasses and paisley button-down shirt mark me as an outsider among the crowd of black leather and cowboy hats. Still, I make sure to keep my distance from the dark expanse of the bar with its cluster of neon advertisements for Budweiser and Miller Lite. The various bikers, cowboys, and truckers are either too uninterested or too drunk to hassle me. I slink past dusty cabinets for pool cues that have gone missing, to a door marked ‘Varmints’ in gold text like you’d see on an old wanted poster. I have no idea if this indicates the men’s room or women’s room, but the only women I see are waitresses in a rainbow variety of tube tops.
The stage is about twenty feet from the bathroom—convenient if we have another food poisoning incident—although calling it a stage is exaggerating. It’s really a dozen two-by-fours resting on top of cinderblocks. At least it’s dry, I’m sure Cathy would remind me.
The bar manager is sitting to the right of the stage, unrecognizable from the rest of his clientele in a black cowboy hat, denim shirt, and blue jeans. Only when I see the glitter of diamonds on his left hand from a Super Bowl XII ring do I know it’s the owner. Jackie Rockford was a reserve center on the 1978 Cowboys team. His only action was on special teams, where he forced a fumble, or so he liked to say. He parlayed the bounty from this victory into a seedy club along the highway, a hundred miles from his former digs.
When he sees me, his eyes narrow as if he wants to pounce on me and strip a ball from my hands. “You must be the guy Mendel was talking about. John, is it?”
“Josh,” I correct him, though I doubt his concussion-addled brain will remember.
“Mendel said you’re good. How is that old bastard?”
“He’s still kicking,” I say. Mendel Fishman, my manager these last eighteen years, has in fact made an oxygen tank his constant companion after years of chain-smoking. Another six months and he’ll probably be on a respirator, still wheeling and dealing through sign language.
“He is a tough old goat.”
“He’ll outlive us all,” I say for lack of anything better.
The lull in the conversation is interrupted by one of the waitresses, her tube top saffron with darker stains beneath the armpits. Since there isn’t a drop of sweat on her brown forehead, I assume these stains have become ingrained into the fabric. She leans down, her Dallas cheerleader-sized breasts pressing against Rockford’s shoulders as she whispers into his ear. The conversation is brief, but leaves Rockford quivering like a cowboy-shaped Jell-O mold.
“Tell her I’ll call her back in five minutes,” he snaps. After the waitress disappears among her tube top-clad comrades, Rockford turns back to me with a tired sigh. “I’ll give you three hundred for the night, minus any drinks or broken property. I don’t want no funny business, is that clear?”
“Mendel said it was five hundred.”
“I can only afford three. If you don’t want it—”
“Three will be fine,” I say too quickly.
“Good, just don’t cause no trouble. The last group we had in here broke up the place pretty good.”
I fight off a guffaw at this. I don’t have the strength or the financial resources to lay waste to a redneck bar. “I’ll do my best,” I say instead.
Cathy, Clint, and Darren lug in our ramshackle equipment: a pair of acoustic guitars, a keyboard, Darren’s bass, and Cathy’s tambourine. Our equipment takes up all of the jury-rigged stage, leaving us no room for rock n’ roll theatrics even if we wanted to employ them. I step up to the microphone, squinting into the glare from neon beer signs to make out the hostile faces of our audience tonight. Since we don’t have the luxury of roadies, I tap the microphone myself. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We are The Trampolines. We’ll be here all evening,” I say. Audience patter isn’t one of my strong points.
As I strum the opening chords to our first number, someone among the mass of leather and cowboy hats calls out, “Hey boy, know any Lynyrd Skynyrd?”
“No, but here’s a song from another Leonard you might enjoy,” I say. Without me saying a word, the band breaks into our cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
As expected, the audience greets this with boos and catcalls, but at least none of them throw their beer bottles. Maybe beer’s too expensive these days to waste on a folksinger. Or maybe it’s the man big enough to be one of Rockford’s teammates standing with his arms crossed next to the bar. Whatever the reason, we get through the first number unharmed.
We launch into some of the more country-oriented tunes I composed during a brief stay in Nashville six years ago. Back then I thought I would finally get a record deal, radio airplay, a tour fronting some more popular act, the works. Cathy thought so too, leading to a run of lovemaking we’ve yet to match. Making love in a van on a mattress that smells like fossilized dog urine with two other men in the front seat is a lot less sexy than it sounds.
The audience turns from animosity to apathy, content with muttering into their bottles. Rockford isn’t anywhere in sight, but at least he can be content that we aren’t wrecking his establishment. Before the last number, I look back at Cathy to see her matching the audience’s apathy with her tambourine playing. Nevertheless, she gives me a hopeful smile to reassure me we’ll make it out of here in one piece and three hundred dollars richer.
“Thank you, you’ve been a great audience,” I say after hammering out the final chords on my scarred guitar to pity applause from some of the waitresses. “I’m Josh. On the guitar and keyboards is Clint. Our man Darren is on the bass. And our heart and soul, Cathy, is the one with the tambourine. If you like what you heard, we’ve got CDs for sale out in the parking lot.”
I leave the rest of the band to pack up our gear while I track down Rockford with the help of the saffron-clad waitress. She leads me through a far lighter steel door for the supply room that doubles as Rockford’s office. In one corner, among kegs of Budweiser and cases of Miller Lite, he sits at a metal desk beneath a picture of himself on the field, trying to force a fumble from someone in a Day-Glo uniform.
“That was some fine playing,” he says.
I don’t point out that he was holed-up in his cozy little office the whole time. “Thank you, sir. We try.”
“Trying is important.” He seems ready to say more, then realizes the mistake in bearing his soul to an out-of-towner like myself, and grunts instead. A bank deposit envelope from the State Trust Bank in Willis Point appears in his hand. “Here you go. You want to count it?”
“No, sir. Thank you very much.” I make a quick exit from the supply room, bustling out in double-time to leave the former Super Bowl hero alone with whatever demons plague him.
As expected, no one follows us out to the parking lot to buy one of our self-published CDs. Ever an optimist, Cathy has the box—taken from behind a grocery store in Evanston, Indiana—out with its two rows of glossy CD cases we picked up from a dollar store in Detroit. She lights up a cigarette—a habit she abandoned in Nashville when she thought she was pregnant with our first child and resumed in Memphis three months later when she miscarried—and blows a smoke ring towards me.
In response, I hold up the envelope. “It’s all here,” I say. “A cool seventy-five each.”
“That should last us about four days. One the way those two eat.”
“What’s wrong?” I ask, slipping an arm around her shoulders to give them a friendly squeeze.
“Nothing. I’m fine.” She tosses the cigarette away so she can give me a smoke-flavored kiss. “You were great.”
“At least someone noticed. Come on, let’s get out of here. We should be able to make Midland by morning.”
I keep my hand on her shoulder to propel her into the back of the van. I can’t help thinking I’m kidnapping her, taking her against her will to yet another sleazy bar in the southwest. On the mattress in the back of the van, Cathy turns over to face one of the gray spray-painted walls. I reach out to massage the lean, knotted muscles in her back. “What’s wrong?” I ask again.
“Tired,” she says, voice muffled by the mattress.
“It’s been a long day,” I say. My conversational skills with the fairer sex haven’t improved from the sixth grade, when I wet my pants while trying to ask Mandy Jenkins to the Valentine’s Day dance.
I let her doze on the mattress, contenting myself with lying next to her, the scent of her sweat enough to erase the memory of dog urine. When we stop to pump a good chunk of our recent earnings into the gas tank, I’ll have to make tonight’s debacle up to her. Since there aren’t any legitimate jewelry stores open, my options are severely limited, but I’ve spent eight years finding ways to make disappointment up to her.
Clint stops the van—as part of his continued policy of hazing he refuses to let Darren drive—at a Marathon station near where Jackie Rockford used to play football. “You guys want anything back there?” Clint calls back.
“Maybe they want to be alone,” Darren suggests with Garbo’s purr.
As much as this idea would appeal to me, Cathy says, “I’ve got to use the bathroom.”
The moment I let go of her hand, she bolts into the convenience store, disappearing behind a display for beef jerky. I’m left standing beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights while Clint and Darren argue about who will pump the gas and who will clean the multitude of splattered bugs from the windshield.
I linger in the processed sugar aisle, browsing the bright labels with jolly names like Snickers, Mr. Goodbar, and Almond Joy for something that might bolster Cathy’s spirits. Nothing works better than chocolate—except diamonds, which I can ill-afford—to broker a truce between man and woman. As a joke in light of our recent windfall I pick up a Payday bar until I remember Cathy is allergic to peanuts; they make her face swell up like the “Before” picture in a Weight Watchers ad.
Settling on a box of Junior Mints that promise cool refreshment in the desert heat of Texas, I approach the counter as a teenaged couple finishes paying for garbage can-sized containers of soda. The female half of the couple turns around with her prize in one hand, brushing a tress of peroxified hair with the other to reveal the face of a karaoke singer who recently won the grand prize on a game show for musicians. “That was so cool,” the girl says. “She has such a great voice, you know? I voted for her like seventeen million times—”
The one-sided conversation continues into the parking lot, and probably into the Lexus the boy’s parents bought him for his birthday and probably all the way back to their cul-de-sac in the suburbs. I’m left to stand at the counter with my package of mints and a dollar bill stained with sweat. I let the change sit there, watching the shiny new Lexus whip around in front of my tired 1984 Chevy van on its way out.
“Hey, buddy, wake up,” a refugee from the Black Hat says behind me.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, snapping up my change and the mints so he can drop three cases of Busch on the counter. The night is still prepubescent for him.
Cathy hasn’t emerged from the bathroom yet. I consider knocking on the restroom door to inquire about the trouble, but think better of it. A coward at heart like most men, I have no desire to intrude upon the female mysteries.
Instead, I retreat out to the gas pumps, where Darren is cleaning the bug husks off the windshield while Clint checks the fluids that somehow keep the lumbering, rusty machine alive. In the distance is the galaxy of multi-colored lights making up the Dallas-Fort Worth skyline. Off to the right is an aurora borealis of white from the football stadium, despite no football games being played for another two months.
“Tickets for that sold out in five minutes,” Cathy says. She must have Indian blood or secret government training to be able to sneak up on me like that so often.
“That concert,” she says. She tells me the name of the singer on the blonde teenager’s shirt. “That place seats what, sixty thousand?”
I’ve never watched more than a handful of football games in my life, so I nod.
“Five minutes,” she repeats with the reverence of someone who’s just seen the Virgin Mary in a tree or a tortilla.
“That is amazing.”
“Three million in album sales. Do you have any idea what that comes to?”
“Math isn’t my best subject.” That explains why I dropped out of high school.
“That’s somewhere around fifty million,” she explains. Her eyes go to the open door of our van, wherein resides the scant twenty copies of our album we’ll never be able to unload, let alone for anything in the neighborhood of fifty million.
“That is a lot of money,” I say. To change the subject I pull the box of Junior Mints from my pocket like a low-budget magician. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Right,” she says, her eyes going to the white box of confections. With Victorian poise she dips a finger into the box to retrieve one and place it in her mouth.
By now Clint and Darren have finished getting the van ready to continue its journey. Like the Joad family we pile into our jalopy and continue down the highway towards the Promised Land. After eighteen years there have been so many Promised Lands—New York, Nashville, Seattle, Los Angeles—I can’t remember which one we’re trying for anymore.
“You think I should go on that show?” I ask.
“I don’t think you’re pretty enough.”
“What about if I get contacts? Buy clothes from The Gap? Put goo in my hair?”
Her right hand reaches out to swirl the coarse fabric of my shirt around my left nipple. “I think you need some work on your breasts first, darling,” she says.
“And a wig. I think I’d look good as a blonde.”
“I don’t know, I always took you more for a redhead,” she says, plucking at her own carrot top.
We continue our back-and-forth, our lips drawing closer together until they touch, the minty tang of Junior Mints filling my mouth. They really are cool and refreshing here in the humid air of our van. Not as refreshing as when Cathy slides her chocolate-flavored tongue into my mouth.
With my right hand I grope for the curtain—an old Snoopy sheet from a rummage sale in Eugene—to give us the illusion of privacy. Already a step ahead of me, Clint turns up the Dylan mix tape in the prehistoric cassette player to give himself and Darren the illusion of privacy. An illusion that in the heat of the moment makes all the difference.
We make love to “I Want You” on the mattress and then fall into a post-sex coma. We awake with our arms and legs folded and tangled in unnatural positions of a Picasso painting to the van rattling like ball bearings in a plastic cup. The smell of smoke drifts through the pores of the Snoopy curtain to sting our eyes. “Shit!” Clint says. A torrent of muted profanity follows.
Cathy and I unfold and begin the grim process of locating our clothes in the darkened cargo area. We dress with the hurry of adulterers hearing the approach of a spouse. I can’t find my underwear or right sock by the time the van comes to a stop. Fully dressed, Cathy pulls back the curtain.
“That fucking crook,” Clint says. “I knew that asshole in Panama City was going to screw us.”
“Can we call someone for help?” Darren asks.
“Sure, let me get on my cell phone to call fucking AAA,” Clint says, picking up an imaginary phone.
“Where are we?” I finally ask.
“There was a sign for Roscoe a couple miles back,” Darren says, flinching to await another of Clint’s verbal blows.
This blow never comes. Cathy opens the side door and Clint the driver’s door to survey the scene. They stand at the front of the van like explorers viewing their discovery.
By the time I slip on my shoes and head around to join them, they’ve already made a plan. For my benefit, Cathy points to a yellow sign at the base of a hill. “We should be able to push it down there and call someone for help,” she explains.
“We’re going to push the van all the way down there?” I ask, my brain still not on the same plane of existence as the rest of me.
“It’ll be great exercise,” she says, flashing a patient smile I can’t bring myself to return.
At two in the morning in western Texas there isn’t a lot of traffic. A few cars and big rigs came speeding past, slowing down a bit to get a look at the roadside circus act of three college rejects pushing a crippled Chevy van along the shoulder of the highway. For a flickering moment they might consider stopping to ask if we need assistance, but then, remembering those horror movies about hitchhikers, they all speed away.
Cathy steers the van, blessed with a woman’s slighter physique. Clint, Darren, and I work like oxen in reverse, pushing the plow through the asphalt field while Cathy looks back at us in the mirror to make sure we haven’t fallen on our faces. Every now and then she shouts, “We’re almost there. It’s not much farther.”
My part in this spectacle is mostly for show. As the founder and titular leader of our gang, I haven’t bulked up my muscles by lugging around guitars, amplifiers, and keyboards over the years. But like any figurehead I’m adept at putting on a good show for the faithful; I grunt and heave in unison with Darren and Clint like I’m going to pass a kidney stone.
We only have to go as far as the on-ramp before gravity takes over, doing the rest of the job for us. “Let it go,” Cathy calls back to us. We heed this advice, letting the battered Chevy slip down the hill. A flash of red and metallic screech punctuate each time Cathy presses down on the brakes to slow the rate of descent.
“This is just fucking great,” Clint mutters as we oxen plod along after our runaway plow. “Out in the middle of nowhere. No vehicle and no money. Just fucking great.”
“It could be worse,” I say, borrowing one of Cathy’s lines. I search the dusty travelogues in my brain for a worse situation than this one. “Remember when we ran off that ditch in Cheyenne and landed in a foot of snow?”
“Yeah, at least it’s warm this time.”
Darren lags behind us, a grim reflection of Clint and I fifteen years ago. When he hitched his wagon to our star in Athens, he imagined it would be an exciting adventure, like joining the navy without the threat of enemy torpedoes. Life, far more brutal in its hazing than Clint, is showing poor Darren what being a musician really means.
Our destination turns out to be a waffle house, the kind open twenty-four hours for truckers and other lost souls needing to stop off for a meal or caffeine injection in the wee hours of the morning. Besides our van there’s a pair of big rigs and a rented sedan belonging to a traveling salesman. Hitching ourselves back to the plow, Clint, Darren, and I manage to push the crippled van into an out-of-the-way spot to one side.
The red brake lights flare and there’s a final metallic screech before Cathy puts the van into park. She hops down, her face with the white glow of an angel or a ghost in the waffle house’s fluorescent lights. “We made it,” she says.
I’m too tired from my efforts to do more than nod.
She reaches into the pocket of her jeans for a wad of cash, which she proceeds to give to Clint. “You two go inside and get some coffee or whatever. We’ll be in soon,” she says, the real power behind the throne.
After opening the rear doors, she pushes aside the equipment so she can make a comfortable seat on the lip of the cargo bay. “I think we need to talk,” she says.
She might as well say I have cancer or AIDS or some other kind of death sentence. A woman wanting to talk can never mean anything positive. The last time Cathy wanted to talk was in Nashville General, a spot of blood between her legs the only reminder of the life we’d created. If she hadn’t needed a transfusion, she would have left me that day. Instead, she stayed with me to keep tilting at windmills.
I sit on the lip of the cargo bay next to her, reaching out to take her hand until she pulls it away. “I know this hasn’t been the best night,” I say, a preemptive strike. “Things will get better. Tomorrow we’ll get the van fixed and I’ll call Mendel to find us something—”
“Another dumpy country bar?” she says. She waves her hand to indicate the van, the waffle house, the whole world for that matter. “What kind of life is this, Josh? We’ve been running around in this same van to these same dives for eight years now.”
“I know, but it will get better—”
“When someone hears our record and gives us a deal—”
“Then what? We’ll be big stars?” She snorts at this like I suggested the world was flat. “There’s no place for us on the radio, on the store shelves. It’s all karaoke singers now.”
“Josh, we’re almost thirty years old and we’re still pushing this same van around.”
“But that’s all life is,” I say. “Pushing a van around. Maybe it’s at an office or a school, but it’s the same thing.”
“That’s a great line. You should put it in one of your songs,” she says with a wry smile that tells me all isn’t lost.
I take her hand this time, gripping it in both of mine. “Something’s bound to happen for us. We’ve worked so hard to make it happen. We just have to hang in there long enough.”
This heartfelt speech prompts her to shake her head. “I’m tired of waiting.”
“What brought all this on? If it’s the bar I can—”
“This has been coming for a long time. You know that as well as I do.”
“Cathy, please, you can’t do this. We can’t go on without you. We can’t.”
“You don’t need me.” Her eyes have hardened into green ice, a one-way mirror keeping anyone from looking in. “All I do is play the tambourine.”
“I love you,” I say, unable to think of anything else to say. As a skilled troubadour I’ve written and performed a fair number of songs about breaking up; none of them involve the couple reuniting.
“That’s not enough anymore,” she says with a sad smile. She leans over to give me a sisterly kiss on the cheek, the smell of stale Junior Mints still on her breath. “Goodbye.”
“Where are you going to go?” I ask.
“I’m not sure. I’ll send you a postcard.” With a wink, she evaporates from my life.
I’m left to sit on the lip of the van’s cargo bay for a while, my mind in a slow defrost as I try to catch up to reality. For a while I hope she’ll come back and pretend it’s all a practical joke or a test of the sort God used to dish out in the Old Testament. She doesn’t and no burning bushes appear to give me advice on what to do about it.
Clint and Darren are sitting in a booth at the far end of the waffle house, each with a cup of coffee and a hamburger, not brave enough to try the waffles at the waffle house. “What’s wrong with you?” Clint asks.
“Cathy’s gone,” I say.
“Where’d she go?” Darren asks.
I shrug. With the trembling hands of an old man I reach into my pocket for what little cash I have. I divide it in two, leaving myself two dollars for a cup of coffee and a phone call. “You guys take this. I’ll stay with the van.”
“What are you talking about?” Clint says, beating Darren to the punch. “You’re breaking up the band?”
“You guys are good. You’ll find someone else to hook up with. Someone with a working vehicle.”
“That’s fucking retarded,” Clint says. “Whatever’s going on with you and Cathy doesn’t mean we should stop now.”
“Seems like we’re already stopped,” I say, motioning to the crippled van.
“It’s all right. In a few years I’ll track you down and we’ll go on a mission from God.”
The knowing smile on Clint’s face matches my own. “When you’re ready to get out of the joint, you give me a call,” Clint says. Then he gets up from the booth to crush three of my ribs for punishment.
“We’re leaving?” Darren says.
“Don’t you listen to anything, dipshit? Christ, you’re like a goddamned little kid.”
Darren is too surprised to speak. The tremor in his lower lip hints that he might start crying. I put a hand on his shoulder to steady him. “You listen to Clint. He’ll steer you right.” I shake Darren’s hand; we don’t know each other well enough for an awkward hug.
Clint explains the situation to Darren on their way out the door. They exit stage right, as Cathy did, leaving me on my own for the first time.
I sit down at the vacated table with its half-empty coffee cups and half-eaten hamburgers. There’s nothing left to do but stare at these and think of what to do now. The waffle house is warm and smells like cinnamon and butter, the perfect place for contemplating the future. If I could, I would become a fixture here, basking in the warmth and pleasant smells. From experience I know there are a lot of worse places to be.
A waitress in a pink uniform like from a rerun of Alice appears beside the table. “What about you?” she asks.
“I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
Monday we resume your normal blogging schedule with a Monday Musing about reimagining stories…