It was the band’s first tour, and after the debacle in Memphis, Kevin wasn’t about to be late for another gig. A hurricane—who would’ve thought? Tied up in traffic for three hours on I-40, all the way to the river’s edge. Heading west through the cornstalks of Oklahoma, they drove straight into the afternoon sun, blinded and exhausted.
Ricky turned down the radio, which was fine with everybody else, since all they could pick up was country and top forty. The rest of the dial was smothered in static, blocked from the broadcasting towers by the cornstalks shadowing the road. “Funny thing,” he said. “This looks just like Arkansas. Or Tennessee.”
“Maybe they’ll have a K-Mart when we get into town.” Julie lay down on the back seat, her ankles hanging from the edge behind the driver’s seat. She propped up her pillow, pushed her straw hat over her sunglasses, and mumbled, “Wake me when it’s over.”
“Thirty more miles,” said Kevin. “Half an hour.”
“Not if we get another tractor blocking the road. Or a cow.” Ricky slurped down the last of his grape soda. “Hey,” he said. “Maybe there’s a new song in that. What rhymes with cow?”
“Plow,” said Kevin. His hands slid down both sides of the steering wheel, listless.
“How about we forget about the song anyway? It was a crummy idea.” Ricky turned up the radio again.
As the old Buick climbed an incline, a large water tower appeared on the horizon. On the side of the gray tower were the large stenciled block letters of red paint announcing “Gas City.”
“We’re there,” said Kevin.
The three musicians pulled into town about five-o’clock, when the summer heat was still at its peak. Maneuvering through fast food joints, gas stations, and strip malls, they finally arrived at the cheap motel in the center of town. Kevin unlocked the trunk and began unloading the instruments: two acoustic guitars, Ricky’s electric bass, and Julie’s conga kit.
“Can’t that wait ‘til later?” said Julie. “I’m tired.”
Kevin grimaced. “Short answer? No.” He carried both guitars and the conga into the first floor room. Julie and Ricky followed with the luggage, including Julie’s huge nylon duffel bag.
Her bag was loaded with plaster castings of sculptures she’d made in art school back in Philadelphia. Part of her reason for joining the boys on the road was to sell them at crafts fairs and festivals across the country. Her two favorite pieces were her mermaid, which was decorated with multicolored glitter paint, and her boxer, the one she’d made after talking Kevin into modeling for it. Kevin said it didn’t look anything like him at all, and Julie just said, “You really don’t get the ‘art thing,’ do you?” The music was just a sideline for her, something she could just as easily do without.
“I guess it’s my turn for the floor,” said Kevin. “Julie gets the one by the bathroom; you take the bed by the window. OK?”
“Whatever,” said Ricky. “You’re the boss, aren’t you?”
That night they arrived at the Brewery, Gas City’s only music club. It was a midsized tavern on the edge of the highway, right next to Dolly’s Truck Stop and the intersection with I-40. The bar was a long, oval shaped Formica surface, colored aquamarine like the paint on the walls. The stage was built at a rear wall facing the bar, so only half the patrons could see the performers. The rest could listen, or, more likely, watch the Braves game on the television above the cash register.
The crowd consisted mostly of men in their twenties or early thirties. Some of them wore baseball caps that advertised Peterbilt trucks or Miller beer. Some wore crew-neck t-shirts, while a few wore long sleeved plaid flannel shirts. Most were gathered in groups of two or three, and a few had brought dates who barely looked over twenty-one.
“Oh, man,” said Ricky. “We better learn some Hank Williams tunes pretty quick.”
“It was the best I could do,” said Kevin. “We’ll just have to wing it.”
Julie set up her conga drum at center stage, Ricky tuned his bass, and Kevin ran a sound check from the board. “Julie, try mic number two,” he called from the side of the stage.
“Test, 1, 2, 3…Test….Love at the five and dime…”
“Great. I forgot about that one. Try the conga.”
Julie tapped at the drum. “Country roads, take me home…”
“Whatever,” said Kevin.
It turned out to be a great first set. Kevin’s guitar stayed in tune, Julie’s harmonies were right on the mark, there was no feedback or distortion from the PA. During the break, Kevin smiled. “Sometimes we’re good at what we do.”
Ricky got pissed off when he couldn’t get a free drink at the bar. That’s the problem with playing bass, he thought. Zero recognition.
Kevin bought a round of drinks: a diet coke for Julie, Jim Beam straight for Ricky, and a Budweiser for himself. “Good audience,” he said. “They’re not as hostile as I thought.”
Ricky laughed. “Yeah, and I thought it was just my good looks.”
A man in faded jeans and muddy work boots approached their table. He was barely sober enough to stand, much less talk, so he just leaned back and forth, staring at Julie. “Sounded great,” he said to her. “What’s your name?”
Kevin smiled. “Thanks. We sure appreciate it.”
“I’m talkin’ to the lady here,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Julie folded her arms across her chest. She turned her eyes towards the bar and refused to answer. She was neither irritated nor hostile; it was a strangely neutral pose. Kevin hadn’t ever seen her do that before.
“She’s not interested,” said Ricky. “Maybe some other time.”
The stranger started swaggering. “I’ll leave that up to her, buddy. You keep out of it.”
Julie’s brow wrinkled, just for a second. Kevin noticed how fast she turned on the charm. She smiled and put her hand on the guy’s wrist and said, “Hey, thanks, I’m really flattered. But I’m just not in the mood for the pick-up scene right now, OK? Nothing personal, you know…”
Smooth, thought Kevin. Real smooth.
“She means no, get it?” said Ricky. “Leave her alone.”
“Be cool, Ricky,” said Kevin.
“What’s this, a couple of faggots?” said the stranger.
“Hey, chill out,” said Julie. “Have another beer or whatever, but chill out!”
The man in the dirty blue jeans took one step back, seething. “Hell with this,” he said. “What a bunch of fruitcakes,” and he started back to his booth.
Ricky couldn’t leave it alone. He stood up, all two-hundred fifty pounds of him, and followed the guy around the bar. “No, Ricky!” said Kevin, but it was too late. The two were already at it, and it took Kevin, the bartender, and two of the guy’s friends to pull them apart. By they time they’d been separated, Ricky had already broken the guy’s nose. “Get it right,” he panted. She meant ‘no.’”
“Enough,” said Kevin. “It’s over.” Then, to the stranger’s friends, he said, “Look, we’re really sorry, it was just a misunderstanding,” thinking they were about to get their asses kicked.
One of them stretched out his hand. “No problem, buddy. Mikey gets out of hand sometimes. Forget it. You just go on singin’ like you were and he won’t bother you again. Sounded real good up there for awhile. Especially that Allman Brothers tune.”
Dumb luck, thought Kevin. Stuck in the middle of a barfight, and they wind up meeting Miss Manners. “Thanks, pal. Thanks a whole bunch.”
Later, after they’d finished their second set, the bartender paid Kevin their cut of the bar tab and a hundred bucks. They were supposed to play at the Brewery again on the following night, but the bartender told them never to show their faces in his club again.
The next day the trio moved on to Oklahoma City. It was a short drive, so they’d checked into their hotel before noon. Kevin and Julie were eating lunch around the corner from the hotel while Ricky took the car to run some errands. The food was starchy and filling: pork chops and mashed potatoes and lots of gravy. As they were finishing their meal, Ricky came in wearing a cowboy hat. He’d cut the sleeves off his denim jacket, baring his shoulders and thick biceps. The dark sunglasses he wore hid his usually cheerful eyes. The earbuds for his phone, wrapped neatly underneath his hat, blasted his ears with a Garth Brookes song from YouTube. Kevin and Julie stared at their newly-refined partner, then back at one another. “I don’t know about this,” said Julie, shaking her head.
“All he needs now is a cork in his mouth. Dumb. Really dumb.”
Ricky pulled up a chair and grinned. “Like the new me?” he shouted.
“Headphones!” yelled Kevin, pointing to his ears. “Turn it down.”
“Pretty authentic, huh?” Ricky pointed to the tattoo on his upper arm. The image of a large pink and green mermaid appeared on his arm, the kind that wiggled its hips when he bent his elbow.
“No,” said Julie. “You didn’t really—”
“Water soluble,” said Ricky. “Really. It’ll wash out in a week.”
The three played a show in the suburbs that night, scraping together some cash for the road. Rarely did they earn enough to cover the cost of motels, gasoline, and food. When Kevin finished their tour schedule back in Baltimore, he knew they wouldn’t break even. “It’s the challenge of the thing,” he’d told the others. “To say that we did it.” His eyes were so charged with intensity, his voice with such conviction, that the others agreed. “Think of it as a vacation … with half your expenses paid,” he’d said.
Julie had joined the band the previous spring. It was just a lark for her; she could sing or not; it didn’t seem to matter one way or another. She’d been an art student and model in Philadelphia, and she figured to go back to it after their summer tour. At one of their first performances the band just fell apart: Julie forgot the lyrics, Ricky’s amp shorted out, and Kevin flubbed the lead guitar part. The boys, especially Kevin, were devastated. They’d packed their equipment that night with their heads bowed, dejected. But Julie just tossed back her thick red hair and laughed. “It’s not too late to go dancing,” she’d said.
The day after their show in the Oklahoma City suburb, Kevin hunched over the desk across from the bed, balancing their budget and reviewing the schedule for the next few days. It had been a hard blow, losing that last gig. They were short of two or three hundred dollars. Ricky shouldn’t have done it, he thought. But then he figured what the hell, at least they got out of there without any broken bones. He looked over the numbers, exhausted, the decimal points drifting off the page, and he clenched his fingers tightly around his pencil. “We’re not gonna make it,” he said. “I just don’t see it.”
Julie rose from the bed and crossed towards the orange light from the lampshade, the filtered color resting on Kevin’s t-shirt. As she watched him, she thought about what attracted her to him in the first place. He was so different from her: driven, always at the center of things, making things happen. But now, he’d become so hard to get along with, pushy and domineering.
She put both hands on his shoulders and squeezed, pushing her thumbs underneath his shoulderblades. Kevin raised his eyes to the mirror in front of the desk. “You’re too tight,” she said.
Kevin reached back and touched her hand. “Like your boxer,” he said. “Don’t stop.”
“Like a fool,” said Julie. “Sleep on it.”
“Don’t stop,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter, you know. It’ll work out or it won’t. It doesn’t really matter.”
“I like things to work,” he said. “I happen to like my plan. It was a good one.”
“Yeah, a good plan. What are we looking at? Cutting it short a few days? Going home early?”
“We won’t make it to California. We’ll be lucky to make it to Telluride. If we don’t have another disaster.”
“We didn’t have one. I came out of it just fine.”
Kevin turned around. “I didn’t mean…”
“Sorry. I get carried away sometimes.”
“OK. We go to Colorado. Then we go home. It’ll be just fine.”
Julie squeezed his neck again. “You’re still tight. Like a boxer.”
“I don’t know. He said he was going to a bar. So what?”
“I like the way you do that,” said Kevin.
“It’s hard to tell what you like. You never smile anymore.”
Ricky plowed into the hotel room about three in the afternoon, sloppy and drunk. He didn’t even see them until he’d closed the door behind him and locked it. He staggered around, tossing his cowboy hat onto his bed by the window. Then he looked at Kevin and Julie, resting peacefully as a pair of kittens at their mother’s breast, their bodies enfolding each other under the blankets. “Oh,” he said. Then he fell onto the unmade bed, crushing his cowboy hat in the process, and fell asleep with his boots on.
That night, as the three packed their belongings for the next day’s drive, Ricky said to Kevin, “You always have to be the winner, don’t you?”
“It happened,” said Kevin. He pushed his black hair from his face.
“Always have to get things your way,” said Ricky. “This was what you wanted all along. To screw Julie, with me playing the soundtrack in the background.”
“No.” said Kevin. “It just happened. I’m sorry.”
“Sure you’re sorry. I’d be sorry too—”
“Shut up,” said Kevin. “If you do one thing well, it’s keeping your mouth shut.”
“Cut it out,” said Julie. “Both of you!”
Ricky lunged forward, knocking the table over and ramming into Kevin like a bull. Kevin never had a chance. Ricky was at least eighty pounds heavier, and he threw his full body onto him. Kevin threw two useless punches from the ground. It look less than three seconds, and he was pinned. Ricky raised his fist over Kevin’s face and growled.
“Stop it now! I mean now!” Julie shouted. She grabbed the lamp from the nightstand between the beds and held it over Ricky’s head. “I mean it.”
Ricky backed off. He let his hands go limp, still sitting on Kevin’s chest. Then, unexpectedly, he said, “You stole her. Just when … when the three of us … you ruined everything.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kevin.
“You do all the bookings. You pick all the songs. You fuck the girl. It’s all your show, isn’t it?”
“We’re a team,” said Julie. “All of us.”
“What do you get out of it, Julie? You didn’t even wanna join until he talked you into it.”
“Let him up, Ricky. Please.” Julie put the lamp back on the table.
“And me? Oh, yeah, I’m a real winner, too. Yeah, I get to be the sidekick. I get to pump the gas and wash the windows.
“You know, sometimes I really hate playing bass. You never see the bass player get any applause. No, we always hide in the back where there’s no stage lights. If you go up to the bar for a shot, they don’t even know you’re in the band, while glory boy here gets free beer just for having a pretty face.”
“What do you want?” said Kevin. “Spit it out.”
“Let him up first,” said Julie.
“What the hell do you want?” Kevin shouted. “Come on! Don’t you even have the balls to spit it out?”
“You idiot!” said Julie.
Ricky pushed himself up from Kevin’s chest and stood. He pulled the table up from the floor, then walked around it, in circles, with his eyes aimed at the bandleader. Kevin picked himself up and sat on the side of the bed. “I want a piece of the action,” said Ricky. “I want to … drive the car tomorrow. I want … to sing at least two songs … of my own choice … at the gig in Amarillo. I want to be the guy who collects the money from the club. I want to be the guy who counts up the cash.” He sucked in his gut, breathed heavily, and then leaned over to his own bed and grabbed his crushed cowboy hat. He sighed. “I guess that’s what I want.”
Julie looked at Kevin. She thought he was crazy, barking at Ricky while he was still pinned to the floor. Kevin ran his fingers through his hair and frowned. “Most of it,” he said. He paused and thought. “You can have most of it. Except collecting the money. You can stand right there with me when I get it. You can count it with me. But I’m the manager. That’s not gonna change.”
“What the hell? Don’t you get it?”
“Take it or leave it. If it’s not good enough, you can walk back to Baltimore. That’s all you get. Now cut the crap and lets finish packing. What the hell songs are you gonna sing? We’ll need to rehearse them. Tomorrow.”
Ricky looked at Julie. “He’s poison, you know. He’ll screw you up.” Ricky backed his way towards the door. “I’m going out for awhile. I’ll see you later.”
Ricky quit the band in Amarillo. He sang one song during their performance there, an old Austin song about buffalo hunters, and afterwards told Kevin he was satisfied. He’d seen enough, he’d accomplished what he set out to do. Despite Kevin’s exhortations, Ricky called his father in Baltimore and arranged for a flight back home the next day. His last words to Kevin were “To hell with you.”
Kevin ultimately gave up arguing the point and concluded, “We’ll go on without him. I’m not stopping for something this stupid.”
Julie nodded her agreement. He didn’t even ask, she thought. He just assumed she’d stay with him for the duration. If there was any reluctance or doubt, she didn’t show it. “I’ll stick it out for now,” she said.
In Denver, Kevin and Julie played a series of duets in the downtown coffeehouses—The Paris Cafe, The Mercury, and Muddy’s. The pay wasn’t very good to begin with, and the manager of the Paris cut their pre-arranged fee by a third, claiming he’d only pay the full amount for a trio. Kevin was furious, but he couldn’t talk him into changing his mind. When they left the Paris, Kevin stole an ashtray and a porcelain coffee mug. “Revenge,” he said to Julie.
They headed into the Rockies the next morning. They decided to camp on their way to Telluride, the last stop on their shortened journey. According to plan, they would then begin their long trek back east.
They set up camp near Loveland Pass on the Great Divide, one of the highest elevations on the long flat continent they’d crossed. They lay together under the bright stars, unobscured by clouds or city lights. Julie leaned her head against a pine tree. Kevin looked quietly at the sky, plotting out his next course.
In the morning, Kevin announced that he wanted to go all the way to California.
Julie protested. “You said we’d stop in Telluride. You said it way back in Oklahoma. We can’t afford to go on.”
“Look, I rethought the whole thing,” said Kevin. His eyes showed the same fanatic passion he’d formed the band with, his voice the same persuasive power he’d used to talk her into the trip in the first place. “We can make it. We’ll camp from here on out. No hotels, no expenses. We’ll buy groceries and cook our own meals. No more restaurants. I have a friend in Santa Cruz who can put us up when we get to the coast.”
“You’re crazy,” Julie shouted. “There’s no way we’ll last that long. It’s a good three days’ drive, and we barely have enough to get home now. We’re almost broke. Listen, Kevin, be reasonable.”
Kevin frowned and swallowed hard. “You don’t understand,” he said. She’d seen him serious before, but not ever like this, never with anything that looked like remorse. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really want you to stay. I like having you around.”
Julie cried suddenly. She wasn’t sure if it was because of his stupid decision or the insult of what he’d just said.
“I have to do this, Julie. I set out with a plan, and I can’t leave it done half-assed. I just wish you’d understand that.”
“Without me. You think more about your plan than me.” She cried some more. “You’re cruel. You’re the cruelest man I’ve ever met.”
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, but he wouldn’t bend. “I’ve got to go. Even if I do it alone.”
He was now visibly shaken. For a moment Julie believed that, somehow, Kevin would actually regret losing her. His eyes were stern and his forehead tense. He was thinking hard, planning. “You’ll take the car,” he finally said. “Drive it back to Denver. Sell it for a plane ticket or drive it all the way back to Philadelphia. I don’t care. Here’s half the money we saved.” He took the rolled bills of cash from his jacket pocket.
Julie closed her eyes, as if she could turn off the whole scene like a bad television show. She wanted to disappear, become invisible, intangible, to wake at some time in the past, before the tour began, before she’d met Kevin, before Ricky. She yearned for the clean sheets of her own bed in her own apartment.
“Take it,” he insisted. “I’m leaving.”
Kevin grabbed one of his guitars and a small backpack of supplies. He took his only suitcase out of the trunk of the Buick, then handed her the keys. She took them. She knew he was lost.
“I’ll hitchhike to Telluride,” he said. “Once I play the gig there I’ll have enough food money to get to California. I’ll camp all the way out. Maybe I’ll get a ride with a trucker and even travel by night.”
Julie’s cheeks were red and moist. A fog had come into the mountains that morning, and she looked as if she were standing in the middle of a cloud. Swirls of mist enveloped her, like strands of soft white cotton. “You pathetic bastard,” she said. “I hope you do all right.”
Kevin’s jaw clenched. He looked like a boxer with a mouthpiece stuffed behind his teeth. “I’ll miss you,” he said.
He walked away towards the road, moving down the long narrow highway that peaked at Loveland Pass before sinking into a valley. He turned around once, and he saw Julie standing there, alone, car keys in her hand. The fog and the Buick obscured half of her body, and in this blurred vision he thought that she looked like a mermaid, passively floating in an ocean of gray.
Terence Mulligan’s fiction has appeared in The Washington Review, The Baltimore Review, Gargoyle, The Anathema Review, Wordwrights Magazine, and other journals. His nonfiction has appeared in Amazing Heroes, Maryland Musician, The Northern Virginia Rhythm, The Takoma Voice, Alive Magazine, and other publications. He was the publisher and fiction editor for Minimus: A Literary Journal for several years, and he coproduced the Iota Poetry Reading Series 10th and 20th Anniversary CDs.