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Live to Play Another Day

July 14, 2013

Outside the liquor store, about two blocks from where I live in east San Diego, I saw the same rail-thin man with the full beard sitting with the sign that read, I need a beer, propped in front of his guitar case as he played. I walked past him as I’d often done, went inside the liquor store and bought a loaf of bread, sandwich meat, a half gallon of orange juice, and a couple of Kit-Kats for my girlfriend. On the way home, I stopped and listened to the man play a bluesy tune I couldn’t place. I was prepared to drop some change in his guitar case that already had a buck when, for some reason, I sat down next to him instead. When he finished his tune, I said, “What’s going on, man?”
“Working on a beer. Spare some change?”

“What’s your name, friend?”

“Henry-James, and I ain’t looking for friends, just a beer.”

“What’s your story, Henry-James?”

“I play guitar for beer. You going to help me get one?”

“I might. When’d you fall in love with that thing? I can tell by the way you cradle her and play her that you love her. And you’re damn good, too, so how’d you end up out here and not in a recording studio somewhere?” I said.

The man gazed into my eyes for a moment with a stern look on his face, then burst out laughing. “Alright, partner. I’ll tell you my story. You buy me a beer when it’s said and done.” he extended his hand and I shook it to solidify the deal. As Henry-James spoke, his southern accent grew strong. “It was Christmas day, 1980. I was twelve years old…”

* * * *

Henry-James excitedly tore the wrapping paper from his present. He knew what it was. Exactly what he wanted! He loosed the latches and carefully lifted the Gibson Epiphone, acoustic/electric guitar from its case. He caressed his hand along the shape of its pristine body and gently propped the guitar across his lap. He strummed his fingers across the brass strings and the Epiphone produced a rich sound. He carefully set the guitar back in its case and raced across the room to his father. He wrapped his arms as far as they could reach around the burly man.

“Thank you, Daddy!”

“You’re welcome son. Now that you have your own, you can stop messing with mine,” his father observed in a deep southern drawl.

“It’s exactly the one I wanted.”

His father chuckled at his son’s elation. “Now go on down to your room and practice at it. Only way you’ll ever get any good. Me and the band got a show in Houston, San Antone, Austin, and Dallas, so I’ll be gone about three weeks. When I get home, I want to hear what you’ve come up with. Now git!” He gave his son an encouraging swat on the bottom and Henry-James grabbed his guitar case and hurried down the stairs.

“Write something for your mama too, Henry!” his mother called after him.

He had often snuck into his father’s music room when he was on the road. It held the likes of Gibson, Zenith, an array of acoustics, and a metallic gold Fender Strat that hung high on the wall with a sprawling signature across the body in black ink. Amps were stacked against the right wall; there was a keyboard, drum machine, eight track recorder, mic. set, and his father’s prized possession and specialty, the steel string guitar. Henry-James dared not touch it and always made sure to handle the other instruments with great care and set them back just as he’d found them. He’d been the recipient of a good switching across the bottom, once before when he had not. But now that he owned his own guitar, he wouldn’t have to worry about such unpleasant happenings!

Becoming acquainted with the instrument he would soon know so well, he played until his fingers were numb, then raw and, in the morning, calloused. He attempted to decline supper even but mother wouldn’t allow for it.

“Henry-James! You put that guitar down a minute and come on and eat or, by God, you won’t sit properly for a month! Now come on, boy.”

His mother’s threat may have been empty, for his father did all the switching that needed doing, but Henry put down his guitar and followed her into the kitchen for a supper of baked beans, mashed potatoes, and roast beef. At the table, he was admonished to “slow the shoveling and eat like a gentleman lest he choke himself blue.” He cleared his plate and, with his mother’s permission hurried back to his room and the awaiting Gibson guitar.

That night, Henry dreamed of playing before a crowd of 100,000 people. He awoke with fervent rhythm pounding in his chest, the sound of the music he made in his dreams lingering in his ear. He grabbed his guitar from the corner of the room and tried to re-create the song, experimenting with chords he couldn’t name and lightly strumming so as not to awaken his mother. After about an hour he had written his first song. Was it the one from his dream? He didn’t know, but the measures of the tune were pressed indelibly upon his heart. He spent the next twenty four hours in his room perfecting it only breaking to use the restroom and to eat. Though Henry never learned to read music and can’t put a name to every chord and note he plays, he’s written over 100 songs, all of them played from memory…

* * * *

“I had that song perfected a week before my daddy was supposed to be home and I couldn’t wait to show it to him! I counted the days and on the twenty fourth I burst in on my mama crying in the kitchen. She was on the phone, I remember. When she hung up she couldn’t speak. She just hugged me and cried, and I knew. The next day she told me. My daddy wasn’t coming home.”

“I’m sorry, man,” I said softly.

Henry looked at me for a moment with glossy eyes, choking back the tears, then said, “I got to play that song for him though. At the funeral. And no doubt in my mind he heard me.”

“Would you mind playing it for me now, Henry?” I requested.

Without words, he strummed his guitar, practiced a few chords to make sure that it was in tune, then began finger picking a slow classical tune. The tempo picked up a bit as he strummed the same notes, then reverted to the finger picking. He seemed lost to the world as he played with his eyes closed, his fingers dancing along the strings of the Gibson Epiphone with minds of their own. When he finished playing he kept his eyes closed breathing deeply.

“That was beautiful, man… Hey can I ask you a question?”

“You just did,” he said looking up at me.

“Might be a dumb question, but is that the Gibson Epiphone from 1980?”

Henry chuckled lightly. “Yeah. Yeah, this is the same one. Only thing that I was ever able to hold onto without destroying…”

* * * *

Henry-James, along with a lad who played bass, another who played drums, and a gal who played back-up guitar and sang, formed a band in high school called “Southern Magicians” with the notion that making music was the same as magic. They used the music room of Henry’s late father to practice and record tracks. They practiced regularly and played the occasional local gig. They all took their music seriously and had big aspirations to do more than play local gigs for next to nothing.

“We’ve got to get out of this town if we’re ever going to make it somewhere better than old Jimmy’s pub,” Mark, the bass player, bemoaned one day amid a practice that wasn’t going well.

Henry said, “There’s plenty of opportunity here. I’m not going anywhere. Somebody big and important will walk into Jimmy’s for a cold brew on a hot day and hear us play, and hot dog, that’ll be it! The Southern Magicians will be heard across the states.”

“Well, y’all, I think Henry’s still having pipe dreams. We aren’t going anywhere here in good old Gracen, Texas. Our music isn’t exactly traditional country style. Old Jimmy may be kind enough to give us 25 dollars a piece but, haven’t you noticed, the goddamn shit kickers aren’t so thrilled with our rocking and rolling.”

“You ought to watch your language,” Vincent, the drummer, who had so far avoided the conversation said. “Henry’s mama will have us out if she hears you talking like that.”

“What are you suggesting, Mark?” Henry asked, curious.

“I’m suggesting we skirt this tiny hick town lest our talents go to waste,” Mark said.

“This hick town’s all we have ever known,” Vicky, the vocalist and back-up guitar, said.

“Where we going, Mark?” asked Vincent.

“I was thinking California!”

“How are we going to get there? Henry asked. “Walk? And how are we going to live once we do get there? None of us knows anything about California!”

“My uncle’s giving me his pick-up next month when he gets a new one. We’re driving there. We got to go, y’all, California’s the land of opportunity–remember the gold rush in 1865 or something,” Mark rejoined.

“You dummy. Didn’t you learn anything in school? The Gold rush ended in 1855; it only lasted seven years,” Vicky said humorously. “But I agree, we could save whatever money we earn from old Jimmy. See if maybe he’ll give us 30 a piece, and we’ll need to get part-time jobs. By the time we finish school next year we’ll have enough to make it to California.”

“I’m talking about now!” Mark said. “After my uncle gives me the truck.”

“You really are a dummy,” Vincent chimed.

“I say we do it,” Henry offered. “But Vick’s right. We have got to save some money up and finish school first.”

“We got a deal?” Vicky queried.

“Deal,” each of them said individually.

Jimmy did indeed start paying them $30 a piece per gig, which was about $120 a month between them. The band members worked part-time jobs, and by the end of senior year, they had collected nearly 5,000 dollars. They had recorded a demo of their 20 best songs and were ready to make the trek in Mark’s pick-up to California…
* * * *
“Whoo boy, my mama nearly blew a gasket when I told her that me and the band were on our way to California. ‘California!’ she exclaimed, followed by a bunch of words I had never heard my mama say before.”

Henry-James was smiling at the remembrance and I chuckled. “Where had you decided to go? Here to San Diego?”

“Oh no, you see, we did a bit of research before we decided to leave and we settled on Los Angeles. Hollywood, you know, the place stars are made. I later heard it called ‘the boulevard of broken dreams,’ but the dreams of the Southern Magicians were so large and blinding, we didn’t think they could ever be broken. And it was looking like that might be true for a while. Our first try was a place called The Roxbury Club on Sunset Boulevard. There had been a sign out front that said ‘LIVE MUSICIANS WANTED’…”

The manager of the Roxbury Club was a stout man in a suit who’s motto was, “time is money.” The man agreed to audition the band. He told them the club was interested in having a new band on their stage and that, “time is money and if I’m not impressed after two minutes of hearing you play, my time is coming out of your pocket.”

“Agreed, sir. You’ll be impressed,” Henry said confidently as the band stood silent behind him.

“You got a hundred dollar bill?” the club owner asked.

“Yeah, I do”

“Give it to me.”

Henry, puzzled, handed the man the money. The man said, “If I give you this back after two minutes, you get the gig and I expect you to be here Saturday night at 9 P. M. sharp. If I walk out of here, you do the same and don’t come back.”

After two minutes the man held up his hand, then sliced his forefinger across his throat in a gesture for the band to stop. He walked straight to Vicky and stuffed the hundred dollar bill into the palm of her hand. “That was pretty good,” he said, “you got your gig. I like that rock ‘n’ roll sound with your country roots woven subtly into the melody,” he looked at the band, then back to Vicky. I like that thing you do with your voice, when you sing sweet and innocent like and crescendo into that furious scream. You make sure you get yourselves here on Saturday, 9 P.M., not a minute later or I’ll cancel you,” the club manager said before yelling that somebody need to remove the sign from out front, the stage was locked…

* * * *

“I always liked the way Vicky manipulated her voice. She used that feathery tone of a southern belle, then broke into a scream that was about half an octave from shattering glass. Her voice was something else, boy, I tell you.

“And Vicky did most of the lyric writing too. She just had these terrible things in her head, and it wasn’t her fault, but she could turn her pain into something pretty, I tell you. See, Vicky shed many a tear on the pillow next to mine and told me things she’d only ever written down before. Her step-daddy did things to her unfit for a man to do to a child, and as she told me these things, her lyrics began to make clearer sense to me. The song we played that day went something like this.” Henry began to strum a melancholy tune and recite Vicky’s lyrics:

I always wanted someone to love me,
But I never asked for you to take everything from me,
Take my soul, snatch my mind,
Take me to your world so cold,
The love, the love, the poison love that you give.

“This is when she starts screaming,” Henry interjected.

Love me! Show Me! where do I go when you’ve taken
everything from me? Show me!
Kill me! The love you give kills me! Slowly!

“And then comes my solo.” Henry broke into a quick, complicated riff, then said:
“Man, I loved Vicky. I was going to marry that girl.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Vicky died. We almost all died…”

* * * *

The band played the Roxbury Club and was well received by the crowds. The manager paid them a couple of hundred each, much more than they’d ever made at old Jimmy’s pub. He asked them to come back the next week with something fresh. After that, they were regular performers at the Roxbury. They became something like local celebrities at the night club.

The Roxbury gave them their start, it opened doors for them at other clubs, and hopefully, would soon get them signed to a record label. The Roxbury also introduced them to cocaine. It was the manager, actually. He offered them a little before a show one night, said it’d give them an edge on stage. And if they wanted to be noticed by a record label executive, they needed to have an edge. “Anybody who goes anywhere in this town has an edge!” he’d said. The young musicians took a snort and soon enough the manager was giving them their couple of hundred bucks and taking it right back in exchange for grams of cocaine…

* * * *

“I’d never seen Vicky like that, never imagined. She was a beautiful young girl, only 20, and she looked like — Well, I’d say we all looked like something that crawled out of a grave. Vicky quit writing, because the drugs stole her poetry. We stopped practicing, got canceled, and soon they wouldn’t even book us. All we cared about was getting high. The coke took our minds and Vicky’s life, and I’ve never been able to forgive myself.”

“You’ve got to forgive yourself, Henry, it’s not your fault, man,” I attempted to console.

“That night backstage with the club owner, I was the one to say ‘What the hell, let’s do it.’ But pretty soon snorting the stuff wasn’t good enough. But, you see, Mark and Vincent were the smartest of us. They high-tailed it on back to Texas and that town we were so eager to escape before things got really bad. When they left, our music career was over. All Vicky and me had left was each other and cocaine. And I was helping her shoot it into her arm.

“When we ran out of money and became vagrants, playing guitar on the street corner, this didn’t bring in enough to support our habit, so we found other ways to get cash. Vicky started selling sex. GOD DAMMIT, WE WERE FUCKED UP!”

I watched a tear glisten down Henry’s cheek.

“Until one night, she didn’t come back to me. One of the folks we ran with found her behind a dumpster. Her lips were blue and the needle was still in her arm. You know what I did that night?”

“What? Tell me.”

“I didn’t cry. I scraped together the cash I could, went and got high. I did that for a month straight. Then God reached out and slapped me across the head. My brain rolled more than it ever had on cocaine. Everything hit me like a ton of bricks. I cried until there were no tears left. I beseeched the Good Lord. I made promises, only one of which I ever kept. I haven’t used cocaine since that day.

“I tried to get back into music. Joined another band for awhile but it didn’t work out. Not long after that I started getting real sick and I didn’t know what to make of it. Thought my body was still having reactions from the cocaine. Then I got hit by a damn car on my way to try out for another band called ‘Six Shooter.’ You believe that buzzard’s luck?”

“Couldn’t catch a break, could you?”

“Oh, I had my break. My break had come and gone, partner,” Henry rejoined. “I was on my way to try out for ‘Six Shooter’ and that car smashed into me. I tossed my guitar case to the sidewalk and ended up on the pavement with a broken arm and a couple of busted ribs. But my guitar was nearly unscathed,” he said humorously. “They ran some tests on me at the hospital and that’s when I found out I’d been infected with the HIV disease. Was them needles did it to me. No, I did it to me.”

“Jeesh, Henry, I’m sorry, man.”

“Ain’t your fault, buck. Figure I got a couple of years left. My body’s giving out on me. Liquor doesn’t help the cause much. Figure I’ll die right here. Drunk with my guitar in my hand. I know the owner of this place, and he don’t mind my loitering.”

“He might mind it if you died in front of his store though. You ever thought about going back to Texas, Henry?”

“Thought about it. Started hitch-hiking my way there. This is about as far as I got. That was 10 years ago.”
“You don’t think your mother misses you?”

“Reckon she does. Last time we spoke was 10 years ago when I told her I was on my way home to Texas.”

Just then, the owner of the liquor store came out and interrupted us. “Hey, Henry! It’s last call, buddy. I’m closing up in about two minutes.”

“I’ll be there in 60 seconds, you know what I drink.” Henry put his guitar back in the case and fastened the latches. “You going to buy me that beer, buck? That’s about all the story I got for you.”

“Yeah, Henry, I’m a man of my word, but listen, this liquor’s killing you, man. And that guitar, that’s keeping you alive.” I reached into my pocket, pulled out some crumpled bills and found a ten, handed it to him. “Get yourself something to eat. And live to play another day, Henry-James.” I walked away, and I’ve never seen Henry-James again.


From → BLOG, Short Stories

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