We drove around without much of a plan, the Suburban gulping gas like a kid sucking back Kool-Aid. We went into a dozen clubs that advertised live music. I got fed up halfway through the search and started sending Lou inside while I waited in the Chevy. We broke for dinner, didn't rush through our meals. We got back on the road just as aimless as before.
Finally, I steered us into a convenience store, and Lou ripped a phone book out of a booth. We sat in the car and flipped through the listings.
"Dewey's Deck and Landing." Lou showed me the ad. "Says live music."
"Here's the address. It's close. Right off 200."
"The phone's closer."
"It's been a long day, man. I'll buy you a beer."
Dewey's was tucked in behind a Pizza Hut and near a small grocery market in a ratty little plaza. The gravel parking lot overflowed. We parked on the grass and had to pony up five bucks each to get in. The cover was for the band, but we found out quick it wasn't Spanklicious.
For one thing, I actually liked the music. I'd never heard Spanklicious, but I didn't think they'd be covering an Ella Fitzgerald tune. The gal on stage wore a long black dress, velvet gloves up to her elbows. Her voice was beautifully dark and raw. The four guys behind her knew what they were doing: horn, bass, guitar, upright piano.
"This ain't them," said Lou. "You want to leave?"
"Let's hear a song," I said. "Let's have a drink."
The music shifted into a hot swing number, and college kids decked out in vintage dresses, pinstriped suits, and wide ties flooded the sunken dance floor in front of the stage. The bar crowd looked wrong. Mixed. The dressed-up kids were there for the music. The frat guys were out of place, and there were a lot of them in white baseball caps, Greek letters on their sweatshirts. They were there just to get drunk, and they were good at it.
Lou muscled his way to the crowded bar. He squeezed between two of the frat kids, jostling them out of the way. They turned to give him some lip, saw his size, and decided to pay closer attention to their drinks.
Lou handed a plastic cup back toward me, and I took it. I tilted the contents back between my lips. It went down cheap and wet, cold and perfect. It had been a long day. A long, hard, bad couple of days. I made a mental note to call Ma later. And Marcie.
The college kids were giving Lou a wide berth. The giant leaned back with both elbows spread along the rough wooden bar like he owned the joint, taking up more than his fair share of space considering the crowd. There'd be trouble soon. I knew Lou's type. He wouldn't start anything, but he'd throw his weight around until a drunk-enough kid took a poke at him. He needed to turn some kid's lights out to feel better, like he was in control of something, like his life hadn't just taken a nosedive. That was the type.
"I'm going to ask around," I told him and moved away into the mass of kids.
"About what?" he called after, but I just nodded pretending I'd heard him wrong.
I finished my beer as I reached the far end of the bar. It took me a minute to get the bartender's attention, but he spotted me as the band finished a song I didn't recognize heavy on the horns.
"You know a band called Spanklicious?"
"That's Smoke Up, Johnny." He pointed at the stage, shouting over the racket.
"I mean another band."
"No. You want another?"
He didn't ask what I was drinking, which was fine since I didn't know. He brought it back too foamy, and I tried again.
"Other places around here have a band tonight?"
"Hell if I know," he said.
I drank, ordered a third, drank it, and ordered another.
I was thinking about the restroom when the girl onstage announced the band was taking a quick break. I circled the dance floor, plying my way through the crowd, found the men's room. The single urinal was mercifully free, so I unzipped and let out some beer.
Someone flushed in one of the stalls. The girl singer came out, fished a lipstick out of her purse and put the purse on the narrow shelf under the mirror. "Don't mind me, hon."
I usually only let sixty-year-old waitresses at truck stops and really fat table-dancers call me hon, but the singer was pretty, and I liked her voice, so I said, "No problem at all, doll."
She glanced at me sideways. Her lips curled into a little smile before she applied her dark lipstick. Her nose was a little too pointy, gave her a hawkish look. "The line for the little girls' room is murder. I had to hold my bladder all the way through Tommy's horn solo." She shook her head like it was the saddest thing in the world. "Nine minute fucking horn solo."
She left as some frat boys came in, and they paused, looking at the front of the restroom door to see if they had the right one. She was gone by the time they figured it out.
I straightened my tie in the mirror, decided I wasn't impressing anyone, and pulled it loose again. I looked at my eyes. Red. Too much beer and not enough sleep.
The singer's purse was still on the shelf. I grabbed it and left the restroom.
On my way back, I spotted Lou still guarding his territory near the bar. He was chatting up a busty coed in sorority letters, the frat guys still glowering over their shoulders at him. It wouldn't be long now.
I had another beer, remembered I had a purse in my hand, and found the singer on the steps that led up to the stage. She was on her way back up, and I asked her to wait a minute.
"I can't talk now," she said curtly. "We're on."
"You left this in the can." I held out the purse.
Her eyes softened. She took a step down. "Thanks. I appreciate it." She grabbed the purse, but I hung on to the other end.
"Do you know a band called Spanklicious?"
"Yeah. They come through every few months. Sounds like somebody throwing glass bottles into a buzz-saw. What do you want to hear them for?"
"I'm not a fan. I'm just looking."
"They usually play at Caf¨¦ Blitzkrieg. It's a bottle club on 4th, or was. It burned down- shit- maybe a week, ten days ago. They always got shit bands. I don't think anyplace else in town would have them."
I let go of the purse. "Sorry to trouble you."
She looked at me sort of weird, curious. "No trouble." She took the stage, and the band jerked to life with "Hit that Jive Jack."
When I got back to Lou, he was having some hard words with one of the frat kids. Another came up behind him and broke a beer bottle at the base of his skull. Lou teetered, and the frat guys saw their chance. About eight dove on him. The guy behind the bar yelled. The band played louder, segued into "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Lou kicked out with a big boot and caught one in the stomach. The kid folded good, hit the floor hard. Lou grabbed a fistful of one's shirt and tossed him over the bar. The other guys were landing solid blows into Lou's midsection. They might as well have been punching a dump truck. I moved in to help, but I didn't hurry.
One of the bigger frat guys threw a wooden chair. Lou ducked, and the chair sailed over the railing and down into the dance floor. It obliterated a couple who'd been swing dancing pretty well up till then. All hell broke loose. Screaming. Some afraid. Most angry. A tiny girl heavy with rhinestones scooped up the chair and hurled it back. It landed on a crowded table, spraying beer in every direction. The guys at the table jumped the rail and waded into the swing kids.
The bouncers arrived, two fat guys who didn't know where to start. They looked at Lou. They looked at the brawl on the dance floor. I guess they weren't ambitious enough to tackle Lou, so they headed for the dancers. The band had abandoned the set list and dove into a quirky cover of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree."
Lou looked happy. He had a very picturesque dribble of blood in one corner of his mouth, and he planted a fist in the face of anyone who dared come within range. I picked a random kid and popped him in the mouth so I could feel involved.
His buddy aimed a fist at my nose. I turned and took it on the cheek. Then I leaned in with an uppercut that rattled his teeth and made the cartoon songbirds circle his head. He went down.
"That's enough, Lou," I shouted over the din. "Let's go. Cops!" I didn't really see any, but that would get him moving.
"Right behind you, man."
He hammered one last kid on the top of his head with a meaty fist and kicked his limp form under a table, then followed me to the exit. The guy on the door looked nervous, held up a hand wondering how he was going to stop us, figured out he wasn't, and ducked behind the cash register.
In the parking lot, I backed the Suburban into a Mazda by accident in my hurry to leave before the cops arrived. I didn't hear any sirens, but it would be soon now.
"Fuck, man," said Lou. "Watch your driving."
"Thing's the size of a battleship."
I got us away, pointed us toward the Interstate.
"Well, shit," said Lou, who grinned like he'd just won the Nobel Prize for kicking ass. "I guess we showed 'em."
We drove into a cluster of restaurants and hotels where Interstate 75 intersected with 200. I got us a couple of rooms at the Best Western.
In my room, I flipped on the light over the twin sinks, poked at the swollen area under my left eye where the kid had nailed me. I'd had too much beer, gotten careless. A watery punch thrown by some college kid. Should have seen it coming. Stupid.
I flopped down on the bed, grabbed the phone, and dialed Marcie's number. She answered after eleven rings. "Yes? Hello?"
"You sound out of breath."
"I ran in from the garage."
"What're you doing?"
"Working. I have three howler monkeys on ice."
"You have three- what're you doing?"
"I got them from the Sanford Zoo," she said. "They were free. Can you believe it?"
"Dead monkeys. That's quite a deal."
"Ha, ha. You think it's a big joke, but a friend of a friend owns an alternative art gallery in Jacksonville. You know Minnie Shwartz?"
"She owns the gallery?"
"Minnie? No. Minnie owns squat. But she knows Naomi. Naomi runs the gallery."
"Naomi nothing," said Marcie. "It's one of those one word names. Like Cher."
"Hilarious." A pause. "You okay?"
"Holding my own."
"Why'd you call?"
"Just to hear a friendly voice."
"And I'm as good as anyone?" Her question was only half playful.
"You know that ain't true."
"So you like me best, huh?"
"I like you best. What are you going to do with the monkeys?"
"I don't know yet, but I'd better get started before they start going bad."
"You could do one of those see no, hear no, speak no evil things," I suggested.
She laughed. "You're wonderfully silly and clich¨¦. I have to go."
"Be careful. Don't dead animals have parasites or ebola or something?"
"My monkeys are melting."
We hung up.
I thought about calling Ma, but it was getting late. I went back to the mirror and checked my bruise again. Stupid.
I'd bought a toothbrush and some toothpaste and deodorant at the 7-Eleven a block from the hotel. I scrubbed my teeth. I'd forgotten to buy a razor. My stubble was thick and dark.
There was a hard knock on the door. I opened it, and Lou was standing there shirtless with a little syringe sticking out of his upper arm like a stray pub dart. He was red faced, strands of blond hair matted to his forehead. His face was crinkled up like an actor's in a laxative commercial.
"I need you to push it in, man. Make the juice go in."
"Are you on the junk?"
"I think I stuck it in a nerve or something. I can't get my other arm up to push it in." It was true. He tried to bring his other arm around but it froze up halfway like Frankenstein playing the violin.
"If you're shooting junk, I swear I'll fucking put a bullet in your face right now."
"It's not dope, man. It's- It's part of my muscle building regimen."
"It hurts, man."
"I hear that stuff shrivels your gonads."
"Will you just push it in!"
I took hold of the syringe gently and thumbed down the contents.
"Take it out."
I pulled the syringe out of his arm and dropped it on top of the television.
The arm was his again. He rubbed it, flexed. "Yeah, man. Yeah!" He slapped his muscles, flexed some more and dropped to the floor where he began doing push-ups. "Feel the burn. Ride the burn. Oh, yeah." It didn't look like he was going to let up anytime soon.
"Could you shout slogans and sweat in your own room?"
"It's not even midnight. We got to find Spanklicious." He kept on with the push-ups.
"That's a bust. I talked to the girl in the band."
"Too skinny. No rack."
"She said the joint they play in burnt down."
"Burnbabyburnbabyburn- now what?"
"We know where they're going. Tomorrow night."
"Back to Gainesville," said Lou.
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