Friday, May 31, 2013

Throw a Nickel on the Drum

By Bettyann Moore

Audrey yawned and stretched luxuriously under the covers. One of her cats gave a feline grunt and resettled itself on its mistress’s feet. Audrey winced a bit and then smiled, bringing her hand to her right thigh. She pressed her fingers a little harder than necessary into the bruise she knew was there. She smiled again, tracing its curious curved shape with a finger.

I really rocked it, she thought, remembering the night before. Best. Gig. Ever.

Feeling a slight twinge on her left thigh, she slid her left hand along her flank, finding tenderness there as well. She broke into a full-fledged grin.

“Definitely the best,” she said aloud, sighing.

The tell-tale clicking of claws on the worn hardwood floors pulled her out of her reverie.

“Up, Cooper,” she said, and her poodle mix dog leapt into the bed, burying his nose in Audrey’s armpit.

“What a good boy,” she said. “Did my boy have fun last night, too?” The dog wriggled closer, his tail thumping happily against her bruised thigh.

At the end of every gig, Audrey brought Cooper into the bar to meet her fans. Heather, the bar owner, never seemed to mind. Maybe next year she’d ask if he could stay for a set and hear her play. He’d watched her practice before, but had never seen her with the rest of the band.

Dwayne poured himself another cup of coffee and thanked the universe that he’d given up drinking years before. Tina, his wife, was grateful, too, and didn’t mind the little bit of weed he smoked between sets.

I’ll let her sleep a little longer, Dwayne thought. She’s not used to those late nights any more. The band would be on the road for the rest of the Memorial Day weekend and though Tina seldom accompanied him to his gigs any longer – 30 years was long enough, she said – she always went with him to his annual Friday-before-Memorial Day gig at Heather’s Bar. Last night was not much different than the last 15 he’d done there. Cuckoo, the drummer, had played 12 of those 15 and Brian, the bass player, had done ten of those Friday shows. Only Dwayne himself – and Audrey – had done them all.

And while Tina hated to see “Audrey’s annual embarrassment” as she called it, at the end of the night she would hug him tight and whisper in his ear: “You’re a good man, Dwayne Cooper.” They both knew the tips would have been larger if he didn’t let Richard, the horrible sax player, and other wannabes sit in with the blues band’s third and last sets. Dwayne included Audrey and her tambourine in that lot, though he would never classify her as a wannabe. Audrey was a special case.

It was Saturday and wash day for Audrey, despite the holiday weekend. She had nowhere to go and nothing else to do. She sorted the darks from the lights, lovingly adding the black t-shirt with its look-alike Harley logo emblazoned in faded silver across the chest. She only wore it – and her black leggings and knee-length jean skirt – once a year, but she’d been wearing them for 15 years now. They were looking a little worse for the wear. In fact, she’d had to do a little repair work on the neck of the shirt that morning after she’d pulled it over her head and discovered that a thread had been caught on her necklace.

She placed the three items, plus her once-a-year black bra and panties set, in their own washing machine at the LaundroMax and set it to “delicate.”

Dwayne and his band mates seldom drove to a gig together, but since they’d be playing each night of the holiday weekend, they loaded their gear into Cuckoo’s van and headed to their Saturday gig – a new blues bar at a tony resort in northern Wisconsin. Once on the highway, Friday night’s post-mortem began.

“Nice sets last night, boys,” Dwayne said. The “boys,” including Dwayne, were in their early- to mid-60s.

“I came in too early after the guitar solo in ‘She Gets It’,” Brian said.

“That’s cool,” Dwayne replied, turning in his seat to look back at his old friend.

“Hell,” Cuckoo said, rolling his eyes in the rear view mirror, “it’s no wonder with Lady Luck sittin’ in. That woman couldn’t find a beat if her life depended on it. Totally rhythm deaf.”

Dwayne took a long pull from his bottle of Mountain Dew. Here we go again, he thought, the annual harangue.

“No shit,” Brian said, leaning forward between the front seats, “at least the audience was clapping in time. With Sister Mary Sunshine shakin’ her thang right next to me, I had to look out into the bar to get back in the groove.”

Cuckoo guffawed, while Dwayne looked out at the flat expanses of farmland that rolled by. He didn’t want to get into it again.

“Hell, I know we’re white boys playing the blues,” Brian added, “but that chick has zero soul and zip in the looks department. No freakin’ librarian has had enough demons in her life to play the blues.”

Dwayne cut his eyes at the bassist, but said nothing.

“Don’t forget zero titties and bootie,” Cuckoo said, snorting. “It’s a crime against nature and music for a tambourine player not to have a nice bootie – not that she’s actually ‘playing’.”

Dwayne knew they were trying to get a rise out of him. Back in the day, they would have been successful. He went on staring out at the scenery.

After the laundry was dried, folded and put away, Audrey indulged in her Saturday treat: a cup of tea, half a sandwich and a bowl of soup at the neighborhood Internet cafe. She paid an extra dollar for the privilege of using one of the cafe’s outdated, but functional, laptops.

Her hands shook as she logged into the Dwayne Cooper Band’s Facebook fan page. Maybe someone had posted pictures of last night’s gig. Maybe she’d be in some of them.

Ah, she thought, I’m in luck! Someone – Tina Cooper, in fact – had already posted pictures from the show. She’d taken a lot of them. Audrey’s excitement grew as she clicked through the photos, knowing that if she did appear in them, it wouldn’t be until near the end.

She was getting closer. There was that old guy with the saxophone. She’d eased herself up on the bandstand shortly after he sat in for the second song of the third set. And – oh, happy days! – there she was! Part of her left side was cut off, but she had her tambourine in her right hand then anyway. I look a little stiff, she thought, but I was nervous at first.

Audrey clicked to the next photo, then several more before she saw herself again. It was taken during the last set, she knew, because Dwayne was playing that boxy-looking guitar he always brought out then.

“Oh, my word!” she said aloud, causing a few heads in the cafe to turn. A thrill went up her spine. Why, she looked positively disheveled! The black shirt had slid down her left shoulder and the whole world could see the skinny strap of her black bra. There was a wisp of hair over one eye. She was even smiling.

She glanced at the comments section and felt a momentary let-down.

“Whose the stiff bored?” someone named BouncingBetty had written. Audrey slumped a bit in her chair, then brightened.

“It’s ‘who’s’ – not whose – and it’s spelled B-O-A-R-D,” she said quietly, rolling her eyes. A few pictures later, she came to the end without seeing herself again, so she logged off.

It had been an amazing night.

The band slowly unloaded the van in the alley behind the Blues & Brews Club. They were early, but Dwayne liked it that way. In the early days, though, he seldom arrived at a venue in time; quite a few times he never showed up at all.

“I’d like a nickle for every gig we’ve played in a joint called ‘Blues & Brews’,” Brian said as he held the door for the others. There was nothing to carrying his bass and his band mates never let anyone else touch their instruments, Dwayne especially. He treated his various Fenders like bottles of fine wine. Brian had heard rumors that the guitars had been in a pawn shop 20 years ago, but Dwayne never talked about it.

A big guy, Brian also guarded the van while the others were inside, probably unnecessary at a fancy resort in Northern Wisconsin, but you never knew. He flicked a half-smoked cigarette down the alley as Dwayne and Cuckoo came out for the last time; Cuckoo just had to move the van out of the middle of the alley and then it was time to practice the new tune Dwayne had written the week before. Out of the corner of his eye, Brian saw a figure lurch out of the shadows toward the smoldering butt.

“Even here,” Brian muttered, nodding toward the man. Dwayne took in the tattered clothing, the mismatched shoes, the piss-stained pants and the scruffy beard. He shuddered, then looked away.

“Maybe especially here,” he muttered. With morbid curiosity, Cuckoo and Brian watched the man’s drunken progress.

“Jesus, it’s not even three in the afternoon and the old guy can’t see straight,” Cuckoo said none too softly.

The man paid them no attention as he tried to hone in on his prize, stooping down several times, nearly capsizing, then finally snaring the butt. The look of satisfaction on his face was quickly wiped away when he tripped on his own feet and went sprawling onto the gritty alley, where he lay, dazed.

“Gimme the keys,” Dwayne demanded, snatching them from Cuckoo’s hand. “I’ll move the van and you guys work on the new tune.” His voice brooked no argument; the drummer and bassist shuffled back into the bar.

Casting a glance down the alley where the drunk was struggling to come to his feet with little success,
Dwayne stood stock still, raised his eyes to the sky and swore. He unlocked the van, reached in under the driver’s side seat where Brian stashed his smokes and pulled out a nearly-full carton of Marlboros. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills from the previous night’s tip jar and shoved them into the carton. Then he went to help the man to his feet.

Before she went to bed that night, Audrey ironed her uniform as she always did before her Sunday service. She would be working the corner of Prospect and Racine streets, where she’d had some success in the past. Dwayne Cooper could be counted as her greatest success. She took special care with the pleats in her polyester skirt while recalling how she’d found him sprawled in the gutter, lying in his own vomit, a broken bottle of MD 20-20 still clutched in his hand. It was unprofessional of her, but she’d abandoned and completely forgotten about her tambourine and collection kettle as she knelt beside him, doing nothing more than holding his hand until he came to.

After that, it was his work, not hers, that took him figuratively and literally out of that gutter – though Dwayne insisted it was all her doing. The embarrassment of riches he bestowed on her – the new tambourine and her life’s dream realized – humbled her. But she wouldn’t give them up for the world.

1 comment:

  1. Of course there has to be more about this group, right, Betty?