to be released by Gaff Music June 17, 2003:

Forty Words For Fear

{Many thanks to Ed Lopata, Peter Kim, Molly Melloan, Luc, and Robert and Glenda Holmes for their wonderful work on the tracks above.  For original music by Robert and Glenda, check out Velvet_Zone}

 Hey there freebooters, you are heartily welcome to downloads from this page.  But be aware that finished versions of these and other even better songs are to be found on Bell & Cooper albums:

Forty Words For Fear


Postcards Out Of The Blue

also available on iTunes!


Four-Track Demos:

Forty Words For Fear  48kbps.mp3

Forty Words For Fear 4tr 96kbps.mp3

On Eight-Mile 4tr 128kbps.mp3

Horses Run Fast  128kbps.mp3

Last Resort  128kbps.mp3

Christine 4tr 96kbps.mp3

(yes this is a different song) Horse That Runs Fast 128kbps.mp3

Watch the Fire 4tr 96kbps.mp3

Anything Goes got started as a dream, the same way the opening of the novel begins (though in the book it's somebody else that dreams it), and the dream itself got started by a lot of other circumstances: nearly ten years ago I had a grant and a year off from my teaching job, but it wasn't convenient to go anywhere, so instead I bought a Les Paul.  I grew up near Nashville, and played guitar and banjo since my early teens, mostly bluegrass and country blues.  I'd always wanted to learn to play lead guitar, and this year seemed like a good time to do it, so I spent a lot of hours hacking along to records until I had picked up the basics.   Nirvana was big then, and I had a copy of Nevermind, but it bugged me that I couldn't figure out the chord progression to "Lithium" by ear-- so much so that I went out and bought the book to it.  Then I saw that the music, brutally simple and dumb as it might sound, was actually a good deal more complicated than I'd imagined it to be.


Then Kurt Cobain showed up in one of my dreams, and explained to me how to play the song, and when I woke up I thought it might be the start of something, so I wrote a short story called "Never Mind," and when I read it over it seemed like it might be a jumping off place for a novel, so I began to write on that, in between things, and mostly just to amuse myself at first.   It was a novel without much more of a plan than its characters have, which is to play music from roadhouse to roadhouse up and down the eastern seaboard, following good weather.


Meanwhile, elsewhere, my old friend from the Hollins M.A. program, Wyn Cooper, had washed up in Vermont.   He had left a Ph.D. program, for various compelling reasons, without getting the degree, and what he had to show for many years of education was a slender volume of verses called The Country of Here Below, which was published by a very small press in an edition of a few hundred copies, most of which had disappeared from view by the time I am talking, when Wyn moved to North Bennington and started working as a bartender in a place then called The Villager.


Meanwhile, in Pasadena, a gang of studio musicians and producer had a sort of songwriting collective that got together on Tuesday nights, and one of them brought in a young woman who could sing, so pretty soon they found themselves making the first Sheryl Crow album.   According to the most popular version of the tale, they had a nice tune with no words to it, and somebody decided to send out for a bunch of poetry books, and, somewhat against probability, they netted a copy of The Country of Here Below in their haul.   They wrote a chorus for a poem of Wyn's called "Fun," and recorded it as "All I Wanna Do," which became the song which no one with electricity could escape during 1994 and 95.


As a result, Wyn was able to move around to the other side of the bar (recently reborn as "The Pig") and become a customer.   He also experienced a meteoric metamorphosis from not terrifically well-known poet to very successful song-writer.  In the next year or so he wrote a good many songs with different members of the Tuesday Night Music Club crew, and with other musicians too, for instance David Broza.    One way or another, though, he found himself going through a dry spell in 1996 or 7, with his musical cowriters preoccupied with other projects.


Meanwhile I had floated through about half of this novel, and when Wyn told me what kind of loose ends he was at, I proposed to him that I'd send him what I had.  If the spirit moved him he might write some songs such as the characters in the book might write.  If it worked I would get to use the song lyrics in the book and he would have some new songs.


As an afterthought, I also said that I might have a shot at setting the lyrics to music myself, if there turned out to be any lyrics.   I didn't really know if I would be able to do this since I had never done anything like it before.   But as it happened it worked pretty well.   A couple of years later  we had about a dozen songs, including two ("On Eight-Mile" and "Forty Words for Fear") that I cannibalized from pre-existing poems by Wyn.  (Both poems are found in his most recent collection, The Way Back.)


Now, the words to these songs are a hundred percent by Wyn and the text of the novel is a hundred percent by me.   We both stayed within these natural boundaries.   But the interesting thing is that the novel-- most of the last three chapters-- began to reshape itself around the content of the song lyrics.   I put whatever ingenuity I could muster into integrating songs I especially liked ("On Eight-Mile," especially) into the plot whether they were a natural fit or not, and got some good results that would never have come my way  otherwise.   In one case I asked Wyn to write me a song with a particular title, which became "Room Full of Tears."  I didn't know exactly why I wanted this at the time I asked for it-- it was just a notion that came to me while riding around in the car.  But there turned out to be a spot in the novel just right for that song when I got there.


 It has been an interesting ride, and I think the destination has turned out to be something we both sort of knew about already: a touch of the arbitrary is a stimulating thing for any kind of writer, like the proverbial grain of sand is inspirational to the oyster.  How it all started was with me lobbing a scratchy little projectile of the arbitrary over the net between Wyn's craft universe and mine.   He hit it back, and we got a pretty good rally going, and this book and these songs are what came of it.

                                              --Madison Smartt Bell


Anything Goes

A novel by

Madison Smartt Bell

Forthcoming from 

Pantheon Books

June 2001

{Copyright 2001 by Madison Smartt Bell: all rights reserved.

A version of this chapter first appeared, under the title "Never Mind," in It's only Rock and Roll, edited by Janice Eidus and John Kastan and published by Godine in 1998.}


Kurt Cobain was teaching me how to play Lithium. One of two songs off that record I ever liked well enough to care to learn it. How the changes were just so brutally stupid, like they went out of their way to pick the exact wrong chords. The funny thing was I was playing guitar. Kurt was explaining to me -- you got to keep it rough. Which it seems like rough was built into the chord progression anyway but maybe it wasn't quite so simple as I thought. So he was reaching for the guitar to show me what he meant but somehow the guitar sort of went tilting away from both of us and that's how I woke up.

The girl was up. That's what it was. She was so pretty. Getting her clothes. Kind of a sack dress with some discreet little flower print on it, she was just now diving into. When her arms came out of the sleeves, I touched her on the elbow, to slow her down-- I didn't necessarily want her to come back to me but she didn't need to feel so rushed. She shied away from my hand, eyes spinning white like the eyes of a spooked horse, and I wanted to call her name, like you might with a horse to quieten it, bring it back to itself, only I couldn't just then think what it was. She'd turned her face away from me, toward the other bed, and when she saw the smear of snarled hair and snoring across the pillows there she snapped her head back in the other direction, dropping it so her hair swung in her face. Straight black hair as glossy as a grackle's wing, just long enough to graze her collarbones where they showed out of the V of that thin cotton dress. Long enough it hid her face. She turned around toward the door, stuffing something in her purse, her bra. I saw our faces swimming together in the mirror for a second, in the dim green water light that came through the curtain from outside.

What time was it? Daylight slapped my head when she snatched the door open, a red hot hammer opening my headache up a little wider. I was still hearing the Lithium run in my head, that awkward shift over G-flat, D-flat to A. And at some point I must have jumped into my jeans because there I was blinking in the motel parking lot, bare foot and bare chest but at least with my pants on. What motel was it, anyway? This bright daylight was just messing me up even more.

"Hey," I said to her, "Hold up--" And she did stop to face me for a second, barefoot too, holding her Doc Martens in the other hand from the purse. The clunky shoes looked cute because they were so little.

"Let me take you to breakfast anyway," I said. Smile felt dry and cracking on my face. "Something...."

"I gotta go." She dropped her head again so the black hair swung, such a sweet movement, but I knew I shouldn't touch her. She would be thinking that people might be watching us from behind the curtains on all three sides of the motel courtyard. I was looking down on the part in her hair, which was kind of unusual cause I'm pretty small myself. Then following her as she stalked across the asphalt, which was soft and hot already-- must be pretty late.

"Let me give you a ride somewhere?" The name, Karen, Sharon-- Damn it. She glanced back.

"I got my car I gotta go." Without a pause. Now she was in it too, red VW Rabbit, shying away from her own face in the rearview mirror and then adjusting it to drive. I was moving up to tap on the window but she just flashed me a quick unhappy smile through the glass and almost ran my bare toes over, peeling out of there.

I waved at her tailpipe, kind of limp. Oh well.

Ocean City, that's where we were. Been there for a three-week run so it ought not to been such a trick to remember. Older motel of the type Perry favored. They got more character, he would say, then Chris would go, sarcastic, yeah and whole lot cheaper too.

In a way they both were right. Somebody'd planted roses around to pretty it up and there was a fresh painted metal spring rocker by the door of every room. But when you got inside the bathroom was mildewed and the beds all sagged in the middle-- matter of fact we had kept rolling together in the swag of my bed, which I really thought was kind of nice, and we even woke up and did it once again before morning. So what was her hurry? Unless that had been a dream too.

Daylight changes your mind about it all, maybe. I don't know.

The motel was a couple blocks off the beach, but you could smell the salt from there, and I even thought I could hear the ocean except maybe it was just traffic. I went shambling over toward the restaurant, concrete cracked and stubbled with weeds under my bare feet, til I remembered they wouldn't want to serve me without a shirt, maybe not without shoes either. There was quarters enough in my jeans pocket to buy a Coke out of the machine so I did that. Thought I might carry it over to the beach, but when I got to the roadside of the motel the traffic started slicing into my head like a saw blade and I knew on the boardwalk, Saturday morning, it would be like I was trapped in a pinball machine.

So I went back in the motel courtyard and sat on the back bumper of the van, drinking my Coke and partly wishing for a cigarette, partly knowing it would just make me feel worse if I had one. I did wish I had my sunglasses for sure. And Lithium still slamming in time to my hangover. Cobain was right, I thought then, I'd been trying to pretty it up, soften it and sweeten up a melody, when what it really needed to do was just pound.

I crumpled up the empty can and headed back toward the room, thinking I'd like to actually try playing the song. Trick was I didn't have a guitar along this whole trip, cause I joined Perry's band as a bass player, but I figured I could borrow one of Chris's. I didn't have my key when I felt my pocket but as it happened the door wasn't locked. I might have been in there as long as a minute before it registered that Chris and his girl had woke up and were going at it again. Maybe they didn't know I was in there or maybe they did and didn't care or maybe they did and liked the idea. I felt a kind of weight drop down from under the waist button of my jeans, and that sick anticipation in the back of my throat and in one way I wanted to sit down and watch or join in or whatever-- do the absolute worst that was in me. Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror again so I just grabbed my sunglasses and a shirt and went back out.

Chris had snagged his usual big-blonde-hair babe, looked like she had just stepped out of a Playboy centerfold or at least would be willing to step into one. Last night I remembered her in this tiny white leather miniskirt and a fringy top that showed off her belly button and at the same time more or less jammed her tits in your face. The fringe had colored beads that whipped around while she danced. My girl, meanwhile, her little friend, had been a good deal more subdued. The granny dress with the Docs clashing against it-- and socks with a little pompom if I remembered right. Not so much make-up. She wore black lipstick and black nail polish-- on her toes too. But that was all. And she danced the Deadhead way, like something swinging from a hook. Eyes mostly closed in that slow dreamy sway like she was high on something or more likely wanted you to think so. Definitely she was dancing by herself, not like Big Blondie, whose dance routine was just as plainly meant to catch the eye of everybody in the room. They'd been coming in every couple nights for about ten days, with a gang of some other women and a few guys too, but nobody really paired off or anything.

Sunglasses helped, but I wished I'd took the time to hook some aspirins out of the bottle in the bathroom back there. I crossed the soft asphalt of the parking again, still barefoot, buttoning up my shirt and letting the tails swing loose. Ought to be enough to get me into the motel restaurant, where I could charge, cause I still hadn't picked up any money either.

I caught sight of my face again in the glass of the door as I pulled it toward me, heavy on its pressure hinge. That was the face she would have seen, without the sunglasses obviously. Black hair like hers with a little wave, slicked back with the natural oil to frame big longlashed eyes, Bambi eyes like the girls would say. Small gold circle through the right ear and the eyes molten in my olive face. The dark skin would have made her take me for some kind of Latino like a lot of people did. It was the soft eyes and long lashes that made the face too pretty for a man. Pretty boy, like my father used to say, leading up to another beatdown or coming off of one or maybe sometimes in the middle. I known it without him telling me, since my first teens. Same for me as for a good-looking woman I thought sometimes-- it would get you attention all right only half the time it was attention you didn't want. And the Big Blondie types always wanted to mother me, press me into the space between their Playmate breasts, but I didn't want that. Fact of it was, I never met my mother.

Inside, I went toward where Perry was sitting at a table by himself, hearing the door puff shut on the pressure hinge behind me. I was at that point on the hangover curve where everything was just too loud, that door hinge and crockery banging and and the waitress hollering to the cook and people clanging their knives and forks together-- even though it was really was quiet in there, midmorning lull and only a couple tables full besides the one where Perry was at.

He looked up at me as I pulled back a chair, his eyes pale green under the faded yellow brows. Perry had started out as a redhead they say but now all his hair was that washed-out yellow, yellow sprigs of hair covering the freckles on his arms. He had the local paper folded to the funnies beside his plate and he was eating sausage and eggs and grits. Breakfast was Perry's favorite meal he always said-- he'd hunt the places where you can get it twenty four hours a day. I sat down and pushed back the sunglasses to rub my eyes a minute.

"Having too much fun," Perry said.

"Shut up and give me some aspirin." I pulled the shades back down like a visor-- can't say I really liked the light. All of a sudden the waitress was at my elbow.

"Just coffee," I said. "And a large orange juice." She wrote on her pad and went off.

"Didn't work up no appetite last night?" Perry said. Grumbling cause he went home by himself I guess. I waved him off like you would a fly, but Perry wasn't flyweight. He was a solid ten years older than the rest of us and he'd always been the leader of the band.

Coffee hot on my mouth and burning in my throat. I was looking over Perry's shoulder at the traffic going silent on the street beyond the plate glass window... whatever. And when I blinked I'd see flashes of Chris and Big Blondie working, half under the sheet and half coming out. Was that just now, this morning, or last night? I remembered the time with my girl in the middle of the night when it was quiet and dark but the rest of was foggy and I couldn't call anything at all about when we first had got back to the room.

A click against my saucer and I saw Perry had flipped me his little plastic box of Bayer. He wasn't looking at me now, just folded his paper a new way and started studying Ann Landers. I took three and chased it with the orange juice. Then flicked the box back over to him, pinwheeling over the red flecks in the formica.

"Thanks," I said.

"Anything else?" Perry goes, mock-servile.

"I'd take a cigarette if you got one," I said. Perry shot me over his pack of Camel straights. But it was too early for a smoke, and I was too slung. Almost gagged on the thing when I lit it. Perry forked a link sausage into his mouth and then pushed it partway back out and gave the end a greasy wiggle of his lips.

"Now what does that remind you of?"

I closed my eyes behind the sunglasses, sucking on my cottonmouth, and here came the eyelid movies again, Blondie with Chris and flashes of my girl too. Didn't quite know how to put it all together, if it had been anything weirder or nastier than just the four of us using the same room. I'd always draw the one that didn't usually do that sort of thing, maybe because I didn't either... not usually, I mean.

Chris was working on Big Blondie every time we took a break, laying out the flash pick-up lines he of course had to go with the loud bright lead lines he laid out on guitar. But you'd be surprised how often Big Blondie turns out to have this little bit mousier friend. And some pause in the conversation where she'll turn to me and go, oh, so you must be the quiet one... that's where it usually starts. Karen, Sharon... Susan, that was it.  There'd been a point, some time at the afterhours place we went with them after our last set, when I started calling her Brown-eyed Sue. Then she smiled and ducked and swung her hair and maybe even blushed a little. That ice-white skin, not dark like mine. But our eyes were the same color.

The cigarette Perry'd give me was smoking itself in the ashtray. I held my left hand against the coffee for the heat, and rubbed along the joint of my thumb where it would hurt from reaching for the bass notes, cause my hands are small. I had just started feeling that, waiting for the aspirin to kick in. Perry was stirring egg yolk with his fork, which I didn't want to look at but it seemed like too much work to look away.

"When you once get above Virginia they can't make grits no more," Perry was beefing. "Don't know why they bother trying. Just look at it running around on my plate."

"Thanks anyway." I drained off the orange juice and somehow I stood up. Perry kind of glared at me. He was peeved for real, I saw, not at me but something about the set last night.

"Just sign the check, okay boss-man?" I said, and I went out.

Sunlight was still stabbing down into my face when I came out, and I was starting to feel that bitter crumble of the aspirins in my belly. Allston was up on the berm that divided the motel from the highway, doing one of his nunchuk patterns, just wearing his ninja pants and barechested to show off his drummer muscle, or just for the heat. He quit when he saw me and waved me to come up. I shook my head, only then I thought maybe it still wasn't a good time to go back to the room.

"Better move around a little," Allston said. "You know you'll feel better."

I climbed the last few feet of the berm on all fours, it was that steep, scrabbling in the stubble of the grass. Felt queasy and light-headed when I straightened at the top, and my head was still thumping me too. I told Allston to keep on what he was doing while I sat down to stretch a little, fanning my knees on the warm grass and watching him whip the chuks around his head, fast or faster than he would his drumsticks. Working out or beating the drums, his time was rock-solid, muscles rolling smooth under his chocolate skin. Being a regular black dude he was darker than me, enough that the scar over his belly showed up white across the ridges. I didn't know what it came from though-- you didn't ask Allston that kind of a personal question. It wasn't the first time I sort of wished I was bunking in with him instead of Chris. We depended on each other, bass and drums, so it would have made sense that way. Allston was a clean living character. He would drink maybe one beer for every set we played and at the end of the night he'd have himself a glass of soda water and go back to his room and eat carrots out of his cooler I think. Didn't run with no girls on the road-- never happen. He always took a room by himself on the idea he'd fill it up with drums and all, except half the time the drums were just left set up wherever we were playing.

He finished and stuck the chuks in his waistband, came over and gave me a hand to lift me out of my split. We did some karate type kicks and punches together, then a monkey-style form he'd been teaching me while he learned it himself. After that we played push hands for a while, trying to unbalance each other off the top of the berm. I'd never be a real match for Allston, partly cause of natural talent I guess and partly cause he gave a lot more time to it, hunting out different hot-shot instructors and different styles and things. When Allston was going good, you just couldn't hit him-- I rather stick my hand in a meatgrinder. But push hands is softer, gentle feeling, or at least it seems that way till Allston's got you and down you go streaking grass stains all over your shirt while you slide down the berm. It was just about a yard wide at the top, so that kind of added some interest. On the highway side there was a metal barrier at the bottom before the pavement so we didn't have worry about rolling right out in the roadbed to get mashed by the cars streaming by. It was a Saturday, end of the season, and people were pouring out the cities for a last day at the beach.

Allston took me down a few times, though it took him a while to do it, and I'd laughing while I skidded through the grass and dandelions, every time I took a fall. It was true, I did start to feel better once I broken a sweat. Allston and me had a pretty good feel for each other from doing this together off and on since high school times when he first talked me into training with him. It didn't interest me like it did him, I wasn't cut out for a fighter, but he had guessed it out somehow that it would be worth my while to teach myself how to not get hit. Like the teachers would sometimes guess at it too, even though Daddy didn't mark up my face-- he would cuss it but not hit it. I guess you can know if a dog's getting whipped even if a dog skin don't show bruises. But that was a kindness from Allston to me, even though we never talked about the reasons... I never told nobody none of it in those days or since. And Allston trained me well enough that now, up on the berm, when he thought he was pushing me he was leaning on air instead and I gave him a little help on the way so down he went sliding through the grass himself, laughing and shouting whoa while he traveled.

"Done," I huffed, when Allston stood up. "Quit while I'm ahead, I think."

"Cool," says Allston. "Guess I'll take a shower."

He went on off to his room and I started for mine. I did feel better for the exercise-- stomach was steadier and my head had quit hurting. The room looked empty when I opened the door, only there wasn't no evidence anybody had put on their clothes. Then the water started in the bathroom along with some giggling, then some grunts. Big fun was still going on, it looked like. I found my swimming suit and put my pants back on over it. It took a few minutes to figure out where I hid my wallet the night before, when it seemed like maybe a good idea, you know, with strangers.

So I walked on over to the beach and did a turn on the boardwalk, which was jumping by this time, all bells and whistles and buzzers, the barkers calling and the smell of beer and old fry oil and mallets thumping from people playing Whack-a-Mole. I was watching the girls from behind my sunglasses, half wondering would I run into Brown-eyed Sue, but not really thinking about it or thinking I would. I still felt a little woozy but it was pleasant now, more like a high, and it felt like I was invisible to the people I was watching, not just my eyes behind the shades but all of me. Maybe so. Half my head was somewhere else, back in the workout with Allston or further than that, but I didn't want to make that next connection. I went down the next stairs and walked across the burning sand, through the people laid out on towels or lounge chairs all shining with oil, kids digging or running and kicking up sand. Just above the high water line I laid down my shoes and my shirt and my pants, rolled up around my wallet and the room key. People were jumping and shouting in the low surf and the gulls were calling while they dived for scraps and trash.

The water was warm where I waded in, foam sizzling around my ankles, then my knees. I walked out through the kids with their balls and floats in the shallows, letting the low breakers slap across my waist and ribs. Then came a good-size wave curling up and over me like a wall of rolling green glass, and I dived through it. It was colder, deep under the wave, then I came through it, up among the easy rollers, sucking air. I swam for while parallel to the beach, but far enough a life guard stood and shaded his eyes to study me a minute before he sat back down. For couple hundred yards I swam against the northways drag, then rolled onto my back and floated, letting the current carry me back, my eyes closed and glowing red with the sun shining on the lids.

Push-hands is something like waves, says Allston, finding the current in yourself and other guy and how they mix together. I was feeling pleased to have caught him they way I had earlier, which was rare enough it counted for something, and I liked replaying it in my head. The wave lifted me under the shoulders and let me down easy in the next trough and on the red screen of my eyelids appeared the figure of my father, that first time he couldn't connect his punch... he swung through the place he thought I was so hard he damn near through his own self on the kitchen floor. I knew right then it was all over, he'd never get a hand on me again-- I just wasn't gonna be there where his fist was, not no more. And of course I could have nailed him then and there, he was wide open to any one of Allston's hits or kicks. Payback time-- I could have put it all back in his hide, everything he'd ever taken out of mine. That would have pleased him in a way, confirmed his notion of the way things were... it might of made him almost happy. Maybe it hurt him more I didn't do it than if I had, but that wasn't why I didn't. I known all along he beat on me for other reasons, didn't have a lot to do with me myself, and if I was to wail on him it wouldn't of solved my problems either. So after a minute I just walked on out the kitchen... then, a year or so later, out of the house altogether.

I had this other dream, a few months after I first got in my own place, where Daddy was himself but not, like for instance he had a beard and one of those stupid hats you see in movies about England. Our house was ours but it wasn't either, and everything was like that. In the dream he was holding us prisoner and doing all kinds of bad stuff he never really did in real life, us because I dreamed there was another one, like my brother or my twin or something, anyway it looked enough like me, what Daddy told me in the beatdowns, like a goddamn Melungeon, goddamn Melungeon is what you are. Then I thought, well, I don't have keep putting up with this. I dreamed Daddy was asleep on the couch so of course we could kill him that way and the only question was should we cut his throat like a hog with a knife or stove in his hed with the fireplace poker (in real life there wasn't no poker or fireplace either one). Me and this twin person were arguing about it when I woke up, spitting salt water cause I must have got crossways to a wave, and realizing then that the other one wasn't my twin this time at all, it was that brown-eyed girl. It was because of her I'd been thinking this old stuff I usually never thought about, because of love.

I swam in closer to the beach and started body-surfing, catching a wave to ride up on the sand and then running back to catch another one. That song was running in my head in time with the waves, and I could feel my hand holding down the power chords: E, G-flat, D-flat, A.... it was almost my voice, singing the words, and nothing else to think about because the guitar brang was washing it all away. But when I sat up in the sand from my last ride, I thought, Daddy must have loved me too, cause he taught me how to swim.

I rinsed off from a shower head there by the boardwalk steps, then walked on the beach carrying my clothes, splashing ankle-deep till the sun dried the rest of me. Not a thought in my head and that was just fine. The light was changing as the sun tilted to the west, and out over the deep part of the ocean the water changed from green to darker blue. Fresh wind was raising white caps out there, among the little pale triangles of the boat sails. A flight of pelicans came along and dumped in the water one two three, then sat there rocking on the waves, like I had. Getting fish, I thought, and then I knew I was hungry.

I sat on the steps to brush the sand off my feet before I put on my shoes, then strolled the boardwalk looking in the booths, beginning to figure what I wanted. Pretty soon here was Perry and Chris standing at a chest high table in a stand by the Whack-a-Mole game, eating shrimp and drinking draft beer out of tall clear plastic cups. What they had looked good to me, so I swung in beside them before I realized they were having a fight.

Too late to book without being obvious, so I got myself a beer and some boiled shrimp, and turned off my ears so I wouldn't have to listen. I could sit there peeling shrimp and eating and sipping, thinking my way through that chord progression again so as to be doing something worthwhile. This argument of Perry and Chris was same-o same-o anyway-- even Chris didn't have to listen too close cause he already knew the script. I could shut down to where I could watch Perry's mouth moving but not hardly hear anything coming out but the chords of "Lithium," with the Whack-a-Mole mallets next door keeping time and a carney bell at the end of each line, like a cymbal. I knew all the same what Perry was telling him, When you showboat like that you wreck the whole act, cause last night Chris had been soloing too loud and too long, and splicing lines of his originals into the standard which was all we ever played, so Perry would have to be telling him now, Don't nobody want to hear some shit you made up, they want to hear the stuff they already know they like it. Chris wasn't saying much. He looked like he'd been through the wars and swallowed the canary at the same time, if that was possible. Big Blondie was nowhere in sight, although the trouble was probably mostly over her if you boiled it down.

It wasn't that Perry chased a lot of tail himself. He just didn't like to watch Chris do it. I went and got some more shrimp and beer cause it was good and besides I hadn't had anything all day. Time I got back Perry was coming to the part about if you want to use that guitar just to talk to the slot between some chick's legs then save it till you get back in your room-- you're up there to play for everybody not just for your sluts....

I thought I could face up to a cigarette by this time, and one more beer. When I got back from getting it, Chris was gone.

Perry was drumming his fingers on the table, the two picking nails on his right hand making clicks on the wood.

"Lord, Lord," he said. "Lord have mercy." On Chris, he meant, for making Perry be disgusted with him... that was what I supposed. People turned their heads at the counter when Perry dropped his voice deep. He used to preach the revival circuit when he was younger and his voice would get your attention that way. It was all bogus, Perry said, his preaching, just another hustle he'd done right well at for a few years... but now it had all gone on the TV, so Perry said, the religion business was shot for a guy like him.

I lit my smoke and watched Perry suck his lips in tight and chew at the insides of his mouth. "What do you do with a feller like that?" Like he was asking the whole boardwalk, but I didn't answer him-- I knew he wasn't talking to me. I just put my mind to blowing one smoke ring inside of another... a skill I'd developed in front of the bathroom mirror back when Daddy would be out at work when I came home from school. Perry was talking to himself, had really been talking to himself the whole time he was jawing at Chris as well. His opinions about how the lead guitar ought to do was the same kind of thing as how he thought his grits ought to be cooked, you couldn't quite figure where he got them from but they were wrote in stone. It was Perry's notions that held the band together, but he could drive you crazy sometimes, and I didn't really blame Chris for walking. I finished my smoke and told Perry, "Dig you later," and I walked on back to the motel.

Chris wasn't in the room when I got there. The motel people had been to make up the beds and straighten up so there wasn't no evidence of last night except for about one finger of Southern Comfort in a pint bottle there on the glass-top dresser. Made my stomach do a small flip-flop to see it. Big Blondie had come up with that out of her purse when we left the afterhours place, and we had all been passing it around in the car. Lucky not to get arrested. I could sort of chain from that memory to the four of us tumbling back into the room, and after that there still were some blank patches but it didn't seem like there had been any swapping or group stuff or anything that would specially horrify somebody who didn't usually do that kind of thing, when they woke up next day.

I took off my shoes and laid down on the neat tight coverlet of my bed and slept for almost four hours without dreaming. Rap on the door woke me up finally, and a voice calling, "Twenty minutes." I couldn't make out if it was Allston or Perry because it was through the door and I was asleep anyway. My hair was stiff and my skin crackling with salt in spite of the rinse I had under the boardwalk shower head, so I took another fast shower and then shaved and stood soaking my hand in the sink, to loosen the stiff tendon of my thumb, watching my face come clear in mirror as the shower steam melted off of it. The Melungeon face, whatever that meant. It had something to do with why my mother split the minute I was born almost, but I didn't really know if was her or Daddy that was one or if maybe they were both renegade Melungeons. They must have been renegades because we sure didn't associate with any other ones and Daddy seemed to hate them anyhow. Or maybe my mother went back to them, that's where she went. I didn't know, I never even knew if it was something you just were like being black or something you had to do along with it, like being a Jew. The first time some kid in school started talking how I had nigger blood I didn't know whether to get mad and fight or not, because it was plain I didn't look the black kids either, plain enough to them at least. Never really one thing or another... it didn't matter now.

Perry and Allston were in the van when I came into the dark parking lot, dim lights on the motel eaves and a crescent moon shining down. I slung my bass in the side door and climbed in after it. Perry gunned the motor.

"Where's Chris at?" he said.

"Dunno," I said. "He took his guitars wherever he went." Cause I had noticed they were gone from the room.

Allston looked around the parking lot from the shotgun seat he was buckled into-- big believer in seatbelts, Allston. "His car's gone too."

Chris had decided to drive his own car this trip, a bright yellow Trans Am he claimed matched his hair. You wouldn't have missed it if it had been there.

"So I guess he'll meet us at the place," I said, not knowing if I believed it or not. I didn't know if Perry did either, but he didn't say nothing one way or the other, just dropped the van in gear and steered it onto the road.

The place was on a strip toward the edge of town, a few miles out the four-lane highway. The name of it was something like Rebel's Roost but Perry called in the black. We played roadhouses like that one all up and down the east coast, following the weather, and Perry called all of them the Black Cat, it was one of his notions. He said you didn't have to remember the name as long as you knew how to find the place. The original Black Cat was down in South Carolina, a cinderblock biker joint without any windows, but this one in Ocean City was a big old wooden barn. A poster for Anything Goes was peeling off the door, with a way-back promo picture from when Melissa was still singing with the band. Anything Goes was Perry's name for us-- he said it would people in the mind to party. Ought to call it Anything Don't Go, Chris would bitch when his mood was sour, Anything Goes If Perry Says It Does.

Inside there were a few people at the pool tables in the front bar area and maybe twenty more in the big back room where the stage was. The place felt empty (it would hold a hundred or so), and you could smell the old smoke and stale beer. Later on when it filled up you wouldn't notice that smell any more, it would be people, sweat, perfume, fresh cigarettes. I saw right off, walking to the stage, that Chris's guitars were set up there, the Strat and Les Paul too, which was a big relief because there'd been no sign of his car out front. There was more parking, though, around the back.

I climbed on the stage after Allston and plugged in my bass and switched on the amp, then slapped it around a little just to show I knew how. Perry was fussing around with the PA. I put the bass on a stand and slung on the Les Paul, but goddamn it was heavy, so I sat down on a stool to shed the weight. They were playing a Clapton album of old blues stuff, and I followed a little bit of his lead, leaving Chris's amp turned low. The fretboard felt nice and natural to me-- it was no-frets like the one I had before I sold it when I switched to bass.

Allston was sitting at his drum set-- he gave everything a sort of pat and tightened the spring on his snare. The Clapton tape had run out, so I turned up a little and hit the low E hard, letting it throb till the snare talked back to it from behind me. Then E, G-flat, D-flat, A, and louder, C, D, hold on B and back to the top except Cobain, the dead guy, was shaking his head-- uh-uh, it turns around on D before it repeats and that was it, you could hear it in the lyrics too because even they were sort of mismatched with the chords, slip-sliding around on top of the progression. I stood up, not noticing the guitar weight so much any more. In the verse it was all power chords, you only had to hold down the major triads, vamp it just a little. I had the rhythm now, damping a little with the heel of my hand, but the tone needed a little sand in it or something. Chris had this effects thing on the floor that looked like he might have pried it off the dashboard of an intergalactic spaceship, and I kicked the foot switches till I found something that sounded like the flanger. A little shimmer, a little crunch, and now that was more like it.... Cobain, the dead guy, would be nodding his head except in reality he didn't have a head since he blown it off with that shotgun. Then in the chorus you want to open it up and play more of the full chord without damping, and all of a sudden Allston was backing me on the drums and we didn't sound half bad I thought I like it I'm not gonna--

Perry swung around from the mixing board and killed my amp.

"The hell you think you're doing?" he snarled. "People don't want to hear that crap."

So he was still in his same tricky mood, I could tell. But all right, we didn't play Nirvana, we didn't play punk and we didn't play grunge, we definitely didn't play any originals and we also (praise the Lord!) didn't play top 40. We did play Chicago blues standards, and white boy blues like Clapton and Allmans and Stevie Ray Vaughn, plus rock warhorses from Hendrix and the Stones and Neil Young, or we might even take it a little bit country too if that's what people seemed to want. Which was in fact the way I liked it-- I never was a Nirvana fancier, it was just this one odd thing.

I unslung the Les Paul, but Perry was going, "I didn't say put it down."

I looked at him.

"He ain't here, Jesse," Perry told me. "So guess what?"

"Don't tell me that ," I said, and I went on and set the guitar on the stand.

"Hey," Perry said, "Wasn't my idea to play fruitbasket-turn-over."

My hand was twinging me already. I jumped off the stage and headed for the front bar, taking a long look at everybody. Some more people had been coming in, mostly guys so far but none of them was Chris. Mike poured me a double shot of bourbon and I sat there nursing it and looking at my hand-- it didn't seem to be shaking at least, though I could feel butterflies in my stomach. The pain wasn't there there, but I could just feel it waiting. When I did use to be on guitar it would get so bad sometimes I couldn't even pick up a coffee cup with my left hand, much less hold down a bar chord. Tendonitis, the doctor said, from repetitive motion. I could rest it and soak and eat aspirins on it. But what really helped was playing bass instead, which meant it had to be partly a head thing because I had to work my hand harder on bass anyway, because of the longer reaches. The good thing about bass was I could hang back with Allston and keep my head down and be the quiet one, nobody paying me much mind... except tonight it wasn't gonna be that way.

"Jesse," Perry was calling me over the mike. Ten minutes or so had gone by somehow, and I saw I had drank up my whiskey. I got a beer to have on the stand, and I went back to the other room.

"One Way Out," Perry told me when I got up on the stage. He had my bass strapped on him already. Our usual line-up was Perry on an acoustic/electric Gibson, singing and strumming or Travis picking while Chris did the major guitar work. But Perry could play passable bass and sing over it if he had to, and it was do-what-you-have-to time.

I flipped the Les Paul to the front pick-up and stomped the floor controller for clean. The basic riff was simple enough-- Perry would usually play it himself on the L-5. Bap Bap Badda da DOT dot da dadda dadda.... I went through it a few times for an intro, long enough to start turning people toward the stage. Next should have been Chris coming in on the Strat with slide but this wasn't available so Allston just landed hard on the drums and them Pery stepped to the mike for the first verse.... He had a passable voice, Perry, sounded something like Greg Allman, on a good day. Then the verse was done and I didn't quite know what to do next being that I was out there all by myself, so I just kept on with the riff over the I chord, vamped the IV, riff over I, vamp the V and back. Perry was giving me a look that said That's pretty lame which it was, and me shooting one back that wanted to say yeah but this is supposed to be a two-guitar project and quite a few other things as well.

I hit the turnaround, so Perry had to start singing. At the end of the second verse I thought I'd better try the solo, since Perry looked like he was fixing to kick me or something if I didn't. I could of handled it if there'd been the other guitar to keep the riff going behind it or better yet, me doing that while Chris took the lead, but it was too thin with one guitar, plus I was trying to come back and quote the basic riff fairly often so people would remember what it was they were supposed to be listening to. Two things at once was too many for me, and I got lost, couldn't hear the progression, dropped out the bottom on the wrong note and then I couldn't hit the riff again, just could not play it. I had a handful of broken matchsticks where my fingers had been, and there was sweat breaking out all over my body. I thought the weight of the Les Paul was going to bring me right down. I had stopped playing, just stopped cold, and Perry wouldn't even look at me. He was having to sing the third verse over just bass and cymbals while I stood there frozen, wondering if I was going to puke or pass out first. I was thinking I should have borrowed Cobain's shotgun instead of his song. Then my ears started working then and I realized it didn't sound bad that way, kind of cool actually. My hands came back and I started throwing in some fills. At the end of the verse Perry mouthed something at me and I knew he meant to try and pull it out by doing the first verse one more time, so we did that, and Allston smashed it out and we were done.

I looked over the room and what do you know? The people in front were stamping and hooting and the usual turkey was hollering "Whipping Post!" (which we probably would get around to sooner or later). Everybody that was listening was already drunk and the people that weren't drunk weren't really listening. Same as every other Black Cat from Key West to Alaska.

Meanwhile Perry was leaning across and kind of bellering in my ear. "Why? Why does he have to do this to me?" Meaning Chris dusting off like he apparently had.

This was a question that might have long answer-- wasn't the first time Chris had pulled such a trick. Always after Perry had come down a little too hard on his case. If he really wanted to leave us screwed and tattooed, he would have taken his guitars along with him when he cut out, but what he wanted to prove instead was that we needed him. Which was a fact. He'd come back once he made this point, sometimes by the second or third set but sometimes not till the next night. The catch this time was it was the last night of this entire strip. Sometimes we stopped out at the Black Cats of Virginia on the way down, but tomorrow we were just headed straight home.

"You maybe were ragging on him too hard," I told Perry. "Could be it makes him think you don't love him."

"Jesus Christ on a cracker," Perry said. "Ain't enough I carry the son of a bitch?" His voice went down to the preaching register, gloomy and dour like he'd just had to shoulder the whole entire burden of God. "Ain't enough I carry him-- he wants me to love him too."

Then Perry appeared to think this was funny cause he all of a sudden bust out laughing.

"What the hell," Perry said. "Let's try and make'm happy."

So we played Sweet Home Alabama. This went over well enough that the usual turkey started hollering for Free Bird. We did Cajun Moon, and the turkey hollered for Cocaine, which made him a smarter turkey than I'd have suspected. But Perry seemed like he really wanted to mess with the guy, take it out on him more or less, so we did After Midnight-- not Clapton-style but the J.J. way, which is right and true but also a little narcotized for the first set at a Black Cat on a Saturday night. People were drifting when we got done with that one, and the turkey didn't holler for anything at all.

Then we did Wicked Game, to throw a curve-- the girls seemed to like that one. There were more of them there by this time, the place was filling up. Almost an even-steven mix of blue collar and college types, with the turkey and his friends sort of on the fence in between, over the hill underemployed fratboys with their livers starting to go bad. Chris Isaak didn't seem to say anything to that sector, so we did Sympathy for the Devil, Jumping Jack Flash. This started up some dancing. The turkey hollered for Brown Sugar but we did Midnight Rambler, which seemed to put Perry in a straight blues mood, so we did Gypsy Woman, I'm A Man, Red House, Statesboro Blues. The turkey hollered for Whipping Post again, naturally, after Statesboro.

"Blue Sky," Perry said to me off-mike, and threw a wink.

"Duane's dead," I told him. "I ain't trying that one with just one guitar." I had been holding my own up to then, was even beginning to somewhat enjoy myself, so I felt like I had a right to refuse one.

Perry shrugged. "Cinnamon Girl."

When we got done with that the turkey hollered for Down By the River, of course but Perry called Tonight's the Night. Actually what he did first was yell for tequila, then stood there waiting tell it came-- a water glass about half full of something that looked like old fry oil. Perry killed half of it and showed it to Allston, who of course shook his head. Perry passed the glass to me.

"Just do it," he said. I took a sniff. I didn't know what he had in mind but we'd been up there an hour or so, so what the.... Aaargh. Never wished for a lemon so bad.

"Tonight's the Niiiight," Perry sang, and hit the signature bass line. For a second I thought I was playing it myself-- the tequila had smashed between my eyes like a bullet and I almost forgot I had the guitar. Then I recovered, partly, and hit the foot controller for max distortion. Perry was singing over the slow bass walkdown. Tonight's the ni-i-i-i-ight.... waaarrgghhh--aauuwmpp-- that last part was me. By now I was feeling no pain whatsoever, but luckily this song only has about one and half chords in it so I could get away with almost anything. By the end I was doing knee bends behind the amp and turning the Les Paul belly up to scoop huge bowlfulls of black feedback and dump them out over the crowd while Perry muttered and groaned the words and I wondered how much of this it would take to frenchfry the P.A. altogether... was thinking I better pull back a little when I came up halfway out of a crouch and there she was. The stage was only about a foot high so we were almost nose to nose. She was dressed different, cigarette jeans and a loose white shirt, hair pulled back tight instead of swinging like the night before. It was her. Her look was clear an unintelligible (I don't know what mine would have said to her either) but still I could see well enough that whatever had happened between us hadn't harmed her, which was, I guess, what I'd been hoping to learn somehow all day. She wasn't skulking under some rock. She was out and showing her face, and looked proud of it.

I wanted to play something just for her, something to show I got that message, but Perry was going to take us on break, I knew, once this one ended. I straightened up, holding the feedback crescendo still, while Perry stared at me wondering when I'd ever let it drop. They had opened the second bar in the band room and I saw Chris was standing there with of course Big Blondie. I felt relieved, a little disappointed too. This would be my last one. Brown-eyed Girl-- Perry wouldn't sing it, Beautiful Brown Eyes-- too country for tonight, Brown Eyes Blue-- not without Meredith. Then I found it, or my hand did; I could just swing over on the same note into A minor. I was already playing the hook and Perry was giving me the hairy eyeball, but he was stuck, he had to sing it now or else look stupid.

Didn't matter it wasn't my voice singing, I was talking with guitar, my fingers humming on the strings and my eyes connected straight to hers. I took the middle solo close to the sound barrier as it would fit, hand running deep in the cut-out. I saw the sound wave lifting her wings, billowing the white cloth of her shirt, like she was standing in a wind tunnel or a cyclone. Like a hurricane... Perry was belting it out. She twirled, a maple seed in a windstorm, and I lost her in the crowd. I held that last note hanging in the air like a sheet of hammered foil, till Allston shattered it with a cymbal smash and the shreds came glittering down on everything like snow.

"We'll be back," Perry was saying. The Les Paul was on the stand and I was down, pushing through the people toward the back bar. A couple of strangers said stuff to me-- my ears were ringing and I couldn't hear, but they were smiling. A bartender stuck on a Little Feat tape, which sounded thin and far away compared to us. I had a cigarette stuck in my mouth and was feeling for a match, but at the bar Chris snapped his lighter and waved me over for a drink, which I was more than ready for. The girl was gone, but it didn't matter