warning: contains a smidgen of sexual content
a Branford Perry story by Stephen Brooke ©2017
The bouncers were buddies of mine. We all worked out at the same gym, Larry's place out by the airport. Yeah, the one with no AC.
Larry sometimes bounced at The Gold Nugget, when he wasn't wrestling for some minor league promotion in Fort Meyers or Clewiston or Lauderdale. I never played that club but knew guys who did, guys in country cover bands, which is okay, I guess, but not my thing.
Neither was going to bars, for that matter, unless I had a gig. I'm not much of a drinker, even less of a dancer, and as a conversationalist — well, forget it. If it was a matter of meeting the ladies, I did a much better job of it from on stage. Not that ‘better’ means much.
There were girls eying us right now. Women, maybe I should say. No one underage allowed in this venue but there might be some out in the parking lot. Blow jobs and blow for those who wanted it.
I left the pursuit of any female fans — and we did have our groupies — to my band-mates. I had a girlfriend at the time and took that seriously. Who? Oh, I was with Christine then, Larry’s ex.
Let’s not get into that. Has nothing to do with this story and this wasn’t The Gold Nugget. Other side of town, the east side. Yeah, over near the industrial park. You could see the lights from it if you stepped outside, shining over tenement roofs.
We launched into “Margaritaville.” We all hated the song. Ted, especially.
Ted was a pretty good singer. Too good, maybe, for what we were doing. Good-looking guy, too, a surfer who appeared younger than he was, long sun-bleached hair, fit and tan. But Ted had demons. We all knew that.
Me more than the others, maybe. I had known Ted since I was a little kid, when he would hang with my older sister. I had seen some of what he kept bottled up, even then.
It was a good night at The Pelican, a good crowd for a Wednesday. And, yes, there were women eying us but most were with boyfriends. That didn’t keep us from eying them now and again. After all, the bouncers were my friends.
“Check the skank up front,” mumbled Kyle, our latest lead guitarist, as the search for that lost shaker of salt ended. “I think she’s got designs on you, Bran-man. Mmm, sexy.”
Kyle was annoying. Come to think of it, maybe lead guitarists are in general.
“All women are sexy,” chimed in Ted, backing off from his mike, “but some are more sexier than others.” He finger-picked the opening chords of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and the rest of us followed him into the song.
As best we could. No one ever accused Ted Carrol of being a great rhythm guitarist. Nor could he sing harmony if his life depended on it, so I held up that end of things while holding down the bass line. It was our band, really, mine and Ted’s; the other guys came and went.
We played The Pelican on Wednesdays and Fridays, and maybe Saturdays if the club didn’t book some touring band. I guess we were sort of the house band, but we would take other gigs now and again. The name? At that point we were using “Synthetic Men,” which came from an Edgar Rice Burroughs book.
Yeah, lame, I know. Anyway, we didn’t get to play ‘our’ stuff at The Pelican. It was all soft rock and crossover country and that sort of thing. That’s show-biz.
The air had cooled outside by our second break. One more set before we could load up, head out, grab some sleep before the day jobs, those of us who had them. We would hang in the alley behind the club, usually, where the tamarinds hung over the weathered privacy fence. I had picked up the seed pods from those trees there, fallen onto the faded-black pavement, taken them home to plant.
Nick and Kyle lit up as soon as we were out the door. “Are we gonna have a practice this weekend?” asked the guitarist. “I have some ideas for new songs.” Kyle was just a kid, and too enthusiastic.
“I won’t be in town,” Ted informed us. “I’m heading over to the east coast to do some glassing work.”
That was enough for Kyle and the drummer. They drifted toward the parking lot, smoking and talking about something or another that wouldn’t interest me. I looked at my bud Ted. It wasn’t the first time he took off for four or five days to work for some surfboard company or another on the other side of Florida, sometimes glassing, sometimes shaping. Ted preferred the latter but did meticulous glass work.
“Are you thinking of moving back?” I asked him.
“Maybe. But, you know, I don’t want to leave my folks.”
“Yeah.” I did know. That was pretty much why Ted stayed in this town. “How’s your dad?”
He shrugged. “Has his ups and downs.”
I could only nod. Ted didn’t want to talk about it and that was pretty much normal for him. I needed to stretch my legs so I followed Nick and Kyle down the alley toward the parking lot.
There would be people hanging in the parking lot. It was discouraged, of course, and now and again someone would come out and tell them they couldn’t loiter there. Maybe they’d move on, some of them, go hang somewhere else a while, but they’d be back. Unless they got rowdy it wasn’t a big deal.
I could see Kyle leaning against the hood of someone’s truck, chatting up a couple girls. Too young to come in, probably. Nick had disappeared.
Over to my right was the neon-lit entry to The Pelican, orange and green flashing. Ernie was on the door. Squat, black, and about twice as wide in the shoulders as a normal man, Ernie Pitts was a perennial runner-up in ‘seniors’ bodybuilding competitions. He was one of those guys I knew from Larry’s gym.
He was also one of those guys that made me recognize I would never compete myself. I didn’t have the genetics and I didn’t have the desire. I gave him a wave and wandered back up the alley.
I hadn’t seen Short Stuff in a while. She was one of those youngsters who sometimes hung outside the club. I didn’t know her real name but she was definitely short. A bit chubby in a way that can be cute at that age, blond, from someplace up north. Ohio, was it?
She had told me she was eighteen, not that I believed her. Too young. I ignored her flirting.
After all, she was maybe half my age. Or half Ted’s anyway. Ted was the oldest guy in the band, though no one would have guessed it. He wouldn’t hit on her. That wasn’t his style at all. Ted mostly stood and looked at the sky during our breaks. I never saw him start a conversation.
Short Stuff — I’d step outside and there she would be, waiting. For me? Probably not; just for any guy who’d come out and put his arm around her shoulders, listen to her stories.
The usual shit — abusive stepfather — living with a friend — could she have a smoke? Maybe I could bring her out a beer?
Why don’t I ever try anything with her? She wouldn’t mind.
No, Short Stuff, I’d say, not me. You find a job yet? Don’t make such a face, girl, it wouldn’t kill you – better than giving blow jobs in someones backseat.
Yeah, I knew what she was up to. And yeah, there were tears when I put it that bluntly. It didn’t matter, did it? I couldn’t feel responsible for every kid I ran into. I slipped inside, the first of us. Not much to do before our last set except make sure Ted had his set list, so he didn’t get lost. I fell into a plastic chair in the hallway.
Ron came in and leaned back against the wall, balancing on one muscular leg. Ronny Rotten he was when he wrestled; there isn’t a lot of originality on the minor league circuits. I didn’t think I had ever heard his actual surname.
“Hey, Bran,” he said, and nothing more for nearly a minute. “Ya still doing that sub thing?”
“Sometimes. I think this year will be it for me.” I turned my eyes up to his broad, deeply-tanned face, adding, “I’m never planning to be a full-time teacher.” I had tried that and it was not for me.
He nodded slowly. “I hear Larry is thinking of going back to teaching.” I had heard that too.
“Has to pay his alimony somehow,” I said.
The rest of the band drifted in, Ted last in line. He’d probably waited for the other guys and followed them. My friend seemed distracted, even more than usual. Was he thinking of changes too? Maybe we were all restless.
Or maybe it was just that time of year, spring coming. Even in southern Florida, the change of the seasons makes itself felt. People would be leaving, heading north. Some already had.
Ron accompanied us to the edge of the stage and took up his post off to the left. Our left. It was barely a stage at all, really, low enough we could step up onto it, but the speakers were up high and filled the room well. The sound was what mattered here; we didn’t delude ourselves that the band mattered to much of anyone. Well, maybe Kyle did but he would learn.
If he lasted. “Good evening, folks, we’re The Synthetic Men,” announced Ted and launched directly into the first number. “I Hear You Knocking” that would have been. We were ragged; we really did need to practice more.
Kyle leaned in and whispered, “Nick can’t swing.” I nodded in agreement. Nick scowled at me. At both of us, I guess. I just shrugged, and we headed into the next number. He wasn’t the best drummer but he showed up and that counted for a lot. Maybe that was true of all of us.
By midnight, the crowd was thinning out. Expected on a Wednesday or I guess it was Thursday by then. Half an hour more and we could load up. Aside from Nick’s drums, there wasn’t much to that.
We all pretty much agreed he brought too much kit with him. I guess it was part of being a rock star for him; Nick reveled in that sort of thing. Right now, he was mugging for a table of older women up close to the stage. Knowing Nick, he would be fantasizing about going home with one or all of them. Or at least as far as the parking lot.
Even Ted was getting annoyed by his showboating. I could tell just by the way he was hitting the strings harder on his tele. Passive-aggressive had a poster boy in Ted Carrol.
Hell, we’d be out of here in a few minutes. No sense in letting it get to me. The ‘girls’ were giving Ron the eye now, where he stood, impassive, arms folded, over by the exit. Whisper in each others ears all you want, ladies; it won’t make Ron the bouncer any less gay.
We churned through the last of the set, mostly repeats from our first of the evening. The crowd had turned over by now or wouldn’t care anyway. There wasn’t a lot of energy left in the room. “This will be the last for us, folks,” announced Ted. I had tried to break him of that ‘folks’ thing but he persisted. “We’re The Synthetic Men and we want to thank you being here at The Pelican this evening.”
He struck a D chord. “Dream, dream, dream,” Ted sang, with me on harmony. We had sung that song together so many times over the years and Ted still sometimes threw me off with some improvisational phrasing. We got through it okay tonight, but we didn’t sound much like the Everly Brothers. There was a smattering of applause.
“Your groupies deserted you, man,” Kyle informed our drummer. “Okay to unplug?” We pretty much had to run our own sound, which meant that I was the one who went over and muted the channels on the mixer. I gave him a nod.
The kid unplugged his Casino and slipped it into its case, and then conscientiously wound up the cable in proper over-under fashion. Which I had taught him. Ted had taught me when I was even younger than Kyle. Aside from our instruments and cables and a few pedals and floor boxes, we didn’t have much. I put my own P-bass away in its bag.
Nick had gone to gab with a couple girls at the edge of the stage. If I started breaking down his drum set he would be sure to hurry over. But he wouldn’t be happy about it.
Oh, wait, Ted was talking to the owner about something. I should most definitely be a part of that conversation. “Hey, Bran,” he said as I walked up, “Estelle needs someone to run sound on Saturday night and, um, I’ll be out of town, you know.” He glanced at the woman and back at me. “Interested?”
Of course she had wanted Ted. Older women doted on him. I don’t know why. Maybe the combination of boyish looks and shyness. “I could handle it if you need me, Mrs. Patterson,” I said.
She nodded. “We’ll talk on Friday.” Estelle turned back to Ted, smiling. “Thanks.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to him, as she walked away. Kyle and Nick were breaking down the drum kit now, mostly Nick while Kyle watched.
“You could just leave it here for the karaoke crowd,” suggested Ted. “They’d have lots of fun with it.”
If I had said that, I suspect Nick would have given me a dirty look. Instead, he only chuckled and went on with his job. “Let’s get our stuff out of here,” I told Kyle. We carried our cases and bags down the hallway to the rear entry. Ted was crouched beside Nick, assisting the drummer, wordlessly.
“Do you think we’re gonna keep at this?” Kyle blurted, before we headed back to the stage. “You and Ted, I mean. You’re the band.”
I could only shrug. “It’s a good gig.” Or did he mean something more, something beyond playing two or three nights a week at The Pelican? “All bands break up someday,” I added.
“Yeah.” He was silent for a few seconds, staring at the worn maroon carpeting. “I don’t think I’m gonna be staying in Genoa.”
“Maybe none of us will,” I admitted.
We helped get the drums into their cases and took them down the hallway to sit with the rest of our gear, while Ted backed the van up. His van, an ancient forest-green Econoline. I don’t think it was the original color.
“Need any help, guys?” asked Ron.
“We’re good,” I told him. “You have any rasslin’ gigs coming up?”
“Aah, the promoter wants me to work security some nights but he won’t give me any matches.” I nodded in sympathy. Ron was not much of a success, too stiff to be a good jobber, not enough personality to be marketable.
“Hey,” I asked, “do you remember that little blond girl who hung around here? Short Stuff, we called her.”
“Yeah, I do,” Ron replied. “I heard she moved back to Ohio. Ain’t that right, Joel?” he asked a skinny guy in a server’s vest who had just joined us.
“Short Stuff? Yeah, she’s gone. A friend drove down and picked her up.” Joel went on by us with a bag of trash for the dumpster.
Nick turned to us, all his gear squared away in Ted’s vehicle. “Too bad,” he laughed. “She was a good little fuck. Gave me some memorable breaks out here!” Nick leered at me. “You coulda had her anytime, y’know. The girl liked you.”
“Aah, screw you, Bran. You gonna make —”
It had been enough. This, the whole night. My left shot out, just one jab, and Nick was sitting on the pavement, blood flowing from his nose.
Ron stepped between us, afraid I would do more damage maybe, but I wasn’t mad anymore. That had gone out of me with that one punch. Hell, Nick didn’t deserve it — no more than anyone else.
The drummer sat there holding his nose and looking up at me. “My big mouth,” he mumbled. “Is it broken?”
“Doesn’t look it,” Ron told him. Kyle and Ted just stood there, kind of uncertain about what had happened.
“Sorry ’bout the nose, dude,” I sighed. You should have known better. I should have known better.
Joel had ducked inside and returned with a handful of paper towels. “Here,” he said to the now-standing Nick, thrusting them into his hands. “It might be best if you didn’t come in to clean up,” he continued, taking a look over his shoulder. “Maybe Mrs. Patterson shouldn’t know about this.”
“I’m not saying anything,” stated Ron.
“Okay,” agreed Nick. “Let’s get going.” We all piled into the Ford and said nothing much as we headed out. Kyle’s place was close and we dropped him — and his guitar — first, at a little concrete block house in one of the shabbier neighborhoods. I never asked but I think he lived with one or another of his parents.
Nick shared an apartment further south. We pulled into the dark parking lot; fortunately his place was on the ground floor so we didn’t need to carry his kit up any stairs.
I turned to him and asked, “See you Friday?”
“Yeah, sure.” He gave me a lopsided smile. “To make up for this —” He gestured toward his nose. “You need to carry in my stuff while I wash up.”
“Good enough,” agreed Ted, speaking before I could. “You look pretty awful.” There was a fair amount of dried blood on Nick’s face and teeshirt.
“Don’t do this again, okay?” Ted whispered as we took the drum set inside. “Not that I blame you. You liked that girl, didn’t you?”
“Not so much,” I admitted.
“Hmm, yeah.” Ted and I had been friends long enough to understand each other. Perhaps better than we understood ourselves. “Just, um, regrets, huh?”
“That’s about it.”
I lived furthest out, across the bay, over near the airport. We turned east, Ted driving through the night, and I thought about that little girl. Yeah, regrets. Too many regrets,too many shoulds and shouldn’ts. And Short Stuff? I never knew what became of her.
Sometimes I still wonder.
Note: This story would be set in the mid-1980s. Yeah, I know some you probably weren’t even born yet.