Read by Freddie Machin
The last time Larry Agar had played Brenda’s bar in Rapid City he’d wound up in a fight after the show with Brenda’s new husband, Pancho Juarez, and finished the night in the Holy Trinity Community Hospital with two cracked ribs. That was back in March and his body still remembered the fight, even if the reason for it was long forgotten. Larry’s ribs had ached all through the summer, especially when the cab of the Toyota got cold at night. And, as if that weren’t enough, pretty much every time he checked his email there’d be a fresh request for payment from the charity care department of Holy Trinity. If it wasn’t the hospital, it would be somebody about the rent-to-own agreement on the Toyota, or MBNA politely reminding him that the minimum monthly payment was due on the plastic. Everyone made requests. It was the same on stage or off.
And then, just to really stick the knife in, she’d called Layleen to the phone, and gotten her to say Hi Daddy, and when you coming back to town Daddy, and Pancho’s been real good to us Daddy. Never mind the physical memory of Pancho’s work boots connecting with his ribs on the floor of the parking lot out back of the bar, those calls from Brenda and Layleen were the thing guaranteed to start him shaking, to send him scrabbling for the Xanax in the glove compartment of the Toyota.
Larry pulled up a block away from Brenda’s bar and walked the last fifty yards. Rapid City had changed a lot in the three years since she’d had told him to get his stuff out of the house and not even think about coming back. For starters, now there were a lot more Indian kids panhandling on the sidewalk. Most of them were off the Sioux reservation; most of them should have been in school. In Holy Trinity, after the fight with Pancho, he’d watched a group of them take turns at sucking the alcoholic hand gel from the dispenser at the entrance to the clinic, until one of the male nurses came over and told them to move on. Here, outside the bar, there were three Indian kids, probably less than his forty-five years between them, dressed in plaid overshirts and torn denims. Lank hair held down with grimy baseball caps. He ignored the request for spare change.
“Well how about a song, then, mister?” said one, clocking the Hummingbird case as Larry walked past. “Can you do any Merle Haggard? What about Holding Things Together or something.”
“Put it in writing, kid,” Larry said, turning into the bar. “And get to the back of the queue, same as everybody else.”
Brenda had married Pancho back January, almost three years to the day that she’d told Larry to clear out. Larry was a good six inches taller than the guy, but when they were introduced back in March he saw right away that Pancho had a temper short as a firecracker fuse. Larry wanted to question Brenda about him, ask her whether she really wanted to get involved with someone else so soon. Was three years so soon? Sure it was. Just when he was making progress. That was the problem. He’d always assumed that he would arrive back at her eventually. That he’d just have to knock and she would open the door. He only had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Small steps, the doctor called them. Small steps.
“The thing is, though, Larry,” Brenda told him after the show, putting her hand on his arm. “If I ask Pancho for something, bang, I can consider it done. Layleen can go on study programs. I can afford to close the bar one night a week. We’re living, Larry. We’re finally living.”
The fight itself started the way they always did; over something trivial. Larry passing comment on Pancho’s work boots, or the fact that he was kind of short, and Pancho or one of his friends overhearing. Well he was short. Even Brenda had to acknowledge that. But mostly the fight was down to the drink. Larry could see that now.
The following week, with his right hand still in the bandages from Holy Trinity, he had a sudden flash of realization in the parking lot of a Motel 6 near Des Moines. He saw how it would be if he didn’t do something. Not coming to a sudden end, but just getting slowly worse over time. Less contact with Layleen, less patience from Brenda whenever he called up to plead for clemency on the support payments.
Larry tried quitting cold at first, but the DTs got him so bad, he couldn’t hold the guitar still enough to shape a chord. Some nights he had to grip the mic stand for support. Finally he’d gotten a doctor in Chicago to write him a prescription for the benzos–the Xanax did the job whenever he got the shakes. Now, at the end of the summer, he was starting to get through without the meds. Look, no hands, he felt like saying when he was up on stage without a drink. All on my own.
“Hey Larry,” called Brenda as he turned into the bar. She was polishing glasses in front of the mirror. “What happened? It’s still light. Show isn’t until nine.”
He put the Hummingbird case down. “I just couldn’t keep away. Wanted to see how you’re spending my money.”
She pursed her lips. “No more polite requests, okay? It’s not my job to remind you. You signed the agreement.”
But this was kind Brenda. He could hear it in her voice. She wasn’t angry. She was happy.
“She’s at the pool. Gets back at six.”
He felt his gut clench. Layleen loved swimming. Always had. Every since they took her as a baby. That been his job. He felt his heart lurch. Leave it. He bit his lip. “All good otherwise?” he said.
She nodded. “Bar’s going okay. People like it here.” She smiled. “I like it here.”
He thought about when he’d stood in that same barroom with just the Hummingbird case and a plastic bag of whatever of his stuff he could gather up and Brenda had pointed to that same door, Layleen hiding out back. Three years? It felt like another life.
Leave, she’d said. I want you gone from here.
Well, hadn’t he gone? Hadn’t he been gone all that time. And wasn’t he back now, ready to start again?
“I’m dry now, Brenda,” he said, pulling up a stool.
She stopped polishing the glass in her hand. “I know,” she said, smiling that same sad smile. “I can see that.”
The bar was full by the time Larry took to the stage, right on nine. The house band launched into You Were Always On My Mind, up tempo and breezy; the way everybody knew Larry Agar always played it. A couple of times he looked out to try to see Brenda, but the lights were too bright. They must have invested in a new rig since March. Had that been his money? Or Pancho’s? Probably Pancho’s. Larry’s July and August payments had gone into getting the Toyota’s camshaft fixed.
When the song ended, he breathed heavily, thinking that, if it were him in the audience instead of on the stage, now would be the time to whisper in Brenda’s ear, well, do you like the show? Do you think your old man can still play? But he was up here, and she was down there, and before he had time to think the band were playing the opening chords of Me and Bobby McGee and they were off again.
He watched the faces of the folks just in front of the stage. A few of them were mouthing along. That was the funny thing about music. It meant so much to the people listening, but here he was able to sing and play and think about other stuff all at the same time and it was just going through him and out of him again, like something that never belonged to him anyway. Just before playing Someone To Lay Down Beside Me, he said how much he loved coming back to Rapid City, and how some places never changed, and how good the band was, and everyone whooped and clapped. Just for a moment he saw Brenda then, standing at the bar, serving someone. She wasn’t listening to him. She looked happy. What was it with people?
During the interval, Pancho was in the parking lot, waiting by the Toyota, smoking a cigarette and kicking the mud off his work boots. Larry turned to head back inside when he saw him, but Pancho held up his hands.
“No, Larry. Buddy. Wait. It’s cool. Just having a smoke.”
Larry stepped round Pancho to get to the driver’s door. He was cutting back on the Xanax, but he didn’t want to take any chances for the second half of the show. Pancho watched him fumble with the catch on the glovebox.
“You really have kicked it, haven’t you?” said Pancho as Larry pressed a pill from the blister pack. Larry took a drink from the bottle of water in the pocket of the door.
“Just in time to wish you a happy anniversary, huh?”
He saw Pancho bristle a bit, but something was different. Under the hat, the man’s face seemed calmer. Maybe he did just want to talk.
“Layleen not here tonight?” Larry asked. Pancho shook his head.
“She’s with friends. Took my pickup out to the reservation. Although God knows what they find to do up there.”
Larry had a pretty good idea. Pancho kicked up dust off the asphalt.
“But we just wanted you to know, or rather Brenda wanted me to say…”
Pancho seemed to be finding it hard to pick the right words. Larry took another drink from the water bottle.
“Well, no hard feelings about what happened before, all right?”
Now how hard had that request from Brenda been for Pancho to swallow?
“It’s over. I’ve moved on.” Larry reached out his hand. But Pancho stayed where he was. He looked uncomfortable. Nervous. Stage fright.
“And Brenda wanted me to be the one to tell you about the baby. Our baby. It’s due early next year.”
Larry put an arm out and gripped the side of the Toyota. He ran a finger along the rain gulley at the side of the roof and down the edge of the driver’s door. That explained something. Why Brenda had been so happy earlier.
“Well Pancho,” he said after a moment. “That’s just great news.” Small steps, Larry thought. Small steps.
Pancho fingered the rim of his hat. “And I wanted to ask you. Tonight, would you do a request?”
“Sure,” said Larry. “What do you want to hear?”
At the end of the second set, they played Loretta, just as Pancho had asked. Larry managed to go on smiling in the direction of the bar the whole time he sang it. Look, he thought. No hands. Then it was over, and the audience started heading for the exit, or back to their tables, or back to the bar. The band shuffled around the stage in silence, packing up the equipment.
“Damn,” Larry heard a woman in the departing crowd say to somebody. “Now that is why I love country music. It’s all about people!”
Larry began peeling the tape off the corners of the set list on the floor. Then he wound the cable from the Hummingbird, and put the guitar back in its case. He knelt down at the front of the stage, and looked out into the room. He heard someone call out at the bar, high and loud, for a beer, and Brenda’s breezy voice acknowledge the request, and he looked up for a moment and saw her in the lit horseshoe of the bar, reaching for a clean glass. Then someone turned up the volume on the jukebox, and Larry went back to clearing the stage.
(c) Gregory Jackson, 2012
Gregory Jackson has studied at City Lit under Zoë Fairbairns and John Petherbridge. His poetry has been published in The Times and his story ‘Purge’ featured at Liars’ League NYC in June 2012. He lives in London.
Freddie Machin wrote and performed the one-man play Winston on the Run, about Churchill's early years, at the Pleasance Courtyard for the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Along the way he garnered Best Actor at Buxton Fringe as well as being nominated for this year's Writers Guild of Great Britain awards in the Best Play category. He is about to begin work on his first libretto. Acting credits include: Soho Theatre Studio, Shakespeare's Globe, National Theatre Studio and Gifford's Circus.