Authors: Robert Ward
Things looked desperate until one rainy night, just an hour before their gig was scheduled to start. Bob was hanging out at the Lodge, doing the sound check with Curtis and the already half-wasted Dave McClane.
“Hey,” Dave said, pouring down his fifth glass of Evan Williams bourbon. “Check it out. I’m the world’s oldest roadie.”
“And the world’s best,” Bob said.
Dave gave Bob his sweet, appreciative smile and Bob gave him a thumbs-up. How old was Dave anyway? A couple of years older than Bob and heading for the barn. Bob wondered if Dave had any money. That was a subject that never came up and sometimes it irritated him. Dave knew all about Bob’s financial ruin but offered little information about his own situation. At one time, maybe eight or nine years ago, Dave seemed to be doing pretty well, even published a couple of magazine pieces in
and there was talk of a book contract for his “working-class” novel. But somehow the book never got finished. And when Bob remembered the little he’d read of it, he figured that maybe it was a good thing. The characters, one of whom was obviously based on Bob, were all idealized caricatures of working stiffs. Noble workers against evil bosses. The old social realism of the lamest and most obvious kind. Yes, Bob decided as he checked his amp, it
probably a good thing that Dave didn’t publish it. The critics would have raked him over the coals. This way he could still harbor the fantasy that he was too sensitive for the cruel world of commercial book publishing.
“Hey Bobby,” Dave said, talking into the mike, his glasses glaring from the house lights on the stage. “This level good for you?”
“Great, Dave. Now if you could only fucking sing.”
Dave laughed and did a little Elvis imitation through the mike.
“Hey, hey, hey, I’m all shook up.”
He shook his belly, which was starting to hang over his thick leather belt. Bob looked up and saw Lou Anne Johnson coming out of the kitchen with a cup of chili in her hand. She looked up at Dave, who smiled nervously at her and suddenly burst into his own little rockabilly song.
“Hey hey, there’s a girl Lou Anne. She’s so good looking she could kill a man. Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou Anne, I need you, baby, doncha unnerstan’!
Lou Anne’s mouth dropped open as Dave finished up with a little pelvis swivel, and dropped creakily to one knee.
“Whoa, check him out,” Curtis said, bringing a beer from the bar.
Bob laughed as Lou Anne put her chili down on a table, then ran up onstage and gave Dave a hug.
“My own local Elvis,” she said.
“Damn,” Dave said. “If I had known I was gonna get this kind of reaction I woulda started singing a year ago.”
Bob laughed and waved at him. Oh man, he loved the old Lodge, had since the day he first started hanging out here. It was one of the true benefits of not moving out to the burbs. Out there, there weren’t any hangouts. Everybody was home playing computer games. But here at the Lodge, in good old downtown Baltimore, you had characters. People like the Finnegan Brothers, two bikers who supplied the hood with grass, speed, and coke. (Not that Bob used the stuff himself anymore. He was terrified of a heart attack.) They were scary dudes, even just sitting around half-wasted like they were now. He looked at them sprawled in their back corner seats, dressed in their leathers. They were creepy, yeah, but he needed those kinds of creeps. Besides, they were loyal to the guys in the hood. Once when some dudes from Belair Road had come around the Lodge to mess people up, the Finnegan Brothers had beaten them senseless and driven them back to their own neighborhood. He felt a kind of bond with them, the kind that he would never have experienced out in posh Roland Park. And there were wild artists like Tommy Morello, the steel sculptor, who was showing in New York, as well as Baltimore. And Gabe DeStefano, the poet who only wrote poems about boats in Chesapeake Bay. Sure the poems were bad, but he loved the kid—and his crazy idea that Baltimore was sacred—just the same. The Lodge was his spiritual home, he thought, and if he couldn’t play here anymore, man, he just didn’t know….
As Bob took a long sip of Jack Daniel’s and tried to banish the evil thoughts from his mind, the front door opened and a very wet woman came hustling in out of the rain.
Bob looked up, and felt something happening in his chest. Jesus, she was something … she had thick blonde hair and the most beautiful, sensual lips. And her skin … he hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was soft and white, and her nostrils flared a little, and her eyes … Christ, he’d never seen eyes like those. They were small, almond-shaped, and green. They seemed to hold a secret, or a promise.
She placed the steel tip of her open umbrella on the floor, shook it a little, looked around, and smiled nervously.
“Hi,” she said shyly, looking at Bob, then quickly away. “My name’s Jesse Reardon. I waitress down at Bertha’s and I heard you all need a singer for your band.”
Bob looked at Dave, who did a little Groucho Marx move with his eyebrows.
“I’m Bob Wells,” Bob said. “Do you have any experience?”
“Sure,” Jesse said, smiling at him. “I sang with a band for a little bit in West Virginia. Back in Beckley. Called the Heartaches?”
Bob loved her smoky voice, the way she seemed to be asking him if he’d ever heard of her old band. There was something just so damn lovable about her.
“Rock ‘n’ roll?” Bob said. He feared she was a country singer, which just wouldn’t cut it with the hip artists at the Lodge.
“Sure,” Jesse said. “Some blues, too. If you want I could, you know, sing something?”
Bob nodded, smiled hopefully at Curtis, who nodded.
“Where’s Ling and Eddie?”
“Out in the kitchen,” Curtis said. “Stealing food.”
“Well, go get ‘em,” Bob said. “We want to give Miss Reardon here a chance to sing.”
Bob turned to Dave, who looked at him with a childish excitement on his face. Jesus, she is so damn good looking, Bob thought. If she can only sing …
He helped her off with her soaking raincoat and folded it neatly over a chair. She wore a black sweater and blue jeans and a red ruby ring. Bob looked at her cheekbones, the curve of her lips, her small, perfect breasts. He felt his heart jump into his throat, and he silently told himself to cool down. From the kitchen the other band members filed out. Ling was eating an egg sandwich and drinking a beer. Eddie had a crab cake with saltines. Both of them checked her out, and Bob could feel the electricity in the room.
“What would you like to sing?” Bob said.
She looked around at the holiday lights that were still strung over the bar, smiled at him slyly, and said, “How about ‘Blue Christmas’?”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “That’s a good one.”
“You gonna sing it like Elvis?” Ling said.
“Un-uh,” Jesse said, as she took the steps and grabbed the mike. “Charles Brown.”
Bob looked at Ling and they both laughed. The lady knew Charles Brown….
“All right,” Eddie Richardson said, nodding to her. “Let’s do it.”
Bob waited for Curtis to hit the bass drum for the downbeat, then opened with a short, blistering blues hook. Next to him Jesse Reardon leaned into the microphone but hesitated as though she was too scared to sing. Then she looked at Bob, who nodded and smiled, as if he had total confidence in her. She shut her green eyes, opened her mouth, and began.
The effect was immediate and stunning. Jesse Reardon’s voice was smoky, seemed to be crushed with heartache. Bob felt a jolt of electricity run up his back. He turned to look at Curtis, who had a smile big enough to light the entire club. Jesse sang on, doing the song a second time and Bob noticed Dave and Lou Anne rocking back and forth in perfect time at the front table, a huge smile on Dave’s face.
At the song’s guitar break, Bob ripped out a blistering solo … causing Jesse to smile at him, then look away. She grinded her hips in a subtle but sexy way and sang the last line again.
I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.
The band worked up into a tight, screaming crescendo and Jesse gave a low, hot moan, “Oh yeeeah,” as the tune ended. The bartender, Jimmy Jackowski, a big Pole who usually didn’t much care for the band, looked up at the stage and said, “Fuckin’ A, now that’s music.”
Jesse Reardon looked a little embarrassed.
“I was a little off in the timing because I haven’t done this for a while. I could do another one, if you want?”
“No need,” Bob said.
Jesse’s face fell as she looked down at the floor.
“Oh well,” she said. “Thanks for the chance.”
Bob looked at the other band members, who all nodded their heads at once.
“You want the gig, you got it,” he said.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Really?”
“Really,” Bob said. “We don’t
to hear any more. That was totally cool. What do you say?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I say oh yeah.”
“Welcome to the Rockaholics,” Ling said.
“Thanks,” Jesse said. “I feel like I just won
There was a cheer from some leather-jacketed art students in the back of the bar, and suddenly Bob was hugging Jesse Reardon and feeling the warmth of her body, her lovely breasts crushing against his chest. “Let’s do another tune,” Curtis said. “You know ‘Tell Mama’?”
Jesse bit her bottom lip, smiled from the corner of her mouth, and said:
Everyone laughed and Bob screamed into the lead, as the band kicked in behind their new lead singer.
That night the new lineup, ragged and unrehearsed as it was, was a huge hit. And Bob Wells heard himself play better, tougher, tighter than he had in twenty years. The crowd went wild. Old and Young Finnegan grabbed Lizzie Littman, the porn filmmaker, and danced on the bar. Tommy Morello picked up Lou Anne Johnson, twirled her around, and tossed her to Dave, who caught her and crashed to the floor. Gabe DeStefano was so thrilled he wrote five really bad poems about boats and the bay. Even old, drunken Wyatt Ratley, a burn victim from a fire at Larmel Steel, and one of Bob’s patients, got up and did a kind of clog dance with two sexy Maryland Institute girls who’d stopped by. At the end of the night, the band was called back for four encores, and even after three whiskeys and five beers, Bob was barely tired at all. In fact, he hadn’t felt this good since … well, since his old street-fighting days.
The only blight on the evening was that the music was so loud, and so good, that it attracted some street people who were hanging out outside the front door.
After trying and failing to come in the front door, 911 and two of his gutter pals got in through a back window, and started a fight right in the middle of “Money.”
Dave McClane intercepted them as they tried to leap onto the dance floor, and Nine immediately kicked him in the balls. Dave fell back right into Lou Anne’s waiting arms, howling in pain. Old and Young Finnegan quickly restored order, however, by throwing Nine and his smelly buddies bodily out into the street. Other than that, things rocked at the Lodge in a way they hadn’t for a long time.
As they packed up their amps and guitars at 3:00 A.M., Bob thought about the old Dinah Washington song: “What a Difference a Day Makes.” She had it dead right, he thought. His life looked considerably brighter the minute Jesse had walked through the door.
During the next few weeks, Bob tried hard not to think of Jesse Reardon. He tried not to think of her lips, her breasts. He tried not to think of the way she swayed into the mike, or the smell of her perfume so close to him as he leaned into her, singing harmony on “Rainy Night in Georgia.” He tried to forget her little half smile, and her laugh … so fully alive … so wonderful … God help him.
He tried to forget her because he was sure, absolutely sure, that she
be seeing a guy, though none ever showed up at any of the Lodge gigs. Then Dave told him that he’d heard that Jesse had been married to a redneck house painter named Dwight Reardon who’d gotten hooked on pills and booze and was living in the street.
Which meant she was free, but not for long. Every man at the Lodge was hitting on her. Christ, she’d caused a sensation. He had to do something, make a move….
But he did nothing. Doubt had overtaken him. He was twelve years older than she was, and not in the greatest of shape. What shot did he have?
Who was he kidding?
But still, the way she sang with him onstage, the way she leaned into him. Was it really all just part of the act?
Christ, he had told himself, told everybody, that he was through with women. Been there. Done that.
But from the moment she had walked in out of the rain he was a goner.
As the first days of spring bloomed across the city, Bob Wells alternated between wild hope and total despair. On some nights, after playing with Jesse at the Lodge, he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she loved him. Wasn’t it obvious in her every stare, the way she worked with him onstage, pouting her sensual lips at him, touching him as she danced by. And how about afterward, at the late-night party with Dave McClane and Lou Anne, and Ray Wade and his wild mom, Dorsey? All of them drinking shots and laughing until two or three in the morning like they were young again. It was obvious to everyone there that she was crazy about him.
And yet, when he finally screwed up his courage and asked her out to dinner, on a proper adult date, she made up some lame excuse about having a cold.
It drove him crazy. Bob couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, even with Ambien.
He was so turned on by her, just saying her name over and over, “Jesse, Jesse,” made his heart beat faster. He was alive again, really alive, in a way he hadn’t been for years.
Meanwhile, the chemistry between them wasn’t lost on the public, either. Their gigs had grown to three times a week, one at the Lodge and two other nights at the Horsemen Lounge and the Chesapeake Grill. Here they were, in middle age, and they were a local sensation. Hanging out, having real fun, even making a little money … why, it would have all been perfect, except for Bob’s increasing romantic desperation.