Excerpt from Finding Center Stage

copyright © 2016 by George Eckel

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Chapter 1




     Richard Black would join his fiancé and infant son tomorrow. They had died today.
     Richard was thinking about how to do it as he watched the faded, red-and-white checkered dress on his aunt’s large rump rock back and forth as she lumbered up the steep, narrow stairs to the unfinished attic bedroom. He followed carrying a frayed, black, hard-shell case with his fiancé’s electric guitar and a small, sock cap. He’d managed to grab them as his uncle politely but firmly pulled Richard out of his fiancé’s hospital room two hours after the nurses discovered him draped over her lifeless body in the early morning hours. Although Richard kept pace with his aunt up the stairs, he was worlds away reliving the moment Emily’s eyes changed from warm invitations into opaque circles.
     “If she was good for you, God wouldn’t have taken her,” his Aunt Louise said. She’d preached all the way up why God had struck down Emily, a folk singer, alcoholic, and drug user, and their one-week-old, bastard son. And how it was God’s message that she and their whelp had been killed by a drunk driver. At the top of the stairs, she couldn’t have pressed her back any harder against the open door if Satan himself was walking past.
     Richard gazed into the musty attic after his aunt cleared out of the way revealing the exposed, cob-webbed rafters. The only furniture was a twin bed on a metal frame with no headboard, and a wooden, straight-back chair. Boxes and miscellany filled half the space. A window was set in a gable wall. He set the guitar and powder-blue cap on the bed next to one another, walked to the window and looked down on a back alley dumpster three stories below. The windowsill was stained brown with the dried ooze of insects that had failed to escape—the promise of sunlight shining through the window had been their last hope and a cruel hoax. Their hollow bodies lay still on peeling, white paint. Richard’s breath scattered them like dandelion seeds.
     He would become just another castaway in here, forgotten like the paper bags on the floor that were covered with a quarter-inch of dust.
     “The light’s there,” his aunt said, pointing to the lamp on the floor next to the electric clock. Both appliances were plugged into a long, orange extension cord that hung down from a bare socket. “The bathroom is one floor down. There’s food in the refrigerator. Make your own dinner. I don’t run a restaurant. Your Uncle Henry will not be up to see you tonight.”
     Without another word, Aunt Louise stepped out of the attic and shut the door, snuffing out the faint voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Ride On, King Jesus” from the stereo on the first floor. It was the first time Richard had been alone since saying good bye to Emily.
     He bent down to the windowsill and used a scrap of paper to slide the dried-out flies and mosquitoes delicately into an empty, cardboard shoe box. He watched them fall one by one, spinning in tight spirals like falling maple tree seeds. He knew none of them would stir, but he waited just the same. Finally, as dusk began to darken the cold attic, he closed the box with its ripped cardboard lid and placed the sepulcher under a small, round mirror tacked to a stud. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and thought how ugly he’d grown over the course of a day—not because of the crying lines on his face, but because he’d changed from a father with a fiancé to someone alone in an attic.
     The next morning at 7:00 a.m., the rain pouring down, holding his son’s blood-stained, sock cap and Emily’s guitar case tightly to his chest, he stepped off a curb without hesitating—directly in front of an oncoming truck.



Three years later



Chapter 2



     Life is a gamble. Most of us lose.
     To Richard Black, nothing was more certain. It had been proven to him one day at a time over the course of his life as he watched his fiancé’s aspirations as a singer cut short and his son’s life end before it began.
     He absentmindedly ruffled his long, black hair to cover his discolored skin and the barber-shop-pole scar that ran up his forehead into his scalp. Those crooked seams of thick flesh were magnets for turning heads. His thick, unkempt beard covered other consequences of the day that had haunted him for three years. He wore long-sleeved shirts even on the hottest days to hide multiple skin grafts on his arms.
     He sat alone in his dark office, lit only by three computer monitors spread in an arc before him. The complex computer code revealed itself like child’s play. He’d stopped looking at it, however, twenty minutes ago.
     On this cold, Friday night, the eve of the third anniversary of William and Emily’s death, he’d decided to honor them. It would happen this weekend in the last place she had played to a large crowd. Richard would put all of the music he’d ever composed for her in a binder and hand it over to the star singer performing there so the songs could live on even if his dreams of Emily performing them could not.
     Henry Black was already yelling when he barged into his nephew’s office. Richard braced himself. He had lied to his uncle, the CEO of Netrix, and two board members earlier that evening.
     At six-foot-six and two-hundred-sixty-five pounds, Henry filled the doorway. His black hair, cut in military fashion stood erect above a tall forehead that years of sun and active service had turned into a series of parallel wrinkles. Two places where he had no wrinkles were at the corners of his mouth where smiles usually leave their marks.
     Henry threw a switch and the office lit up. “Texas?” In three strides, Henry was looming over Richard. Three years ago, his uncle would have grabbed him by the nape of his neck and hauled him out of his chair. “To a funeral?” Henry asked, the “f” of “funeral” spit in disgust. He clenched his teeth so hard his cheek muscles puffed out. He held up two sheets of paper. “You’d risk a $75,000 promotion over this?”
     Richard recognized the boarding pass and concert ticket he’d just printed on the network printer. These were tickets to a funeral, just not a traditional one.
     “It’s just a concert,” Richard lied.
     “If it were just a concert, you wouldn’t have lied about it. Don’t you think I know what tomorrow is?” He held the papers in midair, grabbed them with both hands and ripped them lengthwise, stacked them and ripped them again while staring into Richard’s eyes. Henry slammed the scraps of paper down on the desk. They spread out like an oriental fan. Henry pointed at the papers and said, “This is that one little drink you thought you could handle. Remember that one, little drink that put you on a bender for two weeks when you nearly killed your aunt in a car wreck?”
     Richard knew his uncle could never understand how this trip was entirely about surrendering to his uncle’s safer, if less-alive world.
     “I will not have you go back to this!” Henry said, pointing at the scraps. “After three years of sobriety! The best thing Emily ever did for you was die.”
     As Henry positioned his red tie over the buttons on his starched, white shirt, he said, “Life is a series of intersections. How you navigate them becomes the story of your life. Be careful which way you turn.”
     As he wheeled around and marched toward the door, he called over his shoulder, “Be at my house tomorrow night at seven sharp for the party with the board to celebrate your promotion.” The office door slammed shut behind him.
     A flash of lightning lit the ceiling-high windows, casting in stark relief the torrent of cold, March rain falling on the high-tech complex just outside of Baltimore. Out the window, he saw his uncle’s Mercedes Benz S600 slice two shafts of light through the night, illuminating raindrops as he sped out of the parking lot. A low-pitch reverberation of thunder rolled over Netrix’s two-story building, now dark except for Richard’s office light.
     He grabbed the long strips of ripped paper off his desk. The ends stuck out beyond his fist, as though he’d grabbed jagged bolts of lightning. He squeezed his fist harder and watched the paper bend as his fingers turned crimson. When he couldn’t grip any harder, he threw the scraps of paper straight up above his desk. They burst in midair like chaff and fluttered in opposite directions tumbling to the floor. One long strip draped over his desk nameplate that read, “Frank N. Stein.”
     Sitting silently, enraged and littered with pieces of his torn-up life, he grabbed the phone and punched his uncle’s cell phone number.
     His uncle picked up. “What?”
     Richard’s fist was white, “I’m going to Texas tomorrow.”
     “Like hell. You’re coming to the party!”
     The first time Richard said, “No,” the word didn’t come out.
     “Seven o’clock.”
     “No!” said Richard. He heard the tires on his uncle’s car shriek as they left long skid marks on the wet, rough macadam.
     “Listen!” said Henry.
     “I’ll be okay,” Richard yelled and hung up. But he wasn’t okay. When his phone rang seconds later, his hands shook the way they had when he’d gone through withdrawals. He knew he had to answer the phone and cancel his trip but he clasped his hands together and held on until the ringing finally gave up.



 Chapter 3




     Continental Airlines Flight 527 took a little over three hours to touch down at George Bush International Airport in Houston. The Boeing 737’s twin Pratt and Whitney engines spun down as the plane stopped in front of the gate.
      Richard rented a black Mustang and sped southwest toward McAllen on roads that cut through citrus orchards laden with ripe fruit. He thought back to the bare limbs of the deciduous trees in Baltimore, and the grass that had browned from the winter cold. The sweet, citrus smell filled his car even though the windows were rolled up and the air conditioner raged against the Texas humidity.
     Richard never just drove a car; he punished it. Turning corners hard, jamming the accelerator down afterward provided the necessary thrill that opiates, alcohol and playing music all night once had. Everything he’d done in his life he’d done full bore: drink hard, write music all day, play music all night. Now, he spent copious hours alone writing enormously complex software code for his uncle’s company. At least this profession meant that he’d never veer back into drugs and alcohol. His childhood had been decadent enough. The absence of any passion for coding promised a safer and quieter path through life.
     As he rounded a curve with loose gravel, his rear wheels fishtailed over the center line. He put his right hand on the three-ring binder in the passenger seat, thick with the songs he’d written. Coming straight at him, an eighteen-wheeler with a red cab and a silver grill blew its horn. The sound was the same as it had been three years ago. Richard wrestled the steering wheel over. The rear of his car swerved back across the centerline just seconds before the 20,000-pound diesel would have smashed his car into pieces. The truck rocked his car sideways with a whoosh of air as the scream of the truck’s horn swooned to a lower note. He looked in the rear view mirror as the truck’s red brake lights went out and disappeared around the curve.
     He slid the three-ring binder against the back of the car seat and exhaled deeply—the momentary adrenaline rush already depleted. He kept his hand on the binder as if there was still a part of Em in the pages that he could touch. He’d kept the songs to himself for three years and part of him didn’t want to let them go. But it was time to hear them sung and imagine her voice once again in this world.
     He adjusted the rear view mirror so it showed his face. He pushed the hair on his forehead aside to reveal his scar and imagined how it would put off the people he was going to meet.
     By mid afternoon, Richard saw the castle-like, white walls of the La Via Real Concert Hall on the outskirts of McAllen. It beckoned to him through the chain-link fence and the boughs of the surrounding trees. He thought the sight of the place would flood him with fond memories of Em, a younger self, and a different time. But it was just an empty stage without her here.
     Above the walls, flagpoles stabbed high into the bright sky. Long, fluorescent, multi-colored flags flew from the tops of the poles, evoking the magic of Camelot. He imagined that it must have seemed that way to Em when she had played here as the first of two warm-up acts to ten thousand people. She was convinced she was on the doorstep of success. That evening was, he would learn later, the apex of her career.
     Richard saw a black eighteen-wheeler with a white spiral painted on its side backed up to the loading dock. He recognized the band’s logo and figured that he’d reached the end of his two-thousand-mile journey. Amy Laurel, a singer he knew would become the best of their generation, must be inside. Emily, fate, or God had created the serendipity of a great singer singing in the last, large venue Em had played in on the anniversary of her passing.
     He patted the binder of music. Just as a smile rose to his lips, his cell phone rang. In that moment, Texas turned cold.
     “I’m at your apartment,” Henry said. “Where the hell are you?”
     Richard understood that Henry knew exactly where he was. He just wanted Richard to say it. “I have to do this.”
     The distance between them could not mask his uncle’s rage. “If you don’t stop running away from every good thing in your life, you’ll be left with nothing! You’re on the next plane back and at my house by seven o’clock tonight or you can consider your promotion rescinded.”
     The line went dead. For a moment, Richard kept the silent cell phone to his ear. He grew conscious of how hard his heart was beating. That was the feeling of being ambushed—the attack of the special ops soldier: swift and deft. It took Richard some time to ease back into Texas, to feel the rush of cool air from the air conditioner blasting against the furnace of the Texas heat, and take in the truck marked with Tease’s white spiral insignia in the parking lot. Only half of him was in the car, the other half was twenty, back in Baltimore getting dressed-down by his uncle in a hospital corridor where he was being wheeled on a bloodied gurney into surgery.
     Richard punched his cell phone off and stepped on the gas. The wheels spun and the steering wheel came alive in his hands as he drove across the parking lot too fast. The loose pebbles splashed like water away from his tires until he skid to a halt next to Tease’s long truck.
     He opened the car door to the pungent smell of melting tar and stepped into the milky-thick humidity. Sweat bubbled up on the back of his neck. He grew aware that he was sucking down air as if he’d been holding his breath for three years.
     “Another truck,” Richard murmured to himself. It seemed appropriate given his uncle’s threat. He decided to give away his music as quickly as possible so he could leave.
     The four-story tall, cream-colored concert hall loomed in front of him. The solid slabs of concrete had vertical indentations running the height of the building to create the effect of Roman columns.
     As he craned his neck to take in the full height of the hall, a gaunt man in a black T-shirt emerged from the rear of the truck pushing a black cart of silver microphone stands down the truck ramp. A Tease crew member.
     The man jerked his eyes away and leaned hard into the cart the moment he saw Richard. The sudden acceleration made the man’s slight limp more pronounced. His waist looked barely large enough to hold up his very slim pants. He shrugged his long, dark, scraggly hair out of his face.
     Richard cupped his hand over his eyes to block out the sun and cover his scar. He asked, “Need a hand?”
     “Fuck off,” said the crew member with a raspy, smoker’s voice. He limped down the ramp and through the wide, backstage, double doors.
     “And a big Texas hello to you too,” Richard said but the man was out of earshot.
     A different crew member emerged from the same doors the gaunt man had just gone in. His black, Tease t-shirt was stretched to its limit in front as if he were nine months gone with child. His black, shoulder-length hair drooped down from a bald spot on the top of his head. As the roadie got closer, Richard could see the sweat pouring down his face as well as the large, dark sweat stains ringing his collar and armpits.
     “Need a hand?” Richard offered.
     The guy stopped, used both hands to wipe the sweat off his face and said, “No, man, we got it.” He wheezed like a whistle as he breathed.
     “Seriously,” said Richard, “I have the afternoon off. I’m just kicking around and the sun is so hot.”
     The guy wiped the sweat off his forehead and he pulled out an inhaler. After taking a hit of albuterol, he said, “It’s a frigging insurance thing. Whatever,” and threw his hands up in the air as if legalities were beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend. “And I don’t know who you are.”
     “Richard,” he said, taking the question as an invitation to hop up four feet onto the loading dock. “And screw the insurance. I don’t believe in it anyway.”
     The roadie smiled at Richard’s irreverence before staring at the scar on his forehead.
     Richard raised his eyes as if he were looking at it and said, “Lobotomy.”
     “Oh,” said the guy, abruptly looking away.
     “That was a joke.”
     The guy looked up, searched Richard’s eyes, and then his face flushed red. “Shit.”
     Richard smiled.
     “I’m Jake. Hell of a day,” he said, jerked forward a bit and grabbed his back. “The truth is we did lose a guy.”
     A deep voice with a Latin accent called out, “What’s going on?”
     Jake went stiff.
     A dark-skinned, bull-like man sporting a black goatee and short-cropped, black hair stood outside of the back doors of the concert hall. His black, Tease T-shirt rippled over prominent pectoral muscles and his broad shoulders tapered down to a slim waist.
     Jake whispered through gritted teeth. “Go with me on this so this guy doesn’t cut my balls off.” Jake swung around. “Hey, Emanuel, man, we’ve got a guy here to help.”
     The closer Emanuel got, the taller he looked. “¿Quién es este pedazo de basura?”
     Richard didn’t understand Spanish but there was little doubt how Emanuel felt about him.
     “Who are you?” Emanuel asked in his deep, resonant voice and Latino accent.
     “Richard Black.”
     “He’s from the concert hall, man,” said Jake.
     Richard turned fractionally toward Jake.
     “You work here?” Emanuel asked crossing his arms.
     “I do.”
     “You have ID?”
     “To work here?” asked Richard.
     “No,” said Richard. “Do you have ID to work for Tease?”
     “I don’t need ID,” Emanuel said.
     Richard threw his shoulders up as if he’d proven his point.
     “Tú no trabajas aquí.” Emanuel grimaced. “Who’s your boss?”
     “My boss?”
     “Yeah, your boss.”
     “Henry Black. Why?”
     “Henry Black?”
     “Yes,” said Richard.
     “Who the hell is Henry Black?”
     “He’s my boss.”
     “Henry Black.”
     Richard nodded.
     Jake said, “He’s just trying to help.”
     “I know what he’s trying to do,” Emanuel snapped.
     Jake went silent.
     Emanuel put his hands on his hips. After looking Richard over, Emanuel extended his right hand very slowly, as if he were daring Richard to shake it. It was the thickest hand Richard had ever seen. Each of Emanuel’s fingers was as wide as two of Richard’s.
     Richard saw Jake look at the hand with raised eyebrows. Richard grabbed it roughly. It was as hard as smooth, sculpted concrete. Richard tried to shake but Emanuel’s arm didn’t budge. That’s when Emanuel started to squeeze.
     “Why don’t you just get the fuck out?” Emanuel asked, not letting go.
     Richard felt the bones in his hand compress and the blood pound. “Jake can barely stand up. Why don’t you let me help?” Richard asked tightening his mouth, trying not to show any pain.
     “Because you’re a liability.”
     “Yeah,” Richard said. “That’s what my uncle says.”
     Emanuel said nothing, looked above Richard’s eyes and squeezed his hand harder.
     “Is this a handshake or a marriage proposal?” Richard asked.
     Emanuel just kept grinning. Richard knew Emanuel was waiting for his surrender so he grit his teeth as all feeling left his hand. Emanuel’s eyes slowly rose to take in Richard’s scars. Emanuel’s grip softened a fraction and after his eyes returned to Richard’s, Emanuel slowly released Richard’s hand. He stood up straighter. “I don’t allow any screwing around. Comprendo?”
     Richard let his mottled hand fall to his side and said, “No problem.”“Don’t make your uncle right. And Jake,”
     Emanuel said turning to him, “don’t make him do all of the work.”
     “I wouldn’t do that,” Jake said.
     Emanuel bent down to Richard and whispered, “He’s a lazy fuck.” Emanuel leaned back. “Monster scar,” he said, with an appreciative nod and slapped Richard on the shoulder. “Long sleeves in this weather? You’re F’n weird, man.”
     Richard nodded. “F’n weird and a liability.”
     Emanuel grinned.
     “Come on,” Jake said grabbing Richard and pulling him toward the truck.
     Richard caught Emanuel’s eyes as he walked past. In that look, Richard understood that Emanuel had chosen to play along with their game. Richard guessed he’d just gotten a gimme for his scar. Pity was a difficult gift to accept.
     Jake collared Richard and led him into the back of the eighteen-wheeler. Stacks of speakers, amplifiers, lights, mic stands and electronic effects units filled every inch of the truck. Richard remembered Em’s equipment, which consisted of whatever she could fit into the back of the rusted-out, Chevy station wagon she’d named Fred.
     “That was fucking incredible, man,” whispered Jake, hoarse with laughter holding his hand up for Richard to slap a high five. “You were just…man!” And he blew out. “And you know what I figured out? You’re not union, right?
     “Know what that makes you?”
     Richard stared.
     “A scab!” Jake said collapsing in laughter at his own joke. “Get it?” he asked pointing at Richard’s face.
     “I guess that’s why I got picked,” Richard said but Jake didn’t hear over his own coughing. They pushed a cart loaded with guitars out of the truck and into the doorway of the concert hall. The sudden shade and the blast of air conditioning made Richard’s skin tingle. Black curtains rose one hundred feet into the darkness above him. Poles stretching the width of the stage held hundreds of lighting instruments. Bundles of black wires running along the poles stretched out in vast networks.
     As soon as Jake and Richard rounded the cyclorama curtain, Richard listened for Amy and furtively swept his gaze across the stage and the empty audience. Beyond the brightly lit stage, the blackness of the concert hall stretched.
     “The band’s not here,” Jake said, nodding toward the equipment.
     “When do they show up?”
     Jake put his hand on Richard’s shoulder. “If you want an autograph, maybe I can swing it. But don’t tell me you want a date with Amy.”
     “God, no.”
     “You’re not going to freak out over her or the other band members when they show up, right?”
     “I promise.”
     “Because they pay us to keep that crap away from them. There are a thousand nuts in these towns with condoms in their pockets yelling shit—like that’s going to make Amy want to screw them in the local motel. She doesn’t want to screw in the local motel. You know?”
     “I understand,” said Richard.“Okay,” Jake said. “Are we cool?”
     “We’re cool.”
     “Good, because you were scaring the shit out of me.”
     “What the hell did you drag in?” asked the gaunt crew member Richard had seen outside. The man climbed onto the stage from the audience.
      “Chill, Curly. Emanuel is cool with him. I got the bad back.”
     “And my little toe is outta fuckin’ joint.” Curly dropped the shielded microphone cable he had looped over his shoulder and walked up to Richard.
     Curly looked skeletal. His teeth were yellow and the stink of cigarettes was thick around him. His eyes stood out large and green above his sunken cheeks that were covered with sparse, black stubble.
     Jake tried to intercede. “Man, you’re dripping,” he said, referring to Curly’s sweat.
|     “That’s just Texas piss.”
     “What is?” Jake asked.
     “Fuck,” Curly said, side-stepping him so he could walk up to Richard.
     Curly’s gaze traced Richard’s scar. He moved in even closer and Richard was sure Curly was examining every millimeter of scar tissue and skin discoloration under Richard’s beard.
     “Hairy son of a bitch aren’t ja?” Curly said. His yellow, crooked teeth glistened.
     “Don’t start your psychic shit,” Jake said.
     “What’s your name?” Curley asked, ignoring Jake.
     “Richard Black.”Curly kept smiling and staring at Richard’s scar. Both his upper and lower teeth were exposed
and, with his sunken eyes, Curly’s face looked like a skull.
     “Well, Richard Black, I gotta gun. So, keep your shit away from me or you’ll see the cherry red inside the muzzle.”
     “Come on,” said Jake pulling Richard away, “before Emanuel kicks all of our asses.”
     Richard held Curly’s stare for an extra second as he stumbled away. Looking over his shoulder, Richard saw Curly point at him, raise his thumb to make his hand look like a gun, close one eye, as if he were taking aim, and then lower his thumb to pull the trigger.
     “He’s a crazy son of a bitch. Don’t worry about him. The guy could hide behind a broomstick.” Jake laughed and clapped Richard on the back. Richard laughed politely but he wasn’t able to forget Curly so easily.
     They spent the afternoon setting up the stage and broke only fifteen minutes for a pizza. By six o’clock, Jake was ready for the final guitar sound check.
     “Can you strum the lead guitar for me?” Jake asked as he stood by the mixing console checking his watch.
     Richard hadn’t played guitar on stage since Emily died. “Sure.”
     “I mean if you don’t want to, I’ve got to get Curley…”
     “Happy to,” Richard interrupted and picked up the maroon, ESP guitar from its stand.
     He used his thumb to stretch the wide, leather, guitar strap over his head and onto his left shoulder. He adjusted the volume and tone dials on the lower side of the guitar, grabbed a pick and strummed an A chord. The massive reverberation of air enveloped him and he remembered from his childhood how small hand movements were amplified into tidal waves of sound.             
     “Can you play a while for me?” yelled Jake adjusting the volume, compression, reverb, and distortion.
     Richard heard Jake’s request distantly as he listened to the rich sound of the guitar stretching out into the hall that would soon be filled with the faceless faces he’d come to know as a child performer.
     “Rich?” Jake asked.
     “Sorry,” Richard said, played an E chord and then another chord and another in a progression his fingers simply fell into. Midway through the third measure, he found it impossible to stop. He was drawn away from this stage and thrust back to standing on stage behind Emily as the silent partner in her show. He could hear and play nothing other than Em’s song, the one she hummed on her hospital bed as she lay “actively dying,” as the attending nurse said. Despite the tubes snaking oxygen up her nose, her face was ashen and her arms were varicose and gray. Her eyes still held all the fire of her youth. And so, as he sat next to her in her hospital bed, he looked nowhere but into those eyes as she hummed. Never trained, she had a beautiful voice, even in this last moment when the light was going out.
     She coughed. He moved to grab the call button for the nurse but her weak hand grabbed his forearm.
     “Let me…”
     “No,” she said.
     “Let me call…”
     “Richie, quiet, love. This is our time. Just hold my hand.”
     “No,” he said.
     “It’s okay. I’ll see William,” she said.
     “You don’t…”
     He lowered his head.
     She started humming the song she always ended her concerts with; her best, the one he liked the most, the one she hoped to be remembered by. She offered him her hand. On her middle finger was a flower-shaped ring with rubies for petals and a small diamond for the center. “Come on,” she urged weakly.
     “Sing with me.”
     She fought hard for a breath and then began to sing as loudly as she was able, regardless of the other patients a curtain length away. Music was her way of fighting, he knew. Halfway through the song, he joined her, singing harmony to her melody. Her face brightened and she looked grateful. A beeper went off on her Pulsat monitor but she fought on. Her eyes, still bright, locked onto his. At the beginning of the last verse, in the moments she always knew were her last on stage, a light seemed to go out in her eyes and, as Richard stared, there was only her falling away and the ending of her song. Her lips stayed formed around the last note she sung. Her hand went leaden as the nurses rushed in. When those two eyes closed, his world came to a stop and what was, went away in the flicker of a moment.


     THE MUSIC IN THE CONCERT HALL DIED AND HE looked up to see everyone standing and staring at him.
     “Hey buddy,” Curly yelled out from a catwalk. “They’re not auditioning guitar players.”
     Richard dropped the pick. He loved playing that song. He loved it too much. It was like that vodka tonic a friend had slipped him to be funny when he’d asked for water.
     “You’re in a band?” Emanuel asked.
     “No,” said Richard as he quickly unslung the guitar.
     “Why aren’t you in a band? If I could play like you, I would be m-m-m-m-m,” he said, pretending to play guitar, “right there,” Emanuel said pointing to the front, center of the stage.
     Richard wiped the sweat off his brow. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Look, if you liked that song, I have a hundred more in the car. I flew two thousand miles from Baltimore so I could give away those songs to the one person who might do them justice: Amy Laurel. Let me play her one song and she’ll understand.”
     As warm and friendly as Emanuel just was, he became that guarded. “She doesn’t do anything before shows.”
     “Then after?”
     “They’re six times platinum on their first CD. They don’t need help. And that song didn’t sound like them.”
     “She’ll want my music.”
     Emanuel looked at the people who’d gathered to hear Richard play: the crew members, the janitors, the executives who ran the concert hall. All of them stared back. He drew in a long breath. “I’ll talk to them,” he said.
     “Not them; her. Talk to her.”
     Emanuel studied Richard. “I was right about you being a liability, wasn’t I?”
     “And f’n weird,” Richard added.
Emanuel shook his head. “Come on,” Emanuel said leading Richard stage-left into the dark wing to a chair beside the stage manager’s desk. “Sit here. Just, for Christ’s sakes, don’t go backstage or you’ll get my ass fired. Are we clear?”
     “Clear,” said Richard.
     Emanuel nodded and walked backstage.



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