Excerpt from Finding Center Stage
Richard Black knew that tomorrow he would take his own life.
He 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 and into her attic. He followed carrying a frayed-leather suitcase in one hand and a black, hard-shell case with his mother’s electric guitar in the other. He’d managed to grab them as he was politely but firmly pulled out of his mother’s hospital room two hours after the nurses discovered him draped over his lifeless mother in the early morning hours. Although he kept pace with his aunt, he was worlds away reliving the moment when his mother’s eyes changed from warm invitations to opaque circles.
“If you needed looking after, God wouldn’t have taken your mother,” his Aunt Louise said at the top of the stairs. Her marriage was barren and taking on the burden of her sister-in-law’s bastard so late in life had made her ask her husband earlier, “Have we displeased God?” There was no question in her mind why God had struck down his sister, a failed folksinger, alcoholic and drug addict. Her whelp, who everyone said was gifted, who had sung and played with his mom on stage, was so full of sin, Louise felt as if Satan himself was darkening her house.
Richard gazed into the musty room after his aunt moved through the doorway, exposing cob-webbed rafters. The only furniture was a twin bed on a metal frame with no headboard, and a wooden, straight-back chair. A window was set in the gabled wall. He walked over 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 the peeling, white paint. Richard’s breath scattered them like dandelion seeds.
He would become just another castaway here, forgotten like the paper bags on the floor covered in 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 being with his mom’s body.
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. He 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 newfound pimples, but because he’d changed from a boy with a mom to someone alone in an attic.
The next morning at 7:00 a.m., the rain pouring down, he stepped off a curb without hesitation—directly in front of an oncoming truck.
Five years later
Life is a gamble. Most of us lose.
To Richard Black, nothing was more certain. It had been proven one day at a time over the course of his childhood as he watched his mom’s aspirations as a singer-songwriter disintegrate. Doctors blamed her death on drugs and alcohol, but even at sixteen, Richard knew that she had succumbed to the complications of spectacularly failed dreams. Hope was a mistake he learned the foolish make.
He sat alone in his dark office, lit only by the three computer screens spread in an arc before him. The complex computer code revealed itself to him like child’s play. He’d stopped looking at it, however, twenty minutes ago.
He absentmindedly ruffled his long, black hair to cover his discolored skin and the barbershop pole of scars that ran up his face into his scalp. Those crooked seams of thick flesh were magnets for turning heads. His thick, unkempt beard covered other consequences of the morning that had haunted him for five years. He wore long sleeved shirts even on the hottest days to hide multiple skin grafts on his forearms and biceps. Every ragged, scarred inch etched an ugliness deep into his consciousness that he’d learned time and his doctors could not heal. He finally had to accept that he’d forfeited his dreams of performing because bright stage lights and disfigurement are unkind partners.
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. Five 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 in his deep voice, the “f” of “funeral” spit in disgust. He clenched his teeth so hard his cheek muscles puffed out. Five years of rescuing his nephew from the ashes of his sister’s disastrous parenting were about to go for naught. He’d gotten Richard off alcohol, pandering and drugs. The addictions had shocked Henry, especially at Richard’s young age. He knew the best thing his sister had ever done for Richard was die.
Henry 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, he thought, just not a traditional one. This weekend, the fifth anniversary of his mom’s death, in the final place she had played to a large crowd, he planned to salvage the last, best part of himself—his music. Richard would put all of his compositions into a folder and hand it to a beautiful, star vocalist so his songs could live on even if his dream of performing would not.
“It’s just a concert,” Richard lied. He knew that his uncle had no idea what today marked.
“If it were just a concert, you wouldn’t have lied about it.”
Henry knew it was the anniversary of his sister’s death. He also knew that the last, large hall his sister had ever performed in was in Texas. Henry 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.
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,” before shutting the office door 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 over the speed bump and 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, Zeus like, 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 have to go to Texas tomorrow.”
“Like hell. You’re coming to the party!”
The first time Richard said, “No,” the word didn’t come out.
“No,” said Richard. He heard the tires on his uncle’s car shriek as they left long skid marks on the wet, rough pavement.
“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.
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 Camry 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, 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 afterwards 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, take drugs, write music all day, play music all night. Now, he spent copious hours 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, he fish-tailed 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 five years ago when he’d stared into the face of a different truck. Richard wrestled the steering wheel over. His car swerved back across the center line. 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 it disappeared around the curve.
He slid the three-ring binder back and exhaled deeply—the momentary thrill already depleted. He adjusted the rear view mirror so it showed his face. He pushed the hair on his forehead aside to reveal his scars and imagined how they 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 memories of his mom, a younger self, and a different time. But it was as if he’d never been there.
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 his mom when she played here as the first of two warm-up acts to a half-filled audience. She was convinced she was on the doorstep of success. That evening was, they 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. His mom, fate or God had put this opportunity in his path: to give his music away so it would survive even if his dream of performing it would not.
He put his hand on 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?”
Henry knew. He just wanted Richard to say it.
Richard wouldn’t. “I have to do this.”
The distance between them could not mask the rage in his uncle’s voice. “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, he thought—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. Because half of him was sixteen again and 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 crushed rock that littered the parking lot. The loose pebbles on the hardtop splashed like water away from his tires until he stopped abruptly next to Tease’s long truck.
He opened the car door 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 all his life.
“Another truck,” Richard said to no one. 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, Richard saw a gaunt man in a black T-shirt emerge from the rear of the truck pushing a black cart of silver microphone stands down the truck ramp. A Tease crewmember.
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 the scar on his forehead. He asked, “Need a hand?”
“Fuck off,” said the crewmember with a raspy, smoker’s voice. He limped down the ramp and through the wide, backstage, double doors.
“Great,” Richard muttered. The pungent smell of tar rising clammed up around him.
A different crewmember emerged from the same doors and looked up. 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 revealed a small 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 of 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 sucking down a puff 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, looking down.
“That was a joke.”
The guy searched Richard’s eyes, and then his face turned red. “Shit.”
“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.”
Before Richard could ask what he meant, 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?” he asked.
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.
“He’s from the concert hall, man,” said Jake.
Richard turned his head fractionally toward Jake who didn’t return his stare.
“You work here?” Emanuel asked putting his hands on his hips.
Richard turned to Emanuel. “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 showing that he’d proven his point.
“Tú no trabajas aquí.” This guy didn’t have a southern accent; he stuck out. “Who played here last?” Emanuel asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Object of Affection, and Lattice opened for them.” Richard had seen these band names on the concert hall’s website.
Emanuel grimaced. “Who’s your boss?”
“Yeah, your boss,” Emanuel said, leaning in toward Richard.
“Henry Black. Why?”
“Yes,” said Richard.
“Who the hell is Henry Black?”
“He’s my boss.”
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 reached out 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 and raise his 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, holding onto Richard’s hand.
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 trying not to show any pain.
“Because you’re a liability.”
“Yeah,” Richard said. “That’s what my uncle says.”
Emanuel stared, waiting for Richard to crack.
“Is this a handshake or a marriage proposal?” Richard asked.
Emanuel’s eyes softened a fraction. He liked the way this scarred man didn’t flinch. He slowly released Richard’s hand and said, “I don’t allow any screwing around. Sabe?”
Richard let his mottled hand fall to his side and said, “No problem.”
Emanuel nodded. “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.” He 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.”
“Come on,” Jake said walking quickly past Emanuel to avoid further questions. Jake grabbed Richard and pulled him toward the truck.
Richard caught Emanuel’s eyes as he walked past. His knowing look suggested that Emanuel had chosen to play along with their game. Richard wanted to say, “Thank you,” but he knew better.
Richard followed Jake 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 his mother’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?”
“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.
“Did you like the handshake?” Jake asked and spit. “That’s usually a sure cure for constipation,” he chuckled and broke into another coughing fit as they pushed the cart out of the truck and into the doorway of the concert hall. The sound went from harsh hacking outside the hall into echoes reverberating deep backstage.
The sudden shade and the blast of air conditioning made Richard’s skin tingle. Black curtains rose one hundred feet into darkness above him. Poles stretching the width of the stage held hundreds of lighting instruments. Bundles of black wires running along the poles stretched in vast networks of connections.
Richard listened for Amy Laurel but there wasn’t a woman’s voice amongst the clatter of equipment and the sentences garbled by echoes.
As soon as Jake and Richard rounded the cyclorama curtain, Richard furtively swept his gaze across the stage and the empty audience. Beyond the brightly lit stage the blackness of the concert hall stretched.
Jake watched Richard. “The band’s not here,” he said, nodding toward the equipment.
Richard nodded and picked up a Line 6 amplifier head. “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 or something.”
“A date?” Richard smirked, pointed at his scar and shook his head.
“You’re not going to freak out over her or the other band members when they show up, right?”
“Because they pay us to keep that crap away from them. There’s 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?”
Richard nodded. “Could I play something for her?”
“Oh, shit,” Jake said shaking his head. “You’re an audition freak. No fucking way. Okay? No fucking way.”
“I don’t want to audition...”
“Or you can fucking go away now.”
Jake paused and breathed deeply. “Sorry, man, but if you fuck up, that means I fucked up and I get screwed. So, listen, man, no auditions. You can sit backstage during the show. Maybe you’ll see the band members, maybe not. Are you okay with that?”
“I’m okay with that.” He wasn’t.
“Okay because, Jesus Christ, you’re scaring the shit out of me with that audition stuff. It’s like, man, they’re six-times platinum on their first CD. Why do you think they need someone else? Someone like you? No offense. I’m just saying.”
“I understand,” said Richard.
“Are we cool?” Jake asked.
Jake smiled. “Okay, then here we go,” he said, and picked up a speaker cabinet.
“What the hell did you drag in?” asked the gaunt crewmember 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, disgusted.
“Fuck,” Curly said, side-stepping him so he could walk up to Richard.
Curly’s gaze traced Richard’s scar. When he moved in even closer, Richard was sure Curly was somehow able to examine every millimeter of scar tissue and skin discoloration hidden under Richard’s beard.
“Hairy son of a bitch aren’t ja?” Curly said. His yellow, crooked teeth glistened.
Jake said, “Don’t start your psychic shit.”
“What’s your name?” Curley asked, ignoring Jake.
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.
“Richard Black? Curly repeated. “Well, Black Dick, 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 before stumbling 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 match stick.” Jake smiled. “Hey,” asked Jake who pulled Richard around so he stopped looking at Curly, “who is Henry Black?”
Richard said, “My uncle.”
Jake laughed and clapped Richard on the back.
They spent the afternoon setting up the stage and broke only fifteen minutes for 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 his mother died.
“I thought you knew how to play,” Jake said. “Otherwise, I’ve got to get fuckin’ 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?” asked Jake.
“Sorry,” Richard said, played an E chord and then another chord and another in a progression he hadn’t anticipated. 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 his mother as the cute curiosity of her show. He could hear and play nothing other than his mother’s song, the one she hummed in 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 strangely withered, 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, he thought, 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 frail hand grabbed his forearm.
“No,” she said.
“Mom, let me call…”
“Richie, quiet, love. This is our time. Just hold my hand.”
“No,” he said.
“It’s okay.’ she said, and started humming the song she always ended her concerts with; her best, the one he liked 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 the Pulsat monitor by her bedside but she fought on. Her eyes, still bright, locked onto his. When it came to 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 that everyone was standing still, staring at him. Jake broke the long silence. “Yeah, but can he play drums?” he joked loudly.
“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 and put it down as if it were contagion.
“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. “You got the music, you got the crowd, you got the money, you got the fame. Ah, Jesus, you’ve got a gift. Use it.”
Richard wiped the sweat off of 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 as Emanuel just was, he became that guarded. “She doesn’t do anything before shows.”
“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,” Richard said.
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. “I’ll talk to them,” he said, at last.
“Not them; her. Talk to her.”
Emanuel studied Richard. “I was right about you being a liability, wasn’t I?”
“And f’in 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?” he asked.
“Clear,” said Richard.
Emanuel nodded and walked backstage.