Corey ascended the stairs, Randy behind her, and received another slap in the face. The place had filled up. It irritated her—they’d had her play too early. Now college kids packed the floor. A pop song that ran the limited voice of a male singer through Auto-Tune blared from the speakers. Mob money is laundered less, she thought.
She marched over to the bar.
Most rock clubs around the country had learned their lesson not to let touring musicians drink for free. Bands usually got paid shit, so they made up for it by supplementing their wages with alcohol. Whether the artists were young and wild or older veterans, they could put it away, which cut into the clubs’ razor thin profit margins. And sometimes the consumption of copious amounts of liquor led to additional problems, including less than stellar shows, band members unable to make it to the stage, or even property damage. Some clubs had come up with a compromise—drink tickets. The band would get a limited number, which were usually restricted to well drinks and cheap beer, and any additional drinks would come out of their own hard-earned wages.
But his was no rock club.
This was a sports bar that didn’t know the score. And up until five minutes ago, she suspected Dungeon Dick had instructed his staff, naive to the ways of the rock world, to impress her. So no drink tickets. She’d been told before she went on by Tank, before Dungeon Dick’s desire for her had curdled, “whatever she wanted, on the house,” so she had to move fast.
“What do you like?” she called to Randy.
She looked at him approvingly, and nodded.
The bartender was busy working the taps, so she called over to Tank. She leaned over the bar and shouted, “Dick told me to grab a bottle and meet him downstairs.”
“Take your pick,” said Tank.
She pointed to a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle on the top shelf.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
He reached up and grabbed it, and put it down on the bar. The bartender saw it and immediately came over.
“Whoa,” said the bartender. “What are you doing with the Pappy?”
“She wants a shot,” said Tank.
“No no no,” said Corey. “I want the bottle.”
“That’s Dick’s pride and joy,” said the bartender to Tank.
“Who do you think told me to bring it back?” she said with a wink.
“Ah,” said the bartender, then went back to his station by the taps.
Corey turned around to Randy and mouthed a scream. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They headed to the bathrooms, then dashed through the emergency exit. The door opened to an alley that ran between the bar and the next restaurant. She set her guitar case down, pulled the stopper, and said, “To peaking behind the curtain,” and took a mighty swig. She handed the bottle to Randy, who took a deeper pull.
“Rock and roll,” he said.
Leaning against the brick wall, she looked in the narrow slit between the roofs of the two buildings and watched the snowflakes materialize out of nowhere, like magic. It was pretty. With more than half her life in the music industry, she had learned to savor what little victories she could. Then she heard laughter at the mouth of the alley. She followed the sounds and saw groups of fresh-faced midwestern college kids out on the town. She saw couples walking hand in hand. People laughing and clasping one another, in their pairs and in their tribes as they passed by. It was like catching glimpses of another, shinier world.
“Fuck,” coughed Randy, “that’s legit.”
Just like that, the spell was broken. She was back in the alley, after nearly getting ripped off and sharing a bottle with a guy she barely knew beside a dumpster. It was a very expensive bottle, and the guy had probably prevented her from having to fight off Dungeon Dick’s advances, but her flow state had faded any exhilaration from liberating the bottle was gone.
You’re forty-one, she thought. This is your life.
She took a final slug. It was smooth, with a caramel finish. The taste of Pyrrhic victory, she thought. She passed it back to Randy, who was sparking up. He offered her a hit.
In for a penny.
“Thanks again, man,” she said. “That was cool of you.”
“You’re the one who got the bottle.”
“No, I mean with Dick.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“He was filth. Just having you there was helpful, trust me.”
“Is it always like that?”
She shook her head, then thought about it. “When I was younger, yes. Like anything else though, you move up the ladder and things get a little easier, but then there’s a whole new set of problems. At this point, most everything is already hammered out long before I show up and I know what to look out for. But this,” she said, jerking her thumb at the brick wall of Hooper’s, “this was total amateur hour. I should’ve known better.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Rock and roll,” she said and shrugged.
“What’s the plan now?”
“The plan now is that I must sadly take my leave of you, kind sir. I have an early flight tomorrow, and if I miss it, I will fling myself off the highest building in Lawrence. It will probably only be three stories so it might take a few tries.”
He passed the bottle back to her.
She shook her head. “For your faithful service.”
She gave him a hug. “Go easy on that bottle. It’s the taste of Dungeon Dick’s tears. It’s meant to be savored.”
“When are you swinging through the Midwest again?”
“Keep your eyes on the skies, citizen,” she said, then slung her guitar case over her shoulder. “And Twitter.”
She made it halfway up the alley before she turned around and called back.
“On the chance that tonight irrevocably damaged the mystique of the Rock Star, I want the record to show that I’m in an alley with my battle ax in the falling snow. In heels.”
Randy raised his joint and hoisted the bottle as if toasting her. “You’re doing just fine,” he said, then began to sing the chorus to Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive.
At the mouth of the alley, she turned around and gave him two middle fingers.
“Now that’s rock and roll,” he laughed.
She emerged from the alley into a brighter world, as if she had tumbled into another dimension populated by rosy-cheeked, corn fed humans. Some of these healthy looking specimens looked at the strange woman with the guitar case. A few even did a double take, recognizing her or wondering how they knew her. It was obvious this was a college town—once upon a time college towns had been her bread and butter—and she considered finding another, quieter watering hole, but the kids were out in full force tonight, and after performing to an anemic crowd and nearly getting ripped off and pawed at, she doubted being the oldest woman in a college bar would improve her darkening mood. There were years where she would get hit on endlessly by college guys and younger men because of that stupid album cover…and the subsequent poster. Almost twenty years on, she’d gotten more comfortable with it, even took some pride from it. She had looked good. And damn it, she still did. Sure, there were some laugh lines and her soft, youthful glow had sharpened just a bit, but she had worked hard to maintain her figure and she was unmistakably the same attractive woman. Still, after a night like tonight, she didn’t want to challenge her ego with a new generation of college boys. She didn’t want to walk into a college bar and get noticed.
But she also didn’t want to walk into a college bar and not get noticed.
Worst of all, she didn’t want a college boy to notice her ironically.
She crossed the street, and once she was sure she was out of Randy’s eyeline, she pulled out her phone and opened Uber.
The pulsing map revealed the nearest car was twelve minutes away. Fuck that. She began to walk in the general direction of her hotel. For a block, she felt good. She pictured herself, turning her back on the town, and marching off into the night in her killer boots, guitar slung over her shoulder, the snow falling. She thrust her shoulders back a little more.
“I’m a cowboy,” she sang softly, “on a steel horse I ride…”
After the first block, her feet began to hurt.
After the second block, the snow picked up. The wind blew into her face.
After the third block, the cold had seeped into her jacket, into her bones.
She fished out her phone out and jabbed at the screen again with stiff, ice-cold fingers.
“Come on,” she said.
After the fourth block, she began to feel sorry for herself. The guitar case grew heavy. Normally, she pictured herself as a badass ronin roaming town to town and surviving on her wits, but tonight she would have killed for someone to carry her ax for her. Maybe even rub her feet. In her head, the jangly chords of Wanted Dead or Alive were replaced by the sad piano strains of The Incredible Hulk theme.
It was a mile to the hotel and her phone never buzzed with a willing Uber driver. No taxis passed. Her mood was dark by the time she shuffled into the parking lot. She would have been furious, but she was too cold, too tired. Too miserable. The automatic doors opened for her and she was hit with a blast of blessed, warm air.
There was a young fresh-faced woman, probably twenty years her junior, behind the check-in desk. The young woman smiled. Beside her was a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Corey dove for the plate like a seagull at the beach. She picked the entire plate up and held it in her hands.
“Ma’am, those are for everyone…”
“I don’t even want one, I just want to hold the plate.” She could almost hear the sizzle as a rime of imaginary ice melted from her frozen fingers, releasing steam into the air.
“Fuck,” said Corey. “This feels so good.”
The young woman’s smile looked as frozen as Corey’s hands.
“Sorry. I’m from Boston, so I’m a little cocky when it comes to the cold, but my nipples could cut glass right now. Much respect, Kansas.”
Her hands warmed, she set the plate down and took a cookie. It was fantastic. She moaned. “Holy shit, this is divine. It’s the little things, you know? When I was your age, after a show it would’ve been drugs. Maybe sex. Maybe both. You know what I’m talking about…”
The woman didn’t appear to know what she was talking about. The woman’s smile grew bigger and brighter, and her eyes were huge. She looks like a lunatic, thought Corey. “Um, is there a bar?”