At the wheel, staring into the gray muck of the evening, Mick muttered through his usual litany. “Wish I’d learned to play properly, read music, practiced and shit, gotten beyond the washed-up-never-was bassist with the busted hand.”
Piddling gigs stretched from week to week, never ending. Checks dribbled in. Bill payments rocketed out. And how was she supposed to weather all of it; stay awake, stay present, keep on her feet, beat back the round midnight demons running scrimmage in her head and balance the “company” budget? Make sure all the scamps on the bus, all the men who depended on her were warm, washed, fed, and at their fighting weight for the next bout?
“Shut the fuck up, Mick. Christ.”
“Taking his name in vain again?” Butch, the band’s keyboardist, sat up from his seat in the second row, blinking blearily through itchy contacts, blowing hot air into his hands, a dented harmonica swinging from his speckled neck. “Mick’s gone and stole my fucking glasses. He don’t want me to see how bad it is out there.”
“Won’t make it to the studio by nine,” Rory said.
“If it stops pissing buckets we will,” Mick replied.
Butch rubbed the harmonica on the front of his shirt. “From your lips to God’s ear.”
Mick scowled, eyeing the desolate trickle of cars on the opposite side of the highway. “This front’s supposed to move outta here in a minute.”
Butch leaned over to Rory. “I hear Harlan’s paying us less than shit.”
“It ain’t the pay, it’s the exposure.”
“A few chords selling rotgut? Come on, Rory.”
“Brand’s big in the Midwest.”
“What do we need those knuckle draggers for? I’m sick of playing pissy little holes in the wall.”
“Oh gee, it’s the top of the hour, Butch must be on his soap box again,” Mick said.
“Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel and just get us the fuck out of here, brother.”
Mick grunted. “Not your brother, hambone, least not tonight.”
The three of them stared out the windshield into the wet dark. A truck struggled into view, all white light and mud flaps, a child waving at them from the gloom of the bed. Mick perked up. “Damn, what’s that kid doing out in the back like that in this kind of weather?”
They watched as the truck zigzagged, maneuvering around the hubcap-size craters in the sodden blacktop, the sky above splitting down the middle, venting righteous bile. Rory hated rain, but had always liked the smell, basked in the clouds’ coy presentiment when she was a kid learning Godzilla chords loop de loop up the neck of her first guitar, deeded to her by her grandmother. The smell of rain took her by the hand to the first time she played hard; getting her calluses, making the strings obey, doing crazy quilt pickings in REM sleep.
The truck dipped, then hydroplaned, smashing through an exit sign. Rory hopped up from her seat. She signaled Butch to stop. He clunked to the side of the road, opening the door. Rory ran into the rain, the two men tumbling out behind her.
Steam rose from the truck’s hood. The driver sprawled in the front seat, his head a corona of blood blooming against the steering wheel. Butch rattled the door. “It’s too busted to open,” he said. He rapped on the window as Rory searched the empty truck bed then went over to the passenger’s side.
“Where’s the kid?”
She scanned the shoulder of the road, peering around the guardrail where the truck had crashed, the embankment below a mess of shredded tires from semis, fast food wrappers, ratty clothes, melted construction cones from a long-ago fire that had blackened the underbrush into the maw of Jupiter. Thurston, her drummer, ran out to them with a flashlight, the faded red lips of a Stones t-shirt pouting out from his scrawny white torso.