by D. B. Gardner
A withered hand rises from the confines of the wingback chair, shaking, searching in vain for the TV remote. Frustrated, the man shifts sideways, the cracked leather cushions grunting beneath his emaciated frame, reaching into the jacket pocket of a caramel brown suit slung over the stair rail post, lifts out a cigarette, and jabs it between his quivering lips. “Light.”
“The doctor says—”
“Light, dammit! I ain’t paying you to wetnurse.”
An overweight, middle-aged woman rounds the coffee table and lights a match to sate the old man’s craving. “Who you kiddin’, Uncle, you don’t pay me nothing, and you know it.”
“What d’you call this?” the uncle says through a cough and waves his cigarette like a conductor’s baton, admiring his tumbledown bi-level home.
“I don’t know what I’d call it, but it sure ain’t the Taj Mahal,” she says, the televised recording blaring on:
“And so, after decades of perseverance, this well-traveled, weather-beaten, sticker-covered guitar case—and the iconic instrument inside—are finally headed to the Cover Band Hall of Fame. This is Rick Pew, CNB news, reporting from Kokomo, Indiana. Back to you, Peter . . .”
“Turn that shit off,” demands the old man. His voice is feeble and wet.
She crouches down and pushes the eject button on the VHS player. “You the only person I know still got one of these.”
“Been to forty-six states.”
The woman raps the machine’s housing with her thick knuckles, “This old thing? The hell you say!”
He reaches for the empty flower vase on the floor and clears gravel from his throat into the makeshift spittoon. “No, fool, the case,” the spindly man barks, pointing to the videocassette in her hand. “The case—the—the guitar case on TV. Your brain has got a clogged chimney, Beverly Mae. The level of your ignorance is insufferable.”
“You forget, old man, I came here to live ’cause you asked for help.” She wags the cassette in his face, a hand on her hip. “And I dug out this old tape for you, thinkin’ you’d enjoy watchin’ it while I’m out there in the kitchen fixin’ your lunch. You ought to show a little more gratitude. I’m drivin’ you up there this afternoon, ain’t I?”
The uncle stares at the television. “Ain’t no Cover Band Hall of Fame. That was a pipedream.”
Bev thumbs her cell phone. “Wikipedia says it was open from 1994 to ’96.”
His lips curl inward. “Ain’t there no more.”
Her arm slaps against her side. “Then I guess we ain’t goin’ then,” she says, firming her jaw, and plods toward the kitchen, her pride taking her past the cane propped in the corner, leaning heavily on the dining room table to ease the pain in her arthritic knees.
* * *
The old man stares out the side window as the car passes a double-wide trailer, a woman in her bathrobe on the sagging plywood porch, calling her dog.
“I’d rather be the fisher than the fish,” the uncle sputters.
“What are you goin’ on about? Shoot—this could turn out to be a good thing.” Beverly reaches over with a napkin and brushes coffeecake crumbs from his lap. “Now remember, when we get there, you lock your little attitude in a cage. Understand? Uncle Clem?”
“I done told you a million times dammit, I refuse to answer to anything other than Clementine Bartholomew Rhoades. Or Clement. Never Clem.”
“Clementine. Is that on account of all this—” Bev taunts, a hand gliding over his mottled, mahogany and white St. Bernard hair, “—Clem?”
“Hush up and drive, woman! Your mama—may her contemptible soul rest in peace—never called me Clem, and you ain’t gonna neither. I ain’t ridin’ in no turnip wagon.”
“No, sir,” says Bev, stroking the dashboard. “This Chrysler is the color of a fat dill pickle.”
“Crocodile-green,” snaps Clement. “Only good thing I ever got out of nineteen years of giggin’ with that man is this here Chrysler.” His scrawny hand spiders up the seatbelt, recalling rides on the Louisville city bus—a younger version of himself a lifetime ago.
“Who named that silly band, anyway? Quidnunc?” asks Bev. She eases the car onto the shoulder, rumble strips jiggling the rolls in her neck, and turns off the highway onto the county road.
“Quidnunc, old-timey word, I reckon. Means busybody, gossipy. Like those old dance halls we played, full of stories, character.” Clement fondles his suitcoat button. “The band name was Reece’s idea. He had a suitcase full of them hundred-dollar words. Wrote all kinds of songs, but never no hits. That’s why we played them covers.”
Bev wrinkles her nose. “And the only song out of that whole sour mess you ever wrote was, ‘I’d rather be the fisher than the fish’?”
“The only song that got recorded. And Reece changed the name to ‘Rather be the singer than the song’ when we got in the studio. He was arrogant like that. We put my song on the B-side of his single, ‘Find a Broken Angel,’ a total flop.”
“Why would anyone stay mad about somebody changing the words on a flop record?”
“It’s the principle of the thing!” shouts Clement. “Something you know nothin’ about.”
Bev’s hand eases away from the steering wheel. “I’ve half-a-mind to swat your boney ass.”
Clement shrinks against the car door, wincing, staring back, bug-eyed and prideful. “Got a Smith and Wesson in the drawer back home says different.”
“All you got is words, tough guy.” Bev slows the car at Main Street and points to a crumbling, red-brick, two-story building, the glass front covered in newsprint, shades pulled down in the top floor windows. “Nine-o-three, there it is.”
“Park in the street,” orders Clement. “There’s a spot out front. Don’t loiter, woman. Grab it before someone else gets there.”
He reaches for the wheel, and Bev swats his hand away. She parks the car, checks her lipstick in the mirror, dabs the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief, then reaches down to unfasten Clement’s seatbelt. Her deep-set eyes scorch him with a searing glare. “Mind your manners when we get inside, ya hear?”
Clement unfolds his three-prong cane and pushes himself out and onto the sidewalk, and Bev shambles around the car. With his free hand halfway up the big woman’s haunch, he follows her across the sidewalk to the storefront—a gimp-legged scatback behind the aging right tackle. Through breaks in the newsprint, the two stand there, staring in.
“Nothing except old chairs, broken pictures, piles of garbage on the floor.” Clement squeezes her hip. “Try the door.” He props himself against his cane.
“Locked.” Bev checks her phone as the sound of scuffling feet inside the store catches her ear. The deadbolt releases, the door jangles open, and a tall man with a broad smile, teeth gleaming like a Ford convertible, invites them inside. “You’d be Mr. Brouder. I’m Bev.” She extends her hand.
“Call me Chas. Watch your step, ma’am,” says the man, politely cradling her elbow. “And you’d be Mr. Rhoades. It’s a pleasure.” Chas closes the door, nudges an empty beer bottle across the floor, picks up a pair of rusted chrome chairs, and walks them to a wooden table in the corner of the room. “Sorry about the mess,” he says, eyes roaming impatiently as they amble over. “I appreciate you coming all the way up from Tipton. Hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.”
Beverly settles onto the chair, its legs groaning under the load. “No trouble. We like to get out once in a blue moon—see the countryside. Good for you. Don’t get up to Kokomo much no more.” She pats her hair bun and rearranges a pin. “Good timing, for gas money and all. Clement’s pension check just hit the bank.”
“Splendid. Meeting here saved us both a trip. I don’t work out of the Indianapolis office any longer. I live in Fort Wayne.” Chas slides his chair back until the back legs rest against the base of the makeshift bar, an eight-foot varnished slab of pine and plywood, quarter round embossments, wainscot trim.
“So, Mr. Rhoades—may I call you Clem?” he says, lifting an envelope from his briefcase.
“No, you may not.”
Chas drums the table uneasily with the tips of his fingers. “Forgive me. We can hurry this along. Just need a few signatures.” He unclasps the envelope and fishes out the pages while Clement scours the room. Dust-coated tumbleweeds of hair lingering along the baseboards, arced cobwebs strung like miniature harps in the corner of the window frames, Greek revival tin-plated ceiling—nailheads oxidized with age. Clement’s eyes fall upon a pair of sepia-stained photos leaning sideways against the face of the bar. One is of a drummer posing cockily in his cutoff shirt, arms crossed beneath his biceps, sticks in hand. The other is a crowd shot of a packed house. The image strums a chord in his mind. He rests his elbow on the table, uncurls his forearm like a rusted compass, and points.
“Say, cat, what you got there?”
Chas turns, puzzled. “Cat?”
“He means the picture,” says Bev.
“Oh—right.” Chas reaches down for the frame and hands it to Clement.
The old man’s face brightens. “I—I remember those big wooden beams on either side of the dance floor,” he whispers, studying the photo. “The sound station was at the other side of the stage. Hey—I know this place.”
Chas doesn’t seem to hear and busily pores over the legal documents, scanning each page like a maestro during a final rehearsal. “Ah—here we are.”
Clement holds the photo at arm’s length, squinting. “Brewery. It’s—The Brewery!”
Chas looks around. “They’re turning it into an Irish Pub, actually.” He searches his pocket for a pen, clicks the top, and lays it parallel over the papers he’s placed in front of Clement.
“Look—I know what I know,” says Clement, jabbing the photo with his thumb, “and this place here—was called The Brewery. Up in Michigan. It was a college town, I recollect.”
“Right,” says Chas, glancing around, “I thought you meant this place, here. The new owners are putting in an Irish Pub. McSomething or other. Pulled the construction permits last week.”
Clement’s eyes glaze over. “Brewery—fuckin’ wild, man. Must’ve played there, dozen times,” he says, head tottering. “Had a knee-wall, out the side of the stage, ran along the edge of the dance floor. Reece used to tightrope that sucker during his guitar solos. Out of sight.”
Chas touches the pen, clearing his throat, hoping to make eye contact with Bev.
“Opened for a band there one time, name of Arrow Smith. We figured they’d be a bunch of heavy-metal bikers. Welders, ya know?” Clement laughs. “Turns out they were a glam band, wearing eyeshadow and glitter and shit. Their manager watched our set—liked us. He booked Quidnunc into Cobo Hall in Detroit, opening up for those same freaks—biggest gig we ever had, ’76, I think it was. Wintertime. Cold as piss. We were the warmup for the warmup band. The Electric Light Orchestra came on after us. British cats. Let us use their PA and hang out in their dressing room, which was cool, back then. Fifteen thousand people, man.”
Clement picks up the pen and scrawls his signature onto the page.
Bev’s eyes drift to the old man’s scribbly print. “Can you read that?” she asks Chas.
“No issues there. We’ll have it notarized back at the bank. Merely a formality.”
Bev unfolds a pair of glasses from her purse and pushes them onto the end of her nose, looking over the document. “This ain’t how he spells his name.”
“Never you mind,” grumbles Clement.
“Don’t you never you mind me,” she spits back. “This legal shit has to be done right.” Bev turns to the lawyer, “Mr. Brouder—”
“Chas—His name is spelled RHO—”
Clement seizes Bev’s forearm. “It’s okay, I say. It was R-O-A-D-S back then.”
“Cliff Roads, to be exact,” says Chas. He fingers the page. “You see, it says so right here. His given name is Clementine Rhoades, a.k.a., Cliff Roads. It’s an alias.”
“Excuse me? My uncle and mama were both born in Louisville.”
Clement squeezes her fleshy arm, the skin folding like an accordion. “For suffering Christ, Beverly, if you had another brain, it would be an orphan.”
“No worries. Everything is in order,” says Chas. He tucks the papers away, slides out of his chair, and goes behind the bar. “And now—what you, no doubt, came here for.”
Clement angles forward in the chair. “What, you got some Johnnie Walker back there?”
“Afraid not, Mr. Rhoades. The bar’s a prop. A leftover from the Hall of Fame days.” Chas emerges from behind the wall with a guitar case and lays it on the table.
“It—can’t be—” says Clement, his voice a muted tremolo. “The Crimson Cutlass.” His hand skims the top of the case, coated with stickers, overlapping labels from rocker bars, race tracks, blues festivals, infamous truck stops, bowling alleys, strip clubs, pubs; rough, ugly touchstones of Americana.
Beverly’s jaw slides sideways. “Crimson Cutlass? What kind of bullshit is that—Cliff?” she says, her laugh as loud as a donkey.
“Shut it, child.” Clement flipped open the latches. “Reece named it the Crimson Cutlass. Ain’t nothin’ to do with me.”
He opens the case. The guitar gleams like a frozen ruby under the dull fluorescent light—cherry sunburst Les Paul, ’73. Clement plunks at the rusted strings, and the instrument cries back with a discordant elegy.
“You can have the picture, too,” says Chas. He slips on his jacket, plops his briefcase onto the table, jangles his keys as Clement closes the guitar case, and works his way up with his cane.
The old man tucks the picture under his arm. “Where’d you find this anyway?”
“Beneath the dresser—upstairs,” says Chas.
“Reece lived up there?” Clement aims his cane at the ceiling.
“He actually co-owned the building—until a few years ago. The bank took over the note when he fell behind on his payments. There’s a studio apartment—up there. The cleaning lady found him.” Chad sighs. “The whole situation has put me in an awful position. You see, I represent both Mr. Lambden’s estate and the sale of this property. So sad.”
“You took care of him? Reece?”
“Oh, heaven’s no. I never met the man. His will was drawn up by my predecessor, Mr. Jenkins.”
“He got an estate?” Beverly’s eyes ripen.
“No—no,” says Chas, shaking his head.
She clasps his arm as he reaches for his briefcase. “You said he owned this here building.”
“True. But that was years ago.” Chas gingerly frees himself from her grip. “His estate went into bankruptcy court. In Mr. Lambden’s personal property memorandum, he bequeathed this fine musical instrument to your uncle. That is all.” Chas glances at his watch. “Now I really must—”
“So—this here guitar closes the deal on Reece’s life, and this old building both?” says Clement.
Bev’s face puckers. “Somethin’ don’t smell right.”
“It’s really out of my hands.” Chas shrugs.
“Leave him be, Bev,” Clement says in a foul tone, cane rattling against the table leg as he rises from the chair. “He done said he don’t care—twofold.”
* * *
The western skyline grows hazy; dusk falls like chianti into a crystal decanter as Bev steers the Chrysler southward toward Tipton. She pulls up the littered street and into the driveway of the ramshackle home: a modified two-story shotgun camelback, Clement living in the hump. Bev shuts off the ignition, slides out, and yanks the guitar case from the back seat while the old man makes his way jerkily up the path, heel-toeing it to the stoop with Bev idling behind, arthritis pounding in her swollen knees like timpani mallets.
“Watch what you’re doing, dammit!” Clement shouts, hearing Bev bang the guitar case against the door jamb.
She lays it on the dining room table, then, smelling the crockpot, hustles to the kitchen.
Clement scoots over to examine the instrument. “That dinner?” He yells, popping open the guitar case.
When Bev arrives with bowls of watery stew and a plate of cornbread, Clement is stiff as a December nail, transfixed by the glistening treasure. She whispers a short prayer, eyes drifting to the prized guitar.
Clement spoons the soup into his mouth, then wipes his chin with his sleeve. “Things comin’ full circle,” he says soberly. “Ol’ Reece never once let me play this guitar. Let him play mine plenty of times. Jammed on nearly all of his backups. But not this one. Then he goes and dies and leaves it to me.”
“Makes sense. You were friends.”
“We was never, what you’d call, friends.”
“Gave you his guitar.”
“Dammit!” Clement drops his spoon into the bowl. “You ain’t listenin’ to me. If I said we wasn’t friends, we wasn’t friends. Ever. It was business, that’s all.” He tears a piece of cornbread in half and shoves it into his mouth.
“Why do you think he left you the guitar then?”
“Guessin’ he didn’t have nobody. That’s why. He knew I’d take care of it, maybe even play it. Not sell it to no pawn shop.”
Bev eyes the guitar, its sinewy contours, lying in state in the velvet-lined casket. She reaches over and turns one of the golden knobs. “What’s this for?”
“Volume—need something like that for you, noisy old cow.” Clement pushes her hand away from the instrument. “These pickups really scream. I remember when the humbuckers first came out. They were badass, like Reece. He loved those Marshall amps too, distortion, make your ears bleed, Jimi Hendrix fuzz. That’s why he and I were a good fit. I played them clean, cut chords, didn’t hold nothin’ for more than a half-measure, sliced right through Reece’s white noise, gave the rhythm section something to latch onto.” Bev crushes another chunk of cornbread into her bowl before pouring more soup. Clement pushes himself away from the table and lurches over to his recliner.
“Good Lord, Bev,” he says, “you sure pack it away. Soon as you’re done with your feast, grab that tripod from my closet and set that guitar right here in front of me so’s I can have a good look at that beauty.” Bev clears away the dishes, rummages through the closet until she finds the guitar stand, props the instrument a few feet away from Clement, then trudges off toward the kitchen. Clement perches forward on the tips of his shoes and reaches out to give the Les Paul a strum, then keels over, shrieking with agony.
Bev rushes in from the kitchen. “What’s the matter? It’s that toenail ailing you again, ain’t it?” She removes his shoe and rolls off his sock. “Yep—see. Told you it was growing in. Need to have a doctor cut that sombitch out.”
“Hold your tongue and fetch the nail pruner,” Clement says. “Ain’t nobody takin’ no knife to my foot, ‘specially that boll weevil Doc Spence.”
Bev paws through the top drawer of the sideboard and returns with the toenail clippers. “Been meanin’ to do this anyway.” She squats onto her broad haunches, cups his foot in one hand, and wiggles the device beneath his tender toe, and Clement yelps like a coonhound at midnight, lunges forward, shoving Bev onto her backside. Her dress folds like a roman shade up to her hips; chunky legs in yellow hose springing from the floor; formidable roots scissoring wildly.
“You—trying to kill me?” yells Clement, eyes flaming. He rifles through the end table drawer, slams it shut, and waves a pistol menacingly at Bev, who’s rolling around like an upended turtle on a county two-lane.
“Ha—old dope,” says Bev, crawling backward, feeling for the couch. “You think I’d let you keep bullets in there? You’d have killed me ten times over.”
Enraged, Clement flings the snub-nose revolver, missing Bev by inches. It spins across the linoleum and comes to rest beneath the kitchen table. Clement hobbles toward the stairs, jabbing her foot with his cane tip for good measure. “Born on the wrong side of the blanket, ya freeloadin’ layabout,” he grumbles, climbing the steps one at a time. “I didn’t have no kids of my own, and for good reason, all they do is mooch.”
Bev clambers to her feet. “See who makes your damn oatmeal in the morning!” she shouts, finding the handrail. “Washin’ your dishes, ironing your damn shirts. When’s the last time you did a load of laundry? Talk about freeloadin’, ya ain’t shopped or cooked or cleaned or drove the car or mowed the lawn for goin’ on eight years. Who the hell you gonna get to do all that?”
Clement pauses at the stairhead and glowers down. “Eight years is eight years too long with the likes of you.” He shuffles into the bathroom and slams the door.
“You think I’m kiddin’, don’t ya?” Bev hollers, a foot on the landing, “Well—this time, I mean it. You hear me? You ungrateful—bastard.” The knot in her forehead pulses like an earthquake. She presses it with her palm, slumps backward, falls to the couch, and feels along the floor for her purse, for the bottle of aspirin. As she slowly regains her breath, the house’s windows begin to rattle and shake, and she wonders if perhaps she’s met her last; the walls shudder, the beat growing ever louder, jangling the ceiling light. The sound, she realizes, is coming from the street, a car rolling past, a steady bass thump, a metallic fender rattle bracketing each measure. The thump thunders along the floorboards, shaking the TV trays, the dining room chairs, the guitar stand, vibrating strings of the vintage instrument, producing a mournful guttural hum. The sound that emerges from the deafening din reaches Bev’s ears as the rumpus outside recedes. The purring guitar gains force and unleashes a crooning, euphonic serenade of orchestral pitches, notes both familiar and strange, intimate, eclectic, enharmonic whale calls.
Bev hoists herself onto the couch, slips off her shoes, and rests her heels on a pillow. A finger grazes the rug, static electric shock prickles the tip of her finger, and as though dreaming within a dream, she ponders just how far one solitary note might sing if allowed to rise as far as it could from just one undulating string. Would it cross the room to die at the kitchen wall or continue into the pantry, through the mudroom door to be swallowed whole by the raging cacophony of the city? Perhaps it would steal upstairs, curl around the banisters, poke through empty keyholes, under closed doors, over a chest of drawers, roaming the narrow hall long enough to find the old man squatting in his Epsom salt bath, stropping his blade against the belt with the fierceness his razor-sharp tongue had shown Bev these past eight years. Why did they keep on, the three of them? Uncle and niece. Brother and sister. Mother and daughter. And how long would Beverly’s mother have expected her to endure? She’d have cut the cord—long ago.
Minutes pass before Bev hears the drain plug release in the upstairs tub. She struggles upright, traipses over to the guitar, and carries it to the kitchen table, to its case. In one of the storage compartments, she finds an envelope with a name scribbled outside. Cliff. She peels it open and discovers a check for ten thousand dollars, payable to Clement Rhoades! She reads the note in a whisper:
Long story short, you were right all along, old man.
I’d rather be the fisher than the fish.
Now, before you go thinking some blessed golden harvest of ours somehow skipped your wagon, let me be clear that this song is the only one that ever made money. About eight years ago, the rights got scooped up by some movie producer. The tune almost made it onto a motion picture soundtrack. Can you believe that! Well, anyway, the deal was eventually squashed, but I was given a stipend and am pleased to provide your share. Thank you for your irascible perspicacity; it greatly benefited the band over the years. Quidnunc would not have been what it was without you.
I’ll leave you with a simple paraphrase—All art is quite useless, and the only excuse for making a useless thing is to admire it immensely.
And you, my friend, like Oscar Wilde, are an artist.
Bev hears footsteps cross the upstairs floorboards. A door creaks open. “Where’re all the damn towels,” Clement shouts down the stairway. “Criminy Christmas Bev, didn’t you bring ’em up from the basement? Freezin’ to death up here.”
“Serves you right, heartless geezer,” Bev mutters to herself. “Go get ’em yourself,” she yells, and when, predictably, the bathroom door slams, Bev doesn’t mind, scissors in hand, clipping away at the check, snip by glorious snip. Ten thousand dollars’ worth of confetti rain. Sliced bits of banknote sprayed like spent cartridges over Reece’s letter, splattering the placemat where Clement eats his morning grits.
Upstairs, a coat hook rattles on a bedroom door; the old man stumbling about his room, shouldering on his robe, locating his slippers at the edge of his bed, where she always leaves them.
Bev slides her jacket from the closet and eases out the front door. She climbs into the Chrysler as Clement’s craggy face peers out from behind the curtain, and she backs the car out of the drive. The machine judders away down the uneven road with Bev humming a quiet harmony along with the cooing birdsong of the vintage guitar in the back seat.
D. B. Gardner, a graduate of Michigan State University, has appeared or is forthcoming in Wordrunner, East by Northeast, and Black Fox Literary Magazine, among others, and is currently working on a stand-alone short story collection.