The Song In Your Smile
Happy February. Things continue apace. I’ve released the following snippet to my newsletter subscribers already, and now it’s time for blog followers to get a quick peak at another story idea percolating on the back burner. I do hope you enjoy it, and if you want to be among the first to get a gander at these story ideas, please sign up for my newsletter!
Experience told Max the crowd would start screaming the instant one of them stepped foot on stage. He wasn’t sure he could face another screaming crowd.
“Max, buddy, we have to get out there.” At least Jeremy had some sympathy in his tone. “We can’t wait much longer.”
“Max, we can’t.”
“D-do St-tar Baby. Th-they l-like th-that one.”
“Star Baby’s not an opening number.” Jeremy paced the length of the green room.
“It’s fine, Jer,” Dunstan snarled. “C’mon.” He grabbed his jacket from the arm of a couch and stormed out the door.
“Max, you’re handing this to him.”
“He’d j-just t-take it anyw-way.”
“Why make it easy?”
“I c-can’t.” He hated bailing on Jeremy now, right when things were taking off. But every stop, it got more and more difficult to make the leap from small town to big stage.
After the last show, he’d gotten so black-out drunk it had taken him a full day to recover. He’d woken with a very young man next to him in bed with no idea who he was or how he’d ended up there. He was still waiting for that shoe to fall. He could only hope the kid was legal and the worst fall out would be naked pictures of him on the internet some day when he’d all but forgotten about the incident. Or a snickering account of how Max Keys couldn’t carry his end of the conversation.
“G-go.” He pushed Jeremy towards the door.
Jeremy sighed, but went. Because at the end of the day, he loved being a rock star more than he loved Max, which was fine. “You be out there by the end of this number.”
Max waved him off.
The sound of Dunstan’s wailing guitar carried to the green room as Jeremy opened the door. He spared a sad look over his shoulder before he left.
Like he already knew.
Dunstan switched gears into a driving guitar solo and a few moments later, Jeremy’s drumbeat picked up, supporting the guitar. Music pulsed through the building, vibrating down into Max’s bones.
“You guys, gals, and… all of… you are going to help us open the show today!” Dunstan called into the mic. A loud buzz of feedback drowned out the crowd’s roar of enthusiasm.
Max winced. “Folks,” he muttered. “Just say folks.” He’d argued with Dunstan over how to address the crowd so many times. Jeremy’s partner had all but stopped coming to their gigs because of Dunstan’s tone-def attitude.
It wasn’t lost on Max, now the room was empty, he could get words out perfectly.
Dunstan slowed his roll on the guitar. The bass player followed him. Jeremy eased them into the opening bars of Star Baby. It was the one song on their most recent CD featuring Dunstan’s vocals. They’d been working on more, and some of those would probably end up in the new set. He wanted more of the spotlight. Max had no idea why he was so growly, now he was getting what he wanted. The crowd didn’t seem to care, judging by the way they sang along with the hard-driving ballad.
Max slung his own leather jacket over a shoulder as he left the green room. He wandered down the cement-floored corridor leading to the back-stage door. Once through, he’d be in the wings. A few quick paces straight ahead lead centre stage with Dunstan.
A short jog to the left, instead, would take him out the back door of the venue into the alley. Escape. Freedom.
He pushed through the door to the wings. Tension climbed up his spine, pulling the muscles between his shoulder blades bow-string tight.
Jeremy must have caught the door’s movement—or been looking for it—because his head swung around. He met Max’s gaze.
He knew before Max had fully made up his mind. It showed in his eyes.
The ballad was a handful of beats from over.
Jeremy pursed his lips, gave a curt nod, then looked away as he led the band into one of Dunstan’s new singles.
Anxiety fell away, the tightness snapped, leaving Max free to move. To breathe.
Dunstan’s countenance turned to thunder as he swung around to face Jeremy, back to the crowd. He caught sight of Max, eyes pinpoints of burning fury.
Max raised one hand in salute, then turned his back as he pulled on his jacket.
He was done.
If Dunstan had pretended for months now he didn’t know their repertoire well enough to perform it all, he didn’t fool Max. Dunstan knew it all. He wanted the spotlight. He craved it.
Max wanted the music. His guitar, his voice, smooth as butter when he sang, whether anyone listened or not.
The music was reduced to a dull, grinding whine behind cement and steel as the stage door clanged shut behind him.
“Now what?” He smiled to himself. No stutter. Also, it sounded like the title of a new song he hadn’t heard yet.
Leaving the clamour of hard rock behind, he stuffed his hands into his pockets as he angled across the parking lot to the street. Away from the driving noises of Dunstan’s needs, Max would be able to hear the new song better. It would come to him. They always did.
A person could only call themselves washed up if they’d ever actually made it somewhere to begin with. Max had bailed before the band broke out.
Now, he peeled his lips back as he squinted past the lights into the dim bar. These people didn’t think he was washed up. If they did, they wouldn’t be here. Well. Except for the guy at the end of the bar. He looked like he lived there. But every bar had one of those. The guy who rented a room upstairs and used the bar for his living room.
Wow. Depressing. Max couldn’t imagine living in a place like this. Although the rent was probably affordable. God knew the pay for playing this roach motel wasn’t a lot. Jesus. Roach motel. Who even said that anymore? Maybe he was washed up at thirty-one.
Maybe it felt like it because he’d signed away seventy percent of his blood, sweat and tears to extricate himself from Dunstan’s vindictive bullshit. Jeremy had hung on longer, trying to make the band work, but even he had called it quits when Dunstan had tried to prohibit Max from singing his own songs in the dive bars he sang at. Now Dunstan owned seventy percent of Max’s life. The fans loved him. They believed all his lies about Max burning out and ending up a sloppy drunk no one wanted to listen to.
Except maybe the roach roomie at the end of the bar who was watching him over the lip of his bourbon or scotch or whatever it was he was drinking.
He had pretty eyes, at least. Perfect lips, too, despite the scruff framing his mouth. So Max wasn’t so washed up he didn’t remember what pretty looked like.
Smile. Wasn’t that how it was done? Must be, because the guy smiled back, and holy hell. Max reassessed his first impression, and his second. The guy wasn’t drunk, for one thing. Not yet. Nor did ‘pretty’ cover it. Not with a wide-open expression like the one he turned don Max. It filled his clear brown eyes, and yeah, he was scruffy, but he’d trimmed the scruff around the edges. His smile drew pleasant lines over his face, making him appear just a little worn in.
He was also getting up, which was disappointing.
The guy stopped, glass in hand, and blinked at him.
Shit. Mic’s on. Asshole. Max dropped into his sultry singing voice, offered a wink and tilt of his head. “We’re just getting started.”
The guy lifted his glass, strode across the floor and pulled out a chair from a table in front of Max. Instead of sitting, he carried the chair up on stage.
“Um. Hi?” Max frowned as the guy picked up his other guitar.
“Mind?” he asked, setting his glass under his chair. He didn’t wait for Max to answer but strung the guitar over his shoulder and plucked a few strings, approving of the tuning with a satisfied nod. “Know a few tunes myself. If you want some company.”
Oh. That was a good voice. Whiskey and moonshine. Silver with just enough tarnish. What the hell. Maybe he could play. Besides, who cared? No one in this dump was paying any attention anyway.
Max nodded. Good. Communication 101. Go him.
The guy strummed a few bars, then began to pick out a pretty melody. Of course Max liked it. He’d written it. He wondered if the guy knew the words.
And yes, of course he did. They sounded better in that oxidized voice than they ever had coming from Max.
The guy glanced over one eyebrow raised.
Right. Play a chord. Any chord. Fuck no. Play the right chord, idiot. Stop staring, even if he is looking at you like…. Jesus he had pretty eyes.
Max turned his attention to his guitar searched his skipping brain for the right harmony to make the rest of the bar notice this guy’s fallen-angel voice.
“You don’t say much. Do you?”
Shrug. Small smile. Why ruin the illusion? He seems to like me silent.
“Riggs.” He held out a hand, so Max stopped winding the cord he’d picked up to shake it. “Nathan Riggs.”
Tell him your name. You can do that much.
“You’re Max Keys.”
Even better. He only had to nod. He wasn’t going to see this guy again, so he didn’t have to explain Keyes was a stage name he wasn’t allowed to use any more.
“Thanks for being a good sport. I used to play here every weekend, but since I moved into one of the rooms, that stopped. Bobby’s—he owns the place, but you know that, I guess. Anyway.” He scrubbed the back o his neck, grin a bit crooked, a lot endearing. “He’s not really the ‘sing for your supper’ type. So I had to find real job. Bartending, most weekends. Doesn’t leave a lot of time to play. Nice to get a chance.”
So he did live upstairs. Totally called it.
“So yeah.” The crooked grin again. “Thanks.”
If I don’t say something, I’m going to look like the asshole Dunstan wants people to think I am.
Right. Better to be proven an idiot who couldn’t talk, than an asshole. Dunstan was an asshole, and Max was nothing like Dunstan.
He pulled in a deep breath.
Don’t think about it.
“Th-thank y-you. It w-was g-good.” And stop talking. Focus on the cord, not his face. Don’t look at him, you won’t see the pity.
“Better than good. You write incredible music. It was a privilege to share a stage with you. Shame your former band mates didn’t realize it. What they say about you.” He shook his head. “Full of bullshit, the lot of them.”
Nathan’s grip on Max’s shoulder pulled his attention from the cord to look into curious, interested eyes still focused on Max.
Time to chance a few more words. Best he get it out there, let the guy know what he was dealing with. Give him the chance to back out before he got stuck trying to find a way out of an awkward conversation without looking like a jerk.
“Y-you t-took the t-time t-to l-learn m-my mu-m-m-m… .” Fuck! Focus. Breathe.
Nathan’s fingers tightened on his shoulder pulling Max’s attention back. He hadn’t even noticed he’d dropped his gaze to the floor.
Nathan watched him, waiting.
“My music,” Max blurted out, then licked his lips and took another breath. “Wh-why? H-how?”
“I listened.” He smiled. It dazzled on the outside, but the dark twist on the end turned cruelly inward. “I’m the musical equivalent of a master forger. I can duplicate anything I’ve heard a few times, but don’t aske me to create anything new. It never sounds right. Sheet music might as well be a Rorschach test. Can’t read it. Can’t write it. Mom was a concert pianist. She despaired of me from day one.
Seriously? “Y-you d-don’t h-have to w-write mu-mm-m….” he sighed.
Nathan’s smile curled outward again, and he picked up one of the cables to start winding.
Max missed the weight of his hand but appreciated the quiet pause while he untwisted his tongue. “Y-you c-can m-m-make n-new mu-mu-… songs. Without kn-knowing h-how to w-write it down.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. But it would sound like a kid’s scribbles next to your masterworks.
Did he think Max never scribbled? Never crumpled sheet after sheet of absolute drek before he found something worth keeping?
“N-n-nin-nty perc-cent of w-what I w-write, I th-throw out.” Talent was all well and good. Skill took a lot of goddamned hard, unpaid work.
Nathan smiled. Not full wattage, but definitely indulgent. And one hundred percent directed at Max.
Nathan’s changing smiles hid a song.
Max was going to find it.
“P-play w-with m-me t-t-t… .” Max growled in frustration.
Nathan looked up, mouth open like he was going to reply before Max got the whole question out, but he bit his lip instead, watching, waiting.
“Tomorrow night,” Max said, as surprised by the smoothness of the two words as Nathan appeared. He held his breath.
“I—” Nathan breathed deep, then handed the rolled-up cord over. “It was nice, tonight. I enjoyed it.”
One more smile—a quiet one, hiding more than it showed, then he turned and walked out of the bar without a backward glance.
Well fuck. Get two words in edgewise and that’s what drives him off? Have you learned nothing, Maxwell? Always keep you damn fool mouth shut.