STAYING A HALF STEP AHEAD
By Andrew Paul Grell
“This dive? Are you sure?”
“Woof. Woof, woof. Yodel.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Good boy, Bruce. Let’s see if they go for it.” Annie didn’t feel the need to tie Bruce up. In fact, she wished she could bring him in. You never know what to expect from people getting plastered at three in the afternoon. Bruce, a Decker Rat Terrier, put his forepaws on the ukulele case, almost entirely covered in checked baggage stickers, and trained his eye on the entrance to the gin mill. He started counting squirrels and pigeons he wouldn’t be able to chase while Mommy was inside, but he didn’t neglect to update the database on the local prey/threat situation.
“Good afternoon, Mister Landlord. Mind if I use the jakes? Bit of an emergency.”
“Sure. But like everything in the place, it’s use at your own risk,” he winked. Ann took in every detail. Bruce was right, the bar had a piano. Pride of place on the wall behind the bar was a Caribbean sunset, probably the Bahamas. Could have been a proprietary rum ad, but a row of trophies obscured the lower third of the poster. She was in and out of the restroom in about two minutes, ordered a Jameson and soda, and crab-walked over to the old Kroger upright.
“Be my guest, M’dear. Sleeping customers don’t buy drinks.” She sat down and started accompanying herself on The Dead’s Ramblin’ Rose. She played through to ‘Just like Billy Sunday, Just like Mojo Hand’ and took a peek around. A couple of guys with hair a bit longer than standard and a chick were nodding and bopping. Good.
“It’s almost in perfect tune. How do you keep it that way out here on a damp bay?”
“Foghorn on the lighthouse blows a perfect middle A. Usually, anyway.”
“Mind if I fiddle a bit?”
“Knock yourself out, sweetie.” Annie whistled Shave and a haircut, two bits and Bruce came running in to mommy. He sniffed seven hands including the landlord’s, passed on two, and got into a staring match with one inebriant, which he won. Then gave the near-rummy’s hand an extra-special lick, which was cashed in for a good, solid back scratch. The big Rattie trotted over to Annie and she opened her companion’s zippered vest pocket, removing a set of hammers, mutes, and tuning forks. The musician danced the piano sufficiently away from the wall for her to fit and got to work plucking and striking. After 20 minutes, she tried her hand at Claire du Lune. The rendition came out just as bright as the Lune in the sky. For good measure, she played the Beatle’s Let it Be, which earned her a standing ovation, and gave the assembled a wave and a courtesy. And got to work on her drink.
“Benjamin Zonah, proprietor,” the Barkeep intoned, offering his hand with precisely the correct grip for handshaking with someone who makes a living with her fingers.
“Ann Moss, itinerant, vagabond, troubadour. This is Bruce. He’ll track, flush, and retrieve any varmint, find any dead thing no matter how deep, and climb any height. Just for the record, he considers anyone trying to hit on me a varmint. What’s the damages?”
“I do believe it’s me who’s indebted to you, Ms. Moss. I don’t think that piano sounded as good when it was new. Call it even, for a start. Hey, you’re Ann Moss, and you have a dog. I can’t remember the title, but there was an Ann Moss and a dog, maybe her brother’s dog, but he always called her Annie Mossity. To the dog he called her that, not to anyone else.”
“Hey, I like it, I’ll take it as part of the tuning fee. Hey, Mister, can you tell me where a girl and her dog can find a bed?”
Ben smiled when he picked up the reference. “Sure, my daughter’s room is up the stairs, she’s in New York doing not sure what. You’re welcome to it. That is, if you want a job. Ivory tickling Tuesdays, open mic Fridays? You have no idea how depressing it gets watching the customers get sadder and sadder no matter how much they drink. I’d love to see a bar full of happy people once in a while. Whaddaya say?”
“I’d say get me three fingers of two-cents plain and I’m all yours.”
# # #
Ben waited until the song finished.
“What is that you’re playing?” Annie had decided to switch it up a bit and brought the uke down from her room.
“Joseph Spence. Out on the Rolling Sea.”
“I can’t hear the words.”
“Of course not. It’s Joseph Spence. Bahamian folk guitar music. Some’s in Gullah. If you can hear the words clearly, I’m not doing it right. It’s come-to-Jesus music for real. ‘Out on the Rolling Sea, Jesus came to me.’ Spence wanted people to listen hard. You should hear what a fuss they made out of I Bid You Goodnight. He brought in The Pinder Family as back-up. They’re like the Von Trapp Family, only black. Usually he recorded on the porch of his house. The Grateful Dead covered that song. Here’s the recipe. Sing softer than the instrument for some of it; some you sing twice as fast as a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song, and the rest is coughs and hacks. You never see a picture of Spence without a pipe or a cigar.” After I’ve Got to Live the Life, two customers put their drinks down, paid up and tipped, and left the establishment. Annie and Ben exchanged looks. What was good for the bar, what was good for the people. The next round of looks clearly meant that people can make their own decisions. And that Annie would mainly play songs people could hear the words to. Usually.
It took 47 days, about par for the course. She had switched off weeks between rock covers and Great American Songbook. Ben’s Bar exhibited something of a merger between the two. The open mic nights ranged from hysterical to touching to talent discovery. The giant brandy snifter next to the piano was always full, none of it singles. Finally, someone whose cousin knew somebody who knew somebody in the business approached her. The would-be impresario got her an interview and live set on WCB. Next step, a live concert at the big banquet room at the VFW. Then a recital at the Opry House a few towns away. Things were happening, for Annie. Then the last piece fell into place. Bruce, for the first time in his residency at Ben’s, started a low growl at a patron. Annie ceded the bench and keyboard to Rona, who had won the open mic prize twice.
“Are you sure, this time?”
“Woof. Ruff ruff. Grrrr.”
“Alright, he’s an agent. So what?”
“Okay. I’ll let you in the room for the meet. How’s that?”
Any other performer would consider this a Marylin Monroe-level break, to have an agent meet with her, impromptu, between sets. The entertainer pasted on a ‘what, little ol’ me’ look while she sat at the edge of Ben’s desk. Bill the agent sat across from her, doing a bad job of hiding the fact that he was trying to determine if Annie was wearing underwear.
“Listen, Bill, I’ve been down this road. Not my first rodeo. The way this usually goes, you dangle something in front of my face and I’m supposed to interpret that as you being authorized to get me a record deal. And then I see what it really is you’re dangling in front of my face. So next time, come with a contract and a bag of cash and I’ll talk to you.” Annie pivoted from the false friend to the true one. “Whaddaya say, buddy?”
Bill had clearly decided that making money from talent trumped sexual gratification. The logic was clear; the more talent you own, the more likely it was that someone else would fall for the porcine scam. The next open mic night, at the break, Bill handed Annie a three-record contract and a Trader Joe freezer bag with $25,000 in cash, specified in the contract as a non-refundable advance. They both signed, the money traded hands, Bill left with the paperwork, and Annie did a final set. Her actual final set at Ben’s Bar. Three weeks later, Ben received a thank you note from 4-legged Souls Pet Rescue acknowledging the bar’s contribution of $9,672. Ben, no slouch at math, realized that was about Annie’s tips for the weeks that his run of good luck lasted. He hoped Rona had learned enough to keep the customers coming in. At the same time, Bill received a package with a Gold Master of an Annie Mossity album featuring show tunes ranging from Porgy and Bess to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the shipment there was an envelope for Bill which contained the answer to the question Bill was trying to figure out during their first meeting.
Annie, now Robin Wonought, exited the Martz bus and let Bruce out of his carrier. She followed him for seven blocks until he sniffed out the right bar, Stone of Scone. It was even more depressing than Ben’s Bar had been, but the owner was that much more hopeful that any next patron entering the establishment would bring a touch of good luck.
“Sorry, Miss, but our fair Commonwealth bans pets from entering wherever food is served.” So much for hoping for good luck.
“Service dog. See?” Robin pointed to one of the tags on Bruce’s collar. He performs a service. Let me show you. “Bruce, clean!” The Rattie jumped up on the bar, took a bar rag in his teeth, opened it flat, and put a paw on each corner. He waltzed it along the bar until the cherrywood was gleaming, then he licked the barkeep’s hand. “Is that not a service?”
“Works for me. Welcome to the Stone. Phil MacAvity, your humble proprietor.” He wiped Bruce’s saliva from his hand and offered it to Robin.
“Robin Wonought. Eclecticist.”
“Rubbin one out, did’ya say? And what in blazes is an eclecticist?”
“Robin. Robin Wonought. Perhaps my parents didn’t think that through. Let me entertain you, Mr. MaCavity. Your establishment could use a little cheering up. I see you’ve got the ivories under that sheet, am I right? When was the last time anyone played it?”
“Oh, Miss Wonought, that would be Lacy Greenberg’s Bat Mitzvah. The Grand Hall had a flood, so I offered Dennis the use of the place. The whole house, on the house. We do for each other around here. What can I do for you, m’dear?”
“Three hots and a cot for me and Bruce in exchange for absolutely the best piano, song, and ukulele entertainment of any gin mill on the planet.” They shook on it immediately. Robin noted that the farther east they went, the shorter the process was, the larger the advance would be, but the less the giant brandy snifter would swallow. In just under five weeks, Robin, unusual for her, said goodbye to her short-term host and employer before catching the next bus out. Phil’s partner, Ben Doon, came by to see her off. The Gold Master she sent this time was mainly folk-gospel. She had heard enough of “her” previous albums in train stations and shopping malls to know that none of the agents lost money, even at three cents a play; two of her tracks (under different names) actually charted. Thankfully, her next stop would be past the fly-over states: Elkton, Maryland and the Crabby Old Lady.
“Woof!! Ruff ruff arf!” False Positive? None of the imbiberies she had stopped out were big on food; maybe Bruce couldn’t resist the cooking smells.
“Tell the truth of the hunter, Bruce.”
“Ruff. Ruff. Woof.”
“Okay then. I’ll watch myself. You too.”
The Crabby was mostly empty, even though it was gone four o’clock when the sneaking-out people wander into a joint like this. Bruce was right, there was food. Just one item on the menu, scotch bonnet and cayenne crab cakes. The hunter of small-to-medium mammals soon lost interest, but only in the food. A ridge formed on his spine every few seconds.
“Madam Landlady, a brandy if you will and a bowl of nature’s own for my companion. And I love the marketing genius of the sign. ‘Eat a dozen and they’re free,” Bruce’s mistress read aloud. Imagine how much you’d have to drink to put that fire out. Brava, madam.”
“Amphitrite Jones,” the owner sounded it out, careful always to include the non-silent terminal ‘e.’
“Your Majesty” was accompanied by a courtesy. “Wendy Awanakom, your faithful fief. Could your estates stand a touch of entertainment? I seek nothing but breakfast, supper and a coiled hawser to lay me down with my dog.”
“What’s yer act sweetie?”
“Rock and folk covers on the piano, sometimes ukulele. I’ve been doing Sea Shanties lately,” Wendy white-lied. “I know how to please a crowd.”
“Well, seein’ as how ya knows my name, how can I deny a loyal Thane?”
“One silly question before I’m pressed into service. Aside from myself, seen any strangers, possibly foreign, maybe a bit at sea? Not tourists, though.”
“Now’s I think of it, there was a couple-three men here on Tuesday. One finished his dozen crab cakes. None of them drank liquor.”
“Coming to a bar to not drink? How odd.”
Wendy had made her bunk and now she had to sway in it. She sat down at the piano on her debut night and pounded out Roll the Chariot Along and kept rolling through Blow the Man Down. When she got to Lowlands Away, she realized it was a local favorite. An old man on an even older barstool took a hornpipe out of his pocket and joined in. It brought the house down and the giant brandy snifter nearly filled up. When she noticed the big tipper, she took a break at the end of Maui and got herself and Bruce out the back door.
“You were right, buddy. But at least now we know. We’re going to Delaware. Are you up to an eight-mile night run?”
It was a quick stop at her “office” in Brookside. Delaware was amazing with what they would let people do with money there. Cash got turned into something else, something else again, and back to cash somewhere else. Confirmation came three days into the little vacation Wendy allowed herself.
“Big Apple, boy. We’re going to the Great White Way. Look sharp. We now know they’re tracking us.”
They got off the bus at Port Authority, just off Times Square. Wendy reconfigured Bruce’s carrier and used the Citibike key left in her Delaware office to undock a bike. It was 14 minutes to the Lower East side, the motleyest crew in the country, most likely. She entered Kiev, the last Eastern European kielbasa, kasha, and pierogi place on Avenue A, and met her support team, code-named Hedda Lettuce, Bertha Vanation, Henrietta Turnstile, and Jennifer Blow-dryer.
“Don’t sweat it, kid. We all know what you’re going through; we’ve all been through it. We will fight for the right of anyone to live how they want, be who they want. Just take your pup to the Tomkins dog run, every day at three thirty, for four days. We’ll handle the rest, if it’s as bad as you say it is.”
“Oh, girlfriend, it is. We all have families, but not all families have munitions licenses.” Not a one of her team showed the slightest sign of worry at that bit of information. “Hey, this stuff is pretty good. If I survive this, I’m going to have kasha varnishkas and blintzes every day. By the way, don’t we have to call the place Kyiv, now?”
Hedda piped up on that. “Still have your sense of humor. Or tragedy. Either way, that’s a good sign. Now get out there and walk that dog around so he can be seen.” Rasul followed the plan as if her life depended on it, which it may have, but she came to love going to the run.
“You bet. Smart, quiet, not as stand-offish as people say, you know.”
Bruce loped over to see either who was hitting on Mommy, or if the dog with the funny tail was interested in sparring. It was, and they got into a great play session.
“That one’s yours?”
“Yup, a Rat Terrier. Bigger than most. He’ll find any dead thing. Like he scented out a dead body under that platform two years ago. He’s Bruce. I’m Rasul.”
“Carter. My guy is Ozymandias.”
Bruce sniffed Ozy’s butt and gave Rasul a nose poke to remind her about denial. It would be nice to have a routine, a fixed schedule, friends, a close-knit dog run, a gig from time to time. Settling down was a vague hope, but if everything worked out, it could be a near certainty. On day four, astute dog denizens may have noticed the untypically large canine presence. On day four plus ten minutes, everyone noticed.
“I am Gashtahan, son of Naodar. This abomination you see before you was once my son, whom I taught to play football and also to play the Ney and Tar. Now he makes himself as a woman and sings of Jesus instead of Ahura Mazda. Before you all as witnesses, I will defend the honor of my ancient line and kill this monster,” the sword-wielding man said. That was Bertha’s cue. She whistled, and the supernumerary canines went after Gashtahan and his goons. Six ambulances responded to the melee, one driven by Hedda. Rasul would never want to be patricidal. She just wanted to live. It would be a long time before her family could stop her from breathing.