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The Long and Short of It: A Short Story Part 1

I have been writing some short stories with the thought that I would gather them together into a collection.  The idea is to have all of the stories set in the same town and have some of the characters intersect in each of the stories so that there is an overlapping of sorts. Each story is about 6,000 words.  I would like to offer up one in serialized fashion.  Because of its length I am presenting it in two chunks. In essence you are my Beta Readers.  I would value any feedback, suggestions, or edits.  Here are roughly the first 3,000 words.

A Stranger Within

part one

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great pleasure and honor to welcome back one of Stone Ridge’s own.  She’s been touring the Atlantic seaboard for more than four months, so let’s show ’er just how happy we are that she decided to come back home. Please put your hands together in a big Stone Ridge welcome for Pennsylvania girl and blues maven, Gail Yancy!”  Bar owner, Robby Statler lifted an arm out to his right in a welcoming gesture as he yielded the microphone.  Gail who was always nervous before a performance hesitated for a moment with knees bouncing wildly.  She was glad she was wearing jeans.

photo: red electric guitarApplause filled the bar as the diminutive singer joined her bassist and drummer who were already on stage. She stepped into the lights with a candy apple red guitar in one hand and offered a wave from the other.  She plugged in, adjusted the mic lower (which elicited some chuckles from the audience), and launched right into a raucous, jumping song called “Double Take.”

I’m gonna go find a body double
Like those that belonged to Saddam Hussein.
I’d like to have me a body double
So I can sneak out and go raise some real Caine.
Others, I bet, have had body doubles
Like Bob Hope or maybe Calamity Jane.
There must be others with body doubles:
Madonna, or Nixon, or even Mark Twain.

I could do lots if I had a double,
Like sending her out to take all the blame
While I’m taking in the latest movie,
Drinking at Brewski’s, or at a ballgame.
Yes, she would answer all the tough questions
She’d take all the heat so that I could relax.
She’d be at the office doing my work
While I was out shopping for clothes and knicknacks.

I’m gonna go find a body double
Like those that belonged to Saddam Hussein.
I’d like to have me a body double
So I can sneak out and go raise some real Caine.

Same chin
Same eyes
Same hair
Same thighs
The same in every way
Same cheeks
Same clothes
Same shoes
Same nose
I’d use her every day

My double and I, we’d look just like twins
Except that I’d be a little bit thinner
I’d also be the one with better hair
You can tell us apart sometimes at dinner.
But in front of cameras, under the lights
It would look like me up there dodging the shots
When I am really out with the in-crowd
My double is stuck with the loser have-nots.

I’m gonna go find a body double
Like those that belonged to Saddam Hussein.
I’d like to have me a body double
So I can sneak out and go raise some real Caine.
Others, I bet, have had body doubles
Like Bob Hope or maybe Calamity Jane.
There must be others with body doubles:
Lady Gaga, Gingrich, or David Blain.

I’m gonna go find a body double
Like those that belonged to Saddam Hussein.
I’d like to have me a body double
So I can sneak out and go raise some real Caine.

The song had long been a Brewski’s favorite since she penned it shortly before Hussein was captured but she had recently updated a few of the lyrics. The crowd sang along and that night it drew a standing ovation right off the bat. She smiled and her knees settled. The trio stormed through two more songs and Gail hit her groove. The band paused after the third song and she addressed the audience.

“Hello Stone Ridge! Its good to be home.”  That drew cheers and whistles. “And by ‘home’ I mean Brewski’s.  Lord knows I’ve spent enough time here to claim residency.  You gotta love their Black Hole Stout.”  More cheering.  Robby gave her a smile and thumbs up from behind the bar.

Gail Yancy stood five-foot-four but had a voice bigger than life and she drew well earned comparisons to Bonnie Raitt, Eva Cassidy, Sue Foley, and Susan Tedeschi.  That evening the band ran through a solid two-hour set of old material from her first two CDs and a bunch of songs from an upcoming release.  They had also thrown in a handful of old blues covers for good measure.

Throughout the night, her thirst could not be slaked. She had only asked for two beers, and the second one was still half full and forgotten at the end of the evening. She had lost count, though, of the number of glasses of water she had gulped down between tunes under the hot lights.  She peed like a race horse when the band broke for a short intermission.

The venue was full and the audience had been fantastic.  Everyone had been on their feet nearly the entire show cheering, dancing, whistling.  Shouts like, “We love you Gail!” and proposals of marriage punctuated the night. There was nothing like that kind of response to spur a performer on to greater things.  Gail hadn’t played or sung this well in months.  She was back in her home town, a place she knew and loved and where she was known and loved by others.  It felt like a warm hug from Mom on a wet, cold, gray day.

She had worked hard, putting everything she had into the performance and she was worn out.  It was a good tired, but she was deeply exhausted. Derek the bassist walked up behind Gail and said, “You were totally smokin’ tonight, girl.” At six-foot-three, he towered over her.  He put his arm around her, gave her a sideways hug, and moved on with a cart of equipment in tow. Patrick, the drummer, helped Derek finish loading up the van while Gail made another trip to the ladies’ room.  All that water.

The guys dropped her off and unloaded all the equipment.  Gail was the only one who had a detached home.  She had the space for all the gear and since it was all stored at her house, it was also where they routinely rehearsed. The three of them were laughing out in the driveway, and congratulating each other on the success of the evening.  It was after 11:00, which she considered early by Friday night standards and they had not been excessively raucous, but she caught some movement across the strip of grass that divided her driveway from her neighbor’s.  There was Ed leaning against the jam of his garage door, the glow from his cigarette danced in the dark.

“So you’re back for a while?”  His voice was deep and gravely, a true smoker’s voice.

“Yeah,” Gail answered.  “Home again, home again. Giggity-gig.”  She tried to keep her comments short and upbeat.  The guy kind of creeped her out.  He was neither friendly nor happy.  Derek and Patrick were down to cords and mic stands.

“Was quiet ’round here while you were gone. Guess that all changes now.”  Ed Knight jettisoned his cigarette to the concrete and ground it out with his toe.  Having made his point he turned and walked inside.

Patrick came over to Gail and asked, “How’s Boo Radley?”  Gail took a swipe at his shoulder.

“Shut up.  He’ll hear you.”  She gave him a shove towards the van and looked over her shoulder to see if Ed might have heard. “It was a good show,” she said as she gave both a quick hug.  “But I gotta hit the rack if we’re doin’ this all again tomorrow night.  It sucks that we couldn’t leave all our gear set up.”

Derek shrugged. “No biggie.” He gave Gail another hug and a dull pain in her lower back flared up for a second. “See ya tomorrow.”

* * * *

Sunlight angled in through the bedroom windows.  She had forgotten to close the blinds the night before. Gail blinked awake and headed down to the kitchen.  The orange juice she poured tasted off and she left the eggs in the pan too long so that the yolks were crumbly instead of runny.  She ate her breakfast but didn’t particularly enjoy it.

Her hands felt tight and her face felt fat.  She treated herself to a long hot bath, something she didn’t get to take much advantage of while on the road.  For performers that had not yet broken into the big time, the touring life was less than glamorous.  There were nights when the three of them slept crammed in the van among the equipment and instruments.  It didn’t make sense to get paid $500 for a show and then spend nearly half of that on hotel rooms.  Gas and food sucked up enough of their income.

Derek and Patrick arrived around 1:00. The three of them need to work out the set list for the night as well as perfect a new song that Derek and Patrick had collaborated on so they could debut it during the show.

The guys barreled in through the garage without knocking.  “Yo, Yance,” Patrick called. Both guys had fallen into the easy habit of using the nickname. “You get your beauty sleep or did you spend most the night snoggin’ your neighbor?”  The toilet flushed and Gail emerged from the powder room in the front hall.

“Jesus, Pat.  You think you could shut the door before yelling something like that?”  She kicked the garage door closed with her foot as she finished zipping up the fly to her jeans.

“Whoa, chill out.” Patrick held up both hands, palms out. “Boo wasn’t skulking around out there.”  Gail leveled a look at her drummer nonetheless.  The two guys set everything up while Gail pulled some munchies together and they got down to a solid rehearsal.  The trio spent nearly two hours getting all the riffs and the timing down on the new song.  They could do the older stuff in their sleep but they ran through the newer material which comprised a large chunk of the second half of the set.  The practice felt good.  On the road you never had a chance to really set up somewhere and rehearse.  Each show was a practice for the next one.  It felt good to be able to experiment and work things out before getting up on stage.

“You sure you got enough sleep, girl,” Derek asked. “You’re looking a little puffy.  Are you experiencing a little water retention or something? Maybe puttin’ on a few pounds?”

“You guys are a class act.  You need to pick up a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.  You can play the hell out of a bass,” she nodded at Derek, “but people skills you ain’t got.  And don’t you even start, Patrick, about being Mr. Charm.  I’ve seen you pick your nose with a drum stick—on stage, for God’s sake.”  Derek laughed and Patrick hit a rim shot. Ba-dum chee. “Thanks for asking, but I’m just having trouble kicking it into gear today.”

“Well, hell,” said Patrick, “if you do half as well as last night, the fans will go home happy tonight.  You were on fire yesterday.”  Gail smiled, the three of them shared a volley of high-fives, and they loaded up the van for the short ride up Benjamin Street to Brewski’s.  As she started to climb into the front passenger seat, Gail looked over towards Ed’s house and caught sight of him standing in an upstairs window.  He made no effort to back away.  She froze halfway in with one foot still on the driveway and looked directly back at him. He made the “I’m watching you” hand gesture pointing at his eyes with two fingers and then pointing at her with the same two fingers.  A chill ran down her back. She climbed in, pulled the door shut and said, “Let’s get the hell outta here.”

* * * *

concert audienceSR Brewski’s Bar & Grill was getting ready for another big night.  Gail smiled broadly when she saw the “SOLD OUT!” sign in the window.  A full house meant some decent money.  They came close to filling the joint the night before but the balcony had held only a smattering people.  Robby met her on the sidewalk.

“Man you guys were awesome last night.  Evidently word got around.  Thank God for Facebook. Ticket sales for tonight’s show went through the roof first thing this morning.  You were sold out before 11:00.” Robby gave Gail a friendly hug. “We usually close at 3:00 on Sunday afternoons but if you want to add a third show tomorrow night we’ll stay open.”  Robby’s giddy giggle was music to Gail’s ears.  Every cent they collected while they were in town was pure income since they had no expenses for gas, food or lodging.

It took the trio all of four seconds to come to a decision and they nodded their heads in unison.  Robby raced back inside to print off a new “Third Show Just Added!” banner for the window sign and update the SR Brewski’s web site promoting the new concert on Sunday. The good news made hauling everything in a little easier.  The place was empty, Brewski’s closed its doors at 3:00 PM whenever they scheduled an evening show to allow performers set up and sound check time.  Gail and the boys had the equipment and microphones on the small stage and the sound levels set in record time.  Everyone was on their game.  They could kick back and relax a little until the doors opened at 6:00.

Robby came out from behind the bar with a pitcher of beer, soft breadsticks and a small bowl of tapenade.  “First round’s on me.  It’s great to have you guys back in town.” Derek filled four glasses and they lifted them in a toast.

“To Stone-fucking-Ridge,” said Patrick and the others laughed repeating the toast as they clinked glasses.  Derek bought a second pitcher, but Gail put a hand over her glass when he got to filling hers. Everything had an underlying metallic taste like it had come out of a tin can that had been sitting on a shelf since 1962.

“I gotta change before the show.” Gail excused herself and headed back to the green room to squeeze into a pair of black skinny jeans and a deep purple sequined top.  Derek and Patrick joined her at 6:00 when Robby was getting ready to open the doors.

“Big crowd,” Patrick announced.  “You’d think they had advertised a Beatles reunion tour.”

“That’d be a trick considering half of ’em are dead,” Derek replied.

“I know, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.  Things are looking up.”

Gail and Derek fiddled on their instruments and Patrick drummed quietly with a pair of sticks on the arm of an overstuffed couch.  This was the worst part of performing, being sequestered in cramped and often dirty spaces lovingly referred to as “Green Rooms” while the crowds filtered into each venue.  It was dead time, nerve wracking time.  None of them talked much, just the odd fragment of conversation followed by a nod or grunt of acknowledgement.  They were like Olympic athletes visualizing their event ahead of time, respectively going over the set list in their heads.

Derek and Patrick took the stage at about 7:10 and Robby stepped up to the microphone a few minutes later with a repeat of his enthusiastic introduction.  The band led with “Double Take” like the night before.  The crowd was even more responsive than the previous audience which spurred the band on to the performance of a lifetime.  Everything clicked. Gail felt like she was prancing on an invisible cushion of air that kept her about three inches above the stage.  Her voice was as strong as it had ever been, soaring and growling in turns.  She felt divinely inspired.  The atmosphere was thick with promise and energy.  Patrick had been right, things were looking up.

Robby let them leave their equipment set up for the Sunday night show and they stowed their instruments in the green room.  The drummer and bassist wanted to celebrate but Gail was thoroughly drained.  She had given her all and been rewarded with a glimpse of genius.  For that she paid a toll.  She bid the others goodnight and called a cab not wanting to break up the party.

* * * *

She never slept past 8:00, but when she finally rolled out of bed it was nearly 1:00 PM. A dull throb rolled across her lower back.  Sleeping that long will do that to a person she thought as she splashed water onto her face and inspected her reflected image in the mirror.  Patrick was right, she was looking decidedly puffy.

Lunch (it was much too late to call it breakfast) consisted of a bowl of Cheerios and glass of milk.  The OJ just didn’t appeal to her. She busied herself with menial tasks like laundry and cleaning the bathroom but she felt lethargic and at 2:30 went down for a quick nap.

She was jolted awake by shouts from her two bandmates. She staggered out of her bedroom glazed and less than fully awake. “Jesus,” said Derek, “you look like hell.”

“Yeah,” confirmed Patrick, “Are you sure you’re up for tonight?”

Gail waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal, “I’m fine.  I’m just worn out from last night’s show.  My back’s a little achey, but I’ll rally.”  She looked at her watch,  it was 4:30. Gail made little shooing motions and ushered the boys out the door. “Come on,” she said, “Let’s get going.”  The three of them tumbled out through the garage and piled into the van with Derek behind the wheel as usual.

Gail’s scary neighbor was standing at his mailbox and he starred them down as they backed out of the driveway.  No wave. No smile.  He swiveled his head with a gaze that followed them as the van maneuvered past his driveway.  He stood rooted in his spot wordlessly watching until they were out of sight.

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” Derek ventured after putting a little distance between the van and observer.

“I don’t know much about him. A real loner. I don’t suppose he’s very popular on the Stone Ridge dating scene.”

“Well, I don’t like him livin’ next door to you,” Patrick said from the back seat.

“I don’t have much control over who lives next door. I don’t know if he’s dangerous, but he does kinda creep me out. He’s always out smoking or watching from the windows whenever I’m coming or going. Never says much, just watches me. Kind of a stalker. Like I said, it’s creepy.”

“Have you talked to the cops?” asked Derek.

“He hasn’t done anything.  Creepy isn’t illegal.”

“Well, I don’t like him livin’ next door to you,” Patrick said again.

“You already said that,” she pointed out.

Derek pulled the van around behind Brewski’s and the threesome made their way in through the kitchen. Stacey turned when she heard the door open.

“Oh my God! It’s blues legend Gail Yancy!” Stacey played the screaming groupie. “You guys need one of those ‘and the’ names like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals or Florence and the Machine.”

“I always liked the word ‘contusions,’” said Patrick.

“That’s perfect! Gail Yancy and the Contusions. I love it. Seriously,” said Stacey as she shook a pan over a burner. Gail shook her head but a smile crossed her lips. It did have a nice ring to it.

“Yeah, it does sound pretty good,” Derek said as if reading Gail’s thoughts. “I like it. What exactly is a contusion anyway?” Patrick shrugged.

“It’s a fancy word for bruise,” explained Gail.

“Oh…” He considered the new information for a second. “Well, it still sounds pretty cool.” The three of them pushed out into the restaurant where Robby was straightening chairs.

“If you guys keep playing like the last two nights, you’ll be performing at the Grammies next year,” he called as he gave a wave. The three of them grinned like four-year-olds on Christmas Eve. Derek and Patrick helped Robby shove chairs around while Gail changed.

At 7:15 the room was buzzing.  The three performers agreed to take the stage together rather than Gail coming out on her own taking all the glory.  They were a team, a family. Robby revised his introduction at the mic and at 7:15 he was finishing up with, “Please welcome to the Brewski’s stage Gail Yancy and the Contusions!”  The crowd erupted as Derek, Patrick, and Gail mounted the stage together.

The band was tight for a third night.  Gail sang her heart out gulping water down between songs.  After the intermission and just four songs into the second half of the show during a slow burning ballad called “Honest Tears,” Gail stumbled over the second verse and then gibberish began tumbling from her mouth which melted into unintelligible slurring.  A murmur rippled through he audience as Derek stopped playing and Patrick’s languid drum beat rattled to an eventual stop. In the quiet, Gail swung her guitar by the neck touching it to the stage like a cane.  The amplifiers buzzed slightly.  She took two unsteady steps backward, and crumpled to the floor.

* * * *

Click here for the second half . I would seriously appreciate any feedback.

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Please take a moment to fill out my poll on the right if you haven’t already done so.
Photos: Thinkstock

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