Cut and Run
by Nick Young
Teddy Barnes let his eye roam over the interior of the trailer to make sure all the gear was where it belonged before shutting the double doors and snapping the padlock in place. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt, shook one of the smokes free and lit up. A half-moon hung in the southwest sky and a light breeze stirred. Teddy relished these mid-June nights, cool and quiet after the noise and sweat of the club, so he relaxed while he smoked, bathed in the cold white light of the parking lot's single floodlamp. He was tired, a deep fatigue that followed long nights on the bandstand. He knew he could use some sleep, but at the moment he wanted a drink more. He took a final drag off his cigarette and spiraled the butt away.
Inside the Commodore Lounge, Teddy slid onto a stool at the end of the bar.
"Almost two, just in time, man," said the club's owner, Frank Raklis. A bearded bear of a man, Frank's favored attire was a Hawaiian shirt and a St. Louis Blues baseball cap worn in reverse. He was made for his job, garrulous at times but unfailingly affable. Teddy appreciated that quality. More than that, he respected Frank because he was the kind of club owner who always paid promptly and in full after a gig, no nickle-and-diming. "One more?"
"What about the rest of the guys?"
"They hit the road already."
"You boys kicked some serious ass tonight," Frank said as he mixed up a 7-and-7 and set it on a cocktail napkin in front of Teddy, "especially Mustang Sally."
"It never fails to get them going," Teddy replied, smiling.
"Well, you got 'em going, my man," Frank said over his shoulder as he walked to the opposite end of the bar and yanked a few times on the cord of a small brass bell signaling last call.
Teddy sipped his drink and lit up a fresh cigarette as he surveyed the club. There were perhaps ten people left scattered at tables in the dimly lit room. It was a comfortable space with a generous bandstand and plenty of room to dance. It was familiar territory to Teddy. His four-piece band, The Beaters, had played half-a-dozen dates there, every time they made a swing through that part of Illinois on their way over the river into Iowa. The boys considered it a good room, with decent acoustics for a roadhouse and frequently raucous crowds who liked their liquor and dug the music. That made it an important stop, because as the years passed, Teddy was finding it tougher to book dates. Clubs were either lukewarm to the band's mix of r-and-b or turned off to live music altogether in favor of deejays or karaoke.
Teddy despised the trend, but there was nothing he could do about it. At forty-five, he'd been playing guitar and singing for more than thirty years and had been on the road fronting a band much of that time. He had managed to weather the shifts in musical tastes -- disco, heavy metal, punk, rap. The Beaters, with all of the original players, had built a reputation as a tight, entertaining band that could pull in a crowd and get them out on the dance floor and -- what really mattered to the club owners -- spend their money at the bar. And on the strength of a mid-chart hit twenty years before, there was still enough marquee mojo to keep the one-night stands from drying up completely.
But Teddy knew that time and the business were not on his side. He was at the end of another four-set night, questioning how long he could keep it going. Playing was second nature to him; he still enjoyed it, but it was wearing on his middle-age body. And there were those depressing gigs where no matter how well the band was playing, the crowd barely registered a pulse. That's when he had to check the impulse to just mail in his performance. Teddy swung back to the bar and worked at his drink and another cigarette.
"Heyyy, Sweet Soul Music," came the voice of a young woman as she eased onto the next seat.
"Hey, yourself," he replied. She had a tight little body that fit perfectly into a pair of jeans and tank top, a pixie face and curly black hair. She could have passed for a high school kid, Teddy thought. "You don't look old enough to remember that song."
"Right here on the CD," she said, laying the jewel case on the bar. It was Hit It!, the second album by the Beaters, the one with the Arthur Conley cover that had made the charts.
"You got me at a disadvantage," Teddy said."You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Jenna Stone," she answered, sticking out her hand.
"You got big trouble now, Teddy," announced Frank, making his way back from the far end of the bar.
"Shut up, Frank," Jenna snapped, but playfully.
"Are you old enough to drink?" Teddy asked.
"Well, yeah, I'm in here, right?" She replied with feigned indignation. Teddy had to smile.
"Frank, get the lady a beverage."
"It's past two," the bartender protested.
"Just this once," Frank relented, "and just because you asked." He looked at Jenna.
"Jack and Coke," she announced in her high girlish voice.
"Jack and Coke it is," Frank said. Jenna gave Teddy a wide smile
"For twisting this guy's big hairy arm," she said as Frank set her cocktail down. He waved his hand in mock annoyance and moved on to another customer. "You act real surprised I know your music," she went on, twirling the swizzle stick in her drink.
"Like I said, you don't look old enough."
"Well, it was my mom. She played the shit out of the CD when I was a little girl."
"Which was when, two of three years ago?" Teddy asked, a gentle taunt.
"Heyyyy, don't be a dick. I'm nineteen."
"Oh, nineteen. I see."
"Okay. No offense. You want me to autograph the CD?"
"Sure," she answered, pushing the jewel case toward Teddy. She pulled a pen out of the pocket of her jeans. "I even brought a Sharpie." Teddy took the marker, slipped the paper insert out of the plastic case and signed: "To Jenna -- Hugs, Teddy Barnes." He went back to his cigarettes on the bar for a smoke. He offered the pack to Jenna. She shook her head.
"So you say your mom was a big fan of the band?"
"Oh, yeah, like the biggest."
"But you came out for the show, and she didn't?"
"She died a year ago," Jenna replied.
"Breast cancer. The shits." There was a long moment of awkwardness for Teddy, born of the futility of finding the right words to offer anything more meaningful. "But life goes on, right?" Jenna continued. "What about you, Teddy Barnes? What about your life?" Teddy stared into his drink for a moment.
"Well, pretty much what you see, not a lot else. On the road with the band most of the time, gigs on the weekends. A couple of down days during the week. I try to lay low, recharge the batteries, you know?"
"Must be a bitch on family life." Teddy smiled ruefully.
"No family life to speak of."
"I have a son. He's twenty-three, twenty-four. Haven't seen him in a couple of years. I don't know" There was regret in his voice. "He grew up without me around most of the time.When he got older we could never seem to see eye to eye, fought a lot, so he finally packed it in and moved out west with a girl he met, maybe Oregon or Washington."
"What about your wife?" Teddy smirked, exhaling a thin stream of smoke.
"She lasted all of three months after the kid split before she moved on."
"I guess it's my turn to say 'I'm sorry.'"
"Well, I can't blame either one of them, especially my ex. She put up with a helluva lot, me being gone as much as I was. It's no kind of life."
"Did you ever think of quitting?"
"Off and on, but I wouldn't know what else to do. I was one of those kids who didn't pay enough attention in school. Spent all my time with a guitar in my hands. Never trained for any kind of job. And you can call me a masochist if you want because the road is a grind, but I still get off being on stage." He looked her in the eyes, deep brown. "Does that make sense?" She continued to hold his gaze.
"Sure," she answered and then paused, "but maybe it doesn't make as much sense as it used to?" Teddy laughed drily.
"It shows that much?"
"It shows, Teddy Barnes. Maybe not everyone can see it, but I can." She was staring hard at him now. Teddy felt she was stripping through his defenses and it was a vulnerability he did not like. He wanted to seal himself up, be on the move again. "It's late, so why not cut to the chase?" Jenna went on. "I look at you, still pretty damned handsome for a guy your age. Chick magnet." Teddy laughed out loud. "But . . . but," Jenna continued,"when I look into your eyes, that's where I see the sadness, the loneliness."
"So where is this going?"
"My place is just a mile from here -- "
"Wait a minute," he cut in. "You just want a roll in the sack with a tired old dude who once upon a time had a minor hit record? Is that it?" Her eyes were filled with genuine softness.
"That's not it at all."
"You don't have to be so angry. I get lonesome, too. I thought that maybe for a little while at least we wouldn't have to be." Teddy's eyes shot away, angry for snapping at her but recoiling within himself, drawing back from what she was offering and the intimacy he was incapable of returning.
"I'm sorry I went off on you like that," he said, his tone becoming businesslike, "but I really need to be moving on. We've got a gig over in Iowa."
"It wouldn't have to be the whole night," Jenna continued with great tenderness..
"No." Teddy replied firmly, sweeping his cigarettes and lighter off the bar and standing up. " Look, you're sweet. It was very nice to meet you. I appreciate you coming out to see the band." He was nervous, felt cornered "Hey, Frank -- gotta boogie on, man," he called out."Thanks for everything."
"See you next time through," Frank said, waving from the other end of the bar. "Safe travels."
Teddy turned to Jenna.
"Goodbye," he said and walked away without waiting for a reply.
Inside the truck, he sat with his head back and his eyes closed while the engine idled. Why had he panicked ? Was this nineteen-year-old really that frightening? He knew the answers. She had exposed his vulnerability, revealed his cowardice, so he ran.
There was a gentle knock at the window. Teddy opened his eyes. It was her. She smiled -- bright, inviting. He rolled down the window.
He looked at her for a long moment, the pretty young face offering him another chance. He brought the first two fingers of his right hand to his lips, then reached out and placed the kiss on her cheek. He rolled up the window, and without looking back, slipped the truck into gear and eased out of the parking lot.
It was three hours to Ottumwa.
Bio: Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in the Green Silk Journal, Nonconformist Magazine, the San Antonio Review, Samjoko Magazine, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine,, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.