by Gary Phillips
This excerpt is from “The Performer,” among the 20 short stories by FourStory’s fiction editor collected in Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, to be published in February by Perfect Crime Books. The story originally appeared in Orange County Noir.
Avery Randolph finished the stretched out riff of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” hoping his playing covered the unintentional flattening he gave the last lyrics. He meant to take his voice up a notch, not down. The throat was the second thing to go. There was polite applause from the Seaside Lounge crowd, and Randolph nodded slowly while noodling the keys jauntily.
A aging couple, both in bright attire, their matching sterling gray hair arranged just so, walked by the piano, hand in hand. The woman, peach colored lipstick gothically enticing in the bar’s subdued lighting, dropped a five into the large brandy snifter for tips. She smiled. Randolph smiled. The man gave a quick wave to a short-haired woman at a table near the window, and the two departed. The man let his hand glide down and briefly and tenderly, flutter against the woman’s backside.
“This is for Emily,” Randolph announced and began a leisure intro into “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” channeling Nat “King” Cole, letting it build while several patrons bopped their heads and tapped their feat to the rhythm.
“Cool down, papa, don’t you blow ... your ... toppppp,” he finished in the key he meant to, and this time the applause was more heartfelt. He stood and bowed and blew a kiss to Emily, the one the man had waved to, sitting at her usual spot next to the window overlooking the medical center down below. For 63, Randolph reflected, she looked good, handsome in her dark blue dress and diamond broach, an ever-present martini glass near her steady blood nailed hand. She lifted her drink and toasted him with a sip and a toothy grin.
Randolph finished his set with an instrumental rendition of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” adding, “Don’t forget the sand dab special, folks, Rene swears they are to die for.” That got a few chuckles and he did a wave on his way to the bar. Among those sitting there was a National Guard trooper in his camouflage, his combat service badge dully gleaming over his flapped breast pocket. He was drinking a beer from a pint glass and was having an animated conversation over his cell phone. He turned his body away and hunched over some as Randolph perched on the opposite end.
Carlson, the head bartender, came over with his jack and coke. “You tinkled them good tonight,” he commented, setting the squat glass on a napkin with the Lounge’s name on it.
“Thanks, man.” Momentarily, Randolph watched the logo become distorted by the wet bottom of the glass then took it to his lips.
“I guess you have to go easy on that stuff, don’t you? Or does it help your playing?”
Randolph looked over at the woman who’d sat beside him. She was young, that is, younger than him. In her late twenties he figured, jeans and some kind of loose faux suede top. Not too much make-up, Rite Aid earrings. Pretty, but not overwhelmingly so. He sized her up as the wife or girlfriend of some soldier or marine over in Iraq or Afghanistan. Lonely. Bored. There was a lot of that in Los Alamitos.
“Everything in moderation,” he said. He didn’t offer to buy her a drink, making sure he kept his eyes on her face and not down on that alert swell beneath the top’s material. The bare arms though, impressively toned.
“I used to play guitar in high school,” she continued, “even had us an all-girl band for awhile. But you know how it goes,” she elevated a shoulder.
“Not the next Bangles, huh?”
“Before your time,” Carlson piped in. A not so subtle reminder that Randolph was probably a decade and half older than her. Randolph resisted a remark. Goddamn Carlson was older than he was but worked out on the weights, and had bragged about getting pectoral implants.
“So I can pick up more pussy easily,” he’d cracked to Randolph and Rene Suarez, the chef.
“Can I have a gin tonic?” the woman asked, looking from Carlson back to Randolph.
“Yours to command,” the bartender said and went to prepare her order.
“What do you do now?” What the hell, Randolph concluded, no sense making it easy for Carlson. Besides, he was just making with the chit-chat, no more, no less.
She jerked her head and said, “Work at the PX on the base. Original around here, right?”
Carlson returned with her drink. “Me lady.”
“Shit fire,” the soldier engrossed on the phone swore as he threw the thing across the bar top. It slid into another customer’s glass, the drink’s owner glaring at the Guardsman.
“Aw, hell, here we go. Another old lady done told her hero boy bye-bye.” Carlson, himself a vet, double-timed to cool out the service man.
“Your husband on his second or third tour?” Randolph asked the woman. They both watched Carlson putting an arm around the soldier’s shoulders, his head down as he mumbled words of self-pity.
“He was killed, about half a year ago. Roadside bomb hit their convey coming into Pakitka Province.” She drank some. “Jeff was Army then after he rotated out he wanted to do something about what he’d seen over there. Something different.” She shook her head. “Jeff’s a ... sweetheart. He worked for CARE International delivering food and relief.” She put the gin down quietly
“Damn. Sure sorry to hear that.”
“Lori. My name’s Lori.” She offered her hand and he shook it, smiling crookedly at her.
He told her his name and for several minutes they sat side-by-side in their shared silence. Carlson returned after escorting the soldier outside.
“Sorry folks, I’m back,” he announced and got behind the bar to fulfill his enabling duties.
“Hey, look,” Randolph began, “let me get your second G and T, okay? I’m not, you know, trying anything funny.”
“Thanks, but no thanks, Avery.” She’d turned her body toward him slightly and touched his arm. “I better get going. Inventory tomorrow so I’ve got to be in early.” She got off the stool and the young widow strolled out of the landlocked Seaside Lounge.
“You get her number?” Carlson asked when he came over to Randolph.
“Kind of,” the piano player answered, looking off, then readying the order of songs in his head for his next set.
A week later he was finishing off a loud and lyrically incoherent sing-a-long version of “Volare” when Lori returned to the bar. She was wearing a modest skirt, shirt and sweater top combo and earrings that sparkled in the low artificial light. Randolph banged the keys with his heel a la Little Richard for the climax, everyone clapping and laughing. He stood, breathing heavy, pumping both fists in the air to more acclaim. A patron shouted “Right on, baby,” above the din.
“Glad you came back,” he said to her. She lingered on the side of the piano, her purse atop the instrument. Normally he’d say something about that but didn’t want to break the mood—his at least. People came by and gave him pats on the back and shoulders. The brandy snifter was brimming with bills tonight.
“Want to go somewhere, have a sandwich or something? I’m hungry.”
She leaned in closer to him. “Hungry for what?” Her smoke-colored eyes remained steady on him.
“There’s a little hole-in-the-wall place over on Cerritos,” he answered neutrally, but not breaking his gaze from hers. “They have great vegetarian burritos with fire roasted peppers. Magnifico.”
“I like meat alright.”
They grinned at each other like over-heated teenagers as Randolph collected his tip money. Over in the corner at her customary table, Emily Bravera sipped her martini carefully as if testing the stuff for poison, watching the couple over the rim over her glass.
Randolph and the woman descended the outside stairs from where the Seaside Lounge was on the second floor of an aging 80s era strip mall. Down on the parking lot asphalt he became aware of a familiar odor and looked up to see Carlson the bartender taking one of his Camel breaks. He leaned on the railing, the unfiltered cigarette smoldering in his blunt fingers. Lazily he looked at them. The two men then nodded briefly at each other and Randolph walked the woman to her eight-year-old bronze Camry with a dark blue driver’s door. He gave her the directions to where they were going, standing near her and pointing off in to the near distance.
“See you there.” She gave him a peck on his cheek, her fingers holding on to his upper arms. Her hair was freshly washed and smelled of blueberries and mint.
At Agamotto’s Late Nite Eatery and Coffee Emporium, they ate and talked. Lori McLaughlin was originally from Buffalo. She’d meet her late husband Jeff, a local boy from Long Beach, when she’d come out to Southern California four years ago winding up working at a dog food manufacturer.
“That’s a trip,” Randolph remarked. “Like big vats where the meat and what not is all mixed together?”
“This place, Emerald Valley, is like the Escalade of dog food makers,” she said, biting into her bar-b-que meatloaf sandwich and chewing. She then pointed at the sandwich. “Good cuts of meet like this, natural ingredients, grains, they make a high end product selling to trendy pet stores is West L.A. and further down in the OC like Newport Beach and Lake Forrest.”
“But not for us peasants here in Los Al.” They both chuckled.
Randolph asked her, “You have family back in Buffalo?”
She had some of her beer and dabbed a napkin to her mouth. “Let’s just say there’s a reason I came out here to put as much distance between me and that so-called family.” Still holding the napkin, she squeezed his hand. “Okay?”
The lanky youngster in he stained apron behind the counter gave them a grunt as the couple left. He returned his attention to a news item on the small TV he watched, an image of Long Beach police personnel leaving a burglarized condo in Belmont Shores from earlier that day.
Out in his car, after she had him pull behind a closed liquor store, they made out. There was a bare bulb streaked with an oily substance over the metal back door of the establishment, and slivered fractions of that light filtered into the car’s interior and over their grasping forms. Randolph had his hand over her sweater, cupping one of her breasts as they kissed. He moved his thumb across her hardening nipple. She placed one of her hands on his zipper and rubbed.
“That feels good,” he murmured.
“This’ll feel even better.” She tongued his ear and unzipped him. Involuntarily, he sucked in his stomach. “I didn’t catch any hairs did I, Avery?” she asked in a concerned voice.
“No. Light-headed is all.”
“Mmmm.” She worked his shaft and then bent down. Randolph leaned back, eyes fluttering, noting he needed to clean his headliner. Try as he might to fixate on prosaic matters to prolong the sensation, he soon wheezed, “Hey, careful, I’m ... I’m about to come.”
She gave him a lingering lick along his penis returning to the tip. “Uh-huh.” And she let him climax in her mouth.
“Sweet mother of mercy,” Randolph exclaimed, grinning like a goon.
From her purse Lori McLaughlin produced a half pint of Jack Daniels and breaking the seal, had a swig and handed it across.
“Remember your motto,” she said as he had a taste, “everything in moderation.”
“Most assuredly,” he retorted.
She took something else from her purse and palm up, presented it to him. “Because you’re not through, piano man. You have encores tonight.”
He took the offered orange oblong tablet of Cialis. “I’m not that old, you know.”
“I know, darling.” McLaughlin had pulled up her skirt and using her middle finger, pleasured herself. He stared and said nothing. She continued this for several moments then took off her light blue panties and pressed them into his face. He breathed in deep then popped the Cialis in his mouth, not bothering to wash it down with the booze.
Early that morning, at her three and a half room apartment not far from the Joint Forces base, Randolph pulled on his cigar smoking Woody Woodpecker head boxers and went into the kitchenette in search of juice or cold water. On the counter he spotted a past due notice from SoCal Edsion.
On a book ledge crowded with perfunctory nik-naks, was a picture of a square jawed, handsome Lance Corporal he took to be the late husband. He picked it up to see it better by the moonlight. The confident look of the soldier reminded him of the photo of his father, a decorated combat captain who died in Vietnam. A man he never met and only knew from Polaroids and letters his mother kept. He sighed inwardly, put the picture back, and traipsed to the refrigerator.
Inside he found an open can of diet Pepsi and straightened up holding it. One hand on the open door, the light from inside the refrigerator casting its glow about the compact space, Randolph looked at a print of a leafy country lane hung on the wall. It wasn’t anything special, like the kind of mass produced reproduction demonstrating the virtues of the frame you came to buy.
Guzzling the soda, looking sideways at the lane, cold air blowing against his lower legs, he suddenly had a massive, pulsing erection.
“Magnifico,” he said, proudly stalking back into the bedroom, moving his hips to let his member swing from side to side. He hummed “Rocket Man” and sent up a prayer of thanks to the horny bastard who cooked up the orange wonder.
In the morning Randolph stretched, scratched his side and rubbed his whiskered face. In the other room he could hear Lori McLaughlin talking on the phone.
“….no. you listen to me, Karen, that’s not going to happen, you understand? I won’t stand still why you try that kind of shit with me.”
He got up and used the bathroom. When he stepped out McLaughlin was sitting on the edge of the bed in her cloth robe, hunched forward, arms across her upper thighs like a player waiting to get called back in the game. He sat next her her, putting an arm around her shoulder.
“Can I help with anything?”
She made a sound in her throat. “I could lie to you and tell you it’s noting,” she began, “but you might as well know now as later.” She regarded him for a moment and said, “I was talking to my wonderful ex-mother-in-law. A woman who would make Big Bird slap the shit out of her.” She chuckled evilly at the mental image.
“This involve a child?” he asked, having also noticed last night an assortment of toys in a cardboard box in a corner of the living room.
“Yes. My daughter Farley.”
“Jeff had a good buddy who lost his legs over there.” She’s just two and a half and, well, you can see I’m not exactly living the OC lifestyle.”
“Who is around here?” He gave her a squeeze.
She jutted her chin in a westerly direction. “Over in Rossmoor they are. Them and their wall.”
“Screw em,” Randolph said. “They think they shit gold.”
She snuggled closer to him, putting a hand on his thigh. “Jeff’s mother, Karen, has recently stepped up her campaign about how she knows it’s tough for me to get by alone feed and raise Farley. How she can provide for her and all that. Her third husband, not Jeff’s father, owned a firm that supplied some kind of guidance system for missiles. Anyway, he dropped dead of a stroke and left her sitting pretty in a mortgage free McMansion in Irvine. That’s where Farley is now.”
She rubbed his thigh and eyeing him said, “I didn’t plan on seducing you, Avery. But Karen suddenly showed up yesterday when I went to pick up Farley from the sitter after work. And, well, she demanded time with her granddaughter. She lords it over me what with her paying for the child care and other things for Farley.”
She scooted over to her pressed board nightstand, and opening a drawer, took out a digital print. She handed it across to Randolph who smiled at the photo of a bright-eyed toddler held aloft by her beaming mother. She took it back, lingered in it then replaced it in the drawer.
“So I was just a way for you to blow off steam? A revenge schtupp aimed at your mother-in-law?”
She shoved him playfully and clambered on top of him as he lay on his back, enwrapping her in his arms. “How observant of you, Dr. Phil.” They kissed eagerly as he undid her robe.
On a Thursday evening several days later they lay in bed in Randolph’s apartment near the race track. Intermingled yells of delight and disappointment could be heard through his cracked sliding window over his bed as the last race finished.
Randolph dialed the radio from the news on the rock station McLaughlin had put on to the jazz station from the college campus in Long Beach. “Suddenly,” a McCoy Tyner number was in mid-play. He let his mind drift as the pianist-composer did his thing.
“You bet much?” she asked, laying partially on him, his finger gently following Tyner stroke for stoke on her shapely butt.
“Now and then I go over there but I play the ponies like I know poker, not too damn good.” He stopped playing and began kneading her flesh, getting aroused.
She nuzzled his neck. “What if you could make about thirty thousand on a sure thing?”
“You know a horse dopper?”
“I know where to get sixty, maybe seventy thousand tax free dollars. Half for you and half for me, Avery. Between your couple of nights a week at the Seaside and substitute music and civics teacher, you’re not living la vida loca either”
He stopped rubbing and focused. “What are you talking about, Lori?”
“Remember I told you about Emerald Valley?”
“The dog food company.”
“The owner, Brice, he’s an old hippie, still smokes marijuana, gives his money to saving the rain forest and all that crap.”
“Okay. But I’m not comprehending.”
“He has a safe in his office. He’s still down with the people, don’t trust the system, so he’s always kept cash around, different places you see? One of them is his office cause he’s always got some burned out acid head or old surfing bro falling by for a touch.” She paused, placing her hand firmly on his chest.
“Even gives it up to an ex employee or two,” she continued. “I had to go see him for a loan and he’s always had a thing for me. Gave me a handful of those Cialis pills saying to leave a trail of them through rhe forest and he’d find his way to me. Laughing and having a good time.” He tone frosted.
“This about keeping Karen at bay?”
“She’s told me she’s going to initiate, her word, legal action. If I just show her I can afford a lawyer, she’ll back down. I know how her wormy mind works. She’s cheap in so many ways.”
“Why not ask Brice for the loan? Sounds to me like he’d do it for you and not sweat when you could pay him back. The good fight and all that.”
She pulled slowly on his limp penis. “Because he’d want something in return, Avery. Brice is a freak, get it? He’s been in trouble in the past for beating off in his office in front of females. He’d want me to do kinky things to him regularly for repayment. Do you want me to do that?” She started to stroke him slowly. His breath got short as he got hard. “I might be willing to be a thief, but I’m no ho.
She continued with her hand job. “Unless you’re going to bitch up. Turn your head when I have to shove a studded dildo up his ass and hear him scream ‘Mommy.’ Make like I’m not your woman.” She took his balls in her hand.
“Not likely,” he groaned as he put his fingers to her throat and applied pressure. She gasped and he leveraged her under him.
“Fuck me rough, baby” she demanded—and he did.