By Sikivu Hutchinson
After years of being on the road touring, running down the known universe like a radioactive bloodhound, Rory had stopped checking miles on highway signs. In these Podunk nooks and crannies she could smell the hair trigger sullenness, the boozy, clawing nicotine cloud despair of the audience before she even stepped on stage; single out the cesspit desperation of the last-chance-for-a –Saturday-night fuck nail biters. All of the second, third, fourth cousins once removed from the manager, the bartender, the janitor who’d coaxed them to come in before last call. She could spot the townies searching for a cozy spot to settle in and get intimately shitfaced with their Jack Daniels. Looking past them, she could always find a woman to flirt with in her head; a random face to fixate on, to power her through even if the crowd was gruff, listless, evil. Katy had taught her to find a sweet spot of Zen and stick with it; otherwise you’ll go crazy fixating on what devilment the third row was hatching for you.
There was a gnawing unrest that crept in between gigs. A dingy coda when the band shape shifted and went back to their lives in shared apartments mired in two months back rent, dirty sheets alive with the residue of old trysts, one night stand phantoms strangling them in their sleep. Rory could never sleep more than four hours without jolting awake expecting a visit from Katy. Could never settle into the bland set of rooms she’d leased in Baltimore, forever aiming to nestle in, do quotidian things like grow flowers, snoop on her neighbors, laze on the porch in the sun watching the cream of the Negro middle class roll by in a flurry of ambition. She had sold her first house in the late sixties, when riots convulsed D.C. after Dr. King’s assassination. She’d watched stores burn to the ground on the big new color TV she bought with her Memphis Soul Revue money. In the midst of death and chaos it had been one of her best years financially. The Revue was a seven city tour that dragged through the winter and spring but kept her and her backup singers in Italian shoes, tailored suit dresses, and the stacked to the heavens dos she dyed beet red to keep tongues clacking and ticket sales flowing. For one set she dueled with Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett, scatting nimbly up and down the neck of her guitar to show who was boss. Better than fucking, better than the womb kissed tranquility of a soft bed after twelve hours on her feet. Better than a hundred things she could name but the smell of Marie’s neck after she’d washed, pressed and pin curled her hair with that heavenly dab of water and Dixie Peach.
Under the forward churn of the bus, she tried to keep thoughts of Marie at bay; squashed, an ant between her fingers. It was in idle moments, down moments, frittered away moments that she wished she could get back from the Fates that Marie dribbled down on her in pieces. The way she laughed in half-snort. The way she whistled, winked at Rory, cooing, “hey sexy”, mock-serious during her solos, keeping her going with wisecracks about the opening band’s body odor, their prima donna demands for foot rubs, weed or pigs in a blanket for dinner. Back then, when she was headlining four out of the five shows she booked, she could pick who opened for her. Russ would compile a short list and a long list and she and Marie would rank the contestants on chops, looks, manners, charm, fuckability, and who seemed closer to Jesus.
The night Dr. King was killed, they’d been deciding between an Alabama R&B group and a rockabilly outfit from Scotland, dancing buzzed to “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in the living room, kids playing stickball in the street outside the house. The first scream of grief was a gut punch. Then, the neighborhood emptied out onto the lawns, driveways, sidewalks in blind cacophony. The kids going silent amidst the disbelieving wails, mounting rage, a dark pit of sorrow opening up before them. Every radio on the block synchronized to the blow by blow report of .
Marie slumped onto the floor, gripping her brown nylons in knots like they were the only things that could keep her in one piece. “Motherfuckers, they got him,” she moaned. “Dirty Klan motherfuckers took him out. I knew he wouldn’t be able to go back down there without getting killed.”
“Shit,” Rory whispered, immobilized on the plastic slipcover couch that had barely seen action since she’d gone on tour.
“Screw those bagpipe playing motherfuckers, we going Black all the way with this next one.”
“They don’t play bagpipes girl, they’re more like, uh, Carl Perkins.”
“Well, they white and the other group is black and I know they ain’t gonna ride our backs to an American audience while Dr. King is lying dead in Memphis.”
Marie had more savvy for sniffing out band strategy and compatibility. That was how Rory hooked up with Butch, blues improv plinker extraordinaire. Always had a raised eyebrow, surveying life with crotchety, salty Baby Ruth bar disdain. Marie spotted him when they were doing a one-off in Newark. He was seesawing between cajoling and banging on his piano, a flash of kinetic brilliance among a group of milquetoast dead-enders that would’ve played for a dime bag. She stole him right from under the nose of the band’s pothead front man. Dug his directness instantly. Tall, rat’s ass thin, chain smoking nasty clove cigarettes, his wavy black hair teased into a ponytail streaked with gray. Maybe if she and Marie had been curious and he’d had more meat on his bones they would have done him. She hadn’t been thinking about adding a piano to the mix but Butch was a good stop gap for not having a bass player.
After eight years together, they were going to be the toast of Boise for two weeks.