Fiction- book excerpt
by Jim Rader
Excerpted from the unpublished rock 'n' roll novel Blue Wicks
"I see your money on the floor." -"Gardening at Night," R.E.M.
Early morning, a soft knock on the door of my room, Mary's knock. As I was still on top of my weekly rent, I opened the door, my head still spinning from last night's cheap booze.
"Mornin', Mary. What's up?"
"Oh, just thought y'all might need something to read," she said, handing me today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 8, 1982.
"Why, thank you, Mary. The Braves win yesterday?"
"No, Jim, they lost. This season's been up-and-down like a yo-yo." She coughed.
"Well, thanks for the paper. Y'all got my money order okay?"
"Yessir, I sure did. Well, have a nice day."
"You too." I closed the door softly. So, I "might need something to read," hey? Well, Mary doubtless had noticed I was home more often these days and was therefore out of work.
On turning thirty, I had relocated to Atlanta back in April to start a new band. Since then, I'd been through four jobs and four homes. Mary's boarding house was my fourth and last home in Georgia. She was tiny, sixty-something, bifocals. A kindly landlady, straight out of a Tennessee Williams story, Mary smoked nonfilter Camels and watched TV all day in her first-floor room.
I had jammed with Marshall and Stanley a while back, but nothing had come of that due to my booze habit. Presently, my electric guitar was in hock, but I'd bought a five-dollar acoustic in the Little Five Points thrift shop-stiff action but not a bad sound. All I played on this "Laredo" guitar was improvised blues. No singing, no songwriting, strictly the blues.
Few days later, afternoon, a knock on my door interrupted my playing. I opened the door for a tall broad-shouldered guy, a large head with thinning dark hair combed forward. Sleepy eyes, a prominent jawline, a strange smile. The forty-something dude wore a pinstriped suit with wooden clogs. Gigantic hands, one holding sheet music.
"Excuse me," he said in a tony Decatur accent, "I'm Ronnie, your neighbor from down the hall. I like your playing."
"Jim. Pleased to meet you," I said, strong-handing Ronnie's limp handshake.
"Where are you from, Jim?" He smiled.
"New York." His smile widened. "God, I haven't been there in years. We should jam sometime. I mainly play piano, but there's a beautiful classical guitar in my room. I'm at the end of the hall. Drop by sometime."
"Yeah, sure thing, Ronnie."
"Also, you can drop by Hotel de Paris down the street. I've got a piano gig in the lounge." Ronnie's snazzy suit notwithstanding, the gig couldn't have paid much. But his flattery nonetheless went to my head. By my fourth drink, it seemed my bad luck was turning around. Ronnie was most definitely a valuable connection. This false hope was dashed the morning after.
But Ronnie offered company and, sick of being alone, I dropped by his room that evening after he finished showering.
"Welcome, Mr. Guitar Man. Come on in."
Ronnie wore an aquamarine silk bathrobe monogrammed with a curlicued "M." At first, his room seemed even smaller than mine as he had more stuff in there. Mary's shallow closet stuffed with two suits, several pinstriped shirts, dress pants, an array of designer ties. Three pairs of dress shoes lined up against a wall. On the opposite wall, a skinny bed, a guitar case; against the center wall, a rolltop desk littered with magazines, pens, a yellow legal pad, a gray radio, a fifth of Jack Daniels-all this stuff half-blocking his window. The teetering stack of dog-eared paperbacks by Ronnie's night table were all forgotten novels like The Andromeda Strain and The Magus. I sat on one of Mary's wooden chairs, Ronnie on his captain's chair, about one foot between us.
"Ronnie, what's that 'M' on your robe stand for?"
He took a swig of the Jack then offered me a swig. I took a shot, thanked him.
"Jim, the 'M' stands for 'magus.'" He pronounced the word "may-jus," perhaps a regional corruption or perhaps correct. One of those words.
"Oh yeah, I noticed you have the book. Did you ever see the movie? I saw only the preview. Weird stuff."
"Well, Jim." He smiled superiorly. "The word goes back to ancient Persia. But you see, I am the modern 'mayjus.'" He stood over me, gleefully grinning with stained dentures, wiggling his fingers over me, as if casting a spell.
I took another swig of Jack. "Oh, I see, so you're like a musical wizard then, right?" "You got it," he said like a game show host. "And I, may-jus, will help you reach musical heights you never dreamed of. I can give you class." He took another swig.
"Well, I don't know if I need 'class', mayjus."
Ronnie grandly laughed, interlacing his fingers, pacing with long veiny feet, his yellowed toenails cracked. "Say, you could be a comedian."
Soon, it came out that we both wrote songs. I performed "Houses with Faces," a putdown of Atlanta's suburbs. The mayjus's fine guitar played well, sounded great-no brand-name on it, luthier-designed. After I wrapped up the pop tune, the mayjus critiqued. "Hmm. The music's not bad, vey doo-wop-ish, catchy." He paused like a pitcher then threw me a strike. "But the lyrics are fucked up. They're offensive, Jim. And I'll let you in on a little secret-if I hadn't heard you play, I wouldn't have had anything to do with you. Why, I've passed by you many-a-time with never so much as a 'hello' from you. You've got an attitude. And what's with this wearing of black constantly? Black, black, always in black, even in the worst heat!"
I put a cigarette in my mouth. "You gotta light, mayjus?"
"No, I don't, and no smoking in my room, buddy. Listen, do you realize now how offensive those lyrics are?"
"They're not offensive to my audience. You seem unfamiliar with the style I'm purveying. Have you ever heard Lou Reed?"
"Yes, I have." His tone softened. "But he's a star, Jim-he can afford to act like that. I highly doubt he came off like that before he became famous."
"I've heard otherwise, may-jus." I laughed.
"No matter. Reed is still an exception-a big one."
Ronnie took another shot, gesturing for the guitar. "Okay, now you're gonna hear class."
He played a flowery arpeggiated intro with his huge hands, then softly sang, "We will grow more beautiful / stronger and stronger / every day," with sincere vacant eyes. I shuddered, as his ditty recalled the mellow insanity of Charlie Manson's bootleg album. The mayjus wrapped up his flowerchild opus with an overreaching coda, followed by a schmaltzy major-seventh chord. Slowly, he moved his hands away from the guitar as his smile became stranger. He looked at his fingers as if on acid, his tiny eyes all aglow as if E.T. had just pressed an enlightening digit to his forehead. But then those same eyes changed and begged for approval.
"Nice, Ronnie. Kinda reminds me of Scott McKenzie."
"Why, thank you. I remember Scott's hit. 'If you're going to San Francisco,'" he sang in fair imitation. "But what I was really shooting for was a Hair-type song." He referred to the fifteen-year-old "Tribal Love-Rock Musical" as if it still ran on Broadway. The mayjus was out-of-it all right, but what if I too got stuck in the past somewhere down the line, failing to keep up with music trends or sea changes, lacking the common sense to move on?
Right then, I was in limbo, namely the mayjus's sad little salon, outwardly affirming his grand illusion of stardom, inwardly bemoaning his quiescent madness-both of us failures with uncertain futures. Less philosophically, the mayjus seemed to get around and perhaps could hook me up with some solo acoustic gig.
When his beautiful guitar came back to me, I wisely played the Beatles oldie "I Saw Her Standing There," kicking off a friendly swap of Beatles tunes that Ronnie cut off at ten sharp, in line with Mary's house rules.
But I didn't split just yet. Rather, I stuck around to exchange musician bios. The sad little room lending itself to hard luck stories. Ronnie admitted he was thirty-nine and confessed that he had to hang up his rock 'n' roll shoes after touring the nationwide oldies circuit with the Everly Brothers. Good times, good money, but he contracted tendonitis, had six nonworking months, and then came his second divorce. Going back further, twice-divorced Ronnie made his professional debut in '67 as organist for local acid rockers Pink Stainless Tail ("Too bad you weren't here back then, Jim. We really had a peaceful alternative community").
I told Ronnie about my recently deceased father, once a 1940's big band clarinetist. The mayjus told me about his own father-a successful classical pianist, a nondrinker, quite a different picture. While my ex-musician dad casually encouraged his son's guitar playing, Ronnie's dad "bled music," demanding a severe daily regimen from his heir ("Jim, he virtually chained me to the goddamn piano, made me practice two hours, twice a day. I had no social life until college"). My God, forget acid-the mayjus had had a harder life than mine despite his apparently privileged background. And though the mayjus unwittingly inflicted his dad's bossy Svengali trip on me, this didn't negate our off-kilter empathy.
All I had over the mayjus was my brush with a famous musician-producer. The story impressed him-and anyone else familiar with the producer's name. Expectedly, the mayjus took me to task over disparaging the fizz-out deal. "Jim, you have to see the bright side. Fizz-out or no, he liked your songs and guitar playing, and that's something." Hearing this from the mayjus somehow meant more.
A dishwasher gig at the Hotel de Paris covered my butt throughout October. The low pay barely covered my weekly rent. I lived hand to mouth, no cash reserve. The Hotel de Paris was failing, said Ronnie. Shortly after Halloween, the hotel was sold to shady Mr. Roland, who replaced the entire staff with his ex-con buddies.
The mayjus and I took to drinking harder in his cluttered room. His new undiagnosed leg pains coincided with the heavier booze intake. We sank to stupid arguments when drunk. Our last argument was the worst. The mayjus staggered around his possessions like a mouse in a maze, his knees buckling. "My legs! My goddamn legs!" He picked up a chipped pocket mirror from his desk, studied his face. "Christ, I'm so fucking old!" He kicked a rubber-banded roll of one-dollar bills on the floor, the roll knocking over a three-foot stack of empty take-out cartons. I played the blues on the mayjus's classy guitar until he ripped the axe out of my hands. "Stop playing the devil's music!" Then he leaned it against the desk, and he wiggled his mystical fingers into my face. "Surrender to mayjus, play beautiful music, the mayjus will give you class! Mayjus, mayjus, mayjus!"
I got up and wiggled my fingers in his face. "Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!"
He fell face down onto his unmade bed, sobbing into his pillow. "I just want to lay down and die! I just want to lay down and die!"
I gently placed my palm on his back. "I'm sorry, Ronnie. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm sorry if I made you cry."
I removed my hand as the mayjus changed position, sitting upright against the wall 'til he was all cried out.
"Oh, I guess I had that coming, Jim. What are you going to do now? If I were you, I'd give New York another shot."
"That's the picture that's emerging." I sighed.
It kept raining the following week. I wired an old friend for bus fare, then gave Mary my notice. Still friendly with bassist Marshall, I gave him a holler from a pay phone. "Marshall, I'm throwing in the towel and heading back to New York. Thing is, I have to wait a couple of days 'cause of this and that, and my neighbor is driving me crazy. Can y'all put me up for two nights?"
"Sure, why the hell not, buddy. We'll catch up."
I'd lost track of the indie rock scene. Marshall played me R.E.M.'s first record, a five-song EP cosmically entitled Chronic Town. Its cover was a blue-tinted close-up of a gargoyle leaning his monstrous head on his palm.
Friday morning, Marshall drove me to the pawn shop to pick up my Gretsch electric. Then back to Mary's house for my suitcase. As I had only two hands, I had to leave the five-dollar Laredo behind.
Just as I put the Gretsch into Marshall's trunk, Ronnie shouted through his window, "Jim, are you going back to New York?"
"Yeah. Take it easy, Ronnie."
"You too." The mayjus leaned his head on his hand, perhaps wishing he were made of stone.
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