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  • 5. Burn Me Up

    By Tom Piazza

    Bob Dylan says that Tom Piazza’s writing “pulsates with nervous electrical tension—reveals the emotions that we can’t define.” Long before Tom’s magnificent new novel, City of Refuge, defined America in the Katrina age, this early story, “Burn Me Up,” proved Bob right with its razorlike portrait of an uneasy folk hero in backstage exile.

    Fuck you. Fuck you. Stay the fuck out of my dressing room. I’m not the fucking janitor here, and I don’t want you the fuck in my dressing room.” Billy Sundown stopped hollering at the club owner for a moment as he opened the door to his dressing room and saw his younger sister, a middle-aged woman in a pink blazer that was too tight on her, sitting in a folding chair. “Hey, Georgia,” Billy said. “How you doin’? You need anything?”

    “Hi, Billy,” she said.

    “No, man,” Billy started up again, turning to find the club owner still there, “I’m not foolin’ with you, son. I’m not too old to cut you a new asshole. And why wasn’t the piano tuned, as is stipulated” —he paused on the word, for effect—“in my contract?”

    The club owner, whose father had been in grade school with Billy, stood there, looking at Billy’s Adam’s apple, unsure what to say. Billy watched him for a second and shook his head pityingly. “Come in here, son,” Billy said suddenly. “You look like you need a drink. You look like you’re gonna pass out. Come on in. Give us your tired, your weary . . .”

    He held the door open and the club owner, a pale, nervous man of thirty-four with a receding hairline and a halfhearted mustache, walked into the small, cramped room, nodded to Billy’s sister, and sat down next to some stacked-up beer cases, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. It was springtime in Memphis, but inside the Alamo Show Bar it was always some indeterminate season of extremes, with hot, torpid air smelling of beer and sweat suddenly giving way to blasts of freezing air from the overworked air-conditioning system.

    “Now, what do you need to talk to me about, son?” Billy said, pouring bourbon into a small, pleated paper cup. “Why don’t you put some goddamn glasses in the dressing rooms, too. This Wild Turkey’ll burn a hole right through these things. How was that first set, Jo-jo?” He began stripping off his bright green shirt; perspiration had soaked through the tuxedo-shirt ruffles that ran down the front.

    His sister smiled at the pet nickname and said, “Great. Ron wanted to know if you’d play ‘Burn Me Up’ in the next set.”

    “Anything any husband of any sister of mine wants he gets, as long as it’s not a loan. I been broke too goddamn long.” He looked at the club owner again, as if he had just appeared out of nowhere. “What the fuck do you want? I thought I told you to get out of here.”

    “We should probably talk about it in private,” the club owner said, wincing as he watched Billy down the bourbon.

    “Anything you got to say to me you can say in front of my own flesh and blood.” Billy peeled off his undershirt, picked a towel off the top of the stack of beer cases, and began toweling himself off.

    “So be it,” the young man said. “Several of the customers complained about the language you used onstage, and the man you threw the wet napkin at is a city councilman.”

    Billy looked at him in stunned amazement. “A city councilman? You mean Lucas?”

    “Yes, I mean Mr. Lucas.”

    “Look, son. I went to junior high school with that pencil dick. I remember when he used to try and keep his girlfriends away from me. Fuck him.” He looked over at his sister and began to laugh. She raised her eyebrows noncommittally and opened her purse, looking in it for something. “Well, what do you want me to do, get his suit dry-cleaned for him?”

    “I want you to apologize. You embarrassed the man in front of his wife and two guests that he brought to hear you play.”

    “Hear me play? Am I doing that peckerwood some kinda favor by playing here? He used to keep away from me like you’d keep away from a goddamn copperhead. Now he wants to show all his friends he’s a pal of Billy Sundown’s, then they talk through the middle of when I’m playing—”

    “You don’t understand—”

    “Don’t tell me I don’t understand shit. Since when did city councilmen come to see rock and roll? I remember when they tried to run me out for playin’ it. Now I’m rediscovered and it’s a big gravy train for everybody. What do you need, Jo-jo? You’re making me nervous.”

    “I was just looking for my lipstick.”

    “Son, why don’t you be a good boy and go back to the sound booth and tell them to bring the mike up a little more on the bass, and leave me alone.”

    “Look, Billy, everybody loves to hear you perform—”

    “I know it.”

    “—and I do, too.”

    “Fine. Your daddy used to help me set up equipment.”

    “I know that.” The younger man looked at the floor between his feet for a moment; he was suddenly very tired. “Would you please do me a favor and just go out and apologize to Mr. Lucas? It would help me out, believe me.”

    Billy scratched his head; the red hair so prominent in the history-of-rock books and retrospective television specials was dyed now to cover the gray. “What is your poppa doing now, anyway?” he asked the young man.

    “He still owns the dealership out on North Parkway.”

    “That’s good,” Billy said, thoughtfully. “All right, let me visit with my sister a little bit here.”

    “Please,” the young man said, “go out to see Mr. Lucas before your next—”

    “Goddamn it anyway, son,” Billy said, “I told you I would, now quit crawling up my asshole.”

    “Okay,” the younger man said. He couldn’t remember Billy agreeing to do it, but he decided not to make an issue of it. “I’m sorry. Fine. Thanks.” He left the room, closing the door soundlessly behind him.

    “That fella just ain’t in the right business,” Billy said, shaking his head.

    “You talked pretty rough to him.”

    “I know it,” he said, pulling on a fresh shirt. “Me and his daddy used to be friends. Maybe I’ll go out and say something to Lucas in a bit. Maybe I won’t. City councilman. . . . Christ on a Harley. You sure you don’t want something to drink? They put some Cokes in the little fridge.”

    “I’m fine,” she said, looking up at her brother through her bifocals and smiling.

    *

    This was the second time Billy had played at the Alamo Show Bar since the resurgence of interest in 1950s rock and roll that had led to his rediscovery. The Alamo was a roadhouse just northeast of downtown Memphis, a giant, barn-like room with pool tables and pinball machines at the far end and a parquet dance floor around which tables were arranged, the kind of place that featured small acts on their way to the top and big acts on their way to the bottom. And sometimes it featured someone like Billy, a big act that had hit bottom and bounced back up to the middle.

    In the late 1950s, he had been one of the original Wild Men of Rock and Roll. Film footage from that time shows him standing on the piano, throwing his head back, playing bare-chested. One columnist called him the “Redneck Rachmaninoff.” Big package tours, lots of money, leopard print Cadillacs. Then, while Billy was on tour in Ohio, an enterprising reporter discovered that Billy’s female traveling companion of the moment was only sixteen years old, and a resident of Kentucky to boot. That Billy had transported a minor across state lines made all the newspapers; he narrowly escaped imprisonment for violating the Mann Act, his first wife divorced him, and by that time—1960—his brand of rock and roll was being eclipsed in favor of milder teen idols like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon. Billy’s career went into a long slide.

    For most of the ensuing three decades, he ground out a living playing in dismal bars and lounges, living on hamburgers and Dexedrine, driving alone to Holiday Inns in Biloxi, Mississippi, or Carbondale, Illinois, playing on a portable electric piano with a local drummer. A small sign in the lobby, maybe—TONIGHT ONLY—BILLY SUNDOWN—with one or two of his hit song titles listed under it to jog people’s memories. Drunken salesmen would sing along with him as he did perfunctory versions of his own hits and standard rock and roll covers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Great Balls of Fire.” About midway through any given evening, the bourbon and speed that he liked to mix would kick in, and Billy would abandon his set pattern and begin playing boogie woogie versions of obscure tunes he remembered from childhood, like “Shadow in the Pines” and “The Girl with the Blue Velvet Band.” He was famous for getting into fights, and his reputation was not good.

    In the mid-1970s, he underwent a supposed religious conversion. He had his own evangelical television show for a while in Los Angeles, on which he played piano and sang songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Walk and Talk with Jesus” with a beat that some felt was not conducive to a prayerful attitude. Every month he sent home as much as he could to his mother, sometimes as little as thirty dollars after dry-cleaning bills and alimony payments to his first and second wives. Eventually he got into a mess over the wife of one of the television station executives, and he went back to the rounds of Holiday Inn lounges.

    After about twenty-five years, nostalgic pieces about early rock and roll began to appear in magazines. Several television specials were produced; it was far enough behind, safe enough, to have become a period piece. Billy Sundown, certainly one of the best-known figures of the time, a real outlaw, was prominent in all of them. Promoters hunted him up, helped him put together a band; he played a series of big arenas, often in package shows teaming him with other legends like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. He headlined large, hip rock clubs in major cities. His old recordings were packaged into new boxed sets with attractive graphics.

    Billy Sundown didn’t seem to have changed at all, except for a slight paunch and the obviously dyed hair. He would still do anything to get to a sluggish crowd—bang the piano cover against the piano’s body, throw things, stand on the keys. The promoters made money off of him, but he was trouble. Billy felt not so much grateful for as vindicated by the revival of his career. He acted as if the fans and the promoters were the ones who had been missing in action for thirty years.

    *

    Archie Lucas and his party sat at a table just outside the circle of fuchsia and yellow lights from the bandstand and dance floor, amid all the din of the Alamo. Walter Phillips, a partner from Archie’s old siding business, sat next to Archie, yelling in his ear.

    “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Walter Phillips said, sharply, into Archie Lucas’s ear. “I know you like his singing and all, but he’s a freak. If we don’t leave, I’m gonna punch him out.”

    “No, you’re not, Walter,” Phillips’s wife said, from across the table.

    “Look, man,” Archie said, “I been wanting to hear him play live for years, and I’m not going to leave now. Besides, I want to see his expression when I tell him who I am. That’s it, Walter. If you don’t want to wait around, that’s fine.”

    “Look,” Walter Phillips said, “I got you into this by talking, all right? Whyn’t you let me go talk to the manager myself?”

    “Whyn’t you have another drink?” Archie took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. He pushed inward on the bridge of his nose with both thumbs and wished that he had come to see Billy Sundown alone.

    With his eyes still closed he thought back to an April day in 1948. He was in seventh grade, the first entry class to attend Albert H. Fletcher Junior High School, which had just opened out east of the city, where they were starting to build the new neighborhoods for the servicemen who had made it back from the war. The new school pulled in kids from the nearby neighborhoods, as well as some from farther away; children from solid middle-class families like Archie’s sat in scrubbed new classrooms next to the ragged children of factory hands and truck drivers and cotton exchange strongbacks. Archie’s father owned a liquor store downtown; his older brother had been killed in the Pacific, two months before V-J Day. He and his parents had moved to a new house in a subdivision that winter, in the middle of the school year, a gray, dislocating time. The houses there were small and identical, and they sat on small, treeless plots on tracts of land that had been farmland before the war.

    Spring came; the sun bore down on the shadowless sidewalks and fledgling lawns. The days were getting longer. Every week Archie went with his parents to the outdoor concerts in Overton Park, and sat under the sky with its early moon and listened to light opera, or whatever they were offering. Some essential tension that had been in the air for as long as he could remember had dissipated. Archie would always mark that spring as the beginning of a new feeling in himself that he couldn’t quite identify, a sense of longing and possibility mixed with a strange directionlessness. The war had given his entire early childhood a direction, a valence. Things were important; letters arrived from far away. Now there was just an odd sense of reality spreading out around him, getting thinner and thinner, like a drop of oil on water.

    One day, after school had let out for the afternoon, the new feeling came over Archie suddenly, and especially powerfully. Everything around him seemed new, yet timeless and static at the same time. The warm air, the patches of weeds here and there, the sunlight on the beige bricks of the school building, all seemed oddly palpable, full of meaning. He decided to walk the mile back to his house. He began walking across the school grounds, past the blacktop playground, and started across what would someday be a broad lawn but what was at the time only a field of dirt with a few tufts of weeds sticking up. The top of his head felt hot from the sun.

    Suddenly someone appeared in front of him, a skinny kid he had seen in school, one of the older kids, with red hair and a big nose and what looked like a perpetual sneer. White trash, basically, Archie remembered thinking, the kind whose parents lived in the low-income projects along Poplar Avenue. The kid wore a red-and-white striped T-shirt and pants that were a couple of inches too short. He had just appeared, like a vision in the desert. Archie was startled.

    “What about you?” the red-haired kid said. His voice had a high, nasal twang to it.

    Archie didn’t understand the question. “What do you mean ‘what about me?’”

    The redhead stared at him for a second. “You got any money?”

    “No,” Archie said. He could hear the drone of an airplane above them in the blue ether, still an unusual sound, but he didn’t look up to see it. He kept his eye on the red-haired kid as if he were a snake that had just appeared in his path.

    “Lookit this,” the redhead said. He held out the palm his hand and Archie looked at it. On it sat a light pink, translucent rubber ring, like a miniature trampoline, about an inch and a half across.

    “You know what that is?”

    “No,” Archie said.

    “You put that on your John Henry when you do it to a girl.”

    Across the field in front of the school, Archie saw others walking off toward their homes, in small groups. A circle of sweat had plastered his polo shirt to his belly.

    “Cost you a dollar.”

    “I don’t have a dollar for that,” Archie said.

    “What do you got a dollar for, then?” the redhead said. “You got a dollar to keep me from kicking the shit out of you?”

    Archie just stood looking at the redhead. He didn’t say anything. The redhead was watching him.

    “You like it here?” the redhead said.

    “Where?”

    The redhead shook his head, looked across the playground. He bent over and picked up a rock from the scrubby ground. “You dress like you got money,” he said. “I mean don’t you want to get out of here?”

    “Out of school?” Archie said.

    The redhead squinted at him. Archie looked at his big ears; a big dimple sat right in the middle of his narrow chin. “I’m-a buy a whore.” After a moment he said, “What’s your name?”

    “Archie Lucas.”

    “You’re stupider than a rock,” the redhead said. He threw the stone he had in his hand off across the hazy playground. “I’m gonna go to California.” He walked away.

    Archie would always remember the flavor of that encounter, a sense that the red-haired boy couldn’t decide whether he wanted to beat him up or be friends with him. He ran into the redhead, whose name was Billy Sindine, several times over the next few years, the last time at a high school dance, while Archie was spooning out some punch for his date. Suddenly Billy appeared next to him, took the ladle when Archie was finished and spooned himself some punch. For a moment they stood side by side, watching the band; Archie’s only thought was that Billy might say something to embarrass him in front of his date. Finally, without looking at Archie, Billy said, “That bassist ought to be bagging up groceries down at the Piggly Wiggly.” Then Billy was gone, and Archie never heard of him again until 1956; Archie was attending Memphis State and Billy’s voice was suddenly coming out of jukeboxes and car radios.

    Here was the strange thing: in that piercing, sometimes mocking, sometimes defiant voice, Archie heard something that cut through to the feeling he had the spring he met Billy in the schoolyard. That voice, tremulous and arch one moment, high and nasal and lonesome the next, along with his boogie woogie piano, all run through a heavy echo chamber, somehow expressed both the loneliness and the sense of possibility that he had felt eight years earlier. As Archie ground his way through college and the stages of providing for his family, Billy became a private hero to Archie. He had gotten out of Memphis, seen the world, taken his lumps and stuck by his guns, and Archie admired him for it. For years he had wanted the chance to tell him that, and he had decided that he wasn’t leaving tonight before he’d done it.

    *

    Billy and Georgia sat nearly knee-to-knee in the tiny dressing room. “How’s Mama?” Billy asked his sister. “When’d you start smoking?”

    “I been off and on,” his sister said, shaking out a match. “She’s good. You oughta go out and see her.”

    “I’m-a get out there tomorrow and visit with her. I’m stayin’ up to the Radisson. They got an all-white baby grand piano in the lobby. How’s Ron treatin’ you?”

    “He’s fine. He’s still out with Federal Express, doing routing. He took me down to Pascagoula for my birthday.”

    “When was that? How old were you?”

    “Month ago. I turned forty-nine. I tell everybody down to the bank I’m thirty-nine, though, just like Jack Benny.”

    “Jesus ground hog,” Billy said. “I got a sister forty-nine years old. You don’t look a day over forty-five.”

    Georgia laughed, exhaling a plume of smoke and stubbing out her cigarette in a plate.

    “Luther and Leon are always asking about you,” she said.

    “Where the hell are my nephews, anyway?”

    “They both had to work tonight. Luther’s playing in a band.”

    “In a band?” Billy said. “He’s playing that guitar?”

    Georgia nodded. “They call the band Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.”

    “Alcohol, Tobacco, and goddamn Firearms,” Billy said, laughing and slamming a beer case with the flat of his hand. “That’s what I should call my autobiography.”

    Georgia laughed, opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again without speaking. They were quiet for a moment.

    “You know, Billy,” she said, picking at a loose thread on her jacket sleeve, “I feel like I’m getting old and I never get to see you anymore. All I catch is a glimpse of you once every year or two.”

    “More than that and you’d get sick of me quicker’n you could believe.”

    “Do you still have that place out in California?”

    “I pay taxes on it,” Billy said, “so I guess I got it.” He ran the backs of his fingers under his chin, meditatively, feeling for stubble. “The IRS has got a ring through my nose the size of a Hula Hoop.”

    “You ever think about getting a home back here, Billy?” she said.

    Absently, as if he hadn’t heard her, Billy said, “I wish Luther’d stay the hell out of this business.”

    “You’d be around family,” Georgia continued, looking at her brother through her bifocals. “We miss you.”

    Billy looked up at her now with an appraising look. He could almost, he thought, see the love coming off of her in waves, like heat off a radiator. “You know, Jo,” he said, “sooner or later you manage to get around to the same old thing, don’t you? I must have told you half a hundred times what I feel about it, but I still hear this. All I ever wanted was to get the hell out of here. Why in the name of Jesus Christ would I want to move back?”

    “Billy, please don’t get mad.”

    “This town is a goddamn minimum-security prison. All the gates are wide open, but there’s no place to go for a million miles in any direction. These shit heels around here never gave me the time of day. Everybody wanted to kneel on my goddamn nuts. I remember every single one of them dildos. Who the hell ever stayed in Memphis had anyplace better to go?”

    Billy looked at his sister, then up at the ceiling. He ran the palm of his hand over his face.

    “Look, Jo,” he said, “I don’t mean it against you. I couldn’t be happy anyplace. I got the devil inside me—”

    “Billy, I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

    “Well, shit, it’s true, ain’t it? When have I ever been satisfied with what God gave me? What the fuck did I ever do for anybody?”

    “Watch your language around me sometimes, Billy,” Georgia said. “You are so . . . prideful. You talk like the Lord has singled you out to suffer.”

    “I’m not sayin’ that—”

    “It’s a way of setting yourself above others. The Lord gives everyone his own portion, Billy. Everybody has a load to bear.”

    Billy looked at the floor while she said this. After she finished, he looked up at her, then back down again. He ran his hand through his hair. After a moment he said, “It’s hotter’n eight hells in here, isn’t it?”

    “Billy,” his sister began.

    “Listen, Jo,” he said, “I should get myself together here a little.”

    “Billy, why don’t you come by on Sunday. I’ll fix up a dinner.”

    “That’d be nice,” Billy said, standing up. “Tell Ron to get his Ping-Pong table fixed. He still got that thing sitting down in the basement?”

    “I think we threw that out a couple of years ago.”

    “Yeah,” Billy said. “Well . . . we can play flip the spoon or something. Give me a kiss. I’ll see you on Sunday not too early.”

    Georgia gave her brother a kiss and a hug. As she left the dressing room he was fitting cufflinks into his shirt cuffs.

    *

    After the door closed, Billy reached into a small briefcase on his dressing table. He hummed softly, “She got a man . . . on her man . . . and a kid man on her kid.” He pulled out a tiny plastic bag and opened it.

    “Everybody wants to go to heaven,” he said to himself, “but nobody wants to die.”

    From the small bag he pulled out two tiny translucent crystals that looked like rock candy and popped them into his mouth under his tongue. He zipped the bag closed again and stuck it back into the briefcase, which he closed and put on the floor. The crystals dissolved quickly in his mouth, as he buttoned up his shirt. “Sweet to papa,” he said, his heart already beating harder.

    He tucked his shirt in, breathed deeply. Love, he thought, was a word that everybody used, himself included, without knowing what it meant. Some people said God was love. But God was also judgment. They were two sides of the same coin. You get love, but then you have to be worthy of it.

    His talent was God-given. But talent can be a judgment on you, too, he thought, just like somebody’s love, a gift you didn’t ask for. His talent had never seemed like something he owned; it was more like having a brother, a separate part of himself that was better than he was; people loved it and stupidly mistook it for the real him. If they knew what he was really like, they would run away screaming.

    He felt the need of some cool water on his face, and he unbuttoned the shirt again and took it off. Jesus loves me, he thought. This I know. Why? ’Cause the Bible tells me so. But I can’t sit still for His love. God is love, but love means you have to disappear. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice yourself, you can’t love. They had been trying to make him disappear without his consent for as long as he could remember. But he wouldn’t. Man, he thought, if he wasn’t going to hell grits weren’t groceries and Mona Lisa was a man.

    “I can’t sit still . . .” he sang, now, splashing water on his face, making up a song, “for your love, baby.” The water refreshed him, pulled him a little bit into focus. He toweled off his face. “I’m doing the multiplication tables of love. Love times five is thirty-five. Love times six is thirty-six.” For a second he rested his face in the towel. “Love times seven,” he went on, “puts you in heaven. Love times eight turns into hate.”

    He felt bad about yelling at Georgia. He’d make it up by swallowing his pride in front of Lucas. Just don’t let him try and get a piece of me, he thought. Just let me say my piece and get away. How, he wondered, did somebody like Lucas do it? Stay in one place, probably married, kids, a house, friends, cookouts, bowling league, sun comes up, sun goes down, out to dinner once a week when they could get the baby-sitter. Yeah, well, if Lucas has kids, they’re probably all grown now. Wonder if he has a daughter . . .

    A knock came on the door, and Billy yelled out, “Talk to me.”

    His bassist, Buzz Clement, opened the door and stuck his head in. “Billy, you want in on a coupla hands of tonk before we got to hit again?”

    “Son, I can’t take your money like that and get to sleep at night. Besides, I got to go talk to a man out here about something.”

    *

    Archie Lucas and his party still sat at their table; an embarrassed quiet clung to the group now. Archie tapped a matchbook against the tabletop, rotating it a quarter of a turn for each tap, hitting each edge in turn. His wife, Rose, sat across from him, watching him with a sad look on her face. Walter Phillips and his wife, Rena, were quiet, too. Walter sat to Archie’s right, trying to bounce quarters off the table into an empty highball glass.

    “Five,” Walter Phillips said. “That’s five for me. Archie, it’s your turn.”

    “Archie,” Rose said. “Why don’t we just head out. There’s no point—”

    “Listen,” Archie said, “I want to give it a few minutes, all right? You want to head home, take the car and I’ll call a taxi when I’m ready. Please.” Archie took his glasses off and began wiping them with a cocktail napkin. The glasses lent his face definition; without them, it was a little unfocused, lined but still boyish, although he was only a year younger than Billy Sundown, and his gray-streaked hair was carefully combed to cover a large bald spot.

    “Well, look,” Walter Phillips said, pushing his chair back from the table, “we’re gonna head home. You sure you’re gonna wait around?”

    Archie put his glasses back on. “Yeah, I am, in fact.”

    “Well, I hope you get what you’re after,” Phillips said, as they walked away.

    “Safe home,” Archie said.

    As his friends walked off through the intermission crowd, Archie tried to formulate in his mind what he would say to Billy when he came out. He could give him an ironic look, say something like, “See if you can guess where we know each other from.” Then he could sit there while Billy raked through his mind for the answer. When Billy finally gave up, Archie would remind him of that day on the playground and see if he remembered. Then Archie would tell Billy that he’d been following his career for all these years, and how Billy’s recording of “That Lucky Old Sun” had seen him through some tough times. “You made it out of here,” he imagined himself saying. “You stuck to your guns.” “So did you,” he imagined Billy saying. Archie’s heart beat harder and he felt a funny tightening in his throat.

    As Archie was thinking these thoughts, Billy Sundown emerged from his dressing room and began making his way through the noisy room. He wore a bright purple shirt with tuxedo ruffles down the front, and white pants with white shoes and a yellow belt. As he made his way between the crowded tables he responded to greetings, shook hands, waved, all the while grinding his teeth from the Methedrine he had taken. He made his way straight over to the table where Archie Lucas sat with his wife.

    “Howdy, neighbors,” Billy said, approaching their table. “Howdy, Mr. Lucas . . . ma’am,” nodding to Rose.

    Archie felt an adrenaline rush, and an odd, dislocated feeling, too—how had Billy remembered his name after all those years?

    “Listen,” Billy said, “I wanted to apologize for that incident earlier. Sometimes I get a little jacked up and I forget myself. My apologies to you, too, ma’am.”

    Archie looked up at Billy Sundown in wonder; the red hair that he remembered from childhood was no longer unkempt, but waved and pomaded into an emblem of controlled wildness. Billy’s face looked hollow-cheeked and puffy at the same time. Set into it were a pair of sharp eyes—weird, razorlike eyes like those of old men he’d seen as a boy on trips to visit relatives out in the country, seemingly backlit by a flame compounded of pure backwoods fanaticism and a strong and uncultivated intelligence. He realized he needed to say something, to acknowledge Billy’s apology.

    “Well, we shouldn’t have been talking while you were playing,” Archie said.

    “It happens all the time,” Billy said, distractedly, his hands in his back pockets. He felt the love waves coming up at him again, just as they did off of Georgia, making him squirm, making him angry. Where, he thought, were all these parasites when he was playing lounges for thirty years? They all wanted something off of him; they wanted him to stamp their ticket, tell them it was all right. He looked around the room to clear his head, grinding his teeth some more and sweating. “Well, I’ll tell you . . .” he began, as if getting ready to go.

    “Would you like to sit down?” Archie said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

    “Well . . .” Billy began, shifting uncomfortably on his feet, telling himself to just breathe, and that it would be over in a second. “I really ought to get over here and see my sister. I don’t get home too often, and when I do, I like to visit as much as possible.”

    The encounter was not going according to the scenario Archie had envisioned. Still, he had to ask the question on his mind, out of pure curiosity. “Billy,” Archie said, “can I ask you, how did you remember my name?”

    Billy didn’t fully understand the question; to him it seemed as if the man facing him was trying to make a point about his age. “Partner,” Billy began, “I’m not as senile as I might look. Don’t push me, now. I’m sorry I acted up, but I gotta go see my sister.”

    Archie sensed that if he was going to say what he had wanted to say, he would have to say it quickly. “Billy,” he began, “I just wanted to tell you—”

    “Jesus goddamn it,” Billy said, leaning across the table toward his old schoolmate, his forehead dripping sweat and his eyes burning. “Don’t say it. Stop right there. You love me, right?”

    Archie was so taken aback by this outburst that he blurted out the word “Yes,” hardly even knowing he was saying it.

    But before Archie had formed the word Billy had already pushed himself away from the table, turned around and walked away, barely able to rein in his contempt for all those fools who wanted some kind of salvation from someone like him.

    From the collection Blues And Trouble: Twelve Stories.
    Copyright © 1996 by Tom Piazza.
    Reprinted by permission of the author.

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