If you've got fans, you've got to treat them right, right?
The Legend of Johnny Kool by Chris Leek
I watched as a cute little Wanda with a tight ass and a rose tattoo fed quarters into the jukebox. Town without pity oozed through the speakers like oil leaking from a busted sump. Wanda swayed along with Gene, hugging herself like maybe it all meant something. I dragged my eyes from her curves to hunt for space in the overflowing ashtray, but let my mind continue to run with the possibilities.
The smoky half- light made you think that the Nevada Lounge kept some secrets, but it was just busted bulbs. Nobody here thought about washing the floor, let alone setting the mood. Truth be told the place was a dump, but they still served the best hot wings in Ely, which got them my vote.
I looked over to see a guy in a pork pie hat staring at me through bloodshot eyes two perches down. It looked like he was well on his way to getting wasted and seemed to be enjoying the journey.
“Don't I know you?” he asked, squinting at me and popping a peanut.
“Not me, I ain't from around here,” I said and went back to working on tomorrow’s hangover.
“I never forget a face, it'll come to me.” He tapped his head with a pinky gun he made out of a thumb and tobacco stained forefinger. I couldn't help wondering if he kept that thing loaded. “I got it, you used to be Johnny Kool,” he said, pointing it at me and dropping the hammer. Turns out he was firing blanks, but his aim was pretty good.
“I've been a lot of things fella,” I said and reached for another smoke, lighting it from the smoldering cherry of the first. I examined the used up butt, slowly turning it in my fingers before letting it fall to the floor where it fizzled out like a broken dream amongst Pork Pie's peanut shells.
“Yeah, but I'm right ain't I,” he said, fighting against his shiny pegged slacks that kept trying to slide him off the bar stool.
Some people just won't quit. I thought about telling him to take a hike, but I was two drinks past caring and at least one more away from punching his lights out.
“So what if I was?” I said around my cigarette.
“I knew it!” he said and slapped the bar. “Man you was something.”
I drained my glass and rattled the ice in the direction of the bartender, figuring I'd catch that one drink up, you know just in case.
“The Bistro Lounge down in Vegas, what was it, two, three years back? You and that little four piece combo tore the place a new one.”
I sighed and whistled at the bar keep. “Joe, little help?” Joe gave me a look that told me he hated me just for being born and went back to studying his skin mag.
“I ain't never seen anyone that could make a guitar talk like you do...I mean did.”
“Yeah well, that was a long time ago,” I said flexing the crooked fingers on my right hand. “Hey Joe. You still fucking working here or you had a better offer?”
Reluctantly Joe put down his magazine, which according to its cover was 'packed with pussy'. He shot an inch of bourbon into a hi-ball glass with pink lipstick on the rim, threw in some ice and slammed it down in front of me. Like I said the place was a dump.
“How's that whole customer service thing working out for you Joe?”
“Fuck off Johnny, that's a rock and a half and before you ask, no more damn credit,” he said and held out a palm the size of a dump truck. I peeled off a couple of stripper singles and waited for change that never came.
“So Johnny, I can call you Johnny right?” My new buddy had closed the distance and his ass was now slithering around on the stool next to mine. “What happene? You just dropped off the grid.”
* * *
Carlo Martinez is what happened, but I ain't about to tell Pork Pie here any of it.
Back when I had my shit together I played and sang a little, people seemed to dig it. Somehow this big shot Vegas promoter got to hear about me and next thing I know Johnny Gregson became Johnny Kool and I had a gig on the Strip, playing the winter season at The Rivera's Bistro Lounge.
The problem was I played guitar a lot better than I played the tables. I chased the drops too hard and wound up ten grand in the hole to a hairy little creep with a bad suit and a worse reputation. He told me I had a week, but two days later he sends this loony-tunes bastard, Benny around to snap a couple of my fingers, just so as it didn't slip my mind. I didn't have ten large, I didn't even have enough dough to get my hand fixed. So I hocked my guitar for gas and aspirin and got as far away from Vegas as $75 and a third hand Impala with a blown muffler would take me.
After that I buzzed around upstate for a while, playing dime-a-dance places with a shit-kicking Rockabilly outfit called 'The Five Knuckle Shuffle', but them finger bones never quite set right and besides nobody gave a flying fuck about rock n roll anymore. Leastways, that's what I told myself.
* * *
“Shit happens,” I said.
“Ain't that the truth,” Pork Pie said and stared at his two-tone brogues. “Look, I gotta go and this is gonna sound really lame, but could I get your autograph, you know just for old times?”
The last guy who had requested my John Henry was a traffic cop on Henderson, writing me up for doing 40 in a school zone.
“Sure, why the hell not,” I said.
“Great, thanks man.” He pulled out a pen and went fumbling in his wallet for something to write on. A card for the local cab company dropped out and landed in a beer puddle on the bar. I picked it up and shook it off. Written on the back in magic marker was an address. My address.
“Hey pal, just what the hell...”
“You sure are one hard mother to find Johnny.”
I spun around and saw him standing behind me, his hands shoved in the pants pockets of his Mexican Armani knock off and that same stupid, fat mustache clinging to his lip.
“Hello Carlo, I heard you was dead,” I said and thought how I'd like nothing better than to shank my fan club with his own ball point.
“I can assure you I'm in the rudest of health,” Carlo said, grinning like he'd just got a reach around. “How's the hand these days?”
“That's what I thought.” He handed Pork Pie an envelope stuffed with Presidents. “I believe that was what we agreed.”
“No hard feelings eh?” Pork Pie said shoving the envelope in his pocket and making to leave. He paused on his way out. “If it's any conciliation, you used to rock man. ”
* * *
“So how's my old pal Benny the psycho doing?” I asked, propping myself up against the bar and trying hard to look like I didn't give a shit.
“Ask him yourself, he's out front in the car,” Carlo said easing himself into Pork Pie's spot.
Martinez had others on the payroll, but next to his dick Benny was his favorite muscle. Benny was a big bastard with a lopsided crew cut and a real liking for other people's misery. I didn't know him well enough to be sure, but I would hazard a guess that these were some of his better qualities.
“You should know better than to leave a dumb animal in an unattended vehicle Carlo. The cops round here give out tickets for that.”
“Why don't you just keep running that smart mouth of yours and see what happens.” He said.
“You always were full of shit, Carlo.”
I knew he had a temper on him and I needed an angle, maybe if he got mad I'd get one.
“Your balls so big, you think you can screw with me, is that it?”
“Sorry, you ain't my type, but if I ever get an urge to butt fuck a chimp in a cheap suit, I'll be sure to give you a call.”
That seemed to do the trick. The ends of his big mustache started twitching like an epileptic rabbit.
“You little a cock sucker, I got you're type right here,” he said pulling an ivory handled 1911 out of his fuck-ugly jacket.
Joe had been edging towards the major league slugger he kept under the bar for special occasions such as this, but when Carlo cleared leather he vanished faster than my last lucky streak. I grabbed a bottle of tequila off the bar and started swinging it. Carlo ducked one swipe, but I caught him with the worm on the next pass and sent him sprawling. If I was a mean bastard like him, I would have finished it right there, and maybe I should have. But given a straight choice I’ll take the one marked exit.
Clutching the booze like it was a life preserver, I made a break for it. I was about halfway to the front door when Benny walked through it. The pistol grip Mossberg he was holding told me he probably wasn't here for Joe's chicken wings.
I checked my run, slipped on the greasy floor and went over with my arms pinwheeling. The bottle went from my grip and I thought for a moment it was going to blindsided Benny, but the fucker dodged it, pumping the 12 gauge as he went.
I felt a rush of hot air as buckshot fizzed past my head and an explosion of hurt as a ball buried itself in my shoulder. Wanda started to scream and Benny jacked another shell, scything her down with a blast that vaporized the Jukebox and stopped Fats halfway up Blueberry Hill. I scrambled into a booth, just as Carlo started plugging away at anything still moving with his fancy piece. Pressing myself into the corner, I melded to the ripped leatherette like a second layer of duct tape. Puffs of brown stuffing sprouted on the seat back opposite as Carlo's rounds punched through it. Behind me I heard the click – clack rhythm of Benny working the pump. My future shrunk until it neatly filled the ventilated booth and everything I had left was swallowed up by the whump of the Mossberg.
* * *
I lay there with my eyes shut, just listening to the silence. It seemed much louder than anything that went before it. Maybe I was dead. That wouldn't be so bad, at least I got to go down swinging. Funny, I always figured I would check out on the bathroom floor of some shitty motel. Dying in the john had some appeal. I could have compared notes on porcelain with the King for one. But hell everyone knows Elvis ain’t dead.
“Would you look at this shit.”
I opened an eye and saw Joe standing at the end of the booth. He was holding his Padres bat in one hand and picking shards of glass out of his hair with the other. I got up and winced at the bolt of pain that bopped through my shoulder.
“You're one lucky bastard Johnny.”
Looking around, I had to agree with him. Pieces of Carlo decorated the bar, that was the kind of cherry pie you only made with double-aught buck. It was hard to tell what Carlo had thought about it as most of his head was missing. Benny on the other hand, he was real easy to read. He had a hole in his chest and a seriously pissed off look on his face. Maybe his boss’s shot was an accident, but I'll lay odds his wasn't.
“I guess you'd have to call that about even Joe.”
“And what exactly do I tell the cops?”
“Tell them the same as you tell everyone else, there's a two drink minimum,” I said, reliving him of the bat and walking towards the door.
“Hey, where the hell are you going?”
“I promised to sign an autograph.” I said stepping over Benny. “And I'd really hate to disappoint a fan.”