Latest Flash

The Set

If you're playing club gigs, you gotta hustle. . .

And make sure you're not the one getting pimped.

The Set by Zach Stanfield

I set up on stage and ground my teeth to suppress the mild ache that stuck around after poor choices and little sleep.

The cocktail waitress glided up and flicked her thumb toward the bar. “Phone for you, honey.”

The receiver rested in a wet spot on the counter and I wiped it off on my shirttail. “Yeah?”
“Jack, it’s Eddy.”
“What’s going on?”
“Same old shit. Listen, got a buddy down in Jackson said he’d make us a deal on studio time next week.”
“How much?”
“Usually about a grand, but he’d do us a favor and cut that in half. Says he’s bringing in some session players from ‘Bama and needs to fill up the week. Thought we could split the cost. Whatcha think?”
I wouldn’t be able to get the cash but knew better than to turn him down. “Guess I’ll see you Monday.”  I hung up.

Sal, the bar man, caught my arm and slid me a bar napkin.
“What’s this?” I asked.

“This is what you’re playing tonight.”

“I already got a set.”

“Yeah, well, it just changed. Think you can cover them? If you can’t, you ain’t getting paid.”

I looked it over. “Yeah, who can’t?”

He started wiping down the bar again and let me fade out in front of him. Joints like Sal’s didn’t mind fucking someone up as long as they got paid. To them, it was always hard times, and I was just as good as a jukebox or spoons with an accompanying harmonica.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose and could still taste last night and the powdered aspirin from this morning. I opened a tab from the waitress with the cut off jeans and forget-me-not hips and asked her to keep the cheapest beer coming. The plan was to nurse five until close. I crumpled the set napkin and tossed it behind the amp.

Sal’s transitioned from empty to full as the patrons ambled in and the lights grew dim, cueing me to roll into the first song. Didn’t take long before I was into it. Four songs and I knew where the night would take me. By the third beer, it all synced, and I eased back, killing every note played. I timed it wrong, lost in the mood, and finished my eighth beer by closing. I’d square up with what they owed but wasn’t concerned because it went so well. I packed up and dumped my gear in the back of my Oldsmobile and lit a cigarette to complement the sweet aftertaste left over from the beer. I thought on what I could sell to pull in the extra bit of cash I needed. If I pawned everything I’d still come up two hundred shy. I flicked the filter out into the gravel and headed back inside.

The only folks still standing at 3 a.m. were barmen and musicians. Sal counted down the register and had several bottles spread out that would likely be watered down and served the next night.

I moved over some bourbon and leaned across the bar. “You close me out?”

“Yep. It’s sixteen,” Sal said.

“Just take it out of what you owe me.”

“Owe you?”

“It’s eighty for the gig.”

He stared at me blankly.

I laughed.

“Not sure what’s funny.”

“The fact that you’re about to pay out eighty bucks.”

“I was paying for the list I gave you. The one you tossed out,” he said.

“You heard this place tonight. Doesn’t matter what I was playing.”

“I said that was the set. If you couldn’t cover it then you should have walked.”

“Songs weren’t for you.”

“And here I thought I was the one paying.”

Bars get so quiet when what makes them electric swells and dissolves with the crowd. With a gig, or anything really, you tune into a feeling, and if the plunge is lucky, it’ll lift you beyond the meager shit you’re always scrambling for. Downside is you never know until after you’ve gone with it.

I grabbed a bottle of bourbon and swung it right into the side of Sal’s skinned head. He folded under the glass and spirit, and I snatched what was on the bar. “This’ll cover it.”

No one ever stops on the short gain and musicians always play one too many numbers before the place turns. I reached over the counter and pulled from the drawers. 

Sal’s right hand grabbed the ledge and lifted the rest of him up. He leveled a .38 on the counter and the trigger gave softly. I shoved the broken end of the bottle in his arm. He dropped the gun. I put three slugs in him and left.

I stumbled, dazed from the rush, opened the car door, and fell into my seat. Empty lots were all the same and I could be anywhere between Birmingham and Laredo. The bourbon had mingled with the blood pouring out of me. I touched the tender wound and neat little hole, feeling warmth trickle down my calloused finger.

I always figured my best show would end at the Grand Ole Opry or some roaring theatre. Not bleeding out in an Oldsmobile. I put the key in the ignition and rolled it over. The lights came on and I wanted to hear something familiar on the radio. The knobs were just out of reach and the silence sunk in. This would be a great song; the kind played at closing.

Zach Stanfield is a crime writer from Alabama. He enjoys writing about the grime of the south and all its seedy idiosyncrasies. He has been published at Shotgun Honey and is currently working on a novel.