Daniel Davis, a native of rural Illinois, is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him on Twitter (@dan_davis86), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com
The Last Night of Our Love
By Daniel Davis
When Dale finally walked offstage and got out back to the bus, all he wanted to do was sleep. He was running on thirty-six hours of Red Bull, coffee, and Jack Daniels. He needed to pass out. Unconscious bliss had to be better than this waking hell, where the half-hearted singing rang as sharply in his ears as cymbals crashing inside a metal jar.
But Evan, his agent, was leaning against the side of the embarrassment generally referred to as a bus, and Dale knew there was one more thing he had to do tonight.
“Hey, Tex,” Evan said, an apologetic smile on his face.
“Shit.” Dale pulled at the cotton rodeo shirt clinging to his chest. A man his age wasn’t supposed to sweat so much.
“Yeah, well.” Evan shrugged. “She insisted, and she’s cute, and she’s about twenty. I figured, worst comes to worst, you have a heart attack atop a hot blond. Isn’t that how men in your profession wanna go out?”
Evan was thirty. What the fuck did he know about dying?
“It’s a way,” Dale said. He glanced back at the bar. “Where’s Pete?”
“Let Pete get some shut-eye. You don’t want him driving right now. He’s as bad off as you are.”
“Don’t we have another show?”
“Not for a couple days, and it’s only a state over. You’ll make it in plenty of time.”
Dale nodded and eyed the bus windows. They were tinted. As though anyone were clamoring to see inside anymore.
“She’s cute,” Evan said again. “A little thick around the hips, maybe, but not bad. And she’s a big fan. She didn’t say as much, but hell, she was so eager to see you, she has to be.”
“I don’t have groupies who ain’t in a home,” Dale said.
“The kids call it ‘retro.'” Evan shrugged, as though he weren’t a kid himself. “Besides, Tex, you had a Grammy nomination a couple years ago.”
“They don’t give you a Grammy ’til you’re about to kick under.”
Evan laughed and slapped Dale’s shoulder. “Come on. Pour yourself a shot, buck up, and enjoy yourself, okay? You have a sweet young thing waiting for you. Just like the old days, right? You can’t tell me you’re not excited.”
He was right: Dale couldn’t tell him that. It was the truth, but he still couldn’t bring himself to admit it out loud. How to describe the way a body breaks down, but not before the desire, the will? That’s the kind of stuff you can’t put in a song, and for Evan’s generation, if it didn’t have a beat, it wasn’t real.
“What’s her name?” Dale said, figuring he would forget it by the time he got aboard.
Evan walked to the door of the bus. “Sam,” he said. “She looks like a Sam, too.” He opened the door. “Get on, man.”
Dale boarded, and Evan closed the door behind him. He climbed the steps and glanced down the length of the bus. It was nothing like the bus he’d had in the late seventies and eighties, the one that was more a camper than anything. This bus ran loud, leaving a trail of exhaust behind it that had garnered more than one citation. The seats had been taken out, replaced by barely-cushioned benches that ran back to a small section that had been cordoned off with cardboard partitions—Dale’s bed. All in all, the bus was a joke. A short bus, the kind only “special” kids were supposed to take to school. He only used it because it meant he didn’t have to drive himself. He could get more drinking done that way. Plus, Pete was a decent guy most of the time. Good for a dirty joke, with great taste in cheap wine.
The girl sat in the middle of the bus, just a couple feet behind the driver’s seat. Evan had been generous about her age; she was probably more twenty-five, though she was indeed cute, with her blond hair trimmed close to her head, more of a butch cut than Dale usually preferred, but she pulled it off. Yes, she had a few extra pounds on her, but Dale had stopped judging years ago, when he’d acquired some of his own. She wore a black t-shirt with some random spiral design, and jeans with pre-ripped holes in them. Not designer clothes. You could probably pick them up at J.C. Penny’s. On the discount rack.
She looked up at him. Her eyes were sharp and blue; they reminded of his ex-wife’s eyes, when she was younger. Lois. He actually hadn’t thought of her in months.
He hesitated at the top of the steps. Carefully, he said, “Sam, right?”
She nodded and stood. Stuck out her hand like they were standing across a business table. He took it, his massive paw dwarfing hers. Smooth skin. Youthful skin. It had been a while since he’d felt it.
“Dale, please,” he said, wishing he’d taken a moment to wipe the sweat from his face, ring it from his lanky hair. At least trim his goddamn beard. “My friends call me ‘Tex,’ for some reason.”
She nodded, glancing away, and he wondered if she’d ever done anything like this before. It had been a while since he’d been in this situation—lately, when it happened, he was the instigator, hitting the local bar scene, occasionally kicking up sawdust on some scuffed dance floor, usually just sitting at the counter until something female recognized him, then taking the lead from there—but he didn’t remember them being nervous. Usually they were too drunk.
“Let’s have a seat,” he said, pulling away from her to show that he wasn’t forcing her into anything. If she just wanted to tell him how big a fan she was, well, tonight he could live with that. Though female companionship was a nice change of pace.
She sat down where she had been. He said, “You want something to drink? I always need a beer after these things.”
She nodded, so he grabbed two beers from the mini-fridge, then sat down opposite her. He twisted the cap off her beer, then leaned forward and offered it to her. She took it, stared at it for a moment, then took a tentative drink.
Dale leaned against the window, trying not to stare at the girl. He doubted the bright lights of the bus were doing him any favors, but she almost seemed to glow, at least from this angle. He’d always had a thing for blondes. Lois had dyed her hair blond, thinking it would satisfy him. Maybe it had, for a while. He couldn’t remember.
“So, Sam.” He restrained a belch. At least he could still do that. “You’re a fan.”
“Yes.” She looked at him and smiled. Was it a sad smile, or just wistful?
“Tell me: how’d a girl as young as you come to love the music of an old codger like myself?”
“My father. He…he was a big fan. Played your records all the time.”
“Records.” Dale whistled. “I haven’t met another soul who listens to records since the Reagan administration.”
“My dad loved them. I have the CD’s.”
“Well, that’s better than this digital crap, I guess.” He laughed. Not a bad laugh, considering.
“My dad had a cover band for a while. They mostly played your stuff. ‘Big Bad Billy Brown,’ ‘You Touch Me,’ all of them.”
“Those were some big ones.” Those two alone had bought him a house just outside Nashville. He’d spent his nights sleeping in the same neighborhood as some of the legends who had initially written him off. Up-and-comers always inspired resentment. Dale had felt it himself, just a few years ago. Now, of course, it didn’t matter. They weren’t a threat to him, because he wasn’t even in the game anymore.
“His favorite was ‘The Last Night of Our Love,'” she said. “He played it all the time.”
He nodded. “Number one for three weeks in ’89, I think. I remember, we did a video for it.”
“You did?” She seemed surprised.
“Yes. Videos weren’t much back then, of course. At least, all the money went to the shit they played on MTV. We got some grad student with a computer and a few hours between classes. And a lighting tech who was drunker than I was. I’m sure it’s somewhere online. All those crappy videos end up there eventually.”
“It was such a beautiful song,” she said. “You wrote it about your wife, right? Lois? After you divorced.”
“If we’re gonna talk about Lois,” Dale said, standing, “I’m gonna need another beer.”
But instead of a beer, he grabbed the bottle of Jack and a dirty glass. If Sam noticed the difference, she didn’t react. She didn’t even apologize. Instead, she said, “It’s such a painful song. Beautiful, but painful.”
“Well, that was a dark time in my life.”
“That one line you wrote…’If this is the end, it’s the end of me too.’ It’s so simple, but there’s so much meaning behind it.”
“Well.” He shrugged and drank. The warmth that spread through him made him realize how cold the bus was. “Do you want me to turn down the air?” he said. “Pete—he’s my driver—he likes to keep it colder than a witch’s tit in here.”
She shook her head. “I used to listen to that song all the time.”
“You don’t want to listen to that one too much. ‘My Darling, My Lover.’ Now that’s a song to listen to. Much more upbeat. You can dance to it, too. Do you like to dance?”
“You can dance to ‘The Last Night of Our Love.'”
“True. Those old waltzes, they are good for dancing. But you shouldn’t dance to them.” He leaned forward and stuck out a finger. “They’re meant to be listened to. Usually with a drink in the hand. That’s why I did songs like that. To give people something to soak up their pain. Like a sponge. I was their sponge.”
She bit her lip and nodded. “I guess that makes sense. My dad had a lot of pain. Maybe that’s why he liked that song so much.”
“I’m glad I could help.” Dale liked hearing about his fans’ appreciation. It was an affirmation of why he had done what he’d done, why he’d made these fucked up choices in the first place. Maybe there’s wasn’t much of a point now, maybe it was all done by rote now, but once there’s been a purpose, at least. That was something to hold onto with one hand, while the other clutched a whiskey glass.
But he didn’t like hearing the details. No one wanted the details. Not the fans, not him. Details were too specific. Did Sam want to know that Dale couldn’t even go to sleep now without at least three shots in him? Did she want to know that he woke up nights soaking in his own piss, and that he’d been doing so for years, long before old age had set in? She didn’t want that information any more than he wanted to know what her father had gone through to make him relate to a certain song.
Dale could tell this wasn’t going where Evan had thought it would. Why had he let the girl on the bus in the first place? Surely she could’ve waited outside. How persuasive had she been? Dale couldn’t see her convincing anybody of much of anything.
“He played it a lot after our mother died,” Sam said. She lifted her eyes and met Dale’s. He saw the hurt in them. Anger, too. That wasn’t entirely new; but usually, when a woman was angry with him, he had his clothes off.
“I…” Dale took a drink. “I am truly sorry to hear that, Sam.”
“I told him to stop, because it always made him cry. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to cry so much.”
“You say he had all my records? You should’ve switched that one out for my first, Dale Travers. A lot of upbeat songs on there. Ones you can dance to. Waltzes you can dance to as well. I took a lot of flack for writing some upbeat waltzes—”
“Near the end, my father only listened to that one song. He had your entire collection, and he had a lot of other records too, but he only played that one song. Every time I visited him.”
Dale didn’t say anything. He poured more Jack into the glass, almost filling it, and downed it all in one swig. It burned and he let it. Then he refilled the glass.
“It got so where I couldn’t even visit him, Mr. Travers. I couldn’t stand that song. I hated that song. I wanted to break his record, but I knew he’d only buy another. He saw something in your lyrics, and it haunted him. I think that’s what it was, now. He saw the ghost of my mother in your song.”
Dale forced himself to drink slowly. One sip, then another. His hand shook. He said, “Sam, it’s getting late. I’m sorry, but I’m an old man now—”
“It was playing when he killed himself.” The girl stopped, thought over her sentence, and nodded as if reaffirming it. “He hung himself in the garage, but before he did, he hauled that record player out there with him. The police said that he probably died after the song was over. That’s what I think of most often, you know—how, in the end, you abandoned him. He wanted to die to that song, and instead he died in silence, listening to the needle skip.”
Dale stared at the window behind her. No lights over there. He vaguely remembered an empty field, filled with litter. The kind they used to play baseball in. Now people went there to shoot up or have sex for money.
“I just wanted you to know, Mr. Travers. I just thought you should know what your song did to him. What you did to him.”
She met his eyes again. Yes, they were Lois’s eyes, right down to the simmering fire buried just beneath the surface. A self-loathing fire, directed outwards. Dale stared into her eyes, for a moment convinced this was his ex-wife, certain that the booze had finally caught up to him and that he was hallucinating.
And then he laughed. A good laugh, good for his age and condition. Hearty and deep, and a little whiskey-fueled.
The girl reeled back from him, the anger instantly replaced by surprise and something else, maybe the beginnings of disgust. She hit her head on the window, and the beer bottle slipped from her fingers and emptied over the floor. The clang of the glass replaced Dale’s voice, as his laughter slowly died out.
“I can see why Evan let you on, now,” Dale said. “That son of a bitch wanted me to feel good about myself.”
Sam shook her head. Dale tried to laugh again, but it came out as a gruff chuckle.
“Did you mention that song to him? You did, didn’t you? Jesus. He was setting me up. Fucking punk.” Dale leaned forward. Some of the Jack sloshed over his jeans. “Listen to me very carefully, because I want you to get this, okay? I. Did. Not. Write. That. Song. All right? Do you have that? Some up-and-comer named Frank Versaille wrote that song, and I told him, ‘Ain’t nobody named ‘Frank Versaille’ ever gonna be big in this business, but I am, and I will be for a few years yet, so let me make something of your song.’ So he sold it to me, I put down that I wrote it, and added to my fortune.”
“You…” The girl blinked. “You didn’t write it?”
“Nope.” He shrugged. Half the glass spilled. “Hell, don’t judge. Willie Nelson sold his songs all the damned time. Nobody makes a fuss over it though. Frank was a decent writer. But where is he now? He doesn’t even have a bus as shitty as this one. I think he’s dead, in fact. Probably killed himself like your old man did. It’s par for the course in this business.”
She raised a hand to her forehead, stroking non-existent bangs away from her eyes. Lois had done something similar all the time. No matter how often Dale had told her to trim her bangs, she’d kept them long, complaining about them constantly. She’d known how good they made her look.
“Maybe that’s it,” Dale said. “You remind me of her, you know? Maybe that’s why Evan let you on. That cocksucker. I’ll fire him. I’ll…” Dale shook his head. “No. Evan never met Lois. I’m pretty sure of that, right? She was long gone by the time I hired him. Ten years at least. Longer, maybe.”
He finished what was left in the glass, then sat staring at the contents that had spilled across his lap. Plenty more where that came from, but he still mourned the loss.
The girl made a sound in the back of her throat. Dale looked at her, and she wasn’t quite as pretty now. Something had twisted in her face, and her eyes were unfocused. She watched him, or maybe she was simply staring through him.
Dale set the glass on the bench beside him. “Your father has it easy,” he said. “He doesn’t have to hurt anymore. He did the brave thing and confronted his pain head-on. Some of us don’t do that. Some of us keep on truckin’ even after we shouldn’t. So maybe you shouldn’t hate me. Maybe you should thank me.” He tried to stand and fell back onto the bench. “Or Frank Versaille, I guess. Though that kid couldn’t sing worth a lick.”
Like a startled frog, the girl hopped to her feet and ran to the front of the bus. She tripped down the stairs, falling against the door with a heavy thud. Dale forced himself up to follow her. He found her leaning against the door, face turned, one cheek bloody.
“Oh Jesus,” he said, and started towards her. “Here, Sam, let me—”
She flailed at him, driving him back. Tears mixed with the blood, and she began screaming, half her face pressed against the glass.
“Christ, don’t,” Dale said. “If anyone hears you—”
But she wasn’t screaming, really, she was crying, or maybe it was both. His hearing was as fuzzy as his vision. He grabbed at her, and she fought him, but he was able to pull her away from the door. Then he opened it, and she rushed outside. At least she didn’t scream any louder out there.
He watched as she ran toward the bar, then around the side. Where was she going like that? He thought about honking the horn, then figured she’d just look over her shoulder and run straight into a wall or something. Best to let her instincts carry her wherever they would.
He closed the door and went back to the fridge. Screw the glass. He usually made a point of not drinking from the bottle, but he sat down where the girl had been and took a swig. He was thinking of Lois now, and he hadn’t in months, and other things that usually didn’t occupy his mind after a certain amount of drinking. So he deserved to drink however he damn well wanted. Hell, maybe there was even a song in it somewhere. Not that anyone would ever hear it.
“‘If this is the end, it’s the end of me, too,'” he sang, off-key and slurred. He stared out the tinted windows, at the dimly lit back lot, and sang until he no longer recognized the song.