UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 05/2012
BOB KALKREUTER

THE TROUBLE WITH JANIS JOPLIN

         Usually, Tad only got drunk at night, but today it was noon and he'd already started drinking. Turning off the ignition, he wiped his sweaty hands on the front of his Neil Young t-shirt and got out of his ancient truck. The paint was peeling, the brakes were bad, and the front-end rattled like a box of marbles. But right now, he didn't have the money to get another one. Still, he was ready to be rid of it.

         The sun was bright and yellow, and everything around him was a lighter yellow, his truck, the hard-dirt lot, the roof of the small bar, all of them dusted with pollen. He mounted the sway-backed steps and glanced around before he went inside.

         A car was parked by the pines in the back, another in the weeds near the road, an old Lincoln held together by rust and peeling paint. Been there for years, unmoved.

         "Howdy, Tad. Beer?" The bartender didn't wait for an answer. He'd already uncapped a bottle and set it on the counter, sneezing.

         "Pollen?" said Tad, easing himself onto a stool, a lean, raw-boned man who moved with the carefulness of someone testing his own reflexes. The beer tasted cool and he drank quickly.

         "Yeah. It's bad this year," said the bartender.

         "Seen Ginny lately, Bo?" asked Tad, straightening up to fish through his pocket for quarters. He found two. Standing, he headed for the juke box, which sparkled in the sunlight, bleeding between the strips of tape holding the window together.

         "Ginny? Yeah, she was here last night."

         "She say anything?"

         "She said you'd split up."

         Tad shoved the quarters into the slot, hard, punching the numbers by feel. "We didn't," he said. Yesterday, when he was out looking for work, she'd run off, that much he knew for sure, because she took her clothes and his money. But he wasn't ready to call it quits yet, and he didn't want it to be over until he said it was over. The money she took, he'd kept in the closet, in the toe of his tennis shoes. A couple of hundred in fifties and twenties, he wasn't sure of the exact amount, but enough to buy gas and beer for a while, not to mention the rent.

         The music started, revving into Janis Joplin's husky voice singing 'Me and Bobby McGee'. Ginny's song. Their song. There was a smell of stale beer and cigarettes everywhere, seeping from the walls, the naked rafters, even the chairs and tables. Reminding him of the times they'd spent here, he and Ginny. Good times, in his memory. Painful, angry times now.

         "Who was she with, Bo?"

         "Well..." Bo looked around, even though the only people in the bar were an old man with a tobacco stained beard muttering to himself at a table by the door, and another man who leaned forward, apparently asleep, in the darkness of a back booth.

         "Come on, Bo, we've known each other for a long time. How many times we been deer hunting together? What's going on?"

         Bo shrugged, bending his attention to scrub an already clean glass.

         Tad sat down and finished his beer. "One more," he said.

         "Maybe you better slow down," said Bo.

         "Who was she with, Bo?"

         "Haven't seen you much lately. You been working?"

         Tad shook his head. The last few years he'd been trying to make a living playing his guitar, going from bar to bar, town to town. Sometimes he played his own songs, but most of the time, he sat in with other bands, playing their songs, even traveling to places like Atlanta and Greenville. He had little trouble picking up gigs. Everybody liked his playing. But getting paid was another matter. In the meantime, he took on odd jobs, when he was around, mostly as a carpenter. Still, playing his own songs was what he wanted to do, and opportunities for that didn't come along every day. Or every month either.

         The juke box switched to something by Waylon Jennings. He felt himself go hot. "I won't say you told me," he said.

         Bo frowned, looking shifty. "You ain't gonna do nothing?"

         Tad shook his head.

         "Say it. You gotta say it."

         "Oh for Crissakes, Bo. Who was it?"

         Bo checked the room again, leaned close, lowered his voice. "She was here last night with Johnny Carly. Right at closing."

         Tad grimaced. He couldn't imagine what she saw in Johnny Carly, or any of the Carlys for that matter. Half of them were retarded, all of them full of larceny and bad news. But then Ginny was beyond his understanding anyway. Had been the last few years, particularly since they'd been living together. "Damn," he said, feeling his stomach knot. He stood up. "Give me a six-pack. In cans."

         Bo pulled the cans from their plastic rings and stuffed them one by one into a paper bag. "Now, you ain't gonna..."

         "Don't worry, Bo. You're not gonna get in trouble." Tad wedged the bag under his arm and dropped a couple of extra bucks on the bar.

         "I'm not talking about me."

         "Well, don't talk about either of us," said Tad, turning.

         "You got an extra one of those?" asked a familiar voice.

         Tad looked up to see his cousin Homer standing at the front door, grinning. Homer was always good company, and he hated the Carlys with a passion. Today, not a bad combination.

         Perhaps Tad knew it wasn't a good idea to look for Ginny now, but he wanted to see her anyway. Maybe it would do some good, maybe not. But he would get to close the door, if nothing else. To make things final, like viewing a dead body, even though he knew what she'd say: "I don't want to live with a damn musician. I want somebody with a steady income." And Tad couldn't argue with that. Johnny Carly probably took in more in one week as a thief than he did in a year of playing music. In his lifetime so far, more than likely.

         "Homer," said Tad, nodding. "You just saved me a trip."

         Homer glanced at the bag in Tad's hand. "You think you can spare one of those. Looks like you got a six-pack in there, at least."

         "Maybe so, but I need your help."

         "Doing what?"

         "Let's take a little trip. You and me."

         "Last time you said that, we got caught in a storm."

         "Hell, I didn't know it was going to rain."

         "Neither did Noah, but he paid attention to the signs," said Homer, starting to edge inside.

         Tad moved over to cut him off.

         "Let's have us a couple of beers first, and we'll talk about it," said Homer. "Bo's got more beer than you do in that little sack."

         "When we get back, we'll spend plenty of time with Bo. And I'll buy."

         Homer smiled. "Well then, let's get moving."

*

        Outside, their boots punched up little puffs of dust. It was a dry spring.

         "Where we going?" asked Homer. One of his shoelaces was untied and it flipped back and forth, untended.

         "To visit the Carlys," said Tad.

         "The Carlys?" said Homer. He nodded as if he were trying to align his thoughts, getting them ready for inspection. "Those sons of bitches. What for? Since when you paying them social calls?"

         "This ain't no social call."

         "Well. It's starting to sound better."

         Tad felt the sun on his bare neck, fires of anger hardening into a lump in his gut. He understood why Ginny might want out. Deep down, he really did understand. But that didn't make the hurt and anger go away. They'd been living together six months now, and he wasn't ready to end it yet. He liked the way she cooked and made love. Once, when drunk, he'd mentioned marriage. But Ginny had only swung her head back and laughed: "Never happen, Babe," she'd said. She always called him Babe. "You only want me when you're hungry or horny."

         And Tad knew there was some truth to that. He had two passions, song writing and drinking. One he did alone, the other with Homer.

         "We'll take my truck," said Tad.

         "I was counting on it," said Homer. "I'm low on gas."

         They climbed inside.

         "So, what do you want with the Carlys?" asked Homer, reaching for the bag Tad set down on the seat between them. He pulled out a beer and yanked off the tab.

         "Johnny, he's got something of mine."

         "I reckon he's got at least one thing from everybody in the county."

         "Maybe so," said Tad, starting the engine. "But I want this back."

         "What did he steal?"

         Tad inserted the key, trying not to look at Homer. "Money. He stole money."

         "How'd he get it?"

         "I think Ginny gave it to him."

         "Well then, let's go beat the shit outta her."

         "Can't."

         "Why not?"

         "She went with him."

         Homer snickered. "Never did trust that woman. She didn't drink enough."

         Ahead, the road was empty and Tad sipped a beer before wedging it between his legs, feeling the wet and cold penetrate to his thighs. Dirt spun from the wheels and the truck lurched forward, hitting the asphalt with a rush. He felt better, he always felt better with the windows open, the wind blowing into his face, pistons humming under his feet, a ton of power, ready at his touch.

         Just like Ginny used to be. Ready at his touch. He smiled, thinking about her, the way she moaned and squirmed...

         He shook his head, trying to scatter his thoughts. He took another drink. Not paying attention, he almost missed the turn. Spinning the wheel, he whipped the truck onto a dirt road, the chassis shimmying, rattling, spraying dust over the weeds on both sides. Beer sloshing from the can, wetting his leg.

         The dirt road wound back through the hills, going deeper into the woods. On the ground, pine shadows whipped past, shuffling sticks of sunlight from place to place. Tad finished his beer and dropped the empty on the floorboard. He looked for road holes through the dusty windshield.

         "When'd she leave?" asked Homer.

         "Yesterday, I guess."

         "Got tired of waiting for your big break?"

         "I guess so," said Tad.

         "Those songs you're working on, they're good. But why don't you get a real job?"

         "Like what? I work for old man Bridges, when I can. But lately it's been a little slow."

         "What about the chicken plant?" said Homer.

         "That may be okay for you, but I don't want to spend my life in that Goddamn place."

         "It ain't your entire life. Shit. I just rent my time. When I'm too hung over, or don't feel like going in, I just stay home."

         The Carly clan lived in five or six houses, most of them along several miles of rutted roads, built at one time for timber cutters in torn-out patches of sand and rock that dotted the road. Unstable shacks, full of drafts and rotting boards. Johnny Carly's house was halfway down the row, sunk into low ground by the creek. Originally, the Carlys were squatters, but they'd lived there so long, nobody cared anymore.

         Three or four miles down the road, Tad drove into Johnny's yard, spinning up loose dirt and rock. "Ready?" he asked.

         Homer was finishing a beer. "Ready for what?"

         "For Johnny. I don't know if he's here, but if he is..."

         "You bring anything along, to convince him. Help him listen, you know?" Homer dropped his empty on the floorboard. His fourth.

         "What the hell you talking about?"

         "A gun, damn it. A gun. You bring one?"

         "Shit. You know I only have that one, the pistol my Granddaddy left me. I don't think it's been used in 30 years." Tad killed the engine. In the yard were two tall pines and the remains of a swing set. The house looked empty. The only car, a skeleton raised on cement blocks, sat rusting in the grass by the creek.

         "Don't you know, you gotta be prepared in dealing with a Carly."

         "I don't want to shoot anybody. I just want my money." Tad got out of the truck. A slight breeze stirred the overhead leaves and a squirrel chucked from a tent of high branches. Of course, the real reason he'd come this far was not for the money, even though he would be hurting for a while without it. But he couldn't bring himself to talk about Ginny, not even to Homer.

         "Might not get one without the other."

         Tad finished the last beer and got out of the truck, leaving the door open. He heaved the can at one of the pine trees. Missing it completely.

         "Don't look like there's anybody here, anyway," said Homer. Moving away from the truck, his untied shoelace slapping the sparse grass.

         Tad mounted the steps. The porch creaked in several places. The door was open. He waited in the scattered sunlight, trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness inside.

         "Don't look like anybody's here," said Homer again, waiting at the foot of the steps.

         Behind them, a scuffling noise in the dirt. "Looking for something?"

         Tad turned, not smoothly, but in slow jerks, trying to keep his balance. "Ridley," he said. "I'm looking for Johnny."

         Ridley Carly stood between the pines, playing with a grass stem in his mouth. He was a tall man with a heavy black mustache and the undershot Carly jaw. "He ain't here."

         "You know where he is?"

         "Not right now."

         "Well, if you had to guess, where do you think he'd be, Ridley?"

         "What you want him for?"

         "He's got something that belongs to me."

         Ridley shook his head. "Reckon I don't know about that," he said, twirling the grass stem between his teeth.

         Homer picked up a small stone and sailed it through the trees. It made a slapping noise.

         "I'm looking for Ginny," said Tad.

         "The Ginny that married Johnny?"

         "Married...?" Tad swallowed.

         Near the road, squirrels chattered in the trees, leaping from branch to branch, scratching their tiny toes on the bark.

         "Just goes to show, you can't trust a woman," said Homer, squinting in a shaft of sunlight.

         "That's all right. We'll find them," said Tad. Walking quickly, he climbed inside the truck. Homer went to the other side.

         "Bet they're at Bo's," said Homer.

         "We just left there."

         "Maybe they showed up in the meantime."

         "Hell, is drinking all you think about?"

         "Not when I'm thinking about something else." Homer rummaged through the litter of beer cans, shoveling them into the yard. He put his feet on the empty bag and shut the door on his shoelace. Then he opened the door, pulled in the shoelace, and shut it again.

         Tad started the engine and looked back at the house. Ridley was still standing in the shade, chewing on the grass stem like a cow waiting on milk to form.

         Tad had twenty dollars left in his wallet. He knew he should save it for the rent that would be due in another week. But right now, rent didn't seem too important. Besides, Bo would let him run a tab, and that was more important, now.

         They rode in the heat, mostly silent. On the horizon a layer of gray clouds edged into the sky, hovering above the trees like an old blanket.

         Once, Tad muttered "son of a bitch."

         "Who you talking to?" asked Homer.

         Tad looked up, hesitated. "Oh. Nobody. Just working on a song."

         "About Johnny Carly?"

         Tad didn't answer.

         "Step on it or I'm gonna have an accident," said Homer. "I gotta pee. Beer don't stay with you long."

         Tad parked by the drainage ditch in the front, next to the old Lincoln. Afternoon shadows waved images of branches and pine needles in the pollen-yellowed dirt. Five or six cars were parked out front, a few more on the side. He could see the bumper of Homer's old Ford near the rear door.

         Inside, Homer disappeared into the bathroom. Coming in from the bright sunlight, Tad took a few moments to get adjusted to the darkness. Above, ceiling fans stirred the weak electric light in smoky circles, acting like huge egg beaters.

         Bo leaned across the bar, his face looming large. "What's going on?" he asked.

         "Gimme a beer," said Tad. "One for Homer too."

         "Why don't you go home," said Bo. The juke box was playing "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. Now that the sun was above the angle of the window, black shadows covered the dried up light. The juke box looked like a neon rocket. At the end of the bar was a blonde with big boobs. Frieda something. Bo's girlfriend.

         "All I want right now is a beer," said Tad. He felt empty, with a simmering anger. Weaving in and out of the music he could hear a stirred collection of voices. Near the door, he recognized a few faces, but most were only dark shapes.

         He'd finished several beers by the time Homer sat down, holding a bag in his lap.

         "Where'd you go to pee? Kansas?" said Tad.

         Bo walked over and looked at Homer, straight-on. "What's in the bag?" he asked.

         "Beer," said Homer.

         Bo scowled. "Beer? What do you think I got here?"

         "Then I'll have one."

         Bo kept scowling. " Tad, you ought to leave after this one. You look tired."

         "Shit," said Tad, drinking.

         "What's wrong, a turd in your beer?" asked Homer.

         "I'm drunk, not tired," said Tad.

         "I'll say," said Homer. "You better look in the back, next to the bathroom."

         "All right! That's it. It's time you went home," said Bo, reaching across the bar to snatch Tad's bottle from the bar. He glared at Homer, then Tad. "Both of you. Now. Out!"

         Tad looked puzzled.

         "In the back," said Homer.

         Tad stood. Several figures sat in the sticky gloom, mostly against the wall. One table at a time he worked his way through the faces.

         "Back yonder," said Homer, pointing.

         "Tad," said Bo, his voice keening sharp. Now you..."

         And near the bathroom, wearing striped sunlight from the skinny cracks in the back door, Ginny rested against the shoulder of a man with his head against the wall. He had black hair and an undershot jaw.

         "Well, Goddamn..."

         "Reckon He will someday, but in the meantime, you're gonna have to take of things yourself." Homer stayed with Tad for a couple of unsteady steps, then thrust the bag into his hands. The insides felt lumpy and angled and hard.

         "What's this?"

         "Your best friend, in times like this," said Homer.

         Stopping, Tad reached into the bag and pulled out a pistol, the one that belonged to his grandfather. It was old, but slick with oil. "Where'd you get this?" he asked. He looked at it in his hands and tried to hand it back. "I don't want this."

         But Homer pushed it away. "I went over to your place. I found the gun right away, but thought I'd never find those damn bullets."

         Tad fumbled with the grip, trying to keep from dropping it.

         In the back, Ginny moved and spoke and Johnny opened his eyes, at first slitted with curiosity, then rounded with uncertainty. Johnny slid into the aisle, jumping to his feet. "What the Hell you want?" he asked, snarling. He darted forward between chairs and pulled-back feet.

         Tad jerked up the pistol. Blood pounded in his temples.

         Johnny Carly stopped, swinging sideways, waving his arms to keep his balance. "Don't shoot," he said.

         "Tad! Put that down!" Bo's shrill voice pierced the words of the song, then disappeared into the rising chorus of tight voices.

         "Not yet," said Tad. He felt himself sweating. He looked at Ginny. "Where's my money?" he said.

         "Johnny..."

         "I didn't know it was yours," interrupted Johnny. "She said it was hers. You can have it. No sweat."

         "I want it now," said Tad. The pistol felt heavy and light, both at the same time.

         Johnny Carly pulled out his pockets, dropping coins on the floor. He held out a small sheaf of bills. "Here's what I got. I'll get you the rest later. I will... for sure."

         "Shoot the son of a bitch," said Homer. "But grab the money first."

         Tad didn't say anything. His fingers were starting to shake. He moved toward Ginny, shifting the barrel to keep Johnny in sight.

         "I know why you did it," said Tad, looking at Ginny. "But you didn't have to run away."

         "Sorry, Babe. We needed a few bucks. I figured it was just a loan. I was going to give it back." She wore heavy makeup, but still looked good in the light pink blouse he'd always liked. He stared at her cleavage. Once he'd sat in that same booth, his hand under the same blouse, smelling the same perfume, tasting her hard kisses. Wondering if he'd actually done those things, or only dreamed them.

         "I'm glad it's over," he said.

         "Put the gun down, Babe."

         "Soon as I finish," he said, edging toward Johnny Carly.

         "Tad! Goddamn it! I'm calling the cops..."

         Tad halted in front of Johnny Carly, staring at Johnny in the bad light, watching those feral eyes flit away, then return, as if they were attached to rubber bands. Tad hefted the pistol, testing.

         Homer eased toward the door. Cigarette smoke threaded in and out of the failing light.

         "The money... I didn't know," moaned Johnny, his face white, holding out the crumpled bills. And getting no response, he flipped them to the floor at Tad's feet. He sank to his knees. "Please, if you want her back..."

         The music roared through his head. Janis Joplin's voice sounded harsh, primal.

         "What! You asshole!" shouted Ginny, leaping to her feet.

         Tad swung the pistol and fired. The juke box exploded, pieces of plastic bursting, colored lights flashing and sputtering, the sounds of Janis Joplin imploding in the clear sting of the shot, sucked from the air and his brain, together.

         Opening the cylinder, Tad shook the remaining bullets into his hand and tossed them at Johnny Carly, unable to hear them plink, the ringing in his ears so loud and hard. He stuck the empty pistol into his belt and walked to the door, weaving slightly.

         Behind him Homer scrambled to pick up the money, then ran to join Tad outside. "How can you miss, so close?" he said.

         Tad stood in the dry, yellow lot, the rays of afternoon sunlight only fading spangles in the growing dusk. Looking safe and familiar, his old truck waited for him there beside the rusty Lincoln, where he'd parked so many times before.

         And he felt the way he did when Queen died, his old Golden Retriever. For months she'd hung on, suffering. When she finally died he was sad, but relieved. "Thing is," he said, turning to Homer. "I'm just tired of Janis Joplin."








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