My buddy Ray had a goldfish in a bowl. Had it for years. One day, we’re setting up for a show, and I see he’s got this goldfish in a blender, sitting on the dash of his van. I mean, it’s got plenty of water, he’s feeding the damn thing. But instead of the goldfish bowl he’s got this thing in a fucking blender.
My curiosity got the better of me. I had to ask.
“Why ya got the fish in the blender?”
“He pissed me off.”
“He pissed you off. Your GOLDFISH pissed you off?”
“Yep. Fucking backstabbing bastard.”
“Backstabbing? Your goldfish betrayed you?”
It’s moments like this that make me wish I had gone to college.
“How did your goldfish stab you in the back?”
“Remember that Friday when I took the fat chick home?”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“How does one white trash in-breeder get to be so funny?”
“Pills and whiskey. With a dash of meth. Make with the fish story.”
By this point, my head was starting to hurt. I wanted nothing more than for Ray to get to the point so we could finish carrying in the gear. Sometimes it took him a while, though.
“Well, before I left for the bar, I took my wedding ring off. Laid it right in front of Carl’s bowl. Right beside me and Susie’s bed. He knew damn fucking well that Susie was out of town for the weekend. But as soon as I laid that fat chick down in our bed, there he was. Just starin’ at that fucking ring. Right thru the side of his bowl. Of course, she’s a fat chick, so she’s all sensitive and shit, and she’s like: ‘Awww, cute fish. What’s its name?’ and I’m like: ‘Carl. Like from sling blade, cause his bottom jaw juts out like that ‘tard from the movie.” So then she sees Carl starin’ at that fucking ring, and she’s like: ‘What the fuck?! You said you were single! You said I could move in with you, and, yah, yah, yah, yah, yah. She never even would have even seen that stupid ring if Carl hadn’t been starin’ at the goddamn thing. Fucking backstabbing bastard. I told him I wouldn’t kill him this time. But the next time he decides to fuck me, all I gotta do is push a button, and, TAH-DAH!! Carl’s a protein shake.”
“Well, then. Guess he deserves what he gets.”
Me and Ray have known each other a long time. You get to know when to take a friend seriously. You also develop a pretty keen bullshit detector that keeps you from swallowing every tall tale and sexual conquest story whole.
We had already set up the lights. Now that the amps and guitars were lumped in, we could chill for a few minutes. Ray made a bee-line for the men’s room. I made a bee-line for the bar. We had two hours till show time. And I already wished I was somewhere else.
Ray emerged from the men’s room with a shit eating grin on his face.
“Some idiot punched an ENORMOUS hole in the wall in there. Right above it, someone wrote: ‘Insert quarter here!’
Apparently , this was the funniest thing Ray had encountered all day. I gave him a minute to collect himself and wipe the tears from his eyes.
“C’mon,” I said. “Help me with the snake.”
I headed for the stage.
“What’s with you?”
“Nothin’. Just wanna get this done.”
Once we wrestled the snake into position, we started running the mike cords. Ray handed me my mike stand.
“You sure you’re OK?”
“Yeah, man. Just tired.”
“Well, perk the fuck up, Tom Sawyer. We gotta get this here raft all the way down the good ole Mississippi.”
“I think that was Huckleberry Finn.”
“Not in the comic book I read.”
“Oh, well, if it was in a comic book…”
“Damn skippy. I’m gonna go power up the head.”
I watched Ray disappear into the back of the bar. How many times just this month had we done this? Lump the gear in, set the gear up. Play for four or five hours. Tear the gear down, lump the gear out. Our whole lives basically revolved around these weekend gigs. We started playing a two man acoustic show around seven years ago. But it was all getting ready to change.
We had day jobs. I worked in transportation, Ray was a contract carpenter. But most of the time, we felt like we were just counting time, waiting for the Friday night load-in. The band we were both in back then started to head south, and the idea of no “lead singer ego” and no “drummer insanity” appealed to us at the time and we stayed busy. There were countless watering holes in town, catering to the kids from the university and the local auto plant, which employed over half of the people in the county either directly or indirectly.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say we had a ‘following’, but we saw a lot of the same faces from week to week. Ray handled most of the lead guitar work and harmonies. I sang the lead parts and hammered out the rhythm. There was nothing all that special about what we were doing. You wouldn’t have to look too hard in any decent sized town in Middle America to find two guys doing the exact same thing. Grinding out the standards. I don’t mean Gershwin or Cole Porter. I’m talking about The Beatles and Marshall Tucker. Skynyrd and Hank Williams. Mellencamp and (gulp!) Jimmy Buffet. And we did it every weekend. Partly for the extra money, but mostly for the free beer. I can’t say that it never occurred to us that we might land on the cover of some magazine somewhere. But most nights, we felt so damn lucky just to be getting paid for doing the same thing we used to do for free in our friends’ living rooms that we figured it best to keep our mouths shut and wait for the next show.
“Testes… testes… One … two… THREE?”
Ray was checking the soundboard mike.
“Mike one… mike one… that joke is so much fun,” came my reply from the stage.
“Fuck you… fuck you… go check mike number two”
We had the rest of the microphones hot and dialed in pretty quickly. Like I said, we’d been doing this a long time.
Once the guitars were in tune, we were pretty much ready. We still had about an hour till show time, but we always kind of planned it that way. You don’t want to find yourself short on set-up time and have to deal with some sort of major equipment malfunction. It rarely happens, but when it does, you need time to react. And when it doesn’t, it’s nice to have some chill time before the music starts happening.
“Aw, fuck. I was kinda hopin’ we were gonna have some talent here tonight. My life is just full of disappointment.”
“Eat it, Ralphie. I wouldn’t fuck your only sister with your daddy’s dick. Even though that’s the only one she really likes. Fucking lesbo.”
Ralphie chuckled wickedly. “How are ya, Ray?”
“Constipated. Financially. I don’t suppose you got some monetary pepto?”
Ralphie handed ray an envelope.
“Thanks, man. Who’s working the door?”
“Sweet. Tell him if he lets one or two under age chochas thru tonight there’s an extra Jefferson in it for him. God only knows how he gets by on the stipend that your cheap ass pays him. Act as cool as you want to, Ralphie. You’re the man. Exploiting the working class. It’s fucking shameful, man.”
“If I find excise is up my ass just cause you can’t get enough young tail on the playground, you two wiseass hacks will never play in my fine establishment again.”
“Fine establishment? We have to bribe the roaches to stay off our food when we eat here.”
“Those roaches are the only thing giving my food any flavor. Don’t fuck that up for my clientele.”
“Clientele? Are you kidding me? That’s it. Johnny, I’m never playing here again. This place is just getting way too classy. A po boy doan’ know how to act.”
This filthy, racist, homo-erotic exchange had existed between these two for the entire time we had been playing at Ralphie’s. Ralphie, of course, was the proprietor of said establishment. Ray and Ralphie had the market cornered when it came to supplying the “Shit You Shouldn’t Say in Church” Store.
Ralphie replicated his wicked chuckle. “You guys booked New Year’s yet?”
Ray’s brow wrinkled. “New Year’s? What happened to The Snazz? Those guys always play your New Year’s show.”
“They can’t do it. Dirty Steve told me they’ve called it quits. I’ve got them for one more in November, and then…”
“Johnny, we got anything yet?”
“We’ll have to call you.”
Ray gave me a look, “Well, do we or don’t we?”
I gave him look back. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Ralphie,” I said, still staring at Ray.
“Well, whatever, man.” Ralphie shrugged his shoulders. “The gig’s yours if you want it. But I need to know something tomorrow, okay?”
“I’ll be in touch, man.”
“Good enough. Come find me when your done. Your post-show Quervo shot is on me.”
Ralphie headed for his office. Ray was still staring at me.
“What the fuck was that?”
“Don’t you ‘huh’ me, motherfucker. We don’t turn Ralphie down. Ever. And you’re stalling him. Why? We don’t have shit for New Year’s, and you know it.”
I took a deep breath. “Wanna go smoke a bowl?”
“Don’t change the subject. Wait a minute! You NEVER smoke before the show!”
He had me there. I have a habit of waiting until after our first set to go outside for a head change. Just in case.
I grabbed Ray’s arm. “Keep your fucking voice down,” I hissed. “Outside.”
Ray headed for the alley door. I followed him. Fuck.
I knew I had to tell him. I just wish it could’ve waited until after the show.
As soon as Ray climbed in the van, he grabbed the fish food.
“Alright, spill it,” he took the top off the blender.
“I can’t spill it, I haven’t much to spare,” I pulled my dugout from my pocket.
“Cute. Something tells me I need to be high to hear this.”
I loaded the bat and handed it over.
“You first, then.”
Ray accepted the brass tube, applied flame to the appropriate end, and waited for several seconds to respond.
“So, what’s up?”
It was a good thing Ray had already exhaled, because the ensuing coughing fit would have only been worse.
“What?” he choked, offering me the bat.
“Yeah,” I inhaled.
“Yeah.” I handed the bat back to Ray.
“She take a test?”
“Yeah,” he handed it back to me.
“She been to the doctor?” he coughed.
“Yeah,” it was my turn to cough.
“She gonna keep it?”
Anyone else would have said that to me, I might have been offended. I waited for the cough to subside.
“I’m just gonna keep sayin’ ‘yeah’ ’til my head explodes, okay, Ray? YEAH. She’s pregnant. For sure. And she’s keeping it, you sick fuck, so don’t start hatching plans to sell the stem cells on fucking EBay, OK?”
“Quit stealing lines from Emo fucking Phillips! Of all people! Jesus, you’re better than that. Wait a sec, I thought she was on birth control.”
I rolled my eyes, “Yeah, Ray, cause no woman EVER got pregnant while using a contraceptive. Holy shit, do you think we should call Ripley’s?”
Ray started re-loading the bat. “So, what, you’re not gonna play anymore?”
So there it was. Hanging between us amidst the tendrils of acrid pot smoke. I cracked the passenger side window.
“What am I supposed to do, Ray? I’m at Brenner’s forty, sometimes forty-five hour a week. Between that and our weekend schedule, which in case you’ve forgotten, now includes Thursdays at the O.T., I spend about four or five waking hours in the comfort of my own house. And that’s only four nights a week. I don’t have the luxury of staying home when it rains, taking weeks at a time off in the winter, or banging fat chicks while my pharmaceutical sales executive wife is out of town on a sales call or at some fucking convention!”
I snatched the bat from Ray, jabbed it into the dugout, and pulled on it deeply. I closed my eyes and held my breath, waiting for Ray to say something. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I might have went a little too far with that last comment.
The van remained uncomfortably silent. With each passing second, I became more worried. Finally, I exhaled. I had held that last hit so long that the air escaping from my lungs appeared smoke free. The on-coming head-rush told me otherwise.
I looked over at Ray. He was just sitting there, staring straight ahead. “Sorry, man. That last shot was uncalled for.”
Ray reached for the fish food and absent-mindedly replaced the lid. “No worries, dude.”
He didn’t say it like he meant it.
“How the hell do you have that damn thing plugged in?” I motioned toward the blender, fastened to the dash of the van by what appeared to be a gi-normous amount of J B Weld. Carl seemed to be staring at me.
Ray grinned his shit-eating grin. “Shut the fuck up, man,” he whispered, “He can hear you!”
Maybe it was the weed. Maybe it was the relief from having finally told someone my Big Bad Secret.
Maybe it was both. But I started giggling. Then Ray started giggling. There we sat, freshly stoned, facing the end of a very long, very successful partnership, laughing our fucking asses off. And somehow it felt right.
“Wanna go get a beer?” I offered, still laughing.
“Not yet, motherfucker.” It doesn’t sound as menacing if you say it in between fits of giggles.
Ray lit a cigarette and managed to regain some of his composure. “So, that’s it? No more gigs? No more free beer?”
I lit a cigarette of my own. “I fucking hate it, man. But yeah. I gotta give my girl some of my time right now.”
Ray looked right at me and nodded. “That’s cool, dude. I can respect that.”
“How ’bout that beer?” I nodded towards the back door.
We climbed out of the van and went back inside. Big John was already stationed at the front door. Ray gave him the finger as we walked by.
Big John returned the salute. “Ralphie told me what you said, cocksucker. The only way your gay ass is getting any strange tonight is if you visit the morgue. Or a Cub Scout meeting.”
Ray held his salute. “I understand your old lady’s a den mother, Porta-John. Maybe I’ll stop by Tuesday and get a group thing going.”
Big John laughed. “You ain’t right a bit, Ray.”
“And I ain’t left yet, either, mofo. Thanks for being here, man.”
Big John rolled his eyes. “No place I’d rather be, homo.”
We picked out a couple of stools close to the front door. Ralphie brought us two bottles each.
“Gentleman, one for now and one for later.”
“Thanks, man.” I took a long pull off that longneck.
“You guys mind starting about fifteen minutes early? Place is really fillin’ up.”
Ray looked at me. “We can start now, dude,” I said.
Ray nodded his head. “Hell yeah. Let’s go.” He was already standing.
“Cool. Thanks, guys.” Ralphie turned and headed for the kitchen.
“Hey, Ralphie!” I called.
“Yeah?” Ralphie said, spinning on his heel.
“Go ahead and put us down for New Year’s, man.”
I could almost feel Ray eyeing me.
Ralphie smiled. “Awesome! ‘Preciate it, Johnny.” He chuckled wickedly. “‘Bout time you queers made up your mind.”
“Eat it, Ralphie!” Ray shouted at Ralphie’s disappearing back. Ralphie flipped Ray a backwards bird without stopping.
“You ready?” I asked.
“You sure Tonya’s gonna be cool with you playin’ New Year’s?”
I shrugged. “Seemed like an appropriate night for the Last Waltz.”
Ray feigned laughter. “Guess that makes You Robbie Robertson.”
I feigned horror. “Careful, Levon. You’ve got one gi-normous coke rock protruding from your left nostril.”
“That was Neil Young, dumbass.”
“Not in the comic book I read, Mark Twain. You ready to jam?”
Ray grinned his most shit-eatingest grin. “Always.”
“One more and that’s it, okay?” I held up my beer, offering a toast.
Ray met my bottle with the one he was holding, resulting in a very satisfying clink. He grinned that shit-eating once again. “Yeah, right, dickhead.”
I followed Ray onto the stage. We strapped our guitars on. I tested my mike. How many more times would we do this? Lump the gear in, set the gear up. Play for four or five hours. Break the gear down, lump the gear out. We started playing a two man acoustic show around seven years ago. But it’s all getting ready to change. Or is it?