Randy Joe Eastman popped a few aspirin in his mouth and swallowed them with a mouthful of last night's coffee. Two in the afternoon and he still wasn't dressed for the day. But, hell, that'd been most of the last twenty-nine years, driving from city to city, playing a night or two at whatever club or bar or honkytonk would pay him enough to keep him going. There'd been those two years—nineteen and a half months, actually—back before grunge broke out of Seattle when an actual label had carried him and he'd been on something vaguely other than his own. Those days were so far gone that he often felt like they belonged to someone else. And when a woman—it was always a woman—came up to him before or after a show and told him that she was a big fan of his music, he wished those days did belong to someone else. Because she would always go on to tell him that "Carolina" had been her favorite song of his. "And why didn't you write anything else like that?" some of them would ask.
He would shrug and mutter something about the "muse" or the "creative process" or some other bullshit. The truth of the matter was that he hadn't felt anything like that since Carolina. And just like part of him wished those brief star-bound days had belonged to some other singer, part of him wished he hadn't ever felt that in the first place. At least then he wouldn't know what he was missing.
Randy Joe climbed out of bed a bit slowly. At fifty-two years old he did most everything a bit slowly. But by three he had his motor running and his truck's motor, too, and he was on his way for a solid meal and a few drinks somewhere dark and quiet before his gig.
More than a few whiskeys later, he pulled into a parking spot behind The Original Red Dog Tavern. They'd booked him for Thursday and Friday night. By the looks of things in the front lot he hoped they were expecting a bigger crowd Friday.
He stepped out of his car unsteadily and his hand bumped against the door frame, sending a jolt of pain up his arm and his keys tumbling to the ground. They clattered on the blacktop and bounced beneath his truck.
"Son of a bitch..." he muttered, cradling his arm and crouching to look for them.
He groped around under the truck, ass in the air, and wasn't paying any attention to what was going on around him until someone cleared their throat behind him and spat. Just then, his fingers found his keys. He stood up fast, his vision blurring as he did so and his pulse thudding in his ears.
"You Randy Joe?" asked the throat-clearing spitter, a middle-aged man with red hair and a long beard tending toward white.
"Yeah. Uh, that's me." He blinked, trying to clear the fuzziness from his brain.
"Todd Carlyle." The man smiled and reached out a hand. "This is my place. Let me show you around before you get set up."
He shook the bar owner's hand and kicked his truck's door shut. "Sure thing, boss man," he said, even managing a grin.
It didn't take long for Carlyle to show Randy Joe around. But it was just long enough. When Randy Joe went back outside, he found the doors of his truck flung open. A sick feeling brewed inside him, and it overflowed when he saw that the gear he'd stashed up front—his three guitars, mainly—was gone. Randy Joe hollered and ran out front, hoping to catch some vagrant hobbling away under the weight of his instruments. But the front parking lot was still quiet.
Randy Joe slunk back to his truck. The rest of his stuff was still in the back, probably too much for the thief to try to get away quickly with. But the amps and all the rest weren't going to do him a bit of good without an instrument.
He slammed the door shut and leaned against the truck. He didn't need this. Not ever, but especially not now. He was counting on the money from this gig. His truck needed work and he'd been babying it through the last couple weeks as it was. He had to be able to use his truck to get to where he performed so he could make money and...
He shook his head violently. It wouldn't do to think this way. Carlyle had to know someone who'd have a guitar, and seeing as how it was on his property that Randy Joe's got lifted, the man ought to have at least a bit of sympathy. Or the good grace to act like he did.
"Well," Carlyle said when Randy Joe explained what had happened. He drew the word out long and slow. "You're in luck, my friend."
"Yep." Carlyle stood and ambled into a storeroom. Randy Joe followed. "Guy was in here a couple weeks ago playing. Eli Rivers. You know him?" Randy Joe had heard the name but had never met the man. He shook his head—easiest answer. Carlyle grunted. "Well, in any case. He was pulling out and I noticed he'd left this piece behind." The bar owner grabbed a beat-up Tele and handed it to Randy Joe.
"I tried to give it to him, but he told me he was done with this one, that it'd done him all the good it was going to. And then he drove away. I'd half a mind to give it to my niece, but I bet you're glad I didn't, ain't you?"
Randy Joe gave the guitar a cautious strum. He'd owned one like this—black instead of blonde—years and years ago, back before his brush with fame. It felt familiar and the chord he played resonated through Randy Joe in a way that momentarily took him back to those days.
"Yeah," he said a few seconds later, realizing he was staring into space and that Carlyle was staring in turn at him. "Yeah, very glad."
Once he got playing, Randy Joe could pretty much do the gig on autopilot. Sure, it was work, but he'd sung most of these songs so many times over the years that the notes and the words came without any conscious thought. When he did think while he was playing, it was usually to imagine mixing up the lyrics some, just to screw with the folks trying to sing along. But he didn't have the heart to do that; these folks were paying a few bucks to come hear him sing and buying booze and food from his host—they weren't the reason his life turned out the way it had. He'd done that all himself.
Near the end of his set, when he'd usually segue straight from "Hit the Bricks" into "Not Gonna Be Your Fool," he found himself playing the intro to a different song. It came from one of his recent albums, which meant hardly anyone had heard it. "Quitting Time," it was called. He'd written it after visiting his father's gravesite one Christmas Eve, ten years to the day after RJ Senior had passed on. He thought briefly about just playing instrumental for a minute and then going back to his regular setlist, but he liked "Quitting Time" and what the hell. Folks couldn't complain too much about one unfamiliar song. If they hated it that much, they could use the opportunity to go take a leak.
He sang the song and if the audience minded, he couldn't tell the difference. Maybe he'd throw this one in his set more often, he thought. Not between Bricks and Fool—the slower song didn't feel like a good fit right between those two rockers. But there'd be a way to work it in, he was sure.
He wrapped up, closing out as always with the song everyone was waiting for—"Carolina." He thanked them for coming out to see him, reminded them he would be there again tomorrow night, and accepted the usual smattering of applause. More applause than a lot of folks would hear sincerely directed at them in their whole adult life, he'd often supposed. And he wasn't sure whether that meant he should be grateful or if it meant folks just did a shitty job of appreciating each other.
Randy Joe was stowing his gear in the storage area when a lady stopped him. Her mascara had run and her eyes were red. She touched his arm and he noticed that her skin was warm and soft.
"Thank you for playing that song tonight." But he was surprised when she went on to say, "The one about knowing when it's quitting time?" Fresh tears ran down her face. "My momma died last week. She'd been sick so long but I... I just couldn't bear to let her go and..." The woman couldn't go on and Randy Joe, for the first time in longer than he could remember, found himself wrapping a fan up in a warm, genuine hug.
A moment later, they both pulled away. She smiled a bit through her tears. "Thank you. I only knew one song of yours. That 'Carolina' one? But a friend talked me into coming tonight, and God I'm glad she did. I feel better than I have in..." She shook her head. "Too long."
"I'm glad my song helped you, ma'am."
He thought about that woman off and on the rest of the night, even as he tried to sleep. Just before finally drifting off, he realized he hadn't had a drink since before his show.
The Friday night show started out like hundreds of others preceding it, and by the time Randy Joe hit intermission, he'd nearly forgotten about "Quitting Time" and the conversation he'd had last night. But later in the evening, his fingers on the beat-up Tele's strings, he found himself once again playing the intro to a song which hadn't been on his set list. The guitar felt warm in his hands and the rhythm of the notes felt right under his fingers. This time he didn't even consider passing the unplanned song by but dove into it with gusto.
"One of Those Days" was the song he'd used for cutting his first demo, and though it had never been a hit—never even made it onto an album—he'd always had a bit of a soft spot for it. Not enough to play it regularly, and even then, usually only when it was just him and his guitar and no one around to listen. But playing it now, playing it here, for this audience... It felt right, but in a way he couldn't have described.
Still, it was just another song about how everyone does indeed have one of those days. Maybe not quite the stereotypical country song about losing your girl, having your truck break down, and your dog dying, but pretty damned close. So, it surprised him when the pretty young thing he couldn’t help but notice at a table near the front just had to talk to him after the show to thank him for playing "One of Those Days."
"Because," she said with a flick of her hair, "I've been having one of those days every day this week. And singing along with that chorus felt like letting go of all of that shit."
Randy Joe smiled at her, and if he had been twenty years younger—hell, if he had been ten years younger—he might've tried putting something extra into that smile. But he just smiled and thanked her for what she'd said.
She hesitated a moment. Maybe she'd been hoping for that something extra, but then she returned his smile and hurried back to her friends.
Randy Joe looked at the Tele, leaning there against a wall. He picked it up. Everything about it felt like just another guitar, and yet he couldn't stop thinking about these past two nights.
Carlyle would have his pay waiting for him in the office, and Randy Joe's truck needed repairs. But he felt better in this moment than he had in recent years.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Randy Joe walked into Carlyle's office.
"I got your money right here," the owner told him, waving an envelope in his direction.
Randy Joe nodded. "Hey, I'm gonna need something to play at my next gig. How much if I want to hang onto this piece you lent me?"
The owner tapped the envelope of cash against his desk and gnawed on his lip. He looked about ready to say something, but then his gaze drifted for a second.
"Hell," he said a heartbeat later, tossing the envelope onto the edge of the desk near Randy Joe. "Eli just gave the thing to me in the first place. Play it in good health, man."
Randy Joe thanked him and hurried along in case Carlyle decided maybe that guitar was worth hanging onto after all.
He didn't have the experience of feeling compelled to play a particular song at every gig, but it happened more often than not. And invariably someone would come up to him after the show. Sometimes they were hesitant, other times bubbling over with enthusiasm. But always, always, they wanted to tell him how that specific song he had played carried particular meaning for them in one way or another.
A man in Austin told Randy Joe that "I'll Be a Better Man Tomorrow" was just the song he'd needed to hear to get his ass back in gear, too long depressed at being out of work and out of touch with his ex-wife and their son. A woman in Baton Rouge felt a kinship with the scorned woman in "Third Time's The Charm (Now Get Out Of My Life)." And a couple came up to him in Tuscaloosa to tell him that one of them had finally seen fit to propose to the other after twelve years as a couple as he sang "We've Got Each Other."
Every time, Randy Joe smiled at the people who came to speak with him, but as the weeks went on, the initial rush of happiness he had gotten from these encounters began to fade. Someone telling him that they liked hearing a song because it reminded them of their dead mom or brother or dog—their dog, for Christ's sake—that wasn't enough. He needed the ones that really dug in and grabbed onto you hard, like the man in Atlanta who had walked across the street from a hospital to the bar where Randy Joe was playing. He'd been keeping bedside vigil for his wife, Anne, who just that evening, just hours before, succumbed to Lou Gehrig's Disease. And what song had Randy Joe been playing when this man crossed the bar's threshold but "Sunshine in the Rear-View Mirror."
"That song," he'd told Randy Joe, voice thick, tears leaking down his face. "I swear to God... That song was the one playing in my dorm room the very first time... The very first time I saw Anne. I saw her walking across the quad, and I told my roommate..." He trailed off here. "I can't remember his name. He was from Boise and wanted to be a chemist and..." He shook his head and swore. "I told him, whatever his name was, I said, I've got to meet that girl. And he laughed and told me she was the quarterback's girlfriend, and I didn't stand a chance in hell."
The man let out a short laugh and shook his head again. "I hope he was a better chemist than psychic. Because Anne dumped that quarterback, and we were married for twenty-two years." His left thumb gently stroked the gold band on his ring finger. "It would've been twenty-three next month."
That story... Oh, that story had given Randy Joe a rush and a half. Not just that it was what the man needed to hear but the sheer cosmicness of it all. The song playing when the man first saw his future wife also playing the moment after leaving the hospital where she had died.
But stories like that were few and far between. Randy Joe was getting ready in his hotel room for a Saturday night show in Knoxville. He'd played Chattanooga the night before, and his performance of "What Would You Say" only drew a young man who said he was going to ask the cute girl he worked with what she would say if he told her he wanted to go out after work tomorrow night.
Randy Joe had picked up a bottle of bourbon on his way back to the motel after that show, the first he'd purchased in weeks, and he’d almost opened it up and had a few drinks before bed. He'd managed to go to sleep sober, but in the cold light of a February afternoon, pacing around the cheap room as he waited for showtime, he thought that a few drinks would be just the thing to pass the time.
He had a solid buzz going by the time he got to the bar. Another fellow was singing tonight too, but his set was running over, so Randy Joe had a few beers while he cooled his heels. He thought once that maybe he should slow it down, but the bartender brought him a cold bottle on the house and Randy Joe drank it down. It tasted so good, he asked for another.
On stage, things were fine. He could sing and play even while half-drunk; he had certainly done it plenty of times before. And the beat-up old Tele felt like home now, its strings and body responding to his fingers more resonantly than any instrument he had ever played before. He smiled when he began to strum the notes for "One of Those Days." Tonight, he thought as he sang, would be one of the good days. He was playing this song for someone in the audience, someone who might just now be realizing how much the song meant to them. And they'd come up to him with a story tonight, a really good one. He could feel it as the words of the song rolled off his tongue.
He wrapped up the set a half hour later and dawdled about getting packed up, knowing that someone would be coming up to him soon. And she did. A striking redhead with a shirt reminding him that her eyes were up here. Randy Joe wondered how many folks were able to follow the shirt's directions.
"I don't normally do this," she said and bit her lip. Randy Joe smiled easily at her, still buzzing from the show and all the beers he’d downed before it.
The woman shook her head. "Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I really loved that song you sang about having one of those days. Because I can totally relate to that." She dragged out the words "really" and "totally." It grated on Randy Joe, but he kept smiling. And he managed to keep his eyes on hers. Most of the time.
"You wanna tell me about it?"
She giggled nervously. "Oh, God... Where to begin? Well, let's see. Oscar, that's my cat, he's been hacking up hairballs all over my apartment the last few days. And I got waitlisted by Duke for law school. And one of my car's turn signals is on the fritz and—" She kept going but Randy Joe had stopped listening. His heart was pumping hard, and he got more and more irritated at the trivial shit that this girl was going on about. A sick cat and waitlisted for school—that certainly didn't sound awful to him—and a freaking turn signal?
Suddenly he realized she'd stopped talking and was looking at him, waiting for him to say something. His jaw worked, but no words came out. She smiled briefly and shrugged. "Anyway, it just felt good to know I'm not the only one who's got problems," she finally said.
He knew he should thank her, but the frustration still coursed through his brain. Before he really knew what he was doing, he spoke up, practically growling. "Girl, you ain't got shit for problems. Now go home and clean up after your damn cat."
Her face fell and Randy Joe turned and hurried off, a hot flush rising across his face and his heart beating fast, half angry at her and half angry at himself.
In the morning, Randy Joe was only angry at himself. It was stupid to be mean to a fan, or even just a friendly audience member. He was glad that he was done in Tennessee but that meant an assload of driving. Up to Lexington and Cincinnati before cutting down though West Virginia and into the Carolinas.
Normally he would have had the radio playing in the truck, flipping from channel to channel, trying to catch something worth listening to. But these days he just listened to the sound of tires on pavement and his own voice rattling around in his head. He played those shows on autopilot even more than before, and when he wasn't playing, he was drinking or sleeping, trying not to think. When he left Parkersburg Thursday afternoon for that long drive to Columbia, he took his time, making sure he wouldn't hit South Carolina until the wee hours of Friday morning.
He woke in his Columbia motel with a stale taste in his mouth and an ache in his head. A bottle of bourbon with a couple inches left sat on the bedside table. He started to reach for it but caught himself. The last week had been bad, but there had been some pretty decent days not long ago. Maybe he could have a decent day today if he didn't start it off with a drink.
There wasn't a clean cup in the room, so he gulped several handfuls of water from the bathroom faucet, showered, and headed out the door. He drove aimlessly around town until it was time to show up at The Open House, the bar where he was playing two shows, Friday and Saturday.
The crowd had an edgy feel Friday night, flooding the room with a nervous energy that simultaneously made Randy Joe ache for a drink and amped up the thrill he felt in playing and singing. Once again, his fingers refused to wander off and play a song on their own. Well, there was one time when he was about to start strumming the notes for "Down and Out in My Back Yard" that he almost felt something, like a tingle on the back of his neck and in his fingertips. But it passed and he went right on with "Down and Out." Despite not having a surprise song to play or someone coming up to him after the show with a great story, he felt good about his music and good about the day.
As he was packing up, he noticed a woman with her face in her hands down at one of the tables near the stage. She sat alone and when she glanced up, he could see her dark brown eyes glistening. Their gaze met for a moment before she looked away.
Randy Joe put his gear in the bar's storage room and checked the floor. The woman was still there, looking down at the empty wooden table. Without any real plan, he walked over and sat down in the chair opposite her.
She glanced at him and reached for a hint of a smile. "You sang real good up there, boy," she said.
Randy Joe looked her over. She had a few gray hairs but wasn't that much older than he was.
"Thank you, ma'am." He smiled and reached across the table, laying a hand on her arm. "I'm always glad to meet a fan."
They talked for a while, and before long her smile seemed genuine, not just put on because that's what you do to keep folks from feeling awkward.
She glanced at her watch. "Oh, God, I've got work in the morning, I've got to get some sleep."
"Yep," he replied. "Gotta pay those bills."
She smiled and thanked him for his time, said he was a nice young man, though this time it seemed like maybe there was a subtle knowing wink in her words.
"Say," Randy Joe asked as she stood to leave. "Was there any particular song you liked hearing me play tonight?"
She tilted her head to the side then shook it. "Nope. All of 'em, I guess." Then she laughed and was on her way.
Saturday afternoon rolled around, gray and rainy. Randy Joe woke up with a sore back and a mood to match the skies. The crowd at The Open House seemed dampened that night too. Midway through his first set, his fingers found the opening chords of "Carolina." The crowd perked up so Randy Joe went ahead and played it earlier than usual. The rest of the show was fine, but he still felt deflated when he got to the end and hadn't felt the urge to play any unplanned songs.
The audience buzzed as he packed up his gear, his songs already fading from their memory. Randy Joe lugged the heavy stuff out to his truck, leaving the Tele for when he walked out the door for good, then went to see the manager about his pay.
Twelve hundred dollars richer, he tried to walk with a spring in his step. Reaching for the Tele, though, he had to wonder if he'd imagined its gift. Or worse, used it up or spoiled it by being ungrateful for the smaller blessings his songs bestowed on listeners.
The voice stopped him; he hadn't expected anyone to talk to him tonight. He turned and saw a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties. He had dark brown hair like Randy Joe's used to be and a nervous look in his eyes.
"Yeah, that's me."
The man bounced his weight back and forth, making Randy Joe sympathetically nervous. Finally, the young man stuck out a hand and started talking in a cascade of words.
"Mr. Eastman, my name is Thomas Cain, and you knew my momma back a long time ago. You woulda known her as Paula Butcher, but she's Paula Cain now. And anyway, she didn't tell me this until just a few weeks ago, and I don't even know if you know it, but I guess, well, I guess that it turns out you're my dad, and I tried to come in to hear you play yesterday, but I just didn't have the guts, and then I came in tonight and I was here and I wasn't sure I was gonna stay but then you played my momma's song, she told me it was your one hit, that you got your one hit from her and she got me from you and well I just had to talk to you and I had to... Well, I had to say... To say 'hi.'"
Randy Joe remembered Paula. How could he not? He'd thought about settling down in Carolina with her, but he had his career to think about, and she didn't want to move away from her family. He'd just driven off one night, like a coward, and he'd never heard from her since. Certainly nothing about her being pregnant or them having a son. But he looked at this young man and with his familiar hair and those gray-green eyes just like Randy Joe remembered Paula having. Well... He was sure that this boy wasn't lying and that his momma wasn't mistaken.
He clasped Thomas's hand and watched a wave of relief flow over the younger man's face.
"I guess we've got a lot to talk about, Thomas. Don't we?"
The other man nodded. "Yes, sir."
Sir, huh? Well, why not?
They sat at a table and talked well past last call, drinking sweet teas until the bartender stopped by very pointedly with their check.
Finally, they both stood up, and impulsively, Randy Joe pulled Thomas into a brief, tight hug. They headed for the front door together. Randy Joe would have to circle the building to get to his truck, but he wanted to see what his son was driving. He also wanted to spend a few more minutes with the young man.
"Hey, Randy Joe!" One of the bar staff hollered for him as he and his son were about to step outside. "Hey, man, you left your guitar behind." The fellow pointed at the battered Telecaster, the one that had encouraged Randy Joe to play "Carolina" early in his set tonight.
Randy Joe glanced at his son and looked back to the man on the stage with the old guitar. He thought for a moment and then he decided.
"Don't worry about it," he said with a shake of his head. "That guitar's done what it can for me. Just hang onto it. Some other fella might need it someday. Alright?"
The guy on stage wrinkled his forehead but shrugged and grabbed the Tele on his way backstage. He stopped then and lifted the guitar in both hands, examining it closely, head cocked as if hearing a distant tune.
Randy Joe nodded once to himself and smiled, turning to slip from the Open House with his son, the Tele no longer his but Carolina still on his mind.
© Michael Haynes