The next Twenty Something to proclaim that he “needed more cowbell” was gonna get punched in the fuckin’ face. Unlike the rest of his life, stomping some backwards-baseball-cap-wearing punk was something within Carley’s control. He had seen Blue Öyster Cult in concert thirty-two times since 1980 but ever since that fuckin’ Saturday Night Live sketch, every joker in town thought they knew all about BÖC.
Passing the University of North Carolina football stadium in Chapel Hill, it crossed his mind that he had an extra ticket to scalp, but he felt embarrassed, assuming he would have to explain that his wife had left him for another man. Would the scalpers who circled the perimeter of the stadium mumbling “who’s got tickets?” really care? Besides, he had never understood how that worked. Why were scalpers trying to buy tickets right before an event?
The drive from South Jersey had taken longer than he had allotted but at least his 1998 Accord hadn’t succumbed to the extreme Southern heat. He and Ali had planned this trip over a year ago. Like many people in New Jersey, they loved going to concerts. And it wasn’t just the marquee acts either. He knew a guy and his wife who had seen Steve Forbert fifty-four times (thirty-four of those at either Club Bene or KatManDu). Carley, his best buddy, Bobby, and Bobby’s crew of dopes went to see John Eddie and his band once a month in small clubs in an around the Shore and Philly. They tried to top each other with stories about the grubbiest hole-in-the-wall their favorite artist had ever played, or the best surprise appearance by a major star, like when Neil Young joined The Alarm at The Orpheum in Boston to sing “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” Carley’s undisputed favorite, though, was the night Rod Stewart jumped on stage with John Eddie at that dive on Route 35 and sang “You Wear It Well.” Rod and John pointed right to Ali – who was displaying her best dancer’s posture in the back of the room – and sang, “Madame Onassis got nuthin’ on you,” as Carley gripped the hemline of her black mini.
Everyone in Carley’s inner circle had advised him to go ahead with the trip; maybe the eight hour drive would clear his head. It had had the opposite effect. With nothing else to do except look for the few remaining Stuckey’s, he had obsessed over why Ali had left him. What was wrong with her and why did she make such horrible choices? His mind had even somehow wandered to the words of a hunting acquaintance he hadn’t thought about in years. That guy, hugging his favorite shotgun, had praised that sawed-off companion as “the one bitch who actually meant what she said.”
Carley still had an hour before the concert started. He pulled into the motel parking lot, and was pleased to see a scene that resembled a college football tailgate – only with BÖC fans. As he walked to his room at the back of the two story motor inn, he passed a lively pool party with coolers, overflowing with beer, and BÖC songs blaring from boom boxes; he momentarily felt happy for the first time in days.
The motel was in the final stages of being converted from an out-dated Sheraton to a modern “Holiday Inn Select.” The clerk kept apologizing for only having an old room in the back but Carley had actually requested a room in the back. Nobody seemed to understand him.
He unpacked a few things from his Bradlees duffle bag – a Gillette toiletries bag he got one Christmas; bottles of prescription antidepressants, and an Irish Claddagh ring. The ring was the first gift he had ever given Ali. She had kept her engagement and wedding rings but had left the Claddagh with a ramblin’ note that said she “didn’t deserve it.” At least if she had left her engagement ring, he could have pawned it at The Gold Emporium to pay off some of their credit card debt, which was pummeling him daily at 22%.
Even though he loved Blue Öyster Cult, he didn’t feel like going to the concert. He thought he might just sleep for a few hours and then drive home, but felt too wired to sleep. Although, he had discovered during the past several nights that if he took double or triple the prescribed dosage for the medication, he fell asleep quite easily and, each time, acquired the relief he was seeking.
None of it made sense. They had been married for eight years and everything was fine. Then, out of the blue, Ali showed up at his work wrapped tight in a zebra-striped, stripper blouse; her Bayonne Black hair dyed blonde. She calmly told him she was leaving. She wasn’t a cruel person so he didn’t know why she had created such a scene. Everyone was looking.
By the time he got home from work, she was gone. She had left everything – dresses, photo albums, antiques she had spent hours hunting – behind. That was the part he had emphasized to his big brother later that night on the phone. His brother, Rick, the self-proclaimed Headmaster of The School of Hard Knocks, ended the call by stating: “Join the club, bro. I always knew she was too hot to stay with you.”
The guy she left with is one of those assholes that drive in off-road races. When pressed, she said he looked like that dude from “Sugar Ray.”
One of many perplexing things was that he and Ali actually got along great. About the only serious argument he could remember them having involved Ali refusing to be left alone with Carley’s Uncle Bill, an unkempt man-child who said some politically incorrect things after he had had too much to drink, but was a good guy. He remembered dismissing Ali harshly when she argued that “perverts use words like pecker.”
He removed two bottles of Jack Daniels from his duffel bag and placed them in-between the pills and Ali’s ring, making a perfectly straight line.
He heard his buddy Bobby’s voice telling him to “get back in the game.” He mindlessly opened all the drawers of the dresser and desk combo and saw that someone had forgotten some of their clothes – simple possessions left behind. Meaningless, really, but he was convinced the person who had forgotten them was cursing his Charlie Brown Life the whole drive home to Ocala because he would never again see his beloved Florida Gators, mesh, gym-teacher shorts.
Outside Carley’s room, a car pulled up and a boisterous group of twenty-year-olds piled out.
“B-Ö-C! B-Ö-C, dude!” one of the shouted.
“I got a fever … and the only prescription … is MORE cowbell!!” A thin young man said, leaping out of their cinnamon Grand Marquis.
“Let’s get liquored-up!” another said.
Liquored-up? That made Carley laugh. Who says that except people from the South?
“Let’s go to the pool, y’all,” one of the girls said. “I’ve been sitting in this hot car since we left Waleska and I need to cool off.” She straightened her white hair band and sun dress and ran inside the room. Her best friend since kindergarten followed closely behind.
“I brought me a cute little swimmin’ suit,” the friend said.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” one of the young guys said after the girls had gone inside. “I’ve been waiting to get me some of that bodacious body for years.”
Two of the guys gave each other hi-fives.
“Check out the size of that Palmetto bug,” the third guy said. “It’s twice the size of the ones in Georgia.”
Carley walked over to the full-length mirror by the bathroom. He sucked his stomach in and examined his physique. He thought he looked pretty good in his black concert T – the one he had bought in 1982 when he saw BÖC at the Nassau Coliseum. Yeah, he had a beer belly but how many thirty-seven year-olds didn’t? Plus, shirts shrink over time; $5.00 concert tees aren’t exactly woven with twenty-five year cloth.
He flexed his biceps and then inspected his tightly-curled brown hair and long, muscular side-burns that would make Luke Perry envious. He never thought of himself as particularly macho but he was a big guy, with pretty big guns. He also knew his way around a car and tools. He doubted he had the stamina to do a twenty-four hour drive through the desert – or some shit like that – but at least he was man enough to admit it.
He could hear the Twenty Somethings in the rooms below him.
“C’mon, y’all!” one of the girls pleaded in a sweet, Southern drawl, emerging in a candy-striped bikini. “Clayton! Bring me my Muscatel wine.”
Both doors slammed shut and the voices trailed off toward the pool.
By the time Carley caught up with the Twenty Somethings at the pool, it occurred to him that he was dressed all in black and everyone else was wearing white or bright colors. Even the puppy that obediently trailed behind one of the Southern girls was all white with just a little brown in her face.
“How about some Jack?” Carley offered to the trio of slender young Georgians, towering over them.
“Sure, Man in Black,” one of them said, quite startled. Carley’s forearms and hands were twice the size of theirs. One of the young men was so intimidated, he almost dropped the Tybee Island koozie he was holding.
“Plan on stomping some critters with those size 14’s?” another asked.
Carley got right to business. He filled four plastic cups halfway with Jack and downed his in one gulp.
“Yeah, baby, yeah,” one of the young guys said in an Austin Powers-like voice.
“Cool throwback T-shirt, dude,” another said.
“Oh no, this is an original,” Carley responded. “From The Coliseum.”
Off to the side, the girl with the hair band whispered something in her girlfriend’s ear. The friend screeched “Kay-la!” She threw her arms around Kayla’s neck and gently stroked her hair.
“The what?” one of the Twenty Somethings asked Carley.
“The Nassau Coliseum.”
“Where’s that, in the Bahamas?”
“No; on Long Island. It was an awesome place to see a concert.”
“Cool,” the three guys said in unison.
“The train ride out was as rockin’ as the concert.”
“You took a train to a concert?”
“Yeah, to get to Long Island from New Jersey,” Carley said, confusing the young men even more.
Mostly, it was BÖC fans at the pool, but there were families too, making a roadside stop during a summer trip.
He was accepted into the group with surprising ease, for the first time in his life meeting people from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and even Arkansas. No one mocked him out, but several had to smile over his utter ignorance of Southern geography. For his part, he didn’t take offense when a soft-necked, big bellied kid from “the mountains just outsida Chattanooga,” said he thought people from New Jersey only listened to Springsteen.
On a chaise lounge to his immediate right, a woman about Carley’s age bounced her three year-old son on her knee, while keeping a close eye on her eight year-old son who was in the pool. The toddler giggled each time the mother popped her knee up and said: “Ah, boom!” Carley stared at the boy on his mother’s knee, his little arms reaching for the massive Carolina blue sky.
“Hey there, little guy,” Carley said, pointing his index finger towards the boy’s tummy.
The mother wore a colorful sarong, painted with white orchids, from the Parisian Department Store in downtown Birmingham. A real orchid rested on her left ear. She looked as lovely at the Holi-Sheraton pool as the genteel ladies on race day at Churchill Downs.
“I like your matching outfit,” Carley said.
“Why, thank you. That is so sweet.”
“One more time, Little Bobby, and then we have to go,” the woman said to her eight year-old, as she tossed a penny to the bottom of the pool.
Not bothering to straighten his crooked goggles, Little Bobby took a deep breath and dove toward the bottom.
“My best friend from Back Home is named Bobby,” Carley offered, unintentionally invading the woman’s personal space.
“Well bless your heart!” she answered, sounding somewhat distressed. “Are you here for the concert?”
“Oh, because they’re all leaving.”
Looking around, Carley saw that the pool area had cleared out considerably.
“Got it, momma!” Little Bobby proudly proclaimed as he emerged from the water.
“That’s marvelous, hon.”
“Throw it again, momma.”
“Ok. One more time. Then we have to meet your daddy for supper.”
“I better get going,” Carley said.
“You take care now, hon,” the mother responded.
Back in his room, it hit Carley that he would probably never have kids. That was another thing Ali had robbed him of; another item to add to his mental list of how she had screwed him.
Actually, neither one of them had been ready, although both had expressed a general desire to have children. Abused was too strong a word, but Ali hadn’t had a great childhood. The abridged version of Carley’s childhood – parents married over 40 years and two older siblings – only looked good on paper.
Carley sat on a rocking chair on the balcony outside his room and reviewed a list he had created during the drive from Jersey. No more serious a document had ever been conceived at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop.
On the balcony below, he could hear that one of the young couples had not yet left for the concert. He peered over the rail and saw them snuggled together on a Cracker Barrel double rocker.
Kayla pushed the oversized, faux-designer sunglasses she had splurged on at the Fried Chicken BP Gas Station back up the bridge of her nose.
“Are ya sure you don’t mind not going to the concert?” Carley heard her say. “I know you really wanted to go.”
“’Course not, baby doll,” her boyfriend answered.
The thought that invaded Carley’s head against his will was that Kayla was ruining the entire trip for her pussy-whipped boyfriend.
“I’m so sorry. But they said this morning that I would feel nauseous in the beginning; maybe it’s happening already.”
“Do you want me to rub your stomach?”
“Nah, but come closer.” Kayla cradled her boyfriend’s head in her lap and stroked his hair. They closed their eyes. Kayla’s puppy, Hot Boiled Peanuts, hopped up onto the edge of the rocker.
Carley looked at the two page note he held in his hands and heard Kayla’s boyfriend say that he had never felt this happy. Within minutes, the dreamy couple fell asleep in each other’s arms, oblivious to the loud crack Carley’s door made as he slammed it shut with the conviction of a man turning his back to the outside world.
Carley counted the pills left in the bottle and took five more. He sat down at the desk, and gazed at a framed picture of a Sheraton Hotel from the 1970’s – an impressive white building with a red “S,” centered within a laurel wreath, emblazoned on the side. The logo reminded him of his family’s lone out-of-state vacation. He was five and they stayed at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The whole time, his father talked about what a legend Joe DiMaggio was and how Joe had the greatest city in the world nibbling out of the palm of his hand.
Mom had bought Carley a pail and shovel kit (in a mesh bag) from a sundries store across the street. He was excited because he thought it meant she would play with him on the beach, but it was actually her strategy to keep him occupied so she could sit at the pool bar. For some reason, he had saved the mesh bag all these years, having lost the pail and shovel long ago. The bag sat idle at the bottom of a foot locker with other tokens from his childhood. He had placed the foot locker in the crawlspace of the rented house he shared with Ali, in a spot where he knew she would never go. Thing is, he could just as well have buried the bag in the sands of Ft. Lauderdale thirty-two years before.
He returned to his list, which he had entitled: “THINGS I DID ALL WRONG.” He added what would be the final entry: “Couldn’t bring myself to tell Ali the Yankee Clipper story.”
He scooped up Ali’s ring and slipped it onto his pinkie – the only finger on which it would fit. He guessed she had found whatever it was she was looking for, while he couldn’t even reclaim her side of the bed.
He lifted the Jack Daniels bottle and threw his head back, perpendicular to his trembling shoulders; he stared blankly at the black and white label as the liquid level dropped at a ludicrous pace.
All was quiet at the motel except for some enthusiastic splashing at the pool. Down the road a short way, BÖC had taken the stage and revved up their faithful fans with their cowbell-laced hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Halfway through the song, the Twenty Somethings spotted a man in a ridiculously small T-shirt scaling the fence behind the stage.
“Hey. Isn’t that that dude from the pool?” one of them wondered aloud.
Carley kept climbing, and a cheer erupted from the crowd in front of that side of the stage.
“B-Ö-C! B-Ö-C!” he screamed with Hulk-level rage, digging the narrow tips of his boots into the chain-linked barrier, and flexing his bi-ceps.
Now more than thirty feet off the ground, only the crossbar at the top of the fence prevented him from going even higher.
Back at the motel, Little Bobby’s mother issued another warning.
“I mean it…” she said, as she tossed the same penny into the pool.
Taking a huge breath and straightening his crooked goggles, Little Bobby dunked his head, and went down for the last time.