by Benjamin Rosenbaum
She's fifty and she looks it, but it's rock-and-roll fifty. Okay, she had the one facelift, for the film -- that putz agent, Sharansky, talked her into it. She hated it; it hurt, and afterward her cheeks looked too tight, too smooth. After a few years, faint lines began to come back into her cheeks -- and she wanted them back, to go with the fine mesh of crows' feet at the corners of her eyes.
She still has her mane of frizzy red hair, with a few strands of gray. She has tough, wiry arms, with biceps from manhandling gear when the roadies get it wrong. If she wears a bra, her tits still look great, so onstage she wears a black lace with an underwire under her open shirt.
Her waist is slim, her butt is tight and her legs are long, and if her feet hurt in boots, it's a good hurt, makes her know she's alive. Despite the booze -- Jack Daniel's on the rocks, but never before dinner -- despite too many burgers and fries eaten in vans and buses, she's fit. The energy of the road burns it all out of her. The road is her best teacher, her best friend. Belting her guts out in a stadium, the electric roar from the amps and the holler of the crowd moving through her, heating her up -- heating her all the way up, toes to scalp, thawing her out.
People talk about losing yourself when you get too big -- but people don't know shit, because it's finding yourself, under the hot lights with a hundred thousand throats scraped raw from cheering you on; fingers on the frets, leaning into the mike and burning; hot white light burning in your teeth and in your pants, and the music just coming on up out of you like that. Studio work makes her fat and stupid -- and insecure. She never gets laid when she's doing studio work -- when she's clawing up her own guts like a harpy, looking for songs. Vomit the album up as fast as you can, head for the road. It only gets real on the road anyway.
Four weeks into tour and they take a break so she can teach for a week at the Grand Rapids Folk Festival. She's randy as hell. No pickups this tour, no time or not enough self-confidence, not yet, though every night the crowds fill her up a little more with clapping. All there was, was Barry in Chicago. Barry is sweet and the night was sweet, but he really don't ring her bell like he used to.
So it's the last night of the class and she's still been sleeping alone in her trailer every night. This is it: she's picked him out. He can't be a day over twenty-five, but she's always liked cradle-robbing. He's not the prettiest or the hunkiest or the smartest boy in the class. But the rest -- well, they're reverent. They fold their hands over the necks of their twelve-strings, leaning in, eyes shiny. Those introductions the first morning -- "and I just jumped at the opportunity to take this seminar. Red Lady has been a big influence on my work --" Your work, she doesn't say, you ain't got no work yet, son. Loosen up a little. All that fingering and fussing -- you've got so many notes, you ain't got room for any music in there.
Not the one she wants, though. He leans back where they lean in -- wraps his hands around the back of his head, feet up on the desk, chair tipped back -- she wants to whack him with a ruler, sitting like that in her class. Cheap department store cowboy hat, but it's old and weathered, could have been his daddy's. Blue eyes. Black hair, short as an Oklahoma barber's. The rest of the boys have either ponytails or bangs.
She's pretty sure a few of them would make love to her -- they puppy-dog enough at her. They'd talk about it afterwards, though: It'll always be a special memory -- I felt like some of her magic was being passed on to me -- you know how it is, with kindred spirits.
When they gab, he just looks at her from under that stupid hat. He's not giving her the eye. Just looking. That might be why it lights a fire in her jeans, makes her uncross her legs to cross them the other way, makes her slide the guitar down a little lower, putting it between her nether lips and that face of his.
He can play, too. Can't sing for shit, and his songs are nothing much -- paraphrases of Hank Williams. He can play though; he knows enough not to get in the way of his guitar.
She doesn't think he'll make love to her. But she might get him to fuck her.
Class ends with hugs and well-wishes and she says peppy things about their futures which, in a couple of cases she even means, and they find their way to the bar. The one with the sideburns who only composes in minor keys grabs the bench to the left of her and the Stevie Nicks clone with the nice voice grabs the right, and she looks up from her pitcher of beer and sees him leaning against a pole, looking bored, and her heart sinks. He's about to stroll off into the sunset. She'll be left with her cherry-red vibrator and threadbare memories of the true loves of her youth. She's got a frog in her throat, and for a cold moment she's afraid of trying it and hearing a bewildered chuckle from him, seeing herself in his eyes -- a shriveled old hag. Or worse, he only realizes it once her clothes are off, once the boobs sag and the varicose veins are on display. He scuffs his boot once, and shifts off the pole, and she almost hopes he'll go.
But the road taught her better than that. So she sets her beer down and stands, and he looks up, and she gives him a look he can't possibly miss the meaning of -- even young as he is. His face shows nothing, and that brings a flush to her cheeks. But she turns, slowly, gracefully, steps over the bench -- in no hurry, walking like a woman, and hoping his eyes are on that ass of hers, which is a hell of an ass, for fifty.
The ladies' room is around back. She washes her hands in cold water, and makes the mistake of looking in the mirror. Aw, hell. No one looks good in fluorescent light -- but she looks like a folk-rock zombie. She smoothes her hair back with her wet hands. It frizzes out again like it always does.
But she never let a little stage fright stop her. She goes out through that door, like she always does, to face the music.
The night is cool. She feels a tug: he's hooked a finger through the back loop of her jeans. She turns to face him, which puts about three inches between her chest and his. She puts a hand up into his white T-shirt -- however cold it gets, all he wears on top is that damn white T-shirt. She can smell him and he smells good, like clean sweat and hops. But she's still not sure, so it's a push-away hand.
"I beg your pardon," she says.
"Hey, teach," he says. His eyes are in shadow. His bicep is relaxed, resting against her arm that's pushing on him.
She takes his hat off. "Just exactly what gives you the idea --" But his lips are coming in at hers and she abandons the charade.
You'd think, some year or other, you'd get enough of kissing.
Her blood buzzes in her ears. His chest pushes up against hers, and she feels her nipples stiffen.
She breaks the kiss and has to pant a little to get her breath back. Which surprises her.
"I've already turned in the grades," she says when she can. "Too late to get extra credit --"
He goes in for more, and she's hungry for it.
But then he seems to feel two kisses are enough, and he goes for the buttons on her shirt. Like he wants to do it right there by the ladies' room and get flash photos of her sagging tits in all the tabloids. Twenty-five year-olds. She takes his hands and drags him to her trailer. He stops to grab his hat off the ground and put it back on.
Light or not? Shit, if he wants her, he better want the whole package. She compromises with the bedside lamp and the light in the kitchenette. He stands by the door, takes his hat off and throws it on the table. Puts his hands in his pockets. She can see the bulge in his jeans -- a good sign. On impulse, she walks over and claps her hand onto it. His eyes widen. None of those little girls do that to him, do they?
More kissing. She keeps her hand there, the other behind his neck. She lets him unbutton her shirt. She lets him put his hands on her tits. Her nipples are like little rocks, and she knows by now there's a wet stain spreading across the center of her panties. She moves her hands to his ass and straddles his knee.
He moves his knee up into her pelvis and she thinks, oh yes. But then his thumbs go down and slide under the underwire of her bra and she's just not ready for that. She needs to be lying down when the bra comes off. She pulls away and steps back, leaving him hanging.
Stupid. Vanity, but there it is. She turns away, puts her hands up under her hair at the back and twists it into a knot at the top of her head, picks a clip off the table and clips it. Shakes her hands out, puts on a smile and she's ready for his eyes.
When she turns around, he's not watching her; he's looking at the framed pictures on the wall of the trailer. He points at one from 1973. "Who's that? You and your dad?"
"My first manager. Sam Marshall. You've heard of him."
His head bobs: Blue Light Studios. "You fuck him?"
And that's it. The blood drains out of everywhere. Cold shoots down her arms.
"Get the fuck out," she says.
He grins a lopsided grin. "What?"
"I said get out."
He crosses his arms. "You gonna make me?"
He's probably just kidding, dumbass twenty-five year old, but she yanks down the window panel and says, not yells, "Stanley -- !"
Stanley used to play linebacker at a Big Ten school; he's got a bulge under his suit jacket and a wire in his ear, and he's there in three seconds. The kid picks up his hat from the table and looks back at her once, and it's a wistful look, not angry, not scared, more like -- we're done playing already?
That look stays with her when the door closes. A big breath comes up and seizes tight in her chest. Footsteps walking away. The cherry red vibrator is waiting in the drawer and she's going to have to go right after it, the way the emptiness burns in her belly and her womb and the way her lips are swollen up against her wet panties. But it seems sad and pitiful and damn it, damn it, damn it.
But how can you trust a man who says "make me," when you say "get out"? When you really mean it? How would it have gone on from there if Stanley hadn't been around the corner?
No sensible woman would let that boy touch her again, not after that.
The moon glides away from a patch of cloud out the open window, kids are laughing and hollering down at the bar; and sensible women don't play guitar and live in vans and fuck strangers in motels down every interstate highway in America.
She steps to the window and says, "Stanley...bring him back."
The punk has a grin when he comes in, but it fades when he sees her face.
Stanley, though, seems reassured by her expression: his somber mouth twitches in a way that would turn into a grin on a lesser man. He closes the door on the way out.
The kid crosses his arms.
"Take your shirt off," she says.
"I -- "
"Ssh," she says. She crosses to him and puts a finger on his lips. She kisses him, then she says, "Stanley's right outside. We do this my way or not at all. Now take your shirt off."
He does it.
The way he flinches when she touches his nipple tells her that no girl ever paid it much attention before. The girl has the tits, after all. She leans in until her nose touches his and takes his soft pink nipples between her thumbs and forefingers. She rubs a little, back and forth. They get hard.
"I guess you like a fast fuck," she says.
He nods. He's got a questioning kind of grin.
"Yeah, you look like that kind. You were going to get one. You lost it though." His brow almost descends into a frown, but she puts a little more pressure on his nipples and his mouth opens and his brow stays where it is. Smart boy, to leave his hands down.
"Listen." She leans in to his ear and whispers throaty and low, her jazz whisper. "Leave now and I won't be mad. But you stay, you gonna do what I tell you. You leave me before I get my fill of you -- I'm going to be hopping mad. I don't know how many times you can come in a night. You best know, and manage yourself. 'Cause you ain't done 'til I say you're done."
She leans back to look at him. He's got a huge shit-eating grin. She gives his nipples a twist.
"Ow," he says, pulling back, but the smile stays, mostly.
"Aw, you stupid hick," she says. "You're missing my point. You stay, you do what whatever I tell you. If I put my cherry-red vibrator up your ass and let it hum, you don't have a thing to say about it."
The grin's gone. "Shit --"
"And if you cross me when I'm horny, I tell everyone in this business enough to make you a laughing stock."
"That's right. I ain't playing. You scared? Then go."
He unbuckles his belt. No smile now.
She's surprised at herself, the way she's playing this. She's got goosebumps, and a buzz like a fifth of Jack Daniel's, sharp and clear. She pushes him against the door, tugs his belt out, unsnaps his jeans and pushes them down his legs, sinking to her knees. She fishes his penis out of his shorts. Thank God it's thick. Little on the short side, but thick. That's what she needs.
She slides her mouth around it. That a condom would have been a good idea occurs to her when she's on her second stroke, but fuck it. She's not going to let him come; she'll take a little risk. She likes the taste of his skin.
She pulls his balls out from his body with one hand, catches the base of his penis in an OK-sign with the other. Since he's a little short, he's easy to deep-throat. He gives a strangled scream and clutches at the doorknob.
She gives him about twenty, slow, then fast, and then forces herself to stop.
She stands up. Such a good boy: he didn't grab her head -- she hates that. She sucks on one of his nipples and he makes a soft sound. He's quivering.
She steps back and wriggles out of her jeans. Her panties are sopping wet.
"How many times can you come?" she asks.
"Once," he says. "Maybe twice."
She grins. "You better be a patient man."
She has him lie on the bed, straddles his mouth and grips the bedboard. "God damn, honey," she says after a minute, "no one ever taught you to do this right. Here." She takes his chin. "Back off a little. Now tease. Spend a little time with your tongue going up and" -- her breath flutters in her throat -- "down. Yeah. That's right. Go in a little, just once in a little while...just a little...flick. That's it. Tease more. There. Yeah. Now you can flick over the clit -- lighter -- a little faster -- draw -- the alphabet -- with -- your -- tongue-- yeah ---"
After the first peak, she finds her breath again. And what she does with that breath is, she tells him the story of her and Sam Marshall.
Nineteen years old and up from Freemont, Kentucky, with a red pageboy haircut, no singing voice to speak of and a twenty-dollar guitar. It's an old story, a girl like that on the streets of Chicago wanting to be Joan Baez, and a guy like Sam. The music industry has been full of thieves and liars since Salieri pimped Mozart.
But the thing was, in his way, Sam Marshall really loved her. In his way. It was 1973.
The worst night was New Years' of 1974, when Sam passed out and she went with two of his friends who expected it, and ended up vomiting from gin and heartbreak in the snowy street at dawn. At least, thank God, she stayed away from the coke.
It's not the first time she's told this story. In fact she thought she was sick of hearing it. Her shrink sure is. She finds herself crying, though. And then she finds herself crawling down off him, and him holding her.
And when they do fuck, it's not fast. It's long and slow and easy, and when he comes (she did get a condom on him first, somewhere in there) she's in no mood to be strict. She's satisfied.
There's a good-bye breakfast the next morning. Sharonda, her manager, is anxious to get on the road, so she doesn't eat, just goes from table to table saying her goodbyes. She ruffles his hair, and he turns and gives her a hug, and she hugs back. What the hell, let them talk.
Three years later, she's surprised to find he's playing lead in the band that opens for her for three engagements. She's a little worried he'll have talked, at least to his own band, but no sign of it; it's a good little tour.
They're waiting to go on for the last set of the last night, in the wings of an old theater -- plush red curtains with braided yellow ropes, vanishing into the shadows above them -- when she notices the ring on his finger. She congratulates him. He says thank you.
Then they run to take their places, and the holler of the crowd explodes into thunder.