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The Ghost Rider by Erica Plouffe Lazure

Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of a flash chapbook, Heard Around Town. She's published work in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Greensboro Review, Meridian, Southeast Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is from Exeter, New Hampshire.

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No one outside Nashville had ever heard of Billy Dice’s All-Stars until last night, when our drummer, Marty Marshall, fell through the plate glass window down at Clyde’s Country Corner. People these days always got their cameras out so we figure the more they film Billy Dice, the better we look, and the better we look, the more they’ll tip. So when we cleared the stage for Marty to hit his mega-solo during “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” he tilted back on the hind leg of his tripod stool and rose up, arcing his arms for a double-cymbal shimmer to close it out, and that was it: a YouTube sensation born within the hour. The whole world—or, eventually, 360,000 of us—watched as he crashed back onto the massive window behind him, tumbling in a glitter glass shatter out onto the street, taking the neon Bud Light sign with him, and toppling a handful of Stetson-toting tourist girls in their Daisy Dukes and 900-dollar boots like a strike in a bowling alley. They darted out of Marty’s way as he tumbled down, screeching the screech of a viral Internet sensation, and, still screeching, stuck their phones into Marty’s face as he lay there on the sidewalk. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Billy Dice poked his head out the window after Marty, his vocal mic still looped into the sound system and said, with laser-precision timing, “I was just thinking that drum was a hair too loud.” When Billy Dice heard himself amplified through the din as laughter erupted, he got decent. “Hey, Marty, you all right?” just as the bouncer cleared the huddled filming-phone crowd and made way for the on-call medics.

As far as tragedies go, you couldn’t have planned it any better. Marty turned out all right, in spite of everything—the screeching tourist cowgirls actually helped break his fall. After the medics checked Marty’s vitals, they stood him up, brushed the excess glass off his vest, and sent him back inside to finish the set.

“A real card-carrying union dude,” Billy Dice said later, of Marty, between sips of whiskey.

“Got to get paid, man,” Marty said to his beer.

Marty got all the attention that night, but I had my own little breakthrough playing out during the show that, thank god, no one knew to look for or see, unless of course you were Billy Dice, who could read a crowd better than Jesus, and when he saw Sage in it, could tell from the look on her face to steer the hell clear. Even when JoJo brought round the tips bucket, he avoided Sage, and instead offered her a pleasant hat tilt as she guarded the portable ATM machine near the entrance, arms folded, staring me down, pressing an unlit smoke between her lips as I played busier and faster than I ever had. I chose not to look at her too much. Might as well give her a show, let her know what I’m worth.

Sage’s unlit cigarette was her “compromise on this fucking smoking ban,” she’d said after the bars down on Broadway turned into family-friendly non-smoking venues. Another sign, to her at least, that the city had sold out to the cultural kudzu of the CMA. Pain in the ass or not, she knew her shit, and plugged in for a solo set with her granny’s ancient Martin whenever she could and people for once quit running their mouths to stop and listen. She was a powerhouse in her own right, on stage, in bed, in person, and thank god she didn’t carry a phone, if for no other reason that it meant I’d never receive the torrent of texts that materialized in actual, in real-life complaints every time we met: Where’s my rent money? You’ll pop over after your set, right? You know, this baby’s yours, so when you gonna start acting like a Daddy?

I’m barely twenty-one, so Daddy is the last thing I need to be called right now, and most of our nights together are me telling her as much, tossing her a few twenties from my share of the tip jar to keep her happy. “Happy enough is different than happy,” she’d say, quoting a line from one of her songs, and making sure I knew she was expecting me to stop by later, after we finished out at Clyde’s. I rarely did. Well, sometimes I did. Often enough, I guess, for her to get the idea that staying over meant something more than a warm bed that wasn’t a shared pullout sofa with JoJo, and long arms and soft mouth and a fridge of food and hot shower. Somehow, she got the idea that if one was actually on the way, I’d volunteer to stop the world, put down my guitar, and make room for it. But something tonight with her was different. I could feel her smolder as I walked my fingers up and down the neck of my Telecaster, taking my cues from Billy Dice. The melody is predictable enough on these old standards that your fingers do all the work, leaving time for your brain, when it wasn’t contemplating the imminent presence of a swaddle-clothed tot drooling on the fringe of your favorite Western and the angry musician it would one day call Mama, to take in the crowd—a flirty band of Brazilian dudes; folks fresh off a blues night on Beale Street, assessing the two cities and their sounds as though they were in charge of them; a few regulars and a handful of tourists who actually eat those godawful fried baloney sandwiches; the overeager first dates, overdressed and sitting way up front like teenagers, hell-bent on having a good time; the line-dancing retirees clumsily keeping rhythm with their twists and turns. Say what you will about this gig—and Sage had a lot to say about it, that I was wasting my time on these old hat standards and this two-bit band—it makes people happy. We’re not fifty steps from the Ryman but if you can throw basically the same party nearly every night and folks still show regular as the tide, you’re doing something right.

Except if you’re me, and except if, as my guitar solo ends and Marty’s begins, Sage hovers toward the stage and leans in to yell something in my ear just as Marty tumbles through the window. All you see on the video is someone from the floor beckoning to the guitarist as Marty blows up the stage with his percussive energy, rattling through snare and bass and cymbal, making his own outlaw sound snap alive that puts the cow in cowboy songs. And what was it that Sage shouts to me as Marty rises and plows through the window? There’s no more baby, she yells, for the whole stage to hear, although only I heard it. But Marty’s ill-timed crash distracts me, and instead of looking into Sage’s hazel eyes to see if she meant what she said, and what that meant for us if it was true, I whip around to catch Marty’s ass, end-up, and when I turn back toward Sage, she is gone.

Like the dog in the pony show, I couldn’t just leave Clyde’s and go after her. We had the gig ’til one, and we were only about halfway in, and I wouldn’t get paid unless, like Marty, I stuck it out. During break, I stood hangdog outside Clyde’s amid the shattered glass, the neon beer sign dangling above my head, the kaleidoscope of fairway lights from above and across the street blinking and reflecting in the shards our bouncer failed to sweep up, wondering what Sage meant, beyond the obvious. There’s no more baby—Am I off the hook? Was there ever a baby? Did she finally figure out it was someone else’s, or worse, did she know in her heart it was mine but knew deep down—as I do—that I wouldn’t be able to handle it?

“That’s some tumble,” Billy Dice said, appearing at my side, pulling on his beer.

“No doubt,” I said, trying to tamp my thought spiral. Billy Dice was one of those All-In types, the kind of guy who needs you to say his whole name, as if he was a brand of himself, but “ALL IN” meant seeing everything too, corralling us and our personal problems like a fucking border collie.

“Sage sure seemed agitated tonight,” he said, leaning in. Fishing. Billy Dice knows better than to pry, but this was his way of letting me know he was open, if I was. All in. I was not.

“Sage is always agitated,” I said. “Looks like she got something else to agitate her tonight besides me.”

“No doubt,” Billy Dice said. Gaggles of drunkards cavorted down Broadway, hop-galloping in a sprawling gait toward us. “Are you the drummer who fell out the window?” one asked.

“Yes,” Billy Dice and I said in unison. We cheersed our beer to each other, and then to the revelers, who cheersed back, took a few photos of the broken window, and flocked inside. These folks smelled like money and we both knew it.

“Time for work, babyface,” Billy Dice said.

. . .

We came back strong off the break, all told, and rattled the crowd—the late-arriving drunkards proved as lucrative as we’d hoped—and that night we eased in a good 200 dollars each. Still, the air-conditioning at Clyde’s got all fucked up, on account of the broken window. So there I was during the gig, my body clammy from the indoor-outdoor climate war playing out on the stage, pit stains drenching my sides, unsurprised when the whole aircon overheated and shorted out our sound system in the middle of “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin.” We were fine with it, really: an impromptu break for us while Billy Dice, with his ancient Epiphone (I always thought he could do better, but he swore by it) started in on an acoustic solo set that brought out all the slow dancer sweethearts, the old ladies and their gents, a few loners swept off their feet by some of the more gallant Brazilians. It was sweet, people touching, smiling, strangers moving in a swaying sync even as old Mr. Clyde himself emerged from wherever he counts his coins and flipped the circuits himself, right under the “Hank You” bumper sticker and a paper fan of Johnny Cash flipping the bird. JoJo and I stepped out at one point for a smoke, when Katie came by and made an arrangement with JoJo to hang at our place when she got off shift.

“You know what that means,” JoJo said. What it meant was that I had to find someplace else to crash. Our room was just that: a room, and no one would want to witness the whatever that goes on between JoJo and Katie.

“You good with it?” he asked. I nodded, pulled the last drag off my smoke, thinking maybe Sage would stroll by. She sometimes walked her German shepherd on Broadway, passing through the neon glamour of the strip, scouting out which bar she’d play at next. She usually got a haul of shows—just her and her guitar, a singer-songwriter just like the rest of us who came here to make it big, and treated her whole life like it was an audition, figuring she’d have that “right place, right time” moment and some A&R guy would hear her song and sell it—“or, at the very least, her soul,” as she’d say—to Shania or Taylor or Gretchen and then she could go off and have all the babies she wanted.

. . .

I gave her a call before our break was up, but no answer. And after the set, too. And few times between back-pats to Marty, as his inbox filled with the link to the viral video. JoJo left as soon as he packed his bass and, by all logic, was by then in the throes of what-have-you with Katie on our pullout.

“Lucky dude,” Billy Dice said.

“Hey, send me that video,” I said, leaning over Marty’s shoulder to get a glimpse. I could see Sage’s silhouette in the frame, and wanted to watch it in private. “Hell, Quen, I never took you for a Facebooker,” Marty said, laughing, and we struggled like two idiots for almost ten minutes getting the spelling of my name right, where the hell to find the “at” symbol, and all that. As soon as I left the bar—“Take good care of that girl!” Billy Dice warned—I dug up my old email address to find the link to see what a few thousand people had (so far) seen but none of them knew to look for.

I left Broadway as soon as I could, toward the darker stretches of the city, where the sloping streets at night look nearly the same. Off Broadway, this late, everything looks drab, the beggars that roam these streets are more desperate and daring, unlike the dude who sits outside the t-shirt shop with a cardboard sign “Smile if you Masturbate” that nabs him a few more bucks a night just for the laugh. Some folks claim a bench, or an old car in a dark parking lot. Others pitch incongruously bright camper’s tents in an impromptu hobo city just below the highway overpass. Some hawk their guitars or harps or what have you just to eat, others keep their instruments buried in backyards or parks, like some suspicious dog protective of a bone no one else wants.

Weirdly, I felt that way about watching the clip. I actually waited until the street was clear before pressing play. In the video, the camera caught Sage in silhouette, hands clapped over her ears during Marty’s solo, taking the edge off (the drum was, as Billy Dice said, too loud). Then she glanced back, almost to the tourist cameraman, with a “watch this” confidence in her shoulders, in the way her curled copper hair shone spaniel-like in the light as she approached the stage. She wore green. Then her long bronze arm waved me over, swooped up toward my ear, delivering news in a whisper-gesture that I know was a barroom yell, as my fingers damped my strings, leaning over, leading with my non-monitor ear, and gave her a tight smile that raised my eyebrows just as Marty rose and fell. Then Sage was out-the-door gone.

. . .

With my gig bag strapped to my back like a backpack, I kept walking and playing the clip when, finally, I saw it. In the split moment that I turned my head toward the window crash, and Sage darted off, my eye automatically draws up to the action of the crash on screen. There’s something seductive about watching a man fall through a window, and your eye can’t but help to focus on it, even when it’s looking for something else. But if you keep your eye trained on Sage, you’ll see that she flings onto the stage a folded-up piece of paper before she takes off. By the time she’s gone, I unknowingly step on the missing puzzle piece like an idiot and play out the song. Fuck. A note. How did I not see it?

When I looked up from my screen and the bright spots hazing my eyeballs faded, I realized I was in front of her apartment building. It was well past two. The lights were out. I have stuff at her house, but I never claimed to actually live-live there. Maybe that was part of the problem. I wouldn’t commit to her, or to anyone, except the band, and even that proved hard at times. Billy Dice always says any one of us is one bad break away from sleeping on a bench, or begging or busking for a Greyhound home to Mama, which is why we got to take care of each other. I sat on the bench, thinking of the note, deciding what to do. I’m certain the barmaid swept it up minutes after our set ended. As the band talked over a beer at the bar, I literally watched her push the broom across the stage, brush the crap into a dustpan, and toss it all in the trash.

“Hey, man, got anything on you?”

“What?” my eyes still glazed from my phone glare. Some kid in a hoodie, gaunt face, looking cold even though it was May. Feeling both flush and unlucky, I tossed him a cigarette and a fiver I kept in my back pocket. “God bless, man,” I said. That’s when he hurled himself at me with a sharp little fist and nailed me in the eye.

What the fuck? I thought, as he darted off down the street. So much for luck. Just wanted some human contact. I guess. Fucker.

I took the pulsing of my eye as a sign that I needed to at least tap on Sage’s window. Maybe she had a cold cloth. Or a story to tell. Or a fucking sandwich that didn’t include baloney. But my gut told me it was a bad idea, that I should just claim the bench and maybe she’ll see me in the morning when she takes Shepard for a walk, unlit smoke hanging from her lip, and understand. And as I laid down, I could feel myself standing outside myself, calling out Chickenshit. The image of me mocking myself, making chicken wings, cackling like a third-grader would not leave my mind, so I got up and crept toward Sage’s window. Before I could even tap, Shepard’s snout emerged, his glowing eyes appearing in my reflection, followed by a sharp bark and, beyond the dog, an empty, made-up bed. Shep continued to bark like he didn’t know me. I didn’t wait around to see whether he’d actually bust through the glass and bite me, or what Sage would do if she was home and our eyes met through the window, she thinking I knew what was on that sheet of paper, or what it all might mean if I told her how empty I felt, thinking about the idea of there being no baby now that there was no baby, and would it even make a difference to her? Because it made a difference to me.

The only thing left to do, I decided, was to track down the note, so I hauled off back to Broadway. The strip was dark, the streets still filled with trash, even as the team of sanitation workers rolled down Broadway, leaving a sour trash swine smell in their wake, hauling up bag after black plastic bag of things left in the aftermath of a good time. The string of neon signs rested in the silence and dark sky and I realized I hadn’t been down here and sober enough to notice how dingy everything looked without their glow and shine luring you in. Only the Nudie’s Honkey Tonk sign glowed on, no doubt by the accident of a sloppy night manager, and so the curvy cowgirl in short shorts and spurs kept trying to lasso me in, and I thought back to Sage’s empty bed and where she might be. As I arrived back to Clyde’s, I realized what I came for might just be on the street in a black plastic bag. I tucked my guitar away in the doorway, got on my haunches, and dug in. The broken window was flimsily protected by a stretch of yellow police tape—to fix it would take until at least Tuesday, Billy Dice said earlier, and wouldn’t you know, Mr. Clyde himself was on stage dozing, propped himself on two chairs, gut heavy slumped to one side, pistol hooked into the crook of his folded arms, guarding the bar.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to go through someone else’s trash—going through your own is bad enough—but picking through what thousands of people in a single night literally wanted to get rid of, in the dark, with a single street light and a glowing Lasso Gal across the street, ain’t fun. How many foam cartons, shards of glass, cigarette boxes and butts, someone’s throw-up, napkins with stains from who knows what, ash like ghastly confetti, used tissues, gnawed-on chapstick, half-eaten sandwiches, empty bags of chips, a few torn-up dollars, fucking diapers, a carton of warm milk that's threatening to burst, rotten baloney, and shards of glass I must have sifted through to find one of my guitar picks and the folded-up note, wet from the muck at the bottom of the bag.

I held up the note to the light of the Nudie girl, gut quivering like I could puke, just as the trashmen rolled through, and laughed at me crouching in shit.

“What you lose, boy?” one called from the back part of the truck. “Your hotel key?”

“Fuck you,” I said. Did I look like some fucking tourist?

“Lost something,” another joked, hauling up bags two at a time. “His mind, maybe?”

“Hey, ain’t this the bar where...” the guy pulled out his phone. “This is where that drummer fell through the window!” The Ghost of Marty rides again. As they watched and hooted through the video, I unfolded the note. It looked like something a high schooler would toss across a classroom. Was it a letter? An ultrasound? But as I unfolded the paper, I could see it wasn’t a handwritten declaration, or ultrasound photos, or even a breakup note. It was a typed-up copy of a contract with Third Man Records for Sage’s first 7-inch record featuring “Happy Enough Is Different Than Happy.”

“What’s going on here?” Clyde barked from the window. We all three darted our faces up to Clyde’s. “Quen, what you doing down there?”

“Lost something on stage, Mr. Clyde,” I said, folding the note and slipping it into my front pocket. I held up the guitar pick. The sanitation workers moved on, their motor rumble and taillights the only other sign of life on the street.

“Rough night,” Clyde said.

“You bet, sir,” I said.

“Come ’round, I’ll unlock the door,” he said. He edged his way down the stage steps, sidestepping like a crab. The contract burned on my hip like a sterno flare—a contract? What was Sage thinking, tossing her news at me on stage? I imagined her at some sky-high Third Man condo party, and for once wished she had a cell phone. I wanted to track her down, but Clyde had summoned me. The bloom of his body odor greeted me as I grabbed my guitar and walked in.

“Jeezus, boy, you stink,” he said. He hit a few lights and found an old Loretta Lynn cassette and popped it on, the sound system designed for the Billy Dice All-Stars now carried the great-godmother of country.

“Hey, I got a joke for you,” Clyde said, belching out the last of his beer. He fixed up two George Dickel’s neat. Just as I needed.

“What do you call a guitarist with no girlfriend?” he asked.

Another one of those old-saw bullshit musician jokes. “Homeless,” I said, cutting him off at the pass.

Clyde let out a jackass laugh, forcing in me a cracked smile. “Can’t pull one on you!” he said.

“You have no idea,” I said.

The Dickel’s was smooth enough, given the circumstances. I never really talked to Clyde before, one on one, so we let Loretta’s twang fill the quiet between us.

“Talk about homeless,” Clyde said, nodding up at the line of posters, “you know about George Jones, back in the late '70s? Lived out of his car, right up here a block or two. Liquid diet. Kept an old cardboard cutout of Hank Williams in the front seat just to have someone to talk to.”

“I guess Tammy was long gone,” I said.

“You bet she was,” he said. He switched the tape to Golden Ring. “Man, he was 100 pounds at the time. We’d watch him stumbling ’round the strip looking for his gig, showing up two hours late, if at all. Scary shit. I’d give anything to know what he said to Cardboard Hank,” he said. As we listened to George and Tammy going at it on the cassette, it hit me that Sage and I never actually played a song together. I got up to leave.

“Hey, you seen Martin’s crash video?” he said.

“I seen a lot in my time,” I said. I rocked on my stool, itching to leave. What would we sing?

He laughed. “You can’t be more than twenty, right?”

I gave him a half-smile, my mind back on the contract. I really wanted to call Sage again, ask her about a duet sometime, but it was rounding past three, and all I could do was drink my Dickel’s and stew, listening to Clyde yaw on about George Jones riding his lawnmower to the liquor store after Tammy hid the keys, as he switched tapes to Twitty, then Merle, then Porter.

“So tell me why you come here in the middle of the night with a black eye going through the trash? This ain’t about no bullshit about a lost guitar pick,” he said.

I forgot about my eye. That little shit. The bottom of the glass was closer than it appeared. I sucked down the last of it and focused in on Merle’s loopy pedal steel whine its way through the song. I pictured Sage’s empty bed and her not-so-friendly Shepard. Her gold star contract. I settled on an answer.

“Girl trouble,” I said.

“What you got with girl trouble? Handsome guy like you. Think they’d be lining up and paying for the privilege,” he said, filling my cup. “You want girl trouble, try this on for size.” He leaned in from across the bar.

“Yesterday morning, I get a call from a lady friend come up in her RV from Texas and did I have room in my driveway for her van? ‘How long is it?’ I asked. She said ‘’bout thirty-six feet.’” He started wiping down the counter, revving his storytelling engine.

“Well, I had no way to measure the driveway, but I figure, I’m about six feet tall, and she’s waiting on me to let her know how long my, er, driveway, is, but I’m in my underwear. So I figure there’s no one come around that early, so I plan to lay myself down, end to end, to measure the driveway. And no sooner do I lie down does a goddamn cop car come by and stop when he sees me lying down in the middle of my driveway in my goddamn underwear. And then he recognizes me and says ‘Sorry to bother you, Mr. Clyde, my apologies.’ But the smirk’s still in his eyes.” He tossed his dishrag in the corner and downed his whiskey in a single gulp.

“What the hell do you say to that? The shit you go through these days just to get laid. Enjoy it now, kid, while you can. Speaking of…” He checked his glowing phone. “That RV gal’s calling me right now.” He stood up to leave, and nudged the bottle of Dickel’s toward me. “I’m gonna take this call. Could you man the window?”

I had nowhere else to go—JoJo was probably dozing by now on the pullout, with or without Katie, Sage’s place was definitely out. I had no car and no fucking cardboard of George Jones to talk to, so why the hell not? Clyde crab-walked up the stairs to his office with a hushed “yellow, honey” into his phone, so I took to the stage, awaiting ambush, swilling the bottle of whiskey, and settled in on the twin chairs, contemplating Clyde without his hat on, without his pants. Wondering if I’d ever literally lay myself down like that for someone else and what that would look like. I laughed aloud. Wait’ll Sage hears this, I thought. And then stopped short. Fuck. The contract.

I pulled the contract from the front pocket of my jeans. It was even more damp now from me sweating on the pleather barstool for the past half-hour. The contract was solid. The indie label made instant darlings out of people like us, and it would take Sage places, book her big venues, opening for whoever, way beyond this piss-ant Broadway scene, to say nothing of the money that would surely follow. The bigger thing she wanted—beyond whatever it was she once wanted with me—was happening for her. The contract said it all. The contract said, Fuck you, Quen.

I stood up and crumpled the paper, then hurled it through the window past an airbrushed poster of a demure Kitty Wells and the bird-flipping Cash. The night sky had dimmed to gray, a time when even the ghosts on the street quit their wandering and settle in somewhere. Maybe I’d find that parking lot where George Jones lived out of his car. Or maybe Sage was home by now. Maybe I’d try the bench outside her apartment, play a song or two on my guitar, and see what happens next. I tried the door, but Clyde had locked it. I glanced toward his office. It was the window or nothing. I tore down the yellow police tape banners, letting a half dozen ribbons flutter to the stage, then slid my gig bag through the jagged window. The glowing Nudie girl and her golden lasso kept her wink on me in the dim gray morning as I picked my way past the glass shards, gathered up my gig bag, and walked on down the dirty sleeping street, ignoring more than just the gnaw in my stomach. •