“My mother was,” he said. His eyes drifted over to the pool table where two bald men in leather vests and spiderweb tattoos were racking up. “She moved up to Redding when she was sixteen to do farm work with her mother. I think they worked at every abusive shithole in town until they finally found my father. We had an apple and apricot orchard at the time. It wasn’t the biggest but it was still more than my dad could handle by himself.”
I was secretly thrilled that he was opening up to me. “So your mom and dad met because she worked for him?”
He smirked. “Not quite the fairytale story, is it?”
“It kind of is. I’m sure the life of a laborer isn’t the best,” I said, thinking of the poor men I saw bent over in the hot Ellensburg fields.
“No, it’s not. My dad took care of his workers very well but he was one of the rare ones. They were so grateful. Maybe that’s why my mother married my dad, I don’t know. Their life back in Magdelena was pretty shitty from what I understood. Then my grandfather died and they had nothing. My mother, grandmother, and uncle snuck into the US, crossing the Rio Grande, swimming for their lives just like in the movies. My uncle was older and decided he wanted to live in Arizona. He had some friends there, and if you can believe it, he wanted to start a Mariachi band. But my grandma had dreams of the Pacific Northwest. They were heading up to Washington but Redding was as far as they got.”
He took a few big chugs of beer and I watched him intently.
“Anyway, my mom and dad fell in love. My grandma died a short while later. Maybe she had an idea of what was to come. I don’t know about Ellensburg, but Redding is a small place. Aside from Mount Shasta and the lake and the agriculture, there’s nothing going on there. People talk. People are close-minded. When they discovered my father was dating, and then marrying, a Mexican, they made their lives hell. This was the 50s and that kind of shit wasn’t heard of. My father was beat up a lot. When I was younger, I was kicked around by the other kids. I may have had green eyes but my skin was dark enough to be different, especially when I was young. And my mother…one night she went out to get groceries. She never came back. I was eleven years old at the time and just getting into music and my world came crashing down. She was attacked in the parking lot of the grocery store, just beside her car. Beaten to death by a bunch of racist fucks.”
I knew my mouth was open but I couldn’t find the strength to close it.
He avoided my eyes and stared down into his beer, watching the bubbles with vague interest.
“They never did find out who did it. I never told anyone this but…it made me afraid. I feel so…ashamed…that I stopped talking to my uncle. I stopped listening to Mariachi records. I stopped speaking Spanish. My only saving grace was meeting Robbie one day after school. I was fourteen, he was fifteen. We both loved Iron Butterfly and Elvis. The rest is history.”
I chewed on my lip. I knew the rest thanks to band interviews, but I also knew deep down that wasn’t the whole story. But now, of all times, wasn’t the time to press him.
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly. I reached out and put my hand on his. He brought his brooding eyes up to meet mine and I nearly got lost in them.
“So that’s me,” he said, voice low and rough. “What’s Dawn’s story?”
I removed my hand.
“I don’t have much of one,” I told him, giving him a carefree smile. He didn’t buy it. His eyes narrowed until they were two green slits.
“Not used to having the tables turned on you, are you? Always the interviewer, never the interviewee.”
“Something like that.”
“Well, we already know you’re a soon to be ex-rodeo champion and you’re not sure if music journalism will fill the gap.”
“So tell me about your father. You do have one of those?”
I prickled a bit at that. “I do. He’s a good man.”
“You sound hesitant. What does he do?”
I paused. “He works at a farm equipment repair shop.”
“Respectable blue collar job.”
“He used to raise cattle. And then Timothy hay.”
“So you’re a farm girl through and through.”
“And you’re a farm boy through and through.”
He raised his glass at me. “Here’s to us then. Any other similarities?”
My eyes fell to the wood table, distracted by the graffiti from rebellious patrons.
“My mother is dead.”
I saw his shoulders go slack out of the corner of my eye.
“Saying sorry doesn’t really help, does it?” he said quietly.
I shook my head and held back the tears. I rarely talked about my mom and it definitely wasn’t a good idea when I was half-cut and dealing with everything else I had been dealing with.
He didn’t ask how she died and for that I was grateful. Suicide comes with a side of anger and guilt that I wasn’t ready to deal with.
I glanced at the cracked clock on the wall.
“Should we head back now?”
“Do you think we’ve ignored our problems long enough?” he asked silkily. “I don’t. I’m not even close to being done yet.”
I didn’t protest too much when he ordered us another round.
By the time Jacob showed up at the dive bar, we were good and drunk. Not belligerent but definitely not sober. Sage and I had stopped talking about the intimate subjects and waxed on about music instead. It was wonderful to shoot the shit with him, someone who really knew what they were talking about and didn’t judge me for saying I still liked Jim Morrison, even though he was a giant buffoon. We almost forgot all about our problems at hand: the fact that the tour might be cancelled, that Noelle was in the hospital, that a young girl died the other day, that Graham was turning out to be more serious than I gave him credit for, and that dangerous groupies were following our tour bus. Yup, almost forgot all about those.
It turned out that once Chip and the other roadies in the equipment van found out about the cancelled show, Chip knew of the perfect replacement for Noelle. He was right when he told me he knew everyone in the business. One phone call later and we had a twenty-three-year-old guy called Fiddles, who had toured with Boz Scags, all lined up for Nashville.
With that all settled, we found another motel in the Atlanta area for the night. This one had better security and was closer to the hospital for when Mickey would join us. Everyone would be sharing rooms too, not only to save costs, but because everyone was still a bit freaked out and on edge. Jacob and Bob got one room. It looked like Robbie was going to pick Sage, but Sage wasn’t a dummy and volunteered that I stay with him. I suppose he didn’t trust Robbie and he certainly didn’t trust Graham. I was glad for that, but also flushing on the inside from the potential awkwardness of sharing a room with someone I had thought about naked.
I caught the sly looks on Robbie and Jacob’s faces as I picked up my duffel bag from the motel lobby and Sage and I made our way to our room, weaving up the stairs. It was on the upper level, overlooking the tour bus. Jacob and Bob were on one side of us, while Robbie and Graham were downstairs. I wanted him as far away from me as possible.
Sage flicked on the light switch. There were two beds (which was good, right?) with ugly orange bedspreads, an avocado green carpet, and faux wood paneled walls. A shiny desk and two chairs were in the corner and beside it was a small fridge.
We exchanged a look full of drunken glee and I made a beeline to it. Inside, it was fully-stocked with cookies and alcohol.
“I guess we won’t have to leave the room,” I said, before I realized how sexual it sounded.
I snapped my head around to look at Sage. He was sitting on the edge of the bed and smiling lazily at me, long legs splayed.
Uh oh. I avoided looking at his crotch and made a mental note not to get too plastered.
I tried to act casual. “So, what would you like?”
“Anything strong and fast,” he said, raising a brow at me, a smirk tugging at the corners of his thick lips. I knew he was baiting me, that he wanted me to come back with some kind of sexual repartee along the lines of “is that the way you like it?” but I decided that playing that game when we were both drunk and drinking was dangerous. I already had enough danger.
I threw him a few mini bottles of bourbon, then got some glasses and disappeared around the corner with an ice bucket, looking for the ice machine. I kept a wary eye on the bus and the street, expecting to see the GTFOs or any suspicious vehicles, but so far there was nothing out of the ordinary. I couldn’t wait to be out of Atlanta.
When I returned, Sage had sucked two bottles dry and brought his acoustic guitar out of the case. I put the glass of ice on his bedside table and plunked my butt down on my bed. I motioned to the guitar strap with the Mexican pattern.
“You haven’t shunned everything about your heritage,” I pointed out.
He strummed a few chords. They gave off a melancholy air that filled the room. “I decided I wanted to be myself while I still had the chance.”
“I think we always have a chance,” I said.
He gazed at me. His eyes were slanted down at the corners, a sign he was getting drunker. “Tomorrow is one of the many things you can’t count on.”
I wrapped my arms around my legs. “Boy, you really are Mr. Optimistic, aren’t you?”
My attempt to make light of things didn’t work. He ignored me and began to play a song. It was something haunting and beautiful, a waltz. I had never heard it before and I was caught up in a swirl of emotions as the sad melody wrapped around me.
He sung in a low, bourbon-soaked voice that made the hairs on my neck stand up and my insides melt into putty.
I hung there dreaming as she strangely cried
I hung there watching as she seemed to die
And she survived and I feel like I’m dying
When he finished, I was momentarily speechless.
“That was beautiful, Sage,” I gushed when I found the words. “What is that? A new song?”
He smiled gently. It made his eyes dance. “Actually, it’s a very old song. I wrote it before I joined the band.”
“You were so young!”
He looked bashful for a second, then reached for his drink. “I was a dramatic kid. It’s hokey.”
“It’s really not,” I told him, watching as he poured two more mini bottles into the glass and downed it. I felt a trickle of unease at the amount he was packing away. He was a large man, but we’d drunk a lot all day, and it was now dusk and he was showing no signs of stopping. I regretted giving him so many bottles.
“You’re not drinking,” he said to me, slurring a bit. He took off his guitar and laid it on the bed beside him, handling it like a baby.
“I’m pretty drunk as it is,” I said, but the clarity in my words betrayed me.
He shot me an annoyed look. “You’re judging me.”
I shook my head. “I’m not doing anything, Sage.”
“Exactly. So give me whatever is left in there.” He nodded at the fridge.
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