Jerry would’ve jumped off stage and joined in, probably—or at least shouted for the small one with the windmill fists. But Neil didn’t even notice the fight until the speaker tipped and the crowd bloomed and the big one (“Frank,” he heard the back guard say) had the small one bent over, all flared nostrils and spittle swears, facing creased boots and landing only enough blows for a dime-sized bruise on Frank’s thigh and denim-burned knuckles for himself.
It had started somewhere near the middle of the floor, an irregular movement among bending knees and one-armed drumbeats. Someone’s beer was thrown or knocked on someone else, who then punched or was punched until they all fell on themselves. That’s when the speaker tipped and security decided to use pepper spray, which of course only made Big Frank more red-faced. So when his fingers quit digging under his eyelids long enough to curl into his palms, he slammed half-blind back into the other and against the door.
But Neil had retreated off-stage by then. He heard only the dissolving hacks and hollers of pressed bodies and hot mouths as the crowd spilled into the street. Jerry would’ve stayed, Neil thought. He would’ve found out or at least imagined who Frank and the small guy were: high school rivals or battling brothers or liquored-up leather-heads. Probably would’ve used it in a song, a drinking anthem, or slow-march ballad. But Jerry was dead, and Neil welcomed the break, a chance to wipe his beaded forehead, drink watered whiskey from a plastic cup and forget he still had four songs to sing in the set.
And so after the broken bottle was swept to the side and the bleary-eyed crowd herded back in; after Neil finished his second cup and smoked a cigarette out back, been told he could come back on (“Sorry ’bout that. D’int get in your eyes did it?”); he was startled to find her sitting at the bar, getting a clear drink and tipping a gloss-smeared smile.
“Well.” He cleared his throat into the microphone. “We gotta start again sometime.”
A few chuckles and cheers and Neil tested a few strings then patted them quiet to begin for real. “I still remember what you said the day you set me free / You said, ‘Darling, I can love you good as long as you love me…”
She hadn’t come to the past three shows, or, at least, he hadn’t seen her. But Neil was less concerned with where she’d gone than with why she was back, whether she’d been there the whole time, bleeding in with the rest, or slipped through for the final songs. It had been almost a year since Jerry had died but she kept coming for each show’s flat eulogy, trailing him on the road and then sitting near the back, escaping before he was done. But she always returned, same circled eyes and desperate clutch on the cup.
Neil tried not to look at her but, even as he bent his head down, his eyes rolled up to where she stared, always in his direction but fixed on something else. Her long hair hung in hanks down her left cheek and behind her ears, the ends lying slack on the bar top, varnished with yesterday’s tap beer. “I’m falling, falling, falling…”
Jerry hadn’t asked but just told Neil, a year earlier, that she was coming to Lubbock. He’d plucked the b-string, hard, and kept still as his forehead puckered toward his nose. “She’s coming to Lubbock. With us.” He let it hang there—just hearing how it sounded and whether it stuck—as the string hummed to silence. “Yeah,” he decided, before finally looking up at Neil.
It was hot out, a day neither of them gave a damn to the gas they’d waste running the engine for cold air. Jerry fingered his blue bandanna and pushed it up his forehead.
“Lubbock?” Neil said. Lubbock was five shows from then, not including the one that night, and it was only two before the end of the whole tour. So what Jerry had really said was she was moving in. Neil walked the length of the bus to the wheel, grabbed a cigarette from the dashboard-pack and let it hang, unlit, from his lips. He considered it, the two of them and her. Or was it the two of them and him? “The bed was made the match was lit / again…”
They’d had the bus for two years by then, an old charter Jerry had found online, stripped down and fixed up. They had kept only the front seats so that one of them could sit or strum or talk as the other drove. They put two cots in the back, nearly touching so that they had to side step between pressing mattresses to get to the bathroom. It wasn’t until later that they lacquered up the body in black and The Dueling Banjos was printed on the side. “If we’re gonna do this we’re gonna do it right,” Jerry had said, grinning as he pulled Neil into a headlocked hug.
Neil had worked inside, mainly, bolting a table down in the middle and pushing a futon against the driver’s-side wall. When he lay down across it, legs folded over the edge, feet planted on the floor, eyes at the exit on top and thumbs across the six-string on his belly, his knees kept flush with the bottom of the window. That way Neil could lay and stare and pluck and Jerry could still watch the passing sights from the chair set across, mutter fetal lyrics and sip coffee, always with the bitter grounds still floating at the top.
But Neil thought of the beds as he imagined the bus with her—or, rather, imagined the bus without just him and Jerry inside it. He thought of the flimsy curtain barrier that was never closed, the front seat that would now sit empty as Neil’s shifts became their private time in back. He thought of how he’d have to tiptoe in after they were done and sleeping, of how they’d lie awake, wondering if he’d passed out and whether they could go at it again. Of how they’d all get fucked. “I’m falling, I’m fallen / I’m down and out for the count…”
Neil sat on a stool now. The lights were softer, more suited to the lone banjo, though he could see pinprick whites reflect on eyes still stinging from the mace when his own weren’t closed or needlessly watching his fingers or glancing at her still sitting there. The rest of the crowd stood in clumps, some singing and some just swaying. A man in the front with blue eyes and a smooth face sang into his beer bottle as he rocked from side to side, eyes closed. Her eyes never moved off stage, where Neil began a new oldie. “Girl, I ain’t those other men / I’ll chase you till you’re mine again…”
“Let’s give ‘em a meal,” Jerry used to say before each show, glinting eyes and hungry smile, a phrase Neil reckoned he lifted from Hank or Hank Jr. But that didn’t fit now. Few really listened and those who did heard the wrong things, listened only for unintended revelations from beyond, significance that had nothing to do with the lyrics themselves but when they were sung. (“Long live!” a woman yelled from the back, triggering several hoots and hollers.) Jerry’s words were important because he could no longer speak them. Neil wondered how long this could last, repeating the same scant playlist, how long they’d be satisfied picking at the leftovers. “And you may keep slipping out of sight / but never out of mind, out of mind…”
That day in the bus Jerry had tossed justifications the same way he did song lyrics, and all the while Neil just watched her through the dusted window and rivulets of heat, a smudged outline sitting on the curb. She probably knew what was going on. Jerry had probably told her he was “gonna bring it up today.” So she was waiting for them. Neil watched her eyes skip around as she left cigarette clouds in her circumference.
“She’s back for good now,” Jerry said, rephrasing the problem as a solution. She was supposed to be what Jerry came home to after he and Neil were through. The bus had room for revelers and one-night stands but not for girls who wanted more. “She’s been staying here anyway,” Jerry continued. The stand-alone statements stood to preempt a real discussion, as Jerry knew full well he’d never have it if the situation were reversed—if it was Neil bringing a girl on the road. But they both knew he’d never.
“We’d be nothing without her,” Jerry said. “Who d’you think your singing about every night?” Neil muttered in protest but fact was their only album and the two songs from it that scraped the bottom of the country charts, were for her. Jerry liked the idea of a muse enough to create one. Neil grunted and sat on the bed, exhaled through tight lips and got ready to say a final “no” when he saw the empty curb outside and started. He stormed past the table, chair-side, through the curtain and the front seats and kicked open the flimsy door. A soft thud sounded, then a yelp, and there she stood, three feet back, clutching her left arm. Neil could tell by the way she didn’t quite meet his eyes, licked her bottom lip and said something about the door hitting her that she’d heard it all. “You’re just runaway, runaway train…”
Neil pressed his fingers into the top strings. He played the interlude and ground into his back teeth as he thought of her still sitting there. The bar was small, which Neil had been thankful for that afternoon. It was easy to pack to proximity, the simplest substitute for intimacy. But this meant he now heard each slurred call for Jerry’s last songs, which meant his eyes flicked toward her with each title, hopelessly scouring her face to see whether it changed, whether she’d reveal herself. But she perched, still forearms resting on the counter as she tanned in the neon glow of the beer signs. She must be listening to every word ring for her, taking their songs for her own, turning Neil into a mere medium between the two lovers. “I’ll do it now, I did it then / I’ll chase you ‘till you’re mine again...”
It kills me I can't hold you when you’re holding onto me / Your memory chains me down, I beg you, baby, set me free...
After Jerry’s death Neil took eight months off before he finished the tour—back to Wichita for the memorial show, then Waco to Lubbock to a whole new set of cities, playing at night then driving through morning. She’d been at the first one, then the second, and Neil thought he’d lose her in the ten-hour drive to Lubbock, but she’d been there, too. Now, every night, he sensed her somewhere behind him, following the black bus down I-27 South and I-20 East with her window cracked, cigarette smoke seeping back with the exhaust, her hands almost touching each other at the top of the wheel as she listened to his songs and heard them for her. “...runaway, runaway, runaway train…”
She had passed him once. Neil had seen her through the windshield, face fixed on the dashed lines ahead and between them, had seen her hands and eyes and forehead and then the spidered top of her car as she passed the length of the bus. “…still spitting smoke when its blown over.”
But her gaze didn’t lift from him now as Neil chose the night’s last. As he plucked the preamble and began to sing he caught a flash of white teeth as she began singing along, her slack mouth falling open and closed as if rocking on the axle of her fragile jaw. “You’re an outlaw, now, my baby girl / You stole my heart and fled….”
That day Jerry had run out (“Did you fucking hit her?”) and Neil watched them huddle together, saw Jerry point back to the bus twice and kiss her three times, once on the cheek, then on the forehead and then her mouth, long that time, before she left and Jerry climbed back in. His eyes narrowed as the left side of his mouth curled down and the strings pulled in his neck.
“She won’t come anymore,” Jerry muttered.
Neil shrugged and packed his lip with tobacco.
“Maybe I’ll just go with her then,” he continued. “Bus only needs one driver.”
Neil shrugged again and scraped the spitty discharge from his lip down the neck of an empty beer bottle. Jerry’s arm tightened at his side and he stepped forward.
“Just ’cause you never bring anyone back don’t mean I should stop.” Again, Neil shrugged. “Just ’cause you’re… You don’t think I know that—”
Neil stood up and grabbed a fistful of Jerry’s shirt. Jerry pushed off but Neil held on and pressed him against the window, forcing his elbow against the glass and behind his back. Jerry had to turn so his arm wouldn’t break and caught the back of his knees against the bed’s end so that if Neil let go, he’d fall onto it completely. (“You may be mad at me but I’m still mad about you, mad about you, mad about you…”) Jerry’s lips crunched toward the middle as he tried to wrest away, but Neil’s forehead met his, pressing the bump on the base of his skull into the wraparound glass. Neil grabbed Jerry’s wrists and pressed his elbows back with forearms. He pulled his right knee across Jerry’s body and pressed it into his thighs, clamping him against the siding. Their breath was heavy and Neil’s skin pressed tightly over the tobacco bulge in his bottom lip. “It kills me I can’t hold you when you’re holding onto me / Your memory chains me down, I beg you, baby, set me free...”
She kept mouthing the words, open and shut and open and shut, and her lips didn’t quite meet again as the vibrations settled into silence. Neil thanked them all and didn’t wait for the applause to die down before he walked off-stage and outside. He could hear the crowd lumbering out and muttering and finding keys or taking them away or making plans to get loaded at the bar next door. He put his head between his legs and let out a long exhale, held it, then pulled in the metallic drags of wet asphalt.
She wasn’t there when he came back in. She never was. The bartender counted cash under a hanging lamp and Neil walked over through the shells of beer cans and spilled drinks. She’d left nothing behind, but her stool stood different somehow. Neil kept his eyes on it as he salved his hoarse voice with cold beer. The bartender gave him another for later and said he was closing up. He told Neil he’d done “a fine job” that night. Neil tipped his head and lifted the beer he wasn’t drinking in thanks as he turned around to leave.
It was cool enough for just the windows and Neil sat on his bed, the one to the left, and lit a cigarette, taking lackluster puffs and sliding down so just his head rested against the siding. If she expected him to leave that night she’d be on the road alone. He was in no state to drive and was too tired anyway to make the fifteen-hour trip to Montgomery in one go.
Neil used to like it up there, the hypnotic rhythm of white dashes and green signs, meditation focused by the constant grip on the wheel and a steady foot on the pedals. He didn’t usually like listening to music on the road. The whirr of steel belts and drone of passing cars were enough. But the night Jerry died, Neil had Robert Earle Keene on full blast. Neil didn’t know if Jerry had called out, or if he’d thrown up his arms, or if he’d rolled around trying to squeeze a scream from his crushing lungs. The curtain was closed. They hadn’t talked much since Neil had let go and Jerry had fallen on the bed and then huffed out the bus, gone for the night but back for the next two shows, ignoring Neil except to go over the set list. So that night Neil couldn’t and didn’t hear as Jerry’s chest seized and his heart stopped. He just kept on for eight more hours to Wichita Falls, driving and humming and playing two motorcycles or car headlights in the side-view mirrors as his partner was stretched out and lying there if you can give that much credit to a dead man.
A soft tapping on the metal door made Neil sit up and look out his window. There she was, looking around all embarrassed or ashamed or maybe just nervous, her right hand holding her left, face almost completely covered by hair. Neil stood up without thinking and then tried to sit back down. But she must have heard him, so he walked to the front and opened the door, keeping it pressed against the side as he stood on the middle step down.
“Clara…” He trailed off as if he’d had something to say after. But she responded to her name, pushed her hair out of her eyes and smiled, a tight line that looked like she’d had to stretch too hard.
“Hi, Neil.” He waited for her to continue but she didn’t.
“What are you doing here?”
“I dunno, I just—Can I come in?”
He looked at her real hard, at her thin jeans and chipped nails, watched her pull at the strands by her right breast. And then he turned back in and let the door swing shut with a rattling bang. He sat at the chair and looked out the window as she kept still, unsure if that meant yes, then grabbed her hair in the space between her thumb and forefinger, twisted it in her closed fist and pulled it over her left shoulder before coming inside.
“Looks the same,” she said weakly, her eyes falling to the floor. She decided on the couch and sat down with a sigh. Neil didn’t give her anything, just sucked the top of his beer and looked sideways at her across the table. He peeled at the corner of the label and scraped the soggy adhesive from under his fingernails, looked at Jerry’s mug that he now used as an ashtray, the chip in its rim framing the yellowed butt of a stamped cigarette. She looked down at her locked hands and turned-in feet. It was a while before either one looked at each other, and, when they finally did, Neil hated the way she tipped her head to the side like she was waiting for him to speak, for him to tell her something she’d expected him to say or sing for the past four months.
“You were good tonight,” Clara offered. She said this friendly enough, but Neil took it as some sort of permission he never asked for, an authority over Jerry’s songs she’d taken from misconstrued meanings but had no right to claim her own.
“What are you getting at, Clara?” She stayed still then looked up, her eyes big and her brows sliding to the sides.
“His words sound good on you.”
Neil’s arm shook as he gripped the neck and the base of his beer. He twisted his hands in opposite directions and the label wrinkled and ripped and rolled together in a wet mass against his palm. He took another swig, swallowed, and placed the bottle flat on the table. She just watched as Neil pulled his head back and closed his mouth, a burp catching in his throat. He passed it through his nose and was about to get up and show her the door when she said, “He was gonna marry me.” She said it softly, then looked up, waiting for Neil to sit back down. He didn’t.
“Jerry was gonna do a lot of things.”
Neil didn’t look at her as he said this, stared instead out the window then the bottom edge of his beer then the window again as he took another mouthful.
“I should’ve been there,” she continued, her rippled voice catching with the last syllable. “I was gonna meet up with him in Lubbock, to give you guys some time. I should’ve been at Wichita. I should’ve been there when he…” She began to cry, the basins of her bottom eyelids filling up then spilling over, real slow and thick. Neil didn’t move, couldn’t look away from her as she rocked forward, gripping her arms, then came back up with strings of hair stuck to her wet face. She looked at him in that same way, pitying almost, waiting for him to do or say something.
“We loved him the same, Neil.”
She broke completely and Neil, without thinking, slid the chair to the couch and let her collapse on his shoulder, bracing his right side to stay steady through her bawls. She quieted down some, a soft whimper broken by sharp inhales, but she held on and Neil put his hand tentatively on her far shoulder.
“You smell like him.”
She must have meant the whiskey but she didn't move and he thought about it. They’d close their eyes and put their mouths together, embarrassed at first, recoiling, but then shutting their eyes again and trying to climb into each other, hand on the back of the head and over the torso, stomach, back pockets. But he’d fumble on her bra strap or open his eyes and he’d know before she did, before they clambered and banged to the back, past the curtain, and pulled each other toward different beds, that it wouldn’t work. The closest thing would never be close enough.
Clara stood up suddenly and shook her head, then smeared her tears with the side of her hand. “I shouldn’t have come.” She got up and looked around for the purse she didn’t bring, stopped, and looked at Neil. “There’s just nowhere to put any of this anymore.”
Clara sniffed and Neil did nothing, but he did it in agreement. He closed the door behind her to sit and think and sleep before driving to Montgomery. He watched her as she left, watched her bury her head in her hands every couple steps before she disappeared behind the building and got in her car to drive the other direction. She smoked two cigarettes as she pulled off the highway and onto the interstate, lighting the second with the last embers of the first, and was going to drive all the way home to North Carolina that night but couldn’t. She stopped fifteen miles out at a motel off of Exit 9 where an old woman named Althea gave her a room key and a towel and told her she hoped “everything’s alright.” Althea accepted Clara’s nod before attending to the family behind, a father holding his sleeping toddler flat against his chest while the mother checked in. Althea asked where they were coming from as she patted her dogs behind the counter and smiled good night to the girl she’d remember with the tired eyes and long hair, the one she was glad to give a comfortable bed and good night’s rest.
Carlos Rafael Gomez was born and raised in Charlottesville. He graduated from Yale University in 2013 as an English major with a focus on renaissance poetry and creative writing. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he works at a film studio and continues to write.