By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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F ourth Street starts in Gretna and runs into Marrero, miming the curves of the Mississippi. In one six-mile stretch there were once more than a hundred bars. By 1985 half of them had closed, but the abandoned buildings served as a reminder of the boom years of the oil industry, when men slept above them during the day and drank at night, spending what was earned in three weeks each month on the oil rigs in the Gulf.
But by 1985 the money was gone, the area was depressed and showed no signs of picking up again for a long time. The people who still lived there hung on in one way or another. If their incomes weren’t dependent on oil, they had a head start, but in any case there was simply less money to go around. Both Robert and Edsel had worked on the rigs, spending most of what they made, but managing to acquire a few things, like their instruments and places to live. Since the end of the oil boom they’d relied on music and odd jobs to keep themselves and their families going.
I met Robert at the 500 Club on Bourbon Street, where we were listening to an Irish trio — two acoustic guitars and a mandolin. I don’t even like that music, but I’d just finished a gig, and was on my way home, so I looked in for the hell of it just as they started their last number. They were singing in those silly Irish accents that carve the air, and I thought, oh, shit, here we go. It was one of those bar songs where they belt out things like “Round ’n around ’n around!” and get the audience to do it with them. But then the mandolin player started a solo, and five seconds into it he had me. He was just running up and down scales at first, but it was so fast and uncluttered that I had to watch. The other two picked up the tempo, and he left the scales and romped across his mandolin, with obvious effort, but so obviously pulling it off. Redheaded and pale, this stereotype of an Irishman threw himself into his solo with so much joy that he silenced the audience for a moment, but they recovered and began to shout to drive him on. He folded his big, linebacker’s body over the instrument and ripped at the strings. Sweat ran off his face and onto the neck of the mandolin, then slid across the fret board and dropped to the floor. I found myself walking toward the stage, drawn to him and feeling a vague desire to let him know.
Robert was sitting in the middle of the audience, twice as close to the stage as I was. He was the first one to stand on his chair, yelling and flailing his arms as if looking for something to beat his fists on. When others joined him on their chairs he took no notice. He was on his chair because it was simply the thing to do at a moment like that; the situation called for it. The fact that he’d started something seemed lost on him.
Afterward I was standing in the street outside the bar drinking a vodka and tonic, and waiting for an encore that didn’t come (they still had another set to do). Robert came out and walked straight at me, loosing an authentic rebel yell that lasted for at least six steps, and never removing his eyes from mine throughout. He had a beard and coal black hair that nearly reached his waist — an imposing southern Rasputin. He stuck his hand out, and we shook. I’d been chosen for something, it seemed, but all he said for the first thirty seconds or so was, “God — damn!” over and over, before introducing himself.
We ended up getting on stage together at a drop-in bar on Iberville Street, then at one on Magazine, and then drinking until 7:30 the next morning. He liked the way I played, and I liked the way he played, so we exchanged numbers and got together after that. He wanted me in Edsel’s band to give it some kick, because they were losing the younger audiences. No one under forty wanted to hear Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and the club owners were getting after Edsel to do something about it.
Robert introduced me to Edsel the following Friday. I didn’t meet the drummer until our first gig in Burris on Saturday.
Edsel played a 1962 Gretsch with a tremolo bar, and he used medium gauge strings that discouraged other guitarists from borrowing it. His strings were so tight that no one could bend them, but in his strong mechanic’s hands they were pliable enough. Edsel didn’t bend much anyway.
He lived with Ellen Lewis and her daughter from a previous marriage in a tiny shotgun house that was tucked just inside a levee. With the river less than a hundred feet from the back porch, the house advertised its vulnerability, but hadn’t flooded once in the seven years they’d been there. Edsel never thought about it. The garage in Marrero where he worked intermittently was also in the shadow of the levee.
Unlike most of his friends, who’d been in the service earlier in their lives, he’d never left south Louisiana, and probably never would. At thirty-nine, that was something that didn’t occur to him. He had more pressing problems, the variety and assortment of which could have driven other people to collapse, but like his part of the world, Edsel was always able to keep his head barely above water.
He could play four sets of music with a fifth of Crown Royal behind him, and claimed that some of his best music was played on nights he couldn’t remember. He relied on the word of his friends to remind him that he’d had the audience on the tables, women crying, and men firing pistols into the ceiling or wearing women’s panties on their heads in gaudy celebration of the emotion he could wring from a song.
When I met Edsel he was dealing with two problems, and hadn’t decided which was worse. First, Ellen had walked out on him, claiming that this time she definitely wasn’t coming back. When Robert and I arrived, he was eating his way through the food she’d left in the refrigerator, and he shared it with us as if there were an endless supply. She’d been gone for four days, and had planned her exit with sufficient concern or pity to leave enough chicken, biscuits, pots of gravy, cornbread, beef, stewed tomatoes, okra, and red beans to last him until his sorrow cleared and he was able to make it to the grocery store. He hadn’t gotten that far when we showed, though he had made it to the liquor store for a fifth of Crown.
He knew she would stay away longer than the two weeks she was gone the last time. The last time she’d said she wasn’t coming back; this time she’d said she definitely wasn’t coming back. Edsel acknowledged the distinction as if pointing out the rules of a game he knew he was losing, but had by no means given up. In fact, he was quite confident that if Ellen’s sister Ruth would let him talk to her he’d be able to coax her into coming back. But Ruth, I gathered, was something of a protective monster who hoarded Ellen’s affections and presumed to know what was best for her.
Edsel’s looks called for wild speculations on what kind of woman would get near him. He stood five feet, six inches, and weighed more than two hundred pounds. His thick, stubby fingers were stained with nicotine, and the nails lined with auto grease. The fat, round face pried itself open, as if to slam shut, when he smiled. This he did often, revealing browned, broken teeth and a bleached tongue. The teeth were beyond discolored, would have horrified a dentist. Edsel wasn’t the kind of man who went to dentists.
He served us on cracked plastic plates, the food steaming hot and astoundingly good. Ellen was renowned locally as a cook, and could routinely match anything served across the river in New Orleans’ best restaurants. We ate sitting on the sofa three abreast and washed the meal down with Dixie beer and Crown Royal. It was 10:30 in the morning, and Edsel had just gotten up to attack the second problem he had to deal with that day.
“The Fat Fucker showed up,” he said, mopping his plate with a biscuit. Robert nodded, acknowledging that he knew who Edsel was talking about, but wasn’t ready to speak himself until he’d concluded a particularly sensual moment with Ellen’s cooking.
Edsel explained that the Fat Fucker was a sheriff named Riley Jones who’d pestered him for much of his adult life. They had an understanding woven through rides in the squad car, handcuffs made extra tight on Edsel’s wrists, and nights in jail. They understood that they hated each other and waged a constant battle, Jones trying to catch him at anything and Edsel fighting his war of evasion by hiding out at friends’ homes and sticking to the back roads. This time the issue was child-support payments to Edsel’s former wife, who happened to be Jones’s sister. Jones had gotten to him about an hour before we arrived.
“He took my amp,” said Edsel, nodding toward an empty space along one wall where his red Gretsch sat on its stand. The chalky paint in the area around where the amp had been was faded, but for a perfectly square shadow.
Robert’s eyes grew large in wonder, emerging from his chinless head like alien’s eyes and making his face look top-heavy.
“He took your amp?”
“He took my amp. The Fat Fucker took my amp. He said he had a buyer for it and went straight off to Slidell to sell it. Fat Fucker.”
We went back to our plates with equal conviction. This was a real problem. I was there so we could rehearse for a job the following night in Burris. I didn’t know any of Edsel’s material, and he didn’t know mine. My stuff was simple and I suspected that his would be, but these guys tended to rearrange even the most standard Hank Williams songs, so I’d asked Robert for a rehearsal.
“What’re we gonna do?” I said, trying to sound like I was only looking for information.
Edsel made one last pass through his remaining gravy with half a biscuit and bit into it thoughtfully.
“Kevin,” he said, “we’re gonna finish this bottle o’ Crown. And then we’re gonna go get me a amp.”
He had five hundred dollars that he’d just gotten for pulling an engine out of a pickup and rebuilding it. He cleared our dishes away and put seventy dollars in my hand and another sixty in Robert’s. I was drunk from the Crown and Dixie. I listened as they discussed the amplifier they’d seen in the window of Jason’s Music.
“Thousand down to seven-fifty,” said Robert. “That means he paid four.”
“So I gotta get the cheap son of a bitch to take five.”
Edsel tucked his shirt in and tightened his belt, preparing for action. He let the belt ride right across the farthest projection of his belly, displaying just how fat he was. Then he slicked his hair back and led us out to his truck, a 1961 Ford that ran like new. Driving carefully, he took back roads and came up on the rear of the store, where he edged the truck in next to Jason’s green ’74 Cadillac. Robert and I were to go to a coffee shop first. Edsel told us to give him forty-five minutes.
Jason’s Music was one of those businesses that lingered inexplicably even when economic disasters wiped out everything around it. Gretna had suffered as much as any other part of south Louisiana, and the slide that accompanied the drop in oil prices had taken a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a convenience store, three bars, and a bakery from the three-block area around Jason’s. In another city people might have figured the music store was a front, and that Jason Long sponsored gambling or drug operations and was hip-deep into the Mafia. But everyone here knew him, some since before he took the store over from his father and changed the name from Lester’s to Jason’s (resulting in two poisoned dogs and five years of complete silence between them), and they saw him inside the store every day, doing nothing at all, wearing the bad toupee that sat like a mound of shit on his head, and selling guitar picks and music magazines to kids while dust gathered on his Hammond organs and Les Pauls. There was nothing to accuse him of, except trying to sell the same overpriced goods that could be had across the river for a third less.
Jason made just enough money to survive, and would have been shocked to be criticized for not doing more. He was a benign presence in the neighborhood, known for his cheapness, and visited nearly every day by two friends he’d had since high school. They gathered behind the glass counter on hard, uncomfortable chairs and talked. All three men were over sixty and had known each other so long and spent so much time together that they rarely had anything to say. Every so often Jason got up and made a sale, and nobody expected more of him.
I drank three cups of coffee and Robert had two, and by the time I was actually in the store and looking at the amp, I felt sober, but nervous. Edsel was leaning on the counter with his three hundred and seventy dollars in hand, looking like he’d been told of the death of a friend just seconds before. The amp was sitting on the floor beside him. I followed his instructions to the letter, buying an issue of Guitar Player that I wanted anyway for an interview with Duane Allman, and taking my time about it.
“Kevin,” Edsel said, his gaze cast at the floor. Jason was directly across the counter from him.
“Hi, Edsel. How you doin’?” I said.
“Not too good, Kevin. Mr. Long here says he’s got to have at least six-fifty for this amp. I offered him cash, but I don’t have but three hundred and seventy bucks at my disposal. And I gotta have this amp today.”
“Yeah? So what’re you sayin’, you need a loan?”
He waited, giving Jason ample time to take it in.
“I sure would like that amp.”
Jason’s eyes went back and forth from Edsel to me. I pulled out my wallet and peered into it, aware that my hands were trembling. I can perform in front of audiences, but I’m no actor.
“I don’t know. I could probably give you seventy.”
“I sure would appreciate it. I got a gig tomorrow, so I could pay you back tomorrow night after I get paid. At least some of it.”
I gave Edsel the money, and he added it to what he had and recounted the whole thing. He put his finger to his lips in an absolute burlesque of a man in thoughtful concentration. Jason’s two friends sat a few feet away, blatantly enjoying their spectators’ seats.
“You know I can’t do that, Edsel,” said Jason.
“I sure would like that amp, Mr. Long.”
“I believe you. But I can’t do that.”
Edsel squatted in front of the amplifier and played with its control knobs. He ran his fingers down the fabric that covered the speakers. The bell over the door jingled, but he never looked up.
Robert went to the cabinet near the register, and Jason slid over to pull out his scratched plastic cases of guitar picks, never taking his eyes off Edsel and the amplifier, as if fearing that both might disappear at any moment. Robert selected several picks, taking his time and testing their pliability between his fingers. Edsel got up and walked toward him.
“Robert, my friend,” he said, “I gotta ask you somethin’. This might blow your mind, but I need to borrow some money.”
Jason and his friends were now staring at Robert, who spun around and folded his arms across his chest smartly.
“Don’t do this to me, Edsel.”
“I’m serious. I wouldn’t even ask if it wasn’t serious. I gotta have this amplifier. It’s marked down to seven-fifty from a thousand, and Mr. Long says he won’t take less than six and a half.”
“You got me at a bad time. Sorry.”
“Come on, Robert. You know I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t do this to me, man. I’m askin’ you.”
“Come on, Edsel.”
“I’m askin’ you.”
Jason cleared his throat and rotated a toothpick in his mouth.
“It ain’t a good time, Edsel.”
“Man, I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t need it. I’m askin’ you.”
Robert turned a pick over several times and waited before replying.
“How much’ve you got?”
“I got four-forty.”
Robert reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin stack of bills. He laid them out on the glass as he counted.
“I can give you sixty. No more.”
Edsel took the money and repeated his labored counting, as if to verify for all of us what the new total would be. I was watching Jason, who stared at the bills as Edsel smoothed them flat on the glass counter top one at a time. His two friends leaned forward in their chairs. Jason turned the toothpick around again.
“Five hundred?” he said. “You got five hundred cash on you now?”
When he plugged the amp in later that day at rehearsal, Edsel was whistling. He knew he’d pulled one off, but he was content to let Robert and me take care of the celebrating and mocking of Jason Long. Only once did he join in. Squatting before his amp as he adjusted the settings, Edsel looked up, shook his head, and said, “Fat Fucker,” softly to himself, as if thoroughly put out by a world in which he had to go to such lengths to make a living.
We drove down to Burris the next night in Edsel’s truck and were met by Blair, the drummer, when we pulled into the lot at the Blessed Arc. It was a covered barn, formerly a church, that sat on a perfect spit of land surrounded by water on three sides.
Blair had pulled items of his wardrobe from different eras. He wore Beatle boots and striped blue-black bell-bottom pants; his belt was brown leather, with a tarnished brass Confederate flag for a buckle. The shirt was yellow, Mexican style, with raised stitching along the buttons, and a pack of Winstons in each front pocket. His earring brought him into the nineties, but hung amid spiraling ringlets of hair that reached past his shoulders and anchored him in the early seventies. He had a toothpick in his mouth; I never saw him without one, unless he was eating. He would drink, smoke, and kiss women with a toothpick in his mouth.
“Ed-Sell,” he said, emphasizing the second syllable.
Edsel got out of his truck and appraised the building like a commander forming his plan of attack.
“All right, Blair. Hey, meet Kevin. Kevin’s a real fine guitar player from New York who’s gonna help us out tonight.”
We shook hands, and I told him I was from Philadelphia.
“Same thing, far as they know,” said Robert, nodding toward the building.
“New York sounds better,” said Edsel.
The Blessed Arc was built in 1908 and had sat unused for more than twenty years when two New Orleans policemen bought it in 1978. It had a gray tile floor and an old wood and brass bar that reached the length of the building. There was no stage, so we set up at one end in a space that had been cleared of tables. A beer case packed to overflowing with boiled crabs — a gift to the band — sat on a chair in the corner. I watched Blair moving around the crabs, setting up drums and cymbals, adjusting his seat, smoking a cigarette, oblivious and comfortable, while I could not ignore the presence of the orange and white claws, lifeless black eyes, and desperate, broken feelers piled atop one another.
When we started, there were only seven people in the club, but before the first set ended fifty-five minutes later it was packed. Every table had been taken and there was an uninterrupted line of people at the bar. I felt that we weren’t loud enough, but Edsel was running the show, and he didn’t want to turn it up. His intensity matched the flow of the crowd. As they came in, he started calling more up-tempo songs and stamping his feet. He introduced me as being straight down from New York just for that gig and gave me two songs at the end of the set. During both of them he gracefully backed off, turning down his amp even further and just trying to play along to himself.
There were some rough spots at the beginnings and endings of songs, but overall I thought it had gone well. We met outside on the break, and the others also seemed to think so. Edsel cut our critiques short when two women from Lafitte showed up. He introduced me as the real fine guitar player from New York he’d talked about, and then abruptly steered them toward his truck. I went back into the bar and looked for the men’s room.
It wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was filthy, with dirty blue-green tile and no door on the one stall, but it didn’t stink as much as it could have, and there were no rolls of toilet paper in the toilet; I’d give it a moderate rating on the scorecard of bathroom horrors. As I stood at the urinal I heard the door swing open behind me, and a man wearing a crew cut and an army fatigue shirt came in.
“Y’all soundin’ good,” he said.
He leaned against the wall directly behind me, making no move to use the facilities. I stopped myself in midstream and moved over to the sink where I could wash my hands and see him in the mirror.
“Yeah. Re-e-e-a-a-l-l good.”
“ ’Preciate it.”
“You the one from New York.”
“Yeah, New York City, man. What a place. No place like it anywhere else, that’s for sure. You like blow jobs?”
I was tearing off a paper towel to dry my hands, and finished very deliberately, pulling it out with a quick, efficient, ripping sound.
“Got a young lady right out back’ll do you up just right.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You be cool about this?”
I nodded, and he extended his hand. We shook only after first slamming hands trying to do two different handshakes, and then he went out. I dried my hands and went out right after him, but he had disappeared.
Our next set was better, and Edsel gave me four songs. He was really enjoying himself, playing around the mike when he sang and pointing at me for my solos with a big windup of his hand. We did six straight Elvis songs.
At the break I joined Blair and Robert on the tailgate of Blair’s truck, where he was rolling a joint. Blair was about as straightforward a drummer as I’d ever played with, content to keep the beat and light on his bass drum. He preferred to stay on his snare and high-hat, beating out a steady rapping and hissing sound that, to his credit, never varied. He told me he liked my playing and I told him I was having fun.
“Edsel sounds good tonight,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “Now.”
“Wait till later?”
“Wait till later,” they said in unison.
Blair had played with Edsel on and off for more than ten years. He said the whole night, right up until the moment we were home in our beds thinking about life, depended on how much Edsel drank.
“That’s right,” said Robert. “You might say we’re his hostages. Short-term.”
“Our lives are in his hands, it’s true.”
At this point Edsel was back in his truck with one of the women he’d been with on the last break.
“I been knowin’ Edsel for a long time,” said Blair, “and I love him, but I do not understand him. He’s always fuckin’ around, you know? His job and his wife, and — have you met Ellen?”
I said I hadn’t.
“Well, Ellen . . . Ellen’s not your average . . . She’s really special. She’s smart and good lookin’ and she’s got sense.”
“Ellen’s a priceless princess,” said Robert, with the confidence due him as the lyricist for the band’s original songs.
“She can cook the shit out of any food,” said Blair, wistfully.
“Edsel’s gonna lose her, she’s gonna walk away and do lots better real fast sometime, and he’ll never see her again. That’s what’s gonna happen, mark my words.”
We smoked the joint and were joined by one of the policemen who owned the bar. He said it was nice to hear some “more rocky stuff,” and Robert said there was plenty where that came from and clapped me on the back. I was having a good night, playing well and singing easily.
At 3 a.m. I drove Edsel’s truck back to Marrero. He was off with the women from Lafitte, and hadn’t even said goodbye or gotten his money. He was drunk, but he’d held it together onstage, and Robert said we’d had a good night as far as that went. Blair gave me Edsel’s keys and asked if I’d mind, then stuffed a folded wad of bills in my pocket.
“That’s Edsel’s, too,” he said. “Leave it where he’ll see it.”
Edsel’s place had accumulated a good deal of clutter in his five days of bachelorhood. There was a raw maple coffee table he’d made himself, a sofa, and two overstuffed chairs in the front room. Each piece of furniture had something stacked on it — clothes, bottles, or the remains of a meal. The television set that dominated the room was the one modern-looking item, a huge state-of-the-art screen with a cable box sitting on top and a remote channel changer.
Ellen hadn’t gotten around to taking very many of her things. But she’d been back since we were there, and had left a note on the kitchen table. Scrawled in upright, schoolgirl handwriting, it read:
I passed by to pick up a few things, and you weren’t here. There’s some iced tea and some more chicken in the fridge. Don’t forget to pay the water bill, or you’ll be cut off. Bye.
I passed by to pick up a few things, and you weren’t here. There’s some iced tea and some more chicken in the fridge. Don’t forget to pay the water bill, or you’ll be cut off. Bye.
I looked around the kitchen and went back into the living room, certain that she was hidden somewhere and watching me. The note reminded me that I didn’t belong there. It was her home, her private place. Yet I couldn’t resist looking further. I wanted to see more of the woman who had chosen this life.
Their bed was huge, a king-size mattress that filled the bedroom and faced a bureau and vanity set that had to be sixty years old. Over the bureau hung a round mirror with several snapshots taped to it. I picked out Edsel, Robert, and Blair, but there was no way of knowing which of the women was Ellen. In some of them the men were holding stringers of fish; fat and shirtless, they revealed tattoos and squinted into the sun, in most cases posed too far to one side of the frame.
The closet door was open, and inside hung one dress, with several feet of empty space between it and Edsel’s cartoonish fat-man’s clothes. The dress was purple, with sequins and tiny, thin straps. It was a party dress, something she probably wore once a year and saw no reason to take with her. I imagined Edsel buying it for her and insisting that she put it on right away. He must have considered her sexy at one time, and she must have believed it and made love to him in that big bed. She had made a conscious decision to leave that dress behind.
Carla’s room seemed barely lived in, a young girl’s room perfect for catalog photos. Sylvester Stallone’s eyes challenged me from over a pink bedspread; there were pictures of Cher and Madonna, stuffed animals, and a yellow diary sitting on a child’s desk. The tiny clasp on the diary was locked.
Returning to the kitchen, I took two pieces of chicken and a biscuit from the refrigerator. Even cold, Ellen’s biscuits were marvelous. I ate over a paper towel and cleaned up after myself, then put Edsel’s money on the table near the note. I put the keys on top of the money and left, leaving the door unlocked so he could get back in.
At that time I was working on Bourbon Street with another band during the day, and about a week later I saw Robert walk by the club while I was onstage. He waved, pulled a woman into the doorway, and pointed me out. She waved tentatively. She was tall and thin, with long blonde hair.
“We’re like brother and sister,” he told me later. “Ellen takes care of me sometimes, and I listen to her when Edsel’s givin’ her a bad time.”
“What d’you mean, she takes care of you?” I said.
“Lets me crash on their couch. Gives me a good home-cooked meal now and then.”
“We’re — she’s real good lookin’, yeah, but I wouldn’t ever. . . . We’re good friends.”
I looked away, ashamed I’d made him explain himself and unsure why I had.
After repeatedly stating his love for Edsel, Robert said he couldn’t figure out what it was she saw in him. It wasn’t that Edsel was so bad, but that she could have done so much better.
“But she’s country,” he said, eyeing me. “This is what she’s used to. She’s from here. And Edsel’s just like her brothers and her dad. She’s kinda stuck with it, and she knows it. If you don’t know it, it don’t make no difference, but if you do, it’s awful. Purely awful. That’s what she’s goin’ through.”
“Has she ever been anywhere else?”
“That’s part of the problem. She hasn’t, and she knows she’s doin’ herself short for that. She might just fit right in somewhere like Seattle or Milwaukee. She might be a real smooth lady in a place like that, but she’s scared to try it.”
He said he never actually suggested she leave. He just let her talk about what it might be like. Ellen had gotten a library card for the first time in her life, and found books about Seattle and Milwaukee, and read them in the library, never daring to bring one home for fear that Edsel would know what she was up to.
“Why Seattle and Milwaukee?”
“I was born in Seattle and lived there till I was eight, and I told her about it. I don’t know why Milwaukee.”
Blair booked us at a private party to be held in a bar in Algiers — as much food as we could eat and sixty dollars each. We kept trying to arrange a rehearsal, but it never worked out. Either I was working, or Edsel was working at the garage. He had a reputation as an expert mechanic, and he could make four hundred dollars a week when he wanted to.
Ellen still hadn’t come back. Edsel was drinking and she was dating other men. Blair said she’d never done that before. She was going out every night, taking her sorrow with her and accepting the invitations of men who’d eyed her for years, only to disappoint them in how far she would go. It was something she made herself do so that she could say she had. Being seen in public with other men was crucial; not only did it thrill her, but it silenced her sister Ruth and her friends who had urged her to leave Edsel for good. It delayed her decision and gave her time to think about just how badly he’d hurt her, go to the library to read up on Seattle and Milwaukee, and run through her list of his sins.
These started with the third time she caught him with another woman, went on to his drinking, his unwillingness to work at anything but music, and then dissolved into things like his eating habits. Ellen knew how to handle Edsel and what to expect of him, even down to the other women. He had to be punished each time she caught him, and she was punishing him now. She regarded Edsel’s behavior as justification for her independent thoughts; she would never risk appearing so selfish as to want to leave the people she’d known since childhood, without a very good reason.
When I walked into the Red Barrel in Algiers with my guitar, I was greeted by a young waitress named Christine. She shook my hand and said she’d heard all about me, then demurely accepted a kiss from both Robert and Edsel. She asked us what we wanted to drink before we’d even put our instruments down, then again once we had put them down. Blair told her to relax and go wait on her customers.
While we were setting up, Christine got into an argument with a customer. A huge man in jeans and a torn sleeveless shirt towered over her, clearly thinking about hitting her while she screamed in his face that if he ever, ever grabbed her like that again she’d kick his ass in front of all his friends. He stuttered a few times in a vaguely threatening way, and sat down. Two of the bartenders came over to back Christine up, and the man growled at them, obviously more comfortable being tough with other men.
“Don’t mess with her, Kevin,” said Blair. He was right behind me, fixing a cymbal onto its stand, so close to me that his voice seemed to come from inside my ear.
“She beat my old lady up not once, but twice. In the same day. Anybody can do that can fight. I wouldn’t even consider it without a pool cue or somethin’ to hit her with.”
Christine had moved on to another table, perching her tray on her hip and politely inquiring of an elderly couple what they would like to start off their evening.
I finally got to see something that I’d heard about several times by then — men walking around in a bar with women’s panties on their heads, and no one acting like there was anything unusual about it. When the time came, they either went out to their cars and fetched panties from their glove compartments or convinced a woman to go into the ladies’ room and remove hers. The women did this willingly, laughing at the men, handing over the panties with exaggerated ceremony and enjoying what they clearly saw as the men’s blatant willingness to degrade themselves. It was a bizarre ritual that really had nothing lewd about it. Most of the women wore jeans, and after they handed the panties over they went back to their conversations or dancing. They had complied with tradition, and now were more interested in continuing their evenings.
Midway through the first set, something came over Edsel, and his intensity picked up so fast it was alarming. The panties came out as soon as he got warmed up and started to reach the audience. The songs were slow, sad ballads, and he was drunk, but he never lost his grip. I barely played on these, and hid in the shadows between the lights as I watched him. The Red Barrel was packed, and a solid cloud of smoke several feet thick hung over the crowd. Men with panties on their heads walked around talking, or simply staring at the stage.
Eyes closed, Edsel stood absolutely still at the mike and sang in a soft, elegant voice that belied the fat-man’s shadows he was casting on the stage. It was some of the saddest, most moving singing I had ever heard. People were wiping away tears, and seemed to hold their breaths until he finished each number and they could clap and cheer, as much with relief as appreciation. At the end of the set I was grateful he hadn’t called for any of my songs. I would have felt ridiculous.
Among the audience I was a forgotten man, but Edsel was surrounded by people who were not so much talking to him or listening, as just wanting to be near him. They held their drinks at their chests and watched as he smoked and drank from his glass of Crown, then his Budweiser. He nodded brusquely to the ones who complimented him, too much the man hard at work to be affected by their praise, too consumed by his emotions to want to talk. As we walked to the stage for the second set, Robert nodded toward Edsel and smiled at me.
“Ellen’s here,” he said.
The tempos the next time around were all up, and Edsel was tearing into songs instead of caressing them. Where once he’d given lyrical form to his sadness, he was now showing anyone who cared to watch that he could live with it, shouting out the words and ranging around the stage.
During my guitar solos Edsel was right at my side, yelling and stomping the floor around me. I have to admit, he drove me into a few reckless things that I pulled off in spite of myself. The men with panties on their heads were moving rapidly about the bar, some dancing, some just going quickly from one place to another, as if responding to a signal that Edsel was sending. We played well past the allotted time for our set and kept right on going. I felt inspired and confident, moved out to share the front of the stage with Edsel, and sang as hard as I could. Behind me Blair was pounding his drums with a drive I didn’t know he possessed, and Robert was going out into the audience with his bass in almost every song.
We had to break eventually. Everyone in the place was at a high pitch. When he snapped a string on his Gretsch, Edsel chose to end the set on that song. We finished to shouting and applause. I had several drinks thrust at me when I stepped offstage. At least a dozen people followed Blair outside to join him at his truck for a smoke. I sat down, and just as I noticed a cigarette burning in the ashtray in front of me, and realized I’d taken someone’s seat, Ellen came back from the bar. Her long hair slid off her shoulders and stopped abruptly above a slim waist and wide, pronounced hips. One side of her mouth turned down crookedly, lagged behind the other, and rippled belatedly into her smile.
“Kevin, I’m pleased to meet you,” she said. “I’ve heard so much, and if half of it’s true. . . .”
She sat next to me and pulled out a fresh cigarette, drawing the ashtray closer and offering the open pack to me. I declined, but in the same moment picked up the matches and lit one for her, regretting it immediately and imagining Edsel watching me from a few feet away.
Her sister Ruth was with her, sitting patiently with an elbow on the table and a cigarette perched above her ear, impervious to the smoke that drifted around her head and into her eyes. She complimented me politely on our playing and said that I was just what that band needed, because everybody had gotten so sick of Edsel’s act they knew it inside and out. She said Edsel had worn everybody out with his cowboy music. Ellen stared vacantly while Ruth, clearly enjoying herself, went on. Then a tall man wearing blue panties on his head and a flannel shirt came to the table and asked Ellen to dance to a song he’d just put on the jukebox. She put out her cigarette carefully, so she could relight it when she came back, and got up to dance.
He couldn’t have picked a slower song, and took advantage of the tempo to drape one arm around the small of her back and slide a finger through her belt loop. She pressed herself to him and laid her head on his chest. They had the dance floor to themselves. Ruth looked on with a pert smile that was barely visible through her cigarette smoke.
I went outside and found Robert, who was leaning against the building trying to recover from a laughing spell. A short, bald, red-faced man was adding to a story about a shaving of red-hot steel in a machine shop that had found its way down the bib of someone’s overalls and onto the head of his penis. Robert begged him to stop, and said he was serious, he couldn’t breathe, and didn’t want to hear any more. The man went back into the bar just as Christine came out with her cork tray and asked if we wanted anything to drink. Robert got a shot of Crown, and I had a Budweiser.
“The dude had to wait for it to cool before he could pull it off his dick,” he said, now more amazed than amused.
When Christine came back with the drinks, Robert asked her if that was the only job she had that night. She hit him in the head with her tray.
“I’m a good girl tonight,” she said, “and I don’t wanna hear about nothin’. That’s it, case closed.”
“Yer not workin’ overtime, then?”
“Tell me if you change your mind.”
When she was gone Robert told me he had visited Christine the week before behind the Blessed Arc, and that she had taken very good care of him.
“Ten dollars well spent,” he said like one smart shopper to another.
We were only in the club for about two minutes before we got back onstage, but in that time I saw Ellen kiss four men. Edsel was right there this time, so intent on ignoring it that his expression made him bulge out of the group of people he was among. Then he got onstage and proceeded to play the worst set of music I’ve ever been associated with. He was so drunk that the neck of his guitar kept slamming into his mike and making a horrible metallic banging sound that he stopped with a fat fist wrapped around the strings and a “shhhh” spoken to his Gretsch.
Ellen danced with several men, spinning about the floor on the fast songs and clutching at her partners for the slow ones, while Edsel suffered in front of everyone. He slobbered his way along, dropping his guitar picks and bending over awkwardly to run his hands across the stage to find them in the uncertain light. Blair retreated into his rapping and hissing steady beat and Robert shot Edsel dirty looks. I turned my volume down and tried my best to blend in with the random chord changes Edsel was throwing out.
We’d lost the audience, but Edsel plowed on. The buzz of conversation filled every break in our sound, and the dance floor emptied. Only one man kept his panties on his head, too drunk to know better. Edsel called a song that he sang alone, one he usually did early in the evening but had saved that night. Glad to get away, Blair skirted from behind his drums and disappeared into the audience while Robert dropped his bass and ran off the stage. When I took a seat next to Ellen, Edsel was alone in a blue spotlight that made him look old and tired. He strummed his guitar tentatively and started into a sad Hank Williams song, playing to an indifferent crowd.
Ruth was enjoying it, but for Ellen every moment hurt. She turned to me just after Edsel started to sing, slipped her arm around my neck, and kissed me full on the mouth, holding it for several seconds and running her tongue across my lips. Then she pulled away and looked at me with tired, sad eyes. I blinked at her and she spoke, her breath hot and smelling of cigarettes.
“It’s real simple, Kevin,” she said. “You see that man?”
As if I hadn’t, she grabbed a handful of my hair and pointed my head at the stage. Edsel was crying, his eyes closed and tears rolling across the fatness of his cheeks and down his face. He was barely on key, but pushing ahead.
“That’s my heart up there. He’s terrible, and if he ever does it again I’m gonna beat him like a redheaded stepchild. But he’s my heart. That’s all there is to it. I’ve tried, but there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
And with that decision in that moment went any thoughts of Seattle or Milwaukee, of leaving, of other men or her sister’s advice, or anything but getting back with Edsel and getting her daughter back in school, and sleeping in her own bed. When the band finished and it was time to go, she argued with Ruth and told her to go away and leave her alone. Then Riley Jones showed up in his squad car, and she told him to get his fat ass back to Gretna before she tore his eyes out. We helped her put Edsel into the passenger seat of his truck, loaded his equipment into the back, and gave her his money and a box of boiled crabs. She’d been gone two weeks and one day.
John C. Richards