High in La-La Land

Near Los Angeles (Monte Dutton sketch).
Near Los Angeles (Monte Dutton sketch).

This short story picks up the story of Riley Mansfield and his wife, the former Melissa Franklin, seven years after the events of my first novel, The Audacity of Dope. This is the third episode. The first two, in order, were “Seven Years If It’s a Day” and “Like Old Times.”

The simple arithmetic of West Coast time was a frequent source of confusion for Riley Mansfield. He awakened at eleven, yawned, encountered the usual surprising stiffness of his first waking step, and as cobwebs cleared and pain shot up and down his spine, he managed to stagger to the coffee machine in the kitchen that looked like something out of The Jetsons.

Eleven o’clock. That’s not bad. Oh, wait. That’s two in the afternoon out here. Shit. Where’s my phone? Where’s my ice pack. I forgot to put it in the freezer. Oh, well. Walk it off.

It was pretty out. He thought it would be nice to go out on the patio, overlooking the courtyard, and sip his coffee while smoking a nice, fat joint, but then he thought about all those photos on the Internet showing Hollywood types smoking weed on hotel balconies, and, even though he figured his photos were no longer worth much on the open market, he decided to err on the side of caution, knowing this was Hollywood, and soon he would be among its beautiful people, and that would invariably involve opportunities to get high.

He unplugged his cell and glanced at his email, then perused the Twitter and Facebook feeds. He called Melissa and told her he wished she had come.

“Me, too, right now,” she said.

“What’s wrong? Anything happen?”

“Oh, nothing. I just had to take a shot at some guy at two in the morning.”

“What? We must have a bad connection. I could’ve sworn you said you shot somebody.”

“No, baby, I just fired the shotgun over his head as he and his partner ran away. I busted the side window in their van, though. I woke up and heard someone trying to get in the door,” Melissa said. “I got the shotgun out of the closet and set off the alarm. The flashing lights went off, and the siren, and I ran into the living room with the gun, and these two guys took off running. It was all so fast, I didn’t have time to be frightened. I went out on the porch and took two shots above their heads. I didn’t really mean to, but they were in a, you know, what do you call it? Conversion vans?”

“Yeah, the kind people decorate the inside and shit.”

“Well, I shot out the sort of small window on the left side.”

“That ought to help the police find it,” Riley said. “They been by the house yet?”

“Yeah, I talked to them on the phone, obviously, right after the alarm went off, but they came over to fill out a report a couple hours ago. Everything’s all right.”

“I reckon they must’ve known I was on with Johnny Passineau, probably figured you come with me. I’m just glad you’re all right. Maybe I’ll cut the trip short, be back Saturday night instead of Sunday.”

“Don’t worry about it. Things are all right. No damage. They didn’t even get the door busted open. Whoever it was, they ain’t coming back.”

“You got any idea at all who it was?”

“Nah, mainly I didn’t see nothing but the back of their heads. There were two of them. You know, skinny, desperate, meth heads, I reckon.”

“So, you all right?”

“Passing tolerable.” At least one local expression had found its way into Melissa’s vocabulary.

“Baby, I’ll call you once I get to the studio,” Riley said. “I just got up, and I gotta get dressed and go tape the show. Text me if you need me, and I’ll call right back. If you need somebody to talk to, call up Eric. He’ll come over.”

The bell tones that denoted incoming text messages had been going off the whole time Riley was talking to his wife. The limo was coming to pick him up in ninety minutes. He figured it was the minimum he would need to sip his coffee, check all the human intrusions that an iPhone empowered, shave, shower and get ready to go on TV. He dragged, though, couldn’t get motivated, and wound up letting the time sneak up on him. Riley threw on his favorite jacket without first putting a shirt on under it, stuffed a western flannel shirt in the small overnight bag he had placed in his suitcase, along with some Chapstick, eyedrops, and, of course, weed. He threw the bag over his shoulder, picked up his guitar case, and headed to the lobby.

The chauffeur took the case and put it in the trunk. Riley got in the back seat with the travel bag. The chauffeur matter-of-factly informed him that he’d placed some pot in the console. Boris was his name. They were fast becoming friends, and Riley realized that, when one came to L.A., there was no reason to keep any denominations other than twenties in one’s wallet. He opened the console. Not only was there weed. Two joints had been elegantly rolled.

How’d they get Melissa?

Three hits were plenty. Riley started thinking about how he really didn’t know where he was going. Every time he’d ever done the Passineau show, he’d been picked up at a hotel, most times the same one, and taken to the studio, and he’d never paid the slightest attention to how he got there. Now he was behind smoked windows, with the sun roof partly opened to dissipate the smoke. His trains of thought got progressively more profound, at least until he progressively lost them. When they arrived at the destination, Riley peeled off five twenties for Boris. He didn’t know whether or not Boris had paid for the weed. He also didn’t care. He walked into the building and was directed to the green room, where he could leave his stuff and go rehearse the song he was going to sing with the band. At that point, Riley realized his bag was still in the back seat of the limo. He walked as quickly as he could manage. The knee didn’t hurt. Nor did anything else. He opened the door, and the sunlight staggered him for a minute. The limo was gone. Riley, with no shirt at all under his purple jacket, found a tourist trap a block away, and perused the tee shirts. Strangely, he felt the need to buy a tee shirt that didn’t clash with the purple of his jacket, so he passed on the olive green. What he purchased was a gray shirt with black letters that read:

MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM IS

INNATELY SUPERIOR TO YOURS

GOD HATES YOUR ASS

It occurred to Riley that such a message might not play well on network TV. Nor did he think his mother would much care for it. He liked it, however, and decided he would button up the jacket halfway. It wasn’t the way he had planned to dress, but it was acceptable, and he was a pot-smoking musician, and, so, really, nothing much was off limits. No one expected him to dress like Tony Bennett. When he got back to the green room, he took the jacket off and put the shirt on. The band got a kick out of it. They worked out a nice arrangement for his humorous song, “Uh, Huh,” and George Liggett, the leader, added a nice, tinkling piano accompaniment. Riley was always astonished at how quickly that band could pick up a song. It was such a pleasure to work with pros. He’d had a similar experience in Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry’s house band, but he’d only been on the Opry twice. Passineau invited him to appear on Overnight a couple times a year.

When Riley returned to the green room, he discovered that the night’s other guest, Hayley LoBianco, had arrived. She was the star of one of the network’s few remaining sitcoms. Riley was thankful she mentioned its name while asking how he liked it. He’d never seen it. He lied and said he loved the show. The actress said she had read Adam Rhine’s book about the events of 2008, The Tumbling Dice, and thought he was a great American.

He asked her if she got high. “Oh, shit, yeah,” she said, saucy, a Texan, or maybe an Oklahoman. She had that rebellious streak he liked, and she pulled out hers before he could pull out his. It was illegal to smoke anything in what matched the description of “a dressing room,” but, of course, this would just not do. The room had a high ceiling and a fan that sucked smoke up what was, effectively, a tunnel posing as a ceiling. It was sort of ingenious. Hayley named the strain, blueberry something or other. She lit up, and they smoked their minds. She asked a lot of questions for which he had rather simple answers. Who didn’t like Shakespeare and Hitchcock, for chrissakes? She could have asked questions about Riley’s own music and received simple answers. Things had gotten awfully simple.

“I really like you,” Hayley said.

“I like you, too,” he replied. “A small part of me just got bigger.”

She burst out laughing.

“No. I didn’t mean that. I meant I learned a lot about Shakespeare. And Hitchcock.”

Then he burst out laughing, too.

“Hey, would you like to go with me to a party?” she asked. “After the show?”

“Yeah. Shoot, yeah. Now, you know, I should say, you do know I’m married, right?”

“Sure,” Hayley said. “Melissa. I told you I read the book. Did she come to L.A. with you? I’d like to meet her.”

“No. Sometimes she does. This time she didn’t.”

“I’m all alone, too,” she said. “My husband, Paul, is on a shoot in Morocco. He makes documentaries.”

“Cool,” Riley said, not having the slightest idea of anything else to say. He was a bit fixated on her breasts, trying not to stare, wishing he had sunglasses on, even inside, because he wouldn’t be having to steal glances while otherwise maintaining eye contact. He was sure Hayley LoBianco had grown accustomed to men examining her tits. Are they real? That is the question.

Riley knew he was in trouble. Only once, before they were married and the only time he had ever eaten mushrooms, had he been unfaithful to Melissa. He was reasonably sure he was going to get another opportunity. Maybe, if he could just get over this lovely high, he could find his morals. Maybe they were in the gym bag in the limo, along with the weed he didn’t need, the Chapstick and the flannel shirt with pearl snaps. He asked her if she’d like to step outside for a smoke, and she said, no, that was why she had come so early, so that she could avoid the paparazzi, and, by now, she knew those vultures were out there.

“Isn’t it funny? In this town, you could stand on any street corner, smoking a J, and, I’d say, the odds would be seventy-five percent that a cop would walk right by you without saying a word,” she said. “If you stood at the same corner, and lit up a cigarette, every single person walking by would stare at you like you were a criminal, either that, or they’d bum one.”

“The person who would bum one would also be the person who’d have some coke to sell you.”

“You like coke, sweetie?”

“Nope,” Riley said. “Never tried it. Other than a few regrettable exceptions, I advanced up the drug chain to marijuana and stopped there. I like it. It’s enough. Don’t go nowhere else.”

“Me, too,” she said. “Pretty much. Most of the time.” She started giggling again. “I mean. Seriously.”

“Miss Hayley LoBianco, I sure am glad you’re going on the show first. I’m faded.”

“As fuck?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Agents Kurt Hasselbeck and Leeds McCormick took in a match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Winnipeg Jets at Staples Center. They knew Mansfield was supposed to appear on talk shows on consecutive nights. They deemed it less disruptive to spring their surprise on Friday night, which still left Saturday to spare. He was supposed to fly back to Kentucky on Sunday.

Passineau dropped by to chat while Riley was in makeup.

“Do you know how many times you’ve been on the show?” he asked Riley.

“No clue. Dozen times, maybe?”

“Fourteen times. This is the fifteenth.”

“Wow. That comes out to, what, twice a year ever since …”

“The incident,” Passineau said.

“Yeah. The incident. That’s a good way to put it.”

“What have you been doing?”

“Oh, got some new songs I’m going to try to hustle on Saturday,” Riley said. “Bought a cabin up in the hills of Kentucky, a place to get away. Up there, me and Melissa are so cut off, it’s easy for me to hole up and do some writing. Plus, I got friends in the area, folks I can play music with.”

“Weed’s plentiful.”

“Yeah. Weed’s good.”

“CD in the works?”

“Nah. It’s about time, but I’m not exactly a big seller. Most of my income is from others recording the songs I write.”

Passineau smiled. “You and Claude Herndon still buddies?”

“Me and him don’t see much of each other,” Riley said. “I reckon his star rose and fell with Sam Harmon’s. And I reckon if Claude could’ve ruint me, he’d’ve done it by now. It is so damn frustrating to him that, when he told me I’d never work in Nashville again, I told him I hadn’t never worked in Nashville before and wasn’t of a mind to get started now.

“I don’t think no singers have blackballed me, anyway. I’m doing fine, Johnny. You?”

“I’m not getting any younger, Riley. I doubt I’ll be doing this five years from now.”

“Still like that money, though, don’t you?”

“It’ll do in a pinch,” Passineau said, trying to say something Riley might.

Back in the green room, Riley plunked away at his guitar for a while and rationalized away his decision to smoke a little of his own weed, i.e., what he had brought with him in his suitcase, just to settle his nerves. When Riley had been a boy, his alcoholic father had often picked him up at the movies, bourbon on his breath. Before he pulled away, Marty Mansfield would take a swig, chase it with a Seven-Up, and say he needed “a little something to knock the chill off.”

Something like that.

The first time Johnny went to break, after the monologue, George Liggett dropped by the green room and asked Riley if he’d like to sit in with the band on harmonica. Riley said, yeah, that’d be cool, and Liggett said just walk out while Johnny was having an audience member race on a tricycle against a chimpanzee. He’d just let a few screaming notes blare when the band went to break, and then they’d wind down the jam just before Johnny brought in Hayley LoBianco.

“Cool” was all Riley had to say. Liggett left him in the room alone with a monitor of the show being taped, a tray of sandwiches, and some soft drinks. Riley pushed a few sandwiches aside and rolled a joint over the tray. He got a familiar Kentucky buzz, watched a bit of the hijinks, smoked a cigarette because he craved one powerfully, walked over to the sink and gargled to clear his throat, and walked out on the bandstand with seconds to spare. Riley hardly ever sang the blues, or wrote the blues, but it was fun to jam the blues with a harp. Weed would make a man try notes he couldn’t hit sober. He had told Merritt all he had with him was his D harp, because he planned on using it the next night on Kristine Carlton’s show, For the Love of Night.

“Check,” Merritt had said. The bandleader had an endearing ability to keep it simple.

After pointing out that Riley was sitting in with the band, Passineau introduced Hayley LoBianco with a clip of her hit sitcom. The clip provided a perfect opportunity for Riley to make his way from the bandstand to the green room, where he watched his new acquaintance play the best dumb blonde imaginable for a brunette. She giggled at almost everything Johnny said. She mentioned Riley, said she’d enjoyed meeting him backstage, and referred to his harmonica playing as “killer.” She did an imitation of her co-star, Sam something or other, that was so bad the audience loved it. Riley thought it no more difficult to ascertain that she was high and close to stoned than if she’d brought a bong out with her, but he figured the television audience would give her the benefit of the doubt the same way he’d never suspected Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon were blitzed back when he’d stayed up late on Friday nights as an eight-year-old. They’d just been funny. Irreverent. Like Riley was about to be.

Hayley returned to the green room just as Riley was leaving it and told him she’d wait for him so that they could go together to the party. Riley asked her to wish him luck and pecked her on the cheek. He entered to the tune of “This Land Is Made for You and Me,” which was the song Riley had just sung when Jed Langston had tried to shoot him.

“Pretty familiar tune, huh?” Passineau asked as the applause died.

“That’s sort of weird, man,” Riley said. “I’m known forever for the song that almost got me killed, and I don’t even get royalties for it.”

“It was July the Fifth, not the Fourth, in 2008,” Passineau said. “Let’s take a look at the clip. Now, you weren’t supposed to sing but two verses, right, and you went ahead with it.”

“Yeah, you see, most people don’t know all the verses. I can’t remember whether it was the third or fourth, but one of the verses that Woody Guthrie wrote was kind of populist in theme, and President Harmon and his advisers were insistent that I not sing that verse.”

“So, naturally, you did it anyway.”

“And it damn near got me killed.”

“Let’s roll the clip. This is going to go down in the annals of America, folks.”

Watching the defiant look on his face always gave Riley chills, even when he was stoned. He could tell the moment when he’d picked Jed Langston out of the crowd, see how the look in his eyes changed, how he’d been overcome by foolhardy courage, how his expression, defiant, had almost dared Langston to take a shot at him.

              I faced temptation / And they betrayed me / With the voice of angels / They tried to slay me / But in my mind / The words were righteous / This land was made for you and me.

              Then he saw himself, his younger self, back before the knee went bad, turning around because he wanted to see if Langston would actually shoot him in the back and because he trusted the two FBI agents he had sort of befriended to protect him. Ike Spurgeon, tackling Langston, had been wounded by a shot an Army sniper had intended for the would-be government assassin. Riley often wondered if Langston would have killed himself had not a half-dozen cops appeared on the scene and separated him from his handgun.

When the clip was over, Riley got a standing ovation. It happened every time he was on the show.

“Riley, you don’t get out much, do you? I’ve heard you referred to as reclusive,” Passineau said.

“Wouldn’t you be?” A sprinkling of laughter. “Isn’t it nice we can laugh about it now?

“I’m not a recluse,” Riley added. “No one at home would say that. I go to the high school football games, the county fair. I’m around town. I don’t, uh, avoid anybody. I just sort of make it harder for people to find me. I’ll talk to them, but they’ve got to come to me. I won’t do interviews on the telephones. I sort of like to look folks in the eye, size them up. Most of them gotta want to see me pretty bad to come down to Henry, or, now, up in the hills, where I can play hard-to-get even better.”

“You have moved, right?”

“Not moved. I just bought a simple little cabin in Kentucky. It’s got all the conveniences of home, and that’s where Melissa, my wife, and I go when I need to get away and just concentrate on my songwriting. It’s beautiful, and it’s isolated, and, mostly, the people are real nice and let me do my thing. I’m not antisocial or anything, but it does seem like, the more people start to forget what happened back then, and the less interest they have in what I’m doing, the happier I really am. When you get started in the songwriting business, you’ve got access to a world that doesn’t involve celebrity, and then, when that changes, you can’t just back off and be an observer anymore. You can’t lean over on the drink box at some pawn shop, fiddle around with the guitars, and watch the people come in in and try to sell something of theirs ‘cause they need the money. It ruins it when people show up just to get your autograph, tell you how much they wanted to meet you, and just generally kiss your ass. I know there’s a lot of folks who always wanted to be famous. For me, it’s just always been overrated.”

Riley knew he was talking too much. In an interview, particularly one that was broadcast, it was important to answer the question and move on.

“Do you think anything has really changed in the country?” Passineau asked.

“I don’t know.”

Passineau waited, expecting more.

“I mean, I’m like I was before the only way I could live was to keep a little airplane from blowing up,” Riley said. “I wasn’t political. I just tried to be a good citizen. I voted. I tried to know basically what was going on, and, I think, the way it works is, something happens, and, for a while, things change, but then there’s a, I don’t know, uh, things just bounce back the other way, kind of, and I think that’s what’s happening now. President Murrah has been reelected, and he can’t run again, and the Republicans are doing whatever they can to win the next election, and, you know, back in, oh, 2010, that didn’t seem possible. Let me just kind of make it clear. I’ve got nothing against President Murrah. I voted for him twice, but, on the other hand, I don’t think much changes except it shifts from one president, one politician, who’s bought and paid for, to another who’s bought and paid for by another whole group.”

Still talking too much. I feel like a civics teacher or something.

“What do you do now, seven years after all that, when you’re not songwriting?”

“Well, you know,” Riley said. “I still got a wife. Me and Melissa, we still fuck a lot.”

Ah, short and sweet. What’s late-night talk without the occasional bleep? The crowd loved it as much as a middle-school kid whose coach slipped up and let an f-bomb explode.

Passineau mugged for the cameras.

“Do all these acts of congress provide for the pitter-patter of little feet?”

“No, we, uh, this is something we talk about, but, so far, no plans for kids. I love kids, but, right now, it’s just not practical.”

The look on Passineau’s face called for more explanation.

“You know, there’s always weed laying around and shit,” Riley said.

“Always weed laying around, ladies and gentlemen.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Riley said. “Shoot, next thing you know, the cops’ll be showing up with search warrants and shit.”

Two bleeps for “shit” and one for “fuck.”

“I shouldn’t have said that, either. You know, back when my friend Adam Rhine was following me around …”

“Adam Rhine, the Rolling Stone writer and author of a book about our guest and the 2008 election …”

“That’s right. Anyway, I used to ask Adam how it was that he could write an article in the magazine with all the details of him getting stoned with some rock star, and I said, you know, how do you do that without having the cops all over you, and he said it was a matter of not being anywhere where it was a problem.”

“And …”

“One of the places where it ain’t much of a problem,” Riley said, “is California.” He smiled. “So … I’m here every now and again.”

“Weed ain’t much of a problem, ladies and gentlemen,” Passineau said. “When we come back, Riley Mansfield is going to perform a song. Maybe he’s got a little time for some weed.”

“You are stoned out of your gourd,” Passineau said as soon as commercial break started. Even though the show was taped, they ran it as if it were live, complete with simulated allotment of commercial breaks.

“I’d say just about everybody here is,” Riley said. “I reckon, about everybody but you, Johnny.”

“I can’t handle it,” he said. “I can’t handle anything. I haven’t had a drink in ten years.”

“I don’t hardly drink, neither, Johnny. I don’t see why anyone does, unless weed ain’t available.”

Then he walked over to the microphone stand and stool between the host’s desk and the bandstand. His guitar was waiting for him.

When the break ended, Passineau said, “Now my hero, Riley Mansfield, is going to do a new song for us. Riley, ready?”

“Thanks, Johnny. This is a funny little song about the tiny difference between the phrases ‘uh, uh,’ which is ‘no,’ and ‘uh, huh,’ which is yes. George, lead me in with your rinky-dink pi-nanner!”

The drumbeat gave him just the right tempo to put a little feeling into the words.

              Well, I hobble around in constant pain / But I got more money than Herman Cain / Ain’t got as much money as him / But it’s constant trouble that I’m in / Uh, huh / I’ve been broke, I’ve owed the bank / I’ve seen my credit fall in the tank / More than one woman has broke my heart / I’m going on twenty with brand-new starts / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

The second verse had an off-color line, and Riley had an alternate lyric he used if he was playing where kids were present. He didn’t think it was obscene, though, and no one had said anything when they rehearsed it.

              I fall in love about once a day / But most of it don’t bounce my way / Sometimes I get to the promised land / Some of the time, it’s my right hand / Uh, huh / But I ain’t ashamed of nothing I’ve done / I’ve never backed off and I’ve never run / If I could do it all over again / I’d take a different path to the same old end / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

              Oh, the kind of gal who falls in love with me / Is the one with whom I can’t agree / Making love is great, of course / But not getting broke like a horse / Uh, huh / Well, the parts are different on guys and gals / But they sure do fit together well / You can rock and roll and wiggle around / In different places in different towns / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

Johnny walked over, said, “Good, clean fun, that’s what that is, ladies and gentleman, a great American, Riley Mansfield, and he’s been a great friend of the show. Good night, everybody!”

George Merritt and the band cranked up the closing theme, and Riley stood around, chitchatting a little with Passineau, and then he made his way back to the green room, where, as she’d promised, Hayley LoBianco was waiting because it was only five in the afternoon, and there was time to have a nice dinner and then go party.

              If this whets your appetite for Original Riley, you can buy The Audacity of Dope, along with most of my other books, here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

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