On Saturday morning, I was riding around and around my front yard on a mower, listening to Charlie Robison’s “Desperate Times.” That’s where this dark tale started.
Joe Scharmann had applied for dozens of jobs. Three had deigned to invite him for interviews. Those whose job it was to conduct the interviews knew better than to resort to anything approaching candor, but their expressions gave them away. They had someone younger in mind. Joe’s experience, while certainly impressive, wasn’t really necessary in this position. He kept hearing that.
He was the kind of guy they were trying to eliminate. Too old. Too expensive. They were trimming the fat. Joe was it. Hiring more of it was counterproductive.
All Joe wanted was to go back to work at the factory. The song factory. It was a big industry in Nashville.
The third interview was particularly demeaning. The woman was attractive and pert. She wore the facade of friendliness. It was just that she was in a hurry. Asked him two questions, started shuffling her files.
“I think that should do it, Mr. … Scharmann,” she said. “You obviously have very impressive credentials, and …”
“Wouldn’t you like to hear a song or two …?
He’d cut her off, so she returned the favor.
“We have a list of songs we want written, Mr. Scharmann. We are looking for someone to execute our plans.
Joe thought of the old coach’s line — he thought it might have been John McKay — when asked about his team’s “offensive execution.” “I’m in favor of it,” he’d said.
Well, that certainly went well, he thought, as he walked through the elevator doors.
Joe snapped. He didn’t know it. He’d never snapped before. It felt a little like, when you’re playing baseball, and you haven’t thrown in a while, and you have to work through the adhesions, the soreness. He broke his adhesions, the ones that had built up for all those years while he was working, and making money, and raising a family, and putting aside what was meant for retirement but was now paying the bills of himself and the family that went away. He wouldn’t have money for retirement unless he made his fortune again. He formed an image in his mind of a hobo, holding a stick with all his possessions wrapped in a kerchief and tied to the stick. Hopping a freight, man.
Did anyone in history ever actually do that? Did anyone ever slip on a banana peel? Did anyone ever have his tooth pulled by tying a string around it, tying the other end to a doorknob, and slamming it?
Was fucking everything bullshit?
Joe developed some amusing habits and started looking up all kinds of how-to’s and tips on the Internet. He began delving into hobbies he’d never even considered. His opinions took a Libertarian turn. A man never knew when the time would come when he’d have to build a bomb, or defend his home against foreign invaders, or butcher a hog. The wise man would already have a bomb built just in case he’d ever find a need for one.
The government is out there, man.
It beat watching TV all day. Being eccentric was better than being nothing, and Joe was tired of being nothing. He hadn’t always been nothing. He was getting tired of it.
He also started drinking more. He’d do his work in the mornings. Look for job openings. Swing by the post office on the way to Lower Broadway. It was a cheap drunk, especially in the afternoons. He enjoyed listening to all those pickers, playing for tips. A man could shop for the music he wanted to hear, and Joe found himself increasingly drawn to the old country standards, the ones that weren’t about dancing, and drinking, and fishing, and riding around in pickup trucks, often at various points in the same song. Lots of people in Nashville were still writing those old songs new, but they weren’t getting on the radio. They were getting played for tips, and on street corners, and the more he thought about it, Joe thought busking was a damned honorable way to make a living.
Those old country singers, they’d had it right. They’d written songs about drinking when it wasn’t fun, women that weren’t beauty queens with hearts of gold, who cheated on their men, and men who cheated on them. Old country songs had body counts. A man didn’t put up with it when people done him wrong. By God, he’d kill a man if he caught him cheating with his wife. Kill her, too. Then he’d either pay his debt to society and get on with his life, or he’d go to the chair, but certainly not before Johnny Cash dropped by to play a concert. A man didn’t need to read a book about old Hank Williams. He just had to listen to the songs. Hank made it almost to thirty. He was already in Joe Scharmann’s rear-view mirror.
Joe developed a taste for Pabst Blue Ribbon and women with tattoos, both common in the environment he had come to enjoy. He didn’t want a tattoo himself. He could barely afford the Pabst Blue Ribbons.
One day, Joe was listening to a boy from Ohio who said he’d grown up on the river a little east of Cincinnati, and now he was playing onstage at two in the afternoon, for sparse tips that matched the audience, and it was still a thrill, and so was living in a camper shell underneath a bridge, way out in the country, for the time being, while he and his buddy were converting the loft of a livestock barn into an apartment. It was the kind of life that wasn’t fit for anything but a song, but Joe had a soft spot for folks like that since, after all, he was becoming one.
Joe felt his cell phone vibrating, and damned if there wasn’t a text message from Carter McDuff, and Joe thought, well, maybe something good’s finally about to happen. Maybe this is my lucky break.
Carter McDuff had been Ozzie Carter when he and Joe had gone to college. Now Carter was comfortably semi-retired as a singer and rich from the publishing company he had built around him. Once they’d written songs together. Maybe it had occurred to Carter that they might be able to do it again. Joe thought the timing was perfect because he sure had been tucking away some fine material on what passed for modern-day cocktail napkins, the smart phone.
Carter wasn’t but 37, a year younger than Joe. He’d had his fifteen minutes of fame and had enough sense to know the music was changing, and he could change with it more easily on the sidelines. You had to give him that. People considered him a ruthless son of a bitch, which he was, but those people, the ones who counted, admired it in a man. Carter had what pickers and singers didn’t. He not only aimed to make money but knew how.
One of the reasons Joe liked going bar-hopping in the afternoon was that most of the entertainers were struggling newcomers. He didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him. This was a rare day, though. Joe became aware of eyes on him, and he turned to look at the stage and found the boy from Ohio talking about him. Said he was a great songwriter, and wouldn’t he like to come up onstage and play a song for the nice people?
Resistance was obviously futile. Joe walked up toward the front, bounded up the three steps to the stage, asked the boy, whose name he didn’t know, to tell him one more time, and asked if he could borrow his guitar. It was a Martin with just about the right amount of age on it, about twenty years. He liked it right off.
“I was right content just sitting at the bar, listening to Steadman Royce, but if you really want me to do a song, I want you to tip Steadman and his boys. Steadman, this is something you need to learn if you don’t already know it,” Joe said. “While I’m a-doing this song, you take that cowboy hat you wearing and make your way around the room. I want y’all to tell him, up close and personal, how much you appreciate his music.
“Now I’ve got to figure out a song.” He pinched himself on the chin and stared at the ceiling fan, eliciting a smattering of chuckles and giving Steadman Royce time to start making his way around the room.
“Uh, this one wasn’t a big hit,” Joe said, “but it’s a good little song, and it’s easy to play, and I reckon that, even though I’ve had me a few beers, I can still remember the words. Boys, it’s in D, and I’ll just run through this simple little chord progression, and y’all do with it what you will.”
When I told you that I loved you / And I’d always be proud of you / Why, you swore that you’d never go astray / Now my soul is out of action / And I can’t find any traction / Since you left me, honey / There was hell to pay.
Hell to pay / Tears to cry / Days and nights to sit and wonder why / Back before we lived together / We could bear the stormy weather / Now nothing remains but hell to pay.
The patrons liked it. A few may have even heard it before. Joe played the chords while a lanky kid with bloodshot eyes plunked away at a standup bass, and dapper old gentleman made magic with his steel guitar. Joe had often observed that the steel player was generally the oldest musician in the band. Another kid who looked stoned mainly stayed out of the steel player’s way, and Joe was thankful for the drummer, who was the most likely to be really stoned and not just bleary-eyed from the night before.
A drummer setting a nice slow beat was a singer’s best friend.
I spent all my time a-waiting / Hoping you were hesitating / And you’d probably come to see me after while / But it didn’t cool my rancor / When you moved in with that banker / Paying yours but leaving me with bills to pay.
Humor always worked when a man was unexpectedly called up to the stage to do one song. Joe rarely did more than one song anymore. Sometimes he got invited to guitar pulls, where he sat around in a circle with other writers, and each one thought he was so good he was embarrassing the rest, but it was common courtesy not to do more than one at a time.
While trying to recover / And perhaps to find another / I went back to the same bar where we met / Picked a fistfight with Mike Tyson / Then they took away my license / Leaving me with even more bills to pay.
Hell to pay / Tears to cry / Days and nights to sit and wonder why / Back before we lived together / We could bear the stormy weather / Now nothing remains but hell to pay. … Not there’s nothing / That remains / But hell to pay.
Doodedoodoodoo … dum DUM.
When the shift was over, and another group of musicians was getting ready to play, the boy sat at the next barstool, and he and Joe talked about getting together, and maybe he’d like to join him on a new CD, and they could do a few duets, and write together, and Joe mainly just nodded his head, handed Steadman Royce a business card with an email address and a phone number, but definitely not a mailing address, and Joe knew that nothing was likely to come of it because he’d seldom been on Lower Broadway when, at some point, he didn’t have this conversation, and, on those rare occasions when someone actually followed up, and they all got together somewhere fairly squalid, either they couldn’t mesh at all, or they had a wonderful time, everybody got stoned, and the result was two songs when they could have knocked out somewhere between eight and a dozen.
Maybe this time was different. Joe had quit smoking weed. He had that going for him.
Joe wasn’t banking on hearing back from Carter McDuff, either, but when he got up the next day, there it was: another text message.
Come see me this afternoon, Joe. It’s important. Need to talk at you. Come to my office. Enter from Printers Alley. Back entrance. On the right when you walk in, there’s a freight elevator. Take it to the 18th floor. Whole floor’s mine. Tami Jo knows you’re coming. — CMc.
It was already afternoon by the time Joe thought about it over a cup of coffee. He cleaned up. Shaved. Took a shower. Hell, he even put on a green blazer and an open-collar shirt. That was formal by the standards of musicians. He parked on the street three blocks away, not because he wanted to walk but because that’s where he found a parking space. He had his shoulder bag and was prepared whether things worked out or not. He figured the worst that could happen was he’d settle an old score with McDuff.
The son of a bitch.
Once he’d written a song that had a hell of a hook, and he’d played it on one of the side stages at the Americana Music Festival. Apparently, Carter had seen it, though Joe hadn’t seen him in the crowd. About a month later, Joe’s agent — he had one then — told him a song similar to his had been written by Carter McDuff and was on the market. It had almost exactly the same hook in the chorus, but the melody was different. The next time the two were in the same place — backstage at the Opry, as it turned out — Joe had asked Carter about it, just to let him know in no uncertain terms he knew.
“If we weren’t friends,” Joe told him, “I’d think you stole my song.”
“Not … technically,” Carter had said and excused himself.
Joe had to take it. He didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer. If he had, McDuff would have had a better one. Might made right. Cody Mahan scored a big hit. McDuff made big money. Joe’s song was better, but that didn’t matter.
A promising kid who’d signed with a minor label recorded Joe’s version. That’s when Joe’s agent had called again to tell him Carter McDuff was now threatening to sue him. Joe said enough was enough, and the agent had said it wasn’t practical to do anything about it.
That’s when Joe decided he didn’t have a need for an agent anymore. McDuff’s cronies convinced the kid he didn’t need to put Joe Scharmann’s stolen song on his CD. The kid called Joe and said he sure was sorry, and Joe told him he sure was right.
Joe was surprised the elevator worked, but he didn’t have to talk his way up to the 18th floor, didn’t have to sign in and make sure he was on the right list. The Thad Rolen Building was old but stately. Carter McDuff owned it and took up the top floor for himself. The lobby had a Starbuck’s. Joe was familiar with it. His ex-agent was still on the fifth floor, last he looked. The tenants were about half and half, music and other. A couple floors housed charitable foundations. Accountants, tax lawyers, agents, music publishers, and at least one psychiatrist had offices there. Joe wondered how many of them had business dealings with McDuff. He’d never thought about there being some connection between McDuff and the agent.
I’ll be damned. I’m pretty stupid.
Tami Jo and McDuff had to be lovers. Joe wasn’t sure whether McDuff was currently married or not, but Tami Jo was such a knockout that he doubted it would matter to that scumbag. He knew she was a singer the moment he laid eyes on her. He imagined Carter telling her, baby, stick with me, and I’ll make you a big star. She was a fake blonde with enhanced titties and lips that were just slightly too big for her little face. They looked a wee bit inflated. Joe couldn’t help but stare at them for a moment, and when a man stares at lips when he could stare at titties, why those are some serious lips. Tami Jo said it was a thrill for her to meet such a fine songwriter, and Mr. McDuff was expecting him, so he could sashay right on in.
As best Joe could tell, there wasn’t another soul on the whole floor, though it had several empty offices. McDuff was the king. His office was so large, Joe thought he must have to stop to rest a minute if he had to go to the bathroom. It had two conference rooms, one large one with a nice view and another with a bunch of book shelves on all sides, enclosed by all those books that looked like no one had ever read them and bordered on the outside by halls.
On second thought, Joe figured McDuff had his own bathroom. If Carter had as much taste for drugs as he once did, he had a considerable need for privacy. Privacy didn’t hurt with Tami Jo, either, Joe figured.
Joe realized he was slightly overdressed when he saw that Carter was working on his putting and dressed for a tee time. He might have a tee time every day, for all Joe knew. He was tanned. Joe wondered if he had his own tanning bed somewhere, but maybe he just got it naturally on the golf course. If so, it was one of few things Carter McDuff ever got naturally.
Joe hated being there. He’d once vowed it would be a cold day in hell if he worked with McDuff again. Nashville was hell in the summer, but today it was overcast and 77.
Shit. Man’s gotta eat. Maybe he’d be lucky. He had his bets hedged if everything fell just right. The only problem was Tami Jo. When Carter put away his putter and asked Joe to sit down, Joe was thinking it was shame for Tami Jo to be a potential witness.
“Long time, no see, Joe. I was just thinking the other day, wondering if you’d be willing to give it one more try, me and you, writing together, just like in the old days,” Carter said.
He was a charmer. Joe had to grant him that. He thought, well, we worked together on that other song, you son of a bitch, but what he said was, “I don’t know, Carter. I learned a long time ago to never say never.”
I need the fucking money, and you know it, too.
“I got some fine melodies,” McDuff said. “I can’t write words like you. You ain’t got any songs you ain’t published?”
I have no new songs that have been published. I’ve got new songs, though. I bet you know that.
“Well, I reckon we’ve always jived right well,” McDuff said. “I got a vacant office down on the seventh floor. I’ll set it up where you can write there. Soundproof walls. Can’t nobody hear you. I set it up that way. Claude Skelton used to work for me there.”
“What we talking about, Carter? Money-wise?”
“That won’t be a problem, Joe. I’ll look out for you.”
I’ve heard that before.
“Think about it the rest of the week,” Carter said. “In the meantime, I got another little deal I need you to help me with.”
“What’s that?” Joe knew he was about to find out why McDuff really wanted him there. Joe didn’t want to work with him, anyway. Carter was a mediocrity in the songwriting business. Most people didn’t know it because they had the mistaken impression that he’d actually written some of the songs that had his name attached. In the unlikely event that McDuff was really interested in Joe’s songs, he’d be getting his own partial writing credit as a condition of the deal.
If the money’s right, you can have all the credit. Joe thought about saying that but didn’t. That’s where he thought they were headed.
McDuff had a different idea, one that was even worse.
“Joe, you want to smoke a little weed?”
“Hell, yeah, now. You never smoked it with a vaporizer? Don’t leave no smell.”
“Thanks, Carter, you go ahead. I’ve give it up. I really have.”
“You give up drinking, too?”
“Naw. I give beer some of my weed-smoking time.”
“Now, why would you do that, Joe? Alcohol is an inferior buzz, and beer damn sure is. What? You don’t get hangovers?”
“Why, Carter, a hangover is God’s gift to songwriters. We wouldn’t be worth a damn without ‘em. If I tie one on, shit, I want to feel bad in the morning. That’s all that keeps me from doing it around the clock.”
“I hear you been hanging out a good bit on Lower Broadway,” McDuff said.
“I like it. Always have.”
“I got a big party out at the farm this weekend. I’ve had some, uh, arrangements fall through.”
“What’s that got to do with me? I’m thinking you don’t mean musical arrangements.”
“That’s funny, Joe. You always have had a quick wit. You know what you’re doing, too.”
“So what is it?”
“I need weed,” McDuff said. “Lots of it. I’m trying to break into rock and roll a little. I’m having big, full-day hootenanny. I been used to getting a little ‘overage’ from the Nashville police, but they got a new chief, and my sources say he’s watching ’em close.
“My stash is about dry. Tami Jo used to get some from these lesbian friends she knows from high school or something, but one of them got busted, and it’s busted up their happy home, you know, and I’m still high, but I’m gon’ be dry if you can’t get me some. Back in the old days, you could buy it by the ounce back in the alley, and I was wondering if it’s still like that.”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Joe said. “I expect so, but I don’t know for sure.”
“I’ll make it worth your time. I figure I can get by on, like, five, eight ounces, and I’ll pay you a five hundred bucks on top of what it costs you.”
“Goddamn it, Carter. Who you got coming over? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Has the world changed so damn much, even the Mormons are blazing?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Carter said, laughing again. “You know, I need to have a shitload in reserve so don’t nothing like this happen no more.”
Joe badly wanted to walk out, but he’d worked through his adhesions, and he couldn’t help but see the opportunity that was sitting there in front of him, or, quite possibly, he could leave it there.
Rage rose in him. He had to hold it in. He’d just brought his shoulder bag as an afterthought. One never knew when a man was going to need it. He just sat there, trying not to start sweating from nervous tension. Carter pulled out his vaporizer and started explaining it to him. He said a man could vape just about anywhere.
“Ain’t no smell when you exhale,” he said, exhaling. “See there?
“Come on, you know you want some.”
“Naw, it ain’t no big deal, but I done got out of the habit of smoking that shit, and if I’m gonna go find some for you, that’s all I’m gon’ do, know what I’m saying? I better get on the stick, you need this by the weekend.”
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it, buddy.”
You ain’t had a buddy since Nixon died.
“You’ll do it?” McDuff asked.
“I need the money.”
“There’s plenty more where that come from. I mean, in the music bidness. Me and you get back together, this town ain’t gon’ know what hit ’em. Again, goddamn it.”
I wonder if he needs money, too. Ain’t no getting around the fact that him getting me to come see him just because he needs some marijuana suggests a certain desperation. I mean, he can sure as hell do better than me. One would think.
“So we got a deal?”
“I reckon. Let me think about it. I’ll call you tomorrow,” Joe said.
“Tell you what. You sit right here a few minutes. Think about it now. This is stupid, but I like to go in my other conference room and hit my vape. Like I said, ain’t no smell, but, hell, this day and age, somebody across the street might be a peeping tom. I can’t afford to have my picture, me smoking weed, in Rolling Stone, or somewheres.”
“Ah’ight,” Joe said, noting that weed, vape or not, still made McDuff paranoid. A plan was coming together in his mind. It was meant to be. This was perfect. He wasn’t going to prowl around the alley at the back of Tootsie’s, cruising for weed and trying to make a connection a damned Mexican cartel, or, for that matter, a bunch of white-boy skunkweed growers from the mountains near Knoxville, couldn’t fill. It was madness. That he had, but he wasn’t going to go in business as a marijuana middle man. McDuff must’ve thought he’d really hit rock bottom.
Madness was better used in other ways.
McDuff walked out of his glassed-in conference room and into the enclosed one. Joe kept going and headed for the couch on the opposite end of the office. It was a damned nice couch, and he bet it folded out into a fine bed, and that’s where Carter McDuff and Tami Jo Whatever made love on a fairly regular basis, quite possibly after getting all blissful with that vaporizer, however the contraption worked. Joe had his plan. It fell right into his lap, or it did when he pulled the little cardboard box out of his shoulder bag and opened it. What he had looked a little like a baseball with wires and a timer stuck into it. It also looked like the anatomy of a murder, and Joe stuck that little spheroid to the bottom of the end table. It was anchored as solidly as super glue, and he made a point not to think too much when he activated that sucker. It didn’t make any noise, but by God, in twenty-five minutes, it was going to. One other soul knew he was in the building. Joe was calm. It surprised him. He didn’t have anything against Tami Jo Whatever but that she was obviously screwing Carter McDuff. Joe thought about Hitler. He’d seen that movie with Tom Cruise. That was, what, seventy years ago? This bomb under the end table was a heap more reliable. It was the kind of bomb al Qaeda might use. That’s where he’d gotten the diagrams, out there on the Worldwide Web, http://www.killcartermcduff.com. If anybody else out there knew McDuff as well as he did, that website had already been reserved.
McDuff staggered out and asked Joe if he was absolutely sure he didn’t want any. Joe told him no, he’d pass, and he’d better get on over to Lower Broadway and talk with the bartenders and see where he could find some good high-quality, high-quantity cannabis. McDuff looked at him kind of cockeyed and said, “Whatever.”
Joe was smiling when he walked back out to the reception desk, and there sat Tami Jo, applying more makeup and looking at herself in her compact mirror.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” Joe said. “Carter’s been hitting that vape of his, and he said to tell you come on back. He’s of a mind to get fucked up.”
“Why, thank you, Joe. Don’t you want to stay a while?”
“Naw. I gots my fill, darling. Now it’s your turn.”
She winked and said, “I’ll get right on it,” and Joe thought to himself, not for long, you won’t.
The walk to Broadway was all downhill. Joe hustled on out of there. He was pretty sure no one noticed him ducking out the back door of the Thad Rolen Building because Printers Alley was dead now most of the time and particularly so in the middle of the afternoon. He’d looked for a surveillance camera next to the freight elevator. There wasn’t one. He reckoned there might be one on the street, but the alley was narrow and dark, and, hell, what if there was one? It was too late now.
He walked briskly but not overly so. He wasn’t tense in the least. He felt free and easy, and thought, well, there’s one more thing I’m good at, and I didn’t ever even think about killing nobody till the last week or so.
Joe Scharmann was whistling as he walked down Broadway and into the same bar where he’d met that boy from Ohio. Sure enough, Steadman Royce was playing the same shift. Joe walked by the bandstand, caught his eye, and the boy was finishing off a ballad, anyway, and their eyes met.
“You mind me borrowing that Martin again, son?”
“Hell, no,” the boy said. “I’m ’bout whupped, anyway. Come on up here and play all you want. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my honor to present to you the great Joe Scharmann!”
Joe played a half hour, by himself. The whole band took a break and cheered him while he sat on a stool, playing one song after another that he wrote and a few folks recognized.
When he got off the stage, he sat down at the bar and asked Pearl the barkeep to drain him a nice, cold Pabst.
“I just heard they’s been an explosion uptown,” she said.
“I be damned,” Joe said. “Where at?”
“Up near Printers Alley. Folks is crazy nowadays.”
“Shit, reckon it’s anybody we know?”
“That part of town’s done gone downhill something perilous,” Pearl said.
Joe liked Pearl. She walked outside with him so they could listen to the sirens.
“You don’t reckon nobody was cooking meth, do you?” Joe asked.
“Ain’t no telling,” Pearl said. “We had a boy played here got killed that way six or seven months ago, but that was out past Gladeville somewheres.”
I reckon this is what happens when one is working on a crime novel. It’s still being polished. Crazy of Natural Causes, my third novel, is scheduled to be out in July. Here’s where you can buy my other books, fiction and non-fiction alike: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1