The back up singer

Chapter One

Brutal Chicago winters cracked the stone columns of the hulking auditorium and the support beneath them was crumbling. Tom held the collar of his sheepskin coat close while he made his way against cold winds from his hotel to the auditorium. This was his second time in this hall that was only somewhat warmer but like so many he’d seen over the last five years as he traveled from city to city with various bands the building was at least fifty years old and smelled of a stale urine and cigarettes. The stage was barren save for the lighting rig abandoned by an earlier band and the busted neon green EXIT sign cast an eerie light on the worn oak boards of the stage. The band Timbal and Jessie hired Tom as a backup singer in Chicago where he’d lost his job when the lead singer and the drummer of The Amazing John got into a brawl and both ended up in the hospital that ended their music career and left him with no job He was down to his last twenty dollars. He’d seen those unexpected shifts so many times he didn’t like it but accepted it as part of the life of a backup singer. He had a good voice but knew with his lack of training he’d never be as successful as Tony Bennett. He saw the lead singer of this first band Joey Castello was a role model but he never had time to learn much about him because he was never more than a few feet from Ellie Johnson a mixed race woman in her late 40s who wrote most of their group’s music. He struck up a friendship with Lyle one of the singers in the last group Gorgeous Boys of Elyria, but Lyle always wanted to talk about a Sally back home and that kept their conversations about him short.
This day had so far been like so many when his band was in a new town. He showed up on time a habit instilled in him by his mother and since he started with Timbal and Jessie two weeks ago and he had to wait sometimes as long as two hours for Joey and Ellie to show up and often they were wasted when they did. He arranged their music in order. As he waited for the crew to show up he finished the bitter coffee in a Styrofoam cup from the Seven Eleven and devoured the oversized cinnamon bun slathered with a thick layer of sugary icing. Once the crew did show up he showed them how to arrange the stage for their set. He was getting tired of a life on the road with one band after the next, sleeping in seedy motels, eating crappy food and riding for hours from one gig to the next through the night stuck between other band members and their instruments in an old bus or an old car. At first taking jobs as a backup singer was a way he could get out of his town that was little more than a scattering of homes, Mr. Wilcox’s general store with everything from Wrangler jeans to muffin tins, the Mobil gas station and Aunt Millie’s Authentic Fudge store with frilly pink curtains in the window.
The group’s manager Frank Toms stormed in and brought with him a blast of cold air. “And where are the golden voices of Memphis?”
“They haven’t arrived yet.”
“They show up drugged out again I am tearing up their contract.”
“You said that yesterday and last night they had to stop in the middle of their set so Jesse could shoot up. How long are you going to keep doing this?”
“She’s an old family friend and I can’t let her down.”
Tom had never had a friend and felt uncomfortable getting personal with Frank. “Aren’t you tired of them?”
Frank’s small face was weathered from his years on the road and made him look like a mouse. “Been doin’ it so long it’s all I know.” He smashed the stub of his cigarette with his toe.
“But wouldn’t you rather have your own home and a wife who greets you with a smile when you come home?”
He pulled a crumpled pack of Lucky Strike from the pocked of his fraying Harris Tweed jacket and lit another. “You’re a dreamer, kid. That kinda life is nice but we don’t get one. The world is stacked against us and music is the only way us wretched souls can find a shred of solace in this crummy world.”
Tom was an avid reader and had plenty of time to read on the road. “People do have nice lives.”
“If I was you I’d hook up with a quality group and ride them to the top of the charts.”
That felt like more road trips liquor and drugs to Tom.” I think about quitting but music’s all I know.”
“It aint gonna get any better so if you feel that way you better get out now before it’s too late. Once this life gets you it don’t let go.
“I got nowhere to go.”
That night as always Tom was the last the leave. No one cared but he made sure the instruments and music were properly stored, checked with the building’s night guard to make sure the auditorium was properly secured and went out into to another blustery night of snow. As he trudged to the Star Hotel across from the tracks he saw a man in expensive clothing torn and covered with grime huddling in a doorway. He didn’t know why but the man piqued his interest and nudged his snow covered shoulder. “You OK?”
The man looked up startled with bloodshot eyes and looked around. “Where am I?”
“You’re sleeping in a doorway.”
“Is this New Orleans?” his hot breath made clouds in the cold air.
“No, it’s Chicago.”
“Damn! I was sure it was New Orleans. Good ol’ Helen always makes me feel I’m surrounded by moss in the trees and the greatest god dammed food on earth.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
He struggled to laugh and snot got stuck in his beard. “Helen is long for H which is short for heroin which is god’s greatest gift to man.”
“You’re going to freeze to death. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Don’t get paid ‘til tomorrow.”
The diner’s heat felt good on his skin as Tom found a booth. The bedraggled man slid across from him and in the diner’s bright lights Tom saw how wan the man looked.
The waitress with a starched hankie in the breast pocket of her uniform approached and stood next to Tom. “What can I get you gentlemen? You sir look like you haven’t slept in days.”
He looked up and this time Tom saw the face of a man who was lost. “Get me a coffee.” Tom said he wanted one too.
She sounded like Tom’s grandmother. “Sweetie, you need a good solid meal. Can I get you a bowl of soup?”
Tom opened his palms. “Sorry, I just got enough for the coffees.”
“You need to get that poor man to a doctor.” That didn’t faze the man vigorously scratching the back of his neck.
Tom seldom needed to start a conversation and kept silent as he tried to think of something to say but it took him so long before he could come up with something to say the waitress came back with a bowl of steaming soup
“Now you eat this hear and then you find yourself a shelter. A man dressed like that dies if he’s out there in that cold for more than an hour.”
That gave Tom an opening. “Did you eat a lot of soup when you were growing up?”
“My grandparents’ Clara made the best mulligatawny soup in the world.”
The man sounded cultivated. “I’m Tom. May I ask where you grew up?”
“I’m Peter and I lived with my parents in London until they died when they couldn’t ski fast enough to escape an avalanche. The ski patrol couldn’t get to their bodies until the spring thaw but they’d already been frozen to me for years. I grew up mostly outside of Philadelphia but was in and out of different schools.”
“My band’s playing in the auditorium tomorrow night. It’s locked up now but if you find a spot anywhere near the door it’ll be warmer than a doorway. Once it opens in the evening it’s warm and I’ll tell them to let you in free. Would you like that?”
“Never know what life’s gonna throw my way. Could be gone tomorrow.”
“My hotel doesn’t permit guests but I hope to see you tomorrow.”
“You sure were nice with that coffee. Felt special.”
The night’s performance was just another night for Tom and the routine hadn’t varied but their set went a few minutes longer. Tom had watched the tension building between Joey and Ellie but when the set made it through the evening smoothly he still had his job. If they broke up he would starve because he didn’t feel qualified for any “real” jobs and backup jobs were getting harder for him to get in the Midwest. The band left the auditorium and a gray haired custodian mopped up the night’s grime from the stage and left but Tom waited. The auditorium got increasingly colder and he finally gave up on Peter and went out. As he walked the icy streets back to his hotel he saw Peter again curled up in another doorway and snow was beginning to turn the color of his well-made coat from camel to white.
He kicked his foot. “How the hell did you make it through the night?”
Peter wasn’t sleeping. “When times are tough you learn a lot more than they teach in any Ivy League school.”
“Did you find more Helen?”
“This time I’m freezing to rid me of wantin’ her. Nothing else has worked and I will never sit in room with a group of sad people who want to tell me how sorry they are for being addicted. I’m almost frozen and haven’t wanted anything more than a warm room so something’s working this time.”
“A member of the band lives here and he said I could use his apartment for a few hours. Would you like to come back with me?”
He brushed a frozen leaf off his coat. “This better not be one of those interventions.”
“I don’t even know what they are. Sounds like the PTA.”
.“Guess you’re safe. I suppose I could.”
Tom believed in good manners and he didn’t know how to deal with Peter who was being dismissive. “You just suppose? I’m offering you a warm room and decent food.”
“Last time someone was nice to me was so long ago I don’t remember. You some kind of masochist?”
“You know, I really don’t know why you interest me and I’ve never been anywhere near an Ivy League school or even the University of Louisville.”
“Is that in Kentucky?”
“My family’s farm is about thirty miles down the road from there. Are you going to come back with me or not? I’m freezing and I can only use it a couple hours.”
He wiped his dripping nose with his sleeve. “If it would make you feel good.”
Tom had little experience with other people but Peter put the onus on him and responsibility frightened him. “I’m sorry, but I’m not very good at this personal stuff, so I’ll be on my way.” He started walking away.
Peter came after him. “Wait! I could use a good meal.”
The key worked and Tom pushed the tight door open to a room strewn with flyers from various shows and cartons of partially eaten Chinese food that was going bad.
“This isn’t what I expected but that sofa looks clean enough.” Tom plopped down and the sofa gave way but held. He patted the space next to him. “Sit.”
Peter sat and kept looking around expecting to see someone emerge from the adjoining room. “You said you’d have food but I’m not eatin’ any of that shit.”
“We shoulda stopped. There’s a pizza place around the corner. I’ll be back in a sec. Sorry, do you like pizza?’
“Can’t say it’s my favorite but if you get it with sausage and no anchovies I’ll eat it.
Tom wasn’t sure what anchovies were but when the red headed teenager wearing a baseball cap with store’s logo on it asked what he wanted he ordered their largest pizza with cheese and an extra helping of sausage.
Peter hadn’t been this warm in weeks and got up and took off his coat. All the muscles he’d developed years ago as a star athlete had atrophied and when he put his hands on a door frame and stretched he pulled a muscle in his back. Bent over in pain he noticed a bookcase with large photography books and pulled out the one with photographs of the homes of the wealthy. He’d been in one of them and the pictures of its rooms reminded him how much he detested the hard practiced friendliness and vacant lives of the people who lived in them. He put it back so fast it shifted the other books and he quickly straightened them so Tom wouldn’t know he’d been looking at books. He picked up a car magazine on the coffee table and was quickly engrossed an article describing Chrysler’s hemi engine he wanted to own someday. He heard the door open and quickly put it down and rearranged the rest of the magazines on the table so Tom wouldn’t know he’d been reading magazines.
Tom who’d raced back with the pizza so it wouldn’t get cold tore off his jacket and pulled paper plates from a cupboard and put them and the pizza on the only table and went back for the sodas still in the bag with the store’s logo on it. “Just as you wanted.”
The smell of the sausage took Peter back his first birthday at his grandparents. He never had many friends and none in the new town, so instead of the traditional birthday party with a group of his friends and an elaborate cake his grandmother made him a special breakfast with sausage she knew was a favorite and his grandparents spent the rest of the day treating him like visiting royalty by taking him to the Philadelphia Art Museum where a painting of a toreador by Goya made his heart stop and then the Rodin Museum where he thought The Burghers of Calais could save him. “Thanks.” He ate ravenously.
Tom ate in silence until all that was left on his plate was tomato stained crust.
Peter wiped his mouth with a paper napkin but missed strings of cheese that remained stuck to his beard. “What was your home like in Kentucky?”
“Like the other families we have a small farm and we are always at the mercy of the weather. When the rains don’t come, we have less to eat and the other families have less, too. When the harvest is good everyone is happy.”
Peter’s image of dirt farmers was illiterate people who lived with three generations to a shack and survived on fundamentalist religions and moonshine. “When did you father abandon your family?”
“He never did. After he came back from serving his country in Korea he never got further than Louisville. I’m so proud of his Purple Heart.”
“And your mother?”
“I love her to death. She took a job so I could save for college without having to work in the fields.”
“So you went to college.”
“Pop died of a heart attack on his way home and I had to get a job to support my family. If you don’t mind I’m tired. I’ve talked to the guard and you can sleep in the cloak room.”
“I don’t know why you’re being so nice to me. You should get a better life than these bands. Least I know when I’m sleeping every night”
“If you’re here in the morning and I’ll drop by and we can explore the city.”
The next day Peter was gone.


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply