By: Rob Azevedo
The sound coming from inside The Woodpecker Lounge was a mixture of brilliance and raw nerve. Last Breath’s legendary blues man, Dick Zaino, was setting off rockets with his red Stratocaster, gassing through songs about guilt and suffering, belting out one after another, looking lean and tanned, his hair slicked sweet, eyes hooded, smoke lines on his face.
Beyond the stage the drinking crowd listened closely to Zaino’s golden notes. Some people were huddled over tiny glasses of gin. Others were smoking packs of grits and drinking vodka, or just dreaming, eyes shut with strange images of redemption and peace scrambling for daylight within their shackled brains. One sponge was chin-to-chest. A cougar in red high heels was showing off her pussy to a throng of short order cooks near a utility closet. Upstream near the latrines a dicey kid of fifteen was giving directions, holding his pecker.
I was deep into the white tequila, double margaritas, no salt. I’d been there since noon, unshaven, rank, in a chair at a corner table with my legs sprawled out into the juke joint’s tiny aisles. Cutting the area off from visitors, damning the masses, I was incapable of conversing or cultivating an interesting tone, topic or tenor other than “Eat me!,” which I declared as Zaino fired off his final salvo.
Nearly penniless since being cut off from my wages by Tank, the owner of De Facto Inc, for being an insubordinate “collection agent” a coward, a wanker and a fink, I was now hooking around town for change; selling my pipe, banging the heavies, lapping down on the roughest of curly hairs. I spend most my days between the sheets, earning ten bucks here, maybe seven there for lapping the folds of the lonely housewives.
I opened my eyes long enough to watch Zaino finger off a delicious, southern bred high note that capped off a, grassy, blue ribbon ditty. The pink of his tongue slid through the walls and out into the nearly empty streets.
“The blues ain’t dead,” roared Zaino before leaving the club and stepping into his beige ‘88 Cadillac DeVille. “The blues aint’ dead.”
I was never a blues man before I moved to Last Breath. I was a club slut, blue and true, sporting tight, dark slacks with my hog-tied to my thigh and cheap leather-man spikes. The only thing I knew about the blues was how to sing them…my way.
Owners of our sins, we shape them with every passing moon.I stumbled, quite literally, into Zaino outside the Woodpecker. He had returned to the club a half hour after he left. He apparently had forgotten to grab his girl. Zaino rocked my shoulder coming out the front door, not knowing I was on the other side making time with a potential client, a cougar from Benson with areolas the size of small pizzas.
Zaino was walking out with a young black woman in jeans and sneakers and the most bodacious breasts conquered by any man, blues or otherwise. She smelt stripper hot, a dancer’s scent that can level most men with one whiff of her arms, thighs, feet and the inside of her lightening mouth.
The woman walked away from Zaino and right into the front seat of his DeVille. I didn’t know why he stopped but he was standing right next to me. He didn’t smell all that bad either. Good sweat mixed with aftershave and hair tonic.
Zaino turned to me without offering a smile. All he said was “You fucked things up good at Rag’s, didn’t you?”
Rags! That hobo shop was going to haunt me through fifty monsoons. Yes, things went bad there months ago. Real bad. I was lathered in tit but an innocent woman took a lethal dose of gunfire. She didn’t even owe. She didn’t even have a damn quarter.
Bringing things full circle, I was sent to Rags to collect some money for Tank from a sex charged store owner and came out without glory, powerless. I’d never seen Tank since. If he came by my flat looking to split me open with a mallet I didn’t know because I never went back.
I stole a car out near the river the same night the Quarter Lady took her bullet to the brain outside Rag’s and headed out of town. Of course I didn’t make it all that far because I’d never been all that far. The cops never came after me on account of the shooter didn’t go rat. Apparently her loins still burned for love.
I stayed in the broom closet of a motel next to a crane dealership for a few weeks and came back to Last Breath only when I heard that Tank had fallen of a heart attack, the sweaty, swollen fuck.
Upon my return it didn’t surprise me when people started approaching me on the streets of Last Breath with ill will. Not that the demise of the Quarter Lady was an all out bad thing. But because I’m a rotten man, without a future and because I couldn’t just stay gone. Fear brought me back to Mama’s tit.
Last Breath was all I knew. I had some schooling here and made a few friends. Most disbanded me in the 80’s after a series of violent arrests. My parents were both dead. I’ve got a rich sister who won’t return my calls and a younger brother that’s half way to Shitsville, just like his only brother Muddy.
So because of my ambitionless, deviant ways, I became table chatter over coffee and snack cakes for weeks in Last Breath. The townspeople bathed in my humility. I was pepper sprayed and forced to the carpet. Hunted and haunted.
The abuse passed as work of Tank death got around, but I didn’t have any profession or training to fall back on when it came time to find a job. I wasn’t good with numbers, nuclear affairs, military adjustments, information technology or the dawn of e-commerce.
Plus, I have tattoos of falcons running up and down my arms, legs and half way around my neck.
So I decided to bang the desperate instead.
Still, this here encounter with Zaino outside the Woodpecker Lounge was something I didn’t desire. It had nothing to do with his majestic presence. For a man in his 60’s, Dickey was evenly built, lean and wiry. But I was all about thugging these days, cutting the world off, not caring if the sun came up. One shot!
“So, who’s asking?” I finally said to Zaino.
A preposterously ridiculous question seeing I just paid $2 to watch him bend notes. If Zaino had any real talent he’d present himself as the devil. But he just sucked down on his own smoke and tried to look mean. Without his axe he was just another intruder.
He said it again “You fucked things up good at Rag’s.”
This time a smile came across his cracked black skin. I was shit drunk and hated riddles. I admired this hump but I was tired and still needed to see Mrs. Penny at her estate up the down the road for some mutual oral.
“Well,” said Zaino, finally, after all his silent bluster “I owe you one.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Say’s I owe you one” said Zaino loudly. “Linda, the dame who owned Rag’s, well, I owed her. And now on account of her doing thirty years, I owe you.”
“You owe me nothing,” I said, turning away to look for a ride home. Home? That’s funny.
Zaino grabbed at my arm and spun me around. Then I felt my mouth go numb and my teeth bust up. He smacked me good for not respecting him. Never turn your back on a blues man.
“Oh, I wasn’t gonna give you a dime,” he said throwing a hanky in my face.
“What the fuck do you want from me?” I asked between sobs.
“You’re in a rough patch, son. I might want to help.”
“Sure,” Zaino said. “Come by my place out near Hobson later tonight. It’s off Route 28 and down a few miles off Saratoga. Look for the meatpacking billboard.”
Zaino then started his beige Deville, his lady friend sitting passenger side smoking a black cigarette, gazing lovingly at the auto body shop across the street.
“Can’t I get a ride?” I said to Zaino who possibly failed to understand that we were heading in the same direction.
Zaino leaned across the woman’s lap, eyeing down her dark cleavage. He looked up at me with a blank stare and said “I don’t think so,” then sped off.
I arrived at Zaino place after midnight. I had hopped a ride from a fellow drunk to Mrs. Penny’s house out in the suburbs. The romp was a good one. Just two wrinkled and bent piglets hamming away at each other’s sex tools.
Mrs. Penny lived only about a quarter mile down the road from Zaino so I wandered that way, soggy socks and all.
Zaino was sitting on his front porch blowing into a harmonica when I walked up the three steps to the landing of his home. So fitting, was Pinetop Perkins going to come stumbling out the back?
“Glad you made it,” Zaino said, wiping the spit from the instrument on his shirt. “Need a drink?”
“Love one,” I said.
He came out with two tumblers of whisky. I killed mine in one shot. He did his and offered me a seat.
“I know hardly anything about you, Muddy,” said Zaino, putting the bottle of whisky on the porch’s floor.
“You know my name,” I said.
“I know you’re a fuck up. And who doesn’t? But there is worth in you, I think.”
I hardly heard a thing. Telling me I was a fuck up was like telling Jerry Lee Lewis he’s The Killer.
“So you stated the obvious,” I said. I was treading on another beating. I sensed it. I just didn’t know it until I said it.
Zaino put his glass down and leaned in close, like Tank used to when he was going to make a point or crush my face.
“Here’s the deal kid,” he said. “I understand you’re in the business of sex.”
I spit into my glass. What was I doing here?
“Don’t look so surprised,” he said. “We understand sex around here.”
Just then his black angel from the Woodpecker walked out the porch door in a see-thru white night shirt. Rattled, I reached for the bottle and sipped the tip.
Zaino continued. “Delia and I heard you sell it off to some of the ladies around here. Seems like solid business. We want in.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t share my body or profits.”
“Yes you do, and we are keeping half,” Zaino said, his lady smiling slyly near the door, toying with her nipples.
He kept talking. “You’re sitting in a den of love right now. We want to flip this place and make it a cathouse. Low down of course. We’ll sell you off and make some cash. You must have friends.”
Now this was funny, real funny. I haven’t any allies, no friends and no real family. I was about to be forced into the sex trade by a blues man and his cunning squeeze. What was I to do, say no? I could. Then I might be back in the broom closet, licking carpet cleaner in my sleep. So I didn’t.
Zaino poured me another double and laid out his business plan.
“You and Delia work together. I will play to the cheap seats and you two work the aisles at the Woodpecker. Between black outs, Muddy, you get the mommies wet. Make them ache for it. Delia will come by when she sees they are good and fermented and invite them back to my place. There, well, Mr. Muddy Atkins, you can do you’re thing. Delia will handle the cash.”
I sat and listened and figured, fuck it, I’ll have a ride and a place to crash, at least through the night. Maybe I will learn how to play the harmonica. Take guitar lessons.
“Now,” said Zaino, leaning back in his seat. “Delia wants a taste.”
After twenty years of great moments, I topped it. Delia worked my knot raw. She was a diamondback! Zaino sat through the whole thing, watching. It was my time to set off my own rockets. I heard Zaino laugh out loud and whisper to himself “The blues ain’t dead. The blues ain’t dead.”
Then, right around the time Delia started sliding her finger up my asshole, I felt a hot needle slam into my neck, right between the talons of the crow ink. She was a great lover and understood the art of distraction. I never had a chance of seeing Zaino crawl in behind me. At the time I had Delia in my “wheelbarrow” move and wasn’t facing the devilish blues man. But when the poison met its mark I was melted instantly and slumped on top of Delia, hitting my face on the wooden porch floor. One eye closed, one open.
From some far off place I could hear Delia shouting “Get this shit bag off me, Dickey!”
Zaino rolled me over and started pulling up on the back of my neck, raising the swollen tomb. He looked in my eyes. I smelt his meaty breath.
“What do we do with him?” Delia asked Zaino in a panic.
“We wait,” he said.
I came through unmoved. My right eyelid was nestled into a raised nail on the floor. My feet were tied and someone had wiped my neck clean.
“I have been everywhere looking for a man like you,” said Zaino, pointing his dirty finger in my direction. I’ve been to the east coast, shuffling my boots on the cobblestones. I have seen the West, the sand, the bullshit. And I came here, to a town knocking on death’s front door, Last Breath. All for you.”
I was bored. Whatever these two shit bird’s shot into my neck was getting my dick hard. Zoned out I tried to focus on Zaino but his bottom lip was bugging me. It was a thumb’s worth of fading black skin, cracked and nasty.
Zaino continued “You been talking in your sleep. Something about a Quarter Lady. Mumbling like a fool, crying almost. There’s guilt in your heart. You hate you.”
This was a very dramatic man. My ADD was raging and I wasn’t down for Mojo so I started looking up at Delia. She was avoiding my glances. I seriously thought we had something going, besides her great nips.
As I inched toward her, the enzymes in my brain began stealing my sugars.
Zaino slapped me down. “Enough! You listen here Muddy Atkins. I want your soul. It’s mine now. You harbor guilt. Cut the chains. Make a deal.”
Zaino shot his right hand in my direction, a cleaver of sorts. I stood up and asked for a drink. Zaino looked at Delia and she went and fetched the bottle. Nice ass.
In the kitchen now, surrounded by pots and clear glasses for beer or wine half empty with cigarette butts and tobacco spit mixing about on the filthy counters, One of the glasses was stuffed with a paper towel, overflowing at the rim. The place smelled raw, but familiar. I was thinking of home, my couch, my porn when Zaino came up behind me and slapped me into a folding chair.
“This is where the deal goes down,” Zaino said.
My ears were red hot. I touched the tip of my right ear and wished I hadn’t.
“Years back I traded my soul to the devil to play the blues like no one’s business. I’ll break your back when I’m grinding my notes. But I have paid for my skills and I am old and if I continue my wicked ways I will die before I was told. Plus I’m tired.”
I began to understand. The curse lives to see another day.
Zaino went on “So we slice our fingers and rub our blood together, mixing it up good.”
Zaino motioned to Delia for the blade in the drawer. She reached in to grab it, her night dressing riding high up on her brown ass. Delia reached in and grabbed an unclean steak knife. Zaino took it in his hand, grabbed my right wrist and pulled it toward him.
I looked back at Delia again out of lust and longing. What a proud woman, sucking down on a cigarette, dabbing the ashes into one of the glasses on the counter. Again, I thought of the rise of her nipples, the chicken skin bubbling up, tightness then release.
Zaino grabbed my face. He was sweating hard. I saw into his eyes and he saw into mine. Two rotten stones bent on perception.
“We do this now,” Zaino said. “Say I commit to my fate.”
“I commit to my faith,” I said.
“I said, fate, you idiot!” shouted Zaino, about to slice the dirty blade of the steak knife into my thumb.
“Fate,” I said. “I meant fate. I commit to it, the whole deal and the sorrow and late nights and bad breath and eye bags and the heavy mind and heart and body. I commit to it all. Bring me back home. Let me burn!”
I was shouting now, taking over the room. Out of my chair, slamming about, my shirt freshly ripped off. I was pounding on my crotch, shouting out my mantra “I commit! I commit to it all!”
Then over the madness Zaino yelled “Delia!
I turned back to see half of Delia’s head burning. The ash she was flipping caught the paper towel stuffed into one of the glasses and it took off. It was messy. She was heaving smoke and spit before Zaino reached over me and grabbed her to the floor. He took off his jacket and began smothering her burning head.
I didn’t even stop to watch. I just ran.
I tripped falling out the back door. I wasn’t going to deal with the heat if I didn’t need to. I might be broke and I might be homeless, but I still had my soul, for one more long sleepless night anyway.
The blues ain’t dead!” I was shouting as I ran with my hands in the air. “The blues ain’t dead!”