Elizabeth Sheets is managing editor for Population Research & Policy Review, and editor for Black Fox Literary Magazine. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing, from Arizona State University. Elizabeth’s work appears or is forthcoming in Kalliope – A Consortium of New Voices, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Apeiron Review.

A Short Story

By Elizabeth Sheets

 

The flower cup below the headstone was half full of rain water, and Sadie dropped the bouquet into it, wrapping and all, before setting her blanket and a pink bakery box on an adjacent concrete bench and taking a seat. There were a dozen or so little potted Christmas trees and poinsettias stationed around the gravesite. Left by friends and dedicated fans, no doubt, as it was highly unlikely any of Bobby’s family made the trip from Chicago. Sadie hadn’t ever seen any indication that they’d been there in the four years since the accident.

 

Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory

Robert N. Payne

December 14, 1967 – August 16, 2003

 

In 1972, Albert Hammond sang of how it never rained in southern California, but he was wrong. Sadie has lived there all her life, and can testify to the fact that sometimes it rains for days on end. No torrential downpours, or anything like that; just the steady gray haze that seeps into bones and enflames all the aches. It was three days into an ongoing drizzle when Sadie paid her annual birthday visit to All Saints Cemetery in Long Beach.

“Hey old man, it’s the big 4-0 for you this year,” Sadie said, sweeping the toe of her boot along the damp grass framing the headstone. “I brought us some cake, but I’m back on the wagon, so there’ll be no libations at this party. Since forty is kind of a big deal though, I picked up a bouquet of red roses. They don’t last all that long,” Sadie smiled, her thoughts drifting back decades, “but with the cool weather, hopefully these’ll hang on longer than the last ones I gave you.”

*          *          *

Just out of high school, Bobby’s garage band had their first paying gig at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Sadie and her little cluster of gal pals were beyond excited to be on the list of friends of the band who got in free. She had four dozen roses delivered to the band’s dressing room just before the show, a bouquet for each one of the boys. “This is how you show your support for the arts,” her mother told her the week leading up to the show, “so for god’s sake, keep your underwear on.” She’d been watching way too much MTV.

On the big night, Sadie and her friends arrived early. They were first in line and secured spots at the foot of the stage. Sacrament was up third, and while the first band was setting up, Bobby found her. “This place is fucking killer!” he said, hanging an arm across Sadie’s shoulders. He smelled like sweat and Lowenbrau.

“Can we go back stage?” Sadie asked. Her friends leaned in, giggling in shared interest.

“Nah. Nah, it’s off limits. There’s no room back there anyway, our dressing room is small, and we’re sharing it with Boneyard.” As he spoke, Bobby’s eyes roamed Sadie’s body approvingly. She’d chosen the black lace blouse—sans bra—and red leather jacket, as she knew they were his favorites. “Come with me,” he moved his arm from her shoulders and took her hand, dragging her off in the direction of the bar. Sadie smiled in mock apology to her friends and allowed herself to be towed away.

Bobby turned a corner behind the bar and pulled Sadie into the dark red hallway that lead to the bathrooms. He pressed her to the wall next to the payphone and, securing a denim-clad leg between her knees, leaned in to kiss her. His hand cupped her chin, his thumb drawing her lower lip down to expose her teeth to his wandering tongue. They’d spent every afternoon of Sadie’s junior year arranged just this way in her mother’s kitchen. Her hands traced the familiar lines of the drum set tattooed across his bare chest before taking hold of his vest and reluctantly forcing some space between them. “Too bad the dressing room is occupado, huh?” she said, letting go and running a finger under her bottom lip to fix the smudged lipstick.

“Definitely,” Bobby thrust a hand through his curly black hair and took an unstable step back, glancing down the hall toward the bar. “I gotta go look for Daryl, but come find me when we’re done, okay?”

“Sure,” she called after him, watching him disappear among the growing number of manicured manes drifting into the club. Daryl was the bass player and only roadie for the band. Daryl’s family took Bobby in after his father had pushed him through an arcadia door during one of their drunken brawls. It had been a couple years since, and the boys were more like brothers than friends in that they annoyed the hell out of each other a good portion of the time.

Sadie rejoined her friends for the duration of the show, finding a spot where she could watch Bobby at work. She’d always loved to watch him play; his arms were tan and lean, but fast and powerful like the music he demanded from those skins. When he caught sight of her during their second song, he smiled, and her heart pounded in tempo. Unfortunately, Bobby had overly indulged in some liquid courage, and midway through the set he fell out of rhythm. The guys made it work in spite of the distraction, and played out the set.

After the show, Sadie wandered out back to find Bobby. Instead she found Damien, the guitar player, helping Daryl load equipment into his dad’s van. No sign of Bobby.

“Great show, guys!” Sadie called, making her way across the alley.

“If you’re lookin’ for your boyfriend, he fucked off already,” Daryl called from inside the van, over the sound of crashing cymbals.

“Nice.” Sadie said, kicking the rear tire and turning to go find her friends.

“Was he your ride home?” Damien asked, stepping around the side of the van. His hair hung, dark and tangled, to the middle of his chest. The white muscle shirt he’d worn for the show dangled from the back pocket of his jeans. “I’ll be heading that way soon if you need a lift.” Damien’s face was open, inviting. It hadn’t occurred to Sadie then that these were the guys worth an investment; she was blinded by their lack of dysfunction.

“I’m good,” she answered, making her exit, “but thanks.”

Sadie called Bobby the next morning. She didn’t bother mentioning his disappearance. He didn’t bring it up. “Hey, thanks for coming last night. Was that amazing, or what? I think we got a clean recording for a demo.” He paused, his lighter flared and she heard him inhale deeply. “You looked good,” he said, in a pinched voice. “Maybe you made it into some of the pictures.”

“Maybe.” Sadie warmed a little. “Did you get the flowers I had sent over?”

“Ah, that was you? I could have guessed, right?” Another pull on his cigarette. “We shared a dressing room with Boneyard, and they trashed it. There was broken vases and shit everywhere, you know? Fucking assholes…”

“Oh.” Sadie circled the phone cord around her index finger. “That’s pretty messed up, I hope none of your equipment got damaged.” Maybe Mom had missed the mark, and some satin baby blue panties would have done the job after all.

“Nah. Luckily all the valuable stuff was already out on stage.” Daryl’s voice piped up in the background, giving Bobby an exit, “Listen, I gotta bail, can we hook up later?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine.”

“Thanks, baby.” The line went dead.

*          *          *

You were always looking for a reason to bail, weren’t you baby? Sadie thought, the memory dissolved and she tuned into the sound of a car pulling up along the cemetery road. The drizzle had grown a bit more insistent, and she expanded the small umbrella she took from the inside pocket of her leather jacket. She opened the lid to the bakery box, aware of the man getting out of the Mustang that’d parked behind her Civic. She pulled the candles, lighter, and fork from her other pocket, as she watched Damien climb the small grassy hill and come to stand over Bobby’s grave. In 1997, Sadie had finally untangled herself from the mess that was Bobby, and Damien played no small part in that endeavor.

*          *          *

Beach cities all along the California coast put on spectacular fireworks displays each year on the Fourth of July. Redondo Beach has an especially pleasing production, and Damien’s family owns a yacht that occupies a slip in King Harbor, a coveted spot from which to take in the festivities. Sadie was surprised and delighted by the invitation to come watch the fireworks from the boat with Damien and his wife. She and Bobby hadn’t seen them since Sacrament fell out two years before.

Bobby was reluctant to accept, but it’s not like they had other plans, extravagant holidays weren’t exactly in the cards. Sadie’s meager earnings at the salon barely kept the roof over their heads. Bobby had burned through a few small bands since he left Sacrament, but nothing promising came from his efforts. Sadie hoped the invitation from Damien was the beginning of something new for Bobby, even if it meant setting the drum sticks aside a while to invest his energy into something more profitable.

They arrived late afternoon, and by eight o’clock Bobby was into his second bottle, also frequently known as the angry bottle, of Maker’s Mark. He staggered up from below deck, where he’d surrendered his swim trunks for a pair of white jeans and a worn The Guess Who t-shirt, and made his way to where everyone gathered on the white cushioned seats of the saloon.

Sadie recognized the determined set of Bobby’s shoulders, the antagonizing smile plastered across his face. Her stomach sank, along with her hopes for a reconciliation. She reached for him as he passed, in an effort to pull him down beside her, but he brushed her hand away and proceeded to the other side of the low table where the evening’s nosh was laid. He raised a Nike-clad foot onto the seat opposite her and considered Damien, who was behind the bar refilling the shrimp bowl.

“You’ve definitely arrived, haven’t you, friend?” Bobby said, “I mean, look at this!” His arms flew wide, whiskey sloshing in the bottle that hung from his left hand.

“Well, you know the boat is still technically my Dad’s,” Damien responded, returning the bowl to the table. “But I’m glad you guys could hang out for the fireworks tonight.”

Justine smiled at her husband as he slid into the seat next to her, and then turned to Bobby, “It is great you could come out. I’m not about cleaning up after you, though, so how about keeping your feet off the furniture?”

Bobby’s foot hit the floor, “What? No maid on the S.S. Damien?” He leaned his head back in exaggerated astonishment, and Sadie thought for a moment he might fall over. When he returned his gaze to Damien, his voice rose. “How can you call yourself a proper sell-out if you’ve got your wife swabbing the damn decks, man?”

Mortified, Sadie rose and took a couple strides in Bobby’s direction, determined to derail this conversation. “Stop it. These people are our friends, remember?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Bobby said, shoving his finger in Sadie’s face. “The only reason we’re here is so Damien can show me up.” The tell was in the eyes. Bobby could put it away, but when the alcohol overwhelmed him he couldn’t look her in the eye. Not for lack of trying, she thought, it just simply wasn’t possible. He looked directly at her, but slightly to the right. He was totally gone.

Sadie stood firm. “You’re drunk. You’re being ridiculous,” she hissed.

“And you’re deluded,” Bobby yelled into her face before turning his fury back at Damien. “You’re no better just because you’ve got the suit…the wife. Not by a stretch, man. Not by a stretch.”

“I don’t know where this is coming from, man. There’s no need to yell.” Damien stood up, raising his hands like he was being held up. Sadie noticed for the first time how tall he was, his head almost touched the small ceiling that covered the forward half of the deck.

“I don’t need this bullshit.” Bobby grabbed Sadie by the arm and dragged her towards the steps that lead to the dock. “We can watch the show from the beach like the rest of the poor people.”

“Bobby, wait—”

“Let him go. It’s the same old Bobby,” Justine said.

“That’s right! I haven’t changed.” Bobby stumbled down the steps, Sadie in tow. She’d never been happier for a hand rail.

Sadie followed him down the dock toward the parking lot, praying she wasn’t going to need to fish him out of the Pacific. She glanced back toward the boat and was glad to see Damien descending the stairs to follow them.

“Come on!” Bobby flung the half empty bottle into the water, and then yelled at Sadie as he stumbled off the curb in the direction of his primered Nova.

“You can’t drive.” Sadie followed. She felt drained, and wondered how she’d ever imagined this evening ending differently. “Give me the keys.”

“Fuck you. I’m fine to drive.” Perfectly on cue, Bobby fumbled the keys in the door and they fell to the ground.

“Dude, you’re not even walking straight, better give her the keys.” Damien called from the curb.

Bobby stooped to pick up his keys, one hand on the car door for balance. “I think I can drive my woman home, thanks though.” He stood, successfully opened the driver’s door, and slid in, hitting his head on the door frame. “Son of a bitch! Get in the car!”

“You can barely walk…”

“Well good for me driving’s a seated activity. Let’s fucking go already.”

“No.”

“It’s okay, Sadie, I can give you a ride home,” Damien said.

“Who the fuck are you?” Bobby screamed at Damien, then fired up the old engine.

“I’m not riding with you like this. I’ll see you at home later.”

“You’re gonna choose him over me?” was Bobby’s incredulous reply.

Sadie’s heart broke for him, but she was decided. “That’s got nothing to do with—”

“I guess he’s the man of the hour. Well, you can just go be with Damsel Damien then.”

“I just want to get home in one piece, Bobby. Maybe he drives us both home, and we get the car tomorrow?”

“Nah. Nah, I gotta bail. Good luck to ya…” Bobby peeled out of the parking lot.

Sadie stared at the asphalt, trapped in the awkward silence that followed Bobby’s dramatic exit. Damien walked up beside her, retrieving keys from his front pants pocket. “Do you have everything?”

“Yes,” Sadie answered, eyes locked on a discarded penny that lay in the parking lot about a foot from the curb. Tail side up.

“Great, I’m right over here.” Placing a hand at the small of Sadie’s back, he gave a gentle push in the direction of the black Mustang parked in the corner of the last row of spaces in the lot.

“Shouldn’t you let Justine know you’re leaving?”

“She’ll figure it out.” He crossed in front of the car to the passenger side and opened the door to let Sadie get in. Of course.

Sadie slid into her seat, tossing her purse on the floor and securing her seatbelt before leaning her head against the leather headrest and closing her eyes. The driver’s door opened, and the car rocked gently as Damien climbed inside. Comforted by the low rumble of the engine, Sadie relaxed a little, in spite of the shame burning in her stomach. “I’m really sorry about the scene,” she said.

“I’m more concerned about Bobby.” Damien turned south on Pacific Coast Highway. “You guys still in the place in Lomita?”

“Yeah.” Sadie cranked the window down just a little, then began pulling her long black waves into a braid over her left shoulder. “I hope he gets home without getting himself killed. Or worse, someone else.”

“I was thinking more long term. He’s sure invested in the downward spiral he’s on.”

“I know. I’ve tried everything I can think of to stop him. He’s hell bent on destruction.”

“I think you should get out, Sadie.”

“Get out?”

“Yeah. Bobby’s going down, and if you don’t get out, he’ll drag you right down with him. You can’t spend your life cleaning up after him.”

“Is that why you walked away from Sacrament? Tired of cleaning up?”

“Just done. At some point, you’ve got to save yourself. I don’t want to see him destroy your life along with his own. If he’s not willing to do anything for himself, what more can we do?”

*          *          *

Leaving Bobby was hard, but she’d taken Damien’s words to heart, and saved herself. She kept to the outskirts of that circle of friends for over six years, right up until Bobby’s accident. She got a call from his mother then, letting Sadie know he was in the hospital, and asking if she could go see to him until the family could get there from Chicago. He died two days before they showed up. She was there, with only her guilt for company.

Sadie and Damien reconnected at the funeral and stayed in touch, mostly emails and Christmas cards. He and Justine had split up in 1998, but he’d done well for himself and Sadie wished frequently that she’d been smarter about her choices way back when. In any case, she was pleasantly surprised by his company at the grave site today.

Sadie stuck the four and the zero rainbow colored candles into the jumbo red velvet cupcake. Bobby’d always thought he was a prince, and red velvet seemed like the most regal option. She looked up at Damien and smiled, “Hi.”

“Hi Sadie,” he said and crouched down to look her in the face. “Need a light?”

“I got it.” She had her hands full managing the umbrella in one hand while trying to light the candles with the other, the pink box balanced on her lap. The little breeze that came along with the rain just complicated things. Sadie got the four lit before the lighter went out, but didn’t have any luck getting it to work again. A black mark materialized on her thumb for her efforts, and the plastic fork slipped to the ground.

Damien sat down next to Sadie on the bench. “Here, let me take this,” he lifted the umbrella out of her hand.

“Thanks.” She plucked the zero candle from the cake and lit it with the flame on the four, then stuck it back in its spot. She sat staring at the flames, unsure of what to say. This annual ritual was something she’d always done alone. Now with Damien here, it suddenly seemed… sad.

“Are you going to make a wish?” he asked.

“Every year I wish he’d stopped drinking,” Sadie laughed a little, trying to keep it light. “I’m not sure it’s working.” The flames swam in front of her.

“Right. Well, maybe you try something different this year?”

She leaned in and blew out the candles in one lucky breath. “I brought flowers, maybe I could skip the wish.”

“Bobby a fan of roses?”

Sadie shrugged. “Concert tickets seemed out of the question.” She stuck the fork into the cake and scooped out a bite, offering it to Damien.

He lifted his hand to decline, “Thanks, but I’m not much of a sweets guy.” He handed her the umbrella and then stood to walk over and look at the festive little trees. Sadie took the bite, and another, watching Damien as he kneeled to read the cards.

“You changed your hair.” She noticed the braid tucked into the back of his overcoat, the rest concealed under a black fedora.

“I tamed my hair,” he responded, smiling up at her. Then he turned his attention to the roses. Looking for a card and finding none, he proceeded to unwrap them and arrange them in the cup. Discarding the cellophane onto the grass, he fingered a red petal and said, “Remember that first gig Sacrament played at the Troubadour way back?”

“I do remember.” Sadie dropped the fork into the pink box and closed the lid. Setting it on the bench, she went to stand opposite Damien.

“Someone left us roses that night, you know?” He kept his head down, and she noticed the drops of water clinging to the fabric of his hat.

“Yeah. Bobby said the Boneyard boys trashed the place and tossed the flowers.”

“They did. I saved a few, though,” he said, coming to his feet.

“You did?”

“Absolutely.” Damien stood up and looked at Sadie. “I thought it was neat. I took a half a dozen or so and hung them from my rearview with one of the ribbons.” He jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat. “They hung there til they dried out and I had petal potpourri littering my dash. It was cool.”

“I didn’t realize anyone else saw them. They probably weren’t the best idea, you know?” Sadie felt the old embarrassment burning her cheeks. “Bobby didn’t seem too into it.”

“Maybe not. We were pretty young,” Damien said, he shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t think of it then, but I could’ve given those dried stems to him, you know? He could’ve strung ‘em together like a thorny crown, right? Worn it for a show. He would’ve been into that.” He rocked back slightly on the heels of his boots, and then stood gazing down at Bobby’s headstone.

Sadie observed the clearing sky and collapsed the umbrella. She stepped over to stand beside Damien and linked her arm around his. He tipped his head to plant a kiss on top of her head, and drops of water from his hat slid down her cheek.

“Thanks,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.