Lake Number by Tyler Barton


She was short on change but changing me, even as I swung on sight at men with money. Her songs had not impressed the punks, lost to their beers with their backs to her music. Her case lay open on stage and empty. I said, What, you poor pricks don’t got a dollar for talent? This, as the bouncer, a teenager, dragged me yelling out the dining room door.

*

“I still don’t know who the hell you are, but I should ring your neck like a wet mark,” Devon Redmond later said, sitting atop the trunk of someone’s Dodge, looking down on me in the mud. “Now they’ll fucking never let me play here again.” She was held—high on that red car—soft in the arms of her giant Diet Coke. Booze spooks me too. It’s a shame that feeling frightened’s what my itchy brain craves. Iraq delivered me that fear, that need, plus a limp my Gram calls grief knees. That night at the Ausable Inn, I’d been testing my ability to appreciate pure artistry without being inebriated. It almost worked. If only the other patrons were able to value what washed through the room as she crooned. I thought my my fists might fix their misspent attentions. On my back in the parking lot, I toasted Devon empty-handed. She swigged, poured a little out for me. The hiss of carbonation. A hollow whiff of aspartame. “What are you doing here?”

“Missing class.” I was what the college called a non-trad—what the profs called a non-grad. I couldn’t focus, I explained, on anything. Couldn’t read because I couldn’t watch what was around me. Is there a more vulnerable position than holding your eyes down on a page?

“Besides being on stage?” she said before she burped.

“Touché.” She’d been somebody’s mother in a regional production of the play Lincoln watched while Booth shot him. This had been a month before, but it felt like a year, like I’d known her forever. The performance ran in the back of an art gallery, a short stage lit with candles and creaking, thin wicker seats I was not the only one glued to. I googled through the inter- mission. Found she was a songwriter too.

In her opener she sings, It takes so much work to want / but none to need. / I took a picture in the mirror / but it’s not of me. / And neither is she / who released the shutter. / It’s only gotten worse. / I’ve become another.

Another what? And was it maybe shudder? Outside the bar Devon only fed my questions silence. Just let me lie there in the dirt. Later I would learn she did mean scream, and that the lyric was an edit, the earlier draft being: I’ve become another / body sinking / on Lake Number.

“What’s it feel like to do something special?”

She laughed her voice from hoarse to lost. Headlights swept through the parking lot, a blue truck that would nearly crush me as it parked.

“I play tomorrow at Solomon’s,” Devon said finally, croakingly. The new truck idled beside me. “I imagine you’ll show up anyway, so how about we make you useful? See if you can start a clap-along. Maybe someday you can command the merch table.” I sat up to better see what it was she was offering me.

The blue truck’s window lowered. The driver: “You too famous to get in here, Devvie?”

“Oh—hey girl.”

“I can’t keep coming all the way out here. Where the hell even are we?”

“Lake Number,” I said. It was my hometown. One of those places where they printed local heroes’ faces on flags flown from telephone poles. The sepia of history. (I won’t get mine until I die, thank god, so I never have to see myself hovering over an empty main street.) On new years, in the traffic circle, they drop a giant icicle which in the flash of our photography glows like an alien laser—annihilation.

“Who is this fucker?”

“Groupies,” Devon said, slamming shut her ride’s door.

*


Devon Redmond, track three, her sharpest chorus: Is there a part of you, darling, that’s never been for purchase?

*


She only plays dives that don’t fly the flag. Or else forgot to put one up. Those stars and taunting bars. Or maybe it blew away. I like to think she does this for me — how I’m broken by reminders of my old devotion — but I guess she’s got reasons of her own. I don’t know. We don’t talk much. I clap from my perch. I coil up the cords. Wear her t-shirts. Stone sober most nights I unfold the legs of a sturdy brown table and lay out tapes ($5), CDs ($10), sprinkle buttons ($1) over tees ($15). Foreign bills, fake checks, pleas, promises, songs—there’s no tender I won’t accept.

 

Tyler Barton is the communications manager for the Adirondack Center for Writing, where he teaches creative writing workshops to elderly incarcerated individuals in way-upstate New York. His stories have appeared in Recommended Reading, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Find him @goftyler or at tsbarton.com




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