Snakecharmer Blues

I’ve started to revist short stories I wrote in the late ’90s, when I submitted them to magazines in the hope for publication. None of the stories were accepted, and they slept for many years in a filing box. This is the first story I revisited, then edited. It felt surreal, of traveling back in time to my younger self. In my mind, I saw the room where I typed the story. I can’t remember all that I thought and felt back then to come up with this story, blending a little mystery into the walk down memory lane.

I hope you enjoy the story…


Snakecharmer Blues
by Dave Williams

Henry Despres knew something was wrong as he sat on the barstool and watched his friend play guitar.

When Louis played in bars before, talking among the bar’s patrons typically stayed to a minimum. Murmurs at some of the tables. Drink orders said to bartenders. Over all of it, the music from Sweeter Than Night was clear.

Not this time. Zeke’s customers chatted, their din competing with the music. The music stayed on top, but not by much, like a wrestler barely outmuscling his opponent.

Up on stage, Louis looked like he was trying too hard. His face was twisted with effort, sweat sliding down his wrinkled forehead and cheeks in thin streams. Blue and purple stage lights danced across his face, giving it an ugly shine. His fingers jerked on the guitar, seemingly attacking the strings to force out each note.

Henry Despres sipped his beer. Shelly was right; the music was off. Henry was glad she had called him several days ago to share the news about her husband, even though the news had arrived in a voice heavy with concern: “He’s been moody. Sometimes he’s really, really happy, like he’s about to burst. Talks up a storm, says we’re gonna do this and that, and things are gonna be great. He’ll go on and on about he’s gonna take me on the road and play in other cities and we’ll have the time of our lives. Then other times he’ll be angry and complain about his boss and how he doesn’t give a shit about Louis and treats him like dirt. And about he doesn’t get the chances he deserves when he can play so good. But Henry, you know how he blew that chance he had.”

Since Shelly had paused, Henry had filled the gap: “Yeah, that was sad. Do you think his moodiness is because of that?”

“Don’t know,” Shelly had said. “Could be. But that was months ago, and he looked like he was rolling with it back then.”

“Maybe he was just acting like he was rolling with it,” Henry had said.

“Yeah,” Shelly had said. “Maybe you’re right. Could you talk with him? See if something’s bothering him that he won’t talk to me about? I know he doesn’t tell me everything. But I’d hope he’d talk to me about important things.”

Henry had said he’d have a chat with Louis, see if he could dig up what was bothering his good friend.

The old Louis bared his soul to the music. Played with every ounce of passion and heart inside him. The crowd in the bar stared at the man at center stage. The music was so mesmerizing, you couldn’t look away. Like a spell was cast over the bar patrons.

And when people danced to the old Louis, they did it with their eyes half-closed. They lost themselves in the music. They forgot about the mundane things of every day. As if in a trance, listeners swayed like wheat in a field blown by wind. Gerard’s drums and Nina’s bass guitar provided the backbone of the blues music played by Sweeter Than Night. Louis’s lead guitar rose and fell in driving riffs, searing to the ceiling, pulling you in, telling you to let go, release your worries and join the dance or sit there and nod your head and tap your feet. The important thing was to let go.

The dancers came to the bar with worries squeezing them into tight balls. Work, bills, rents, mortgages, troubles, regrets, anxieties, frustrations. Within the music, the people uncurled and stretched, writhed and shook their hips.

During each extended song, Gerard and Nina simmered their drums and bass guitar to a low groove, giving space for Louis to explore a freestyling jam, the notes swirling around the dancers. Then the drums and bass picked up volume and speed, catching up to Louis. The three musicians lifted to a peak, sustaining that for an ecstatic moment, ending the song in a long peal from Louis’s guitar. In the sudden silence, the music echoed in everyone’s ears, even seeming to hang in the air, holding on to any auditory crevice, reluctant to leave. Louis spoke banter into the microphone, gave a joke or two, and the band started the next song.

Louis knew he was a snakecharmer.

One night a few years ago, and this was before Louis and Shelly got married, two friends went out on the town. Henry and Louis did that on some weekday nights, since Louis played for crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. The friends listened to other bands. After last call in a bar, they stumbled—clumsy, noisy, bourbon-breathed—to Louis’s apartment. Henry collapsed on the couch.

Louis picked up an acoustic guitar before plunking on an easy chair. His mood fit the style of chair. He strummed a soft mellow rhythm, and said: “Nothing like it. When I’m playing and people’re dancing. Man, it’s a great feeling. And it goes on and on the whole night. Yeah, some of ’em get all drunk and sloppy like us right now, but not all of ’em.”

Henry grinned. Many times, he had heard Louis describe his feelings on playing music. Henry didn’t mind hearing it again. He drifted with the acoustic guitar’s melody and Louis’s words, like the musician was trying his hand and mouth at spoken poetry over music.

“I want to give ’em a break for a night,” Louis said. “Let me take all that sad shit away. And when I’m done, y’all go home and get some sleep and maybe you’re in better shape to deal with your problems in the morning. Not if you’re hung over, though.” Louis chuckled. “Then you got another problem. But everybody needs a break now and then.”

Even drunk, Louis played a good lullaby. Henry passed out on the couch. Like many other nights before Louis got hitched.

Tonight at Zeke’s, however, Louis was charming nobody. Gerard and Nina’s faces were hard to read; you couldn’t tell if they were disappointed in their lead guitarist’s stabbing out notes. Maybe they were used to it.

Henry hadn’t seen Louis play for a good bit. After the wedding, Louis didn’t go out drinking and seeing other bands. Just played with his band at bars. Part of that came with the life change. A newly married man’s friends figured the fresh groom was busy at home once he and the Missus returned home from the honeymoon. Also, Louis had started saying he and Shelly were saving money for a house. Everyone saw it as getting a larger nest to fit a family that planned to expand.

Henry’s focus had shifted to other buddies, work, his own wondering if he should get serious about settling down. Louis and Shelly had hosted Henry at their apartment for dinners, and those were enjoyable, but in a different way than the two bachelors used to spend time.

Taking a swig of beer, Henry remembered Louis’s excitement over the invitation to try out for a record label. A big executive in a pretty suit had asked Louis to “test drive” some songs. That’s the phrase the exec had used. If the test drive went well, they’d make a record and go on tour. Money would be made. Then more records and tours and more money. Louis showed up drunk to the studio and played decently. Far from his best. The exec threw a fit and threw Louis out.

And maybe Louis was merely acting that he was rolling with the smashed chance. Maybe his turmoil grew until it needed a release.

Last night, Shelly had called Henry again and got to the point, her voice cracking: “It’s drugs.”

“What? How … how can you know that? Did you see him take some?”

Shelly had sniffled. “I found a little bag of white powder in his guitar case. In the little box where he keeps picks and extra strings. You know how he always breaks strings.” A pause for another sniffle. “I know, I know. I was snooping. But I felt like I had to, with the way he’s been acting.”

Air seemed to rush out of Henry’s body, leaving him hollow. He had never guessed that as the reason for his best friend’s unusual behavior. Henry had said, “Don’t feel bad about snooping. Probably be a good thing in the long run.”

“If I confront him about this, he might lose his top,” Shelly had said. “That’s how he’s been. You’re gonna talk to him, right?”

“I said I would.”

“Tell me how it goes. I’m really worried.”

The music stopped and the guitarists set down their instruments to scattered applause. Louis approached the bar and smiled when he saw Henry. The friends clasped hands and embraced. Henry felt a familiar comfort he hadn’t realized he sorely missed.

Louis sat on a stool and said, “Been a helluva long time. How’ve you been?”

“Hanging in there,” Henry said. “How about yourself?”

The bartender pushed a drink across the counter to Louis. He hadn’t ordered the drink; it simply arrived.

Louis nodded to the bartender and knocked back some of what looked to be straight bourbon. Louis said, “Surviving. You know how it is.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Henry said. “You looked mad up there.”

“Think so? Not so much. I’ve just been in a funk.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Happens to everybody once in a while,” Louis said, his eyes looking annoyed. “Why? Did I sound bad?”

Henry considered a reply other than a rude, but honest, yes. He said, “You didn’t sound like you usually do.”

Louis gave a dismissive wave. “Can’t be on fire all the time, you know. I’ll get back to it soon.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Listen, let’s catch up more after the show. Have a couple and chill.” Louis took his drink backstage.

Henry supposed he had started too strong in the interrogation. Smarter would’ve been to grease the conversational wheels, then wait till later to bring out the observation about Louis seeming mad and forcing out the music.

In the second set, Louis’s playing was toned down. He came across as tired. As much as Henry hated to admit, Louis was phoning in the performance. Henry and Louis had quickly described other musicians that way, back in their bar-touring days. Now, Henry was reluctant to stick the same label on Louis.

Talking and laughter were easier to hear amid the customers, their attention away from Sweeter Than Night and joshing with each other.

When the music stopped, mediocre applause rewarded the band, then the musicians started packing up the drum kit and other equipment. No encore would happen tonight.

After the stage was cleared, Louis carried his guitar case over to Henry, who finished off his beer. The men waved bye to the bartender and headed out.

“Coffee at the diner?” Louis said.

“How about we walk some?” Henry said. “Be nice to stretch my legs, and I could use the fresh air.”

“You’re not the one who’s been standing for two sets.”

“I’ll carry the guitar,” Henry said. “Let’s go for a little ways, then hit up a diner.”

Louis grunted as he handed over the guitar case. Henry liked the feel of the handle and the appearance of the case, giving him a cooler look—to him, it did. While loving to listen to music, he seemed to have all thumbs when Louis had taught him several chords, and they eventually gave up the lessons.

Small talk started by Henry relaying news about the friends he had hung out with lately. Who had moved to another city. Who had gotten different jobs. A band that broke up. Changes. The city’s buildings stood still, but not much else did.

Louis offered comments, like: “Sam always kept going on about leaving for Chicago. Seemed like he would always think the grass was greener somewhere else.”

They walked without a specific destination, and Henry knew he was putting off the direct questioning to Louis, but Henry enjoyed this quiet time with an old friend. The streets were mostly empty of people, except for small groups of loud folks partying on the young weekend.

Louis said he needed a rest. Since no diner was in sight, the men sat on the front step of a darkened restaurant. Closed up, having fed Friday night customers and waiting until the Saturday lunch crowd. The sign above the door read Fais de Beaux Rêves in ornate lettering. The place looked fancy, the food surely costing more than the men could afford to spend on dinner.

Henry and Louis leaned their backs against the restaurant’s glass door. The guitar case was placed on the sidewalk before them.

Hefting a sigh, Henry said, “I’ve got to get serious. What’s really going on with this funk you’ve got?”

“This again?” Annoyance was spiked in the question. “Like I told you, it happens.”

“Just that I haven’t seen you like that before,” Henry said.

Louis’s eyes settled on him for a stretched moment, as Louis possibly weighed whether to continue pushing back or offer an explanation.

Then came Louis’s decision: “A lotta things’re going on. All those bills and shit. The stack of bills keeps getting higher. You pay one off, and two more take its place. And people’re calling up, asking for shit. Everybody wants a chunk out of you. I’m getting tired of it.”

Progress. A small flame of hope shone in Henry’s heart. He said, “Yeah, I get it. How’re you dealing with it?”

Louis tipped his head in the direction where they had come from. “Back there. Playing’s always been an outlet for me. You know that.”

“Sure, sure. But is it working like it used to?”

“Don’t mess around,” Louis said. “You already know the answer to that.”

“So if it’s not doing the trick, what else you doing?”

“What’s gotten into you? Why all these questions?”

“’Cause I’m worried,” Henry said. “Shelly’s worried. We want to know about what you’re going through.”

The disgust in Louis’s grunt-laugh could’ve offended the restaurant. “She called you. Figures. I should’ve fucking known. You show up out of nowhere. When’s the last time we talked? I should’ve known, hearing you talk like that at the bar after we haven’t seen each other in so long.”

“Sorry for not coming to see you before,” Henry said. “I’m gonna see you more often. Promise.”

“Okay, fine.”

“And, yeah, Shelly called me,” Henry said. “What do you expect? You’ve got her worried. You’re not talking straight to her. She’s your wife, for Christ’s sakes. Think about what that means.”

“You kidding me?” Louis said. “I know what that means. She’s been complaining about me being moody. She nags and nags, won’t give it a rest. I tell her what’s up, same as I just told you, but she keeps nagging at me. So goes and calls you.” He shook his head, apparently in disbelief at Shelly’s action.

Silence took over. They watched the lit sign of Ron’s Bakery across the street. The men sat side by side, but Henry felt they were on different parts of the country. He wondered what Louis was thinking. He missed his friend’s old ways: easy with a laugh and a smile, easy to sit for a bit and talk about anything that came up.

Louis said, “It gets tough. Yeah, I get angry sometimes. Everybody does. You get frustrated and mad at the stupid shit and sometimes I ain’t the best guy to be around. But I get through it. What’s the choice? That or go crazy. Crazy don’t appeal to me.”

“Me neither. I know how you get through it. Shelly told me.”

Louis’s head whipped around, to stare at Henry, and Louis said, “What? What’d she tell you?”

While the earlier part of the conversation had challenged Henry, the next part seemed a wide gap he needed to jump over. Or retreat from. The path would’ve been much smoother—for Henry—if Louis had fessed up.

“I wished it would’ve been booze,” Henry said. “That would’ve made more sense.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re not making sense.”

“Drugs.” Henry closed his eyes as he spoke. “Shelly said she found some in your guitar case.”

As Louis kept quiet, Henry looked over to see his friend staring ahead, with an expression in a mask that offered no evidence of the thoughts behind it. The guitar case also kept silent, with no excuse given for what it could be hiding now.

Louis looked beaten and sad. “I wasn’t looking for it. It wasn’t like that. Shit was getting to me, but I was dealing with it. Trying to, at least. Then one night we had a gig uptown. Classier place than Zeke’s. It was a good chance to get our sound out there more. You never know who’s in the audience. And we played a hot night. I was excited, ’cause we played so good, and a couple guys came up to us afterward. I forget their names. Anyway, they asked if we wanted to go to a party. Gerry and Nina said they were tired and wanted to get home. I was supposed to go back with them in the van, but one of the other guys said he’d drive me home. Said it was on his way, no problem. So I went with them to this sweet apartment. Well, we’re drinking and having a good time. Then somebody breaks this shit out. I’m feeling fine from the playing and the booze, I say, why not, you only live once.”

He didn’t need coaxing. As if he was lifting the secret off his chest. Henry absorbed each word.

“Those guys hooked me up with more of the stuff,” Louis said. “It gives me that same feeling I get when my music’s true and people’re dancing. That same high. Maybe I wouldn’t need the stuff if I had a gig every night. But I don’t. Gotta get through all those work days to get to the gigs. Then the shit piles up and pushes you down. Feels like happiness is so far away, you might never feel it again. But the stuff’s right at hand. When you got it, it is. So you go for that sweetness. It’s not complicated, man. I wanted to forget the pain and feel good.”

Henry waited in case Louis had more to say, but he seemed to have finished his piece. Somebody howled from another block. Sounded like a drunk answering an ancient urge to yell as a wolf at the moon.

“That stuff’s turning you into someone else,” Henry said. “You get that, right?”

Louis gazed at him from the corner of an eye. “Now I do, yeah.”

“I can help,” Henry said. “Shelly, too. Of course she would. You’ve got lots of friends. All of us can help. But you’ve got to be open to that. Are you?”

After a moment, Louis said softly, “Yeah.”

“Good. ’Cause I’ve got to wonder, if you keep playing like you did tonight, that Zeke’s and other places might not ask you to come back.”

“Was it that bad?”

Henry said, “It wasn’t great, I’ll tell you that. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ll come to your shows more. It was stupid how I got out of the habit. I’ll change that.”

“You better.”

“And you’re welcome to drop by my place anytime,” Henry said. “If you want to sit and have some beers and talk about shit that’s bothering you. If you want to talk to someone besides Shelly.”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

As Henry stood, he felt lighter. He’d gotten through what he’d set out to do tonight. And they’d gotten through a difficult conversation. Louis was clearly embarrassed, and there was no need to beat the issue to death.

“Let’s get you home,” Henry said, extending a hand, and Louis clasped it for assistance in standing.

Henry picked up the guitar case. The men began walking back where they came, heading toward the nearest bus stop. Most of the city was asleep on this crisp, cool very early morning. The streetlamps created cones of illumination that broke up the darkness. Their lighted circles on the sidewalk and street could’ve been spotlights on a stage, or islands of hope.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams