“Ooh, sweet baby! Pluck those strings, honey-bear.”
Joseph does as the voice says. He picks at the double bass, growling against a crooked mic in the grungy bar nestled within the swampy land of Louisiana. The room is sticky. Sticky from spilt drinks carpeting the floor, lust-filled bodies pressed tight, and the ever-present moisture of alcohol and sweat in the air. It coats his skin and he pours the sticky feeling into his song like thick maple syrup, letting it drip over his audience. They suck it in.
He opens his eyes and casts sultry glances around the crowd as he coos. His lips kiss the mic:
My lady’s dark as the night and sharp like whiskey—takes shots of fire, chases with kerosene. She’s my lova, my momma, my devil-may-care summa. She’s my baby, Lord save me, I’ll keep her foreva.
The women are hooting, clucking their tongues like loose hens. He goes up an octave, removing the words and humming a vibrato, crooning lilting notes. The stilettos of bluesy voices. Next, he slips into a scat-tat-tat, running through the ra-ta-ta-ta‘s so fast they’re a blur. His bass neck fits in his hand like an extended limb, and he raps his fingers against the hollow belly. The crowd sways beneath the weight of his voice like marsh grasses in the bog. They fill the dim-lit bar with soul and souls.
Warping wood lines the walls, saturated in layers of beer and whiskey and only the devil knows what else. The bar still stands from the antebellum era, with modern accents added over the decades. Lamps flicker beside decorative call phones, while tarnished saxophones and clarinets sit mounted on clawed hooks. Black and white photos lay scattered across grimy shelves, some nailed tight around windows. Faces are planted in them, stern and unsmiling; the ancestors of Civil War-born families that turned against one another.
The ceiling fans spin in rhythmic circles, their soft beats stroking the air with slow and low whoo-whoo-whoos. It reminds Joseph of Ma’s off-tune humming as she cooked pies and frog legs and gator stew. She would hum and sing:
Ain’t no bog-man in the bogs tonight. No, ain’t no kettle’s delight. If he comes a-lookin’ for you, better run through that quicksand, ooh.
He’d always drop by to listen when she sang that song. He liked it a lot.
Joseph pulls away from the mic and leans into his bass, strumming his fingers across the strings as he bobs his body with the beat. He starts to pluck, the dun-dun-dun‘s kicking into the air. Sweat drips off him—down his back, through his hair, over his lips with the salty touch of home. The crowd claps and stomps with his music, and he stomps and plays with them. His booted foot slams against the rickety platform stage, making it shudder. He feels its thunder.
One song turns into another and that song turns into another until finally his throat is raw and his fingers are numb and his body is hotter than flames. Drawing back from the mic again, he pushes the bass away and gives it a spin, then lets out a shrill whistle followed by a triumphant whoop. The crowd cheers and Joseph beams down at the faces. They look like coal on fire. They are dark brimming with light. They roar as he stands and bows, and they wail as he gathers his belongings and leaves.
Joseph sways his hips as he walks to his truck, glowing from the adrenaline of the stage.
“She’s my lova, my momma,” he huffs as he swings the bass in the cab, “I’ll keep her foreva.”
He drums the side of the car and gives it a final tap. Behind him, a harsh clap sounds. Joseph spins to find a man, tall and slim with a top-hat about his head and thick boots to keep his feet free from the suckling mud. Joseph gives him an up-down. It looks as though he’s been swallowed by an alligator. Gator skin boots are covered by gator skin pants while a gator skin jacket hangs tight over it all. Only the man’s black shirt and velvety hat break the trend. He reminds Joseph of a magician—swamp style. His beard is short and pointed and covers the full of his face up into a curling mustache.
“Son, can’t say I’ve heard talent like yours in a bit.”
Joseph pats the truck and leans against it, curious.
“Thank ya, sir. Been writin’ songs since ‘fore I can remember.”
The man nods, his top-hat stiff on the slender head.
“I don’t doubt that! You’ve got something real about you, kid, and as it just so happens, I’m in the market for something real.”
Joseph looks to the bar. A low roar rumbles from it as the people inside continue to sing and dance. He thinks of how they danced and clapped for him. Puppets on puppet strings, and he the puppeteer.
“How would ya do that?”
The man grins, giving his gator skin jacket a triumphant tug. Reaching into its pocket, he withdraws a card and hands it over. It’s as stiff as the top-hat, but white and shiny instead of black and velvety. The name “Richard Lambert” is typed across it in bold black lettering. Joseph flicks it.
“I’ve seen that name before,” he says, looking to the man and grinning.
“Sure you have! I promote musicians, and you’ve got just the sound I’m looking for. You’ve probably seen it on my advertising.”
Joseph shakes his head and drums his fingers against the pickup. He listens to the berum-berum-berum they make and looks at the card.
“Nah, I think I’ve seen it somewhere else. Where would I have,” he trails off for a moment, and then “ah, yeah! I know where I’ve seen it. In a contract.”
The man squints, his lankiness leaning forward.
“A contract? My contracts with my clients are confidential.”
Joseph nods, turning the shimmering business card in his hands to watch it rotate between his fingers. Hidden crickets observe the two men, singing their chirp-chirp-chirp in chaotic rhythm.
“As are mine.”
The card twists once more, moonlight dripping down it in the same way the bar light had flashed across the mic stand, then bursts into a contained flurry of flames before vanishing in ashes. Joseph looks to Richard, a cool smile stroking his lips. The man warps, his demeaner changing from shock to confusion to a stricken realization. His thin body quakes as much as the stage Joseph had sat on earlier.
“It’s not possible,” Richard squeaks, shrinking beneath the predator he wears.
Joseph laughs, the sound like crunching aluminum. They were always shocked. They were always in disbelief.
“It’s possible. You wanted this career; you got it. ‘For in the spotlight you shall be, till you recruit a devilish lead.’ That was in the contract, and you’ve just recruited a . . . devilish lead.”
Richard shakes his head in slow passes. His eyes are white sockets of fear, round and luminous as the stars above. He starts to say something, seems to think better, and turns, barreling between the thickets surrounding the lot and into the marshes beyond. Joseph sighs. They always seem to run, too.
Everyone but Ma.
She’d just looked at him and said, “Go’n do it, you. I knew what I did sign up for, and you done did what you said you would.” He remembers her, standing in the kitchen by a green oven with a flour ridden apron cinched across her wide waist. She had a spatula in her hand and her hand on her hip and Joseph had laughed and laughed and went, “Go on Ma, I ain’t gonna take you. We’ll postpone our meeting till your heart attack. I’ll get a new contract written up, but you gotta keep singing that song I like.”
She’d hmphed at him and said “Then get on outta my kitchen if you ain’t gonna get on with it.” He’d left and listened. Sure enough, she started to sing as she finished the gator stew she was cooking.
Now, he watches the spot where Richard disappeared into the trees, his top-hat lying discarded on the ground. Joseph doesn’t mind the chase. They all get dragged into a prison of flames, too, just like the contract says they will. Everyone but Ma. Joseph might give Ma free reign of the pit, so long as she keeps singing his song . . . .
Snatching up the hat, Joseph spins it around and places it with dramatic fashion atop his own temple. Stalking forward, he begins to sing a tune as he hunts his prey:
Oh, there’s a bog-man in the bogs tonight. Yeah, cookin’ up this kettle’s delight. If he comes a-lookin’ for you, better run through that quicksand, ooh.
Taylor Adel writes literary fiction, adult fantasy, and anything else that pops into her mind. Her short stories have been published by Five:2:One, Every Day Fiction, The Birmingham Arts Journal, and more. In her spare time, she’s either reading, writing, or hanging out with her rescue dog. To learn more about her and read her other publications, visit https://ravingwrites.wixsite.com/tayloradel.