Dragging a dense cloud of leaded, the Fairlane swung by Swingo’s, Cleveland’s famous-for-calling-itself-famous Celebrity Inn, and we climbed in — me shotgun, Bruce in back, Bruce when he was skinny and wispy-bearded, hanging over the front seat, like a kid in a Bruce song — so Charlie could show us the sights:
A dive bar Charlie liked. A dive bar his band played before they threw him out for being drunk all the time. A dive bar next to a radio station — “Allen Freed” Charlie tossed out, by way of history lesson. A dive Charlie liked to hang, by the record store he liked to hang. And here he snatched his fingers from the wheel to count down the righteousness within — “Ayler. Ornette. 5. Godz. Stooges.” — before plugging another Camel in rubber-band lips, another homemade cassette in the dash, and drifting into focus and out.
It had started with a handwritten note on a pink square of paper, “While You Were Out” printed in black at the top. On the message line it had said: “Come to Cleveland.” In the “From” space, the raspy-voiced caller had asked the receptionist to write: “B.S.” But even a short-term temp from Squaresville knew what those initials stood for, a week after simultaneous covers of Time and Newsweek.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the invitation was actually the ploy of a manager who used to be a rock critic, trying to make sure all the contrarians — and our magazine was a hotbed of them — had come aboard.
“Hey, Bruce,” I could hear him saying, “why don’t you invite that Creem kid to the Cleveland show.”
Maybe I was too cynical. Maybe Bruce and I were friends. We’d had a few adventures, though I’d be hard-pressed, under the boozy circumstances, my boozy circumstances, to supply details. So, maybe the invitation was just him, fully genuine and, beneath the reserve, wildly exuberant. Either way, the guy was enough of a star that enough of a starfucker went.
Called Bruce’s room, said I’d get my friend Charlie to show us the real Cleveland. He would love Charlie. Writer, drinker, musician, blood-donor, world’s most skeletal life-model, Cleveland born and raised, Charlie was nothing if not a “bird” — which is what my father called people he didn’t know where to file. And through a long, perfectly odd — and perfect — afternoon, Charlie swerved his wobbly junker all over Cleveland’s streets until I thought it might fly off its springs. He slowed down, speeded up, scraped the curb and screeched to a halt, bending under the dash for a dropped cig. Missed the turnoff and backed up on the freeway shoulder, abruptly leaning across the front seat to flip open the glove compartment. A pistol fell out, with not a “Shit” or a “Fuck” from Charlie, who kept scratching around, scattering gum wrappers, crumpled Camel packs, band fliers, parking tickets, expired registrations and assorted detritus of an attempted citizenship, until finally, with bony fingers and long, dirty nails, he extracted a handful of .45-caliber bullets, handing one to Bruce, another to me and holding out a third, for ceremony, in his palm. And then Charlie from Cleveland said to me and Bruce:
“This is how we’ll remember.”
— from the novel Loudmouth, coming soon. ©2018 by Robert Duncan.