an excerpt from Neither Here Nor There
by Marcel Jolley
Midway through “Sweet Jane” Duane DeMarco decided he was done. A true professional, he finished out the song. The fat fisherman finally sent him over. Duane assumed him a fisherman or deckhand, as he smelled of a day’s take and appeared unstable with dry land underfoot. Maybe the latter resulted from the six Jack & Cokes he downed before strolling across the empty dance floor to where Duane stood with his RSQ Echo Pro 333 electronic backup machine. Once there, the fisherman stooped slightly, bringing his glazed eyes level with the shorter Duane’s, and studied the singer across the six inches separating them. Not once during the song’s five minutes did the fisherman’s eyes completely focus. Even after Duane finished and set his Telecaster in its stand, the fisherman regarded him like a math quiz for which he’d forgotten to study. A sweating Kokanee awaited Duane at the bar. Steve, the owner of the Waterlogger, grinned from the taps. “Got yourself a groupie, eh?” Duane glanced over his shoulder. The fisherman still eyed the resting Telecaster as if the guitar might leap to life and attack him. In a just world it would. “You need a goddamn stage,” Duane said.
Steve laughed and reached under the bar to turn up the jukebox. “My regulars barely make it across a level floor. They don’t need a stage tripping them up.”
“A stage separates your act,” Duane said. “If I’m down on the same level, it’s just like someone from the crowd getting up and singing.”
Steve grimaced. Architectural changes at the Waterlogger Bar came at a glacial pace. “I just don’t know,” he said. “That’s where my foosball tables usually go. It’d be a bitch to move them on and off a stage whenever a singer blows through.”
Duane drained his beer. Too many customers entering during the last week had eyed him with disappointment and inquired about the foosball tables.
“I can get you a box from the back to stand on,” Steve said. “Or maybe a real tall stool.” “Great. I’d look like a damn baby in a high chair.”
Steve shrugged. “I see your point, Dale…”
“Duane.” Duane made a mental note to check the name written on the chalkboard outside the front door, just above the burger specials. “Besides, I’m done.”
Duane tapped his empty on the bar, hoping Steve would send another free one before his resignation set in.
Steve surveyed his crowd. The fisherman had rejoined his crew in a booth, pointing at the guitar as though it had insulted him. A handful of regulars sat spread along the barstools. In the back two loggers played an ulterior game of pool with a girl too young for the bar swaying to a song too soulful for her Canadian hips.
“Yeah, if you want to cut out early, that’s cool. Tuesdays are always slow.”
“No, man, I mean I’m done.” Duane quickly opened his fresh beer and established ownership with a sip. “Finito. As in blasting the fuck out of here.”
“Ah, don’t let one bad night get you down.”
Duane harrumphed. Tonight was no precedent. Duane Demarco was thirty-five and could sing and play just about any song a fishing or logging bar crowd might request. He wore an imitation silk shirt that shimmered in bar lights and hid his extra twenty pounds. His hair hung a little longer than most his age dared, and he covered it with a cowboy hat of sorts that didn’t suggest any knowledge of ranching or cattle. He recognized the hat as a fashion risk, but knew male pattern baldness to be a bigger one. In short, Duane DeMarco was old enough to know better.
“How long does it take to get to Seattle from here?”
Steve studied the ceiling thoughtfully. “Flying?”
“On what you’re paying?”
Steve scratched his temple. “Catch a bus down to Victoria, maybe ten hours. Then you could take the Clipper across, another couple hours. That’d be the cheapest and easiest, what with your guitar and little machine there.”
Steve was taking this too well.
“I mean it,” Duane said. “I don’t care about the week left on our agreement.”
“That’s okay. Help me move the foosball tables up from the back and we’ll call it even.”
“I’m not kidding, Steve,” Duane said. “My brother works for Boeing. He can get me on there. Twenty bucks an hour driving rivets, making airplanes. Full benefits and everything.”
“A man your age has to consider such things.”
Duane didn’t even want to finish the bastard’s beer, but did anyway and stood.
“I’m going outside. I’ll be back in a little while.” “We’ll take care of those tables then.” Steve took up a stray rag without thought--not for any particular reason, just as a default bartender action. “I’ll watch your stuff.”
Duane didn’t look back. “Fuck it. Let it get stolen.”
“Smart move. Less to carry on the bus.”
Outside it was warm for May in British Columbia, and the air on the water hung in a half-assed noncommittal fog. The Waterlogger sat right off the docks, abutting Port Hardy’s small downtown. Duane stepped to the railing, lit a smoke, and stared in a direction he hoped to be south. Seattle sat out there roughly twelve hours away, depending on boat and bus schedules. An honest day’s travel to his mom’s place in Green Lake and Dick’s hamburgers and a Starbucks every other block.
His second cigarette found Duane wondering if his Squier Telecaster would float. The Echo Pro machine sure as hell wouldn’t, though with its weight and bulky stand he might need Steve’s help hoisting the multi-talented monster over the rail. Like the countless unreliable band members Duane bought the Echo Pro to replace, he could easily see himself tossing it into the murky harbor. The machine would doubtlessly continue chiming heartless but technically-perfect versions of “Born on the Bayou” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” all the way down.
The guitar, though, boasted a solid alder body and maple neck. Unless science had changed in the last twenty years, wood floated. All the electronics and hardware might drag the guitar under, but Duane wanted a guarantee. He wanted the Tele to break the black surface with a cliff diver’s ripple and plant its fretted neck deep in the muck and mud of the harbor’s floor. Mostly, Duane didn’t want the guitar coming back.
* * *
Duane’s mom and brother had gone in together to get him a beautiful Martin Acoustic for Christmas six years ago. He’d taken the Martin with him to Ketchikan the next summer, where he canned salmon during the day and wrote songs at night in his little apartment up the hill. That July Duane convinced the Marine Bar to give him a night all to himself. Just a microphone, his guitar and his songs, camouflaged among a few tasteful and reverent covers--John Prine, Lightfoot and the like. The din of college kids, fishermen and cruise ship drunks filled the cramped bar and quickly overpowered his simple little songs like a chunky schoolyard bully. Customers only approached him to request whatever he might know by Jewel, Dave Matthews or Ani DiFranco. It scared Duane to the core how easily his songs bent, folded and disappeared beneath the workings of a standard bar with a substandard crowd. He drank himself shitty on the free beers afforded to performers and stormed out into a Ketchikan summer night’s rain. Clutching the Martin by its neck, he walked across the street and tossed the guitar unceremoniously into the cold waters.
He awoke the next morning unregretful. He sold his hardcase at the downtown pawnshop for a quick thirty dollars and spent his day at work dreaming of a southbound Alaska Airlines ticket and twenty dollars an hour punching rivets.
Three days later he answered a knock at his door and found a scruffy man in a Taquan Air jacket holding the Martin.
“This belong to you?” The pilot spoke as if he’d found the guitar rooting around his flower garden.
Duane regarded the instrument with distrust.
The pilot held it out. “I found it down by Metlakatla. Our dispatcher said it might be yours.”
Duane took the guitar in and set it carefully in a corner, wary to touch much less play it. One didn’t just pick up a resurrected guitar and start strumming.
The next night he decided the guitar’s return was a sign to press on. What better way to write the songs that needed to be written about this region than with a guitar soaked in her waters? He wanted the Martin to hum with the depth of the surrounding mist, to cry like the slap of a weeklong rain on flat water, to resonate like a thousand drunken stories told in bars until they became true. Duane wanted the guitar to moan like the boards of the boats she had shared those Southeast waterways with for three days.
The guitar sounded like shit. The salt water had thrown her five fathoms out of tune, the tuning heads moved with a chunky grind, and some sort of odiferous algae had made a home in the far corners of the sound box. Duane bought his hardcase back from the pawnshop for forty dollars and took the Martin south at the end of the season. He hid it deep in his mother’s basement, though in recent phone calls she complained of a smell when she did laundry. Duane doubted the guitar would be waiting when he got home this time.
* * *
The riveter job at Boeing had been mentioned eight years ago at a family dinner. Duane’s engineer brother brought it up just that once, most likely at their mom’s urging. He hadn’t broached the subject since. Still, Duane simply assumed the job would always be there, hanging just over his shoulder like a ripcord.
Driving rivets, putting airplanes together piece by piece--that was real honest work. A guy could take comfort in such authenticity while gridlocked on I-5 with the suit & tie SUV set bound to and from their sterile fattening pens. It was loud and obtrusive work, the kind that might take a finger or at least leave a nasty bruise if Duane wasn’t careful. After work he could sit in a neighborhood bar drinking Coors Light and bitch about the union. Duane would pack his own thick homemade sandwiches for lunch, or on nice days buy something greasy and hot from the lunch truck in the parking lot. He could eat sitting outside with coworkers, watching the jets they put together roar out over Puget Sound from Sea-Tac off to places they never cared to go. The job would roll on all year and through all the seasons, not ending until Duane decided to stop or the world ran out of rivets. He could still play at home and maybe at a club one or two night a week, but would tell no one at work. Still, they would somehow hear about how that DeMarco guy down on the assembly line played guitar and sang. He would wave off any inquiries with responses equal parts humility and suggestion. Oh, I used to play, or Yeah, I tried making a go of it. He would downplay his talent repeatedly, until one Friday night the whole work crowd ended up drinking in some bar with a band playing and Duane would be forced to the stage. The tired front man would welcome the break and turn over his mike and guitar. Duane imagined a sincere axe like a worn Les Paul Gold Top. Duane would humbly lead them through a couple classic 1-4-5 numbers, a few reliable bar covers, and finally some solo originals. His coworkers would be amazed and pass on their newfound respect and admiration come Monday morning. Most importantly they would sit there that night and listen to his voice and his hands on that Les Paul and they would goddamn love it.
Settling Outside would take some adjusting, for sure. A decade now lay between Duane and his last year-round job, trying to sell neon BC Rich guitars to high school kids at a small guitar shop in Bothell. At the time he played with a bunch of guys from school who Duane thought understood what he wanted to say. Then that damn Cobain and his hamfisted shoe-gazing buddies hit the scene and those bastards traded in integrity for distortion pedals and feigned angst. One spring the guitar shop’s owner copped to snorting all the store’s profits up his nose and was forced to sell the shop to some new dot com millionaires who turned it into a coffeehouse. Betrayed on all fronts, Duane had come north to work the canneries for some quick cash and a fresh start in the fall.
Ten winters later, Duane now recognized himself in the unmistakable grip of seasonal drift. And for good reason--optimism came so much easier in six-month increments. If the songs Duane spent the winter writing fell flat with unappreciative Seattleites, maybe the folks up north would dig them. When a good rhythm section failed to materialize during a summer in Skagway or Sitka, he fell asleep each night envisioning a top-notch bassist and drummer just waiting for him to step off the plane in Seattle. Duane went into each summer and winter thinking this would be the time when everything came together. By the time he realized nothing was going to happen, he was halfway through the season. In just a few months he would get a chance to start over again. It took a special type of person and a lot of energy to find hope in both gaining and losing daylight.
Still, some of his best times had come up here. Like the time he hooked up with that bar band in Juneau for jam nights a couple summers back. It had been mainly 12-bar standards, but he had those summertime college kids out jumping much later than they should have been on a work night. Or that little hippie girl in Skagway who waltzed in during his acoustic set at the Red Onion and asked if he knew “Return of the Grievous Angel.” He said he did, and damned if she didn’t nail every one of Emmy Lou’s harmonies over his attempt at Gram’s parts. That drunken crowd even clapped like they had an inkling of the gift they’d received that night. When the song ended he thought he might follow that girl anywhere. She simply said “Thank you” and walked back out the door. He never saw her again, but on the occasions he drank too much he readily admitted he searched every crowd he’d played to since for her eyes.
Then came the nights like this. In the early days these periods of disillusionment coursed through him in an afternoon, passing like a spiritual heartburn. After fifteen years of singing someone else’s song to people who weren’t listening, these times now hung in longer and made Duane wonder if some permanent damage hadn’t been done to his spirit’s digestive tract.
* * *
He considered a walk up the street to the Mermaid Club, but that hag Carla was probably on stage. The club offered a more base entertainment than the Waterlogger, though not as base as the name implied. A suggestive pole rose from the center of the club’s bona fide stage, and the management brought girls like Carla up from Vancouver to dance around it for the fishermen or loggers in Port Hardy for a few days. That was all--just dancing. The club’s owner didn’t want to wrestle with whatever paperwork nightmare a legitimate strip club required, and after weeks in the woods or on the water, the club’s patrons were satisfied watching fully clothed women orbit the pole. Each girl brought an item from their closet at home that struck them as sexy--an evening gown, a schoolgirl uniform, or in Carla’s case, an ill-fitting sea-foam green prom dress. Even on the sultriest of nights, the girls left the stage just as clad as they arrived. Carla sometimes removed her glasses for a hint of burlesque, but put them back on for the fast songs as her myopia, combined with the low light, disrupted her balance.
Duane took a shine to Carla when they both arrived in Port Hardy two weeks ago. He assured her his two-week stint at the Waterlogger was just the beginning of a summer tour of Coastal B.C. and Southeast Alaska. Nothing solid, but he had leads everywhere a fishing boat could tie up and beer was served. Carla had found the strip clubs of Vancouver too cliquey and selective, and planned to use her summer’s take from the Mermaid Club to study psychology at Simon Fraser or attend court stenographer school. Both being imported talent, they were housed in the fragrant waterfront hotel across from the Mermaid. Duane courted Carla with a lazy irregularity no judge could consider harassment. He took notice when her room light was on, staged an occasional rendezvous around the snack machines, and went to watch her not-strip on slow nights. She finally came to listen to him a few nights back, though she mostly talked to the bartender and played Tragically Hip and 54-40 songs on the jukebox between his sets. She hadn’t even noticed how Duane looked at her while singing “Angel From Montgomery.”
He had cornered her the next morning in the hotel café. Canadian through and through, Carla was not prone to missing breakfast, an indulgence that would soon show in her prom dress and tip jar. He pressed for her opinion of his show, but what he got came like reflections of a road trip she had mostly slept through.
“That machine kinda throws me off,” she finally said. “Makes all the songs sound real similar.”
“I plan on putting a decent band together when I can find one,” he said. “But the machine’s gonna have to do for now.”
She shrugged and pasted more ketchup on her eggs.
“Well, what do they say--don’t quit your day job?”
Duane made a snide comment about both his lack of a day job and her powers of perception. He closed with an observation about seeking advice from a stripper who didn’t take her clothes off.
She just smiled.
“Well, we’re both in this shithole. So I guess you’re a singer like I’m a stripper.”
Duane grinned and said “Touché.” He was unsure if he used the word correctly, but at his age and current lot in life, further opportunities to say it might be limited. He dropped more than enough for both breakfasts on the table, doffed his phony cowboy hat and left. He hoped there was enough change left for Carla to buy some doughnuts and keep eating and getting fatter. Maybe the strain would finally overwhelm that sea-foam green prom dress and her goods would at long last come flopping out for all the fishermen and loggers to see.
* * *
When the harbor mist became rain, Duane stayed and smoked. For all its poseur appearances, the cowboy hat provided surprising coverage. He heard footfalls on the boardwalk behind him, but didn’t turn around. They sounded jovial and already drunk. Duane didn’t need to face more disappointed foosball players.
The footsteps stopped.
Duane turned to find a standard coastal trio--two thick guys in clothes they’d worked in all day if not all week, and between them a tough-looking girl who obviously knew the inverse relationship between latitude and beauty. She appeared to be with the shorter one, but it was still late spring and she didn’t look ready to commit yet with summer coming.
“Hey, fella,” the tall one said. “You’re getting wet.”
Duane killed his cigarette on the wet railing.
“I guess so.”
“You’re the singer here, no?” He pointed at the chalkboard sign near the door. “Dale DeMarco?”
Close enough. “Yeah, that’s me.”
The tall one patted both his friends’ shoulders, letting his bony hand linger a little too long on the girl’s.
“I told these two we had to come listen tonight. Y’know that one you sang a couple nights back about weed and whites and wine?”
Duane nodded. “The Lowell George tune.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You haven’t played it yet tonight, have you?”
“No. No I haven’t.”
The girl released a shiver that ran right up the tall one’s arm. The smaller man noticed.
“Okay then.” The tall man opened the door. “We’ll just be waiting for when you get sense enough to come inside.”
“Shouldn’t be long,” Duane said.
The open door released a blaring shot of a Stones song which the closing muffled a few seconds later. Duane turned back to the direction he hoped was south, but he couldn’t see much of anything, much less imagine Seattle out there. The rain came harder now. It plopped and hissed on the flat harbor like Duane thought rivets might, if dropped from far above. The rivets of rain smacked the water, barely stopping at the surface before racing to the muddy floor. Down there they collected with beer bottles and overboard deck equipment, and maybe soon an Echo Pro backup machine and a Baltic Blue Squier Telecaster. When he thought about all her honest alder and maple, he guessed the guitar might float. Then, without even a glance back to where the Telecaster waited for him inside, he knew damn well she would.
MARCEL JOLLEY was born and raised in Skagway, Alaska and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife Cathy and son Will. His collection of short stories, Neither Here Nor There, was chosen as the winner of the first annual St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems, judged by Ilya Kaminsky. His first book was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2007.