Sweat rolled down his face and under his chin as he made his way through a couple of girls trying to flirt. With a light grin of appreciation and a brief touch to the bolder one’s arm, Duncan raised his shoulder to wipe the moisture onto the sleeve of his newest T-shirt, a soft black one that fit exactly right, and that he’d paid more for than he could rightly afford just now. Comfort mattered during a gig, though. He didn’t mind the sweat. Came with the job and made him feel like it was actual work to stand on a stage, even a nothing stage as this one was, and entertain the working crowd that needed the unwinding time at the end of a long week.
The ’65 Fender Mustang that had become part of him, a second skin, stood out well against the black shirt with its white body and red metallic flake pick guard. Seven years old already, he’d bought the guitar second-hand when it was only a year old. Couldn’t afford that at the time, either. Worthy expenditure, though. Still wished he’d kept the used ’55 Stratocaster he’d traded for the Mustang. Because it was his first. Scratched up by the time he’d been gifted it by his mum after looking at the thing in the window for months, it still had good sound quality.
At fifteen, he hadn’t had the pocket change or a way to increase his pocket change enough to keep one guitar and buy another. Still didn’t, at nearly twenty-two, although he’d been on his own for...
“Hey sweetie, wanna dance?”
Pulling from his thoughts while waiting on his beer at the big wood plank bar that took up much of the space of the small shack that served as a bar and grill, Duncan threw the girl a glance. Shagged brown hair with long bangs parted in the middle nearly covered up heavy green eye shadow, a shimmery gold blouse with a big collar was buttoned down low enough to advertise her obviously pushed-up cleavage, gold and green stretchy bell bottoms accented lanky legs, and clunky gold platform sandals added height she didn’t need. A modern girl, including the way she approached him. “I am working.” He looked back to check on his ordered beer. The smoky haze in the little bar choked his mouth and throat and made it damned hard to sing backup to their lead.
She moved closer. “Not at the moment, you’re not.”
Returning his gaze, he noted a tenacity in her expression and body language. A quality he liked, to a certain extent. “Well, you are right. At the moment, I am trying to cool off a bit. Then I am going back to work.” A trickle of sweat rolled down the side of his face from underneath the damp hair falling over his forehead, and he leaned forward to pull the bottom of his T-shirt up, rub it across his face, and let it fall again, well aware her eyes had followed down to his briefly bare stomach.
Accepting the mug that finally came across the bar, he took a large swallow, enjoying the coolness in his throat more than the taste on his tongue. Beer was never his first choice, particularly a cheaper brand of weak American beer, but it quenched his thirst well enough.
The girl pressed into his shoulder. “Are you ever here when you’re not working?” Warm, damp fingers with bright red nails circled his arm. Her fingers were short for her height, pudgy for her thinness.
Ignoring a snigger from the new bartender, Duncan again raised the mug to his lips, allowing time to consider an answer. “Now and then.” The chill of the glass distracted him from her soft curves and harsh perfume. Too much perfume. One he smelled often. Too often.
She slid her hand off his arm and moved it around his fingers and the heavy mug. “So maybe you’ll dance with me another night?” Adding the other hand, she pulled the beer to her lips and took a long swallow, her eyes on his. Narrow eyes. Lashes painted longer than natural with thick black lines extended from the corners. The green on her lids attempted to extend the brownish-green of her pupils. It didn’t work well.
She rubbed a finger around the edge of the mug, hinting.
Duncan considered the offer. Other than her style choices, she looked alright, friendly enough, but not desperate. “Maybe.”
She grinned and pushed the beer back toward him.
“Keep it.” He watched her move away and flaunt the beer to her table of friends, repeating the conversation, he figured, making it more than it was. He never understood the infatuation girls had with guys in local bands. Hell, this wasn’t even a good band. His mates were okay guys, as far as it went, but only third-rate musicians. It didn’t matter. They were only background noise for pick-up lines and relaxation by intoxication in the dark out-of-the-way bar on the western edge of Pennsylvania.
He didn’t mind the darkness. It disguised the nicked plank floor that matched the bar top and scratches in the old wood tables with only patches of varnish left as pointless protection. Duncan imagined his mum would cringe about him playing at the little dive, though it was better than many he’d played. For the most part, it was kept clean, though likely not clean enough for her. If there was a good side to being out of touch with his family, at least his mum didn’t know how he lived these days: moving from city to city and jumping from one third-rate band to another while grabbing whatever cash jobs he could get, often in places she would not want him to be, now and then sleeping outside in whatever private spot he could find, or at some girl’s place for a few days until he moved on again to a new city.
This one wasn’t bad. It was smaller than he was used to, a little town rather than a city, less opportunity for getting lost within the place, for finding those willing to pay cash without questions, but more like home with its vivid greens and hills and lochs – lakes, he reminded himself – and plenty of rain to drench him and keep him cool while he ran local trails, which was as close to climbing a mountain as he could find.
Home was becoming an enigma. Was there such a thing? Maybe there was for some.
Requesting another beer, he watched the small crowd, studying those he recognized and the few he didn’t. Mostly, he played to the same group every weekend. It was only a paycheck. There wasn’t one, he imagined, who would know if he hit a wrong chord now and then. They weren’t listening more than enough to go through the motions of dancing, some with far more success than others. Their drummer was at least decent. They kept a good beat.
Movement from the over-filled table of Thiel College out-of-town kids caught his attention. They were always easy to spot, dressed too well for the bar full of locals and holding their chins higher than necessary. One of them got up to retrieve his drink from the bar instead of barking an order at a waitress. He was the only male at the table without a fag hanging from his mouth or fingers. Worst part of playing in bars, the damn cloud of nicotine.
The guy headed his direction and Duncan turned back to catch the bartender. “Is that beer coming tonight?”
“Make that two.” The college guy stood where the flirting girl had, not quite as close. “And a wine spritzer. After his, of course.”
Wine spritzer. For the girl at the table sitting sideways in the chair with her legs crossed and her shoulders straight, Duncan guessed.
“How long have you been playing?”
Glancing over to see that the college kid was talking to him, he made himself answer. “A while.”
“Obviously. I meant, how many years?”
“Why?” Duncan raised his hands in a questioning gesture at the new bartender. He would have to go back to work before he got it, at this pace. Understood, he gave the first away, but he was not about to drink out of the mug after the strange girl had done so. He might sleep with a strange girl, protected, but he did not exchange saliva with them.
“You’re wasting your talent here. You’re a hell of a guitarist.”
Duncan was still trying to decide whether Sailcat’s Motorcycle Mama was gimmicky, creative, or just annoying as it, again, came through the radio that played during their breaks. He also tried to decide whether to talk to this guy. He couldn’t quite dismiss the compliment since it wasn’t from a girl trying to get him into bed. He sincerely doubted this guy was hitting on him, so he figured he’d give it a shot. “You play?”
“Not much since I started school, but when I can.”
He nodded. Another beginner looking for pointers.
“So, why are you here in Greenville?”
Duncan’s back stiffened. Throwing an order at the bartender to have his beer sent to the band’s table, he turned.
“Hey, hold up.” The guy stayed with him.
“Man, wha’ do you want?”
“Just to talk. I don’t get to meet many guitarists of your caliber.” Unbothered by Duncan’s get the hell away from me gaze, he shrugged. “Actually, I’ve never met anyone who can play like that. I have to wonder why you’re wasting your time here. With that accent, you’re obviously not from Pennsylvania.”
Hell, the damn accent. How long was it going to take to get rid of it? “I am busy.”
“Your friends aren’t ready to play yet. Or ... more bandmates than friends, I’d guess. Say so if I’m assuming too much.”
“Ge’ lost. I am not a guitar teacher, alright?” Moving away, Duncan felt a hand grasp his shoulder and he turned, seizing the guy’s arm to twist behind his back.
He cursed himself for giving in to his instincts as he judged the group crowding in: Thiel students coming to their friend’s aid, Duncan’s bandmates watching to see if he’d need help, and regulars jeering for a fight. He wasn’t concerned about the other college kids. They wouldn’t be any trouble, but the guy he so far still held was taller, and built bigger, which wasn’t a problem in itself, but he also didn’t seem naive enough to start something he couldn’t finish. The last thing Duncan wanted was cops coming to break it up. The next to last thing he wanted was sore fists that would make it hard to play.
“I’m Evan Scott. Nice to meet you, too.” The tone was friendly and the guy didn’t resist in the least. A sign he was right; this guy could fend for himself well and knew it.
Eying the crowd, Duncan released him and stepped away. Evan Scott was maybe a bit taller than Duncan, an inch at the most, so 5’10” or so, but he had a larger build, probably enhanced by weights. His eyes were a shade darker than his medium brown neatly trimmed hair and his clothes were less pretentious than those of his friends, but decent and more classic than trendy. Understated.
“Evan, cream that guy. He’s no match for you.” A Thiel boy edged in. Duncan glanced at him and the other two who joined in with talk he knew they weren’t likely to back up with action. He kept most of his attention on his antagonist as Duncan’s bandmates moved in and returned insults. College guy ignored them as he waited for a reaction, or an answer. Or he was trying to decide Duncan’s weak spot.
The mouthy kid moved closer. “Hell, I bet he can’t fight any better than he can play. What’s to worry about?”
Duncan grabbed the band’s lead singer when he lunged. “Let it go.”
“Let it go, hell. He doesn’t know music worth a shit.”
“So what? Let it go.” His voice hardened when the singer made another move toward the kid. “Le’ it go.” The singer wouldn’t go against him; they knew each other at least that well. Neither would the others.
“See? He’s chicken-shit. You could take him out easy.”
Evan Scott chuckled. “I wouldn’t count on that. Brad, go sit down. There’s nothing to fight about.”
“Like hell there isn’t. The guy attacked you.”
“It was my fault, not his. Go.”
The guy with the younger face and idiot expression hesitated as he threw looks of disgust at the band. “Not before they do. You know these locals carry weapons. They’re nothing but common thugs.”
Duncan shoved his bandmates away and told them again to leave it alone. This guy didn’t want to fight, either. No point letting some little punk barely old enough to be away from home push something neither of them wanted.
But the kid kept pushing, calling names. He wasn’t going to be able to hold his mates off much longer.
Evan Scott moved in between. “Brad, back the hell off before I throw you out of here. All of you. Go on. Have a round on me.”
Hushed voices passed around the perimeter and Duncan’s bandmates calmed but remained wary. The college kids sulked back to their table, yelling another drink order at the waitress.
Disappointed by the lack of action, the rest of the crowd shuffled away. Duncan thanked his mates for the support. It took them longer to back off than it did the Thiel kids. He wasn’t sure if it was out of greater loyalty from these guys he barely knew or if Evan Scott had that much pull. He didn’t look the type to be in charge of a bunch of miscreants, but he apparently had guts, since he sent his own friends away while Duncan’s still stood with him. Not to mention he hadn’t even flinched when he was pinned.
Joe gave him a nod as he offered two mugs of beer, on the house, in thanks for preventing damage to his bar. He set a hand on Duncan’s shoulder before he walked away to joke with some patron, helping to ease the tension.
Evan Scott raised his mug in a small salute. “Can I buy you one during your next break as an apology for the trouble?”
“No need.” Duncan started to turn.
“Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t take hints well. Like I said, I wouldn't mind talking when you have time. And I’m not a beginner looking for a teacher, just a fellow guitarist as serious about his music as you are.”
Was that arrogance or honesty? Unsure, Duncan figured it wouldn’t hurt to give the guy a chance since he’d gone to so much trouble just to talk. “We play till one...”
“I’ll be here.”
“Your girl might not be so willing.”
With a glance back at the prima donna who was throwing an annoyed glare, he shrugged. “She can catch a ride with one of her friends.”
Duncan took a long swallow of his beer while he studied the guy. You didn’t ditch your girl to talk to someone you didn’t even know. The idea of it irked him, but maybe he was assuming too much. “Pretty girl. Isnae serious?”
“No, it was supposed to be a group thing she’s trying to turn into a date. And she’ll probably change her mind since I yelled at her buddy.”
“The one with the mouth.”
“The group ring leader. I think they dated at some point. They’re not my crowd, just a study group I’m helping out. No big deal either way. I have ... bigger interests.”
Duncan figured there was another girl, but he didn’t ask. The band was heading back to work. “At one, then.”
Evan Scott extended a hand. “Didn’t catch your last name.”
He hesitated, since he rarely gave more than his first. But he was in this far and there was something about this guy he liked, so he took the offered hand and bit the bullet all the way through. He gave his actual name instead of one of those he used at different times. “Duncan O’Neil.”
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