crazy

A Want Too Strong


Kentucky

September, 2010

 

***

 

Tommy waved goodbye to Ralphie, to the crowd behind him, then nodded to the man standing by the stage door. “How’d it sound, Earl?”

“It was a good show, Mr. Sweet. You were right on the money.”

Tommy smiled gratefully and clapped the man on the arm, feigning an appreciation he didn’t feel. “That means a lot to me, Earl, thanks.”

Earl nodded and opened the door and stood aside. Tommy slipped through, onto the landing and down the few steps that led to the alley.

To his right lay Main, brightly lit, still abuzz with people and their cheerfulness. To the left lay Second—dark and empty.

He tugged the brim of his hat down, nodded his goodnight to Earl still waiting at the door, and turned to his left.

Second was as quiet as it had seemed and as he strolled down the street, smoking his first cigarette of the evening, the night began to let go. First the crowd, the faces turned up to the stage, all strangers but looking so familiar, so known…

Then the general roar, the mix of voices and instruments, blending into a wall of sound so thick he’d thought at times that he might go crazy from it …

Finally, the songs themselves. The little moments of music he’d followed from the start of the first set to the final, trying to make each special, each different.

Earl had been right—he’d been good tonight.

Not great, but good. His throat was okay, the numbness in his right hand that started up most every morning had stayed quiet, sleeping as if it were content to give him a breather from pain and stiffness.

So, all taken with all, he’d been good.

The bar was right where he’d remembered it, tucked away off Second, a pool of gold light spilling onto the street. He pulled his hat down further and dropped his cigarette, mashing it dead before he opened the door.

Inside was the reverse of the music hall—Hank drifted from the speakers, people moved lazily about, no one and nothing was hurrying. He nodded to the bartender and edged the room, making for the back. He hadn’t gotten three steps when someone said, “Hey, cowboy.”

He looked around. There, in a booth too big for one man sat a familiar face. Tommy smiled and traversed the maze of tables with low, “Excuse me's,” and “Pardon me's.” He sat down. He paused for a long moment, drawing it out because this was a surprise and a good one. Finally, he nodded and murmured, “Officer Gutterson.”

Tim cocked his head in that way he had and flashed a badge—U.S. Marshal Service. “It’s Deputy Gutterson, if you don’t mind. Take off your hat and stay awhile.”

Tommy grinned and complied. He hadn’t forgotten that face, square-jawed and spare, but he’d forgotten that voice, low and snarky soft. Sexy. “Coming up in the world?”

“Something like that.” Tim’s eyes shifted to the right, tracking whatever was coming their way.

It was a girl, pretty, with a happy smile. “What can I get you?”

“A bottle of water and a whiskey.”

“And particular brand?”

A voice, dark and worn, whispered in his ear, ‘If you’re gonna drink, make it the good stuff.’ He shrugged the tired memory away and smiled up at the girl, “Anything you got, darlin’. It don’t matter.”

She turned away, then stopped and turned back. “You’re Tommy Sweet!”

They always said that. Like he didn’t know his own name and he wondered sometimes if, when he gave it all up, he’d remember who he was without people telling him five times a day. “I am.”

“Could I…?”

She held out her order pad and he took it, scrawling his name, making sure not to glance at Tim. He handed it back with another practiced smile. “There you go, honey.”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Sweet. I’ve got all your CDs.”

“Tommy, please. And thanks—that means a lot to me.”

The girl blushed and backed away, hitting the chair behind her. Across the table, Tim snorted, but soft enough that only Tommy heard.

“Don’t,” Tommy muttered when they were alone again.

“I just can’t help it. Do you know your accent gets thicker when you’re talking to your fans?”

Tommy chuckled. He couldn’t help it—Tim had said something similar long ago, the night they’d first met, and it had been just as surprising back then. Of course, by then his star had just launched into the heavens, making him the hottest thing on the charts. By then, he’d gotten to used to it, gotten used to the unearned respect. People just hadn't talked to him that way.

Well, not all, and he pushed Bad’s image away again. “It’s part of the show, Deputy, I told you that before.”

“Yeah.” Tim shrugged and turned his glass around in a circle. “I hear you been doing well. Hit after hit.”

Tommy shrugged as well. “Had a dry spell for a while, but things are going all right.”

Tim took a sip of whatever he was drinking and laughed into his glass. “All right,” he mimicked. “How many CDs you sell from that single you just released?”

“Enough.”

Tim drained what was left of his drink and set the glass down, nodding moodily at it. “Yeah, enough.”

There was a pause, long and uncomfortable, and Tommy gently kicked Tim’s leg under the table. He didn’t want there to be any bad blood between them. “And how ’bout you? The Marshal’s service treating you right?”

“I can’t complain—”

“And even if you did, no one would listen,” Tommy finished for him and they exchanged a smile. Back on familiar ground, thankfully.

And just as thankfully, the waitress returned with his glass. She sat it down with a confidential smile, saying, “It's on the house.” Under the glass was a small slip of paper—he didn’t have to look at it to know what was written on it. He picked up his glass and slid the paper underneath a coaster.

“That still going on?” Tim asked, nodding to the hidden note.

“What do you think?”

Tim leaned back. “I think you’re just too damn sweet, Tommy Sweet.”

His voice took on that sultry tone that Tommy knew all to well. He sipped his whiskey—it went down like fire and he pictured it moving through his body, opening up his veins. “I sell records with things other than my voice, you know.”

“Same as the whore of Babylon, same as every superstar before you.”

He said the word, ‘superstar,’ like it was a curse and Tommy tightened his lips against the words that wanted to spill out. “Tim.”

But Tim’s mood had already shifted. He straightened and reached over, not quite touching Tommy’s hand. “Sorry. Sorry, Tom. I’ve just had a really bad day.”

“Law enforcement will do that to a man, I expect.”

Tim nodded and opened his mouth, then looked over at the bar, his attention drawn elsewhere.

Tommy turned as well.

A man had just come in, tall and lean. Even from the distance he seemed out of place, like he belong to a different age. Maybe it was the way he walked, loose-hipped, confident. Maybe it was the way he surveyed the bar like he was expecting a couple bad guys in black to start shooting.

Or maybe it was just the hat.

He strode up to the bar, up to a pretty blond. He didn’t put a hand on her, but leaned into her in an intimate kind of way. She leaned back.

And Tim, he watched the man, his eyes grown soft and hungry. Tommy turned his own gaze to his glass. It didn’t do to be witness to a hunger like that, it was too personal, too lonesome.

Even if—especially if—he’d slept with the man in question.

He took another sip, wondering if he was jealous. Probably not, he decided as he finished it, chasing the last drop around the melting ice. What they’d had, they’d had. It had been three days of nothing but good. And it was over.

“You want another?”

Tim was back to staring at the table and Tommy said to the top of his head, “No, one’s all I ever do these days.”

“Is that a metaphor for your life?”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, you remember where my place is, right?” And he leaned back, stretching out his legs, kicking Tommy’s as if by accident. That was another thing Tommy hadn’t forgotten—that Tim’s legs were long and lean, like the rest of him. And very, very limber.

He shook his head, more than a little regretful. “I can’t, Tim.”

“Is it your wife?”

“What?”

“That ring, your wedding ring. You’ve been messing with it this whole time.”

He looked down. Sure enough, he was turning his wedding ring round and round. He let go. “No,” he said, then, “Yes,” on the same breath.

“Well, which is it, yes or no.”

Tommy made himself shrug through the unlooked-for pain that burned his gut. “She wants a divorce.”

Tim frowned. “Why? I thought you two were making it.”

“We were, only…” Only, no, it seemed they weren’t. Only, she’d had it when he’d told her that things were getting good again and he wanted to go on the road. With Bad. “I can’t blame her. She’s put up with a lot.”

Tim didn’t argue or say the words most men would say and Tommy was grateful for that. He didn’t want to be defending his wife’s honor, not when he’d just found out that she’d been keeping company with an man from his accounting firm.

“And anyway, no,” he added, coming back round to the question. “It’s not because of her. It's because of him.” He jerked his head to the bar.

Tim just grinned starkly and murmured, “Maybe I do need more whiskey.”

“Maybe you need to go to bed so you can get up, bright-eyed bushy-tailed so you can catch the bad guys.”

Tim thought on it, head cocked. “Maybe I should.”

Much to Tommy’s surprise, he stood and dug in his pocket and brought out a few crumpled dollars.

And he remembered how it had been, meeting Tim for the first time. A full-time Army Ranger, part-timing on the sly to make ends meet. Coming onto Tommy after a concert in Fayetteville, bold and upfront but with a quiet sweetness he hadn’t bothered to hide.

He’d been cash-poor back then and Tommy had played it up big, using his newfound wealth to charm his newfound friend.

He smiled at the memories, at his younger asshole self, and pushed to his feet, grabbing his hat. “You want to walk me to the hall?”

“I best. Ralphie will be having a heart attack right about now.”

“Ah,” Tommy said as he let Tim pass before him, making sure they didn’t accidentally brush against each other. “He’s settled down a lot. He actually lets me go out on my own now.”

Tim laughed at the weak joke and the man in the hat turned and watched them go by. He nodded. Tim jerked his head and Tommy returned the man’s gesture, recognizing the recognition—the man watched them all the way out the door.

Outside, the night had grown cold. Too cold for September and he ached to be back home. Texas had a lot of things wrong with it, but it had just as many things right and the wintertime weather was one of them.

He was silent as they walked back the way he’d come. In the dark, with no one around, his regret and big words seemed pointless, foolish, and he thought of how it might be, letting Tim talk him into bed.

When they got to the stage door stairs, they paused, Tommy playing with the brim of his hat, Tim gazing at the trash-strewn ground as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world.

Then Tim tipped sideways and bumped their shoulders together. “Sure I can’t change your mind? No strings.”

“Nah,” Tommy said. Strings or no, his heart wouldn’t be in it, and that seemed to matter these days.

Tim looked up. “He’s still got you by the throat, huh? Your crush?”

He wasn’t accusing, just stating a fact and it was easy to lie. “Just grown up, is all.”

"No, that ain’t it, not it at all.”

Tommy stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. A shared, drunken confidence, a chance to ease his burden, and now as then, he felt better for the confession—Tim had never made him regret it and it was nice, someone else knowing besides himself.

“Yeah, okay," Tim finally said. "None of my business. Just like last time.” And he touched Tommy's arm with a soft, “Be seeing you, bud,”and turned to go.

Tommy thought that was all there’d be but then Tim twisted and pulled him in close. “Remember, nothing’s been written, right?” he whispered into Tommy's ear, letting him go before he had a chance to feel anything but sad.

Tommy nodded and watched him walk away, towards Main, disappearing into the all-but-gone crowd. It would be okay to follow, down the alley around to the front and on to where the bus was parked. No one would bother him or pester for an autograph.

Instead, he leaned back against the metal railing and looked up. The stars weren’t showing themselves through all the streetlights and the haze, but still, it was a pretty night, moonless and calm. He smiled to himself—there was a song somewhere in there, but he couldn’t make the sentences form. Lyrics had never been his strong suit. He wasn’t Bad.

And just like that, Tim’s words washed through him again and he stuck his hand in his pocket, head still angling up.

It had started out as a crush, sure enough. So long ago, and such an enduring part of himself that he couldn’t remember a time without it. Young, brash. Scared out of his mind and willing to learn. Willing to hang on a legend’s every word, every move. Long into the nights, into the early mornings, Bad’s voice gone hoarse with talking too much, singing too much.

Willing and wanting for more, but it had never been the right time. Tommy had told himself that again and again. Had told himself to be content with what he had.

It wasn’t the right time now, either. Just because they were both free men meant nothing. Just because he felt more himself with Bad than any other person on God’s green earth meant nothing either. It was the way things were.

Besides, the idea of them together—one weary, beat-up songwriter, one almost-burned out singer—it was absurd.

He smiled silently at his old, bittersweet dilemma, pushed away from the railing and put on his hat. As he turned to Main, walking slowly because the crew wouldn’t be done quite yet, he found himself singing softly, “Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try…”

 


fin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Story notes:
Crossover Crazy Heart and Justified
2,500+ words
Takes place after the movie
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me.