Thanks to Shaun Hunter at Writing the City for featuring my story “Good Friday at the Westward” in today’s episode. Originally the title was “Good Friday, at the Westward”, my attempt at a nod to John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”. My story ran in The Prairie Journal in 2012, almost exactly 400 years after Donne’s poem, and is now part of an as-yet-unpublished short story manuscript. So I thought I’d go ahead and put it up on my blog here for those who are interested. Happy Good Friday reading.
Good Friday, at the Westward
Mike rubs the dark stubble on his chin like he’s pondering a serious issue. “I think we got burned. These mushrooms aren’t working,” he says, and sinks deeper into the dull beige vinyl chair at our round orange table in the dim bar at the Westward Hotel. The rest of us are quiet for a moment before we start to laugh.
“Yeah, you’re right. That must be why we’ve been here for half an hour and you’ve hardly touched your beer. And torn your coaster up into teeny tiny pieces,” Tess says, rolls her china-blue eyes. Over and over, she pokes the maraschino cherry in the bottom of her orange and yellow tequila sunrise with her straw. It looks to me like she’s stabbing at a bloody eyeball in her drink.
“What do you say, Cheryl?” she asks. “You’re kind of quiet.”
“Personally, I’m positive they’re working.” I say. They usually kick in pretty fast for me. Although I always have threatening waves of nausea and bouts of anxiety, cold, sweaty palms for half an hour or so before they start being fun. This particular night the anxiety seems worse, maybe because it’s compounded by the Catholic guilt voice in the back of my mind. “Mushrooms. A bar. On Good Friday.” Am I having enough fun to risk going to hell for? So far, not even close.
Will, who until now has sat sullen and silent in the corner, speaks up. “I think we should blow this place. It sucks. We come here almost every weekend and we know the shows always start late. But none of the bands are even here yet and it’s past ten. And this is the same stupid mixed tape they play before every show. I’m so sick of this tape.”
He sounds cranky. I don’t get it: he’s the one who said we should come tonight, because The Hai Karates, his new best friends from Vancouver, are supposed to be playing. Ever since he got back from Vancouver he’s seemed different to me. It’s not just the new longer hair, vague slogan t-shirts, sparse beard he obsessively strokes tonight, like he’s helping it grow or something. He has this attitude now, he’s a snob all of a sudden. If he didn’t still make my heart beat faster, I’d be mad at him. I guess I am mad; right now it’s hard to tell. Oh Lord, why did he have to go away and turn into a hipster?
“Hey, man,” says Mike. “You’re the one who’s all in with The Hai Karates. So where are they?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Okay. Take it easy. Anyone got any other ideas?”
“We could go to a movie,” I suggest.
Will ignores me. He’s good at that, been doing it a lot since he came back. “Steve’s band is at the Bowness Hotel tonight. Why don’t we get a cab and go over there?”
Before I know what’s happening we’re crammed in a cab, got a ticket for our destination, and the anxiety creeps back up again. This isn’t what we’d planned at all. We’d planned to take the mushrooms at Tess’ and my place, walk a few blocks to the Westward and see some bands. Now we’re on our way to the Bowness Hotel. It’s far away. And I’ve never been there before. Isn’t it scary, creepy, run-down, full of bikers and career drinkers? But the others seem calm, unworried. Of course, that’s not unusual for Will. Nothing ever ruffles him. He’s stubborn in his refusal to worry, or maybe that’s how he wants to come off. Sometimes I think he does it just to aggravate me. But. No point in being upset now. The Bowness Hotel it is. Big, wet snowflakes swirl out of a dull purple sky and I take a deep breath as we pull into the parking lot.
Ye olde Bowness Hotel: run-down, four bars, a big employer of bands. The biggest books country acts, one books hair bands, one’s a sports bar, and the smallest is an old-timer hang out. Our friend Steve’s country rock band is called The Hoedads. None of us are that partial to country music, but Steve’s an old friend. They play non-threatening bar band stuff like The Eagles, Joe Walsh, Willie Nelson. We’ve seen them lots of times, and it turns out lots of people we know are here to see the band. I calm down a bit. With all the familiar faces this is a much more pleasant atmosphere than the Westward, even if it is far away.
During a set break I go to the washroom and see in the mirror that my pupils are huge. Stupid huge, people have got to be noticing that. When I come back to our table, Tess and Mike’s pupils look just like mine. This strikes me as either a little sinister or very funny. As I try to decide whether or not to laugh, Tess says, “Someone at the next table said Bill Taylor and The Taylor Mades are playing one of the other bars here.”
“Bill Taylor. Why does that name sound familiar?”
“Bill Taylor from The Roughriders.”
“Yeah, c’mon. Let’s finish our drinks and go check them out.”
Will, who also has huge pupils says, “You girls go ahead. Mike and I are gonna stay here and shoot some pool.”
My stomach knots up a little. What does that mean? That he really wants to play pool? That he thinks going to see The Taylor Mades is stupid? That he doesn’t want to be around me?
Tess and I leave our coats, grab our purses and go to find The Taylor Mades. The snowflakes are smaller now, fall harder as we go from bar to bar. They aren’t in the sports bar – obviously — or the hair band bar. We open the doors to the old-timer bar and step in out of the snow.
“Is this place even open?” I wonder. It’s mostly dark, and empty except for two old men in plaid work shirts and truck logo baseball caps.
“I see people up on stage,” Tess says.
Then the opening lick of “Evil Green Eyes” rings out and we know we’re in the right place. “Evil Green Eyes” was one of The Roughriders’ biggest hits. It seems kind of sad that they’re here playing it all these years later, for a couple of old guys in the corner who seem to ignore them. I feel a little uncomfortable, wonder if we should go back and see if The Hoedads are ready to start again. But Tess picks a table not too close to the front and we sit down.
“Evil Green Eyes” reminds me of the Flavoradio I had when I was a kid. The Christmas I was seven, my brother and I got Realistic Flavoradios, pocket transistor radios – blue for my brother, red for me. I had mine for years, went through a lot of 9V’s obtained with my Dad’s Radio Shack Free Battery Club card. This was just after the CRTC brought in Can Con – Canadian content legislation. So besides American and British music, we also heard “Sunny Days” by Lighthouse, “Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family, lots by The Guess Who and BTO. And of course, “Sweet Cherry Brandy” by The Roughriders.
Maybe it sounds weird, but I felt proud of The Roughriders when I was a kid. They weren’t just a Canadian band, they were local. Western. Their first monster hit was “Sweet Cherry Brandy”, and they had a string of others over the next few years. And, after several appearances on The Anne Murray Show, they even had a summer replacement show on CBC (which sadly wasn’t picked up again).
And now here we are, catching them live (some of them, anyway) in the old-timer bar at Bowness Hotel. On Good Friday. On mushrooms. And I can’t tell if this experience is really weird in and of itself or if I just think it is. It doesn’t help that all four Taylor Mades wear buckskin shirts that give off a strange glow in the stage lights, complete with fringes and lace-up collars, like a bunch of aging Davy Crocketts. Bill Taylor looks older, no question. His black hair (two minutes for looking so good) is thin up front, long in the back, and he’s stockier. His voice still sounds good, though. None of the other Taylor Mades seem to be former Roughriders. They all look younger than Bill. But the red-headed lead guitarist’s fuzz-stung blues licks and easy harmonies with Bill’s solid David Clayton-Thomas-like lead vocals are a pretty convincing recreation. I close my eyes for a second after the waitress takes our drink order and it’s almost like listening to my Flavoradio again.
“Good evening. For those of you just joining us, we are Bill Taylor and The Taylor Mades.” He purrs into the mike, looks straight at us.
“He’s kidding, right?” Tess asks.
I try not to laugh. If he weren’t looking right at us, I would. The Davy Crockett get-ups don’t make it any easier. I feel like I have to nod and smile. I mean, obviously he’s talking to us. The old guys in the corner drain their jug of draft in silence, stone-faced. Another song starts, one I don’t recognize. Could be a lesser-known Roughriders song, a cover, a new original, hard to say.
When they finish Bill says, “Thank you. That’s all from us for tonight, but we’ll be back here again tomorrow, starting up at about eight o’clock. Hope you can make it out again.”
Excellent, I think. Now we can finish our drinks and get back to The Hoedads. But then Bill and the guitarist come up to our table.
“You ladies mind if we join you?”
Oh, God. Go away, I think. This can’t be happening. This can’t really be happening. I glance at Tess. “Not at all,” she says. Of course. I should have known. Tess has a thing for guys in bands, Mike or no Mike. It’s like a game with her, or an addiction.
“I’m Bill, and this is Duane,” he says as they sit down, Duane across from me and Bill across from Tess.
“I’m Tess, and this is Cheryl. We were at one of the other bars here and heard you were playing. So we had to come and check you out.”
“Roughrider fans?” Duane asks.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “We’ve loved you guys since we were little kids.”
Duane and Bill share a look, smile at each other. “Well, in that case, you’d better let us buy you a drink,” Bill says as the waitress approaches. Holy shit. The Roughriders, buying us drinks. Never imagined that when I was a little kid. This can’t be the right thing to do. On Good Friday, yet. The way they made me feel when I was a kid was a lot different, I have to say, than the way they’re making me feel twenty years later. In the Bowness Hotel, on Good Friday, on mushrooms, they’re making me feel nervous. Kind of icky. Like I want to go home.
This is all wrong. I just wanted to come and see what they looked like now, maybe hear “Sweet Cherry Brandy”. I don’t want to hang out with them. I don’t want them to buy us drinks. I want to be back in the country bar with our friends, people we know, people our own age. People who’ll make sure we get home. My stomach knots up. I must look uncomfortable because Tess elbows me and whispers, “Relax, Cheryl.”
I take a deep breath as our drinks arrive. Ours look more like desserts than drinks. I usually stick to beer or wine. I don’t know what these are, Paralyzers or Zombies, maybe. I have a couple of small sips. It’s just too strange to drink this right now.
Tess chats away with Bill and Duane like they’re old buddies. I have never understood how she does that, myself. Is it a blonde thing? But this isn’t the first time I’ve been glad she’s so talkative. It gives me a chance to sit back and observe. On the other hand, I also know that it’s a mistake to let Tess do all the talking. When that happens we always end up getting invited to party with the band, usually in their hotel room. You don’t even want to know about the time Johnny Winter came to town and we somehow ended up hanging with his band. Let’s just say the bass player thought Tess had the hots for him. I think she just wanted to steal his lizard skin boots, the way she went on about them.
“A little quiet in here tonight,” I say. As soon that’s out, I realize how bad it sounds.
“Last time we play this dump,” Duane says. “They didn’t advertise this anywhere that I saw. The same thing happened last time.”
Duane’s shoulder-length hair falls in reddish waves around his face. Sometimes it seems to me that he’s pretty handsome, but I’m not in any frame of mind to be able to tell. Maybe he isn’t. One minute he looks like Jim Morrison, the next he looks like Van Morrison. Then sometimes he looks like Will. It’s kind of disturbing.
Soon Bill and Duane and Tess order more drinks. I’ve finished about half of my drink, parfait, centrepiece, whatever the hell it is – it’s not bad, actually — and now I have another. Bill shoots sly, brow-raised looks at Tess and me (practised so many times with so many women in so many bars), says, “So, ladies – Duane and I were wondering if you’d like to take the party up into our room.”
As soon as he says that, the picture I’ve been trying to block out of my mind is suddenly all I can think of. I don’t want to think about what Bill and Duane look like naked, but I can’t help it. I don’t want to think of nakedness right now, not any nakedness: theirs, mine or ours. I take a long sip of my drink – the new one, I somehow finished the first one.
The waitress comes by. Bill nods at me and says, “Another Paralyzer for the little lady.”
Little lady? Jesus. We’re back in the 70’s for sure.
Tess grabs my arm. “Cheryl and I are just going to freshen up. We’ll be right back.”
“The Roughriders,” she’d said in the washroom. “You’re seriously going to give up a chance to party with the Roughriders?”
“It’s just one real Roughrider. And he’s old.”
“Look. You’ll regret chickening out for the rest of your life. Don’t be such a coward.”
Somehow I have allowed Tess to talk me into it. So here we are up in Bill and Duane’s grungy room. There are two double beds covered with shiny teal and dusty rose floral bedspreads, two teal upholstered chairs (I plan to stay on mine), pink lamps, a TV, a coffee table. It all smells suspiciously of air freshener. Bill puts a cassette in a portable tape player. Sounds like a pre-show mix: some blues, some old-time rock ‘n’ roll.
Since there’s no fridge in the room, our resourceful musician friends have stocked the toilet tank with beer. Tess joins them in a frosty – er, drippy one. I’m still working on my Paralyzer, which I snuck upstairs under my coat. Now it’s almost gone. I set my glass down on the table and try to figure out how I can get out of here and back to the country bar. Is it too late? Duane sits on the bed near my chair and sidles up as close to me as he can, plants his leg firmly onto mine.
“Well, darlin’,” he says. “You’re a shy one, aren’t you?”
“I guess so.” I’m trying to think of something else to say, something off-putting. He slides his hand over mine.
“Cold hands,” he says. “Is it true what they say? You know — cold hands, warm heart?” I’m about to answer when the tape comes to the first driving chords of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, and I realize who Duane actually reminds me of: Charles Manson.
Is it the incredibly corny line that finally moves me to action? I withdraw my hand, pull away from him, stand up. “Look,” I say. “Before you get the wrong idea, I want to tell you right now that when I heard Bill Taylor and the Taylor Mades were here, all I wanted to do was come and check you out for a song or two. Maybe hear “Sweet Cherry Brandy” and leave. I had no intention of letting you buy us drinks, or partying with you.”
As soon as I say that, everything is different. Not because of what I’ve said, though. It’s different because all of a sudden the whole room goes sideways. Across from us, the line where green carpet meets white wall wiggles a little, then dips and swoops. I break out in a cold sweat and know that I have maybe thirty seconds before I throw up. I make it to the bathroom, pull the door shut behind me before I lose it all in the toilet: the remains of the pizza we had for dinner, the mushrooms, the beer and the Paralyzers. I managed it pretty neatly though, nothing on my clothes. A little wiping around the toilet and it’s cleaned up. I feel better for a minute or so, take a deep breath.
I open my eyes, see snow swirl from pinkish clouds out a cab window. It’s quiet and warm, and I lean up against someone’s arm. For a second I think it might be Duane, but then I look up and see it’s Will.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Home. How are you doing?”
“Better than before. I’m kinda tired now.”
“No kidding. What the hell happened there?”
“I don’t know. We went to see The Roughriders and the next thing we know they’re buying us drinks. Paralyzers. I guess I had too many.”
“So I gathered.”
“I didn’t even feel good to start with. And I didn’t want to party with them.”
“Uh-huh. I forgot to ask Tess whether any of them had lizard skin boots.”
We pull up in front of the apartment building. “You want me to come in?” Will asks.
We climb the stairs, drink water, use the bathroom and get into bed. Will shuts off the lights and I see his silhouette against the soft glow of the yellowed blind behind him.
“Jesus Christ, Cheryl. Look after yourself,” he says, and kisses me. I don’t recall whether I brushed my teeth or not just now, hope I don’t taste like puke.
For a little while I think I won’t be able to sleep. The whole crazy night or week or whatever plays over and over in my head. Then I drop off and start to dream right away. In the dream I sleep almost two days straight. But on the third day, I rise again.