To start the new year, I joined a group that is challenging writers to write 1 story a week for 1 year. Since I am looking to get enough stories for a new collection, this seemed perfect. The group was started by a friend of mine so I knew it would be supportive and encouraging. He offered to give a prompt each week to get the juices flowing and the stories could be as short as a few hundred words. I was all in. This week, I completed my first story. The prompt was:
Write about a ship or other vehicle that can take you somewhere different from where you are now.
I didn’t take this prompt super literal, actually not literal at all, but it did fire up my brain. Here is my first story of the Weekly Writing Challenge. Enjoy!
The crowd buzzed with anticipation and he could see them whispering to each other from his spot just off stage. They sipped their drinks and pondered the abilities of the next unknown performer, ready to judge, to cheer or to boo. He’d never performed here and crowds at local pubs weren’t always friendly to new acts.
This was his chance. His first real gig. He couldn’t screw it up but he couldn’t get himself to step out on that stage. His hands shook and his grip around the neck of his guitar was precarious as his palms glistened with sweat. He couldn’t play like this. He took a deep breath and turned his back on the stage, on the judging crowd.
“You gotta get up there, man.”
It was the booker who’d found him playing in his local theater group. The booker who didn’t want to take a chance on such a young kid but who knew talent when he saw it. “Don’t fuck this up for me….or for you.”
He nodded. He knew he would have to get up there eventually. This was what he wanted, all he’d ever wanted. His fingers were itching to pick the strings of his guitar but the insecurity that had plagued him all his life was pushing his heart into his throat and he wasn’t sure he could sing around it.
“You just gotta get out of your head a minute. Try this.” The booker held out a glass filled with two finger lengths of amber-liquid. At sixteen, he’d drank, but mostly just beer. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and looked around guiltily. But nobody at a club like this cared about an underage performer taking a shot before his set. He took the glass from the man’s hand and it almost slid past the sweat coating his hand. He tossed it down his throat without thinking and suddenly, he was gone. As his stomach and throat burned, his brain was no longer in the club. He was in the music. He wasn’t in his shaking, sweating body, he was already with the crowd, already one with them and one with the music and he wanted to play and never stop. He nodded at the booker. “Keep em coming.”
“You can’t raise a family with a music career.”
“You’re probably not good enough to get a real job anyway.”
“Are you going to let your wife support you forever?”
“It’s weakness is all it is. You could quit if you really wanted to.”
“You’re just not strong, never have been. Always been a bit of a sissy.”
Even here, on the the front porch of the old farmhouse filled with the echoes of a lifetime of his father’s disapproving baritone, he could still feel the heat of those insults on his back. Each visit home was the same. The old man twitched his white moustache at his grandkids, the closest to a smile he ever got, and then immediately turned to him, the son that had always loved music and acting more than farm life and hard work that led to blistered hands.
Every time he came home, it was the same sad story again and again; disapproving dad, overly-sensitive, adult son who still took every aspersion to heart. Today, he’d promised his wife he wouldn’t try to escape. He promised he would try to stay and not turn to old habits to survive the constant reminders that his life hadn’t turned out how either he or his parents had wanted it to. For the kids, she’d said, just stay for the kids.
But as much as he loved his kids, his dad was right, he was weak. Maybe he had always been a bit of a sissy. He was a musician after all, with callouses on his thumb from guitar strings instead of hay bales. Reaching into the front pocket of his jacket, his hands were already shaking at the thought of the liquid burning down his throat, his body craving it even more than his mind. He knew his kids needed him. He knew he’d promised his wife. But he also knew that he couldn’t be here, in this moment, another second longer. He took a drink from the small bottle of brown amnesia and began to float away.
His fingers danced across the edges of his guitar strings as the final note of his song was met with applause and cries of requests. The crowd was demanding tonight, high-energy, hopped up on artificial stimulants.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider!”
“The Wheels on the Bus!”
This wasn’t supposed to be his life. The sugar from the cake was kicking in and the kids, his daughter in the front row, were demanding, hyperactive, shrill and louder than most of the crowds he’d played for in bars.
He’d had a record label once. He’d played with Elvis’s band. Now he couldn’t hold down a real job so he stayed home with the kids while his wife supported their family, and, despite her best intentions, his habit. The only time he picked up his guitar now was to sing his kids to sleep or during one of their birthday parties.
By the time he was ready to play the next song, they’d already moved on to something else and he took advantage of their distraction to step away. The party was in the yard so the house was empty. There, under the couch, was the half-empty bottle of whiskey he’d abandoned the last time he’d promised his wife he’d get sober. And he had gotten sober. This time for a whole six months. But this, this was more than he could take. He didn’t have a license anymore, he hadn’t left the house in months except for meetings his wife drove him to, hadn’t written a song, hadn’t had a new gig…he had no means of escaping the suburban hell his life had become, except for what was in this bottle. He fell back onto the couch and took a drink.
She sat in the front row of the church, his sweet, smooth voice filling the room, and her heart and she smiled despite herself. His voice could always make her smile–at least when it was crisp and sharp, and not slurred. This wasn’t the venue he’d imagined when he started his career, she was sure. It wasn’t the venue any of them imagined for him. But his audience didn’t move an inch as they listened. They didn’t whisper, they didn’t shift in their seats, they didn’t even breathe. They let his voice fill their souls, but he wasn’t there to see it. He’d tried so hard for so long to find where he fit in, to capture a feeling of contentment, using the bottle to try and escape his life…and now, he finally had. She played with the diamonds on her grandmother’s bracelet as the last chords of the song, his song, faded from the church and the friends and family that had watched him try to escape a life he just couldn’t settle into helped carry him out of it for the last time.