Country Sweetheart

by Alan Swyer

Unable to sleep for the fourth night in a row, Lenny Randle wondered how much deeper he could possibly sink. His Monday night gig wearing face paint while playing music he loathed – KISSED, A Tribute To You Know Who – was attracting fewer people each week. Worse, his agent, “The Queen of Narcissism,” kept dismissing the new songs that he and his writing partner presented.

“Can you picture Beyonce singing what you two come up with?” she asked on too many occasions. “Or Rihanna? Or Bruno Mars?”

When Lenny inquired about his own chances of getting a recording contract, her response was even more brutal.

“There are only two ways you’re getting a second shot. By giving up your holier-than-thou, art-for-art’s-sake, I’m-the-white-heir-to-Ray-Charles-and-Muddy-Waters bullshit and doing something commercial –”

“Or?”

“Getting some powerhouse on your side.”

“Such as?”

“Geffen once-upon-a-time, or Rodney Phillips today.”

“And how do I do that?”

“By humping a hippo on stage.”

“Can I get that in English?”

“Being so outrageous you become a Must See.”

Compounding Lenny’s woes was fiscal reality. With debts mounting, he faced an imminent eviction from his downtown loft. Worst of all, while some of the money he owed was to buddies, a larger chunk was to a Russian known as the wrong kind of people.

Trying to maintain, Lenny fought traffic on a Tuesday evening as he headed to a Valley restaurant/bar named Rocco’s. There he got smiles of encouragement from a redheaded waitress named Melanie while playing piano.

Finishing a tune to modest applause, Lenny grabbed the microphone. “So a kid says, ‘Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a musician.’ ‘Sorry, honey,’ she answers, ‘but you can’t do both.”

The joke elicited a chuckle from a guy in a UCLA sweatshirt, plus a hearty laugh from Melanie.

“Well, two people got it,” Lenny announced. “So what do you call a beautiful woman on a musician’s arm…? A tattoo.”

That engendered a bit more laughter, which caused Lenny to nod. “We’re getting there… What’s the difference between a musician and a large pizza…? The pizza can feed a family of four.”

Getting an even better response, Lenny mustered a smile.

“Intermission, ladies and gentlemen. When I come back we’ll go through some of my inspirations – Charles Brown, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, James Booker – plus a medley of my greatest hit.”

Winking at Melanie, Lenny stood, then grimaced at the last person he hoped to see, “Vicious” Viktor Golichnikov, accompanied by a steroid-enhanced piece of muscle named Mischa. Instantly, Viktor gestured toward the rear door.

Out in the alley, Lenny tried to take charge with a joke. “Hear about the guitar player who was so arrogant the rest of the band noticed?”

“The money, Lenny,” Victor stated.

“I’ll get it to you.”

“And soon, right?”

“You bet.”

“Good. I am peaceful, but not Mischa, who likes to show his powers of persuasion.”

Instantly Mischa grabbed Lenny’s left wrist. A scream was heard as Lenny’s thumb was bent in a direction it was not meant to go.

It was Melanie who drove Lenny to the emergency room, from which he emerged with a frown on his face and his hand in a cast.

“Guess someone won’t be playing boogie-woogie for a while,” Melanie said. “How much do you owe him?”

Lenny shrugged, so Melanie spoke again. “Then let me help.”

“Thought you were broke.”

“Yeah, but there’s an audition I feel good about.”

“Film? TV?”

“Singing back-up on the road for some old school Country guy.”

“Named?”

“Wakefield something-or-other.”

“Wakefield Skillet?”

“Heard of him?”

“The Country Gentleman? That’s great, ’cause he’s the real thing, not some pretty boy in a hat.”

“Except I know Country like I know brain surgery.”

“Then maybe I can help.”

The following evening, after pouring glasses of Chianti, Melanie smiled at Lenny. “Okay, so tell me.”

“Well, there’s ‘Country’ and there’s Country.” When Melanie seemed perplexed, he went on. “Today there’s ‘Country Pop’ – guys named Travis and Keith all wearing the same kind of hats. But real Country? That’s Hank Williams. The Carter Family. Kitty Wells. Waylon Jennings.”

“Or Wakefield Skillet?”

“Yup. Real Country is the white equivalent of the Blues. Elemental stuff. Heartbreak. Poverty. Loneliness. When you’re singing it, it’s not technique that counts – it’s emotion. Got something to sing for ’em?”

“I was hoping you’d pick.”

Lenny started a ditty about losing his baby, his bankroll, and his pickup truck, then gestured for Melanie to repeat what he sang. But almost immediately, he interrupted. “Not from here,” he said, tapping her head. “From there,” he added, pointing to her chest.

Again Melanie started, only to be stopped once more. “Better, but forget what you learned about enunciation. And let yourself go nasal.”

“Do it for me again?” Melanie asked. “This time like a girl?”

“I lost my baby and my bankroll
And my best ol’ pickup truck.
Now some joker’s trying to tell me
I ain’t got the world’s worst luck.”

“You’re really good.”

“For a guy imitating a woman. But right now, you’re the one who counts.”

Melanie tried again, sounding more authentic as she imitated Lenny, then on they went to the next verse. When Lenny nodded, Melanie stopped for a moment. “Mind if I ask something?”

“Fire away.”

“You doing this to help me? Or because –”

“Because?”

Melanie smiled suggestively. “You want to, you know –”

When Melanie waved a finger to lure him closer, Lenny did not resist.

A little after noon the next day, Lenny was waiting in his beat-up Beamer when Melanie emerged from a rehearsal studio teary-eyed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, climbing into the passenger seat.

“About?”

“I really wanted to help you.”

“You’re sweet.”

“But what’ll you do for money?”

“What’s a broken leg among friends?” Lenny quipped, pulling out a bandanna to dry Melanie’s tears.

“Want me to come up?” Lenny asked as the BMW came to a stop in front of Melanie’s building.

“I’m not fit company for man or beast.”

“Now there’s a Country song. They were really awful?

Melanie nodded. “But you’ve been great. Know what’s crazy? You’d probably do better at the audition than I did. If –”

“Yeah –”

“You were a girl.”

Melanie leaned over and kissed Lenny, then climbed out of the car, little realizing that his mind was already racing.

“You’re gonna what?” asked Lenny’s songwriting partner, who went by the nickname Moon, seeing him forage through a rack of clothes left behind by an ex-girlfriend.

“What else am I gonna do for money?”

“Sell your body to science.”

“What do you think of this?” Lenny asked, pulling out a magenta skirt and a halter top.

“Anybody ever tell you you’re not that cute as a guy? Enough with the Dustin Hoffman stuff. Last I checked you liked basketball, chili fries, and boxing.”

“So I’ll adapt.”

“Adapt, my ass. You need serious help.”

“Maybe Viktor will pay for my shrink bills.” Lenny pulled out a taffeta gown. “And this?”

“Truthfully?”

“I’m man enough to take it.”

“Not in that get-up.”

Late that afternoon, into a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood stepped someone in a lime green pantsuit, with long blonde tresses under a big, floppy hat, plus a cast on her left hand.

Across the room, a hard-edged brunette named Jolene stepped over to where a rhinestone-studded vestige from once-upon-a-time with a full mane of white hair and hand-crafted cowboy boots was sharing a bottle with a couple of cronies. Jolene watched Wakefield Skillet take a long swig, then spoke. “What do you say we call it a day?”

“Your call, honey bunch.”

Jolene turned to the remaining aspirants, who by then had been joined by the newcomer: Lenny. “Girls, that’s it for today.”

The would-be back-ups took the bad news silently, with the exception of one.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” Lenny protested in his best imitation of a woman’s voice.

“Come again?”

“The auditions are supposed to be from 10 AM to 6, and it’s just barely 5.”

“And you, I suppose, are the answer to our prayers.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“I bet you have. Don’t let the door hit you on the butt while you’re leaving.”

Lenny glared for a moment, then turned toward the star. “Mr. Skillet, you disappoint me.”

“I beg your pardon,” Skillet said after another swig of bourbon.

“You being the Country Gentleman and all.”

Outraged that someone went over her head, Jolene snarled. “Honey, get your ugly ass out of here!”

“Hold your horses, Jolene,” Skillet said, taking a step in Lenny’s direction, then studying him… or better yet, her. “Pumpkin, you got gumption. I like gumption in a gal, especially if she knows Country. You know Country, sweetness?”

“Only if you’re talking the real thing.”

“Such as?”

“George Jones, Lefty Frizzell –”

“What’s your favorite song?”

“If You’ve Got The Money, Honey, I’ve Got The Time.”

Skillet beamed. “I like a little lady who knows her stuff. But I like her even better if she can sing. Can you?”

“How about you be the judge of that? Got one in mind?”

“You pick.”

Lenny peeked at Jolene, who was doing a slow burn, then faced Wakefield and began to sing not just like a woman – but like a woman with an unforgettable voice.

“I lost my baby and my bankroll
And my best ol’ pickup truck.
Now some joker’s trying to tell me
I ain’t got the world’s worst luck.”

Lenny winked at Skillet, who, to Jolene’s dismay, reciprocated in kind, then he continued.

“Can’t pay for lunch or dinner
Or a single glass of beer.
The taste I’m tasting is the taste of fear.
I keep looking for an answer
But the answer is clear.
Got to find a way
To get on out of here.”

As Lenny finished, Skillet turned on Jolene. “You wanted to send this gal with the voice of an angel home?”

Before Jolene could respond, Skillet started to cough from deep in his chest, prompting Lenny to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”

“T’ain’t nothin’, sugar. What happened to that pretty little thumb of yours?”

“Long story.”

“Sounds like somebody’s being coy. So what do people call you?”

“Lenny,” Lenny blurted without thinking.

“Lenny?”

“S-short for Leanora.”

“I knew a Leanora once. Frisky as a filly in heat. That true of you, pumpkin?”

“Mr. Wakefield!” Lenny replied, feigning shock.

“Can’t blame a man for askin’. So what do you call that song, doll?”

“I’m Hurtin'”

“Not anymore, you’re not. Not when you’re the newest member of the Country Sweethearts.”

Two days later, an aged Volvo driven by Moon pulled into a Hollywood motel parking lot, where a tour bus adorned with Wakefield Skillet’s face – plus the words The Country Gentleman – was being readied for an extended trip.

Suitcases, instruments, gear, and snacks were being loaded while musicians, back-up singers, roadies, and hangers-on were catching up on this and that.

Then out from the Volvo came a figure in jeans, a frilly blouse, and a cowboy hat who instantly commanded attention.

cowboy hat

For a moment no one moved, then over came a woman with no intention of making Lenny – or Leanora, as his newly fabricated driver’s license and bogus Social Security card, both acquired on Alvarado Street, read – feel the least bit welcome.

“Got two things for you,” said Jolene. “The songbook, which I suggest you memorize ASAP.”

“And?”

“A word to the wise. Don’t get too comfortable.”

“Why’s that?

“You may have charmed the old man, but you sure as hell ain’t charmed me.”

“Am I supposed to quiver and cry?”

“Don’t push me, girl!” Jolene exclaimed, aware that all eyes were on her.

As Jolene stormed off, it seemed that everyone else was afraid to move. Until, that is, someone young and pretty in a cowgirl sort of way approached.

“Thank you,” said Arla Mae Holly.

“For?”

“Standing up to the Dragon Lady.”

Before the conversation could continue, a gal cute in a tougher way called over. “Honey, I need you.”

“Coming, Tammy.”

Before leaving, the woman who thanked him smiled at Lenny. “I’m Arla Mae.”

“Leanora.”

Boarding the tour bus a short while later, Lenny found that due to his confrontation with Jolene, people were choosing not to meet his gaze as he searched for a place to sit. But the cold-shouldering came to an end when Arla Me, seated beside Tammy, reached out a hand. “Do me a favor and sit over by Floyd,” she said to Tammy, gesturing toward an older musician who was dozing, “so’s I can welcome Leanora on-board.”

“Looks like you’re the you’re the only one brave enough to acknowledge me,” Lenny said as he sat down.

“Brave? Or crazy?”

“You tell me.”

“Probably more crazy than brave. Traveling new to you?”

“Yes and no.”

“Something tells me you’re different than everybody else on this tour.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

An hour later, while some people snoozed, a couple did Sudoku, and a few others listened to music through ear buds, Arla Mae faced Lenny. “Think some people are just born unlucky?”

“Unlucky how?”

“In love.”

“You feeling unlucky?”

“When it comes to guys? I don’t know if it’s luck, bad judgement, or what’s that word that means you screwed up in a previous life?”

“Karma?”

Arla Mae nodded. “I feel like life’s one big banana peel waiting for me to slip on it.”

“When the world gets weird, instead of doing a Dusty Springfield –”

“A what?”

“‘Wishing And Hoping’ that things’ll change, you’ve got to do something so that you’re who’s changing.”

“That what you do?”

“It’s what I’m doing.”

Forty-five minutes later, Arla Mae again leaned over toward Lenny. “You napping?”

“Not entirely.”

“So what do you think guys want?”

“Most? One thing, and one thing alone.”

“That’s all?”

“Where’s your brain located?”

Arla Mae tapped her head.

“What about with guys?”

“You mean between their legs?”

Lenny nodded. “For what they want, most of ’em would crawl on their hands and knees through a river of snot.”

“So there’s no hope?”

“Just because it’s most guys doesn’t mean it’s all guys. Watch out for the ones selling, and search for the one who’s not.”

Once the tour bus reached Tucson and pulled into a motel parking lot, while the roadies extracted suitcases and gear from the baggage compartment, the musicians and back-up singers lined up for room keys from Jolene. After a couple of guys, it was Arla Mae’s turn. “You’ll be with Tammy as usual,” Jolene stated.

“I’d rather be with Leanora.”

“Arla Mae –”

“To show her the ropes.”

Lenny, who was standing nearby, did his best not to gloat.

Early that evening, feeling incredibly self-conscious in a ridiculously ruffled and frilly Country Sweetheart outfit, Lenny was stepping out of his room when he heard a voice. “Got a sec?” Tammy asked.

“What’s up?”

“You may be fooling others, but you ain’t fooling me.”

Fearing he’d been busted, Lenny nearly bolted. Instead he fought to regain some semblance of composure. “W-what do you mean?”

“Little Arla, it so happens, is hopelessly straight.”

His fear subsiding, Lenny took a deep breath. “What’s that got to do with me?”

“You kidding? You’ve got that same Oh, how I wish thing going as Jolene, me, and a bunch of others. But I guess life’s filled with heartbreaks.”

“Like a Country song.”

“Like a goddamn Country song!”

At the theater that evening, Lenny’s nervousness grew exponentially due to a period of stand-around-and-wait. The instruments were on-stage, the musicians and back-up singers set to go, but there was no star in sight.

Then through the backstage entrance stumbled a drunken figure who quickly realized that all eyes were upon him. “Why’s everybody gawking?” Wakefield asked. “Thought we were supposed to be havin’ some fun!”

As Jolene, Floyd, and a couple of roadies zoomed in on Wakefield, Lenny turned toward Arla Mae.

“This mean trouble?” he whispered.

“Happens all the time. They stick his head under a faucet, pour coffee down his throat, and get his concert clothes on. Then bingo! He almost always hits the stage the way he’s supposed to.”

“Almost always?”

“Well, mostly,” Arla Mae said with a shrug.

While the concert, played before an audience that could pass for an AARP convention, proved to be old-fashioned almost to the point of being corny, it was surprisingly enjoyable for the newest Country Sweetheart. Marveling at Skillet’s rapid transition from drunkenness to a multi-watt smile, Lenny, with Arla Mae at his side, swiftly shed the butterflies in his stomach, right from the first bars of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Afterwards, despite his reluctance to fraternize excessively with the other members of the tour, Lenny allowed Arla Mae to drag him to a watering hole.

“Women folk!” Floyd exclaimed as they entered. “Now we gotta watch what we say.”

“Not with Arla Mae,” said a fiddle player named Dwayne. “Can somebody tell me why hangovers are better than women?”

“Because hangovers go away,” replied a pedal steel guitar player named Lester.

“And why do only ten percent of women go to heaven?” asked Dwayne.

“Here it comes,” said Arla Mae.

“Cause if they let ’em all in, it’d really be hell! Did you tell your friend about our tradition?”

“What tradition?” Lenny asked.

“Newest member has to sing a song, then buy everybody a round.”

“It’s kind of an initiation,” Arla Mae explained.

“C’mon, little lady,” said Dwayne. “Let’s hear what you got.”

Lenny looked around, then started to tap a beat on the table before singing the song he sang first for Melanie, then for Wakefield Skillet.

At a certain point Floyd joined in, then so did Arla Mae and Lester.

cowboy-boot for stroy

It was well after midnight when into their motel room stepped Arla Mae and Lenny. “I for one am whooped,” Arla Mae announced as she threw off her boots, then her blouse. But when she started to remove her bra, Lenny held up his hands.

“Whoa!”

“Aw, it’s just us girls. Telling me you’re modest?” When Lenny nodded as girlishly as possible, Arla Mae chuckled. “Being on the road with us’ll get you over that. In no time you’ll be on a table dancing topless.”

Wanting badly to peek at his nubile roommate, yet afraid of the consequences, Lenny headed into the bathroom.

Ten minutes later Arla Mae turned off the light, climbed into her twin bed, then faced Lenny. “So what’re your dreams?”

“I’m not much of a dreamer these days.”

“Everybody’s got dreams.”

“What’re yours?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Instead of just being on the road, I want to be on the road together with the man I love.”

“Not home somewhere snuggling?”

“Home’s not something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.”

“Problems growing up?”

“Nobody said life’s easy. Or fair.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“You know the old joke, don’t you?”

“Which one?”

“What’s the definition of a Southern virgin?”

“Tell me.”

“I’d rather not.”

“But on the road you’re comfortable?”

“On the road I’m Cinderella, dressing up each night for a new show.”

“So who’s the guy you’d like to be on the road with?”

“No clue. But let’s talk about you. Tell me some of the dreams you used to have.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Pick three.”

“To record ‘Hit The Road, Jack’.”

“Okay.”

“And sing a duet with Solomon Burke.”

“Solomon who?”

“The greatest Soul singer ever.”

“And number three.”

“To headline at Madison Square Garden.”

“What’s wrong with dreams like those?”

“Well, Ray Charles beat me to the first.”

“Yeah –”

“And Solomon Burke died.”

“Ouch. And the Garden?”

“Not in this lifetime.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“What if I told you it’ll happen?”

“I’d say you’re crazy, but sweet.”

For Lenny, that night, and those that followed, were both heaven and hell. It was incredible to be in bed close to Arla Mae, but painful to be unable to touch her.

Days, largely spent on the tour bus, were easier, and evenings easiest of all, with shows here, there, and everywhere.

Complicating matters was an ever-increasing amount of attention from the band’s fiddle player, Dwayne, who alternated between trying to entice Lenny to share a “drinkie-poo” and misogynistic jokes when the answer was no.

“Those jokes,” Lenny finally said one night after a show. “Think they’re endearing?”

“Aw, I’m just funnin’. But tell you what. For you I’ll stop. Now how about a little quality time?”

Lenny begged off, but not before Dwayne planted a kiss on his cheek.

Not until the tour bus pulled into a truck stop somewhere unidentifiable did Lenny get to slip away and make a call.

“How’s my favorite cowgirl?” said Moon in answering.

“Eat it.”

“Sounds like Leanora’s got PMS.”

“What’s up with Viktor?”

“He’s screaming that for losing money and face he wants to pull out your teeth, your fingernails and your toe nails. But other than that, he’s peachy. You holding up?”

“The shoes are killing me, I shave in secret three times a day, and I’m bunking with the sweetest thing in the whole world.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m like her big sister.”

“Scary thought. But so far no trouble?”

“Nothing I can’t handle. But help me. What’s the definition of a Southern virgin?”

“A fourteen-year-old who can outrun her uncle.”

Before Lenny could respond, up came Jolene. “You coming or staying?”

“Here I come.”

“But mark my words. Next time we leave without you.”

The following morning, while headed toward the tour bus, Lenny was surprised to hear Wakefield call to him. “Wish you could’ve seen us in the heyday! Playing in front of big crowds in big arenas in the biggest towns.”

“Maybe it’ll happen again.”

To Lenny’s dismay, Skillet started to cough, the intensity mounting until it became violent. “Only if I live long enough,” he said once the coughing subsided. “Then maybe the doors’ll open. Lemme explain about Country. If you’ve got talent and get a break or two, you can make a go of it till you’re 45 or so. But 45 to 65? A tough road of scrapping and scratching.”

“But if you hit 65?”

“You become a Living Legend. That means back to the big time!”

Three nights later, Lenny was backstage with some singers and musicians in Santa Fe when Arla Mae spotted Jolene, who looked mighty perturbed. “Uh-oh!” she exclaimed. “One of those nights.”

“Leave it to our fearless leader,” said Dwayne.

“Remember when I told you that Wakefield almost always hits the stage on time?” Arla Mae whispered to Lenny. “Well, once in a while there’s an exception.”

“Dwayne! Lester!” Jolene shouted. “Time for a search party!”

“Lots of luck,” Tammy said softly, “with Wakefield knowing every cantina, gin mill, and watering hole in America.”

Forty minutes later, as Wakefield Skillet was being carried toward the arena by Dwayne and Lester, Jolene was accosted by a guy in a blue suit and snakeskin boots. “What the fuck is this?” demanded Cochran, the promoter.

“He’ll be ready in no time,” Jolene responded.

“Ain’t good enough! I’ve got people ready to pull the seats out. We start now, or I sue!”

The Country Sweethearts were watching Dwayne and Lester tote Wakefield toward a men’s room backstage when Jolene approached them. “Time for Plan B!”

“A crowd that’s been promised their hero with no opening act?” Tammy said. “You can’t do that.”

“Watch me!” With that, Jolene faced Lenny. “You’ve got the spotlight, honey.”

“They’ll eat her alive,” Arla Mae protested.

“She’ll be a sacrificial lamb,” added Tammy.

Though known for her sourpuss expressions, Jolene grinned. “Yeah!”

Minutes later, with the musicians and back-up singers taking their places on-stage, Arla Mae leaned toward Lenny. “This is really not wise.” When Lenny shrugged, she turned toward Floyd. “Tell her.”

“Every time somebody’s tried, total disaster,” Floyd warned.

But Lenny was unmoved.

Inside the hall the restless audience was ready to revolt when suddenly the lights went dim. Then an announcer’s voice was heard. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm welcome to the Wakefield Skillet Show featuring the one and only Leanora!”

Music filled the air as the curtain went up, revealing Lenny standing center stage. For a moment he was frozen, but a wink from Arla Mae helped.

At that very moment a voice rang out. “You ain’t Wakefield,” screamed a heckler.

“Can’t put anything past you,” Lenny, his competitive juices starting to flow, said into the microphone.

“Bring on Skillet!” yelled someone else.

“Hear that, Arla Mae,” Lenny said in a stage whisper. “First a skillet, then what – a deep fryer?” Confronted by boos and hisses, Lenny turned to one of the musicians. “Dwayne, know what girl singers like me use for birth control?”

“What’s that, honey?” asked Dwayne, playing along.

“Our personalities!”

Instead of more boos and hisses, Lenny got a few laughs, and not just from the members of the band. “That’s the kind of hospitality I heard Santa Fe was famous for. Now I wonder if any of you know how can you tell when a girl singer shows up at your front door.”

“How, baby?” asked a heavyset man in the second row.

“She has no key and no clue when to come in.”

More laughter from the audience allowed Lenny to wink at Arla Mae. “Thank you,” he then said to the crowd.

“Jokes are one thing,” yelled a guy with the last mullet in America. “But can you sing?”

“Why don’t you be the judge?”

Much to Jolene’s amazement, Lenny started to sing a cappella, his falsetto instantly winning over the doubters in the audience. As cellphones began to appear, he signaled to the musicians and back-up singers to join him.

Midway through the song, when Wakefield appeared and turned “Damnation” into a duet, the audience went wild, with more cellphones taking photos and footage.

Though pleased by the adulation, and tickled by the embraces from Wakefield, the back-up singers, and musicians in the aftermath, Lenny went to bed that night believing that his moment in the spotlight was nothing more than his allotted but long overdue fifteen minutes of fame.

That was dispelled the next morning by a call from Moon. “Thought you were keeping a low profile!”

“I am.”

“Then how come you’ve gone viral?”

“You kidding?”

“Even Susannah called, screaming about how you finally humped a hippo on-stage!”

“Jesus!”

“Instead of wanting to be Ray Charles, now you’ve got to pull one and “Hit The Road, Jack!”

Trudging back to the group’s motel, Lenny was spotted by Dwayne and Lester. “A star is born!” Lester announced.

“Seen YouTube?” Dwayne asked.

Ignoring them, Lenny ducked inside, then entered his room just as Arla Mae emerged from the bathroom naked.

“Arla Mae!” Lenny proclaimed. “You’re killing me.”

“Such a prude,” Arla Mae replied with a chuckle before wrapping a towel around herself. To her surprise, she watched Lenny grab a suitcase then toss clothes inside. “We don’t leave for an hour-and-a-half.”

“Let me explain something –”

“What for?”

“Because there’s lots about me you don’t know.”

“But I know what counts, that you’re smart, talented, and nice.”

Lenny studied Arla Mae for a moment, then took her hand. “But I’m not who you think I am. Once upon a time in Los Angeles, there was a guy who got into trouble.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“Not exactly. A musician who had a little taste of success –”

“You mean like a couple of hits?”

“One lone, solitary, medium hit, followed by luck ranging from bad to horrendous.”

“And then?”

“He made a bunch of foolish mistakes, then stupidly tried to bail himself out.”

“By gambling?”

“Yup. And when that didn’t work out, he made the dumbest move of all.”

“Bad checks?”

“Borrowing from the absolutely worst person.”

“As in mobster?”

Lenny nodded. “And when the not-so-friendly mobster came to collect –”

“And he didn’t have the bucks –”

“Out of desperation he did something that was crazy. Cuckoo. Off the deep end.”

“Namely?”

Before Lenny could answer, there was a knock on the door. Panicked, Lenny held up a hand to stop Arla Mae from responding. But it was too late. “Who is it?” she asked.

“My name’s Rodney Phelps,” said a voice. “I just flew in to sign Leanora if nobody got here first.”

Arla Mae threw on a bathrobe, then opened the door to see a short man with an attache case. Rodney glanced at Lenny, then smiled at Arla Mae. “And you are?”

“Arla Mae Holly.”

“As in Buddy?”

“I wish.”

Rodney shook Arla Mae’s hand before turning to Lenny. “In case you’re not aware,” he began, “I have an unerring nose for talent.”

“For talent?” asked Lenny. “Or for success?”

“Is there a difference?”

“Leanora’s kind of a musical snob who likes Bobby ‘Blue’ something-or-other and Solomon what’s-his-face,” Arla Mae explained.

“And I applaud and admire such good taste. But that ship sailed long ago. I’m not here to say Lady Gaga’s more gifted than Billie Holiday or Aretha. Or that Justin Timberlake can hold a candle to Ray Charles or Otis Redding. I’m here to discuss stardom in this crazy world in which we now live. You’ve heard of Biebermania?”

When Lenny did not respond, Arla Mae spoke up. “Who hasn’t?”

“What would you say to Leanora Fever?”

Once more Arla Mae answered. “Can that really happen?”

“Leanora had more YouTube hits on the first day than Susan Boyle, Bieber, and twelve silly cat videos put together. With the magic I can bring, the sky’s the limit.”

“So where do you see her playing?”

Rodney faced Leanora. “Where would you like to play?”

When Lenny again remained silent, it was Arla Mae who answered. “Madison Square Garden?”

“What if I were to tell you that due to an act, who will go unnamed, going into rehab, they’ve got a slot open in less than three weeks?”

“For real?” asked Arla Mae.

“Which gives us time to sneak in a small show somewhere for promotional purposes while my PR machine works overtime.”

Together with Dwayne and Lester, Jolene was waiting near the motel entrance when Rodney Phillips approached. “Did you sign her?” she asked.

“Working on it. And you are?”

“My name’s Jolene –”

“Who’s tried to make life miserable for my future client?”

“H-how would you know that?”

“It’s my job to know everything there is to know.”

With that, Rodney Phillips walked on.

Back in their motel room, Arla Mae was perplexed “What do you mean, you can’t? You can, and you will.”

“You don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand. When a dream comes true you can’t just walk away.”

“Says who?”

“Says me. I simply won’t allow it. Okay, so you can’t record ‘Hit The Road, Jack,’ or a duet with that guy who’s dead and gone. But playing Madison Square Garden like you’ve been dreaming about? As the headliner? You’ve gotta say yes even if your life’s at stake.”

“And it might be.”

Arla Mae eyed Lenny strangely. “What in hell does that mean?”

“What I’m trying to explain is you just don’t get it.”

“You’re the one who doesn’t get it. So let’s just get to the bottom line.”

“Which is?”

“What’s it gonna take to get you to say yes?”

Faced with a dilemma beyond anything he ever imagined, Lenny breathed deeply. Then, gazing into Arla Mae’s sweet, lovely face, all resistance faded. “Come with me.”

“I’d love to, but –”

“But, what?”

“I just can’t walk out on Wakefield.”

Ten minutes later, Lenny and Arla Mae knocked on Wakefield’s door. “You know those places you said you’d play if and when you become a living legend?” Lenny asked once the Country Gentleman answered.

“What about ’em?”

“What would you say if you could play one a lot sooner?”

“Which one?”

“Oh, say Madison Square Garden.”

“Ain’t fair to tease that way.”

“She’s not teasing,” Arla Mae stated.

To their dismay, Lenny and Arla Mae watched Wakefield retreat into the room, then bury his face in his hands.

Arla Mae approached him gently. “Did we do something wrong?”

His eyes red, Wakefield looked up at Arla Mae. “Know why I drink so much?” Both Arla Mae and Lenny shook their heads, then watched as Wakefield started to cough violently. “Because I’m sick, that’s why,” he said once the coughing subsided. “My lungs are shot, my prostate’s a nightmare, and it’s a miracle I’m still around.” Wakefield let out a sigh. “So I reach for the bottle in the hope of easing the pain in my body and the hurt in my soul.” Wakefield frowned, then peered at Lenny. “What I told you about holding on till I’m 65?” Lenny nodded. “That’s in the hope of getting one more shot. One little-bitty taste of the big-time. So if there’s any truth to what you’re saying, I’m in.”

“One catch. You’ll be the opening act.”

“For you?”

Again Lenny nodded. “Then backing me up when I come on.”

Wakefield dried his eyes, then mustered a smile. “To play the Garden, I’d play tambourine behind a chorus of serial killers, or rhythm guitar behind a band of hogs.”

Thanks to the miracle maker named Rodney Phelps, when the time came for the star-in-the-making known as Leanora to arrive in Manhattan, accompanied by Wakefield and his touring company, Jolene was conspicuous in her absence.

Stunned by all that was happening, Lenny was ushered not into another motel, but rather the Hotel Pierre. After stashing his belongings in his suite, he hit the lobby, where he was startled by a voice.

“You may fool others,” he heard, “but you can’t fool me!”

Nearly freaking, Lenny turned to spot Moon, grinning from ear to ear. “They think you’re Country,” he continued, “but I know your taste runs to Joe Tex, Bobby Marchan, and Solomon Burke.”

“Didn’t think you’d make it.”

“You kidding? Let me buy you a drink.”

“Only if I can borrow a t-shirt and some jeans.”

Fifteen minutes later, Moon spoke to Lenny, dressed for the first time in a while as a man, as they strolled toward downtown. “Bet you miss the make-up and the wig.”

“And the ruffles.”

“Ruffles?”

“Country! Katz’s for corned beef?”

Before Moon could respond, he found himself grabbed by Lenny, then pulled into a doorway. There, Lenny pointed at an all-too-familiar woman blabbing into her iPhone: Susannah Barnes.

Only once she had passed did Moon speak. “If you were sane, you’d bolt right now.”

“If.”

“Please tell me why in the world you’re doing this.”

“For one thing, there are people counting on me.”

Moon eyed Lenny strangely. “Do I know you?”

“What’s that mean?”

“When did you stop acting like a guy who looks out first and foremost for himself?”

“Maybe when I stopped acting like a guy. Look, when this started, you told me I was nuts, and you were right. But since then I’ve learned that sometimes being nuts is the only way to get anywhere in this world.”

“And if it all blows up?”

Lenny shrugged. “I can say I had my moment.”

The next morning, Arla Mae knocked on Lenny’s door, then smiled at Lenny, who was once again dressed as Leanora. “Want breakfast? Or a neck rub?”

“How about cyanide? Look, if tonight goes haywire –”

“It won’t.”

“But for argument’s sake, if it blows up, or something happens, or –”

“You turn into a sea monster? You’re wondering if we’ll still be best buds?” When Lenny nodded, Arla Mae planted a kiss on his cheek. “Ain’t nothing in the world could come between us.”

That evening, with the marquee at Madison Square Garden announcing LEANORA, THE COUNTRY SWEETHEART, people not often seen in Manhattan were arriving: old folks who’d look more at home at the Grand Ol’ Opry, young girls copying Leanora’s fashion right down to fake casts on their wrists, strapping guys in cowboy hats and boots. As Rodney Phelps predicted, New York had made the leap from cosmopolitan to Country.

Backstage, Wakefield Skillet knocked on Lenny’s dressing room door, then opened it to find Rodney Phelps together with the headliner. “Okay for an old man to poke in?”

“Always,” Lenny replied.

“Just want to say thanks. To both of you.”

“You gave me a break,” Lenny stated, “So it’s nice to return the favor. Give ’em hell out there, and show ’em what Country’s supposed to be.”

Ever the gentleman, Wakefield tipped his hat, then left. “Somebody’s happy,” Lenny stated.

“What about you?” asked Rodney. Without waiting for an answer, Rodney continued. “Comfortable with the songs and sequencing?” That drew a nod from Lenny. “And the costume changes?”

Lenny’s only reply was a shrug.

“Trust me,” said Rodney. “Everything’ll be fine.”

Not quite an hour later, backed by the Country Gentlemen and the Country Sweethearts minus Leanora, Wakefield Skillet finished the last number in his set. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he addressed the crowd. “Now’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. Let’s give a warm welcome to the Country Sweetheart herself, the one and only Leanora!”

The audience, including Moon in the front row and Susannah Barnes in the cheap seats, broke into applause, whoops, and hollers. Then onto the stage stepped the extravagantly attired creature known as Leanora, whose dress was nonstop ruffles and fringes, and whose long blond wig was topped by a humongous hat.

Lenny’s nervousness and trepidation began to dissipate as the crowd rose to their feet. Stepping toward center stage, he paused to receive hugs from Dwight, Lester, and Arla Mae, then one from Wakefield.

“How you feelin’, honey bunch?” Wakefield asked, speaking into the microphone.

“You know, Wakefield, it’s not easy being a girl singer. In fact, there are times when it can be really tough.”

“How tough?”

“Well, did you hear about the female vocalist who was in tune?”

“Nope.”

“Me, neither.” Eliciting laughter not merely from those on-stage, Lenny relaxed even more. “And why do you think some people have an instant hatred for girl singers?”

“Tell me.”

“It saves time.” Lenny exulted in the laughter that erupted, then grew serious. “I know this is supposed to be my moment, but how about helping me kick things off by singing with me.”

“That’ll be my pleasure.”

A dream come true for both of them, Lenny and Wakefield launched into a rousing duet on “You Are My Sunshine.”

After a couple of more tunes, with applause ringing out, Lenny stepped backstage for a costume change, then spotted a maintenance man in coveralls out of the corner of his eye. Experiencing a fleeting moment of what seemed like recognition, Lenny hesitated, but was interrupted by Rodney Phelps. “Doing great!”

“Rodney, there’s something –”

“I know everything I need to know,” Rodney said. “Just put on another pretty dress and wow ’em some more.”

A costume change later, Lenny emerged from his dressing room wearing an even gaudier outfit plus a bigger and brasher hat, getting a thumbs-up from Rodney. Together they headed toward the stage, only to find their path blocked by one… two… three… four guys dressed as maintenance men: all of them unmistakably Russian. Worse, they were led by “Vicious” Viktor Golichnikov and Mischa.

“The money,” demanded Viktor.

Though fully aware that he’d been busted, because of Rodney, Lenny attempted to stay in character. “Y-you’ll get your money,” he replied in Leanora’s voice.

“Now! And when this show is over, you work for me.”

Not awed by anyone, Rodney Phelps stepped forward. “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

“Do you?” asked Viktor.

At a nod from Viktor, Mischa grabbed Rodney and flung him against the stage door, which flew open. Instantly, Dwight, Lester, and several other band members – all of them big, strong country boys – raced over. And a brawl was on!

With fists flying, one of the Russians tried to grab Lenny, only to find himself nailed with a right to the jaw. But to Lenny’s chagrin, the punch did little more than make the Russian snarl before letting loose with a punch that knocked the wig off his head while sending him flying toward the stage.

The audience uttered a collective gasp as wigless Lenny tumbled onto the stage. But the gasp turned into cries, shrieks, and screams at the realization that their beloved Leanora was a he!

Wakefield was stunned, as were the band members, the audience, and the back-up singers. But no one’s response was greater than Arla Mae’s. “Oh, my dear God!” she blurted.

Then onto the stage ran Rodney Phelps. “Grab the mic, Lenny!” he yelled. “Grab the goddamn mic!”

“Y-you k-knew?”

“It’s my job to know everything. And this, my friend, is better than humping a hippo on stage. Grab the mic and give ’em their money’s worth!”

Looking – and feeling – more ridiculous than ever in his Leanora outfit and make-up minus the wig, Lenny walked to the microphone and faced the still-stunned audience. “So a bunch of cavalry officers ride up toward Little Big Horn. Hearing something in the hills across the way, General Custer says, “You know, I don’t like the sound of those drums.” And what does he hear? “Sorry, it’s not our usual drummer!” A smattering of laughter filled the air, so Lenny continued. “But then again, I guess this is not what you’d call a usual show. But like the great Bobby Marchan used to say, you’re getting two acts for the price of one. So what do you say we let the music take us where we need to go? This one, which I guess is more pertinent now than ever, is called “Damnation.”

As more members of the crowd applauded, Lenny gestured toward Wakefield and the members of the band who were still standing. Then, a cappella, he began to sing.

“Damnation! Oh, damnation!
Everywhere I look I see
Nothing but frustration!”

Wakefield, the musicians, and the Country Sweethearts, minus Arla Mae, joined in as Lenny continued.

“Gotta do what we can
To find a new sensation.
What we need more than ever
Is a cause for celebration!”

A couple of weeks later, Lenny’s funky BMW made its way through LA’s warehouse district, then parked. As he trudged toward his building, a car horn shattered his reverie. Turning, he spotted a red Cadillac approaching with Wakefield Skillet at the wheel and Arla Mae riding shotgun.

Lenny watched Wakefield whisper something to Arla Mae, then nudge her out of the car. Nervously, she started toward Lenny. “Know what Wakefield and I were just saying?”

“I give up.”

“Maybe you and I weren’t meant to be best buds after all.”

“Really?”

“So maybe –”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll just have to be close in another kind of way.”

Seeing a smile spread across Arla Mae’s glowing features, Lenny could not help but melt.

Then into his arms she came.

Stepping out of the Caddy, Wakefield beamed.

“See that?” he said. “Sometimes the world’s a pretty decent place after all.”

guitar acoustic

*******

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, and boxing.  Next up is one about singer-songwriter Billy Vera.  In the world of music among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs.  His novel “The Beard” was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.  http://harvardsquareeditions.org/portfolio-items/the-beard/  This is his third story to appear in New Pop Lit.

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