“Red Lion” – Sweet Pea – Smokin’ & Cryin’

Author’s note

I’m serializing the first 10% of Smokin’ & Cryin’ here on my blog. It’s the story of a young American rock band set in the early 1970s. Please feel free to share this with your friends.

Overture is the first installment. This post is #6 in the series.

 

Chapter 2 – Sweet Pea continued (part 3)

Arthur took me out for lunch at the Red Lion, a downtown diner famous for its Coney dogs. I’d been sleeping on Deuce’s floor ever since the fight with Dad. Bev had dropped off a paper grocery sack full of my clothes and a cardboard box with the broken pieces of the acoustic guitar. She’d stuffed the contents of my piggy bank into an envelope, stashing it between my jeans and T-shirts. She was too good for my dad. We all were.

I had my first hangover, thanks to the guys cheering me up with too much Jack and Coke. I pushed a Coney dog around on my plate with one finger, my stomach churning. All I remembered from the night before was leaning out Deuce’s apartment window while Arthur and gorgeous Mercy Ramos argued on the sidewalk below. She’d promised to wait for him when he left for boot camp, but married Pablo, the bass player from his high school band.

I’d barfed out the window, right on Mercy. She’d started shriek­ing. Laughing, Deuce collapsed onto the couch. Waverly rubbed my shoulders and said tomorrow morning Arthur and I would both be glad we got this out of our systems.

If it was possible to die of shame, I’d be in a morgue. I’d had a thing for Mercy as long as I could remember even if she’d always been Arthur’s girl. Now she had a baby, and Pablo was missing in action in Vietnam.

“I’m real sorry about everything,” I said for the umpteenth time.

“Stop. Studio Perry wasn’t your fault, and neither is she.”

Studio Perry was how everyone referred to Perry Stoddard because he got a lot of studio work and wasn’t keen on joining a band—especially not one with a bald, 15-year-old frontman.

Arthur stuffed down two Coney dogs on top of his broken heart and asked if I was going to eat mine. I shoved my tray toward him.

“I’m not worried.” He used his hands when he talked, punctuat­ing his words with swirls of smoke, a detail I’d forgotten while he was away. “Waverly is hot shit,” he said. “We’ve got Deuce’s P.A. system. Studio Perry will come around, or we’ll find someone else. Then all we’ll need is a name.”

After Vietnam, everything looked like downhill sledding to Arthur.

“What’s the stone in those earrings called again?” he asked. “It sounded good, but now I can’t remember.”

“Smoky topaz.”

He smiled. “Picture that on a marquee.”

“Better than Half-Baked Holtzapple and the Whatevers,” I said.

My dad whacked the plate-glass window next to our booth. I jumped. He came in and headed over to us, playing it off like he was hip, the way he always did in public.

“Son, you’re making a huge mistake. I’m here to help you.”

“By forcing me to enlist when I turn 16?”

Arthur’s mouth dropped open. “He’s doing what? He can’t do that.”

“Mind your own business,” Dad said. “I’d like to have a word with Robin.”

He led me outside, his arm around my shoulder. It would have appeared protective to anyone who didn’t know the real Vern Chelsea.

“Son, I realize I was a little rough on you the other night. I should apologize. But you’re aware of everything you did. Snooping in my room. Stealing things. Refusing to get your hair cut. Sneaking out. Taking Lisa with you. The damn ear piercings. Hanging out with that reprobate stepbrother of yours and his hippie friends. I had to disci­pline you because it’s what a good father does. You’re my son, and I do love you. But you left me no choice but to teach you a lesson.”

I stared at a gob of chewing gum on the sidewalk. My body ached from his so-called discipline and my desperate escape. I stuffed my hands into my back pockets, trying to believe him, to accept the blame. “Okay.”

“No. It’s certainly not okay. How will you get a job with your ear pierced? And what have you done to your face?”

The gash on my cheek was from his class ring. He’d worn it to the Elks Club the night he’d attacked me.

“Robin, I know that you know better and I’m. . . I’m at a loss here.” He lifted my chin. “I want what’s best for you. You need order. A sense of purpose. Responsibility. The Army can give you that, and valuable real-world experience too.”

“I’m 15. Let me finish high school, at least. I’ve got two years left.”

“Some of the most successful career soldiers sign up young. It happens more often than people realize. If we wait until you’re 18, even 17, it could be too late to save you. I wouldn’t even consider this if I wasn’t sure it was the best possible thing for you.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Early enlistment is a special gift that will start you down the path to the rest of your life.”

If it wasn’t for the hard glint in his eye, I might have fallen for it. “Vietnam, Dad. They’ll send me there and my life could end in months. Or weeks.”

“Defiance. This is exactly the type of problem the service will address with you. Now come on home, son. We’ll get you over to Dr. Marvin and have him see to that nick under your eye.”

Waverly, the drummer, had offered to stitch the gash for me, but I’d insisted on a regular bandage.

I folded my arms across my chest. “I’m not coming with you.”

“What are you going to do? Cast your lot with Arthur Holtzapple? He’s unstable. An emotional timebomb. Sure, he’s being friendly with you now, but he could decide you’re Viet Cong—turn on you any second. You haven’t seen his psych reports coming out of the V.A. hospital. It wasn’t just sepsis they kept him in there for all that time. He’s a few dill pickles short of a picnic.”

“Arthur’s fine, Dad. They gave him the Purple Heart. You’re so into the military, you should respect that. But no. To you, Arthur’s Purple Heart doesn’t even count.”

“Because it doesn’t.”

“What the hell, dad?”

“Watch yourself.”

“How can you say that enlisting will be some great gift of man­hood for me, then say Vietnam made Arthur crazy?”

“Your mother and I—”

“Beverly is not my mother.” She was Arthur’s mother, and Lisa’s. “Caroline is mine.”

Was yours.” He snorted. “Fine. I won’t indulge your petty argu­ments. I know you think we’re ogres, but we weren’t being cruel when we asked him not to stay at the house. We were protecting you. And Lisa. She’s a little girl. Arthur has episodes of real violence. His doctors warned us.”

I shook with anger. Arthur would never hurt Lisa. Or me. Or anyone. And there was no we at all. Bev was crushed that Dad wouldn’t let Arthur stay with us. I turned to walk away.

“Don’t be an idiot. Get in the Impala.” He clamped his hand around the back of my neck and shoved me toward his car. “And give those earrings back.”

“No.”

They should have been buried with my mother. My final impres­sion of home was the grit of carpet fibers in my teeth while Dad knelt on me, scraping my scalp with a straight razor. He was hoping to scare me away from Arthur. And he was calmly hellbent on send­ing me to Vietnam two years early.

I wasn’t soldier material. I was a kid who liked to sing loud and play guitar.

I ducked out of his grip and ran for the Red Lion. Before I reached the entrance, he caught me and pinned me against the glazed brick wall. It was hot from the afternoon sun. “Wrong move.”

“Lay off him, old man.” Arthur pulled my father away from me. “Try fighting an adult.”

“Find me one, and maybe I will.”

Arthur waved a cheap steak knife he must have grabbed from the utensil cart in the restaurant. “Fight me. Hand to hand. Show a com­bat vet how it’s done.” He moved backward, coaxing Dad into Saginaw Street, making him forget I was the problem.

Dad always bragged about what a great time he’d had in the Army. He’d been a peacetime soldier. Never saw any action at all. To hear him talk, you’d think he was General MacArthur himself.

“You were never a soldier,” Dad said. “You weren’t man enough to die over there. Not even decent cannon fodder. You should be ashamed. You’re an emotional basket case. Going to shrinks. Crying on your mama’s shoulder. When will you grow up?”

Arthur smiled like he’d won a secret bet. “Motherfucker. Come on. Fight me.”

Dad charged at him. A station wagon blared its horn and screeched to a stop. Arthur jumped onto the hood with his boots on the front bumper and waved the steak knife. “Come on. Come on, chicken shit. Show me what you got.”

The driver laid on the horn. Arthur refused to budge. Dad looked around, his eyes wild.

“You afraid of this puny knife, old man?” Arthur threw it into the gutter. “Motherfucker. You fuck my mother. Now get over here and fuck me.”

Dad lunged at him. Arthur stopped him with one swift, flat foot to the face. Dad stumbled and sat down hard in the street. Blood spurted from his nose. Arthur slid off the car hood and stood over him, hands on his hips.

I froze at the curb, caught in a whirlwind of instinct, anger and awe. And the sudden, sinking possibility Dad might have had a point about Arthur’s mental state.

The station wagon crawled past them, followed by a slow parade of cars no longer held up by the scuffle, drivers and passengers gap­ing at the scene.

Dad staggered to his feet. “I’m not through with you yet, you miscreant bastard.”

“Yeah, old man. You are,” Arthur said.

Dad sniffed and wiped his bloody nose on the sleeve of his dress shirt. “Robin. You come home with me right now.

“No.”

“Now, Robin. Or never darken my doorway again.”

I shook my head. “I’m sticking with Arthur.”

 


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