Dark Angel was the song he dedicated to Susie.
She blew him a kiss. It was like he could see it rise above the smoke and neon and glide lazily toward the stage, a rose petal in the evening breeze. Momentarily he stopped strumming, reached up and caught it.
The pedal steel guitar whined like someone with a week-old toothache, drifted listlessly out the window and died of exposure in the damp summer heat. It came courtesy of WCNT, all Grand Old Opry all the grand old time, a station Mapes never strayed from.
A woman was pumping gas. She was pretty, somewhere in her late 20s, dressed in shorts, and a T-shirt that asked, “Am I hi?” The words made a bow over a cartoon of a bullfrog about to jump a motorcycle off a cliff. Sunglasses perched atop the woman’s straw-colored hair like an unspoken dare. She seemed intent on stopping the meter exactly at some round number. Apparently she missed, because she yanked the nozzle out of the tank with such force that it got away from her, appeared to leap from her grasp like a metal-headed snake and landed on the pavement with a resounding clank. Then she looked down the road, rubbing her forehead. She rubbed all the way through “She’s Got You” by Patsy Cline. Then she picked up the nozzle, jammed it back into place at the side of the pump and said something to someone in the car. A child? Either that or a midget, Mapes thought, or maybe someone asleep. No head could be seen above the door.
The woman reminded him of Susie, at least how Susie had been back then, near the end of that hot, eventful summer that had turned her hair the same straw color as the woman who’d been pumping gas. The summer of Mapes’s big chance—the night of which he still remembers, still pokes at and wiggles around like a sore tooth he can’t leave be.
That night the crowd had been bigger than usual. When Mapes took the stage, an expectant buzz had already spawned and lifted above the habitual clink and murmur of the veteran drinkers. The Big Noise from Memphis was on the bill, halfway through a Midwest tour to plug his appearance on the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show second in popularity only to the Opry. People said he was the real deal. As far as Mapes was concerned, that remained to be seen. Mapes had no doubt that if his own band, the Hot Shots, had the good fortune to call Memphis home, they’d have a record contract too. Sam Phillips himself had told him to drop by the studio if he ever swung into town. But he never did. Instead he sat cooling his jets in Wyandotte, Michigan, working the road crews by day and the roadhouses by night.
But that was the night it was all going to change. All day long, as he’d smoothed the steaming, aromatic asphalt into place over potholes and cracks and dips in the road surface, Mapes had felt closer than he’d ever been to the magic, the intoxicating mojo of adrenaline and hope that bubbled up in his chest and blew through his veins like a hundred runaway trains whenever he allowed himself to imagine a future in music. He felt it again as he stood on the stage and peered out among the crowd. Through the greasy patina of burger smoke and tobacco haze he noticed a table of men in flashy suits. He’d never seen them in the joint before. Bottles of bourbon gleamed royally on their table and tight-skirted waitresses fluttered around them like long-legged birds in the court of some Persian king. One man wore a pinky ring that caught the glint of a spotlight as it was being adjusted. These were the talent scouts maybe, money cats from Nashville or Memphis, beating the bushes for the next big thing. Or maybe not, Mapes remembered thinking, maybe they were just car dealers and maybe all they were scouting for was someone to buy a Ford.
A couple tables over, Mapes noticed Susie. She was with two of her girlfriends, watching him like he was the big red cherry on top of her banana split. He’d flashed her his patented smile, or half-smile really, his trademark, he used it for everything, the smile that said don’t go worrying your pretty little head about old Mapes, everything’s copacetic here, I got this whole deal all figured out.
“How much for an apple juice?” The woman held the little boy against her hip and peered into the cooler. Her voice was harder than Susie’s. The words were cold like stones. Her right eye was ringed by a butter-colored bruise, highlighted with black and purple splotches. It reminded him of mushrooms.
“The apple juice?” she said, now looking at Mapes. “Does it have a price?”
“No it doesn’t,” Mapes answered. “The reason being that I don’t carry apple juice. But that orange juice in there will cost you a dollar.”
“Damn. Tyler likes his apple juice.” She frowned and turned back to the cooler. She pulled out an orange plastic container, shook it like a whip with a downward motion, sprinkling the floor with condensation. On the second shake, the container slipped from her hand and flew across the room, skittering against the faded tiles until it smacked against Mapes’s counter. She sighed, walked over and picked it up. The child gurgled with delight, as if the purpose of the mishap had been to provide entertainment. The woman placed the container on the counter. Fuzz stuck to it like mold.
“You can get another one,” Mapes said.
“It’s fine,” the woman said. “It just needs to be wiped off.”
Mapes took a tattered rag from behind the counter and wiped the bottle off. “Little hot today,” the woman said. “Wouldn’t you say?” Something in Mapes’s countenance made her reach up and touch her eye. “Damn,” she said. “Isn’t that the way of things? You spend thirty bucks for sunglasses to hide a bruise and leave them sitting on top of your head like a damn tiara.” She pulled the glasses down over her eyes. “Well my princess days are over,” she said. She looked at Mapes. “I walked into a door if that’s what you’re wondering.”