Sample the first chapter below.
Someone once said: “Being a genius is a real shot in the nuts. Shit’s exhausting as all hell.”
That someone was country music legend J. Claude Caruthers.
When said philosophical nugget was scratched into his autobiography, Nashville’s Shakespeare, Caruthers had no idea how true it was. He just thought it sounded cool.
Recently, that genius swallowed every ounce of the singer’s energy until he was a sleepwalking shell of a man. The exhaustion was so powerful, so numbing, he barely noticed Judy yanking off his scruffy boot.
See, Claude hadn’t slept for more than a week because that genius was currently suffocating beneath the greatest artistic achievement in Nashville history. Well, at least since Willie Nelson sculpted a Venus de Milo from rolling papers soaked in Coors beer.
When that boot finally slipped free, J. Claude’s tour bus was pounding down the road. Nighttime highway lights peeked through crushed velvet curtains and disappeared across the carpet. The singer’s bedroom occupied the cruiser’s rear and was draped from ceiling to floor in purple. It’d been nearly thirty years since the quarters were redecorated and they had barely been cleaned during that span.
Judy popped off the boot and fell backward onto Claude’s bed. The publicist, several decades younger than the wrinkled star, was a leggy dream with soft red hair now spread across the pillow. This was a treat since her locks were normally twisted up like a tight coil of copper wire. J. Claude oozed a long glance at her tiny feet, thin ankles and girlishly small hands. The five-time Country Musician of the Year made a big show of licking his lips.
Claude’s black sideburns were fading grey and his bones ached. But the songster didn’t notice when his heart got to beating like that. He assumed the handsomeness discussed in Nashville’s Shakespeare—rugged good looks that made the Marlboro Man feel “downright gay”—were responsible for Judy’s seductive tumble. His mind’s green lights flashed to crank up that famed Caruthers Charm.
Even though the exhausted flesh around them was puffy and discolored from insomnia, his eyes managed to sparkle with jumping jacks of trouble. “Take off your dress,” he said. “Stay a while.”
“No, thanks, my dress is fine,” she glowered and stood, finding sea legs as the bus swayed. Judy swept crumbs and cigarette ash from that blue cotton dress with a sigh. “Some days, Claude, you are like gum in my hair.” She tossed the boot in his direction.
“Oooh, that sounds kinky. I could get into that.”
Purple braided ceiling tassels, coated in three decades of nicotine, beat into the publicist’s head. Her stomach tensed. When J. Claude’s eggplant bedspread, violet wallpaper and lilac carpet mixed with the bus’ motion, she still ached with nausea, even after all these years.
Judy wanted to deliver a Hall of Fame scowl. She wanted to make Claude cry. Instead, she settled for her natural reaction of pity, marveling at her boss’ face, weathered by decades of smoky clubs and all-night gigs. “You have an interview. His name is Martin Dobson. He’s riding along until we get to Nashville. I’m going to patch him over to you.” She pointed at the dilapidated intercom system that was pretty hot shit back when the bus was new.
“Aw, relax,” J. Claude hopped down from the window seat. His strut was cracked and dry with beef jerky stiffness. His every movement was a faded copy of its once suave self. “Sit back down on the bed. Let’s me and you have a one-on-one business meeting first.”
The singer eyed a pinpoint scar on her nose: the telling remains of a long-removed piercing. Caruthers wondered once again if it was a diamond stud, a cute little hoop or a chrome ball. Who knew, because the carefree girl who once fit behind a nose ring was long gone. In her place was a woman strict with schedules, marketing agendas and Billboard chart figures.
Her only carefree moments were spent attached to a coffee cup. Strong, black java left a flavor in her mouth. She loved that taste.
“How about you act like a decent human being and let Mr. Dobson into your lair?” Judy’s face bunched and her arm made a dramatic swoop.
Claude’s bright green eyes lit with possibility, the way they always did upon discovering yet another distraction from life’s work. “I put the lay in lair, if you know what I—”
“Claude,” she clapped her hands for attention.
A shocked trail of cigarette smoke slithered from his lips.
“It’d be good for publicity if you spoke man-to-man.” She snatched a thermal coffee mug off a shelf and drank. Closed eyes. And breathed.
The guitar strummer painfully thumped onto the mattress. A skeleton of springs showed through the bed. He propped himself against a wood paneled wall where several holes had been patched with dull silver tape.
“No time,” he lifted Rusty from the floor and plucked a sour G chord. It seemed his guitar could never make up its mind about staying in tune, constantly wobbling back and forth.
Rusty, J. Claude’s maple acoustic, had seen better days. Caruthers refused to have any crew member so much as change a string since the Alice-to-Gwendolyn tour of the early 80s. Three decades of spilled beer, honky-tonk smoke and filthy finger picking covered the instrument in a thin layer of tar. “Now Judy, maybe you’re one of those mentally retarded kids I donate so much money to, but if not, you should know I’m writing the most important damn song of my life here. Probably the most important song the world’s ever known. Silent Night, Ground Control to Major Tom, Footloose, they’re nothing compared to this and you know it. Quit trying to distract me.”
“Those kids aren’t retarded, they’re orphans. And you’ve been writing one song for three years,” her voice was bored, tired of arguing this fact every day. “And I really doubt it’s more important than Silent Night.” She shook her head and in a deep grumble whispered: “Probably not even Footloose.”
Claude offered the grungy guitar to Judy. “You want to try and be Nashville’s Shakespeare?” He tipped back his cowboy hat as if he and the redhead were nearing a gunfight. The hat carried as much gunk as the guitar and its snakeskin band was shredded. Caruthers was careful not to tip things too far and expose his bald spot.
Judy popped a shallow laugh. “Nobody calls you Shakespeare but you.” She swayed with the bus’ movements and waited for an answer.
“Somebody must, I mean it’s airbrushed on the side of the damn bus.”
Her eyes rolled and she shifted shoulder blades. Caruthers kept the room hot and the dress clung to her moist skin.
Judy took another relaxing breath and a quick coffee sip, reminding herself this was the life she’d chosen. There probably were better publicity jobs out there, but something kept her on board. Maybe it was when Claude showed frequent glimmers of innocence, those little dashes of sweetness once in a while. Or maybe it was because his artistic powers were still carved from granite. Love him or hate him, Claude was fun to watch up on stage.
Patrick Wensink is the author of two books, Sex Dungeon for Sale! (a short story collection) and Black Hole Blues. He really has a problem with Kenny Rogers.