“The Rough House Blues For Bobby,” a short story by Bradford Middleton, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 61st Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
The Rough House Blues For Bobby
by Bradford Middleton
…..It all started going wrong for Bobby around the time his daddy was blown to smithereens in some god-forsaken desert-strewn hell-hole on the other side of the world in the name of something Bobby just didn’t understand. His momma went bad, started shooting some bad stuff in her veins and putting herself all around the local neighbourhood for all manner of tricks, and Bobby just stayed inside. He gave school a miss, he’d learnt enough already or at least that’s what he thought, and lost himself in the one thing his dad had left behind. A rickety old six-string acoustic guitar had sat in the corner of the living room for as long as Bobby could remember but it was only once he’d gone, his daddy off to fight some war or something for some uncle he’d never heard of, that it took his attention. He picked it up one morning and began playing and what’s more his maternal gran even said he had some good licks already to lay down and so he carried on. He carried on playing, taking that beaten-up old guitar everywhere with him and playing whenever and wherever he wanted. He’d started getting some crowds to some sessions he’d pull on the streets of his hometown and then one day a young kindly lady came into his life. Hyacinth was a glowing light of goodness in a life surrounded by badness and she took him in, began educating him on the old blues, the music she could hear at the very heart of the sound Bobby was making out on those streets that surrounded the library she worked in. One day, whilst out for lunch, she spied him with a vast crowd of enthusiastic onlookers and walked on over and the song, it was one she’d never heard him play before, sent her into howls of beautiful tears and cheers as he lamented the loss of his dear old daddy. As his set drew to a close she approached him and moments later they were inside and she was forcing a book in his hand.
…..“You’ve just got to read about Robert, Bobby… you just gotta, you just gotta see how he did it, how the old guys did it back then…”
…..“Well sure thing,” Bobby responded but in all honesty all he could think about right then was where could he go and play next and what song would he dazzle that crowd with. The two split and Bobby walked off in search of fresh pavement, in search of fresh crowds but as he walked these all too familiar streets his mind began to wander and it kept returning to the book that was currently folded in his back jeans pocket and somehow it took him all the way back home. His momma wasn’t home, nothing new there, but instead of just kicking back and watching some inane TV nonsense his mind tonight was ripe to be educated. He began reading, in some sections of the book were the scores to some of the songs being discussed, and sure enough Bobby found their sound and phrasings all too familiar but the vocals, “wow” he thought as the raw throaty rasp ripped from the page and out of his mouth, but he knew he had to keep on reading. He read and read that book and the next thing he knew it was daybreak, the rising sun in the east filling the room with light, and suddenly the book was done but somehow Bobby knew the adventure was only now just about to start. Almost right on cue his momma staggered in from another night on the tiles and it all sweetly fell into place and once he’d got some much-needed rest he knew the road was his for the taking. But first sleep and dreams, dreams of the open road and the adventure that lay ahead and as soon as his eyes flickered open later that day he knew the moment was now and, with no time like the present, Bobby had grabbed his guitar and a duffel bag full of clothes and was out of there before that wasted piece of a momma had even realised another day was going on.
…..He had no idea of where he was going but he knew one place he could play that day where he’d guarantee a decent sized crowd and hopefully a few big tippers but it wasn’t out there, it was merely over there. The train station was always a manic hive of activity and as Bobby began to wail his guitar the coins began flowing into his guitar case laid prone in front of him. After a short half-hour set he knew he had enough for a train to just about anywhere within an hour’s radius but somehow, well in his mind, that felt like it would somehow be cheating. It wouldn’t be much of an adventure just going from station to station, he’d be nothing more than the commuting blues-man, and right then he knew just what he needed to do. He walked pass the station and down the hill to a major intersection and simply stuck his thumb in the air. A few minutes pass before a pick-up truck slows to a halt in front of him.
…..“Where you going partner?” a voice from within asks and suddenly it dawns on Bobby.
…..“Wherever it is you’re going partner!” he responds not knowing, or even really caring, what that entails beyond the idea of adventure because this town, hell it was barely even that, could offer him nothing beyond a life of struggle and immense danger as the only booming industry around here was arson. That is if you ignore the booming crystal-meth-amphetamine industry but why else would a small town of less than 9000 people have three, yes not one, not even two, but three fire stations within their city limits. He was best out of it he thought as the stranger stepped down on the accelerator and set the controls for somewhere, hopefully, far beyond that hazy city line which had held Bobby captive now for almost his entire life.
…..Bobby sat back in the passenger seat and took in the scene as it unfolded out the window in front of him and as the minutes passed long enough to make an hour Bobby finally got it, he got what it meant to be out here, out here on the road. He felt just like Jack Kerouac or Robert Johnson or Woody Guthrie as the car moved on through settlements Bobby had never heard of but eventually, he knew, he just knew it would come to an end and, as the car speeded through another small settlement, right then all he could think was ‘what then?’ Well he was, he was soon to discover, just about to find out as the truck pulled to a halt in front of a cafe in a town that actually looked like a town rather than a simple collection of ramshackle homes. Some of the people dressed real fancy Bobby immediately noticed, fancier than anything he sure had seen before but in front of the shops and loitering on the street corners were people just like him, just older than his mere teenage years, and he knew this was a place he could operate. His driver disappeared into the cafe having not uttered a word since picking Bobby up and suddenly, for the first time in his entire short life, he was completely alone. He tramped down the street towards a corner on which loitered a gaggle of men and as he walked pass one of them shouted out at him.
…..“Hey buddy what you got in that case of yours there?” the voice asked but Bobby sensed it was a voice to be ignored. He’d been told about the big cities and the kind of folks who lived in them as a youngster and as he spied a signpost suggesting a better environment for him to set-up in he just kept on walking.
…..Turning the next corner he couldn’t believe his eyes. In front of him lay a street paved over with crowds everywhere. Crowds on one side sat, it appeared, wasted out of their collective mind whilst opposite sat the theatre crowd dressed in all their finery and Bobby knew this was his place. He pulled the guitar from its case which he then placed over his little bag and simply began playing and he played and he played so well that within twenty minutes he had a crowd exalting their wonder at his skills and, as his set came to its end, the unbelievable happened.
…..“Hi there, you must be new in town, am I right?” a confident looking guy in an impeccable suit asked him.
…..“Well sure I am, just got in about an hour ago… why, what’s it to you?”
…..“Well I can see you are so fresh, so green, so wet behind the ears you don’t know who I am so let me tell you. I’m Mr Starr, manager to the stars, and I’m ready to drag you from these obscure streets to the theatres, halls and arenas of this here state, the finest in all of these united states no less…”
…..“Really, but…” was all Bobby could bring himself to respond.
…..“You’ve got it kid, whatever it is you’ve got enough of it to make it to the very top, I’m talking the very top you get me?”
…..“Well, erm… sir, I do appreciate, you have to understand I really do appreciate your amazing offer but now isn’t my right time…”
…..“What do you mean you crazy fool? Your time comes when I say so and I’m saying your time is now, grab it kid, ride it all the way to the mansion you can buy your family with the records you’ll sell, you get it?”
…..“No sir, I can’t… I’m not ready, not yet… I don’t even know my own voice yet, this is my first day out on the road and I need more…”
…..“Well look kid when you change your mind remember me, remember this town and come right back here you hear me?”
…..“Yes sir, I’m glad you get it but can I ask a question?”
…..“Sure kid what you need?”
…..“Somewhere to stay tonight?”
…..“Ah kid, no bother, I can sort you out with somewhere to play where they got a room upstairs you can stay in…”
…..“That sounds fantastic mister, I’m Bobby by the way…”
…..“Frank Giovanni, manager to the stars and one day manager of you!” he says grabbing Bobby’s hand and shaking it vigorously before he leads him off deep into the night and a bar with a stage and a bed. And that, well that, set the pattern for Bobby for years to come. He would roam from town to town, find somewhere to play, find somewhere to sleep and then once the new day was upon him he’d move on somewhere else. He never knew where but somehow he always managed to find somewhere with an appreciative crowd and that was all that mattered. As long as he could find that crowd everything else, he just knew, would fall into place and his adventure could continue and that is exactly how it played out until one night… well, there was always going to be one night. He’d played this old shack of a venue and there had been this pair of women, down the years Bobby had developed a somewhat fearsome reputation as a ladykiller of exemplary skill, where else do you think he’d been spending all those nights, and at the end of his set he was pulled to one side by these two guys. Two heavy looking guys who told him they took no shit and that he was responsible for piling a whole load of shit all over their lives ever since he’d been dropped off in town. Their chicks were hot for him and that just wouldn’t stand, and, they told him again they didn’t want any shit off him and as they chased him all the way out the bar and to the city limits they kept telling him.
…..“Yeah if you ever come back here we’ll not be so good to you, you get it? We’ll fuck you up good and proper, you understand? Bang bang and all will mean you can’t play that sweet guitar or anything else anymore…”
…..Bobby just kept on walking as his enemy stood at the line making sure he was very much out of their lives, out of their town, and as Bobby walked he could feel the cold night air closing in on him. It was late, it was really late in fact and the only light came from the moon hanging in the sky but Bobby knew it was too cold for him to hunker down somewhere, hell he hadn’t had to do that for years now and he’d sure never had to do it on a night when it was threatening snow. He kept on moving, navigating his way by the only light available, until a miraculous sight came into view; in front of him stood a man, the spitting image of himself, with the attendant guitar case and small bag for company, simply standing on the side of the road.
…..“Hi there,” Bobby said as he approached.
…..“Ah there you are, I’ve been expecting you… I’ve been waiting some time you know, what held you up?”
…..Bobby’s stunned silence filled the space between the two and the confusion on his face must have been clearly evident.
…..“Look Bobby I know this is a shock to you, running into me here, I get it…”
…..“But, how do you know my name?”
…..“Well Bobby I know almost everything about you, I know your reputation, I know your life…”
…..“Look I didn’t mean it, you’ve got to understand!”
…..“No Bobby it is you that has to understand, I’m here to help you…”
…..“But who are you? How do you know who I am?”
…..“It’s simple my young, my ever so young friend, I’m here to show you the way… you get it?”
…..“No, show me the way? What does that even mean?”
…..“Bobby, look at me, look at my eyes for a few seconds,” he says holding Bobby’s hands tight, “you have it, do you understand? You have it better than anyone I’ve seen since, well, honestly, since I saw a young guy called Chester…”
…..Bobby stood in stunned silence but slowly he could feel something beginning to happen and whatever it was that was taking him over it felt good, it felt really very good indeed.
…..“I’m passing the spirit onto you young man, you understand me now?”
…..“I do, yes I do!” Bobby responded and as he felt the hands free him he heard the skidding sounds of tire on road and suddenly the most astonishing car he’d ever seen was sat in front of him with a beautiful woman in the drivers’ seat.
…..“Bobby Griffin?” the woman asked almost as soon as the car screeched to a halt.
…..“Yes mam, I’m Bobby Griffin…” he responded.
…..“You better get in, this is no kinda place for someone like you to spend the night, not someone so special…”
…..“Well how about my friend?” Bobby asked before turning and spying an empty space right where he was convinced his new friend would be stood.
…..“I know you’re out here alone, you see someone told me… That’s why I’m here, to take you to your next place…”
…..“Well, erm… OK,” Bobby replied before climbing into the backseat of the gleaming white Jaguar convertible. As the car sped off through the narrow country lanes Bobby sat trying to work out what exactly had just happened but he was none the wiser, but by dawn, at least, he was tired enough to pull his bag under his head and attempt some sleep. The car seemed to keep on going and as Bobby slept he had no idea just how far north they’d gone and it wasn’t until a really cold blast of air shocked him awake that he knew he’d never been this far north before.
…..“Where the hell are we?” he asked as soon as he sat upright.
…..“We’re just outside Knoxville… it’s still a long way to go Bobby but trust me when we get there all your dreams will come true!”
…..“Knoxville, you mean to tell me were in god-damn Tennessee, what the hell we doing round these country redneck parts?”
…..“We’re passing through, that’s all… but I got to get some gas, this car is a bitch on mileage I tell you but boy is it a sweet ride!”
…..“Sure is but look, I like you, I dig your ride, you get it but you ain’t my people, I need to be with my people… I need to be there to entertain them, you get it?”
…..“Sure I do but this way you’ll be able to entertain lots more people without having to spend nights on the side of the road waiting for a ride… What happens when that ride doesn’t turn up?”
…..“Well it always has, I live in hope it always will… Look let me show you, let me just show you why I can’t go with you…”
…..“You don’t want to live a life of luxury, the women, the houses, the boats, the airplanes, fuck you could have it all…”
…..“But I don’t want it, you get me… All I care about is being real, that’s all I’m about and that sort of life ain’t what I was put here for, you get it? I just want to go play for my people!”
…..“OK, well the least I can do is see what you got I suppose so where to Bobby?”
…..“Ah hell that’s simple, take me home, take me back to my momma and my home in Ruleville! That’s where I belong right now!”
…..“Ruleville you say? Highway 8, right over near the original Dockery plantation?”
…..“Yep, that’ll be home… now you going to take me there?”
…..“Sure so long as I can see you play somewhere on the way!”
…..“That’s the plan soul-sister, I’ll show you all my powers once I get on that stage!” and sure enough a few hours later Bobby was unleashing all his new powers for everyone to hear and see. As he began playing he became consumed with a new vibrancy that seemed to push him to ever greater heights until eventually the crowd was just a wailing mass of humanity. Women were ripping at their clothes desperate to show themselves to this man whose power they could feel in their very souls whilst the men, the men, just wanted to drink and drink in a bid to forget something none of them were sure even existed in them but as Bobby played they could all feel his power and suddenly Zoe knew. She knew she could never take him away from this, from his life, she could never take him away as that would ruin what he had and that would spoil just about everything and as she resigned herself to losing him she was drawn into the music and slowly she began snaking her way through the crowd. At the front of the stage were a couple of women truly under Bobby’s spell but as he finished up the song, his last planned one of the night, he could sense a palpable tension moving towards him from the bar.
…..“We see what you’re doing!” a voice hollered in his direction.
…..“Yeah we see and we don’t like!” another, tougher sounding, voices hollered.
…..“Hey you bitches, snap out of it, you’s are with us, you remember, the guys you came in with, who bought you drinks, yeah, you remember…”
…..As Bobby stepped down from the stage the two young women slalomed through the crowd until they were up close and personal with him.
…..“Hey bitches get away from this fool…. what hell year does he think we’re in, dressing like that and playing that old thing…”
…..“It’s the blues you fool, don’t you get it, it all comes from the blues and this guy is as good as it gets!!”
…..“I don’t care, he ain’t my dope, you get me, now come you bitches we’re getting out of here…” the really tough sounding one announces.
…..“I don’t think so guys,” Bobby says at last turning his attention to finding a place to crash that night.
…..“Oh yeah and why you think that fool!”
…..“Because I’ll be going home with these fine ladies tonight gentlemen and I think we’d all prefer if you left…”
…..“What the…” the tough sounding dude responds before realising that maybe now is the time to show actions always speak louder than words and almost immediately he’s got a gun pointed right at Bobby’s heart.
…..“Now you get it fool, bitches you get the fuck outside and I’ll be right out. DB you go with them, make sure they don’t do anything stupid!”
…..“Sure thing…” DB responds before grabbing the woman by an arm each.
…..“Now hold it right there,” Bobby says stunning the crowd almost as much with his bravery as he had earlier with his guitar playing, “you girls stay and you guys leave…”
…..“Oh yeah and what you going to do?”
…..“Simple,” he responds as he pulls the guitar from the stage, feeling the power within spread and a simple strum sparks a hard right from the heart of the guitar and straight through his two nemeses leaving them poleaxed on the floor. Walking to the door he takes a woman on each arm, turns to the big city woman, winks, and turns knowing now that this was going to be his life forever more and how could he not love every single damn minute of it…
Bradford Middleton was born in south-east London during the long hot summer of 1971 and grew up on a council estate. He went to the local comprehensive school and was told he’d amount to nothing at the age of twelve. He finally left university with a Masters degree and has been writing ever since. His poetry is all over the Internet, most recently at the Rusty Truck, is featured in zines like River Dog and Paper & Ink, and journals like the Chiron Review. Last year he finished writing his new novel All the Way to the End of the Line.
You can reach him on Twitter @BradfordMiddle5.
Click here to read “Equal,” Chris Simpson’s winning story in the 61st Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
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