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Paul Germano

Car Trouble in a Blues Bar

Darryl James was just what Elaine Bellanova was looking for in a one-to-four-night stand: Twentysomething and rough around the edges. His stone-washed jeans were just tight enough. His leather jacket, just ratty enough. He had a tangled mop of blond hair and a bright white smile that was both cocky and mischievous.

He was playing pool with one of the regulars and in between turns, he took swigs of Rolling Rock, his hand firmly gripped on the bottle's neck. His body swayed freely to the guitar-driven blues of Kenny Wayne Shepherd whose vow to get his dreamgirl somehow, somewhere, someway, cranked at maximum volume from speakers overhead.

As Elaine headed for the cluster of pool tables, Darryl looked her up and down, an approving smile engulfing his youthful face. She puffed on her cigarette with great melodrama, clouds of smoke swirling about her face. Tall and lean, she moved through the crowded blues bar with the grace that comes from years of childhood ballet lessons. Her red-tinted dark hair was pulled back for a look that was more seductive than severe.

But Darryl wasn't interested in her graceful walk or her Vogue magazine hair. Instead, he zeroed in on the way her short black dress hugged her sleek body, its low neckline drawing added attention to her large breasts.

He was lacking in the social graces: "You in your thirties?" was his opening line.

"Early-thirties," she snapped back.

His wicked grin remained in place even as he took a big gulp of his Rolling Rock, his eyes looking sideways at her cleavage. He reeked of sweat, beer, and cheap cologne. Blasting through the speakers, John Lee Hooker bemoaned that he ain't seen his baby since the night before last.

"Play pool?," Darryl asked, handing her his stick. Gently, she pushed the stick back to him. "Oh you don't, huh? Me, myself, I just won me another game. I'm good. Been playing since I was 14-years old. Started out good." He smiled, pleased with himself.

Elaine rolled her eyes. This one's a bit full of himself, she almost said out loud. Still, Elaine didn't mind. After a bad break-up with the tender and oh-so-sensitive Michael, she was ready for someone different to fill up her nights. Or at the very least, some body to keep her occupied until she was ready for something more serious.

"C'mon Darryl, another game!," demanded a pudgy guy with chalky skin; his girth stuffed into an ill-fitting leather jacket.

"Yeah okay, rack 'em up!," Darryl barked back without taking his eyes off Elaine. "Sure you don't want to play? I can spot..."

"C'mon Darryl! We playing or what?," the pudgy guy shouted.

"In a minute," Darryl said, a little more testy this time.

"Your friend is persistent," Elaine said.

"He's no friend of mine; just some barfly I play pool with now an' then." Darryl smiled. Again his body moved to the rhythms, swaying to Big Mama Thornton who was hollering that her man ain't nuthin' but a hound dog. And his body kept swaying, not missing a beat, when Muddy Waters took over, launching into his own troubles of how his baby shook him all night long and messed-up his happy home.

"Darryl! Darryl! Darryl!," the pudgy guy yelled over Muddy Waters' bellowing vocals.

"You better go play now. Go on shoot some pool," Elaine said, nudging him. "By the way, I'm Elaine, Elaine Bellanova." She fluttered her eyes, with her hand outstretched.

Darryl took her hand, shook it and did a juvenile hand-tickle maneuver. Elaine pulled her hand back and gave him a 'shame-on-you' look that was part disapproval, part amusement.

Darryl opened his mouth to speak, when the pudgy guy's nasal voice again intruded. "C'mon Darryl, let's play!" Darryl remained focused on Elaine.

"I'm Darryl," he eventually said.

"So I've heard," she said wryly.

"Don't you go away Miss Elaine Bella-whats-it," he said, strutting back to the pool table, taking his shot, then taking another; and still another. On the speakers overhead, Stevie Ray Vaughan was crowing about some sweet little thing. Occasionally, Darryl would look over his shoulder to make sure Elaine was still watching. "Five. Seven. Side pocket," he announced. He missed. The pudgy guy hooted: "Damn Darryl, you should've just did the seven in the corner pocket. Too busy showing off. That's your problem. "

"Shut up asshole," Darryl snarled, his voice angry, but shifting right back to sweet, as he closed in on Elaine and whispered: "Missed on purpose, so we could talk some more."

"Is that so," Elaine said, reaching past Darryl to tap her cigarette in a nearby ashtray and in the process give him a close-up glimpse of her cleavage. "Well no need to throw the game on my account," she said teasingly. In her mind, she made an educated guess there was a 40-60 chance he was telling the truth about missing on purpose.

They stood, looking at each other, smiling, making a few stabs at conversation. Gradually their bodies were in motion. Elaine swayed, keeping time with the beat. Darryl swayed from alcohol. Blaring from the sound system, in song after song, B.B. King and Etta James and Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf and Koko Taylor and Monster Mike Welch, were all taking turns singing about love gone sour. Without fail, they all blamed it on someone named Baby.

"Elaine Bellanova," Darryl said, stretching out the sound and rhythm of her name. "Bellanova, is that Eye-talian?"

"No, it's Ih-talian," she corrected.

"Yeah, whatever, so..."

"No, not whatever. Learn to say it right. Just remember, it's It-a-ly, not Eye-ta-ly."

"Okay already, so anyway my name is James. I mean my last name is James, like Jesse James or Etta James or Susan St. James, but no relation."

"Right. Got it. Darryl James."

Overhead, Jimmy Reed was in the depths of despair over losing the sweetest little woman he ever had, when the pudgy guy, threw up his arms and out-shouted the song. "Hey Darryl, the hell with you! I'm starting a new game! With this dude here!" If Darryl had bothered to look, he would know the pudgy guy was pointing to another one of the regulars, a grizzled fellow who had already lost to Darryl three times earlier in the night. But Darryl didn't turn to look, his attention stayed with Elaine. Chit-chat; chit-chat.

Abruptly, Darryl's attention shifted to stop a boney waitress navigating her way through the crowd, a tray of drinks held high above her head. He pointed to his empty beer bottle. "I need another," he demanded. Then, his attention returned to Elaine. Chit-chat, chit-chat and even more chit-chat. Blistering through the speakers, George Thorogood was in the gritty midst of boasting that he was bad to the bone. "Oh yeah!," Darryl shouted, licking his lips. "I remember this song. It was in one of the very first Stephen King flicks; the one about the car. 'Justine,' it was."

Elaine shook her head, "'Justine,' it wasn't. 'Christine,' it was," she said in a lecturing tone.

"Yeah, whatever, anyway..." The boney waitress halted him long enough to hand him his beer and get paid. Darryl took a swig and launched into car talk: cars he once owned; cars he hoped to someday own. And the car he currently owned, the one giving him trouble. Elaine eyed Darryl's youthful fingers wrapped around his bottle of Rolling Rock. Between gulps, Darryl tried to impress her with car talk. No doubt, he read somewhere, that women are really impressed, even turned-on, by such talk. And Elaine would have been impressed, if he actually did know about cars. Trouble was, Elaine knew this guy was no grease monkey. She had dated the genuine article, two in fact, one a backyard mechanic with a serious drinking problem; the other a well-paid legitimate mechanic with a serious immaturity problem. Mechanics: She knew the breed. And Darryl was definitely not part of the tribe. For starters, his fingernails were too clean. Real mechanics have dirty fingernails, blackened with experience. Dirt that cannot be washed away, no matter how hard they scrubbed.

Assuming Elaine knew less-than-squat about cars, Darryl attempted to pass himself off as an expert. But Elaine knew the basics, thanks to the backyard mechanic, whom she still missed, alcohol problem and all.

"Oh yeah," Darryl said, full of bravado, licking his lips, and shaking his tangled mop of hair. "Oh yeah," he said again, "I know cars. In fact, me an' a friend-of-mine are gonna work on my wheels tomorrow afternoon. It's all scheduled an' everything. See, my car keeps on passing out on me."

"Passing out?" Elaine quizzed. Had he been sober, Darryl might have noticed her smirk. "Gee, that's a shame Darryl, so your car keeps stalling, is that right?"

"Yeah," he said, his body swaying from alcohol, "like I said, it keeps passing out."

Elaine blew smoke rings into the air. "Yeah," she said mimicking him. "So it keeps passing out you say. Well Darryl, now I'm no expert, such as yourself, but when my car passes out, I find the best thing for it, is strong smelling salts. You know they make them for cars too, has the same effect on cars as they do on people; it revives them." She took one final puff of her cigarette, the smoke filling her ample lungs. She put it out in a nearby ashtray, giving a whole table of bearded bikers an eyeful of God-given cleavage. Her cigarette-hand now free, she moved in closer to Darryl and pointed her finger to emphasize what she was about to say. "You get yourself some smelling salts. Most of the major outlets carry them. Take your pick, Sears, Pep Boys, Parts America, wherever. You just take those smelling salts put 'em right in the radiator. You know where the radiator is, don't you?"

Darryl looked at her, an odd expression on his youthful face. Elaine couldn't quite read his expression. Did he know she was mocking him? Or was he pleased that she may have found the perfect solution to his passing out car problem? Or was he just so completely drunk, dazed and confused, that the expression meant nothing at all? Each interpretation was plausible, but Elaine had no intentions of sticking around to find out.

"Good luck with your car trouble," she whispered, kissing him on the cheek. His skin was taut and youthful. She hesitated for a moment, then made her escape -- heading fast -- to the opposite end of the blues bar. Over the sound system, Screamin' Jay Hawkins was ranting and raving about casting a love spell.

At a safe distance, away from the pool tables, away from Darryl and his pristine fingernails, Elaine takes an empty seat at the bar, next to bachelor #2. His black t-shirt showcases a working man's torso: muscular, solid. His face is lined and rugged; his grin, wild but friendly; his long, stringy brown hair, unpampered. Reading the paper and nursing a draft beer, he looks up from the sports section. "Follow baseball?," he asks her.

"Now and then," she replies. Small talk begins. He is quick to ask what she likes to drink. "Hey Ray," he calls, "a Gin and Tonic over here for the lady."

He is also quick to slide his arm around Elaine's slender waist. With little regard for subtlety, his hand travels upwards, fast! When he reaches her breast, she grabs his wrist, casually unwinding his arm from around her body and plopping his hand gently on top of the bar. "Let's keep those frisky fingers where I can see them," she says, her smile playful and teasing.

He lets out a deep, guttural laugh; then shrugs his shoulders, as if to say: Can't blame a guy for trying. Elaine rolls her eyes at him. As a gesture of goodwill, he keeps the offending hand on the bar in front of her.

Definitely late-thirties she thinks to herself. He has a hint of gray in his hair and the beginnings of crows feet around the eyes when he laughs. She pegs him at about 37 or 38, but doesn't ask. Instead, she tells him about the little problem she is having with her Buick.

"Sounds like your timing chain needs adjusting, is all," he says matter-of-factly. "'But I'd have to get a good look under your hood to be sure." Over the sound system, Susan Tedeschi is wailing about how she misses the arms that used to hold her. Elaine decides she really loves this song and leans in a little closer to listen to this stranger's advice about her car trouble.

By tomorrow afternoon, Elaine would know that he was recently divorced and didn't like talking about it. And that he had a four-year-old daughter that he didn't mind talking about. By tomorrow afternoon, she would also know that he was partial to scrambled eggs for breakfast and couldn't start his day without downing at least three cups of coffee, which he liked strong, black, no sugar.

Well-before tomorrow afternoon; somewhere around 3:45 in the morning, she would ask him about the large tattoo on his back near his left shoulder blade: an intimidating image of a snarling wolf's head.

"Just had it done," he will be quick to tell her. "I needed to cover up an old one that I just didn't want anymore." On closer inspection, and with his encouragement, she will see the original tattoo, much smaller, but still visible. The wolf's wild fury, doing its best to conceal the original image of gothic letters spelling out his ex-wife's name.

But that would all happen later. For now, they are still seated at the bar. Susan Tedeschi's angst over lost love is still wailing through the speakers. And Elaine Bellanova is enjoying the sweet taste of gin on her tongue, perfectly content listening to what the man seated next to her has to say. His pride shows when he talks about the crotch rocket he tools around town with during the warmer months, and he laughs just a little when he tells her about his ready-for-the-junkyard Pontiac that he fully intends to squeeze one more winter out of. Elaine detects genuine affection in his voice for the motorcycle and even a certain amount of warmth for his winter rat. Somewhere in the midst of talk about muscle cars and re-built engines and snow tires, she begins to stroke his right hand which still lays sprawled across the bar in front of her observant eyes. She likes what she sees: His hand is big and beefy, with dirty fingernails.

©2004 by Paul Germano

Syracuse writer Paul Germano (pictured with his dog Jessica) offers this advice: Listen to the Blues. They're good for you when you're feeling bad, and even better when you're feeling good. Germano's fiction has been published online in, House of Pain, MWP Journal, Sonata, and Twilight Times, and also in print in the Java Snob Review and SlugFest. See more of his work at his Web site.

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