“Off the Deep End” by Richard Risemberg

It was the kind of bar that would have had to struggle up several rungs of the social ladder to be considered a dive. Not that the clientele of “The Deep End,” as it was called, gave a damn. There was a certain cachet to having the police walk through twice a night. The owner, a barrel-chested sixty-year-old called Bud, would occasionally show off the scars nestled under his belly hair, the result of negotiations with dissatisfied customers. The shotgun he kept in his office was far from virgin. The Harleys leaning outside belonged to members of the Barons, the mere sight of whose emblem, a sword-swinging knight, was enough to quiet the braggadocio of less brutal thugs. The pickup trucks also lined up outside belonged to hard men who worked hard hours among pipes and valves and gray hazes in the petrochemical plants nearby, then put on range hats and Mexican boots and wandered over to the Deep End to drink away the memories of the day. The bar was dark and loud, with red vinyl booths, a scattering of tiny round tables crowding an even tinier dance floor, and feeble red and blue spotlights shining on a bandstand. Maybe the red and blue lights reminded the patrons of their many run-ins with the fuzz, inspiring that comfort bred of familiarity, I don’t know. 

The stage hosted one of the primary sources of the Deep End’s loudness, the Highriders, a band for which my buddy Tucker played drums. There was no other reason I would go to that kind of bar. Tucker, who was himself somewhat bewildered at having ended up there, had asked me to drop by and watch a set. It was only twenty miles and a couple of universes out of my way, so I went. And with a girl: Kate Hamlin, my ex, who was still a hot date though she had proved to be a terrible wife. And she could dance.

The second set is always better, so I timed our arrival for the band’s first break. By showing up half an hour after Tucker had assured me it was scheduled, I caught them just as they were winding up their rendition of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” This was a song I detested possibly even more than Tucker did. And Tucker had said more than once that the song made him want to shove his drumsticks through his ears. He never did, though. It was a gig; you gave the customers what they wanted, and sometimes they paid you. 

The band was lilting away with graceless competence when we edged into the bar, the bikers ignoring the music in the dark corner they had staked out, the cowboys and their bleached-blonde girls swaying dreamy-eyed and repeating the lyrics into their drinks. The Highriders were a three-piece: besides Tucker on the drums, there was a skinny bass player named Perry, whose pompadour and leather jacket were his daily wear offstage as well, and a three-hundred-pound blind giant ensconced behind a mass of keyboards. He was big enough on his own to make them a quartet. This was Carlos, known as Big Chuck onstage. All of them sang, but Carlos was the lead crooner as well as chief of harmony and melody. Music was his life—even the Top 40 he played to pay the rent. Tucker had told me that Carlos owned thirty thousand albums, and could find any one of them by touch.

Tucker and Perry led Big Chuck out into the night for the break, and Kate and I followed. Perry lit a cigarette while Big Chuck stood placidly in the darkness, his sunglasses pointed across the empty six-lane towards the gasworks. Tall streetlamps pooled a strange yellow light the color of radioactive chicken fat onto the street, and strange clanks and wheezes inhabited the gloom of the gasworks. I got the feeling that Big Chuck was listening to it. There was no traffic and no one else had come out, except a couple of Barons who were talking intently by the clot of Harleys. Tucker introduced us all around. “You came at a good time,” Big Chuck said. “They have the ladies’ dance contest at ten on Friday nights. Gives me a chance to jam on ‘Green Onions.'”

Kate perked up. “Wonderful! I love to dance.” Tucker snorted a little laugh. “Tucker!” she said. “You know I’m good at it!”

“Things are…different here,” Tucker said. “But, be my guest.” 

Perry stood unmoving by the wall, staring at a battered Buick parked across the street while he smoked. We huddled together under the streetlamp. Aside from the gasworks, there was nothing to see in any direction except the gray rectangles of cinderblock factory sheds, squatting behind tall wire fences. Not a house, not a store. The Deep End was the one bright spot in sight. Possibly the only one who could love that neighborhood was the blind man, who was still listening to the clanks and groans of the gasworks. After a long silence, Big Chuck shook himself and said, “Second set.” We filed back inside and sat down. Tucker and Perry led the big man to his seat behind the keyboards, the waitress brought him a beer, and Big Chuck leaned into the microphone.

“All right,” he shouted. “It’s time for ‘Off the Deep End,’ the Friday night dance contest! Who’s gonna win tonight? Your guess is as good as mine.” Laughter broke out in the audience at this statement. “Are you ready?” he shouted.

The audience emitted a wavering return shout of assurance.

“Okay,” Big Chuck said. “Line ’em up!” Several bleached blonde heads wobbled towards the dance floor, with Kate’s darker hair third in line. “The better they dance,” Big Chuck shouted again, “the louder you cheer when they’re through. Let’s go!”

He mashed his hands down on the keyboard, Tucker and Perry crashed head-on into the chord, and the music began. Big Chuck jammed well and was having the most fun he’d had all night, I was pretty sure. The rhythm section played on solidly behind him, but did not exactly look intense. The dancers were indifferent, just making clumsy figure-eights with their shoulders and hips while boyfriends and cousins cheered. Kate took her turn and blew them away, smooth, sexy, and bright-eyed, and she got a good loud cheer when she gave her little curtsey and walked off. At the end came a pudgy blonde whose stiff helmet of hair would probably have survived a tidal wave. She received a cheer even before she started. And yet…she hardly moved. Swinging her elbows in a short arc that barely left her ribs. She danced longer than the others, and at the end received a roar of approbation from the whole bar. Big Chuck took his cue, and wound down the jam. He leaned into the microphone again. “Sounds like we have us a winner!” he shouted. “Is it who I think it is?”

Bleary voices shouted back together: “Carol!”

“Ah, I knew it,” he smiled. “Carol it is, the champeen dancer of the Deep End!” Bud lumbered out with a bottle of champagne and handed it to her while she grinned heavy-eyed back at the crowd. Big Chuck spoke over his shoulder to the rhythm section, who mouthed something back at him. I could see Kate pouting angry-eyed by my side. Bud came over and sat with us.

He put his hand on Kate’s shoulder. “I know it’s confusing if you’re new here. But Carol, uh, how do I put it? She’s kind of simple, you know. But the sweetest little thing on earth. And she’s married to Cain over there.” He nodded towards the clot of Barons in the dark corner. A tall, rangy fellow with a clipped black beard and long hair stood with his arms folded over his denim. He was staring at Carol through his sunglasses as she smiled in the spotlight. What appeared to be a bayonet hung from his belt. Bud went on: “You can imagine she ain’t got much of a life. Except for this dance contest every Friday. We all love her, and it’s about all we can do.”

The barmistress came over. Earrings, hair, and boobs all jiggled as she strode through the crowd. She set two glasses of champagne in front of us. “It’s on the house,” Bud said, and clapped us both on the shoulders. “Your girl danced real good.”

Up on stage, Big Chuck nodded his head, Tucker began a beat, and another Top 40 tune battered our ears. Carol smiled back at the crowd while the music thundered and the red and blue spotlights flashed over her helmet of hair. She looked as happy as anyone I’d ever seen. Even Cain, in his dark corner, seemed to smile a bit. Kate’s pout faded as she lifted her glass in a silent toast to Carol. I took my cue a bit late, and did the same.

Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland, and has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work. He has worked jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting in a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.
He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Culture to it all.

Mr. Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in edited publications including  the Los Angeles Downtown News, the Los Angeles Business Journal, Momentum, and, on the literary side, Snowy Egret, Juxta, Terrain, Empty Mirror, Switchblade, Mystery Tribune, Ginosko Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Front Porch Review, Ornery Quarterly, Fiction on the Web UK, American Writers Review, and Short Edition, with pieces currently slated to appear in 2019 in Edify, Fear of Monkeys, and Bangalore Review.

Image Credit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.