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Chapter 1 - Excerpt

It either sounded like ecstasy - like sex so good it made you black out or go numb - or agonizing pain, like a wolf’s foot caught in a steel trap. Ignorant passersby quickened their steps while I waited impatiently with the growing crowd to get inside, to feel it firsthand, this amalgam of prayer service and exorcism, of joy and sorrow, of a life laid bare and then restored to a celebratory frenzy, all to the backbeat of guitar and drums.
I knew this night – like the weekend before and the weekend before that - was an event that would brand my soul in a way that would make me feel more, express more, love more. This was raw human emotion in song form, a woman wailing from the depth of her considerable experience, from elation to agony. 

This was The Blues.

Once inside the dim room, I watched the singer sway at the microphone, her eyes closed, her face scrunched as sweat beaded her temples. She shook her head as though involuntarily, perhaps to defy releasing the sound that her spirit was barely containing, when it was clear to me and everyone else that only by releasing it could she draw her next breath. 

“Mmmmmm… Well, I’ve had my fun -- if I don’t get well no more…”. The guitarist bent a chord like a woman’s wail and I was spellbound. Others sat dumbfounded. To a person, everyone inside the dank, dark dive bar - no matter their age, race, or social status - understood that we were bearing witness. That we were all alone in this moment together.

This room, this music, had become my church, my revelry, the place I went to feel as close to religious fervor as I ever would, so I happily braved the stench of stale beer and cheap cigars to make my weekly pilgrimage to Miss Tee’s, the dankest dive bar in the entire west side of Los Angeles.

Miss Tee’s was not much to look at, a basic dump hoping to be a nightclub when it grew up and occupying the bottom floor of a neglected brick building in beachy downtown Santa Monica, a hot neighborhood thanks to the brand-new mall extravaganza called Santa Monica Place, built by a famed local architect.

Inside the club, the bland room was square and dimly lit - which I found a welcome respite from the otherwise always glaring So Cal sunshine - with a few Naugahyde booths against one wall and cheap café tables with wobbly chairs scattered across the main floor. The only decorations were behind the bar - an old-fashioned oversized wall calendar boasting that it was May 11, 1980, and an ancient flashing beer sign, strobing now and then as it begged for bulbs.

Dottie, who had been a celebrated burlesque dancer fifty years before and still had the curves and voluminous auburn hair to prove it, was the proprietress and barkeep, totaling folks’ bar tabs with her famous Elvis pen, the one where he slid up and down holding a microphone when you tipped it. “I got it during a Graceland tour – you know I once dated Elvis,” Dottie would say. “He was smitten with me.” Dottie set the tone in Miss Tee’s – loving but stern - and kept the rowdies and regulars in line. 

At the back of the room was where the band played, though there was no  bandstand - just a few microphones, a drum set, and whatever amps they had managed to borrow. The place was as dingy as last week’s newspaper - but no one came to Miss Tee’s for the decor. We came for the music.

Delphine was the lead singer and backbone of the band, her voice raw and emotional enough to sear the skin off your back or send you into a rapturous blur, depending on her mood. We regulars relied on the place to soothe our souls enough to see us through the next weeks’ worth of life’s challenges - overdue bills, leering bosses, bad spouses - and the crowd that night was weekend typical; rowdy, half tanked, and way over the fire chief’s legal limit. 

I had worn my favorite black dress and high heels and felt as good as I looked, my dark blonde hair with its unruly waves swinging as I moved to the music.  My face was unremarkable except for the blue-green eyes I had gotten from my father. In truth, my eyes were the only thing I had gotten from my father, a man who had left our midwestern  family and never returned, a fact which my college shrink had said accounted for my standoffish way with men. “That may be where your anger comes from,” she had said, her nearness to what felt like the center of my being a major reason why I had decided to leave behind my full scholarship and college.  

The shrink was right – when my dad had walked out on our family when I was in middle school and had left me and my younger brother with our increasingly embittered mother, I had felt like someone had branded a “Not good enough” stamp across my forehead. I had a dim memory of my dad coming into my bedroom the night before he disappeared. He stood in the doorway for a beat, his large figure shadowed. Slowly he stepped in and kissed my forehead and then he was gone. 

After my dad’s departure, I had quickly turned surly and sullen and stayed that way throughout high school; I had laughed as I aced every test they could throw at me and when I was declared “gifted,” I felt anything but. I spent my high school graduation getting drunk and having sex underneath the bleachers, much to my mother’s humiliation. 

The full scholarship I was offered to the top state school abated my mother’s anger to some degree, though the same dissatisfaction and impatience followed me from high school to college.  After I had bested my philosophy professor in a debate and he had left near tears, I kind of enjoyed the frustration on the face of my advisors who couldn’t figure out why someone like me, with innate smarts and the scholarship to match, wouldn’t care to take proper advantage of their generous offer. “Don’t waste a great opportunity,” they would advise me, ignoring my response that I thought that universities were supposed to be places where debate and intellectual arguments were supported not quelled. 

That’s when they made my continued school presence contingent upon my seeing a school shrink. I still remember her surprise when I told her that I had never actually slept with a man, much less woken up with one - I either wanted to have sex with them or be left the hell alone – and it was beyond my comprehension, the idea of knowing what to say or do or how to act around one, much less wake up next to one.

From my current view inside Miss Tee’s - the music rocking, a drink in hand - college seemed like a lifetime ago, though it had been just under a year. 

The sound of applause broke my reverie before the band swung into an uptempo number, the syncopated rhythm driving folks to dance. With every guitar solo, every funky riff, I drifted further and further away from my midwestern roots, from the memory of having walked away from college – “Finally,” my mother had scoffed, “that smart mouth of yours will have a purpose” – and I couldn’t really blame her. My sarcasm and willingness to say whatever was on my mind had been getting me into trouble ever since I was a kid.  I tried not to repeat my mother’s incessant questions in my head, like when I was coming back to finish my college degree, or how long I would spend wandering around a big crazy city like Los Angeles.  

I closed my eyes and swayed to the song.  “Hey babe, wanna dance?” He was your basic horny frat boy type, nothing to write home about. And no one was allowed to interrupt my sacred music time. 

“Fuck off, Junior.” I opened my eyes and shot him a look. For a minute I thought he might cry. I had long been told that my demeanor was a bit, shall we say, brusque. But I didn’t see it that way. I just didn’t get the point of wasting time with people that weren’t that smart – better to cut to the chase and move on.

I closed my eyes again, lost in the sound, and said loudly to the frat boy, wherever he might be, “Nothing personal.” 

I edged back onto the dance floor and let a middle-aged man a few decades too old to pull off his Led Zeppelin tee shirt dance too close. He bought us a few shots but when he got more than a little handsy, his sweaty palm walking further down my backside, then suggested we go outside to ‘talk,’ I gave him the slip, leaving him angry and drunk on the dance floor.

I needed some air. I brushed past Clay, the towering, gentle, teetotaling doorman. I ignored Satya, the buxom blonde waitress with a heart of stone, a fake European accent, and an instinct for shaking down husbands who hoped to get a little something extra from her in the back room (for cash, Satya was happy to oblige). She was wearing a blouse cut so low you could almost read her shoe size, a sure recipe to make grown men go slack jawed, roll over and leave tips big enough to distress their accountants.

Once outside, I turned sharp left and walked the dozen or so feet from the bar’s entrance past the payphone and towards the alleyway that ran alongside it. It had either rained – a rarity in Los Angeles with its arid desertscape in constant battle with the forced greenery of its expanding   populace – or the street sweepers had come by to dampen the alley’s customary grime. 

As the band played their usual pre-break instrumental, I marveled again at how guitarist Jackson could tease pure sex out of his instrument. Without his guitar, Jackson - full names Jackson James, nickname LA James since he had been born and raised in the city of angels - was an unassuming, shy, skinny guy. But his playing revealed a raw sexuality that drew women like bees to nectar - when he bent a string, it sounded as primal as a woman’s moan, proof of its potency being the weekly row of young lovelies that pushed to the front to gaze hungrily up at him. 

The music from inside ended amidst applause and chatter. I had bummed a smoke and watched the match flare and dim before I held it to my cigarette, pulled deeply and felt the swirl of smoke punish my lungs.

I leaned back against the building, my feet complaining until I kicked them out of my heels. I closed my eyes and listened for the sound of waves lapping at the pilings of Santa Monica Pier a few blocks west. I inhaled slowly, the warm salty air filling my nostrils, the darkness a welcome blanket.  I didn’t know what I was waiting for but something told me to wait.

Clay peeked out from the doorway. “You alright?” Clay knew to look out for us regulars, especially when someone got as overly friendly as the shot-buying guy I’d been dancing with. I nodded and smiled, Clay being one of the things I loved most about the club. His presence was comforting, his stature intimidating enough to keep most rowdies in hand and mask his gentle nature and non-violent beliefs.

The strobing neon sign in the front window flashed orange and red on Clay’s always calm expression.  And that’s when it happened.

Out of the dark came the most ear-piercing scream I had ever heard, like something out of a horror movie at Grauman’s Chinese. 

As I struggled back into my shoes, Clay ran out and darted around the corner towards the alley. I followed as quickly as I could, hopping and half barefoot.

“Stay back!” Clay yelled over his shoulder, but I had already hobbled up behind him – he was crouched over a woman’s prone body, sprawled out on the wet ground, her dress halfway hiked up her thigh, her eyes wide with surprise.  

“Oh my god!” A pearl handled knife stuck straight out of her chest, the blade completely submerged, her blouse insulted by a slowly widening ruby stain.

A crowd was forming behind me as a cop came forward to shine his flashlight on her. “Goddamn” the cop said.

It was Satya. 

In the mayhem I caught a glimpse of Jackson in the doorway lighting a cigarette – when I blinked, he was gone and all that was left was a disappearing cloud of smoke.  

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