Sometimes, People Just Have Things They Have to Do
By A.J. Payler
A.J. is this month’s winner of $507.50 for his story about deceit and making amends.
Bio: A. J. Payler is the author of novels The Killing Song, World of Heroes: The Untold Secret Origin of the New Fighters, Lost In the Red, Terror Next Door, and Bank Error in Your Favor, along with many short stories. Born in Hawaii, he currently lives in Southern California and does not participate in social media. He has shaken hands with both Kurt Vonnegut and Lemmy from Motörhead, though not at the same time. Contact information and further detail on his books is available at http://ajpayler.com
Without further ado, “Sometimes, People Just Have Things They Have to Do” by A.J. Payler.
Barton Nunez stared down at the table, fingertips of one hand idly tracing the ring where his water glass had rested while the other tugged compulsively at the ends of his thinning but still carbon-black, shoulder-length hair. His head hung low enough for Alec to see the white of Barton’s scalp—maybe it was time to recommend one of those caps, the kind British rock stars who collected old cars always wore. Then again, Barton always looked uncomfortable in anything fancier than jeans and a t-shirt—he’d been fidgeting all evening inside the fashionable tailored suit required to fit in with the upscale dress code of Michel’s on Main.
“But, I don’t understand,” Barton mumbled without looking up. “The show was sold out. Weeks in advance, even.”
Suppressing the urge to allow his blue-grey eyes to roll to the back of his pristinely razor-cut ash-blond head, Alec Rodenbaugh sipped at his twenty-year-old tawny, doing his best to ignore the light piano jazz trickling down from the speakers concealed somewhere in the textured restaurant ceiling while he savored his digestif.
This was why he always waited until after dinner to break bad news. Otherwise, Barton would have whined and groused all through the meal, imploring Alec to appeal to some nonexistent higher power to somehow invalidate the incontrovertible truth he had called Barton to the finest restaurant in the county—by some assessments, at least—to confront him with. All that might have been accomplished would have been to spoil both of their meals; to ruin a dinner at Michel’s would be a crime.
Besides, as Alec had often found occasion to muse to himself, he couldn’t control much of anything, really.
Nor could anyone. But perhaps music managers were forced to face that fact more often than most, and thus came to live with it more readily than those who could afford to go on from day to day continually deluding themselves about the nature of the world they lived in.
After swallowing the last drops of the port wine he’d indulged himself in to finish off the dinner—it all got charged to expenses—he wiped his mouth, loudly smacking his lips to lift Barton’s eyes from the resin-sealed table surface.
“It’s simple,” Alec said, struggling to keep his voice from sliding into the lecturing elementary-school teacher tone he used with his children. “Yes, the show last weekend at the Medina sold out. And sure, you managed to attract a full house for the debut of Pica Tontine. Even that god-awful opening band the club booker insisted on crowbarring onto the bill didn’t drive anyone off before you played your set.”
“Damn straight. We brought them out and packed the place to the rafters.” Barton straightened his back, the faintest hint of a smile ghosting across his face. Poor sod was so desperate to salve his ego, he couldn’t even tell when he was being set up for a fall.
“But,” Alec continued, “between your first number and your final encore, you lost at least a quarter of the audience.”
Barton winced. “That’s not so bad,” he claimed. “We played a long set. It was getting late. People just have things they have to do sometimes. Some of them probably had to get up early in the morning.”
“On a Sunday?” Alec raised an eyebrow. “Come on, not your fans. Not many of them anyway.”
“Well, all the real fans would have stuck around if they’d known we were going to wrap up with a few old Artery Boys favorites,” Barton rebutted.
“Well, maybe you should have told them that before the encore, then,” Alec muttered. “But either way, as you and I and your account manager down at the bank should all know, ultimately it all comes down to the numbers. And if the fans had as good a time as you seem to want to believe, they would have opened their wallets to prove it.”
Barton stared back at him. “What does that mean?”
Alec sighed. “Look, I love the Medina, I know you love playing there. It’s a great club, with a great sound system, it attracts a great crowd.”
“But part of what makes it so great is that it’s severely limited in size. Sure, you attracted a capacity crowd, but let’s be real, that’s not really that hard to do there. Not for a longtime hometown favorite making a rare appearance in a smaller venue than fans are used to seeing him in. The bar makes their money off alcohol, but at twenty bucks a ticket with a legal capacity of two hundred and fifty, your end of the box office take only adds up so far.”
And twenty percent of not much was practically less than nothing, Alec stopped himself from adding.
Barton’s lips were a thin line. “Box office is only half the picture,” he said. “Merch sales should help make up the rest—that’s why we made those limited-edition shirts for the debut. Wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Alec confirmed, wincing sympathetically as he slid his credit card into the leather folder at the edge of the table. “And if they had sold like we were both hoping, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now.”
His client’s expression fell. Reality was starting to sink in, Alec saw.
“Oh,” Barton said, finger now tracing the ring of condensation on the table in the opposite direction. “How bad was it?”
Alec paused, considering his options. He could soft-pedal his delivery, cushion the blow for Barton, preserve his old friend’s feelings. Let him hold out hope for the continuation of Pica Tontine as a periodic side project, maybe on a regional tour of small venues.
But if Alec so did, it might be at the expense of their futures—all of their futures. Barton’s, as a viable musical artist surviving on the creative output of his fevered mind. Alec’s, as his manager, directing and shaping that output to maximize their collective capacity to stay housed and clothed and fed. Plus, there was Barton’s family to think about, as well. Being out on the street wouldn’t do any of them any favor.
“Put it this way,” Alec said, winding up slowly to ensure the message was delivered in terms Barton would understand. “Allie Austin, with all her hits and awards and millions of social media followers, she makes around seventeen bucks a person at the merch table at every one of her shows. A long-running heavy rock band with a devoted following like Poison Flag or Heavy Light, you’re talking in the neighborhood of twelve, thirteen dollars a person. Even a new group like Sayonara Mob can rack up eight or nine per capita if they’re doing it right.”
“So what did we do last night?” asked Barton, anxious for the other shoe to drop.
“Three,” Alec said. “Three and a quarter. We even went a little light on pressing up the shirts hoping to create some false scarcity, but the booth didn’t come close to selling out. There’s a full box we had to stick back in the storage space, and they all have Saturday’s date plastered across the back, so they’re not even evergreen.”
“Oh,” Barton said, his voice small as realization began to sink in that the returns were in, with results nowhere near to what he’d hoped.
But Barton wasn’t ready to give up the ghost of Pica Tontine yet. Alec could tell by the way the corners of Barton’s jaw flared as he clenched his teeth, internally preparing his defense. He’d spent a full year getting the new band prepped, composing and discarding material, writing and rewriting possible set lists—he wasn’t going to throw that all away on the basis of one bad night.
Not unless Alec fully impressed upon him the importance of doing so, anyway.
“Look,” Barton said finally, winding up to deliver his defense at the same moment Alec spotted the waiter in the far corner giving them the peculiar stinkeye reserved for diners pushing up against the limits of outstaying their welcome at Michel’s.
Alec shook his head. How things had changed. They never would have cared about a measly extra half-hour here or there back when Barton was riding high in the Artery Boys days.
But Barton didn’t see it. “You’re comparing apples to, I don’t know, kumquats,” he ranted. “We don’t play that slick commercial country pop like Allie Austin, she sells to moms and teenage girls and every song sounds like it could be in the background of a car commercial.”
“That’s true,” Alec conceded. “Your music is nowhere near as commercial as hers, and never has been. No threat of that.”
Brushing off the backhanded compliment, Barton barreled on. “And metal fans are crazy, they’re only legendary for it. They’re more than happy to have a full drawer packed with nothing but black print tees plastered with ugly-ass logos. Sayonara Mob? Those posers are just surfing the wave of hip appeal and making that money off gullible college kids while it lasts. In a year, they won’t be able to give that junk away.”
“Fine, then,” Alec said, having fully anticipated Barton’s response—hell, he’d practically teed him up for the killing blow. “Let’s compare kumquats to kumquats then. Two years ago, on what you called the ‘final’ Artery Boys tour, you were pulling in an average of seven-fifty a night in merch sales per person. And back then, you guys were playing places six, eight, sometimes ten times the size of the Medina. We’re never going to have a promotional hook like the new band’s first show, so realistically speaking, Saturday’s numbers represented a peak, not an anomaly. I mean, come on, Barton—you do the numbers.”
Barton fell silent. That was math he couldn’t argue with; that tour had been the source of the nest egg on which he and his family had lived since the demise of the Artery Boys, keeping the lights on while he strived towards getting his new project off the ground.
But now it seemed that Pica Tontine might never get its chance to soar, instead crashing upon takeoff.
“So what are you saying, then, Alec? That I should make up with that asshole Nico? Play nice, get the Artery Boys back together and strum a few tunes with a guy like him?”
Barton stood and threw his napkin to the table dramatically. In the corner, the waiter half-lurched forward, but relaxed when he saw Barton sit back down again.
“And I can’t believe you of all people would ask that of me. You know who he is, who he really is, and what he did. What he's done, and will continue to do. I mean… how can you even ask that of me, knowing what he's like?”
Alec carefully set his crumpled linen napkin on the table surface, nodding to the waitstaff to signal their intention to depart presently. Judging from the present intensity of the disapproving glares they were receiving, whoever had the ten o’clock seating reservation for their table was almost certainly cooling their heels in Michel’s lobby presently.
“I’m not telling you to do anything except what’s best for you and your career,” Alec said, standing from the table and brushing down the front of his shirt. “Hell, I’m not telling you to do anything. That’s not my role, and never has been. You make the decisions; I make the calls.”
Barton stood, reluctantly. “That’s right. It is my career, after all.”
“Right,” said Alec. “But I can tell you the calls for the Artery Boys come with a lot higher price tags attached than those for Pica Tontine ever will, especially after Saturday night. You think venue owners don’t talk? Gossip with each other about what band drew what crowd and what band didn’t? Word gets around, and it gets around fast.”
“Sure, of course,” Barton admitted, reluctantly dragging himself to his feet as the waiter over in the corner champed at the bit to turn the table over. “But it was just one night,” he said, powerful baritone voice now drained of its vigor.
Alec shook his head. “I know, buddy—but it was the one night that counted.”
Barton held his head in his hands. “Christ. I can’t believe I’m even sitting here seriously thinking about this. If the fans knew what Nico was really like, no one would fault me for not wanting to work with him again. I mean, I know what they say, addiction is a disease, hate the sin not the sinner, all that shit—but fuck, man. He fucking gave that shit to my little brother, Alec, you know he did!”
Eyes wide, Alec placed a finger to his lips. “You know why you can't talk about that publicly.”
“I know, I know,” Alec grumbled, waving his hand. “Goddamn it, you don’t have to remind me, of all people.”
“Well, good,” Alec said. “Just so long as we’re all still keeping our heads on straight, no matter the circumstances.”
“If only…” Barton said, now staring at the ceiling, all thoughts of departure from Michel’s clearly forgotten. “If only there was some way to do it and cut Nico out. Bring the Artery Boys back without the cancer that killed the band in the first place.”
“Right, well, that’s all nice to think about,” Alec said. “But as long as he holds the trademarks on the name and ancillary branding, you come within fifty yards of any of that and the lawyers will have us shut down before you sing one note. And you know all this, so why are we even talking about it?”
Barton banged his fist flat on the table suddenly. “Damn it, you know he stole all that right out from under the rest of us. And stealing the name doesn’t even make the top ten of his most egregious offenses. I can’t, I just… I can’t even think about it.”
At the impact of Barton’s fist on the table Alec couldn’t help feeling acute awareness of the circular perimeter of annoyed and concerned glances surrounding them; he waved to the servers to indicate both his apology and intention to clear the table as soon as he was able. That was a lot to put on one feeble flip of the hand, though, and Alec felt their time running short.
“You know what would be best for everyone,” he heard Barton say, quietly, as if speaking more to himself than his manager and friend. “If he was dead.”
“Don't say that,” Alec said. “Not even joking. He was your friend once. And mine.”
“That was a long time ago,” Barton pointed out correctly. “And if you really thought about it, all things considered, you’d know what I said is true. We could get the rest of the band back together free and clear, bring in any of a dozen dependable pros to cover the bass slot, head back out on the road tomorrow. Hell, even the fans would get what they wanted—the band back together, and a chance to say goodbye to the Nico they think they know. The idea of what he maybe once represented, but hasn’t come close to in real life in longer than I can remember. Tell me that doesn’t sound good?”
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