The One Thing I Know
Keelan Ellis © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Henry woke up to the sound of the shower turning on in the bathroom down the hall. He got up and sorted through the clothes strewn around on the floor, separating his from his guest’s. The two pairs of white briefs were, unfortunately, the same brand and size, so he took his best guess and tossed one of them on top of the pile he was holding. He set the whole thing down outside the bathroom door and went to the kitchen to make coffee. He lit a cigarette and opened the window above the sink. The shower shut off just as the coffee finished brewing, and a few minutes later, his previous evening’s date appeared in the doorway. His name was Danny, and they’d been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. He was as cute as he was dumb, but Henry was fairly certain one night had been enough to satisfy his curiosity.
“Morning,” Henry said. “There’s coffee if you want it.”
“Thanks,” Danny said. He poured some into a cup and leaned against the counter. “Hey, I’m going to the beach later. You want me to stop by and pick you up?”
“Nah. I have work.”
“Oh, right. On the Details’ new record, wasn’t it?”
Henry nodded. He was slated to play pedal steel and Dobro on six tracks for the Vulgar Details’ upcoming album. It wasn’t the first time he’d played with those guys. The band counted on Henry to fill in the gaps whenever their songwriter and pedal steel player, Dell Miller, was off taking peyote in the desert or barricading himself in a hotel room shooting up with whoever he’d brought home that night. Henry had never met Dell and still thought of him as more myth than man. “I should get in the shower pretty soon,” he hinted.
Danny either didn’t pick up on it or didn’t care, and he poured more coffee into his cup. “You think it’s going to be a good one?”
“I think it’s the best one yet.” He rinsed his cup out and put it in the drainer. “I need to get ready. Thanks for coming over. It was fun.”
Danny raised his eyebrows at him, and his lips turned up with wry amusement. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as Henry had thought. “Sure thing. You got my number. Call if you want.” He set his cup down and gave a little salute before he left. Definitely cute, Henry couldn’t deny that.
Henry got to the studio early and ran through his parts before the band arrived. The songs that Henry had learned for that day’s session were, hands down, the best work the band had done. The new songs were dark and personal, explorations of loss and hopelessness, set to some of the loveliest melodies he’d ever heard. The Vulgar Details had come so far from their beginnings as a brash blues rock band that they were almost unrecognizable. Henry had never thought of them as anything special until their third album, Heart’s Desire, was released back in ’69.
Henry had been lying by the pool at his friend Richard’s house, passing a joint back and forth with him, when he first heard that record. Henry was twenty-four then, and Richard was ten years older, with family money and a beautiful house he’d had built in Laurel Canyon. He threw amazing parties attended by young musicians and hippie hangers-on who were there for the free food, booze, and drugs. Richard didn’t care why they were there. He loved the beautiful boys and girls, the music, and the easily available sex. When he wasn’t partying, he liked having Henry around. Sometimes they fooled around, but Richard never made it seem like a requirement. That day, when he put on the new Vulgar Details record, Henry scoffed.
“I thought you had more interesting taste than that,” he said.
“You’re getting too old to be such a snob.”
Henry stretched and grinned up at him. “Probably getting too old for you, then, huh?”
Richard smiled, shook his head, and sat back down. “Give it a chance. You might be surprised.”
It started out sounding much like all of their previous stuff, but somehow better. Previously, their songs tended toward aimless, slightly silly rip-offs of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or juvenile rock and roll songs about pretty girls. These were something else altogether. They dealt with love, anger, and desire—the subjects of most rock lyrics—but with a depth almost never heard in popular music.
“Jesus, this is great,” Henry said. “Where the hell did it come from? Did Terry Blackwood get a brain transplant or something?”
Richard laughed. “Not quite. They got a new member. Don’t you follow this stuff, working in the industry?”
“Must have missed that one.”
“His name’s Dell Miller. Actually, he was at that party you came to last month. Skinny, pretty, long-haired country boy? Walked around with his shirt open the whole time?”
“Oh yeah. I think I remember him. The girls were all over him. He wrote all of these?”
“All the good ones,” Richard said.
The last song on the album, “Traveling Abroad,” was the best one, and Henry insisted playing it three times in a row. It had an entirely different sound from the rest of them. It was almost a traditional country song, but the arrangement was complex and the lyrics made him want to cry. There was so much yearning in it that it was almost hard to listen to. When he left Richard’s house that afternoon, he went straight to the nearest record store to buy his own copy.
That was three years and two albums earlier. The Vulgar Details had only gotten better, despite Miller’s increasingly unreliable presence. The band’s sound drifted more and more toward the mellow country- and bluegrass-influenced style Miller had brought with him from Tennessee. A few of the blues rock numbers that were Terence Blackwood’s bread and butter still remained, but these no longer represented the bulk of their output. This new album took that even further, and Henry had to wonder how the rest of the band—Blackwood in particular—felt about that. In most bands, a shift like that would have led to at least one angry departure. Somehow, the Details had managed to keep it together without any public drama, unless you counted Miller’s multiple rehab stays and a short stint in jail for public intoxication and possession.
They weren’t planning to record any vocals that day, so Blackwood wasn’t around. The lead guitarist, Steve Smith, and drummer, Kenny Sailes, had entered the studio in the middle of a contentious but good-natured disagreement over which one of them would be harder to replace if they went into rehab. Alex Benton, the bass player, shook Henry’s hand and gave him a one-armed hug.
“Maybe you can settle that argument, Cole,” he said, grinning.
“They can both go, as far as I’m concerned,” Henry said. “You’ll have to tough it out, though, Benton. I don’t like playing bass.”
“You heard him, you assholes. Cole here is gunning for you, and he’s a man of many skills. Watch your backs.”
“Not me. I don’t want to be a rock-and-roll star. I prefer to work for a living.” They all laughed, and Henry said, “So, uh…how is Dell doing, anyway? Rehab working out, I hope?”
The mood turned slightly somber, and they all glanced down at the floor. Finally, Smith shrugged and said, “Terry said the place looked pretty nice, and Dell told him he was actually going to try this time. Who the fuck knows.”
Benton sighed and nodded. Sailes snorted skeptically and muttered, “I think we all pretty much know, Steve.”
“Sorry,” Henry said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Benton said. “It’s not your fault. You gotta understand, we’ve been on this ride a few times, man. Dell is…Dell.”
Henry cleared his throat. “Well, anyway—the new songs sound great.”
“The fucked-up hillbilly bastard sure knows how to write a goddamn song. Can’t take that away from him,” Smith said, smiling again. “It’s going to be the best thing we’ve ever done.”
The session went as smoothly as anyone could have hoped for, and Henry left the studio on a serious high. He wanted to get laid, but the thought of calling Richard to see if he wanted company left him restless. As soon as the idea of going to a bar occurred to him, he knew it was exactly what he was looking for. He rarely went out to bars alone, and rarely with the express purpose of finding sex. That night, he felt like a different person.
Henry’s usual haunt, the Westside Clubhouse, was a relatively laid-back place. Guys went there for the same reason they went to any other gay bar, but mainly because it was a place they could relax and be themselves. The drinks were generous, the bartenders were cute but not intimidating, and they all knew Henry. But that wasn’t the kind of place he was in the mood for. Instead, he went to the Hammer and Nail, which he’d heard about but hadn’t yet ventured into.
He stood in line outside the club while the bouncers checked everyone out at the door. While he waited, a couple of guys got turned away for not being fit enough, young enough, handsome enough, or for not fitting who-knew-what other criteria. Henry had been confident when he first queued up, but by the time he got to the front of the line, he was nervous. The tall, blond, muscular bouncer eyed him up and down and motioned him inside without a word, smacking him on the ass as he walked past. The whole process was fairly disgusting, and while Henry was opposed to the attitude in theory, he couldn’t deny that it felt good to know he passed muster.
Inside, the bar was dark and loud. At least half the guys were shirtless, and all of them were beautiful. He bought a gin and tonic and walked through the throngs of sweaty men. He’d need at least two more drinks before he’d be able to get on the dance floor, so he didn’t wander too far from the bar.
Henry turned around to see a sound technician at one of the studios where he regularly worked. “Hey, man,” he said, searching frantically for the man’s name.
“Pete, right, of course. I’m sorry. From Blue Door Studios, right?”
Pete nodded. “I didn’t know you were…” He motioned vaguely around the room.
“Yeah, well,” Henry said, smiling lamely and shrugging. “I don’t usually come here, though. It’s not exactly my scene, but I was in some kind of mood tonight. I had a good day.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Laid down some tracks with the Vulgar Details,” Henry said, striving for casual, as if it was the kind of thing that happened every day. “Great stuff.”
“Oh, cool. Was Terry Blackwood there? He’s so sexy.”
“Nope. No Blackwood, and no Dell, of course. He’s the reason I got hired.”
“Right, the drug thing,” Pete said. “Too bad you didn’t get to meet Blackwood though. I bet he’d think you’re cute.”
Henry rolled his eyes. “I have met him. He treated me like the hired help, which I was. And I think those rumors are all bullshit anyway. Just because he partied with Lou Reed or got a blow job from some drag queen—supposedly—doesn’t mean he’s into guys. I think he wants people to think he’s interesting, like Bowie, instead of a second-rate Mick Jagger.”
Henry gave him a sheepish grin. “I was unaware I had any opinion of him whatsoever until just that moment.”
“Well anyway, a boy can dream.”
“Sure, why not?” Henry said. “This place is kind of like a dream, isn’t it? I have no idea how I got in.”
“Seriously? You don’t know how pretty you are. You want to go in the back?”
“What’s in the back?”
“Well if you don’t know the answer to that, I may have to rescind my offer.”
Henry laughed sharply, even as his cheeks heated up. “Okay, let’s go.”
There was a lounge area in the back of the bar with several sofas and clusters of pillows on the floor. It was darker than the front of the club, and more so in the corners, but Henry could see figures entwined in various spots around the room. He’d been around plenty of open sex at Richard’s parties, but this was different. It was all men, for one thing. Even at those drug-hazed free love bashes, the gay stuff was almost always behind closed doors. As the host and confirmed eccentric, Richard was the exception to that unwritten rule. He regularly ended the night in a tangle with at least one beautiful young person of each gender, but he usually retired to his bedroom before anything serious got started.
“You look like you just walked into Oz,” Pete said.
“I’ve seen that movie, and I distinctly remember that no one had their cock out.”
“More’s the pity,” Pete replied. “Come on. Over there.” He grinned and grabbed Henry’s hand to pull him to a couch, one side of which was already occupied by a man holding a skinny, kneeling black-haired kid by the hair and pushing his face into his crotch. Pete backed Henry into the couch and climbed onto his lap to kiss him.
The din of the music was somewhat muffled in the back room, and the sounds of sex surrounded him. There were grunts and moans, low, guttural utterances, and the occasional laugh. It filled Henry with reckless abandon, as if he’d left some part of himself outside the walls of this club—the nagging, inconvenient part that normally kept him out of places like this. With Pete grinding into him and sliding his tongue against Henry’s, he found he didn’t miss it at all. He shoved his hands between their bodies and unzipped Pete’s tight pants and then his own jeans. He held their cocks in one hand so they slid against each other as Pete writhed on top of him. The noises coming from their couchmate spurred his own urgency. Pete came quickly, biting into Henry’s shoulder, and then stilled his movements. He reached for Henry’s cock and jerked him hard and fast, forcing the orgasm out of him in an intense rush.
They slumped against each other for a few seconds, and then Pete reached languidly for a box of tissues on a small side table. As Henry cleaned himself up, he felt his real self begin to return. The scene around him, which had been so intoxicating before, now seemed ridiculous. Pete, though cute enough, had entirely ceased to interest him. He sighed and stood up to straighten out his clothes.
“I’m usually here on Saturday nights,” Pete said. “Maybe I’ll see you next time.”
“Yeah, man. I don’t know; it’s not my usual place. But I’ll see you next time I’m at Blue Door.” Henry was already half dreading that interaction.
“You want to stay for another drink or something?”
“Not tonight, man. I’m done in. Didn’t expect to get lucky so early.” Henry smiled at him in what he hoped was a friendly, but not too encouraging way. “Thanks. That was fun.”
He beat it out of there as fast as he could, emerging onto the sidewalk and breathing air that thankfully didn’t smell like sex and cigarettes. He briefly considered heading over to the Clubhouse, to have a drink and maybe flirt with the bartender, but in the end, he decided he just wanted to go to bed.
He flipped on the radio in his car as he started heading back to his apartment. They were playing “Traveling Abroad,” and Henry sang along as he always did. What would it be like to write a song like that, to have such an ability? It should make a person happy, though apparently it didn’t always work that way. When the song ended, there was a second of dead air, and then the DJ came on and said, “And that was the Vulgar Details, with Dell Miller singing probably the most iconic song of his short, but influential career. Dell Miller, dead today at the age of twenty-six. He was killed in a single-car accident near his family home in Sevier County, Tennessee.”