B.I.C.* Cartel (Butt In Chair)
If you already gave up, can you really start again?
Braden Campbell is an amazing jazz pianist with bipolar disorder, and he gives up his talent because it’s time to grow up. As if driving a taxi is a grown-up occupation, that is. Karen Watts writes, and has great credentials as a journalist and freelance writer. However, every novel she’s ever written is either abandoned or torched — because she thinks she isn’t good enough. Robert Blair paints landscapes, portraits and … signs. But only the signs pay and a man has to make a living, right? After years of false starts, marriages, abusive relationships, divorces, substance abuse, madness, frequent cross-country moves and plain old self-doubts, the three reunite with a new resolve. Karen bets them that she will be the first to “turn pro” — to take their talents seriously and act professionals instead of dabblers. Finally they do something about it in this story of wild adventures, battle scars, dysfunction, redemption and sheer guts.
Excerpts from B.I.C. Cartel
CHAPTER ONE – 2010/Reunion
Braden Campbell thought he took a wrong turn as he approached his old stamping grounds. Nothing was the way he remembered it. Well, yeah, he thought. He hadn’t seen southern California in nearly a decade, and in his mind it wasn’t long enough.
Some business with his shattered family brought him here, and he wanted to get that taken care of before hightailing it back home. Once he figured out where home was, anyway.
In limbo. Home wasn’t home to speak of, and it surely wasn’t here. Not anymore. He had two real friends left, one out in parts unknown and one still in southern California He figured he’d left too many bridges in smoking ruins by now.
Braden had plenty of time to think on his four-day cross-country drive. While he was coming back to San Bernardino County to see his son graduate, he knew he’d be there and back quickly. Taking time off for this adventure was easy; as a self-employed taxi driver he only had to tell his dispatcher he was taking off, then lease his cab out to another driver. It was his own car anyway. Leasing it out made more sense than driving his taxi all the way across the country and having people try to flag him in some town he didn’t know anymore. In truth, he didn’t want to come here. Didn’t even want anybody to know he was in town, although he promised Robert he’d touch base. What was he thinking about?
He didn’t want to be anywhere right now.
Buzzing along Interstate 10, his mood darkened as he passed the I-215 interchange. The car’s cramped interior didn’t help. His rental was one of those bent-beer-can models, too small for his six-foot-three frame. No matter how he adjusted the seat, his knees still pressed against the steering column. He had to walk around at every gas stop just to get his legs working.
But his discomfort was nothing compared to visiting the place he called home. Though curious about what happened to the old place, his feeling of dread overruled that.
He couldn’t exactly call southern California home. Not any more. Some marketing genius started calling it the Inland Empire some years back, probably to make the area sound like an actual destination even if it was under the long shadow of L.A. With fast-growing places like Riverside, San Bernardino and a bunch of equally hopeless burbs and burgs the moniker stuck. Braden couldn’t understand why.
He’d done his hitch there, with little to show for it. All that was left was an ex-wife who hated him. A son who didn’t know him. A woman he’d hurt and who knew where she was. And Robert, who had his own life going on.
This was going to be a short, maybe even incognito visit.
Braden’s return did not go well, and his mood showed it. He’d arrived just in time to see his son graduate high school – shocking that Michael was now old enough for that – and he had to sneak his way in. Last he’d heard from Patti, she still hated his guts. Never got over it. Some people still carried a torch for their former spouses; she carried a death wish.
After their divorce she tried to keep him away from Michael. His own son, his own flesh and blood. She finally succeeded in taking full custody of Michael a decade ago. Nothing except supervised visitation rights, and even that went away when she slapped a restraining order on him. All he had left was a massive child support bill he scrambled to meet every month.
Now the boy was graduating – high school! Surely Michael wasn’t that old. Neither was Braden, for that matter. Switching lanes, Braden glanced at the rearview mirror of his mini-car and saw the wrinkles forming around his eyes and the slight graying around his temples. Hard to see with his curly blond hair, but it was there. He looked and felt much older than his 38 years. Of course. He was 20 when Michael was born. It had been eight years since he saw his son. Of course his son was old enough to graduate. Also old enough to be a legal adult and vote and buy cigarettes and serve in the military …
He arrived a few minutes after the Eisenhower High School senior class of 2010 began its commencement, and he found a spot toward the rear of the football stadium grandstand. He stuck around long enough for the school board president or whoever it was to get through the C’s and watched as his son accept his diploma.
There’s no mistaking it, Braden thought as he watched the tall, lean 18-year-old sit back down. Same hair that tended to curl out in random directions. Definitely his father’s son.
As soon as his son sat down amid the class of 300 students, Braden left.
Braden drove a few miles into San Bernardino and found a cheap motel on E Street. Out in the ‘hood; at least that hadn’t changed much. Checked into a room, dumped his suitcase on the floor, took his meds and fell down on the freshly-made bed. He was tired and hoped the Lamictal would kick in soon.
He’d promised Robert, but he really didn’t want to stick around long enough to visit. He didn’t want anyone to see what he had become, didn’t want anyone to see him like this. The whole area gave him a ton of memories, some good but most bad. Just grab a few hours of sleep and head back to North Carolina in the morning. No one would give a rip.
When he woke up the next morning Braden decided not to leave right away. He was still tired from the cross-country trip, and he had this urge to spend the day sightseeing anyway. Earlier he drove through Riverside, checked out downtown and stopped at an In & Out Burger stand. He hadn’t had an In & Out in years, and the taste was every bit as good as he remembered.
Seeing the old sights – plus that burger – brought him back home and didn’t help his mixed feelings any. But the more he thought about it, the less he wanted to return to North Carolina. It was nice for a while, but it soon became another dead end. Just like California. But where could he go now? Alaska? New Mexico? Peru? Wherever he went, he knew his troubles and sadness would follow him. They always did.
Taking his time, he drove by the Sundowner in Rialto and slowed up as he saw it, enjoying the flood of memories.
He wondered where she was. Last he’d heard she was in Minnesota; she’d emailed him from there and Joann felt the need to run interference.
If you thought Patti was a handful, wait’ll you get a load of Joann, he thought. She was determined to make an honest man out of him, and she didn’t like him playing jazz all night and touring in strange towns without her. And she sure didn’t like him getting any attention or even sideways looks from stray females, not even on stage. She thought it was cool to date someone with the band, but being married to a musician was a different matter entirely. She flipped out when she read Karen’s email; after locking herself in the bedroom she didn’t speak to him for a couple of days. Braden didn’t mind that part.
Driving aimlessly along Hospitality Lane, in a commercial area hugging the Santa Ana River near Interstate 10. That place had no right to exist, built so close to the freeway, so close to the flood-prone river bed, so close to some juicy earthquake fault lines. It certainly had no reason to be part of the hardscrabble railroad town of Colton, what with all those upscale restaurants and hotels. That area didn’t belong.
Cruising by the chain hotels and new businesses, Braden passed by a furniture store. Grand-opening stickers covered the front windows and the new store sign had something familiar about it. On a whim he pulled into the parking lot, got out of the car, locked it, and walked into the store.
“Hi,” the smartly-dressed young employee greeted him at the door.
“New store, huh?” Braden asked.
“Just opened it a couple of days ago.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jason; I’m the store manager.”
They shook. “Nice meeting you, Jason. I’m Braden. As a matter of fact, you can help me. That sign.”
“What about it?”
“I recognize it. You had a guy named Blair paint it, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. Why?”
“Just wondering. He was one of my best friends for a long time. I’ve been out of town a few years, came by for a visit. Saw the sign, thought of him immediately.”
“If you like, I can call him. Follow me.” Jason led Braden to a sales counter, where he picked up a phone and dialed a number. He spoke in muffled tones for a minute.
“Yes, he’s right here. I’ll put him on.” Jason handed Braden the phone.
“Robert, how in the world are you?”
The short, heavyset black man crouched down and aimed a jab at Braden’s chest, and Braden stepped aside.
“How ya doing, my brother?”
“Been a long time, boss man,” Braden said. “Long time. How’s life treating you?”
“Better than I deserve.”
“I see business must be pretty good for you. Seem to be getting a decent class of customers these days.”
“Yeah. No more billboards. Let me tell you, I sure don’t miss them.”
“How’s …” Braden paused. Never could remember her name. “How’s the wife?”
“LaTasha. She’s still putting up with me.”
“Good enough. How long has it been now?”
“Ten years and change.”
“Married life seems to agree with you.”
“Yeah,” he said, patting his gut. “She’s fattened me up some. Probably put on 20, 25 pounds. I’m OK with it as long as I can still make it up them ladders. How about you? The women still chasing after you?”
“I could probably use a little less of that,” Braden admitted. “My whirlwind North Carolina marriage lasted all of what, two years? That seems about my limit.”
“I was going to ask if she was nice, but maybe that’s not a good idea.”
“I think I told you plenty about her,” Braden said. “She was nice enough at first, until we got married. Then she decided she didn’t want to be a musician’s wife.”
“Playing out lately?”
“Nothing significant since we got married. Had a four-piece back then. Me, guy on tenor, bass, drums. Straight-ahead jazz. I sent you our CD, right?”
“Yeah, man. I still listen to it. So what happened? She made you quit?”
“Story of my life. Wanted me home on weekends, then wanted me out of the clubs altogether. She thought every female who caught my eye in a club was getting some from me.”
“Sounds like a real case.”
“I didn’t help my cause any. She accused me of giving it out, and I told her she must think I’m Superman or something. Might have been the wrong thing to say.”
While they talked Jason stopped by to see how they were doing.
“Oh, that’s right,” Braden said. “Kinda forgot where we were for a minute.”
“That’s OK. Old friends, all that.”
“Jason, we go back a long time,” Robert said. “Long time. Like when you were still in diapers.”
“Not quite that long, but close enough,” Braden added. “It’s been a while.”
“Think we’d better get out of his hair,” Robert suggested. “He’s got a store to run. Want to stop by the shop?”
“Sure. You told me you had one. I’d like to see it.”
“Ain’t much to it, but it’s a lot fancier than the back of a truck. It’s in Fontana.”
“Don’t knock it. The rent is cheap and people know it’s there. I get some good drive-by traffic. Right there on 66. Wanna follow me over there?”
“Hey,” Robert said. “Got something else you may be interested to know.”
“Karen’s back in town. Been here a couple of weeks and she’s bugging me because she keeps asking about you.”
“If you like, I’ll call her on the way. Have her meet us there.”
“Go for it,” Braden said uncertainly as he got into his car. “Give her a call. You and I have been friends a long time, but I’d rather look at her than you any day.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
The blue Saturn joined the motley-looking caravan directly behind Robert, and they pulled up to the line of metal buildings on Foothill Boulevard. Robert, driving his truck, led the other two around the back to a roll-up door that looked like all the others. The only thing that stood out was the sign, painted by the man himself:
Karen parked her Saturn behind Robert’s truck. She leaned against the little car, long legs stretched out, red hair hanging loose over her back, and waited. Next to her, a black-and-white Malamute sat obediently and took it all in. As soon as Braden stepped out of his vehicle she ran over and grabbed him in a ferocious hug.
“You still hit like a linebacker,” he said when he caught his breath.
“I’ve missed you.”
“I never would have guessed.” He kissed her on her not-quite-straight nose, and she leaned against him for an instant before stepping back. “Who’s your buddy?”
“Braden, meet Bandito. I got him about five, six years ago. He’s been the one bit of sanity in my life.”
Braden squatted and scratched the dog’s ears, and Bandito pressed himself up against his legs. Then the dog shook himself and lay down as Braden stood up.
“He likes you, which means you’re okay.”
“You taught him well.”
“Spoiled is what you mean.” She looked him up and down. “You look well.”
“I feel like crap. But you, ma’am, you look sensational.”
“Liar. I’ve gypsied all over the country, and I’ve aged a lot. I’ve put on weight and I’m just plain tired.”
“What, you’ve put on maybe an ounce or two?”
The same fair skin, the same freckles, the same long legs, the same bent nose. Maybe a few more pounds, but you’d never tell on her hard-muscled frame. A few lines around her eyes, but that was about all. She still had that look like she was always up to something.
“Look at me,” she said. “I’ve been blubbering like a baby all the way over here. I never did that before.”
“Still the best thing I’ve seen in, oh, eight or ten years.”
“Eight.” She smiled.
“Felt like a lot longer than that. What, 20, 30 years?”
“Stop it. You’re going to make me cry again.”
“All of y’all, just break it up!”
They turned toward Robert. He’d rolled the metal door up and set up three camp chairs in his shop. “Come on in, grab a seat, order a drink.”
“Really?” Braden said. “What do you have?”
“Bottled water and Mountain Dew.”
“Crack in a bottle. I’ll take the water.”
“Me too,” Karen said.
“I’m gonna do the Dew, if you don’t mind.”
The three sat down with drinks in hand. Karen poured half of her water in a bowl and Bandito lapped at it for a minute.
“Rule of the road,” she told Braden. “Always share fifty-fifty with your traveling companion.”
“So talk,” Robert said. “I know Karen and I discussed this here and there, just one on one, but what brings y’all back to this pleasant little burg?”
“You,” Karen said.
“Close enough,” Braden added.
“No, seriously. The both of you left to seek fame and fortune, or something. Didn’t find it?”
“Life’s been OK.”
“Braden, you lie.” Karen turned her camp chair to look at him. “I know you, and I can tell.”
“Well, some parts of it have been OK.”
“Gonna stay a while?”
“Doubt it. Couple days maybe. Came here to see my boy graduate.”
“How is Michael?” Robert asked.
“He looks good.”
“Did you even get to talk to him?”
“Didn’t stick around.”
“How’s the ex?” Karen asked. “What was her name, Cowpattie or something?”
“That’s her. We didn’t talk. Didn’t see her. Didn’t want to.”
“When you say you were heading out?” Robert asked.
“Don’t know. Couple of days.”
“Still in Morehead City?” Karen asked.
“Yep. Pretty out there.”
“You know, I wasn’t too far away.”
“Really? Last I heard you were way up north.”
“I was. Johnson City after that.”
“Lady, you sure know how to pick the obscure places. What’s a Johnson City?”
“Tennessee. East end, up in the hills.”
“That’s just one state over. Why didn’t you give me a holler?”
“You know why not.”
Braden knew. “I saw what Joann wrote back to you that time,” he said.
“That hurt,” Karen said. “I’m a lot of things, but I’m no whore.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for someone else,” she said.
“I know. But I feel bad about it. Still.”
“Please tell me she’s out of your life.”
“She is. I hope so anyway. It’s been two years since we divorced.”
“There is a God.”
Robert broke in. “How about you, Karen?”
“Life’s been … well, interesting.”
“Where-all you been? I kinda lost track.”
“Too many places to count. Clay Center. Bullhead City. Laughlin. Sauk Centre. Johnson City.” She paused. “I think that’s all of them.”
“What’s up with that?” Braden asked. “Were you, like, wanted or something?”
“Not by the law. Just relationships. Turns out I’m as bad at picking ‘em as you.”
“You know,” Karen shifted in her seat. “The two of us have pretty much taken over the conversation. Robert can’t get a word in.”
“I’m good,” Robert said.
“So how is our rock of stability?”
“Right now, I’ll take boring. Had enough drama.”
“You’re looking at it. Still married, same woman. Still doing my thing.”
“How is LaTasha?”
“She’s doing good. Still working at the hospital. Got her on days now; better for us both. She’s been a blessing.”
“Doing any painting?” Karen asked.
“All day.” He waved a hand around his shop. “Keeping me busy.”
“No, I mean painting painting. Art, you know?”
“I don’t get you.”
“I think he means no,” Braden said.
“Well, how about you, Mr. Big Stuff?” Karen asked. “Playing anywhere?”
“I didn’t ask that. I’m a word geek. Notice my use of the present tense.”
“May I assume the crazy lady back home had something to do with it?”
“Good guess. How ‘bout you, smart girl? You writing or just talking about it?”
“Get a room, willya?”
“Oh.” Karen looked up at Robert, who was smiling at them.
“I mean I’m real glad to see the both of you,” Robert said. “Good to see you two pick up right where you left off. But can we keep it a little more peaceful?”
“You’re right,” Braden said. “We’re in your house anyway.”
Karen moved her camp chair closer to Braden’s.
“No, I haven’t written in a while. Picked at it some in Tennessee, but not seriously. Started another novel a long time ago, finished the second draft. Lit the manuscript on fire again. That’s what you get for playing with matches.”
“When was that?”
“I guess about six or seven years ago. Was with a newspaper in Clay County in Kansas, then moved to Bullhead City. Worked in casinos across the river, wrote a lot of freelance, got published a few times. Then Minnesota.”
“I think you said Sauk Centre?”
“Beautiful country up there, and that’s where Sinclair Lewis lived. He was one of my heroes, and I thought I’d soak up a little atmosphere. Ended up getting more weirdness than atmosphere. Didn’t write a lick.”
“Tell you what,” Braden said, squeezing her hand. “I’ve got time. Got a few days. You can tell me all about it then.”
“Oh, I will. And you’ll tell me all about your wanderings too.”
“Bet on it. So what are you doing these days?”
“Nothing much. I’m back at the deli.”
“That’s good. At least you had something to come back to.”
“Kinda sorta. I’m just prepping food right now. They have a manager, someone I used to work with, but I can’t see her sticking around. She’s borderline useless. Per Marco’s orders I run the joint and let her think she is.”
“Somehow that sounds familiar.”
“So how’s North Carolina?” Robert asked.
“I’ve think I’ve seen enough,” Braden said.
“Yeah. It’s nice out there, I guess. Beach town. Hurricane alley. But it’s probably time to move on.”
“What did you do out there?” Karen asked.
“Had my band for a couple of years, then met Joann. Karen, you can connect the dots there. I ended up quitting music, started driving a taxi again.”
“Braden, you know I worry about you in that cab.”
“Ever been robbed?” Robert wanted to know.
“Every day, when I fill up the tank. I tell you, gas prices are killing me.”
“Think about doing something else?”
“All the time. Even working in a deli sounds pretty good. Putting together another band sounds even better. You know I think about that a lot.”
“How about you, Robert?” Karen asked. “Things seem to be going well for you.”
“Almost normal, she means,” Braden added.
“I’m doing pretty well.”
“Must be,” Braden said. “Your own shop and all. Better customers.”
“Was tough at first. Went into hock to open this place and had to hire some help, but it’s coming around. LaTasha’s paycheck is steady and we get our insurance from her work. We ain’t starving.”
“Except I’m restless.”
“Please don’t tell me it’s that seven-year itch,” Karen said.
“Nothing like that. I love LaTasha, and we’re good for each other. None of that’s changed. But I’m still restless, and I think I know what it is.”
“What’s that?” Braden asked.
“What Karen said. Painting painting. I need to do that again.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Braden said. “If it still keeps bugging you after all these years, it probably means you need to get back to it.”
“Is this the voice of experience?” Karen asked.
“I’d take the Fifth, but you know me better than that. I’m always happiest when I’m playing.” He squeezed her hand. “Present company excepted, of course.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, friends are great. Especially when it’s friends like you and Robert. But a gift is a gift. It’s special.”
“You can choose your friends,’ Robert said. “But you can’t choose your gift. You got that before you were even born.”
“You mean I was born swinging?”
Karen clapped her free hand over her eyes. “Lord help me. Only so many visuals at one time.”
“I think you were,” Robert said. “Karen was born with a pen and notebook, I’ll bet.”
“Poor Mom,” Braden said. “I’ll bet that was a difficult delivery.”
“I always had an eye for art, even before I knew how to draw. Something I was born with, just like you.”
“I’ll bet you were drawing pictures on the wall inside your mother’s womb,” Braden said.
Robert laughed. “Can’t swear to that, but it wouldn’t surprise me any.”
Karen cleared her throat and took another slug from her water bottle. “Gentlemen, and I give you the benefit of the doubt here …”
“Uh-oh,” Braden said.
“I just had a revelation.”
“This oughtta be good.”
“Braden, park it. You both know I’ve written for years. Always liked it. Started thinking about writing a novel as a teenager, before I discovered boys — even if that was a little late in life.”
“Okay,” Braden said.
“I’ve written for a few newspapers in my travels, sold a few magazine articles, burned a few more manuscripts. But do I call myself a writer? No.”
“I think I know where you’re headed,” Robert said.
“How about you, Robert. Are you an artist?”
“Used to be.”
“Braden, are you a musician or a cab driver?”
“Uhh, just whatever keeps the wolf from the door. But you’ve got a point here, I know.”
“I do, and you’re not gonna like it any more than I do.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“We’ve occasionally done our things for a living, but none of us can call ourselves pros. We’re still amateurs. Wannabes.”
The men let that soak in for a minute before Braden spoke.
“You’re right. I don’t like it. Which means I probably need to hear this.”
“I think each of us needs to decide what being a pro looks like, smells like, lives like. Then work toward that.”
“I don’t know,” Robert said. “I’m a married man. Can I get a … what is it, an exemption?”
“No exemptions,” Karen said. “No excuses. We’ve got our lives, but it’s nothing that should put our gifts on hold any more.”
“Still don’t know,” Robert said. “Not sure what LaTasha will think.”
“I think I can answer that,” Karen said. “She might look at you in a whole new way. Chicks dig artists, you know.”
“I sure hope you’re right.”
“We can meet every so often, like weekly, and compare notes. Encourage each other. Hold each other accountable. Kick your butt if you slack off.”
“Yeah,” Robert said. “Like a support group. Was in one when I was a kid.”
“I’d like to,” Braden said. “I know I’m ready. But you know I’m not planning to stay around here.”
“Braden, there are ways we can keep in touch even when you’re gone. You’ve heard of Skype, haven’t you?”
“Well then, Skype me baby. Or email. Or call. But please do something.”
“I like that idea.”
“Here’s a better idea. I’m gonna use all my resources, lobby like crazy, and try to keep you here. If I need to, I’ll borrow a hammer from Robert and nail your feet to the ground.”
“Oh, big talk.”
“Hey, a girl can always dream.”
She put her water bottle down. “Here’s the deal. Each of us decides to ourselves what becoming a pro is all about. Then we do it. I’ll tell both you hairy-legged types what. I don’t care what you think, but I’m gonna be the first to make that jump.”
“I’ll take that bet,” Braden said. “It hadn’t been too long since I was a professional. Not that much of a learning curve.” Karen held her hand out. “You’re in, then?”
“Deal me in.” Braden reached out and clasped her hand. “Wherever I am, I’m in.”
“How about you, Robert? You want to just think about those great old days when you were an artist, or are you gonna do it?”
Robert paused, thinking it over. Hesitated. Then placed his thick paint-spattered hand on top of theirs.