Somewhere in that hole-in-the-wall diner, Keith was probably swallowing his third cup of black coffee, his head still fuzzy from the night before (a sold-out club; he botched the solo in “Amsterdam” but he killed it in “Turn Out.”) Coffee had always been his cure-all remedy on the road, his savior in a cracked mug. Donny was probably in the bathroom, his head hung over some graffiti addled toilet, puking both his demons and his toxins away. This was the life they chose.
Tyler Rhodes was smoking his second Marlboro Red by the jukebox, Bowie’s “Rock’N’Roll Suicide” filled the air. Susan, the waitress, stood next to him, also smoking her second Marlboro Red, and all Tyler could think of was the idea of destiny. Of all the shitty diners in all the world kind of destiny. Susan was tall and thin, if she lived in any other city she’d have been a model. Or an actress. Something else entirely. She was absolutely gorgeous and Tyler Rhodes was dumbfounded. He had never felt this way in all his life and he was the frontman for one of the most iconic pop bands of the 1980’s, Debaser. Tyler was used to getting any woman he wanted. Stray strands of her brunette hair crept out of her tight ponytail and stuck to her forehead. Smudged black eyeliner still painted across her eyes from the previous evening.
Susan parted her thin, pale magenta lips and exhaled a thick plume of cigarette smoke. Her periwinkle eyes fixed on Tyler’s emerald greens as Bowie belted out, “you’re not alone,” and, quite honestly, that’s exactly how Tyler Rhodes felt at this moment. Alone. Just another day of his life falling in love with a stranger he’d only known for five minutes.
“You just met me,” Susan said, her arms folded tightly across her chest.
“I know. It’s just,” Tyler’s voice was filled with desperation, “you travel across the entire country and, everywhere you go, everyone is climbing over one another trying to meet you. Trying to be you. Fake friendships built on sound and lust and money. Autographs, handshakes, and hugs. Everyone, the same monster.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t take them for granted?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t do a lot of things. None of this matters, you’re different. Or, at least, you seem different.”
“You’re hesitant to even talk to me,” Tyler said, exhaling another cloud of cigarette smoke. “That’s new to me. I can’t leave this at that.”
Susan loosened her arms from around her chest and took another drag from her Marlboro. She shut her eyes and tilted her head up towards the rafters of the diner’s ceiling. As she inhaled, the butt of the cigarette lit from ash grey to ember red and back to ash grey. Her left index finger and thumb clasped around the Marlboro’s filter and Tyler couldn’t take his eyes off her lime green fingernails as she removed the cigarette from her lips and exhaled another stream of smoke.
“Is this the speech you recite to all the waitresses around the world?” Susan asked.
“Only the ones in Wichita,” Tyler’s cheeks burnt a deep red blush.
“So, still a lot of women? I’m flattered.”
“Just grab a coffee with me. That’s all I ask.”
“Coffee is what I do for a living.”
“Alright. Then let’s go grab a drink somewhere. I’m sure there are some good bars here in Wichita.”
“I’m six months sober,” Susan said, reconstructing her prison of arms and elbows around her chest.
Donny stumbled across the vacant floor of the diner, dragging his tall, lanky body from red vinyl booth to red vinyl booth until he was standing next to Tyler and Susan. All limbs and length, Donny was Debaser’s bass guitarist. The band that had stolen the last five years of Tyler Rhodes’s life.
“The money’s gone,” Donny was panicking, sweat escaping from every single one of his pores.
“What money?” Tyler asked.
“The five grand from tour. It’s all gone.”
“Steven probably hid it in the van somewhere when you blacked out last night.”
“Steven passed out before I did last night. I put it all in that envelope marked “ours.” The one in the glove compartment, buried between the maps and brochures and registration papers. The empty envelope is still there.”
“You guys made five thousand dollars last night?” Susan asked.
“It wasn’t all from last night,” Tyler said. “It was our take from the last three months on the road. Playing shows, selling merch, meeting fans. Five grand to split between the five of us.”
“And now it’s all gone,” Donny screamed, his voice reeking of alcohol and pot. “ We’re fucked, Tyler.”
“Shit,” Tyler said. “You checked in all the guitar cases and under all the furniture in the van?”
“I checked everywhere. It’s disappeared. Vanished into thin air.” Donny said.
Tyler tossed his cigarette, mostly just an ashy, burnt filter, to the linoleum floor, snubbing it out with the toe of his black combat boot.
“Don’t just throw that there,” Susan slapped Tyler’s arm. “Believe it or not, people do actually eat here.”
“Sorry. I’m just a bit preoccupied,” Tyler said, picking up the Marlboro’s yellow filter and tossing it into the red, plastic ashtray that sat on the dusty windowsill behind the jukebox, now playing The Who’s My Generation.
Debaser’s van was a brown and white Chevrolet Astrovan, stripped of all furnishings aside from the two front seats. A plush, purple suade sofa was fastened to the metal floor in the back of the van. Cheap carpeting, old blankets and sheets, and pillows covered the rest of the floor. Scattered around the van were old comic books; a beat up Gibson acoustic guitar; notebooks, pens, and pencils; a few old novels; a cooler filled with alcohol and food; and the unconscious body of Steven Dickens, Debaser’s drummer. Steven was spread out, half of his body hung out the back door of the van, his muscular hips and legs propping the doors open, the other half belly down across the various sheets and blankets and pillows. The van, as well as the trailer hitched behind it, was parked horizontally across three parking spaces in front of Bucky’s Diner in Wichita, Kansas (or, rather, just outside of Wichita, Kansas). Steven was covered in perspiration, blankets pushed into piles on both sides of his near lifeless body, his nose covered in dry blood.
Donny’s fists frantically pounded on the windshield, trying to cause as much ruckus as possible. Trying to pull Steven out of his comatose state. Tyler and Susan stood off to the side of the van, on a curb that separated Bucky’s Diner from North Broadway Street.
“Steven, you pathetic fucking junkie, wake up,” Donny yelled, slapping the floorboard next to Steven’s head. “Where’s our goddamned money?”
Donny’s fists connected with Steven’s spine, hard, causing Steven to slowly rouse back to life.
“What?” Steven asked as he rolled back onto his belly, burying his face into his stained pillow.
“Where’s our five thousand dollars, man?” Donny tossed the empty “ours” envelope onto Steven’s back.
Steven rolled onto his back and sat up, pulling his legs back into the van’s cabin and crossing them in front of him. He held the empty envelope in front of his eyes for a moment before handing it back to Donny.
“Who’s that with Tyler?” Steven asked, trailing his eyes across the parking lot toward Tyler and Susan who were still standing on the curb.
“Our waitress,” Donny pointed at the metal facade of the Diner, designed to emulate an old trailer diner of the fifties. Designed to induce a sickening nostalgia on people who drove by. “Where’s our money?”
“I don’t know, you’re the unofficial treasurer of the band.”
“And you’re the official druggie of the band who digs into our funds to find his next fix.”
“And you’re the coal calling the kettle black.”
“Fuck you. If it weren’t for your addictions, we’d still have 5,000 dollars.”
“You’re both disgusting,” Tyler said in his best superhero voice. “It doesn’t matter who lost it, we need to find this money.”
Tyler’s temples throbbed, a mixture of the bright Kansas sun and the record heat, as he rubbed them with his fingertips. A stench of week old body odor mixed with drugs and alcohol filled the van’s cabin. With all the windows up and when not in motion the van would be extremely humid and disgusting, causing any passengers to feel more than slightly feverish. Tyler dug his hands under and around everything in the van. Everything led to nothing. Everything led to panic. Tyler could feel his heart in his throat, pulsing harder and faster than he could ever remember it pulsing in his entire twenty-six years of life. Sweat clung to his brow. Absolute terror. Even with all of this, all Tyler could think of was destiny. The end.
“What’s going on?” Keith’s voice echoed across the parking lot.
“Your bandmates have lost five thousand dollars,” Susan said, sitting in a bed of grass a few yards away from the van.
“Yeah?” Keith asked as he and Carlton calmly walked across the hot parking lot until they were standing next to the van, their shadows stretched and cast over the entire scene.
“Our tour money is gone, we’re dead,” Donny tossed a pair of sheer, lacy blue panties from the back of the van to the driver’s seat.
“The money from the envelope?” Carlton asked.
“Yeah,” Tyler threw a paperback copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm onto the passenger’s seat.
“I took it,” Keith buried his right hand into the right pocket of his brown leather jacket and pulled out a rubber banded wad of twenties, tens, fives and ones.
“We didn’t want one of you to steal it or spend it,” Carlton laughed as Keith tossed the wad of cash to Tyler.
“Fuck,” Donny sighed.
“Consider this my attempt at making up for any stress we may have caused,” Tyler handed Susan two hundred dollars from the bundle of cash.
“Is this the experience every girl gets when they first meet Tyler Rhodes?” Susan asked.