The Levee Breaks, story by Jim Bartlett at Spillwords.com
R Hamilton

When The Levee Breaks

When The Levee Breaks

written by: Jim Bartlett

 

“Seven’s the count… sorry, Mr. LaRooshe, you’re out.”

Sam LaRooshe tips back his whiskey, his fourth since taking the dice, and winks at the stickman. “It’s all good, Chris.” He tosses him a chip, then starts to turn to leave, but the bleached blond whose arm is intertwined with his – her top askew, with more of her hanging out than being kept in – gives him a tug.

“Play it again, Sam”

His shoulders drop. “It’s just, ‘Play it.’”

“Uh?”

Sam smiles a crooked smile, then takes another sip from his whiskey. “In the movie, Bogie says, ‘You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can.’ And then Dooley Wilson – he’s the guy that plays Sam – says, ‘Well, I don’t—‘”

“Wait. What in the world are you talking about?”

His smile loses some of its steam, and he gives his head the slightest shake. “Never mind. It’s just an old movie. Black and white, no less.” Reclaiming his arm, he slides the considerable pile of chips he still has left her way, then with a peck of a kiss to her hand, bids her farewell and makes for the exit. There’s a dance in his wobbly step as the piano plays in his head, As Time Goes By the song. It’s not until he reaches the slots and the doors come into view does the tune fade, and he stops, giving his empty shirt pocket a quick pat, an automatic routine from days long past when a pack of cigarettes would have been there. With a melancholy sigh, he finishes off the whiskey, sets the empty glass on a random table, and walks out into Vegas’ morning air.

But it’s not only the warm air – the Nevada sun already getting down to business – that greets him when he passes through those familiar glass doors, as a horde of limo and taxi drivers parked in the circular driveway also await, shouting his name and waving their arms the moment he’s spotted. Though he knows they know his own limo is supposed to be parked in the shade of the private car port out near the street, they also know that on more than one occasion his driver has been less than prompt.

So, it’s become a long standing ritual of hope, or, maybe better yet a gamble, considering the city, on their part when he’s in town, as every now and again he’s picked one at random for the ride to his hotel. Thus leaving his unknowing chauffeur waiting, if and when he finally shows, with the car running under that shady awning, air conditioner blowing, Air Buds stuck in his ears, and his head bobbing to some gawd-awful racket he seems to think is music.

With the awning empty yet again today, it only takes a second for Sam to pick out a driver – a tall brunette who could easily be his daughter, snuggly tucked into a tight black dress, a slit up the side – and he weaves more than walks until he’s almost to the end of the line of cars where she’s parked. But before he can take that last step, a drift of Mississippi blues slip-sliding off a guitar carries in on the breeze, and he feels his feet come to a stop, his head turn into that wisp of a wind. It rolls in and through him, right down into his soul, and the crisp notes grab hold and yank him sober.

The singer’s voice has an edge, a raspy one at that, and comes from somewhere so deep inside that for that moment Sam’s in a packed nightclub, a haze of cigarette smoke lingering overhead, the tinkle of ice in his glass of rich bourbon mixing in with the music that flows from the stage.

“The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away.
The thrill is gone, baby.
The thrill—“

“How about I give you a ride, Mr. LaRooshe?” the brunette coos, pulling him from that juke joint somewhere along the delta deep in the south and planting his feet back on the Vegas sidewalk. Covering his mouth, he coughs – the smoke was thick there, like the crowd, the music, and the atmosphere – then looks up. She’s leaning against the car, a couple of extra buttons at the top of her dress now opened – just enough to give the right hint – and she’s seductively stretching out a leg through that slit that seems to go all the way up to her neck.

For a moment, and a long one at that, he’s torn, as he can’t decide whether to go with that feeling you get when the music’s just right and your inner soul simmers with delight… or that feeling you get rubbing up against silk, and what’s just underneath, bringing on a much different sort of simmer, yet still plenty of delight.

But it’s then the music stops, and he finds himself turning back into the wind. Waiting. Holding onto his breath. And just when he’s ready to give up, step over and count just how many buttons are actually undone, it kicks in again.

Muddy Waters. Baby, Please Don’t Go.

He’s walking now, the brunette calling from behind.

Baby, Please Don’t Go.

Was that her… or the song? He’s not sure, or maybe he just doesn’t want to know. Because what he does know is that the music has its hooks in him, drawing him along as if one of Ulysses’ sirens. But there are no rocks waiting for him with this call, only the blues, though it most certainly is the soul of rock… and roll.

The trail of musical bread crumbs, now being spread by a slide guitar, leads him across the auto court and onto a narrow flagstone path that cuts through the thick row of hedges running along its front edge. The path is straight, unlike his walk, the wobble in his step having returned, and seemingly short, as he sees the thick traffic practically at a stop on the Las Vegas Strip not too far ahead. The hedges, interspersed with tall evergreens that seem to have given up looking for their normal mountain domain and settled here in the desert sand, continue along his left side, while a clear shallow pool with three fountains, each spraying ever-changing patterns of precious water into the dry Nevada air, stretches the path’s entire length on his right. His feet come to a stop once again, and he allows himself to mull over the irony of such a sight. Of what money, or the prospect of it, can do to a person. Maybe what it’s done to him.

But he lets the moment die well before the questions can run too deep and the slice of his guilt knife begins to draw blood.

And he’s quickly on the move again.

In just a few short steps he’s at the end of the path, at a point where it meets the main sidewalk running alongside the Strip. The sidewalk, like the street just to the other side of the barriers, is bustling, far busier than what he would expect at this time of the morning.

Who gets up at this hour? Or, like him, are they just still awake?

Everyone on the crowded sidewalk seems to be in a hurry, rushing from one casino to the next. After all, there’s money to be lost. Hopes to be dashed. That is, with exception of the mishmash of hawkers, who are quite happy to stand to the side and hand out their leaflets, offering everything from sex to God. Just as a young women with zombie eyes pushes a brochure in his face promising “the massage of a lifetime,” a parting appears in the mass of bodies, and he sees the man, the singer, the pied piper whose songs have reeled him here, a place well out of his comfort zone.

The “stage” is set up on the far side of a widened spot in the sidewalk, a sort of alcove that tucks back close to the upper end of the pond. An older black gentleman, at least the touch of salt in his pepper hair seems to suggest, sits by himself on a folding chair, an electric guitar across his lap, his lips to a harmonica that rests in one of those holders strapped around his neck. He’s wearing a 1960’s style black woolen suit complete with the skinny tie and fedora hat – Sam feels a sweat coming on just looking at it – the white shirt a little crinkled, the jacket a bit baggy, giving the impression he might have picked it up at the secondhand store.

As if Sam would have the faintest idea what they sell at the secondhand store.

An open guitar case fronts his little show, while to the man’s side, next to a small banged-up trunk filled with who-knows-what and a suitcase-sized amp, sits a small much-used drum set – a snare, base, high-hat, tom, and a cymbal. To the right of the drums, an odd looking guitar leans up against the hedge that runs behind him. It’s smaller, more the size of a banjo, and looks like it was made from some sort of box. Now and again, a passerby will slow or stop to listen to him play for a sec or two and then toss a coin or bill into the case. The man, gracious from what Sam can tell, always tips his hat and shows his appreciation with a special twinkle from his eyes.

Sam moves closer, enough he can see the red in those eyes. Probably not much different than his own. But, unlike his, carrying the weight of a night’s worth of Jack Daniels, the man’s carry a different sort of burden, but what, he’s not quite sure. Maybe doesn’t want to know.

Then again, maybe he already does.

The wail of the harmonica comes to an end, and the man lets it drop down to his chest. The few gathered around give a polite applause, then move on. A deck of cards, a one-armed bandit, or a roulette wheel awaits. He mouths a thanks, then turns and leans down, picking up a bottle of water he has next to his chair. It’s then Sam realizes the song was “Miss You.”

“You play the Stones and Muddy Waters, I’m impressed,” he says to the man, who’s tipping back his water.

The man smiles, nods, and gives Sam a wink. “You know, Jagger and his boys got their name from Muddy, right?”

“How so?”

“Muddy has a song called, ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ They figured that’d be a right fine name for their band.” He leans forward, as if to share a little secret. “So they took it, along with some of his music,” he says with another wink.

Sam smiles and gives his head a shake. “I think Zep did, too, right?”

“They got a Whole Lotta Love for their song, not to mention a Whole Lotta Money.” He cackles with his little witty twist of phrase, then takes another long drink. “But they had to send him a check in the end.”

Sam puts a hand to his chin and nods, though he’s pretty sure he’s never heard that part of the story. “So, how long you been doing this?”

“Hate to admit it, but this is only my third time. I drove a school bus until summer came along. In between the drop off and pick up, I did some of those meals for wheels and medical drives. You know, take senior citizens to the clinic and such. Tried that Uber thing for a while, but just wasn’t my bag.” He leans back and takes another drink from his water. “But the old budget ain’t doing so well with the city, and they ended up consolidating some of the routes.” He gives his shoulders a half-hearted shrug. “I didn’t get picked up for this coming year, so thought I’d try this, just hopin’ to make a couple of extra bucks.”

Sam glances into the guitar case to see what he guesses to be five bucks worth of change scattered amongst maybe twenty-five dollars in bills.

“I guess money’s a little tight at home?”

The man gives another shrug and looks away. Sam, though he’s not slept and the only thing he’s had to eat since noon yesterday was amber and poured out of a bottle, can see a story buried in there, but it’s not quite ready to be dug out. He points to the odd guitar leaning against the hedges.

“What’s that?”

The man turns. “CBG.”

“Uh?”

“Cigar box guitar. That one’s a four-stringer, but threes are a little more common.” He reaches down and picks up a short piece of glass, something that looks like the long neck of a beer or soda bottle, its edges rubbed smooth. “You mostly use a slide on it.”

“I think I heard you playing the CBG earlier. That’s what pulled me over here.” He puts his hand to his chin. “Along with the harmonica. And, of course, some B. B.”

That seems to bring a smile to the man’s face. “The Thrill is Gone.” His eyes light up and he points a finger at Sam. “But it can come back. You most certainly can sweet-talk it back.”

The hope and optimism in the man’s words hit Sam in the gut. It can come back?

“How? And, where do you even look to find it?’

“You got to want it real bad, my friend. So bad, you’ll drive a school bus full of smart ass high schoolers who’re full of spit and vinegar and give you a slap to the back of your head as they board the bus. Use language your mama’d grab your ear for, and be taken’ you to the washroom, stickin’ a bar of soap so far in your mouth you’d about choke. You got to be ready to take an old woman, not a penny to her name, to the doc for a final checkup, and then back for her final check out.” He lets off a long sigh that slowly turns into a quick chuckle. “And, you’d better be just fine with sitting out here making a fool of yourself pretending to play the guitar and singing away some of your soul for the world to hear.”

Sam moves around the drum set and drops down on the stool. He picks up the drumsticks and finger twirls one around for a couple of quick loops. “This okay?” he asks, pointing it down at the stool.

Eyebrows raised as he watches the stick spin, the man nods.

“A baring of the soul. That’s exactly what I heard. Over there.” The drumstick’s point is now toward Caesar’s, standing tall on the other side of the pond. “It was just another night. Just another morning. Ready to just do what I do, yet again. Then B. B. came along in the breeze.”

“He can do that to you.”

Sam takes in a deep breath and offers his hand. “I’m Sam, by the way.”

The man’s chin juts up a bit, and he gives his head a cock. “I know who you are. Sam the Man, King of Acquisitions. Buy ‘um up, break ‘um up, and sell ‘um off.” Despite the change in his tone – a tinge of, not anger, but something along those lines – he meets Sam’s hand with his own. “Clem. Clem Jackson.”

There’s a genuine warmth in Clem’s hand, and it pushes the arrow shot from the bow of Clem’s change of tone in even deeper. Sam is lost. Though he’s a wildly successful businessman, revered by those in the financial community, right from the start he was bombarded with criticism on the way he goes about his business by the press, the bloggers, and the pundits, all of whom seem determined to knock him off his throne. More recently, even social media has been filled with a relentless barrage of memes and comments wrought with accusations of his heartlessness and lack of a soul.

Early on, even his parents disowned him – going so far as to refuse his money, despite their precarious financial situation. And his sister, Claire, once his staunchest ally, hasn’t spoken to him in more than fifteen years.

Yet, even with all that, for some reason this is the first time anyone’s words have carried such a sting. He clears his throat and looks away for a moment before finding the courage to once again meet Clem’s gaze. “Nice to meet you, Clem. Looks like you know my story, mind if I ask about yours? I mean, it seems you’re a driver, so why aren’t you driving a city bus, or one of those shuttle things. I’d like to think the pay and benefits might be a bit better.”

Clem takes in a deep breath, then another. “I did… I did used to drive. One of them little corporate buses. Drove for twenty years, I did, working for Calico Industries out on the west side. I drove the shuttle that took folks between the plants. Now and again I got to pick up a big wig out at the airport in one of them long, shiny, black limos.” He stops for a moment, licks his lips, and then fools around with the harmonica as if he’s about to play again. “’Course, you know why I’m not there anymore. You know all about Calico, now don’cha, Mr. LaRooshe?”

The amber fog in Sam’s head lifts and for a moment the world spins. Not four years back he’d grabbed up Calico – the shares were way undervalued – and took his financial scalpel to it, slicing it into a million different pieces and selling each off to the highest bidder. He’d made a mint off that deal, and though there had been a thousand acquisitions before that, it was the one that cemented his “fame” and garnered his nickname, the one Clem so mockingly threw at him earlier.

“I don’t know what to say, Clem,” he finally says, after what seems forever. “It’s just what I do. If I hadn’t, someone else probably would have. It’s how capitalism works.”

“Well, it sure is an ugly side of making money…”

Sam nods. “Unless you’re on the winning side.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Yes, yes it sure is.” Sam tries straightening on the stool, but it’s tougher than it should be. He tries to convince himself the whiskey and long night have taken their toll, but he knows it’s just a guise, as hearing about Clem’s fate, and knowing there are so many more like him, has hit him harder than he expected. “You know,” he says, hoping to deflect his guilt, “there’s still one thing I still don’t understand. I get it, it sucked what happened, but why not use that experience to grab a job with the city buses? Or some charter company?”

Clem purses his lips, then twists them to the side. “I started lookin’ right away. They’d even set me up for an interview. But about that same time, my wife started feeling ill. Thought it was one of them bugs at first, but when we finally got to the doc, turned out to be cancer. Talk about a gut punch. Anyway, with taking her to all of her treatments and her going in and out of the hospital for a couple of surgeries, there was no way I could have worked a regular job, you know, with a solid eight hour day. I needed some flexibility. So, I figured I’d try driving a school bus, cause most of the time you’ve got those open hours in between. But as time went by, I ended up having to do the other jobs to help pay the medical insurance.”

Sam feels his body slump, as if melting in the mid-morning Vegas sun. While somewhere deep inside he can still feel the high of the Calico deal going through, here, sitting on this drum stool, the personal aspect of it, something he’s never given a single thought to before, makes it all feel tainted. Off.

Oh sure, there were a hundred more deals after that, each a “killing” leaving him the envy of his peers. His picture on the cover of every business publication. His phone never stopping with requests for his appearance on all the top financial talk shows. He was the Wonder Boy, busily turning lead into gold.

But every streak comes to an end. Just ask DiMaggio. And though the deals still come now and again, and the money continues to flow, somewhere along the line he’d lost the hunger to rush in, capture the crown, leave no prisoners – the motto he had lived by for more than a decade.

What changed? Or did he change?

Bristling at the thought, he shakes off his slide into a funk, at least for the moment, and looks back up at Clem. “How’d you do it? I mean, that must have been a crushing blow. But, here you are…” He takes a breath, almost afraid to ask the next question, but has to know. “And your wife?”

“She’s in remission. Been clean a whole year now. Still has to go back every six months for a bucket load of tests, but she’s been passing them with flying colors.” He leans toward Sam once again, that same stance as earlier when it seemed as though he was about to share a secret. “I did it because I had to, Mr. LaRooshe. Life goes along and you think all is right in the world, and then one day that little Dutchman pulls his finger from the dike, and out the trouble comes, pouring right down on top of you. It’ll drown you in your sorrows if you let it.” He stops and looks Sam right in the eyes. “You married, Mr. LaRooshe?”

“Three times, Clem. None of them stuck.” He again pokes the drumstick over his shoulder toward Caesar’s Palace. “I’ve actually been ‘celebrating’ my most recent divorce. She got my house in Boca Raton, but I’d never really been there, so I think I fared pretty well,” he says, a slight smile breaking across his face.

Clem makes a twist with his mouth, then straightens. “I have a mansion, I forget the price. Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.

“Okay, you got me. Leave it to you to throw a little Joe Walsh my way. But, you know, a lot of people would argue there’s some truth in there, that life’s been good to me.”

“I don’t doubt it for a minute. Matter of fact, I might have been inclined to say the same thing, had I only seen you on one those TV shows. But with you sitting right here, and havin’ had a good long look at you, things come up a little differently. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you something. You been up all night, Mr. LaRooshe?”

“It’s Sam. Just call me Sam. And yes, all night.”

“Well, I might be wrong, but I’m gonna guess this ain’t the first time, ain’t gonna be the last. And based on that ‘aftershave’ you’re wearing, your old friend Jack Daniels was right there keeping you company at the tables.” He winks yet again. “In fact, I’ll make you a bet, and there’s nowhere better to place a wager than Vegas, that ol’ Jack’s been your best buddy for quite some time now. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ Jack has had a helper or two as well along the way.”

Try as he might, Sam can’t say a word. Denial? Not a chance. But even acceptance seems out of the question. He’s not thirty, or even forty any longer, so he doesn’t get to wear the “party animal” hat that used to fit so well.

But before he can dig down for a reply, Clem points at the drumsticks. “You any good with those?”

“Used to play in a couple of bands back in college. I wasn’t too bad, but, I have to admit, it’s been a long, long while.”

“Wanna give something a try?”

Sam is taken aback. “Ah, sure.”

“What’s your pleasure, my man? Anything tickle your fancy?”

“Well, when you talked about how your world came crashing down around you, I couldn’t help but think about When the Levee Breaks. Can’t go wrong there.”

“Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe or Zeppelin?”

“Uh?”

“Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy wrote and sang the original. ‘Bout the ’27 Mississippi River flood – worst river flood in our country’s history – and how the folks suffered through that. You know, the water was thirty feet deep in places, places where it wasn’t even supposed to be. Folks lost their homes, their livelihood, their loved ones, some even lost their way. Lives were changed forever. They set up some relief camps, tents and such, with folks having to stay there for months. It was terrible, just terrible, ‘specially for the poor, I tell you. Always hits the poor the hardest, don’t it?” He shifts around in his chair, as if looking for a better spot, then continues. “Minnie and Joe’s song has some blues roots buried in the lyrics, tryin’ hard to grab at your soul as they tell the tale, but it was Jimmy, Robert, John Paul, and, boy, oh, boy, that Bonham, that turned that song around. She’s got the blues through and through now, I tell ya.”

“Wow. I didn’t know that. I can’t even imagine. But, yeah, Zep. Bonham’s drums. That harmonica. Just tears right into you.”

Clem pulls up the harmonica and wraps his lips around it. “I ain’t no Plant, but I sure do like this song. What’dya say we give it a go?” he says out of the side of his mouth.

“Don’t we need some old English farm house to get the right sound?” Sam says with his own wink. And with that, he lays into the base drum, giving it a thump that would have even caught Bonham’s ear. Clem joins in with the harmonica, and for the first time, the frenzy on the sidewalk seems to ease, the rush to the next slot machine not quite so urgent. A small group forms around them, quickly becoming a crowd. And when Clem brings in the guitar and begins to sing, they can’t help but clap along.

When the song finally winds down, the “audience,” now a good hundred plus, break out into a roaring applause, the sound of which is enhanced by the coins and bills piling into the guitar case. Clem, and eventually Sam, stand and bow, bringing on a second round of applause.

“Well, now, you’re not too bad there, my friend,” Clem says to Sam.

“Thanks, Clem. But, you… you nailed it. The guitar, the harmonica, and the voice. Just perfect. Loved every moment. Mr. Plant would have been quite pleased.” He realizes he hasn’t felt this good for a while. And it’s a different “feel good” than closing a deal. Deeper. More enduring.

And not the slightest bit tainted.

Clem sets the guitar aside and once again leans over toward Sam. “Tell me, Mr. LaRooshe, what’dya going to do when your levee breaks?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve built yourself one hell of a levee there in your innards… the booze, the women, the gambling, Lord knows what else.” He waves a hand. “And don’t you tell me, ‘cause I don’t want to know. But what I do know is it’s holding back a mighty river of troubled waters. A storm’s brewin’ in there. And one day that’s going to give. And when it does, all the Jack in the world ain’t gonna help.”

“When you lost your job, when you were helping your wife fight cancer, did your levee break, Clem?”

“You bet your sweet ass it did, Mr. LaRooshe. I was up to my knees in mucky water, then again, it coulda just been my tears. Angry and frightened ones. But, let me tell you, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good…” He smiles at the reference, but the smile quickly dies, and his face becomes grim. “But my Lana was sick, so I couldn’t be doing any of that in front of her, no sirree. No time for wallowing in self-pity. We were fighting the battle of our lives and I wanted her to know we were gonna win. So I had to build a new levee, and damn quick.” Clem looks away a moment, his eyes getting a bit misty. “Ever loved someone so special, so wonderful that there’s no way on God’s green Earth you could take another breath without them?”

“I wish I could say I had, Clem.”

“It’s the best feeling in the world, Mr. LaRooshe. So, when she needed me, you bet I did what I had to do.” He leans over, putting a hand on Sam’s knee. “I hated your guts for the longest time, my friend. Had this life that was sweet as peach pie. Then, it all came crashing down with that buyout, and I was an older black man out on the street. I hated you,” he says with a strong shake of his head.

“But when Lana got sick, and I needed that time to be with her, I found a way, and little by little, it all fell into place. I would have tried my damnedest to stick it out there at Calico if it was still in operation, but instead, I was free to work school buses and the like, keeping me available to do what really mattered. Be with the love of my life. Lana. It took me a long while to see that getting laid off then was a blessing in disguise.” He taps Sam’s knee and pulls back, giving him a long wink. “That doesn’t mean I liked you any better,” he says with a chuckle.

“Can’t say I don’t deserve your loathing. Been a long while since anything resembling a halo has sat atop my head.” But a thought breaks the surface of his amber soaked brain, and he takes his turn leaning toward Clem. “Wait… did you say your bus route was cancelled?”

“That be the truth, Mr. LaRooshe. The sad truth.”

“So, you’re sort of a free agent right now?”

“You a baseball man, Mr. LaRooshe?”

“If it weren’t for the alcohol, Clem, if you cut me, I’d bleed Yankee pinstripes.”

That gets a hearty laugh out of the man, and it takes him a moment to recover, rubbing his eyes as he does so. “Dodger Blue for me. Well, then, I guess I am a free agent.”

“You have a chauffeur’s license, I take it?”

“Just renewed it, I did.”

Sam sets the drumsticks down on the snare and gives the stubble on his neck a rub. “Well, it just so happens I need a new driver. The one I have now can’t seem to tell time, and his taste in music will turn your stomach inside out. I had to make him start wearing those damn Air Buds, and I still hear that crap leaking out. I know I’m not likely to make Time’s Man of the Year, but, do you think you might be interested? I’d be more than happy to work around whatever you need to do for your wife. And, for sure, you could play the tunes as loud as you like.”

“Mr. LaRooshe, you don’t owe me a thing. I thought I made that clear.”

“Clem, trust me, you would be doing me a favor. I’d really like it if you’d consider this. And I’d make it worth your while.”

Clem clasps his hands together and purses his lips, his eyes staring off into the crisp blue Vegas sky. “You just need someone to take your drunk ass back to your hotel, don’t you? Your Air Budsman didn’t show again…”

Sam smiles. “Well, yes, there’s that. But, there was this long, cool woman in a black dress… Look, just take the job and you’ll always have that to hold over my head.”

“You sure about this?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, alright then, Mr. LaRooshe. I accept.”

“Great!” Sam sticks his hand out, and Clem meets it with his. “Oh, just one provision.”

“And that is?”

“You have to call me Sam.”

“Sure thing, Mr. LaRooshe.”

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