So about half this is edits to the original excerpt, so if you remember that, and don’t care how the sausage is made (or remade) and you wanna skip ahead, just search on the words “Rocky was glad” and you’ll go right to the new content :)
I am loving this book. Love love loving it.
“Hey, uh, Rocky…?”
Rocky turned to the sound of the inquiring voice. Without even thinking, he put on his “fan smile,” ready to sign an autograph and put out about two sentences worth of chit-chat. Then he’d make his excuse about getting ready for the show and find out why someone had let a fan onstage during a sound check.
But it wasn’t a fan after all. It was Adam, the stage manager, looking abashed.
“There’s a problem.”
“Okay,” Rocky sighed. “Let me have it.”
“We, uh, someone anyway, made a mistake in the booking department. And um, this stage is double booked.”
“Well, I just did my line check,” Rocky said, indicating the microphone. The Boulders had started setting up as soon as the last act was off stage. Rocky was a perfectionist who wanted as much time as he could get to put everything in order. Fifteen minutes between acts was all that the festival gave bands to do that. But fortunately for Rocky, the previous band was The Ferns. And they were fronted by a major alcoholic who’d just fallen offstage, ending their set early.
“We’re next up on this stage.”
“Yeah…and Dex and the Dallas Devils are, too.” Adam cocked his head stage left.
Rocky looked into the wings to see a tall man in a black hat, fuming, his band and crew behind him. The dude wasn’t bad looking, Rocky thought, if you like that sort of thing. He had that whole Tim McGraw/Toby Keith thing going on, big shoulders and tight jeans and the kind of moustache you only saw outside the Deep South on gay leather men.
Rocky shrugged. “Well, first come, first served. And besides,” he waved his hand at the few dozen people hanging around the stage, “these people are here to see The Boulders.” He swung around, put the mike close to his mouth and stage whispered at 100db.
“Right, folks? You all are here for Rocky and the Boulders!”
Some ragged cheering ensued, but Rocky, a veteran performer, knew that it wasn’t a genuine fan response – more like the generic whooping of people who’d had a few beers and would cheer anything right now. And, he suddenly noticed, there were more than a few cowboy hats out there. And not the straw ones with the brims turned up on the sides that pretty much said “I’m going to Burning Man” – no, the other kind. They were in Texas, so they could be this guy’s fans. But the festival was taking place just outside Austin, which wasn’t really Texas at all. So it was hard to tell what a cowboy hat meant here in terms of personal musical taste.
CrossFest was a weird-ass festival, for sure. The idea was to bring together rock and country acts and their fans in one place, to break down borders and all that stuff. You know, convince the country fans that the rock fans weren’t all decadent drug addicts, and convince the rock fans that the country folk weren’t all crazed ignorant rednecks. Or something like that.
For The Boulders, it was a high profile gig, and while Rocky would mouth all that peace, love and understanding shit for an interview, he didn’t believe a word of it. These country types would smile and nod and look like they were being friendly and open-minded, and then they’d eventually manage to tell you that they’d “pray for you,” like the sweetest thing they could possibly do for you would be to pray your gay away.
Rocky’s appeal to the crowd was the last straw for the dude in the wings. He stormed towards Rocky, growing ever larger as he got closer.
Rocky stood his ground. He was rock-star lean and movie-star short, but he wasn’t weak, and the days when he’d let bullies push him around were far in his past. All the same, there was something about this…mass of angry man coming toward him that made him want to take a step back.
“I think you’re mistaken,” the cowboy said. “They’re here for Dex Dexter and the Dallas Devils.”
He had a deep voice, husky and rich with loamy Southern earth in it. Rocky had grown up in Georgia, and knew the Mississippi twang when he heard it, an accent made famous by Elvis Presley. Any Southern accent could instantly fill him with rage, at all it represented, all he’d escaped. His own accent had been smothered in college and put in its grave.
Still…Rocky felt his dick betray his defiant face, as it tried to reach out and welcome the stranger. The dude was in his late twenties, and handsome, in that beefy way that could go to fat later if he wasn’t careful. His dark brown hair curled out from under his hat, just long enough to look rebellious, Rocky thought cynically. And his eyes were just as dark, hot with rage now, and he reminded Rocky of a bull, the way he was breathing hard, nostrils flaring.
Adam cut in. “We have a slot later, around midnight, if one of you is willing to…”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Dex said. “I think we’ll go on now.”
“Yeah,” Rocky said, not breaking eye contact with Dex, even though at six foot four (maybe five in the boots) he had Rocky beat by a full foot. “His fans have drunk their prune juice and gone to bed by then.”
He could hear his own crew chuckle at that, which only made Dex angrier. “Listen, here, Rocky the rock star. I’m sure you really really rock, but that ain’t what the people are here to…”
Rocky’s disbelieving laughter cut him off. “Rocky the rock star who really rocks? And what’s your name, Dex Dexter? Like the character on ‘Dynasty’?”
Dex blinked. “That’s right.”
Rocky smiled. Wow, talk about redneck! His momma must have been a huge fan of that show back in the 80s. Imagine naming your kid that!
“You know Dex was a nickname, right? His real first name was Farnsworth.” Finally, all those stoned nights watching VH1 had paid off with a useful piece of trivia.
“And you, real name Norman? Seriously?”
Rocky blushed. How did Dex freakin’ Dexter here know that? Maybe he watched too much VH1 too. It was really Norman Rockwell McCoy, a fact he’d been able to conceal until fame had made it worth anyone’s while to troll the depths of birth records to find that out.
“That’s real nice, Rocky.” Dex grasped the mike stand. “But now you gotta move aside and let the big boys play.”
Rocky grabbed the stand below Dex’s grip, ready to fight for it. As he did, his thumb brushed the skin of Dex’s hand, and a little shock went through him, as if the mike hadn’t been properly grounded. But it wasn’t electricity, or at least, not the manufactured kind. Dex’s skin was warm and silky and made Rocky remember how long it had been since the last time he’d felt a man’s touch.
“Okay, okay, whoa, whoa!” Adam said, inserting himself between the two singers, holding up his clipboard like a wall. “This is a concert, guys, not a rumble. And look out there,” he said, pointing at the gathering audience. “Check out all those cell phones filming this right now. You guys want a rep with promoters as troublemakers? Because that’ll do it.”
Dex took a step forward, deliberately moving into Rocky’s space. Their faces were inches apart, and Rocky suddenly felt himself get weaker, but not with fear. Dex’s body heat was intense, and the glower on his face reminded Rocky of what a man looked like when he had Rocky on his back, legs up, ready to penetrate him and ride him hard…
Rocky’s lips parted, and he gasped a little. He knew hot sex when he saw it, knew pent-up lust and desire when he saw it, too. Dex wasn’t this close to threaten Rocky, he was this close because…he wanted to be. Whether he’d admit that to himself or not.
Dex blinked, his eyes widened at Rocky’s response was to his closeness – not intimidation, but something else.
And Rocky saw the fear in Dex’s eyes, the dilation of his pupils at the realization that he was this close to another man and if they weren’t gonna fight, then there was only one other reason for it… Rocky smiled. All he had to do was reach out and touch Dex and this repressed closet case would fucking cum in his jeans.
Dex backed off. “Fine, fuck it. We’ll take midnight. That’s when the real fans are out anyway.” He stormed off stage, his band in tow, and though they looked back with glares and flipped fingers, it was all for show.
Rocky let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. They went on with their sound check, Rocky listening closely, nodding or shaking his head at the different monitor levels and EQ. But this was all automatic, years of experience kicking in, as his conscious mind was on another path altogether.
Dex Dexter. Fuck. The dude was a class A closet case. And, yeah, okay, admit it. He’s fucking hot. Rocky couldn’t take his mind off what the sex would be like – closet cases were fucking insane when they finally got laid. A huge pain in the ass afterward, but still.
“Rocky!” Jet, his drummer, shouted at him. “Earth to Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Come on down, man.”
Rocky laughed. They always called him that when he got too deep in his own head. “Yeah, I’m coming, Bullwinkle. Hold your antlers.”
Exhausted, Rocky flopped out on his motel bed and flipped on the TV. The Boulders had put on one hell of a show tonight, he knew. Rocky’s energy was always good on stage, the sensation of performing live always got him high. But tonight had been extra special, and he couldn’t put his finger on why. But he’d been…inspired tonight. They’d even done that cover version of Audioslave’s “Like a Stone,” a song he’d been warned not to sing, one that usually toasted his vocal cords, but tonight it had come almost effortlessly.
The Boulders were staying at the Austin Motel, the coolest place to stay in town. They’d been lucky to get their reservations – this festival wasn’t as big as SXSW, but it had sucked up most of the reasonably priced hotel rooms.
They could have stayed at the Hilton or some such, but what was the point of traveling, Rocky thought, if every room you ever saw was the same as the last? The Boulders weren’t big enough yet to have a tour bus like Dex Dexter did, but they were doing well enough they didn’t have to sleep in the back of a van.
Besides, the rooms at the Hilton didn’t have wallpaper that transformed a whole wall into a panoramic ocean vista, or a long view down a canal in Venice. It didn’t have a kidney-shaped swimming pool, or a rusted-out old car transformed into a planter, or any of the character that the motel had. And the big hotels were swarming with groupies – some of whom weren’t terribly particular when it came to sleeping with a “rock star,” any rock star. Rocky was openly gay, so very openly gay, and always had been – but that didn’t stop the more insane groupies from trying to land him.
No, much better to be here, with some peace and quiet, and time to think. He hadn’t had time for that lately, hadn’t had time to process his breakup with Frank James, the famous actor who’d made a career out of publicly flirting with gay identity without ever saying, “I’m gay.” Like the white hipsters who inserted themselves into African American musical culture, Frank had immersed himself in gay culture – but like the whiteys who could walk away and still enjoy their white privilege, Frank had never given up the advantage he had in Hollywood of not being “actually” gay.
And it had turned out that Frank, when all was said and done, was straight after all. Or something. He’d certainly pounded Rocky’s ass with all the enthusiasm one man could muster for fucking another man. But when it had come to getting serious, getting real, having an honest-to-God relationship that meant more than furtive fucks…well, Frank might be gay, but he was definitely not gay for Rocky any more.
The old joke was that the difference between a straight man and a gay man was a six pack of beer. Well, with Frank the difference had been an opportunity for a little self-promotion. Being seen with openly gay Rocky, being known as his “friend,” had let Frank flirt with gayness just enough to jolt the publicity machine, boost his career…but actually being gay? That would have been the end of that career, even these days.
Fucking Frank. Who’d grinned at him that last day and said the cruelest thing he could have possibly said. “Well, being seen with me helped your career too, didn’t it?”
And Dex. Rocky could still remember the heat of Dex, so close to him. Like the feeling of an August day when you leave an air conditioned building, so nice for just a moment…
Until the cool bubble you’d carried outside with you wore off, and the heat started smothering you. No. No more fucking closet cases. He wasn’t going to go through all that again. Rocky lived in a world full of musicians, artists, and other freaks, full of men with flexible sexualities, and he didn’t need to go outside his own world looking for trouble. And yet, he always did…
Sure, even the cool kids carried a lot of sexual baggage people from their upbringings, as Rocky knew all too well. He was the proverbial preacher’s son, and he’d been one of those kids waving signs they didn’t understand, that told the gays how they were going to hell. And the last thing he needed now was to listen to some fucking redneck start spouting that shit in his face again.
He turned on the TV and started flipping through the channels. Ah, good, VH1 was actually playing videos. It was rarer and rarer to find any actual music on the music-oriented channels, in between all the stupid reality shows, and even then it was usually “Pop Up Video” with all the distracting chit-chat.
He smiled when he saw the black and white opening to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Now that was a man who was still hot, after all these years – pushing sixty and still worth a tumble. Rocky was a firm believer that there was a “rock star gene,” the magical quality that left Anthony Kiedis or Iggy Pop or, hell, even Rick Springfield looking unbelievably great well into middle age, regardless of any substances abused.
But it wasn’t the original “Wicked Game” video. The clouds rolled past, a man stood in silhouette, and the achingly mournful opening notes were the same…but not. It wasn’t the famous opening that James Wilsey had produced on his Stratocaster. This was an acoustic version, but it still had some of that ringing, rolling sound of the original.
The lead vocal came in, deeper that Isaak’s, a voice flaked with Southern accents. It was mournful, sexy, seductive. The visuals were the same as the original, starting with the woman on the beach, dancing slowly, bare breasts covered only by her arms.
The singer was revealed, wearing the same white wife-beater Isaak had worn. Only this guy was beefier, his arms tatted up. He danced and flirted and begged the woman, finally carrying her on his back towards…well, you know what. Damn, he’s sexy…
It suddenly hit Rocky. Shit. It was Dex fucking Dexter. And the video wasn’t a shot for shot remake, after all…no, this was much hotter. There was a lot more of the two bods on display, for sure, and what was suggested in the original, well, it was enthusiastically recommended here.
Dex and the woman cavorted on the beach, and, in a shot that would have been totally banned 20 years earlier, she dropped to her knees in front of him. She looked up, and lifted his wet tank top, and the camera was right there as she licked the salt water off his abs. Then, he lifted her up and put his face between her breasts, mouth open to catch the trickle of liquid running down her chest.
And whoever Dex’s guitarist was, Rocky thought, he was insanely talented. Too good for a country band, that’s for sure. Maybe I could poach him….
Then the camera showed Dex, sitting on a rock on the beach, and damn it all, it was him playing the guitar. The camera even did a close up of his fingers on the strings, the “classic American” sparrow tats on the back of each hand. Then it zoomed back to show Dex’s face too, as if to say, yeah, bitches, that’s really me playing.
The sight of Dex’s gorgeous face and body had excited Rocky, and his voice had made his temperature rise, forced his guts to churn at a low simmer. But that image of Dex’s agile fingers was the one that sent all the blood straight to his cock. He wasn’t just some stupid redneck shouting some stupid song about beer – he was a fucking musician!
Rocky wanted to turn the channel, he wanted to look away. He hadn’t felt this way since…since high school, when he’d seen a picture on the Internet of two gorgeous shirtless men, laughing, kissing. He should have been happy for them, it should have made him feel good that such a thing was possible in the world outside Marietta, Georgia. But all he could feel at the sight was pain, a longing and a grief for the loss of what he’d never had, what he thought, knew at the time, he could never have.
The video was deviating far from the original, accommodating the public’s taste for much raunchier material than you could ever put on TV back in 1991. Now it was a remake of the scene in “From Here to Eternity,” with Dex in the Burt Lancaster role, shirtless now, his hands, his lips, all over the woman on the beach as the waves rolled over them. If the water had risen up in steam from the heat of their bodies, Rocky wouldn’t have been surprised.
Dex could kiss. He could use his hands, and did, enthusiastically. The damn video was one pair of panties short of a sex tape. There was an animal passion in him that…
God damn it, he told himself. There you go again, hot for a straight guy. Like being with Frank James didn’t teach you a thing. Obviously, Dex was straight. He’d been all over that woman. And however good a guitarist he was, Rocky was sure he could never be that good an actor.
Then the video was over, and then Miley Cyrus came onscreen, twerking like a fool. That definitely broke the spell. Rocky got up and broke open the gift basket the festival organizers had sent him, and tore the cap off the bottle of Garrison Brothers, a locally distilled whiskey.
He looked in the mirror in the bathroom and wanted to slap himself.
“No,” he told himself. “We’re not going to do that again. We’re not,” he took a swig from the bottle. “Ever,” and another, even as the burn from the first one registered. “Going to do that again.”
“God dammit,” Dex roared at the roadie. “Be careful with that.”
The roadie looked at him in astonishment. He had been careful with the big black utility trunk, squatting and lifting with his legs and setting it down as gently as he could.
“Sorry,” Dex mumbled, walking away. “Bad day.”
He’d seen the roadie lift the case. Tim, that was his name. Dex made sure to know the names of everyone on his crews. He’d seen Tim from behind, squatting down in his khaki hiking shorts. Seen the perfect pair of buns that came from a job requiring hard physical labor. Seen them rise up, on a pair of sturdy legs. And felt a flush that had to be redirected, in the way he’d been taught to redirect feelings all his life.
The midnight show had gone badly. Something had gone out of him after his encounter with Rocky. How was he supposed to go on stage and whoop and holler and dance around as if he was the happiest guy on earth? Sing a song like “Six Pack, Four Wheels, Two Dogs”?
Instead of hanging out with the band after the show, he’d gone into the trailer, mumbled at them, and walked back out again with a bottle of Jack Daniels. They’d discreetly mumbled back, which told him that he was right – it was a shit show, and everyone was out of sorts now.
And that was my fault. He was mentally kicking himself as he cracked the seal on the bottle and took a swig. The Dallas Devils were living in their luxurious RVs, all the better to enjoy the, um, fruits of festival fame.
Dex threaded his way through the performers’ area to a grove of trees where the incessant sound of the performers was muted. He leaned against a tree and took another swig. He’d felt…tired. No, that wasn’t it. Out of sorts. Yeah, getting warmer.
There were a bunch of tree stumps he’d had to navigate to get to the woods. Someone was probably going going to build another housing development out here – more beauty sacrificed to sprawl, he thought. The big tree stumps had been drilled out in spots, where he knew fuel would be poured to burn out stumps too big to be torn out intact.
Hollowed out. Yeah, that was how he felt. He took a big swig of the JD and then laughed. That’s me. An old stump that needs burning, so fill me up with Dr. Jack and light the match.
Dex was twenty six years old, and knew damn well that anyone older would laugh at him if they heard him saying that. But as the saying goes, you’re only as old as you feel, and he felt very old right now. Everyone was always coming on him for something, everyone fucking expected something from him, expected him to do another interview, expected him to play the early, stupid songs he was sick of playing, expected him to marry Charlotte Deakins and start poppin’ out kids, what you waitin’ for?
“Fuck,” he said out loud. “Fuck, fuckity fuck fuck,” he said, unable to help saying it in time with the insistent beat of the late night house music DJ, the pounding of the bass still audible out here.
Then he heard the murmur of approaching voices. Dammit, they must have sent out a search party for me. I am not ready to deal with people right now. He decided he’d move a little deeper into the trees, and hope they didn’t search too hard.
“How’s this?” he heard a voice say. It was Tim, the roadie he’d just yelled at.
“Looks good to me, cowboy.” He didn’t recognize the other voice. Then there was silence, and Dex held his breath, waiting for them to approach him.
But they didn’t. Instead, he heard a sharp intake of breath. “Oh, yeah,” the other voice groaned. “Fuck, yeah. Suck that dick.”
Dex’s heart started hammering at the sound. Tim was…no, he couldn’t be. That dude? He was a…no.
He heard Tim choke, choke again, then gasp for air. “Oh shit that’s big.”
Dex wanted to see, didn’t want to see. He turned slowly and let one eye gaze around the tree. The other dude was one of Rocky’s band mates, Jet the drummer. Dex knew who he was – Jet had been in a couple of hardcore bands and the thought that he would be, you know, that way…
Jet’s arms were exposed in a sleeveless t-shirt, muscular and tatted up, and his powerful hands were on the back of Tim’s head. He gave Tim just a couple of gasps’ worth of air before he pushed him back down on his…holy shit, Dex thought, that’s a huge fucking cock.
The movements of the two men, Tim’s head bobbing back and forth and Jet’s hips pushing in rhythm, were like a cobra dance that Dex couldn’t stop watching. Jet’s ass was pale in the moonlight, and Dex could see Tim’s sun-darkened hands wrapped around them, squeezing them, forcing Jacob’s cock deeper into his own mouth…
Jet grabbed Tim’s hair and held on tight, one hand swinging free like a rodeo cowboy’s and the other using Tim’s head like a saddle pommel as he rode him. Or like a Fleshlight, like Tim’s head was nothing but a receptacle for his dick.
“I want that ass of yours,” Jet growled.
Dex swallowed. He had a fever. He had to go. He couldn’t stop watching.
“Fuck yeah, man,” Tim grinned up at him. “Right over that tree stump right there.”
“Oh yeah, that’ll put your ass up good and high.”
Dex was startled when they both laughed. Like this was all, just…a game. A good time. And not…a sin. A crime.
He should stop them. Had to stop them. For their own good.
Tim turned away from Jet and dropped his shorts, his big firm pale ass glowing in the moonlight. “I don’t suppose you got any lube? Guess you’ll have to use spit?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Jet growled. “Taking it all rough like that.”
“You know it!”
“Nah, my dick’s too big to plug that ass with just some spit.” He reached into a pocket of his jeans. “Good thing I always gotta little lug lube with me.” Lug lube, Dex knew, was a mineral oil used on lugs on congas, bongos or other percussion instruments. None of which the Dallas Devils had in their repertoire.
Tim laughed again, getting down on his knees, bending over the stump and arching his ass to the sky. “You don’t have any bongos.”
“I do now,” Jet said, slapping out a rhythm on Tim’s ass cheeks.
“Ow!” Tim laughed. “So you’re into spanking, huh.”
“Among other things.”
Tim paused. “Oh yeah? Like bondage and shit?”
“Yeah,” Tim said, his breath coming in a whisper now. “Why don’t you…take off that big black rock star belt of yours and use it on my ass…”
“Oooh, yeah?” Dex could hear the grin in Jet’s voice. “Tenderize that shit before I get in there?”
Dex suddenly realized. He had an erection, which at the sound of Jet’s promise of pain had become so hard it was painful. Dex could feel the belt in his hand, could feel what it would be like to land it on that ass, to see those cheeks quiver in pain and…pleasure?
He stumbled away, deeper into the trees. The sound of the festival, the deep bass of the giant speakers, covered his retreat. He uncapped the bottle and chugged, until the whiskey burned his throat so badly that he cried.
He couldn’t see or hear the two men anymore, but his mind could see nothing but. Jet, Tim, both getting more excited with every stroke of the belt, Jet squeezing that lug lube out onto his cock, onto Tim’s ass, then pushing himself in, the thump thump thump of the house music lending the musician the metronome he needed to time his thrusts….
“NO!” He shouted, hurling the bottle into the forest, where it hit a tree with a satisfying shatter. “No.” No I won’t, I can’t, I mustn’t. I. Will. Not.
It had been years since this had happened. Since those feelings, those…urges had taken him. He had worked so hard for years, successfully doing just what Pastor Panko had told him to do when he’d confessed them: Take every surge of primal sexual desire and channel it into work. Into his music, his career, away from those unproductive, unwholesome, barren thoughts.
He’d never seen anything like that. Two men, fucking. He’d seen two men kissing, of course, and turned away, revolted, upset.
Yeah, what they all said was true. He knew it. Homophobia, revulsion, it was all directed at that part of yourself that you feared was gay. And why shouldn’t you fear it? Why shouldn’t you fear that something so wrong was inside you like a cancer? Pastor Panko knew that. He knew that there was no way to “pray away the gay.” All you could do was fight it. Like you would fight if you had cancer.
And the worst of it was, when Dex had imagined the belt in his hand, it hadn’t been Tim’s ass he’d been thinking about. It had been Rocky’s. Rocky, whose face had been as close to Dex’s as any man’s – though any other man who’d gotten that close had been itching for a fight, and had gotten one. But what Rocky had wanted was another kind of battle. Rocky, whose lips had parted in a gasp of astonishment when he’d seen inside Dex, seen the twisted, broken sexuality the same as his own.
But it wasn’t the same, is it? Rocky had no shame about his.
Well, he should, Dex thought. He fucking well should. He took the long way around to the buses, making damn sure he didn’t see any more of what he’d just seen. But it was too late to unsee it, to stop thinking about it. It would take at least another bottle of Dr. Jack to blot that out tonight.
Rocky was glad Jo’s Coffee was just a block down South Congress from the motel. He was still in time to order some breakfast tacos, which improved his mood immeasurably. He could have waited for Korey to join him, but the restaurant might have run out the famous tacos before his chronically late friend and bandmate arrived.
While he waited for Korey and tacos, he sipped his coffee and started scrolling through his phone. He had 30 text messages! Overnight. That was crazy. He started browsing them.
Dude. HOT PIC. You guys fuck yet?
You showed him who’s boss, buddy!
What an asshole! Glad you stood up to him.
Rocky blinked. What the hell where they talking about?
Korey sat down in front of him, his brown eyes shining behind his big-ass tortoiseshell “Urkel” glasses. “Dude. That picture. It’s everywhere.”
Korey sighed, his fingers dancing over his phone. “This one, duh.” He turned it to show Rocky.
Rocky took the phone. It was a photo of himself and Dex, face to face, challenging each other over control of the microphone. “So?”
“Turn it sideways. Blow it up.”
Rocky pinched the photo and stretched. The facial features came into focus, and then he saw it. The look between the two of them. He swallowed. The whole world could see what he had been thinking, feeling at that moment. He was looking up at Dex, a foot taller than he was. The tilt of Rocky’s head was defiant, the narrowing of his eyes showed his anger, but the way his lips were parted, as if waiting, hoping for a kiss, showed the world the lust in his heart.
“Look at him, too,” Korey said, reading his face if not his mind.
Rocky willed himself to look at Dex. There was something on his face, as well – his eyes were wide, his mouth in an O. The world would see astonishment there, but it would fill in its own causes – they would call it disbelief that this little banty rooster would defy him.
But Rocky knew better. He’d felt the heat rising off Dex, had seen what had really surprised him. Dex had been caught off guard by a surge of desire. For Rocky. And Rocky had responded with desires of his own.
“So here we are,” Korey smirked. “At a festival designed to promote friendship between Red States and Blue States. And here the two of you are, looking like a poster for Friday Night Fights. Well, Friday Night Fight and Fuck, maybe.”
Of course Korey would notice the “and Fuck” part. After all these years of friendship, he knew better than anyone what Rocky looked like when a man made him weak.
Rocky handed the phone back, his face a blank mask. “It’s nothing. A disagreement. A scheduling conflict.”
Korey wagged a finger at him. “You. Want. Him.”
Rocky sighed, leaned back in his chair, ran a hand through his lavish dark curls. “Fuck. You know me too well. Another straight dude, right? Naturally. Seriously, man, I’m done with that. After Frank? Done diddly done-a-reeno.”
“Well, here’s the deal. As band manager, I’ve been contacted by the promoters. They want a rematch.”
“They’ve set up a meeting this morning, you and Dex. To discuss a duet.”
Rocky choked on his coffee. “Duet? Are you out of your gourd?”
“The whole world is watching. You gotta do it. I already said yes.”
“Goddammit, why’d you do that?”
Korey sighed. “Publicity. Oh my God so much publicity you can’t imagine. And that means money. Gold. Ducats. Buckets of ducats.”
Rocky smiled as Korey hauled out their old phrase, the ambitious dream of two Southern boys, each with their own very good reasons for wanting to escape from Marietta, Georgia.
“So we’re supposed to get together like Whos in Whoville, huh, hold hands and sing and it’ll just warm that Grinch’s heart.”
“Or you could just fuck onstage. That would work too.”
Rocky shook his head. “The dude is a closet case. I saw it. He wants it, but he’s never had it. His gayginity is intact. And I mean it. Never again. I’m going to find a nice homo and settle down.”
Korey gave him an old lady smile and patted his hand on the table. “Of course you are, dear.”
Rocky wiped his palms on his jeans before he entered the trailer. Dex was in there already – Rocky had seen him go in. He steeled himself for the encounter by swearing a vow to himself. I won’t, I won’t let myself look at him like that again. I won’t.
He stepped up and into the air conditioned trailer, out of the Texas heat. Korey was already there, along with Dex and his manager. Rocky almost laughed at Dex’s manager’s getup – holy crap, it’s Colonel Fucking Sanders, he thought. Okay, not as old, but the white getup with the bolo tie made him look older. He didn’t have a kindly face, though – more like Lyle Lovett on a bad day.
Jason got up and shook his hand. Rocky knew him a bit, as he’d been on the music scene for a long time. He’d risen as far as an alt-country opening act for Ryan Adams, but then his career stalled. So he’d reinvented himself as a promoter. He’d been a session musician on one of Rocky’s albums, stepping in when his keyboard player had gone off the rails on drugs and disappeared the first day of the recording session.
“Rocky, man, how’s it going. This is Sam Griggs, Dex’s manager.”
“Nice to meet you,” Rocky said, shaking the man’s hand. He was startled when Sam not-so-discreetly rubbed his own hand on the fabric of the bucket seat after the handshake. Typical fucking cracker, he thought, thinks he’s gonna get AIDS from touching the queer. Then again, he thought sourly, it could be because he’d also shaken Korey’s hand, and he wanted to match sure the Blackness wasn’t catching either. Or both, probably. Racism and homophobia definitely held hands and sung together all the time.
“Okay,” Jason said. “So you’ve all see the media shitstorm around this. And we’d really like to put a lid on it. As a personal favor to me, I’m asking you both to do this duet. I want this festival to go well, to end well. If it doesn’t…” He threw up his hands. “Kind of a stake in the heart of my new career, you know?”
Rocky nodded. “I owe you a solid, Jason, I’ll do it.” He looked Dex in the eye. “I have nothing to lose.”
Dex didn’t blink. He nodded curtly. “Me neither. Nothing to be scared of here,” he said contemptuously.
Man, fuck this guy, Rocky thought. Dex and his manager were everything he hated about the South, were everything he’d worked so hard to escape. And now here he was again, having to sit here and take their shit.
Dex was checking him out, clearly, his eyes traveling over Rocky’s tats, most of them replicas of his favorite artworks. Like you’d have any idea what they are, Rocky thought. You stupid fucking hick, you’ve probably got a house full of Thomas Kinkaid or some shit like that.
“Okay,” Jason said hastily. “So if you guys want to take some time to think about the song you wanna do…”
“I don’t think it should be a duet,” Rocky said, inspiration striking him. “I think it should be a face-off. A battle of the bands. A friendly competition to see who’s the better musician.”
Dex’s nostrils flared, and he grinned. Rocky’s heart skipped a beat at the way Dex’s face lit up, the way it glowed with rude good health. The way one corner of his mouth turned out, a dirty knowing smile that promised what Korey had seen in their photo – either a good fight or a good fuck, the two weekend specials of Southern male life.
“Hell, yeah. That’s more like it.” Dex tipped his black cowboy hat back and scratched his forehead with mock confusion. “The only problem is, what songs are we gonna play? I guess we’ll do a great old country standard, and you’ll do, I don’t know, one of those Emo songs, screamin’ about how your mom made you clean your room.”
Rocky almost laughed, the description of the typical Emo song was so accurate. But he repressed it, hard. “No, I think we can do your country standard, too. Some Patsy Cline or Hank Williams, something much better than the overproduced, plastic stuff that comes out of Nashville these days. That’s really the only way to face off, isn’t it, to do the same song?”
Dex didn’t take the bait Rocky had thrown out there about contemporary country music, including Dex’s own. “Right. And then, we’ll play an old rock classic, one you might know, Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley. You heard of them, I hope?”
“I was raised in the South, just like you.” Then it was Rocky’s turn to smile. “I’m going to go with Little Richard, though.”
Dex laughed, the joke too good to resist. For a moment, they looked at each other, appreciating Rocky’s move in selecting that famously outrageous queen.
Then the moment was gone. Dex turned away, scowling, something infuriating him suddenly that Rocky could only imagine. He didn’t need to imagine it. He’d seen the look on a thousand men, the moment of freedom, of joy, in being themselves, that they just as quickly buried, deep in the ground, before someone else did it for them.
“So we’re good?” Jason asked. “You guys up for doing this today?”
“Hell yeah,” Dex said.
“No problem,” Rocky agreed.
“Okay. Guitars at sunset instead of pistols at sunrise, right?”
Rocky and Dex nodded. But it might as well be pistols, Rocky thought. This was going to be a war.
“You’re gonna ace this, son,” Sam Griggs said, clapping Dex hard on the back as they walked away from the trailer.
Dex nodded. “Yeah.” He was ready for a fight, was itching for a fight. He wanted to go to a bar and drink too much whiskey and shoulder some other drunk who’d shout at him, and he wouldn’t apologize, and then he’d get to swing a punch.
He couldn’t get it out of his mind, the sight of Rocky sitting there in his tight black jeans and his cut-off Delta 5 t-shirt – yeah, Dex knew the old punk band’s most famous song, “Mind Your Own Business.”
Rocky’s arms were lean, and so pale, all the better to display his art – one tat Dex recognized as the M. C. Escher drawing of the interlocking black and white birds. Another was a splash of color on his right shoulder taken from one of the Hockney paintings of Mulholland Avenue. Yeah, Dex knew that one, too. The look on Rocky’s face as Dex examined his tats was full of contempt, smug fucking superiority. He was so sure I had no idea what I was looking at.
But what had pissed him off more than that, had been Rocky’s fingernails. They were short, neat, and painted – pink and black. Like a girl. Why did he have to do that? Why did he have to flaunt his…gayness like that?
An image flashed into his mind, stunning him with its force. The picture he’d seen in the forest, Tim’s hands on Jet’s bare ass…only they weren’t Tim’s hands, they were Rocky’s, the lurid fingernails glowing in the moonlight. Rocky, taking that cock hard, so hard… Loving it, squeezing his man’s ass with those fingers, demanding more…
“Dex!” Sam shouted at him. “Where’d you go, boy?”
“Sorry. Just…distracted.” He shook himself. “I need a drink.”
“You’ve got a show to play in a few hours, son, you don’t wanna…”
“I said I need a fucking drink!” Dex shouted.
Sam raised his hands. No arguing with a man who needed a drink that bad. “Okay. Your decision.”
“Yeah,” Dex confirmed. “My decision.”
The grounds were packed that night. There were people who didn’t care about Rocky and the Boulders, or Dex and the Dallas Devils, but who wanted to see something that social media had blown up into an Event. Or a War, depending on your politics.
The border was clear enough, with the two bands set up on either side of the stage. There was no worry about who’d control the lights or set off the pyros – there would be no light show, no special effects, just the music.
Jason got onstage and introduced the bands. Rocky stood on one side of him, and Dex on the other. “We just want to thank Rocky and Dex and all the musicians here at CrossFest for making this such a great experience, so put your hands together for all our performers! And give yourselves a round of applause, too, for opening your minds and ears to the kind of music you might not listen to otherwise.” The audience whooped and hollered.
“And now, without further ado…the friendly battle of the bands!”
Dex snorted. We’ll see just how friendly, he thought, as he and Rocky were left by Jason to shake hands.
Instead, Rocky faced Dex and raised his hands in a fighting stance, as if posing for the weigh-in picture at a boxing match. It would have been comical, the five-foot-four Rocky facing off against the six-foot-four Dex, if it hadn’t been for the light in Rocky’s eyes. It reminded Dex of something he’d read in a book about dogs – a little dog will face off with a bigger dog with no fear, because it really doesn’t know it’s a little dog. There was so much…anger there. As if Rocky was blaming Dex for something, everything.
Dex raised his own fists, too, but kept his distance this time. No face-to-face, in-your-face episode this time. He wouldn’t let himself get that close again, wouldn’t let himself get distracted again.
Then they tapped fists as if they were gloves. Dex felt the smooth, soft, warm skin on the side of Rocky’s hand as it glided past his own, and it was like a Taser to his soul. Like a starving man who wanted to gorge himself after so long without food, the touch of another person, no, another man, triggered a hunger he’d refused to feed for so long.
No. No, no no. Not now. Dex threw up the block, the barrier, inside his head. He slipped into his acoustic guitar and nodded at his drummer. Tap tap, go.
The first song was Patsy Cline’s “Walking after Midnight.” Mikey’s steel guitar opened the song, the plaintive notes spreading across the crowd. Then Dex began to sing the words, the lonesome lyrics, and suddenly he nearly froze. His own midnight walk flashed into his mind, the scene he’d encountered.
A terrible sense of loss overwhelmed him. How many nights had there been like that? How many years of nights had he spent like that, alone, searching for…what? For something to take the place of the thing he wanted, needed, couldn’t, mustn’t have.
A great singer is a great actor. You take your own pain and you put it out there, and you trick people into believing it’s your character’s pain they’re seeing. Wow, people say, you can really act. As if you could cry like that on cue without feeling anything at all.
Dex was so achingly lonely. And the closer he got to the thing that could end his loneliness, the more it hurt.
The one thing that made it hurt less was this – the place to put it, the way to express it, the cut that drained the poison from the wound. He sang the words with heartbreaking sincerity, and for a moment, he allowed it. Allowed himself to think of a man, as lonely as he was, walking for miles out in the starlight, looking for Dex the way Dex was looking for him. It was okay, here, now, to want that, to grieve for the want. It went into the music, yet another sacrifice Dex would make for his music. And another pain he would feel all the more so later for having let it out now, for having acknowledged its existence. Singing drained the poison from the wound, if only for a minute. But a minute was something.
As he concluded the song, the crowd went wild. He couldn’t help but take a look at Rocky’s side of the stage. Rocky looked at him for a moment, and nodded. One artist to another. Dex nodded back, and stepped back, to let his opponent take center stage.
Rocky was floored. He’d expected Dex to twang his way through the lyrics, slather on some cornpone and let the words carry him without…going there. But Rocky had seen it, heard it, felt it. Dex had sung from his heart. And when he stole a glance at Rocky, like a nervous teenager, Rocky had seized the moment, had nodded his respect.
I know that feeling, he thought. I can do this. I know what it’s like to look, and not find.
He strapped on an electric guitar. He’d spent the afternoon practicing, mimicking the steel guitar line on his Fender. The Boulders didn’t have a steel guitar player, so there was no other way to do it.
He opened the song, and opened the door in his head. The door he kept closed, past which were all the stupid, useless, futile longings, yearnings, desires that would just clutter up his life if he didn’t keep them stored there, out of sight, out of mind. The door behind which he’d installed Frank James, and Nico Paulus, and all the other men he’d loved without being loved in return.
Rocky sang about walking after midnight, searching for you. And here, on stage, he let a little something out of the room. He let himself think about a long dark road, a hill rising ahead, the full moon lighting his path. He let himself think about Dex, walking on the other side of that hill, walking toward him, looking as he looked for just one other person on that road. He let the song carry him up the hill, towards the top, where he might find what he was looking for on the other side.
But the song ends, of course, before you get to the top. Before you find out if there’s someone on the other side, or not.
It was Rocky’s turn to look at Dex. But Dex wouldn’t look at him, this time. Dex raised a hand, his head down, a musical salute. But he wouldn’t make eye contact.
Rocky nodded. No, there wasn’t anyone on the other side of the hill, after all. That’s what made the song so sad.
Then it was rockin’ time. The Boulders sailed into “Jailhouse Rock,” but Rocky knew this wasn’t their style. He went through the motions, but somehow he just couldn’t make the transfer. The feelings the Patsy Cline song had inspired were still lingering around him.
Dex didn’t seem to have any problem with that. “I don’t know about you guys,” he addressed the crowd, “but I’ve spent a night or two in jail myself.” The crowd roared its approval, and Rocky knew this round was going to Dex.
Sure enough, he tore it up, working the microphone stand as if it was his swing dance partner. Rocky could only watch with awe, and unabashed lust, as Dex danced and swiveled his hips as lasciviously as Elvis himself, pouring all his sexual energy into seducing the audience. And the audience was wet for him, Rocky could see plain as day. There was nothing more erotic than a man dancing well, and Rocky couldn’t take his eyes off Dex.
If Patsy had resulted in a tie, there was no doubt in Rocky’s mind that round two had gone to Dex.
Dex raised his hat to the crowd and wiped the sweat off his brow. All the frustration, all the pent up energies that “Walking” had stirred up, had been released via Elvis. Nothing like vigorous exercise to clear the mind, he thought with a grin. Rocky had clearly never spent a night in jail, and his awkwardness with the song had been apparent.
Self-defense mechanisms can be cruel, and Dex thought with cruel satisfaction that Rocky wasn’t much, was he, just a privileged little shit who’d obviously never gotten in real trouble in his life. To knock him down made Dex feel better, made the hurt and the longing go away.
Yeah, he thought. Fuck him.
Fuck this, Rocky thought. This is my song. This is my story. A lonely little Southern fruit from Georgia, who turns his whole life into a giant Fuck You to all those bastards. He took the microphone, opened his mouth as if to say something, and then went right into it. “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”
Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was the perfect outlet for all the frustration Rocky was feeling. He’d discarded his guitar, ready to take the stage uninhibited by anything. Did Dex think he could dance his way into the audience’s pants? Rocky would show them all a thing or two.
He tore the mike out of the stand, and began to strut and preen, dropping to his knees and arching backwards, the mike over his mouth like a cock he was hungry to take. He nearly touched it with his wagging tongue, like a tease.
The Boulders were tearing it up, and Rocky could see the Dallas Devils moving in time, the involuntary desire of a musician to join in on a great song. Dex stood there with his arms folded theatrically, one eyebrow raised, a half smile on his face at Rocky’s antics.
Then they couldn’t stand it. The Dallas Devils started playing along with the Boulders, and the crowd went insane.
Dex was swept up in the moment, the wave of musical ecstasy. He joined Rocky at center stage, with his own microphone. Rocky couldn’t help it. He grinned at Dex as he deliberately changed the lyrics.
“Got a boy, named Tracy, he almost drives me crazy!”
Dex only laughed at him. “Know a guy, named Rocky, he’s really fucking cocky!”
“Know a guy, named Dex, he really casts a hex!”
Then they both laughed. “Tutti frutti!” Rocky chanted.
“Oh Rudy!” Dex countered.
Rocky sang a verse about a boy named Lou, who knows just what to do, and Dex told him “You need a girl, named Sally, she’ll meet you in the alley!”
“Got a guy, named Frank, he really turns my crank!”
“Here’s your lady, named Sadie…”
Rocky cut him off, “I’d rather go with Brady!”
They were both cracking up now, the lines coming hard and fast, Dex offering women who could cure Rocky, and Rocky replacing them with men.
Dex did a smooth dance move, and Rocky copied it, then countered with a more complex variation, with a flamboyant spin. Dex called his spin, and raised it a kung fu kick.
Then it was time to end it, both men sensing that a big finish should come before the number ran out of gas. The band could feel it too, and brought the song to a crashing end as both men struck a dramatic Freddy Mercury “We are the Champions” pose, panting with exhilarated exhaustion.
The crowd screamed its delight as one, and Rocky and Dex looked at each other, both glowing with fever. Rocky extended his hand for Dex to shake.
Dex took his hand, and then pulled him in for a bro hug. A friendly pat on the back, no torso contact, a quick release, that was Dex’s plan. Or so he told himself.
But when Rocky came into his space, when the smaller man was in his embrace, his arms took their own initiative, clasped Rocky to him, both their chests heaving for breath. Dex could feel the ridge of muscles on either side of Rocky’s spine through the sweat-drenched shirt, and Rocky’s wet curls soaked any dry spots left on Dex’s own shirt.
Dex willed time to dilate, willed the crowd to cheer the hug louder, longer, to justify every extra second. Rocky’s face was pressed into his chest, and he could feel it, a…relaxing in the other man, a surrender to Dex’s embrace, as if he’d been reunited, at last, with a long lost love.
To his astonishment, it was Rocky who pulled away first. Rocky who looked away from him as they separated, until he could get out of Dex’s gravity, and reassemble his stage face.
“Thanks, man,” Rocky said with a polite smile. It took Dex a stunned moment to reciprocate, to put his own mask back on.
Then they stood side by side, their hands joined in triumph, raised over their heads to accept the crowd’s love. Then Rocky dropped Dex’s hand and went back to his band, clapping for them to goad the crowd to do the same.
Dex felt as if he’d slipped on something, as if the arm Rocky had let go of was flailing for a handhold to break his fall. For a moment he’d been ready to give it all up, all of it, just to be with Rocky for even a second longer. But it had been Rocky who’d let go of him, who’d sent him back to his old life.
Dex smiled and waved and applauded his own band, but inside something cried out the way you do when you drop a cup, in that moment before it hits the ground, already knowing that something important was shattering, was gone forever.