|Evan pulled his dark brown Mercury Cougar in front of “Ein Wenig Luxus” – in English, a little luxury. A funny place for his friend to land. Besides being at least twice as far away from the bus station as it would have been if he had gone the opposite direction, the little café was the band’s hangout. Susie would say it was a good omen. Evan didn’t believe in omens, but he did think it would be good for Duncan to have a little luxury for a change.
He saw him through the big window, which threw sunlight back into his eyes. Moving to a better angle, Evan studied his friend. His hair was even longer, hanging three to four inches beyond his shoulders, and he hadn’t shaved recently. But those were minute things. His jaw line, more pronounced than usual, exposed its ridges and hollows even through the thick stubble. He’d lost weight that shouldn’t have been lost.
But, he was talking to Allison and it didn’t seem to bother him. Did he realize that she wasn’t … well, the kind of girl he usually…? Of course he would. It was obvious with her.
The scent of fresh, warm bread wafted through the screen door. He pushed it open and Duncan immediately looked over, standing as Evan approached.
He extended a hand and grasped Duncan’s arm with his other. “It’s good to see you. I wasn’t sure you’d actually come.”
“I was no’ sure either, bu’ I had nowhere else in mind.”
“I’m glad you did.” Evan released him and grinned at the waitress. “Hey Allison, I suppose you’ve already met.”
“Not formally.” She looked at Duncan. “It was Evan you just called?”
“Actually, he got Mike, but I was next door. Allison Switzer … Duncan O’Neil.”
A sudden light of recognition hit her face. “Oh, this is who Doug was talking about! I should’ve realized that when you came in with the guitar. You’re here to join the band?”
Duncan raised an eyebrow.
“We haven’t really talked about that yet. I was just hoping.” Evan threw his confused buddy a grin.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine; I’m sure he knew my motives.”
Duncan didn’t answer. There was something very wrong. His eyes were more vacant than Evan remembered.
“So, Evan, how is Susie? I haven’t seen her recently.”
He turned back to Allison, glad for the change of subject. “She’s been very busy, with the show coming up next month. And don’t take it personally; I don’t even see her often.”
“Wow, that is busy.” She smiled, teasing him with her eyes. “Are you staying for coffee? I was just forcing your friend to try Mom’s latest batch of bread. I’m sure I can sneak another.”
Evan chuckled. “Thanks, but I’ll think we’ll get back. Another time though.”
“Okay. Tell everyone hello for me. And it was nice to meet you.” With a grin at Duncan, she left them.
“Ready to go?”
His friend nodded and threw some money on the table. He always tipped well, whether he could afford it or not.
Duncan stayed mostly silent during the drive back to the apartment. He agreed to stay the night in the little third bedroom, with just a few words saying he didn’t care how small it was. Of course, from the way his buddy had described the “pad” he’d just left, Evan was sure his and Mike’s apartment would be a big improvement. He had always been able to see where Duncan was living, though he had never had a picture. But Duncan’s descriptive use of words was just as good. Evan had always been slightly jealous of his friend’s natural writing ability. His songs, as well as his musical talent, would be a wonderful asset to the band, if he could get him to stay.
He turned the Mercury around the corner that led to the old boarding house. It was now an apartment building, with two three-bedroom apartments upstairs and the same number of two-bedrooms on the main floor, leaving room for an entranceway with a security door. The best thing about it was the large basement, which had high ceilings and great acoustics for their rehearsals. And it was in a quiet part of town; clean and well-kept, with spring bulbs that were now blooming and an ornamental pear tree in front of their building that Susie just loved.
What would she think of his friend? Naturally, she would accept him. She was always welcoming to his friends and acquaintances, and they generally agreed about who they wanted to hang around. With a couple of exceptions. But Duncan…. He glanced over at the man staring silently out the window. Susie would be able to see past the charade as Evan had, though it may take her a while to fully accept him. She was a bit leery about men, with good reason, and tended to keep her distance. Even Mike had thought she was a snob when they’d first met.
Mike. He could be a problem. The phone conversation had already put him on edge, though he hadn’t said why. But Evan had warned him that Duncan wasn’t open and didn’t give information willingly.
He pulled the car into the building’s parking lot and switched off the engine. “The guys are all upstairs. They won’t stay long but did want to say hello.”
Duncan just glanced at him, then nodded, opening the door.
He looked back, with an eyebrow slightly raised.
“What made you finally come out here? What happened?”
He turned his eyes down, and Evan could see the muscles on his face tightening, then relaxing. “Needed different scenery for a while.” Finally, Duncan met his eyes again. “Think your friends are goin’ t’ want me here?”
Evan’s stomach tightened. Something had happened. “I want you here.”
His expression didn’t change, but he nodded again, then got out of the car.
He refused to let Evan help him with either the bag or the guitar case, but walked beside him to the door.
The old wooden staircase was wide and creaked under their feet as they made their way to the second level side-by-side. The front door needed to be propped open again to clear out the mustiness, and the old beige wallpaper with blue and fuchsia flowered vines hadn’t been replaced yet as they’d requested. But his buddy didn’t seem to notice his surroundings, anyway. And he still wasn’t talking. Maybe he was just tired. It was roughly sixteen hours from Chicago to Lakewood by bus, maybe more with all the stops in between. And Duncan didn’t sleep around strangers.
He turned the knob and tried to let his friend in first. Duncan stood back and waited. No surprise.
Mike’s voice hit them immediately, making some sarcastic comment, most likely to his perpetual antagonist.
Of course, Stuart was going to react.
“Mike, you are so full of shit. Doug, tell him he has no idea what the hell he’s talking about.”
Just what Duncan needed to hear at first meeting. Evan stepped in. “How about continuing this later?”
Mike turned, scanning the area. “So? Did he change his mind?”
“Not yet, but keep trying.”
He looked back. Was that a spark of amusement in his buddy’s eyes? Taking the guitar without asking, he tried to keep it a joke. “Come on in, if you dare.” There was no mistaking the slight grin. For just a moment, he looked almost like himself.
The others stood to greet his friend. They weren’t hiding their surprise well. And Duncan would notice.
Evan set the case on the floor in front of him, resting his arms atop. “Mike Kean, Doug Lawrence, Stuart Lowe … Duncan O’Neil.”
They each took his hand, and he answered each with a nod.
“O’Neil? Are you Irish?”
Duncan perused Stuart a moment. “Partly.”
“Shit, Evan, what’s wrong with you? You know the English and Irish don’t get along.”
Stu’s newest victim was nonplused. “Ev is Irish.”
“Yeah, but he’s part English, too. That makes him okay to be around.”
Duncan raised an eyebrow. “Well, if he is part Irish, and par’ English, then I would say tha’ some of them do ge’ along.”
Stuart laughed and set a hand on Evan’s arm. “Hey, man, he’s in as far as I’m concerned.”
“What? You have asked him about the band, right? Isn’t that why he brought his guitar?”
Mike elbowed him. “Shut up, already. I’m sure he takes it everywhere.” His eyes studied Duncan’s. “Ignore him. He’s barely legal and we’re still trying to raise him.”
“At least I’m not a high-falutin’ ass.”
Doug stepped between the two. “Why don’t we let the man sit down?”
Evan thanked Doug mentally and his buddy followed the others, taking the seat farthest from the group.
Mike was still studying him until he noticed Evan’s silent reprisal. “Oh, Gerry called while you were out. He wants us this Friday. Will that work for you?”
“I was supposed to work late. What time?”
“Okay. I’ll get off as early as I can; won’t be before seven, though.”
“So, eight would work?”
“Yeah, I’ll take my things in and meet you there.” He looked over Duncan. “Feel like playing with us Friday night? Nothing big, just a local bar. And you should be familiar with most of the stuff we’re doing.”
Evan watched his face as he didn’t answer. Was he pushing too fast? Duncan didn’t look irritated; though, with him, it was often hard to tell.
His friend glanced over at Mike, who had resumed the condescending stare, then back to Evan. “If you want, bu’ no’ if I am in the way.”
In the way? Not hardly. They would be damn lucky to have him. And Mike could think whatever he wanted. “Great. We have rehearsal every night after work, except Sundays and any Friday we’re not playing. You can sit in with us tomorrow night…”
“Hell, why don’t we jam now? It’s still early. And after what you’ve been saying, I wanna hear the guy play.”
If he’d wanted to be as rude as Mike, Evan would’ve been the one telling Stuart to shut up. Another curious look from his friend said Duncan was wondering just how much Evan had told them. Not nearly as much as he was most likely guessing.
“Stu, he’s been on a bus since last night.” And it was nearly five. “Do you want to lie down a while?”
“In the middle o’ the day? Y’ know I do no’ do naps.”
Stuart laughed again. “Told you, didn’t he? See, he’s a true musician – always ready to play. So, let’s go.” Jumping off the couch, he stood impatiently waiting to be followed.
Evan looked for his friend’s reaction, but Duncan was watching Stuart.
“Why not?” Mike threw a challenging look to the newcomer. “Are you game? Evan has said that you’re not bad.” He stood, turning it into a dare.
Duncan looked Mike directly in the eyes. “If Ev wants t’ play, I’ll walk down with him.”
Perfect answer. Not confrontational, but not letting Mike take control, as he was very apt to do. Duncan knew he was being tested. Maybe Evan should have mentioned that his buddy was not someone to take lightly, or to underestimate. His combination of quick intelligence and street smarts made him a venomous opponent, though his heart was gentle.
Playing might be necessary. Hopefully, it would break the tension between the two men.
He stood, and Duncan did the same. So far, he was just going along, but Evan knew that wouldn’t last.
Stuart badgered him with questions on the way down to the basement. Where had he learned to play? Taught himself. How long had he been playing? A while. Who was his biggest influence? Clapton. Did he play anything except guitar? Didn’t have any interest. Did he read music?
Duncan finally stopped, and turned. He was silent for a moment, staring at this kid giving him the third degree.
Evan wondered if he should step in. His friend’s look wasn’t giving anything away. But, he did hate to be badgered. Mike stepped closer to Stuart, as if warning Duncan to leave him alone.
Duncan ignored Mike. “Do y’ always talk so much?”
Stu hesitated, glancing at Evan before answering. “Generally.”
Duncan raised an eyebrow and shook his head slightly, then continued down the second flight of stairs leading to the basement door.
Evan watched him a moment before turning back to get his friends’ reactions. Stu was speechless for a change. Doug was highly amused. Mike wasn’t. He was used to being the only one who put Stuart “in his place.” There could be trouble there.