Ten With A Bullet
He danced to He’s A Rebel, nearly tripping over the body of the dead boy at the foot of his bed.
It was 1962 and he loved that song. He knew the words perfectly. “Just because he doesn’t do what….everybody else does…” He sang the chorus holding his hand to his lips like a microphone. As the record neared the end, he lifted the tone arm off the 45 and set it back at the beginning. “He’s a rebel and he’ll never every be any good.” This was his anthem. He tripped on an outstretched arm and chuckled at his clumsiness. As the song ended for the second time, he flipped a switch that wasn’t connected to anything and began talking into a make-believe microphone in an amateur imitation of one of the local radio DJ’s. He listened to all the local DJ’s but his favorites were on stations miles away. He could only hear them at night. Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Chicago. His hand reached for another 45 vinyl record, traded it for the Crystals and as the Duke of Earl began, he talked over the intro like Dick Biondi on WLS. In twenty minutes, his parents were leaving for the bowling alley. In twenty minutes, he would get rid of the dead kid.
The plane floated over San Francisco Bay as it drifted toward the landing strip from the South. There was a tightness in Rick’s chest, his breath coming in tiny gasps as he anticipated the arrival. Leaning forward in the seat to look out the window, his gaze never left the view as the plane dropped lower, passing over the San Mateo Bridge and onto the tarmac. With a feeling of hesitation and deceleration, the plane touched ground. A mechanical feather drifting to the ground. He looked away from the window to see if the other passengers were watching him. They weren’t looking at him though it felt as if they were. This was his first trip to San Francisco, his first broadcasting convention. Nobody was going to know that because he was going to act sophisticated, traveled, and just a little blasé’.
“Hey Ricky, Baby, I didn’t know you were on this plane?”
It was a record company rep. These guys set the bar for broadcasting convention behavior. There was just something worldly about the guy. The record rep knew things the program director did not. Program director. That sounded so good. He had worked in a couple of small markets and after three years in radio, he was Program Director in a major market. He could hardly believe his luck. And, to make this Cinderella story even better, his first ratings book was very good. In fact, it was terrific. A month ago, these record company pigs ignored him. Good numbers and they were all over him. It was nice having good numbers and the perks that came with them were also nice. He could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on a record company tab. The horde of promotion guys worked the Program Directors and Music Directors. If you were bold, you could get a lot more than lunches and dinners. Rick was at his first broadcasting convention. For public consumption, or as an excuse to your General Manager, these conventions were forums to share radio programming ideas, marketing strategies, and an opportunity to do a little networking. Actually, they were an excuse for record companies to spread a little payola around in the form of hospitality suites, one on one dinners with record execs and recording artists. They didn’t only get you the booze and hors d’oevres. They could also get you laid.
“Where you staying?”
This was just convention talk. In the next 24 hours, dozens of people would ask him, “When’d you get in?” and “Where you staying?”
“The St. Francis”, he answered. “You?”
“Same. Wanna share a cab?” He really meant I will let you ride in my cab into the city and I‘ll put it on your tab. Also on the tab went the dinners, the lunches, the blow, and the many other strokes and sops. Eventually he would have a new record company release and the tab would come due. It was payola. The guy was a music prostitute and he would do just about anything for a Twin Cities Program Director with a good book and a play list. Rick was the flavor of the day and no record company rep was going to let him ride a shuttle bus or pay for his own cab.
“Sure, I‘ll take you up on that ride.”
“I offered your competition a lift too. Do you mind,” the record guy asked.
“No problem. What competition?” He was a comer but he wasn’t there yet. There would be no sharing when he really arrived.
The ride into town seemed to take hours. Part of the problem was the traffic on 101 and the other problem…the long periods of silence. The record rep tried to keep a conversation going but the two Program Directors didn’t have much to say to each other. Rick could almost see the disdain. It rose from the other PD’s head. Sure, they were competitors. Rick didn’t just want better numbers. He wanted to destroy the other PD’s radio station. The feeling was mutual.
The convention chit chat hadn’t lasted much passed the airport. It was a relief to all three of them when the cab swung onto Post and turned right onto Powell. As the taxi glided to the main entrance of the St. Francis, the promo guy lean forward, his mouth next to Rick’s ear.
“Suite 1446, stop on by,” the record promoter whispered to him. He was pretending to give him a special invitation. An invitation not extended to the competing program director. Later he would give that same whispered invitation to the competitor. There was no honor among recording company reps. In the lobby, the throng of conventioneers separated them, so it was alone he checked in. A bellhop twice his age led him to his room. He felt awkward about it, but he knew he should give the bellhop a tip. Two bags. Two bucks? When the bellhop left with he looked out the window; no view. He sat on the bed and reached for a Kool. Now what. Sophisticated, well traveled and blasé. When should he go to the hospitality suite? He didn’t want to be first. He moved from the bed to a chair, crushed out the cigarette and lit another. Next time he came to a convention he would have a room with a view. He took a long drag, slowly exhaled the smoke and closed his eyes. Next time, a room with a view.
The woman looked used. Used and abused. A tired memory from a movie with the trapeze, the raw sex cast in an Ektochrome blue unlike any other movie but natural to porn. She didn’t seem comfortable in a suite at the St. Francis talking with DJ’s and Program Directors from big cities and little cities. It was an insult to a real talent, but she was a singer now. She sucked a mean dick and that was enough in 1975 to give her a recording contract and a team of musicians and producers to slap together a record for the hordes of record promotion pigs to pull their strings, call in their tabs, and get played on radio stations large and small.
Her finger now poked into the opening of her Perrier bottle, bobbing a piece of lime up and down in an unconscious parody of one her films. He knew she was only pretending interest in the conversation. How could she be interested in anything the PD from some station in North Dakota had to say? Some station in North Dakota. Like Fargo or Morehead or some shit-ass backwater town where playing porno actress turned disco singer is a walk on the wild side.
The conversation was ending. The geek from North Dakota kissed her lightly on the lips, the same lips that had worked so well on that daring young man on the flying trapeze. Retreating, walking backwards; someone leaving the presence of royalty, the program director from Fargo or Morehead or whatever, bumped into a very drunk gnome-like program director from Des Moines, (Iowa, right?) whose sport coat hung misshapen by a bottle of Blue Nun in each pocket. The two engaged in a shouted drunken conversation over the blasting disco shit of a whore/singer.
Rick watched all this and pretended he was one of them. So many secrets to protect. They were all whores and he hated all of them. Especially Mr. Blue Nun from Iowa.
San Francisco was Sodom or Gomorrah and it was a long way from Des Moines. Sex on every corner, or so the story went. Someone shoved him from behind, interrupting Rick’s thoughts.
Someone wanted ice and he was blocking the sink. The bag of cubes had partially melted into a huge asteroid of ice. Look who was after the ice. “What an asshole”, Rick thought.
As Rick watched, the asshole attacked the ice mass with an old-fashioned ice pick. The PD from Iowa began to talk with the asshole but the humorless look he was cut short any attempt at convention conversation.
The singer, the record company reps, the crowded room, the haze of cigarette smoke. It was all a part of the convention scene and Rick wanted to be part of it. He wanted to say something to someone. He wanted to be confident. He just felt alone and inferior. And superior.
These contradictions were lost on everyone as they wandered the hotel hallway, rotating from one hospitality suite to another. He pretended he had somewhere to go, boarded the elevator and pressed down. He needed some fresh air.
On the street, there was a damp chill in the night air. It just didn’t feel like the air in Iowa. Not a breath of wind ruffled his thinning hair, but a mist hung in the air, not falling to the pavement. He turned left and started walking away from the cable cars and tourists on Powell Street. He was looking for some of what made San Francisco famous and it was not made with rice. Where were the porn stores, the dirty movies, the hookers? He walked blocks in one of the premiere cities in the world seeing nothing but apartment buildings. Darkened storefronts and apartment buildings. Not the glitter of a sin city. He chuckled at the thought that there was more action back home. He turned right and climbed a hill. Anther right, over a few blocks and back down the hill. More apartments. The fog had rolled in and as he walked, his isolation became complete. The only sound, his own footsteps, his growing unease enforced by the dark and damp and fog. The silence was deafening and he felt uncomfortably vulnerable. The growing fear was sobering him.
He was lost. He had made a right, a right, and another right. That was a perfect box wasn’t it. He should be returning to the hotel but he could see nothing. On his right, he sensed buildings and on his left the open space of the street. The fog was now so thick, looking down; he barely could see his feet. Streetlights were just pools of white nothing.
Footsteps. He heard the sound of footsteps. Ahead, behind, around. They echoed off buildings and then clipped off, swallowed by the fog. His arms instinctively in front of him like a blind man, he inched forward. His left arm hit a street sign metal pole and as he stopped to rub out the soreness he heard the footsteps again, approaching to his front. He was both hoping for and fearing contact with the person when a shape appeared a shadow in the fog. A part of the shadow moved towards him and he blinked as the shadow came at his eye.
The ice pick had a wooden handle and metal pick, straight and sharp as a needle. It hit just to the left of the nose bridge, ripped down and into the eye, piercing through soft tissue and four inches into the brain. The body dropped, the wooden handle of the ice pick making a loud clanging noise as it scrapped along the street sign and a dull click as it hit the sidewalk. The sound of glass rolling followed by breaking glass as a bottle of Blue Nun broke into the gutter.
The thick silence returned.