tagChain StoriesF6: Slick's Swamp Shack

F6: Slick's Swamp Shack


This story is a submission to the sixth Friendly Anonymous Writing Challenge (FAWC) and a tribute to the founder of FAWC, slyc_willie, who we lost unexpectedly in October 2015. The true author of this story is kept anonymous until the end of the competition. Authors base their story on a list of four items. Their choices included the following letters: S L Y C. Each item was used in the story. There are no prizes given in this challenge; this is simply a friendly competition.

The list for this story includes: Singer, Scissors, Swamp, Smut

* * * *

“Why the fuck did you get me this gig, Willie?” I hissed under my breath into my cellphone.

“Gabby, you’re always talking about the origins of the blues, and being authentic and all that.”

“OK, being authentic is one thing, but you should see this place.”

“Why? Is it as real-deal as the name sounds?”

“Man, it’s like a timewarp! Slick’s Swamp Shack – fuck – it lives up to its name alright. It’s a real shithole straight outta hell!”

“Hah, girl, now for a taste of some real blues history!”

“Fuck you, Willie! You could at least have warned me before I drove all the way down here.”

“Look, Gabby, these people love their music. They love your music; the guy who called me up was in raptures about your demo CD. I’m your agent, I’m here for you, and this gig is totally your bag, girl. You get on that stage, open up them dulcets, and they’ll be putty in your hands.”

“But …”

“But nothing, girl. You love the history of the blues, and now’s your chance to taste a real slice of that pie. Look, I gotta go catch my Spurs game. You’ll be great.”

“OK, Willie. If this gig turns sour, we’re going to have a serious talk. Anyway, enjoy your game.” Not waiting for an answer, I hung up on my agent. The sweet-talking Texan was all promise, no recognition – no glory, and definitely no dollar.

I clicked open the car door, and eased myself out of my used Toyota. The ground under foot had some of the feel of the swamp to it. The asphalt of civilization had given out miles back. The ensuing dirt track found its way to this parking lot – if that’s what you’d call it – spongy to the step. At least I hadn’t worn my lucky heels, but, even so, my sneakers didn’t feel right good stepping out onto this moist lot.

I peered up at the shack. The red neon announced ‘ LICK SWAMP S ACK’. The doorway below was lit sodium yellow, the light curving around a thick figure in its frame. He must have caught sight of me, for he hulked himself out into the lot, in my direction. I moved back behind the car, using it as a shield. I popped open the trunk, surveying my holdall, my dress in its garment bag, and my good old Singer. I take that portable sewing machine everywhere, to prevent ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.

I opened the compartment molded to its base, and drew out my pair of orange-handled dress scissors. I slipped them into the pocket of my leather jacket, keeping grip on their handle for safety’s sake.

“Hi, li’l lady! I don’t s’pose you that blues singer Gabrielle Smuts, are you?” The guy had the physique of a wrestler, hardly contained by his torn denim jacket and stained t-shirt.

I grasped my scissors more surely. I gave a brisk nod of my head. “You Slick?”

The man-mountain threw back his head, and his whole form trembled with barely audible bass laughter. “No, ma’am, Slick dead.”

“Oh, sorry. I am sorry.”

“We all are, li’l lady, we all are.” He thrust out a paw in welcome.

I reluctantly relinquished grip on my scissors, withdrew my hand from my pocket, and reached for a handshake.

“Scissors,” he proclaimed.

Shocked, I scanned his eyes.

“They call me Scissors, ma’am.” His great paw engulfed my hand, giving it a brisk shake, before releasing me, infused with his clammy touch.

“I’m Gabby.”

“Pretty name for a pretty lady.” With that, he stepped between me and the Toyota. “Lemme he’p you with your things.” He hoisted my dress bag to his shoulder. “This too?” He pointed to my holdall.

I nodded sharply.

He took my holdall to his other shoulder and inched past me towards the shack. “Come on, li’l lady. I’m a-show you aroun’.”

I pushed the trunk shut, and locked it. Opening the passenger door, I lifted out the guitar case, my precious old Geeshie. I locked up my car and followed my performing dress as it danced across the lot on Scissors’ back.

The Swamp Shack was an old wooden shotgun house, sitting on a tree-lined hammock of land that pushed out into the cypress swamp. It’s narrow front elevation was maybe only twelve feet wide, with a simple veranda.

Scissors stood holding the door. “We’come to Slick’s, li’l lady!”

I lugged my guitar case past him and inside. The interior was one long, thin room, with a low stage at the far end, and a small bar halfway down the righthand side. The whitewash had long faded, but some beams and struts had been recently repainted firetruck red. Sets of round card tables and chairs peppered the floor, the interior lit by four fluorescent tubes. The only life was a wizened man behind the bar lighting a row of colorful kerosene lamps.

The door banged shut behind me. I moved in and turned to give Scissors room, still somewhat wary of this hulk.

“This here Ole Bill. He be runnin’ this barrelhouse now,” he gestured to the old man.

Bill looked up from his lamps. “Well, look see: if this ain’t the diva behind that sultry voice!” He shuffled out from behind the bar, his face beaming in adulation.

The three of us met halfway. I held out my hand in greeting to my new old fan. “Hello, sir, I’m Gabrielle Smuts … Gabby.”

Ole Bill took my fingers with delicate devotion, and planted a slow, graceful kiss on my knuckles. “Ever’ inch the diva, but that voice … Gee, that voice done take me way back.” His eyes held mine, clouded with cataracts in sun-wrinkled sockets, and I understood he wasn’t giving me empty flattery.

I was speechless before his adoration.

“It don’t look much, but this here place got spirit, real history.”

I looked round the building. The only history I could see was that of a dime museum. “Really?” I replied, wanting to hear it, to be convinced.

“Oh, you betcha! This here an old-time sharecropper place. The Old Gray been given our folk this worthless swamp land here. You see, it was out the way, a place where sharecroppers and the like could come hear a jig, drink some, and get mellow in peace. Slick, he been bought this shack years back.

Man, he loved the blues, and he done steady workin’ keep the barrelhouse culture alive right here. I done been he’pin’ him here from a lad, been pourin’ the drinks and shinin’ them there lamps like Aladdin. He done gone now, but his spirit live on in this place, like the spirit of the Delta blues live on in your sweet voice.” Ole Bill caressed the wooden tabletop at his side, the callouses of his hand rasping lightly across the grain.

I still wasn’t totally inspired, but I wanted to be. I fumbled for something appreciative to say. “There’s a lot of love gone into this place.”

“You ain’t wrong, ain’t wrong at all. Slick done fill this shack of his with plenty love. So, come on now: can I fix you a li’l drink, some whiskey to warm your heart and we’come you in?”

I hesitated. Ole Bill was hanging on my answer. I turned to Scissors, still carrying my things. In the light I could see his features: a fat muzzle broken by an innocent smile. “Yeah, I’d like that drink, please.”

Bill shuffled back behind the bar. It was a rustic wooden counter without the rows of branded liquor one might expect at a downtown joint. Instead, a collage of photographs – some curling black and white, others with faded colors, and some bright and recent – covered the wall. The photos seemed mostly of performers clutching guitars or banjos, with their arms round the recognisable forms of Scissors, Ole Bill and another guy whom I took to be Slick.

Ole Bill made a show of slamming a shot glass down on the bar and filling it with amber liquor from a plain bottle.

I leaned my Geeshie up against the bar. “Won’t you be joining me in a drink?”

“Only if you insis’,” he replied, fishing out and filling two more glasses even before finishing his four words. Scissors laid my dress bag over the end of the bar as Bill handed him his whiskey shot.

We lifted our glasses.

“To the lovely diva and her mighty fine voice!” toasted Ole Bill.

“To Slick!” I gave them, and they both repeated my toast eagerly.

We downed our drinks: the sweet, smooth heat of Tennessee.

Ole Bill turned back to his lamps. He removed the glass from a lamp in cerise enamel, adjusted the mantle, struck a match, and lit it. I watched, letting my whiskey go down. The swift shot gave me a little heartburn, and I knew I was nervous about playing a gig in this strange place. Bill looked up at me from his lamp, a black smut riding the convection thrown up by the flame between us.

“I know it empty now, but the shack fitna get real crowded for your show. It ain’t mucha ‘green room’, but Scissors can show you where you can get ready in peace. Just you holler if you be needin’ aught.”

I looped my fingers around the handle of my guitar case, but hesitated.

Ole Bill must have read my mind. “Don’t you be lettin’ his size intimidate you. Scissors the kindes’ and gentles’ man I know. Go with him now.”

I looked at Scissors, whose smile opened into a toothy grin. I smiled back an apology for doubting his character.

“It a backroom behin’ there stage. Follow me, li’l lady.” Scissors took up my dress again, and went his way between the tables towards a door beside the stage.

I picked up my Geeshie, and turned to Bill. “Thanks for the drink … and the little history.”

“My pleasure entirely. We ain’t got much, but you be comin’ back for more if you get parched. It’s on the house.”

“Thanks again,” I smiled back at him. I turned and lifted my guitar case over the tables to follow the route Scissors had taken.

He was standing just inside the door by the low stage, in a narrow transverse passage that ran behind it. His giant hand was against a door directly opposite. “This the res’room, ma’am. I did scrub it clean myse’f for you.”

“Thank you,” I called, still trying to make up for doubting this gentle giant.

He squeezed further up the passage, opened a door and went through it. I followed him in.

“They be calling this the ‘green room’, though it ain’t green.” He hung my dress bag on a peg and placed my holdall on a chair.

At some point the room had been painted baby blue, but much of it had flaked and faded. A large wooden press almost filled one wall, the other had a small single bed, a cot, made up with fresh linen. The two windows, on either side were covered with ragged floral curtains. The focus was an antique dressing table and chair with four pegs on the wall beside them. To one side was a door leading through to the next room.

I leaned my Geeshie against the far wall, beside my dress. “What’s through there?” I gestured towards the door.

“It a storeroom, an’ beyon’ you out in the backwater with them gators.” His grin seemed almost an impression of a toothy alligator.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why do they call you ‘Scissors’?”

“I was a wrestler, see: statewide champion!” He smiled broadly with pride.

I gave him a blank look, not getting the train of thought.

“Oh ‘scissors’, it a wrestlin’ hold, see.” He demonstrated in thin air, but I still couldn’t see.

“You must have been quite a contender; do you still wrestle?”

“Nah, too old. But Slick, he been took me on to keep them rowdies out the place.” He moved back into the frame of the door through which we entered. “You bes’ get yourse’f ready. Holler if you be needin’ me!” With that he withdrew, closing the door behind him. I listened to the floorboards creak as he made his way back along the passage.

I gave the room another once over and slipped off my jacket. My dress scissors clattered to the floor from my jacket pocket. I bent and scooped them up, placing them on the table, noticing a small photo of Ma Rainey tucked into the corner of the mirror at the dressing table.

I draped my leather jacket over the back of the chair, shifted my holdall to the floor, and sat in front of the mirror. Ma Rainey was aglow in black and white, while I looked tired from the long drive. I unzipped my holdall and fished out my pick comb and tousled out my long, tight curls.

I placed the comb down beside my scissors, and headed next door to wash my face. I hadn’t worn any makeup for the drive down, preferring to apply it once I got here. Although it was a simple set, the restroom was scrupulously clean; Scissors was true to his word. I opened the faucet, turned the mixture to lukewarm, and splashed my face and rubbed my eyes. The hand towel was fluffy and clean, so I dabbed myself dry with it.

Back in my room a tray with a bottle of water and a tumbler had appeared on the dressing table. I filled the tumbler and gulped down the refreshment. I could hear more voices in the front room – the audience was beginning to arrive. I sat, and unlaced my sneakers, kicking them under the table. I stood, unfastening my belt and unbuttoning the fly of my jeans.

I glanced warily at the curtained windows and then towards the door. I walked to the door, slid the bolt across, then moved back to the table and wriggled out of my tight jeans. I pulled my white cotton vest-top over my head, trying not to muss my curls. I caught sight of myself in my underwear, the royal-blue lace lingerie Mike gave me last Valentine’s. The relationship didn’t last long after that, but I was too miserly to throw out a good set.

I sat and applied my makeup. I found that just a few highlights well applied worked wonders. Some black eyeliner made my eyes look big, some light foundation smoothed my complexion, and a nude-tone no-smudge lip gloss gave my mouth juicy definition.

I unzipped the garment bag. After the first gig he’d gotten me – at Jack’s Cabaret – Willie had invested in this slinky deep-blue number to give me the ‘diva look’ he was trying to promote. I loved it; I loved a man buying me a dress, and loved the African Queen it made me feel. I took it down off the hanger and stepped into it, slipping the straps over my shoulders and smoothing the bodice into place over my bust.

That was when I realized I had no one to zip me up. Willie usually did the deed. I did think, though, that he complained too vigorously about artist-agent professionalism and not looking while he slid the zipper up my back.

I strode barefoot down the passage and chinked open the stage door. I would have preferred Ole Bill, but he was pouring a drink for a white gentleman with silver hair decked out in a seersucker suit. Scissors was closer, so I hissed his name.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Would you kindly zip me up?” Without waiting for a reply, I turned my back to him, showing him my vulnerable skin and the blue band of my bra.

“Sure thing!” he announced with a slight touch of glee.

I felt his hand cover my left shoulder blade, while ever so gently he moved the zipper up my spine. I tingled at his masterful touch. He reached the top and withdrew both hands. Then I felt the knuckles of one hand gently brush down the track from between my shoulder blades to the small of my back. He was smoothing out the creases of my dress, but its effect smoothed out the creases between my legs.

“There you go, ma’am. You a-gonna knock us all out tonight.”

“Thank you, Scissors,” I said, turning and giving him a smile.

Then he was back to welcoming and seating customers. I slipped back to my room.

I heaved up my guitar case and laid it on the cot. I flicked the catches, lifted the lid, and there she was: my dear old Geeshie. Named after the great Delta blues singer Geeshie Wiley. She wasn’t much to look at, an unvarnished six-string acoustic, but she had the softest, sweetest action of any guitar. Gabby and Geeshie were a double act, a package deal.

I lifted her from her cradle, and went to sit down with the guitar on my thigh. She didn’t need much tuning: she held tension well. I curled three fingers into a V-shape, and played out a languorous twelve-bar blues in D. I stretched out my pinkie to hammer on a G, creating a suspension. Geeshie sang true under my touch, the nails of my right hand plucking out the rhythm while the round fingertips of my left sought out the bluest of blues notes.

There was a knock at the door.

“Yes? Hi!”

Ole Bill’s head appeared round the door. “Miss Smuts, we’re fitna get go’n’. Are you ready?”

“Just give me a minute, and I’ll be out.”

“Right you are.” He closed the door and went back out to his customers.

I leaned Geeshie against the table, and then fished out my shoes from the bottom of the garment bag. I slipped into my lucky indigo heels, and stood to settle my feet down into them.

I walked over to the cot, and took my guitar capo and bottleneck slide from the compartment in the neck of the guitar case, and slipped them and my car keys into a hidden pocket I’d sewn into the waistband of my performance dress. I perched on the chair and gave my hair a last tease with my pick.

I emerged through the door beside the stage into the warmth of Ole Bill’s adoring smile.

“I’m a-warm up the crowd for you, OK?”

I nodded, and the old man bounded across the stage a tapped the old box microphone to gain the attention of the crowd.

“Ladies an’ gen’lemen, with great pride Slick’s Swamp Shack presenna you the Diva of the Delta, Miss Gabrielle Smuts!”

Hearty applause erupted all around the room. The fluorescent tubes had been turned off, and the shack was lit only by the hissing kerosene lamps dancing from the rafters. Bill continued his warm-up, describing the moment he first listened to the demo CD that Willie had sent out. The audience was surprisingly mixed: young and old, black and white, rich and poor.

Up front the seersucker gentleman was sat at a table beside a cheerfully voluptuous woman, her ebony skin glowing in the lamplight. Their table was distinguished by a long lace tablecloth and small glass vase of gardenias. Scissors was at the bar exchanging bottles of beer for eagerly outthrust greenbacks, as late customers hustled to get their drinks before the show started.

My focus returned to the stage as Ole Bill heaped superlative upon embarrassing superlative. “Without further ado, I give you Miss Gabrielle Smuts!” The applause rose once more. He reached out his arm towards me, and I was drawn magnetically onto the stage. Bill brushed my cheek with his lips. “Go get ‘em, girl!” He stepped down and went to help Scissors out at the bar.

I looked out from behind the microphone. Every seat was taken and latecomers continued to throng the bar. “Er … Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Gabrielle Smuts, and I want to share with you some old treasures of the blues. Thank you.” There was more applause, as I swung the guitar strap over my shoulder and rechecked its tuning.

I leaped straight into a performance of Etta Baker’s One Dime Blues. It was my regular opener, because the bouncy Piedmont-style finger picking was one way to prove skeptical men in downtown blues clubs that I could play. Coming out of the bridge and looking up from Geeshie’s fretboard for the first time, I saw smiles and tapping feet all round. I rounded out my instrumental showcase and was met with applause.

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, as I re-tuned to an open D major and pulled my chrome bottleneck slide from my waistband. “I think you’ll know this one.” I pulled a hard glissando up Geeshie’s fretboard and she wailed like a Mississippi swamp banshee. The raw sound of the Delta never failed to hit the audience right in the gut. I began a ragged twelve-bar blues, gulped down a breath, and crooned, “If your woman get personal / want you to have your fun.”

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