The last time Ryan Hobkins felt the pain was at Fat Joe’s Bar, a small dive nestled in between two more successful joints in the heart of Nashville. He played there every other Friday. After two years in the city and a decent amount of success, the bar began advertising his gigs with posters in the window and his own drink special—The Hobkins, a whiskey sour with two extra shots and a bit of orange juice. He had a decent following of old bikers with a soft spot for folk and slutty college girls. The bar was small with a terrible layout, and the microphones were usually on the fritz, so he had to sing louder than usual. But he drank for free and the bartenders knew him.
He was halfway through his set and playing “Lucy,” a song about leaving and returning, which he wrote on his ride out of Chicago years ago. He was the perfect amount of drunk where he didn’t slur his words but his voice sounded scratchy and worn. The pain started, and the single spotlight hanging above him seemed to grow brighter, intense in his eyes. He tried looking down at the line of young women leaning on the edge of the stage, but he could only see white lights forming in the corners of his vision. He ended the song early, stumbled to the bathroom, and vomited.
He sat on the toilet while the pain ebbed. The manager was nice and allowed him to finish his set about a half and hour later and didn’t argue payment—despite the disruption.
“Drink too much?” Lynn asked. She poured him another.
“Who the hell knows anymore,” Hobkins said. “Getting too old or something.”
“Twenty-three’s the new fifty,” she said.
Hobkins scanned the bar. They were now playing from a collection of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, and most of the college girls had left for more drinks at a better place. Disheveled old men in leather jackets leaned over the counter with thick cigars in their mouths. Every once in a while, someone came up to congratulate him on the performance or make suggestions for the next show.
“You seem to be making quite a name for yourself,” Lynn said as she uncapped a beer bottle. “Maybe one day they’ll fix the spotlight so you don’t look like a ghost up there.”
Lynn threw back a shot of Jack Daniels, a gift from a man at the end of the bar with a grizzly grey beard and a neck tattoo. She grimaced and stretched her arms behind her back, which made her breasts look nice in her black tank top. He had gone home with her a few months back after closing down the bar. He was too drunk to remember much, except that his dog Rowdy didn’t like her and tried to push her off the bed. Ever since, she pretended like nothing happened.
Most nights they talked while he drank. She’d tell him about the horror movies she’s seen, no-name indie slashers with tons of blood and broken bones and more screaming than actual dialogue. He’d tell her about the songs he was writing, which were mostly about old memories or things he made up to sound real.
“Your song’s are all about breakups,” Lynn said once. “You must be the loneliest guy in the world.”
He had had only a few breakups. Usually he never stayed with anyone long enough for an actual goodbye, just a casual understanding that their time together was over.
But there was Jess, a backwoods darling with buckteeth and red hair. Her mom was full-blooded Irish and her father was part Navajo, raised on a ranch out in Arizona. He was a real bastard of a man, and hated every moment he spent outside of his home state. He’d tell Jess old Navajo folktales to keep her line. As a kid she never wanted to sleep inside, and would sneak out to camp in the pasture.
“My dad would tell me about these evil spirits,” she said. “Men who killed what they loved most and became monsters. No one knows what they look like because they can take the form of wolves or crows or a person.”
Jess was a storyteller and talked with large, swooping, rhythmical motions of her hands. Her voice dropped and rose like a song, and she drew him in closer like she was telling him a secret. They sat on the hood of his car when she told this story, and she looked off into the night like she was speaking to the darkness itself.
“He warned me that they’d lure me in with the voices I wanted to hear, like my mother or sister, and then lead me out into the dark and steal my face.”
She paused for dramatic effect. A dog howled in the distance.
“They’re scary like that,” she said. “They could be anyone.”
When Hobkins told Lynn about the spirits she didn’t understand.
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” she said.
He was drunk that night, more than usual, so he thought he had missed a part of the story.