Bad Blake did not know that "Sister Death" had been inspired by Candy Paz. The good news was, the song was a big hit. The bad news was, pulling one last big drunk damn near killed him. Fucking embarrassing, so soon after completing rehab. He thought he'd hit bottom before rehab. Nope. Hitting bottom was nearly drowning in a roadside ditch in Bumfuck, Arizona. Nothing like making a total ass outta yourself, fresh outta rehab.
Bad’s memories of that night were blurred but hellish. His narrow escape all but forced him to write "Sister Death" as an act of catharsis. It was a bare-bones work, scarcely more than "three chords and the truth," as the saying goes. It was the kind of song folks listened to over and over again, even though it made them weep every time.
He dimly remembered picking up a barfly near Santa Fe and getting drunk in her haunt, even before they hit the liquor store. He had a vague notion of driving in the general direction of Phoenix. Then it seemed his truck died in the boonies. Then with sound, drunken logic he'd ventured out into a desert night made even darker by rain. “Go walk for help,” shit! If he'd been even halfway sober he'd have had the sense to stay in the truck.
Bad’s clearest memory was spraining the hell out of his just-healed ankle and tumbling into the ditch and being unable to rise. But the water was rising just fine. The ditch was doing what it was designed to do: drain water from the road. He'd cracked his head on the way down. Maybe that's what made his life flash before his eyes. More than once. In excruciating detail. He hated himself more than ever, which he hadn't thought possible. Trapped in the mire. Rising water. Sister Death is come for me.
Even swamped in mud, swamped in dread and self-loathing, he tried to justify his life to Sister Death. He’d done some good in his life. He'd created great art. He hadn't killed anybody (not counting himself). He could have run over some little kid or something. Then he thought again of Steven and Buddy. And Jean ... oh, Jeannie, Jeannie! He'd let her down. Let everyone down. But at least he hadn't run over anyone!
Only by the grace of God had he caused no physical harm while drunk. He sure as hell could have killed or maimed someone. Something horrible could have happened to Buddy. Something horrible did happen to Steven. His father had abandoned him. Yours truly, shithead. Bad had abandoned Steven. He'd left his four-year-old son and never looked back. Oh yeah, talk about doing harm while drunk, remember belting his mother? Sent Mary Jo flying halfway across the room. No wonder she up and left you. And here it is, twenty years later. Day late, dollar short. Too fucking late.
God, forgive me. God, help me.
Sister Death was actually there in the mud with him. Her arms were strong and comforting about him, like a mother's embrace of her child. She told him it wasn't his time yet, but she couldn't force him to live if he didn't want to. Your choice, beloved.
Help me. God, help me.
Then there was light and warmth and love and understanding. At least, that's how the song went. It was unclear whether the protagonist lived or died. That made the song even spookier. O Sister Death, sweet Sister Death, take my hand.
Candy's experience was not at all euphoric. There was no epiphany on her end. There was just a soggy drunken fool to get warm and dry. To make things worse, this soggy drunken fool had been Papa's favorite artist ever. Candy also admired Bad Blake. But in her opinion, he wasn't up there with Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams (Senior, not Junior! What, are you kidding?).
"So much for hero-worship, Papa," she grumbled to herself. It would be a slog getting Bad back to his truck. He had a head on her in height, and what with his beer belly and all the mud caked on him, he had to be twice her mass. Turned out, the hardest part was getting him to sit up. The mud about had him fixed in place. She was hip-deep herself by the time she coaxed and pulled and shoved him into a sitting position. Then he had to cough and spit and then puke what he'd ingested.
Candy decided that drastic action was required. She would strip Bad naked and let the pounding rain pound him clean. He could use it. He was head-to-toe mud and vomitus. With his ass still glued in the mud, she peeled off his jacket and shirt and yanked off his boots. He protested rather incoherently about the boots, but she paid him no mind. Not like he could stop her. But he got mad enough to scoot himself out of the ditch. Then he nearly rolled back in. He flopped belly-down, scrabbling at the side of the ditch. He slipped and swore and fought to keep his face out of the flow. Candy took the opportunity to liberate him of his socks, and then his jeans and jockey shorts. The latter action made him loudly incoherent.
"Oh shut up, you old fool," she told him. Now he was hollering about his hat. She didn't know what had become of the hat, and she didn't care. She was wet and freezing and filthy herself. She was almost glad Papa was dead and couldn't see this. His big hero, Bad Blake! Who was now pissing on himself and her too. She wished to hell she'd never thought of subversion via this aspect of American popular culture. Even though she loved country music every bit as much as Papa had.
Candy got Bad rolled well away from the ditch and left him flat on his back. He seemed content to stay there, even with the rain coming down hard. She took off her blouse and skirt and lay them flat for the rain to rinse as well. Thank God this stretch of road was paved. Another mercy: she found a fifth, unshattered and half-full. Candy took a swig. Just a little rain had got into it. She entertained herself by taking various dance-like positions, aiming her muddy spots at the sky for the rain to kiss. Meanwhile, she polished off the fifth. Not ideal nutrition, but it was calories. It warmed her. Thanks to her ISO heritage, she couldn’t get drunk. (That was the theory, anyway. After all, she had to test these theories.)
When she was done dancing with McClure’s Whiskey, she tossed the bottle in the ditch. Looked like her clothes were washed. She gathered them up and sniffed them. No more smell of drunk-piss! She donned them and checked the patient. Bad was snoring heartily. She deemed his front clean, and rolled him onto his belly.
Candy toed off her shoes. They were a loss anyway. Too bad those nice cowboy boots were too goddamn big for her. She rubbed the mud from between her toes. She went through Bad’s jacket, but found no wallet. It was in his jeans. Yeah, a nice, fat wallet! Grinning, she leaned over Bad and slapped his ass a few times. That got some response. He groaned and rolled around. “Get up!” she yelled in his ear. That did no good.
“Shit,” she muttered. She was very strong for her size, but she wasn’t gonna risk herniating herself hefting this fool’s whiskey gut. So she stepped into his cowboy boots and kicked him in the ass. He bellowed with rage and shakily got to his hands and knees. Okay, she’d settle for that. Since he’d hurt his left ankle, she levered herself under his right arm and slowly and carefully got him to his feet. Even minus the mud, he was a heavy load.
They reeled toward the truck in a parody of a three-legged race. Bad couldn’t put any weight on that ankle. He leaned heavily on her and concentrated on attempting speech. His voice was goofy and — ingratiating. Oh, brother. “Awwww sweetie, I’m not mad,” he whined. “I had it comin’.” He continued whining in what Candy assumed was the same vein, and then commenced groping her. Yep, he wasn’t mad. Fine, whatever. She didn’t try to fend him off. Getting groped beat getting throttled.
It wouldn't surprise her one bit if Clu knew just how much of a wreck Bad Blake had become. And she'd thought this would be a cakewalk, as the Americans say. Some cakewalk! God, why didn’t she take the Alan Bradley assignment? She could be in a clean, warm office right now. Well, not right now, it had to be four a.m. by now. Hell, that would be all right. An all-night coding marathon seemed a paradise right now. But, damn, Alan Bradley sounded boring. Plus she had no interest in being a stepmother. Especially not to a seven-year-old boy. Damn, what kind of nimrod named his kid “Jethro,” anyway? Fucking uber-nerd!
No use cussing out Alan Bradley. She’d got herself into this. She was the one who suggested the “hearts and minds” approach. It had been her selling point to Clu. “Country music is about the lives of ordinary people,” she’d told him. “They’re the ones who, uh …” Do the shit work. “They fix the cars and drive the trucks and fight the wars.” A gross oversimplification, but she had to keep her pitch short. “You win them, you win America. You win America, you win the world.”
Candy had been so thrilled and happy when Clu had gone for it. She had pleased him! She had also been surprised. She was pretty sure that Clu’s philosophy was “Get ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Well, the system administrator had no problem with the application of force, but he considered himself a politician as well. After all, what was war but extreme politics?
Yeah. Candy’s brilliant idea. She was a regular archeologist, anthropologist, whatever. How Clu’s praise had warmed her! She was a promising new intelligence agent. She cursed her newly acquired intelligence through chattering teeth. Damn, they’d finally made it to the truck. Hoo-fucking-ray. Candy yanked open the door to the back seat, saw the woman slumped there and laughed aloud. Looked like Bad was no longer pulling high-grade groupies!
With strategically aimed pinches, Candy persuaded Bad to unwrap himself from her. It tooks slaps and kicks to get him crawling up into the truck. "Warm him up," Candy ordered the other woman.
"Sheeee-it," the woman slurred. She was more than a little drunk herself. "He ain’t warming up. His telly-wacker's about the size of a thimble."
Is that what they call it in New Mexico? "He'll get better." Candy shoved Bad at the groupie. He flopped over her lap, ass-up. With a grunt, he barely kept his head from cracking on the floorwell. "Shit!" squawked the groupie. "I'm all wet!" She continued yapping in a loud, whining bray. Candy gritted her teeth at the noise. Nails-on-a-chalkboard time!
Candy slammed the back door behind her and crawled into the front seat. "Calm down, okay? I'll get the truck started and turn on the heater." Damn, it was raining worse than ever. Candy had never heard of monsoons in the desert. She floored the gas, tried the ignition, and sighed with relief. The truck only suffered from a minor electrical problem. She wouldn’t have to pop the hood and brave the deluge. She squeezed her hands on the steering wheel and visualized the schematic. Yeah, easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. Nothing like a little laying on of hands, Grid-style. And there was plenty of gas in the tank. Candy tried the engine again, and it purred to life. She cranked up the heat full blast and wiggled her cold toes. Ahhh, relief! The clammy misery of her soggy clothes also began to abate.
Still yammering, the groupie had joined Candy on the front passenger seat. Since starting to bitch about Bad getting her wet, she had yet to draw breath. Candy laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and shocked her unconscious. Not quite a Vulcan neck-noogie, but it would do. When Ms. Groupie awoke, she would remember nothing of the previous 24 hours. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work. Candy had never pulled that trick before. When you're a brand-new human-ISO hybrid, you have to push the boundaries to see what you can accomplish. Theoretical tests on the Grid are all well and good, but there was no greater proof than field-testing in the User world.
Now for the “social science research.” Candy turned and looked at the patient. At least he wasn’t on the floorwell. Bad lay sprawled across the backseat, breathing slow and deep. She placed one hand on his forehead and another on his chest. She frowned at the readings she got. She was no doctor, but she had a subroutine that dumbed down med-speak for the layman. The man was a ruin. A striking ruin, like those old temples in Mexico, but a ruin nonetheless. He'd pushed his robust constitution to the breaking point. His lungs were permanently damaged. This put great strain on his strong heart. His liver was starting to fail, which put great strain on everything. The cherry on top was cancer. Deadly seeds had already spread from his lungs. Metastasized, to use the fancy medical word.
Bad Blake, the beloved idol of Candy's beloved late father, was a walking dead man. Unless someone worked their ISO magic on him. Candy shed her panties, crawled into the back seat and climbed atop him. There was no eroticism to the position. They both still suffered from slippery skin. Candy was preoccupied with not falling off. Okay, pal, how’s the telly-wacker working? Wake up, sleeping beauty! On impulse, she leaned way forward and gently kissed his snoozing face. Just like a Disney movie. The insensate prince must have been gorgeous in his youth. Maybe even prettier than Kris Kristofferson … Yeah, first things first. I'm supposed to be doing research here. Doing research and laying traps.
Candy lay her head on his chest and applied her palms to his flanks. Her awareness went dancing through his body. God, there was so much shit to undo, where to start? First things first. That bump on the head had aggravated an old injury. Scan his head, hell, scan everyplace for weak spots in the big fucking blood vessels. Okay, done. Patched. Go hunter-killer on the cancer cells. Lungs. Fucking incipient emphysema. Patched. Heart is basically sound, just overworked. Liver … holy Mother! Fucking complicated. Don’t think so much, Candy, let your subroutine do the patching. Don’t get in a hurry. You’re programmed to do this automatically. Don’t be so fucking curious.
That was hard to Candy to do. She was naturally too curious … oh ho, speaking of curiosity, she’d piqued his interest. Bad Blake was responding to treatment. Or at least to her warm weight atop him.
Candy wished she could get drunk. She didn’t especially feel like coitus right now. Hell, she’d planned on it. It sped up the healing. Technobabble, blah blah, something about immuno-auras, nervous systems, or something. Become one flesh, man. And the whole enmeshing thing would come in handy later if she needed it. But she was getting nervous. She wanted to hurry up and get out of here.
Candy thought she was making good time. Not even 24 hours in the User world and she’d unobtrusively obtained clothes, money, and fake ID. She’d even bought a shitty-looking van that just needed a little tender loving care, and provisioned it as a domicile. But it was already five in the morning. She had to be in Las Vegas in twelve hours. And there was still her mother to deal with.
If she hadn’t felt pressed for time, she might have enjoyed herself. But she didn't. The act of love felt pointless and stupid. She was fulfilling a cliche: in the back of a truck, wearing cowboy boots. In a monsoon! Well, okay, the monsoon wasn’t part of the cliche, but it seemed funny as hell to Candy. Ride ‘im, cowgirl! She laughed, then winced. Damn. This was on the level of an uncomfortable pelvic exam. But it was nothing, nothing! She had survived much worse. Come on, pal, come on!
Candy grimly persisted. She discovered that she was still capable of sweating. By the end, he was shouting a name. Candy didn’t care who she was. Some poor fool woman got her heart broke by Big Bad Blake, the Wrangler of Love. God, he smelled like a sewer full of spittoons. Poison was boiling up from his skin. It was like boinking the Toxic Avenger. Then he (finally!) finished thrashing and got comatose. Which made Candy glad she’d been on top. At least he didn’t spunk a big load. He must have just done the groupie. No wonder the fucking seemed to take fucking forever.
Candy shimmied back into her panties. Good-bye, Bad Blake. When he woke up, he’d feel nauseous and exhausted. She smiled at the thought. Sick and tired! Plus he’d have a Godzilla-stomping-Tokyo of a hangover. Then he would start feeling much better. Assuming her healing subroutine knew what it was doing. Well, it did, and Bad owed her big-time. She was gonna take that fat wallet of his. Over two thousand dollars folding money. What the hell was the man thinking, taking that with him on a toot? So her outing hadn’t been a total loss. Except for her shoes.
She looked at Ms. Groupie’s feet. Hmmm. Might be a bit small, but they’d have to do …
The groupie/barfly, one Donna Stolpa, awoke when rays of sunrise alighted on her face. She freaked upon finding herself in a strange vehicle with a stranger. A naked stranger. Even if he was comatose in the back seat. Her first impulse was to run away from him, but she was barefoot and no footwear was in sight. So she drove away from him. Tried to, anyway. Hey, it made perfect sense at the time. Ms. Stolpa caused the truck to weave and swerve and almost strike a school bus. Then she barreled into a drainage ditch. Upon this sudden stop, Bad was flung into the front seat. Ms. Stolpa screeched and climbed into the far back.
The school bus blew a tire avoiding collision. The school bus driver called the cops on his CB. Then he and the most reliable of the big kids went to work changing the tire. They left the other kids, protesting, in the bus. They all could hear Ms. Stolpa still screeching inside the truck. Either the doors were jammed or she couldn’t remember how to open them.
Ten minutes later, Bad Blake was awakened by the Navajo Tribal Police breaking the windshield. It was seriously cracked anyway. Since the truck was nose-down in the ditch, the (former) windshield was the exit nearest the ground. The unclothed Otis Blake, as he identified himself, could provide neither ID nor vehicle registration. The police had noticed some apparel in the road. The cowboy boots and tighty whities were especially noticeable. Mr. Blake’s wallet, and Ms. Stolpa’s shoes, had gone missing. Mr. Blake affirmed that he was the owner and driver of the 1978 Suburban. Verbatim: “Nobody drives Bess but me.” Which was the wrong thing to say, because the Navajos had got pro-active when it came to DUI.
Every single child on the schoolbus insisted that they had to pee. Upon leaving the bus, they forgot about their bladders and avidly watched the fine display of human folly. While Officer Murphy interviewed Ms. Stolpa, Mr. Blake failed a roadside sobriety test administered by Officer Erlich. Consequently, he arrested, handcuffed and mirandized Mr. Blake. He took the precaution of placing Mr. Blake face down on the tarmac and sitting on his back before taking a blood sample from his ass. Officer Erlich was kind enough to vigorously disinfect the extraction site first.
The bus driver thought this was the perfect opportunity for an object lesson. “You see what happens when you drive drunk?” he told the kids. History would prove him right about one thing: none of the kids ever forgot the sight. Decades later, it would take a fleet of schoolbuses to hold those who claimed to have witnessed the buck naked Bad Blake get a ten-gauge needle in the ass for a drunk test.
Bad felt like one big bruise and barely felt the big needle. “For fuck’s sake, at least let me get some clothes on,” he protested. Goddamn, his head hurt.
“Sorry, sir,” said Officer Erlich, keeping an almost straight face as he applied a Little Mermaid band-aid to the extraction site. “Procedure. You go in the way we found you.”
“Don’t we have any drunk blankets?” asked Officer Murphy. Children were present!
“Fresh out,” said Officer Erlich. But he relented when Ms. Stolpa supplied a tarp from the far back of the truck. She felt kind of guilty about sticking Bad with the rap.
Thus made decent by tarp, Otis Arthur Blake, Junior was escorted by the good officers to the Crownpoint field office of the Navajo Tribal Police. There he posed for what would become his most famous portrait. In decades to come, that mugshot would appear on bootleg T-shirts, posters, and (ha!) mugs. It would be legally, officially, and copywritedly featured on the cover of Sister Death, Bad’s next album with Tommy Sweet.
After being mugshot and fingerprinted, Bad phoned his AA sponsor. Good thing he had the number memorized, being as his wallet was gone. “Holy shit, Bad. I could help if you were here in Houston, but you’re in goddamn Indian country. Call your agent. No, one phone call, right? I’ll call him, gimme his number. What the hell happened?”
Bad gave Jack’s number. “I’m … shit, I’m not sure what happened, Ed. Shit. Some crazy fucking … just some seriously weird shit …” He had a hard time finding words. “Even if they yank my license, even if they lock me up … I’m … happy.” Bad’s voice was wondering, almost awed. “My head feels like fuckin’ World War Three, but I’m happy. Happy to be alive. Happy I didn’t run over anybody.”
Then Bad found words. Edwina made sympathetic noises as he waxed eloquent as hell about his epiphany. She didn’t really listen. Sounded like he was high on life and America! Edwina prayed to the good Lord for patience. She also prayed that this would be Bad’s last relapse, because another one would kill him. It was a miracle this one hadn’t. She gave thanks for that. (Her jaw about hit the floor when she next saw Bad, at their regular AA meeting in Houston. He looked at least ten years younger. A miracle!)
Bad’s agent Jack had very mixed feelings on this latest spree. Okay, no such thing as bad publicity. Bad’s weary, weathered, but still handsome face scowled at the world from below the fold of the nation’s front pages. (Must have been a slow news day.) Hell, it even made international news! Although there was some confused reporting that he’d been arrested in India. Nope, he’d run afoul of redskins, not red dots. But these particular redskins were hard-asses on drunk drivers, and Bad’s blood alcohol had been zero point fifteen of one percent.
Bad got lucky. His first wreck had been considered a simple case of falling asleep at the wheel; no blood alcohol test had been done. So this, his second, wreck was his first DUI offense. The Navajos didn’t lock him up, but they did yank his license. The courtroom was packed for the occasion. A rumor had spread that Tommy Sweet would be there to vouch for his mentor, friend and favorite songwriter. This rumor proved false, but people stayed for the show anyway. It turned out to be a brief entertainment.
Judge Begay spoke softly, but he could glare the ticks off a dog. He seemed to take personal offense at the fact that all he could inflict for a first offense was a yanked license and a whopping big fine. “Mr. Blake. You return to my court with another DUI, you will do time.” Bad was all slicked up and made respectable-looking. He stayed silent and tried to look repentant. “You cause bodily injury in the Navajo Nation, I’m talking serious time. Remember, there is such an offense as vehicular homicide. Boo hoo, you didn’t mean to kill anybody. I don’t wanna hear it. You chose to get drunk and get behind the wheel of a five-thousand-pound vehicle. Do not return to my court, Mr. Blake. Next!”
Being as they were already acquainted, the judge had Officers Murphy and Erlich process Bad and escort him from the premises. They got his autograph before he left for his next gig. Well, what happened was, Tommy Sweet drove up as Bad’s ride, and all the officers’ female relatives would kill them if they didn’t get Tommy’s autograph. (Even the most old-time of Navajo women had heard of Tommy Sweet. Even the eldest of them squealed over him like little girls. It was a disturbing thing to see.) Then Tommy informed the officers that everything he knew worth learning, he’d learned from Bad Blake. So it would have been rude to not ask for Bad’s autograph as well.
For once, Bad didn’t mind not being the star. He was still happy. He was alive. He felt one hell of a lot better. He hadn’t hurt anyone. And he still had never missed a single performance. Never in his life had he no-showed. It was a good day to live! “Cousin Murphy,” Bad commented as he finished autographing. “My mama’s maiden name.”
“Yeah. I’m what they call red Irish.”
Bad raised his eyebrows at the other cop. “Red Kraut,” replied Officer Erlich. He was glad that Bad held no grudge over the big needle in the ass.
“I’m Kraut-Mick myself,” Bad said with a conspiratorial air. He got in the passenger seat and waved. “Farewell, cousins!”
The officers watched with some disbelief as Tommy drove away in his vintage Lincoln Mark Four. That had been slick. Guess the big star wanted to remain anonymous for once.
Regarding the previous women in Bad Blake’s life:
When the story broke, Jean Craddock was at the offices of The Sun Times in Santa Fe. She had herself a brief, intense cry in the ladies’ room. Then she washed her face with cold water, reapplied her make-up, and returned to work. She suffered from mixed feelings. She hurt for Bad, she really did, but now she felt totally right about ending things. She resolved to start responding to the shy advances of her colleague, the boring nice guy. Ms. Craddock would marry said nice guy before year’s end.
Donna Stolpa never did regain the memory of those 24 hours. She cussed out the social worker at the Crownpoint field office who gently suggested that maybe she should think about seeking treatment, because blackouts were serious stuff. However, when Bad’s career got back on track, Ms. Stolpa sold an article, “My Lost Weekend of Love With Bad Blake.” It was all inspirational about how she’d been part of that famous incident and how she’d seen the light and got her life back on track too. Unfortunately, this was not true. Her alcoholism would kill her before she turned fifty.