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The Best Bad Influence

Chapter Text

Written by BadabingBoogeyTheSecond 

Edited by Nanianela

For a car that was only seven years old the red chassis, white roofed and chrome detailed 1965 Cadillac El Diablo coupe de ville had seen a lot. After two years in the hands of a small business owner it had been sold to a pawn shop on Glass Shards Beach, New Jersey, to help pay for a deposit on a new townhouse in the nicer section of town. By 1970 it had been a steady presence for two trips down to Florida to see Bubbe and Zayde, overseen driving lessons for twin boys with drastically different driving styles, had speedily rushed a tall, thin, dark haired woman to the hospital so that she could give birth to a little boy named Shermie, and had delicately transported something called a “perpetual motion device” to the science fair at the local high school.

In the fall of 1970 its white leather steering wheel had absorbed the bitter tears of a seventeen year old freshly severed from the family tree. By the summer of 1971 El Diablo had crisscrossed six states as its new, young owner zipped from one local legend promising wealth and fame to the next hot lead. By August 15, 1972 the mission of the driver had not changed, but much of the El Diablo had. Still heading west, its pristine red leather interior, so delicately cared for by the pawn shop owner, was now covered in varying layers of dust, dirt, sand, old food wrappers, laundry, and unmentionable spots from fast and lonely trysts. El Diablo's air conditioner had long since died by the time its driver was zooming down route 395. It hadn't had an oil change in 7,000 miles. The white plastic top of the roof was starting to chip and flake off in the wind. Most people, when they saw El Diablo, thought it was dingy. It's owner, one Stanley Pines, thought El Diablo had character to go with his own – rough, but nothing a little love and care couldn't fix. When it could be afforded.

Stanley Pines had driven all night from Carson City, Nevada, spurred on by a bitter combination of hopefulness and desperation. He was completely broke. Maybe if he fished around in the red leather seats he could come up with a few quarters or dimes, but even that was wishful thinking. He needed a break and he needed it fast. So far the only money he had brought in during the last nineteen months had been from pick pocketing drunks or pawning valuables nabbed during burglaries. His treasure hunting expeditions had all been a bust. He'd doggedly chased after one local legend to the next, hoping each time that this time would be the big one, the moneymaker. Mostly he'd been met with disappointment when the legends had turned out just to be embellished fables. Other times he had dug down only to find an empty box, some molding mementos and post cards, or this one time when he had found the remains of someone's pet. And then there were the rare instances when he had found, what he could only describe as “other things”.

Four months ago his “covert” descent into Dream Mine in Salem, Utah had unearthed some ungodly snake-like something that had chased Stan back to his car and then six miles down the road. He'd only outrun it when he had merged onto route fifteen and sped like hell down to Provo. Before that it had been his search for the lost gold of the Overland Express that had nearly cost him his life. Who knew that a boot full of plundered gold could curse an entire town and turn it and anyone who held the boot into a shrieking, clawing hell beast? As Stan had gunned the engine and outrun that particular disaster he had wished, not for the first time, that his twin brother Stanford had been with him.

Of the two of them Stanford had been the brains. His smarts, combined with his love of sci-fi mystery weirdness, would have been just what those kind of situations called for. If Stanford had been there he wouldn't have had to run away. He could have whipped up some sciencey gadget to... he didn't know, blow up the ghost or whatever that had been chasing Stanley. Stanford would have had a plan for the unexpected. He'd always had a plan for the unexpected. At least, most of the unexpected. He hadn't counted on unpredictable family members, had he.

The sweat-yellowed leather of the steering wheel crinkled under his grip. Now wasn't the time to think about that. About how he had... no, now wasn't the time! It was five in the morning, he hadn't slept in twenty nine hours, and he needed to come up with a plan for how he was going to get to his end destination – Quail Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park.

He needed music. The occasional slap to the cheek felt like it wasn't going to keep working for much longer. Stan fiddled with the chrome rimmed dashboard until he picked up a decent station. Music was what he needed right now. It always helped to take his mind off his troubles. But this far in the middle of Nowhere, California would he be able to even find anything good? It seemed most of the Midwest hadn't really moved past the 1950s in musical taste. God, he was sick of gospel and primitive rock and roll. Elvis had some okay songs and he could appreciate how modern rock wouldn't have really taken off without him and Fats Domino, but he was sick to death of Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. And damn him if he could stand to hear more Little Richard or the Everly Brothers. Ma Pines would have loved Kansas. It was Buddy Holy as far as sound waves could travel.

The sun was just beginning to peak over the grey horizon when Stan's persistence paid off.

Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
I don't need to fight

To prove I'm right
I don't need to be forgiven

The Who, “Baba O'Riley”. Yes. Stan took it as a good sign. This was really going to be it, the one where he’d make it big. Hell, this definitely called for a cigarette. Stan shifted to reach into his pocket and pull out the crumpled pack of Camel cigarettes. It was a habit he had quickly picked up after he left home. It had eaten up most of his money when he first started, but he felt that he had needed it back then. Each thin white tube packed with sweet, sweet nicotine was like a calming hand stroking down his spine. He pushed in the lighter on the dash and placed the paper stick in his lips, holding it there loosely as he rolled down the window with his left hand. Thirty seconds and he could have that first glorious pull of the day.

The song continued to play,

Don't look past my shoulder
The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let's get together

Before we get much older
Teenage wasteland
It's only teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland”

As the last frantic notes of the song started to swell Stan lit the cigarette and began to inhale. The song picked up speed, and he continued to pull on the tobacco. Closing his eyes, he lifted the cigarette out of his mouth between his right index and middle fingers. The song reached it's peak and faded away. He exhaled. That beautiful nicotine hit him almost instantly and he could feel his whole body relax. The knots in his back released and his hands shook slightly on the steering wheel, but he felt more awake and happy than he had in days.

“That was The Who with “Baba O'Riley.” Said the raspy voiced radio DJ. “Up next we have something new from those smug, limey gods, Free.”

Stan’s lips split open into a wide grin, flashing all of his teeth. Now this was good scheming music.

To the encouraging lyrics of Free's “All Right Now” Stan began to sketch out his next moves. Ultimately he knew what he had to do. Step one, get to Joshua Tree. Step two, drive to the east side of Quail Mountain and hike halfway up to the summit. Step three, dig up the lockbox that had been buried there by the MacCready brothers back in the 1800s. That was it. And the best part was that this time Stan hadn't heard even a whisper about any curses, monsters, ghosts or accompanying weirdness. Just a metal box buried under a rock with a tree next to it that had an X carved into the bark. Easy peasy. It was a simple plan, but that was what Stan liked so much about it. There was very little he could mess up.

Now for how his broke ass was going to make it the rest of the way to the mountain. Collectively he had a grand total of three pairs of jeans, three t-shirts, a black burglar's mask, a metal detector, a shovel, a half full kerosene lamp, a loaded gun, and a set of bed sheets he had pilfered from a motel back in Maryland. He had no cash remaining after filling the car up back in Nevada and the park was going to be at least another six hours away. But this time it would all be worth it, he just knew it. It had to be. He wasn't going to get rich enough to go home via the breaking and entering he did. That barely gassed up the car, got him a bite to eat, or even an occasional motel room. But if he could make it as a treasure hunter, oh, that would be such a satisfying reunion. His bastard father wanted Stan to make the family a fortune? He'd throw a fortune in gold doubloons right in his pocked, fat face!And as for his brother; Stanford would see what a mistake it was to choose some stuffy college over Stanley and a life on the road— or their promised open seas of adventure. Stan figured he’d find it in him to forgive Stanford pretty quickly. That way they could start hunting for infamy and adventure as a team almost right away. They could finish repairing the Stan O' War, sail around the world, and be an unstoppable duo of explorers, just like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Green Hornet and Kato, or Batman and Robin. Maybe even as great as Lewis and Clark, or the any of the other members of the Society of the Holy Mackerel. Just like they had talked about ever since they had discovered the wreckage of that old sailboat when they were kids.

The ranks of the Society of the Holy Mackerel were filled with some of the greatest men and women of the last thousand years, and ever since one of their ceremonial fezs had been procured in the family pawn shop it had been the dream of the twins to make sure that it saw greatness once more. It had been the their dream anyway.

-*-*-

It was eight in the morning when Stan pulled into the center of town in Morongo Valley. He'd somehow managed to bungle the turnoff from route 395 to state route 16 and had ended up on interstate 15. That road had taken him right into the heart of San Bernadino, well west of Joshua Tree. Precious time and gas later he'd managed to get back on track. The tank was now down to a quarter full and Stan's exhaustion was mounting.

There wasn't much to Morongo Valley, he noticed. He'd passed a post office, a town hall that doubled as a church, and a couple mom and pop stores ranging from a grocery store to a hardware store, and lastly a small patch of grass that served as the town green. El Diablo had just a tiny bit of gas left in its tank, but Stan figured that would be enough to get him to Yucca Valley. He could park the car in a commuter lot and walk the rest of the way to Quail Mountain if worse came to worse. But before he went the last leg of his journey, breakfast was in order. He was cramping so badly with hunger he could feel it ache under his collarbone.

Cruising down the middle of town Stan surveyed his options. He'd rather not lift from a locally owned place if he could help it, and he didn't think he had it in him right now to pull a dine and dash at a local diner. He was sure that his presence had already been noted as an out of towner given his New Jersey license plates. If he had to outrun the local sherif he would probably overshoot Yucca Valley, and he wasn't sure he could even do that given the poor state of his gas tank.

The morning sun caste a deep golden glow on the buildings as Stan pulled up to a stop light and spotted his target. Illuminated by the rising sun and half cast in blue shadows, the dusty and faded sign indicated a Dollar General. Perfect. Stan rolled up the windows and parked the car, the stillness after hours of rumbling behind his back a very welcome sensation. He pocketed the keys with a jingle and stepped out onto the freshly laid asphalt. The air smelled sweet; an interesting combination of dew, early autumn morning, tar, car exhaust and something arid that was solely present in desert climates. Pulling on his red letterman jacket Stan strolled confidently into the store. The bell over the door jingled merrily as he stepped in. He smiled politely at the cashier, a good looking, clean shaven guy with a plaid shirt and jeans. He wore a store apron with the tag proclaiming him to be “Henry”. Surprisingly Stan wasn't the first one in the store at such an early hour. Two men and a woman were also there perusing the wares, although their attention seemed to be solely captivated by the camping gear aisle.

All three had heavy backpacks and walking sticks, although the woman was the only one wearing a bandana to keep her shockingly blonde, sun bleached hair out of her face. The men simply let their long bangs fall into their faces while their shoulder length hair either fell in careless strands or was tied back into a short ponytail. Their legs looked like they had a permanent layer of sweat drenched dust attached to them, but physically they looked strong without an ounce of fat. They certainly looked like hippies, but hippies wouldn't have bothered mounting their lives on their backs just to enter a Dollar General. Besides, Stan hadn't seen any other cars in the parking lot. He would have definitely noticed a hippie caravan. It didn't matter in any case. They looked more likely to shoplift than a teenager wearing jeans and a red letterman with white sleeves. The clerk would be so busy keeping an eye on them that he wouldn't give a second thought to the New Jersey boy deciding which candy bars he was going to walk away with.

Stan had already pocketed a bag of toffee peanuts and a Hershey's bar when his ears picked up two of his favorite words – “free” and “food”. He listened in more intently from the next aisle over as he pretended to debate between which bag of chips he was going to choose.

“-trail magic on the way to the turn-on to the trail head.”

“Christ, I hope that they have Snickers waiting for us. All I can think about is food!” bemoaned the man whose hair was tied up in a low ponytail.

“Josh, shut up. We know. We're all there with you.” Said the other man as he picked up some kerosene and placed it in their shopping cart.

“That breakfast should sustain us for at least a little bit, though. Spice Kit and Coconuts make some crazy pancakes.” The woman chuckled. “It was generous of them to let us stay for so little in return, too.” She raised a packet of instant mashed potatoes in the air and said, “Cheers to Spice Kit and Coconuts. Two of the most hospitable trail angels this side of the Sierra Nevada.” The men returned her enthusiasm to varying degrees. They continued to pile things into their shopping cart, debating the weight and necessity of having to carry one item over the other in their backpacks.

“Spice Kit and Coconuts?” They were definitely hippies. Hippies who were walking their way around the country rather than driving. Hippies, in Stan's experience, were some of the biggest freeloading mooches he had come across on the road. He'd been stiffed on gas money three times, robbed once, and even had a girlfriend stolen by a hippie. There were two things Stan had learned quickly – don't offer anything without getting some payment up front, and beware of getting involved with hippies. On the other hand, this group knew about a place that would offer big meals and a place to sleep for next to nothing. Hippie or not it was always a good idea to chat up others who were used to life on the road. Seasoned travelers would know the closest place to crash and the cheapest place to eat. He hated to admit it to himself, but he would need to sleep at some point if he was going to have the strength to climb Quail Mountain and then dig up the treasure.

His mind made up, Stan stepped around the end cap of the aisle and approached the small group.

“Hey, folks.” He said, cheerfully raising his hand in greeting. “Couldn't help overhearing you talk there, and I couldn't help but say hi to some fellow hikers.”

The group all turned to look at Stan. Taking him in he could see it on their faces that this would be a hard sell. Unlike them he wasn't wearing anything remotely resembling hiking equipment, nor was he thin to the point of emaciated like they were. He didn't have a deep tan like they did, nor was he particularly muscular in the legs like them. And in his letterman jacket with his red converse he looked more like he had just come from a football game rather than from hiking in the wilderness for months on end.

Ponytail looked him up and down and with a neutral tone said, “You're a hiker?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” asked Blondie.

“No no, I assure you I'm a hiker too.” Stan laughed and rubbed the back of his head with his hand. “I just don't look it since I'm...” Come on Stan-y boy, you could think of something. “taking some time off from the trail.” He shrugged.

“Although I'm hoping to get back on in the near future.” Time to throw in a little bit of truth. Every lie needed a little pinch of it to work. “Actually, I'm heading to Joshua Tree National Park later today to do some hiking.”

“Oh.” Said Shoulder Length Hair. He looked at his companions before asking in an inquiring tone, “Are you section hiking the PCT?”

He had no idea what that was. “You bet I am.” Stan fibbed. “Best way to see the PCT in my opinion.”

Right as he said it he could tell it was the wrong thing to say. Matching knowing looks passed between the group, and small smiles pressed to their lips.

“What sections have you hiked so far?”

“Well, nothing further south than San Diego.” Time to tread lightly. “I'm pretty new to the idea of a long hike, actually.” He shrugged again and looked sheepish. “I'll probably not make it further than Bakersfield before I call it quits again. My job won't let me take too much time off, after all.”

One look at their faces told Stan that he better wrap this up sooner than later. “So, did you guys come from Joshua Tree?”

“Yeah.” Ponytail said.

“I'll be heading there myself this afternoon. It's been a year since I got off of the PCT, but I figured Joshua Tree would be as good a place as any to train.” Stan nodded to his battered car just visible through the glass behind the counter.

“Well,..”, said Blondie. “we wish you the best.” The group turned and started to make their way to the front of the store.

“Thanks.” Damn, he was blowing this. Come on Stan, think, here. “One last thing.”

Shoulder Length Hair and Blondie stopped to look at him. Ponytail kept walking up to make his purchase with Henry.

“I overheard you say that you knew Spice Kit and Coconuts.”

“Yeah!” Blondie lit up at that. “Do you know them?”

“Not personally, but my folks did on the trail. They're still showing that famous PCT hospitality?”

“You know it.” Shoulder Length Hair said with a wink.

Stan laughed. “They didn't charge you too much to stay with them, did they?”

“Not at all! All I had to do was feed some chickens.” Blondie said delightedly. Her brown eyes were wide and engaging now that they were discussing the trail angels. “Evan and Josh had to take care of some horses. Brush them down and water them and then, ya know, free room and board for the night.”

Very interesting. “They still have that little place nearby?”

“Well, I wouldn't call their farm or a two story house in the desert little,” Blondie snickered, “but yeah. It's a beacon of hospitality to those heading to or from Joshua Tree.”

“Oh good! They're still on route 62 at least. Good for them for upgrading to something bigger.”

Neither hiker corrected Stan. Instead they just smiled sweetly and nodded their mutual interest.

“Well, you guys take care. Happy hiking!” Stan said as he casually walked out of the store. Henry didn't even give him a second glance.

So, it seemed there was a place for crunchy people to get a roof over their head and food for practically nothing. All you had to be was a hiker, eh? Stan nodded to himself. He could sell that story. After all, it would be one of the more truthful stories he had sold over the last two years.

-*-*-

The needle had been hovering over E for the last three miles and Stan was starting to get nervous. His eyes were strained from peering at the glaring horizon and the harsh light bouncing off of yellow sands, looking for any sign of a white, two story home. There hadn't been much sign of anything aside from scrub brush, rocks and sand for miles. The sun wasn't being any help either, with it beating down sizzling rays that flashed painfully in his eyes as he tried to spot anything that might indicate civilization.

The lack of sleep was starting to catch up to him, and once or twice he'd nearly run off the road into the ditch. His eyes felt scratchy and dry, his mouth was parched and sticky from his sugary candy breakfast, and his left arm was painfully sunburned from resting on the open window. Why hadn't he thought to grab a water bottle when he had been in the Dollar General. The sugar had given him a nice spike of energy at first, but now as the sugar rush ran out he felt worn down and sluggish. He should have nabbed something more substantial, like some beef jerky or trail mix... but what did he know about feeding himself? Not like anyone had taught him, or had eased him into it. It was Ma Pine’s hearty beef stew one night, and then an empty stomach and disownment the next.

El Diablo made it another half mile before the engine finally sputtered and died. Not bothering to pull entirely off the road, Stan let the momentum carry the car as far as it could before the vehicle coasted to a slow stop. He couldn't believe this. He wished he’d never made that wrong turn a while back. God, he was so stupid! He let his forehead bump against the steering wheel and hissed a defeated breath through his clenched teeth. He had just meant to close his eyes for a second to gather his thoughts, but a wave of absolute exhaustion overtook him and before he knew what was happening he was asleep with his arms pillowing his head on the wheel.

Most of the day must have passed because when Stan next surfaced to consciousness the sun was well past its zenith. His back was killing him. At least he felt somewhat rested if no less discouraged. Stan stood next to the car trying to stretch out the kinks in his spine and took another look down the road. With the sun out of his eyes and the silvery mirages somewhat abated, the teen could just make out a big white blob. It was too far away for his nearsighted vision to distinguish clearly, but it definitely didn't look like a natural shape. There was nothing for it. He'd have to put the car in drive and walk it down the road. No way was he going to leave his home on the side of the highway for someone to come along and mess with.

A mile later and Stan could now make out the clear outline of a square, white washed two story house. “Oh thank Moses in heaven.” he gasped out. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up if he didn't have the house beckoning him closer. It was easy enough to put the car in drive and walk along beside it, his right hand reaching into the car to grip and direct the steering wheel while his left pushed against the open driver side door in front of him. It wasn't the distance itself that was even the problem. The sun was getting lower now, but its last rays beat down with pulsing brutality. The dry California air had pretty much sucked any remaining moisture out of his mouth that the sugar hadn't already dried up. The steady “slap slap slap” of his Converse as they rhythmically came down on the hot tarmac kept pace with his inhales and exhales. Any remaining skin not covered by cloth was going to be a tender red by the time the sun set behind the mountains.

It had to have been at least five thirty in the evening by the time Stan, exhausted by the heat and dizzy from lack of water, rolled El Diablo to a stop in the entrance to a long dirt driveway. Small twin puffs of dust flew up into the air as the car came to a complete halt. Stan wasted no time. He put the car in park, grabbed his bugout bag, slung it over his shoulder, slammed the door shut, locked it, and trudged up the path. Walking right up into the blessed shade of the porch he gave four short raps on the doorframe and set his bag at his feet. When the middle aged couple saw the poor, sweat soaked and sunburnt man panting on their welcome mat they didn't even ask any questions before ushering him into the kitchen. He was clearly about to keel over and couldn't possibly pose them much threat. Besides, this was the country. They had a shotgun handy if he proved them wrong.

-*-*-

It didn't seem like he was going to prove them wrong. This Roger person seemed like such a nice young man. He had been on his way to Joshua Tree to prepare for the next leg of his trek along the Pacific Crest Trail when his car had run out of gas. Young people could be so absent minded sometimes. And of course they would be willing to provide him with room a board for the night. He had, after all, heard about them from other PCT hikers, and who would Coconuts and Spice Kit be if they didn't help out a fellow hiker? He sounded capable enough at fixing things given his career as a mechanic in Phoenix, so all he needed to do to earn his keep was to fix a small section of the horse enclosure and feed the pigs. Poor thing had been about to fall over when he had shown up, so the less strenuous the job the better. He'd need his strength when he got to Joshua Tree, after all.

-*-*-

That had to have been the easiest sell he had ever made. Maybe he should play the “honest” and “dying of thirst” cards more often, thought Stan. He'd gotten more than he could have ever expected from these suckers! A free can of gas for the car, two meals and a cot out on the porch for the night was a sweet exchange for nailing some boards in place and slopping some pigs. Sure, he had to share the space with another person who had already made arrangements to stay with the “trail angels”, or whatever, but it was still far better than sleeping in the car. He'd have to remember this trick in the future. Man, hiker-hippies had it good.

“Note to self,” Stan said aloud to himself as he hammered some nails into the heavy wooden planks surrounding the dusty horse enclosure. “Hiker: the perfect disguise.” He stepped back to survey his work. One of the nails at the right corner of the fence was only halfway in and bent in the middle, but it looked like it would hold. Probably. Sure, it wouldn't withstand a direct kick from one of the ornery, brown horses mulling around in the enclosure, but what were the chances of that happening in the first place? Now for the pigs. And then, oh then, a good home cooked meal. Something he had been treasuring since his departure from Glass Shards Beach. Ma Pines wasn't the best of cooks, her specialty being an over breaded baked haddock, but it was still home cooked. Stan smiled as he placed the hammer back into the mud box and walked over to the barn. He looked forward to this evening's meal. It was a reminder of how close he was to finally going home.

-*-*-

The sun had set on the farm and the deep blue darkness was growing as Stan hung up the slop buckets next the coiled black hose on the side of the barn. He should probably rinse them out, but.. eh. He could claim ignorance of farm practices if pressed. As it stood he was sore all over, sunburnt to a crisp, and absolutely ready for food and then bed. Tomorrow by noon he would be on the side of Quail Mountain with a million dollars in his hands.

He sniffed the cooling air, hoping to catch the smell of cooking coming from the kitchen in the back.

His nose picked up sage brush, dirt, horse and pig crap, and... “Mmmm.” Something smelled good, and it wasn't food. The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix would probably call it something like “mind food”, but Stan knew it by its more common names.

Entering the back of the house after removing his borrowed galoshes on the porch, Stan grabbed the plate of fried chicken, spiced rice and beans left for him on the kitchen countertop. The young man leaned against the edge of the sink and dug in with gusto. It was a savory delight of spices and beautiful textures, and Stan didn't realize he had even closed his eyes until they snapped open in absolute shock when the first blaring notes rocked through his eardrums.

He snapped his head up and looked at what must have been the source of the noise. Above him the floor was literally vibrating with sound. Whoever was rocking out on the piano knew their way effortlessly over the ivory. The electric guitar was screeching an accompanying harmony while the bass dropped heavily through the floorboards and into the marrow of Stan's bones.

“Well damn. Who knew these granola munching freaks knew anything about good music.” Stan mumbled to himself.

Stanley Pines had never missed a house party in high school and he wasn't about to put a black mark on his perfect record. He shoveled the rest of the bean juice drenched chicken into his mouth and dumped the dishes into the sink, only taking a moment to run a gush of water over them. His bag was still sitting next to the dining room table where had dropped it when he had collapsed into a chair upon arrival to the homestead. From it's depths he fished out an as-yet unopened handle of Old Grand-Dad whiskey before making his way into the central hall and up the stairs. Experienced socialites like him knew that you never come to a party empty handed.

The sweet, skunky smell of high quality Mary Jane was steadily seeping down the upstairs hallway and down the steps to greet Stan as he ascended the staircase. He inhaled deeply through his nose and mouth, savoring the heady aroma. It was some dank shit, he could tell. His heart beating rapidly in excitement, Stan pushed the door open to what he thought must have been a study of sorts.

Years later Stan still wouldn't know how to describe what he had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't what had flooded his vision upon opening that heavy, smoke framed wooden door on the second floor in 1972 Morongo Valley, CA. The lame middle aged couple he had met this afternoon were both tearing through their instruments like nothing he had ever seen. Spice Kit (was her name Julia Wilde?) was worrying a hole into her bottom lip as her fingers flew over the frets of her fiery red and orange Kent Polaris II Sunburst guitar. Coconuts (Sam? Stan was starting to feel bad about not remembering their real names) was beating a steady downtempo of E major on his Framus Star bass. Spice Kit had this look on her face that said she wanted to beat someone to death with the body of her guitar. Coconuts, in almost complete contrast, had his eyes closed as he sat on amp plugged into his guitar, strumming along to the beat with a look like he had a deep hurt he was trying to heal.

The man on the piano was something else entirely. His bluish-white hair made wild from the sweat pouring off of his face belied his true age, which was revealed when he threw back his head as he ripped a glissando up the keys. Not a single wrinkle graced his wide, brown eyes or tanned pointed features except for slight lines around his lips where a smirk obviously sat on a regular basis. He was thin as a pole, and his baby blue button up shirt was soaked with sweat, especially under his arms which flailed manically across his instrument. As Stan walked into the room the piano man's head swooped down to the keys. His index fingers tapped frantically at the middle of the keyboard, his eyes lost in his own world. His head was bent so close to the keys that his sharp nose was almost touching the hammering ivory. Then, just as suddenly, he whipped his head back in an arc flicking droplets of sweat into the air. The beads hypnotically caught the light from the wall sconces as they descended to the floor. Piano Man's eyes rolled back into his head, his eyelids closed and his mouth hung open in a wordless gasp as the song climbed several octaves into the treble cleft, and then fell like a rock into the bass cleft.

From his modest seat on chair against the wall of the room Stan could clearly feel that Piano Man was driving this storm of sound. He had chosen this song and the electric guitar was his begrudging squire, while the bass directed his troops. When Stan pulled a burning gulp of whiskey he knew what and who he was drinking to – this noise pollution and the man at the piano commanding it.

The end of the song got Stan to his feet instantaneously. Trying to compensate for the thunderous audience that the ensemble deserved, Stan whooped, clapped vigorously and grinned his enthusiasm with all of his teeth. That had been incredible! He'd never been to a real concert before, but he was sure that any paying audience would have packed Whiskey A Go Go to see the performance he had been treated to.

Fishing the lighter he kept in his back right pocket Stan waved the tiny flame around like a dork.

Spice Kit and Coconuts smiled bashfully as they set their instruments down. Coconuts, dabbing the sweat from his face with a rag he produced out of his left pocket, was all grins and red cheeks. Spice Kit had a knowing look on her face like she was used to the adulation, but was too cool to make a big deal out of it. Stan reached over to Spice Kit, the closest musician to him, and enthusiastically shook the whiskey.

“For luck, inspiration, and respect!” Stan said.

Spice Kit wordless took the whiskey and gulped down a hefty mouthful. The liquor was passed around the group. A sizable joint followed in short order, burning lower and lower as the ensemble caught their breath and tuned up their instruments. Piano Man took his time on the marijuana when it made its way to him. He smoked it like a cigarette – wedged between his fore finger and middle finger where he took long inhales with a moment or two to enjoy the mouth feel and the burn in his lungs. Out of everyone his exhalations produced the biggest clouds.

“You guys know any Allman Brothers?” asked Stan.

Piano Man chuckled as he handed the burning joint to the young man to his right. It was already three quarters gone.

“Any particular song you have in mind?” Piano Man's eyes shown with interest despite their advanced inebriation. He had a higher pitched voice than Stan had been expecting.

“Well,” Stan had to think. “Blue Sky” had just been released in February, but he had “At Fillmore East” on the brain after that mind bending concert he had just witnessed.

Statesboro Blues.” Stan took a deep hit. Whether he was trying to impress Piano Man or just achieve the same musical clarity the group possessed he wasn't sure. Stan held the smoke in his lungs until it burned, before he exhaled in one continuous, calm stream. “That or “Midnight Rider”.”

“Ah,” said Piano Man. He leaned forward and propped his pointy elbows onto his knees. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his biceps. Stan noted that he had a tattoo of what looked like an elongated “8” embellished with some kind of equation on his left forearm. “Nothing earlier than 1970, huh?”

Something about the way he said that really rankled Stan. Like this skinny nerd with his Einstein hair and khaki pants was somehow better than him. “If you're referring to The Velvet Underground,” Stan lifted his eyebrow and smirked back, “I wouldn't be opposed to hearing “One Way Out”.

“Fine,” Piano Man answered, “but it's going to cost you.” He took a long pull from the whiskey as it was handed to him by Coconuts.

“We'll start with another hit from that joint you're canoeing.” He held out his right hand to Stan. His slender fingers were spindly and lengthy with well formed callouses capping each tip. His nails were trimmed down all the way to the quick. “And another shot of that shit whiskey you brought.” He sloshed back the handle again, the corners of his lips smirking around the glass rim of the bottle.

Stan had to laugh. This nerd with his tacky pants and generic button up shirt was going to challenge him, a long time radio fan and rock enthusiast, to a musical dick measuring contest? And on top of that he was going to take two fingers of his whiskey at a time?

“Whatever you say, Killer.” Stan took a second, equally deep hit before finally passing the weed back to the lanky jack ass.

“Nah, boychick.” Piano Man's smile took on a sharp edge as he received the joint back. “I'm all Jimmy Page.”

Spice Kit and Coconuts continued to tune up their instruments, content for the moment to listen to the exchange. The pianist's svelte figure leaned back against his instrument, crossing his right leg over his left as he thread his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes as he sucked on the joint pinched between his lips. His back pressing down on the keys situated behind his lower back. For a long moment the smokey air was filled with a discordant clang as the piano protested to its casual mistreatment.

“So,” Piano Man said as the notes subsided, twin snakes of smoke curling up from his nostrils. The joint swung dangerously at the corner of his mouth, but he didn't allow it to escape. He reopened his eyes and held Stan's gaze for a few seconds as if challenging him to look away. Stan's gaze didn't flinch. In fact, he merely gave Piano Man an indulgent lopsided smile and a raised eyebrow through lidded eyes as if to say, “By all means, do continue.” Both grinned at one another like they were sharing some inside joke.

“You're a rocker, huh?”