Originally written after going to a Deep Purple concert and inspired by the darkly mysterious song Rosa’s Cantina by that band, Rosa’s Place is a story about wanting to be better. The question is how much are you prepared to pay to get what you want
The story was originally entered in the Tom Howard shorty story competition and was awarded Best Science Fiction story which is kind of weird because I don’t think the story is SF at all. Dark fantasy maybe, you decide
We are at our most vulnerable when we are coming down from a high. That’s what I think anyway. I reckon Rosa thinks that way too.
That is when she trapped me -when I was vulnerable.
Highs are few and far between for struggling guitar players like me. Music is all I’ve got really. Not any music though. Most stuff is just pap. I only play what I want. It limits my horizons, particularly in a country with a low population base like Australia. Music has to be more than three chords and a hook chorus. I’ve got many influences. Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Bach, even somebody like Billy Joel. The granddaddy though, has always been Deep Purple. Hard rock rooted in the blues, spiced with jazz and classical influences that can only be truly appreciated live. When they arrived in Melbourne featuring American hotshot, Steve Morse on guitar, I secured front row tickets, hoping that they still possessed the magic that they had thirty years ago.
They blew me away with their musicianship, enthusiasm and sheer bloody joy, almost magically dusting away my crusty cynicism and replacing it with the vigour and hope of my youth. Way back when my guitar promised to open doorways. I wanted to play like them. No matter what the cost. I think that wanting is a tangible thing -something that can be sensed. I don’t know how exactly, but I know that Rosa knew how much I wanted to play like them.
She was waiting for me outside Klinger’s music store the next day. I’d hoped to run into somebody who had been to the show and had drifted around the city haunts, hoping that I’d make a connection. She was wearing one of the band’s tee shirts and was the first kindred spirit I had seen since the concert. I didn’t really notice her features until I’d barged in with naked enthusiasm. “Did you see the show?” I gushed boyishly.
She seemed to look through me for an instant before flicking some internal switch and smiling back at me. “They were great weren’t they?”
I nodded awkwardly, embarrassed by my approach and suddenly intimidated by her beauty. I’m no lady-killer and good-looking birds have always scared me. Ordinarily, I would not dream of approaching a girl like her. For all I knew, she could have been a model or an actress with her slim, sensual body and pert good looks.
She pretended not to notice my reticence and said that she thought that they were as good as ever.
I shuffled my feet uncertainly and mumbled my agreement.
She reached out and touched my hand. “It’s OK. I know that you’re genuine. It was a great concert. I was looking for someone to share it with. Why don’t we have a coffee and talk about it?”
I blushed heavily; painfully aware of my lack of social skills and fearful that she would see my inadequacies once we shared a drink.
She seemed amused by my discomfort and took my hand. “Come on. There is a quiet place around the corner. Let’s swap notes.”
I followed her dreamily, wondering at my good fortune and praying that it might lead somewhere beyond my experience. The café was quiet and the coffee good. The company was better. She was fun to be with and kept the conversation flowing. I listened raptly. She ran a bar in the city and was between boyfriends (sounded promising), but not in any hurry for a romance (just my luck). Things usually happened at a self-appointed pace. There was no point forcing the issue she assured me, meeting my eyes with a thrilling openness. We talked about the band and she drew a lot from me when we discussed the new line up. “You’re quite an expert,” she commented after I had warmed to the task of comparing guitar players. “It’s a pity you weren’t at my place last night.”
I raised my eyebrows but otherwise said nothing.
“My bar. Some of the band came down after the show.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. Jon Lord and Steve came down. They had a jam with the house band.”
“You’ve got a house band?”
Her eyes sparkled with what I took to be pride. “Sure. They’re hot.”
I scratched my head in astonishment. “I thought I knew all the live band places in town.”
“All the advertised ones, my place is special -invitation only.”
“How do you make it pay?”
She touched her lips secretively and smiled. “Trade secret,” she grinned as she leaned forward. Her eyes betrayed an eagerness that I was unaccustomed to. “Why don’t you come and have a peek tonight?”
“Why are you asking me?” I could not hide the tremor in my voice.
She reached out and touched my cheek. “You’re a muso, and you’re a nice guy. You deserve to see just where music can take you.” Her fingers stroked my face lightly, promising much.
“Just because I’m a muso?”
She laughed softly and held my gaze. “OK. I think you’re cute. Please come.”
My mouth opened and closed several times before I could manage to accept. She laughed again. A rich clear sound that almost held me spellbound. “I’m glad you’ll come. My driver will pick you up on the street corner over there.” She pointed out of the window to the opposite corner. “Make sure you stand exactly two paving stones in from each gutter.”
“How will I know it’s him?”
“He’ll be in a black Caddy with my name on the plates. See you tonight.” She leaned across the table and pecked me on the cheek, a familiar partner’s peck. “Bye,” she whispered. Then she was going, with my eyes glued to her jeans and my heart trailing behind.
Clapton once said that when he was struggling to master his craft, women just weren’t interested, but once he became a star he had to beat them off with a stick. It is a sentiment that I can identify with. The only difference being that I never mastered my craft. Consequently, my experiences with women could generously be described as limited. I had no idea why Rosa seemed interested in me, but I was sure going to try to make the best of it. I rushed home, showered, shaved and then showered again. I could not eat. Rosa’s face kept appearing before me, smiling and whispering promises of fulfillment that I had long thought beyond me. I walked back into town, keeping my pace steady and trying to keep from getting ahead of myself. I arrived twenty minutes early and settled down to wait.
Something inside me feared that I was being set up, but when I remembered the way she looked at me and recalled the eagerness in her face. I rechecked my watch. Two minutes to go.
A black, late seventies model Cadillac rolled around the corner. My mouth went dry and for some inexplicable reason, I felt a sudden urge to run away. The Caddy pulled to a stop and the driver got out and came around the front of the car. My feet moved of their own accord and I met him at the passenger door. He opened it for me and I stepped in to luxury. The driver didn’t say a word until he had guided the vehicle out on to the Freeway.
“Bar’s open. Help yourself.” He eyed me through the mirror with what I took to be good humour.
I thanked him, poured myself a bourbon and took a sip. I didn’t notice anything odd about the taste and welcomed the familiar warmth as it seeped through my body, calming and soothing my nerves. I closed my eyes and thought about Rosa. The night promised so much. The driver said something unintelligible and I ignored him, letting my thoughts centre upon the woman who had invited me. I think I heard the driver chuckle and then I was gone, dreaming of jamming with Morse and Lord while Rosa watched.
Rough hands shook me awake. “Come on man. Time to party.” I blinked the cobwebs away and took in my surroundings. The tang in my nostrils told me that we were somewhere near the bay. Otherwise, I have no idea whereabouts I was. It literally could have been a back alley in any city. There were no signs of Rosa’s Bar. No cars. No revelers coming or going. Just dead quiet. The driver had seen alarm register in my face. “It’s cool man. She’s just through that door.” He pointed to an indiscriminate door at the side of what appeared to be a warehouse.
“Where is everybody?’ I asked as casually as I could.
“Everybody gets delivered. Them’s the rules.” He gave me a conspirator’s wink and helped me to my feet. Something about his touch made me shrivel up inside, but he seemed not to notice my disgust. “Come along my friend. Miss Rosa is waiting for you.” He led me to the door and rapped some sort of Latin rhythm twice upon it, whereupon it swung inward, allowing a soft blue light to spill out on to the pavement. The babble and hum of a party crowd drifted up from a level below. “Take the stairs down, man. She’ll find you when she’s ready.” I took several steps inside. The babble from below grew louder. There was a half-sloshed quality about it that made me feel as if I was a late arrival. I advanced towards the stairs with butterflies of anticipation dancing in my stomach. The door closed of its own accord behind me. The stairs stretched downward into thicker, blue light. With every step, the light grew more intense, seemingly pulsing in time to my steps. The crowd sound grew louder. I stopped, steadied myself and listened. The distinctive sound of a group tuning up comforted me and I continued my descent.
When I’d reached the bottom of the second flight, the light had grown so soupy that I could scarcely see my hand before my eyes. I stopped and waited for help. The crowd noise rose a notch and seemed to be coming from only feet away. I suppressed the urge to scream and thought of Rosa.
As soon as I did, the band kicked into gear with the splintering riff from “Woman from Tokyo.” Instantly, the light grew more natural. A bored looking doorman stood before me, guarding a pair of closed oaken doors. “Welcome sir. We’ve been expecting you.” He turned and beat a similar rhythm to the one that the driver had tapped out on the entrance earlier. The doors swung open on to Rosa’s place.
No expense had been spared. The cavernous room appeared to have been hewn out of solid rock. Large stone pillars supported a dome like ceiling from, which hung chandeliers of, lighted candles. I’m no expert on architecture or interior design, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that the place reeked of money. I am an expert on pubs though and the bar looked superbly stocked. Its gold fittings gleamed and sparkled at me, seducing me to drink.
I started for the bar and stopped in mid stride. Except for myself and the five-piece band cooking on stage, the only other soul in the place was a lone barman attempting to look busy mopping a dry bar. He acknowledged me with a wave and poured a double JB on ice. Unnerved by the emptiness of the place and the fact that the barman knew what I drank, I hesitated before succumbing to the drink’s call. Trying my best to look casual, I sidled over to the bar and took a circumspect sip from the glass placed before me. I waved my free arm at the vacant space behind me and shouted. “The place seemed packed when I was coming down.”
He grinned widely. “Sure is, isn’t it?” The babble and hum of a large crowd insinuated itself beneath the band’s heavy sound. I turned uncertainly away from the bar to see at least six hundred punters crammed around the tables that only moments ago had seemed empty. I stared at them in wonder and turned back to the barman. He was still grinning. “It happens to everybody when they come down. The atmosphere plays funny tricks, I reckon.” He didn’t shout, but every word could be heard perfectly.
I skulled my drink and motioned for another.
“Good idea,” the barman purred.
The band kicked into the keyboard intro to “Lazy.” Something I knew and loved. They sounded hot and I closed my eyes to drink in the sound. Somebody brushed my arm. “Good aren’t they,” whispered a familiar voice. Rosa. I smiled, opened my eyes and turned towards her. She looked absolutely stunning, but I’m damned if I can remember exactly why. All I can remember is her eyes appraising me with an openness that was both exciting and unnerving. I tried to appear calm and nodded my head in agreement. She smiled at me, like she knew everything I was thinking, and reached out for my hand. I hope that she didn’t notice that it was shaking, but I’m sure she did. I’m sure that she knows things about me that I haven’t even considered. “Would you like to jam with them?”
“That would be great,” I replied, wondering all the while how she wanted me to respond to the gentle patterns that she was tracing on my arm.
“Next song and you’re on.”
I don’t mind admitting that I just about shit myself. “What? Now? In front all this crowd?”
Her hand dropped to my knee and traced several laps. “You can do it. You were there last night. You heard Morse. Here, you can play like him. Everybody here has stepped up to play on their first night and I can’t remember a single failure. They’re all like you. They all have a genuine love of music. Please try. I promise that you will enjoy it.” Her hand strayed up my thigh a little way and I reckon that if she’d asked me to go ten rounds with Mike Tyson right then I would have done it.
“OK, but I’m no Steve Morse. I’m just a fan.”
She led me up to the front, just as the band was winding into a big finish. We made our way through the crowd and several of their number gave me a pat on the back as we passed. By the time we had reached the front, all eyes seemed focused on us. The vocalist stepped forward and helped Rosa up on to the stage. I was busy hoisting myself up when I heard Rosa announcing me as a red-hot guitar player in the Morse style. Then she said something that didn’t make a real lot of sense, but by then sense had almost become an abstract concept. It was something about energies being focused upon me. I didn’t quite catch it.
Rosa handed me a guitar and I slung it over my neck, hoping that I would get to choose the number. She kissed me on the lips. “You’ll be great,” she whispered, then scurried off stage. I was still watching her when the vocalist announced that “Ted the Mechanic” would be the next song. That was something that I had never been able to get a handle on. Even as my heart sank, my hands started to scratch out the intro. The rhythm section kicked in and we were away. I don’t know where I was pulling the notes from, but they kept coming, and as they came my spirit soared to heights that I’d never dreamed of. I was kicking arse with a great band and everyone was digging it. Magic. We never missed a beat. Even on that tricky end bit. The adrenaline surged through me as I acknowledged the crowd’s applause and I wondered how the night could get any better. Reluctantly, I handed the strat back to the owner. He grinned knowingly, like a fellow tripper sharing an absurdity.
Rosa was back along side me. “You were great. I knew you would be. Come and dance.” She dragged me back out in front of the band. They were drifting in to something mellow. She stepped close to me. “Dance close.” It was almost a command.-one that I was more than willing to accommodate. My hands slipped around her waist and she responded in kind. The music brought our bodies close. Our hips swayed in time with its gentle rhythm. Her hand reached up under my shirt and stroked my chest. “Did you like playing with the band?”
“Loved it,” I murmured, wondering how I could touch more of her without appearing sleazy. Her fingers pressed against my breastbone, sending electric shivers through my body.
“Would you like to play again?” She was looking at me hungrily. It was hunger. I have no doubt.
“Rosa, I could play with those guys forever.”
The music changed and took on an African tribal beat that seemed somehow sinister and yet enticingly exciting. Rosa broke away from me and ran to a nearby table. I followed her like a dog on a lead. She jumped up on to the table and began to dance a slow, sensual, teasing dance. The rhythm built upon itself and the crowd turned to watch Rosa. I stood below her, waiting to be called. She motioned for me to join her and I was up there in a flash. The music enveloped us and reality evaporated. The crowd seemed to literally dissolve. The music was deafening but I could hear her speak just the same. Like a lover in the dead of night. She drew me to her and her hand again went to my chest. “You can stay here with me and my music forever,” she whispered. There was a brief burning sensation in my chest and I felt her fingers enter my skin. “Give me your heart. Then you can stay.” Her hand delved deeper inside me. It did not hurt. On the contrary, she sent little darts of pleasure in all directions. Her fingers touched my heart teasingly and her eyes held me in her spell.
“Won’t I die?” I choked.
“Of course, but you can play all the music you desire forever.” Her eyes bored into me and her fingers stroked my heart. I moaned with pleasure. “Give it to me,” she purred and pressed closer to me.
I am a stubborn bastard. I always have been. I love my music. Always have. I wanted to see and hear Deep Purple again. I wanted to see how they turned out. I couldn’t do that when I was dead, no matter what the enticements. “No,” I whispered, and hated myself.
The music stopped abruptly and she stepped back from me. Her hand was clean and dry. “You’ll be back,” she said and then everything went blue. Then black.
When I came to, I was walking along a back lane three blocks from my place and the sun was thinking about making an appearance. My shirt was still open and my head felt as if a woodcutter had used it to park his axe for a while. I touched my chest, remembering her touch and where her hands had gone. There was nothing to suggest that she had touched me at all.
I hurried home, gulped too many painkillers and crashed for eons, dreaming of Rosa and playing in her house band.
It was two years ago. Mediocrity is choking me and I reckon I’ve seen Deep Purple for the last time. Every day I practice for five hours. My last three bands haven’t actually played a gig. For the life of me, I can’t remember any of the solo I played that night at Rosa’s. I’ve never gone remotely close to playing at that level again.
I still have no luck with women.
I can hear Rosa calling me. She’s promising all manner of delights, but mainly offering joy in music. I’m going to go back and stand at the same corner at nine o’clock. When that Cadillac pulls up, I’m going to hop in and beg to be taken back.
She said that I’d be back. She knows me well. I want her and I want to play like the Gods. No matter what the price.