Story: You Won't Break Me
A rock star, his guitar tech, and an auto parts store manager walk into a bar
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“What are we doing after the show?” Peanut asked.
“You remember, we’re meeting up with Ferrell,” RJ said.
As they walked from the green room up the concrete corridor toward the stage, palo santo incense and calming meditation music were overtaken by the cacophony of 20,000 people talk-shouting over their $12 beers and the invisible skunky vapor of weed.
“Oh, yeah. Right. Who’s that again?”
Peanut had slowed to a stop so he could help RJ shoulder the guitar with new strings he had just tuned up. He had a pained expression on his face.
“Old friend. I couldn’t say no,” RJ replied. “You don’t have to come if you’re not feeling it.”
“Nah, I’ll be there,” Peanut said, nodding as they began walking again.
The opening at the end of the hall might as well have been the portal to an interstellar dimension given the vastness of the space beyond with its thousands of twinkling lights like constellations. Peanut watched RJ disappear as the house lights dipped to black and the canned music stopped mid-song. The crescendo of white noise from the crowd was like a spark lighting a fuse that within a few seconds ignited the stage and blinded Peanut as the voice of his friend and employer, now bigger than God shouted “Hey y’all! It’s good to be back home!” and his guitar pounded out the opening chords of a song that was more familiar to Peanut than the sound of his little boy’s laughter.
The next two hours and fourteen minutes passed as they always did for Peanut, a frenzied balance of adrenaline and anxiety. RJ played, broke strings, broke guitars, and dodged the occasional undergarment while Peanut fastidiously tuned and retuned guitars, changed strings, replaced cables, and negotiated with the sound and lighting crews to make sure the quality of the Randy Joe Briggs show met the expectation of the premium ticket price. And then it was over, and he was packing up guitars while RJ signed autographs backstage.
He thought a solo tour would have been less stressful with no band to wrangle, no all-day load-ins, or four-hour sound checks but that had not been the case. Undiluted one-on-one time with RJ was not like it used to be when they started over two decades ago. At least this was the last leg of the tour before they would break for the holidays.
As he wheeled the cart carrying RJ’s eight guitars out to the van, Peanut tried to remember which one Ferrell was. The aging frat boys from RJ’s past all blurred together. Over the years, his friend and employer had mostly shucked them off like barnacles from the hull of a boat, but there were a few that lingered. They had all played their part in greasing the skids that allowed RJ’s career to gather momentum, taking him from the basements of frat houses in Auburn to arenas in every major city in the western hemisphere. Was Ferrell the one who owned and operated all those Biggers Burgers or was he the one who lived off a trust fund and was married to a woman who was on one of those real housewives shows? He’d find out soon enough.
As they sat across from Ferrell, squeezed into the booth of a dive bar somewhere out in the sticks beyond the lights of Atlanta, Peanut confirmed he had never laid eyes on the man, nor had he ever heard RJ mention him in the twenty-one years they’d been working together.
“Brotha, you’s great tonight! Fuckin’ tight man! Tight!”
“Thank you, brother I appreciate that. It was a lotta fun.”
Ferrell was a solid individual, big but not fat and not jacked either, just dense. His hands were enormous, each digit thick as a roll of quarters and they made the tumbler of whiskey in front of him look like a shot glass.
“Cmon’ man, you shore you don’t wanna drank?”
“Nah man, I’m sober now. Have been for nine years.”
“Aw shit, I’m sorry man. I forgot. More for me,” Ferrell said raising his glass. “How ‘bout some food? They got good wings here.”
“Uh…” RJ fumbled for the menu.
“RJ’s a vegetarian,” Peanut said.
“Oh, right,” the big man said, his face looking wounded. “Maybe they got some fish tacos.”
The large man winked as he delivered this line and Peanut was not sure what it implied. Was he an idiot or did he know that vegetarians don’t eat any kind of animal protein and he was just being a smart ass or was he suggesting RJ might be interested in female companionship?
The windowless sports bar was packed three deep at the bar. There was some sad guy on the tiny, carpeted stage riser in the back playing covers with a band-in-a-box rig that made every song from “Margaritaville” to “Come as You Are” sound like it was on the same shitty playlist scrolling across the screen in a karaoke bar in the third ring of hell. How long would RJ make them sit and endure this? Why were they even here? Peanut was wishing he had opted to go back to his room at The Four Seasons, had room service, and watched “The Great British Baking Show.”
He sipped his beer and hoped the glass would hide his disdain. The place smelled like the progression of cause and effect: greasy fries, stale beer, flop sweat, vomit, and bleach. Of all the places to bring his childhood rockstar friend, why had this guy chosen this place? It wasn’t even the kind of dive bar that offered hipsters some street cred. The reason Ferrell gave when they were getting into his truck was that he wanted to take RJ to someplace away from the arena where he wouldn’t get hassled. RJ had looked untroubled flashing his $30,000 worth of dental work.
“We had our share of fish tacos back in the day, didn’t we?” he replied, and Peanut noted RJ’s speech changed. His consonants softened into grits and his vowels spread and stretched out like warm biscuit dough.
RJ was masterful at mirroring anyone he was sitting across from. It could be a non-binary vegan journalist from Brooklyn or this slab of pork butt stuffed in a golf shirt sitting across from them. Peanut had seen RJ work this magic trick over and over again since the early days when they were touring in a shit-brown Dodge Caravan they called Betsy and playing anywhere that would cover gas money and a room at a Motel 6. He wondered why they were really here. What did this guy Ferrell have that RJ needed? It would have been easy to blow him off. His level of fame afforded him multiple layers of insulation from having to deal with anyone he didn’t want to.
“We shore did, but I think you’s the one ‘at faired better in that department,” Ferrell said.
“Don’t let this fucker’s false modesty fool you, Peanut. He got his share.”
“So, where do you guys know each other from?” Peanut asked.
Peanut had not gotten to ask because he had been in the backseat of Ferrell’s enormous pick-up truck on the phone with his wife for the duration of the thirty-minute ride that took them well beyond Midtown Atlanta and the promise of perfect Sashimi and into a working-class suburb with decaying strip malls and fast food.
“Shady Pine Trailer Park, Rutledge, Georgia,” Ferrell said, pausing to swallow a burp before continuing. “…1987 to what, 1990?”
“Uh yeah, that sounds about right,” RJ replied. “Mama moved us out when she married Del.”
“How are your mom and them?”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Peanut had only ever seen this phrase on a t-shirt. This was his first time hearing it in the wild. He had accompanied RJ over the years on many obligatory visits with old friends or distant cousins when they passed through the South. Normally, he found them entertaining or at least educational, but tonight he had the beginnings of a prize-winning headache, and the smell of the place was making him nauseous. There was no contractual obligation for him to stay, but it would be a bad idea to leave.
RJ didn’t believe in bodyguards and without the band on this tour, there was no entourage to provide a buffer between him and any overly aggressive fans. His friend and employer still identified as a man of the people and to his credit, he mostly made good on that promise. He didn’t own four homes or take ski trips to the Swiss Alps. He always took the time to pose for pictures and autograph anything shoved in front of him. Until he got sober, he had earned his Americana Outlaw reputation by getting in bar fights and pissing contests on Twitter. Peanut had ridden in the sidecar for all of it since they had dropped out of Belmont College after deciding that a degree in music industry studies would be worthless compared to actually working in the music industry.
For a short time, they had performed as a duo, but Peanut didn’t like the attention and RJ couldn’t get enough of it. Peanut was a realist and recognized quickly that his best and probably only shot at a life in music was to hitch his wagon to a massive talent like RJ’s and make himself indispensable. He had been sound man, guitar tech, tour manager, and booking agent for the first couple of years until a DJ in Austin decided to play the single they had spent what seemed like all the money in the world producing in Nashville. Within two weeks, “You Won’t Break Me” was playing on college radio stations across the country and surprisingly broke all the known laws of the universe by crossing over into corporate Country radio. A deal with RCA and an $800,000 advance came quickly after.
Peanut had only been half listening to their conversation as he pretended to study the laminated menu but he caught the gist of RJ’s update about his mom’s failed battle with cancer.
“Damn, brother. I’m so sorry about that. She’s uh good woman. At least she got to see her baby boy hit the big time. That’s worth sumpin’ ain’t it?”
“Yeah, I got to take her to the Grammy’s and spoil her a little.”
RJ turned to look at Peanut. “Are you gonna order somethin’, Peanut or are you just memorizing the menu so you can open up your own place?”
“Hey, why’s he call you Peanut anyways?”
“Don’t know, you’d have to ask him,” Peanut answered putting the menu down.
“I like Peanuts,” RJ replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
A waitress appeared, different from the one who had seated them and brought out the first round of drinks.
“Hey y’all, my name’s Brandi, anything I can get for you?”
Even though she was addressing the table, her eyes were locked on RJ. His baseball cap and tinted glasses were a token effort at a disguise. Peanut knew that even after all these years, he still loved to be recognized.
“Hi Brandi, what’s good here if you don’t eat meat?” RJ asked.
“Well, let’s see. You could do the Mesa nachos without the chicken or there’s a veggie burger with sweet potato fries.”
“I’ll do the nachos,” he replied. “And could you bring some more hot water when you get a chance?”
“Yeah, of course! You want me to see if we have some herbal tea?”
“Nah, thank you though. I bring my own.”
The waitress was smiling so brightly Peanut could feel its heat from where he sat. She turned quickly to go.
“Hey darlin’, these other fellas might want somethin’ too,” RJ called after her.
“Oh shit! I’m so sorry.”
Peanut ordered some wings and Ferrell ordered another Jack and Coke. The waitress disappeared to begin what was sure to be the most attentive service she had ever provided in her entire life. That’s how it worked. Peanut only hoped she wouldn’t tell the entire staff otherwise they would be cornered. It was like those scenes in zombie shows where the survivors are trying to walk undetected through a field of the undead because the minute one of them catches the scent it's all over.
“So, tell me about your life, man. It’s been a really long time. Are you still with um…” RJ was snapping his finger trying to recall someone’s name he never knew.
“Sherry? Nah, she got religion and left me ‘bout ten years ago. It’s aight though, we both better off. I never woulda met Quisha.”
“Oh yeah? Any kids?” RJ asked.
“Yeah, we got three. Best thing I ever done.”
Ferrell pulled out his phone, turned it around so Peanut and RJ could see the screen, and swiped through a series of images, providing captions for each.
“That’s Langdon, he’s a helluva ballplayer. Pitched a shut-out last season. And here’s Maya, she’s a handful, I’ll tell you that. You ain’t never heard such a mouth on a girl. This is her holdin’ her baby sister, Ruby.”
The photo showed a girl about eight years old with a headful of kinky curls and a gap-toothed smile holding a toddler in the shallow end of a swimming pool. There was something off about the little one. One of her eyes looked at the camera but the other did not. Her hair, unlike her sister’s, was cropped close and there appeared to be some kind of scar. Ferrell’s large index finger didn’t keep swiping. Peanut looked up and noticed the man’s smile had faded and his gaze was focused inward. Peanut opened his mouth to inquire about the girl but before he could RJ spoke.
“Wow, congrats Ferrell. What a beautiful family you go there. You must be proud.”
“Yeah, yup, I’m a lucky man,” Ferrell said, his smile and focus returning from wherever they had gone.
No one said anything for a few beats then RJ apologized and checked his phone. There was something he needed to address so he excused himself from the table and disappeared into the bar.
“So, what’s it like being on the road with him all the time?” Ferrell asked.
“It’s great. We have a good time but it’s like any life,” Peanut said. “There’s good days and bad days.”
“I can’t imagine. Seems like a whole ‘nother world to me.”
“Yeah, I guess it is. What do you do?”
“I um, I sell auto parts. Manage a store.” He points at the small logo on his breast. “It’s pretty glamorous as you mighta guessed.”
“Coming home to your family every night seems exotic to me. It’s not a problem for RJ, but I miss my wife and son a lot.”
“How old’s your boy?”
“He’ll be four in June.”
“That’s a good age. They’re so fulla themselves. No, that ain’t what I mean. They’re full of something else-- life, God… Shit, I don’t know. I just know there’s a sweetness they got at that age, a kinda wonder that just slowly fades away as they get older.”
Ferrell pauses and looks away. He blinks, swallows hard, and takes another sip of his drink. When he turns back to face Peanut, his eyes are shimmering.
“You spend as much time as you can with that little one. You just don’t know how much time you got. My little Ruby… she’s uh… hey, never mind. I turn into a big pussy after a couple a drinks.”
Peanut took a long sip of beer and pretended to show interest in band-in-a-box guy. After a respectable amount of time had elapsed for a subject change, he spoke.
“Can I ask you something? How did you get RJ to do this? I mean, it doesn’t seem like you guys have been in touch for years.”
“I got a buddy who handles all the catering for big events at the arena. He got me an email for RJ’s manager. I wrote and said I was an old friend RJ might wanna see when he come to town. A week ago, I got an email back from him with the tickets.”
Peanut accepted this as plausible though completely atypical.
“So why didn’t your wife come? She not a fan?” Peanut asked.
“Nah, she’d have loved to come but she didn’t want to leave Ruby with a sitter. We ain’t been out together since she’s born. I tried to think a somebody else worth bringin’ but…”
The waitress returned with their food and was visibly disappointed to see that RJ was missing. The two men ate. The wings were fantastic, and Peanut had devoured half of them by the time RJ returned.
“Everything alright?” Peanut asked RJ.
“Yeah, we just may need to cut things a little short tonight. I’ve got to get up early to do an interview I forgot about.”
Peanut was almost certain there was no interview. RJ’s schedule was planned weeks in advance, particularly anything involving the press. If Ferrell had been disappointed, he didn’t let it show. The band-in-a-box guy launched into a version of “You Won’t Break Me.” It might have been a ploy to get RJ up on stage or the song could have just been part of his set. Regardless, RJ smiled, enjoying the homage, and continued to pick at his nachos.
They ate and talked for another thirty minutes. The conversation was the kind that people make when the only thing they have in common is some shared experience deep in their past. Peanut listened as each man teed up a memory from the trailer park and watched the other one take a swing at bringing it to life. RJ’s memories were vague but infused with his charismatic performing ability. Ferrell’s were clear and specific and genuinely funny. Maybe he was a good storyteller or maybe he had a lot of practice recounting and refining these memories as he told them to friends and customers and anyone he saw in a checkout line wearing a Randy Joe Briggs t-shirt. Peanut noticed that even as the big man was laughing, there was a distance to his gaze. He asked twice if RJ needed to leave, conscious that the meter had been running since RJ returned but RJ waved him off both times.
“We had some good times, didn’t we? I forgot all about how Jackie used to torment that old fucker until you reminded me. Your sister was a pistol.” RJ said.
“Yeah, she was born trouble,” Farrell replied, the laughter gone from his voice. He just held RJ’s gaze for a beat before continuing. “You didn’t help with that.”
Peanut saw the smile disappear from RJ’s face and a steely coldness come into his eyes that he had seen many times in the past. Before RJ gave up drinking, that look was always the prelude to an altercation. Farrell seemed to know this look too and appeared to be unphased by it. For a flicker, Peanut thought this man might actually stand up to him – do what no one else ever dared. But the big man sighed heavily and stared down into his drink.
“I jus’ fuckin’ miss her,” he mumbled. “If you just hadn’t…”
“Alright brother, that’s enough reminiscing for one night,” RJ said as he raised a hand to flag down the waitress who had been anxiously waiting for an excuse to return. “Could I settle up with you here, darlin’?”
“Mr. Farrell already gave me a card when y’all came in. Said I shouldn’t let you pay.”
“You sneaky ol’ bastard. It’s me who should be payin’. Aight, I accept defeat,” RJ said before raising his hips to dig his money clip from the front pocket of his jeans. “Here’s a little something for taking such good care of us.”
The waitress looked at the hundred-dollar bill and rewarded RJ with the kind of look Peanut had seen so many times before. The look said, I’ll do anything you want, just let me stay here.
“Um, I’m a huge fan, Randy. I’ve been listenin’ to you since I was a little girl. Would you mind if… I mean I don’t wanna bother you, but I’d love to have a picture…”
“Thank you so much. Of course, we can do a picture. You got your phone? Peanut here is my personal photographer.”
After the pictures, Peanut felt the energy in the bar change. People were no longer furtively looking over at their booth. They were staring. It wouldn’t be long.
“Alright, thank you, Brandi. We’ve got to get this guy back to the hotel now. Early morning,” Peanut said, urging RJ out of the booth so they could both stand.
“Lemme just hit the head and I’ll meet you boys out at the truck,” Farrell said as they made their way toward the door.
“It’s a long drive for you, and it’s late,” RJ said. “Peanut can order us up an Uber.”
“Already done,” Peanut replied as he expertly swiped and tapped through the app on his phone with his free hand.
Farrell opened his mouth to protest but then his shoulders slumped, and he raised his large hands in surrender. He split off toward the restrooms as Peanut and RJ exited out into the cold night air.
“Well, that was weird,” Peanut said.
“Was it? This place is depressing as fuck. How long we have to wait?”
“Six minutes away.”
They stood in the parking lot far enough from the front doors to avoid RJ getting hit up and close enough to spot Farrell whenever he came out. Peanut wanted to ask RJ what had happened with Farrell’s sister. He wanted to ask RJ why he hadn’t inquired about his old friend’s daughter who clearly was not okay. He didn’t. Instead, he pretended to check some messages on his phone.
Soon the large man came out, shrugging on his coat as he walked over to them.
“You shore I can’t drive you? I don’t mind at all. I don’t have to work in the mornin’.”
“Nah man, we’re good,” RJ said.
“RJ? Um, I don’t know how to do this and I wouldn’t normally. It goes against everthing in me. But it’s my little girl, Ruby. She’s real sick and uh, I just can’t…”
Farrell’s face was contorted with emotion, and he looked away. RJ took a deep breath through his nose and exhaled a plume of vapor. Peanut blew into his hands to keep warm, his eyes searching RJ’s for the cue that would indicate what role he needed to play now for his friend and employer. It wasn’t often that he saw uncertainty in RJ. Uncertainty wasn’t a state that served him.
Peanut’s phone vibrated. Their ride was approaching. He could see the black Escalade waiting at a stoplight two blocks over. The auto parts store manager was crying now, his massive shoulders heaving up and down. Peanut nodded in the direction of the idling Escalade and that was enough to nudge RJ out of his unfamiliar state.
“How much, Farrell?” he asked.
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