Fred and Ginger
by Chris Garson
Copyright 2016 Chris Garson
After walking Ronnie Rivers to his car, I went back inside Perk Noir to decompress. My big head was exploding with Lightning stories, courtesy of the Perk’s former owner. I felt Lightning’s presence in the Perk every day, hovering like a watchful eye. Today, the sensation was stronger than ever. Snippy must have felt it too. He raced ahead of me to our spot near the bay window and lay on the floor on his back, wriggling with his legs spread like Mia on an assignment.
I stopped at the counter for a refill on the way back to my comfy chair. Candy Korn was still working the register, wearing a grey t-shirt that read “Haters gonna hate”. The yellow, white, and orange layers on her beehive matched the frosting on the cupcakes in the display case. “Here ya go, Mason. Freshly brewed.”
“Thanks, Candy. Say, shouldn’t you have left like two hours ago?”
She made a sour face. “Seth called off.”
“Again?” The bongo playing barista had a habit of calling off work after his band, Blood & Plastic, played a late night gig.
“Yes,” she sighed. “Again.”
Brett Barlow, Perk Noir’s current owner, hired Seth, fascinated by the idea of a barista laying down beats. Seth made a decent cup ’o Perk, but was unreliable. Even worse, was his thinly veiled disgust for Candy’s lifestyle. He wrote a song about her, Men Without Balls, which was as bad and insulting as the title suggests. “Talk to Brett. He’ll understand. Seth won’t be missed.”
“Enjoy your cup ’o Perk, Mason,” was all she said. She was a true professional and a truer liberal. She might fire Seth for absenteeism, but never for his heinous views. She’d rather go to a rally protecting his rights to sing his terrible song.
I barely had time to blow away the steam curling from my cup ’o Perk when Fred and Ginger, a couple in their seventies, strolled into the Perk. They were the longest tenured Perkheads, having frequented Perk Noir since the Reagan administration. Unfortunately, they never met Lightning. He died a few months before their first sip, laying his head to rest on the Schimmel’s ivories following his final rendition of Sweet Blue Chariot. When Sidney Horowitz took over from Ronnie and traded the Perk’s espresso machine for electronic synthesizers, Fred and Ginger sought java solace elsewhere. They returned to the Perk in 2009, when I was writing Sunshine Killjoy.
Fred and Ginger had other, less interesting real names. Everyone at Perk Noir called them Fred and Ginger, after the famous film couple, because they used to own a dance studio. They liked their Perk names and encouraged us to use them. The couple survived the Safety Dance, the Harlem Shake, the Macarena, and Willow’s ridiculous Whip my Hair, but Gangnam Style was the last straw. They sold the studio. It’s a second hand furniture store now.
As far as I could tell, they had one of those perfect marriages, the kind I’d failed to achieve with either Michelle or Amber. Usually they were holding hands when they walked through the Perk’s red front door, but not today. Ginger was pointing her finger at Fred as they walked past me on the way to the counter.
“It was him, I’m telling you.” Ginger said to her husband with her soothing lilt. She had a great head to match her voice too, round and perfectly sized for cradling, with the rosy cheeks, dimpled chin and round, glistening eyes of a cherub. She wore a sundress, the type best left in Florida retirement communities, but on her, it worked. She came across like a well-seasoned jam band groupie.
“Nonsense, dear. It couldn’t have been,” Fred replied while reaching down to scratch the Snipster’s belly. He dressed quite the opposite of his free-spirited wife, wearing khakis, a tweed sport coat, sneakers, and a red bow tie. Fred was always a gentleman, the kind of guy who held doors open for strangers. I felt a kinship with him. His head was almost as big as mine.
The dance studio had been his pride and joy. When they finally shut it down, Fred cried, but Ginger confided her relief to me. She thought the studio an anchor around their necks, one which kept them from afternoons at the Perk, walks around the Shaker Lakes, volunteering at the Heights Youth Theatre, and the occasional cruise with big buffets, umbrella drinks and lots and lots of dancing.
“Hey Fred, Ginger. Come here. You’ll never guess who I met today.” I wanted to brag about my conversation with Ronnie. I know it was petty of me, but I always thought I had something to prove with those two when it came to Perklore. They didn’t like to show off, but they’d forgotten more than I knew. Without them, we wouldn’t have known half the stories from Lightning’s chain of dated ivories. They’d been at the Perk in the early days, before Sidney took a sledgehammer to Lightning’s history. If either had shown the slightest interest, Brett would have named them kensais in a heartbeat.
“Do tell, Mason,” Ginger cooed as she took a seat in the comfy chair next to mine. Fred sat on the padded arm and kept one hand on her knee. Women her age shouldn’t coo, but Ginger’s sparkle let her get away with acting like a woman half her age. We clicked the first day we met. I was working on a character to win Mia Killjoy’s heart. Like my Grandma Betty Lou, Ginger didn’t blink an eye at Mia Killjoy’s killer genitalia. She helped me bring to life Sunshine Daydream, the daughter of two extreme Grateful Dead fans, and Mia’s soul mate.
A big smile washed over me and I paused, wishing for a drum roll. “Ronnie. Ronnie Rivers.”
“See, I told you.” Ginger nudged Fred with her elbow. Her tiny lips pursed in a smile.
“Ronald was here?” This from Fred, who usually let Ginger lead everywhere except on the dance floor.
Snippy yipped his affirmation. I tossed him a Milk Bone
“The one and only,” I replied, satisfied that I’d scooped them.
Ginger gloated. “I knew it was him. You should know better than to doubt me, dear.”
“It pleases me to no end to be wrong, dear, but I had my reasons.” Fred turned to me and explained. “Ronald had his demons.”
“You mean his gambling?” I asked.
“He told you?” Fred seemed astonished. “That’s not the Ronald I remember.”
I thought back to Ronnie’s recounting of his life since leaving Cleveland. “He’s not the same man he was when he owned the Perk. He’s changed.”
“I hope so. Ronnie was always a good man, who fell into bad times. He owed too much money. To the wrong people. That’s why he left.” A tear rolled down Ginger’s cheek. “That’s why he left us.”
Her reaction surprised me. “I didn’t know you were so close.”
“Oh yes,” Fred offered. “Ronald was a dear, dear, friend. We had so much in common.”
I wouldn’t have thought so. On the surface, this charming, elderly dance couple seemed nothing like the grizzled storyteller with whom I’d spent the morning. “Such as …?”
Fred laughed. “It does seem odd, doesn’t it? Mostly music, I guess. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but Ginger and I were part of the scene, back in the day. We hit all the major festivals. Monterey, Newport … we were at Woodstock too. That’s where we saw Lightning play. I think music is why we hit it off so well with Ronald.”
Fred shattered my world with that confession. Ginger, I could almost picture her twirling around a bonfire wearing a wreath of flowers and a trippy smile, but bow-tie Fred? And they’d seen Lightning’s legendary Woodstock set, the one the record studio cut from the album? How had that delicious fact remained hidden all this time? “You were at Woodstock?”
Ginger sighed softly. “It was an amazing weekend. One I’ll never forget.”
Fred took her hand. “Never.”
“Wesley …” Her eyes cast a far-off glance.
I took the bait. “Who’s Wesley?”
The words spilled from her haltingly. “Our son. Our wonderful Woodstock baby boy.”
“Dear Wesley,” Fred said.
I was torn between asking about this mysterious, never before mentioned son and hearing the details on Lightning’s Woodstock performance. I had a poor quality tape of his opening number, Sweet Potato Blues, acquired from a street corner hustler in Chelsea, but had never heard the entire set. “You have a son?”
Ginger’s words caught in her throat. “He’s just a couple of years older than you, Mason.”
“Why haven’t I heard of him before?”
“He … he lives on the west coast now. We don’t see him … or our grandkids.” More tears.
“Why not?” It was rude to ask, but I was dying of curiosity.
Fred jumped in to spare Ginger. “Ronald had a part in it.”
“Ronnie?” I asked incredulously.
Ginger objected. “That’s not fair, dear. It was our decision, not Ronnie’s.” She collected herself. “He was an amazing guitar player. If not for that car accident … he’d have made it big. He could shred.”
I was intrigued. “You heard him play?”
“Yes, on tape,” Fred told me. “And years later, when he played at our dance studio.”
“How? I thought his hands were ruined.” I could picture Ronnie’s twisted fingers and couldn’t see them forming chords.
Ginger picked up the story. “He was so broken after the accident. Lightning got him to kick the dragon, but he still bet like there was no tomorrow. It was as if he didn’t care anymore, like he was nothing without his music. We felt badly for him, so we hired him to play in our studio. The poor man could barely wrap his fingers around the frets, but he played his heart out for our dance class.” She wiped the tear from her cheek. “The accident was everyone’s loss. We’ve seen Ronnie jam on tape. He was a virtuoso. He would have been right up there with BB and Buddy.”
I didn’t know Fred and Ginger were such guitar aficionados. BB King and Buddy Guy were on the Mount Rushmore of the blues. Comparing Ronnie to them was high praise indeed. “Do you still have the tapes? I’d love to hear them.”
Fred shook his head. “They were Ronald’s tapes. When he disappeared, so did they.”
I pushed down my disappointment and focused on the mystery of Wesley. “Okay. How does all this tie in with your son?”
“Ronnie owed an awful lot of money,” Ginger said. “We wanted to help. We gave him the five thousand we’d saved for Wesley’s wedding. The men he owed were dangerous. Saving a life seemed more important.”
“Wesley never forgave us,” Fred’s jaw tightened. “And it wasn’t enough. Ronnie still bolted. At least now we know he’s alive. Maybe our money helped him get away.”
“I don’t regret it,” Ginger said. “Not for a minute. It was the right thing to do.”
“But it cost you your son,” I tried to imagine their pain.
“No,” she said firmly. “That was Wesley’s choice, not ours.”
“It’s been what … twenty some years? Why haven’t you patched things up?” As if I was one to talk. Me and Mom had been on the outs since I walked away from Amber, but our difficulties ran deeper. My divorce was only the last straw to an already strained relationship.
“I’ve tried, Mason. I’ve tried again and again, but Wesley won’t have anything to do with us. I blame it on that shrew he married. She’s a terrible dancer.” Ginger started to sob softly. “Why didn’t Ronnie say hello? He saw us walking to the Perk, I know he did. It was like he was avoiding us. Why would he do that?”
“Did he ever pay you back?” I asked.
“No. He disappeared not long after we gave him the money, but we didn’t care. We never expected him pay it back,” Fred answered. “He was our friend.”
After hearing their story, I could guess why Ronnie wouldn’t face them. “I think he was embarrassed.”
Fred’s face twisted with confusion. “Whatever for?”
“You gave him money to pay off his gambling debts, right?”
“You’ll be glad to know that Ronnie straightened out. He moved out to Vegas, opened a memorabilia shop, and didn’t lay down a bet for years.”
Fred relaxed. “So, he did learn his lesson. Good for him.” He put his arm around Ginger’s shoulder. “See dear, it was worth it.”
“Yes and no,” I said, wincing inwardly at what I had to say next. “He relapsed recently. He lost a bundle on this year’s Super Bowl.”
Ginger went ashen. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh no!”
“I think that’s why he avoided you today. I think he feels guilty about gambling again. After everything you did for him, he couldn’t face you.”
“The money doesn’t matter,” Ginger said. “It never did.”
“That’s right,” Fred agreed. “It’s water under the bridge. We just want Ronald back in our lives. We lost our son over this. Now that we know Ronald’s alive, we don’t want to lose him too.”
“I don’t know if it’s all about the money.” My talk with Ronnie had revealed a prideful man, a man ashamed of falling off the wagon. Even if he sold the memorabilia to Ira’s Charger fan, I didn’t know if he’d have the guts to face Fred and Ginger. They had trusted him, bent over backwards to help him. He repaid them by vanishing into the night. “He let you down when he started gambling again. Seeing you two might be too much for him.”
“Can you get in touch with him?” Ginger pleaded.
I had Ronnie’s number in my cell phone, but didn’t say so. Maybe after so long, staying apart was for the best. What was the point in ripping open old wounds? “I don’t think so.”
“Please,” she cried. “If there’s any way … just let him know that we miss him.”
Ginger’s tears got to me. They made my think of my Mom. I wished that she and I got along better. If someone had the power to heal the chasm between us and chose not to, I don’t know that I could ever forgive them, and yet, that was exactly what I was doing to Ginger. I pulled out my phone. “Maybe there is something I can do.”