Solitude Creek Excerpt
The roadhouse was comfortable, friendly, inexpensive. All good.
Safe, too. Better.
You always thought about that when you took your teenage daughter out for a night of music.
Michelle Cooper did, in any event. Safe when it came to the band and their music, the customers, the waitstaff.
The club itself, too, the parking lot—well lit—and the fire doors and sprinklers.
Michelle always checked these. The teenage daughter part, again.
Solitude Creek attracted a varied clientele, young and old, male and female, white and Latino and Asian, a few African-Americans, a mirror of the Monterey Bay area. Now, just after seven thirty, she looked around, noting the hundreds of patrons who’d come from this and surrounding counties, all in buoyant moods, looking forward to seeing a band on the rise. If they brought with them any cares, those troubles were tucked tightly away at the prospect of beer, whimsical cocktails, chicken wings and music.
The group had flown in from L.A., a garage band turned backup turned roadhouse headliner, thanks to Twitter and YouTube and Vidster. Word of mouth, and talent, sold groups nowadays, and the six boys in Lizard Annie worked as hard on their phones as onstage. They weren’t O.A.R. or Linkin Park but were soon to be, with a bit of luck.
They certainly had Michelle and Trish’s support. In fact, the cute boy band had a pretty solid mom/daughter fan base, judging by a look around the room tonight. Other parents and their teenagers too; the lyrics were rated PG, at the raunchiest. For this evening’s show the ages of those in the audience ranged from sixteen to forty, give or take. Okay, Michelle admitted, maybe mid-forties.
She noted the Samsung in her daughter’s grip and said, “Text later. Not now.”
“Who is it?”
A nice girl from Trish’s music class.
The club was filling up. Solitude Creek was a forty-year-old, single-story building featuring a small, rectangular dance floor of scuffed oak, ringed with high-top tables and stools. The stage, three feet high, was at the north end; the bar was opposite. A kitchen, east, served full menus, which eliminated the age barrier of attendance: only liquor-serving venues that offered food were permitted to seat children. Three fire exit doors were against the west wall.
On the dark wood walls were posters and during-the-show photos, complete with real and fake autographs, of many of the groups that had appeared at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967: Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Al Kooper, Country Joe. Dozens of others. In a grimy Plexiglas case was a fragment of an electric guitar, reportedly one destroyed by Pete Townshend of The Who after the group’s performance at the event.
The tables at Solitude Creek were first come, first claimed, and all were filled—the show was only fifteen minutes away now—and presently servers circulated with last-minute orders, plates of hefty burgers and chicken wings and drinks on trays hovering atop their stable, splayed palms. From behind the stage a meow of tuning guitar strings and an arpeggio chord from a sax, a chunky A from a bass. Anticipation now. Those exciting moments before the music begins to seize and seduce.
The voices were loud, words indistinct, as the untabled patrons jockeyed for the best position in the standing-room area. Since the stage wasn’t high and the floor was flat, it was sometimes hard to get a good view of the acts. A bit of jostling but few hard words.
That was the Solitude Creek club. No hostility.
However, there was one thing that Michelle Cooper didn’t care for. The claustrophobia. The ceilings in the club were low and that accentuated the closeness. The dim room was not particularly spacious, the ventilation not the best; a mix of body scent and aftershave/perfume clung, stronger even than grill and fry tank aromas, adding to the sense of confinement.
The sense that you were packed in tight as canned fish. No, that never sat well with Michelle Cooper. And she and her daughter were at a table dead center, inches from other patrons. She could smell sweat, drug-store perfume, garlic.
Michelle brushed absently at her frosted blond hair and looked again at the exit doors—not far away—and felt reassured.
Another sip of wine.
She noted Trish checking out a boy at a table nearby. Floppy hair, narrow face, hips skinny. Good looks to kill for. He was drinking a beer and so mother vetoed Trish’s inclination instantly, if silently. Not the alcohol, the age; the drink meant he was over twenty-one and therefore completely out of bounds for her seventeen-year-old.
Then she thought wryly: At least I can try.
A glance at her diamond Rolex. Five minutes.
Michelle asked, “Was it ‘Escape’? The one that was nominated for the Grammy?”
“Focus on me, child.”
The girl grimaced. “Mom.” She looked away from the Boy with the Beer.
Michelle hoped Lizard Annie would do the song tonight. “Escape” was not only catchy but it brought back good memories. She’d been listening to it after a recent first date with a lawyer from Salinas. In the six years since a vicious divorce, Michelle’d had plenty of awkward dinners and movies, but the evening with Ross had been fun. They’d laughed. They’d dueled about the best Veep and Homeland episodes. And there’d been no pressure—for anything. So very rare for a first date.
Mother and daughter ate a bit more artichoke dip and Michelle had a little more wine. Driving, she allowed herself two glasses before getting behind the wheel, no more.
The girl adjusted her pink floral headband and sipped a Diet Coke. She was in black jeans, not too tight—yay!—and a white sweater. Michelle was in blue jeans, tighter than her daughter’s, though that was a function of exercise failure, not a fashion statement, and red silk blouse.
“Mom. San Francisco this weekend? Please. I need that jacket.”
“We’ll go to Carmel.” Michelle spent plenty of her real estate commissions shopping in the classy stores of the picturesque and excessively cute village.
“Jeez, Mom. I’m not thirty.” Meaning ancient. Trish was simply stating the more or less accurate fact that shopping for cool teen clothes wasn’t easy on the Peninsula, which had been called, with only some exaggeration, a place for the newly wed and the nearly dead.
“Okay. We’ll work it out.”
Trish hugged her and Michelle’s world glowed.
She and her daughter had had their hard times. A seemingly good marriage had crashed, thanks to cheating. Everything torn apart. Frederick (never “Fred”) moving out when the girl was eleven—what a tough time for that. But Michelle’d worked hard to create a good life for her daughter, to give her what had been yanked away by betrayal and the subsequent divorce.
And now it was working, now the girl seemed happy. She looked at her daughter with moon eyes and the girl noticed.
“Mom.” A sigh. “What?”
P.A. announcements about shutting off phones, location of fire exits, upcoming shows, were made by the gravel-voiced owner of the club himself. The venerable Sam Cohen, an icon in the Monterey Bay area. Everybody knew Sam. Everybody loved Sam.
Cohen’s voice continued, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Solitude Creek, the premiere roadhouse on the West Coast…”
“Is pleased to welcome, direct from the City of Angels…Lizard Annie!”
Frantic clapping now. Hooting.
Out came the boys. Guitars were plugged in. The seat behind the trap set occupied. Ditto the keyboard.
The lead singer tossed his mass of hair aside and lifted an outstretched palm to the audience. The group’s trademarked gesture. “Are we ready to get down?”
“Well, are we?”
The guitar riffs started. Yes! The song was “Escape.” Michelle and her daughter began to clap, along with the hundreds of others in the small space. The heat had increased, the humidity, the embracing scent of bodies. Claustrophobia notched up a bit. Still, Michelle smiled and laughed.
The pounding beat continued, bass, drum and the flesh of palms.
But then Michelle stopped clapping. Frowning, she looked around, cocking her head. What was that? The club, like everywhere in California, was supposed to be nonsmoking. But somebody, she was sure, had lit up. She definitely smelled smoke.
She looked around but saw no one with a cigarette in mouth.
“What?” Trish called, her eyes scanning her mother’s troubled expression.
“Nothing,” her mother replied and began clapping out the rhythm once again.
Ten minutes later, at the third word into the second song—it happened to be love—Michelle Cooper knew something was wrong.
She smelled the smoke more strongly.
“Mom?” Trish was frowning, looking around too. Her pert nose twitched. “Is that…”
“Yeah, it is,” Michelle whispered. She couldn’t see any fumes but the smell was unmistakable and growing. And it wasn’t cigarette smoke. Smoke from burning wood or paper.
Or the old, dry walls or flooring of a very congested roadhouse.
“We’re leaving. Now.”
She rose abruptly. An instant later: screams. And then the panic began.